Essential Jams: ”Fugace” from Bolling’s Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio

So much to love about this. I wanted to find a recording that wasn’t the canonical Bolling/Rampal version… this one is pretty great. I love the way the flautist starts the theme and the trio looks at each other as if to say ”wow, this tempo is hot”. (I checked and they are playing it right at the tempo of the canonical recording.)

Such a joyful piece, and by the time they get to the final restatement of the theme as a swinging four-piece band (say, about 3:20 in the video), how can you not have a smile on your face?

In my best world I would have a flautist, drummer, and bassist I could play this with. So much fun. Enjoy!

Easter 2022

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

This morning Becky and I attended church in person for the first time since COVID struck. It’s been more than two years. It was our first time at this church—we left our last one during the pandemic. Even having watched services from this new place many times online, it felt odd to attend in person.

The oddest thing for me, though, was that I was only attending, not leading in some way. Absent from Easter for the first time in my adult life was any music rehearsal. I didn’t show up 90 minutes early. I didn’t play music for 3 services. I came, worshipped, shook the pastor’s hand on the way out, and was back home before 9:30.

Reporting my attendance back to friends on Twitter, I asked rhetorically: is it even Easter if I haven’t rehearsed and played music at 3 services?

That question led to a more sober line of questioning. How much of my understanding of service and worship has been formed, or malformed, by a lifetime of working somehow at church every time the door was open?

Every pastor will affirm that ministry is work. I can’t help but think, though, that something is broken when I leave church thinking was it even really worship if I’m not exhausted on the way out?

Two years of church non-attendance have led me to reconsider what faithfulness in the way of Jesus looks like in daily life. Restarting attendance now prompts a new exploration: what it looks like to meaningfully participate in a church without it regularly leading to exhaustion.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. — Jesus

Eerie Parallels

Last night I started reading Dr. Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany. Having not gotten any further than the introduction there are eerie parallels between the support the German church gave to Nazism and the support the American evangelical church is giving to the MAGA movement. A few samples:

The German Christian movement was faction within the Protestant church of Germany, not a separate sect, and eventually attracted between a quarter and a third of Protestant church members. Enthusiastically pro-Nazi, the movement sought to demonstrate its support for Hitler by organizing itself after the model of the Nazi Party, placing a swastika on the altar next to the cross, giving the Nazi salute at its rallies, and celebrating Hitler as sent by God.

The three ideological prongs of the German Christian movement within the Protestant church, as Doris Bergen has delineated, were its opposition to church doctrine, its antisemitism, and its effort to craft a “manly” church…

German Christians appropriated Nazi rhetoric and symbols into the church to give its Christianity a contemporary resonance.

Theological conclusions regarding Jesus’s teachings and his interactions with the Jews of his day were shaped into a rhetoric that endorsed Nazi ideology, making Nazism appear to be realizing in the political sphere what Christians taught in the religious sphere.

On to chapter 1….

My 2021 Reading in Review

With 2022 well underway (for the past 10 hours or so) it’s time to review my reading in 2021. As usual, my entire reading log for last year is over on Goodreads. This year my reading was influenced by a reading group I joined that focused on books by black, indigenous, and queer authors. (It was a fantastic group, and I’m sad to see it end.)

Running the numbers

I finished 79 books this year, which is in my usual neighborhood. Of those, 34/78 were written by women, but only 17/78 were written by non-white people. As a friend put it when posting his reading lists yesterday, let’s just say that leaves lots of opportunity for reading in 2022!

Top Non-Fiction

Hard to rank these, but some very good ones:

  1. All About Love, bell hooks (RIP)
  2. The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli
  3. The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, Ilia Delio
  4. Redeeming Power, Diane Langberg

Of these, hooks spoke about love in beautiful ways, Langberg spoke truth about the mess in the evangelical church, and Rovelli and Delio made my mind hurt in the best ways talking about time and quantum theory and evolution.

Top Religion / Theology

This is a big enough chunk of reading to be its own category. Recommended here:

  1. A More Christlike Word, Bradley Jersak
  2. Jesus of the East, Phuc Luu
  3. Latina Evangelicas, Loida I. Martell, Zaida Maldonado Perez, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier
  4. The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Beth Allison Barr

The gentle Canadian Jersak again focuses us on Jesus; Luu explores the similarities between a Jesus-centered Christianity and the tenets of Eastern spirituality; Martell, Perez, and Conde-Frazier write a short systematic theology from a Latina perspective, and Barr writes a challenging history of “Biblical womanhood”.

Top Fiction

This is fiction that I read this year, not necessarily published this year. I always have catching up to do…

  1. The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
  2. Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi
  3. The Just City, Jo Walton

I could order the first two either way. The Sparrow is broadly about Jesuits sending missionaries to an alien planet and more directly about outsiders assuming they know best and wrestling with what God really wants. Transcendent Kingdom is a stunning exploration of race, depression, addiction, and immigration. And The Just City explores what would happen if a city were set up based on the principles of Plato’s Republic. So much creativity and imagination, so little reading time.

Books that you probably won’t entirely agree with but will challenge you

How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi — Is there a more controversial topic the past couple years in this country than race? Kendi speaks strongly about the need to be actively anti-racist, in a “if you’re not actively with us then you’re against us” sort of way. Challenging.

The Inescapable Love of God, Thomas Talbott — Talbott (an ethics professor and theologian) makes his case for universal reconciliation in Christ. I found his arguments compelling. I read through the back-and-forth that he and John Piper had after the fact; I found Piper’s arguments much less compelling.

The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan — Sharp, wonderfully-written essays by a young woman exploring the dynamics and ethics of sex and power in the 21st century.

Queer Theology, Linn Marie Tonstad — I’m sorry to confess that I would’ve been highly unlikely to pick up a book titled “Queer Theology” if my book club hadn’t pushed me to do so. Boy am I glad I did, though. I hope that I have grown enough this year that I would not be put off again.

So that’s my 2021 reading sorted. Pretty sure I could read 80 books in 2022 and still not have my to-read shelf cleared off. Happy reading, friends!

Keeping theology coupled with cosmology

I was introduced to Dr. Ilia Delio a couple weeks ago on a podcast. Her thoughts about God, evolution, and the quantum realm fascinated me such that I went right to Amazon and bought three of her books. This morning I started in on the first one (The Unbearable Wholeness of Being) and ran across this stunning thought in the introduction:

Raimon Panikkar said that when theology is divorced from cosmology, we no longer have a living God but an idea of God. God becomes a thought that can be accepted or rejected, rather than the experience of divine ultimacy. Because theology has not developed in tandem with science (or science in tandem with theology) since the Middle Ages, we have an enormous gap between the transcendent dimension of human existence (the religious dimension) and the meaning of physical reality as science understands it (the material dimension). This gap underlies our global problems today, from the environmental crisis to economic disparity and the denigration of women.

Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, p. xix

She’s going to have to do some convincing for me to accept the conclusion of the last sentence, but the bigger thought that our theology needs to continue to develop along with our cosmology so that they can be coupled in a way that God is more than an “idea” in the modern age is one I’m going to be chewing on for a while. Looking forward to the rest of this book!

Beck: Nationalism and the search for meaning

Richard Beck, on his Substack today, on American nationalism resulting from the need for deep meaning:

…for most of human history, we achieved deep meaning by a connection with an ancestral people. Our tribe, kin, and clan. These relations gave us a history and roots.

But with the rise of the modern nation state, especially with such a rootless nation of immigrants like America, our identities have become increasingly associated less with a tribe than a state, a flag, a country. I am who I am–I matter, I have worth–because I’m an American.

It’s an easy observation that American nationalism is characterized by pride in the country, but Beck’s piece pushed me to think more about how Americans, and especially Christian Americans, could be helped away from the more vitriolic forms of nationalism by finding more meaning in other parts of their self-identity—perhaps specifically in their Christian faith.

Beck, again:

Without deep meaning Americans achieve self-esteem via the status of the nation. You elevate the stature of the nation and you elevate the worth, value, and dignity of its citizens. Make America great and you make its people great. There is a primal pull here, rooted deep in the limbic system. It’s not abstract, but a raw, visceral ground of dignity.

How can I encourage other Christians to find more deep meaning and identity in their faith instead of (or even more than) their country?

Fascinating: 5th Century Byzantine Basilica honoring Female Ministers found in Israel

Reported at Haaretz.com on Monday:

The Holy Mother Sophronia. Theodosia the deaconess. Gregoria the deaconess. These are some of the women lovingly memorialized at a magnificent Byzantine basilica that Israeli archaeologists have uncovered in the southern city of Ashdod.

The splendidly mosaiced church, built in the fourth or fifth century C.E., is being hailed as one of the earliest and largest Christian basilicas found in Israel. It is also one of the most unusual, partly due to the number and prominence of graves and inscriptions dedicated to female ministers. Then as now, women in the clergy were usually overshadowed by their male counterparts.

Mosaics still covered by the collapsed tiles of the church’s roof

So much church history that is still lost to us… neat to see this glimpse into ancient Christian practice.

The Teaching vs. The Teacher

The last couple days I’ve been reading a book of theology by an author I was heretofore unfamiliar with. I know and trust a couple of the guys who endorsed it, though, so I plowed in and I’m generally enjoying it and on board with what the author has to say. Curious to find out more about him, I headed over to his website, which then pointed me to his Twitter. And what I found there? Oh dear.

This author of a thoughtful book championing love as the highest law has a Twitter account full of vitriol against our current President, frequent retweets of the loudest and most thoughtless conservative pundits, and images comparing vaccine mandates to Nazism. I was stunned by the incongruity. The people I know who endorsed his book (written in 2017) are thoughtful, gentle people who aren’t rabid politically in either direction. So what’s up with this guy? Even more, his website offers the reader a chance to sign up for his “Discipleship Course”. Do I really want to be discipled by someone like that? And, more challengingly, what do I do with his book when his recent demeanor seems so troublesome?

I tweeted briefly about my quandary, and my friend Matt (a teacher who always seems to ask good questions) asked my thoughts about learning from the approach/perspective rather than the person. And that got enough thoughts going that they merited a blog post rather than a tweet thread.

How can or should we separate the teaching from the teacher?

On one hand, Jesus was the only perfect teacher, so literally anyone else that we learn from is going to have issues. And yet there are those who have taught truth whose behavior is so disqualifying that it brings into question the integrity of everything they taught.

That behavior could be unrelated to their teaching or their methods. J. H. Yoder was the classic example of this quandary. It is perhaps easier, though, to think abstractly about an obscure Mennonite ethicist who abused women than it is to consider examples more fresh and prominent in our memory: men like Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, or Jean Vanier. Did (or should have) their behavior have disqualified them from teaching? Absolutely. When we find out about their behavior after absorbing their teaching, how should we reconsider it? That’s hard.

Then we have the case of this author where the behavior directly brings me to question the teacher, because his online behavior seems so out of line with the principles he’s teaching, and because the judgment and logic and reasoning skills he’s displaying on Twitter make me wonder whether I should question the judgment, logic, and reasoning in his book.

Ultimately, I need to evaluate the teaching separately from the teacher. But if I start seeing a pattern where people who teach these things also act that way, I want to factor that in to my evaluation. Correlation isn’t causation… sometimes.

Then there’s the question of discipleship. As a Christian, my aspiration is to be a “little Christ”. If I disciple myself by attending to teachers who are impulsive, caustic, and illogical — even if they are teaching true principles in that way — I shouldn’t be surprised if I learn to be impulsive, caustic, and illogical myself.

But what about the flip side of that? Surely just because a teacher is kind, gentle, patient, loving, and self-controlled doesn’t mean they’re correct, does it? Well… maybe not. But what does Jesus say in Matthew 7?

Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus you will know them [prophets, teachers] by their fruits.

Matthew 7:16-20, NRSV

In the case of this particular book and author, I think I’m going to end up on the side of agreeing with the book even though the author is problematic. Partly because I think the principles hold up regardless of the teacher, but also partly because there are other teachers I know who are saying the same thing and who provide very compelling examples of living out the fruit of the Spirit and Jesus’ kingdom principles. But am I gonna follow the guy on Twitter to keep learning from him? Nope.

Recommended Reading, September 2021

I have badly neglected recommending any reading so far this year. I have read plenty of books – looks like 54 at the moment – but it’s definitely time for some recommendations.

Fiction

The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell

This one is apparently considered a sci-fi / fantasy classic at this point, which makes me wonder why I hadn’t read it until this year. A story that combines humans encountering alien culture with an exploration of faith and theodicy… phew. It’s a good one. Well worth a read.

The Just City – Jo Walton

The premise here: what if some Greek gods selected people from throughout history and brought them to a specific place and time to set up a community based as closely as possible on Plato’s Republic? I’ll admit that it’s been a while since I’ve read Plato, but this exploration of how Plato’s ideas might (or might not) work out in practice was quite fascinating. Oh, and what happens when the cleaning and maintenance robots become sentient?

Non-Fiction (ok, so mostly for me this means theology…)

So many options here. I’ve been participating in a twice-a-month book club this year – and it’s a new book every time, so that’s a lot of reading – which has brought me to some very insightful authors who aren’t all white guys. A couple I can recommend:

The Violence of Love – Oscar Romero

This book is a collection of excerpts from Romero’s sermons and other talks in the late 1970s. While in my earlier days I have been steered away from him as a sort of dangerous, socialist, liberation theologian, what I found was a deep love for the message of the Gospels and a heart full of God’s care and love for the poor and oppressed. It’s easy reading, and well worth it. There’s a free PDF you can legally download, too.

Latina Evangelicas: A Theological Survey from the Margins – Loida I. Martell, Zaida Maldonado Perez, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier

A short work of systematic theology by three Latina women. It kicks off in an unusual place for a systematic theology: a long discussion of the Holy Spirit. This book has an awareness of community and community interpretation of Scripture that I found particularly helpful, too.

Next Up…

I’m currently reading Father James Martin’s My Life with the Saints, which is part memoir and part introduction to a bunch of saints throughout history. If I had finished it I might have listed it up above. I’m only a third of the way through but it’s been quite enjoyable so far.

Once I get through that my to-read shelves are still burgeoning with opportunity. The Princeton University Press half-off sale didn’t help empty those shelves, either. So many books, so little time…

A ‘Christian’ nation without empathy

In case the tweet gets deleted: an embedded tweet from John Rogers (@jonrog1) saying: “People mocking 1/6 cops’ emotions and Simone Biles Olympic decision really brings home that we’re way past partisan divide and dealing with the fact that somehow, over the last half century, our predominantly religious culture raised a hundred million Americans without empathy.”

This tweet has made the viral rounds in just the past 24 hours, and it’s got me thinking, because I resonate strongly with the message. I have seen it very frequently among the Christian circles—particularly the evangelical Christian circles—that I have lived in my entire life. The disdainful comments about people on food stamps. The anger at immigrants that “won’t learn the language”. Snarky, hateful comments about “the gays”. An insistence that poor mothers should get benefits cut off if they keep having children. And on and on and on.

What makes it more jarring is that these same Christians, when provided with a specific in-person opportunity to show empathy, will almost always respond in very compassionate, empathetic ways. They will give money, make meals, house people, literally give you the shirt off their back. But when talking about a generic “them”, or an individual that they don’t know personally, that sense of compassion and empathy quickly disappears.

Why is this so? Why do we have such a failure of compassionate imagination that when we think of the generic other, we assume the worst and by default make a critique?

As I ponder this question, my mind is drawn to the incongruity that has nagged at me a thousand times in a thousand different sermons and ‘gospel presentations’. Why is it that the same people who will insist that salvation is 100% God’s work, that we are wretched, helpless, despicable people, and that every act is determined by God, will also be the loud voices preaching that you better shape up your life, and that if your sin doesn’t bother you enough, you’d better think hard and long about whether you’re “really saved”? (As if that theological framework would allow that you could do anything about that status, anyway.)

Then I connect a dot or two related to the predominant theme of “the gospel” from that vein of evangelical Christianity: penal substitutionary atonement. Specifically, that God’s wrath against sin is burning so hot that if you (yes, you) don’t accept the gift of salvation He offers, He is right and just and praiseworthy to torture you for all eternity. (Sure, there’s a hint more nuance in the systematic theology books, but this is the way you hear it from the pulpit. And Sunday School. And VBS. And AWANA. And on and on.)

A conundrum

So what happens when an evangelical tries to make all of these line up? Maybe evangelicals, when they look at these “other” people, subconsciously find it easier to live with the belief that God will torture those “other” people eternally if they can point to reasons why those “other” people are bad. They will deserve it, after all—that little Gospel presentation tells me so. After all, there has to be something different between me and them, right? Because even though that Gospel presentation tells me it’s 100% God and 0% me, there has to be something better about me, right? Because otherwise why is it great and good and praiseworthy that God arbitrarily chose to reward me, but to eternally torture millions of others?

An alternative idea…

What if, on the other hand, I understand salvation as being a part of God’s redemptive story for all people and creation? An act of restoration that will, in C. S. Lewis’ words from Narnia, make all sad things become untrue? A cosmic work of reconciliation that will restore right relationships between all living things? And that Jesus’ death was not God punishing God to pay for some select few a penalty that God arbitrarily set in place, but rather was a demonstration of God’s love for all creation, proof that the effects of sin in the world will bring death to even the most undeserving, but that God’s redemptive power is stronger even than death itself?

With that view in mind, might I (who up until very recently claimed to be an evangelical Christian) have more empathy and compassion for those struggling with the effects of a broken world? Might I see them — even the general, “other” them — first and foremost as image bearers in need of restoration? Might I see that the good works I can do to help those in need are not some work of “social justice” at odds with “the gospel” but rather the very foreworking of reconciliation and restoration that Jesus will eventually return to complete?

A closing comparison

Ever since dispensationalism took hold, the evangelical church has looked askance at themes of environmental care. Not everyone would say it so bluntly, but the underlying theme is something like this: if it’s all going to burn eventually anyway, why does it matter so much if we take care of it? It doesn’t feel like a stretch to think that for many, the same principle might unconsciously apply to the general “other” person: if they’re going to burn in hell for eternity anyway, why should we care now?

May the church repent and return to compassion, empathy, and care for everyone who God loves — which is to say, for everyone.