Category: spirituality

Marriage study leaps to wrong conclusions

By Alan Bean

A new study by the Institute for American values and the The National Marriage Project finds that support for marriage is rising among the most highly educated sectors of America and falling among the less well educated.

There is this:

Percentage of 25–44-year-olds Agreeing That Marriage Has Not Worked Out for Most People They Know, by Education

Percentage of 25-44-year-olds Agreeing That Marriage Has Not Worked Out for Most People They Know, by Education (more…)

Clenched Fists and Open Hands: McLaren and Rohr get real about religion

By Alan Bean
I spent last weekend attending a conference on “the Emerging Church” held on the campus of  Texas Christian University.  Below, I have reproduced my noted from three talks, two by Brian McLaren, a clear-sighted Protestant, and one by Father Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic priest dedicated to the contemplative life.  These three talks complement one another and inform our struggle with mass incarceration, but I will leave it to you to make the connections.  My summary is taken from my notes, so, gentlemen, if you read this and think I misrepresented your ideas, I am open to correction. 

Brian McLaren 1: Clenched Fists and Open Hands

Brian McLaren

The world runs on stories, McLaren says. It is the role of religion to provide us with our stories; but what happens when these stories no longer help us address the big issues: poverty, peace and the planet?

The primary religious narrative in Western culture, McLaren suggests, has been the domination story: stories of the clenched fist which could also be called conflict narratives, warrior narratives or sword narratives. Typically, empires appear as the heroes of domination narratives. (more…)

“Support the poor, or go to hell”

Over at Religious Dispatches, Daniel Schultz takes the religious Left to task for being too nice.  Here’s a teaser:

“I’ve been asked a lot over the course of this fall why we don’t have a politically effective religious left in America. The short answer is that there’s a significant trade-off between being nice (or engaging in “civil discourse,” as it’s called these days) and being potent. All the commitment to moral suasion, to building consensus, to reconciliation between political opponents, all the commitment in the world to “speaking out” about your values isn’t going to accomplish squat.”

Pastor Dan’s “support the poor, or go to hell” theme is one of several semi-serious suggestions for giving progressive religious messaging some much-needed bite. (more…)

J. Alfred Smith, Sr.: “Reclaiming our Prophetic Voice”

Rev. J. Alfred Smith, Sr.

I first met J. Alfred Smith, Sr in 1995 when he preached a series of prophetic-evangelistic sermons at First Baptist Church Kansas City, KS.  Charles Kiker (a founding member of Friends of Justice) was pastor of FBC at the time and I was there to provide the music.  Dr. Smith and I were chatting informally before the first service; he was telling me about the impact the war on drugs was having in his community.  To my utter astonishment, the man began to weep uncontrollably–something I had never seen a preacher do before.  He wasn’t the slightest bit embarrassed by his tears.  In fact, he behaved as if weeping was the normal and appropriate response to the circumstances in which he found himself.

J. Alfred Smith, Sr. was Senior Pastor of Oakland’s Allen Temple, one of the premier pulpits in America.  He is now Pastor Emeritus of that church; his son, J. Alfred Smith, Jr., has since taken over as Senior Pastor.

J. Alfred Smith, Sr. and several of his parishioners were tremendously supportive during our justice struggle in Tulia, Texas.  It was there I began to understand the tears I had witnessed several years earlier.  I last saw Dr. Smith at the New Baptist Covenant gathering in Atlanta a couple of years ago.

The sermon below addresses several issues regularly featured on this blog.  Dr. Smith talks about the betrayal of “the prosperity gospel”, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Day, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the need for a new kind of Christianity, or, from an African American perspective, the recovery of the old prophetic gospel that once animated the civil rights movement. (more…)

Brian McLaren’s “New Kind of Christianity”


Brian McLaren

By Alan Bean

Brian McLaren knows how it feels to grow up “born again”.  Raised within the legalistic and apocalyptic tenets of the Plymouth Brethren, McLaren grew up worshipping an omnipotent Christ who would soon return to wreak vengeance on the enemies of God.  Gradually, over a period of decades, McLaren’s theology fell apart.  Then, just as gradually, it was replaced by what he calls “a new kind of Christianity.”  In fact, that’s the title of his latest book. (more…)

Pimping the Culture War

Ann Coulter

Ann Coulter says that Barack Obama isn’t a Muslim; he’s an atheist. 

How does she know that?  Because Obama is a liberal, and all liberals are atheists.

Glenn Beck says Jim Wallis of Sojourners is a Marxist.  How does he know that?  Because Wallis believes in economic justice, liberation theologians talk about economic justice, and liberation theologians have been influenced by Marxist thought. 

Beck’s real target isn’t Jim Wallis, it’s Barack Obama.  Jim Wallis is Jeremiah Wright and Jeremiah Wright is Barack Obama, hence, the president is a Marxist.

Are Beck and Coulter serious?  Do they believe their own rhetoric?

Yes and no.  Yes, because their most bizarre statements “feel” right.  No, because Beck and Coulter are so concerned about getting the fans on the red side of the stadium cheering and the fans in the blue seats leaping in alarm that they don’t really care about the rightness or wrongness of their statements.  Or, to put it another way, a remark that gets the fans up and hollering is a good statement, and if the fans are sitting on their hands the message needs to be tweaked.

According to the New York Times, Ann Coulter recently shifted in a more gay-friendly direction (conservatives love gays; we just don’t like gay marriage) because she couldn’t compete with conservatives who are even more extreme than she is.  

The culture war is a marketing gimmick designed to keep the contributions rolling in.  It’s like one of those funny mirrors on the circus midway; what you see shouldn’t be mistaken for reality. (more…)

Prophetic Imagination, The Greatest Prayer, and Mass Incarceration

By Charles Kiker

This is something of a response to and expansion of Alan Bean’s recent post, “Marcus Borg’s radical Christianity.” In this post Dr. Bean mentioned Walter Brueggemann and John Dominic Crossan in passing. I respond by expanding on the thought of those two scholars, and relate their perspectives to the issue of mass incarceration.

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is the author of The Prophetic Imagination. The second edition was copyrighted in 2001, so it does not qualify as a recent contribution. But it only recently came to my attention.

Brueggemann presents the Hebrew culture as represented by Moses as an alternative community to the royal, person negating culture of Egypt. The culture of Egypt was anti-freedom not only for humanity, but also for God. This counterculture to royalty and the perks of royalty persisted in Hebrew life for a couple of centuries or so before a new royalty, a counter-counterculture, took root under David and thrived under Solomon and his successors in both Hebrew kingdoms. The prophets beginning in the 8th century BCE, some of them at least, broke free from tradition to provide a new counter voice to the royal consciousness of privilege and power that had arisen in the Hebrew kingdoms.

Jeremiah was the prophet of pain; Deutero-Isaiah the prophet of hope. Pain is a necessary predecessor to hope, lament a predecessor to praise in the confrontation between the royal consciousness of privilege and power and the radical freedom of and in God.  I have this quote from Brueggemann written in the margin of my Bible at Psalm 23, “It is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously” (The Prophetic Imagination, p. 67). Brueggemann cautions that social policy is not necessarily in the purview of the prophet, and that anguish is more fitting than anger as prophetic attitude. (more…)

Marcus Borg’s Radical Christianity

Marcus Borg

Nancy Bean didn’t have a wish list for her birthday this year; she issued a birthday decree.  All five Beans were to purchase a copy of Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith and read at least the first five chapters.  We would then meet at our daughter Lydia’s home in Waco to discuss the book over birthday cake.

The discussion was loud, lively and long.  Sons Adam and Amos suspected that Borg’s version of Christianity existed primarily inside his own head.  Lydia gave the book thumbs up, but said she favored the more evangelical theology of NT Wright. 

Marcus Borg is part of an emerging cadre of Christian intellectuals calling for a new understanding of Christian theology, spirituality and ethics.  Anglican Bishop NT Wright, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, Roman Catholic theologian John Dominic Crossan and the “emerging church” writer Brian McLaren have also contributed to this project. 

They don’t agree on all points, of course, but Borg’s The Heart of Christianity comes as close to a consensus statement as you are likely to find.  Conservative scholars may quibble with Borg’s assertion that the Bible is “a human product;” but, increasingly, leading Christian thinkers are being drawn to similar conclusions. (more…)

Thomas Merton: “the saint is never offended”

 Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who spent his later years at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.  Merton’s mature thought combined insights from western and eastern spirituality.

Some men seem to think that a saint cannot possibly take a natural interest in anything created.  They imagine that any form of spontaneity or enjoyment is a sinful gratification of “fallen nature”.  That to be “supernatural” means obstructing all spontaneity with clichés and arbitrary references to God.  The purpose of these clichés is, so to speak, to hold everything at arms length, to frustrate spontaneous reactions, to exorcise feelings of guilt.  Or perhaps to cultivate such feelings!  One wonders sometimes if such morality is not after all a love of guilt!