Shuck and Jive

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Telling Truth in Tennessee

Inspired by the honesty of Sam Harris and his books Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith, I thought as we contemplate the new year, that honesty in religion is a good policy, now, perhaps, more than ever. I am a member of the Literacy and Liturgy Seminar (formerly the Westar Leaders Seminar) of Westar Institute. The Spring meeting is in Miami, check it out! In the Fall of 2005 I presented a paper regarding preaching in light of historical Jesus scholarship. I would say some things differently today, but overall, it says what I think is important. I invite you to read the paper and answer this question: am I a Christian?

Now, I really don't care how you answer that, because it isn't about me. Nor will I be offended or flattered by your answer. Whether or not you consider me a Christian has nothing to do with my personal morality or lack of it. I am curious as to whether I can say and believe what I say and still remain in the Christian faith, particularly the Presbyterian Church (USA) as minister. It doesn't matter whether or not you agree or disagree with particulars in the following paper. (For example, I can disagree with you over a matter of theology but still consider you a Christian or a ministerial colleague, for that matter). The question is this: are our disagreements so large that we are no longer in the same faith?

Before you give me your answer, here is mine. Yes, I am a Christian and a Presbyterian and a minister in good standing. I plan to remain one. The issue is not about me. It is about who we are as Christians--and to a lesser extent Presbyterians--as we begin the 21st century. What does it mean to be a Christian?

Frankly, I think the fundamentalists in our denomination are correct when they claim that we have two different faiths under one roof. Perhaps more than two. I don't think we share anything in common except our humanity, some of the language of faith, and our church polity. I reject all five fundamentals. I think TULIP is a disaster for human progress. Retreating back to 17th century Calvinism is 180 degrees from where I think a progressive faith should be heading. I firmly am convinced that science and modern scholarship have eroded completely all vestiges of dogmatic religion.

One final thought. I really don't care if fundamentalists and progressives share a church identity. I don't care if my colleague down the road is a fundamentalist or not. I will work with anyone (but I won't be quiet). But my hunch is that she or he does care. To the fundamentalist, I am worse than an unbeliever. I am Satan. I must be purged.

This is where we have come in this country and in the church. Fundamentalist Christians are trying to send us back to the time when we cured mental illness by boring holes in people's skulls. They deny gays and lesbians their rights as human beings by referring to texts in a book that they believe has been divinely ordained! We are headed for a theocracy if we are not vigilant and honest with ourselves and with others. This is why I put myself out there, honestly taking what I learned in college and seminary to its logical conclusion. We are products of the Enlightenment and we need an enlightened faith. We need to face religious dogmatism with reason. Read Sam Harris and read my following paper! You can read this paper of mine and others on the website of the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton.

What to Preach?

The Challenge of the Jesus Seminar to Contemporary Homiletics

Prepared for the Westar Leaders Seminar

Fall 2005

John Shuck

In the January-February 2005 issue of The Fourth R, Robert Funk challenged the Westar Leaders Seminar to “creat[e] a new Sunday Morning experience from scratch: new music, new liturgy, new scriptures, new ceremonies, new rites of passage.” (p. 2) I think this is a great idea. However, I am not sure if I am up to that task. The reason for my reticence is that I am a minister in an established tradition that is loaded with a great deal of baggage. Starting from scratch is simply not going to happen unless I leave the church and start my own cult. Since I have chosen to remain in my tradition, I have to work with what is there and to facilitate change as best I can.

The task for me and perhaps for some others in the Westar Leaders Seminar is to do a great deal of deconstructing even as we reconstruct the Sunday Morning experience. Some of this deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction will result in reinterpreting old forms. I see this reinterpretation as temporary and transitional, making the paths straight for the new forms to come. On the other hand, some of the changes already taking place in many communities of faith are quite progressive. I am looking forward to Hal Taussig’s forthcoming book in which he surveys over one thousand congregations that have employed new forms and structures in response to modern scholarship, our contemporary setting, and current religious/spiritual needs.

Robert Funk did not mention the role of preaching in this new Sunday Morning experience. For those of us in the Protestant tradition, preaching has traditionally been a very significant if not the most significant aspect of worship. To underscore this point, I offer three selections from the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions. From the Second Helvetic Confession:


Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good. 5.004

From the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 83. What is the office of the keys?

A. The preaching of the holy gospel and Christian discipline. By these two means the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers. 4.083

And from the Confession of 1967:

God instructs the church and equips it for mission through preaching and teaching. By these, when they are carried on in fidelity to the Scriptures and dependence upon the Holy Spirit, the people hear the word of God and accept and follow Christ. The message is addressed to men and women in particular situations. Therefore, effective preaching, teaching, and personal witness require disciplined study of both the Bible and the contemporary world. All acts of public worship should be conductive to people’s hearing of the gospel in a particular time and place and responding with fitting obedience. 9.49

As you can see, preaching in my tradition comes with a lot of baggage! One of the tasks of the contemporary preacher who serves two masters (an ecclesiastical body and his/her own conscience) is to deconstruct and reconstruct in such a way that seeks to honor both masters (or at least seeks not to dishonor either master). Not easy. Jesus might say, impossible. Whether or not Jesus was exaggerating to make a point or speaking absolute truth is yet to be confirmed for me. At any rate, it is for those who have chosen to preach in the church that this paper is directed.

I cannot predict whether or not preaching will have a role in the new Sunday Morning experience. It certainly has a role at present. Because preaching is so central to the Sunday Morning experience (formerly known as worship), I believe we need to address this question: What is the purpose of preaching? A second question is like it: What is the content of preaching? Here are some of my reflections regarding the purpose and content of preaching in response to the work of the Jesus Seminar.

Preaching and the “Word of God”

I believe that many clergy are overdue for a heart to heart with their congregations about the metaphor “Word of God” especially as it applies to the Bible. I have found that this metaphor more often stops creative thought than inspires it. The question we might ask our congregations is, “If the Bible is the Word of God, what makes it so?”

Modern scholarship has eroded the foundations for this metaphor. We have come to a time in which it is incredible to assert that our canon of scripture is objectively true or authoritative for all of humanity. Appeals to the Bible’s historical or scientific accuracy are naive. The claim that our canon has been dictated or inspired by supernatural revelation amounts to little more than special pleading. There is no magic power that makes the Bible or any text within it superior, truer, or more divinely inspired that any other human writing, religious or secular. The hands of human beings through their own imaginative power made every jot and tittle of carving and of script. The Bible is a collection of the writings of humans for humans. Once we dismiss the assumption that our book or library of books is more authoritative than any other collection, we can finally take our seat around the table of humanity.

When faith communities begin demythologizing the Bible, some interesting things will happen. The Bible’s authority will shift away from the text and toward the individual interpreter or community of interpreters. No longer will the Bible be considered an authoritative source of truth that contains infallible propositions about God or the human condition. Rather, it will become a resource for wisdom. Since authority is earned by the truth it tells, the Bible will have whatever authority the individual or community gives to it. People may find through its narratives, poetry, and song, an oasis of spiritual refreshment. Or they may not. It will be up to the people (both collectively and individually) to draw out what is meaningful and good and to discard what is not meaningful and good.

The preacher’s task will be to offer permission and encouragement for the congregation to engage in this discipline of freedom. The preacher can no longer assume that within a biblical text is a Word from God that needs to be teased out through exegesis and delivered to the waiting faithful. The preacher can no longer assume that just because a text is in the Bible that it is from God or is even valuable. A preacher can, however, provide information about a text using such tools as literary and historical criticism. The preacher can also provide an opinion regarding the text’s value for the community of faith. The preacher may even use the text as an impetus to speak about a contemporary concern. But I believe it is unethical for a preacher to make the claim that what s/he is saying is true, good or of God because it is based on his or her interpretation of a biblical text. In other words, a preacher cannot use a biblical text to prove a point. Anything a preacher says must stand on its own terms. This ethic will free both the biblical text and the preacher. The text will be freed from the preacher’s misuse of it. The preacher will be freed from the constraints of needing to “preach from the Bible” or to have everything s/he says to be backed by scripture.

Preaching can do a great deal of good in a community of faith. It can inspire, comfort, challenge, and inform for the betterment of humanity. Preaching can also do a great deal of harm. The harm results not so much on the content of the message or its style of delivery as on the implied authority of the preacher because s/he supposedly preaches the Word of God. I believe that Word of God is not only a meaningless metaphor; it is also a harmful metaphor for both the Bible and the preaching act. I recommend that preachers discontinue its use and have this conversation with their congregations.

What approach, lens, angle of vision, or metaphor might we take toward the Bible that will make it a helpful resource in the Sunday morning experience? I consider the Bible to be the family history of our spiritual ancestors. It is a collection of the record of human experiences canonized by various family historians. Our family history gives us rooted-ness. We have a story. We have a past. Our ancestors do have wisdom. I believe that they caught a glimpse of the fire. If we are wise, humble, and courageous, we can see that fire as well. It is out of respect for our ancestors, our need for rooted-ness, and our need to listen to the wisdom of the ancients that we “open and read.” The advantage of this metaphor is that it allows us to appreciate that there are other families on this earth. They have family histories as well. Telling our stories to one another (without the competition about whose is more objectively authoritative) will enable us to engage more positively and peacefully with those of other faith traditions. Also, family histories are never complete. Like the genealogist who discovers great Uncle Albert, who for some reason was not mentioned in the family history, so too, scholars of Christian origins have found remnants of communities whose stories were not told, or at least told positively, in the canon of accepted lore. These “Uncle Alberts” include communities reflected in the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and numerous others. As we discover the great diversity of our Christian past, we who are charged with adding to the family history for our descendants, will now be obligated to include these voices as well.

Careful thought must be employed regarding the use of texts from the Bible and other non-canonical literature during the Sunday Morning experience. It would help level the playing field by not elevating the canonical literature over any other reading. Also, preachers must come clean with their congregants regarding the type of literature the text they have selected represents. Simply determining if it is history or fiction is a good start. Particularly with Jesus material, the preacher needs to be honest as to whether the material is historical, legendary or if it fits some other typology.

Preaching and the “Son of God”

The second heart to heart that preachers should have with their congregations is how the metaphor “Son of God” does or does not apply to Jesus and what value, if any, this metaphor might have. This heart to heart will have direct relevance to the Sunday morning experience. In my tradition, the Revised Common Lectionary is all the rage. While the lectionary provides for rooted-ness and ecumenicity, it does not engage the modern world-view. The entire scheme from Advent to Christ the King Sunday reflects an ancient cosmology that is no longer credible. I have my doubts if it is even good for us ethically as it reinforces an otherworldly view of human hope, presents Jesus as a supernatural being, and confuses history with legend.

It is certainly possible to preach the Christ of the lectionary as a myth or an archetype (“Jesus is Son of God and so are you”). But it is important to be honest about what we are doing. I have endured the preaching of even seminary professors who know the difference between the Christ of mythology and the Jesus of history and yet do not come clean in their preaching. I believe this is intellectually dishonest and does a disservice to Jesus himself. If there ever was a guy who actually said and did some of the things historical scholars think he might have said and done, we owe it to him not to turn him into a god, or at least to be honest about it when we do.

I understand the reticence to give up on the Christ myth. It is hard to give up something that we cherish. When I first read Robert Funk’s Honest to Jesus, I found myself in agreement with the core of what he said, but resistant to do anything about it. I felt that a “demoted” Jesus was flat. I needed the kerygma--the Christ myth. Within the last few years, I have changed. I now find the myth flat and the human Jesus invigorating. When that which one cherishes no longer nourishes, it is time to part ways.

What is the essential content of preaching regarding Jesus? In my tradition the content of preaching goes something like this: we preach God reconciling the world to Godself through Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The metaphors for Jesus follow: Son of God, savior, firstborn of all creation, etc. In light of historical Jesus scholarship, one could preach this as mythology or archetype and separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. This was the neo-orthodox solution and the method I was taught in seminary. It didn’t seem to work for me in practice. The subtleties of neoorthodoxy never caught on in the church. The distinction between history and legend were not made clear. For many lay people, clergy, and some seminary professors, the Christ myth morphed into a quasi-historical reality. For instance, many in mainline churches still regard the resurrection as an historical fact or think they should if they want to be Christian. Under the banner of neo-orthodoxy, clergy never had to come clean. They could just “tell the Story” and not bother the poor parishioners with annoying details like facts. Thanks to the Jesus Seminar, many of these parishioners’ demands for honesty are being met. Now, in light of the work of the Jesus Seminar, what is the content of preaching regarding Jesus?

Certainly, the Christ-myth and its trappings cannot transfer to the historical Jesus. Jesus is no object of worship and none of the metaphors such as “Son of God” will fit. The preacher could preach the Christ-myth as a myth. For instance, the preacher could treat the myth as an archetype for the authentic human being. Paul Alan Laughlin explores a number of images of Jesus and Christ as possibilities for a future faith[i].i If this option is chosen, I think the preacher has an ethical responsibility to be clear that s/he is not speaking about an historical person.

The other option is to leave the Christ myth behind and focus on the historical Jesus. This is my personal preference as I find the historical Jesus much more interesting than any Christ myth. However, I realize that this is a preference and may relate to my spiritual or personality type. Others may respond positively to some form of the Christ of faith. I think that space needs to be made for that option as well. But does the historical Jesus preach? How is this done? Much of the preaching regarding the historical Jesus will include a teaching element. Being honest with the congregation from the pulpit regarding modern scholarship is a must. This does not require a lecture each Sunday. A few sentences to situate the text may be all that is needed. But preaching is more than teaching. Preaching also inspires. It motivates and touches the heart. The historical Jesus certainly does that. This past year I preached on the 23 parables awarded either a red or pink vote by the Jesus Seminar. This was my temporary canon. The discipline of doing this with the congregation has introduced us to a Jesus (and the divine realm to which he pointed) that is relevant to our modern experience. His parables invited us to consider the most important aspects of our humanity.

I am currently in the process of creating a lectionary of red and pink sayings and deeds. On Sunday morning, I come clean about what we are reading in the bulletin. I simply label the saying as “A Teaching from Jesus” or “An Act of Jesus” and cite the sources. If I include a reading that reflects the Post-Easter Jesus, to use Marcus Borg’s phrase, I tell the congregation that. To do so is nothing more than to be honest with oneself and with the congregation about the type of literature that is in front of us.

Preaching and the “Kingdom of God

So, then, what does the preacher say on Sunday? Where does s/he begin? What is the point of the Sunday morning experience? I am beginning to see where I do not want to go, but I am not quite sure as to where I do want to go. Perhaps we do not need a definitive answer just yet. Creating new orthodoxies and new canons is no more appealing than retreating into old ones. One place to begin is to tell the truth to our congregations about our dilemma. This removes the burden from the preacher of being the know-it-all, for pretending that s/he is preaching the “word of God”, or from behaving in other co-dependant ways with her/his congregation. People need and demand honesty. After millennia of the church doing the thinking for the people, I have found that congregations need “permission” to think for themselves and to make decisions about what they can and cannot believe. It is the responsibility of the preacher to be honest with the information that is available in regards to scholarship, Christian origins, Jesus, and the development of the creeds and canons. Freedom follows honesty. This freedom allows the community to be an active participant in determining what to do with this information.

There is yet something more to the preaching experience. It is an art. It has power. It can be a positive means for transformation. In defining a new purpose for preaching, we may be able to reinterpret its traditional purpose in a new way. Soteriology has been the guiding force behind preaching. Preachers preached so that people might believe the gospel and be saved. Through preaching people might enter the kingdom of God (basileia tou theou). A guiding metaphor for preachers and preaching still may be the basileia tou theou (translate that as you wish). Thanks to the Jesus Seminar and its reconstruction of the voice print of the historical Jesus, we have a broader vision for this concept. We also have a model in Jesus of how to approach it. Jesus preached about the basileia tou theou. If it was enough for him, might it be enough for us?

What is this basileia tou theou? If the historical Jesus is our guide, it is not an otherworldly home in the sky. Our modern experience is showing us that human beings are earthlings born of the earth and from the earth. To the earth we shall return. Heaven and hell as ultimate reward and punishment must be buried with our superstitious past. Our modern consciousness has brought the Bible, Jesus and the kingdom of God down to Earth. What is the basileia tou theou? It is a mustard seed. And it isn’t. Exploring that mystery, that metaphor that I think points to something very real, should keep preachers and communities of faith busy for quite some time.

The content of Christian preaching, then, is not the mythical Christ, nor the historical Jesus, nor the Bible, nor even God, but the basileia tou theou. The art of preaching will ignite the imagination, spur freedom, inspire creation of meaning, and foster a spirit of care taking among those who hear our words. Ultimately, the purpose of preaching is to encourage people to awaken to and to participate in this mystery of the basileia tou theou. By participate I mean to be awed, disturbed, overjoyed, puzzled, saddened, hungry, filled, shaken, comforted, transformed, and blessed. Jesus is a guide, a pointer, a teacher, a fellow seeker, and a preacher. It is pretty simple, really. I believe that in the church of the future, that is now breaking into the present, preachers, like Jesus before us, will have but one task: to consider with others the mystery of the basileia tou theou and in considering find life.

[i] Laughlin, Paul Alan, “The Once and Future Christ of Faith” The Fourth R, March-April 2005.

Belly Dancing in Johnson City

Festivities take place at Friday’s grand opening of a new Multicultural Center at 100 W. Maple St. (Dave Boyd / Johnson City Press)

Last night the new Multicultural Center held its grand opening with a belly dancing workshop: “The Search for the Goddess Within: Dancing Her Free.” You can read news reports in the Johnson City Press and the Kingsport Times-News.

The mulitcultural center is a great addition to the Tri-Cities.

According to Alexandra Hafung, this is the first multicultural center in the Tri-Cities, and the organizational meeting launched a search for volunteers and a person to organize activities. Among the activities already planned are an international language club, classes in Persian belly dancing, Japanese tea ceremony, Latin dancing, drama and work by local artists....

“My husband and I originally came from Miami seven years ago and we find that although the Tri-Cities is a culturally diverse area, thanks primarily to the East Tennessee State University Medical School and Tennessee Eastman, there is very little opportunity for cross-cultural socializing.”

In a world that is shrinking daily, she hopes the center can play a role in language instruction, especially for languages not normally taught in the schools. Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog and Visayan (Philippines), Vietnamese, Lao and Thai are among the possible languages she would like to see taught by volunteers at the center. (link)

Congratulations and thanks to the dreamers and organizers of this center. It is an important step toward cultural awareness.

The center, the first multicultural center in the region, is a non-profit organization that intends to foster educational philanthropy and bring cultural resources to the Tri-Cities and its surrounding area. Among the activities already planned are an international language club, Darbuka’s Drumming Circle, children’s Persian and belly dance classes, Japanese dance and tea ceremony, and other dance forms. (link)

I haven't found a web page yet for the center, but a phone number to call for more information is (423) 794-8909. The center is located at 100 West Maple (Maple and South Roan) in Johnson City.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Lord, I want to be an ex-Christian in-a-my heart...

I have been observing the ex-Christian movement with interest. These folks are atheists and proud of it.

A popular religious blog is
Ex-Christian.Net that encourages ex-Christians. I found there The Gospel Story Quiz. Take it and see how smart you are!

Sam Harris is one of the current intellectual figures of this movement. He wrote The End of Faith and then Letter to a Christian Nation
to respond to the letters he received regarding The End of Faith from angry God believers. Here is an excerpt from Letter to a Christian Nation:

Forty-four percent of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. According to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry here on earth. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that
is ever going to happen was about to happen—the return of Christ. It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves—socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.The book you are about to read is my response to this emergency...(link)

Having done my own share of dealing with fundamentalists in my ministry and on this blog, I have considered becoming an ex-Christian myself. Harris does not think that religious liberals or moderates have a better answer than the fundamentalists. This passage from the opening pages of
The End of Faith puts us liberals in our place:

While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. He is, in all likelihood, going to wind up in hell with the rest of the unbelievers. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God. Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism. The texts themselves are unequivocal: they are perfect in all their parts. By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question—i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us—religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness. (link)
This is a good book for liberals, progressives, moderates, post-modernists, emergents, or whatever else we might call ourselves. I have been calling on my colleagues to tell the truth about religion for some time now. This is why I have affiliated with the Jesus Seminar. Tell the truth: is the virgin birth history or myth? Is Resurrection history or myth? Are the Gospels fiction or history? Is the Bible written by human beings or God? Was Jesus some supernatural figure or a human being? Is "God" in the Bible a literary fiction or an actual being?

I think the reason fundamentalists have hijacked our nation and the church is because liberal and moderate ministers have been too wimpy to tell the truth to their congregants. We have become a nation of religious illiterates. What you don't know about religion can and will be used against you. I understand why moderate and liberal clergy are afraid to say what they really think. It is no picnic to deal with fundamentalist wrath. But somebody has to deal with it or we could be headed for a theocracy.

I disagree with Sam Harris in regards to many things in his book. I consider myself a Christian and I think there is a place for the liberal or moderate voice in Christianity. But that voice needs to be honest with itself about what it believes and what it no longer can believe. Perhaps Harris and the ex-Christian movement can wake us up.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

God is Green

I am working my way through a theology for the 21st century. "God" is the subject at hand. If you look to the right you will see various posts on Creation and God. Jesus, Bible, Future are to come and perhaps other categories. For now, God. I tend to think of God as a shorthand word for the ultimate. What is ultimate? It would certainly include the known and unknown universe. God wouldn't be less than that, but could certainly be more. I think God would refer to our highest ideals and draw us toward enacting those ideals, but again, that is a minimum.

As a minister I do speak of God but I do so (or perhaps should do so) in hushed tones. What I say about God is my own projection almost exclusively and I am unable to discern when it is not my projection. Others are helpful on that score.
Some highlight an authority (such as the Bible or a creed) that supposedly speaks for (or from) God. I am skeptical. I find that these authorities are the authors' and their interpreters' projections.

So why speak of God at all? If it is all projection, why bother with the term?
Projections are not necessarily meaningless. Speaking of God or the ultimate is a way for us to articulate our highest ideals and to increase our understanding of the Universe. Speaking of God also may make us more provincial as well. But, I hope for (and trust) the best in us and find that God language still may be helpful in making human beings more aware of the Universe and our place in it.

To say "God is Green" for me is to say that our ultimate concern at the start of the 21st century is Earth.

Earth is home.
Earth is heaven.

Earth is Holy.

Holy is Earth.

Heaven is Earth.

Home is Earth.

Theologian Sallie McFague has spoken of Earth as God's body.

I like that image. Earth is alive. Earth is a living body. Earth is not a resource to exploit. Earth is not an it. Earth is not inanimate. Earth is animate, moving, changing, dying, giving birth, being born. God is all of that. God may be more, but certainly no less.

God is not restricted to Earth. God is Jupiter's body as well. God is the body of the Universe. But I focus on Earth as God's body because Earth is home for homo sapiens. We have a responsibility to Earth and to all Earthlings.
To say "God is Green" speaks of an ethical imperative. It is crucial for human beings to be aware. We need to know how Earth "works." We need to think about the effects of our actions. We need to do what is in our power to treat Earth and all living things with deep respect and to value all with sacred worth. Perhaps God language can help. Perhaps not. We'll see.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Track Santa!

You can catch the latest updates of Santa's journey at NORAD Tracks Santa. Watch earlier reports of Santa leaving the North Pole, passing over New Zealand, Australia, and visiting the International Space Station.

Follow him live here.

I think this is cool. I am going to follow him all day!

You can send an e-mail to Santa at
I believe he has his laptop with him.

Have a great Christmas, Hannakuh, Kwanzaa, Solstice and all the rest!

Blog with you in a few days!


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Born of a Virgin?

If you or someone you love likes books for Christmas, and
if you are a non-professional but enjoy reading scholarship of the Bible, and
if you have always wondered about how to read the stories of Jesus' birth,

then...the perfect gift is Robert J. Miller's Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Miller is Associate Professor of Religion at Juniata College and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He is author of The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics and is the editor of The Complete Gospels.

In the preface he writes:

This book is designed for the general reader. Since it is neither short nor easy, it demands a high level of interest in the subject matter; yet it does not presuppose any specialized knowledge. While I hope this book will make its contribution to the field of biblical studies, and while I hope that my academic colleagues find this book helpful, I have not written it for them. Rather, my goal has been to share the benefits of scholarly work on the infancy narratives with non-specialists.

He succeeds. The book is provocative, engaging, well-written, and accessible. Miller writes that his deepest debt is to John Dominic Crossan:

Although he has not written extensively on the infancy narratives, it is from him that I have learned the most important concept that informs the present book. According to Crossan, the Christian claim that Jesus was the son of God was originally put forth primarily to counter Roman propaganda about the divinity of Caesar. This insight is for me the key that unlocks the basic message of the infancy narratives and the original meaning of the belief in the virgin birth.

Crossan's 1994 book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, introduced the world to that concept. I remember and have oft repeated his statement that the scandal was not that

Jesus was Son of God
but that

was Son of God.

In other words, the uniqueness of early Christianity was not that a human being could become divine, afterall many claimed that, including Caesar. The scandal, the insult, and threat to the powers of the world (including Caeser) was that this nobody, a peasant, was called son of God.

Miller's book is divided into six sections:
  • The Biblical Infancy Narratives (an analysis of Luke and Matthew's narratives and the Moses Haggadah)
  • Pagan Sons of God (a comparison with other Hellenistic infancy narratives)
  • Historical and Theological Questions (Did Jesus fulfill prophecy? Are the infancy narratives historical?)
  • Born of a Virgin (What is a virgin? Is there a virgin birth in Matthew? Is the virgin birth historical? Was Jesus illegitimate?)
  • Understanding the Virgin Birth (an analysis of other "sons of God" in the Bible as well as a study of the virgin birth in context and its meaning)
  • Infancy Gospels (analysis of other infancy gospels including, The Infancy Gospel of James, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, two Docetic birth stories, the History of Joseph the Carpenter, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, and The Gosepl of Pseudo-Matthew)
After this, you will have a fuller understanding of the birth of Jesus. It is a great gift for your fundamentalist friends!

It is also a good book for a class. You can download a study guide.

Read an excerpt here.

Here is an interview with Miller in the Juniata College newspaper, "Jesus' Birth: Did We Get the Story Straight?"

Friday, December 22, 2006

Yet in Thy Dark Streets Shineth...

The Israeli Separation Wall. Photo taken by Joel Carillet

Joel Carillet lives in East Tennessee with one of our church members (when he is home). But Joel is on the road a great deal. He travels extensively, taking pictures, meeting people, and writing about his experiences. He shared some of his adventures during our adult Sunday school class a couple of months ago. He also told us about his upcoming trip to the Holy Land. He has been there several times including just recently. Now, home again, he has posted an article, In Words and Pictures: O Little Town of Bethlehem.

Wow. A lot has happened since I was in the Holy Land in 1994. Please read all of Joel's article. Well written, passionate, factual. Here is how he begins:

For several years now, I've have been unable to lightheartedly sing Christmas carrols containing the word "Bethlehem". That is because in 1996 I went on my first visit to the town, making the acquaintance of people who know what it is to be tortured, to be insecure, and even, in one case, to have lost a friend to suicide because the occupying power's intelligence services had put a beautiful young woman in an untenable situation.

My visit to Bethlehem, then, did not give me the religious warm fuzzies. Rather, it opened my eyes to what it means to live under military occupation.

I have been back several times in the last ten years, most recently in the past week. I am back in the States now and am dedicating this post to the people of Bethlehem, both Muslims and Christians, who are too little understood -- and too easily condemned -- by many Americans. (Read More...)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas in Elizabethton--the Show!

Due to popular demand, our Christmas Show, Christmas in Elizabethton, is ready for you to view and hear! It is about 12 mb so it could take a minute or two to download. I use windows media player. Turn up the volume to hear the narration. We presented this powerpoint to the congregation at our Christmas dinner. The laughter is our live studio audience!

Secret Lives of Jesus

The National Geographic Channel is showing "The Secret Lives of Jesus" this week. I haven't seen it. I think it is on tonight at 9 p.m. I hope they show it again. I cannot figure out how to work my TV clicker let alone read the menus for where to find these channels. Presumably, ya'll are a great deal brighter than I am. So, if you find the National Geographic Channel, bring me word, so that I too, may worship it.

Anyway, an interesting show, this Secret Lives of Jesus. Here is the press release. It is based upon the non-canonical gospels. These were the gospels voted off orthodoxy's island. What amuses me most about all of this is that traditionalists get so upset about it. A reviewer on Fox News offered some hard to follow rant that somehow related this show, Muhammed, Rosie O'Donnell, and gays. He wrote:

"Why is it OK for a television network to air a special about the entirely suspect "secret lives of Jesus" based on "ancient documents recently discovered"? And just one week before Christmas?"

Why is it OK? Because not everyone thinks the way you do, that's why. Some people are interested in other views. And since this is America, and since we have free press, we can watch what we wish to watch. Obviously, he doesn't get it. These are ancient documents that speak about views of Jesus that were quite different from the story we inherited. They are part of our history.

A reviewer for Catholic Online wasn't impressed with Secret Lives either. At least this reviewer had an argument. This reviewer wrote:
"Despite its provocative title, however, the program – as with the Judas expose – provides no explosive revelations but merely rehashes the same old theological chestnuts refuted by the church over the centuries.
As if Holy Mother Church has refuted everything that She doesn't like. The point of recently translated and published documents is not that they give new information about the historical Jesus (if there even was such a person), but they do offer new insights about the variety of Christian thought in the first several centuries. These documents do provide "explosive revelations" about the diversity of Christian belief and the early struggles of the Church.

I think Holy Mother Church and Her henchmen would better serve Her glorious cause by being a bit more open to what scholarship is providing and what people are interested in reading and watching. Mother's message of "Just say no" doesn't communicate well.

The threat to traditionalists, as I see it, is that this scholarship puts questions to the historicity of the canonical gospels. We start to wonder that if these other stories are fiction, then who is to say that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John aren't works of fiction as well? Exactly. These canonical gospels are mostly fiction, too, just a different kind of fiction. This is an idea that traditionalists either deny or simply do not want their followers to entertain.

Secret Lives of Jesus is a visual dramatization of some of these other gospels. One is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the sayings gospel, The Gospel of Thomas) that tells stories of Jesus as a child. Here is a clip. Click on "Lives of Jesus." It may take a few seconds to load.

Here is another clip. Click on "The Birth." This clip is very good. It speaks about the situation for the authors of Matthew and Luke who write the birth narratives after the Jewish War.

Here is NGC's blog about Secret Lives. I personally think the National Geographic Channel does a good job. See for yourself!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The REAL Jesus

Thanks to Dwayne's World for this one:

WWJD (a music video)

Christmas in Elizabethton

If you are roundabout East Tennessee on Christmas Eve, come visit us. We will go to church twice on Sunday. Once at eleven a.m. to celebrate Mary's Song and then at ten p.m. for our Christmas Eve candlelighting service.

At last week's Christmas dinner, the youth and children put on a powerpoint show called "Christmas in Elizabethton." We will get it on the web page hopefully before Christmas.

Here are a couple of pics to whet your appetite:

Mary and Joseph getting married.

The shepherds and the innkeeper looking with wonder at Baby J.

Herod questioning the Wise Women.

Herod sending out his soldiers.

Mary and Baby J.

The singing angels

Where is the Messiah to be born? Herod checking out the prophecy.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Got Christ?

Looking for the perfect Christmas gift for the hard-to-buy for person who seems to have everything except a life? Give her or him Christ! I'd wear this.

Who's your buddy?

Not Another Quiz?!?!!?

I am having fun with these silly quizzes. From the guy who brought you "Are you a Heretic?' comes "What is Your Theological Worldview?"

You scored as Modern Liberal. You are a Modern Liberal.
Science and historical study have shown so much of the Bible
to be unreliable and that conservative faith has made Jesus
out to be a much bigger deal than he actually was. Discipleship
involves continuing to preach and practice Jesus' measure of
love and acceptance, and dogma is not important in today's
world. You are influenced by thinkers like Bultmann and
Bishop Spong.

Modern Liberal




Classical Liberal


Roman Catholic


Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan


Neo orthodox




Reformed Evangelical




What's your theological worldview?
created with

Sunday, December 17, 2006

White Christmas

It was sunny and 70 degrees today in East Tennessee.

It will be a record-breaker tomorrow. This map will show you the likelihood of having a white Christmas in your neck of the woods. Pretty green in Tennessee.

The long range forecast predicts showers on Christmas Day with a high of 49 and a low of 32.

But we can dream of a White Christmas. Maybe if we sing and dream enough?

This is a good one.

The Drifters with animation by Joshua Held will get you into the spirit. Click on the pic, turn it up, and dance with someone you love (even if it is yourself).

Friday, December 15, 2006

Heresy Anyone?

Dang! I'm a heretic! I imagine many of ya'll guessed that already. I found this quiz on reverend mommy's blog. This was the result the first time I took it.

You scored as Pelagianism. You are a Pelagian.
You reject ideas about man's fallen human nature
and believe that as a result we are able to fully obey God.
You are the first Briton to contribute significantly to
Christian thought, but you're still excommunicated in 417.

Chalcedon compliant




























Are you a heretic?
created with

That is Pelagius to the left. He was described (by his enemies) as "large in size and slow of gait." I don't want to be that. So
I tried again, just to prove that I knew the "straight words" (ortho-doxy). Nirvana! I am Chalcedon compliant. Always nice to be compliant.

You scored as Chalcedon compliant.
You are Chalcedon compliant. Congratulations,
you're not a heretic. You believe that Jesus is
truly God and truly man and like us in
every respect, apart from sin. Officially approved in 451.

Chalcedon compliant




























Are you a heretic?
created with

Then I tried it a third time. This time I decided to be absolutely honest. I wouldn't play any mytho-theological games. I decided not to agree with any statement with which I truly did not agree. As I was taking this quiz, I realized how little I care about this fifth century speculative mumbo jumbo. Give me the parables of Jesus!

You scored as Pelagianism. You are a Pelagian.
You reject ideas about man's fallen human nature
and believe that as a result we are able to fully obey God.
You are the first Briton to contribute significantly
to Christian thought, but you're still excommunicated in 417.





















Chalcedon compliant








Are you a heretic?
created with

Pelagius. I thought he got a bum rap. Here is a little bit about him. I like this sentence in this particular biography: "He firmly believed in the individual--his free will and his ability to better himself as a spiritual being." The description goes on to say:

"....Pelagius is remembered for trying to free mankind from the guilt of Adam. He and his followers remind us once again that in the early history of the Church there were dissenters. "The great German theologian Karl Barth a few years ago described British Christianity as "incurably Pelagian." The rugged individualism of the Celtic monk, his conviction that each person is free to choose between good and evil. And his insistence that faith must be practical as well as spiritual remain hallmarks of Christians in Britain. An the British imagination has remained rooted in nature, witnessed by the pastoral poetry and landscape panting in which Britain excels, indeed that peculiar British obsession with gardening is Celtic in origin. Visitors to the British Isles are often shocked at how few people attend church each Sunday. Yet to the Britons, church-goers as well as absentees, the primary test of faith is not religious observance, but daily behavour towards our neighbours—and towards one’s pets, livestock and plants."
Pelagius battled it out with Augustine and lost. Augustine made a big deal out of original sin that was the result of Adam's fall and that there isn't a smidgen of good in us. Pelagius had a more practical view I think. Now that we know that Adam and Eve are mythical characters anyway, perhaps some of the ideas of Pelagius could be revisited?

Don't let me influence you! Take the quiz yourself and see how you do!

But, remember, they burn heretics.

Jesus is Lord (part deux)

This sign and trio of crosses is on the hill that overlooks Elizabethton, Tennessee. It is on private property.

What does it mean? Not just the phrase, but what does it mean to have that sign over the town?

Positive, negative, neutral. What is (or would be) your reaction?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Jesus Was a Punk

Remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker? They have a son. They reared him right. Well, not totally right. He's a preacher but it's not his daddy's PTL Club. It is called Revolution Church and he is "One Punk Under God." Click on his image for an advertisement for his new television series.

He and another Revolution Church staff member, Marc Brown, wrote an article for CNN, "What the Hell Happened to Christianity?"

Here is how they begin the article:
What the hell happened? Where did we go wrong? How was Christianity co-opted by a political party? Why are Christians supporting laws that force others to live by their standards? The answers to these questions are integral to the survival of Christianity.
So far, so good. Then they write:

So when did the focus of Christianity shift from the unconditional love and acceptance preached by Christ to the hate and condemnation spewed forth by certain groups today? Some say it was during the rise of Conservative Christianity in the early 1980s with political action groups like the Moral Majority. Others say it goes way back to the 300s, when Rome's Christian Emperor Constantine initiated a set of laws limiting the rights of Roman non-Christians. Regardless of the origin, one thing is crystal clear: It's not what Jesus stood for.

His parables and lessons were focused on love and forgiveness, a message of "come as you are, not as you should be." The bulk of his time was spent preaching about helping the poor and those who are unable to help themselves. At the very least, Christians should be counted on to lend a helping hand to the poor and others in need.

I listened to one his sermons, "Repentance is Not a Four Letter Word." He is evangelical but with the emphasis on grace and unconditional love. Here is an article about him on CNN's Showbiz TV that talks about the amends he made with his parents, his preaching in an Atlanta bar, and his decision to be gay-affirming (and his loss of support from the Christian right for that decision).

His preaching style lacks polish. He has a self-deprecating "Who me? Preach?" attitude. These are pluses. I sense that he is thoughtful, sincere and quite intelligent. When he speaks from the heart, he communicates grace most eloquently:

"It's accepting that love of God--I just can't say that enough because I want you to understand that God loves you just the way you are and that's never gonna change. To me that's the greatest news of all."

I think he will make an important contribution as a minister.

The ABCs of Michael Adee

Friend and colleague, Michael Adee, was interviewed by ABC news. Michael is the field organizer for More Light Presbyterians. I have pasted that article at the end of this post.

MLP is a national organization within the PCUSA to change discriminatory policies against glbt people. Here is MLP's mission statment.

Overall, the article is good, although I have a couple of critiques. Here is the first sentence:
"Michael Adee is one of the very few openly gay elders in the Presbyterian Church. He was ordained by a liberal church in Santa Fe, New Mexico -- a direct violation of church law."
I am not sure, but I think that is the opinion of ABC News, not Michael. Openly gay people have been ordained in the PCUSA all over the country, and many church courts have upheld these ordinations.

Church law is gray in the PCUSA, especially when it comes to discrimination and prejudice. It is difficult to write discrimination directly into constitutions. You have to hint at prejudice without saying it. The big hammer, G-6.0106b says nothing about sexual orientation. What then does it mean to be "openly gay" and how does being "openly gay" violate any church law? MLP has a helpful list of FAQs regarding our church polity. The first question is, "Can my church ordain an openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person as an elder or deacon?"

Answer: Yes! (This was before the Task Force Report was passed at GA this summer!)

Don't misunderstand. We have discrimination written into authoritative documents in our church. They need to be exposed, belittled, and removed. That is why I wrote against the Task Force report last February. See Not Justice, Not Progress, Just the Same Second Class Status.

The report (which did pass) may make for small progress (we won't know until the court system adjudicates a few cases) but it is a long way from justice. My second quibble with the article is this paragraph:

The debate over whether gays should be ordained is getting louder and more rancorous throughout denominations across the country and is threatening to rip apart congregations. The battle over homosexuality comes at a time when church membership is declining and congregations are struggling to hang on to the members they have.
I have heard in many different ways that speaking against discrimination of gay people is distracting to the church. Fearmongers tell us that we lose members if we talk about prejudice and injustice and work to change it.

I simply have to call bulls__t on that. It is not the debate that "is threatening to rip apart congregations." It is the injustice, ignorance, homophobia, and fundamentalism that has already ripped apart congregations and families and our nation. Prejudice against sexual and gender minorities is bad. It is wrong. The church will not be healed until this evil is exposed for what it is and removed. This will require courage on behalf of intelligent Presbyterians to address fundamentalist/homophobic aggression.

Before we get to Michael's interview, I have yet another book suggestion. It is a powerful book. It speaks to the issue of fundamentalism and its use of homophobia to divide our country and to promote a theocracy.

The author is Mel White who was the ghost writer for Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. White knows from the inside who these guys are and what they are about. In addition he exposes D. James Kennedy and James Dobson and their agenda.

The book is entitled Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right (New York: Penguin) 2006.

Mel White is a gay man and evangelical Christian. He is the founder of Soulforce that uses the principles of nonviolent resistance to eradicate political and religious oppression for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

This is from his website:

The Reverend Mel White, a deeply religious man who sees fundamentalism as "evangelical Christian orthodoxy gone cultic," believes that it is not a stretch to say that the true goal of today's fundamentalists is to break down the wall that separates church and state, superimpose their "moral values" on the U.S. Constitution, replace democracy with theocratic rule, and ultimately create a new "Christian America" in their image. White's new book, Religion Gone Bad, is a wake-up call to all of us to take heed. (Link)
Now, to Michael's interview!

Gay Man Uses Pulpit to Fight for Acceptance

Issue of Ordinating Homosexuals Threatens Schism in Mainline Churches


Dec. 9, 2006 — - Michael Adee is one of the very few openly gay elders in the Presbyterian Church. He was ordained by a liberal church in Santa Fe, New Mexico -- a direct violation of church law.

Adee would like to take the next step and become a pastor who performs sacraments such as baptism and marriage, but that's unlikely unless the church changes its policy.

Asked if he has a problem with being a member of a denomination that refuses to ordain gay and lesbian ministers, he answered, "Yes, I would be disingenuous if I say anything else."

But Adee has turned his disappointment into activism. For the past five years, he has headed up an organization called More Light Presbyterian, which through media outreach promotes the inclusion of gays and lesbians in every part of the church -- both as members and as leaders.

Under his tenure, the number of More Light churches supporting gay leadership has grown 30 percent.

"While it's still the tip of the iceberg, it's radical progress in a short time," he said.

Adee has taken his message of acceptance to the pulpit -- traveling to churches across the country and speaking to congregations who have never heard an openly gay minister preach.

"Not only am I a person of faith and a Christian," Adee told the congregation at Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., "but I am gay."

After the service, member Emily Counts compared Adee's words of acceptance for gays in the church to those of advocates of the civil rights movement who built support by taking their message to individual churches.

"Maybe not all churches are ready to hear it, but I'm not sure it's a reason not to approach the issue," she said. "There has been a long history of what people have stood up in the pulpit and said. It's obviously torn congregations apart. But it's also been an important platform."

Adee is confident the Presbyterian Church will eventually accept the ordination of gays. Just this summer, the Presbyterian general assembly voted to allow each local congregation the power to consider whether or not to ordain gays.

But that decision angered conservative Presbyterian churches, such as Kirk of the Hills Church in Tulsa, Okla., which broke with the denomination. Its pastor, the Rev. Tom Gray, explained his reason for the separation on his blog.

"The PCUSA [Presbyterian Church USA] rejected clear, important Biblical injunctions on sexual behavior in order to adjust to our culture's standards," he wrote.

The debate over whether gays should be ordained is getting louder and more rancorous throughout denominations across the country and is threatening to rip apart congregations. The battle over homosexuality comes at a time when church membership is declining and congregations are struggling to hang on to the members they have. Read the rest of the article at