Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Let Your Light Shine: An Important New Film

Thanks to More Light Presbyterians for pointing out a new film project, Let Your Light Shine.   The film explores the intersection of religion and homophobia:
Why are religion and the Bible used against homosexuals?  Why are evangelical Christians especially condemning of LGBTQ people and feel free to call us "sinful"?  "Let Your Light Shine" will probe the intersecting circles of evangelical Christianity, the gay civil rights movement and activism by queer alumni from Billy Graham's alma mater, Wheaton College!  This kaleidoscopic lens will shine a light on the deeply historical and discriminatory roots of evangelical Christianity, and the growing visibility of queer liberation which challenges Bible-based homophobia.  The testimonies of LGBTQ survivors from Christian colleges and religious upbringings reveal both the damaging impact of evangelicalism and a spirited resistance to continued religious oppression.  Please view our trailer and help us any way you can!  Even a mustard seed . ..

Here is a preview:

While the focus is Wheaton College, similar stories are found on college campuses all over the country.

To get this project started they are looking for funding. They are almost to their goal of $50,000. Yours could be the dollar that puts them over the top!

WETS Fundraiser (the shortest ever!)

WETS is in the midst of its Spring fundraiser. This is an editorial about it from today's Johnson City Press:
Public radio may be free, but the same can’t be said of the programming heard on WETS-FM. Shows like “Wait, Wait ... Don’t Tell Me,” “Car Talk” and “A Prairie Home Companion” don’t come cheap. That’s why WETS — which kicks off its spring fundraising drive today — asks its listeners to dig deep into their pockets twice a year to help pay the bills for these programs. It’s often a struggle for the station to collect the donations needed to cover its programming costs. Too many fans of WETS have been content to let someone else carry the financial load. Some mistakenly believe the federal government will take up the slack. That’s not the case. More than half the funding for WETS comes from listener support. The rest comes from other sources, including state and federal grants. It was those grants and listener support that has allowed WETS to add three HD channels to its programming. The station now broadcasts channels that offer news, classical music and bluegrass. Contributing to WETS is a worthy investment in a broadcast outlet that enriches our lives daily. The public radio station is operated as a partnership between East Tennessee State University and its listeners. And it’s listeners who pay the costs for most of the programming heard on the air. Contributions to WETS can be made online at   or by calling 888-895-9387. Donations also can be made by using a Visa or MasterCard, or listeners can ask to be billed later. The sooner you make your pledge, the quicker it will be for the station to reach its fundraising goal and return to its normal programming schedule.
Here is how you can make it the shortest fundraiser ever! Oh, and by the way, when you make your pledge, let them know you listen to Religion For Life!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Carol Delaney: Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem on Religion For Life, March 29 through April 1

Cultural anthropologist, Carol Delaney, returns to Religion For Life to discuss her latest book, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem. We know the children's rhyme: "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue." But why? Because he wanted to find gold in order to start a crusade to conquer Jerusalem for the Christians so that Christ would return. Professor Delaney takes us into the medieval mindset and helps us understand Columbus in his time and place. I discussed her book in a recent sermon and you can hear her provocative thesis on Religion For Life.


Listen via livestream...

Thursday, March 29th at 8 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Sunday, April 1st, at noon on WEHC, 90.7.
Sunday, April 1st, at 2 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Monday, April 2nd at 1 pm on WEHC, 90.7.
Via podcast beginning April 3rd.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Psychology of Peak Oil

This is an excellent film on facing the emotions of Peak Oil. Janaia Donaldson of Peak Moment speaks with the founder of Peak Oil Blues, Kathy McMahon.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Did Jesus Exist? A Review of Bart Ehrman's New Book

  • He never wrote anything.
  • He never served in public office.
  • Except for brief comments by Josephus and Tacitus, there is nothing outside the New Testament and other Christian literature that even mentions him.
  • Paul seems only to care about him as a theological figure.
  • That goes for the gospels as well.
  • Many of the stories about him are either fantastic or appear to have antecedents in other literature.
  • The gospels do seem to read as stories in which Jesus is a character as opposed to biographies in which Jesus is a real person.
So...did Jesus exist, or was he from start to finish a product of creative imagination?

Wait a minute.  Do people really doubt the existence of Jesus?  


Apparently enough do to capture the interest of one the foremost scholars of early Christian literature, Dr. Bart Ehrman.  


He even has delayed plans on writing a book that he really cares about (how did Jesus become God)  to deal with this issue.   He writes:
Every week I receive two or three e-mails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being.  When I started getting these e-mails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously.  Of course Jesus existed.  Everyone knows he existed.  Don't they?
But the questions kept coming, and soon I began to wonder:  Why are so many people asking?  My wonder only increased when I learned that I myself was being quoted in some circles--misquoted rather--as saying that Jesus never existed.  I decided to look into the matter.  I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.  p. 2
He goes on to say that none of this literature is produced by 
"scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world)."  p. 2
Who are these folks?  Dr. Ehrman writes:  
"The authors of this skeptical literature understand themselves to be "mythicists"--that is, those who believe that Jesus is a myth."  p. 3
From Dr. Ehrman's point of view, Jesus most certainly existed.
Jesus did exist.  He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic.  But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him. p. 6
In addition to the argument that the "mythicists" are outside the academic beltway, Dr. Ehrman makes his case in three movements that constitute the three sections of his book.   

In the first section, chapters one through five, he presents the evidence for the historical Jesus.  Some of this evidence includes:
  • Non-Christian sources, Tacitus and Josephus mainly.
  • Seven surviving gospels "that are completely independent of one another or independent in a large number of their traditions.  These all attest to the existence of Jesus.  Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data--for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem." p. 92
  • Later Christian sources: Papias, Ignatius of Antioch, 1 Clement, Acts (Jesus tradition and speeches), non-Pauline epistles, and Paul:  "Paul does indeed show that he knew Jesus existed....Paul mentions that Jesus was born; that he was a Jew, a direct descendant of King David; that he had brothers, one of them named James; that he had a ministry to Jews; that he had twelve disciples;that he was a teacher; that he anticipated his own death; that he had the Last Supper on the night he was handed over; that he was killed at the instigation of Jews in Judea; and that he died by crucifixion.  He also refers on several occasions to Jesus's teachings."  pp. 129-130
  • Suffering messiah.  "The single greatest obstacle Christians had when trying to convert Jews was precisely their claim that Jesus had been executed.  They would not have made that part up.  They had to deal with it and devise a special, previously unheard of theology to account for it." p. 173
In section two, chapters six and seven, he presents and rejects the views of various "mythicists".  These first four claims he calls "irrelevant":
  • The Gospels are Highly Problematic as Historical Sources.  Dr. Ehrman's response:  "...the evidence of the historical Jesus does not in the least depend exclusively on whether this, that, or the other Gospel story is historically accurate.  It is based on other considerations, which I set out in the earlier chapters, including the witness of Paul and the speeches of Acts, which long predate the Gospels."  p. 190
  • Nazareth did not exist.  Dr. Ehrman's response: "The historicity of Jesus does not depend on whether Nazareth existed.  In fact, it is not even related to the question.  The existence (or rather, nonexistence) of Nazareth is another mythicist irrelevancy."   p. 197
  • Gospels are paraphrases of Old Testament.  Dr. Ehrman's response:  "It is one thing to say that a story has been shaped in light of an account in the Hebrew Bible.  It is another thing to say that the event never happened at all or, even more, that the person about whom the story is told never existed."  p. 206
  • The Nonhistorical "Jesus" is Based on Stories About Pagan Divine Men.  Dr. Ehrman's response:  "There certainly are similarities between what pagans were saying about their divine men and what Christians were saying about Jesus....But the parallels are not as close and as precise as most mythicists claim.  Nowhere near as close.  True, some similarities are significant.  But that is not relevant to the question of whether there really was a Jewish teacher Jesus who was crucified under Pontius Pilate....When Christians told stories about Jesus, they shaped the stories in light of stories they already knew." p. 215
He then addresses some "Mythicist Inventions" such as that Jesus was invented as a dying and rising god, that we was invented as a personification of Jewish Wisdom, that he was an unknown Jew that lived 100 years before Paul, and others. Dr. Ehrman finds none of these claims persuasive.   For instance in regards to Jesus as an invention of the dying/rising god, Dr. Ehrman writes, "The earliest Christians did not think Jesus was God."  p. 230   

In section three, chapters 8 and 9, he provides a sketch of his version of the historical Jesus.   This is a great section in which he describes the historical method, discusses the historical situation including Jewish Apocalypticism, and agrees for the most part with Albert Schweitzer:
"As Jesus fads come and go, as new Jesuses come to be invented and then pass away, as newer Jesuses come to take the place of the old, the real, historical Jesus continues to exist, back there in the past, the apocalyptic prophet who expected that a cataclysmic break would occur within his generation when God would destroy the forces of evil, bring in his kingdom, and install Jesus himself on the throne.  This is the historical Jesus.  And he is obviously far too historical for modern tastes.  That is why so many Christians today try to reform him."  p. 336
Dr. Ehrman's book deserves to be read.  He also provides a helpful bibliography of both mythicist literature and historical Jesus (and related topics) literature.   Dr. Erhman believes that he has provided a rock solid case.   It could very well be that Dr. Ehrman is right.

I find his apocalyptic Jesus really depressing.   That Jesus is hard to preach.  I am not sure if we have to have Jesus resemble Harold Camping to be a real guy.   We might be skeptical of a Jesus we admire, but we might also be skeptical of a Jesus we despise.  It may be equally hard to accept that Jesus is an onion.  Peel off each layer of fiction until you get to...nothing?  Give this country preacher a break!  I have to encourage the folks, you know?     

I do think this book will open this debate wider, not settle it.  All I mean by saying that is that movements that are outside the academy grow when they get a response from someone "inside the beltway" like Dr. Ehrman.   The mythicist movement is certainly uneven.   Much of it as Dr. Ehrman points out is amateurish.  But there are credible academics (Carrier, Price, Thompson and others) whose arguments may get better, more refined, and more accepted over time.   More may join them.  

I have one quibble with this book.  I do not think it is fair to call those who question the historicity of Jesus conspiracy theorists as the dust jacket states.  Now and then Dr. Ehrman's tone is a bit harsh:
It is striking that virtually everyone who has spent all the years needed to attain these qualifications is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure.  Again, this is not a piece of evidence, but if nothing else, it should give one pause.  In the field of biology, evolution may be "just" a theory subscribed to, for good reason, by every real scientist in every established university in the Western world.  p. 5
Evolution gets stronger every day.   Evidence for the historical Jesus?  Hardly on par.   Again, Dr. Ehrman could be exactly right.  What can I know?  I am not a scholar.  That truth leads me to this observation:  Dr. John Dominic Crossan also thinks Jesus is an historical person.   He devotes a few pages to the historical question of Jesus near the end of his new book, The Power of Parable:  How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus.   

But the Jesuses these two scholars (Dr. Ehrman and Dr. Crossan) come up with seem to be two different guys.   Both Drs. Crossan and Ehrman have all the credentials and they both have access to evidence and they possess the tools and the skills to evaluate that evidence that I will never have.   But these experts disagree on some pretty significant things.  For example, are the apocalyptic "son of man" sayings from the historical Jesus or are they fictional?   When the experts disagree about what is historical about the historical Jesus, amateurs like me are easily confused.   It shouldn't be a surprise that we might make the next step (whether it is logical or not) and say to ourselves:
"If this one thinks this part is fiction and that one thinks that part is fiction, then maybe both are partly right, and it is all fiction." 
I am not there.  I am just saying that I understand how people can get there.   As I see it, there is a great deal of uncertainty in this work.   

There is a personal issue at stake.  Jesus to me is more than an historical person (or an interesting fiction).   If I am going to spend time with him, I am going to find a way to make him matter.   In the end maybe we all shape Jesus, even if unconsciously, to an image that we need, whether good, bad, or non-existent?   If each of the gospel writers, and Paul, and others reformed him, why not continue that good work?  

Thanks to Dr. Ehrman for bringing this scholarship to the public.  The cost of doing so is that we amateurs might take it where scholars never intended.

This review is a stop on the TLC Book Tour

Sunday, March 18, 2012

I'm In the Milk and the Milk's In Me--A Sermon

I’m In the Milk and the Milk’s In Me
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
March 18, 2012

John 17: 1-26 (Scholars’ Version)

The scene is that Jesus is just about to be arrested and he is offering his last words. It is a prayer. After he says this prayer, he marches his disciples across the Kidron valley to a garden where he knows all what will happen. As John writes the story, Jesus is in control even of his own arrest. There is no agony in this prayer.

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus pleads that God take away the cup. Some manuscripts in Luke read that Jesus’ agony was so intense that he sweated blood. This is from Mark:
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’
This is the anguish of the poem, Hamlet, by Boris Paternak that I included in the liturgy:
But the order of acts has been arranged
And the end cannot be forestalled.
I’m alone. All else, sunk to the Pharisee.
To live one’s life is no stroll in the park.
Certainly not.

The rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, does a great job with this scene. Jesus fights with God and finally gives in to God’s overwhelming will.
Not my will, but thine be done.
How do you say those words on stage? With casual indifference? C’est la vie? No. With resignation? Maybe. Defeat? Now you are getting closer. Defiance? “Fine then, kill me, see what I care!” 

Whatever nuance you bring to it, it is agony and doubt. It is a clash of wills, “not mine but thine”. It makes for great drama.

But none of that with John’s Jesus. John’s Jesus is cool, confident, and in control. "I and the Father are one."  The tone of his speech is not the tone of a person who knows he is likely to be tortured and executed. It is the tone of someone going to receive a Nobel Prize.
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son my glorify you…”
When he is on trial he has philosophical debates with Pilate over truth and power. On the cross, while dying he arranges his familial affairs. "Take care of my mother", he says to the beloved disciple. He says he is thirsty, not because he is really thirsty, but because he fulfills scripture, then after he has finished his script, he says, “It is finished.” He bows his head politely, and gives up his spirit.

None of the torment of Mark’s Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” 

That would be heresy for John’s Jesus. John’s Jesus is a complete opposite of Mark’s Jesus.

Historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan, in his latest book, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus, Crossan writes:
“The Jesus of Mark dies in human agony. The Jesus of John dies in divine radiance.” P. 233
What does all this mean?

A couple of things.

First, that when we read the gospels, the parables about Jesus, to use Crossan’s designation, we are reading conflicting and divergent views of Jesus. The gospel writers are not of one mind.

Second, these gospels are not biographies of Jesus. They are creative fictions or parables in which Jesus is a character in the story and he functions in different ways in each gospel. There are a small minority of scholars who think that the gospels are total fictions and that Jesus is a complete fiction. Most scholars would say there is an historical person in Jesus and we can know some things about him and speculate about other things. Even then, as a whole, the documents we have about him, namely the gospels, are creative parables that serve the interests of the writers.

Third, the gospels have both continuity and discontinuity with the historical person of Jesus. I personally find Dominic Crossan’s Jesus most compelling. This Jesus by telling parables challenged people to participate in God’s advent of distributive justice.

This is the kingdom of God that comes as a mustard seed becomes a weed. As leaven contaminates bread, so does peace through justice contaminate and thwart the dehumanizing violence of empire. Empire hates disorder. Therefore, be disorderly.

Be a weed. Be leaven.
Empire wants a place for everyone and everyone in her place.
Get out of place.
That is the message of Jesus.

By the time we get to the fourth century and the Nicene Creed, we have nearly total discontinuity between the historical Jesus and the Jesus as icon of empire. In the Nicene Creed, Jesus blesses the very system that oppresses. He becomes an otherworldly fantasy. The focus is not on what Jesus did or said, and certainly not about distributive justice, but about him as a gear in the church’s salvation machine. Worship Jesus. Recite the creed. Obey the emperor. You’ll escape hell and get to heaven.

The gospels have begun that journey toward the fourth century, but they have a long way to go and they still retain that message of Jesus, even as it begins to shift and take a different shape. Even in the earliest gospel, Mark, Jesus becomes the good news rather than someone who tells the good news.

However, there is still continuity between the gospels and the historical Jesus, even in John’s gospel. This continuity comes across in John’s use of the word cosmos, which is translated world. A better English rendering might be system as in domination system.

The domination system is that network of dehumanizing forces that include economic exploitation, racism, sexism, heterosexism, militarism, all enforced by legalized violence and legitimated by religious institutions.

“It is the way the world works,” we say.

John’s Jesus says of his disciples:
“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” 17:16
The “world” does not mean physical reality, Earth, life, the world we know, as opposed to some spiritual or supernatural existence. That understanding comes later as Jesus becomes co-opted by empire and the institutional church. In the first century, including John’s gospel, the universe is of one piece and what happens here is what is real.

The “world” as John uses the term is the way of domination and injustice. It is an ideology en-fleshed in the various empires and their institutions. Its values include but are not limited to:

Peace by force. Peace by force is reinforced by the myth of redemptive violence. That is the lie that violence saves. If Jesus were told that he needs to thank a soldier for his freedom, Jesus would say, “No thanks. That is the freedom of this world or system. That is not true freedom.” Who should he thank by the way, the soldier who crucified him?

Another value of this world is that the order of the system is more important than those who suffer from the system. We are told that we must do everything to uphold Wall Street because the banks are too big to fail. We must keep our economic system growing even if it means destroying our home and causing suffering to the most in need. Making a primary commitment to housing, food, and healthcare for everyone would hurt the system. The system is more important than people.

You hear this kind of argument in the church. Well, if we allow those people in the church, what will people think? They might not give money to the church. Really? If the survival of your institution depends on pandering to discrimination, then your institution is probably not worth saving. Your church has become “the world.”

When Jesus says in John:
“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world…” 17:16
…that isn’t religious talk. That isn’t spiritual talk in the sense that we normally think of religion and spirituality. It is real stuff. He is saying in effect in modern idiom,
“I do not share the values of this system of violence, exclusion, and inequality. The values I share are non-violence, inclusion, and distributive justice.”
That is the continuity between the historical Jesus and John. John’s conflict with his sibling Judaism that he puts on the lips of Jesus is not continuous with the historical Jesus. Obviously, Jesus was a Jew. Listen to this, when Jesus says to Pilate:
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Certainly the reference to “the Jews” is discontinuous with the historical Jesus. But what does Jesus mean when he says my kingdom is not from this world? He doesn’t mean that his kingdom is in heaven above or in heaven after or as an internal spiritual escape. His kingdom is right here and now. And it is seen in the way we treat one another.

That way is not returning violence with violence.
That way is valuing people over the system.
That way is hospitality and welcome to everyone.

This is what I think is being said to Pilate:
“If my values and the values of my followers were the same as yours, Pilate, they would be fighting for me with the weapons of violence. But their values and mine are not those values. Let it be clear. That is why you are executing me. The world (your system) cannot handle my values.”
Before Jesus is arrested, John has Jesus offer this prayer.   It isn’t really a prayer, though.   It certainly is not a prayer born of anguish as is the prayer in Mark’s gospel.  

In John it is more of a sermon, a statement.

In this sermon he says something that I take home:
“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me….”
It is that verse that got me thinking of the children’s book by Maurice Sendak, In the Night Kitchen. A little boy, Mickey, has a fantastic night journey, kind of surreal, like the Gospel of John, really. Under Mickey’s house is a bakery. The bakers are making breakfast cakes. Mickey almost gets baked in the oven.   He gets out.   The book is scary and funny at the same time. There is a playfulness about it as it addresses real things that children experience. As the bakers in Mickey’s dream are baking the cakes, Mickey falls into the milk and realizes,
“I am in the milk and the milk’s in me! God bless milk and God bless me!”
There is a playfulness and a confidence in the Gospel of John as well. Amidst all of this stuff that I just said about the world, the violence and the injustice that was true in the time of Jesus as it is now, it is also overcome as one participates in life in a different way. Jesus in John is confident as the day is long. He is arrested by 600 troops and they bow down before him. He carries his own cross. He decides when to breathe his last. He announces,
“I and the Father are one. I am in you and I am in them.”
“I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me.”
What I take from this, is that this way of being, this way of following a vision in opposition to the powers of violence and injustice in favor of non-violence and justice is agonizing and frustrating. And it appears that the good loses more than it wins. Says Jesus in Mark:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
But the sheer, brazen, fantastic confidence of John needs to be heard, too. This is the message that the victory has been won. The way of justice, joy, love, and peace has already defeated the world. The world doesn’t know it, yet. But it will. In the meantime, we live those values, confident that we are not alone. Confident also that these values were established before creation itself when the Word was with God and the Word was God.

And that Word is in you.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Thomas Hill, Peacebuilding in Iraq on Religion For Life, March 22-26

Professor Thomas Hill is clinical assistant professor at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He is a peacebuilding practitioner and researcher with a decade of experience focusing on Iraq. Since 2003, he has made more than 20 visits to Iraq and has overseen the design, development, and implementation of a series of interrelated research and educational projects focused on the development of sustainable peace in Iraq. We discuss the crucial work of peacebuilding on Religion For Life. He speaks about his work on YouTube.

Listen via livestream...

Thursday, March 22nd at 8 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Sunday, March 25th, at noon on WEHC, 90.7.
Sunday, March 25th, at 2 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Monday, March 26th at 1 pm on WEHC, 90.7.
Via podcast beginning March 27th.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tennessee Mountains Lose to Greed

This is not good news.  The senate (including my own senator, Rusty Crowe) did not step up and save our mountains from greed and short-sightedness.    The fight is not over.   The vote is delayed until April 2nd and in the meantime the house will consider a similar proposal.   It is time for all Tennesseans to contact our representatives.  This is from Dawn Coppock of LEAF:
Dear Caretakers for Creation,

After all your e-mails and calls for, “no decoys, no delays”, the TN Senate voted to delay a vote on the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act until April 2, instead of just passing the bill tonight. Likely, the opponents’ strategy is to kill the bill in the House committee before April 2 and avoid a vote on the substance of the bill altogether.

Those voting to delay were:

Senators Beavers, Bell, Campfield, Crowe, Faulk, Gresham, Johnson, Kelsey, Ketron, Massey, McNally, Norris, Overbey, Ramsey, Southerland, Summerville, Tracy, Watson and Yager.

Standing against delay were:

Senators Barnes, Berke, Burks, Finney, Ford, Harper, Haynes, Henry, Herron, Kyle, Marrero, Roberts, Stewart and Tate.

The hero of the day was our sponsor, Senator Eric Stewart. Senator Stewart gave a wonderful speech. If you missed it live, watch it on the video. (Go to the March 12, 2012, 5:00 session and then click on SB 577) We hope to get a copy of the text to post on TNLEAF.ORG in the next day or two.

E-mail Senator Stewart ( and tell him how proud we are to have such an eloquent and passionate spokesperson.

Let’s stop and count our blessings:

  1. A serious bill to end MTR reached the floor of a state legislature for the first time ever 
  2. That bill was primarily drafted and championed by Christians
  3. If it had gotten to a vote, the vote would have been too close to call 
  4. An impassioned speech was made on the floor of the Tennessee State Senate giving voice to stewardship concerns and giving voice to the mountains 
  5. We are not dead yet.
The primary focus for the next 2 weeks is the House Environment Committee. If you act fast you can send paper letters or notes. (But telephone calls and e-mails are also great.) Please continue your contacts, this time to the House Conservation & Environment Committee. You may find the committee information at:
Ask all the members of the committee to pass the "Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act." If we get it out of the House Committee, things don’t look to bad on the floor of the Tennessee House. It is still possible, and given the stakes, we must keep at it, so long as there is hope.
Thank you for your prayers. Please keep those up. Those advocating tonight have to begin in the House in the morning. While the vote was disappointing, the response from all of you lifted us up. It sure would be nice for us to sit in the House Committee waiting rooms tomorrow as your calls flood in.
With gratitude,
Dawn Coppock
Legislative Director, LEAF
The majority of our senators could not summon the courage and decency to prevent this:

Zeb Mountain, Tennessee

It appears they need a little more tender persuasion.

In the meantime, Carol Landis, of the Green Interfaith Network sent this:
I'm really excited to share some big news with you! We have invited the Senators and Representatives who serve NE Tennessee to join us at our March 18th meeting (Munsey United Methodist Church, 4-6 p.m.) to discuss their positions on SB 577, the TN Scenic Vistas Protection Act that will be heard before the full Senate on Monday afternoon! Because of our distinguished guests and the timeliness of the topic, we will not hold our usual business meeting on March 18th

We'll begin our discussion with our guests promptly at 4:00. So please come a little early to network, mingle, and munch before we begin.

This is a tremendous opportunity to hear our legislators' perspectives on the issue of mountaintop removal coal mining and for us to express your values as well. So I'm asking another personal favor:  would you please do everything you can to help boost attendance at this meeting? Please mention it to your other groups, offer to carpool, and/or "bring a friend (or 3)". 

We are praying that the original language of SB 577 will be restored and that it will be passed on to the House for further consideration on Monday afternoon. I've attached a "flyer" that I hope you will download, print, and post everywhere around our area.

Thanks for all you've done. I hope to see you (and some of your friends) on the 18th!
Carol is my guest on Religion For Life this Thursday at 8 pm on WETS and again Sunday at 2 pm.

Monday, March 12, 2012

It is Showtime for our Mountains

Here is the latest from L.E.A.F. regarding SB 577, The Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act:
Monday, March 12, 2012
Action Alert I

Dear Caretakers of Creation,

SB 577 is before the Tennessee State Senate tonight at 5 CST, 6 EST. It appears the plan is to delay, increasing the chance that the whole Senate can avoid a vote altogether this year.  The opponents of the TN Scenic Vistas Protection Act do not want to vote because they know what you want them to do and they do not want to engender the courage to do it.

Right now the bill is gutted and one or more procedural votes are required to get to a vote on the real TSVPA to the floor. I expect the opponents to try to shut down discussion. The procedural wrangling will be hard to follow, but LEAF will action alert on Tuesday to explain what happened and what it means for the bill. Hopefully we will report passage of the real bill and how to engage on the House side.

Many people responded to our last alert with a willingness to pray during the session for wisdom and courage for your Senator and all the Senators, and for protection of the mountains. If you are willing to do that also, you can record that intent by responding to this email. Please include your name and the town where you live and the name of your Senator.

Here are the other action items:

The message is “Restore and Pass the TN Scenic Vistas Protection Act Tonight. No Decoys. No Delays.” You really don’t need to say any more than that.
  • Watch the Senate Session live here.  We could be anywhere on the schedule, so I don’t know how long it will before SB 577 comes up.
  • As you watch, continue to pray.
I cannot tell you how your love and prayers and our solidarity in purpose lifts us all and supports our spirits. Thank you,
Dawn Coppock,
Legislative Director, LEAF

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Better Off Without Me--A Sermon

Better Off Without Me
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 11th, 2012
Third Sunday in Lent

John 16:1-33 (Scholars' Version)

This section in John’s gospel is called The Farewell Discourse. In John, Jesus takes a long time to say goodbye. Over the course of the Winter we have been working our way through John. John was written about 60-70 years after the death of Jesus, sometime in the 90s. That is a best guess. John appears to be not an historical account of the life of Jesus, but a theological proclamation about Jesus. 

Jesus in John is more of a literary character than an historical person. Jesus is used by John to deal with problems in John’s time.

Jesus begins chapter 16 by saying,
“They are going to throw you out of their congregations. But the time is coming when those who kill you will think they are offering devotion to God. They are going to do these things because they never knew the Father or me. Yet I have told you all this so, when the time comes, you’ll recall that I told you about them.”
This is happening in John’s time. John writes his gospel by having Jesus predict the future which is John’s present. This is not uncommon. The book of Daniel is presented as a prophecy of the future. Yet scholars now realize that it was written in the time of the events it “predicts”.

Who is throwing them out of the congregations and according to John even killing them? It appears to be a sibling community. The Gospel of John is one side of a sibling rivalry between the community that eventually became the church and the community that eventually became modern Judaism. This is the most difficult aspect to read because we know of the legacy of antisemitism that has resulted. We have no idea how much to trust John. We are reading one side of the story.

John’s gospel is addressed to a community that sees itself under siege. Under siege from its sibling and under siege from what it calls the “world”. The gospel is written to comfort and encourage this community to hang in there and to discover peace in Jesus. Jesus is presented in John as the incarnation of the Word, the divine dabar that was with God from the beginning. Jesus knows everything. Nothing happens to him that he is not aware of happening. He knows where he is going. He knows where he is been. He knows what people are thinking. He and the Father are one. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is I Am. He is IT. He is the Man.

He has conquered the “world”. Hang with him and with the community that follows him and you will conquer the world too. One way to encourage a community is to remind the community of its founding story and to tell the community that the troubles it is experiencing have been anticipated by the founders themselves and will be overcome.

The challenge for the community is that there is no more Jesus. He isn’t around. They are alone. They are scattered. They are grieving. The way John handles this is that he has Jesus tell them that they are not alone, but they have the advocate. After Jesus is resurrected and he is alone with the disciples he breathes on them and they receive the spirit, the advocate.

From John’s perspective, they are not alone. They have Spirit with them. While the community might think it would have been easier or better to be with Jesus, Jesus tells them,
“…you’ll be better off if I leave. You see, if I don’t leave, the advocate can’t come to you. But if I go, I’ll send the advocate to you.”
When read in community, the Gospel of John is a constant reminder that the advocate is with them, teaches them truth, gives them encouragement, and will enable them to conquer the world as Jesus conquered the world. It is not really a surprise that John ends up becoming the centerpiece in many respects of the Christian faith.

When you go through a struggle, it is comforting and encouraging to speak to someone who has been there and who was able to make it through and who can offer authentic and honest encouragement and hope from the inside.

The story is that the founder, Jesus, even though executed by the powers, by the world, from John’s perspective conquered the world. Even though the world persecutes and kills you, you still conquer. That is martyrdom talk. That is the gospel from a siege mentality. The New Testament as a whole comes from various communities that see themselves under siege.

When we see today contemporary American Christians who by the standards of the world are at the top pinnacle of wealth and power, yet see themselves as under attack or under siege, you can see from whence that attitude comes. It comes from the Bible. John’s gospel is about how to survive being a victim.

One of the challenges for contemporary people and for contemporary faith is to figure out how to read ourselves into these stories. When we listen to sermons or read the scriptures we read ourselves into the stories. We look for a place to hang our experience. When the literature is primarily victim literature, we can read our own present experience that way, even when we are not victims. That is not a healthy thing to do. It is not healthy for us or for others.

I could preach a sermon on this text that paints greedy coal companies as the “world”. The “world” is intent on destroying our mountains for its own profit. Jesus, the Victim Divine, is on our side and conquers the “world”. That would be true. But it wouldn’t be the whole truth. It is more complex and much more messy than that.

Truth be told, we are the “world” as much as victims of the “world”. I drive cars and I turn on the lights and I eat from the top of the food chain. I am one of the average North Americans who if the world consumed like me, we would need four planets of resources. I had my coffee this morning from McDonald’s and I don’t think it was fair trade. Somebody and probably a lot of somebodies is not getting theirs as I get mine.

That doesn’t mean I am going to stop talking about saving our mountains. By no means. But there is no way I can ever think of myself as righteous about this. I am not only a victim of the world. I am not merely hated by the world. I am also the world.

John has Jesus say to the disciples:
 “In the world you are going to face persecution.”
That was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. As the history of the church has shown, and certainly in our own time, the disciples and followers of Jesus have persecuted others at least as much as they have been persecuted. We need to take care as we read and appropriate these texts that we are honest about them and ourselves.

In fact, I am wondering if we ought to use this victim literature sparingly. It appears that everyone claims to be a victim. Christians are victims. Muslims are victims. Jews are victims. Republicans are victims. Democrats are victims. We all claim persecution. Rarely do we see ourselves as persecutors.

Victim language tends to divide as it hides our own dark side. We are a mixed bunch with mixed motives. Much of the time what others experience as persecution was not intended as such by those accused of persecution. I am not saying that there is no such thing as persecution and that there are not victims of persecution. I am suggesting that this language be used sparingly, accurately, appropriately, and with the recognition that few of us have clean hands.

The Gospel of John was written to and for a community that saw itself as under siege. It is apocalyptic literature. That means there are two kinds of people in this world, light and dark, above and below, us and them, good and evil. You are good. You will conquer the evil. That is dangerous language. It is great for rousing up a crowd and for starting a holy war but it is not so good for the messy, complicated, humbling, and carefully engaging, long-term work of peacemaking and justice-making.

That is the kind of work we need on Earth today.

There are many problems and many conflicting ideas and agendas for solving them. These ideas and agendas are motivated often by fear and self-interest to be sure. But there is wisdom and love out there and within us as well.

Even as John’s gospel is written to a community under siege, it yet has wisdom and truth. I turn to John’s understanding of the advocate. This is the spirit who is with the community in the place of Jesus. The advocate is the spirit of truth. Jesus tells them that it is better for them if he goes so that the spirit of truth can come.

Why would that be better? Why is the spirit better than the real guy?

I think it is the difference between having an external authority who gives you all the answers and having an internal moral compass. It is the difference between relying on your parents for deciding where to go and what to do and growing up and making your own decisions. It is the difference between relying on an authority figure such as a teacher or preacher for the answers and for seeking answers yourself.

The famous Zen koan says, 
“If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
The point is that if you see the Buddha you have externalized enlightenment whereas true enlightenment is within. Killing the Buddha is a metaphorical way of realizing that you are the Buddha.

In a similar but not exact way, the spirit or the advocate is the Christ within. Not just within in a personal sense, but among in an interpersonal sense. The wisdom, the spirit of truth, is among and within all of us. This spirit of truth is within all of humanity, in fact, within all of Earth’s life. That is the recognition that we are moving toward.

My critique, if I can be so bold as to critique holy scripture, is that the spirit, the advocate, is within those we regard as persecutors as well, or the “world”.

We are not simply good or evil, light or dark, above or below. We are a massive mess of mixed motives.

Our salvation is in recognizing that truth and bringing everyone, including those who have been without voice to the table. This spirit of truth is at work all over in many places. As Buddhist Joanna Macy assures us, the truth is in all beings.

Joanna Macy speaks of the work of the spirit as “The Great Turning”:
“A revolution is underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world. We have the technical knowledge, the communication tools, and material resources to grow enough food, ensure clean air and water, and meet rational energy needs. Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning. It is happening now.”
We are part of an exciting time.

As tempting as it might be to see ourselves as under siege, or see ourselves as being persecuted by the forces of darkness, it is likely more wise, to recognize that the spirit of truth is larger than us and is found in unexpected places and is at work in our enemies as much as in our friends.


Friday, March 09, 2012

Carol Landis and the Green Interfaith Network on Religion For Life, March 15-19

On the next Religion For Life, I speak with Dr. Carol Landis, the president of the board of directors of the Green Interfaith Network. The Green Interfaith Network (GINI) seeks to "build a network of cool congregations" in our area.

Our Vision is to be a model for green faith communities in the Southern Appalachians and to become a spiritual voice for environmental sustainability in the Northeast TN and Southwest VA region.

Carol will be talking about the work of the Green Interfaith Network including its advocacy for Tennessee's mountains.

Listen via livestream...

Thursday, March 15th at 8 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Sunday, March 18th, at noon on WEHC, 90.7.
Sunday, March 18th, at 2 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Monday, March 19th at 1 pm on WEHC, 90.7.
Via podcast beginning March 20th.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Let the Mystery Be: A Sermon

Let the Mystery Be
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 4, 2012
Second Sunday of Lent

John 11:1-57 (Scholars' Version)

The story of Lazarus is a curious one.

I have been fascinated by this story since I was a little kid.

There is all this business of Jesus delaying so he can make a big show. Of course, there are Martha’s famous words when Jesus commands that the stone be rolled away after Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days.

The King James puts its best.  

“Lord! By this time, he stinketh.”

Jesus shouting at the top of his lungs:  

“Lazarus, come out!” 

The corpse of Lazarus rumbles and bumbles, and out he staggers, wrapped like a mummy.

Jesus says: “Unbind him and let him go!”

John’s gospel tells the stories in a big way. Jesus just doesn’t cure a person from blindness, but a person born blind. He doesn’t just raise a child from death who has recently died, but he raises a guy who has been entombed for four days. He doesn’t just make a little bit of wine from water, but enough for several parties and better wine than the host served first. When Jesus goes to his execution, unlike the synoptic gospels, who have someone carry the cross for him, in John, Jesus carries his own cross. Jesus isn’t the adopted son of God at his baptism, or even his birth as in the other gospels. In John, Jesus is the pre-existent Word in the beginning with God. No one messes with John’s Jesus unless he allows them to do so. He is kind of like Chuck Norris. Jesus doesn’t even need to pray. He just prays for the benefit of others who hear. Abraham? Ha! Before Abraham, I AM. That is John’s Jesus.

John’s story leaves many unanswered questions. Such as, what happened to Lazarus? I thought it might have been interesting to ask Lazarus what it was like to be dead. Did his soul go somewhere then come back? Did he see the light? Did he have a spirit guide? Did he go to Hades or to Heaven? Did he hover over his body? Or was he simply without consciousness then have it back again? Was he the same guy when he came back? Were his memories intact? Was he happy coming back? Did he stinketh?

None of that is interesting to John. We never hear of or from stinky Lazarus again.

Those kinds of questions always get you in trouble in Sunday School. Just stick to the script. I used to ask a lot of troubling questions. I learned fairly early that my preachers and teachers were pretty grave about the Bible. It wasn’t a book to enjoy, really, it was a book to believe.

I preach on the Bible about as much as any other preacher. I don’t preach on it as if it were a book to believe. I don’t find most of it particularly believable, at least in the way that we were supposed to believe it. For instance, that this story is about something that happened. I look at it and I see some kind of literary imagination at work, or perhaps on oral story put in writing. The author may be having fun with us.

I don’t find this story credible, but I do find it enjoyable. I don’t think that is a bad way to read the gospels or the Bible for that matter. I think we should at least have as much fun as the authors had. I think we tend to regard these stories far too gravely and more gravely than the authors intended us to regard them.

To put it bluntly, our serious, belief-oriented readings stinketh. We need to hear the command to come out and to be unbound. My irreverence is not intended to be a dismissal of these stories. It is intended to prod (myself mostly) out of a too serious, belief-oriented, reading. If this story seems funny and weird, then go with it. There may be something to that.

When I suggest that Jesus in the Gospel of John is a more of a fictional character than an historical figure, and that John is using his creative imagination in creating this story, it isn’t that I am saying throw out the gospel.

When I learn that these Appalachian mountains are 500 million years old and formed by natural processes such as continental crashes as opposed to being created 6,000 years ago by God, that doesn’t make them less sacred. I find that natural explanation far more interesting, actually.

When I admire a painting or hear a beautiful song, it doesn’t make either less admirable or less beautiful because human beings were the painters and the singers as opposed to angels.

I can be inspired and intrigued by Hamlet’s soliloquy even though I know that Hamlet was a creation of Shakespeare. It is easier of course with Hamlet as opposed to Jesus because there was no church that claimed Hamlet was the second person of the Trinity. Hamlet is thus unbound from the strictures of church dogma.

This is one of the changes that has been underway for some time. The Bible is beginning to be seen as a human product and as a classic of Western literature. It no longer belongs to the church. It can be read, interpreted, enjoyed, and criticized as a literary product. When it is unbound from church restrictions, it can be an inspiration to our creativity.

This is true for other so-called holy books, such as the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita. Those who want to have control of those books and their interpretation may not like this freedom, but it doesn’t matter. Those books do not belong to them. They belong to all of us. The field is wide open. The stone to the tomb has been rolled away.

“Come out!”

This freedom allows us to read again these texts with a new perspective.

That freedom has to do with reading, enjoying, and savoring these stories and the life questions they raise with curiosity, unbounded curiosity, as opposed to indoctrination. We can have a conversation with the author. We can resist the author. We can embrace the author.

In this story, Jesus says to Martha,

“Your brother will be raised.”

Martha responds, 

“I know he’ll be raised—in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, 

“I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even if they die, will live, but everyone who is alive and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Throughout the Gospel of John, the reader is often at a loss of how literal to take the character of Jesus when he makes these pronouncements. This story is odd in the fact that Martha seems to have the doctrine correct. That is even traditional Christian doctrine, resurrection on the last day. Yet apparently, that isn’t right.

For John has Jesus say that anyone “who is alive and believes will never die.” That is odd. He can’t literally mean that. Or does he? Is “die” a metaphor for something? Does he just mean those who believe will go to heaven when they die? What would the difference between that and what she originally said? Does “believe” and thus “never die” mean quality of life?

What does that have to do with Lazarus? The zombie thing? The corpse that stinketh coming back to life is just kind of creepy. Are we still to assume that Lazarus is still alive somewhere? Or did he die again or just go to heaven?

I am sure there are preachers who will give you the answers.

I think answers are boring. They turn us into believers (or non-believers) rather than curious seekers.

What happens after death?

I don’t know. Do you know?

I personally have not met anyone or read anyone ever who has convinced me that they actually know anything about life after death. I have met people who believe and who seem certain and are concerned that I believe correctly (or at least that I lead the sheep correctly). I simply don’t find them convincing.

I especially don’t find people convincing who claim (and all religions and spiritualties seem to do this) that there are certain practices or beliefs you have to do in this life to get the best action on the other side. I am not convinced. I am not convinced they know what is on the other side and I am skeptical that I have to jump through beliefs or practices to get there.

Someone posted on Facebook a phrase that made me snicker. It said,

“I am going to hell in every religion.”

That is probably true for me.

In the worry over life after death, I will let that mystery be.

However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun to think or talk about.

I am having fun now with the idea of the multi-verse, the possibility of an infinite number of universes.  That sounds fun.  Maybe I will experience consciousness in one of them.  Who knows?

Mostly I am just amazed when I allow myself to be aware that I am actually here.

I think when Jesus has that conversation with Martha that Martha is anxious. She has her beliefs "right", but they aren’t that comforting. Jesus says,

“…everyone who is alive and believes (or trusts which is a better word) in me will never die…”

He is saying in effect, 

“Don’t worry about it so much.”

John’s Jesus is the authoritative Word from the beginning. He knows everything. He can do anything. He is the Chuck Norris Jesus. You know those Chuck Norris jokes. Like this one:

“The universe isn’t expanding. It is just running away from Chuck Norris.”

That Jesus, is telling Martha, I am the guy with the answers. Trust me. Don’t trust your religious doctrine. Trust that whatever happens, alive or dead, it is OK.

This is what I take away.

There is a great deal of anxiety about our lives. Certainly. The contingencies of life are challenging and there is suffering to be sure. One of the goals of religious institutions ought to be to help people negotiate and come to terms with the contingencies of life. They do that.

Sometimes, however, they can add needless suffering. I see people
 anxious that they are good enough,
worried that they will believe the wrong things,
or convinced that they believe the right things,
concerned that God will reject them or has rejected them.

Much of that comes because they have been brow-beaten by some form of religion. The answer from these spiritual abusers has been,

“No you are not good enough and you are going to hell unless you believe X, Y, and Z and do A, B, and C.”

I keep thinking to myself that that cannot be the main narrative out there. I keep naively optimistic that people are not that religiously abusive. But, then I run into reality. That spiritual abuse and its effects are rampant.

The abuse is based on something that no one can possibly know.

How can anyone know anything about God or about what happens (if anything) when we die? The most anyone can do is make guesses. Your guess is as good as any preacher’s.

Let the mystery be.

I think that the author of John’s gospel was in his own quirky way trying to get that message across. He creates this character, Jesus, as the Word with God from the beginning of time to come down to Earth and to give the answers.

The first miracle that the Creator the Universe performs when he comes down to Earth in human form is turn water into wine. He is the life of the wedding party. That should say something about how John wants us to approach the mystery of life.

He has Jesus say, in effect:

“I have been there. I have been everywhere. I and the Father are One. Chuck Norris runs away from me.”

The answer to life’s perplexing questions is,



If John’s Jesus is the personification of Reality, I hear Reality say:

"Chill out. 
Come out! 
Be unbound! 
I am life. 
Enjoy it. 
Whatever happens after you are dead, it is OK too. 
How can it not be OK? 
In the meantime, 
I am the party and I am in charge."