The ancient hero David is a doorway for timely interfaith dialogues on the values of leadership

David’s name is everywhere in the Holy Land. This photo shows a portion of the stone walls in Jerusalem’s Old City looking toward what today is known as the Tower of David. (Wikimedia Commons photo shared by Pudelek.)

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“There is so much we share as Muslims, Jews and Christians—if we could only remember that God intended us to live peacefully as brothers and sisters,” said Victor Begg, author of Our Muslim Neighbors. He was one of many authors who called or Zoomed with the home office of our publishing house over the past two weeks and talked about the urgency of maintaining peaceful dialogue between the Abrahamic faiths.

“Most Christians and Jews don’t realize that Moses, or Musa as we call him, is the single most frequently mentioned individual name in the Quran,” Victor said. “There are even more references to Isa, our name for Jesus, in the Quran. These are just two of the major sacred figures we all share—like the great Prophet Dawud, as we call David—who we regard as a righteous messenger of God.

“Go into any Muslim community, and you’ll meet people named after these great figures. I know a number of Musas, Isas and Dawuds,” Victor said. “God truly made us brothers and sisters. For the future of our families, I continue to devote myself to telling anyone who will listen: We must find ways to peacefully live together.”

David as a Prophetic Doorway to Discussing Leadership

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

At Victor’s mention of David to me—as Editor of ReadTheSpirit and also a bearer of David’s name for 65 years—I realized that I also should reach out to our resident expert on David: Larry Buxton, author of 30 Days with King David—on Leadership. I scheduled a Zoom with Larry and his colleague Ibrahim Anli, executive director of the Rumi Forum, a nonprofit that promotes interfaith dialogue from its home base in Washington D.C.

This summer, thousands of Catholic and mainline Protestant clergy nationwide (those who plan their preaching around the Revised Common Lectionary) are scheduled to read about and preach about the life of David for 10 weeks. That means millions of us will have an opportunity to recall the inspiring life of this ancient hero.

That’s also why Larry Buxton has just posted online a 10-week series of short videos that we invite men and women to use individually—or with their small groups—during this summer of David.

In the opening pages of Larry’s book, Ibrahim Anli has written an endorsement of Larry’s work on David that begins:

We are navigating through a period that calls for exceptional leadership. This book is a fascinating guide that brings King David’s story to the help of contemporary individuals trying to achieve a virtuous life rewarded with success. Larry Buxton seamlessly connects landmark scenes from the King’s life with challenges that test the contemporary individual’s leadership qualities. This is a timely journey in the footsteps of King David, particularly for those in search for renewed determination to face their own Goliaths, whatever they might be.

Ibrahim could have written that same endorsement—about “a period that calls for exceptional leadership”—as recently as the past two weeks.

LARRY and IBRAHIM PREVIEW AN INTERFAITH CONVERSATION

Where would a dialogue with Muslims about the life of David begin? What similarities and differences could that conversation explore?

Both Christians and Muslims agree that God chose David as a divine representative—and that David’s Psalms are sacred hymns. Where Christians and Muslims disagree is that Christians tend to talk about David’s passionate desire to remain close to his divine calling, despite temptations and some epic failures. In Islamic tradition, where great prophets are viewed as sinless, accounts of David’s life omit any stories of sinful behavior.

“He is one of our major figures in Islam,” Ibrahim said. “But as we begin to talk in interfaith conversations about him, the big difference for Muslims is that we do not associate our prophets with anything that might be considered disrespectful.

“In Islam, we focus on a different view of David’s role—as a great leader both in the day as a commander and field marshal defending the realm of monotheism and also at night when he was deep in prayer asking for God’s guidance. David is an example of a leader who is constantly tempted by the desires that may come with worldly success—and yet he also is constantly in prayer that his military career not lead him to these temptations.”

“That’s what makes David such a good example of the tensions of leadership,” Larry said. “What Ibrahim is describing is discussed in my book. The life of David is very rich in insights as we wrestle with what it means to be wise and faithful leaders today.”

Care to Read More?

Larry is correct about directing readers, next, to the actual book about David. If this column is intriguing to you, then please order a copy of his book.

Because of the 10-week focus on David in thousands of congregations, this summer, Larry is freely sharing 10 videos. Visit www.LarryBuxton.com/Preaching-David to find all of the videos.

Please help with this peacemaking effort. Share that link with friends. Encourage your pastor, lector, small group leader or Sunday School teacher to check out these videos. They’re easy to share—and easy to show to friends as a brief “video clip” to spark discussion in your congregation or small group.

And, YES, for those of you who pay careful attention to intellectual property: You do have our permission to stream these clips in your community.

AN EASY REMINDER: If you want to make the videos’ location even easier to remember, just go to www.LarryBuxton.com and you’ll find a link to the Preaching David video series right there on the opening page.

Interested in placing a group order of books for your class or circle of friends? Amazon ordering is quick and easy for most of us. If you are interested in 10 or more copies, email us at [email protected] 

Care to have Larry or Victor visit your group?

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Are you interested in scheduling a time when either of these authors could virtually visit your group this summer or autumn?

FOR LARRY BUXTONVisit the Contact page on Larry’swebsite. Depending on schedules, Larry welcomes such invitations and may be able to arrange something.

FOR VICTOR BEGG—The same is true of Victor Begg. His Contact page is on the website he maintains for his bookOur Muslim Neighbors: A Muslim Immigrant’s Memoir of Pursuing the American Dream and Serving Our Communities in Turbulent Times.

AND, PLEASE, encourage the peacemaking work of these authors by sharing news of this story with friends and members of your congregation, class or Sunday School group.

Retired bishop John Spong on rediscovering Matthew’s Jewish roots

John Shelby Spong wearing the garb of his 21 years as an Episcopal bishop. (Photo by Dick Snyder; used with permission.)

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of readthespirit.com

Spring is the perfect season to explore John Shelby Spong’s new book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy. First, look past the book’s title—those words are a publisher’s way of reminding readers of the controversy retired Bishop “Jack” Spong has sparked throughout most of his career. Yes, this new book is a provocative re-interpretation of gospel stories and some Christians will disagree with Spong, as usual.

But, there’s so much more than mere “controversy” in this book!

What’s so fresh and fascinating about this book is its in-depth look at the Jewish roots of the Christian gospel of Matthew. That’s perfectly timed reading for the season that includes Easter (Western Christians have celebrated; Eastern Orthodox will soon) as well as Passover. This is a time, each year, when interfaith relationships blossom. Most Jewish communities nationwide offer some kind of friendly outreach to Christians who want to understand the Passover seder from a Jewish perspective. Most Christians, after all, traditionally say that Jesus’s Last Supper was a seder meal.

“Book titles are funny things,” Spong said with a chuckle as he discussed this new book in a recent interview. “I guess I fight about book titles with my publisher more than we fight about anything. What I’m really working on in these books is ‘The Gospels as Midrash,’ but Harper doesn’t want anything to do with that kind of title.”

I asked Spong, “How many non-Jewish Americans know that term midrash? I’m not sure as a journalist that I’d be able to explain it fully in a sentence. I’d probably say: Midrash is a traditional Jewish process for interpreting scripture by exploring tangents and connections with the basic text. And that’s what you do with Matthew in this new book—it’s one of your best books, I think. But putting ‘Midrash’ in a title for general readers? As a publisher myself, I wouldn’t recommend that.”

And he chuckled again. “Yes, you’re probably right. And Harper was right. But we go round and round about titles sometimes. I am glad you understand what this book is about. I have written about this general subject before, but this time I really look at Matthew in a new way.”

If readers look beyond the front cover, they will find that the book has a second and more descriptive subtitle: “A Journey into a New Christianity through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel.” That gets closer to the unique look at Matthew Spong offers in these 400 pages, but not entirely.

This book really is a midrash on Matthew, connecting Christian readers with Jesus’s Jewish world in a new way. Spong ultimately draws a new kind of Christian message at the end of the book. But, he also draws on a number of notable Jewish scholars in his research and it’s likely some Jewish readers will be intrigued by the many connections Spong makes.

Cover of Biblical Literalism by John Shelby Spong

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

If you’re wondering whether such an ambitious idea makes sense—writing a book that might interest both Christian and Jewish readers—we can say: Spong knows knows something about his audience.

In fact, this particular book was born after Spong was invited in 2014 to present five days of lectures at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. How many people showed up? Ten thousand!

By his estimate, about a quarter of those men and women who attended his lectures were Jewish. It was truly a five-day interfaith gathering. His subject that year was the Jewish context of the gospel of John. And the enthusiasm for his lectures led him to dig deeper into the other three gospels. The result is this book that walks readers through Matthew from a perspective most Christians have never considered.

Spong argues that nearly 2,000 years ago the gospel known as Matthew was written for early Christian churches to read and remember the key events in Jesus’s life—as organized in a pattern following the annual calendar of Jewish festivals. Spong credits the late British Bible scholar Michael Goulder with writing about this notion in a persuasive way—convincing enough to lead Spong to devote years of study to expanding on Goulder’s ideas.

“I’ve included ‘Michael Goulder (1927-2010)’ in my dedication of this new book,” Spong says. “Most Americans haven’t heard his name, but among Bible scholars, he was so important. I discovered his work back in the 1990s when I was doing research on the gospel birth narratives at Cambridge. I remember buying this massive book Goulder had published and it really was tough sledding going through his work. But one of his big contributions was this idea that the gospels were organized around themes in the Jewish year.”

What does that mean? Regular Bible readers know that there are many references to Jewish customs and festivals in the New Testament. What Goulder theorized and Spong now unfolds in detail for general readers is the idea that the actual order of the stories from Jesus’s life in Matthew are sequenced to be read against the backdrop of a Jewish calendar.

This new book is about 400 pages, describing how this connection between the faith traditions could help modern readers rediscover fresh inspiration from scripture. Some early Christians were gentiles, non-Jews who converted to the new faith and had no background in Judaism. But many early Christians were experienced in both religious realms. Imagine how much deeper some of Matthew’s stories would unfold if read against traditional Jewish reflections on the seasons and religious festivals.

JESUS, JONAH AND YOM KIPPUR

Here’s one small example: Christians reading about Jesus’s arguments with critics in the 12th chapter of Matthew are likely to read right over the scene in which Jesus tells his critics that they don’t fully understand the story of Jonah. Gentiles unfamiliar with Judaism probably recall Jonah as the ancient prophet who was swallowed by a big fish. Christians who regularly study the Bible may remember more about Jonah and his mission to make the wayward people of the town of Nineveh repent of their sins.

“But I’m sure most Christians reading that passage—or hearing it read—are thinking: What’s this sudden reference to Jonah? Why is Jesus talking about Jonah?” Spong says. “If we don’t understand the structure of Matthew, it’s just something we read and forget about, isn’t it?”

But in the middle of Spong’s book, readers will discover why that reference to Jonah is such a poignant moment in Matthew—and how that passage of Matthew must have sparked deep spiritual reflection in early Christian congregations with Jewish roots.

Jewish readers will know that the text of Jonah is read, each year, on Yom Kippur. In fact, it’s a common topic for Jewish inspirational writing and teaching each year. Here’s one example of a column from ReformJudaism.org, offered as inspirational reading in the High Holidays.

“When people read my book, they’ll learn that just before Matthew 12, where Jesus talks about Jonah and we get this connection with Yom Kippur—just before that in my book, I look at the ways Matthew 11 relates to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that leads to Yom Kippur,” Spong says. “And after that section of my book, then I write about how Matthew 13 relates to the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. These are connections that I think most Christians have never considered while they’re reading Matthew.”

Of course, there’s a lot more to Spong’s argument in this book, which takes all 400 pages to unfold. Step by step, his argument leads to his interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death—once again placing his theology in contrast to preaching about Jesus’s crucifixion that is more typical in evangelical churches. For many years, Spong has called for a rethinking of these basic Christian teachings.

‘TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF CHRIST’S MESSAGE’

Some critics charge that Spong himself is a heretic—and no longer is a Christian. He rejects that charge and, in books like his latest, says that it is preachers who take the Bible literally who have abandoned their Christian roots.

“I simply want to help people see the truly transformative power of Christ’s message,” Spong says. “And, in this book, I point out that it’s right there in Matthew, if only we know how to read Matthew.

“The early followers of Jesus had to use words to describe and explain what really is beyond words,” he continues. “It’s our error today if we take those words, which can tell us so much, and force a literal reading that really imprisons Christ in a way that was never intended.”

And, in those words, Spong is echoing the final pages of his new book, where he writes in part:

The gospel of Matthew is about human beings discovering the divine that is always in our midst. It is about the divine calling and empowering human life to break the boundaries that imprison us in a warped sense of what it means to be human. It is about setting aside boundaries that we have created in our human quest for security. It is about stepping beyond those boundaries and into the meaning of God. It is about discovering the human in a boundary-free world.

In Spong’s new book, Christian and Jewish readers likely will find fascinating, fresh interpretations of these ancient gospel stories. Agree or disagree with Spong’s larger theological arguments, he says that nevertheless, “After you consider what I’m describing in this book, I don’t think you’ll be able to read Matthew in the same way, again.”

Want a new culture war? Remember ‘The Exiled Generations’

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit Magazine

The Exiled Generations on Southern Baptists by Carl Kell

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

This spring, countless congregations across America are choosing up sides over the emerging inclusion of LGBT men and women in public life. (See Third Way Newsletter or Changing Our Mind for more on that.)

As the Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine, I have received many questions from church members wondering how to welcome openly gay men and women—in the midst of this turbulent year of cultural, political and legal conflict.

On Sunday (April 11, 2015), The New York Times published a front-page story reporting that the nation’s top law firms are refusing to defend bans on gay marriage. Why? Top lawyers nationwide understand that with the likes of Walmart and the nation’s 100-plus top tech leaders on the side of inclusion—well, we’re reaching a point where there is no other respectable “side” on this issue.

Times reporter Adam Liptak wrote on Sunday: “In dozens of interviews, lawyers and law professors said the imbalance in legal firepower in the same-sex marriage cases resulted from a conviction among many lawyers that opposition to such unions is bigotry akin to racism.”

So, are we actually going to avoid cultural conflict with this major societal change? Hardly!

Do you know who will fight this issue of inclusion tooth and nail? Church people. The conflicts will be most ferocious in the classrooms and hallways and kitchens and social media of churches that are, overall, inclined to be welcoming. That’s because not all members will be welcoming. Some men and women will gird for battle. Casualty reports to come.

WHY SHOULD YOU MEET THESE ‘EXILES’?

This is a good moment to order a copy of the real-life cautionary tale, The Exiled Generations: Legacies of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy Wars. The book is a bit pricey, listed at the moment at $32 from the University of Tennessee Press, but buy a copy and pass it around among friends.

At the heart of this book are 18 real-life stories, written by casualties in the Southern Baptist Convention’s quest for fundamentalist purity. While reading this new book—you’re likely to shed a tear, perhaps shake a fist and, most importantly, you may make a promise never to encourage culture wars in your own community.

That’s the bottom line when you close this book: There’s hope, if we free ourselves from the temptation to engage in this kind of religious conflict.

A leading journalist, Martin Davis, writes the final chapter of the book, telling his own story of exile. Martin has reported on ways to improve congregational communication for us, here at ReadTheSpirit, and at the website for the Day1 radio network.

Like the others in this book, Martin explains how being cast out of such an evangelical church can be a life-shattering trauma. These exiles from Southern Baptist churches once enjoyed life at the core of intensely religious communities where “everyone” seemed to share identical beliefs. When some powerful members rose up and decided to purge the Southern Baptist Convention of those they considered less than correct about Christianity—they drove away countless families. These men, women and young people not only lost their churches, they lost friends and they lost their certainty about life’s purpose.

‘EVERY AGE HAS ITS WANDERERS’

As a journalist who went through this journey, Martin is perhaps better equipped to weather this blast than other men and women. Today, Martin is a senior editor in the division of U.S. News & World Report covering autos. He’s almost beyond the realm of the church’s potential to keep wounding him.

And here is where the final pages of this new book, written by Martin, connect with this week’s cover story we are publishing about the best-selling Christian writer Frederick Buechner and his love for The Wizard of Oz.

Martin calls his chapter “A Wandering Aramean,” referring to the translation of an ancient Hebrew phrase in  Deuteronomy 6:1-11 that appears in Christian Bibles. Most Christians, and Jews as well, would say that the “Aramean” in this famous verse was the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Abraham.

In the new book, Martin writes that this phrase resonates with him, because …

… every age has known its wanderers. The wanderer is a central figure in many folktales and stories. They are good and evil, righteous and troubled. They are, like all of us, human. They’ve simply been called to a wandering existence.

Our souls are not troubled; they are inquisitive pieces of us locked in the flow of eternity. We have the privilege of falling into the current for a brief time; we explore and gather and learn and share; and like everyone else, we eventually leave.

That is the story that I will share with my children. It is a fortunate trip I have been blessed with. It was born of pain, but then, most things worth discovering are birthed from pain. For years, I disliked the source of my pain; I fought against it, and I allowed it to cloud my view of many great spiritual experiences in this society.

Today, I enjoy the journey. I relish the diversity of religious life, the conversations I have with people across the spectrum of the American landscape as they share their stories with me.

My younger son and I will turn back to this conversation of why we don’t go to church. This time, I will take the high road. Yes, I had some very bad experiences early in my faith walk; yes, I was deeply hurt by people I trusted. But there are few people in this world who have not experienced something like this. It can be your undoing, or it can be your door to a better shelter for you.

In my case, it opened another door—a door that few are privileged to walk through. Why don’t we attend a church? I’ll tell my son that we may answer honestly and with joy: a Wandering Aramean was my father.”

‘WHO IS THE ARAMEAN?’

Haggadah with wandering Aramean

The “wandering Aramean” passage from a Passover Haggadah produced in Germany in the late 15th century by Meir Jaffe ha-sofer, a copyist, illuminator and renowned leather worker. Displayed by the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship Online Alumni Magazine.

Every Passover, which just concluded on Saturday for Jewish families around the world, the passage from Deuteronomy 26 is included in the Haggadah readings over seder meals. Jewish families are encouraged to discuss this passage, in particular. Sometimes, in forming questions for discussion around the seder table, someone may ask:

“Who is the Aramean?” If you’ve never experienced a full-scale seder—believe me, that kind of question can touch off a very spirited discussion.

This spring, take the advice of Martin Davis and this book’s general editor Carl L. Kell and avoid culture wars that are destined to create thousands of new wounded wanderers. That’s one good lesson from their book.

There is another lesson, too, that Martin Davis stresses in his final chapter: Perhaps such wandering is simply unavoidable—perhaps it is the spiritual quest of our age. Millions of Americans, a significant minority of the population, now answer polling questions about their religious affiliation with the option: “None.”

The Nones aren’t anti-religious; most are spiritually wandering. Frederick Buechner says that he loves the Oz stories because they are part of the great American myth that all of us must wander in hope of finding a home.

Who is the Aramean?

Millions of Americans, including Martin Davis, know the answer: We’ve met the Aramean. And, he is—us.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

The Rachel Held Evans Interview on ‘Searching for Sunday’

Rachel Held Evans book cover Searching for Sunday

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

FEELING a bit battered and blue after Easter? Every year, Easter is the single biggest day in churches coast to coast, a celebration of resurrection and new life.

Overall, however, attendance is down in the U.S., fueled by an exodus of younger adults. Yes, “Christians” are on the front pages of newspapers coast to coast, these days, but the news isn’t about inspiring growth. News reporters are covering “Christians” who are playing political hardball to try to maintain traditional bias against LGBT men and women in places like Indiana and Arkansas.

This isn’t shaping up like a hopeful springtime celebration of Christian renewal.

If this describes your attitude today, you should immediately order an antidote to these spiritual blues: Rachel Held Evans’ new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. The book releases on April 14, 2015, but Amazon is taking orders now for delivery next week.

In her book, Rachel uses her considerable talent as one of the nation’s best spiritual storytellers to explore the great treasures people still can discover within the church. At their best, congregations can draw on the ancient tap roots of Christianity: love, compassion and hope for the world. If that doesn’t sound like your version of “church,” at the moment, then give Rachel a chance. You’ll get hooked on her real-life stories from the trenches of congregational life. In some cases, you’ll find yourself smiling broadly—maybe because you recognize your own story in Rachel’s stories.

By the end of the book, if you have given up on “church” until now, you’re likely to nod your head and say: “Hey, I’m going to give it another shot. There are a lot of treasures in this tradition.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH RACHEL HELD EVANS
ON ‘SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY’

DAVID: Rachel, you have so many talents—writer, speaker, teacher and you even appear in videos, as well—so, how do you introduce yourself to groups?

Rachel Held Evans author of Searching for SundayRACHEL: Yes, I’m a writer, a blogger, a speaker. But, when I introduce myself, I usually begin by saying that I grew up in the Bible belt and that as a young adult I grew up in a nondenominational evangelical church. Then, as a young adult, I had questions about what I believed. I went through–and I’m still going through–a lot of doubts.

I tell people: You’re not alone if you have doubts and questions. I do, too.

Oh, and I usually say I’m married—and a huge Alabama Crimson Tide fan.

DAVID: That’s a great introduction to this book, which begins with your baptism by full immersion at the age of 12. Readers who grew up in an evangelical church will think of their own early experiences; readers who’ve never stepped into the doors of such a church will be fascinated by the scene you paint. And—the Crimson Tide? You describe, in your home church, the “red-and-white hair bows, neck ties, sports jackets, and blouses—the sacred accouterments of Alabama’s second region.” That was, at the time of your baptism, the University of Alabama football team under Gene Stallings.

And then, toward the end of that chapter, you mention the real doubts that can pop up even in the midst of a perfect moment like your own baptism. After the ritual,  you write: “I remember wondering why I didn’t feel cleaner, why I didn’t feel holier or lighter or closer to God when I’d just been born again.”

Honesty—even about your doubts—is a hallmark of your writing.

RACHEL: My writing seems to attract people who are in some sort of religious transition. They may be going from one kind of Christianity to another kind of Christianity–or they’re moving from Christianity to some other faith entirely or to no faith at all. I seem to attract readers who are on a journey–reflecting on what they once believed and trying to figure out what they now believe.

‘THE CHURCH WELCOMES US’

DAVID: One of the best passages in your book appears right away in the prologue “Dawn.” I think you should ask a graphic designer to blow this up into poster size with the cover of your book—and offer it as a free download for people to print out and hang on a wall. I bet a lot of people would want to hang this poster.

I”m talking about the passage where you summarize the entire book. It goes like this:

“The church tells us we are beloved (baptism).
The church tells us we are broken (confession).
The church tells us we are commissioned (holy orders).
The church feeds us (communion).
The church welcomes us (confirmation).
The church anoints us (anointing of the sick).
The church unites us (marriage).”

This new book really is about reminding us of that core power within our religious traditions and communities, right?

RACHEL: I’m glad you like the way I wrote that introduction. Yeah, you’re right. Those lines are a summary of the book. What I’m trying to say about this whole list—who some readers will recognize as a list of sacraments, depending on their Christian tradition—is that you actually don’t have to use sacramental language to describe those seven things. Millions of Christians don’t use the word “sacrament” to describe all of those things. At an evangelical church, for example, people might not acknowledge anointing of the sick as a “sacrament,” but we do see people caring for the sick and praying with the sick every day. The behavior is there even if it’s not described as “sacrament.”

This is important for me to communicate to readers in this book: I’m not saying we all have to use the same language to describe these things we do in the church—but these seven behaviors are there.

Then, I arranged the book around seven sections that correspond to these things: baptism, communion, marriage and so on. When I first decided that I wanted to write a book about “church,” and about my own experiences—experiences that a lot of other people have had as well—I wasn’t sure how to organize the book. Then, I came up with the idea of arranging my thoughts around the sacraments. So, as you’ve said, I start with baptism.

And, as I tell my stories, I also write about the questions we have about these things. So, I was baptized—but what does that mean about my identity now? A lot of people are asking that kind of question, including a lot of people who have left church entirely.

‘YOU’RE THE EXPERTS! DON’T YOU KNOW THIS?’

DAVID: Here’s one reason I love your book: You fully recognize all of the problems church leaders have caused and all of the mistakes they’ve made. But, nevertheless, you flat-out love the church. And if I had to explain one of the central appeals of this book, I only have to look at prime-time TV this spring.

I often meet with community leaders, including religious leaders and media professionals. Among media professionals, everybody’s talking about the explosion of these big-budget biblical-themed productions on TV this spring: “Killing Jesus,” “The Dovekeepers,” “A.D.—The Bible Continues.” In fact, the debut of Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Jesus” just set new viewership records for the National Geographic Channel. Secular media professionals are buzzing about how we haven’t seen this many swords-and-sandals epics since the 1950s.

But Christian leaders? They’re still down in the dumps about all the Americans who are turning away from organized religion. Before Easter, when I did meet Christian clergy, I told them: “On Easter morning, just stand up in the pulpit and say: ‘You’re seeing the story on TV every night. Now, you’ve come to the place where we live by those stories you love so much. Welcome home!’ ” Now, that’s one way to preach the Easter message.

I was thinking about your chapter “Wind” in which you talk about the powerful, timeless flowing of the Spirit. And you describe Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus. This is the story where Nicodemus seems confused by what Jesus is preaching and Jesus finally gets fed up with the older man’s stubbornness in refusing to believe what Jesus is saying. As you retell the story, you put Jesus’s response to Nicodemus this way: “You’re supposed to be the expert! Don’t you know this already?”

I feel as though that exchange, deep in your book, is really a strong message to readers who have forgotten the true spiritual power of the church to foster love and compassion and hope and healing in the world. “You’re the experts! Don’t you know this already?”

RACHEL: Yeah, you’re right. Now, I also have to say: Yes, I get people’s discouragement. I get that numbers are down and people aren’t going to church like they used to. But you know what? We follow this God who knows a thing or two about transforming the layout of the grave—and God’s not ready to give up. So, we shouldn’t be ready to give up.

The truth is: People will always be interested in Jesus. Just stop for a moment and think. These days, we fret so much about what clothes we wear in church and what music we use on Sunday mornings and—well, we fret about so many things that distract us from what we need to remember: Jesus is present where two or three gather in his name. We know that Jesus is present in communion in some way—and I know that the words we use to describe communion are different, depending on our Christian tradition—but we know that Jesus is present in it.

In the church, we are supposed to be the people who know how to introduce people to Jesus—and you know what? Millions of people want to meet Jesus. Yeah, Christianity may be losing some of its influence over the culture, but that may be a good thing.

Now, we have to ask ourselves: What does it truly mean to be influential? Does it mean having political battles go our way? I think we need to look back to what’s most important. And I think the most important signs are the fruits of the spirit.

‘NEVER IN MY LIFE HAD I BEEN SO ANGRY’

DAVID: And the truth is that church life—in fact, congregational life whatever your faith might be—is hard! Americans are among the most religious—and also the most outspoken—people in the world, according to the World Values Survey. So, it’s natural that congregations are hotbeds of both wonderfully compassionate spiritual growth—and sometimes big, emotional fights, right?

RACHEL: So many of us have experienced church burnout, and you’re right: It’s not just among evangelicals. If you’re invested in a congregation, then I’m certain that you’ll be disappointed big time at some point. It’s a part of being in a community–people will let you down. I reached a point a while ago when I got burned out because of the culture wars in which so many Christians are invested. This came to a head for me when the World Vision story broke—Christians refusing to give money to World Vision because the non-profit was going to allow people in same-sex marriages to work in its U.S. offices.

DAVID: You recently wrote a column for CNN about that turning point, headlined: “Are Culture War ‘Victories’ Worth the Casualties?” You really poured out your fury in that column, asking how Christians could celebrate a loss in donations to World Vision that cost thousands of children and their families the food, health care and other services they so desperately need. When you saw so-called Christian activists proclaiming victory, you describe your reaction this way: “Never in my life had I been so angry at my own faith tradition.”

RACHEL: I got so burned out at that. Christians battling a culture war were willing to let thousands of children go hungry because they wanted to punish World Vision over welcoming gay and lesbian men and women. It’s hard for me to even understand how people can think like that! Not only were children victims, but so were all the LGBT Christians who got caught in the middle of this culture war.

DAVID: You were angry—and yet you couldn’t abandon Christianity.

RACHEL: Like it or not, I’ve got skin in the church game.

th Sunday headlinesDAVID: I want to stress to readers that your viewpoint on LGBT inclusion isn’t shocking. You’re not even in a prophetic minority on this issue. In fact, most Americans are moving in this direction. You’ve only got to read the latest column by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker to see the dramatic shift in public opinion. In Dr. Baker’s words: “I’ve been following and reporting these trends for quite a while.”

RACHEL: You’re right. Study after study is showing this to be the case. Barna has done research on this, too. For young adults this is a huge reason that they’ve abandoned church. I have beat that drum so many times. It’s so frustrating to go to an evangelical conference and tell pastors straight-up: This is really driving people away from your churches.

And they say, “No, that’s not the problem. We’ll just bring in a better class of band to perform better worship music.”

And I go: “Ohhhhh, yeah. Like that’s going to make a difference.”

DAVID: I am amazed at how many seminaries and universities and other groups are welcoming Dr. David P. Gushee to talk about his book Changing Our Mind. Gushee also is shouldering a backlash from conservatives for his new stance on welcoming LGBT Christians. But, to borrow the headline from the Detroit Free Press on Sunday, Gushee’s on “The Right Side of History.”

RACHEL: What Gushee is doing is such a huge deal. I know so many gay friends who were just thrilled when he spoke out and published that book.

‘CHANGING HOW WE SEE OUR NEIGHBORS’

DAVID: At the end of author interviews, I usually ask a “walking away” question. As an author, envision readers walking away from having read your book. What do you hope they carry with them?

RACHEL: Every author I know has this hope—that their work helps people pay attention to the world around them in new ways. We need to pay better attention to God working in the world and in the church.

I hope that people make new connections. I hope this book changes how we see our neighbors. I hope that I can help readers pay more attention to the Spirit moving in our world.

I hope that readers will see themselves in my stories. I hope they’ll realize: Oh, somebody else has experienced these questions, and these doubts, I’ve experienced. I especially hope that when people finish reading my book, they will feel less alone.

Care to read more?

BUY THE BOOK—Click on the cover photo with this interview to visit the book’s Amazon page. Here’s her Amazon author page.

VISIT RACHEL ONLINE—She’s everywhere. Visit her main website, which is the mother ship for everything Rachel is doing from publications and public appearances to her latest blog posts. You’ll also find her on Twitter, where you can join her more than 60,000 followers, and on Facebook, too.

GET THE VIDEO—Rachel also appears in the very creative Animate Bible-study series. In her portion of that series, Rachel talks about “how the Old Testament and the New Testament relate to each other for Christians.”

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

The Ragan Sutterfield interview on ‘This Is My Body’

Cover of Ragan Sutterfield's 'This Is My Body'

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

ASHAMED of your body? Overweight? (Millions of us are.) Not attractive? Not athletic? Addicted to chocolate or cigarettes or worse? Are you wondering: Who could love such a body—including you yourself?

If so—then here’s good news. Ragan Sutterfield has written a book just for us: This Is My Body—From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith. And to answer your first two questions: Yes, Ragan’s spiritual journey led him from disgust with his overweight body, his addiction to cigarettes and his problems with physical intimacy to a healthy life. But, no, he’s not expecting readers to compete in extreme sports. This is a book for—well for us, if we find ourselves drawn toward religious life, yet we forget to tend to our bodies.

There’s clearly something wrong in the mind-body-spirit culture within American congregations, Ragan argues persuasively. In many communities, what’s wrong is evangelical preaching that our bodies are wicked and we should only worry about getting our souls into heaven.

He’s not alone in confronting this kind of preaching. Another group of religious leaders trying to counter this “our-bodies-are-wicked” theology are the writers producing www.ThirdWayNewsletter.com where they point out that many body-related issues wind up painfully excluding individuals, and their families, from congregational life. Or, those Third Way writers point out, churchgoers feel pressure to hide their true physical identities.

Ragan’s book zeroes in on one particular issue: the way our understanding of faith shapes our approach to health and to physical contact with those we love. Millions of Americans are caught in patterns of shame, addictive behaviors and a tragic inability to take seriously the physical meaning of our marriage vows. In that last realm, Ragan writes about his own struggles with marriage and the spiritual pathway that led him to loving and caring for his wife Emily in sickness and in health and in all physical conditions.

He opens the book with some startling research data—a 2011 Northwestern University study that shows frequent involvement in congregational life, when young, is linked to greater likelihood of obesity in middle age. When it first appeared, that study sparked headlines nationwide. (Care to read more about the study? Here are a Northwestern summary, a Chicago Tribune story, a US News story, and a report from Science Daily.)

But, this book isn’t only about getting into better physical shape. At an even deeper level, Ragan argues, the way we think about our bodies rests on the foundation of how we think about the world God has created. Is the totality of God’s Creation—this world, our environment, plants and animals and our bodies—fundamentally good? Or is this world an evil place where our wicked bodies lead us astray? Ragan argues passionately that what God has made in this world is good. Grounding our faith in that belief immediately begins to move us away from shame and a spiritual separation from our bodies, he argues. In short: Recognizing that God’s Creation is good is a pathway to spiritual and physical health.

And, this book isn’t just about our own physical health. If we are evangelically focused on abandoning an evil physical world for the paradise that may await us after death, then we also won’t care much about global warming, sustainable farming or the fate of non-human animals who live on our planet. Before writing this book, Ragan was best known as an author and activist promoting sustainable agriculture and care of the earth. Now, in 2015, he is working his way through Episcopal seminary and will emerge in a year or so as a priest serving congregations in his native Arkansas.

Finally, don’t let fear keep you from reading this book. Ragan won’t make you feel even guiltier than you perhaps feel right now. His approach is humble and completely honest about his own rocky journey. “I ask others to join with me in listening to what God is saying about this,” he tells readers. He’s an honest companion, not a task master pushing guilt.

This is a book you’ll find both inspiring and personally challenging—and that is sure to spark spirited discussion in your class or small group.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH RAGAN SUTTERFIELD ON
‘THIS IS MY BODY’

DAVID: I was struck by the Northwestern study you describe in the opening of your book. There’s a lot of research showing that involvement in congregations is actually quite healthy—especially for older adults. And the Northwestern study still leaves a lot of questions unanswered—but it really is an ominous report. You also include some other research to back it up. Let’s share just a couple of lines with readers. You write:

“Theology has consequences. A church where the soul alone and not the body is saved becomes a place where the body is left to other stories or no story at all. Because the body doesn’t matter to our eternal salvation in this view, Christians tend to adopt secular views of the body or simply ignore it and its health altogether. Research has borne this out. According to a Northwestern University study that tracked over 2,000 participants for 18 years, adults like me, who attended evangelical churches as youth, are 50 percent more likely to be obese than our unchurched counterparts. Other research based on census data has shown that Southern Baptists and other, more evangelical denominations, are the heaviest of all religious groups.”

When I read it, I bookmarked that page. I thought: Wow, 50 percent more likely to be obese!

Ragan Sutterfield author of This Is My Body Photo by Paul Brown

RAGAN SUTTERFIELD (Photo by Paul Brown, used by permission of the publisher.)

RAGAN: I found that statistic really interesting because as I was growing up in a conservative evangelical context, we knew that our bodies were held in low esteem. Yes, we used to hear, “Your body is a temple,” but that mostly was the way adults warned us against smoking, drinking and sex. The real message was that these bodies we’re living in aren’t important—and we really need to pay attention to our souls. When you’re sharing those assumptions, it’s hard to take care of your body in a proper way.

DAVID: Your book is mainly a real-life story of how you—and some of the people around you—struggled along this spiritual journey to find a healthier, more integrated understanding of your life. It’s a true story with lots of interesting anecdotes, but you do pause in the narrative to teach us things along the way. And one of those lessons you teach early in the book is that the Bible’s Hebrew and Jewish roots don’t regard the body as some wicked, throw-away husk of life.

In the book, you sum it up at one point this way: “In Hebrew thought that most formed the imaginations of the writers of the New Testament, the body and the soul were inseparable.” And, you write, none of the early Jewish followers of Jesus “would have imagined a disembodied soul in the Greek sense. If there would be eternal life, it would have to come from the resurrection of the person, the whole package: body and spirit.”

You wrap up that section by telling readers in a 4-word paragraph: “We are our bodies.”

‘PART OF THE GOODNESS OF GOD’S CREATION’

RAGAN: I think my biggest hope for this book is that readers will walk away with a greater sense of the gift of our bodies. I want people to understand that our bodies are a part of the goodness of God’s creation.

DAVID: Let’s go back and fill in a bit of the timeline for readers.

RAGAN: I was born in Arkansas in 1980 and I’m moving into my 35th year. Right now, I’m about half way through Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, and in 2016 I hope to be returning to Arkansas with my wife Emily and Lillian who is now 3 and in January we welcomed our second daughter Lucia.

DAVID: Some readers may know you from farming. You wrote Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us. And you’ve been active nationally—and internationally, too—in organizations that promote sustainable farming and a concern for the environment. In this new book, there are some sections where you talk about your time as a farmer. So, give us a little update about your departure from agriculture.

RAGAN: I left farming, first of all, to work for Heifer International for a time, mainly working on their websites. Then, eventually I came to seminary.

DAVID: There’s no family farm in Arkansas to which you’ll be returning?

RAGAN: No, and the time I was farming was the time my body was heaviest and I got into some unhealthy habits. Someday, I might like to do a little small farming again, but I came to realize that full-time farming is very hard.

DAVID: I’ve been a fan of Wendell Barry myself and, in this book, you talk about Barry and also Henry David Thoreau.

RAGAN: Yes, I was inspired by Wendel Berry and other writers so much that I wanted to farm, too. So, I began an apprenticeship with a farmer in Arkansas and worked in varying capacities for several years. At one point, I was leasing land myself.

I had this  idea that I would work hard to provide healthy food for others—but I discovered the life is much harder than I had realized.

DAVID: You weren’t overweight as a child, but you’ve had issues with weight since your youth, right? For example, by high school, your weight prompted some teasing. We’re very involved in anti-bullying efforts, as an online magazine. Overweight teens face some tough challenges. That’s been a running theme, this season, on the TV show Glee, for example.

RAGAN: I was heavy enough in high school that I would get comments on it, yes. But it really was while I was farming that I gained the most weight.

DAVID: How big did you get?

RAGAN: I was so ashamed of my weight that I didn’t want to step on the scales, but I was upwards of 260. I was working so hard at this goal of healthy farming that I wound up eating convenience foods and drinking sugar-filled drinks. I’d even drink Red Bull to keep myself going.

DAVID: And now?

RAGAN: Well, I’m 5-foot-9 and now I stay under 180. I finally quit smoking a couple of years before Emily and I were married in 2011. I go up and down a little, but I’m able to stay at a healthy weight.

‘FITNESS IS A FAMILY PROJECT’

DAVID: At one point as you were getting back into shape, you did some pretty extreme training to get ready for big physical challenges—races and other competitions. Toward the end of your book, however, you make it clear that part of your awareness of health and spiritual balance means that, today, you’re making sure to spend plenty of time with your family. In other words, you enjoy a balanced approach to fitness.

How about this year? What’s on the horizon for you?

RAGAN: This past fall I completed my first 50-mile ultramarathon, which is something I had wanted to do for a long time. But I’m not a racer per se. I don’t ever expect to be standing on the podium at the end of an event. My aim is to complete them and complete them well. This spring, I’m going to be in the North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington D.C. In the fall, I’m planning on doing a half ironman—basically doing half of all the ironman distances, a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.

DAVID: Fitness is a family activity, right? Your wife Emily is a swimmer.

RAGAN: She doesn’t compete in biking or running but she’s an avid swimmer. She teaches swimming and coaches swimming for adults. She has worked with triathletes.

‘WHAT IT MEANS TO BE CREATED BY GOD’

DAVID: As readers get into your book, they’ll discover that you’re a humble storyteller. You’re not glorifying your own accomplishments like some of the celebrity trainers these days. Your real goal is to convince readers that caring for our bodies is an important part of caring for God’s entire creation, right? You drop reminders of this idea throughout the book.

RAGAN: I’m glad you picked up on that. Our sense of embodiment and our sense of ourselves as beings created by God go hand in hand. In the kind of Christian church where I grew up, we tended to reject the goodness of creation and to reject the human body along with that. The problem is: If we regard our bodies as just something that will burn up or slough off on our way to heaven—then we lose a proper sense of what it means to be created by God. To be a healthy person, we need to realize that we are wrapped up in a whole ecology of other living beings. There are organisms all around us and even inside of us—healthy organisms in our digestive tract that help us to digest foods—that are a part of our lives.

DAVID: Given your past work—your writing and activism—I would call you an environmentalist.

RAGAN: Yes, certainly. I’m a long-time environmentalist. I was interested from a very early age in exploring the creation all around me. In college, I got very interested in how working landscapes fit into that—not just preserving pristine environments, but exploring how working landscapes like farms are a part of our relationship with creation. I wanted to be part of the effort to encourage both the flourishing of human beings and creation, as well. That’s the way Wendell Barry influenced me and a lot of other people in my generation.

Ekklesia_Project___Fostering_conversations_about_the_Church_among_theologians__pastors__and_congregations_DAVID: In our online magazine, we are publishing a number of interviews with authors who are part of emerging religious  movements. Last week, our cover story featured Doug Pagitt, who is connected with a couple of those new networks. So, I want to ask you about a group in which you’ve been active: The Ekklesia Project.

RAGAN: Yes, I’m an endorser of the Ekklesia Project and I’ve been involved in their conferences for several years, although my schedule prevents me from being involved in their gathering this summer in Chicago. I’m going to be doing clinical pastoral education this summer, as part of my seminary work, so I can’t go this time.

I would describe Ekklesia as a place where clergy, lay people and academics can come together with a common commitment to living out the faith in a really concrete way in the world. People involved in this project are very committed to justice and peace issues and creation care. We want to help Christians maintain an allegiance to their faith over against the competing ideologies of our world today: things like consumerism or nationalism.

DAVID: I want to close our interview by pointing out, once again, that your new book has a compassionate voice. You’re not here to bully us and you’re also well aware that our bodies can’t all wind up running marathons. Our online magazine does a lot of work with the many caregivers living among us.

RAGAN: I realize that we live in a world that is filled with a lot of brokenness and that sometimes includes our bodies. I’ve had health issues myself. I know people who live in deep chronic pain. This summer, my pastoral work will be in a retirement facility. I’m well aware that lots of people have a hard time accepting the idea that our bodies are a good gift from God.

But I do hope readers will walk away from reading this book with a sense of our bodies as part of the creation that God called very good—and that, even with the current brokenness we may feel in our bodies and in our world, there still is hope.

I hope that readers will leave this book encouraged to embrace our bodies and our world in a new way.

STAY TUNED!

ReadTheSpirit online magazine is the place to watch diverse new religious ideas and movements emerging. In Spring 2015, we will be featuring interviews with many writers who are exploring new spiritual directions, including:

Look for these “Cover Story” author interviews on Mondays in March, April and May 2015. Make sure you get all of our upcoming stories: Sign up for our free email updates as new stories are published by clicking on the “Get FREE Updates by Email” link at the top of this page. Or, visit us anytime via our new Facebook page.

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The Doug Pagitt interview: Why do we need to be ‘Flipped’?

Cover of Flipped the new book by Doug Pagitt

CLICK the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Millions of churchgoers nationwide care about the future of their communities. And, millions of “Nones”—people who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation—are searching for spiritual pathways that make sense to them. Whichever side of that divide you call home—you should meet Doug Pagitt, a pastoral pioneer trying to forge new connections in our communities coast to coast.

The terms to describe what Pagitt and his influential friends are trying to accomplish are as diverse as their approaches: Emergence, Convergence, Reformation and Blue Ocean are several of the common terms this year. Famous names include Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Ken Wilson, David Gushee, Peter Rollins and Phyllis Tickle. (For the names of more cutting-edge writers see the “Stay Tuned” note at the end of this interview.)

Collectively, their work sometimes is described as a “movement,” but at this point it really is a growing community of communities—a network of networks.

The surprising truth is this: Americans already are far more united than most of us imagine and these visionaries are inviting men and women from diverse religious backgrounds to take that truth seriously. As Pagitt writes in his new book, there is far more that unites us than divides us. (You may be asking: Could Americans actually be united in our values? That’s the conclusion of years of research by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker, reported in his book United America, for which Brian McLaren wrote the Preface.)

Doug Pagitt's ConvergenceUS web logoTo learn more about this newly forming religious landscape, Pagitt recommends visiting ConvergenceUS, a website that explores issues shared by a wide array of new religious activists. Why is this effort so urgent? “We, our children, and our grandchildren face an unprecedented convergence of global crises: global warming and environmental collapse, the danger of cataclysmic violence enhanced by weapons of mass destruction, the rise of unaccountable elites, and the growing gap between the ultra-rich and the multitudes,” that website says.

Who are these people? They’re a surprisingly broad array of Christians—with some men and women from other faiths collaborating as well. The particular ConvergenceUS website that Pagitt recommends puts it this way: “The Convergence Movement is bringing together forward-thinking Catholics, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants, along with ethnic and peace churches and other willing colleagues, in a growing movement-building collaborative.” But, that website is only one of many that are springing up as this nationwide movement expands. Another key site is the www.ThirdWayNewsletter.com, hosted by Ken Wilson and his co-pastor Emily Swan. More related websites already are going up this year, including an upcoming site for the Blue Ocean movement.

What does this have to do with Pagitt’s new book? Everything. The book is called Flipped: The Provocative Truth That Changes Everything We Know About God. In 200 pages, Pagitt lays out his vision of a religious community that focuses far more on the way God unites us—than on our own individual claims about the little pieces of God we may own.

How does Pagitt describes this “flip”: The “flip” is about our giving up a selfish focus on God “in me—and discovering the far healthier community that forms when we appreciate that “we all are in God.” Making that spiritual “flip” opens up new freedom, compassion and also real urgency to address the world’s many dire needs. Faith becomes less about “me,” and far more about “us.” In describing the potential “flip” this way, Pagitt dramatically opens up community connections around the world—if his audience is listening carefully and if we respond. Going forward, this could include powerful prophetic voices from the secular community like the environmental writer James Gustav Speth, who has been calling for years for religious communities to rise up and take their responsibility in the global community seriously.

That’s why the new book Flipped is a must-read this spring. Right now all across America, groups of church leaders—and Nones, as well—find themselves talking about their hopes for the future in these troubling times. Flipped is terrific for sparking creative discussions about those yearnings that so many of us share.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Doug Pagitt. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH DOUG PAGITT
ON ‘FLIPPED

DAVID: Let’s dive right into the book’s core concept—the flip. It’s “flipping” our understanding of faith, or some might say our understanding of our “religion” or our “spiritual path.” You want us to become aware that we’re already all “in God”—and a key step toward flipping our awareness is identifying what you describe as a dangerous and destructive temptation toward what you call a “transactional” or “If/Then” faith. As you describe it, that “transactional” term refers to assuming that religion is a deal we’re each making with God. It’s a spiritual focus on what I, as an individual, must do each day to maintain my religious “deal”—my connection to a distant God.

Obviously, the Christian journey is a constant search for greater compassion and love. We want to improve ourselves all the time. That’s the message from Jesus to John Wesley to the current Pope Francis. And you, of course, agree with that in your book. But, here’s the key—you’re talking about confronting the malignant patterns that form when we become obsessed with our own daily transaction with God—and all of the rules we want to slap on the people all around us as we compare them to our own holiness.

Mid-way through the book you write that too many of us want “God to be forgiving—but only when the conditions are met. That fits the transactional system, and somehow it seems right. It’s only fair that a person in need of forgiveness do something to merit being forgiven.”

Doug Pagitt author of the book FlippedDOUG: When we live in that old transactional system, we keep asking: Am I a greater or lesser possessor of God today than I was yesterday? Do I have more God in me than you do? Are some people beyond God’s love? People really struggle with questions like these that come from that kind of transactional system.

Sometimes when I’m with people who have a deep religious commitment, I begin to feel that many of them want nothing more than to have God be distant from them—and to think of Jesus as this cord or cable that connects them to this distant God.

DAVID: You write in your book that this kind of thinking appeals to people who worry that people won’t be faithful if they’re not scared of losing God. I was just reading Carl Kell’s new book, The Exiled Generations, about the aftermath of the fundamentalist takeover in the Southern Baptist Convention. Then, I interviewed Carl and he describes the old-school appeal of being born again and getting baptized as “fire insurance.” In other words: Better do it—or you’ll burn in Hell.

In your book, you describe this fear as based on the idea that “without the threat of losing God’s love, people won’t be motivated to grow and be better. Why would anyone be driven to improve if there were not the very real possibility of losing favor in God’s eyes? This type of transactional view feels right, in part, because it’s consistent with an incentive-based market economy. If we don’t give people a sufficient financial incentive to work hard, they will just be lazy. Likewise, if we don’t scare people into living right, they’ll thumb their noses at God.”

The problem with this argument, you point out is: “Love is not the reward—but the initiator.”

WHEN CHRISTIANITY BECOMES ‘TOXIC’

DOUG: When I talked about this with Peter Rollins, he told me that he’s also disturbed by this transactional understanding of faith.

As soon as you let yourself think that God is distant and that we need to work to maintain our connection to God, then we’re turning faith into a deal, a transaction. We bob and weave throughout our lives, trying to keep up with this transaction we’ve made. We begin to tell people that you have to follow these steps, or those steps, to be properly purified and to be connected with God most purely.

That’s an unfortunate pinch point in Christianity—and it just doesn’t make sense to so many people today. Maintaining that transaction just doesn’t feel good in our lives. Most of my friends who’ve left Christianity have left over this issue. They want a faith, or a spiritual expression of life, that doesn’t amount to a transactional deal. I’ve heard from early readers of this book that their first reaction is—relief. They feel relief to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way.

DAVID: Now, some readers may be thinking: Well, too bad! Religion is about rules that force people to be good—or else. And that’s exactly how it should be—faith is hard. Having just read Carl Kell’s book about the Southern Baptist Convention, it’s obvious that there are lots of evangelicals out there who would make that argument.

But the problem you’re describing in your book runs much deeper than just giving people a sense of relief for the sake of making faith simpler. That’s not your aim. The deeper problem has been explored by writers like Peter Rollins—or, to point out another important writer on this subject: Larry Dossey’s Be Careful What You Pray For explores the dark side of this kind of transactional faith. Dossey is a famous physician, researcher and best-selling author who is best known for books about the power of prayer. In Be Careful, however, he explores prayers that attack others, toxic prayers—prayers in which one person who feels confident in his or her own deal with God prays to manipulate others in ways that amount to assaults on them.

If we don’t recognize the negative aspects of this transactional approach to faith, it can become toxic.

DOUG: The last 15 years of evangelicalism has become so toxic for so many people that they’re leaving and saying: “Screw it! I’m not even interested in hanging around to reform it!” They just walk away.

Right now, I’m traveling on a book tour and I’m appearing with a musician who told me she was very hesitant to do this tour with me—until she read the book. She told me, “I didn’t know we could talk about Jesus like this, until I read your book.”

There are a lot of people out there who say, “I’m not a part of any church or any expression of Christianity—not because I want to be out here, but because what I see in churches is toxic to me.”

EXPERIENCING THE FLIP AT SOLOMON’S PORCH

Doug Pagitt congregation near Minneapolis Solomon's Porch

Click the logo to visit the congregation’s website.

DAVID: So, let’s talk for a moment about your home congregation: Solomon’s Porch, near Minneapolis. Even the website for your congregation shows visitors that you’ve already flipped around a lot of expectations about “church.” One page says, “This church is a church of people, not an event created by the leaders.” Another page says, “You will not find statements of what our community believes on this site. Belief is a dynamic, lived reality and doesn’t lend itself to website statements.”

And here’s another way you flip expectations. A lot of famous Christian authors come from mega-churches. Solomon’s Porch certainly isn’t that, right?

DOUG: It’s about a 300-person community. I worked in a megachurch and one of my biggest worries was that I didn’t want Solomon’s Porch to become another megachurch. We have 11 employees who work part time and they all do other things.

DAVID: In other words, this compelling new message in Flipped is actually describing insights that have shaped your ministry for many years, right?

DOUG: Yes, I’ve been Christian since 1983 and I’ve been thinking about these things since then. This book is the best articulation of my experience over the last 32 years. You’re right: This isn’t a brand new idea that just occurred to me. This whole notion taps into the roots of my thinking for a long time.

A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

DAVID: The book is easy to read—and I mean that as high praise. You invite us into your story and carry us along for 200 pages. I kept wanting to see where your story was going, page after page. In one section of the book, you were sharing some of your earliest influences decades ago in what I’d call the Jesus movement—and we follow your stories right up to the prophetic voices in Christianity today.

So let’s close by comparing your way of describing this new kind of Christian community with the way Ken Wilson and Emily Swan and other leaders in the Blue Ocean Faith movement describe this next wave. Ken, who produces www.ThirdWayNewsletter.com with Emily and other writers, likes to call this “center set” Christianity rather than “bounded set” Christianity. This week, one of their new columns is headlined, “When One Group is Excluded, You Wonder—Am I Next?

Here’s something Ken said to me in an interview: “The church shouldn’t be a place that’s defined by external boundaries of belief and practice so much as it’s a place where people can come in and move toward the center, which is Jesus. This is a centered-set rather than a bounded-set organization. Bounded-set organizations have clearly defined boundaries and they’re hard to get into, or get out of. In a centered-set organization, you’re welcomed and you feel welcome as long as you’re there continuing to take steps toward the center which is Jesus.”

Your new Flipped message feels similar, but I think you’re pushing even further, right?

DOUG: Well, first, I’m 100 percent liking what I’m seeing from the Blue Ocean people. I’m 100 percent thinking they’re on the right path. I know them and I like what they’re doing. I’m working with Blue Ocean’s Dave Schmelzer on some things.

But, you’re right: I’m taking one more step toward a “relational-set” or “network-theory” of what the church needs to be.

One way to think of this is to remember how most of us were first taught about atoms in school. Remember that? The hard little ball in the middle with these spokes sticking out to the electrons? Well, that’s probably how I would have thought about atoms to this day, but I’ve had opportunities to talk to physicists and that’s not how an atom is understood today. There’s no hard little ball in the center. An atom is a series of microconnections that hold the atom together.

And, Solomon’s Porch is not a center-set organization that requires people to move together toward one center. People are engaged in a web of relationships. It’s through all the microconnections that our community forms, not by a strong center pulling everyone inward.

Now, perhaps we’re not talking about different things here. I could also argue that what people are starting to talk about when they say our communities should be “center set” is really what I mean when I’m describing a “relational set.”

In the end, we’re all talking about the importance of one-ness. When I talk about this “in God” theology, I’m sharing a story of healing and integration and harmony in God.

STAY TUNED!

ReadTheSpirit online magazine is the place to watch diverse new religious communities emerge. In Spring 2015, we will be featuring interviews with many writers who are exploring new spiritual directions, including:

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Remembering Bible scholar Marcus Borg (1942-2015)

Marcus Borg speaks to a groupBy DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Our worldwide circle of readers shrank by 1 last week with the January 21 death of Bible scholar and best-selling author Marcus Borg.

In addition to his tireless work and travels, Marcus found time to look at his weekly edition of ReadTheSpirit. Occasionally, he would send an encouraging email to the editor’s desk, usually expressing thanks for discovering a new author through our coverage. Every now and then, he also would share his latest discoveries among mystery writers with my wife Amy, who shared with Marcus a passion for murder mysteries featuring well-crafted, character-rich sleuths.

The two of them discovered this connection a decade ago when we were enjoying dinner with Marcus before a public talk he was to deliver at the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor on the campus of the University of Michigan. When this online magazine later was founded in 2007, one of the first stories was an interview with Marcus about his love of well-crafted mysteries.

In that interview, he explained in greater detail what he saw as a connection between mystery novels and the vocation of a religion scholar: “We are all living within a mystery, in a sense. Now, the difference between detective stories and religion is that in detective stories you typically find out in the end what happened, so the mystery is neatly solved. But that sense of living within a mystery touches something deep inside of us and, in religion, things do not get resolved so easily.”

‘Things do not get resolved so easily …’

Marcus understood that final phrase on a spiritual level, on the level of intellectual inquiry—and, most importantly, in the lives of countless Americans who remain inside a church, today, because of Marcus Borg’s books and public teaching. For decades, Marcus tirelessly barnstormed the country with his message that Christianity is not the enemy of rigorous intellectual inquiry. Both spiritual and academic disciplines are searches for truth and, he would tell crowds: People of faith know that we have nothing to fear from the truth.

That’s not to say it was easy. One of the most memorable experiences I shared with Marcus was literally being burned by enraged evangelical Christians in Indiana in 1993. The incendiary protest was covered by long-time New York Times religion writer Ari Goldman under the headline: “Burning Rage in Indiana”

Ari’s story said, in part:

An article about the Bible in a Gary, Ind., newspaper has so enraged some local evangelical churches that their members are planning to publicly burn copies of the paper after Sunday services on the day after Christmas. The churches are protesting the publication by The Post-Tribune of a front page article with the headline: “Biblical Scholars Take Words Out of Jesus’s Mouth—New Book Claims Jesus Didn’t Say 80% of What’s Attributed to Him.” The article … was published on Dec. 12. It reported on a book “The Five Gospels” that is the result of six years of work by a committee of liberal Christian scholars who tried to determine the authenticity of the more than 1,500 sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. …

Jerry Kaifetz, the organizer of the protest, said the decision to publish the article less than two weeks before Christmas was a “calculated attempt” to “insult and injure the faith of Christians at their most sacred and precious time of the year.”

As a religion writer for the Detroit Free Press, I had written that article, which then was carried in other newspapers nationwide. And one the most prominent voices in that “committee of liberal Christian scholars” was Marcus. It should go without saying that Kaifetz’s charge was flat-out wrong. Neither Marcus nor I were trying to “insult and injure” anyone.

Nevertheless, the Indiana Baptists went ahead and carried out their burning. News photos from the incident show angry men in dark suits torching newspapers in oil drums.

Marcus loved the church

What critics failed to understand about Marcus was that he loved the church. No, not the church of the Inquisition or the church of Fundamentalist hellfire condemnation. He saw those as tragic distortions of the truths that were sitting there just waiting to be discovered in the pages of the Bible—and in the compassionate interaction of people that truly, he believed, was the church at its best.

He worked toward this goal in so many ways! Just read this interview about Marcus’s book Speaking Christian and his public campaign to “reclaim” the powerful words of Christian tradition. Or consider his campaign to rethink the way adult education programs should explore the Bible. He even re-envisioned his own teachings in the form of a novel—because he was convinced that some men and women who didn’t like to read non-fiction would understand his ideas in that fictional form of storytelling.

Since 2000, Marcus has largely been lionized by his fans nationwide. He appears forever, now, in so many documentary films about religion, the Bible and the early church that it would be pointless to try to list them all. He and his good friend John Dominic Crossan (and often their wives as well) loved to travel together. In a series of educational tours to “Bible lands,” the two scholars would lead travelers into sun-baked settings that were crucial in the early Christian era. They might get down on their knees to examine an ancient artifact and, in the process, awaken in their travelers a fresh appreciation for the dawn of Christianity. (In 2009, for example, we published an interview with both Marcus and Dom about their collaborations.)

‘Take this with you …’

Through the decades, we crossed paths many times and I also got to know and admire the work of Marcus’s wife, the Rev. Canon Marianne Wells Borg. Certainly my warmest memory of Marcus and Marianne centers on the couple of days we spent together at their home in 2010 as part of the ReadTheSpirit American Journey project. I was traveling for 40 days and 10,000 miles with my son Benjamin, reporting for our online magazine as well as the Detroit Free Press and radio stations.

In their home along the Pacific Ocean, the four of us talked for hours, but we also found time to walk along the booming shoreline. Marcus enjoyed exercising his dogs along the shore and appropriately, the dogs are mentioned by name as part of the family in the official obituary from Marcus’s publishing house, HarperOne.

Marcus announced that he was staffing the kitchen during that visit—and he cooked as an evangelist. He wanted to show off to his visitors from the Midwest the good news of products produced by the Tillamook cheese company, which also is based in Oregon. And of course, the sharp Tillamook cheddar was as terrific as Marcus promised. He served some of the cheese with black-and-white Holstein-patterned knives that he had bought at the Tillamook Creamery.

When my son and I said our goodbyes, Marcus pressed a rectangular, gift-wrapped box into my hands.

“Take this with you as a memory of our time together,” he said.

A Bible perhaps? One of his books? As my son drove our van down the road, I tore off the wrappings. It was a boxed set of the Tillamook knives.

And that was a full circle in Marcus Borg’s remarkable life.

In our interview during that visit, he had told us this story about his feelings for America: “For me the two biggest holidays as I was growing up in the 1940s were Christmas and the Fourth of July. Christmas obviously is a big holiday when you’re a child, but the small community of 1,400 where I grew up was Park River in northeastern North Dakota. In that corner of North Dakota, the 4th of July was huge. There always was a parade with bands and color guards of veterans going back to the Spanish-American War at that time. I can still see in my mind the carnival that would come to town and food booths in the city park. My Dad was a creamery owner and ice cream maker so we always had a big tent in the park selling ice cream. I was too young to have to work in the tent, but I got to eat whatever I wanted all day long.”

Today, our circle of ReadTheSpirit readers diminishes by 1. But please help us remember Marcus Borg by sharing this story with someone you know might enjoy it—and, in doing so, send another little gift down the road to one more traveler.

2010 American Journey Marianne and Marcus Borg in their Oceanside Oregon home

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)