Scott Cairns on Salvation and Jesus as Personal Savior

I’ve loved the work of poet Scott Cairns ever since I first heard him at Calvin College’s 2008 Festival of Faith and Writing. Scott is now blogging for – of all places – Huffington Post, and in his piece earlier this week on Rethinking Salvation: A One-Time Personal Event or a Continuous, Collective Effort?, he recounts what was my favorite story from the 2008 Festival, one I’ve mentioned in several blog posts over the last couple years (here and in Making Ourselves Known to Each Other and Jesus Lives in My Heart).

[W]hile salvation necessarily happens to persons, it is not to be understood as a merely personal matter.
I continue to enjoy, and enjoy repeating, the surprising response that a monk at Simonopetra gave to a man who, thinking he had come to evangelize the Holy Mountain, interrupted us to ask the kind father if Jesus Christ was his “personal savior.”

“No,” the smiling monk said without hesitation, “I like to share him.”

Thanks to the long-standing tradition that monk manifests, I have a developing sense that salvation finally must have to do with all of us, collectively, and that it must have to do with all else, as well — all of creation, in fact.

Read the full article here.

Why I Stopped Going to Church, part two

Read Part One here

This essay cross-posted from Jesus Needs New PR

Earlier this year, on the first Sunday in Lent, I walked into church hopeful that I would hear something of whatever it is we are all looking for, whatever we hope to find when we gather together with other believers, or, as Frederick Buechner says, at least would-be believers, part-time believers, believers with our fingers crossed.  And instead the congregation was treated to a bad morality tale.  The sermon delivered that morning to those hoping to hear some whisper of grace, some reason to believe or to keep on believing, some exploration of those big questions we all have, even the ones we are more often than not afraid to ask, was instead built around everyone knowing how “right” the speaker was in his opinions.  Like thousands of sermons I heard growing up, the speaker opened his sermon by assuring people how bad of a preacher he was, that whatever the sermon was about came from God and not from him.  It’s a brilliant set up, if you think about it.  It means that people know up front that if you disagree with anything they say, you are not disagreeing with them, but with GOD.  Using the phrases so familiar from my childhood, the words that provided the comfort and assurance that come from knowing you are absolutely right in everything you think, that not only is there absolute truth but that you have a complete grasp on it, the speaker that morning left no doubt that God was on his side – and you would be too, if only you weren’t so intent on rebelling against God (or him; the distinction was a little blurry by this point).

I walked out of the building that morning, squinting into the bright Nashville sun, shaking.

With anger.

With an overwhelming sense of loss. Continue reading Why I Stopped Going to Church, part two

Why I Stopped Going to Church, part one

This essay cross-posted from Jesus Needs New PR

In When You Are Engulfed in Flames, a collection of essays published in 2008 by humorist David Sedaris, he explains his decision to stop smoking by telling a story about a friend he once had, a German woman.  Her English was less than perfect, and on one occasion, when asked if a neighbor smoked, her reply was, “Karl has… finished with his smoking.”  Sedaris writes: “She meant, of course, that he had quit, but I much preferred her mistaken version. “Finished” made it sound as if he’d been allotted a certain number of cigarettes, three hundred thousand, say, delivered at the time of his birth. If he’d started a year later or smoked more slowly, he might still be at it, but, as it stood, he had worked his way to the last one, and then moved on with his life. This, I thought, was how I would look at it.”

I’ve come to explain my decision about church attendance in much the same way, albeit without the same sense of finality.  Frederick Buechner has said that the sermons that have the biggest impact on us are those that we preach to ourselves in between the lines of whatever is being said from the pulpit, and the consequence of being in church every time the doors opened for twenty-eight years meant that the number of bad sermons I’d heard, filled with poor logic and faulty reasoning – all purportedly straight from God – had added up.  The result being that the sermons I tried to hear “between the lines” were drowned out by other voices that were disagreeing with nearly everything being said.  Every sermon point given, every phrase uttered, brought to mind the echos of a thousand past sermons, bringing with them a scrutiny of each idea presented for consideration, every word weighted down with the complex history of their past usage and the implications of the resulting arguments, as given in the Fundamentalist world. Continue reading Why I Stopped Going to Church, part one

Faith: an escape from life?

It’s always satisfying when you find different things you’ve read and listened to coming together to form a cohesive argument, helping you to look at a subject from different angles that you wouldn’t have thought of without those outside sources informing your thinking process. Earlier this week, I was listening to the highly entertaining and informative 2008 Terry Lectures Series from Yale University, given by Terry Eagleton, on Faith and Fundamentalism: Is Belief in Richard Dawkins Necessary for Salvation? One of Eagleton’s points in his second lecture gave me an epiphany on how to make a point in an essay I had been working on over the weekend, and also connected arguments Irish philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins makes in his second book, The Fidelity of Betrayal, with the larger subject I was working on. I’ve reread a couple chapters of Rollins’ book this week, and in doing so, was reminded of this statement on faith and the “transformative truth” of Christianity, from the chapter Eclipsing God.
Continue reading Faith: an escape from life?

Listening into the silences…

One of the great things about the house I’m renting now is the big backyard, with a little pond that has fountains in it just outside the back door, and a deck bordered on two sides by flowerbeds. The beds need a little work; right now they contain both a red rose bush that is in full bloom and a couple stalks of corn that have wilted from the recent heat wave here in Nashville. That same heat wave has meant that the back deck has not gotten much usage yet, but one night last week, after reading a comment my friend Andrew posted on twitter – “I would like to recommend that you stop whatever you’re doing and go look at the moon” – I was prompted to move beyond my good intentions to sit out there and actually do so. I was just finishing up work for the night, music preparation on the song This Kiss, orchestrated by Carl Marsh, for a concert Beth Nielsen Chapman will be performing with the BBC Concert Orchestra in a couple of weeks (the song, which Beth co-wrote, is best known for having been a big hit for Faith Hill 12 years ago). After sending the files off for proofing, I closed my laptop, poured a glass of Scotch, and went outside to stare up at the moon and smoke my pipe (another thing, incidentally, that was recommend to me by Andrew).
Continue reading Listening into the silences…

Winter’s Bone and Rodney Clapp

I’ve only seen a couple of movies this year that I really loved, and at the top of that list is Winter’s Bone (the list also includes Toy Story 3 and Babies. And Crazy Heart, but that’s officially a 2009 release). My review of Winter’s Bone was posted on the Rabbit Room on Friday – click hear to read it – and in the review, I quote from a book I’m reading now that I’m really loving, Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction. His discussion of the role music plays in our lives, the part I quoted from in my review, is very good, but what interested me most about the book, when I first picked it up, is this thought from the first chapter, America’s Southern Accent.

“The strongly southern accent or inflection of democracy as we now know it in the United States may helpfully be discerned by way of contrast. By way of broad and rough contrast, I want to suggest that American democracy is composed of two dominant strains: the democracy of the parade, based predominantly in the North; and the democracy of the revival, predominantly of the South.”

I picked up Rodney’s book just after reading the manuscript for a book my uncle is finishing up on the roots of American Fundamentalism, told through the story of our family, and Rodney’s book provided helpful ways of thinking through some of the things that came up as I read my uncle’s book, as has another book I’m working my way through, Richard Niebuhr’s Social Sources of Denominationalism, published in 1929. If you’re at all interested in the questions of why we believe what we believe and how our surroundings shape what we choose to believe, I highly recommend both of those books. And I’m sure I’ll be writing more about my uncle’s book as it makes its way towards publication.

The tension between pedagogical caution and honesty

I was rereading Reinhold Niebuhr’s first book (published in 1929) earlier today – it holds the distinction as having my favorite book title, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic – while Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Evening Service, Op. 37 was playing on the record player in the next room, and a pork sausage omelette was cooking on the stove. The book is a series of journal entries from Niebuhr’s first pastorate, where, fresh of out seminary, he would serve for 15 years before returning to the academy where he would spend the rest of his life. The entry that jumped out at me today was written in 1916, when he was just 24 years old. It immediately made me think of several conversations I’ve had recently with friends about the place of honesty and discernment in what to address in our work, especially as it relates to writing about childhood faith, my primary area of interest at the moment.

I had a letter from Professor L___ today suggesting that I return to college and prepare myself for the teaching profession. A year ago I was certain that I would do that. Now I am not so sure. Nevertheless the academic life has its allurements. It is really simpler than the ministry. As a teacher your only task is to discover the truth. As a preacher you must conserve other interests besides the truth. It is your business to deal circumspectly with the whole religious inheritance lest the virtues which are involved in the older traditions perish through your iconoclasm. That is a formidable task and a harassing one; for one can never be quite sure where pedagogical caution ends and dishonesty begins.
What is particularly disquieting to a young man in the ministry is the fact that some of his fine old colleagues make such a virtue of their ignorance. They are sure that there is no Second Isaiah and have never heard that Deuteronomy represents a later development in the law. I can’t blame them for not having all the bright new knowledge of a recent seminarian (not quite as new as the seminarian imagines); but the ministry is the only profession in which you can make a virtue of ignorance. If you have read nothing but commentaries for twenty years, that is supposed to invest you with an aura of sanctity and piety. Every profession has its traditions and its traditionalists. But the traditionalists in the pulpit are much more certain than the others that the Lord is on their side.

The War Prayer (National Day of Prayer, 2010)

The one tradition I have on this blog, so it seems, is to post Mark Twain’s The War Prayer every other year on the National Day of Prayer. I did so back in 2006, again in 2008, and here we are in 2010. This is my favorite short story, with a concluding line that I think is brilliant. It seems especially apropos this year, in light of the recent Nashville Flood, in the way it examines the words behind our words. My friend Scott wrote a good post related to this earlier in the week, God’s blessings are mysterious sometimes…”

Continue reading The War Prayer (National Day of Prayer, 2010)

Acting Out Our Hopes and Yearnings

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece for the Rabbit Room about one of my favorite theologians, Walter Brueggemann, and a trip I took with my friend Scott down to Waco, TX, to attend a conference where Brueggemann was the featured speaker. I included an excerpt from one of his sermons, found in his book The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness, and a pretty good discussion developed in the comments. Here’s how the piece starts:

Listening to Walter Brueggemann, it is impossible not to feel a sense of history. At 76 years old, as arguably the preeminent Old Testament scholar of our day, Brueggemann has written more than 58 books, many about the prophets of old. To hear him talk is to become convinced that you’re listening to one of those prophets, someone delivering a message directly from God. At a recent conference at Truett Seminary in Waco, TX, where the topic was prophetic preaching, I sat under his teaching for two days with a sense of reverence and gratefulness for the opportunity, and a growing understanding that what I was hearing would shape the way I approached the scriptures in future readings.
Continue reading Acting Out Our Hopes and Yearnings

In the Garden of North American Martyrs

This month I participated in the The Faith and Fiction Round Table, organized by My Friend Amy, in a discussion of Tobias Wolff’s collection of short stories, In the Garden of North American Martyrs. We discussed the book by e-mail over the course of a week, and Amy has split up the conversation for the different participants to post on their blogs. Below is my part of the discussion. Be sure to check out the other links at the end of the post for the rest of the conversation.

Amy: I’m interested in what all of you think about choosing In the Garden of the North American Martyrs as the title for the collection. Do you think it works as a title to pull together this best of collection, and do you find that story to center or anchor the other stories or do you think it’s just the most appealing title from a marketing angle?

Pete: I think it’s a very fitting title for the collection. Most of the stories deal with someone struggling against something, often themselves, and losing.

Simon: In fact, the title story ‘In the Garden of the North American Martyrs’ was one of the ones which left me cold – I enjoyed the build up, but the climax where Mary went a bit crazy and macabre felt forced and didn’t work for me. I couldn’t really work out why he chose this as the title story, or even why the title was chosen for that particular story.
Continue reading In the Garden of North American Martyrs