Not a Prop

“Let me be clear. This is revolting. The Bible is not a prop. A church is not a photo opt. Religion is not a political tool. God is not your plaything,”  wrote James Martin, SJ, last night on Twitter.  He is a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America, and his is a succinct statement of why church leaders and theologians from centrist and progressive Christian traditions are appalled and outraged at President Trump’s photo opt  in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House.  

In a CNN interview, the Right Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, said, “Let me be clear: The President just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.”  She continued. “I just want the world to know, that we in the diocese of Washington, following Jesus and his way of love … we distance ourselves from the incendiary language of this President. We follow someone who lived a life of nonviolence and sacrificial love.”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry issued a statement that said, in part, that Trump’s actions “did nothing to help us or to heal us.”   

“The Bible the President held up and the church that he stood in front of represent the values of love, of justice, of compassion, and of a way to heal our hurts.”

Curry continued, “We need our President, and all who hold office, to be moral leaders who help us to be a people and nation living these values. For the sake of George Floyd, for all who have wrongly suffered, and for the sake of us all, we need leaders to help us to be “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

I know that this outrage must be confusing for people outside the church who associate Christianity with right-wing politics, closed-mindedness, rigidity, authoritarianism, fundamentalism, racism, and hate.  The fact is that anyone can wave a Bible, anyone can call themselves Christian, and anyone who can attract followers–even if it’s done by manipulation– can build an edifice with a bell tower and call it a church.  Externals do not make it so.   With apologies to Paul, a first century B.C.E. letter writer and follower of Jesus:  If I can amass power, be elected to the highest office in the land, have my photo taken in front of the church of Presidents while I hold up  the sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and have not love, I am but dissonant bells ringing in my own delusional tower.

Photo by Sarah Wardlaw vis Unsplash

Review of Evangelicals, ed. by Mark Nolls, David Bebbington, & George Mardsen

Evangelicals

Up front I confess that I read this book as a progressive clergywoman baffled by the reported 81% “evangelical support” of Donald Trump in the 2016 election and beyond.   I came to Evangelicals:  Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be (Eerdmans, 2019)  with the questions that the subtitle proposes to answer: What are the differences between the evangelicals who voted for Trump and the ones who didn’t?  What happened in the history of this movement that results in such wildly different understandings of Christian faith and practice, all described under the umbrella term evangelicalism?

The book didn’t disappoint.  I discovered that many evangelicals ask the same kinds of questions and that there are no simple answers. I was left with a deep appreciation for the complexity of the issues, for the writers represented in this extensive anthology, and especially for the creative curation of editors Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington, and George Mardsen.  These three globally respected historians bring their vast scholarship to address “the contemporary American controversies posing the greatest difficulties for a coherent, factual, and responsible understanding of ‘evangelicalism’” (1).

In the introduction  co-editor Mark A. Noll, Research Professor of History at Regent College who previously taught at the University of Notre Dame, identifies three crises related to the word “evangelical.” The most obvious is the support that a huge majority of white U.S. evangelical Christians give to Donald Trump.  When Daniel Deitrich’s “Hymn for the 81%” went viral in January, only a small percentage of followers of American politics failed to recognize its subject matter by its title alone. While not denying that support, Noll points out that pollsters usually identify evangelicals as those who say they were born again.  Then he asks this question: “ . . . if significant numbers of African Americans have been born again and have been voting for Democrats–in even higher proportions and over a longer period of time than white evangelicals have voted for Republicans–how can anyone speak responsibly about “evangelical support” for Donald Trump?” (3).

Part 1, covering over half of the four–part book, deals with “The History of ‘Evangelical History” and leads off with co-editor George Marsden’s introduction to his 1984 Evangelicalism and Modern America Marsden, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, calls evangelicalism as a “conceptual unity” defined by its emphasis on five beliefs: “1) the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of Scripture; 2) the real, historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture; 3) eternal salvation only through personal trust in Christ; 4) the importance of evangelism and missions; 5) the importance of a spiritually transformed life” (22-23).

Co-editor David Bebbington, Professor of History at the University of Stirling in Scotland and currently a visiting professor at Baylor University, has also articulated another widely used characterization of evangelicalism which is less theological and more descriptive than Marsden’s.  He describes a “quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism” [a term capitalized in the U.K.]: “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort;  biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross” (34).

The rest of Part 1 contains essays reflecting on the meaning of evangelicalism, the difficulties in defining it, and debates evoked by Mardsen’s and Bebbington’s descriptions of its characteristics.  All of the writers in Part 1 focus on the long, rich, and complex history of evangelicalism.

The essays in Part 2 attempt to explain the origins and growth of evangelical support for Trump.  The titles themselves are intriguing: “A Strange Love? Or: How White Evangelicals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Donald” (Michael S. Hamilton);  “Donald Trump and Militant Evangelical Masculinity “ (Kristin Kobes Du Mez); “The ‘Weird’ Fringe Is the Biggest Part of White Evangelicalism” (Fred Clark).  Part 3 contains 5 essays that assess the meaning of evangelicalism today. Thomas Kidd asks whether the term is redeemable. Timothy Kelly reflects on whether evangelicalism can survive Donald Trump and says, “The movement may abandon, or at least demote, the prominence of the name, yet be more committed to its theology and historic impulses than ever” (255).

One of the most provocative essays in Part 3 is Molly Worthen’s “Idols of the Trump Era.”  For it she interviewed Kaitlyn Schiess, a student at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of The Liturgy of Politics:  Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor  to be released later this year [1]. Schiess describes a new ritual that has taken the place of Sunday worship and Bible studies–nightly viewing of conservative cable news.  Worthen quotes Schiess: “The reason Fox News is so formative is that it’s this repetitive, almost ritualistic thing the people do every night.  It forms in them particular fears and desires, an idea of America” (257). Worthen, intrigued by Schiess’ ideas, writes, “When I sought out conservative and progressive critics of white evangelical politics and asked them how to best understand it, this was their answer:  pay attention to worship, both inside and outside of church, because the church is not doing its job. Humans thrive on ritual and collective acts of devotion. And the way we worship has political consequences” (257-58).

In his essay  “To Be or Not to Be an Evangelical” Brian Stiller contends that the  word evangelical has been “disfigured by political pundits, muddied by protestors from the left and right, and brought into dishonor by self-proclaimed spokespeople who excuse inappropriate behavior and language as the necessary price for political power.  The center has shifted, and many Evangelicals now wonder where they fit” (273). Then he examines the term’s global nature, the way it defines “a major, self-conscious stream of Protestantism,” its roots and history, and the polarization with the U.S. and concludes that he will keep it because it will outlive the current controversy.   However, he rejects the term’s baggage: “To impose this first world debate on hundreds of millions of Christians world-wide would be worse than a mistake; it would be a new form of first world intellectual colonialism” (277).

In Part 4 the editors reflect on how evangelical history might inform current American debates,  George Marsden offers a global perspective on American evangelicalism, and David Bebbington reflects on the political history of British evangelicals. In the concluding essay Mark Noll writes,  “In the United States, it may be the case that the ‘e-words’ should be put to rest for a season because of their excessive entanglement with national political controversy. But even where ‘evangelicals’ and evangelicalism’ lose their cogency in one location, it does not mean that the words are irrelevant for those with the world in view.”

To reflect on and appreciate this book is to live in the tension between the historical perspectives of Noll, Bebbington, and Marsden and the immediacy of the political / religious controversies in the U.S.  I found myself wanting to skip over some of the historical essays to the ones about the current situation. At times I wished that the editors had found a way to integrate the historical with the contemporary.  On the other hand, this tension is embedded in the nature of anthologies, and this one offers the equivalent of a college course on evangelicalism past and present. For those who seek to understand who evangelicals “have been, are now, and could be,” this book is an excellent place to start.

[1] https://www.apologeticssimplified.com/podcasts/2020/1/13/interview-with-kaitlyn-schiess-exploring-political-theology

This review appeared in April 2020 edition of Englewood Review of Books.

Review of Shea Tuttle’s Exactly as You Are

Exactly as You Are

Fred Rogers was an overweight, shy, lonely, and often sick child who seemed to attract bullies. At home he felt safe and comfortable, enjoying his puppets and piano, which became a means of expressing feelings of sadness and loneliness, but school was another matter.

Early in her new book Exactly the Way You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers (Eerdmans, 2019), Shea Tuttle makes the point that Fred never forgot those bullies. “ ‘I resented the pain. I resented those kids for not seeing beyond my fatness or my shyness,’ he told audiences sixty years later, marveling at how well he still remembered that day” (11). Her book shows how he transformed experiences such as this into an internationally beloved children’s television program that in multiple ways told millions of children during its 33-year run that they are loved just as they are.

Shea Tuttle was one of those children, and she brings her love of and fascination with Mister Rogers, her role as the mother of two children in grade school, and her theological training (M.Div., Candler School of Theology, Emory University) to her exploration of his life and faith.

Tuttle makes clear that there were many positive formative factors in Rogers’s life, including loving parents, a vibrant church, and a passion for music. His parents were leaders in their town of LaTrobe, Pennsylvania, which gave him a model of what a neighborhood could be. His father was an industrialist who respected and valued his employees. Both parents were people whose faith was expressed in serving their community and helping those in need. The local Presbyterian church was central in their family life, and Tuttle shows how its liturgy formed Rogers’s understanding of a disciplined life and the importance of a stable routine for children’s development. She also emphasizes the importance of music in his formation: “Very early on, music began to carry a meaning in his life that his other important hobbies—his puppet play and photography, hosting friends and helping in the community—couldn’t touch. When he was bullied at age eight, he “explored his grief at the piano” (31) and as a homesick college student he found solace in the “ancient tradition of expressing raw emotion through music” (33). It’s no wonder that music became such an integral part of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

After highlighting aspects of Rogers’s growing-up years that shaped his character and sense of vocation, Tuttle focuses on how he became Mister Rogers and continued to develop Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as long as it was in production. Chief among his mentors were Dr. William Orr, a professor at Western Theological Seminary (now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), and Margaret McFarland, an acclaimed expert on child development.

Tuttle says the core of Bill Orr’s theology “began with the biblical assertion that God’s creation, including humanity, is good (Gen. 1:31). Upon that foundation Orr laid the belief that we are therefore lovable.” She continues, “Put another way, if we are lovable and acceptable because we are God’s, then our neighbor, who is equally God’s, is also lovable and acceptable. And we are called into the work of that loving and accepting” (59).

Orr’s example spoke as strongly to Rogers as his academic teaching did. Tuttle relates Rogers’ comment that “when you see someone go out to lunch on a winter’s day and come back without his overcoat because he had given it to a person who was cold, you have a growing understanding of ‘living theologically.’ When we asked Dr. Orr about the coat, he said, ‘Oh, I have one other at home,’ and that was all he said about it” (56).

Just as Dr. Orr, through his example and teaching, influenced Rogers’s concept of neighborliness, so Dr. Margaret McFarland helped form his philosophy of child development and children’s programming. “Anything human is mentionable,” she taught, “and anything mentionable is manageable.” Tuttle explains that Rogers, absorbing this lesson, “worked to mention his feelings rather than deny them. He knew that, acknowledged or not, revealed or not, his feelings would find their ways to expression. And he wrote a song [“The Truth Will Make Me Free”] about that belief for the Neighborhood. The song ends with these lines:

I’m happy, learning
Exactly how I feel inside of me.
I’m learning to know the truth,
I’m learning to tell the truth.
Discovering the truth will make me free (149).  

It’s safe to say that many viewers weren’t aware of the biblical foundation for Rogers’s love of neighbor and the other the theological principles that informed Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. That was by design. Although he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers was reticent to talk explicitly about his faith. Tuttle relates a conversation between Terry Gross and Fred Rogers when Fresh Air was still a local show. Gross said, “Obviously you’re very religious, but . . . it’s not a denominational program, and I’m sure that’s intentional on your part.”

Fred replied, “It’s far from denominational and far from overtly religious. The last thing in the world that I would want to do would be something that’s exclusive. I would hate to think that a child would feel excluded from the Neighborhood by something that I said or did” (78).

Rogers often quoted this line from his favorite book, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eye” (126). That notion permeated the life-lessons Rogers shared daily with children through his television show. This bedrock wisdom was applicable to regard for neighbor—be cautious about assuming what is essential in other people.

Tuttle’s biography reflects that same kind of regard of her subject. While there is no doubt that she did thorough, impeccable research and thought deeply and creatively about Fred’s life and faith, her approach to the material is humble and respectful. In an interview on the podcast Things Not Seen, she said, “I can’t figure him out, even after spending a whole lot of time working on his writings or listening to people talk about him or watching the show. Part of what draws me to him is that he is unusual and complicated. I want to figure him out so I keep looking. I think that was part of his power, and that remains part of his power.” (1)

Part of the power of Exactly as You Are is that it offers deep insight into the life and faith of Fred Rogers while not pretending to know all about him. At a time when politicians and pundits and ordinary people with a social media platform routinely make definitive statements about the motives of others, Tuttle succeeds in honoring both his complexity and his core message that each of us should be loved exactly as we are.  

(1) “The Magnetic Strangeness of Fred Rogers: Shea Tuttle, Things Not Seen podcast #1923 (40:30-41:20)  https://www.thingsnotseenradio.com/shows/1923-tuttle

*******

This review was originally published in the Advent 2019 issue–the last print edition– of Englewood Review of Books.    It is available online at https://englewoodreview.org/shea-tuttle-exactly-as-you-are-feature-review/ 

“Last Night / Auld Lang Syne”

Photo Credit: Roven Images via Unsplash

Tonight people around the world will sing “Auld Lang Syne,” a 1788 poem by Robert Burns. It’s a song that invites memories of good times with friends–not just in the past year, but throughout our lives. A literal translation of the Scots phrase is “old long since,” meaning “days gone by.”   Burns’ version comes from a long oral tradition, dating back as least as far as 1588. His lyrics of this drinking song spread across Scotland through its inclusion in the Scottish New Year celebration of Hogmanay.  Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians helped popularize the song in North America, and for decades it’s been played in Time’s Square after the ball drops.

I’ve put together a video for Noel Stookey’s adapation of the song, which he and George Emlen arranged as “Last Night / Auld Lang Syne.”  About it he says,

For the past 4 years or so on New Year’s Eve in Blue Hill, a large group of townsfolk gather in the Congregational Church to bid farewell to the old year with poetry and song.  My good friend (and former musical director of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, group Revels), George Emlen and I felt that a counter melody to “Auld Lang Syne” would make a nice musical statement as well as a metaphoric intertwining of the old year/new year.  The search for its perfect lyric is probably not over yet – but on my holiday CD Somethin’ Special, I wanted to at least get the concept out among folks to sing.

Tonight in Blue Hill, Noel and George will again be leading the townsfolk in their “Last Night / Auld Lang Syne” and celebrating old friends and new friends with their song.  With this video I wish you a happy new year filled with joy, peace, and the warmth of friends.

Embracing the Enemy: Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace

“After I finished my lecture, Professor Jurgen Moltmann stood up and asked one of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating:  ‘But can you embrace a četnik?’” writes Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf in his preface to the first edition of Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.    “It was the winter of 1993.  For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called “četnik” [or chetnik] had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities.”

Only a few years earlier Moltmann had been Volf’s professor of theology and mentor at the University of Tübingen in Germany.  One of the most internationally esteemed theologians of the last decades of the twentieth century, he had known war even more intimately than Volf.  In 1944, he had been drafted into the German army and a year later had surrendered to the British. During his three years as a POW, he read the New Testament and Psalms for the first time and brought his personal  experience of war to his study and reflection. Later he wrote, 

In July 1943 I was an air force auxiliary in a battery in the center of Hamburg, and barely survived the fire storm which the Royal Air Force’s “Operation Gomorrah” let loose on the eastern part of the city. The friend standing next to me at the firing predictor was torn to pieces by the bomb that left me unscathed. That night I cried out to God for the first time: “My God, where are you?” And the question “Why am I not dead too?” has haunted me ever since.

In his lecture Volf had been arguing  that “we ought to embrace our enemies, as God has embraced us in Christ.”  So when Moltmann asked, “Can you embrace a četnik?”, his former student knew it was not a theoretical question. Moltmann had first-hand experience in struggling to love the enemy, and his question was part of what led Volf to write Exclusion and Embrace.

This 1996 book was named by Christianity Today as one of the best books of the twentieth century.  Several months ago Abingdon Press published a revised and updated edition, largely because it speaks to the hatred, conflict and the distrust of the “other” that are so prevalent around the world today.  Volf, who later founded the Yale Center on Faith and Culture and still teaches at Yale University Divinity School, wrote the first edition in a time when he believed that identity conflicts would fade as the processes of global integration would unite the world.  In his preface to the revised edition, he writes that such has not been the case: “The whole globe looks now more like Yugoslavia did on the eve of the outbreak of hostilities among its ethnic groups than like Europe when the Berlin Wall, that symbol of the bipolar world, came down and the European Union was expanding.” (1)

I’m one of the writers for FaithLink, a United Methodist digital curriculum on current affairs. This year’s Advent lessons were inspired by Volf’s book.  Although the curriculum is available only by subscription, the main essays from these lessons are posted on the Ministry Matters website:

“Violence and Peace” by Lyndsey Medford
https://www.ministrymatters.com/search/?t=a&q=Violence+and+Peace
“Deception and Truth” by Jill M. Johnson
https://www.ministrymatters.com/search/?t=a&q=Deception+and+Truth
“Oppression and Justice”  by Doug Paysour
https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9991/oppression-and-justice
“Exclusion and Embrace”  by Jeanne Torrence Finley https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9996/exclusion-and-embrace

Our times are racked by division and hatred–both stoked by fear of the other.  Volf’s book presents an alternative vision and a way toward human understanding and peace.  It’s a challenging read, but my colleagues and I at FaithLink hope that our essays provide a gentle welcome into his important work.  Mine begins with the story of the Grinch, which is not to be dismissed on December 25.  Remember that this is the 5th day of Christmas. Maybe the Grinch and the people of Whoville are still celebrating.

(1) To view Volf’s lecture, “Before Embrace,” visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5CFDY_9efU