an interview with Phyllis Tickle: oy veh.

Blogger Kimberly Winston has published an interview with Phyllis Tickle about her most recent book, The Words of Jesus. The book removes words attributed to Jesus in the four canonical gospels from any narrative context and then prints them with reflections from Tickle.

I like Phyllis Tickle, and am a great admirer of her previous work, but this sounds like a project that, if not misbegotten entirely, is at the very least built on the shakiest of premises. She seems to think that when you remove text about Jesus' actions and setting, you "get rid of the author" of the gospels and get direct access to Jesus himself. "And when you get rid of the author," she says, "you have removed the filter" of previous interpretation of Jesus' words (and, I'd add, actions). "You can be stripped naked," she says, "of all the preconceptions and the conditions that you have come to the scriptures dressed in or robed in or anaesthetized in and meet here stark naked what your God is."

How on earth could she think that the writers of the gospels aren't exercising their authorial voice in their selection, ordering of, and, yes, the wording of speech attributed to Jesus? Anyone who reads Matthew's version of the Beatitudes alongside Luke's version would have a hard time making that claim, I'd think. And how on earth could she think that we as readers can shed our skin and read anything without our reading being shaped by the lense of OUR cultural, social, and historical context? Reading communities shape our views of texts. That's not a bad thing; it's just part of the package of being human and making meaning. If we did get "stripped naked of all the preconceptions," as Tickle says her book will do for us, we wouldn't be able to interpret texts about Jesus at all -- they'd be nothing to us but a bunch of chicken scratches on pages had we not been taught to read, and in a particular context that inevitably shapes what we think of what we read.

Oy veh.

And besides, I think that Jesus' actions -- particularly his healings, confronting oppressive powers, and most importantly his willingness to suffer death on a Roman cross rather than undermine his prophetic ministry or retaliate with violence -- are a crucial part of the frame through which we interpret Jesus' words. Would it matter if he said "love your enemies" if what he did when people came to arrest him was to hack several of them to death with a machete? And what would it do to Jesus' words, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing" had he said them about someone getting his order wrong in a cafe in Jerusalem rather than as he faced his death?

I'll probably read this book, and I hope it turns out to be better and more helpful than it sounds. But at the very least, I'm rather sad about how it's being presented by the author.

January 20, 2008 in Books, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

This morning, I've got "Potterburn," a skin condition that results from taking a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into the back yard on a fine day and reading it from start to finish. It's rather like an ordinary "farmer's tan," only with a telltale white patch on the throat where the shadow from my chin fell as I read.

How was the book? I'll avoid spoilers my comments here, and maybe say more at some future point (I do, for example, want to talk about Rowling's heavy borrowing from other sources, but I think that would be hard to do without serving up spoilers). Anne Rice often advances her books' plots by having characters tell their stories -- a device that allows her to cover events over decades or even hundreds of years, but with the drawback that one is frequently left with the impression that what vampires mostly do have days-long dinner parties where they talk about what it's like to be a vampire. J.K. Rowling has a lot of plot to get through and a lot of loose ends to tie up in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and as a result relies more frequently than I'd like on characters talking about (or peering in a pensieve to see) what happened rather than on showing us what happens and revealing character in that way.

As for the ending, I much prefer Joss Whedon endings (as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) to Rowling's, and I believe it's an apt comparison. Both the Harry Potter series and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series were at least partly about growing up, and both literalized metaphors to show us or remind us vividly of the struggles involved in that. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel kept very much in mind that as complicated as adolescence is to navigate, adulthood, marriage, parenting, and work and hardly a picnic, and also that much of the world's suffering comes not from a single great evil, but from countless more subtle compromises from and shortcomings of basically good people. I think that an ending for Harry Potter that showed that Harry and the rest were still having adventures and fighting evil would have been more satisfying that what Rowling gives us.

That said, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was certainly an enjoyable read, and I'm really looking forward to talking about it -- especially about what it presents and doesn't present about good and evil -- with folks as they finish reading it. While I devoured many children's series in my childhood, I think Harry Potter is the first series of books I read as it came out, snapping each volume up on the day it was released and reading it from cover to cover in a day. I've enjoyed it a great deal, and am a bit sad it's over -- but hopeful that the series' wild commercial success will inspire publishers to find and release other series by even more skilled and imaginative writers.

July 23, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

weigh in on a book in the works

Chris Yaw, a priest in Michigan and good friend from the days when we were both in California, is writing a book for seekers on what The Episcopal Church is about. Check it out -- Chris is looking for feedback, and would be very glad to hear what you think.

March 8, 2007 in Books, Churchiness | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

clearly I needed this book

Yesterday, I finally got around to reading the first chapter of a book that I'd been meaning to read for at least a year. The book came highly recommended to me, and I could tell from the title that it could be helpful for my dissertation, but there was always a squeakier wheel, and despite the best of intentions I left it month after month on the bedside table without picking it up. The book's title?

Overcoming Procrastination.

(The current edition has a different title, but it's the same book I'm now reading.)

September 6, 2006 in Books, Life and Whatnot | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

I'm back!

Long time no see, eh? It's true that I've been on the road for much of this month (with a couple more trips left to go!), but my long silence has also been due to something else: the internal hard drive on my PowerBook died. I think it's the motor -- it was making odd whining noises that sounded mechanical, but not the kind of crunchy-scratchy noises that would suggest that something was dragging across the surface of the magnetic disk upon which far, far too much information is stored.  I'm pricing data recovery services -- while I backed up most of my documents faithfully, I'd just gotten a bunch of important emails that I hadn't had a chance to back up, since I was on the road.

Right now, I'm using my PowerBook with a couple of external drives, but I'm going to have to let go of the PowerBook soon to send it off for data recovery, and once I've recovered as much info as possible from the dead drive, I'll probably need to send the PowerBook in to Apple to have the hard drive replaced. I'm not looking forward to that -- I've got an old iMac in the house I can use while my PowerBook is away, but that means I have to sit in a little study rather than roaming freely around the house as I'm accustomed to doing.

I've learned from the experience, though -- I've invested in a portable 100 GB external hard drive to which I will back up my entire hard disk even on the road.

I've finished reading Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal (which a reader was VERY kind to send me -- totally made my day!), and I've got to say I can't remember the last time I found a book so much fun. It was hilarious and poignant, and sometimes both at the same time. I wish they'd make a movie of it; if it was done well, I'd say chances would be good that the movie of Lamb would replace Jesus of Montreal and Monty Python's The Life of Brian as my favorite Jesus-related films. That's saying a LOT; I love both of those other films so much that I've worn out my VHS copies of them (I really ought to spring for the DVDs someday). I doubt that Lamb: The Movie will be made, though. Fundamentalists would have a fit -- especially because I don't see how they could make the film in a way that's faithful to the book without it getting an R-rating -- or an NC-17.

No, Jesus doesn't "do the nasty" (not what I'd call it, but I've been hanging around teens far too much) in the book, or behave in any way that ought to upset Christians, except those who think that you can't be a good person without yelling at anyone around you committing what you think is a sin, or that good Christians and Jews have nothing to learn from anyone from another tradition. In other words, Jesus is actually a very attractive character -- not whiny like the Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (don't get me wrong; I liked that movie a lot, and would like to see it again), or like a stuffy, floaty version of a hippie, only with a posh "I'm a Shakespearean AC-tor" accent, as in so many other films.

This is a Jesus with a sense of humor, who enjoys being around his very imperfect friend. This is a Jesus whose ego is healthy enough that he doesn't need everybody to flatter him, like the Jesus in far too many sermons. In short, this is a Jesus I can actually imagine wanting to be in relationship with his disciples -- or with someone like me. Lamb would be a far better movie for evangelism than Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, but I think in the end that the churches are the reason it will never be produced. At any rate, if you haven't read this book already, get it! It's not Holy Writ, but it's a darn good read, and it would start some fabulous and fruitful conversations in someplace like a parish 20s/30s book study group.

And I had a really wonderful time at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland. If I were anywhere near there, I'd love to make it my home congregation. Some of the things that particularly impressed me:

The children's involvement in the 9:00 service. I've been to a lot of services where "family-friendly" has meant dumbing down the liturgy, injecting lots of schmaltz, and/or creating distractions for children that don't involve them in worship so much as keep them quiet or make them entertain adults. Not so at Trinity. The children walk (or run -- but that can be prayerful too) the labyrinth, dance in the aisles in a reverent as well as joyful way, and gather around the altar for the Eucharistic prayers not as passive observers, but as participants, even putting their hands over the bread and wine with the priest. The word that comes most readily to mind when I think of the children's role in the service is "holy" -- not "cute."

The music. I'm a musician and a music buff, and it was wonderful to worship with such excellent musicians. The choir at the 11:15 service was gorgeous. I'm spoiled by the truly wonderful choir at the 10:30 service I attend at Memorial parish in Baltimore, which is my home congregation, but it was a treat to worship with a much larger choir with equal passion for music and for excellent. However, while my usual tendency when given a choice between attending something called a "Contemporary Service" and something called a "Traditional Service" is to go with the traditional service in a heartbeat ("contemporary" in churchspeak usually means using poorly- or unrehearsed music written around the time I was born, which was in 1970), if I moved to Cleveland and was looking to worship somewhere as a parishioner, I'd lean toward the 9:00 service at the cathedral. What I've said about the role of children at that service would play a role in that decision, but the music would have a lot to do with it too. At Trinity, the particular genre of the contemporary music at 9:00 is jazz/blues/gospel. The band -- the Oberlin Gateway band with Jennifer Cochran as cantor -- kicks ass. They've got soul, they clearly love what they're doing, their musicianship is excellent, and they lead worship in a way that enthusiastically invites the congregation to participate. This is not a concert; it's a revival! I had no idea when I decided (the night before I preached) to quote the lyrics of an old spiritual in my sermon how that would fly, but after the music at 9:00 ... I felt right at home going there. And if you're going to talk about how suffering can be redeemed for salvation, that's a very good place to be able to go.

The formation opportunities. I facilitated a forum on the morning I was there, and my hosts said rather apologetically that attendance might not be all that high, since there was so much else going on. I say HURRAH! I know that the array of offerings is partly about Trinity being a cathedral with more resources than many parishes. But it also seems to me to reflect the priority placed there on formation for all ages. Trinity has two clergy on staff, and while the staff as a whole is much larger than that, I'll hazard a guess that Trinity can offer the array of programs it does because they work very hard to make full use of expertise in the community and to invite and support the ministry of volunteers who have invested seriously in their own formation over time. This is a community that offers plentiful opportunities to deepen faith and integrate it with all of life, and to help others do the same. As much as we Episcopalians trumpet how you don't have to leave your mind at the door in our congregations, I particularly appreciate opportunities to "love the Lord ... with all your mind," which seem all too rare sometimes amidst a glut of courses on the labyrinth, lectio divina (or "African bible study," which is a fine way of praying with scripture, but from what I gather it's not African, and as I've seen it done it's not really bible study either -- more like free association using the text as a diving board or trampoline), and parenting or pop psychology -- all of which are good things I value much in my own life and work, but they're designed to engage the emotions and the subconscious more than the conscious. Trinity clearly offers many wonderful opportunities for contemplative prayer, walking the labyrinth, and other helpful things, but I found it particularly cool to see how many opportunities there also were for things like book study (and not pop-psychology books or The Gnostic Gospels, but books that engage seriously with scripture). I know that not everyone loves reading as much as I do, but I often find it frustrating when I can't find ANY opportunities to talk with fellow Christians about books and ideas aside from the Internet. If I lived in Cleveland, it looks like I'd have more of those opportunities than I'd know what to do with!

The hospitality. My hosts were lovely. I'm particularly grateful to the folks who arranged for me to come out there, showed me around, and swapped opinions with me about what's going to happen in the final volume in the Harry Potter saga and whether Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel have more theological treasures to mine, who offered tech support as I tried to piece together some setup so that I didn't have to write out my entire sermon longhand (which was particularly humorous given my rep as the cyber-preaching technology gal), and who helped me get vested and miked in about 15 seconds when those conversations about Buffy and coffee went a little too long. But my sense is that this is a congregation that's really good with hospitality. They've opened a fair-trade coffeehouse on the side of the campus facing the university campus with plentiful nooks suitable for students studying alone or small groups looking for a place to talk. They've got an art gallery, and lots of comfortable rooms for groups to gather. The spaces I saw in the cathedral and its commons seemed designed very well to make people comfortable while pointing toward the transcendent. But I was deeply impressed from start to finish, right down to greeting people on the way out after each service. So very many people were so warm and wonderful, so gracious and generous in sharing their stories and ideas, even in 30-second encounters. It left me with the impression that this is a community that, as an integral part of their community culture, the character of their life together, shares their stories, their ideas, their dreams.

That was a first impression, of course, but it was a strong one, and a very positive one.

March 19, 2006 in Books, Churchiness, Life and Whatnot | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

on the road with Biff; 'ello, Cleveland!

A very, very kind reader got me a copy of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Jesus' Childhood Pal, and it's in my suitcase for reading as I'm on the road, which is going to be until March 13. My honey and I are driving up to New York today, where we'll be staying with friends. Tomorrow I'm going to the panel on the UN Commission on the Status of Women at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City to cover it for The Witness. On Monday and Tuesday, I've got an Episcopal Church commission meeting at the Church Center in New York, and from Wednesday to Friday I'm going to a consultation at a conference center in Connecticut. On Sunday, March 13, I'm preaching and doing a forum at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland (I apologize to the people of Cleveland for the Spinal Tap reference in this post's title; I'm sure y'all have heard it far, far too many times). I'm really looking forward to that -- it seems like a very cool community doing very interesting things, and I'm looking forward to seeing in person some people who I know now only via the Internet. If you happen to be in Cleveland, I'd love to see you there!

March 3, 2006 in Books, Churchiness, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals (MGDs), Where's Dylan? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

I think I need this book

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Jesus' Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore

February 11, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

I love the library

I'll never forget a conversation I once had with a student when I was TAing introductory Greek literature and culture. She came in to office hours to ask whether she could borrow a copy of Aristophanes' The Clouds, as she'd lent her copy to a friend and it was a required text for the course. I was feeling a little testy that afternoon, so I said something like this:

“Unfortunately, I only have one copy of the play, and I need it for teaching. But there's a great program on campus where you can just walk into this building, take any book you want off the shelves, and they'll lend it to you FOR FREE for weeks at a time. They've got practically anything you'd want, and if they don't have it, they'll borrow it from someone else to get it to you.”

“Wow ... I can't believe they've got a program like that for free and they don't advertise it,” the student gushed excitedly.

“It's called the 'library,' I said.”

But although I've used libraries for research a lot, I hadn't been to a library to check out anything for fun since I was in junior high, and I'd forgotten how wonderful it is to have this place where you can go and borrow not just books, but movies and CD's for free. And I've fallen in love with my local library. It's just a few blocks from my house, it's got free parking for when I want to stop by on my way home from grocery shopping or somesuch, and it's one of those rare instances of a recently-erected public building that's beautifully designed -- bright with lots of warm woods.

Their selection of nonfiction isn't what I'd want from a seminary library; for example, I've never read Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy, for example, even though I think I'm guessing from the title that I'd find it the best of his books, simply because I'm trying to buy as few books as possible. That's for financial reasons, since editing The Witness is only a part-time job, and my bishop has decided I should get another master's in divinity starting in September, which means both that I won't be able to get a full-time job until after I've finished and that we'll have to come up with seminary tuition and living expenses to maintain two households (since Karen's job isn't portable, and seminaries within commuting distance from here don't have enough flexibility in their curricula to allow me to do a third theological master's without repeating a lot of what I've done before. I'm also trying not to buy more books because I've already got five floor-to-ceiling bookcases full, most of which are on biblical studies and theology, and I don't see how I can fit what I've got into a seminary dorm room.

Anyway, the library doesn't have A Generous Orthodoxy. They get most books from folks of Pat Robertson's theological ilk -- I imagine that conservative Christians are vocal about requesting them -- but they don't have nearly as much selection in popular books from progressive Christian authors. They do, however, have a really good selection of DVD's, and I'm making good use of their collection. I'm also doing something that might surprise y'all:

I'm reading the Left Behind series. I usually try to keep abreast of anything in pop culture that's getting people talking about theology, but I just couldn't bring myself to generate any profits for that particular franchise, so I didn't buy them -- and since I didn't buy them, I didn't read them. But then I got hooked on slacktivist's posts on the first book, and then I rediscovered the library -- that wonderful building where they let you borrow books for free. Now I'm reading the books (I read quickly, so I can get through one of them in an afternoon) without giving the authors any money. I'm on the sixth volume now, and though it's getting pretty tiresome, I'll probably finish the series. While I doubt I'd blog about them anywhere near as well as slactivist does, and I definitely don't have the patience to post on every chapter as he does, I'll probably blog a bit and fairly generally about the series and its theology.

I also have a new year's resolution, and that's to follow through on something I've wanted to do here for a while: post frequently to my resources page. There have been many, many times when I've rented a movie or read a book because I thought it might be helpful for a youth group, a small group for adults, or in some other area of parish life, and this year I plan to start sharing those regularly on

Hope y'all had a joyous Christmas, and are finding the new year off to a good start.

January 6, 2006 in Books, Life and Whatnot, Movies | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack