Another Life is Possible (Book Review)

[This is a book review that was posted today, February 8, 2021, on the website of Englewood Review of Books.]

A Review of Another Life is Possible: Insights from 100 Years of Life Together

Clare Stober, Editor (Hardback: Plough Publishing House, 2020).

Reviewed by Leroy Seat

“This is a beautiful book . . . beautiful in the images it gives of simple and harmonious relation with an environment, but beautiful also in its chronicling of lives that have been held and healed in this shared enterprise of the Spirit.” So says Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, in the Foreword of the excellent new book that briefly chronicles the one-hundred-year history of the Bruderhof (x-xv) but mainly tells the stories of one hundred people who live(d) in Bruderhof communities.

There are vast differences between the “pomp and circumstance” of the Anglican Church and Westminster Cathedral and the simplicity of the Bruderhof in the way they live and worship. But for a century now the Bruderhof, started in 1920 by Eberhart and Emmy Arnold, has maintained an intriguing paradox of separation from the world and engagement with the world. Indeed, as Archbishop Williams remarks, the Bruderhof’s “intellectual hospitality” is “as warm as the literal hospitality the visitor experiences.”

This beautiful book is also a large book—9” x 12”—that was “created” (authored/edited) by Clare Stober (b. 1955) of the Fox Hill Bruderhof community near Walden, New York, and is filled with striking pictures by British photographer Danny Burrows, who traveled around the globe visiting Bruderhof settlements. He submitted over 3,000 photos for use in the book, and about 200 of them are used in this work that is beautiful largely because of Burrows’s photos.

The Bruderhof has an interesting mix of simple, non-pretentious living and an emphasis on high quality, such as is seen in their Community Playthings, children’s furniture they have been building and marketing since the 1950s as a main source of their income. This centennial book about the Bruderhof is beautiful and of high quality, just as are the chairs, tables, and other wooden items they make for children—and there are several references to and pictures of Community Playthings in the book.

Author Stober’s own story is told briefly on pages 17-19. She was a successful entrepreneur who built a graphic design and advertising agency near Washington, D.C., but about thirty years ago she gave that up to join the Bruderhof with no personal income at all. In the book, many residents of Bruderhof communities tell how they left “successful” stations in life to experience the new, fulfilling life that is possible in those communities.

The first of the 100 profiles in Another Life is Possible is, most appropriately, of Eberhard Arnold, who with his wife Emmy founded the first Bruderhof house in 1920. On eight pages with seven photographs, the biography of the Arnolds and the beginning of the Bruderhof in Sannerz, Germany, about 50 miles northeast of Frankfurt, is succinctly told.

Interestingly, the profile following that of the Arnolds is that of Sung Hoon Park, a Korean man. The Bruderhof house in Korea was not established until 2018, and it is still the only one in Asia. Currently, there are more than 3,000 people living in twenty-eight Bruderhof settlements on four continents.

The wide variety of persons profiled in this appealing book includes several past members, such as Latvian Else von Hollander (1885-1932), Bavarian Josef Stängl (1911-93), and Floridian Dorothy Mommsen (1922-2007). On the other hand, several profiles are of young men and women who were born in the 1990s—and there are no members born in the 2000s, for people must be 21 before becoming a member. Most of those people in their 20s grew up as children in a Bruderhof community and then joined after a year or more of living apart from the community, which most do after their 18th birthday.

Interspersed with the stories of those people, past and present, who are a part of Bruderhof communities are pertinent quotes from a wide variety of notable thinkers/writers of the past, such as Mother Teresa, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Dorothy Day, C.S. Lewis, Leo Tolstoy, and Francis of Assisi, among many others.

The 320-page book is organized around ten different themes, each of about 30 pages. Beginning with “What Money Can’t Buy” and “Working for a Purpose,” the following themes include “Building Justice” and “Seeking and Making Peace” as well as sections dealing with concrete issues, such as “What About Technology?”

Both from the stories and the numerous photos, it is quite evident that the members of the Bruderhof communities around the world love nature and love children. The seventh section of the book (174-205) is “Children and Education.” Profiles are of teachers and students in various parts of the world but especially in Mount Academy, the outstanding Bruderhof high school located about halfway between New York City and Albany. It also includes stories of special needs children, such as Ben, who was born with Down syndrome in 2002, and Luke, who died a few hours after his birth in 2015.

The children and most adults in the Bruderhof communities have little screen time—and yet the Bruderhof actively reaches out to others by means of the Internet. Three web links are given on the final page of the book, one being Plough.com, where a request can be made for the “Daily Dig,” a short quote from a wide variety of writers that is delivered by email every day to those who sign up for it.

Here are the final and important words of the Afterword, written by Paul Winter, the senior pastor of the Bruderhof communities: “Whatever our beliefs, let us hold on to the hope that another life is possible: the life of love, justice, and joy that every soul, in the end, longs to find.”

As Archbishop Williams writes in the Foreword, “The Bruderhof gently holds up a mirror to the Christian world and asks, ‘Why not this?’” That is a good question, and one that presses down on those of us who read and ponder the stories in this centennial book of the Bruderhof and gaze upon the beautiful photography intertwined with the well-worded written text.

This book belongs in every church library and on the coffee tables, or their equivalents, of anyone in the world thirsty for examples of wholesome, peaceful, and beneficial living.

Posted in Book Reviews | 1 Comment

Does The Bible Teach Male Dominance and Female Submission?

Beth Allison Barr is a professor at Baylor University and the author of a new book titled The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, due to be published in April.

Barr also wrote an article based on her book that was published on January 17, 2021, in the Dallas Morning News under the title “How the subjugation of women became gospel truth for many evangelical Christians.”

I haven’t yet read Barr’s book, of course, but I have had a couple of women who read the article or read about her book and asked me for comments. Rather than writing something new, I am posting (here) “Does The Bible Teach Male Dominance and Female Submission?” This essay is a revised and enlarged, English version of a public lecture I gave at Seinan Gakuin University on May 23, 1998.

It may be more than you want to read, but I refer you to the article linked to in the previous paragraph for my research and conclusion about what the Bible says, and doesn’t say, abut the subjugation of women.

Of course, there may be some people who would like to read more. To them I recommend “Fed Up with Fundamentalism’s View of Women,” the eighth chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Fundamentalism (rev. ed, 2020). (This book is available at Amazon.com, but I also have a few copies that I will sell for $10, including postage, and send to those who ask for one. If you are interested, write to me at LKSeat@gmail.com.)

In addition to what I have written and what Barr has written, let me introduce one more recent book: A Marginal Majority: Women, Gender, and a Reimagining of Southern Baptists (America’s Baptists), edited by my daughter Karen Seat and Elizabeth Flowers. Karen is a professor as the University of Arizona and Elizabeth has been a professor at Baylor since 2019. (While this book is too expensive for most individuals to purchase, I hope that it will soon be available in a library near you.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Review of “Understanding Japaneseness”

[The following is the review I wrote for Missiology: A Review Journal. It was published in the January 2018 issue of that journal and can be accessed here.]

Understanding Japaneseness: A Fresh Look at Nipponjinron through “Maternal-filial Affection” by Kosuke Nishitani & Michael J. Sherrill. Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2016. 250 pp., paper. $34.99.

This is a book I wish I could have read (and understood) fifty years ago, during my first years as a missionary in Japan. It is a thoroughly researched and quite detailed book, but it is not an easy book to read. Academic scholars will likely appreciate it more than field missionaries, or ordinary expats, in Japan.

The author is an ordained minister who in addition to being a pastor is also a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, a prestigious Christian school in Tokyo. The editor, who no doubt worked to make the book so readable in English, is also an ordained minister and a professor at the same university. Their painstaking work deserves high marks from all who seek a fuller understanding of the basic way of thinking of Japanese people in general.

My main criticism of the book is of its organization. Rather than building toward a conclusion in which the main thesis of the book is amplified, the final three chapters are about the early history of Japan. Further, each of the chapters has numerous sub-sections, all of seemingly equal importance. Perhaps this also illustrates a common Japanese characteristic: rather than materials being developed in a linear manner, various facets of the issue at hand are presented for consideration.

My criticism notwithstanding, this book contains a wealth of information and interpretation that is valuable for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of “Japaneseness.” The author helps his readers gain that understanding through his analysis of ancient historical works, as well as analysis of the major writings on Nipponjinron (theories/discussions about the Japanese) in recent decades. His unique contribution is in seeing “maternal-filial affection” at the root of Japaneseness.

Given the highly secular nature of current Japanese society, readers may be surprised that in the preface the author avers, “Japanese religiosity is at the center of what it means to be Japanese” (xiii). Then throughout the book he emphasizes that among the Japanese there is “almost religious longing for and consecration of” what the author calls “maternal-filial affection” (128). Consequently, in order to relate better to the Japanese psyche, Christians should stress the maternal aspects of Christianity—such as Shusaku Endo, author of Silence, sought to do.

This book is a rich resource for those who will take the time and expend the energy to read it and to consider its central ideas.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged | Leave a comment

Summary of Robb Ryerse’s “Running for Our Lives”

[Check out my blog article about Ryerse and his book here.]

Ryerse, Robb. Running for Our Lives: A Story of Faith, Politics, and the Common Good. Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. 165 pp.

“1  You’ve Got to Do This: Rethinking My Call to Ministry and the Gospel”

Robb first heard of a new organization called Brand New Congress on Inauguration Day in 2017. Soon he was contacted by them, asking him to run for Congress. He then tells about his conservative background. When he was sixteen, he “skipped school to call in to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and actually made it on the air!” (7). He attended a “small, fundamentalist Baptist Bible college.” After college, he spent the next decade serving as pastor of “conservative Baptist churches.”

After reading authors such as Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell, he and his wife decided to move to Fayetteville in northwest Arkansas where in 2006 they started a new church they called Vintage Fellowship.

Robb began adopting more of the social gospel understanding he had been warned about earlier. He noted, with disdain, how it is “not uncommon to hear people who receive government assistance disparaged in sermons in fundamentalist and evangelical churches” (12).

He asserts, “The gospel may not be partisan, but it is unquestionably political” (13).

“2  Congress Camp: Coming Together for a Common Purpose”

Robb went to the Brand New Congress’s “Congress Camp” where people who wanted to run for political office could get training. When he got home he told his wife that he “had met someone I thought could end up a president of the United States someday. Her name was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” (18).

In this chapter, Robb decries “identity politics,” “the term used to describe the segmentation of people into separate groups and the attempt to appeal to them on issues about which they uniquely care” (19). The problem is: “identity politics reinforces tribalism” (20).

“3  Christian and Candidate: Questions at the Intersection of Church and State”

Robb notes that many Christians argue that “taxation is, at worst, theft, and, at best, compulsory charity” (28). But he asserts, “It is simply impractical to suggest that churches should provide a social safety net because it is ‘not the job’ of the government to do so” (29). He believes that paying his fair share in taxes is one of the many ways he can love his neighbor as himself (30). He and his church “believe that political involvement can and should be a part of what it means to live out the gospel” (30). He says for him “faith is the motivation to build a more just and generous society in which everyone has the same liberty and opportunity” (33).

“4  Don’t Read the Comments Section: Vitriol, Social Media, and Suspending Judgment”

Ryerse launched his campaign for Congress on May 23, 2017. In reflecting on the negative things he often saw on the comments section of internet articles, he wrote, “It took a run for Congress for me to realize that we all need to slow down before making judgments—to practice suspended judgment. . . .

“The key to suspending judgment is empathy for other human beings” (42).

“5  No, Really, I Am a Republican: Partisan Stereotypes and Evolving Orthodoxy”

Ryerse emphasizes that he shares “the deeply ingrained Republican values of liberty from the tyranny of the government, optimism about each person’s opportunity in America, and responsibility and accountability” (46). He also clearly states: “I am a Republican who is profoundly troubled by my party’s nomination and ultimate election of Donald Trump” (47). He was also much unlike most Republicans in other ways.

“Advocating for Medicare for All was a central theme of my campaign. I had to take this position for moral reasons” (51).

“6  The Myth of Objectivity: Bias, Echo Chambers, and Life under the Camera”

Ryerse asserts that “true objectivity is a myth” (60) and writes that “all of us need to remember the myth of objectivity whenever we consume stories, especially those told by the now-ubiquitous twenty-four hour news cycle” (61).

“7  House Parties: Curing Political Cynicism”

Ryerse says, “Campaigning for Congress didn’t make me cynical. It fueled my hope . . . .

“The cure for cynicism is creative engagement in a difficult process for the good of others” (73).

“8  Follow the Money: Treating the Symptoms and Ignoring the Disease”

At the end of his campaign, Ryerse said that the issue that mattered to him most is “the way we fund our political campaigns” (75).

“If you want to understand why your representatives aren’t taking action on the issues that matter most to you, follow the money” (81). He wants three policies to be enacted: elections publicly funded, campaign spending limited, and Citizens United repealed (81-82).

“9  Being a Bivocational Candidate: The Challenge of ‘Regular People’ Running for Office”

“10  The Emotional Roller Coaster: How Authentic Do We Want Our Politicians to Be?”

“Everyone wants to vote for an honest politician. . . . We crave relatability and authenticity in our leaders” (102).

“The health of our democracy depends on having leaders who are willing to be honest about their positions on the issues” (104).

“11  Blood on My Hands: From Silent to Strident on the Issue of Gun Control”

“12  The Only ‘Never Trumper’ in the Room: Insiders, Outsiders, and the Trouble with Tribalism”

“Politics needs to be about more than just winning; it needs to be about how we connect with one another for the common good, even when we come from different points of view and parties.

“. . . For me, the fundamental presupposition of politics is that we must elect leaders who will put the needs of people first” (123).

“13  Why Do You Vote the Way You Do? Personal Interest or the Common Good”

Ryerse clearly states one of his central convictions: “I think people ought to vote based on the common good.

“Letting the common good motivate our Election Day decisions means voting for the candidates who are advocating for policies that will do the most good and have the greatest positive impact. . . .

“The common good should especially be the motivation for Christian voters” (131).

He states that “the most loving thing I can do when I enter the voting booth is to cast my ballot not for my own interests but for the common good” (134).

“14  Election Day: Magic Wands and Mustard Seeds”

Robb writes, “When I think about what we attempted to do in Northwest Arkansas and what my Brand New Congress friends all across the country were attempting to do, it was to bring greater peace and justice into the world. That started off as planting a seed” (140).

“15  Lost: Learning to Rethink Failure”

In this chapter Ryerse writes about how he reacted to the reality of losing decisively. He concludes,

“If we only ever invest ourselves in sure things, we’ll never develop the courage to overcome our fears and dare to do something great. I may have lost, but I won too” (152).

“16  Getting Back on the Campaign Trail: We Have a Lot of Work to Do”

In August 2018, Ryerse became the political director of Vote Common Good (VCG). In November 2018, sixteen of the candidates VCG has supported on their nationwide bus tour were elected to Congress.

He concludes, “I ran for Congress because someone needed to challenge the political establishment in my state and give people the choice and voice they deserve to have. I went on the Vote Common Good tour because religious people need to be reminded that the example and teachings of Jesus call us to care for others above ourselves. But there is still so much work to do. That’s why we can’t give up. We need you now” (161).

 

 

 

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Excerpts from Viktor E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (original Ger., 1946; original Eng. trans., 1959; Boston Press, 2014), 180 pp.

Foreword by Harold S. Kushner (2006)

“Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the great books of our time” (ix).

“Terrible as it was, his experience in Auschwitz reinforced what was already one of his key ideas: Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. . . .

“Finally, Frankl’s most enduring insight, one that I have called on often in my own life and in countless counseling situations: Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.” (x).

“Experiences in a Concentration Camp” (pp. 3~87)

“I think it was Lessing who once said, ‘There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.’ An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior” (19).

“Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds” (41).

Frankl says that “everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms— to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (62).

“Dostoevski said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom— which cannot be taken away— that makes life meaningful and purposeful” (62-63).

“Any attempt at fighting the camp’s psychopathological influence on the prisoner by psychotherapeutic or psychohygienic methods had to aim at giving him inner strength by pointing out to him a future goal to which he could look forward. Instinctively some of the prisoners attempted to find one on their own. It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future . . . . And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task” (68),

“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future— his future— was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay” (69).

“As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners” (71-72)

“Logotherapy in a Nutshell” (pp. 91~125)

Logotherapy focuses “on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future. (Logotherapy, indeed, is a meaning-centered psychotherapy.)“ (92).

“Let me explain why I have employed the term ‘logotherapy’ as the name for my theory. Logos is a Greek word which denotes “meaning.” Logotherapy, or, as it has been called by some authors, ‘The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy,’ focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning. According to logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered, as well as in contrast to the on which Adlerian psychology, using the term ‘striving for superiority,’ is focused” (92-93). will to power

“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

“ . . . . It is one of the basic tenets of logotherapy that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning” (106).

Frankl’s existentialism is expressed in many places, including here: “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment” (122). And, “Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible and of changing himself for the better if necessary” (123).

The 1962 version of the book ends with these significant words: “Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips” (p.125).

“POSTSCRIPT 1984: The Case for a Tragic Optimism” (pp. 129~145)

I found this to be an interesting statement: “The truth is that man does not live by welfare alone” (133).

“As logotherapy teaches, “there are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or by doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love. . . .

“Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph” (137).

Again, Frankl asserts that if “one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude” (139).

Frankl avers that “there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past—the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized—and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.

“. . . . Just as life remains potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable, so too does the value of each and every person stay with him or her, and it does so because it is based on the values that he or she has realized in the past, and is not contingent on the usefulness that he or she may or may not retain in the present” (142).

 

Posted in Book Reviews | Leave a comment

Excerpts from Jean Vanier’s book “Becoming Human”

Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (Anansi, 1998, 2008; 166 pp.)

{The following are some of the notable statements the author made through his book, but this is only a compilation of significant sentences, not in any sense a summary of the book or of the individual chapters.}

Introduction

Vanier declares that “life together” in l’Arche “has helped me become more human” (p. 2). He then explains that “to become human implies two realities. It means to be someone, to have cultivated our gifts, and also to be open to others, to look at them not with a feeling of superiority but with eyes of respect” (p. 3).

He ends this brief introduction by saying that he hopes “that more and more of us will seek this road of peacemaking by living in the reality of mutual acceptance, building places of belonging where each one is helped to grow in freedom from fear and the different forms of egoism that can drive us apart, and where we can all learn to celebrate in forgiveness” (p. 4).

I  Loneliness

Vanier avers, “Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart” (p. 7). He goes on to write that there are five principles that have helped him.

“First: all humans are sacred . . . .

“Second: our world and our individual lives are in the process of evolving. . . .

“Third: maturity comes through working with others, through dialogue, and through a sense of belonging and a searching together” (p. 14). Then,

“Fourth: human beings need to be encouraged to make choices, and to become responsible for their own lives and for the lives of others. . . .

“Fifth: in order to make such choices, we need to reflect and to seek truth and meaning” (p. 15).

Later in the chapter, he emphasizes that the “belief in the inner beauty of each and every human being is at the heart of l’Arche, at the heart of all true education and at the heart of being human” (p. 23).

II  Belonging

One of Vanier’s core beliefs is succinctly stated: “We human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all belong to a common, broken humanity” (p. 37). He amplifies: “Weakness, recognized, accepted, and offered, is at the heart of belonging” (p. 40).

Here is another of his basic ideas: “A society that honours only the powerful, the clever, and the winners necessarily belittles the weak” (p. 46).

In one sub-section in this chapter is “Belonging Together in a Pluralistic Society,” Vanier states, “When religion helps us to open our hearts in love and compassion to those who are not of our faith so as to help them to find the source of freedom within their own hearts and to grow in compassion and love of others, then this religion is a source of life” (p. 63). This leads into his third chapter.

III  From Exclusion to Inclusion: A Path of Healing

Vanier writes, “Fear is at the root of all forms of exclusion, just as trust is at the root of all forms of inclusion” (p. 71).

In an important sub-section titled “The Heart,” Vanier asserts: “To treat each person as a person means that we are concerned for them, that we listen to them, and love them and want them to become more whole, free, truthful, and responsible” (p. 86). And the in the following sub-section, “The Way of the Heart,” he says that “people with intellectual disabilities led me from a serious world into a world of celebration, presence, and laughter: the world of the heart” (p. 89).

A later sub-section is a short one titled “To Become Human,” and in it Vanier states: “As the human heart opens up and becomes compassionate, we discover our fundamental unity, our common humanity.” And then he declares that “people with disabilities have taught me what it means to be human” and they have led him “into a new vision of society, a more human society” (p. 97).

IV  The Path to Freedom

Vanier asserts, “To be free is to put justice, truth, and service to others over and above our own personal gain or our need for recognition, power, honour, and success” (p. 108). And later, “Freedom does not judge or condemn but understands and forgives” (p. 118). He ends the chapter with these words: “This is the ultimate secret of liberation: to forgive and to be forgiven, and thus to become free, like little children” (p. 134).

V  Forgiveness

Continuing what he wrote in the last chapter, Vanier says that forgiveness is the “process of removing barriers; it is the process by which we start to accept and to love those who have hurt us. This is the final stage of inner liberation” (p. 136). The chapter, and the book, concludes: “We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time” (p. 163).

Posted in Book Reviews | 1 Comment

“This Little Light of Mine”

{Here are my notes for the “Conversation with Children” I led at Rainbow Mennonite Church this past Sunday.}

Conversation with Children (Sept. 1, 2019)

  • Did any of you have a birthday last month? – Well, I did. Do you want to guess how old I am now? – I am now 81 years old. Do you know what year it will be in 81 more years? In one more year what will it be? Can you add 80 to 20? Yes, it will be the year 2100—and some of you may live to see that year. The years go by fast.
  • This morning the Bible reading, which you will hear Abigail read next, is from Matthew, chapter 5. Two important statements: “You are the salt of the earth.” You are the light of the world.” Pastor Ruth will be talking about the first statement, but let me talk with you about the second.
  • Probably about 70 years ago I first heard a gospel song that you probably know. “This Little Light of Mine.” Written almost 100 years ago, and sung by church children ever since. The Bible verse talks about lighting a lamp—but I have a candle instead. If it is dark the lamp or candle is placed where it will give the most light. You wouldn’t cover it with a “basket.” It wouldn’t do any good that way, would it. Another verse of the song says, “Hide it under a bushel, no! I’m going to let it shine.”
  • What would it mean to let your light shine? One of many things is to make it possible for people to see the love of Jesus. – Are there ever people at your school or pre-school that are bullied or teased? Some maybe for looking different, or talking different, or being bigger than others, or being smaller than others. You might not believe it, but that’s the way I was when I was in elementary school. [Show 5th-grade picture.]
  • Well, when you see someone who is being bullied or teased, what will you do. You could just sit and watch—but that would be hiding your light under a basket, wouldn’t it. Or you could let your light shine and be their friend. Go sit with them if they are alone and looking sad. Go stand by them if people are saying bad things to them. That is one thing it means to let your light shine.
  • So, please remember, “You are the light of the world” and when you let your light shine, you help others. I pray that you will do that until you are 81 years old as I am now—or for the next 81 years until the year 2100.
  • Here’s a picture for you to take home to color. As you do think about what I have said this morning, and think about Jesus’ words, “You are the light of the world.”

 

 

Posted in Sermons/Talks | Leave a comment

Review of “A Resurrection-Shaped Life”

[This is a review of Jake Owensby, A Resurrection-Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth (Abingdon Press, 2018), 111 pp. — My regular blog article partly based upon this book can be found here.]

Author of three previous books, including Gospel Memories: How Future Can Rewrite Our Past (2016), Dr. Jake Owensby (b. 1957), Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, has written this new book about resurrection not as a theological treatise but as a practical guide for seeing the significance of resurrection for our daily lives now in this world.

The author’s central assertion is stated clearly in the Prelude: Jesus’ “resurrection is shaping our everyday, ordinary lives” (p. xiv). This work of grace is illustrated by the Japanese use of kintsugi, the art of repairing broken pottery using lacquer mixed with gold dust. That sort of mending becomes an ongoing image of a resurrection-shaped life.

Much of the first part of Owensby’s slim book is based on the story of his remarkable mother, who was 20 years old when she emigrated by herself from Europe to the U.S. He ends the first chapter by stating that just as his mother was inspired to set sail for a new world, Jesus invited us all “to leave an old world, an old life, behind and to set sail for a resurrection-shaped life” (p. 14).

Trudy, author Owensby’s mother, was not a Jew, but she was sentenced to a Nazi death camp for being “an antisocial element.” After being freed, she embraced “two related marks of a resurrection-shaped life. First, she embraced life with an inextinguishable sense of hope.” The second mark was “a compassion that made her frightfully vulnerable to the suffering and the sorrows of others” (pp. 20-21). Indeed, hopefulness and compassion are key characteristics of a resurrection-shaped life.

“Recovering from Shame and Blame” is the title of Owensby’s perceptive third chapter. Sharing his own boyhood experience of shame, which he describes as “a strong and painful feeling of deep unworthiness” (p. 34), he asserts that overcoming shame “involves changing our minds about ourselves”–and the good news is that “Jesus came in part to help us do precisely that” (p. 36). Moreover, “Jesus shows us that God is a healer, not a blamer” (p. 39), and this helps us move from blaming others to having compassion, that core characteristic of a resurrection-shaped life.

In the following chapter, Owensby asserts that “it’s in the depths of loss and sorrow that hope brings us to new life” (p. 51). Jesus had said to his disciples, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4). Even though they did not understand this as they mourned Jesus’ crucifixion, they experienced that blessedness when Jesus was resurrected. So, “the resurrection of Christ gives new meaning to our experience of grief” (p. 52). Those who live a resurrection-shaped life embrace, and are embraced by, the blessing of hope in the midst of grief.

The last two chapters relate the resurrection-shaped life to justice. “Our compassion,” he writes, “expands into a passion for justice” (p. 70). That is because “the resurrection refines and deepens our perception of other people.” Thus, “From the perspective of the resurrection, there is just us. There is no longer an us opposed to a them. We are one” (p. 80).

In his Postlude, Owensby states, “The resurrection-shaped life we lead in our ordinary coming and goings foreshadows life beyond this life” (p. 97). This leads to his important assertion that “resurrection is not the same thing as what philosophers call the immortality of the soul. And that’s a crucial distinction for understanding the idea of a resurrection-shaped life” (p. 98).

A Resurrection-Shaped Life is a book that I found it insightful and inspiring. I recommend it to all who are interested in thinking deeply about what it means not just to “believe” in the resurrection but actually to live a life shaped by that belief.

 

Posted in Book Reviews | Leave a comment

The Case for Annihilationism

[This is the manuscript of my article published in the April 2019 issue of Word&Way, the publication “informing & inspiring Midwest Baptists since 1896.” It would best be read as attractively presented in the magazine, but I am making it available here for those who do not have access to Word&Way.]

Hell has been a hot topic for a long time—and it still is, especially among traditional and conservative Christians. That is evident from the theological tensions that surfaced at Southwest Baptist University in December.

Rodney Reeves, dean of the Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry, was accused of theological errors, including the charge that he affirmed annihilationism. In response, Reeves wrote a post on his blog, “A Genuine Faith,” on Dec. 21 on “Why I’m not an annihilationist.” But maybe he should be one, in spite of the conservative/traditional Christian opposition to that viewpoint.

Annihilationism, basically, is the theological position that understands death to be the end of existence for those who have not received the gift of eternal life. That is, in contradistinction to the traditional view, it holds that there is no conscious eternal punishment for non-believers.

This position is also known as conditional immortality, the belief that humans are not by nature immortal. The idea of “immortal souls” was a common idea among the ancient Greek philosophers, a position that later increasingly became a part of Christian theology and popular religiosity, but it does not seem to be a clear teaching of the Bible. According to the New Testament, God alone is immortal (1 Timothy 6:16), but God bestows eternal life, or immortality, upon all those who receive that gracious gift. In other words, since all humans are mortal, death is the end of personal existence. Those who receive the gift of eternal life, however, will be with God after death by being resurrected. As we read in 1 Corinthians 15, that great chapter explaining resurrection, “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’” (v. 54, NRSV).

This belief in annihilationism/conditional immortality is not just the idea of some progressive Christians. There have also been conservative evangelicals in recent decades who have jettisoned the traditional doctrine of hell as a place of conscious eternal punishment of individual unbelievers. One such person was Church of Christ pastor Edward Fudge. Another such opponent of the “orthodox” view of hell is Assembly of God pastor Charles Gillihan. A third and more recent example is that of Chris Kratzer, an ordained Lutheran who was for many years an evangelical pastor.

Fudge, who died in 2017, was one of the most vocal evangelicals to affirm annihilationism. His 420-page book, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, was first published in 1982 and the third, definitive edition was issued in 2011. In addition, “Hell and Mr. Fudge” (2012) is a worth-watching movie about him and his movement to an affirmation of annihilationism.

Gillihan is the author of Hell No! A Fundamentalist Preacher Rejects Eternal Torment (2011). Despite what he had been taught and what was asserted in his denomination’s doctrinal statement, he ended up concluding that annihilation “is clearly what the Bible teaches.”

Last year, Kratzer published a hard-hitting book titled Leatherbound Terrorism. No longer the avid conservative evangelical pastor he once was, he emphatically rejects the idea that hell is a place of never-ending torture (calling chapter 10 “To Hell With Your Hell”).

A lucid delineation of the annihilationist position has been written by Canadian theologian Clark Pinnock, who grew up in a liberal Baptist church. He authored “The Conditional View,” the fourth part of Four Views on Hell (1992). In that 30-page exposition, Pinnock contends that “God does not grant immortality to the wicked to inflict endless pain upon them but will allow them finally to perish.”

Pinnock bases his position partly on his understanding of God as revealed through Jesus Christ. Accordingly, he writes, “There is a powerful moral revulsion against the traditional doctrine of the nature of hell. Everlasting torture is intolerable from a moral point of view because it pictures God acting like a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he does not even allow to die.” Strong words!

In this connection, Pinnock cites the noted English scholar Antony Flew, author of God and Philosophy, first published in 1966. Pinnock contends that “Flew was right to object that if Christians really believe that God created people with the full intention of torturing some of them in hell forever, they might as well give up the effort to defend Christianity.” Flew was an adamant atheist for most of his life but drastically changed his position in 2004 and became the author of the book There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (2007).

Evangelicals have long thought, it seems, that emphasis on the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell is necessary for the sake of evangelism—and “hell and brimstone” preaching has been legendary in evangelical circles. On the other hand, there are many who reject Christianity partly, or largely, because of the traditional teaching on hell. Although he doesn’t mention it in his 2007 book, Flew, the “notorious atheist,” seemingly changed his mind about God partly because of the changing emphasis on hell in the Anglican Church in his native England. In 1996, a Church of England commission, as an Associated Press report at the time put it, “rejected the idea of hell as a place of fire, pitchforks and screams of unending agony, describing it instead as annihilation for all who reject the love of God.”

In his advocacy for annihilationism, Pinnock stresses that “the traditional view of the nature of hell has been a stumbling block for believers and an effective weapon in the hands of skeptics for use against the faith.” In the Preface of his book, Gillihan goes so far as to say that “the orthodox view of everlasting burning torture in hell . . . is the primary reason people give for rejecting the gospel.”

Long before reading any of the authors mentioned above, I first heard about, and largely accepted, the idea of annihilationism/conditional immortality from Dale Moody, my professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. When I was still a graduate student there, Moody published his book The Hope of Glory (1964). He explained: “Conditional immortality contends that [human beings are] by nature mortal and that those who do not . . . receive immortality as God’s gift are extinguished either at death or at some point beyond the final judgment” (pp. 105-6).

Annihilation is not some vengeful action on the part of God. It is simply God allowing people to perish. But the good news is, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Why can’t we accept the common meaning for “perish,” a word that usually means to die or to cease to exist? And why, why do some Christian pastors, teachers, and church leaders get so upset with the idea that there may be no everlasting conscious punishment.

So once again, perhaps Reeves should be an annihilationist, in spite of the objection of his conservative accusers.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Review of “Jesus and Kukai”

[The following is a review I wrote in the fall of 2018 for the journal Missiology: An International Review.]

Review of Jesus and Kukai: A World of Non-Duality (2018) by Peter Baekelmans

During my many years of living in Fukuoka City, Japan, I visited Nanzoin, the Shingon (Esoteric) Buddhist temple on the outskirts of the city, many times and had a number of personal contacts with the head priest there. How I wish Baekelmans’s helpful book had been available then! While it has its shortcomings, and what book doesn’t, Jesus and Kukai presents a world of information about the form of Buddhism that Kukai (774-835) established in Japan and suggests many ways it is both similar to and different from Christianity.

Actually, there is very little about Jesus himself, but considerable about Catholic Christianity and just a bit about other forms of the Christian faith. The book is mostly about Kukai’s ideas that are expounded and followed in Esoteric or Vajrayana Buddhism, which the author presents as a third form of Buddhism following Hinayana (Theravada) and Mahayana.

Baekelmans (b. 1960) is a Belgian Roman Catholic missionary and an initiated practitioner of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. He also holds an MA in Comparative Religion, an MA in Buddhist Studies, and a Doctorate in Theology of Religions. Obviously, he is well qualified to author this book—and he clearly has an impressive command of English, European languages, and Japanese, as well as familiarity with Sanskrit terms.

This book is primarily for scholars interested in Buddhist/Christian dialogue and for English-reading people in Japan who are involved in such dialogue—and especially for those who are also able to read kanji, which appear, helpfully, throughout the book. It will likely resonate more with Catholic Christians, or scholars of Catholic Christianity, than with Protestants.

The meticulous outline, with three subdivisions of each of the seven chapters, was helpful, although there was considerable repetition of some of the key ideas and explanations of Buddhist terms. The comparsion/contrast between the religions rooted in Jesus and Kukai was quite instructive, although sometimes it was perhaps a bit misleading when the different nuances or meanings of terms used in the two religions, such as the words “save” and “salvific,” were not noted.

The emphasis on “non-duality,” referred to throughout the book and linked to mysticism as found both in Buddhism and Christianity, is a significant aspect of this instructive work.

In spite of its minor faults, I highly recommend this book to its intended audience, and I express my appreciation to author Baekelmans for writing such an informative book.

Posted in Book Reviews | 1 Comment