[F]aith as belief is relatively impotent, relatively powerless. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage.
You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged.
Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.
~Marcus Borg

Books

This “Books” category will provide reviews of various books. We will try to share why we like and dislike a particular book.

You are encouraged to write comments (or ask questions) about the particular books, and if nothing is offensive, we will approve them for other to respond to as well. It is definitely okay to disagree with us, just, please, don’t be offensive!

Hope Against Darkness: A Book Review

I was working for Pep Boy in Irving, Texas while going to college, and the radio was always on in the store. The station was usually chosen by the manager on duty, and more often than not, a country station or a soft rock station was chosen (unless, of course, the Cowboys were playing). So, more than likely, it was there, amidst the smell of motor oil and tires, that I first heard Billy Ray Cyrus and the soon-to-become annoying song “Achy, Breaky Heart.”

I remember on several occasions that the DJ (or critics on TV) would label Cyrus the “Elvis of Country Music.” That was when labels really began to annoy me.

Even though Elvis was labeled the “King of Rock and Roll,” he had 31 top ten Country hits during his career – eleven of which went to number 1 (compare that to Cyrus’ 8 top ten hits). So, upon hearing the label given to Cyrus, I’d often mutter under my breath, “No, Elvis was the Elvis of Country music!” (Full disclosure, I’m a huge Elvis fan).

And yet, that’s what we do as humans, don’t we? We label people. We put people in boxes. When we pick sides, we build walls around us to shield us from the ideas of others. We assume that we or others can only align with similar people and that each group is homogeneous. We assume that those people can only do what we think (read know) they can do. We become so attuned to “our group” that we can’t see our own hypocrisy or the value of another group’s ideals.


It was personally painful at times (in a good way), but one of the things I most appreciated about Richard Rohr’s book, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety, was the fact that he clearly showed how neither left nor right, liberal or conservative has all the answers or is completely wrong. He showed how each extreme is often hypocritical.

As one who tends to more align myself with the left / liberal viewpoints, I often felt Rohr jabbing at me, personally. As much as I wanted to stand up and defend my tribe and my ideals, more often than not, I could see that he was right.

Even though the book was published in 2001, it speaks so clearly to the greatly divided world of religion and politics that seems so prevalent today in 2014 (of course, it was likely that way then, too, but my eyes were not opened to it – a blessing and a curse of social media). His call, echoing that of Jesus and St. Francis, is to drop the tribalism – to quit with trying to decide who is in and who is out.

I have said at times through the years as I have led various studies that we in the mainline church need to become very black and white about one thing, and only thing only: the world is full of gray. My theory has been that real transformation can come by being clear from the get-go that there are few if any absolutes. I continue to think that is valid, but this book helped me to see a slightly different perspective.

Rohr writes on page 163:

Spiritual transformation is often thought of as movement from darkness to light. In once sense that is true, but in another sense it is totally false. We forget that darkness is always present alongside the light. Pure light blinds, only the mixture of darkness and light allows us to see. Shadows are required for our seeing.

Here, we are reminded that light and darkness is not an either / or but a both / and. And throughout the book, he reminds us that the dark times of life are not bad (unless we choose to stay there); rather, these are a new telling of the sad yet hopeful story of the cross. They are the reminder of “the lamb who is simultaneously slaughtered and standing.” (pg. 23)

So, as I’ve reflected on these writings, I began to think about “white” and “black” in terms of science. “In the visible spectrum, white reflects light and is a presence of all colors, but black absorbs light and is an absence of color.” (from Wikipedia, June 28, 2014) To put it another way, white is the presence of all colors, but black absorbs light that contains all colors (you can even make black paint by mixing all colors). Interestingly, it is through the cuts made in the glass of a prism or the results of rain that show the full spectrum of color that is always present. And as Rohr reiterates poignantly throughout the book, it is the often painful cuts and rains of life that truly bring transformation and new life. And though these are painful, they are not bad but a place to experience grace.

Now, I think that the church needs to be black and white about the fact that there is a full spectrum of colors (and ideas), and it’s the full spectrum that brings real beauty, not the plainness of black OR white or the drabness of grays. To claim that all the world should be only blue OR red OR yellow is to deny the fullness of God’s creation. This should serve as a reminder for us to keep going back to examine ourselves and determine whether we are, in fact, promoting only one color of the spectrum. In that examination, we must ask, “What can we learn from another color of the spectrum?”

If I have one complaint with this book, it has to do with the subtitle: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety. I have recently become interested in Saint Francis of Assisi thanks to the inspiring example of Pope Francis and thanks to reading Matthew Fox’s book, Letters to Pope Francis. Plus, I’ve relatively recently become a fan of Richard Rohr. Therefore, I thought, this will be a great book! I can learn more from and about each. However, other than an occasional mention here and there and one chapter (Chapter 7: Francis of Assisi: Showing the Way Toward Reconstruction), I didn’t get much about St. Francis. I’m sure that many of his ideals and theology guide and inform the book, but I’m no more clear about what comes directly from him.

And yet, I see that I’m falling into the old trap of labeling. This book was for me a positive challenge to and for my life of faith, no matter the label on the front. Thus, I hope you’ll consider reading this book.


Fr. Richard Rohr is a globally recognized ecumenical teacher bearing witness to the universal awakening within Christian mysticism and the Perennial Tradition. He is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fr. Richard’s teaching is grounded in the Franciscan alternative orthodoxy—practices of contemplation and lived kenosis(self-emptying), expressing itself in radical compassion, particularly for the socially marginalized.

Fr. Richard is the author of numerous books, including Everything Belongs, Adam’s Return, The Naked Now, Breathing Under Water, Falling Upward, and Immortal Diamond, as well as the devotionals, Yes, And… and  Preparing for Christmas.

CAC is home to the Rohr Institute where Fr. Richard is academic Dean of the Living School for Action and Contemplation. Drawing upon Christianity’s place within the Perennial Tradition, the mission of the Rohr Institute is to produce compassionate and powerfully learned individuals who will work for positive change in the world based on awareness of our common union with God and all beings.


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Letters to Pope Francis – A Book Review

Imagine a “saw-horse” oil well pump looking first to the ground, then to the sky, and back again – over and over. That’s about how Dr. Machado looked as she lectured to us on the History of Christianity. She seemed to always look first at her notes, then to the same spot on the ceiling, and back to her notes – over and over.

Her speed of lecturing was the fastest I have ever experienced, and there was no way I could keep up with writing notes. So, in a world that was working on Pentium 3 computers with the Pentium 4 about to be launched, I resurrected on old 386 laptop that someone had given me years before. It was so slow it wouldn’t even run Windows 3.1, so I took notes in WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS. I could almost keep up then.

Yet, occasionally, she’d pause long enough to step from behind the podium to go into more detail (or maybe even give some additional off-the-cuff insights not in her notes). One day, though I don’t remember the exact context, I remember her pausing to say something along the lines of, “Just because someone was labeled a heretic doesn’t mean they were wrong. It just means they lost.”

That was mind blowing to a guy like me who just a few months before used to listen to the likes of Chuck Swindoll, J. Vernon McGee, R.C. Sproul, and even James Dobson on the way home from work. They didn’t necessarily use the word “heretic” much, but the thought was definitely there. Despite where I had been, those two sentences opened me to be able to “hear” folks who were considered heretics – who may have thought differently than me or were not necessarily traditional or orthodox in their thinking. It helped make some of that “required” seminary reading seem more worthwhile.

Eventually, I found myself leading a Living the Questions study called Saving Jesus where I was introduced to Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, a former Roman Catholic priest of the Dominican Order who was silenced by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later elected Pope Benedict XVI) in 1989. When one of the members of that class recommended that we study one of his books, Original Blessing, I didn’t bat an eye. I was like, “Sure. Sounds like a great idea!” That book was a bit wordy, but it was extremely thought-provoking and inspiring in giving me a new vocabulary for understanding life, faith, and God – and the relation of all three! And it was certainly not orthodox or traditional.

I found Letters to Pope Francis to be similarly thought-provoking and inspiring. Much less wordy than Original Blessing, it was much easier to read (though obviously not going nearly as in depth but also having a different purpose).

On one level, I felt a bit disconnected from the book, but that mainly stems from the fact that I’m a United Methodist Protestant Christian, and much of the book (as should be expected) deals directly with the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), examples being the lack of ordination of women and married priest as well as sexual misconduct of priests and the associated cover ups. These parts were somewhat interesting but had little bearing on me personally.

Where I felt most connected, though, was when Fox helped show similarities between the time of St. Francis of Assisi and our own and how Francis’ approach to his time can inform our approach to our own time. I came away wanting to study Francis more in depth as I learned much more than I knew before from this small volume.

Not only did Fox draw parallels between Francis’ time an ours, he also encouraged Pope Francis to live up to his namesake by employing some of the methods St. Francis used. In doing so, he was certainly critical of the RCC and the two previous Popes (not to mention the lack of effort to enact the reforms of Vatican II), but by and large, he was affirming of Pope Francis in what he has already done and said in his short tenure as Pope as well as his ministry prior to his election. Yet, Fox was not just handing out “attaboys.” He was encouraging the Pope to continue the work he has been doing and to go even further. Occasionally, he also gave some constructive criticism, but he did so gently (yet firmly) without being overly negative to the current Pope (a favor not afforded to the previous two Popes).

Many books like this speak of platitudes – high ideals – but wind up being simply rants with no plan of action. Thankfully, the book provides the beginning of what I think are practical steps for reforming the RCC and even Christianity as a whole. Drawing on his own experience of teaching and seeing Christianity being lived out in smaller communities, Fox offers real world examples of how things can be different. I really appreciate the fact that he allows most of Chapter 6, “Small Communities,” to be quotes (obviously chosen by Fox) from various small group participants giving insight into how they have seen grassroots reform taking place and working.

As one who is familiar with Fox might expect, his concern for social rights (especially those of the poor, women, and LGBTQ folk), social justice, lived faith vs. stale doctrine, and ecology shined through brightly. Likewise, his love of the laity and his desire to empower them for ministry (even in living out their daily jobs) was a beacon of hope. He rightly expands the call of the ministry of the laity beyond the typical understanding of “church work” to be the work people perform as “Doctors and business people, artists and teachers, therapists and social workers, carpenters and car repair specialists, farmers and journalists, inventors and policemen and women, nurses and builders and engineers and bankers. . . .” (pgs. 85-86) All of these add to the overall support of society and should be affirmed even if the task is not explicitly “Christian” – at least in a traditional understanding.

So, I heartily recommend this book to Pope Francis and all Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant. I also let Rev. Dr. Fox have the last word (including a quote from Pope Francis himself):

With all my heart I hope your papacy is one of compassion in it fullest and richest meanings and an example to other institutions of our world that compassion matters. And justice matters. You have said so yourself in the following words: “In the fact of grave forms of social and economic injustice, of political corruption, of ethnic cleansing, of demographic extermination, and destruction of the environment . . . surges the need for a radical personal and social renewal that is capable of ensuring justice, solidarity, and transparency.” pg. 41


About the Author:
Matthew Fox holds a Ph.D. in spirituality, summa cum laude, from the Institut Catholique de Paris. His long career of teaching ministry includes founding the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality, which was shut down after 19 years under pressure from then-Cardinal Ratzinger whose pursuit of him and other theologians led to Fox’s “silencing” in 1989 and ultimate expulsion from the Dominican Order in 1993. He started the University of Creation Spirituality and is author of 31 books on spirituality and culture including Original Blessing, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, A Spirituality Named Compassion, and Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times.

He has been active as a priest in the Anglican community since being expelled from the Dominicans, teaching and working with youth to create a more just and compassionate world—one in keeping with the spirit of St. Francis. Fox is visiting scholar with the Academy for the Love of Learning in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Learn more at www.matthewfox.org.

 


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through theSpeakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.


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Answering the Contemplative Call & Earthy Mysticism – Two Book Reviews

Lists:

Sets of instructions. How-to steps.These are really helpful if you are putting together a book shelf or bicycle or even if you are trying to fix a problem on a Linux operating system like Xubuntu.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about such things as they relate to personal or spiritual things. They tend to imply, “If you’ll only follow these X number of steps, you’ll be okay – you’ll succeed.”

I just can’t believe such things are that simple, that cut and dried, that black and white. And yet, I wonder how much money is spent each year by people trying to find the list that will answer their questions and fix their problems. I bet it’s millions of dollars.


 One Book:

I received a copy of Carl McColman’s Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path to review from the good folk over at The Speakeasy.  I requested a copy as I’ve been interested in reading some different authors with different perspectives. Plus, more importantly, mysticism is something that has become of interest to me in recent years, partly because “mystical language” and the seeking by so many of the “mystical path” have become prevalent.

I thoroughly enjoyed Part One of the book, entitled “Recognizing the Call.”  In it, McColman does a good and interesting job of defining the mystery of contemplation or mysticism while leaving the definition open enough for others to have mystical experiences that are a bit different.  He does this by giving us glimpses into the different contemplative lives of people such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Evelyn Underhill, Teresa of Avila, Richard Rohr, and Meister Eckhart, just to name a few.  He even spends one chapter, “Three Tales of Awakening,” looking at Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton.

Part Two, “Preparing for the Journey,” is a focus on preparing for the “adventure of falling ever more deeply in love with the Divine” (pg. 43).  For me, this section was still somewhat enjoyable, but he over used and over extended the metaphor of preparing for a trip to a distant place to the point of being too “whimsical” (his word from the “Introduction”) or cheesy (my word).

The deeper I got into Part Three, “Embarking on the Journey,” the less connected with the book I became.  He went to great pains to say that everybody will do things differently, which I appreciate.  But then he’d counter with something like, “But you really ought to follow these steps.”  For instance, McColman did a good job in the chapter on “Befriending Silence” to make clear that we can never fully find silence.  Even in nature, we’ll hear the sounds of nature.  As much as we try to silence our minds, our minds are likely to keep chattering except for an occasional period (possibly very brief period) of silence.  Then in the chapter, “Praying the Silence,” he countered with a list (which I have been upfront about not liking):

  • Set aside a time of uninterrupted silence;
  • Have good posture;
  • Have good breathing;
  • Focus on an object and / or repeat a phrase or a word.

I know this is helpful for some people. I have even led folks through some of these steps as I know it works for them. My frustration is that it feels like he implies if I’m to respond to the call of contemplative prayer, I need to do this. This has not worked for me. I’ve tried it again and again and I find it far from nurturing for me (at least in this time of my life).


The Other Book:

All the while that I read McColman’s book – both the parts that I loved and the parts I liked less – one book kept coming to mind:  Tex Sample’s Earthy Mysticism.  This is a book I purchased on my own a few years ago to use as part of a faith study with a group called The Society of St. Simeon at First United Methodist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas (as an aside, part of our opening liturgy for each session was very similar to McColman’s steps listed above).

In all honesty, Tex’s understanding of mysticism has become my understanding for me.  The ways he has had mystical moments are like mine.  Thus, it is no wonder his book kept coming to mind.  For instance, he writes in the Introduction entitled “A God Who Will Goose You:”

I am not helped much by conventional approaches to spirituality. I find it almost impossible to do “devotions.” Daily Bible study in the sense of devoting twenty to thirty minutes a day never worked for me. I cannot get around to scheduled times for prayer on my knees with head bowed. I find labyrinths and prayer beads boring. I am ever and again distracted in silent meditation. I simply cannot sustain a spirituality based in such things. Yet, Bible study, prayer, worship, and Eucharist form the heart of my practices, but it is a different spirituality (pg. xiv).

What I love about his book after the introduction is that they are essentially just stories from his life in which he has in some way been surprised by God who arrived “in the ordinary and the seamy.”  They are “about mystical moments when clearly the only thing that finally matters is this God who will never leave us alone, especially in the ordinary and angular places of life” (pg. xv).

Through stories like the death of his son, the conniving of an insurance salesman, participating in a march on Selma, and comforting his vomiting wife, Tex creates opportunities for us to see God in our own painful, mean, inspiring, and mundane events.  And for me, one of the beauties in the ways he tells these stories is that he seldom says, “Well, this is how I experienced God.”  More often than not, he kind of leaves it hanging (like some of Jesus’ parables) for us to wrestle with where God was “goosing” Tex in the story and where God might be goosing us.  We are left with deciding what is “mystical.”  We aren’t told what is and is not or whether we arrived at it in a “correct” way.


Contemplatives:

I experienced a real epiphany in McColman’s book.  I noticed that the word, “contemplative” (aka mystic), is based on the word, “contemplate.”  Contemplate.  To know God more fully, we must contemplate the mystery of God.  We must consider again and again this God that will goose us.

I can’t say for sure, but I’d bet that Tex Sample didn’t always know that the stories he told were mystical in the moment.  That has certainly been my experience.  It has been most often in retrospect that I more fully see the action of God.  It is in contemplation that God becomes more apparent.


 Both Books:

McColman’s book has much to offer, especially for people who are predisposed to living out their spiritual life in a more disciplined way.  It provides many insights for anybody, but the last part was less edifying for me.

No matter your predisposition, I thoroughly recommend Sample’s book.  It may open you to new ways of knowing the mystical life.


About the Authors:

Carl McColman is a writer, speaker, retreat leader and spiritual director. His blog, www.anamchara.com, celebrates the mystical and contemplative dimensions of both Christian and world spirituality. He is a regular contributor to Patheos, and his writing has also appeared in the Huffington Post.

He studied Christian meditation at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, and received additional training in the art of spiritual direction from the Institute for Pastoral Studies in Atlanta. He is a professed member of the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit, a community under the spiritual guidance of the Trappist monks of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. As a Lay Cistercian, his spirituality is ordered toward what Walter Hilton called “the mixed life” — devoted to the practice of contemplation within the context of marriage and family, outside of a traditional monastery.

Carl lives near Stone Mountain, Georgia, with his wife and stepdaughter.

Tex Sample is the Robert B. And Kathleen Rogers Professor Emeritus of Church and Society at The Saint Paul School of Theology where he taught for 32 years. He holds a B.A. degree from Millsaps College, an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology, a Ph.D. from the Boston University Graduate School. and a D.D. from Coe College.

Sample is a freelance lecturer and speaker in North America and overseas and has been active throughout his career in both the church and in the community. While living in Arizona, he was heavily involved in the Valley Interfaith Project, a broad-based organizing effort associated with the Industrial Areas Foundation. He was also active in the Arizona Interfaith Movement, an interfaith group that includes 25 different faith traditions.

Sample is married to Peggy Sanford Sample, who is a watermedia artist and a musician. They have three children, one of whom is deceased.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received Answering the Contemplative Call free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

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Rants to Revelations – A Book Review

It’s easy to get stuck in ruts, isn’t it?

Even thinking about books (particularly theological books), I essentially have to force myself to read books by people I don’t know as I’m often stuck in a rut.  It’s easy for me to fall back on old favorites like Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren, Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, etc. even though they often say the same things again and again.  If I run across an author that I am not familiar with, I’ll look on the back of the book for endorsements by some of my faves, and if there are endorsements by those I don’t trust, I’ll pass!

Sometimes, though, a new author (to me) won’t have such an endorsement.  I then look at the publisher as there are some publishers I will typically pass up, some that I will typically trust, and some that I’m careful with.

But what do I do when I’m not familiar with the author or publisher, and there is no endorsements by folks I trust?  I’ll look at the brief biographical information.  What seminary did they attend?  What denomination are they affiliated with?  What are they interested in?

Sometimes after this less-than-in-depth search, I’m still left with unanswered questions, and unless something about the book or its description has piqued my interest, I generally pass.  That is exactly what happened with this book initially.

TheSpeakEasy.info had offered Rants to Revelations: Unabashedly Honest Reflections on Life, Spirituality, and the Meaning of God by Ogun R. Holder for review.  After doing my less-than-in-depth search, I was left with too many unanswered questions.  I didn’t know the author, I didn’t know the publisher (Unity), there were no endorsements, and I didn’t know anything about his denomination (Unity).  On top of all of that, it just didn’t pique my interest.

A short time later, SpeakEasy.info offered another book I wasn’t interested in and noted that they still had copies of Rants to Revelations.  I passed again.  Shortly after that another book was offered, and again, it was noted that copies of this book were still available.  Honestly, I felt sorry for Holder since it appeared (at least on the surface) that not many people wanted to try his book.  Then I noticed that the book included illustrations by David Hayward (aka The Naked Pastor), someone I’ve seen many religious cartoons from.  So, this time I requested a copy and got it.

Honestly, I remained skeptical until page 8 when I read these words about prayer:

I started to see that prayers weren’t just words. Any action that expressed my divine nature was, in effect, a prayer. When I was in service to others, I was being a prayer. When I was immersed in any experience that let me touch the depth and vastness of what lay beyond what I could perceive with my senses or imagine with my mind, I was in prayer. When I would sit at the piano and let my fingers effortlessly play notes that transported me deep within myself, I was praying.

It was then that I knew I had met in this book sort of a kindred spirit.  The road of life and faith isn’t simply about talk but action.

In story after story from his own life, we see a man who kept finding himself in various ruts:  unfulfilling job, non-edifying religious tradition, doubts, rebellion towards family and God, marital difficulties, and more.  Yet, time and again, we see how God was active in his life and especially in himself to bring him new insights about himself, others, and God, to bring about transformation and growth.  Each time, he is pulled out of the rut by working with God to the point of finding himself back on that narrow path of life and faith, hopefully with new knowledge to help him avoid other ruts on the journey.

I enjoyed his willingness to be vulnerable and (I assume) to be honest in telling his own story in relation to God, his loved ones, and himself.  By doing so, I think he makes it easy for a reader to be able to relate to at least some part of his life story.  Plus, his writing style felt very conversational and thus very readable.  I really hope people will decide to try this book as I think it can be helpful for those wanting to discover their God-given potential in life, relationships, and ministry (lay and clergy).


About the Author

Ogun R. Holder is an ordained Unity Minister. His many titles include speaker, teacher, author, radio show host, blogger, musician, husband, parent, social media consultant, and self-proclaimed geek.

He’s written articles for Unity’s Daily Word [about 3,000,000 readers], Unity Magazine, and Contact Magazine. He also co-hosts Unity Family Matters a Unity Online Radio show about conscious parenting with my wife Rev. Jennifer Holder.

Holder is also the Executive Director of Unity For All, a nonprofit  on a mission of Global Transformation through Spiritual Education, Empowerment, and Engagement, and he’s had the honor of speaking at churches and spiritual centers across the country.

Originally from Barbados, he moved to the USA in 1994 to pursue a degree in Music Therapy. As a Music Therapist he worked successfully with a variety of populations in schools, hospitals, adult day-care facilities, and in his own private practice.

He currently live in the Washington, DC metro area with his wife and their daughter Joy.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.


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Holy Terror – A Book Review

I really wanted to like this book.  Half of it was pretty good.

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Several years ago, I was having a conversation with a family member.  I’ve never asked him his “affiliation,” but my guess is that he is agnostic.  Whatever, his affiliation, he was in the process of finishing his philosophy degree at the time, and he was telling me about a class he had just finished that gave a different interpretation of the book of Revelation than he was accustomed to.  Essentially, he had learned what mainline scholars have been saying for sometime: the book is speaking to the plight of first century Christians.  It is not about the distant future.

In the midst of our discussion, he made a passing statement that hearing this different understanding made him wonder about other ways of looking at Christianity than the very conservative brand he grew up on.  That gave me an idea for a Christmas present.

I had recently finished reading John Shelby Spong’s A New Christianity For a New World.  It was not my favorite book, nor did I agree with it completely.  Yet, I’d found it thought provoking, so I decided to gift this book.

A few months after getting the gift for Christmas, my family member said he’d tried to start reading the book, but he felt it was written from too emotional of a perspective.  He didn’t trust or give credence to books that were emotional, so he had not finished reading it (though he promised to keep it).

I really didn’t understand what he meant until I read Mel White’s Holy Terror: Lies the Christian Right Tells Us to Deny Gay Equality.

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I first became aware of Mel White while watching some of the great DVD-guided studies produced by Living the Questions (LTQ).  He is a former conservative pastor, teacher / professor, and ghost-writer for several big named conservative figureheads like Billy Graham, W.A. Criswell, and Pat Robertson – just to name a few.  After years of struggle, he came out in the early 1990s noting that he was gay, which, of course, broke many ties with conservative friends.  He still considers himself evangelical while he is a Metropolitan Community Church clergy person.  I appreciated his insights shared in the LTQ studies, and I marveled at how he had overcome obstacles to allow himself to be who God created him to be.  So, when I had the opportunity to receive a copy of this book to review, I jumped at the chance.

He begins the book by laying a foundation for “modern” fundamentalist thought that has been built on the backs of Billy Graham, Francis Schaeffer, W.A. Criswell, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and D. James Kennedy.  Having worked for many of these, one gets sort of a fly-on-the-wall view of the perspective of some of these folks, which is interesting.  Yet, I found this part of the book the most difficult to get through.  Like my family member’s take on Spong’s book, this section (Part One) was just too emotional for me.

I don’t discount or deny the hurt that some of these folks have laid on Mel over the years, but in the midst of telling us about some of these characters, White would go into what I can only describe as emotional rants about hurt feelings, which I know are real.  But, these rants took away from the book for me.  This section felt less like “lies the Christian right tells” and more like I’m really hurt by the lies they tell.  Truthfully, at times it sounded as much like whining as anything.

Of course, we all approach a book with hopes and desires, and one of the hopes that I had for this book was not just hearing the lies being told by the Christian right but also more about the truths that are denied by the Christian right.  In other words, I was hoping this was a book that I could share with folks who were on the fence of whether to support gay rights or not, with hopes that this would put them in the support category.  Yet, I feel this book is directed towards folks who already support gay rights.  The lies of the right are shared, but only passing statements are given to the alternative view.

On top of that, I was surprised that White did not discuss the historical context surrounding some of the “clobber passages” from the Bible used by the right.  By understanding the historical context of these passages, many people (including myself several years ago) have become convinced that the Bible is not dealing with loving, committed relationships but pagan rituals, prostitution, and gang rape among people of the same sex.  That’s a HUGE difference.  Thus, it’s clear that Holy Terror is written for those who have already made their minds up.

Emotions and pre-conceived notions aside, a portion of this book was excellent.  I wish Part Three, dealing with the religion and politics of fundamentalism (idolatry and fascism), had preceded Part Two.  However, it was fascinating to see through the discussion in Part Two of the transcripts of the secret meeting at Glen Eyrie (outside of Colorado Springs) in the 1990s how idolatry and fascism were being played out in this far right movement against gay rights.

I was amazed and sickened earlier this year when I toured the State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.  It became abundantly clear as I saw how Nazis used the methods of propaganda to scapegoat Jews (and others) for Germany’s problems that the far right was using similar tactics in our own country today by sharing half-truths, hyperbole, and fear against any number of groups.  Part Three of Holy Terror makes this abundantly more clear, and it is, in a word, frightening.  This portion of the book alone is worth a re-print and maybe even an expansion.

Part Four is worthwhile, too – especially Chapters 8 (Reclaiming Our Progressive Political Values) and 9 (Reclaiming Our Progressive Moral Values).  Chapter 10, which seemed to be an attempt to encourage people to join the fight for gay rights using some of the tactics used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., was interesting but lacked a tangible plan for action, in my opinion.

It seems odd to say this, since the book was originally released in 2006, but in many ways it is dated.  President George W. Bush has left office, and President Barack Obama has just been elected to a second term.  Jerry Falwell has died, and after this past election cycle even more states allow gay marriage (though we could use some more).  The House and Senate that were both majority Republican in 2006 have transitioned through a Democratic majority for both to a Democratic Senate and Republican House.  Obviously, there is still work to be done, but some of the issues White puts forth are not issues right now (though it is good to have the history so we can learn from past mistakes).

In short, if you already support gay rights, you might find this a worthwhile read (especially Parts Two and Three).  If you are on the fence, I don’t think you’ll be swayed by the arguments found here.  If you are against gay rights, you’ll just say the author is whining.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.


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Preparing for Christmas – A Book Review

Full Disclosure:  I’m usually not a fan of daily devotionals, even though they are quite popular.  For many, they bring needed comfort, insight, preparation, and / or reflection.

Maybe it’s because I’m not terribly disciplined, or should I say my disciplines often change or take alternate routes, but daily devotionals have not typically kept me on path.

I think part of the problem is that many of the popular daily devotionals feel very surface level to me.  I seldom find much depth of insight, personally.  Being daily, there is often no building concept throughout the book, building upon itself day after day.  I used to try to read Oswald Chamber’s My Utmost for His Highest.  He had good things to say, but it lacked coherence for me.  Likewise, I’ve often recommended (and even given as gifts) daily devotionals from John Wesley’s writings, as they are often a good entry point for folks wanting to learn more about him and his theology.  Yet, they too often display the theological bias of the editor, and again, I get lost for lack of coherence.

None of the above applies, however, to Richard Rohr’s Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent, but I did not not read it daily, but in two sittings riding on a bus to and from New York City.  It was hard to put down!

Early on, Rohr defines the kingdom or reign of God as “The Big Picture,” God’s vision for the world.  He goes on to show how the time of Advent and the birth of Christ invites us into life in The Big Picture here and now, not just when we die.  He further helps us understand the kingdom of God with other phrases like “Great Banquet” and “Great Drama,” reminding us that we all play a part in The Big Picture of God’s kingdom.

Rohr is a Franciscan priest who is also the founder and animator of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Honestly, I have not read a lot of Roman Catholic authors, but often I feel that many such authors are too closely wedded to certain dogmas and doctrines that leave me disconnected.  When I read the Rescript in the front of the book declaring it “to be free from doctrinal or moral error,” I feared a similar focus in this book, but I was pleasantly surprised.  There is a healthy dose of orthodox theology, but it is tied explicitly to the action of living out God’s Big Picture for the world.  He even writes explicitly on page 48:

The Scriptures very clearly teach what we call today a “bias toward action.” It is not just belief systems or dogmas and doctrines as we have often made it. The Word of God is telling us very clearly that if you do not do it, you, in fact, do not believe it and have not heard it. The only way that we become convinced of our own sense of power, dignity and the power of God is by actually doing it – by crossing a line, a line that has a certain degree of non-sensicalness and unprovability to it – and that’s why we call it faith.

I couldn’t agree more.

This book is a meaningful tool to help us do the work of transformation – work done with God, helping us to be more fully connected to God and all God’s children.  It guides us through the beginning of the Christian year, preparing us for the work of making God and Christ evident throughout the year and helping ourselves and others see the Big Picture that we are to participate in.

Whether you are one who is disciplined at doing daily devotionals or if you read it straight through as a “regular” book, I recommend this to you for your joy and edification.


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