Wednesday, January 28, 2015

5 Things Everyone Should Know About America’s Religious History

Why we need to retell the American story.
 Peter Manseau is a journalist, historian, and novelist. His most recent book, One Nation, Under Gods: A New American Historyis a deeply researched account that challenges standard Christian perspectives of the country’s story. Here, he offers a list of counter-intuitive facts about religion in America.

1. Islam was here from the beginning.

Far from a twenty-first century problem, the fraught relationship between Islam and Christianity shaped the earliest interactions between the Old World and the New. In the shadow of the Reconquista — the reconquering of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors — the Spanish established laws to prevent Islamic influence from reaching the Americas, yet made use of enslaved Muslim converts to Catholicism in the explorations that opened the continents to European influence.
Oblivious to the fact that many of these converts might have changed faith in name alone, the conquistador Francisco Vazquez Coronado led an army of them deep into lands later known as Texas, New Mexico, and Kansas. Nearly a century before other religious travelers dreamed of building a “city upon a hill” in Massachusetts, they were the first of a forgotten Muslim population that later included 20 percent of all Africans sold into bondage.
Allah was here from the beginning, brought in chains.

2. Indigenous beliefs shaped American religion for centuries.

From the first arrival of Europeans until deep into the nineteenth century — longer than the United States has existed as a republic — the beliefs of those already living in North America transformed every new faith brought to its shores.
From Roger Williams cataloging the dozens of gods he counted among the Narragansett, to the Indian slave woman Tituba who lit the fuse of the Salem Witch Trials, to Joseph Smith writing an entire new scripture to reconcile the lore and legends of Native America with those of the Bible, the story of Christianity’s introduction to the continent was not merely one of indigenous conversion, but of mutual influence.

3. Christianity in America was transformed by slavery.

In the beginning of slavery in the English colonies, it was assumed that Christians should not be slaves. Christian servants might work for a predetermined period under indenture, but the duration of their servitude was limited by definition. Only non-­Christians could be trapped in bondage for life.
This arrangement proved untenable, however. If slavery was defined in relation to belief, then conversion would become a potential path to freedom. Colonial laws were rewritten out of religious and financial necessity: “The conferring of baptisme,” a Virginia statute of 1667 states, “doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom.”
The legal possibility of keeping Christians as slaves only gradually translated into the conversion of an entire people. Many of the beliefs and practices the enslaved had brought with them endured, and later were smuggled into the dominant faith in the forms of worship styles that spread widely during the Second Great Awakening.

4. Atheism helped set the stage for the American Revolution.

Atheism has always been as much about politics as belief. Long before “atheist” was a label proudly worn by some, it was an insult used to call into question one’s moral rectitude. As a colonial sketch of the “character of an atheist” put it: “An atheist is an overgrown libertine . . . and therefor is as constant to his word as the wind.” Such sentiments can be seen even today in several state constitutions that still require office holders to believe in God.
Yet in the middle of eighteenth century, with Enlightenment ideas gaining ground in the colonies, the possibility of applying reason to religion gave the word “atheist” a hint of the forward­-thinking intellectual, and this too had political implications. “The Atheist is a man who doubts of the King’s Right to the Crown,” another colonial scribe wrote, “and during the Doubt, refuses the Oath of Allegiance, or pays no Obedience to Supremacy.”
The line separating belief from non-belief is far more static than we might think; it is situational, shifting with the religious associations of those in power. In the second century, the followers of the upstart faith known as Christianity were called “atheist” because they refused to acknowledge Roman gods. On the eve of the American Revolution, it became a bold protest in favor of reason and self-rule.

5. Belief in America is frustrating for both believers and non-believers, and it should be.

To be part of a religiously pluralistic society is to engage in a paradox: Belief matters both very much and not at all, because we have the right to believe as we please. No one is immune to this paradox’s occasional frustrations. Those who believe that religion is, as Salman Rushdie put it recently, “a medieval form of unreason” are asked to appreciate that it is nonetheless what the theologian Paul Tillich called “a matter of ultimate concern” to many. Those belonging to one creed or another are called upon to act as if faith, no matter the grandeur of its claims, is not so ultimate after all.
Despite the ideological distance between these positions, we live in unspoken agreement that we are bound together by something more significant than our individual beliefs. We do so in the hope that the challenge of making a nation of peoples professing many faiths and no faith can also be a strength. Members of groups with conflicting commitments may have their identities, their sensibilities — and, too often, their bodies — assaulted by proximity to those with radically different ideas, but all are joined in the inevitability that they will be enriched and transformed by difference as well.

Same-sex unions in eschatological perspective - James Brownson's "Bible, Gender, Sexuality" in review

Wed, 28/01/2015 - 06:54     

This is not going to be a conventional review of James Brownson’s book on gender and homosexuality in the Bible. I’ll begin with two very broad assertions, then look at the texts, and finish with some cautious and increasingly opaque conclusions—be warned. For a summary of Brownson’s argument see this post. For a detailed critical evaluation of the book see Andrew Goddard’s essay.

Two broad assertions

First, I think Brownson overstates his case. On the one hand, I don’t think it is as easy as he suggests to eliminate gender complementarity from the biblical notion of being “one flesh”. Same-sex union, therefore, would have to be parallel or analogous to the “one flesh” union rather than an emerging facet or subset of it. On the other, while it seems reasonable to claim that the biblical texts cannot be made to pass judgment on the apparently modern notion of loving, committed same-sex relationships, I rather doubt that the “moral logic” can be stretched to include the modern arrangement, for reasons that I will touch on below.

Secondly, it seems to me that the “moral logic” hermeneutics, in any case, is flawed. Because the problem of same-sex relations has traditionally been examined under the rubric of Christian ethics, the fact has largely been overlooked that in both the Old Testament and the New Testament the prohibitions are found in sharply defined narrative contexts, and that in the New Testament the narrative context is eschatological. Brownson has, admittedly, superimposed a very generalized new creation eschatology over what he takes to be the determinative logic of biblical ethics, but this leaves us with a too abstract framework to work with. I think that Paul’s argument in Romans presupposes an urgent kingdom eschatology which operates on a different level and with a different “end” in view to a new creation eschatology.

Now for the narratives….

Man and woman as “one flesh”

Humanity is created in the image and after the likeness of God as male and female (Gen. 1:26-27). In the narrative context this differentiates humanity from the living creatures, which are created “according to their kinds” (Gen. 1:20-25), and is expressed specifically in the progressive exercise of dominion over all living creatures. It is not man and woman, as such, but humanity that is in the image of God, specifically in its relation to other living creatures; but humanity exists as male and female.

In the Eden narrative woman is created from the “side” of man because no “helper fit for him” was found among the animals. She is, therefore, of the same bone and flesh as Adam (Gen. 2:23), not another creature from the earth—she is of the same “species”, so to speak. The language of being of the same bone and flesh is used in the Old Testament to signify shared kinship bonds. For example, Laban says to his nephew Jacob, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” (Gen. 29:14). For the man and the woman to become “one flesh”, therefore, should probably not be understood in terms of sexual union but as the establishment of “family” as a broader network of social relations.

Nevertheless, while procreation may not be directly in view in the text, a kinship group of shared bone and flesh exists and is extended only through marriage and procreation. In this respect, in biblical terms, it does not seem possible to classify same-sex unions as “one flesh”.

Homosexuality and the land

There are two narrative contexts in which homosexual activity is condemned and prohibited for God’s people. The perplexing stories of thwarted homosexual rape in Genesis 19:4-11 and Judges 19:22-26 have no bearing on the “normative” texts.

The prohibitions of Leviticus 18 are prefaced by the command not to “do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived” or “as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you”. They are to walk in the statutes and judgments of the Lord their God, by which they shall live (Lev. 18:3-5).
A man is not to “uncover the nakedness” of “any relation of his flesh” (Lev. 18:6-18). He must not uncover a woman’s nakedness “while she is in her menstrual uncleanness” or to give the “seed of intercourse” to a neighbour’s wife, because it will result in uncleanness (Lev. 18:19-20). He must not give any of his “seed” to Molech to “profane the name of your God” (Lev. 18:21). A man must not lie with a male as lying down with a woman; this is an “abomination” (Lev. 18:22). He must not make himself unclean by lying with an animal; and a woman must not stand before an animal to lie with it, which is a perversion (Lev. 18:23).

There appears to be no good reason to think that the prohibition against male homosexuality presupposes a cultic context. There are religious practices that are described as abominations (eg. Deut. 12:31), but not every abomination is a religious practice (Deut. 25:13-16). There is reference to the offering of “seed” to Molech in verse 21, but the prohibitions of Leviticus 18:19-23 appear to have discrete practices in view.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Biggest Obstacle to Spiritual Formation

Posted on 1.27.2015

I've spoken at a quite a few churches over the last few years and have had even more conversations with ministers and pastors at churches. Most of these conversations have been about hospitality, about how we can create more welcoming and hospitable faith communities.

And over the years I've come to discern what I think is one of the biggest problems facing our churches when it comes to spiritual formation generally and hospitality specifically.

What is that problem?


Here's how Brene Brown describes scarcity in her book Daring Greatly, a quote I've shared before:
We get scarcity because we live it…Scarcity is the “never enough” problem…Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants.
Scarcity is the "never enough" problem. A mindset that is "hyperaware of lack." Brene goes on to share this assessment from Lynne Twist:
For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is "I didn’t get enough sleep." The next one is "I don't have enough time." Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don't have enough of…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we're already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn't get, or didn't get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life. 
One of the  biggest obstacles to spiritual formation is this "reverie of lack," especially a felt lack of time, energy and resources.


Monday, January 26, 2015

Fox News, American Sniper, Jesus, and…well…I can’t even


Word is making its way around the blogosphere that Fox News is doubling as a theological think tank.

I don’t like picking on Fox News when they talk religion of any sort, including Christianity. It’s too easy and it gets boring.

But I can’t help myself here.

According to the Fox News website, Michael Moore–who really hates this movie, I mean really, really hates it–tweeted about how inconsistent this movie is for Christian faith–hardly a sign of Moore’s Paul-like blinding light conversion, but more a dig.

Fox News took the bait. Correspondent Todd Starnes, after telling us twice that he’s “no theologian,” nevertheless makes a rather hefty theological claim in response to Moore: Jesus would be saying “well done thou good and faithful servant” to snipers plucking off Muslims, thus sending them to hell where they belong.

I think Starnes is mistaking Jesus for…well…not Jesus. Jesus had plenty of chances to wage war on people he didn’t like, and he had his enemies, but he preferred his sniping to remain verbal.

At least according to the Bible. Which I’ve read. More than once.

Read more at:

A First-Century Copy of the Gospel of Mark?

January 26, 2015   

In the last week or so I’ve had a number of inquiries about news stories of the discovery of a fragment of the Gospel of Mark dating to the first century AD.  Actually, this isn’t a new claim, but instead a rehashing (or belated notice) of a story that initially appeared back in early 2012.  But, thanks to an article more recently in “Live Science” (here) the story has taken on renewed life.  Concerns and critiques have been offered in news outlets as well, this one instance here.  So, I’ll offer some comments in what follows.

First, some background.  The original news derived from a public debate held in Chapel Hill, North Carolina between Dan Wallace and Bart Ehrman, during which Wallace mentioned that he’d been told that a first-century fragment of Mark had been identified.   That generated some excitement and critical comments, such as those from Brice Jones here.

The more recent excitement seems to have come from someone, apparently at “Live Science”, noticing a Youtube talk by Craig Evans (here) given in Canada back in 2014, in which he mentions again this putative fragment of Mark.  Evans appears essentially to be reporting on the claim initially reported by Wallace, and was not himself directly involved in the process of taking apart mummy cartonage to look for manuscript fragments.

Here are my own thoughts on the matter.

1) First, no such claim can be engaged at all unless/until the item in question is made available for critical scrutiny by qualified scholars (and that means scholars who are qualified to make an independent judgement on palaeographical grounds).  This hasn’t been done, and so the entire matter is (or should be) moot.  What do I think of the claim?  Can’t comment, as there is no item openly
available for critical scrutiny.

Reading more at

Exodus, Exile, and #TrulyHuman Resurrection: Living Beyond Tribalism and Individualism


The beauty of the Bible has as much to do with what it tells us about human nature as it does to do with what it tells us about God. Indeed, the story of salvation only makes sense when we see the various dimensions of the human person and experience with all of its flaws and struggles that Christ has come to redeem. It starts with the most simple and obvious needs and moves to the deepest and most mysterious longings.+

Exodus: The Cry of the Poor and the Oppressed

As human beings, we simply cannot flourish apart from certain basic material provisions.  Food, clothing, shelter, a balanced life of work, recreation and sleep are essential. Beyond this, we also crave relational connectivity with others to feel secure and known.  These material needs cannot be separated from our spiritual lives, but they are distinct and usually prerequisite for most people to live at a higher sense of identity and purpose.+
Thus, it seems fitting in retrospect that the most formative narrative for the Jewish faith and memory was that of the Exodus. If not a liberator for slaves and the oppressed, then what is God? This is an absolutely central aspect of who God is, and Jesus confirms this with his first public words in Luke 4, quoting the Isaiah scroll. So we see that freedom from material bondage is the most foundational and urgent dimension of salvation.+
The problem is that one can be liberated, politically and economically speaking, and still have a prideful, tribal consciousness. The Exodus story paints a picture of an enemy in the Egyptian people, and for good reasons. And God seems to have given Pharaoh plenty of chances, but was killing the first born of every Egyptian really necessary?  It shouldn’t surprise us then that long after the Exodus, well into the period of conquest, judges and kings, Israel continues to have enemies whose blood stains the hands of their God more often than we would like to admit. We learn that if material liberation is not accompanied by spiritual liberation, even God’s people can start to look like Egyptians.+
Maybe imperial ambition and violence are a human phenomenon, and not just an Egyptian one? This is what brings downfall upon the Jewish monarchy and ultimately leads to the period of Exile. God’s response to the cry of the poor and oppressed came around full circle through the prophets to judge even the chosen people themselves.+
The sobering lesson is that victims can all too easily become victimizers, and the oppressed become the oppressors. This doesn’t lessen the force of the cry of the poor and the marginalized in the face of injustice. We should always be people of Exodus. What it does, however, is reveal to us that human beings need something more to live for than political empowerment and economic wellbeing.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Becoming Newly, #TrulyHuman: Embodiment is Not Enough (Part 1)


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One of the most pressing challenges of discipleship and mission that daily confronts me is articulating in word and practice why and how salvation in Christ is good news in a world where Christianity is increasingly perceived as irrelevant to the things that matter most. I am bombarded with this challenge in different places – like in the relational dynamics of my family, in the pressures and complexities of being a pastor to seasoned church-folk, and in the lost and hurting people I regularly encounter at the coffee shop.+
Addressing this challenge involves re-imaging how salvation gets real in the lives we actually live – in the grittiness and fleshiness of embodied life. If we are affirming that salvation is about becoming more, not less, human, I’m learning that the recovery of embodiment is a crucial move. But I’m also learning it doesn’t stop there. We must follow the implications of the incarnation and resurrection all the way through.+