Sunday, March 01, 2015

There Are Bible Thumpers and Bible Bashers -- We Are Neither


THERE ARE BIBLE-THUMPERS AND BIBLE BASHERS---WE ARE NEITHER

I

There are Bible-thumpers, and there are Bible-bashers.

 You know about the Bible-thumpers. To make a point, the Bible-thumping preachers thump the Bible on the pulpit. Liberal preachers do it too, of course, but in a kind of weak-kneed way (more like patting it). The real experts at Bible-thumping are the television evangelists: somebody like Jimmy Swaggart holds his Bible in one hand, walks across the stage, reads a line or two carefully, asks a rhetorical question, pauses for a moment, and then lets you have it: “What it means, brother, is that you’re going to hell if you don’t mend your ways!”  I love to watch them – it is great theater. I’m convinced that is one reason for their success. John Wesley once said that the reason he got such large audiences was because “I set myself on fire, and the people come to watch me burn!”

 You know about the Bible-thumpers. They are the ones who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, that every word and every sentence is direct instruction from God to us today.

 There are also Bible-bashers. You may not have seen as many of them, but you have probably known a few. The Bible-bashers are the ones who love to debunk, to challenge, to ridicule, and generally to reject any special significance for the Bible. Bible-bashers have been around for a long time – forever I guess – but there have been times when they’ve been exceptionally active. During the second half of the 19th century, the secularists and freethinkers and other anti-Christian/antichurch folk in England and Europe got downright vicious in their attacks. The American versions were generally less vicious; people like Ingersoll and even Mark Twain were appreciated by audiences perhaps more for their wit and cleverness than for their beliefs. On both sides of the Atlantic, however, Bible-bashers like to take a passage or two out of its historical context, ridicule it by comparison with contemporary standards, and by implication at least, suggest that people ought to then reject the whole Bible.

 Some Bible bashing and church-bashing is helpful, for it punctures the pretensions of Christians who get too arrogant. Sometimes, however, Bible-bashing is just as arrogant – the work of people who think they’re smarter than those poor Christians; and sometimes it’s sad – people working out their anger about childhood experiences with conservative religion.

 An example of Bible-bashing might be the letter from a fellow who wrote: “Have you ever read the filth in the Old Testament?” – and then proceeded to cite several instances of God smiting the Ameleks and instructing Moses to wipe out the Midianites. “Why give the Bible any more credence than we give ancient Greek myths, or the Koran, or the Book of Mormon?” he concluded.

 There are, you see, Bible-thumpers and Bible-bashers. Both of them share one common trait: they’re both biblical literalists. One reads the Bible and says, “It’s all true,” the other says “no, it ain’t.” Both, I think, miss the point.

II

 It is crucial to know, to have a basic understanding of, what the Bible is, and what it is not. The way in which you approach the whole Christian enterprise is dependent upon the answer you give. Here is a liberal Christian answer.

 The Bible is not literal history, or geology or astronomy, or a set of instructions on divinely-approved diets, or an international affairs handbook for understanding Soviet intentions in a nuclear age. Nor is it a deliberate fabrication, a hoax, or a cruel delusion fostered upon the masses to keep them under control. It is not a verbatim transcription of God’s spoken words to the world, dictated through sixty or so secretaries; nor is it simply myth, conjecture, fantasy and legend.

 The Bible is the record of the encounter of a people with God. The record of that encounter is, to be sure, expressed in the language and the world-view and the cultural conditions of the writers’ times (and in the time of Moses, you either wiped out the Midianites or the Midianites wiped you out!).

But the underlying reality is there: the people of the Old Testament, the people who responded to Jesus, found – beneath all the cruelty of the ancient world, behind all the day-to-day tragedies of human life, beyond all the crushed hopes and dreams of every one’s existence – a power and a strength and a grace that redeems and transforms the whole creation. They saw a meaning that transcended the endless repetitions of birth and life and death, and projected instead a future for the planet. They found people who said and did things that were good, too good to be the products of the cultures in which they lived.  So what if they described them in otherworldly, miraculous, ways? In a world where wiping out the Midianites was the order of the day, to find a man who preached “love your enemy” was definitely (and still is) “out-of-this-world.” And, most importantly, they found themselves changed, transformed, empowered, “equipped” for good work.  So what did they do?  The only thing they could do: they told stories.

 The Bible is, simply, The Story. And not just any story, but our story, the story of how our people encountered God. Christians are a band of storytellers.

The problem of the Thumpers and the Bashers is that they try to make The Story into something it is not. With a story, you don’t bother to ask whether some event happened exactly as it was described, you ask what it means. To borrow the language of constitutional interpretation, you can be a “strict constructionist” or you can be a “broad constructionist.” One closes down the document, restricting it to only what the writers meant many years ago; the other opens it up and allows it to live. With the biblical story, it’s not just a matter of how did the Israelites live 3000 years ago, but what does the Bible say to us today?
 The point is that the Bible is more than just “literature” or “religious history.” The power those ancient writers described is a living power. To say that the Bible itself is the revelation of God would be idolatry. God is greater than the words written about God – but there is a way in which God speaks through  the  Bible,  uses  the  biblical Story,  to speak to us. Perhaps it is that the gospels simply make us receptive, help us to recognize God. But I think it is something more:  when you hear the stories of Jesus, for example, when you don’t just take a surface reading but when you wrestle with them, when you confront your own life in their light, you can begin to see things you’ve never seen before, you can understand and feel and know something of who Jesus was and is. And you can be changed.
 Duke University’s William Willimon points out that for much of this century, liberal educators and liberal churches have thought of education (both religious and secular) in terms of “nurture.” It is the idea that education is a matter of “‘bringing forth’ self-contained, individual, self-discovered identities.” It’s all a matter of “discovering who we are,” of uncovering the “spark of divinity” within us, of exploring our talents and wants and desires and rights.
 I believe that – up to a point – but I’ve always had a problem contemplating the idea of encouraging a young Adolf Hitler to discover “who he really is.” To me, at least, it is as clear as day that there is in human nature, in every one of us, impulses to do grand and noble deeds and baser impulses, negative destructive impulses. Human beings are saints and sinners. 

 “The Christian gospel,” says Willimon, “is a story about something that has happened to us – something that has come to us from the outside” – some words, some events, and the life of one man. It is a message, I believe from God, about how human beings ought to live with dignity and compassion and love and justice.

 The Biblical story, when you get to the heart of it, is something out-of-this-world. It was out-of-sync with the culture of Roman-occupied Judea and it is out-of-sync with much of the world in the twentieth century. It is something “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man or woman of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
III

 The month of November begins with All Saints Day. There really are saints – not the plastic ones on dashboards and the plaster ones in yards – but the ones we have known and who have helped and befriended us and others, the ones who are faithful when the world is idolatrous, who are loving when the world is hateful, who are forgiving when the world is vengeful. Do you know what I think makes ordinary people into saints? – when they listen to The Story, they let it work its way upon them. The Christian community’s testimony is this: they become blessed, blessed:

blessed because they mourn and are not calloused by the endless repetitions of  wars;
blessed because they are meek enough to not add to the escalation of violence by retaliating;
blessed because they hunger for righteousness and are not satisfied with
  peace and quiet;
blessed because they are merciful enough to show to others the mercy they
 themselves need;
blessed because they are pure in heart  and let God’s love flow in their veins;
blessed because they conspire to make  peace.
Why give the Bible any credence? Because when we truly listen to it, when we stop arguing and shouting, when we stop thumping and bashing, we can hear God.

 – Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Wintle, Senior Minister

First Parish Church in Weston, Massachusetts 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"On Reading The Gospel of Mark With Two Eyes", An Essay on Mark, by the Rev. George Kimmich Beach, a companion essay to his recent book "The Seminal Gospel: forty days with Mark"


The Seminal Gospel, a series of meditations and exegesis of the Gospel of Mark, is a new book written by a UUCF member, the Rev. Kim Beach. We have highlighted it recently in an earlier online issue of the Good News. We would like to remind you of it at this time of year so you can consider buying a copy from the UUCF ($20, can be ordered through our UUCF payment website) and begin thinking of using it for a small group ministry or personal mediation in the coming Lenten Season.

On Reading the Gospel of Mark with Two Eyes
  George Kimmich Beach, November, 2013
            After Jesus tells the parable called “The Sower,” the disciples ask him what it means.  He replies: “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are in parables: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at ay time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.  And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable?  And how will ye know all parables?”  (Mark 4: 11-13, KJV)        
            The Yogi Book, a national best-seller by Yogi Berra, is subtitled, “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said.”  We must assume, of course, that this is not necessarily something he said.[1]  The recently formed Yogi Berra Seminar has noted this admission that some of his famous sayings are apocryphal.  Accordingly, they have established criteria for deciding which are authentic and which are dubious, at best.  Berra claims, for instance, to have said, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be,” a patently theological statement that he explains with the question, “If the world were perfect, how would you know?”  In other words, a perfect world is unknowable and therefore impossible.  On its authenticity scale the Seminar rated this saying “too intellectual” and therefore highly doubtful.  Another instance is his claim to have said, when he was asked for the time of day, “You mean now?”  Isn’t this saying is redolent with eschatological consciousness, rather like Jesus’ reported words, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (that is, draws near, Gr. eggizo), and therefore, as the Jesus Seminar maintains, to be judged apocryphal, like all such interpretations influenced by Albert Schweitzer?
            My school of Yogi Berra interpretation is different.  It finds the recognition that he “really didn’t say everything [he] said” wonderful, for it means that the kind of cracked vision he brought to us was generative of an ongoing tradition of Yogisms.  I can say the same of Jesus: The fact that his gospel as told in the Gospel of Mark is seminal, not only of the other Gospels (canonical and otherwise) but also of religious and moral thought (Christian and otherwise) in the vast stream of human history, is the primary fact. Jesus, too, “really didn’t say everything he said.” For that matter, he didn’t really do everything he did.  That’s the beauty of sacred tradition.
Knowing this, what can we say?  Not all elements of the tradition that has been formed by the stories and commentaries of Jesus’ life will be equally meaningful; some will be meaningless, and some positively distasteful.   So as readers of this tradition, we will necessarily make critical judgments about what is valuable within it.  We will make a selection, as I do in my reading of Mark’s Gospel—recently published as The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days with Mark.[2]  Yes, but! I must also remind myself to take care not to reject as meaningless, spurious, or unhistorical, elements of the story that don’t neatly fit into a modern, rational, science-minded way of understanding things—in sum, that lie outside my comfort zone. 
The book proceeds with other assumptions: We don’t need a modern but rather a postmodernunderstanding of religious faith—faith not as beliefs but as “believing in,” religion as a “passionate commitment to a system of reference” (Wittgenstien).[3]  Nor as a rationalbut an existential, that is, a personal and decisional, turn of thought.  Nor as a scientific but a mytho-poetic imagination; as Francis Spufford puts it, “Science is a special exercise in perceiving the world without metaphor, and . . . powerful though it is, it doesn’t function as a guide to those very large aspects of experience that can’t be perceived except through metaphor.”[4]  Finally, we don’t need to stay inside but to step outsideour comfort zones.  You mean, “He spoke in parables so that the ‘outsiders’ would remain outside the fold?  Now that’s outside my comfort zone!”
In his essay, “Naming God,” Paul Ricouer writes: “Naming God, before being an act of which I am capable, is what the texts of my predilection do when they escape from their authors and their first audience, when they deploy their world, when they poetically manifest and thereby reveal a world we might inhabit.”[5]  The Seminal Gospelis not another quest for the historical Jesus. Rather, it takes Mark as “the text of my predilection,” to see whether or how it reveals “a world we might inhabit.”  To this end it seeks to read the gospel brought by Jesus with, as it were, two eyes.  One eye is the eye of fidelity to the text; the other is the eye of present-day self-understanding.  I am not so much seeking what lies behind Mark’s text as what flows from it in the sacred tradition he initiates, a tradition we inherit and would ourselves contribute to. 
Much as Thoreau retreated to Walden to find out whether life, traced to its bare essentials, were “mean” or “sublime,” I read Mark to find out whether the gospel, traced to its seminal text, its essentials, revealed “a world I might inhabit.”  I found that I was led to wrestle with many difficult passages, until they yielded insight—blessed me as Jacob was blessed, crossing the river Jabbok. To cite my own text: “I find that [Mark’s Gospel] invites me to name God in my contemporary life-experience.”
The Introduction begins: “A pathway into the origins of the gospel is also a pathway forward from the present, toward the future we choose. This book seeks to uncover that pathway.
“All that we know of Jesus and his original message is derived from a few ancient texts, among which the Gospel According to Mark is particularly fascinating and often perplexing. Mark came first among the four Gospels of the New Testament, and as such planted the seeds from which subsequent traditions, especially those in narrative form, have grown.
The Seminal Gospel is an exploration of Mark and an extended personal reflection on what his telling of the story of Jesus can mean to us today.  Its two focal points are intricately related.  One is Mark’s text, taken, so far as we are able, on its own terms.  This especially means resisting the temptation to overlay our preconceived ideas about Jesus and his message on the text.  The other focal point is simply what we . . .  bring to our reading.  How distant our world is from the first century world of Jesus and the others vividly portrayed by Mark!  And yet the humanity and passionate concerns of these people are immediately felt.  In their story I recognize my own story.  My hope is that readers who follow my explorations and reflections may more fully discover their own stories.
“These two focal points are in tension with each other; but taken together they can generate significant insight.  Like the two points which define the arcing line of an ellipse, they hold the promise of joining fuller understanding of sacred tradition to fuller understanding of ourselves as spiritual beings.  This kind of outward exploration and inward reflection will require of us a certain effort, perhaps forty days’ worth—here offered in forty chapters for convenient, if not easy, daily consumption.”[6]
Do we find ourselves in these poignant words from the Gospel?  “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief!”  “Could you not watch with me one hour?”  Or these directive words?  “Who gave thee authority to do these things?”  And: “He goeth before you into Galilee”—which is to say, into our homeland.
“Reading with two eyes” is a procedure that Krister Stendahl, professor of New Testament and later Dean of Harvard Divinity School, commended.  I do not recall him saying how to go about it; it is not a procedural formula that can be mechanically applied.   But it means at least that these two things are (a) not to be confused with each other and (b) not to be separated from each other.  They are (c) to be held in a kind of double vision, in tension and yet without ever letting the connection break.  I have elsewhere called it “parabolic vision,” seen in the way prophetic visionaries “cast up symbols to dispel the mystery” of existence: “Sacred symbols illuminate the way before us, inviting us to step into the light.”[7] 
I am suggesting an interpretive procedure: First, try to enter Mark’s first century world, a time of vast upheaval with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the emigration of Jews into the diaspora.  Second, notice what strikes you as clear and true, and what strikes you as odd or off-putting, even offensive.  Finally, set these observations up against your understanding of self and world, for such juxtapositions often mark moments of insight, or of changed heart and mind.  Mark’s word ismetanoia, usually translated as repentance or conversion, or in my own lexicon, new-mindedness. 
Have we moved outside our comfort zone? Do we speak of conversion?  Jim Adams enjoyed telling the story of the Unitarian matron who said with due indignation, “Why should I be born again?  I was born in Boston!”
This is not, I think, a hermeneutics that is superimposed on Mark’s text; it is a way of interpretation that is invited by the text itself—not because Mark consciously put it there but because this pregnant moment in the history of the world called it forth, and he was there as a midwife to this rebirth, this “good news.”  The fact that his Gospel was written approximately 40 years after the death of Jesus is often cited to discredit his account; but consider that his 40 years’ separation from his subject is in principle no different from our own 2000 years.  One must suppose that he too was sometimes inspired and sometimes baffled by the stories he heard, and wove into his narrative—which is itself a creative work of interpretation.  He too sought insight and found his own fascinating brand of new-mindedness.  Examples are in order:
The disciples are notoriously uncomprehending, as they stumble through “life with Jesus.”  Even when he takes them aside to “de-mystify” the mystery of the kingdom of God, they don’t get it.  They miss every cue he gives them.  And Mark himself, or perhaps his chief informant, often thought to be Peter, is one of these uncomprehending dunces: Only upon looking back with a reborn faith, only “after the Resurrection,” do they understand that this man had brought the presence of the kingdom of God to them—within their grasp, “at hand.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
This “kingdom” was, then, both gift and task, as Jim Adams would say; it remains so for us today.  Mark’s Gospel is an act of reconstructive memory, a gift that we must actively engage, must make our task.  He and we alike are fated (as Kiekegaard said) to live our lives forward in time, but to comprehend them, if at all, only backward. Just so, faith is an awakening, and comes not as a result of understanding; rather, faith enables understanding.  Faith even goes so far as to say: I believe in order that I may understand. 
This runs directly contrary to what the Enlightenment taught us, namely, to look at the evidence and on this basis decide what you believe.  The Enlightenment has done its work: the task of liberation from arbitrary authority, and in consequence, the gift of freedom from fear. Its courageous motto, Kant said, was Sapere aude! Dare to think!   But the gospel as told by Mark and other witnesses requires something different, a hermeneutic of memory, to the end of recovering sacred tradition and holy ground, or as Paul Ricouer named it, “a world we might inhabit.”  
Consider the healing and exorcism stories in Mark: they are many and highly prominent in the account.  Mark’s Jesus is first and foremost a charismatic healer, for we see the common people flocking to him at every turn, importuning him for help.  But how he heals is surprising; it’s hard to generalize, because the stories of these wonders are so varied, suggesting that they have come down to Mark from various oral or perhaps written accounts.  But Mark’s Jesus never says: Ihave made you well, or I have cast out your demon.  He says, Your faith has healed you, your faith has cast out your demon.  He  is not a magician.  He says: The kingdom of God is at hand, that is, is nearby, is available to those who in faith give themselves wholly to it, who appropriate its power to themselves. 
Consider the Resurrection—an event never described in Mark, but left implicit in his story of the empty tomb.  Is it not described for fear of profaning a great mystery?  Or because it can be appropriated only by the experience of entering into the faith of a beloved community?  Jesus’ resurrection is a symbolic expression of the disciples’ transformation: now all that went before is comprehensible—a seed planted by the historical memory that there was a before and anafter in this gospel, and thus a decisive  moment of transformation.  Ever since, the gospel has been about transformation, forming a deep—if also a deeply flawed—sacred tradition.  Still, it is cherished, or why would we attach ourselves passionately to it? 
Ludwig Wittgenstein supports this viewpoint in his reflections on faith—surprising perhaps even to himself:  “Queer as it sounds: The historical accounts in the Gospels might, historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing by this: not, however, because it concerns ‘universal truths of reason’!  Rather because historical proof . . . is irrelevant to belief.  This message (the Gospels) is seized on by men believingly (i. e. lovingly).  Thatis the certainty characterizing this particular acceptance-as-true, not something else. . . .    [I]f I am really to be saved, what I need is certainty – not wisdom, dreams or speculation – and this certainty is faith.  And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not by my speculative intelligence.  For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind.  Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe the Resurrection.  Or: it is love that believes the Resurrection.”[8]  We may imagine, I think, that it was not entirely otherwise for Mark and his contemporaries. 
The first words we hear from Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, proclaim his central purpose and message: The kingdom of God is near, is at hand, is within your grasp; re-pent, re-think, be reborn, and believe in this good news, this gospel (Mark 1: 15). The Jesus Seminar declares this statement entirely inauthentic; they read it as apocalyptic and entirely out of keeping with their view of Jesus as a wandering preacher of spiritual wisdom.[9]  Professor Bart Ehrman, on the other hand, accepts it as an authentic summary of an apocalyptic (and finally deluded) preacher.[10] Reza Aslan, author of the new best-seller, Zealot,reads it as a political manifesto.[11] These are serious scholars who want to go behind Mark and the other early sources, in search of “the real” Jesus of history.  But it is Mark himself who (with others) founds the sacred tradition of the gospel of Jesus and challenges us to believe with heart and mind—which is to say, to make an existential commitment. 
Does the Unitarian Universalist community have a sacred tradition, or only a perpetual state of identity confusion?  James Luther Adams commented that there never has been a great religion without its scripture, its sacred texts.  To be sure, the By-laws of the Unitarian Universalist Association states that “the living tradition we share draws from many sources,” and among these sources names “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”  A sacred tradition that is not also a “living,” evolving tradition would ossify and be cast out as salt that has lost its savor; no doubt, this is what has happened for many. 
But equally, a living tradition would have to be embraced as a sacred tradition, a tradition we believe in—the root meaning “be-life” is “hold dear”—or  we would have no reason for keeping it alive.  Once I asked a group of religious educators, Did they not think we should teach our children about the “cherished traditions” of our liberal faith?  A man responded, “Well, yes.  But do they have to be cherished?”  To which I replied, “Why else would you want to teach them?” 
Mark’s Jesus abundantly displays two personal qualities: an utter freedom of action, and healing compassion for those who suffer.  These are fruits of his faith.  The gospel teaches that this kind of faith—an active faithfulness—is available to us here and now; it is a gift, a kind of grace, and its tasks are to act freely and compassionately.  A third personal quality of Mark’s Jesus is seldom commented upon: he is an organizer, one  who empowers others with his own vocation; in fact, we might call him the most successful organizer in human history!  The tradition has given him more exalted titles, like “Prophet, Priest, and King,” signifying the ministries of teaching, healing, and leading, respectively.  He calls upon all of us to make his vocation our own, in what James Luther Adams called “the prophethood of all believers” and “the priesthood of all believers”—“the one for the ministry of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing.”  These tasks of ministry are sustained and extended by working for the   dedicated community; may I venture naming it the “organizer-hood of all believers”?[12] 
I always remember the man who said he’d joined our church because “he didn’t believe in organized religion.”  I’m afraid he knew us well. When we ask, “Where does our idea of ministry—lay as well as professional ministry, institutional as well as personal—come from?” the answer is not far to seek: our calling, our vocation, our ministry is to do pretty much what we see Jesus doing in the Gospels: preaching, pastoral caring, and trying to get the place, well, organized! 
Mark’s Gospel is seminal because it plants the seeds from which a vast sacred tradition has grown.  This tradition includes Unitarian Universalists, whether they know it or not.  May I indulge in some out-sized simplifications?  Jesus by his notorious “speaking with authority” exemplifies the essence of historical Unitarianism, which Channing, like Luther and Paul before him, called “spiritual freedom.”  And his charismatic compassion exemplifies the essence of historical Universalism, which is what Quillen Shinn called “the almighty force of love.” The Seminal Gospel names these two qualities “creative freedom, the divine image in which we are made and re-made,” and “the transforming power of love, agape” (p. 204).  They are not free-floating virtues, but depend on what Jim Adams called “the power of organization and he organization of power,” the third form of ministry richly exemplified by Jesus, in Mark’s pregnant text.
Recall Mark’s baffling reference to “the mystery of the kingdom of God,” cited at the outset.  Commentators ranging from pious Protestants to the skeptical Jesus Seminar have said: Jesus can have said no such thing! Accordingly, the passage is explained away or thrown away as foreign to the whole thrust of the gospel.  Robert Frost is more clear-sighted.  In “Directive” he evokes the experience of hiking upPanther Mountain, in New Hampshire, to a well-known place—a long-abandoned farm with a cold, mountain spring.  When the thirsty hiker reaches his “destination” and “destiny,” the poem alludes to this text, Mark 4: 11-13, and concludes:
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.[13]
Mark similarly invites what I call “parabolic vision,” a way of seeing that is like the trajectory of flares shot up into the darkness and coming down to earth again, but always in a new place. The central realities of faith are mysteries, hidden in darkness; they cannot be seen clearly or defined because they cannot be observed from without, but only from within.  They can only be understood by participating in them, by symbolic actions, like drinking cold water from a broken goblet, or the Grail—like climbing a mountain, or “going up to Jerusalem.” 


 

 

 

[1]  Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book: “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!” (New York: Workman Publishing, 1998), pp. 9, 33, 52.


 

[2]  George Kimmich BeachThe Seminal Gospel: Forty Days With Mark (Campicello Press: MadisonCountyVirginia, 2013).  The book is available in paperback or e-book format from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Xlibris Corporation (Orders@Xlibris.com), or from the author (gkbeach@aol.com).


 

[3]  “It strikes me that a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference.  Hence, although it’s a belief, it’s really a way of living, or a way of assessing life.  It’s passionately seizing hold of this interpretation.  Instruction in a religious faith, therefore, would have to take the form of a portrayal, a description, of that system of reference, while at the same time being an appeal to conscience.  And this combination would have to result in the pupil himself, of his own accord, passionately taking hold of the system of reference.  It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, edited by G. H. von Wright, translated by Peter Winch(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,1980), p. 64e.  Taking up Wittgenstein’s terminology, I think of the gospel as a passionately held “system of reference”; my book takes “the form of a portrayal, a description, of the system of reference.”  

               


[4] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), p. 222.

 


[5] Quoted in The Seminal Gospel, op. cit., p. 18; cited  from Ricouer’s essay, “Naming God,” inRhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry, a collection edited by Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 168.  In this essay Ricouer elucidates the liveliness of a good text: “A text is first a link in a communicative chain.  To begin, one of life’s experiences is brought to language.  It becomes discourse.  Then this discourse is differentiated into speech and writing. . . .   A text, in this regard, is like a musical score that requires execution.” (p. 165)


 

[6] The Seminal Gospel, op. cit., p. 11.

 


[7] George Kimmich BeachQuestions for the Religious Journey (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002), p. 166.

 


[8] Wittgenstein, op. cit., pp. 32c-33e.

 


[9] See The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar (New York: Macmillan, 1993) , pp. 4, 40-41.

 


[10] Bart D. Ehrman,  Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why
We Don’t Know About Them) 
(New York: Harper One, 2009), pp. 156ff.

 


[11] “The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple. . . .  If the Kingdom of God is not an ethereal fantasy, how else could it be established upon a land occupied by a massive imperial presence except through the use of force?”  Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 120.

 


[12] James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers , edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), p. 101.  Regarding Adams’s comments on “the organization of power,” see p. 52.

 


[13] “Directive,” a frequently anthologized poem, is found in Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1958), pp. 520-521.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Twelve Days of Christmas Gifts For You From The UUCF



 
Welcome friends and supporters of the UU Christian Fellowship. We had our very first gathering in December, 1944, and so we are just entering our 69th year with an eye to our 70th. Here to help us move toward our momentous year, and to celebrate this blessed and merry Christmas Season to you all from all of us, one another in the UUCF, is our special Christmas Season Online Issue.
 Remember that Christmas begins, not ends, on Dec. 25.
So in that Spirit here are 12 gift links to sermons essays blogs news and more for you for this special nativity season.
 1. The 2013 Christmas Issue of the Good News Journal
 Table of Contents

Religion at the Fringe by The Rev. Tony Lorenzen
The Cloisters by The Rev. Betsy Scheuerman
Advent, Christmas, Epiphany: God's missional small group ministry by the Rev. Ron Robinson
About Christmas and the Baby Jesus by Theresa J. Soto
The...
Visible Reminder of that Invisible Light by the Rev. Cecilia Kingman
The Sound of Music and Other Odd Tales by Gracia Walker Basham
Look Hard and Love by the Rev. Dee Graham
Christmas Morning Prayer by the Rev. Kristen Grassel-Schmidt
Pope Francis and What Can Save Us Too by the Rev. Don Erickson
Giving in the True Spirit of Christmas by Kevin M. Copeland
Zealot: Book Review by the Rev. Tom Schade
Eucharistic Prayer by the Rev. Kenneth Claus
 

 

Here is a link to share with others this Season from our latest Good News Journal. You may purchase printed copies of it, or extra copies to share, for $10 ordered through our donation system at the www.uuchristian.org website or with check to UUCF P.O. Box 6702, Turley, OK  74156.
 
(By the way we are taking submissions of copy for our next two Good News Journals already for 2014: the Lent/Easter Issue, and the start of a Pentecost/Missional Church issue for General Assembly time.) Make sure you get all three printed issues in your mailbox by supporting our UUCF mission with a financial contribution during 2014.
 
2. Missional Revival Sermon by Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger
At the recent UUCF Revival and Mission Trip to New Orleans, the Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, a past president of the UUCF and New Orleans native and area minister, preached in the opening worship service. Here is her reading and sermon for you.
 


Sermon:

“Baptized by Water & Rising Again”
Sermon at Opening Jazz Service for UUCF Revival
Thursday, October 10, 2013
 
In Matthew chapter 3, verses 13-17, the story is told of Jesus requesting baptism by John the Baptizer.  At first, John refuses, saying that Jesus has no need of baptism, and that maybe they should reverse positions.  Jesus insists, gets ritually washed in the Jordan River, and hears a voice commending him and assuring him that he is beloved of God.
In general terms, baptism is understood in Christianity as being a sacred ritual that through the medium of water removes a person from their old life situation – washes away their old life, in effect, dying – and gives them a new life, a rebirth to a new life in God with Christ.  In baptism, there is a commitment to a new way of being, a new life, and an assurance of being beloved by God.
On August 29, 2005, over 50 of the levees built and maintained by the federal government to protect the Greater New Orleans area from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the surrounding wetlands broke, and the city and next-door St. Bernard Parish were inundated.  As a result, 80% of the city of New Orleans was underwater.  Instead of a baptism with clear pure water, this beloved city was washed in a polluted flood. 
Science tells us that water seeks its own level, and Lake Pontchartrain poured into the city until equalization was reached.  You can see the flood level in this Sanctuary by the level of the wood paneling, because after the Storm there was neither enough money nor enough master plasterers left in the city to repair the original faux-stone finish of the walls.
Through this unholy baptism, New Orleans and America entered into a new stage of being, a new life.  What got washed away in this negative baptism was a sense of American safety, American security, that not even 9/11 had burned away.  Bad things might happen in our country, yes, there might be, there would be, natural disasters, weather disasters, and even attacks by people who hated America and what it stands for, but we would pull together as a nation, we would help those affected, we would give blood, we would give money, we would mobilize to make things better.  Before the federal flood after Hurricane Katrina, that is what had always happened.  You can go through recent history and see that response, over and over.
Just as a clean rinse of water can remove obscuring dirt and reveal what is really there, the dirty floodwaters after Katrina revealed deep divisions and deep inconsistencies in American Society, in the American Dream.  Not all American government departments function correctly and ethically.  Not all Americans are valued, not all Americans have a decent shot at success, or even at survival when the bad times come.  Not all Americans have the wherewithal to save themselves and to navigate the serpentine bureaucracies that operate post-disaster.  Not all Americans can even rest easy in the assurance that they are beloved of God.  As Billie Holiday taught us, “Them that’s got shall get.”  Katrina did not make all this happen; it was all already there, part of the fabric of American life, it just needed to be revealed – or at least, it needed to be revealed to middle-class white folks.  Poor folks and people of color in our country already knew.
In the sacrament of Baptism, a person rises to new life in Christ, a member of a religious community transcending time and space and history, realizing a new connection to the Spirit of God.  Up from the perverted baptism of the post-Katrina federal flood, New Orleanians rose to a new realization that we were in many ways on our own.  Unable to depend on the Corps of Engineers, or the local, state, or federal authorities, people who live here and those who were able to return decided to take matters into our own hands.  Church and community groups helped, extended families helped, neighbors helped neighbors.
And then we rose to another realization:  while those official entities we should have been able to call upon could not or would not help us, there came to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast a virtual army of good-hearted folks from around the country and even around the world, religious organizations, youth groups, college groups, Elderhostel groups, folks unconnected to any larger organization but urged by their consciences to help.  The scales had been wiped from their eyes by Katrina’s floodwaters, and they saw that our country was not functioning the way they had been taught that it did.
The thing is, just wanting to help is not enough.  As my friend Ron Chisom of the anti-racism community organizing group The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond likes to say, “Everyone wants to help sick people, but you just can’t show up in a hospital in a scrub suit.”
So there was another baptism to be endured – a baptism by emotional fire, wherein well-intentioned volunteers had to learn the etiquette and practice of being a good ally.  How to listen instead of talk.  How to ask what folks wanted and needed instead of supplying what they thought or assumed folks ought to want or need.  How to put aside one’s expectations and assumptions about how the world works because just maybe it only works that way for you and people who look like you.  And it was a baptism by fire because a lot of the time these realizations hurt like hell.
And now there comes a third rising, a rising to a new understanding of what is needed, not just in New Orleans, but also in our country and in our world.  We must rise to call for our government to address and redress its many failures.  We must rise to see the Katrina-like conditions all over America, in places that will never ever see a hurricane.  We must rise to replace widespread discrimination and oppression with universal justice and equity.  We must rise to seeing the evils of our time not as a problem with individuals, but as problems within systems and structures and institutions.  We must rise to speak truth to power, no matter who is in the place of power.  We must rise, not to be helpers, not to be white saviors, not to exercise noblesse oblige, but to be true partners, siblings, with all people everywhere who are what Rabbi Jesus called “the least of these.”  We must rise against the culture of death and supplant it with the culture of life, and more abundant life.  And we must keep rising, again and again, until we see the coming of the Realm of God on earth that Jesus spoke of.
So might this be!  AMEN – ASHé – SHALOM – SALAAM – NAMASTE – BLESSED BE!
Offering  In the spirit of true relationship, let us now take up the offering for the recovery of this church and the good work of the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal.
 
BENEDICTION  Through the living waters of baptism and the swirling waters of the UU water communion, may we know ourselves to be siblings in the family of one God, one Essence, co-creators in the sacred work of healing the broken world.
 
INTRO TO A SECONDLINE Many people not from New Orleans are surprised by the tradition in a Jazz Funeral of ending with a joyous secondline.  May people not from New Orleans were shocked that the city held its Mardi Gras celebration less than 6 months after the devastation of the federal flood.  The thing you need to understand is that here, we celebrate life in the midst of death, we pull joy out of sorrow, we find pleasure inside of pain.  And in this spirit we end this service and kickoff Revival.
          In the New Orleans tradition, the band is the first line, and the people who follow behind -- dancing, singing, waving handkerchiefs and umbrellas – are the secondline.  As the band leads us in “I’ll Fly Away,” we invite you to join in as your spirit moves you.
 
3. More than 700 Now in UUCF Facebook Group For Community and Conversation
Come connect with others for discussion and sharing of prayers, issues, resources, ideas and community through our UUCF facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/13620824700/. Here as a gift is a recent Sampler of some of the great questions and responses shared in the group, comprised of those who are UU and those who are not, and those who are Christian and those who are not.
 
----How do you relate to Mary in your spirituality?
"...She is no longer a part of my journey , But I respect the right of others to welcome her as they feel comfortable......My theology involves narratives bothc canonical and midrash.I engage in reflection on those stories gives insights. . With Joseph, stories about Mary are reveal important lessons.....I agree with her that, sometimes, Jesus seems crazy....As a mother, I can relate to her so much more. She birthed at least 6 children and probably raised them pretty much by herself. Obviously, she did a good job. And that wasn't an easy thing in her day or ours....I think how unlike her I am. She said OK, God, whatever you ask, I'm on board. Most of us, myself included, are usually being dragged by the ankles by God from one 'assignment' to the next. I hope I become more like Mary as I grow older...... throughout the gospels there is a very clear sense of her theology of presence, of being there no matter what, on the scary road, in the conversations with joseph, in the sisterhood with elizabeth, in going to be with the crazy jesus, to one upping him at the wedding of cana, helping to launch him into the world again on his mission, staying at the cross, returning to the tomb; and then that great magnificat of liberation. so inspiring in so many ways to me....Growing up Roman Catholic, I was sustained by having the Blessed Virgin to relate to as an image of the feminine Divine. While I no longer subscribe to the same theology I held as a child, I, nevertheless, still love the idea of Mary as a devoted mother who, like many mothers, will serve as an intercessor on our behalf. In times of sadness or trouble, the prayer that comes most naturally to me is "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." I expect those may very well be the last words I ever utter in this life."
 
 
4. The Sermon preached by the Rev. Carl Scovel at the Installation Service of the Rev. Joy Fallon at Kings Chapel in Boston this Fall:
 
 
The sermon at the installation of the Rev. Joy Fallon as minister of King's Chapel By the Rev. Carl Scovel
on Sunday, September 22, 2013

What does Jesus say of himself? He says, I am the vine.
What does he not say of himself? He does not say, I am the seed, or the sun, or the source. He does say, I am the vine.
And what is a vine? A vine is a flexible stalk that grows by extensions and branches. The branches bear beans, or melons, squashes, berries or grapes, grapes for wine which makes glad the heart of humankind.
What does Jesus say of us? He says, we are the branches.
What else does he say ? He says, A branch cannot bear fruit unless it's part of the vine, and neither can you unless you are part of me. But whoever is part of me will bear much fruit, (and elsewhere he adds) some thirty, some sixty, some a hundredfold.
So, what is he saying? Jesus says he is the channel/the conduit for the life God wants to give us, the gladness God wants us to enjoy. But to receive this joy and thus to give it, we must be connected to him,
Now am I wrong or does this not offend our sense of independence? For, after all we live in a smorgasbord of options, a world with many vines bearing many different fruits and flavors. Don't we want the freedom to choose what we like, what seems significant to us? I guess that we do.
And yet at the same time do we not also know that we can only give what we have been given, can only teach what we have been taught, can only share what has been shared with us, can only love as we ourselves have been loved? I think we know that.
For a full life, we all have to be connected to some vine.
To be a Christian is to be connected to the Jesus vine, and thus to be connected to the extension of that vine in history, namely, the Christian church.
But the church - oh dear, what a sad and sorry state it stands in now! I have spent fifty-five years of my life, immersed in church life, the institutions and the people. I look back on these years with gratitude, but also with sadness. Sadness, I say, because one cannot have been a minister during this time without watching the corruptions of the church and its satellites, its betrayals, its arrogance and its failure to live the good news entrusted to it.
For example, during the past half century denominational headquarters have grown in power and, not surprisingly, congregations have dwindled. Could there be a correlation between those realities? During these years I have sensed increasing confusion and uncertainty among well-meaning Christians in the pews, and their declining knowledge of and declining trust in their church's own traditions and beliefs. And so we see their churches looking to corporate models for ministry, to advertising for new members, to popular spirituality for their theology to their own personal inclinations for what make a good worship service.
None of this seems to have produced any significant church growth. It saddens me to see the results of this decline - of church buildings turned into boutiques, condos, restaurants, discotheques, hotels, antique shops, art galleries, supermarkets. At least a few become shelters for the poor.
It saddens and angers me to see church disciplinary agencies operate without any sense of due process; the accused are more likely to find justice in a secular court, if they can afford it. And finally, to end this litany, it saddens me to know that I do not know how much I have been part of this betrayal. Retirement is an opportunity for regret. Possibly as penance I've been collecting quotes and passages which criticize the church. These are not written by atheists, agnostics or disillusioned defectors, but by practicing, faithful Christians.
I'll read just two such quotes:
From theologian Karl Barth - The church is the place where man takes his last stand against God.
And radical Dorothy Day -Where else can we go but to the church? She is a harlot at times, but she is still our Mother.
Now why does Dorothy Day, a devout, conventional Catholic, who attacked the church hierarchy in her dayand called her church a harlot, also called the church our Mother?
I think she did so, because she knew that the church carries the life of Christ within her womb, in the depth of her creative and life-giving soul; I think she knew that in every generation the church gives birth to Christ, the God-life. I think she knew that those who want the fulness of that life will find it.
As early as 50 AD Saint Paul knew how difficult Xns could be. He founded a church in Corinth, which became a scene of frequent wrangling, and a source of grief for him. And yet despite this he wrote to his difficult parishioners a wonderful summary of our Christian faith: "It is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness' who has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." And then he adds - "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us."

Earthen vessels - bureaucrats, ministers, lay leaders, well-meaning folks and a few not so well meaning - earthen vessels. Folks who mess up. But, you see, even when we mess up, indeed, perhaps in the very act of messing up we witness to a better way, namely to the God-life of the one who said, "I came that my joy might be in you, and your joy might be full."
This faith is not a hand-me-down, an heirloom or just a tradition. After all, our Lord called himself the Truth, not tradition.
The God-life that lives in the womb of the church must be discovered and rediscovered in every generation.
Christian Unitarians in the 1800's tried to base their faith on the rational arguments of the 1700's, and it's no surprise that so many other Unitarians at that time preferred the Transcendentalist appeal to immediate experience. In fact, it was the liberal Congregationalists in the 1800's thanks largely to Lyman Beecher and his allies, who discovered an open-hearted, open minded faith in Christ. And so the Congregational church continued to be Christian.

St. Paul says - "we have these treasures in earthen vessels." What is the treasure? It is not a plan or a program or anything so seemingly pragmatic, It is a promise, a promise that stands opposed to what we find in most headlines, opposed to what we hear in most political rhetoric, opposed to what see in almost all advertising, opposed to the church scramble for the religious market, and opposed to the array of secular religions based on winning - on who will win the World Series, the lottery, the election, or the next war.
Those who trust in these gods cannot take seriously the promise of Christian faith, The promise says in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich that "All shall be well." That promise says in the words of W. H. Auden that "God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph."
That promise says in the words of Jesus, "Look, I am with you always even to the end."

There is power in this promise and there is life in the heart of the church, and it is that promise and that life which this congregation at King's Chapel and our new minister, Joy Fallon, now have the great opportunity to rediscover and relive. They will discover the promise in the psalms, the scriptures, the saints, the treasury of Christian song - hymns and anthems, in the great stories of faith journeys including our own, and in the prayerbook liturgies, including the new ways in which this congregation will live that tradition.
This congregation will find new ways to express its compassion in the world, this city and the people who pass by at the corner of School and Tremont Streets. You, people and pastor, have embarked on a journey of discovery to find and relive the faith inherited those who worked, worshipped and witnessed through times as turbulent as ours.
And at the outset of this journey you must remember that you are not alone, you are connected to a life line, a vine, that extends back at least two, if not three. thousand years.
As I've been saying these words you may be saying to yourself, "Well, that's very nice, but I don't know. I'm not very religious," or "I'm not very Christian."
But, look, if God could bring a living church out of the Corinthians, God should not find King's Chapel an insuperable obstacle.
In this new life you, people and pastor, will find that you can give each other gifts - the ones which Paul commended in his Corinthian parish - preaching, teaching, healing, administration, generosity, listening, counseling, and your own singular gifts of art and song, good judgement or simply being a non-threatened and non-threatening presence.
One thing more. When you give your gifts to each other, you will become a congregation whom newcomers want to be part of. They will feel the faith within you and among you. They will say to themselves, "These folks are real. I think I'll to come again."
Jesus said, "I am the vine. You are the branches." You know,maybe that's not a bad arrangement. Let us sing the next hymn, "Be Thou My Vision."
 
5. New message from the newest emerging UU Christian congregation: All Souls Miami
Here is a link to a video this Fall on "Things You Should Know About Jesus" http://www.allsoulsmiami.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10&Itemid=10
 
6. A meditation for the season from the Rev. Larry Peers and the choir of the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields singing Lo, How A Rose. http://stmartinec.org/spiritual_growth/wellspring/adventmeditations/advent2013_23/
 
7. An invitation to come to the offices of the UUCF and attend the Life on Fire 2014 Missional Church gathering at The Welcome Table in Tulsa, Feb. 28 to Mar. 2.
 
 
The Welcome Table, a UU Christian missional group led by the UUCF Executive Director Rev. Ron Robinson will host the second Life on Fire gathering of missional ecumenical and inter-religious folks at the site of the UUCF office and the community's renewal mission group, A Third Place Community Foundation. The fee is only $25 for all meals and lodging "roughing it" at the community center building and program expenses, so that people from more places can afford to travel to the event. Full details at, and coming, to www.lifeonfire14.com.
 
8. A respectful online dialogue on wearing clerical collars, and about the UUA and Christianity.
What started as an insightful discussion and sharing of blog posts about Unitarian Universalist clergy wearing clerical collars developed into a broader discussion about Christian tradition and Unitarian Universalism. Here are links to the discussion. It begins with the RedPill Brethren at http://redpillbrethren.tumblr.com/post/70556595409/a-respectful-dialogue-on-wearing-clerical-collars You can engage with the conversation through the new Missional Church Lab on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/missionalchurchlab/. Also former UUCF President Tom Schade wrote a blog inspired by the conversation; his comments are at his blog at http://www.tomschade.com/2013/12/collars-and-kenosis.html
 
9. The Council of Christian Churches Within the UUA convocation
 
 
 
Communion Service was held at First Church of Chestnut Hill, MA, with the Rev. Mark Caggiano preaching the communion homily during the November meeting. A discussion was then held about exploring new forms of UU Christian communities and the continuing mission of the CCCUUA, with more conversation proposed for the General Assembly time in Providence, Rhode Island in late June. The Rev. Scott Axford also gave the following report of his ecumenical connections for the 'CCCUUA, see www.cccuua.org.
THE COUNCIL OF CHRISTIAN CHURCHES WITHIN THE UUA
Report of the Ecumenical Delegate to the Faith and Order Commission
of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCCC)
 
      The NCCC Faith and Order Commission last met for three days in March 2013 at Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the third of our eight semi-annual gatherings which constitute the four-year “Quadrennium” during which the churches from Quakers to Greeks work in three groups on three church-dividing issues (as identified by the member communions). I am on the “Polity, Divisive Issues and Church Unity” project; the others are Ecumenism From The Margins (i.e., minority & excluded groups), and Violence.  All are under the general theme of Christian Hope. The Quadrennia then result in papers reflecting the progress in the Ecumenical dialogue.  
     The Polity project came in from churches that are living through splits and schisms even right today: especially Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterians (they’re on their fourth in 20 years!). Our question is on how our structure (polities) help or hinder our ability to resolve controversial issues (marriage, abortion, et al.) without part of the denomination splitting off and leaving.  One insight has been that when you take theology and policy votes at the national annual meetings, there’s always a losing side (which comes back two years later even more ready to fight).  I noted that, while as Christian Churches Within The Unitarian Universalist Association we are definitely a minority, with all its challenges; at least in the UUA there’s ultimately no enforced, official Doctrine from which we would be forced (in faith) to depart.  No bishop or General Assembly is telling us we are forbidden to profess Jesus Christ.
     The severe financial crisis in the NCCC (they couldn’t afford to hold a General Assembly last year, and have moved out of the NYC Riverside complex as of April 2013) has affected Faith & Order, as the NCCC Board has de-commissioned all the Commissions and is attempting to re-structure. Our concluding Saturday session was a passionate push-back from my colleagues, one I’ll long remember. As the tall-steeple Presbyterian said forcefully to the NCCC secretary, “we are called to do this work!”  When us Reformed start talking about vocation, and being called and sent, watch out.  I candidly don’t think the (new) secretary (who’s also new on Faith & Order) realized quite who she was dealing with.
     A result is that our regular meeting this October is in doubt, and we had the surreal experience of pushing forward on projects on which the plug may have already been pulled.  I have a particular interest here, as the Commission is currently scheduled to come to our church in downtown Providence (and to Providence College) in October 2014.  (We from the CXCUUA will all want to be there; stay tuned.)
     It was a special week– as we were all together when Pope Francis was chosen in Rome and white-smoke-induced bells sounded all over San Juan.
     This ecumenical connection– where we are truly valued and welcomed– is an important one, and not to be taken for granted. It was (and is) far from automatic. I do remind all concerned that attending for the CXCUUA costs me personally about $1,500 per year. I do consider it a gift from God to be able to go and work with these sincere colleagues all on behalf of the Body of Christ.
     The project paper from my previous Quadrennium, Salvation and Justice, which we completed in 2011, is now available through the Graymoor Institutes on-line journal Ecumenical Trends.
 
                                                                                                            Faithfully submitted,
 
                                                                                                            /s/         W. Scott Axford
                                                                                                            The Rev. Mr. W. Scott Axford,
                                                                                                            CXCUUA Delegate to NCCC F&O.
                                                                                                                                       Providence, Rhode Island, June 2013.
 
10. An Essay on Mark by Rev. George Kimmich Beach, author of The Seminal Gospel and other works.
 

 
The Seminal Gospel, a series of meditations and exegesis of the Gospel of Mark, is a new book written by a UUCF member, the Rev. Kim Beach. We have highlighted it recently in an earlier online issue of the Good News. We would like to remind you of it at this time of year so you can consider buying a copy from the UUCF ($20, can be ordered through our UUCF payment website) and begin thinking of using it for a small group ministry or personal mediation in the coming Lenten Season.
On Reading the Gospel of Mark with Two Eyes
  George Kimmich Beach, November, 2013
            After Jesus tells the parable called “The Sower,” the disciples ask him what it means.  He replies: “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are in parables: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at ay time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.  And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable?  And how will ye know all parables?”  (Mark 4: 11-13, KJV)        
            The Yogi Book, a national best-seller by Yogi Berra, is subtitled, “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said.”  We must assume, of course, that this is not necessarily something he said.[1]  The recently formed Yogi Berra Seminar has noted this admission that some of his famous sayings are apocryphal.  Accordingly, they have established criteria for deciding which are authentic and which are dubious, at best.  Berra claims, for instance, to have said, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be,” a patently theological statement that he explains with the question, “If the world were perfect, how would you know?”  In other words, a perfect world is unknowable and therefore impossible.  On its authenticity scale the Seminar rated this saying “too intellectual” and therefore highly doubtful.  Another instance is his claim to have said, when he was asked for the time of day, “You mean now?”  Isn’t this saying is redolent with eschatological consciousness, rather like Jesus’ reported words, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (that is, draws near, Gr. eggizo), and therefore, as the Jesus Seminar maintains, to be judged apocryphal, like all such interpretations influenced by Albert Schweitzer?
            My school of Yogi Berra interpretation is different.  It finds the recognition that he “really didn’t say everything [he] said” wonderful, for it means that the kind of cracked vision he brought to us was generative of an ongoing tradition of Yogisms.  I can say the same of Jesus: The fact that his gospel as told in the Gospel of Mark is seminal, not only of the other Gospels (canonical and otherwise) but also of religious and moral thought (Christian and otherwise) in the vast stream of human history, is the primary fact.  Jesus, too, “really didn’t say everything he said.”  For that matter, he didn’t really do everything he did.  That’s the beauty of sacred tradition.
Knowing this, what can we say?  Not all elements of the tradition that has been formed by the stories and commentaries of Jesus’ life will be equally meaningful; some will be meaningless, and some positively distasteful.   So as readers of this tradition, we will necessarily make critical judgments about what is valuable within it.  We will make a selection, as I do in my reading of Mark’s Gospel—recently published as The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days with Mark.[2]  Yes, but!  I must also remind myself to take care not to reject as meaningless, spurious, or unhistorical, elements of the story that don’t neatly fit into a modern, rational, science-minded way of understanding things—in sum, that lie outside my comfort zone. 
The book proceeds with other assumptions: We don’t need a modern but rather a postmodern understanding of religious faith—faith not as beliefs but as “believing in,” religion as a “passionate commitment to a system of reference” (Wittgenstien).[3]  Nor as a rational but an existential, that is, a personal and decisional, turn of thought.  Nor as a scientific but a mytho-poetic imagination; as Francis Spufford puts it, “Science is a special exercise in perceiving the world without metaphor, and . . . powerful though it is, it doesn’t function as a guide to those very large aspects of experience that can’t be perceived except through metaphor.”[4]  Finally, we don’t need to stay inside but to step outside our comfort zones.  You mean, “He spoke in parables so that the ‘outsiders’ would remain outside the fold?  Now that’s outside my comfort zone!”
In his essay, “Naming God,” Paul Ricouer writes: “Naming God, before being an act of which I am capable, is what the texts of my predilection do when they escape from their authors and their first audience, when they deploy their world, when they poetically manifest and thereby reveal a world we might inhabit.”[5]  The Seminal Gospel is not another quest for the historical Jesus.  Rather, it takes Mark as “the text of my predilection,” to see whether or how it reveals “a world we might inhabit.”  To this end it seeks to read the gospel brought by Jesus with, as it were, two eyes.  One eye is the eye of fidelity to the text; the other is the eye of present-day self-understanding.  I am not so much seeking what lies behind Mark’s text as what flows from it in the sacred tradition he initiates, a tradition we inherit and would ourselves contribute to. 
Much as Thoreau retreated to Walden to find out whether life, traced to its bare essentials, were “mean” or “sublime,” I read Mark to find out whether the gospel, traced to its seminal text, its essentials, revealed “a world I might inhabit.”  I found that I was led to wrestle with many difficult passages, until they yielded insight—blessed me as Jacob was blessed, crossing the river Jabbok.  To cite my own text: “I find that [Mark’s Gospel] invites me to name God in my contemporary life-experience.”
The Introduction begins: “A pathway into the origins of the gospel is also a pathway forward from the present, toward the future we choose.  This book seeks to uncover that pathway.
“All that we know of Jesus and his original message is derived from a few ancient texts, among which the Gospel According to Mark is particularly fascinating and often perplexing.  Mark came first among the four Gospels of the New Testament, and as such planted the seeds from which subsequent traditions, especially those in narrative form, have grown.
The Seminal Gospel is an exploration of Mark and an extended personal reflection on what his telling of the story of Jesus can mean to us today.  Its two focal points are intricately related.  One is Mark’s text, taken, so far as we are able, on its own terms.  This especially means resisting the temptation to overlay our preconceived ideas about Jesus and his message on the text.  The other focal point is simply what we . . .  bring to our reading.  How distant our world is from the first century world of Jesus and the others vividly portrayed by Mark!  And yet the humanity and passionate concerns of these people are immediately felt.  In their story I recognize my own story.  My hope is that readers who follow my explorations and reflections may more fully discover their own stories.
“These two focal points are in tension with each other; but taken together they can generate significant insight.  Like the two points which define the arcing line of an ellipse, they hold the promise of joining fuller understanding of sacred tradition to fuller understanding of ourselves as spiritual beings.  This kind of outward exploration and inward reflection will require of us a certain effort, perhaps forty days’ worth—here offered in forty chapters for convenient, if not easy, daily consumption.”[6]
Do we find ourselves in these poignant words from the Gospel?  “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief!”  “Could you not watch with me one hour?”  Or these directive words?  “Who gave thee authority to do these things?”  And: “He goeth before you into Galilee”—which is to say, into our homeland.
“Reading with two eyes” is a procedure that Krister Stendahl, professor of New Testament and later Dean of Harvard Divinity School, commended.  I do not recall him saying how to go about it; it is not a procedural formula that can be mechanically applied.   But it means at least that these two things are (a) not to be confused with each other and (b) not to be separated from each other.  They are (c) to be held in a kind of double vision, in tension and yet without ever letting the connection break.  I have elsewhere called it “parabolic vision,” seen in the way prophetic visionaries “cast up symbols to dispel the mystery” of existence: “Sacred symbols illuminate the way before us, inviting us to step into the light.”[7] 
I am suggesting an interpretive procedure: First, try to enter Mark’s first century world, a time of vast upheaval with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the emigration of Jews into the diaspora.  Second, notice what strikes you as clear and true, and what strikes you as odd or off-putting, even offensive.  Finally, set these observations up against your understanding of self and world, for such juxtapositions often mark moments of insight, or of changed heart and mind.  Mark’s word is metanoia, usually translated as repentance or conversion, or in my own lexicon, new-mindedness. 
Have we moved outside our comfort zone?  Do we speak of conversion?  Jim Adams enjoyed telling the story of the Unitarian matron who said with due indignation, “Why should I be born again?  I was born in Boston!”
This is not, I think, a hermeneutics that is superimposed on Mark’s text; it is a way of interpretation that is invited by the text itself—not because Mark consciously put it there but because this pregnant moment in the history of the world called it forth, and he was there as a midwife to this rebirth, this “good news.”  The fact that his Gospel was written approximately 40 years after the death of Jesus is often cited to discredit his account; but consider that his 40 years’ separation from his subject is in principle no different from our own 2000 years.  One must suppose that he too was sometimes inspired and sometimes baffled by the stories he heard, and wove into his narrative—which is itself a creative work of interpretation.  He too sought insight and found his own fascinating brand of new-mindedness.  Examples are in order:
The disciples are notoriously uncomprehending, as they stumble through “life with Jesus.”  Even when he takes them aside to “de-mystify” the mystery of the kingdom of God, they don’t get it.  They miss every cue he gives them.  And Mark himself, or perhaps his chief informant, often thought to be Peter, is one of these uncomprehending dunces: Only upon looking back with a reborn faith, only “after the Resurrection,” do they understand that this man had brought the presence of the kingdom of God to them—within their grasp, “at hand.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
This “kingdom” was, then, both gift and task, as Jim Adams would say; it remains so for us today.  Mark’s Gospel is an act of reconstructive memory, a gift that we must actively engage, must make our task.  He and we alike are fated (as Kiekegaard said) to live our lives forward in time, but to comprehend them, if at all, only backward.  Just so, faith is an awakening, and comes not as a result of understanding; rather, faith enables understanding.  Faith even goes so far as to say: I believe in order that I may understand. 
This runs directly contrary to what the Enlightenment taught us, namely, to look at the evidence and on this basis decide what you believe.  The Enlightenment has done its work: the task of liberation from arbitrary authority, and in consequence, the gift of freedom from fear.  Its courageous motto, Kant said, was Sapere aude!  Dare to think!   But the gospel as told by Mark and other witnesses requires something different, a hermeneutic of memory, to the end of recovering sacred tradition and holy ground, or as Paul Ricouer named it, “a world we might inhabit.”  
Consider the healing and exorcism stories in Mark: they are many and highly prominent in the account.  Mark’s Jesus is first and foremost a charismatic healer, for we see the common people flocking to him at every turn, importuning him for help.  But how he heals is surprising; it’s hard to generalize, because the stories of these wonders are so varied, suggesting that they have come down to Mark from various oral or perhaps written accounts.  But Mark’s Jesus never says: I have made you well, or I have cast out your demon.  He says, Your faith has healed you, your faith has cast out your demon.  He  is not a magician.  He says: The kingdom of God is at hand, that is, is nearby, is available to those who in faith give themselves wholly to it, who appropriate its power to themselves. 
Consider the Resurrection—an event never described in Mark, but left implicit in his story of the empty tomb.  Is it not described for fear of profaning a great mystery?  Or because it can be appropriated only by the experience of entering into the faith of a beloved community?  Jesus’ resurrection is a symbolic expression of the disciples’ transformation: now all that went before is comprehensible—a seed planted by the historical memory that there was a before and an after in this gospel, and thus a decisive  moment of transformation.  Ever since, the gospel has been about transformation, forming a deep—if also a deeply flawed—sacred tradition.  Still, it is cherished, or why would we attach ourselves passionately to it? 
Ludwig Wittgenstein supports this viewpoint in his reflections on faith—surprising perhaps even to himself:  “Queer as it sounds: The historical accounts in the Gospels might, historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing by this: not, however, because it concerns ‘universal truths of reason’!  Rather because historical proof . . . is irrelevant to belief.  This message (the Gospels) is seized on by men believingly (i. e. lovingly).  That is the certainty characterizing this particular acceptance-as-true, not something else. . . .    [I]f I am really to be saved, what I need is certainty – not wisdom, dreams or speculation – and this certainty is faith.  And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not by my speculative intelligence.  For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind.  Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe the Resurrection.  Or: it is love that believes the Resurrection.”[8]  We may imagine, I think, that it was not entirely otherwise for Mark and his contemporaries. 
The first words we hear from Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, proclaim his central purpose and message: The kingdom of God is near, is at hand, is within your grasp; re-pent, re-think, be reborn, and believe in this good news, this gospel (Mark 1: 15).  The Jesus Seminar declares this statement entirely inauthentic; they read it as apocalyptic and entirely out of keeping with their view of Jesus as a wandering preacher of spiritual wisdom.[9]  Professor Bart Ehrman, on the other hand, accepts it as an authentic summary of an apocalyptic (and finally deluded) preacher.[10]  Reza Aslan, author of the new best-seller, Zealot, reads it as a political manifesto.[11] These are serious scholars who want to go behind Mark and the other early sources, in search of “the real” Jesus of history.  But it is Mark himself who (with others) founds the sacred tradition of the gospel of Jesus and challenges us to believe with heart and mind—which is to say, to make an existential commitment. 
Does the Unitarian Universalist community have a sacred tradition, or only a perpetual state of identity confusion?  James Luther Adams commented that there never has been a great religion without its scripture, its sacred texts.  To be sure, the By-laws of the Unitarian Universalist Association states that “the living tradition we share draws from many sources,” and among these sources names “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”  A sacred tradition that is not also a “living,” evolving tradition would ossify and be cast out as salt that has lost its savor; no doubt, this is what has happened for many. 
But equally, a living tradition would have to be embraced as a sacred tradition, a tradition we believe in—the root meaning “be-life” is “hold dear”—or  we would have no reason for keeping it alive.  Once I asked a group of religious educators, Did they not think we should teach our children about the “cherished traditions” of our liberal faith?  A man responded, “Well, yes.  But do they have to be cherished?”  To which I replied, “Why else would you want to teach them?” 
Mark’s Jesus abundantly displays two personal qualities: an utter freedom of action, and healing compassion for those who suffer.  These are fruits of his faith.  The gospel teaches that this kind of faith—an active faithfulness—is available to us here and now; it is a gift, a kind of grace, and its tasks are to act freely and compassionately.  A third personal quality of Mark’s Jesus is seldom commented upon: he is an organizer, one  who empowers others with his own vocation; in fact, we might call him the most successful organizer in human history!  The tradition has given him more exalted titles, like “Prophet, Priest, and King,” signifying the ministries of teaching, healing, and leading, respectively.  He calls upon all of us to make his vocation our own, in what James Luther Adams called “the prophethood of all believers” and “the priesthood of all believers”—“the one for the ministry of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing.”  These tasks of ministry are sustained and extended by working for the   dedicated community; may I venture naming it the “organizer-hood of all believers”?[12] 
I always remember the man who said he’d joined our church because “he didn’t believe in organized religion.”  I’m afraid he knew us well.  When we ask, “Where does our idea of ministry—lay as well as professional ministry, institutional as well as personal—come from?” the answer is not far to seek: our calling, our vocation, our ministry is to do pretty much what we see Jesus doing in the Gospels: preaching, pastoral caring, and trying to get the place, well, organized! 
Mark’s Gospel is seminal because it plants the seeds from which a vast sacred tradition has grown.  This tradition includes Unitarian Universalists, whether they know it or not.  May I indulge in some out-sized simplifications?  Jesus by his notorious “speaking with authority” exemplifies the essence of historical Unitarianism, which Channing, like Luther and Paul before him, called “spiritual freedom.”  And his charismatic compassion exemplifies the essence of historical Universalism, which is what Quillen Shinn called “the almighty force of love.”  The Seminal Gospel names these two qualities “creative freedom, the divine image in which we are made and re-made,” and “the transforming power of love, agape” (p. 204).  They are not free-floating virtues, but depend on what Jim Adams called “the power of organization and he organization of power,” the third form of ministry richly exemplified by Jesus, in Mark’s pregnant text.
Recall Mark’s baffling reference to “the mystery of the kingdom of God,” cited at the outset.  Commentators ranging from pious Protestants to the skeptical Jesus Seminar have said: Jesus can have said no such thing!  Accordingly, the passage is explained away or thrown away as foreign to the whole thrust of the gospel.  Robert Frost is more clear-sighted.  In “Directive” he evokes the experience of hiking up Panther Mountain, in New Hampshire, to a well-known place—a long-abandoned farm with a cold, mountain spring.  When the thirsty hiker reaches his “destination” and “destiny,” the poem alludes to this text, Mark 4: 11-13, and concludes:
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.[13]
Mark similarly invites what I call “parabolic vision,” a way of seeing that is like the trajectory of flares shot up into the darkness and coming down to earth again, but always in a new place. The central realities of faith are mysteries, hidden in darkness; they cannot be seen clearly or defined because they cannot be observed from without, but only from within.  They can only be understood by participating in them, by symbolic actions, like drinking cold water from a broken goblet, or the Grail—like climbing a mountain, or “going up to Jerusalem.” 





 

[1]  Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book: “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!” (New York: Workman Publishing, 1998), pp. 9, 33, 52.


 

[2]  George Kimmich Beach, The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days With Mark (Campicello Press: Madison County, Virginia, 2013).  The book is available in paperback or e-book format from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Xlibris Corporation (Orders@Xlibris.com), or from the author (gkbeach@aol.com).


 

[3]  “It strikes me that a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference.  Hence, although it’s a belief, it’s really a way of living, or a way of assessing life.  It’s passionately seizing hold of this interpretation.  Instruction in a religious faith, therefore, would have to take the form of a portrayal, a description, of that system of reference, while at the same time being an appeal to conscience.  And this combination would have to result in the pupil himself, of his own accord, passionately taking hold of the system of reference.  It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it.”  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, edited by G. H. von Wright, translated by Peter Winch (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,1980), p. 64e.  Taking up Wittgenstein’s terminology, I think of the gospel as a passionately held “system of reference”; my book takes “the form of a portrayal, a description, of the system of reference.”  

               


[4] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), p. 222.

 


[5] Quoted in The Seminal Gospel, op. cit., p. 18; cited  from Ricouer’s essay, “Naming God,” in Rhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry, a collection edited by Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 168.  In this essay Ricouer elucidates the liveliness of a good text: “A text is first a link in a communicative chain.  To begin, one of life’s experiences is brought to language.  It becomes discourse.  Then this discourse is differentiated into speech and writing. . . .   A text, in this regard, is like a musical score that requires execution.” (p. 165)


 

[6] The Seminal Gospel, op. cit., p. 11.

 


[7] George Kimmich Beach, Questions for the Religious Journey (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002), p. 166.

 


[8] Wittgenstein, op. cit., pp. 32c-33e.

 


[9] See The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar (New York: Macmillan, 1993) , pp. 4, 40-41.

 


[10] Bart D. Ehrman,  Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why
We Don’t Know About Them)
(New York: Harper One, 2009), pp. 156ff.

 


[11] “The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple. . . .  If the Kingdom of God is not an ethereal fantasy, how else could it be established upon a land occupied by a massive imperial presence except through the use of force?”  Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 120.

 


[12] James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers , edited and with an introduction by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), p. 101.  Regarding Adams’s comments on “the organization of power,” see p. 52.

 


[13] “Directive,” a frequently anthologized poem, is found in Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1958), pp. 520-521.

 

11. A Contemporary Recent Round-Up of Blog Posts and Sermons by UU Christians

 

 http://uuacreligiouseducation.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/we-are-the-ones-weve-been-waiting-for/ on Unitarian Universalism and Christmas and More, by the Rev. Robin Bartlett.

 


http://sunflowerchalice.com/2013/12/23/fear-and-loathing-christmas-lights-edition-part-ii-more-thoughts/ A two part meditation on encounters and learnings gleaned from engaging with fundamentalist Christian neighbors, by the Rev. Tony Lorenzen.

 

http://www.tomschade.com/2013/12/the-purifying-fire-and-infinite-demand.html and http://www.tomschade.com/2013/12/the-purifying-fire-and-infinite-demand.html Two related posts on grace, UU history and contemporary mission. [While you are visiting this blog check the recent posts on Pope Francis as well].

 

See the posts on vigils and response to the death of Nelson Mandela, and check out one of the most popular threads on whether or not the UUA is "post-Christian" at the Rev. Scott Wells' www.boyinthebands.com.

 

See this link for some of the recent sermons given at Kings Chapel in Boston by its new senior minister, the Rev. Joy Fallon: http://www.kings-chapel.org/rev-fallons-sermons-2013.html

 

Finally, check out the posts at Unitarian Universalist Christians Google Plus hangout space at https://plus.google.com/communities/112019934909873892119.

 

12. Books For the New Year: Some of My Holiday Reading, by Executive Director Rev. Ron Robinson

 

A. http://www.amazon.com/Galatians-Re-Imagined-Vanquished-Critical-Contexts/dp/0800638646 by Brigitte Kahl. This is not a book from this year, but is a fairly recent book and one I read this past Fall and didn't want others to miss as it is a classic re-reading of Paul's Letter to the Galatians, and is a prime portal to understanding the radical new scholarship known as The New Paul Perspective. By focusing in depth on one letter (although not in as detailed a new version translation like Stanley Stowers monumental ReReading Romans), Kahl is able to shed light on Paul and early followers of Jesus in light of the struggle within and against the Roman Empire. This is important work in the continuing contemporary scholarship (like John Dominic Crossan's God and Empire) that seeks to break down the divide that liberal tradition erected between Jesus and Paul.

 

B. http://www.amazon.com/Scandalous-Jesus-Historic-Changed-Theology/dp/1598151223 by Dr. Joe Bessler. How Three Historic Quests for the Historic Jesus Changed Theology for the Better. This is the book that I wish had as wide an audience as Reza Aslan's Zealot about the historical Jesus; in fact it is a good way to put Aslan's book in perspective as one of the latest attempts at bringing forth a neglected part of Jesus in light of contemporary culture's issues. The book's thesis is that Each new major way of looking at the "historical Jesus" changes not only our way of understanding Jesus and his early followers, but also helped change theology and thus the church itself.  This is an interesting new way to look at theological developments since the mid to late 19th Century. Each of the "quests" (using Albert Schweitzer's famous framing of Jesus scholarship) had effects on the church as well. The three quests are categorized as "the first quest," the "New Quest" and the "Renewed Quest." Bessler, a professor of theology at Philips Theological Seminary, writes: "The first quest challenged established churches to move beyond the use of ecclesiastical power to control civil society. The New Quest challenged the church to embrace the full historical humanity of Jesus and open itself more deeply to the full range of human experience in modern life, including the experience of women, people of color, and those oppressed politically and economically. The Renewed Quest has challenged Christians and theologians of all stripes to reject the politicized power of Christian fundamentalism and open up models of faith that move beyond the too narrow confines of right belief."

 

C. "Bible Stories for Skeptics: Why You Don't Have to Believe in the Supernatural to be a Christian--or a Jew" by Richard Trudeau, minister emeritus of the UU Church of Weymouth, MA. http://www.amazon.com/Bible-Stories-Skeptics-Supernatural-Christian/dp/1493688642 This is another book that lifts up the meaning that can be found in the biblical stories depsite one's theological orientation. It focuses on major stories and themes of the Hebrew Bible and the gospels portion of the Christian scriptures. It is particularly useful in groups where people have had little contact with the Bible and contemporary scholarship, and with groups that include those who have negative reactions toward the Bible.