Tag Archives: review

Generous Spaciousness [Review]

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“This book has never been about trying to convince you of a particular position on the matter of committed same-sex relationships.”

-Wendy VanderWall-Gritter

It is no secret that the church is consumed by debates about sexuality.  Further, it is widely known that Christians are often no better at debating sexuality than Congress is at crafting budgets, approving nominees, or making laws.  The sexuality debate, which demands our best resources, often brings out the lesser angels of our nature.

It is in that context that I greatly appreciate Wendy VanderWall-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness.  While it possesses some flaws, it is a valuable contribution to a dialogue that is too often as shallow as it is vitriolic.  Much of this has to do with the author’s own background.

VanderWall-Gritter spent many years in what is called the “Ex-Gay Movement,” a loose association of evangelical Christian parachurch organizations that sought to minister to gays and lesbians, though often in ways that were more de-humanizing than caring.  Probably the best known of such organizations is the now defunct Exodus International, an umbrella organization notorious for its affiliates’  attempts to re-orient gay and lesbians persons.  The author began her ministry following seminary in this kind of environs, but over time began to question some basic tenets.  She eventually changed her approach, and that of the ministry (New Directions Canada) she led.

Relationship is central to her ministry, and to the approach of Generous Spaciousness.  Thus VanderWall-Gritter is at her best here when sharing the experiences and stories gleaned over a career in ministry with gay and lesbian Christians.  Many of them are gut-wrenching.  She is also not afraid to discuss taboo areas of this debate, such as reorientation (“praying away the gay” in common parlance), the hypocrisy of conservative Christians who are disgusted by LGBT sexuality but repeatedly fail to live up to their own standards, and the varied views within the gay Christian community itself (which is often taken to be, or presented as, monolithic).  She has stories to tell of gay Christians who choose celibacy, and gay Christians who live partnered, and still others who agonize over their sexuality for whole lifetimes.  For those of us – like myself – who have a dearth of experience with same-sex attracted Christians, Generous Spaciousness contains a wealth of anecdotes and personal accounts.

Indeed, this would have been a better book if the author focused on stories, which play to her experience, and set aside matters out of her depth – such as exegesis.  This would have been a stronger work if it were about 75 pages shorter, shorn of some material that was simply not interesting or outside the range of the author’s expertise.  The chapter on Scripture is especially stultifying, and I was immensely frustrated at the butchered reference to the (unnamed and, yes, so-called) Wesleyan Quadrilateral in the chapter on interpretation, which made all the classic errors one is not supposed to make using that particular hermeneutic lens.

Nevertheless, if the strengths and the weaknesses played see-saw, the weaknesses would remain far up in the sky.  I especially resonate with VanderWall-Gritter’s desire to adjust what she calls the “posture” of those who participate in this conversation.  In most corners of the church, postures about sexuality are rigid, set, and borderline hostile (regardless of which end of the conservative-progressive spectrum one identifies with).  But Generous Spaciousness calls us to a different, caritas-shaped posture, one built on respect for the other, for their story, and for our shared need for and love of Jesus Christ.

The quote above, taken from the concluding pages, is especially instructive.  While VanderWall-Gritter certainly has her own views and the book leans in a certain way, it doesn’t read like the usual echo-chamber propaganda.  Instead, it represents what is for her a very personal journey, some of which may be familiar to her readers and some not.  But who else has written a book on this white-hot topic without trying to convince the reader of a particular answer?

If this is book is widely read, as I believe it should be, then I believe the church can move a long way towards a better posture regarding her LGBT children, and a better discussion along the way.  Sexuality is a complex and powerful reality, and confronting it demands our best efforts and resources.  Generous Spaciousness is one such resource.  I’ll let some of the author’s concluding words finish this review:

“I believe it to be crucial that…we focus our hearts on Christ, on his desire that a unified church would be a witness to the world of his reconciling love, and on being the extension of that love to all our neighbors. I believe that hospitality is central to the heart and ministry of Jesus and that to the extent we fail to extend this hospitality to gay people, the church will fail to walk in the way of Jesus.”

Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins [Review]

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“What happens when we listen to premoderns who did not know they were doing theology and psychology at the same time?” 

What can ancient Christian ascetics teach us today? According to Dennis Okholm, an Anglican priest and professor of theology, a great deal indeed.  In his new book Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks, Olkholm builds a compelling case that much of the wisdom of Christian monastic discipline is quite compatible with contemporary psychological perspectives.

Olkholm proceeds by way of an exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins (originally eight “bad thoughts” in the Eastern tradition).  In most chapters, his approach is a combination of examining classic Christian teachings on a given topic (lust, greed, vainglory, gluttony, etc.), putting that into conversation with contemporary psychology, and then exploring through both lenses how to cure the soul from the particular passion in question.  This passage from the chapter on anger is representative of Olkholm’s fascinating approach throughout:

“Nonetheless, we have seen that in the case of anger management modern secular psychology has not progressed beyond the insights of these ancient Christian psychologists and that the moderns have in a few cases reversed their theories only to ‘arrive’ at the conclusions reached by ascetic theologians 1,500 years ago.” (115)

While his insights, culled from both ancient and modern sources, are quite interesting, there are a few critical points worth noting.  Olkholm uses many of the same Fathers repeatedly; in some places, it almost feels as if one is reading a treatise on Evagrius and Cassian on the Seven Deadly Sins (other common interlocutors include Benedict and Aquinas).  Thus, it would have been nice to see a bit more variety from early Christian teaching.  Additionally, there is probably a bit more contemporary psychology in Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins than one would expect from reading the front and back covers.  Moreover, other than a couple of blurbs on the back from folks with psychological credentials, it is hard to see where Olkholm’s expertise in mental illness and psychological disorders originates.  A forward from someone with such credentials would have provided a bit more confidence in the author’s psychological conclusions. (As an aside, I cannot wait to share this book with friends who have more psychotherapy training than I – which is to see any at all.)

On the whole, however, Dennis Olkholm has contributed a great deal in this new volume to our understanding of ancient Christian wisdom and how it might inform and even bolster contemporary psychological findings.  Students of spirituality, ancient Christianity, and counseling will all benefit from this work.  For preachers, I would also recommend this as a resource for a study or sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins (it would pair quite nicely with, for instance, Will Willimon’s book Sinning Like a Christian).  The question at the top of this review, which the author asks in the introduction (p. 7), is a significant one.  I, for one, hope that others develop the important connections that Dennis Olkholm has made even further, for the benefit not just of the therapist’s couch but for the church as a whole.

Animate: Bible (Resource Review)

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Introduction

What if I told you there was a resource out there that could help your church or your small group engage the Bible faithfully, critically, deeply – and have fun doing it?  Animate: Bible from Sparkhouse (a Fortress affiliate) is just such a study. I recently completed this curriculum at my church and wanted to offer you a few thoughts, since several colleagues asked for my feedback.

Who are the experts? The leaders for Animate: Bible include a who’s who of evangelical and/or progressive church leaders, pastors, and and thinkers: Nadia-Bolz Weber, Will Willimon, Rachel Held Evans, Phyllis Tickle, and others.

Who can lead it? The scope and sequence gives you a good idea of what to expect in leading or participating in Animate: Bible.  The material is arranged so that someone with little to no knowledge of the subject can facilitate sessions effectively.

Who should participate? I have a feeling that Animate: Bible was especially designed with younger Christians and seekers in mind, but I believe it would be a worthwhile study for Christians of any age and experience.  I had a mix of long-term and newer students of the Bible in my class, and everyone seemed to find the contents interesting and helpful.

What? Animate: Bible is composed of a series of 7 short, engaging videos with a journal for each participant and a leader guide for the facilitator.  The videos (remember the title) are not just “talking heads,” but effectively communicate the points being made by the speaker though drawings and animation that are both informative and whimsical.  The journals include a variety of questions that are very adaptable for the size of your group and the time frame allotted, as well as interesting illustrations and space for notes.

Why? What I appreciated most about Animate: Bible is the chance to discuss questions and topics not covered in the usual Sunday School curriculum or Bible study: How did the canon form? How should we read different kinds of scripture? How do the Old and New Testaments fit together?  Much of this material – the 10,000 foot view questions of Scripture – was new to my participants (as it would have been for me had I not been to seminary).

What worked especially well? The topics are arranged in such a way that they build upon each other quite effectively.  The materials themselves – the journal, video clips, etc. – have a quality look and feel to them that give you a sense this was put together with care.   More to the point, Animate: Bible helps your group approach difficult questions about Scripture (such as: maybe we should read Jonah as allegory more so than history?) in a way that is sensitive to where people come from, but inviting to a new manner of reading. Finally, the leaders were especially engaging; they possessed a variety of backgrounds and approaches to their topics, but on the whole the video components were quite well done.  My favorites were probably Willimon (I know, I am a company man!) and Bolz-Weber.  I even enjoyed the sessions with Rachel Held Evans and Phyllis Tickle, neither of whom I am especially fond of.  (For more on the latter, see here.)

What could have been better?  I’m a preacher, so I am critical by nature about other preachers.  I had some minor quibbles with some of the points made in the curriculum.  The session on canon ends by asking what might be added to the canon, a question which, though sensible in the context of the conversation, I find risible.  The session on grace discusses looking at Scripture with twin lenses: the “love” of Jesus and the “grace” of Paul.  I found that distinction difficult to maintain, however.  Minor points, to be sure.

Concluding Thoughts & Recommendations

Animate: Bible would be especially effective in certain contexts.  For instance, a college or young adult group, a city or suburban church, or a college town.  I believe it would be less effective in a setting where the the majority of participants would be serious inerrantists or otherwise not interested in questioning their understandings of the Bible.  I would also suggest taking the “For Further Study” recommendations seriously, as they are quite good.  I read Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book and Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible is it? in the course of leading and preaching this study. I would also suggest Hays and Davis’ The Art of Reading Scripture, a precis of which you can find here.

Oh yeah, preaching.  I preached this as a series as I led the study.  That is, I took the topics of the study and preached through them as a small group I  led worked through the sessions.  This allowed me to “double down” on learning and teaching the topics, and also allowed me reach more people with material that I believe could transform their reading of Scripture and their walk with God.  If you are the adventurous kind of preacher – and not too tied to the lectionary – I would suggest giving this a shot.  (Side note: the sample clips work great for sermon videos.)

So, if you think your church or small group could benefit from this material, run out and get yourself a copy.  I highly recommend this excellent resource and I am looking forward to checking out other offerings in the Animate series.

Since I am a company man, here’s the sample from Bishop Willimon’s session “Interpretation: Scripture Reads Us.”

LOST: Dan Brown’s Symbol, and my interest in JJ Abram’s series

My special MS Paint rendering...

This week I finished Dan Brown’s latest novel, The Lost Symbol, and I am struggling to finish season 5 of Lost.  In the case of both, I like the earlier work better than the later work.

Granted all of their theological and historical flaws, I really enjoyed both Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code.  I read them as fiction, didn’t take them too seriously, and truly enjoyed them both.  Also, I read them both in a week or two max.  My experience with The Lost Symbol has been vastly different.  I’ve read it off and on over several months – eventually, I was no longer really interested in the story, other than to see how it all wrapped up.  You might say that this means the novel did its job – it got me to read it.  That would be true, except that this experience means I will not be chomping at the bit for Brown’s next work.

Why the different experience? I think it was ultimately the subject matter, and its treatment.  I like the main character, Robert Langdon, the skeptical Harvard symbologist with an encyclopedic memory.  But both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons deal with explicitly Christian themes – in one, the Catholic Church and the “battle” with science, and in the other, the “real” history of Jesus and his relationship with Mary Magdalene.  Both were rather simplistic philosophically, but the plots were interesting and the little tidbits of actual history kept me going.  I read Angels and Demons around the time that Pope John Paul II died, so it was especially interesting.

But The Lost Symbol is all about Masonic lore.  Snoooooooooooze.  Who cares?  The plot revolves around an arcane treasure called “The Ancient Mysteries,” which is presumably a font of knowledge condensed from and hidden in all the great traditions of world history, preserved by the Masons.  A bad man wants to get the Ancient Mysteries, ostensibly for some nefarious purpose, and Langdon must help the Masons and/or the CIA get to it before him.  Are you asleep yet?

Most annoying of all, it traffics in that most common of modern views – all the more ignorant because it is taken for granted: the notion that all religions are essentially the same, pointing to the same goal, and thus possess a common “core.”  This has the compliment of being tolerant to all religions and finding value in them; but it is a back-handed compliment at best because ultimately none of them is anymore “true” than the other.

Here is a particularly grating example:

Robert, you and I both know that the ancients would be horrified if they saw how their teachings have been perverted…we’ve lost the Word, and yets its true meaning is still within reach, right before our eyes.  It exists in all the enduring texts, from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita to the Koran and beyond.  All of these texts are revered upon the altars of Freemasonry because Masons understand what the world seems to have forgotten…that each of these texts, in its own way, is quietly whispering the exact same message.

Ugh. The very notion that the world “forgot” this universal ‘faith’ is stupid, because it suggests that somehow all of these religions that developed at different times and in different places were, in the beginning, self-consciously identical projects to all the other faiths.  This obvious fallacy results from reading an insidiously pluralistic, modern, and secular philosophy of religion into the whole of world civilization.  Ask a Muslim if he is trying to achieve the same thing as a Buddhist, or a Sikh.  Ask the Hindu if the hopes and goals for their life is the same as that of an Orthodox Jew.  Only a vile, secular, hyper-modern Westerner could possibly assume they would all say “yes.”  This is an intellectually adolescent flaw that infects the entirety Dan Brown’s novel, and after a while, I just got tired of it.  That, and the fact that the plot and its characters weren’t nearly as compelling as Brown’s two most famous works.  So, if you want me two cents – skip it.

As for Lost: Well, I’m in the same situation I was in with The Lost Symbol.  I’m no longer that emotionally invested in the plot, but I want to know how it all wraps up.  But I don’t really care about any characters, save perhaps John Locke.  And I’m not sure why, at that.  At first, thanks to Netflix, I blew through Lost.  I ate it up.  But then I stalled.  Midway through season 5, I got stuck in an episode.  Too much time travel, back-and-forth, and interconnected plot points.  I think JJ Abrams is awesome, but I just got lost (pun intended).  I finally got up the nerve to start back (thanks to all the season 6 hype), and now I’m working towards the end of season 5.

Still, it feels like a chore.  Like homework, really.  But hey, who’s the idiot here?  I’m still watching.  Since the demise of The Shield, and the interim period before new seasons of Rescue Me and Sons of Anarchy, I have to take what I can get.