Tantra JC, GRRR! a book review

This is an odd book for me to review. Generally speaking, when it comes to world-faith traditions, I draw water from my own well (Proverbs 5:15). I am a big believer in Christian particularity. Jesus was the unique Son of God, sent to save the world, because of God’s great love for us. That isn’t to say I think other faith traditions are wholly false. I have benefited from mindfulness practice, and some authors I respect (e.g. Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, Dorothee Sölle) have drawn on the ‘perennial mystical tradition’ (Rohr’s term) and there is a such thing as fruitful interfaith-dialogues.
9781620555613_1 So in a spirit of equanimity, I decided to give Tantric Jesus a hearing (even if I regarded the premise as somewhat suspect). James Hughes Reho is an Episcopal Priest, with a Ph.D. in Chemistry, a yoga teacher, and a Tantra initiate. He contends that Jesus himself, and the early Christian community with him, taught a tantric spirituality. Reho notes that in the West, “Tantra often conjures up pictures of arcane mystical practices or acrobatic sexual escapades. In reality, Tantra is a philosophy of life, love, and being—grounded in practice—that can help us re-engage the deep and life-transforming truths of Christianity in a fresh way” (10). So Reho explores Tantra—its gods, sacred myths and practices—in order to discover resonances with the Christian tradition.

Reho’s exploration unfolds in two sections. In part 1, he explores he explores what he sees as the shared Christian, Tantric religious vision. He recapitulates ‘The Five Roots of Tantra’ into the ‘Five Roots of Christian Tantra.’ They are:

  1. The world is real and good.
  2. The Divine Feminine.
  3. The human person, embodied, is the divine temple.
  4. Spiritual practices are rooted in Eros and antinomian behaviors which point toward love and compassion rather than law and obligation.
  5. Both traditions advocate living relationships with a guru/teacher.

Let me say, in general, these five ‘roots’ seem like good things to me, but I felt a little lost in Reho’s descriptions of Tantra/Hindu theology.

In part 2, Rehu explores what Tantra has to teach Christians about spiritual practice. Specifically, he examines the prayer of the heart, the Jesus prayer, praying with icons, gazing at another person, sacred foot washing, and sacred sexual union.

Reho sees resonances between Christian Tantric practice and the Christian mystical tradition; however, the examples he cites, at least on the Christian theology side, would be at best a minority tradition. He cites the gospels alongside gnostic gospels (e.g. Thomas and Philip), Celtic spirituality, heretics like Pelagius, and cherry-picked quotes from Eastern Orthodox saints. So while he cites the Cappadocians to describe the concept of theosis and divinization in the Christian mystical tradition, I am fairly certain Tantra was not what Gregory of Nyssa had in mind.

Nevertheless, I appreciated some of the things Reho said. He challenges the gnostic hatred of embodiment that has cast a shadow over Western spirituality (even as he cites gnostics and Christian Neo-Platonists constantly). He takes Ander Nygren to task for his denigration of Eros as incompatible with Divine love (Christian love can be true without being devoid of self-interest). I also appreciated hearing some of Reho’s own mystical and spiritual journey and what practices he found personally nourishing. Part of this text is biographical. It describes practices and theology that Reho himself has found helpful.

But his highlighting of marginal, decontextualized voices, makes this a difficult book for me to recommend. I do not know enough about Tantra and Hinduism to know how faithful Reho is to that tradition (though I understand Tantra as a marginal theology within Hinduism). I do know Reho’s claims about Christianity aren’t really all that orthodox. In the end, I’ll give this two stars. I struggled with it, but I finished it. – ★★

. Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

Are American Christians Persecuted? It’s Complicated. (a book review)

I was a pastor in Florida at the time the Supreme Court passed the Marriage Equality Act. At a nearby megachurch, the pastor there launched into a series on how the Christian faith was under assault. The recent Supreme Court decision was only the most recent example. Political Correctness sought to silence good Christians, atheists like Richard Dawkins were trying to make them appear evil,  the Muslims were seeking to bring Sharia law to our country, there was no prayer in schools, and abortion on demand was the law of the land. I know some of my own parishioners wanted me to describe, in similar terms, the persecution we as a church were facing. Only I didn’t actually believe it. We were free to worship God, voice our convictions and talk to our neighbors about Jesus. Congress had made no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Us evangelicals had lost some of our cultural influence and clout, but we were in no way persecuted.

51v9d3s6ncl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Jason Wiedel lives in Surry, Virgina where he directs Habitat For Humanity and works to extend the influence of Christ beyond the walls of the church. In Persecution Complex (2014), Weidel takes aim at the ways this persecution narrative and the accompanying culture wars have poisoned our public witness.  The current situation may be slightly different today from when Wiedel first published this book in the late Obama years. President Trump has sought to curry favor with evangelicals, and the ways in which conservative (white) Christians have felt unheard. There is a way in which the evangelicals who feel persecuted may now feel less under fire, though suspicion against liberal elites remain, and inevitably the pendulum will swing.

Part 1 of Persecution Complex describes the Christian persecution narrative. Wiedel describes the persecution narrative as a reaction to the wider cultural drift away from certain biblical commands, and a reaction to the alleged ‘anti-Christian forces’ who seek to minimize Christian faith in the public sphere (e.g. taking prayer out of schools, and assaulting cherished Christian beliefs through legalizing abortion and marriage equality)(5-6). These ‘anti-Christian forces’ “seek to distract us from important spiritual and moral issues by focusing society’s attention on climate change, scientific research, civil rights, income inequality, prison reform, drug legalization, education, gender equality, and universal healthcare” and seek to marginalize Christian voices as much as possible (7). Wiedel questions the fundamental basis of this narrative, asserting that the loss of some cultural influence of the church in American culture, is not persecution. As counter evidence, he reproduces Sam Killermann’s 30+ Examples of  Christian Privilege (57-59)

In Part 2, Wiedel describes the appeal of the persecution narrative (e.g. how it creates community and rallies people to action, ‘legitimizes our cause’ (we’re the victim!), and gives us someone else to blame. In part 3, Wiedel outlines six dangers inherent to the persecution narrative:

  1. We feel and act superior to others (111-113).
  2. We justify antagonism (113-114).
  3. We dehumanize others (115-116).
  4. We eliminate conversation and debate (117-118).
  5. We become immune to criticism (118-121).
  6. We ignore the suffering of others (121-123).

Part 4 offers some strategies for breaking away from our persecution narrative through showing interest in others, speaking prophetically against systems of violence and advocating on behalf of the poor, fighting injustice (instead of ‘persecution’), loving our enemies, and following Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice.

Wiedel does offer a good analysis of the culture war mentality and our alleged persecution. But while Wiedel is right, he may overstate his case slightly. Christian’s in America are not the victims of persecution, but there is something to there being an anti-Christian bias, in some settings. I think of Carolyn Webber’s excellent memoirs Holy is the Day (IVP, 2013) and Surprised By Oxford (Thomas Nelson, 2011) which describe the challenges of trying to be a faithful Christian in the world of academia (in her case, as a grad student, and then as  professor of literature), or sociologist George Yancey’s Hostility (IVP 2015) which describes, through qualitative research, the phenomenon of anti-Christian bias (again, especially in academia).  Neither of these authors is involved in the sort of culture war that Wiedel is critiquing, and neither would cry persecution (Yancey would also acknowledge that Christians are somewhat to blame for the bias they experience), but anti-Christian bias does affect some Christians in America, in some spheres, some of the time.

None of this detracts from Wiedel’s larger point, critiquing the use of a narrative of persecution to justify our bad behavior and our culture war offensives. Unfortunately, me reading this book, makes Wiedel ‘preach to the choir.’ I am soooo done with American Christian’s persecution complex (and the ways that claiming persecution here diminishes the actual suffering of the world church). My question is, would the people who actually need this book, read this book? I’m not sure they would with how entrenched our current political discourse is. Important points, but how to get Wiedel’s message into the right hands? I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.W

A Christianity Immersed in Empire: a book review

It is fashionable, in some theological circles, to speak of the Constantinian compromise. Constantine’s victory (and conversion?) in 312 CE issued in an era of religious freedom for Christians which they previously had not enjoyed. But it also started the ball rolling in terms of the centralizing of the power of the bishops, and eventually Rome in the West, and led to doctrinal compromises as the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic church sought to accommodate itself to the demands of Empire.

9781626981942Wes Howard-Brook does not doubt that this trajectory toward Empire replaced the spirituality and prophetic critique of Jesus in the life of the Church. His previous book, Come Out My People! ( Orbis, 2010), was a reading of the biblical narrative which contrasted Jesus’ liberationist movement—the ‘religion of Creation’ called the Kingdom of God—with the religion of Empire—imperial readings of the Bible which wink at (state supported) violence and shave off Jesus’ radical, prophetic edge.  However, Howard-Brook doesn’t envision this shift happening within Constantine’s lifetime or afterward but sees the genesis much earlier. In Empire Baptized (Orbis, 2016), he traces the shift toward Empire (and creation abstracting & denying spirituality) developed in the writings of Christian thinkers in the 2nd to 5th centuries and the ways their thought still hold sway today.

In his first chapter, Howard-Brook provides an overview of the Roman imperial context,  its social and economic structures and religious life. In the next six chapters, he examines how the Christian movement developed along imperial lines, focusing his study on the cities of Alexandria and Carthage, Greek and Latin centers of Christian thought. Chapter two looks at these cities’ histories and their key Christians in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Centuries.

In chapter three, Howard-Brook describes how the developing biblical hermeneutic of the Fathers, while rejecting Marcion and Gnostic readings, embraced a Neo-Platonism which abstracted physical life. This had the effect of weakening Jesus’ political and social critiques. Speaking of Origen, who held sway over the developing Biblical hermeneutic both East and West, Howard-Brook writes, “Origen (and the church around him) proclaims a “gospel” about a “soul” whose fate was separate from the body. Could a Jewish man like Jesus even understand what it meant? With this claim, any Christian concern for the human body, for the physical creation, and for the whole social-economic structure of society is put aside in favor of the question of the “soul’s fate in the afterlife” (88).

The rest of the book traces how Christian writers like Tertullian, Clement, Origen, Cyprian, Athanasius, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine continued to abstract the Christian life from creation and physical life, while at the same time imbibing the cultural values of Empire (evidenced by a misogyny which paralleled Roman cultural values and unwillingness to challenge the status-quo).  Constantine does have a significant impact on the church, as bishops began to adopt ceremonies and raiments of the imperial court and revise their image of Christ along royal lines (i.e. icons of Christ as Lawgiver and Judge sitting on a jeweled throne) (198).

Howard-Brook does his homework and his book is thoroughly researched. Yet he does not offer here, a sympathetic reading of the Church Fathers (their voices most often mediated through secondary sources). He frequently faults the Fathers for the way they catered toward elites and the how they adapted their theology to fit their own circumstance (such as Jerome’s preaching against riches while assigning a higher place in the afterlife to ‘the Christian scholar’, 247).  Surprisingly, he does end up saying nice things about Augustine, the frequent whipping boy of all that is wrong in Western Theology. He describes him as a theologian who ‘took a path of moderation between the extremes promoted by others in his context’ (265), though of course, he goes on to fault him for his handling of the Donatists, his promotion of ‘state-sponsored violence,’ and Pelagius.

I enjoyed this book and I think Howard-Brook offers an important perspective on the development of Christian doctrine. Jesus did challenge the kingdoms of this Age in the way that later generations of Christians did not. There is a trajectory toward Empire, Neo-Platonism, and the status-quo in Church history. However, by profiling particular thinkers, through particular lenses, he is able to construct his narrative and parse the evidence in a certain way. He doesn’t highlight prophetic and counter voices to Empire throughout this period or pastoral aspects of his chief interlocutors. I wished at times he applied a more of a generous reading of the patristic period, though I appreciate the critique he levels and think it is substantive. I give this five stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

Shift Happens: a book review

Contemporary Churches (2015) is a short booklet by Louis Kavar, Ph.D. designed to aid churches in transition and in need of revitalization. Kavar is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ with thirty-five years of experience in pastoral ministry, a psychologist, and pastoral counselor, and spiritual director. He brings his wealth of ministry experience to bear on helping churches shift from traditional congregational gatherings to something more life-giving and sustainable in our postmodern context.

51u1nyx759lThere are five chapters of Kavar’s book. Chapter 1 describes the cultural shift we are in, where the wider culture is not responsive to the church’s traditional and institutional structure. Kavar describes our need to move from where we are, to begin to configure and conceptualize church in new ways. Chapter 2 describes the movement from death to life, as congregations move through the stages of grief, a spirituality of bereavement, toward resurrection and new vitality. Chapters 3 and 4 moves toward a new model for the local church. Finally, Chapter 5 describes the spiritual practices and rituals that will sustain a church in transition. Kavar writes, “The vitality of the Christian life is not dying. Instead, structures that no longer represent the way of life our culture embraces are fading away.  In this transformation, the words of Isaiah 43 is true for us today, ‘Look I am doing a new thing. It’s emerging don’t you perceive it?'”(94).

I knew that Kavar was a clergy person, a spiritual director, and a psychologist when I picked the book up. I somehow got in my head that this book was about ‘contemplative church transformation.’ It took me waaay too long to realize I read that it was called Contemporary Churches, and not Contemplative Churches. But Kavar draws more heavily on psychologists than mystics. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t deal with spiritual transformation ( he employs Brueggemann’s orientation/disorientation/reorientation framework, the rhythms of death and resurrection, the example of Jesus, spiritual practices, discernment and the operations of the Holy Spirit. And he incorporates insights he’s gained as a psychologist and a church strategist.

Resources abound for church revitalization and congregational transformation. This isn’t the first resource of this kind I’ve read, though it is perhaps the most mainline one I’ve read. Kavar does reference mainstay evangelical authors like Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, George Barna, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons and even Willow Creek Association resources (but not Ed Stetzer, sorry Lifeway). The changing dynamics of culture effects evangelical and mainline congregations alike, though all anecdotes and illustrative material here are of Mainline congregations and contexts. Some of his examples of shifts (e.g. the move to LGBTQ inclusion and social justice awareness) will be contested in more conservative contexts, but the principles hold true across the theological spectrum. Kavar has some interesting things to say about how for postmodern people, there is a shift in our understanding of church membership from adherence to historic dogma first toward the primacy of communal belonging (members first,  dogma later). I’m confessional enough that this makes me uncomfortable, though I recognize he is right about the broader cultural shift.

Fellow clergy (and congregational leaders) will benefit from reading this whether or not you buy all of Kavar’s theological assumptions and conclusions. He is a good dialogue partner. I give this book four stars (Contemplative Churches, would have been an awesome book).

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review

C-C-Catch the wave: a book review

Why call your movement Blue Ocean Faith? Maybe it’s because the name Blue Oyster Cult was already taken and it sounded too exclusive (plus oysters are so shellfish). Whatever the reason, Dave Schmelzer, founding pastor of Reservoir Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts founded and leads Blue Ocean Faitha network of churches which strives to be post-bad-news, alive in Christ, diverse, inclusive, politically nuanced and attractive and comprehensible to outsiders.¹ He wrote a book about it, which he creatively called Blue Ocean Faith. As a religious insider, I don’t really get the name, but the book is pretty great.

51zrlk3ejel-_sx329_bo1204203200_Schmelzer is trying to ignite a new Jesus movement. He offers six distinctives, each of which is an invitation to follow Jesus. He advocates a post-fundamentalist, post-culture-war way of being faithful to Jesus.  But before Schmelzer really gets into it, Brian McLaren writes a preface. And Peter Wallace writes a forward. Adney Wassink writes an introduction. Then Schmelzer gets in the act and writes the second preface.  A lot of prolegomena, but front matter matters.

The book has eight chapters. In chapter one, Schmelzer talks about what it would mean for us as people of faith, to leave the bad news behind and be sold out on the idea that all people were created to experience the good news which Jesus brings.  Writing of the network he helped found, he says, “‘Blue Ocean’ has become a descriptor of these churches—both because these churches tend to ‘fish where other churches don’t fish’ and because it’s the blue oceans that connect all people (10). (Okay so I do kinda get the name). The next six chapters describe and expand on the six distinctives of what it means to have this connected, Blue Ocean style faith:

  1. Our primary framework is SOLUS JESUS.
  2. Our primary metaphor is CENTERED-SET.
  3. Our approach to spiritual development is CHILD-LIKE FAITH.
  4. Our approach to controversial issues is THIRD WAY.
  5. Our approach to other churches is ECUMENICAL.
  6. Our approach to secular culture is JOYFUL ENGAGEMENT.

A closing chapter issues a summons to kick off this new Jesus movement.

I appreciate so much of what Schmelzer has to say. He is thoughtful in how he presents and unfolds the implications of each distinctive and stokes our excitement for a more compelling, engaging and inclusive faith. I especially like his comments on navigating religious squabbles (i.e controversial issues). Schmelzer draws on insights from M. Scott Pecks four stages of emotional and Spiritual development and  Paul’s words from Romans 14 (see chapter 5).  Schmelzer defines disputable matters as those which are not dogma or doctrine, an issue which brings two biblical truths into dynamic tension, and an issue where otherwise faithful believers disagree (89-90).  Following Paul’s advice, Schmelzer urges us to hold to our personal convictions, shun contempt and judgment of others, have the humility to allow different views from our own, and never exclude those you disagree with from full participation in the community (90-92). This approach has allowed LGBT+ Christians and more conservative believers, continue to be the church together as part of the Blue Ocean Faith communities.

We are at a cultural moment where many feel ambivalent about the evangelical church and what the label signifies. Schmelzer offers a vision of Christianity which is still Christ-centered, active and engaged in mission. I recommend this for anyone who is frustrated with the church and is looking for something more refreshing. 4 stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this from SpeakEasy for my honest review.

Rules are Revolting: a book review

Becky Bond and Zack Exley worked together on Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign. While Bernie’s bid for the Democratic nomination was ultimately unsuccessful, they did mobilize an impressive amount of grass roots support. Rules for Revolutionaries gives a glimpse of the power of ‘big organizing’ and what it takes to ignite a movement. While the anecdotes in this book are drawn also exclusively from the Bernie campaign, Bond and Exley argue that the ‘rules’ reveal what leaders do in movements to mobilize millions of people.

19650The title, Rules for Revolutionaries alludes to the earlier work of Saul Alinsky, the influential Rules for Radicals. Alinksy was a Chicago-based labor organizer (whose work was influential for Obama). His work became a standard for organizers and activists. However Bond and Exley observe that Alinsky’s model was ‘premised on the paternalistic concept that an enlightened core of outside organizers was necessary to show the poor that there was a better way and then to represent them in a battle with elites” (8-9). Alinsky believed in building power so to compel negotiation (rather than revolutionize the entire power structure). Bond and Exley also criticize Alinsky for creating incrementalist Black and Latino groups designed to mitigate anger instead of effecting real change. In contrast, Bond and Exley believe their model provides a more revolutionary way forward:

The big organizing model that can fuel revolutions believes that communities are filled with talented and intelligent people who understand what was broken and, when given material and strategic resources, can wrest power from elites and make lasting change. A political revolution is different from community organizing as we know it today. (9)

The rules aren’t so much ‘rules’ as pithy chapter titles which describe aspects of their strategic vision. Some of these are practical: “Get on the Phone!” The Work Is Distributed. The Plan Centralized,” “Learn the Basics of Good Management,””The Revolution is Not Just Bottom Up; It’s Peer to Peer,” “Put Consumer Software at the Center,” “Get Ready for the Counterrevolution.” Other rules are about the right orientation toward the work of organizing: “You Won’t Get a Revolution if You Don’t Ask for One,” “The Revolution Will not be Handed toYou on a Silver Platter.” A couple of rules describe the issues worth organizing for: “Fighting Racism Must Be the Core Message to Everyone,” “There is No Such Thing as a Single Issue Revolution.”

If organizing is your thing, Bond and Exley have practical advice and hard-earned wisdom to share.  As I said, these really aren’t rules, they are practical description the approach that Exley and Bond took as part of the campaign. Whether or not the new rules overturn the old playbook remains to be seen. This is mostly just an insider’s look atBernie’s historic campaign.

I am not really sure that there is much revolutionary here. There is some good leadership advice such standing for something, giving people a big way to get involved, how to mobilize and empower leaders, and what it means to lead in a more cooperative less elitist way.  All of this is helpful. Revolutionary? Not so much. Will these rules ignite a revolution? That remains to be seen.  The rules begin to feel tedious by the end.  I give this book 3.5 stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

The Twisted Sisters of Christ the Redeemer: a book review.

When we meet Rebecca Holden, she is hiding out in the back cubicle of Secure Star Insurance, near the flushing toilets. She keeps the walls up between herself and her two coworkers (Sally and Gladys). Andrew, the new HR manager arrives and discovers that there is more to Rebecca than the quiet efficient assistant in the rear cubicle[Spoiler alert, next two paragraphs ].

Book+CoverFour years earlier, Rebecca Holden used to be Sr. Rebecca Marise, a member of the strict, traditional Sisters of Christ the Redeemer (SCR), a teaching order. The order clung to the strictures of pre-Vatican II Catholicism—the nuns wore habits and never styled their hair, they kept a strict community rule, regulated by the head of their order, Mother Mary Thomas. The order is growing in size and prestige with many new recruits and the support of conservative Bishops.

Sr. Rebecca is evidently happy in her vocation, living at the mother house among other young recruits. Then an older nun has a hard attack and Sr. Rebecca finds herself transferred to remote Appalachia, to a small school and convent, far away from the structure and strictures of SCR central command.  The difference between these sisters and those at the Mother house is immediately evident to her (e.g. a looseness with the hours of prayer, personal address, divine readings, educational strategies, and the dress code). Eventually these sisters are brought into conflict with the Mother house, precipitating the circumstances in which Sr. Rebecca leaves the order.

Linda Anne Smith, author of Terrifying Freedom, hails from somewhere near Calgary has woven a tale of terrifying freedom—what it means to pick up the pieces of life after the myth of certainty and control collapses. Her protagonist, Rebecca, leaves the order and the whole way of life she’s ever known only to feel isolated and suffer rejection from her mother. This is a story of what it means to pick up the pieces when the life of faith breaks open.

Generally, I am suspicious of fiction that is: (a) religious or (b) self published. Religious fiction tends to be too didactic, telling not showing, self-published works often suffer for lack of editorial review (there are some pretty great exceptions in both cases). Terrifying Freedom is well written. Smith’s use of religious themes serves the story. There is a message but Smith’s prose doesn’t preach. Smith did have an editor review her manuscript and the writing and production quality is excellent.

However, at 490 pages, I couldn’t help feel like the story was a little overlong (at that length, I feel like I expect a multigenerational family epic or the fires or Mordor). The first 157 pages tell the story of Rebecca and her coworkers at the insurance agency before we are transported back to Rebecca’s life as a nun (the meat of the novel).  I felt like this first part could have been significantly shorter. I wasn’t immediately grabbed by it (I restarted this novel several times) and I didn’t find it a compelling read until I had gotten some way in. The second part of the novel is much better and part 3 weaves the strands of Rebecca Holden’s life together as she confronts her past. If the first section was shorter, I think the whole novel would have been paced much better.

Still, a first novel, this is a pretty impressive achievement and I ended up enjoying the book a lot. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection:  I received this book for free from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.