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

Farewell to FaithLink

Last Sunday, February 14, marked the end of FaithLink. Having been a part of its team of writers for 13 years, I’m sad to see this remarkable United Methodist digital curriculum on faith and current issues shut down, partly because of COVID, which made its continuation unsustainable. My friend and colleague, Alex Joyner, has written his retrospective about FaithLink on Heartlands  and has given a glimpse into a FaithLink writer’s life in the 4-5 days between the editorial conference and submission of manuscript and documentation.

Before joining the FaithLink team, I had published a few essays in newspapers and reviews for Sojourners and the United Methodist Reporter as well as a longer piece, co-written with Richard Faris, for the Journal of Presbyterian History, but it was FaithLink that made me feel like a “real” writer. I’ll be forever grateful the editors who encouraged and guided me—Andrew Schleicher, Mickey Frith, Ben Howard, and Pam Dilmore, who also offered me the opportunity to write three curriculum books for Abingdon Press.  

In his essay Alex tells about the early days when each issue involved two writers, one to do research and the other to draft and revise the manuscript, and he recalls the time, just a day or two after the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech shooting, when he from the Eastern Shore of Virginia and I from the stunned and grieving town of Blacksburg wrote an issue called “The Virginia Tech Tragedy.”  Although that edition was hard to write, I loved doing this kind of collaborative writing with Alex, Dave Barnhart, Mike Poteet, Ciona Rouse, Duane Coates, Wayne Reece, Erik Alsgaard, Melissa Lauber,  Jim Hawkins, Judy Bennett, and Paul Stroble.  (Hope I haven’t omitted some of my writing partners from that time.)  I’ve no doubt that these collaborations provided me skills I would later use in the book I’m co-writing with Noel Paul Stookey about the intersection of his musical vocation as the “Paul” of Peter, Paul, and Mary and as a solo singer/songwriter; his work for justice; and his spiritual journey. Without my background with FaithLink,  I would never have had the chutzpah to propose the book.

Far beyond what FaithLink has given me personally, it has also given the United Methodist Church the great gift of “connecting faith with life” in the twenty-first century. It frequently related Christian social ethics with the events and social issues of our time. I dare say that many United Methodists first learned of the Social Principles  and the Social Creed of the UMC because FaithLink quoted and reflected on the guidance contained in them. Our editors and writers did not shy away from controversial issues and tough dilemmas. My own list includes such diverse topics as Central American migration, climate change, urban farms, religious satire, and the overuse of antibiotics.

My fervent hope is that someday the United Methodist Publishing House will find a way to revive FaithLink or a similar curriculum that will have the immediacy, the theological depth, and the usability of FaithLink. I close with deep gratitude to all the writers and editors who created and kept improving on this curriculum that weekly succeeded in connecting  the Wesleyan tradition of faith with the realities of contemporary life.

——

Speaking in the Public Square: A Review of Exploring a Wesleyan Political Theology

The following review was originally published on The Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley.

In October 2017 Wesley Theological Seminary hosted the Wesleyan Political Theology Project, a conference which brought together the scholars represented in Exploring a Wesleyan Political Theology  [Ryan Nicholas Danker, General Ed., Wesley’s Foundery Books, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2020] to explore what it means as Wesleyan Christians to speak in the public square. In the online promotional video for the conference, Michael McCurry, a professor at Wesley, spoke of the bitterness, polarization, and division in our country, and said, “We want people to come away from this conference knowing how to have gentle, loving conversations within their ministry settings.” Hopefully the participants did that, but this book falls short of such a practical concern.

In his introduction, editor Ryan Nicholas Danker, who teaches Methodist studies at Wesley, acknowledges Methodism’s history of political engagement and raises the question that the essays in this book seek to address: Is it possible to identify “a distinct Wesleyan political theology or political characteristics informed by its mission to ‘spread scriptural holiness across the land’” (8). If so, it must take into account Wesley’s “overwhelmingly optimistic view of Grace,” the accountability at the heart of the early Methodist movement, and Wesley’s concern for the poor (3).

The opening essay from McCurry, former press secretary in the Clinton administration, offers a partly autobiographical “practitioner’s view” on Wesleyan political theology. Of all the writers in this volume, he appears to have the most on-the-job credibility to address the polarization in our society and the inability of many churches “to maintain membership and relevance.” He also has the courage to say, “I believe that part of the dilemma is the failure of the church to connect the good news of the gospel to the very matters that the congregation sees playing out in the controversies that swirl in the public square” (25-26).

In “Big Appetites and No Teeth,” William J. Abraham, who teaches at Perkins School of Theology, confesses that “like most United Methodists when it comes to politics, I have a big appetite and no teeth. I want to see the world transformed, but when it comes to getting my teeth into the details and into the causal stories involved, then it’s another story.” That is my favorite quote in the whole collection, but Abrabam bites off more than he can chew when he uses his 15 pages to commend Theodore Weber’s Politics in the Order of Salvation: Transforming Wesleyan Political Ethics as a way to understand the thought of Edmund Burke “refracted through a Wesleyan lens” (43).

Ryan Nicholas Danker’s chapter, “Early Methodist Societies as an Embodied Politic,” makes the case for discerning a Wesleyan political theology through studying “the political context in which early Methodism arose and the place of Methodist societies within that context . . . .”(48). They are “the key to early Methodist political engagement” and “the means by which both holiness of heart and life and concern for the other were combined in holistic, relational community” (51). He contends that politics ”was never the focus of the Wesleyan movement, but rather of Methodist politics was an aftershock of the overwhelming emphasis of early Methodists on the experience of holiness” (61). In other words, “[a] Wesleyan political vision depends on the power of transformed human hearts engaged in community”(10).

In her essay, “Salvation and Social Engagement,” Laceye Warner of Duke Divinity School describes the contributions of three Southern Methodist women –Mary McCloud Bethune, Belle Harris Bennett, and Dorothy Ripley–who exhibited an expansive view of evangelism in their ministries. Warner writes, “Evangelism at times suffers from a disconnect between its personal and social components because of too-narrow biblical interpretations and the ideological lines drawn by the Fundamentalist-Modernist split of the early twentieth century”(70). She concludes, “ The representative evangelistic practices of these women resemble the integration of ministries of word and deed commissioned by Jesus Christ in the Gospels” (95).

James Thobaben, who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary, draws the attention of contemporary Methodists to Wesley’s main mission, the conversion of souls. Granting that the early Wesleyan-Methodist movement in England and the American colonies did result in social and economic change, he argues that “to prioritize social justice over evangelism or above the immediate faith community is to misorder Wesley’s priorities” (100). Contending that since mission of early Methodism was not “to change society but to convert people, and that would, consequently, change the culture” (115), Thobaben wants modern Methodists to practice an “engaged sectarianism,” one that is “marked by personal and local practices of purity, mercy, and justice” (123).

The last section of the book treats “Methodism and Other Traditions.” In his essay the “The Word of Reconciliation,” Edgardo Colón-Emeric, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, writes that the church’s divine vocation is to speak the word of reconciliation and engage in acts of reconciliation. As an example of one who lived out the ministry of reconciliation, Colón-Emeric lifts up Oscar Romero as “an exemplar of the practical divinity Methodists aspire to embody” (135) and comments that “like Wesley’s, Romero’s theology is grounded in the life of the church and has a popular orientation” (136). Both had a theological approach that allowed them to communicate to the academy and to non-academic people. In describing Romero’s ministry of reconciliation in El Salvador, Colón-Emeric practices the practical divinity he so admires in Wesley.

In the final and most practical, thought-provoking chapter of the book, “The Meaning of Pentecost,” Luther Oconer critiques a form of Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity in the U.S. that has “espoused an uncritical form of nationalism” (156) steming from “dominion theology,” which “teaches that Christians need to exercise full authority or ‘dominion’ in all areas of life, including politics” (169). Oconer’s critique of “dominion” theology and its drive toward “restoration of a Christian hegemony” (169) in the U.S. sheds much light on the Christian right’s support of President Trump. Oconer notes that half of the presidential evangelical advisory council is made up of people with ties to Pentecostalism, a movement with strong historical and theological links to the Wesleyan movement. Not only does Oconer critique Pentecostal/Charismatic politics, but provides an understanding of Wesley’s political theology, one in which Jesus’ incarnation as “the ultimate expression of God’s love” (169) is the motivation.

This book was written and edited before the COVID-19 pandemic, before growing awareness of the depth of our nation’s racism, and before the rancor and polarization of the 2020 election reached fever pitch. From the perspective of now, many of these essays lack passion and connection with the public square. Wesley was a practical theologian. I wish that some of these seminary professors had tried harder to expand their potential audience by following his lead.

The Last Night

Tonight there won’t be a crowd in Times Square and hopefully most Americans won’t be singing “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight in a bar or at a party because they know that 340,000 Americans have died of COVID and they are willing to protect themselves and others by staying home.

At this time last year I posted a video I’d created to accompany “Last Night / Auld Lang Syne” which Noel Paul Stookey and George Emlen adapted and  arranged with a new lyric.

Here’s to the last night of the old year
And to the new year yet to be
Yet before these days become
A distant memory
Old friend, new friend
Shall we gather here
And share a song to celebrate
This last night of the year (1)

In the video are many photos of friends and families having good times together.  Watching it can make you sad that these photos represent the kind of year that you didn’t have.  Most of us want 2020 to be “a distant memory” as soon as possible.  Although the photos don’t depict the year we’ve had, I offer this video and “song to celebrate / This last night of the year.”  May 2021 be a happier, healthier year for our country and for you and your loved ones!

(1)“Last Night / Auld Lang Syne,” Adapted & arranged with new lyric Noel Paul Stookey / George Emlen, © 2018 Neworld Publishing ASCAP and recorded on Somethin’ Special by Noel Paul Stookey