Saturday, August 30, 2008

What A time to be who we are, where we are: Three New books: "Rev X" "A Christianity Worth Believing" and "Saving Paradise"

Here are some comments on three new books I read this summer, with a particular slant in this review from my ministry with the UU Christian Fellowship.

What A Time to Be Who We Are, Where We Are

Recently, on our UUCF ministers and seminarians online chat, we have been sharing what it is we especially like and receive benefit from spiritually by being a part of the Unitarian Universalist religious community. (We also talked about what we had to offer others, especially seminarians and lay leaders, about the blessings of being Christian ministers in non-Christian UU churches, and in one case about the blessings of being a non-Christian minister in a UU Christian church; that conversation may inform a later report).

I have had that conversation in the back of my mind as I did some vacation reading this summer that seemed to echo and enrich these sentiments. This seems particularly important for developing our faith as positive and responsive to our cultural conditions today, and not just for thinking of ourselves and defining ourselves as "not like other UUs" or "not like other Christians." That's the same kind of response we often complain about when we experience it in UUs reacting against Jesus and God talk.

First, as we have been re-arranging the UUCF offices, I have taken some time to read through old correspondences from the early days in the 1940s and 1950s and right around the time of the merger in 1961. I have noted time and again the same sorts of correspondence coming in from people then by mail as we get by email and through blogging today--that "there doesn't seem to be a place for me as a Christian in my local UU church" or as a seminarian in the UU movement, along with suggestions that the UUCF consider becoming some sort of independent faith community. As these are decades old situations, it is sad to see them continuing, though I think they are to be found in many Christian communions and are also part of the broader changes in the religious landscape that see so many revolving doors. It may be that for the forseeable future these situations in places may 'always be with us" and, as in Jesus' admonition about the poor, mean we will always have opportunities to respond to the situations with healing and help.

At the same time my reading has focused on the following new books this summer: "Saving Paradise" by Rebecca Ann Parker, president of the UU Starr King School for the Ministry, and Rita Nakashimi Brock, Disciples of Christ minister and social activist; "A Christianity Worth Believing: Hope-filled, open-armed, alive-and-well faith" by Doug Pagitt, emergent Christian pastor of Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis; and "Reverend X: How Generation X ministers are shaping Unitarian Universalism" an anthology edited by Revs. Tamara Lebak and Bret Lortie. Each of these books have left me feeling uplifted about being a follower of Jesus along with Unitarian Universalists these days.

In "Saving Paradise" Parker and Brock trace the history of how Christianity in the first millennium was focused on life and love and anti-Empire practices, keeping the radical Jesus and a transformed Earth as its focus in large measure, but how in the second millennium the Empire struck back (though they point to the many dissidents to this dominant culture, including many Unitarian and particularly Universalist Christians who throughout the second millennium have witnessed to the radical spirit of Jesus and his early followers), and most importantly they lay out a vision of a renewed and reimagined Christianity for the third millennium. I am proud that this book, a part of Christian scholarship (historical, biblical, theological, cultural, and with personal spirituality) has been published by the UU Beacon Press. (See my blog posts elsewhere for more).

Pagitt's book, an example itself of the post-evangelical emergent Christian movement and of many new books like it, is filled with wonderful statements and anecdotes that read as if they could have come from one of our own UUCF gatherings where people give their personal testimonies. "I am a Christian but I don't believe in Christianity." "I am not conflicted because I struggle to believe. I am conflicted because I want to believe differently." Christianity has always been a living faith, one presented in hundreds, even thousands of different ways around the world and throughout the ages. It has always been the dynamic interplay between the Spirit of God and the lives and cultures of people. It is meant to be a real-life journey of discovering, wondering, answering, and questioning." "Whether we know it or not, the dogmas and doctrines that many of us were taught are so firmly embedded in the cultural context of another time that they have become almost meaningless in ours." 'The call of all Christians: to seek, live, and tell the story of God's work in the world, to embrace a faith that is alive and vibrant, untamed and uncaged, right here, right now." He says he was talking with a friend about this "new" understanding of God and Jesus and faith, and she questioned back, 'If Christianity isn't primarily about the promise of an afterlife for those who believe the truth, how would we ever convince someone to be Christian? What do we have to offer?" And he said, "But for me, the idea of following a God who is in all things, who is inviting us to join in the work that is true and noble and pure, is so beautiful and so appealing that I can't imagine why we would offer anything else.'

What I am left with, though, after reading Pagitt's book about his struggles to share his faith is how this message that is so uplifting to him is still such a hard one for so many in the churches that are so clearly labeled as Christian ones to be able to abide much less embrace, and the call to follow Jesus into the places of suffering and oppression is often stymied by the resistance to the very notions expressed, and how blessed I am to be a part of a movement that has had its own struggles from the opposite end of the spectrum, but one where these passions have found a home and a good soil and companions. We have as UU Christians a history to share with the emergent Christian movement, and I hope a shared future in the conversation as we can learn much from them about new communities and church life. (We will have a panel on this at Revival 2009 in Tulsa)

Which brings me finally to one of the emergent generations within UUism and the book "Reverend X" published by the Jenkin Lloyd Jones Press at All Souls in Tulsa. Reading this book and its essays about how younger ministers and younger church members are simply embracing the theological languages and practices, rather than endlessly debating about them, and how this is shaping our movement gives me new hope for how Jesus and Christian practices are becoming a central, if not exclusive certainly, part of many churches and lives among us. It is heartening to see that many of the essays footnoted by these ministers originally appeared in the pages of our UU Christian Journal. Go to to order online the newest Journal as well as back copies.

For example, in his essay about the dangers of misusing the UU Principles and Purposes, the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls in Tulsa, writes "The weight of biblical influence (religiously, intellectually, historically, and culturally) on the UU tradition and its practices and on the collective UU worldview is heavier than any of the other sources. The general failure of UUs to be honest about the (past and present) influence of Christianity and the Bible on the UU tradition is a self-deception that hinders UUs understanding of themselves, their theologies, and their social location."

He complains that the principles and their use make UUism become lifeless and divorced from real stories of faith and spirit. He writes:

"One reason often cited to explain why Christianity became so effective in co-opting and replacing many pagan religions is that it is more intuitive for people to relate to human narratives like the stories of Jesus and Mary and Joseph than it is to relate to a sacred bull or a holy rock or other abstract deities, icons, or totems. Once the metaphors of religion took names like Peter (instead of an actual rock) and John and Joseph, and these metaphors were described as walking and talking and struggling like the rest of humanity, they developed into a religion that had a powerful appeal: Christianity caught on and spread in part because of its natural correlation to real embodied human experience. In the practice of UUism today, it seems that scripture has become increasingly marginal and has been replaced by a set of words and phrases (the Principles) that have become more and more central. To the degree that this is true, UUs have divorced their religion from a set of common stories that acknowledge the raw, breathing, blistering, bleeding, stinking aspects of human reality. In my experience, when I am weeping for my dead daughter, the image of a soiled Mary on her knees holding her son's lifeless and bloody torso against her body touches the core of my experience; the words "justice and compassion for all people..." are about as inspiring and comforting as a phone book."

It is going to be exciting to be a part of the future with these leaders.