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The Asian Jesus

The Asian Jesus

Michael Amaladoss, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2006; 180 pp, including Endnotes, Bibliography, and Indexes.

Michael Amaladoss, S.J., a native of South India, is a professor of theology at Vidyajyoti College in Delhi and director of the Institute for Dialogue with Cultures and Religions in Chennai.  Among his books and articles is Life in Freedom: Liberation Theologies From Asia (Orbis).  With a special interest in intercultural and interreligious dialogue and spirituality, Amaladoss has been a consultant to the Pontifical Councils for Culture and Other Religions and to the World Council of Churches.  He also has served as the president of the International Association for Mission Studies.  He is the author of 20 books and more than 300 articles in various languages.

Occasionally one picks up a book that proves to be an unexpected breath of fresh air.  For this reviewer The Asian Jesus turned out to be such a book.  It is written, I believe with two audiences in mind—the Asian religious (though not necessarily just Christians) and Western Christians.  For the former he supplies a great deal of material, including a few entire chapters, about perspectives on Christianity that are not unique to Asian Christianity.  For the latter, however, the preponderance of material is quite unique to Asians, this in large part because of the cultural and religious milieu in which the Christian faith has developed, often without the overwhelming influence of Western missionaries.  (Though Amaladoss nowhere makes this assertion, his description of the Asian cultural and religious influences on biblical interpretation certainly strongly imply that this is the case.)

The Asian perspective that Amaladoss unfolds is formulated in terms of a number of images of Jesus that Asians incorporate into their understanding of the Gospel accounts of his life and ministry.  These include the images of the Way (Tao), Guru, Moral Teacher (advaita), avatar, satyagrahi, and bodhisattva.  (There are others that Amaladoss discusses at some length—for example, sage, servant, dancer, pilgrim--but these are more conventional portrayals common to both Eastern and Western traditions.)

The Tao: The term Tao is used in both the Taoist and Confucian traditions in China and means simply, “the way.”  In India, one would use the term marga, and Buddha spoke of the eightfold path.  “It is in this context that we must understand the way proposed by Jesus.  He does not indulge in any metaphysical speculations… The framework of Jesus is a human community fragmented by egotism and pride embodied in structures of religious, social, and political power.  People are called to turn away from this self-centered arrogance.  This is achieved through the selfless love of others, shown in humble service and sharing… The way of Jesus therefore operates at the level of human and social relationships… It resonates with the nishkama karma of the Indian tradition and the wu wei of the Chinese tradition.  But it is set in a framework of cosmic-human-divine community building.” (pp. 58-59)

Amaladoss cites the observation of Indian writer George Soares-Prabhu: “The vision of Jesus indicates not the goal but the way.  It does not present us with a static pre-fabricated model to be imitated, but invites us to continual refashioning of societal structures in an attempt to realize as completely as possible in our times the values of the Kingdom.”  Amaladoss continues, “The Kingdom of God that Jesus announced and began to establish is not an institutional, politco-military structure.  It is a community of people who are ready to love and forgive, share, and serve.” (p. 59)

Amaladoss goes on to describe the way of Jesus as a way of love and service, a way of non-violent struggle, a transcendent way, and an inclusive way.  “The way of Jesus is the way of creation. It is the way that humans and the world live.  It is the life.  It is God’s gift to creation and humanity.  We can understand why some Chinese theologians call Jesus the Tao.  But the Tao of Jesus has a Confucian resonance because it concerns community building.” (p. 65)

Guru: In Indian practice, a guru is a person who has traveled a particular spiritual path and is thus qualified to lead others on that path.  “In the Advaitic (non-dual) tradition, in which true spiritual experience consists in realizing one’s oneness with the Brahman or the Absolute, gurus are seen as divine, because they have experienced advaitic oneness with the divine.  In the Bhakti traditions…in which the final experience is one of encountering Siva, the Absolute, in love… the guru [is understood to be] a divine-human person… Many Indian disciples of Jesus, whether Hindu or Christian, have considered him as their guru.  Christians stress the uniqueness of Jesus by calling him sadguru (true guru).” (pp. 69-70)  Jesus is thought to be “the guru of a cosmic movement that he initiates himself and perpetuates by choosing disciples and sending them to continue his mission.” (p. 76)  He is seen to be exemplary of what other gurus should be like.

Advaita: As a moral teacher, advaita (Indian non-duality) presupposes a strong monotheism, a view that militates against acceptance of Jesus as God.  Asians who maintain this view may think of the unity of will between Jesus and God rather than the identity of being.  “Jesus was an exemplary human being who taught us how to live by word and example.  He shows us the way to self-discovery and moral behavior.” (p. 22)

Avatar: Avatar is the word used in Indian languages to refer to the incarnation of the Word in Jesus.  “God is believed to self-manifest in some earthly form to encounter the devotees and grant them liberation.” (p. 105)  Amaladoss cited Hindu Swami Vivekananda:  “Jesus had our nature; he became the Christ; so can we and so must we.  Christ and Buddha were the names of a state to be attained.  Jesus and Gautama were the persons to manifest it.”  Vivekananda goes on to note that one need not become a Christian to be a follower of Jesus.  “He (Christ) had no other occupation in life; no other thought except that one, that he was a Spirit.  He was a disembodied, unfettered, unbound spirit.  And not only so, but he, with his marvelous vision, had found that every man and woman, whether Jew or Greek, whether rich or poor, whether saint or sinner, was the embodiment of the same undying Spirit as himself.  Therefore the one work his whole life showed, was calling upon them to realize their own spiritual nature… You are all sons of God, Immortal spirit. ‘Know,’ he declared, ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you.  I and my Father are one.’” (p. 23)

Avatar can be variously realized at different places at different times.  The Hindu “devotees of Siva [the Absolute] think that God cannot become human.  But they still believe that Siva can manifest himself in various ways in the lives of his devotees.” (p. 105)  Because of this cultural/religious context, “Indians looking on Jesus will spontaneously consider him [Jesus] an avatar.  It is an Indian religio-cultural entry point to explore our experience of Jesus as a human-divine person (p.106).

Amaladoss suggests, “…the term avatar, meaning ‘manifestation,’ helps us look at the plurality of manifestations of the Word, of the Spirit, and of God positively and openly and profit from all of them” (p. 107).  He believes that Jesus’ disciples experienced him first of all as a human being.  But as avatar it was eventually recognized that Jesus had a deeper dimension as a unique manifestation of the Father, but a manifestation that was still subject to the limitations of it human nature.

Satyagrahi: Satya means “truth”. Graha means “clinging.”  The combination, satyagrahi, coined by Mahatma Gandhi, is someone who clings to the truth, namely, to God.  “Gandhi saw his own life as a quest for truth.  He knew that truth is absolute.  One does not possess truth; rather, one is possessed by it” (p. 86).  Gandhi held that “we cannot reach truth through untrue means” nor “peace through violence.”  As applied to Jesus, “the image satyagrahi points to the idea that Jesus, though he was a revolutionary, was a nonviolent one” (p. 87).

“What distinguished Jesus from the Zealots [of his day] were two things.  The Zealot effort focused on liberating Palestine from the colonialism of the Romans… On the contrary, Jesus does not seem to focus much on the Roman presence in Palestine.  He takes it for granted… The second difference between him and the Zealots is the means used to promote revolution.  Jesus is firmly committed to the means of love and nonviolence.”  Jesus believes the ends and the means must be the same.  “We cannot promote love through hatred, nor peace through violence” (p. 95).

“God, the Father of Jesus, is not a vengeful God who demands expiation for sins.  Jesus presented God as a loving and forgiving parent.  The suffering imposed on Jesus comes not from God but from Jewish leaders who seek to defend their own self-interest by doing away with Jesus.”  But “The murder of Jesus… does not put an end to the movement that he has launched. As a of fact, it acquires new vigor” (p. 97).

Amaladoss continues with an extended analysis of the role of suffering in Jesus’ life and, by extension, in the lives of his followers.  He asserts, “Suffering for its own sake is not a Christian ideal.  Suffering has meaning as an element of protest or as a manifestation of self-giving.  Without such meaning, suffering is not a virtue. It has no transformative value” (p. 104).

He concludes his discussion of satyagraha: “The image of Jesus as satyagrahi places the idea of salvation on a personal, human-divine level.  It is not something automatic effected by the cross and the sacrifice of Jesus.  It is a divine-human interaction marked by freedom on both sides… Jesus calls us to be satyagrahi in our turn.

Bodhisattva: Buddhists in Asia consider Jesus a bodhisattva.  In Buddhist tradition the bodhisattva is the model of the compassionate person.  In this sense Jesus is seen to be very much like Buddha.  “Having achieved personal liberation, the bodhisattva delays the personal enjoyment of it in order to help everyone become liberated” (p. 135).As a bodhisattva, Jesus is compassionate like no other.  His compassion operates around God’s gift of abundant life, which he not only promises but shares with others. (p. 136).  “The measure of the abundance of God’s gift of life is not our merits but God’s generosity.  The crucial element in the process of salvation is our openness to accept it as a gift of God, since God’s gift is always there.  Being sure of God’s unbounded love, we are ready to abandon ourselves to God. God then saves us.”  Thus, in a major departure from the understandings of Western Christianity, “Jesus saves us precisely by enabling us to respond to God in humility and faith, in egolessness and surrender, and thus receive God’s gift of life.  He enables us by being in solidarity with us” (p. 143).  “He saves us by freeing us, by forgiving us, by loving us, and by empowering or enabling us.” (p. 144)

This reviewer is struck by how much resonance there is between many of the beliefs of Asian Christians and the so-called “heretical” teachings of a certain 3rd and 4th century priest in Alexandria, Egypt.  His name was Arius.  His teachings were affirmed by most of the Christian bishops in the Eastern half of the Mediterranean world of his day but were opposed by most of the bishops from the West, thus creating something of an East-West divide in the Christian Church.  Could it be that the present Asian-West theological divide has its roots in that early division?  Interesting.

Jim Foster, reviewer

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Thank You, Jim Foster

God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment

God’s Debris: 

A Thought Experiment

Scott Adams, (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001), 137 pagesScott Adams is the creator of cartoon character Dilbert.  But this is not a work of humor, though it is a work of fiction.  As Mr. Adams has not claimed ownership of the ideas expressed in this story, but rather attributes them to the main character, a Mr. Avatar, the reviewer has chosen to address his remarks to Mr. Avatar.  Mr. Adams is, of course free to respond in Mr. Avatar’s behalf should he choose to do so.

Dear Mr. Avatar

I am sending this open letter to you by way of Mr. Scott Adams since I do not have your email address.  The fact is that I doubt if you even have one.  I am writing in response to your conversation with him as it is recorded in a small book of his titled God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment, published in 2004 by Andrews McMeel Publishing of Kansas City.

I find your concept of God as an expression of probability interesting but improbable.  It may be that that I am just looking for something a bit more, or a lot more, comprehensive than probability.

However, I do not buy into the theology that God is a person, either.  It rather seems to me that what the human race has done is created a God in its own image, like us only bigger.  We have made of God a Being with a capital B but none-the-less, a being.  This is fraught with all kinds of difficulties, many arising out of our efforts to describe this Being.  (1) One problem is that no description can adequately encompass the whole of God.  When we try to describe God we inevitably engage in reductionism, describing something less than God.  (2) Whose description are we going to buy into?  Our efforts to describe God generally bring us into conflict with each other.  We are pitting God against God as it were.  (3) Our descriptions are typically, and perhaps necessarily, anthropomorphic since those are the only applicable words we have to describe an entity whom we have chosen to categorize as a person.

Oddly enough, the way of thinking about God that has been most satisfying to me has been in terms of Being, not a Being, but Being itself.  As Being God finds expression in all of Creation, including the microscopic and the macroscopic, every atom and every galaxy, and in you and me.  As I gather from your discussion with Mr. Adams, you, too, believe that we are God stuff. The irony is that perhaps the use of anthropomorphic language to speak of God may be acceptable, but only if we mean it quite literally and apply it to the whole of creation.  As part of the whole, a rock really does reveal God, as does a flower and a briar.  You and I also reveal God, though I admit that in some instances our revealing of God is not particularly flattering to God.

At one point early on in the quasi pre-history of the Jewish nation, God is thought to have said essentially what I have said above.  God is quoted as saying out of a burning bush that he is “I am Who I am.”  The only sense I can make of that is that “God is what is”—Being.

As I indicated in my first sentence, this is an open letter and thus was published in the online journal, En Christo: A Journal for a New Christianity.  Any response you wish to make to these observations will likewise be published, unless you indicate that it should be treated confidentially.

Thank you for provoking me to write.  Give my regards to Mr. Adams

Jim Foster, reviewer

,Note to the readers of the above letter:  Mr. Avatar addresses many subjects in God’s Debris – free will, genuine belief, God’s consciousness, evolution, reincarnation, science, delusion – to name a few.  But the thread that runs through the entire story is the equation of “probability” (that he says is omnipotent and omnipresent) with “God.”  He has given us a good many ideas with which to wrestle, and in this lies the justification of the sub-title, “A Thought Experiment.”

When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome

When Jesus Became God: 

The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome

Rubenstein, Richard E.; (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999, 267 pages including Index and copious end notes.)

Dr. Rubenstein is a professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at George Mason University, where he specializes in analyzing violent social and religious conflict.  He is a graduate of Harvard College (B.A. 1959, magna cum laude in History and Literature); Oxford University (M.A. 1961, Honours School of Jurisprudence, Rhodes Scholar) and Harvard Law School ( J.D. 1963).

This reviewer has known for many years that the process by which the early Church determined its theology was a political one, and by today’s standards, a sordid one.  It was power politics.  Those who had the most power got to determine the theology of the fledgling Church.  However, I did not know a lot of the historical details that support that conclusion.  Reading Rubenstein’s account of those days--of who had the power, and how it was exercised—has come as a bit of a shock. Civil discourse was not a part of the story.

The focus of the book is on the Arian controversy, which spanned the better part of two centuries. This was a controversy about the nature of Jesus Christ.  Was he God or was he a spiritually astute human anointed by God but neither one with God nor an equal.  The early Church bishops were fairly evenly divided on the question.  Arian, from whom the controversy got its name, was a priest in Alexandria, Egypt.  As a mere priest, he had little power, but he was an able exponent of the view that Jesus was subordinate to the Father but was not of the same substance with him. Supporting him in this theology were many of the Eastern bishops, i.e. those who were situated around the eastern half of the Mediterranean world.

The Western bishops, those situated to the west of Constantinople, were for the most part supporters of the theology that Jesus and God the Father were essentially of the same substance.

“Faced with the problem that had confronted all Christians since St. Paul—how to be a monotheist believing in only one God, yet still worship Jesus Christ—Arius advanced the view that Jesus was a creature intermediary between man and God…  All Christians believed that Jesus’ sacrifice redeemed humanity.  What God did for the Son by resurrecting him and granting him immortality He could do for us as well, provided that we became new people in Christ.  But if Jesus was not God by nature—if he earned his deification by growing in wisdom and virtue—why, so can we all.  The Good News of the Gospels is that we also are God’s potential Sons and Daughters.  How, then, is Christ essentially different from or superior to us?  And if he is not, what does it mean to call ourselves Christians?” (pp. 55-56)  These were questions that demanded answers.  The answers given by Arius and his bishops in Alexandria--at first Bishop Alexander, and later his successor, Bishop Athanasius—were poles apart.

Civil discourse was apparently never considered a viable way to resolve the conflict.  Instead, Arius’ bishops resorted to strong-arm tactics, each having gangs of street thugs whose job it was to beat their opponents into submission.  Arius and some of his followers were forced to flee into the desert to escape bodily injury and possible death.  At the same time there were other bishops in other cities who were rallying to the support of Arius.  Riots spurred by street fighters spread to other cities, leaving paths of destruction in their wake.  It appeared the whole fabric of Roman society was being ripped apart.

Into this volatile mix, early in the fourth century, steps the recently converted Roman emperor, Constantine.  Ultimately it was Constantine who held the position of power, so each side in the controversy appealed to him for support of their particular theology.  The problem for Constantine was that he was no theologian, and he tended to side with whoever was talking to him at the moment.  The thing that Constantine wanted most was peace in the empire, and he had hoped that Christianity could be the instrument to bring it about.  To this end he convened the bishops from all over the empire at his summer residence on the Lake of Nicaea near Nicomedia in Asia Minor, what is now modern day Turkey.  The council began in May of 325 with 250 bishops in attendance.

“Constantine’s great hope was to convene a conference that would end the bishops’ bitter wrangling and begin an era of harmony in the Church.” (p. 69)  It was not to be, in spite of the fact that “Constantine was in a position strongly to influence—perhaps even to dictate—the course of events at Nicaea.” (p. 71)  The bishops staked out their positions… “the strongest anti-Arians experienced their present as a sharp break with the past.  It was they who demanded, in effect, that Christianity be “updated” by blurring or even obliterating the long-accepted distinction between the Father and the Son.

“From the perspective of our own time, it may seem strange to think of Arian ‘heretics’ as conservatives, but emphasizing Jesus’ humanity and God’s transcendent otherness had never seemed heretical in the East.  On the contrary, subordinating the Son to the Father was a rational way of maintaining one’s belief in a largely unknowable, utterly singular First Cause while picturing Christ as a usable model of human moral development.” (p. 74)

Constantine came down on the side of the anti-Arians, and the Nicene Creed, an amended version of which is still repeated in churches today, was the result.  Several later gatherings would be more representative of the entire Church; one of them, the joint council of Rimini-Seleucia (359), was attended by more than five hundred bishops from both East and West…but its result—the adoption of an Arian creed—was later repudiated by the Church.

Unity was not achieved.  Theology did not change as a result of the councils.  Those who sided with Arius continued to do so.  The anti-Arians dug in their heels even deeper, refusing to even acknowledge the legitimacy of the Arian bishops.  Constantine continued to flip-flop in his efforts to unify the empire. He died May 22, 337, but the Arian controversy did not die with him. Rubenstein continues the story through the Great Council of Chalcedon (451 CE).

He concludes, “Soon, most of the Eastern world would come under the domination of a new religion offering another interpretation of Jesus’ nature and mission.  The Islamic Jesus was not the incarnate God of Nicene Christianity or the superangelic Son of the Arians.  In the view of the Muslim conquerors, he was a divinely inspired man: a spiritual genius ranking with the greatest prophets, Moses and Muhammad himself… With the ascension of Islam, Arianism as a discrete religious philosophy disappeared in the East as well as in the West.  But the great questions that had generated the controversy over Jesus’ divinity remained—and remain yet—to haunt the imagination and provoke the conscience of humankind.” (pp. 230-231)

If we have learned anything from the past, it should be that one’s beliefs cannot be changed by violence.  Truth is neither validated nor invalidated by coercion, political power, theological wrangling, or ecclesiastical mandates.  Rubenstein’s very readable, detailed and well-documented account can serve well as a reminder of our past and of the highly tenuous theological conclusions we have inherited.  Thus the debate continues, but please, may it at least be civil.

Jim Foster, reviewer

Virtually Christian: How Christ Changes Human Meaning and Makes Creation New

Virtually Christian:

How Christ Changes Human Meaning and Makes Creation New

by Anthony W. Bartlett

Published February 2011 byO-Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing, Ltd., UK ISBN: 978 1 84694 396 6

The difficulty of writing a review of a book such as this is that, to do it justice, one needs to impose limits, while, at the same time, doing justice to a work of incredible breadth of content and depth of insight.  This reviewer has read over a hundred books about Jesus, most of them scholarly treatises by recognized scholars with considerable repute in the areas of Christology and biblical exegesis, but never before had I encountered a book with the originality and depth of this one.

Dr. Bartlett has achieved in Virtually Christian a decidedly new approach to understanding the meaning of the life and death of Jesus for the world of the 21st century.  He has drawn on a wide variety of sources to support his thesis that the game-changing role of Jesus for contemporary (and all other) societies is that through his act of forgiveness for his executioners as he was hanging on the cross, he initiated an evolutionary change from the ubiquitous culture of violence enveloping the world to a movement towards equally ubiquitous non-violence.

Bartlett draws on the pioneering work of anthropologist Rene Girard, demonstrating that the application of Girard’s teachings regarding signs brings into focus the current reality, i.e. “the sign of the non-violent forgiving Christ can and will show up [and, indeed is showing up] as the only way through, the only way to transform the violence [of our world] into peace.”  * In subsequent chapters, he shows this to be the motor that drives his contention that the world is already “virtually Christian.”  He challenges traditional religious teachings based on philosophical and metaphysical ideas reflected in our theologies, but instead insists that religious meaning is not located in the realm of ideas but in the realm of signs as a this world reality.  Citing Girard, he says that “our signs at some level always carry the birthmark of desire and violence…Or, alternatively, they can, because of Christ, signify the converse: compassion, forgiveness, love.”  In the following chapters, Bartlett convincingly demonstrates that this is precisely what is already happening.

In Chapter One: No Name for a Non-Violent God, Bartlett opens his opus with a vision and a question.  “I begin with a vision of extraordinary beauty: ‘The earth is robed in light like a jewel, like a bride dressed for her wedding…’ Can we share the vision?  Can we let ourselves be drawn to it?”  He leads us deeper and deeper into the vision, setting the stage for the following divination of what the church, and indeed, the world, is becoming.  Thus begins the story—a story of incredible hope and optimism—bringing “an awareness of how the end is already playing out dynamically in the present.  For the virtual character of Christianity is extraordinarily concrete.”

In Chapter Two: The Sign that Means the World, Bartlett analyzes “the character of historical Christianity in relation to the vision of the earth in communion with its lover…and with Jesus the nonviolent one.”  He begins by pointing out that “enhancing a relationship with the earth” is not something with which Christianity has traditionally been concerned. Its focus has instead been on

* Since this review is being written on the basis of the unpublished manuscript, it is neither practical nor helpful to include page numbers for the numerous quotes.  The reviewer recommends that the reader purchase the book to get the full context of quoted passages.

“getting souls to heaven.”  But Bartlett laments that “For Christianity not to try to realize its soul of peace on the earth (emphasis mine) …is to ignore something that is coming to realization from within its own innermost character and story.  For today, for the first time, Christianity is coming into its authentic character as virtual.”  He subsequently explains that “Christianity is neither one thing nor another! It is not the new earth, but neither is it the old earth.  It takes a certain shape, yet progressively its shape is not certain.  It is an impossible idea, but its impossibility becomes more and more its central possibility. ” With this Bartlett begins a step-by-step book-long explication, “a kind of light-footed dance across the landscape of Christian history and the system of signs in which it lives…”In this chapter he shows how already in the Middle Ages—despite contrary evidences—the sign of Christ was breaking into our culture with its transforming meaning of nonviolence and peace.

In Chapter Three: “Motion Pictures,” Bartlett shows how our motion pictures support, generally without being aware of it, the “in-breaking” of Christ and of his revolutionary influence in even the most violent of movies.  For movie aficionados, he provides incisive commentary on movie after movie, after movie — such as Alien 3 (1992), A.I, Artificial Intelligence (2001), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and The Matrix trilogy (1999 to 2003) et. al. -- showing how even the most violent of them have not escaped the sign of Christ’s non-violence.  Even though I am one who has been repelled by the seemingly gratuitous violence depicted by such movies, Bartlett’s commentary leaves me feeling that I may have missed something of importance – i.e. the mysterious in-breaking sign of Christ in these movies.  Bartlett goes on to explore the presence of this sign in music videos and, particularly, in the music of Bob Dylan, of whom he says, “This Jewish-Christian-Secular artist who is called the Shakespeare of popular song stands as persuasive witness of the dynamic meaning of Christ at the heart of our contemporary culture, at the heart of our world of signs.”

In Chapter Four: “Alpha and Omega,” Bartlett argues that Christ is revealed “or, more precisely, draws close to us” through the historical and popular-culture account of the virtual” described in the previous chapters.  This argument indicates a “sense of movement, of the vortex of images and the agency at its heart which is the self-giving of Christ.”  In this chapter he argues that “it is Christ who is the generative source of [this] movement…” as well as “the irreducible role of movement for our contemporary theological and faith universe….If Christ is the source of actual human movement presumably it is to draw human beings to himself…” He notes that the heightened pace of everything suggests “that we are being carried necessarily toward something different, something new.  “This movement becomes the key question of our age.  Where is it leading us? What is its purpose?”

To address these questions, Bartlett turns to the thought of movement in the contemporary scientific worldview of evolution.  “Evolution,” he notes, “has movement at its core.”  Citing the French Jesuit and anthropologist Teilhard de Chardin, Bartlett observes that “there is de facto a curve toward consciousness in evolutionary genesis and this suggests to him a built-in impetus or inner principle, a reaching toward thought, to personal communion and to love, to what he calls an Omega point.”  This for de Chardin was not only a “speculative model” but also its living reality.”  Bartlett quotes at length de Chardin’s description of the noosphere or ‘mind-sphere’ and observes that “I am not the first to see here a prophetic description of the internet phenomenon, the layer of satellites and computers girdling the earth allowing simultaneous aural and visual ‘thought’ by humans.”  For de Chardin [and I think for Bartlett] the technical advance of the internet is simply the latest and logical outgrowth of a possibility that was there from the beginning and enormously enhanced by Christ.

Bartlett continues with a critique of Girard’s hypothesis of original violence and the biblical teaching of original sin.  “One of the criticisms of de Chardin and other thinkers who emphasize movement is that they underestimate the power of sin and hence the need for redemption: You would not think that anything could go wrong on the grand evolutionary journey to the Omega point.  By inserting Girard here, and by means of the ‘hard’ biological science of mirror neurons, we open the evolutionary picture fully and formidably to sin.”  Quoting John 1:1 & 10 – “In the beginning was the word/logos, and the word/logos came into the world, yet the world did no know him,” it is telling us that the divine principle of meaning arises in the midst of history, and yet is not recognized.  But then later in the same gospel, we are told that when this principle is ‘lifted up’ (12:33), i.e. as the Crucified, he will in fact draw all humanity to himself.  In other words the Crucified is the effective radical subversion of historical human meaning.  (Emphasis mine) Continuing the discussion of revolution in human meaning, Bartlett asserts that “Jesus can thus be said to have made the act of love in a truly contingent and elemental way and there is a real sense in which Jesus gave birth to love in the world.”  He concludes that “With Jesus there is an absolute affirmation of love, and the figure of the cross introduces a sign to the world which (de)symbolizes (reveals) the original murder, while it resets creation toward a meaning of absolute giving.”

For Bartlett, it is “the Christ who becomes the principle of human evolution after the principle of human violence has run its course.”  He follows this with perhaps the only minor quibble I have with his book when he characterizes the responses to his evolutionary thesis.  “Fundamentalists,” he says, “expect violent judgment from God, not nonviolent transformation.”  This, I think can be easily documented ad nauseam.  But “liberal Christians” he says, “see Christ as a metaphor for…a general principle of goodness floating somewhere in the universe available intellectually or spiritually to all.”  Surely these are not the only options! I, personally, do not fit in either of these characterizations.  Some, I suppose, might accuse both Bartlett and me of theological elitism, but I would take such claims as defensive reactions to the philosophy, evolutionary theory and solid theological reasoning and exegesis Bartlett has here demonstrated. 

I would characterize Bartlett’s approach to Christ as radical.  He speaks of the “intervention of Christ drawing all history to himself” and “Christ who has set the world in motion—toward himself.”  “To be a Christian, “he asserts, “is to let yourself be pulled by Christ into a completely different quality of time and space.”  And finally, “All contemporary human movement derives from and presses toward the Christ, the Alpha and the Omega…” I challenge anyone, past or present, who would claim to have a more unapologetic Christology than this. 

In Chapter 5: God Save Me from God!, Bartlett takes on the challenges of those who would make the case for atheism, notably Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who rail against the violence of God as depicted both in biblical accounts and in Christian history.  Bartlett counters that “they do not consider the possibility that religion in fact derives from the deep structure of the human and that their protest against its violence is part of an astonishing sea change in that very structure”-- a change that “is itself a product of the gospel of Jesus.” 

Bartlett continues in this chapter to challenge our understandings of the the Chalcedonian Creed, Wisdom Jesus, the crucifixion, Resurrection, and Human Reconstitution, the latter exploring the neural basis for the mystical path to Christ.  This chapter alone is a prodigious undertaking in that it seriously considers a broad swath of traditional Christian theology.  He explains the “spiritual union of Christianity and Greek philosophy” and debates the nature of the question, who or what is God, concluding that the question is “immediate and existential, not speculative or religious.”  God is to be found, “Not in ideas of the infinite in our heads, but in the limitless desire humans experience in their bodies, in their neural pathways.”

In his discussion of Divine Hypostasis or Personhood of Jesus, and drawing on the Gospel of John, Bartlett argues that this is nothing more (or less) than an infinitely nonviolent relationship with his Father demonstrated concretely in his life.  He maintains that the “hypostasis of Jesus, his self-giving relationship to the other, brings us therefore to a stunning new sense of God.  The human and divine transformation cannot be separated, and there is no way back.” (emphasis mine)  Drawing again, I think, on the theories of Rene Girard, “If Jesus relates to God in his human existence by a practice of infinite compassion then by the rules of relational imitation, of compassion itself (i.e. if Jesus truly imitates God), God has to be of the exact same character.  And then, even more radically, if Jesus practiced this infinite compassion all the way to his death…then we are required to follow him all the way to the death of any meaning of God not consistent with this, his absolutely self-giving human hypostasis.”

In Chapter Six: A Virtual Church, Bartlett turns to a discussion of the Virtual Church in which he deals “with the practical ways in which all this can impact in actual human life.”  It seeks to answer the question of how the thought of human meaning radically transfigured by divine nonviolence would play itself out as community, as organization, as church.”  A lengthy exploration ensues of how the concept of “church” has variously manifested historically from its beginnings to the present day.  Of the early church he writes that what “these communities lacked in books or formalized doctrine they made up a hundred-fold in the existential matrix of the gospel message.”  Now “we have had seminaries and libraries for centuries, but where is the existential matrix?...When we talk of the existential matrix in the first centuries it evokes a sense of liberating truth communicated from person to person, one of forgiveness, love and Holy Spirit.”  He believes it still exists today, “but it comes laced in a body of doctrine and academic theology that sometimes makes it hard to taste the brandy in the cake!”

But Bartlett maintains that “the gospel is not simply communicated one-to-one, along the frequencies of personal forgiveness and freedom, but that the whole world has been set in motion toward the new humanity of Christ. (emphasis mine)

Bartlett identifies “six key practical elements for a form of church emerging out of the contemporary matrix of Christ…They are: 1. Informal structures; 2. Inclusive boundaries; 3. Local and networked grouping; 4. Non-rivalrous relationship with established churches; 5. Bible study as reprogramming our sign system; 6. Signs and Sacraments.”  These constitute “what we can now begin to call a “virtual church”.  Then follows a detailed explication of each of these elements.

In Chapter Seven: What Signs Did He Give? Bartlett endeavors to bring the many strands of his theological reflections together.  “I feel” he says “a portrait [of the historical Jesus] has to be attempted if my overall argument of the world-changing work of Christ is to be rounded out.  If what I am claiming is true, if the change in meaning brought by Christ is anthropological rather than metaphysical, it has to start in a real human being…It has to arise in a real human life and in the signs that communicate that life.” (emphasis mine)

In this final chapter, Bartlett, endeavors “to present the figure of Christ as someone who creatively and decisively orchestrated meaning and did so in reference to his own person and activity.  He follows the hermeneutical development of our understanding of the historical Jesus from Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus through Rudolf Bultmann’s existential theology to Norman T. Wright’s Third Quest for the Historical Jesus, citing the latter’s belief that “any history of Jesus has to answer at least four key questions: how does Jesus fit into Judaism, what were his aims, why was he crucified, and why did a movement dedicated to him arise after his death?” Bartlett observes that “It’s very difficult to conceive of a gospel of open forgiveness if its original author was seen as ‘dead and murdered,” implying that some kind of experience of resurrection on the part of the disciples was historically imperative.  But he also concludes that “for the integral message of resurrection and forgiveness to be proclaimed so quickly and centrally by the primitive community it would have to have been backed by the consistent tenor of Jesus’ historical life and teaching.  So, in answer to the fourth question, we can suggest there had to be both some transcendent event overcoming death and a radical teaching of forgiveness underpinning it from Jesus actual life.”  Bartlett proceeds to exegete a number of passages which he identifies as signs of the nonviolent kingdom of God.  He sees Wisdom to be the core sign and cites Matthew 11:28-29: “Come to me, all you that are weary…and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls…” Jesus thus identifies himself “with Wisdom as his first-person truth and he understood that in terms of nonviolence.”  “Wisdom provided the effective sign of his personal identity.”

From this same venue, the biblical Wisdom tradition, Bartlett explores the sign of Jonah (Luke 11:29-32 and Matthew 12:38-42, et. al.), noting that “for Jesus the figure of Jonah is the chosen alternative to Elijah as the prophet sign of God’s imminent action in the world.”  He explores the semiotics of Jesus’ rebuke of demonic spirits, particularly as conveyed in the healing of the ‘Gerasene demoniac.’

He concludes that Jesus’ signs renounce the old order based in violence and they replace it with a Wisdom in the depths.  They refer in fact to himself as the transfiguring of our human condition from within, and so also of all creation.

Bartlett has, in this one book, accomplished a recasting of virtually all Christian theology, identifying themes and exposing the nature of the work of Jesus, in ways that promise to shake and reshape the traditional theologies of the past.  It is truly an original and creative work from start to finish.  It may also be a fresh beginning, providing the Church and its theologians grist for the mill for decades to come.  This reviewer believes it is a timely and timeless contribution which will prove to become a turning point in the history of the Christian Church.

James L. Foster, reviewer

St. John of the Cross and Dr. C. G. Jung:

St. John of the Cross and Dr. C. G. Jung:

Christian Mysticism in the Light of Jungian Psychology

James Arroj; (Chiloquin, OR, Inner Growth Books, 1988), 199 pages

This life-giving book aspires to help lay foundations for “a renewal of the life of prayer and a practical science of spiritual direction.”  It is written by James Arraj, who with Tyra Arraj, is a writer, craftsperson, homesteader in the Oregon wilderness and co-editor of Inner Growth Books.  He gives us a good look at the processes of individuation and contemplative prayer.  The material covered is often difficult and complex yet meticulously researched and clearly articulated.

The three major parts of this work are: Jung’s psychology and Christian faith, the dawn of contemplation, and a psychological light on St. John of the Cross and the life of prayer.  The first two parts attempt to resolve misgivings about the compatibility of Jung’s psychology and Christian faith, and a long-standing misinterpretation of St. John’s doctrine of contemplation.  The final section outlines the relationship between individuation (as understood by Jung) and contemplation (as understood by St. John).

Part one is an introduction to Carl Jung and his lifelong desire to come to grips with meaning, religion and God. Arraj writes, “A psychology like his shakes our sense of being experts about who we are and challenges us to a journey from ego-consciousness into the unconscious in order to find a deeper and truer self.” Arraj pays particular attention to the process of individuation, “an inner movement towards psychic develop-ment, “ and “the journey to a proper balance between the ego and the unconscious.”  Pragmatically, Jung found that it was essential for the well being of his patients to rediscover a religious, meaning-full perspective for living.  This meant that “the ego had to experience something beyond itself and even submit itself to the healing powers that come from the unconscious.”  And so Jung could talk about a “psychological cure of souls.”  Yet Jung felt that he could not distinguish between the experience of God and the experience of the unconscious, and took pains to say that he could not presume to talk about God as God is, but only about the image of God within humanity.  Arraj does a thorough job of examining Jung’s philosophical and cultural premises and summarizes:  “Jung’s statements on the scope of our ability to know should be interpreted only in relationship to his natural science of the psyche, and not extended to philosophy and theology.  Once the distinction is made between the essence of his work and the context it developed in, the way is open to employ it as an instrument in Christian theology.”  Arraj has synthesized two extreme positions here:  confusing Jung’s psychology as a substitute for theology and rejecting it altogether as a threat to Christian faith.

Part two is an introduction to the person and thought of St. John of the Cross, born three centuries earlier than the Swiss Jung, in Castilian Spain. Like Jung’s work, St. John’s formulations on contemplation are to be experienced and practiced, not merely grappled with intellectually.  For instance, what St. John called “infused contemplation” meant a real, abiding experience of union with God in daily life. Impacted strongly by both poverty and family love, St. John (born Juan de Yepes) entered a Carmelite monastery at age 21.  After being ordained a priest, he was on the verge of leaving the order for one more austere when he met St Teresa of Avila, who had already initiated a reform among the sisters.  She persuaded him to stay and help her in this new work.  It was while on an extended stay at her convent, as both confessor and spiritual director that St. John was kidnapped by friars who deeply opposed his reform.  He was imprisoned in Toledo, brutally treated and feared for his life during these eight months.  It was in this context, in 1577, that he underwent his “dark night of the soul” out of which much of his magnificent poetry was born.  After escaping, he wrote his major works: Ascent of Mt. Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul, masterpieces of the interior life.  In these he develops his concept of “infused contemplation --a concept central to Arraj’s concern—a phenomenon independent of the will of the person who receives it, a divine gift. In con-templation a person knows God “not as an object or thing about which something is known, but simply as a whole, a subject. God is present to him in a way analogous to the way he is present to himself.”

It was perhaps twenty years later that the term “acquired contemplation” began to appear in Carmelite writing.  Claiming to be congruent with the thought of St. John, “acquired contemplation is an act of will in “an affectionate and sincere knowledge of God and his effects which is gained by our own industry.”  Arraj writes insightfully, “Acquired contemplation is rowing the boat, while infused contemplation is having the wind fill the sails and drive it along.”  He counsels us to acknowledge that “infused contemplation” is at the heart of St. John’s teachings, and it is to the relationship between it and individuation that he turns next.

Part three turns to a psychological look at St. John of the Cross, identified as an introverted, intuitive type.  After his life-threatening prison experience, St John emerged a transformed person.  Successfully and fruitfully shouldering many responsibilities (which went against his natural inclinations), he spoke and wrote freely about what was most important to him.  Seeing the world through new eyes, he found that the “physical beauty of the earth had become a symbol of the spiritual journey “ for him.  Both his subsequent poetry and his prose came to reflect the power of his mystical experiences and his ongoing process of individuation, an ever-broadening path of integration and joy.

Arraj’s chapter on psychic energy and contemplation is particularly strong.  He concludes, “It would be precipitous to conclude either contemplation represents some kind of individuation or it is the result of the resolution of these tensions of psychic energy.  At the same time it would be a valuable undertaking if the contemplative life could be examined from the point of view of Jung’s psychology.”  He points especially to the transformations of psychic energy that occur on the spiritual journey.  He rightly indicates the lack of spiritual direction available (“explicit guidance in how to progress in the life of prayer”), indicating that the most fruitful path of development is under the guidance of St. John, with help from Carl Jung.

James Arraj has made a good beginning at reflecting on Christian mysticism in the light of Jung’s work.  His book is going to be important for all of us who, like him, consider the magnum opus to be a “renewal of the religious life of the west.”  This is not light reading. He bogs down in a few places in his attention to detail; he exclusively uses the male pronoun in his writing.  Yet his intelligence and faithfulness shine through each chapter. His own journey through the book reflects the words of St. John:

I went without discerningAnd with no other lightExcept for that which in my heart was burning.

Linda Kusse-Wolfe, reviewer

Donal Dorr’s Spirituality and Justice

Donal Dorr’s Spirituality and Justice

Donal Dorr, New York: Orbis, 1985. 264 pages, paperback.

Donal Dorr’s Spirituality and Justice is critical reading for constructive involvement in the vital issue of world community, and will provide an invaluable tool for the professional or layman who is serious about the churches role in society and it’s mission to persons and structures beyond it’s borders.  Dorr, a Catholic missionary priest, has taught philosophy and theology in Ireland and has worked extensively in Africa and Latin America.

Here the reader will find a positive and nonthreatening approach to issues that tend to polarize the Christian community: “personal” vs. “social” Gospel, conservative vs. liberal, “ spiritual” vs. materialistic or political mission.  Dorr removes the antagonistic flavor these issues usually incur by a reasoned approach to analysis and perspective that gives the reader a basis for thinking and rethinking his or her position.

Dorr links spirituality with justice.  These two images are essential to Biblical faith, to a Christian understanding of humanity, and to human self-understanding.  The book is pastoral in the sense that there is an honest attempt to understand and be with the reader through the writer’s rich experience in the church and in the midst of struggle.  He never talks down to us and he treats technical material, whether religious or secular, with competence and yet in highly readable form. He is able to do this because he is not out to prove his point so much as to seek with the reader deeper understanding and more effective involvement, to be a part of the healing process.  A primary strength of this writing is that it does not stop with analysis but offers viable options for action.

The value of this book is not so much in offering solutions as in providing perspective  I commend it as a helpful resource that will move us beyond the established position; the prejudice and labeling that leave us divided and ineffective.  Dorr invites us into understandings that feed and enrich our spirituality through more comprehensive and effective involvement in the whole community.

It has been said that whatever failure is assigned the church today, the essential failure is not in commitment or purpose, but in analysis.  To do the right thing for the wrong reason or the wrong thing for the right reason are ineffective means to questionable ends.  Some such resource as Spirituality and Justice is necessary to know where and how the church stands in the world today.

Ken Caraway, reviewer

A Child Is Born: Meditations for Advent and Christmas

A Child Is Born: Meditations for Advent and Christmas

by J. Barrie Shepherd- a book review

J. Barrie Shepherd, a Presbyterian pastor, is author of dozens of books most of which are deeply devotional in nature.  The book reviewed here, though it is an earlier work and available primarily in used editions, is none-the-less, a classic.  It is also appropriate to the season.  A Child Is Born is an elegantly written prayer diary, created in the tradition of John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer.  Made especially for Advent, it contains thirty morning and evening prayers, each full of hope and help.  The lectionary readings chosen for each day are a carefully orchestrated cadence of Old and New Testament passages.  Following each day’s entry is a blank page for readers to pen their own prayers and reflections.

Amid the frantically extroverted pace of the Christmas season this volume is a shining gift. “Advent we call this season—which means ‘Coming’—because in all the busy comings and goings, over the next few weeks, we will be remembering how you came among us long ago at Bethlehem and how—in your good time—you will come again to bring all to fulfillment.”

Shepherd (who at the time he wrote this book was pastor of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church in Swarthmore, PA) offers us a thoughtful means of centering, and considering the continuity of our lives in the context of Christ’s birth.  His fugue of reflection, query and petition brings to life issues from both our inner and outer journeys.  Hope, waiting, making inner space in our busy lives, owning both our personal darkness and light, offering sanctuary to the suffering and acknowledging the unfolding miracle and mystery of advent are intertwining themes.

Shot through each page is an invitation to be more deeply aware of God’s presence.

“I would guess, Lord God That most people know your presence, sense at least a momentary touch of Holy Spirit at some time in their lives.  But we write it off as indigestion, or an excess of emotion. In the cold clear light of morning we look back and say, ‘How could I be so foolish?’ so we spend our days in shallows, fearful to launch out, to entrust ourselves to mystery.”

Practicing the presence of God, while celebrating the apogee of history with traditional symbols of love and affection, is a life-giving anchor in our cultural sea of consumerism.

“And your call to me these days, Lord God, is not so much to wallow in nostalgia, to break out in a stubborn rash of generosity and gift giving, to get all caught up in rituals with candles, incense and the like You invite me to entrust myself, to place my story within yours, to set my future firm beside the manger where your Son may claim it for his own.”

A Child Is Born focuses our attention on the pattern God has woven for each of us.  With our increased self-awareness we are faithfully invited into a deeper openness to Christ’s perpetual coming.  This poignant, dandy, meaningful book reminds me of nothing so much as the affirmation of Julian of Norwich that “all will be well, all will be well and all manner of things will be well.” This is a book to which I shall return regularly.

Linda Kusse-Wolfe, reviewer

The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey

The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey

Henri Nouwen (New York: Doubleday, 1988)

One always thinks that a book by Nouwen will be worth reading and that expectation was certainly fulfilled.  But one expectation not fulfilled was that of hearing a story of L’Arche and day-to-day life in that community of handicapped people and their assistants.  Although that community is the setting and background for most of the book and some details are given, the focus is on Nouwen himself.

As with several of his other works, this one is written in diary style from his personal journal so the reader is given a glimpse of the author’s inner life.  The original 700 pages of manuscript were edited considerably to shape the book and give it direction.  Even so, we are presented with a painfully honest picture of the author during a time of transition in his life when he felt that following Jesus required a change in his life but he wasn’t sure what change or if he wanted it.

Because of the diary style the thoughts and ideas in the individual entries can often stand alone and do not necessarily flow in a logical progression.  The thread running through the book, which ties it together, is Nowen’s desire to be shown his place of mission.  He attempts to answer the question, “How does one follow Jesus unreservedly?”  The journal entries are always interesting, thought provoking and even moving. Nowen’s struggles with relationships, friendships, rejection, fear and hurts are very human and any reader will be able to relate to them.

The material about the call to a new vocation or lifestyle is more difficult to follow.  True to life there is no clear trail, no large signposts.  Nouwen tells us his thoughts and feelings, but their development and the emerging conviction that this new way was God’s leading remain somewhat obscure.  This certainly is not a “how to” book for finding one’s mission or discovering the Lord’s will for one’s life.  More authentically it is a description of one man’s search and the answer he discovered.

There is an aspect of Nouwen’s thought that is very difficult and painful.  He perceives his being led away from those areas where he has great abilities, where he has been successful, where he is inclined to feel pride of accomplishment.  So much must be left behind.  The Lord appears to be separating him from the two areas on which Nouwen seemed to build his sense of self:  the accomplishments and the acclaim of teaching, lecturing, etc.; and the nurture and support of close relationships and friendships.

The Epilogue of the book, in which he looks back over his first year at Daybreak, is one of the saddest writings I have read.  “Sometimes it felt as though the spiritual house I had built up over the years was now proving to be made of cardboard and ready to go up in flames.”  He experienced a radical confrontation in his new environment and struggled with the question “’Is Jesus truly enough for you, or do you keep looking for others to give you your sense of worth?’” He feels his life at Daybreak is an invitation to loneliness.  “It is a loneliness that asks of me to throw myself completely into the arms of God whose presence can no longer be felt and to risk every part of my being to nothingness.”

This is not what he expected after having struggled for a year (as recorded in this journal) deciding to enter Daybreak House.  Most of us expect that if we discern the Lord’s will and follow it life will somehow become smoother and more pleasant. Nouwen writes, “It is a dark agony.  It is following Jesus to a completely unknown place.  It is being emptied out on the cross and having to wait for new life in naked faith.”

As a reader I ask, “Does God really require and ask that much of us?”  I weep when I read the answer Nouwen discovered for it rings true with what others who also followed unreservedly have written. Nouwen concludes with some hope, “I am just starting to see the light of a new day and I still do not know if I will have the courage to walk the long road ahead of me.”  But he strongly affirms that Jesus has led and sustained him on this long and arduous journey and is guiding him toward the day.

 Mary Jo Bezanson, reviewer

The Power Delusion

The Power Delusion

Anthony Campolo (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books Division of S P Publications, Inc., 1983)

Power is the enemy of love and this little book is finally a profound book about love.  It is also a handbook about ways to eschew power and to replace power with love.  Power and love are facets of humankind’s free choice and they are mutually exclusive: “…the coercive nature of power gives expression to its potential for evil.  Coercion is the crux of why power is irreconcilable with Christianity.”

If God chose to retain power, he would be a coercive God.  But God is a loving God, so people are free and uncoerced in their relationships to God and to each other.  Campolo suggests that persuasion is a loving alternative to coercion, and often it is.  But he fails to note that persuasion may also be an exercise of power, and not always to a good end.

Through several chapters Campolo anecdotally examines those who would exercise power and explores the love-centered alternatives to power in each case.  He looks at exploitive husbands and at wives who would use power in their marriages; at children who take power and are victims of it; at clergy who try to retain power in their churches and at members who would deprive them of it; and at the alternatives to the political uses of power.

Unfortunately, Campolo equivocates when he comes to questions of governmental power and the participation of Christians in it.  He sees political as proper in the restraint of evil, while recognizing the corrupting tendency of power.  He concludes that civil disobedience is a proper response to abusive political power only if the disobedient Christian is willing to take the legal consequences of his or her disobedience.

Campolo is also somewhat equivocal about unilaterally forsaking nuclear disarmament even at the risk of exposure to military adventurism saying, “…those advocates of love and peace claim we are not supposed to ask whether the principles of Jesus are practical or will work; our obligation is to live them out – the only response to power is love.”In a late chapter, Campolo discusses the “sin of the powerless.”  “Resentment,” he says, “is often the sin of those who feel powerless to change circumstances that leave them feeling trapped and cheated.”  It is the sin, he says, that afflicts the exploited, such as women and blacks, and those who feel abandoned or ignored by God.  He sees confession and forgiveness as the keys to exorcising resentment.  But one feels that this is an oversimplification of both the problem and the solution.  Resentment of the power trip is the reason that many blacks regard Christianity as strictly a white man’s trip.  It is such resentment that lost to Christianity the likes of Mahatma Gandhi.  Campolo asks with regard to Gandhi, “Can it be that a Hindu understood the teachings of Jesus on love and power better than the theologians and preachers of the church of Christ?” Well, yes.

Campolo’s last chapter is worth the book.  Called “Living Without Power; The Triumph of Love,” it is an unequivocal statement:  “The Christian alternative to power is love….Without love, people always die.”  Love is a two-way street, “unless we show our need for others, we cannot be loved by them.”  But he notes, “It is not only more blessed to give than to receive — it is easier too.”

The theme in the closing pages is a powerful testament that the living Christ is mystically present in every person that we meet.  “I believe that every person is an agent through whom Jesus wants to express his love to me….I believe he is trying to love me through that person, even as he expects me to love him in that person….Sin takes place when the person refuses to allow the love of God to flow through his life into mine.”

One of Campolo’s final anecdotes is a personal one of a failure in love.  He had realized only belatedly that the distraught mother holding a starving baby, left futilely appealing for his help on a remote Haitian airstrip, had been a special opportunity missed.  “It wasn’t long,” Campolo wrote, “before I realized who I had left behind.  It wasn’t just a dying Haitian child.  I knew I had left Jesus.”  What a searing, life-changing realization!  Such a scene should haunt us all.  One time or another, each in his or her own way, have we not all stood face to face with Jesus?  And left him?

Glen Lloyd Foster, reviewer

At the Pool of Wonder: Dreams and Visions of an Awakening Humanity

At the Pool of Wonder:

Dreams and Visions of an Awakening Humanity

Marcia Lauck and Deborah Koff Chapin; (Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company, 1989), 113 pages

For those of us who have not given up hope for humanity, this book, a cooperative effort between author and artist, will encourage that hope.  For those who do not know whether to hope or not, Lauck and Koff-Chapin may influence you to expect better things than you may have experienced.  If your theology is that humankind is hell bent and is not going to get any better, then you may well be turned off by the deep visionary experiences of these two women.

Marcia Lauck, member of a contemplative community in San Jose, California, has recorded here, with little interpretation, 21 dreams that are replete with archetypal images such as the jaguar, the Goddess, the First Mother, the Rock, and the Native American image of the Firebird.  In that last dream, the Firebird is heard to say, “You who seek to embody the sacredness of God’s creation in everyday life are, collectively, a womb in which the embryo of a new civilization has taken root.  The disciplines you have observed and practiced, deeming them necessary for the birth of a new vision of humanity, are those which are the genetic building blocks of the firebird.”

Introducing another of her dreams, Lauck observes “there is a sweeping awareness that every single moment of our lives from birth to death is part of a great ceremony, a celebration, a liturgy of life.  Our work is to waken to the wonder of it, to meet it consciously every day.”  And so she does, apparently not only in her daylight hours, but in her nighttime visions as well.  That there is such congruence is not surprising in that our dreams reflect, among other things, our waking thoughts.  But one suspects—hopes—that in these dreams there may also be an element of the collective unconscious.  If so, they speak a reassuring word indeed that from the deep springs of God’s human creation, there may yet erupt that basic goodness with which we were created.

Aside from the messages of life and hope that come through the dreams, they may be seen as fascinating examples of archetypal images in dreams, imagery interpreted in the dreams themselves.  They are thus a helpful resource for understanding similar images in our dreams.

Deborah Koff-Chapin’s “touch drawings” (a painting technique described in an Afterword) are remarkably supportive of Lauck’s dreams, even though they were done independently with no knowledge of the dreams.  Her paintings are paired with the dreams and evoke many of the same archetypal images contained in the accompanying dreams.  Her artwork could just as well stand by itself, and does in exhibitions and other publications.

The vision of a new humanity this collaboration brings to us may well point us to a new vision of Christianity, a Christianity that calls us to live into the mystery of God’s incarnation in each one of us, a vision as much needed today as it was when the book was written almost 20 years ago. 

Passion of Christ, Passion of the World

Passion of Christ, Passion of the World

Leonardo Boff; English translation by Robert R. Barr. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1987. 141 pages, paperback.

Liberation theology has its exegetes.  Leonardo Boff is a Brazilian Franciscan who has been among the leaders in defining the Biblical basis, the “theology” of liberation theology.  Once called to account by Rome, Leonardo Boff most recently (after the disastrous floods of February 1988) has also been among those religionists willing to practice what they preach.  On this occasion he endured arrest for encouraging favelhados, washed out of their shanty homes, to resettle on vacant land near Petropolis.

Boff’s Passion of Christ, ten years old in Brazil, has only in 1987 translated to English.  It is admittedly partisan in view.  Citing the theological division of Christology at Chalcedon in 451, Boff has chosen to follow the strand of Jesus’ humanity as being the one most meaningful for the poor and exploited people of the earth.  He says, “What I am attempting here is an exploration of the meaning of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for the context of our contemporary faith circumstances.”  He adds, “…that locus is the situation of captivity and resistance in which so many human beings live today—a locus very near that from which Jesus of Nazareth looked out upon his own historical reality.”  In other words, pretty grim.

Boff, following St. Francis, finds “God precisely in Jesus’ total, complete humanity…to the extent we take the incarnation absolutely seriously…as the total evacuation of dignity—to the same extent we shall accept ourselves, with all our fragility and misery, without shame or humiliation.”  He rejects negative interpretations of the cross and takes a positive approach.  “Jesus suffered and died in a struggle with the objective causes of suffering and death, then and now.”  But, “The glory of God does not consist in human suffering, deprivation, spoliation, and daily crucifixion. The glory of God consists in human life and human happiness.”

Boff develops a kind of social theology but sometimes at the expense of Jesus’ presence within the individual.  That, perhaps, is the cost of the social interpretation of the message of Jesus Christ: the corporate problems of humanity tend to supersede individual problems of human existence.  The implication is that human interaction should be the modus operandi of Christ in the world today.  “Through conversion,” Boff writes, “human beings, in the very act of welcoming the novelty of new hope for this world, cooperate in its renovation, by what they build in the way of political, social, and personal mediations.”  So Boff sees the love of Jesus beginning with individual conversion but as needing to act corporately.  The point is important because it is probably the main point of misunderstanding between North American individualistic religiosity and Latin American Christian collectivism.  The fear of religious (or any other) collectivism becoming a power trip is almost traumatic to North American democracy.  Yet, remember that Latin American theology sees North America as subservient to materialistic (capitalistic) power.

All power trips are potentially evil.  Boff understands this well enough when he writes that “power as domination is essentially diabolical—totally contrary to the mystery of God.”

Boff is more attuned with the individual when he notes that, “Salvation comes by way of our neighbor.  The purpose of religion is …to establish in us a permanent orientation to genuine love of the other—in whom, incognito, God is hidden…” So the expression of Jesus within and through the individual is a matter of extroversion not introversion.

Boff avers that, “No authority, not even ecclesiastical authority, that asserts itself independently of the community of the faithful can lay claim to a share in Jesus’ authority.”  The disturbing question is, who defines the “community of the faithful” that has now become so very exclusive?  Is it limited to the totally destitute of the earth?  Or just to that minority fraction of the destitute who happen to have heard of Christianity?

Perhaps the key for all professing Christians, regardless of their state of existence, is to be found in love and nonviolence.  As Boff states, “Renunciation of the structures and machinations of hatred is not the same as renunciation of opposition.  Jesus opposed, disputed, argued—but not…with the use of violence…Love has its own efficacy…and the certitude that the future belongs to right, justice, love, and a communion of sisters and brothers, and not to oppression, revenge, and injustice.”

Boff explores, in biblical exegesis, Jesus’ death as a crime and the question of how Jesus interpreted his own death. Boff insists, “…there is no historically textual evidence for a consciousness or knowledge on the part of the historical Jesus of his approaching death”  (But certainly Jesus was aware, Boff notes elsewhere, that he risked death).  “Jesus preached not himself but the reign of God… The reign of God did not mean another world, but this world.” Boff is concerned with Jesus’ life: “It is Jesus’ whole life that is redemptive.  His death is redemptive only in its identity as part of his life.

I will conclude with a sketch of Liberation theology, a summary of the way I think Leonardo Boff sees it.  Our total lives are in solidarity with the life of Jesus Christ, and his with ours. Jesus’ death was a part of his life, which was totally transcendent.  Jesus’ life (including his death) was a liberating life, a life liberated from the fear of death.  Jesus’ life was love made concrete and a promise of his continuing presence, within us and among us, as a real as opposed to abstract, receptor of our love.  God intended, through the mediation of Jesus Christ, that human existence on earth be happy and free.

I want to share one last quotation.  It is a cry that rings through the writings of many liberation theologians that I have read.  It is the keystone of the movement and the reason that Liberation theology will no doubt live and thrive and prevail in our troubled world: “Death is vanquished when it ceases to be the terrifying specter that prevents us from living and proclaiming the truth.”

Glen Lloyd Foster, reviewer

A New Christianity for a new World, Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born

A New Christianity for a new World,

Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born

John Shelby Spong; (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2000), ISBN: 0-06-067084-3 (hardcover), 255 pp.

JOHN SHELBY SPONG is the Bishop of Newark, retired. His academic credentials include: A.B., University of North Carolina, Degree in Philosophy, Minor in Zoology, Phi Beta Kapp; and M.Div., Virginia Theological Seminary.  He has held teaching positions at Chautauqua Institution: Chautauqua, NY - (5 times); Vancouver School of Theology, University of British Columbia (3 times); Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA, 1999; University of Alberta, Edmonton, St. Stephen’s College (3 times); Alaska Pacific University, Anchorage, AK, 1998; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, William Belden Nobel Lecturer, 2000. He is the author of fourteen books and co-author of three.

To me, developing a faith worthy of one’s life is like an artist who is working on a life-long project. The project begins in one’s childhood church, which provides young artists with a “coloring book,” the drawings all printed out on paper and numbers indicating colors.  Many believers never get much beyond this stage.  But some artists, more daring and thoughtful, insist on doing their own sketches and choosing their own colors.  They are constantly stepping back to view their work with a critical eye, always using the brush to add to, paint over, or change the scene.  Such artists are never completely satisfied with their work, and they are humble enough to seek suggestions from more accomplished artists.

There is no better source for such helpful suggestions than the writings of John Shelby Spong. Indeed, in his 2001 book, A New Christianity For A New World, Spong seems to be suggesting that we best discard our paintings and start over!  Thus the sub-title of the book: “Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born.”  He argues that “traditional faith as we usually conceive it is sorely limited, with outmoded beliefs that take a toll on human life.”  He insists that we begin our faith paintings with the understanding “that God and one’s way of understanding God are never the same.” T hat’s why we must be always stepping back from our paintings to see where changes are called for.

Some of Spong’s suggestions for radical changes in the way most of us have done our faith paintings are as follows:

  1. Spong agrees with Robert Funk, who says: “We have been betrayed by the Bible.  In the half-century just ending, there is belated recognition that biblically based Christianity has espoused causes that no thinking person or caring person is any longer willing to endorse” (persecution of Jews and witches, black slavery, suppression of women, a male dominated self-serving clergy, etc).  Spong adds, “The new reformation will not require Christians to abandon the Bible, but it will require that we remove from the Bible the tribal claims and the literalness that have so often been attached to Scripture.”

  2. He insists that the theistic God of traditional Christianity has got to go.  We must learn “to talk of a post-theistic God...not a being but the Ground of Being.”  That is, we must move beyond theism, but not beyond God.

  3. He argues that Christianity has traditionally interpreted the death of Jesus as a sacrifice offered to God in payment for our sinfulness.  He asks, “Is such a God, Who requires a bloody human sacrifice before He can forgive sinners, worthy of worship?”

  4. He says that a “fall in Eden” is not our condition.  Rather we are simply incomplete, “a work in progress.”  “The next step in evolutionary human development is selfless love.”  That is, “In Jesus we are called to be what we human beings have not yet ever been--a humanity without barriers.”  Thus in Jesus God calls us to a new humanity, a New Being.

  5. He says that Christianity needs to be set free from its exclusiveness, for the God disclosed in Jesus is a God Whose love is unconditional and all-embracing.  Thus “No sacred scripture of any religious tradition can any longer claim that in its pages the fullness of God has been captured...The idea that Jesus is the only way to God or that only those washed in the blood of Christ are ever to be listed among the saved, has become anathema...” We must also realize that ecclesiastical creeds “never capture the truth of God, all they can do is point to it.”

  6. He asserts that Jesus is not God, but a discloser of God.  As such he is “the standard by which we are to measure the God-presence in any other.”

One may not agree with everything in Spong’s portrait of “a new Christianity for a new world.”  But his portrait is worthy of an honest look.  He just might be the more accomplished artist whose suggestions could make our own faith paintings a truer work.

John Lackey, Reviewer

The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment

The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment

Daniel Taylor (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987)Some Reflections on Reflectivity

The reflective Christian in a world of secular doubt: Will his or her reflection lead to passivity or to commitment, to paralysis or to action?  Daniel Taylor, writing as a reflective Christian from his base as an English professor at Bethel College in Minnesota is writing reflectively for reflectives.  He is one who has clearly opted for commitment and action.  By putting his reflections down in black and white, he has frozen them as it were at a point in their evolution.  It was a very non-reflective thing to do, and Taylor has become an illustration of his own thesis.“

The Reflective person,” Taylor says, “is first and foremost a question asker…To be reflective is to be sensitive to and fascinated by the complexity of things.”  And of people.  And of God.  “Reflectiveness,” he continues, “is a character trait deeply rooted in what one essentially is.

Taylor sees the end of reflectiveness in an “either/or” sense: “Being a reflective is both a blessing and a curse, a potential for strength and for weakness.  It can lead equally well toward truth or error.”

But there is yet another way open to the reflective that Taylor does not discuss.  That is to accept certain conclusions while retaining doubt as to how such conclusions can be reached.  For example, it is possible to have faith in God—perhaps just a gut-feeling faith—and yet to admit to several different ways of reaching God, and for that matter, to question them all.  So is it also possible for a Christian reflective to accept that a Hindu, like Gandhi, was no less a servant of God than Mother Theresa, a Christian?

The Christian reflective, if she or he is not to be caught in the trap of paralysis, must accept ultimates on faith, regardless of doubt.  Thus can the faith of the reflective burn the purist of all, simply because it has allowed and then transcended doubt.  I think the lives of the saints, who were by and large reflective people, are proof enough of this.  Who among the early Christians was more introspectively a doubter than St. Paul? (Note Romans 7:18-20.)

Taylor, quite rightly, says “Everyone needs relief from the potentially endless cycle of assertion, analysis, counter assertion, qualification, redefinition, exceptions, extenuating complications, hidden presuppositions, emotional colorings, summation ad infinitum.  He sees the needed relief coming in commitment and action, supported by her or his own and the church’s memory, by the community in which the reflective lives, and by plain perseverance.  I would suggest that relief is also available through faith and that there is nothing wrong with a faith that admits doubt.  Furthermore, the reflective Christian can legitimately say, “I don’t know altogether why, but I accept that it must be so.”  As the biblical writer concluded in I John 4:12, “no one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his law is made complete in us.” (NIV)

If, as Taylor says, action is the remedy for reflective paralysis, the New Testament is the handbook for action, the what-to-do, and the how-to-do-it manual.  It is also conclusive evidence that Jesus was a reflective.  He found value in the questing use of the mind.  He doubted a lot of things.  He doubted that upon his return he would find faith in the world.  He doubted key elements of Old Testament law and its interpretation.  And he was sympathetic with Thomas, a doubter.  Finally, as Taylor notes, he doubted that God the Father, his Father, was still with him.  Yet Jesus was a reflective who found surcease in commitment, and in commitment, action.  Jesus did and as Taylor so admirably points out in the last chapters of his book, so can we do.

Glen Lloyd Foster, reviewer

The Moral Measure of the Economy

The Moral Measure of the Economy

Chuck Collins and Mary Wright; (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007), 222 pages, paperback.

There is a warm debate in America about whether faith has a place in the public arena.  Many argue that politics and religion should be kept separate in public debates.  Collins and Wright take the position that when religion is restricted to the private sphere, political issues are no longer moral issues.  We are then on the way to becoming a dehumanized nation governed by the self-interests of the rich and powerful.

The authors of The Moral Measure of the Economy do us a much-needed service by spelling out the traditional teaching about what makes a political issue a moral choice.  That is, Christian faith (and the other great religious traditions) teaches that “human life is made sacred by its transcendent worth...thus all humans must be respected with reverence... In our inter-actions with others, we should approach one another with ‘a sense of awe that arises in the presence of something holy and sacred’... The dignity and sacredness of the human person is the yardstick against which all aspects of economic life must be measured.”  So it is that justice becomes a basic value, and “justice is measured by how we treat the most powerless people in the society.”  The common good becomes the goal of that society.  Political issues are then moral choices because we are each sacred, born with inherent worth and dignity.  For example, “when we assume that economic issues exist outside of human values and judgments, we dismiss poverty with ‘It’s not the fault of the economy...too bad for them... As long as it is not in my immediate family, it is not my problem.’”  Surely such attitudes don’t build the kind of nation we all want!

But, say Collins and Wright, that’s what happens when we separate religion and politics in the public arena.  This valuable reminder of the religious estimate of human worth as the basis of moral choices is found in chapter two.

On pages 21-32, the authors offer an excellent set of ten rules that make for economic justice for all.  (drawn from the U.S. Bishops letter on Economic Justice).  Then they compare Gospel values and Market values and find Market values wanting.  Market values do not recognize the sacred, and individuals are reduced to “worker, owner, and consumer.”  In the Market “everything is for sale, including air, water, human body organs, sacred burial grounds, outer space, and more.”  In the Market there is nothing sacred about Creation and the natural environment.

The authors then describe what kind of country we are becoming under this Market system.  They show how Market values and the power of Corporations are causing the abuse of human rights in poor countries.

On pp. 120f, they provide the Christian perspective on the issue that is currently such a hot issue in the U.S.--immigration.  In chapter eight, the authors point us to current experiments in the building of alternative economic institutions that embody Gospel principles.  In the last two chapters they outline specific ways each of us can participate in creating an economy that “minimizes human suffering and promotes human dignity.”

This book is an important, sound, and readable contribution for all who wish to under-stand the economic system in which all of us are participants and what to do about it.John R. Lackey, reviewer

The Last Week: The Day-By-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem

The Last Week: The Day-By-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem

Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossman; (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, ©2006), 220 pages, including notes; 1st ed., hardcover

It is difficult for me to read books about the Bible, because I bring so much of my own history and education to the experience, and because I tend to look for direct applications of Biblical stories to my life and times.  So when I began Borg’s and Crossan’s exegesis of Jesus’ last week, as told in Mark’s Gospel, with a definition of domination systems, I knew I would have to struggle to stay focused on their story.

Briefly stated, Mark’s Gospel tells the story of a peasant who directly confronts the domination system of his time, and suffers the logical consequences of that system’s processes.  Borg and Crossan describe “domination system” as “shorthand for the most common form of social system … in preindustrial agrarian societies.”  Its principal characteristics were political oppression, economic exploitation, and religious legitimization, and it was normal development for civilizations. (p.7-8) Jerusalem was the center from which the Romans and the Temple authorities controlled Palestine for their mutual benefit.

The Roman governor traditionally came to Jerusalem during Jewish holidays, to assert imperial supremacy and provide crowd control, if needed. Knowing this, Mark sets Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a deliberate counterpoint to Pontius Pilate’s simultaneous entry on the other side of the city.  In effect, he juxtaposes the Kingdom of God against the Roman Empire.  The following day, Jesus enters the Temple and overturns the vendors’ tables, setting God’s justice and righteousness against the priests’ exploitation and corruption.  And so we follow, day-by-day, Mark’s story of Jesus’ week in Jerusalem.

Confronting domination systems is one theme in Mark; the other is death and resurrection.  Following Jesus on the way means living God’s justice in an unjust world. It means walking with him towards death and resurrection.  The underlying premise is that God’s kingdom is here, now, and the disciples’ job is to live in it, rather than within the constraints of the domination system.

There is a great deal more to this book than a short review can touch on.  The Bible embodies so many strands: history, politics, revelation, religion… and so many genres: narrative, poetry, chronicle, parable…. They do a good job separating the strands and clarifying the relationship of each to the others and to the context.  They interweave Mark’s story with its background and their interpretation of events.  They address the importance of factual truth and of parable in Mark’s time, and contrast that with our tendency to regard non-factual narratives as untrue.  There is a great deal on the significance of Jerusalem; there are many comparisons with the other Gospel stories and with Paul’s writings.  There is considerable discussion of Mark’s time, place, and audience.

That Jesus cared so passionately about God’s justice and compassion for all people that he was willing to stand up to the might of the Roman Empire and accept the logical consequences forces me to look at my life and ask if I have such a passion for anything.  This brings me back to my initial statement that it’s hard to set aside my own lenses and stick rigorously to Borg’s and Crossan’s interpretation of Mark’s story.  But, ultimately, isn’t the point of the Gospels to make us confront our relationship to God and to God’s world in our time?

Christianity is an intensely personal religion, even when practiced with elaborate ceremonies. Ultimately, the Christian has to answer two questions:  Do you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?  And: What are you going to do about it?  Or, as Borg and Crossan ask it: Do you accept Jesus as your political Lord and Savior? (p.215)

I found The Last Week an affirmation of my commitment to non-violence and resistance to anything that incorporates violence into our common life.  Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is just one example of his admirable chutzpah.  This counter-procession and his subsequent teaching in the Temple presented a way of non-violence and justice, a way opposed to empire, a way open to all equally.  That includes me.  Now, once more, I need to consider what I’m going to “do about it.”  How can I confront the present system with the Good News of God’s justice, love, and reconciliation?  The Last Week doesn’t provide answers, but it offers an opportunity to deepen our understanding of Jesus and his message and, consequently, choose again to follow him in the way.

Victoria Medaglia, reviewer

Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy

Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy

By Robert McAfee Brown- a Book Review

Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1988 158 pages.

Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001) taught initially at his alma mater Union Theological Seminary before accepting an appointment as Professor of Religion at Stanford University in 1962.  There he became an international leader in civil rights, ecumenical and social justice causes.  Brown campaigned against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and was a co-founder of the group Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam.  He left Stanford in 1975 to return to Union as Professor of World Christianity and Ecumenism, but quickly found his new post unfulfilling.  He resigned and moved back to the Bay Area, where he taught at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley until his retirement in 1984.  He was the author of 29 books. (source, Wikipedia)

First things first.  Buy this book and read it.  You will have a wonderful time and consider your money and energy more than well spent.

Now.  What is in it for you?  The subtitle tells all. Brown attacks the “Great Fallacy,” namely, the all pervasive and demonic idea that there is some difference between Christian spirituality and Christian action for the liberation of the oppressed.  The former is too often called withdrawal from the world.  Others take ”the outer way,” i.e. being “in the world.”  Brown insists that these differentiations, and all dualistic formulations for that matter, are inherently a Great Fallacy. His book “…is to provide an approach through which spirituality and liberation can be seen as two ways of talking about the same thing, so that there is no necessity, or even a possibility, of making a choice between them.”

Brown systematically attacks the Great Fallacy, demolishes it, and brings the reader to a challenging understanding that piety and feeding the poor are together one act of spirituality, that the inner life and community life of the faithful are, in the end, the same thing.  Further, in a very well-handled paradox, he shows that neither is meaningful without the other.

Okay.  We know all this.  At least we ought to if we are reviewers for and readers of En Christo.  But no one—absolutely no one—can say this the way Robert McAfee Brown can.  The sheer virtuosity of his performance adds special looks at our own back yard.  The reader’s reaction is, “I knew that. Why didn’t I think of it?”

The book is suitable for a wide audience.  It seems to be aimed at the college sophomore reading level.  Therefore, virtually anyone who is literate can handle it.  But the content of the work is not kid stuff.  Use it in your parishes, distribute it through the seminaries, sneak it onto the shelves of fundamentalist libraries, and send it to George Bush.

Now for some quibbling.  Sometimes Brown’s writing achieves an overly cute status.  He will once-in-a-while play with ancient history as if he were a stand-up comic.  It is obvious (and is confessed) that his anecdotes and illustrations are overwhelmingly weighted toward “third-world” experience.  His examples of inspirited/liberation-courage are virtually always about those who witness as victims or who demonstrate spiritual power by non-violent acts.  He therefore misses one of the burning questions of liberation spirituality.  Can the politics of violence be a spiritual act?  If so, in what way?  (Brown does mention Camillo Torres, but only in passing.)

This little book answers a great number of the questions which folk raise about the meaning of spirituality: see “Unanswered Questions in Christian Spirituality” in this Blog.

David R. Cartlidge, reviewer

The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History

The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History

by Michael Baigent- A book review

New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006, 321 pages including extensive bibliography, end notes, and index.

Michael Baigent received his Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand and his Master of Arts degree in mysticism and religious experience from the University of Kent in England.

It is, presumably, the latter degree which led him to author and co-author a number of books in the area of religious history, including the bestsellers, Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Messianic Legacy (with Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh).  He is described in Wikipedia as a “speculative historian who co-wrote (with Richard Leigh) a number of books that question mainstream perceptions of history and many commonly-held versions of the "Historical life of Jesus…"  He has been editor of Freemasonry Today since April 2001….”

“Speculative historian” certainly describes the author of this particular book.  Sometimes it is difficult to discern which parts are speculation and which are history.  That Baigent is intent on exposing and excoriating the Roman Catholic Church is evident early on by his detailed descriptions of that church’s sins of the past.  But since Catholic history and Christian history is the same history for the first fifteen or so centuries following the crucifixion of Jesus, Baigent’s expose’ strikes at the heart of all Christendom. But is it true?

Much of what Baigent has to say has already been said very forcefully by respected historians and Christian theologians, and, to his credit, he has been reasonably careful to give them credit.  His speculation comes to the fore when he picks up where the history leaves off and he imagines what a particular historical figures “would have” been thinking had we still had their writings to confirm it.  Baigent musings on Eunapius, a pagan philosopher of the 4th century is a case in point (p. 88).

Baigent’s initial premise that there are, or were, papers that proved that Jesus was alive and well some years after his reported crucifixion is another case in point.  His description of his unsuccessful efforts to actually see first-hand these papers reads more like a pulp fiction mystery than it does scholarly historical research, and it does nothing to inspire confidence in his primary thesis that the Church engaged in a major cover-up of Jesus’ survival of the cross.

On the other side of the truth-speculation question, is the fact that there is considerable extant evidence from the first and second centuries that not all that the church fathers did and said would pass for truth.  There is more than enough evidence from their own writing to convict many of them of a greed for power that treated truth as dispensable in the interest of ambition and conquest of theological opponents.  Baigent does cite some of these sources which have also been cited by legitimate scholars.

It is unfortunate that Baigent’s apparent need to sensationalize his thesis with his own speculations tends to overshadow the truth he wishes to expose.  His case would be much stronger had he stuck with the historical facts based on the evidence contemporaneous with Jesus.  The historical evidence he does cite is quite sufficient to raise the question of what is the truth about Jesus.  That the Jesus we have from the Church fathers is not the Jesus of history is apparent.  So who is Jesus really?  Baigent’s testimony is ambiguous.  At one point he asks “Can we be sure that Jesus really existed?  Is there any proof of his reality beyond the New Testament? do we know that the whole concept of Jesus Christ is not just an ancient myth given a new spin?  Perhaps it was some rewriting of the Adonis myth or the Osiris myth or the Mithras myth: all three were born of a virgin and raised from the dead—a familiar story to Christians.” (p. 74)

Yet, in spite of these reservations, Baigent, in other chapters, bases much of his speculation on the assumption that Jesus was a real person, perhaps a Zealot, who was the source of much controversy and not a little consternation on the part of just about everybody—Romans, Pharisees, and even Zealots.  He asserts that “Instead of history, our New Testament gives us a sanitized, censored, and often inverted view of the times….Jesus was born and spent his formative years in the era of the early Zealot movement.  When he began his ministry, around the age of thirty, some of his closest followers were known to be members of this messianic movement, a movement in which Jesus was born to play an important role.” (p. 63)

Baigent refers to “the star prophecy,” a Jewish prophecy that the messiah would be both high priest and king.  As messiah “Jesus would have been expected to lead the Zealots to victory… he had a religious and a political role to perform.” (p.39)  He played this part by entering into Jerusalem on a donkey, as prophesized by Zechariah.  “The point was not lost on the crowds who greeted his arrival” and who recognized him “as the king of the Line of David…” (p. 39)  Baigent also makes much of the genealogies of Jesus which show him to be heir to both the priesthood and the kingship of Israel, of both the Line of David and the Line of Aaron.

Baigent continues his “historical speculations” in chapters in which he asserts that Jesus was initiated into the Egyptian mysteries through which he acquired his teachings on the Kingdom of Heaven, and that he survived the crucifixion.  These ideas are not original with Baigent.  They are to be found in a variety of 1st and 2nd century writings that were not included in the New Testament.  They are findings which have been reported by other historians and theologians, particularly over the last two decades, as a result of the availability of Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Baigent concludes with this appeal: “Our modern world is dominated by the ‘religions of the book’ – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  We can see that to base truth on the written word makes it vulnerable to all the problems of interpretation and translation, to say nothing of religious distortion.  The danger is that is that books foster a dependence upon belief rather than knowledge; if there has been one underlying theme in our journey, it has been that we need to travel the road for ourselves and experience its hardships, pleasures, and insights directly rather than secondhand or vicariously.” (p.286)

For all it faults, The Jesus Papers is still worth reading, but only with a keen awareness that it falls prone to some of the tendencies to distortion that Baigent ascribes to the biblical texts.Jim Foster, reviewer