Friday, March 03, 2017

Spaces in which to articulate cultural criticism and community building

A wonderful piece in the New Republic by Josephine Livingstone (Feb 27th 2017) argues that cultural criticism, when best understood, open up larger horizons of meaning that are neither reactive to the present political climate nor self-indulgent. We can be both on the streets in protests and build communities of meaning. This seems to me immensely helpful.

In the Roman Imperial period, for example, Lucan’s political epics are far more than reactions to the Emperor Nero. In fact they “work as spaces to reconfigure agency and the political (or philosophical) self.”

"Art is about creating those spaces evident in Lucan’s epics. It’s as if a zone is staked out for a variety of ideas and postures to flex and interact. This zone is the place where the arts play. It is not an apolitical place, it is just not owned by government. In this aesthetic space, the arts explore a less confined politics than the one that controls the state. The state is not the beginning, end, or the reason for this space."

She goes onto cite the work of Sister Wendy Beckett who "gave up her life in the world for God, and then she took time out from God for art. Her example seemed like enough to make writing about art intrinsically, inexplicably worthwhile. But now, all these years later, I see that Beckett’s book was an act of service. She did not just commune with the artworks, she wrote about it, to an audience. In this way, Beckett gave me a community made of words. I will never forget how in one caption to a Picasso painting Beckett described its 'frankly rendered pudenda.'"

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

An English Sheep Farmer's View of Rural America

There's a twitter account that I found before it was trendy, which I follow and enjoy: James Rebanks (@herdyshepherd1)

It includes daily doings, landscapes, and farm animals especially sheep like these with witty captions: 


And today I discovered that Mr Rebanks has an op-ed piece in the NY Times: "An English Sheep Farmer's View of Rural America." Promoting his book, he travelled through Kentucky. The whole article is worth your reading. 

Here's the conclusion:

"After my trip to rural America, I returned to my sheep and my strangely old-fashioned life. I am surrounded by beauty, and a community, and an old way of doing things that has worked for a long time rather well. I have come home convinced that it is time to think carefully, both within America and without, about food and farming and what kind of systems we want.

The future we have been sold doesn’t work. Applying the principles of the factory floor to the natural world just doesn’t work. Farming is more than a business. Food is more than a commodity. Land is more than a mineral resource.

Despite the growing scale of the problem, no major mainstream politician has taken farming or food seriously for decades. With the presidential campaign over and a president in the White House whom rural Kentuckians helped elect, the new political establishment might want to think about this carefully.

Suddenly, rural America matters. It matters for the whole world."

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Finding a Way: Past, Present and Future of HDS

Article by Charles K. Michael on the present shape of Harvard Divinity School and future directions. 

Less than 40% of students are in the M.Div. program. 

"The Divinity School is no longer united around Protestantism. Its alumni are no longer connected by their work in religious ministry. But it is centered around service and community organizing, often for progressive causes, and has been since its founding in 1816."

Jon D. Levenson, a professor of Jewish Studies at the Divinity School, is one skeptic of the new curriculum. “For a long time, the Divinity School was primarily a Protestant seminary,” he says. “Those liberal Protestant denominations are underwater demographically—they have a negative birthrate, below replacement level. Their cultural influence has declined markedly. I think it was inevitable that a curriculum that spoke to the older identity of the school would have to change.”

Dean Hempton thinks that The Divinity School "doesn’t have a center of gravity in the same way that a single-denomination seminary would. Instead, he says, “The center of gravity has generally been more on the progressive side of religious issues… Many of our more recent alums have been involved in all kinds of progressive NGOs. I think that’s where the center of gravity is.”

For many students, the Divinity School’s lack of a single religious identity is a major benefit. In her day job, Divinity School graduate Kerry A. Egan cares for terminally ill patients in a hospice in South Carolina. She is the chaplain there, but her job is not to preach any one set of beliefs or teach any one doctrine—Egan is simply there as what she calls a “spiritual midwife,” whose role is “to help [the patient], sit with them, and say to them, ‘What do you already believe?’”

Egan is a Christian, but that does not change the way she cares for patients: “One of the things you learn as a chaplain is you walk out and say ‘I want to be all of the religions!’ You love them all. They all have so much beauty in them.”
Last fall, Egan published the book “On Living,” telling the stories of her patients and the lessons she’s drawn from them. To Egan, writing is a form of ministry, one that speaks to a much larger audience. This fits with the Divinity School’s mission to rethink how religious leadership works: “We’re broadening, in a way, the meaning of ministry to include other vocations besides congregational leadership,” says Rose.

The article concludes:
“We know that 84 percent of the world’s population declares that religion is a primary organizing principle of their lives,” says Hempton. “A place of real excellence where religion can be studied, without it being driven by a confessional or proselytizing agenda, I think is a good thing for the world.”

Monday, February 06, 2017

Sermon for Theological Education Sunday and Candlemas Feb 4th 2017

Thank you Father Sasser and the parish of St Paul's Bloomsburg PA for the invitation to preach on Theological Education Sunday and join your  celebration of Candlemas yesterday.

Friday, January 20, 2017

American Values Religious Voices 2017

American Values Religious Voices is a national nonpartisan campaign that brings together 100 scholars from a diverse range of religious traditions to articulate core American values that have grounded our nation in the past and should guide us forward at this time of transition. For the first 100 days of the new administration, we will send a one-page letter to President Trump, Vice President Pence, Cabinet Secretaries, and Members of the House and the Senate. The letters offer insight and inspiration drawn from the collective wisdom of our faith communities and their sacred texts.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Fantastic article on Newgrange by Jane Smiley:

"Experts are beginning to agree that Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth once served as astronomical monuments, noting their level of sophistication. Archaeologists rejected these ideas as fantasies for a long time, interpreting the orientation of the passages at Newgrange and Knowth as coincidental and the incised stones as a set of meaningless geometric designs.
In his 2012 book, “Newgrange, Monument to Immortality,” the Drogheda journalist and novelist Anthony Murphy points out that Neolithic farmers would have had many reasons to pay attention to weather, seasons and the passage of time. He also observes that they would be much more likely to pay close attention to the moon and the stars than we do, with our electric lights and internet data. He considers Newgrange and Knowth epic calendars that measured years, leap years and other temporal cycles.
I widened my range a little — there was so much to see, both in terms of landscape and of historical structures. In Monasterboice, six miles north of the river, there is a circular tower and a crowded graveyard containing the oldest known Celtic cross, still in beautiful condition. Not far from Collon — four miles from Monasterboice — are the remains of an enormous abbey from the 12th century (Old Mellifont), simultaneously neat, airy and spooky. There are towns (Donore, Navan) and castles (Trim, from the Norman period, and Slane, reconstructed in the 18th century, now the site of big rock concerts). There is Drogheda itself.
But Newgrange is the beginning — DNA analysis and archaeological evidence indicate that farming in the region began somewhere around 4500 B.C. It may have been that farmers from the Middle East came up the river in those log boats, discovered the unusual fertility of the valley (a result of the last ice age) and encountered an entrenched indigenous population. But there are no signs of a conflict; either the Neolithic farmers mixed peacefully with the Mesolithic foragers, or the foragers themselves imported agriculture, took those log boats to the east and returned. It was the farmers, having cleared the land and harvested their crops, who had the leisure time to build one passage tomb after another, Mr. Murphy suggested.
Archaeologists and investigators are not finished in the Valley of the Boyne. Many things are waiting to be discovered, put together, understood. As I looked across the rich green flow of the hills toward the setting sun, I expected to come back to this mystery."

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Advent is a Marian Month

In a wonderful article in the Washington Post, Nancy Ritter reflects on the Virgin Mary.
Here's her conclusion:
I think of Mary, and I am grateful.
I think of Mary, and I am comforted.
I think of Mary, and I am exultant.
I think of Mary, and I am enraged and grieved and ashamed that the sons of men should seek to steal, kill and destroy the daughters of God.
I think of Mary, and still I believe, that what God has spoken to her will someday be accomplished in us all.
Advent is a Marian month. In it we observe the feast of the Immaculate Conception (hers), the Annunciation and stories of Jesus' birth. Syrian Christian Tradition celebrates in the Sundays before Christmas a series of annunciations: to Zechariah, to Mary, her Visitation (to Elizabeth), and to Joseph with the nativity of John the Baptist.
Official Christian teaching has always sought to dissociate Mary from her female identity in these ways: she gave birth to Jesus painlessly and without sexual intercourse (virginal conception) and is thus a model for consecrated virgins; she is God-bearer (Theotokos) of a child both human and divine; she herself is sinless (immaculate conception) and does not carry the curse of Eve. Yet women in Christian tradition continue to identify with Mary precisely because she is a woman. 
In 1877, for example, an American missionary tried in vain to correct the notion that Mary interceded for women in Ottoman Armenia. She reported an encounter:
"There was another very religious women I once met with in one of the villages on Harpoot plain. She said, 'Lady, I love you, and think you are a real Christian, but one thing you say I cannot receive. You say the Virgin Mary is not our intercessor. What should we women do, if we could not call upon the Virgin when in trouble, or suffering? She was a woman, and knows how to pity women like us.' This is what they all say." 
(The photo is a print by Salvador Dali)