Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Putting Away Childish Things" by Marcus Borg

I recently finished reading Marcus Borg's new book. For those of you who know Borg's work, he has focused on Christian theology for a generation now. Up until this most recent book his material, to my knowledge has all been non-fiction. Perhaps after such an illustrious writing career he thought it was time to try something new. And so he has, quite successfully I might add with his new novel "Putting Away Childish Things."

I must say that I was not too sure what to think of a successful theologian writing a novel. After all I have found his theology very approachable and have used his book "The Heart of Christianity" in two different churches since it was published in 2003. That said, it wasn't too long before I really wanted to know what would happen next in the lives of his main characters.

The story is about an assistant professor of religion at a small liberal arts college and a semester of her life when she is confronted with a major, potentially life altering decision. Upon receiving an invitation for a one-year teaching appointment at a Theological Seminary she must struggle with what it means to be led in her decision making process by the God in whom she trusts. Along the way we are introduced to her circle of friends which include a fellow professor of religion, her Episcopal priest, her former lover who is on the faculty of the seminary as well as several of her students at the small liberal arts college.

Upon finishing this book I wanted to know more of what happened to the characters and I know that I will some day read this book with a group of people who care about Christianity and lived faith. Borg has done an excellent job venturing into new territory and for anyone who has ever read Brian McLaren's trilogy "A New Kind of Christian" Borg's writing takes things to the next level. This is a book for church groups open to the changes going on within Christianity as well as those who think there might be something more to church-life but aren't entirely sure how or where to put their finger on it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Then they came for me...

In Germany the first came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists,and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics,and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me--and by that time no one was left to speak up.

(attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoller, c. 1959)

Immigration is certainly a hot topic in our nation these days and maybe especially today. The rhetoric has gotten especially heated today in light of Arizona passing its new and very stringent immigration law. Those who are in favor of it have valid points; that is, people being here illegally is a problem and the governor's comments regarding Washington D.C.'s seeming inability to act on the question of how best to reform immigration policy has merit.

Of course, those aren't the only voices speaking to this pressing issue. There are members of the religious community who are quoting Jesus' commands to love one another and care for the least among us. There are also voices on the secular left calling attention to how by granting law enforcement broad latitude of basing their reasons for pulling people over or detaining them based solely on suspicion goes against the due process and right to privacy standards of our society.

Granted, I know in so brief an outline of the positions of either side I'm leaving myself open to criticism from both sides but it seems important to me to lay out where there is validity to both sides in this pressing issue. I say that because most of what is available online, even at this early hour, is hardening on the left and the right, which serves no one.

So what do I think? Well, my first thought was to look up the poem at the top of this blog. And beyond these words from generations prior to ours, I hope and pray that Washington D.C. will move forward quickly and act on real immigration reform before things get ugly in Arizona. All it will take is law enforcement officers pulling over or detaining people who have been here legally for generations and there will be violence. Can't you feel it? I don't mean to be reactionary, but even if this new law is a good idea and even if it were supported by an overwhelming percentage of the electorate of Arizona, don't you think it has the potential to anger (to say the least) a large number of people?

Regardless of where you stand on Arizona's solution to the immigration problem/issue, pray. Pray for level heads among those charged with enforcing the new law and pray for restrain among those whom it most impacts.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"The Ides of March" & "Good Literature"

It has been sometime since I have read what some might call "good" literature, as opposed to say "popular" literature, but as this is April's book selection for the Men's Book club I'm in I followed through. And you know what? It wasn't as bad as I feared, or as boring as I first thought, either.

My first impressions probably didn't help. Soon after getting it, special ordered at the Barnes & Noble here in Twin Falls, the family and I stopped at Pizza Hut for pick-up and while Kathy ventured in to purchase our dinner I read the first page or so to Eric who was sitting in the back seat. The first few pages of this 1948 "classic" begin with fictional dispatches from Julius Caesar regarding some trivial matters of governance. It was not, to say the least the most auspicious beginning to a novel.

That said, I was soon sucked in to the story that Thornton Wilder spins about a suppositional retelling of the last months of Julius Caesar's life. Wilder very successfully paints a picture of Caesar as being very human and likable while his opponents in the book come off as overly cynical and duplicitous. Wilder's Caesar is the deep thinker of the book and when everything comes to an end on the very last page of the book I felt a little sad to know that the story wouldn't continue.

It will be interesting to see what the others in book club think about this month's selection. The person who selected it thought it was a great read, I'm not sure how many others will feel that way. Then again, if they enjoyed the one-liners and various passages of wisdom on life and politics that Thornton Wilder puts into the mouths of historical figures then there will be much for us to talk about.

If it has been awhile since you've read anything printed before this current decade and you like history then consider looking into Thornton Wilder's "The Ides of March."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Cutting for Stone" an Excellent Novel

Just the other day I finished an excellent novel by Abraham Verghese titled, "Cutting for Stone." It tells the story of two twins, Marion and Shiva stone from how their parents met to their tumultuous birth through their childhood and adolescent years and then into adulthood. The majority of the novel takes place in Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia. And while the location may not seem like it would be all that important, Verghese makes that country and city come alive. He does this by telling some of the history and describing the world around Addis in a way that make syou feel like you're there. In addition to the excellent character development, the way he brings Addis Ababa alive is a huge bonus to this lively tale.

Marion and Shiva's life, from conception through their young adulthood is spent on the grounds of Missing Hospital (Verghese explains that the word "Mission" is not pronouncable to the Ethiopian tongue and so comes out as "Missing"). The hospital is run by Carmelite nuns, one of whom is the boys' mother and staffed by two doctors from India and up until the boys' birth an English Surgeon named Thomas Stone, the boys' father.

Although this may sound pretty far fetched, it is a beautifully, well written story with some very poignant vingettes. For example: before having to operate on an Ethiopian Colonel who is one the outs with the Emperor we get this beautiful confession of what the priorities of the nation should be;
"My journey, my pain, my operation...," the Colonel went on, "God was showing me the suffering of my people. It was a message. How we treat the least of our brethren, how we treat the peasant suffering with volvulus, that's the message of this country. Not our figher planes or tanks, or how big the Emperor's palace happens to be. I think God put you in my path." page 184

At another point in the book there is wisdom of another sort as Marion is sitting with his terminal step-father, one of the Indian Doctors named Ghosh:
"I spent as much time as I could with Ghosh. I wanted every bit of wisdom he could impart to me. All sons should write down every word of what their fathers have to say to them. I tried. Why did it take an illness for me to recognize the value of time with him? It seems we humans never learn. And so we relearn the lesson every generation and then want to write epistles. We proselytize our friends and shake them by the shoulders and tell them, "Seize the day! What matters is this moment!" Most of us can't go back and make restitution. We can't do a thing about our should haves and our could haves. But a few lucky men like Ghosh never have such worries; there was no restitution he needed to make, no moment he failed to seize.
Now and then Ghosh would grin and wink at me across the room. He was teaching me how to die, just as he'd taught me how to live." page 424

"Cutting for Stone" is a beautiful novel, well worth your time and attention. I hope you allow yourself the opportunity to allow Abraham Verghese's amazing story of life to wash over you.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Lunch with the Governor

I'm soon off to lunch with Idaho's Governor Butch Otter, well, not just the two of us, but the Twin Falls Kiwanis Club and our guests which will be about 80 of us meeting with the Governor. I'm not really all that sure how I feel about this week's program. I can't imagine that Otter will have much to say that I'll agree with, but he is the state's highest elected official so certainly he'll have something to say that is of interest.

I know these feelings are only part of a larger feeling of malaise in our country over elected officials at any level. There are people who are unhappy that the President is too Socialist and there are those on the left that think he's moved too far to the middle. Then there are people who think the Republicans in Congress are too obstructionist and there are those on the far right and in the "Tea Party" who think they're not conservative enough. In Idaho there's a sense that all taxes are bad and therefore we certainly can't raise taxes to make more happen and then a lot of those people who complain about taxes happily collect their Social Security Check or enjoy the benefits of Medicare.

It seems like you just can't please anyone these days. So I'm going to lunch where a Governor I didn't vote for and won't vote for in November will probably talk about things from a perspective that I don't agree with, but if he does so in a way that is authentic and true to how he believes he is being led to believe then who am I to not at least listen? That and it seems to me that there is something in what it means to being a Christian about loving neighbors and not only those with whom I agree. So, shortly I'll hop in my car and try to not only open my mouth for lunch but also to open my ears, mind, and heart to what Governor Otter has to say.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"Life in Year One" by Scott Korb, a Review

As the old saying goes: the more things change the more they stay the same. That in a nutshell could sum up Scott Korb's highly readable book "Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine". Then again, such a summation might encourage you not to read it, which would be an injustice on my part because there is much that we need to take into account when considering the life and times that shaped the the New Testament generation.

Scott Korb sets up his book in a fairly straight forward way by examining ten fairly common things (the world, money, home, food, baths, health, respect, religion, war, and death) as they were in first century Palestine. In so doing he takes the fairly exotic topic of a world two thousand years removed from our own and puts it into terms that we can all readily understand.

Scott Korb not only examines how such familiar things as money and health were understood two thousand years ago in a part of the world that is as foreign to us today as it was way back then, the author also does a good job of putting those ancient situations into contemporary ways of seeing the world. For instance, in his chapter on food, Korb clues us into a huge shift that was happening in year one, in Palestine. That is, there was a large increase in the number of cities as well as a shift in population from rural to urban living. This shift impacted how people fed themselves, from a diversified largely vegetarian diet to a reliance on one crop--corn, or more specifically barelycorn.

In his attempt to get us to understand what this means both to first century people as well as twenty-first century people trying to understand them, he writes:
Indeed, it's hardly going too far to call these years at the start of the first century the birth of big agribusiness. It might be said, in fact, that during the first century a displaced tenant farmer in Galilee was witness to an ancient version of what food writer Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, has described in America as the "Conquest of Corn." And in those terms, we might call the dilemma facing the first-century peasant in Palestine the "Conquest of Barleycorn." (Korb, p. 87)

Not only does Korb do a nice job of pointing out similarities between our world and theirs, he also injects wit and humor that remind us of just how human our forebears are. In chapter nine "War in Year One" in his attempt to describe what exactly led to the revolt in year 66 that eventually led to the Romans sack of Jerusalem and destruction of the second Temple, Korb describes everything from the seriously historical to the seriously hysterical, if not down-right absurd.

Relying on first-century sources he shares the following story of what might have initiated the revolt:
Some blame even has to fall on an unnamed Roman soldier who, in the spirit of Monty Python, farted in the general direction of a crowd of Jews: "The people had assembled in Jerusalem for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Roman cohort stood on guard over the Temple colonnade, armed men always being on duty at the feasts to forestall any rioting by the vast crowds. One of the soldiers pulled up his garment and bent over indecently, turning his backside towards the Jews and making a noise as indecent as his attitude." (Korb, p. 175)

These two examples are but just two of many that will make you think about the world of the New Testament in a whole new way.

Also of note, if you purchase or check out this book, Korb's footnotes are just as informative and worthy of attention as the main body of his work. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a wider and deeper understanding of the world in which Jesus lived, died and rose again.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Maundy Thursday

So what is this word "maundy"?

According to Donald K. McKim in his "Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms" Maundy Thursdy (From Latin mandatum, "mandate," "commandment")refers to Holy Thursday, before Good Friday, when Jesus commanded his disciples to follow his example of service in the washing of feet (John 13:5ff.). The term derives from the Latin mandatum novum, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another" (John 13:34).

It is a little unfortunate that Maundy Thursday falls on the rather annoying secular holiday of April Fools Day this year. But hopefully anyone who perpetrates a prank today will do it with a loving spirit and not out of some other motivation, especially if they call themselves a Christian.

Which makes me wonder if all those so called "Christian Militia" people are going to observe Maundy Thursday? I mean, if they do take the time to observe this holy day do they understand the hypocrisy they are living? Then again, maybe they understand that although they call themselves "Christian" they really aren't in anything but name only. And what about Glenn Beck and his efforts at saying who is and who is not a good enough Christian, does he understand the problem with that especially if, as a member of the LDS church, he takes Jesus words and commandments seriously?

I think you see where I'm going with all of this. How might we all do a better job at following Jesus new commandment to love one another? In what ways might you look at things differently in your life in response to Jesus' Maundy Thursday mandate?