Monday, 19 December 2011

Tim Perry has written an interesting review of Peter J. Leithart's Defending Constantine (Carol Stream: InterVarsity, 2010). It can be found at:
Posted by Irving Hexham 

Sunday, 18 December 2011

On the Passing of a Devil's Advocate

As I understand the origins of Christopher Hitchens' controversial book The Missionary Position he was asked to play an important role in the beatification of Mother Theresa. The role he was asked to play was that of Devil's Advocate. In other words, he was called upton to make a case against Mother Theresa becoming a saint and from what I have read he came up with an extremely interesting piece of work.

Christopher Hitchens died this past week and perhaps we can best sum up his published works with these two words: Devil's Advocate. This label is appropriate when we consider the sum total of his published (And unpublished) work. He was a brutally intelligent and aggressive contrarian. Nothing was sacred to this man. This is especially true when he wrote and spoke about all things religious.

It's public knowledge that he was an athiest but this is no reason to dismiss his ideas and work and it's affect on our lives. I don't think he expected us to agree with everything he wrote but he did seem to invite and perhaps even demand attention, engagement and debate. He called on us to see the world in a new and different way. He challenged us to change our thinking accordingly.

What makes his approach important is that we, as Christians are supposed to do something similar with the Good News we encounter in scripture. We're supposed to call for attention to what Jesus has taught and lived. Some could even argue that we are to engage in public debate so that our thoughts and beliefs can be heard in a public and effective way.

With this in mind, is Hitchens and his argumentative style any different than what contemporary Christian leaders and scholars are supposed to be doing? I don't think so. Our readers and listeners need information in which to make a spiritual decision one way or another. Hitchens is a must read in that he offers a contrary case for religion and Christianity. He offers a contrary position that really brings out the intensity of the Christian message and how it drives us towards a renewed life.

Hitchens was important to Christianity. This importance continues beyond his death this past week.

So the Hitchens is dead - long live Hitchens. Christopher Hitchens has left us physically but his readings live on and we have a continuing opportunity and perhaps even a responsibility to read them and allow them to play the role of devil's advocate in both our spiritual and intellectual lives. I think Hitchens would have wanted it that way.

Mike Jones

Friday, 11 November 2011

Kindling a Spark for Electronic Readers


A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to fly home and visit my family back in New Brunswick. While I was traveling I noticed a number of people using electronic readers*. In recent weeks and months friends and family have been asking I'm going to purchase one.

I'm of two minds when it comes to electronic readers. I really don't know if I'm going to purchase one of these new contraptions. Perhaps the biggest roadblock I'm facing is my love of real books. I love everything about real books. I love holding them when I read. I love the smell and feel of real books. I love watching real books pile up on my shelves. I also love the idea of marking up real books as I read them.

In saying this, however, I also have to admit that I like the idea of having something small and light to carry around while I spend time in airports and on airplanes. I'm also becoming aware of the sheer convenience of being able to download books that are either out of print or extremely difficult to find.

If I do buy one there is one thing for certain: I will not be taking it into the bathtub with me. A friend of mine does that and I'm waiting for the day when we receive word that something has happened to his reader while he was bathing and that he is now literally sleeping with the fishies.

I've heard arguments on both sides of the question of whether or not to purchase an electronic reader. I'm still torn and maybe I always will be. If I do take the plunge I'm sure there will be more than a little buyer's remorse. I'll probably wind up buying one of the foolish things, however. There's a book on process theology I want to borrow from a library in Singapore.

*That's probably not the correct technical term for the things but I'm a little wonky when it comes to all things technology so it will have to do for now.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A New Perspective on Grief

For decades professionals such as clergy have relied on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages when dealing with grieving people. We've learned and talked about the need for people experiencing loss to move through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are so widely known most of us can probably recite them in our sleep.

In recent years these stages have come under close examination and reconsideration. Perhaps the book that best addresses this reconsideration is Ruth Davis Konigsberg's recent book entitled The Truth About Grief (Simon and Schuster, 2011). While this is not a religious book I have found it extremely helpful in my work with bereaved and grieving families. I have found it critical in my work of helping people respond to and recover from the loss of a loved one.

A couple of important things that Konisberg addresses are the human ability to cope with loss and the time needed for this grieving to happen. All too often grieving people are confronted by people bringing unrealistic expectations to conversations and encounters that wind up being less than helpful. How many times have people questioned decisions around renewed and new relationships? How many grieving people have been told to "Get over it" and move on with their lives?

One of Konisberg's main points is that we all grieve differently. It's almost impossible to identify one particular process we all go through when experiencing loss. It's impossible to develop a timeline for when certain things are supposed to happen as we grieve. What we can do is be aware of certain needs we may have and recognize times when emotions spike and threaten to overwhelm us.

Konigsberg's realistic approach and critique is refreshing, comprehensive, and thought provoking. Reconsidering the five stages of grief is long overdue and it's critical religious professionals join in the process so that we can serve our parishioners in a more humane and sensible way.

Some Thoughts on Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

I've just finished reading Rob Bell's most recent book Love Wins. While I'm not going to actually review the book here (There are plenty of decent, balanced reviews out there) I would like to offer a few thoughts on reading in general and Bell's book in particular. I think it's safe to say that Bell's book has stirred up a bit of a hornets nest in certain parts of the Christian world. I've scanned some reviews and discussion forums addressing the content of Love Wins and have to the following conclusion: Too many of us are afraid of what we read. Or to be more specific, we are afraid of reading anything that challenges our current thinking and belief system. We're afraid of reading anything that takes us out of our comfort zones.

This fear of what we read may explain some of the extreme response to Bell's book and this is really unfortunate. Without going into too much detail I found Love Wins quite interesting and engaging. As a United Church of Canada minister I disagree with some of the things he says but I find his overall approach decent and healthy. His questions and insights are challenging and thought provoking. He comes across as an extremely intelligent person who doesn't seem to be afraid of butchering some sacred cows. He may offer some strong opinions on more traditional beliefs but I don't think he crosses any lines in doing so.

Through the years I've promised myself that I would never be afraid of what I've read and I've been able to keep that promise for the most part. It's because of this promise that I have been able to read some strong and scary things. But in reading those books and articles I've always reserved the right to agree and disagree with the content. I've also reserved the right to either incorporate an idea into my current thinking and beliefs or let it go so that I can move on to something else.

I've read entire books and tossed them aside because I couldn't find anything that would help me grow or learn. I've read a lot I couldn't agree with. But even in these situations I have been thankful for the opportunity read the book and make up my own mind accordingly. We have a responsibility to read the works of people we do not always agree with. We also have a responsibility to think about what they have to say. This is how we learn and grow. This is how we mature as both Christians and thinking citizens living in a democracy.

In Love Wins Rob Bell has written an interesting and eye opening book. He's thrown his ideas into the public forum for our consideration and debate. While we can come to our own conclusions about what he writes we cannot be afraid of any of it. There's no need to be afraid of anything we read.

Read wisely. Mike Jones

Judging Books by Their Covers

In the time I've been living here in Calgary several United Church congregations have either closed completely or amalgamated with other congregations. What's interesting about these closures is that they've happened during an extremely intense boom time. In recent years Calgary has grown to roughly one million people. During this same period of time, the church shrank. For me, this points to a rather troubling reality: the United Church of Canada is dying and it's dying a sad, tragic, unnecessary, and completely self-inflicted death.

In Reginald Bibby's new book, entitled Beyond the Gods and Back (Project Canada Books, 2011), two important numbers make an important statement about the past and present predicament of the United Church. In the mid 1960's membership peaked at just over one million (p. 11). Bibby also states that during this same period of time the United Church built roughly 1500 new church buildings and halls. This was a time of incredible growth.

In recent decades everything has changed and we live in a new reality. For me one simple figure says it all about where the United Church stands in our present day and it also hints at what things will look like in the near future. According to Bibby's numbers, 1% of today's Canadian teens identify themselves as being somehow connected with the United Church (p. 32). In comparison, up to 32% of Canadian teens claim to have no religious connections at all.

Things don't look good at all.

So why is the United Church dying? For me, one of the main reasons is a profound loss of faith among many of the denomination's clergy and lay leaders. In the recent February issue of the United Church Observer Sarah Boesveld introduces readers to something called "Post Theistic Worship" currently being offered in many United Church congregations. These are services where the Bible is barely seen or read from and prayers are no longer addressed to God. In one congregation, Christmas Eve service was cancelled and replaced by a Longest Night - type service on December 21st. This theological drift, if you will, is one of those things that has set the United Church apart from other traditions.

Bibby predicts that if the current trends continue, the United Church will be "on life support" in a matter of years (p. 4). While I think this prediction is a little generous I agree with the overall sentiment of his prediction. At some point leaders and parishioners are going to have to make the heart breaking decision to pull the plug. If the denomination's decline continues at the current pace this may happen sooner rather than later.

Judging Books by Their Covers

The saying "You can't judge a book by its cover" is definitely true of a recently released book entitled Jesus Beyond Christianity: The Classic Texts (Oxford University Press, 2010). Edited by Gregory Barker and Stephen Gregg, Jesus Beyond Christianity is a collection of literary works from different world religions that mention something about the person, life, and work of Jesus Christ.

The subtitle claims that the book deals with "The Classic Texts". While we can busy ourselves splitting hairs about precise definitions, the word "classic" often deals with anything pertaining to the ancient Greek or Roman world. Perhaps "ancient" is the key word here. Or to be generous we can settle on the word "old".

When a writer or editor claims to be dealing with "classic texts" I, at the very least, expect to find documents dating back to the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. I want to read old things. When I opened Jesus Beyond Christianity what I found was a mix of new and old literature. Among the new documents were selections from 20th century writers such as Muslim scholar Ghulam Ahmad Parwez and the current Dalai Lama. Selections by Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist scholars were written some time within the past two hundred years.

If the editors of Jesus Beyond Christianity really want to consult classic texts they could have focused on ancient writers such as Tacitus and Suetonius. They could have consulted the Babylonian Talmud. There are scores of possibilities they could have used.

Barker and Gregg have edited a very interesting book but it doesn't hold its focus on the so-called classic texts. If they were true to the content of their collection they could have used a phrase like "Historic Texts" in the book's subtitle.

So we have to be careful when purchasing or borrowing a book. There is sometimes a difference between what's written on the cover and what's found inside. The difference between the two can be significant.

Read wisely,
Mike Jones

Hobsbawm on Nations and Nationalism

After really enjoying Eric Hobsbawm’s Interesting Times (2002), I discovered one of his older books in my collection on nationalism which I had never read. So I began reading his Nations and Nationalism Since 1789 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) which is a very intelligent account of modern nationalism.

Although very clearly written from a Marxist perspective many of Hobsbawm’s points are equally valid for Christians who feel uncomfortable with nationalism. Further, he makes it clear that the death of nationalism is an illusion even though he feels that eventually the appeal of nationalism will decline.

In particular I liked his analysis of the failures of the Versailles Treaty, which he rightly calls the “Versailles peace settlement,” and the misguided policies of President Wilson in promoting “the principle of nationality” after the end of World War I (Hobsbawm 1990:32; 122-133).

Overall this is a useful book even though his Marxism intrudes at times and has been overtaken by later events. Still, it is hard to find a Christian writer with such a clear sense of the idolotary of modern nationalism.

Interesting Times

Eric Hobsbawm’s (b. 1917) autobiography Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (London: Allen Lane, 2002), ought to be on the “must read” list of every thinking Christian. It would also make a great text for theological colleges like Fuller in the States and Regent College in Canada. Well known as an unrepentant Jewish Communist and excellent historian Hobsbawn casts his critical eye over the turbulent history of the twentieth century with shrewd and insightful comments.

Unimpressed by the sexual revolution of the 1960’s he reminds his readers that in the past “rulers kept slaves and the poor quiet by encouraging sexual freedom among them and, I might have added, remembering Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, drugs (Hobsbawm, 2002:250). Similarly, he was equally unimpressed by “left-wing academic fashions” (Hobsbawm, 2002: 303).

What I particularly liked about his book was his comments on his own academic career which he reminded his readers got off to a late start. He writes “I had begun to publish books only in my forties, and by the time I could actually call myself ‘Professor’ in Britain, I was in my middle fifties.” Encouragingly, he adds “when most professionals have got as far as they, and the world, expects them to get in their career …” (Hobsbawm, 2002:f302).

On the next page he reminds his readers that as a Communist he was part of a cultural ghetto. Then, surprisingly, he identifies himself with “another characteristic twentieth-century cultural ghetto, the Roman Catholic community in Britain.” If anyone doubts this he tells them to reflect on “G. K Chesterton, the dimension of whose talent have been concealed from non-Catholics by the very closeness of his association with the Church.” To prove his point he notes that the Italian journalist and well known novelist, Italo Calviono (1923-1985), “once said it was his ambition to become ‘the Chesterton of the Communists.’” (Hobsbawm, 2002:303).

This is a fascinating book that offers numerous timely insights into twentieth century history, intellectual currents, cultural fads and ordinary life. It also reveals another side of Hobsbawm that of the jazz enthusiast and music critic. No doubt Theodor Adorno (1903 - 1969) must have turned in his grave at the publication of this down to earth book.