I submit that churches face a similar situation when it comes to race relations. We’re all staring at the same screen. We’ve got the same “information.” We read the same Bible; we have access to the same crime reports, police shooting data, and employment figures; we watch the same press briefings; we read similar newspapers and watch similar news programs (although this is becoming less the case than it used to be); we’re friends with each other on Facebook. But we’re seeing different things. A gorilla has ambled across our field of vision, but not everyone caught a glimpse of it. If the body of social science research is accurate, the United States has a problem with racial inequality, and this is the gorilla that many Evangelical Christians have missed.
Sometime in the 70’s people began to suspect that Paul was a Jew. Scholars like E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright, and James D. G. Dunn have since championed a particular way of understanding what Paul has to say principally in reference to his Jewish upbringing, context, and interlocutors. The strange thing is that it does not appear that modern day Jews took this very seriously. If he was a Jew, then he was a very marginal and disloyal one. This silence is perhaps what makes Daniel Boyarin’s book, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity such an interesting and fresh way of looking at Paul. For Boyarin, Paul is not a marginal Jew, he is a radical Jew.
Given the intractable and often mean-spirited public discourse swirling around issues of race and justice, I think it is fair to say that we do not understand one another. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow offers a starting point for understanding the roots of our present day conflict from a Black perspective. And those who are brave enough, or perhaps I should say Christ-like enough, to give it a charitable and open-minded reading will have a chance to become the peacemakers that Christ has called blessed.
There is an important sense in which this small book—at only 105 pages with larger than average print—is a kind of summary of what Balthasar has written at length and in great detail elsewhere. In my personal opinion this book is a near-perfect representation of good theology. It blends technical precision with strong rhetorical expression while bringing these two together in an uncommon simplicity of expression. Anyone can read this book. But above all this book moves seamlessly between theological exposition and spiritual and even mystical communication. Balthasar holds all these vital pieces together, allowing the Apostles’ Creed to frame what Christianity and the Christian life means for him.
Christians in my world are not known for their poverty. Which is strange because Jesus said crazy things like “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58), and a host of other things about renouncing possessions, giving to the poor, etc. and his life was consistent with these teachings. But we live in a different day and age, myself and most everyone I know were born into relative affluence. What do we do about this? Do we find ourselves in the position of the rich young ruler who is told by Jesus to “sell all your possessions and give to the poor?” Perhaps.
Yet why should the Church not be the best and most ideal environment for good theology? Yes, ministry is a busy life. Between pastoral visits, emergencies, funerals, weddings, prep for sermons and classes, handling some administrative duties, and the inevitable arrival of unexpected visitors it seems like one has little time left to sit down at the desk and read, study, research, and write. And yet all of these tasks are the fertile grounds on which good theology is done. They are the lifeblood of the Church in which the Spirit moves invisibly and sometimes visibly. The question is not whether good theology can come from the Church. It is why hasn’t more come out of the church!
Later in life Merton would repent from this [sectarian] attitude and embrace a radically ecumenical perspective. It is for this reason that he would later disassociate himself from his early autobiography, describing it as “the work of a man I have never even heard of.” There are lots of reasons and developments in Merton and in Catholicism for this change of heart. Other people could do a better job at tracing all that out. Merton’s own struggle with the ecumenical question—from skepticism to embrace—makes me want to engage with my own. And so here goes.
Lent starts this Wednesday, so its that time of the year where either you’ll google “What is lent?” or you’ll try to come up with something decent to tell people you’re giving up. Giving up things can be beneficial, but the wise people I talk to like to focus on adding something beneficial during these next forty days. Some people like to read something alongside Scripture during Lent that will help them draw closer to God, and sometimes those people will ask people like me what books they might recommend, and sometimes people like me will think of several that might be good and make that recommendation. So that’s what this is.