Freeing Jesus: A Review

The following review was originally published in Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. The author is Tell It Slant editor, Jeanne Torrence Finley.

Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence
Diana Butler Bass
Hardback: HarperOne, 2021

By some strange coincidence, on the day before the launch of Diana Butler Bass’s new book Freeing Jesus, Gallup released a new report that began, “Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend.” That’s a decline from 70% in 1999.[1] For many within the institutional church, that news is disturbing.  For Bass, who has been writing about this trend since her Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening was published in 2012, this report is not surprising or necessarily alarming.

Since reading Christianity After Religion, I’ve been hoping that Bass would write a kind of sequel, updating her astute observations and her optimism that despite declining church affiliation, a spiritual awakening is still happening in America. Her next two books, Grounded (2015) and Grateful (2018) were of a different order, addressing spirituality in a more personal way.  Now in Freeing Jesus, I find that sequel, but in a quite different genre than I expected– “memoir theology”–which she defines as the “making of theology–understanding the text of our own lives and taking seriously how we have encountered Jesus” (264).  Although it is not a new genre, it has been highly underrated by the academy, especially before the coming of feminist theologians in significant numbers.

Bass recalls asking a seminary professor (in an evangelical seminary, circa 1980s) why class readings were all from male theologians. He answered that women didn’t write theology. She named some who lived way before the twentieth century:  Perpetua, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena. He replied, “That’s not theology. That’s memoir”(264). Later she concluded that when men write about Jesus from experience the tendency has been to call it “theology,” and when women write theology from experience, their work is more likely to be called “memoir.”  What about Augustine? Luther? Wesley? Bonhoeffer?  All great theologians; they too wrote out of their experiences.

“Memoir theology” is inviting to audiences that Bass understands so well: people who question the version of Christianity that they have been exposed to (whether directly through church or indirectly through culture and politics), people who have left the church but still want to follow Jesus, people who remain in church and want to be able to talk about Jesus at Sunday brunch with their friends, but who are painfully aware of the baggage often attached to Christianity in contemporary society.  She is writing for all people who ask of Jesus, “‘Who are you? A question with myriad answers”(264).

In Freeing Jesus Bass bypasses the constraints of doctrine and correct belief by writing about the Jesus of her experience and beaconing readers to reflect on their own experience of him.  She does that by sharing stories of six of the Jesuses who have been with her through the stages of her life: friend, teacher, savior, Lord, way, and presence. Through her story she tells “the story of the Jesus of experience, who shows up consistently and when we least expect him.  Freeing Jesus means finding him along the way” (xxvi).  I don’t want to give away the arresting story that begins this book because it is too funny, too poignant, and  too profound to be paraphrased. But the title alone makes clear that Jesus wants a life outside of the church and indeed wants to be free from all the boxes we put him inside.

Bass seamlessly moves from her story into theology, church history, biblical studies, and culture. In chapter 4, “Lord,” she recounts her experience as a student at a west coast evangelical liberal arts college in the late 70s and early 80s. There she found the protection and security that she’d valued in her church youth group as well as the motivation and resources to stretch her understanding of Jesus beyond the savior of individuals. She read Your God Is Too Small by J.B. Phillips, who criticized Christians who “put God in a box” (118). There she learned a radical notion that to proclaim “Jesus is Lord” is to assert that Caesar is not and that to act on that notion requires privileging the poor and working for justice: “If you hung around with Jesus, it was easy to believe that some sort of political revolution was at hand” (136). This was not a message she’d heard in the church back home. 

As good memoir should be, Freeing Jesus is gentle persuasion, never telling readers what we should do or think or be. In addition, Bass is gracious in telling about growing away from evangelicalism toward a more progressive Christianity. She presents a multifaceted view of evangelicalism, claiming the ways it fostered her growth as well as the ways it held her back. Her vulnerability invites us into her life but doesn’t hold us there. She wants readers to reflect on the kinds of questions her stories raised for them and to recognize that our lives are important in understanding the life of Jesus. 

Having written this book during the pandemic, Bass, in her conclusion, comments on the irony of the project. Her mission was to set Jesus free, but in fact during this last year, church doors were locked and Jesus had left the building. Congregations were having to find creative ways to be church outside their buildings, and some have succeeded.  She writes, 

But as millions have discovered in these many months, Jesus was not confined to a building. Jesus was around our tables at home, with us on walks and hikes, present in music, art, and books, and visible in faces via Zoom. Jesus was with us when we felt we could do no more, overwhelmed with work and online school. Jesus was with us as we prayed with those sick in the hospital over cell phones. Jesus did not leave us to suffer alone. COVID-19 forced Jesus out of the cathedral into the world, reminding Christians that church is not a building. Rather, church is wherever two or three are gathered, even if the ‘two’ is only you and your cat . . . (266-267).

Some commentators are already speculating on the effect COVID-19 will have on church life when the doors are opened again. Will church attendance continue to decline? Or will congregations grow through the creativity learned this past year to reach beyond their walls and follow Jesus into the world? We don’t know. Bass says that many people will not return because “they are already discovering what it meant to follow Jesus beyond the church,” but many will.  She continues,  “Whatever happens, however, I hope none of us will forget the Jesus we have met in our own lives, who has been with us in fear and confusion and loss, in forced isolation and surprising moments of joy, and through the ministrations of our shared human priesthood.  It all matters. All of it”(268).

Indeed.

[1] Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for the First Time,”  Gallup, March 29, 2021. https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx

Nicholas Black Elk – A Review

Nicholas Black Elk
Medicine Man, Catechist, Saint

Jon M. Sweeney
Liturgical Press, 2020
Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley
Originally published in Englewood Review of Books and used by permission

From the beginning of Nicholas Black Elk, Jon Sweeney makes it clear that his subject has been misunderstood because of the complicated life he lived as both an Oglala Lakota wicasa wakan, or “holy man,” and Catholic catechist. Sweeney attributes part of the misunderstanding to another book, published in 1932, Black Elk Speaks:  Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux as told through John G. Neihardt.  Two  years earlier Neihardt, the poet laureate of Nebraska and an amateur anthropologist, had gone to Pine Ridge reservation in 1930 because he wanted to find someone to be the hero of an exotic tale of a Native American who was “a living icon of the tears and epic struggle of the native peoples of the Americas” (xii).  Black Elk Speaks became the most popular book ever published about a Native American, and especially so in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of great spiritual search and fascination with non-Christian religious traditions. It has formed the mistaken notion that Black Elk’s faith was strictly and only Native American until he died.

In Nicholas Black Elk, Sweeney tells the other half of the story– the one that Neihardt intentionally did not tell–of Black Elk’s life as a Catholic catechist. As Sweeney explains, “”Black Elk’s passionate involvement in historic  Catholicism would have dampened the message of any mythic portrayal of a saddened, aging Lakota who had seen his people humiliated, the Plains decimated, and a pristine nomadic way of life gone forever.  A Native man teaching the Gospel in a church was not the picture a mythmaker wanted to paint” (xvi).

Born in Lakota territory in 1866,  Black Elk was the son and grandson of medicine men, and as such, they had powers of healing for their people.  As expected in a child who would also become a medicine man, Black Elk had a number of mystical experiences.  The most formative was his “Great Vision” in which he was taken into the clouds to see his grandfathers from all over the world, who gave him gifts and told him that he would have great powers to heal as well as the vocation to lead his people down the red road toward the sacred hoop to become a great nation.   Nevertheless, they would also have great troubles.  As the vision continued Black Elk went with his sixth grandfather to the world’s highest mountains where they could see those troubles, but there was more.  As Black Elk told Neihardt: “I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops that made one circle” (26).  Sweeney explains the results of this vision, “Black Elk came away called to heal more than just his own people; the sacred hoop was a symbol that stood for all people everywhere. This same broader understanding of the sacred–and his own calling–would allow him, later, to see another religious tradition and how it might make sense of himself and his place in the world” (26).

Also formative in Black Elk’s  childhood was hearing much talk among his people of the threat of White Europeans coming from the east and pushing Native tribes further west as they came seeking  gold, natural resources to plunder, buffalos to shoot, and land to clear for their homesteads and farms.   Driven in part by the economic depressions of 1837 and 1869, the White people came west practicing a self-reliance that had a vicious underbelly of disregarding and debasing Native American land and rights.  Black Elk confronted this threat up close when at age 10 he fought in the Battle of Little Bighorn in which his second cousin, Crazy Horse, led the Lakota to kill Lt. Colonel George Custer and defeat his Seventh Cavalry.  

Not long after the Battle of Little Bighorn, Buffalo Bill Cody created his Wild West Show with alternate versions of Custer’s death.   Black Elk joined the show, traveled across the U. S. and played for weeks at Madison Square Garden before going on to England and France.  While in England the troupe performed twice for Queen Victoria, the second time at Windsor Castle.  The show ran six months in London with an average daily attendance, according to one source,  of thirty thousand and then went on to France.

This episode of Black Elk’s life  raises the question of why he would knowingly participate in such blatant exploitation of his own people.  Sweeney thinks that he saw the Wild West Show as a way to fulfill the vision seen by his grandfathers for his future–to bring wholeness and healing to his people.  In other words, he believed that joining the Big Show and traveling to Europe would help him learn about the White people of European descent who were such a threat to his people.  Sweeney quotes Black Elk as saying, “Maybe if I could see the great world of the Wasichu, I could understand how to bring the sacred hoop together and make the tree bloom again at the center of it.” Then Sweeney comments that in Lakota the word for Whites wasichu, literally means “a greedy person who takes the fat.” (36)

Some years after Black Elk’s return to the Pine Ridge Reservation and to life as a medicine man, he married Katherine War Bonnet, a Catholic convert, and the couple had three sons.  After her death in 1903, he also converted to Christianity, and on St. Nicholas day in 1904, the thirty-eight year-old Lakota holy man took the baptismal name Nicholas. Missionary work on the Pine Ridge Reservation had been going on for decades, an activity related to the colonialism of Native American lands and a part of the complexity of Black Elk’s story.  The Catholic Jesuit missionaries under whom he was baptized had a theological understanding  that was different from most other missionaries.  They recognized that the Lakota religion and attitude toward the Divine was not antithetical to Christianity.  In Nick they saw a person who had the gifts to become a catechist, a teacher of the faith.  His memorization and communication skills were remarkable, and he himself saw a seamless transition from his vocation as a Lakota holy man to a Catholic catechist.  

Sweeney presents Nicholas Black Elk as a powerful Christian witness who was credited with bringing more than 400 people into the church in his decades of work as a catechist and missionary.  He became so highly regarded and led such an exemplary life that  in 2016 his grandson led a group who presented a petition for his canonization and that case has now proceeded to Rome.

In his introduction, Sweeney writes that Black Elk

“. . . bridged Western and Native religious life in a way that is sure to make people on both sides somewhat uncomfortable.  So, just as Native people may feel that the integrity and sanctity of their spirituality and practices are being threatened, Christians can feel the same when faced with someone who, in himself, incorporates Indigenous spiritual traditions into a historic faith that they thought they knew”(x).  

For those who are baffled by the life and work of Nicholas Black Elk, Sweeney quotes a line from Nostra Aetate, one of the documents of Vatican II:  “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [non-Christian] religions.”  And he adds that though the statement is shocking to many of the faithful, “it would have made good sense to Black Elk” (83). In our time of huge religious and cultural division, Sweeney’s book gently but powerfully offers a way forward.

Originally published in Englewood Review of Books and used by permission

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

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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/ 

Celebrating Incarnation

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Yesterday Englewood Review of Books published my review of   Somethin’ Special:  A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection  (Neworld Media, 2018).   I’ve also created a video of one of the tracks on the album  “There’s Still My Joy.”

Very few pop Christmas albums help us to celebrate incarnation, the central affirmation of Christianity, but I find in Somethin’ Special:  A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection many songs that point in that direction and offer a most moving encouragement to reclaim that connection.  This new full-length holiday CD released in early November presents the new, the traditional, and the disquietingly ordinary and says “Look in these stories and in these places. God is right before your eyes.”

Stookey, one third of the iconic folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, took on a solo career as singer/guitarist /songwriter in the early 70s after the group began a seven-year leave of absence from each other.  Since reuniting and performing with Peter and Mary until her death in 2009, he has written songs for 21 solo albums and continues to perform solo and with Peter Yarrow in concerts around the country.  His songs are not just folk, but eclectic in content and style, and many of them speak of the Divine in metaphorical terms, central of which is Love with a capital L.

“A recollection can be a distant memory – suddenly recalled – or in this instance, a gathering of childhood stories, unique to the holidays,” Stookey states in his liner notes.  “Some are highly personal, some are musical remembrances of Christmases in concert with Peter, Paul and Mary, but most of the songs reflect an evolving appreciation of the expression and the reason for the holiday: the birth of Christ.”  Truly, he seems to be re-collecting carols, his own compositions (old and new), and others into a new appreciation of meaning of Christmas and the larger holiday season.

Many people want to divide life into the secular and the sacred.  It’s a convenient tactic of church folk who protest any mention of social justice in their congregations.  “You’re getting too political, pastor. Stick to spiritual things.” This notion gets press every December when some Christians step up on soap boxes about putting Christ back in to Christmas.  Similarly the secular notion of Santa Claus usually ignores its lineage to Saint Nicholas, who was born to wealthy parents in the third century in what is now Turkey.  His Christian devotion led him to spend his whole inheritance on attention to the poor and defenseless, particularly as a protector of children. His generosity and compassion led to the custom of gift-giving during the holidays.

With this recording Stookey is suggesting compatibility.  Why not have both Santa Claus and nativity scenes?   There’s a theological reason for having both Santa and Jesus in our year-end celebrations.  After all, some scholars say the root of the word religion means to bind together or to connect–a meaning that is ironically obscured in our current cultural, political, and religious divide–and Christmas, more than any other part of the liturgical year, affirms the connection of heaven and earth, divine and human, spirit and matter.

The incarnation is the ultimate reason for rejoining that which has been broken asunder by misguided religiosity.  This baby Jesus grew up to be a carpenter and a friend of the marginalized–including prostitutes, tax collectors, women, and those hated Samaritans. He healed the sick, played with children, and hung out with fisher folk. He concerned himself with practical parts of living–meals, friends, health, community, respect for others, shelter, cooperation, love, and bread and wine.  Are these things not sacred?

Somethin’ Special celebrates the binding together of what our culture wants to divide into the secular and the sacred. Three of the songs about childhood are Stookey’s own compositions. In “For Christmas” a department store Santa Claus gains a new life after talking with the last child on Christmas Eve.  In “Christmas Dinner” an orphan boy of the streets and a woman old enough to be his grandmother share “the happiest Christmas” in town. “Somethin’ Special,” the title song, is a recollection from Stookey’s own childhood when his creative parents gave him “the gift of patience, the gift of faith.”  To this listener these reveal the sacred value of love and connection without mention of the baby Jesus.

In Stookey’s treatment of traditional carols, there is new appreciation of the sensory and the material as well as a bit of reframing.  The sound of uilleann pipes that open “In the Bleak Midwinter” take us to the cold desolation of Scottish moors and make us wonder about the song’s metaphorical message for times such as these.  Stookey adds lines to “Away in a Manger”:  “Across a great desert three wise men they came / Seeking a king though they knew not his name / A heavenly light, bright shining and blest / Had led to the stable where Jesus did rest.”  How often have I been too literal minded to see these visitors from the East as representative of those who know not Jesus’ name but are drawn to this sacred baby born in the most earthy of places, an animal stall? Another new verse shows forth the sacredness of the most ordinary acts in a household–comforting children, praying, and keeping watch over a cradle.  Who can know the results of these faithful actions?

“Still My Joy”–written by Melissa Manchester, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Matthew Charles Rollings– is the sparking gem of the album, holding in tension joy and grief.  I think of the treble range of a piano as silver and the sound of a cello as gold.  It is keyboardist Michael McInnis’ genius to bring the two together. The piano is bright and hopeful and underlines the “still my JOY” and the cello is the gravitas, the honest facing of the inevitable losses that come the longer we live.  It is the gold of wisdom standing in creative tension with the joy that makes the joy credible. Stookey sings the song with such emotional range, grace, and vulnerability that it becomes an invitation for listeners to enter its safe space to feel and hold together both grief and joy. What a gift!

Richard Rohr writes, “I believe our inability to recognize and love God in what is right in front of us has made us separate religion from our actual lives.”   Stookey’s album encourages us to recognize God in what is right in front of us.   Without saying so, it is about incarnation, the scandalous notion that in God came in a baby born in a stable and continues to dwell among us mere mortals.

God with us indeed!