Some time ago I confessed to a group of fellow-ministers that I did not believe in the actual existence of the devil. Some of my doubts had to do with life experience—I had never encountered anything “demonic” that didn’t have at least five more compelling explanations. But mostly my doubt was instigated by the empty, superstitious, and often destructive theology in which angels and demons and “The Devil” take center stage.
John Caputo has been with me since my earliest days studying religion in college. And he’s always been an author that’s a few steps ahead of me—not in the sense that he knows more than I do (most authors can claim that title), but in the sense of articulating and advocating a theological vision that is a little beyond what I can accept, but not so far-fetched that it is not necessarily off my trajectory. He is compelling even when he says things or argues things that are almost contrary to the core of what I believe, and he does so with wit and rhetorical skill that makes reading him worth it if only because it was an enjoyable ride that I will remember even if I’m a bit scared to go back on it.
What, one might wonder, is a poetic anthology of a 13th century Persian mystic, that is, a 13th century Persian mystic who is Muslim, doing on a preacher’s bookshelf? Especially one whose language is sometimes crude and sexually explicit; who mentions body parts most holy men don’t? Beyoncé and JAY-Z might name a child after him. Coldplay’s Chris Martin may find his way through divorce by reading his poems. But what is The Essential Rumi doing on a preacher’s bookshelf?
The thing I want to focus on as a kind of conclusion is the fear and anxiety at work in this kind of engagement. There is a fear here that I will say something wrong and offensive, that my biases will be exposed, that I might be guilty of the blindness I am prone to see in others. The reality is that this may very well be true. I do not inhabit a morally or socially pure space from which I would be able to read what Copeland writes or respond in a way that will not be guilty of blindness or misunderstanding. The key is to admit that, to be honest, because the only way to overcome this is to go through it.
This is the issue of our times. And how our hearts and minds respond to this – do they open or close? – determines not only the fate of millions but our own fate as well. To spare ourselves this “inconvenience,” to keep our lives tidy, we’ll do the darndest, darkest things ourselves. And maybe lose our souls.
Faithful Presence is a book about the church and how it can be “the church” in meaningful, practical, contextual ways. Fitch sees the same world we all see: dwindling congregations, fragmented sense of community, isolated and inauthentic discipleship. His response is embodied in his operative concept: “Faithful Presence.” For Fitch, the presence of people participates in, mediates, and reveals the presence of God. The church can be “the church” when it learns to be present with God and one another.
Just imagine, McLaren asks, what it would be like if people knew of churches that help people live a life of love. That’s what they do. And they don’t say or do anything that draws them away from doing this. So the question becomes, “What do we do in this place?’ and the answer is, “We learn to live a life of love.” Or the question comes, “What is your church like?” and the answer is, “It’s a place that helps us live a life of love.”
I’ve grown to appreciate the value of pouring one’s heart out to God, but to also think of prayer beyond the one-sided reverent conversation I send out from my head and ‘heart’ into oblivion. Michael Plekon’s book Uncommon Prayer seeks to make sense of prayer beyond the explicit traditional forms we are accustomed to in private or done in public worship.
It may be a scandalous thing to say in this day and age, but becoming something is not a matter of anything that can be accomplished quickly or by simply saying so. I can say I am a great basketball player all day long; I can even put on the correct apparel, dribble and shoot the ball in the direction of the net without too much time spent, but anyone with any familiarity with basketball who watches me play will not mistake me for anything that even resembles such a proclamation. Eugene Peterson’s title suggests that this logic is also true of faith.
“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of a mind,” Noll writes in his opening sentence. That is a controversial umbrella statement, of course, but the evidence is there. Written in 1994, Noll provides ample evidence at the outset of his book that the “life of the mind” is not a prized virtue among modern North American evangelicals (broadly defined). Those of us who have spent time with this particularly broad group of Christians probably already know this. Noll’s book asks why this is the state of things.