Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Putting Away Childish Things: Marcus Borg's First Work of Fiction

I confess that when it comes to reading I am more comfortable in the realm of nonfiction than fiction. My wife often challenges me to provoke and develop my imagination by setting aside, even if it is just briefly, theology, philosophy, history, and other scholarly works, in order to pick up a novel or other form of creative and engaging fiction. I have heeded her advice on more than one occasion (I find this to be a wise move on my part, i.e. to listen to my wife when she speaks) and read in the recent past a few works that have allowed me to escape for brief periods of time the density of nonfiction. However, I have found that I cannot do this for long, as I prefer to stimulate the mind with the works of Moltmann, Barth, and Gutierrez versus the cleverly crafted fantasy worlds of past and present storytellers.

That being said, Marcus Borg’s first novel, Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith, was a great read that I plowed through in a mere two days. I have always enjoyed and been challenged by Borg’s nonfictional reflections and theological contributions to the Christian faith. I have particularly appreciated his interaction with and reclaim of the validity of myth in regards to the gospel stories and the historical Jesus. Borg’s concepts and suggestions are neither without controversy, nor to be digested without a certain dose of critique. Nonetheless, there is much to be gained in reading such books as Jesus: A New Vision, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.

This fascination with Borg’s scholarly contributions made the fictional tale both captivating and spiritually rewarding. The story interweaves Borg’s biblical insight, theological imagination, political wisdom, and ethical musings within an honest tale saturated with relatable characters and relevant plotlines. The bulk of the novel incorporates two parallel and interconnected stories. First, there is Kate Riley, a professor of Religious Studies at a liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Professor Riley is well known for her contributions to the academic world in regards to New Testament Studies and a beloved teacher in the student body. However, recently she has been under fire in the academy for being “overtly” Christian in the classroom and too “popular” in her publishing. On the flip side, the evangelical world has labeled her as a liberal fraud for her suggestions that much of the gospel writings are more connected to the memory and kerygma of the early church and disciples than factual accounts and literal teachings of a historical Jesus. That is to say, Kate Riley is caught in crossfire with only a few advocates and friends. Second, there are students such as Erin and Amy. These two friends are a part of a small Christian group called The Way, a conservative campus ministry that is apologetic and fundamentalist in nature. Erin and Amy are enrolled in a course with Riley that challenges their understandings, stretches their convictions, and reframes their spirituality. It could be said that the narrative of these two students is paradigmatic of many college students when they engage theology and religious discourse outside the church for the first time. They are surprised by how the freedom to ask questions, deconstruct their traditions, and engage “liberal” ideas not only breathes new meaning into their religious commitments, but also refreshes their passion and hope found in the Way and story of Jesus. However, like their teacher, their slow embrace and curiosity also causes conflict in their circle of friends.

Putting Away Childish Things, much akin to Borg’s scholastic work, unashamedly tackles tough and controversial subject matters. However, Borg’s fiction allows him to do so in a way that is new and clever, even somewhat generous. In other words, Borg’s carefully crafted story provides a framework that allows the reader to interact with his thoughts and ideas in a way that escapes his nonfiction, yet certainly compliments and buttresses it.

This text is a must read for anyone who has experienced cognitive dissonance between the academy and the ecclesia. This text is a formative read for those who find themselves interested and called to both the academy and the ecclesia. This text is a pastoral read for others who believe that mystery, wonder, and faith are sacred gifts of the Spirit that have often been overshadowed, in the academy and ecclesia, by modernist quests for certainty and assents towards absolutes. As with Borg’s nonfiction, Putting Away Childish Things should be read with care, caution, and within a community (which Borg, generously, provides resources to do so). But, Putting Away Childish Things, should without a doubt be read.

A great Christmas reflection from the novel:

Parables are about meaning, not factuality. And the truth of a parable is its meaning. Parables can be truthful, truth-filled, even while not being historically factual. And I apply this to the birth stories [of Jesus in Matthew and Luke]: we best understand them when we see them as parables and overtures, and when we don’t worry about or argue about whether they’re factual…And they are about God’s passion for a different kind of world. They’re about all of this. Even the themes of light and fulfillment are political as well as religious. They are the gospel in miniature. And just as the gospel- the good news about Jesus- is both religious and political, so are the Christmas stories”
(Kate Riley in a radio interview, pp. 26, 29).

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Life Is Advent: Prayers in Waiting this Christmas

Life is Advent; life is recognizing the coming of the Lord, says Henri Nouwen. I read this a few weeks ago in one of my morning reflections that have been guided by a great book, Advent and Christmas: Wisdom from Henri Nouwen. Said differently, life is waiting; life is hoping; life is lived in eager expectation of promises to be fulfilled and dreams to come to fruition. So as Christmas draws nearer this week, I thought I would list prayers related to some of the many longings that dwell in the hearts, minds, and souls of our family, friends, and neighbors…feel free to add your own. Even more, may we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the ways in which we are called to recognize the coming of the Lord, or maybe incarnate such Advent as we extend compassion, concern, and generosity to those near and far…and not just at Christmas.

Advent Prayers:
• A warm place to rest and sleep.
• A meal.
• A job.
• 2011 budgets for non-profits and self-supporting ministries be experience enough, even more than enough (see post on Broad Street Ministry)
• Strained relationships to be mended
• Conversations around the table to be less about our differences and disagreements and more about what we hold in common…
• Comfort to those for whom the baby Jesus is a reminder, not of hope and joy, but of their constant battle through infertility
• Peace to those who grieve the loss of loved ones in the distant past or the year that draws to a close
• Reconciliation for nations torn internally and/or with their neighbors by war and violence (Israel-Palestine; Sudan; North and South Korea; Vietnam…etc.)
• Peace in our cities, especially Philadelphia, Chester, Coatesville…
• Students who look for relief from unnecessary pressures and anxieties that results from oppressive cultural myths of achievement and competition
• Expecting and new parents
• Strength to those who are persecuted for their commitment to the Way of Jesus, especially in nations where freedom of religion is not something taken for granted…
• For those who grow our crops and make our clothing to be paid a fair wage and for the ability to speak to and rally against those who prevent such from happening
• Those who are judged and condemned do to difference to find welcome and community in churches who have been willing to risk everything to live into the Way of Jesus
• For affordable (or free) healthcare to be provided to ALL…
• Love to those students whose parents have either split up or are working through divorce
• Ways out for those in abusive relationships…
• The ability for nations like Haiti and regions like New Orleans continually to work towards restoration in the wake of natural disasters
• Cures for diseases like AIDS and cancer and advocacy for victims of both…
• Improved education in our cities and developing nations

Add your own...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Advent Reflections: 'Tis the Season to Be Hurried.

Hurry. Haste. Anxiety. Fear. These words are synonymous to an American Christmas. Is this really what Christmas is supposed to be about? Is this really the context of which the birth of Jesus is to be celebrated? It could be said that our alacritous pace is generated from the infinite seasonal obligations, wish lists, shopping sprees, and attempts to cram as much into this “joyous” season as possible. We then enter the New Year and celebrate a deliverance from consumer-driven, culturally conditioned angst that has left us tired and worn. Hurry. Haste. Anxiety. Fear. Yes, this was the very context of the first Christmas. However, these experiences were not the byproducts of American, consumer culture; rather, they were the effect of God’s people questing for liberation from the oppression and captivity that had been their storied history, past and present. Egypt. Assyria. Babylon. Rome. Yet God’s people held fast to the story of Moses, their deliverer, the one who parted the seas and led God’s people in mass exodus and into the Promised Land. And they knew God would do this again. Hear the echoes of the exodus in Matthew’s narrative, “‘Get up, take the child [Jesus] and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead’” (2:20). In Jesus a new Moses, a new Deliverer, a New Exodus has come. And this exodus has set the world free from not only Egypt, but from all forms of oppression and captivity. This Christmas may we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the ways in which Jesus seeks to deliver us from whatever holds us in bondage, even seasonal and consumer angst. Moreover, may we join this Deliverer as participants in this gospel that moves towards the liberation of all people from whatever holds humanity captive, and not only at Christmas.

Advent Psalm: Psalm 33:
"he gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses...our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and shield. Our heart is glad in him because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you." (Ps.33:7,20-22)

Advent Prayer:
Jesus, you are the world’s Deliverer. Part the seas of our chaos and set us free from whatever holds us captive. Make us a people who quest for the liberation of all people and all of creation as we follow your unfolding story of life and hope. We pray this expectant of the day to come when you will make all things new and right. Amen.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Broad Street Ministry: My Home Away from Home

One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas a Kempis who said something to the effect, practice now what you'll have to put into practice then.  There are few places that have really responded to this sort of Christian vocation in word and deed.  Broad Street Ministry is one of those places.  Over the past three years, I have been blessed by strong and beautiful relationships with the people of this urban faith community and those who have devoted all of their lives to practice resurrection with such a diverse and creative group of people in Center City, Philadelphia.  It has been said before that Broad Street Ministry is a place where biblical stories come to life.  This is certainly true.  At Broad Street, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, believers and doubters, skeptics and sinners, those who live on the streets, under the streets, across the streets, the unemployed and the overemployed, artists and poets, pastors and entrepreneurs all gather together as one of the more authentic portraits of the kingdom of God.

In Anne Rice's fictional novel, Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, she tells the story of Jesus turning water into wine. After the miracle, Jesus is questioned about what is now to come. Jesus responds, "I will go on from surprise to surprise."  I suppose that if you asked any member of Broad Street Ministry about what they are up to in the days ahead, I am sure they would respond with similar words, we will press on, from surprise to surprise.  BSM is not afraid of mystery; instead, BSM embraces it.  The members of this ecclesial mosiac are confident that in mystery the Spirit unveils sacred surprises, glimpses of the life that is to come. 

I am grateful for Broad Street Ministry and their commitment to works of justice and peace, hospitality to the stranger, solidarity with the poor, love of neighbor, friendship with the marginalized, and provision of a church community for those whom church and faith have been cursed words and experiences.  I am also indebted to those of BSM who have embraced the students of Imago Dei Youth Ministry as though they were residents along the Avenue of the Arts. 

I hope and pray that you will watch the video below, check out their website, visit their community, and worship with my friends of Broad Street Ministry.  May we together be surprised over and again as God's people continue to support, fund, and participate in the kingdom activity of this place.

Broad Street Ministry End of Year Appeal Video from Colin Comstock on Vimeo.