Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Journy Into Islam" by Akbar Ahmed, a review

Over the last week or so I have dug deep into a most excellent book that explores how Muslims see the world in which we find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st Century. The author, who is a Muslim born in Pakistan, teaches Islamic Studies at American University. The book contains his (and a small group of his students) observations and reports from questionaires gathered in Muslim countries stretching from the Middle East through Asia into South East Asia during a trip in 2005 & 2006.

The main thrust of the book seeks to dispel the charicature of Islam and Muslims that is usually presented by mainstream American media; that of the nearly always screaming Arab terrorist or cool and collected Arab dictator. What Ahmed replaces this image with is a much richer tapestry of faith and a desire to understand how that faith interacts with an increasingly interconnected globe.

At the beginning of the book and throughout, the author refers to three separate metaphors for how Islam is lived out based on three separate towns in India. First, the Ajmer form of Islam that is a mystic, transcendental faith that sees every person on the planet having an "Inner Light". This more universalistic form of Islam is not much portrayed here in the West, but is nevertheless an active form of Islam globally. The second, more predomidant form of Islam is Deoband which is more typically the fundamentalist stereotype that we think of, though the adherents of the Deoband style of Islam are not all out to "get" America as some in the media portray. The last style is called Aligarh, and this is probably the type of Islam that most of us along with the author hope to see rise throughout the Muslim world. Aligarh is the more modernistic form that seeks to synthesize things like democracy and modernity into its practice of faith. This third model can be seen as just barely hanging on in nations like Turkey.

The author does call into question US foreign policy as being partly responsible for the rise of the Deoband style of Islam, but traces our complicity back through several generations and does not make it overly political. This book is not for the casual reader, but is one that will expand your understanding of Islam as we move further into the twenty-first century.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Sikh, a Jew, and a Presbyterian Walk Into a Diner

No, despite the very politically incorrect way of starting this blog, there is no punchline. Instead, I wanted to share an observation with all of you. Over the last couple of weeks one of the blogs I follow is examining the issue of pluarlism (a philosophical view holding that reality is composed of various things or states, in contrast to monism, which holds that there is only one underlying reality). Specifically the blogger is exploring what it means for Christians to live in a pluralistic society like 21st Century America.

For some people the whole idea of plualism may sound foreign or a politically correct idea being forced upon them. But quite recently I saw a vivid example of pluralism right here in Twin Falls, Idaho. Kathy, Eric and I went out for lunch at Kelly's and soon, two booths away from us walked in two men, one being interviewed by the other for a job. The interviewer looked pretty typically Southern Idaho in dress and complexion. The interviewee, on the other hand, though dressed mostly in North American attire, had dark skin and was wearing a turban like headdress that made me think he might be a Sikh (an adherent of a monotheistic religion of India founded about 1500 by a Hindu under Islamic influence and marked by rejection of idolatry and caste). Like many others in the restaurant, Kathy and I gave this man a little bit more of a glance than anyone else, and other than that the two men blended in with the rest of the lunch crowd.

A little while later another couple walked in and sat down between the Price family and the two gentlemen from earlier. This couple was composed of a younger woman in her thirties and an older gentleman in his fifties wearing a yarmulke (a skullcap worn by Orthodox and Conservative Jewish men).

No, I didn't approach either one and ask them their theological perspectives on life or what it is like to live in Southern Idaho and be so readily identified as "different", but it did make me think about how amazing and wonderful and challenging it is to live in 21st Century America. On the one hand it is amazing and wonderful that three monotheistic adherents could gather in three adjoining booths at Kelly's in downtown Twin Falls. On the other hand, with so much xenophobia and religious chauvinism, will our future be as diverse? Perhaps I'm just engaging in hyperbole, but if even Twin Falls can show so much diversity in one lunch hour, what will that mean for those of us who authentically want to show the love of God effectively in such a community?

Friday, April 17, 2009

"Jesus, Interrupted" by Bart D. Ehrman, a short review

Are you looking for a challenging read? Have you read the Bible and it raised more questions than it answered? Then perhaps you should consider picking up Bart D. Ehrman's new book, "Jesus, Interrupted". Interestingly, as I've talked about this book with a few while I've been reading it, I've thought the title was "Jesus, Interpreted", perhaps that was intentional on Ehrman's part. But be warned, if you do pick up this book, you may have some of your preconceived notions of faith heavily challenged.

On the whole, as Ehrman argues throughout, the book is a summary of what most pastors learned in seminary, that is the historical-critical approach to Biblical Interpretation. I try to bring some of these ideas to Sunday School classes and occasionally bring them to light in a sermon, but even for me, reading these ideas again was at times shocking. That being said, though, it wasn't really anything new, at least to one who has been through a fully accredited Presbyterian Seminary.

So what is the historical-critical approach to Biblical Interpretation? Donald K. McKim in his concise "Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms" defines it as "A means of biblical criticism that studies the texts according to their historical setting(s). This includes their time and place of composition, circumstances, author(s), how they came to be written, and audience(s) addressed. To reconstruct the historical situation is the main task."

That is, how did the Bible come to be? The short answer is that it did not descend from heaven as so much manna but instead developed over a long period of time and continues to be understood in various ways by a variety of people. Now that may not sound very "Christian", but then again it depends on your definition of "Christian" does it not?

For me, the long and the short of the Bible is that it can be looked at in its original context and that does not diminish my faith, in fact, a better understanding of how the Bible came to be only strengthens my faith. Does it lead me to question some of the central beliefs of the church? Absolutely, but does that mean I stop trusting in Jesus Christ? No way. Could some see this as a problem in their pastor or in a pastor? No doubt.

In fact, some of my colleagues in ministry did everything they could to challenge the idea of historical-critical interpretation of the Bible while they were in Seminary and now that they are serving in churches, by "protecting" the church (as they see it) from candidates for ministry who might hold such perspectives as well as from pastors who dare bring credulity to such ideas. That, truth be told, can be frustrating. But it does not deter me from enjoying good scholarship wherever it comes from.

So if you're up to it, look into Ehrman's latest book and along the way check in with me if you have questions or if you want to chat about it over coffee, virtually or in the flesh.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In Need of an Inspirational Pick Me Up?

If you are feeling at all blah in any way, shape or form, take the time to go to YouTube and look up Susan Boyle's performance from "Britain's Got Talent". I saw mention of this story on the Today Show this morning but missed it and so I thought that I'd take the time to look it up this morning and was it worth it!

Susan Boyle is a 47 year-old woman who looks nothing like a talented singer or entertainer. Such a preface is sometimes the more unfortunate part of Reality TV's success, but sometimes, just sometimes such an introduction leads into a surprising WOW that is inspirationally motivating. As Miss Boyle walked onto stage both the audience and the three very cynical judges judged her in a mocking way, as if to imply anyone who looked such a way and acted in such a cheeky manner could not possibly be anything. And through it all Susan Boyle remained ready to turn their cynicism on its ear and that is exactly what she did by singing "I Dream a Dream" from "Les Miserable" and it was amazing.

One of the most inspiring things about the 7 minute 30 second video is to watch the complete change on the looks of the judges faces and to see the audience go from mocking laughter to standing on their feet cheering and clapping as Susan Boyle belts out one powerful song of hope and dreams. So if you need a pick me up, please, please, take the time to check out YouTube and Susan Boyle, you won't be disappointed.

More Untimely Snow! Grrr!

Yes, I know, it can snow in southern Idaho through most of what I would call the Spring, but really, haven't we all had enough already?!? Wasn't it just in the 60s and the weather forecast is for the seventies by Saturday, so why oh why do we have to endure this slushy, mucky, white stuff? What would be so bad about a couple of days of just some good old rain?

Granted, Eric thought it was really cool that it snowed yet again. Though when we told him that we would be driving him to the bus stop so that Kathy could drop me off at church, some of his excitement drained away. But I'm certain he'll have made it up on the playground before the starting bell goes off and the teachers open the doors.

In the meantime I fired up the church's snow blower which worked really well even if it didn't so much as "blow" the snow as cough up big wet and slumpy sputterings of slush. So here I am ranting about what is probably a gift from God that will only make the grass greener and the flowers brighter and draw more people to the Magic Valley to watch the Shoshone Falls thundering with a ton of water. That's not a bad way to end things, is it? As the snow continues to fall I'll pray and reflect that it will only lead to a more enjoyable Spring once it's here to stay.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Do you feel it? Can you sense the anticipation? No, I'm not talking about the Twin Falls High School Prom that will happen this evening, but something much more important. And, oh by the way, can you believe that Twin Falls is hosting a Prom on the night between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection? I mean, for a community that is quick to claim "community values" having Prom on Holy Saturday doesn't seem all that "Christian". But then again, most Christians don't recognize this Saturday as being any more Holy than any other Saturday, do they? But I digress.

This day, on the Christian calendar marks the day in which Jesus' body laid in the tomb; a day of solemnity and remembering both the depth of God's love along with Jesus' dedication of going to the cross and the power of God raising Jesus from death to new life. It is a day of anticipating the joy we proclaim on Easter morning.

Then again, many of you have had many different tasks to accomplish today. From getting ready for Easter dinner with the family, to going to Easter Egg Hunts, to paying bills, to finishing your taxes, to grocery shopping, to finding a moment to rest between all that you have to do this may seem like just another Saturday. But then again it is not for those who call on the name of Jesus as Lord and Savior.

So as we wait the setting sun of Saturday and the rising sun of resurrection that greets us on Easter morning may we all take a few moments or more to pause and ponder the power of this Holy Saturday that is may sacred if not for what we do if for who we remember this day.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Maundy Thursday & Good Friday

As I mentioned yesterday, Maundy Thursday gets its name from the latin mandatum which can be translated as "commandment" or "mandate". More specifically for Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday the latin term refers to John 13:34 where Jesus says, "I give you a new commandment," mandatum novum "that you love one another."

So how are you going to follow the instruction of Jesus and love one another as he has first loved you? What does it mean for us to follow this command of Jesus? Notice that it is not a suggestion or a story, but a mandate and command, that is something that Jesus wants us to do more than and above anything else that we might say or do as his followers. Sounds easy enough, doesn't it, but when you think about it, it can be quite a daunting task.

So what about Good Friday? How can we call the events that lead to and the act of crucifixion anything but horrid and troubling? Well, the definition I found from the same source that I found the latin (The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms) may be far less satisfying and may sound far less authoritative than something that has it's origins in Latin. What the author of my theological dictionary says is that "Good Friday" comes from the Middle English for "God's Friday."

A more satisfying definition for "Good Friday" can be found in J. Dudley Weaver Jr.'s book "Presbyterian Worship" where he says:

The term is derived from an early name for the second day of the Holy Triduum, God's Friday, but for those of us who see it from this side of the resurrection the day is indeed "good" Friday, for in the events of this day, painful as they are, the saving work that Christ set forth to do in obedience to the Father's will is brought to completion. It is also God's Friday, for even though Jesus' enemies appear to seize control and to direct his destiny, even though they succeed in causing his death, it is God who is in control and God's will that is being fulfilled. As Jesus himself said to Pilate: "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above" (John 19:11a). It is with this understanding that we observe God's Good Friday.

All of that is to say, without the crucifixion there would be no joyous celebration of the resurrection on Easter morning, would there be?

So our task on this Maundy Thursday and the Good Friday to follow is to pray about what it means to love others as Jesus has first loved us as well as reflecting on what it means for God's hand to be directing the difficult events that lead up to and through the Crucifixion of Jesus.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Midway through Holy Week

Well here we are, "hump-day" of Holy Week, do you feel it? Perhaps not, you've probably got so much going on and so many different places to be and are being bombarded by so many different messages from which restaurant has the best food to which toothpaste will get your teeth the whitest to which car will make you feel more complete that pausing to consider what it means to be midway between Jesus' triumphal entry and then looking to the cross on Friday and celebrating his resurrection on Sunday might seem like distant things to ponder in the midst of so much reality.

But the fact is, we are in the midst of one of the most momentous weeks in the Christian calendar. Though our culture may not realize it, this week is more Holy than any week in December, at least if you remember that only two of the four Gospels bother to mention Jesus' birth story and the rest of the New Testament doesn't seem all that concerned with it in the firstplace. Then again, as recent news stories have pointed out, our culture is more concerned with the bottom line; that is, making sure that we shop and spend and keep the economy churning and not all that concerned with our "Walk with Christ".

It should come as no surprise then, that as our culture and society have made the choice between various church holidays that Christmas is the one that has won out; when in reality it is the events of Holy Week: the Palm Sunday Parade, Thursday's Last Meal, the horrors of Friday, the silence of Saturday and the glorious return of Sunday that matter most in determining who we are as Christians.

So, if it is possible at all, even if you don't take the opportunity to worship on Maundy (from the Latin mandatum, refering to Jesus' New Commandment of loving each other from John 13:34) Thursday or Good Friday or Holy Satureday, at least take some time to pray and ponder what it means to worship and follow one whose obedience to God was so strong as to follow a path of so much pain that ultimately leads to so much joy.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Night Before Palm Sunday

Twas the Night Before Palm Sunday and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. Huh?

On this night before Holy Week begins what should be going through our minds, if anything? Are we as ready as those who knew Jesus was preparing on entering the Holy City so many years ago? Are we prepared for a week of repentance and prayer as we look forward to celebrating communion mid-week and then observing the crucifixion the next evening? Will we awake on Easter with anticipation and wonder as those who awoke so long ago?

As we begin this Holy Week perhaps we too are in a position to look longingly for the long promised Kingdom of God promised by Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. And while we may not find ourselves under the boot of an oppressive regime like Rome, we do find ourselves caught up in a system that can seem coersive and debilitating, namely consumerism. And while consumerism may not be as pervasive as an occupying force in our streets, it does rear its ugly head upon us all as we wonder whether or not we have enough of this or the right kind of that.

So will we be able through off the shackles of consumerism as we remember and observe the events that lead to and beyond Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection? Only you will know, but my prayers are with you as you figure out what it means to celebrate a blessed Holy Week beginning tomorrow with Palm Sunday.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Dentist, etc. part 2

Well thank goodness for Jerry Green! Jerry helped me through an hour or two of frustration trying to install Microsoft Office update this afternoon and after many trials and errors he came up with the winning combination. When it came to registering the email accounts, however, that's still only halfway done. That is, I can receive emails (at that point of victory Jerry went home and I thanked him profusely thinking that all was well in Dellville) until I tried to reply when I found out that the Dell won't recognize something having to do with the "send" function. Oh well, that battle will just have to wait for another day.

As to the Dentist--that was one-hundred-times more painful than the computer issues of the past few days. As Kathy reminded me, the last time we went to the dentist about three-and-a-half years ago that practice's policy was to identify problems, fix them, and then clean the teeth. At the time I received a filling and two crowns, but no cleaning, which on further reflection probably hadn't happened since before George W. Bush was elected the first time! Needless to say there was a fair amount of build-up and so the simple cleaning turned into an hour-and-a-half ordeal complete with needing to put me on the laughing-gas to get through things. Unfortunately I didn't do much laughing, although a few tears did roll.

As to Holy Week planning, that is going swimmingly, in spite of computer issues. Thankfully I still have the Gateway to turn to and get things done.

So, as Shirley Bolster usually says, "Onward & Upward!" Tomorrow is another day and hopefully full of far less complications as we move into the last week of Lent and make our way towards Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Dentist, Computer Issues & Holy Week Planning

I wish this were some kind of April Fool's Day prank, but today is one of those days that makes my heart rush and my palms sweat and steals away any sort of appetite I may have had.

Here in a little while I'm going to the Dentist for a check-up and cleaning. Now cognitively I know that nothing really bad can happen in such an appointment, but I have had so many bad experiences with previous dental procedures that a simple check up has me so worked up that caffeine would send me over the edge, not to mention that I don't want to subject the hygienist to my latest Starbuck's Blend.

I guess I have such a deep seated fear of the dentist because as a child I had to have so many fillings and I got so worked up that the Novocaine never seemed to really work. As a consequence, as an adult I have had some rough goes at crowns and a particularly bad experience with a root canal when the dentist in filing out the bad stuff hit a nerve that wasn't quite numbed up. So even a simple little check up has me not looking forward to what more work needs to be done (cavities, crowns, and root canals, OH MY!).

Then with the computer, I recently purchased a new Dell laptop because the Gateway laptop I've been using is slowly losing it's monitor. I was all excited at the sales and deals I got on it and the friends-and-family discount from Steve Knott and that the church had recently purchased Microsoft Small Business Office Suite so I wouldn't have to purchase that. But it turns out the software we bought is only an upgrade, so I have to figure something else out to meet my Microsoft addiction instead of using one of their competitors.

And of course Holy Week begins on Sunday, which means for me several extra planning pieces, which don't get me wrong are exciting and fun to look forward to, but are just that much more to get me going with the anxiety of having a Dental Appointment on April Fool's Day. So hopefully I won't be too much more the fool and will survive and the future work to do won't be as bad as I fear it to be.