A Book Review: A Good Look at Evil, by Abigail Rosenthal

(NB: I have agreed to act as a reviewer for the Speakeasy website (thespeakeasy.com). Hence, I received the book I am reviewing free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the US Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes within this book review are taken from:

Rosenthal, A. (1987/2018) A Good Look at Evil. Eugene OR, USA: Wipf and Stock.

The philosopher Abigail Rosenthal has taken on one of the perennial challenges for philosophy and theology – evil. She has deliberately decided to not focus on the why of evil, known in theology as the challenge of theodicy, or as Harold Kushner named it in his first famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rather, she focuses on defining evil, trying to say what evil is. In her introductory chapters (Chapters One and Two), she puts forth her thesis that human life should be understood as story, and that people seek to live out the stories of their lives according to the models their communities and cultures provide for them. It is possible for people to miss out on the opportunities to live out their story – Rosenthal calls this ‘banality’. It is also possible for people to ‘thwart’ – through circumvention/prevention – the ability of other people to live out the stories of their lives. It is this which she pinpoints as defining what evil is. She rejects the notion that value judgment is purely the realm of subjective evaluation and cannot be based on objective fact, arguing that evaluation is required in all human endeavor, even when deciding what is an objective fact. She also rejects cultural relativism as a complicating factor (one culture says this is how the human story should be lived, another culture says something else), though she concedes the possibility that the ways in which people can live out their ‘stories’ in a culture can change, shift, or even be renegotiated.

With this model established, Rosenthal spends Part Two (Chapters Three and Four), Rosenthal explicates the forms of evil which are carried out more in the realm of personal affairs. She uses as her archetypes ‘The Rake’, more clearly defined as ‘the seducer’, and ‘The Sell Out’. She suggests a progression in the type of evil between ‘The Rake’ and ‘The Sellout’, naming seduction as a kind of interference in the life stories of individuals, whereas the ramifications of ‘The Sellout’ can have destructive consequences for groups of people or communities.

I find her usage of alcoholism, addiction, gambling, and even prostitution as steps in defining the degrees  of evil which lead to the ultimate form of ‘going to the bad’ (her term) in the rake/seducer disturbing and even annoying, given what we understand about addiction as a disease, thereby affecting those addicted to alcohol, other drugs, and to gambling, as well as the nature of sex work as often being a financial necessity for those who are involved in it. Ignoring these factors in explaining these phenomena and simply to list these as degrees of ‘going to the bad’ is simply unfair. It weakens her argument.

Rosenthal suggests that it is possible for these forms of evil to be overcome in persons by exposing them to the consequences of their actions, and thereby expose to them how they are interfering with the ability of others to live their lives, and how their life stories are consequently less fulfilling than they could be. As intriguing as these remedies may be, these are presented as ‘Evil Under Wraps’, evil which can be conducted in a more concealed, private context. As such, they are preludes to the greater evil she examines in Part Three (Chapters Five and Six) – the ‘Evil in the Daylight’.

Here is where Rosenthal gets to the core subject of her writing – an analysis of genocide, culminating in the Shoah (Holocaust) of the Jewish people, as exposed in the trial of Adolf Eichmann carried out through the legal system of Israel in 1961. If evil generally is the attempt to prevent another person from living out their story, genocide becomes the deliberate attempt to eliminate the story of an entire people, as delineated through phenomena like language, culture, and religion. Her examples in this section, the attempted extermination of the Armenians by the government of the Ottoman Empire, corporate greed, the legacy of residential schools in Canada, and the banning of the potlach, are well discussed, in all their complexity.

The ultimate in genocidal evil is, as the reader suspects, defined in the extermination project of the Jewish people as carried out by the Nazi government of Germany. Their Holocaust experiment is defined by Rosenthal as ‘the destruction of history’ (p.158). History is defined by the Nazi German perspective alone, and all other groups which impinge on their definition of history must be eliminated. This leads to her consideration of the trial of Adolf Eichmann by the state of Israel in 1961. She sets in her sights the theses of Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem and argues strenuously that the evil perpetuated by Eichmann in perpetuating the Shoah (Holocaust) was not ‘banal’. She strongly takes issue with Arendt’s assertions that Adolf Eichmann was a mere operative, that the Jewish people in some way facilitated their extermination by cooperating with Nazi authorities, and that the court in Jerusalem which tried Eichmann did not have the proper authorization and legitimacy to do so.

Apparently, this was not enough for Rosenthal, so three decades later, she added an extra chapter to argue that Arendt’s desire to question the horror of the Shoah and the legitimacy of the trial of Eichmann can be traced to her relationship with German philosopher Martin Heidegger, with whom she had a brief affair during her undergraduate studies in Marburg. Following their abrupt break-up and Heidegger’s subsequent Nazification in the 1930s, it is argued that Arendt disassociated herself with Heidegger and launched herself into pro-Zionist work and philosophical writing. However, after meeting up with Heidegger in the 1950s and rekindling their romance for a short time, Rosenthal claims that Arendt became a virulent defender and advocate for Heidegger, and that this in fact led her to embrace the ‘banality of evil’ argument she put forth in Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Can it really be this simple, though? Adam Kirsch (2009) has argued (convincingly) that the interplay between the German and Jewish aspects of Arendt’s personality which resulted in a clear disdain for sentimentality and an unwillingness to blend the personal and the political/academic poles of her life are strong undercurrents that run through her entire life’s work, as well as her ambivalence concerning the world Jewish community – she may have blamed Jewish councils for playing a role in the extermination of Jews, but she also advocated for a Jewish army to fight alongside the Allied powers. Rosenthal makes convincing arguments against viewing the evils of the Nazi Shoah as ‘banal’, but there is also evidence suggesting some of her arguments to be leaning towards being simplistic.

The final chapter, as moving as it is, seems out of place. Rosenthal makes a personal testimony of sorts concerning her obstinacy in sticking with her teaching position when, after years of being denied tenure and being disciplined for not publishing any significant work, a freak occurrence at an academic seminar on Spinoza allowed her the opportunity to impress someone no less than the President of her college, after a mystic vision she experienced did not result in the hoped-for reversal of yet another annual disciplinary warning from her department. Is it an attempt on Abigail Rosenthal’s part to emphasize the importance of preserving one’s story (in this case, a need to complete and posthumously publish her late father’s work on Spinoza and Hobbes) in the face of blind institutional justice? I could not make a connection.

In conclusion, while Abigail Rosenthal takes A Good Look at Evil and provides good arguments concerning what evil is and how dark evil can get, she also sometimes veers toward simplistic assertions and black/white distinctions which detract from the quality of those arguments. It’s a volume worth reading, but not by itself. One must refer to other works of differing perspectives in order to make one’s own conclusions.

Other Works Cited

Kirsch, A. (2009, 5 January) Beware of Pity: Hannah Arendt and the power of the impersonal. In The New Yorker [online]. Retrieved 10 August 2020 from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/01/12/beware-of-pity).

More Than ‘Another Kick At The Can’

Another attempt is being made to pass a law in South Korea which defines more specifically the parameters within which discrimination is unacceptable.

It was initially introduced by the Justice Party, a minority party in the National Assembly (NA), with sufficient support from other minority parties, as well as a few MNAs from the majority Democratic Party, to gain the numbers needed to officially introduce it in South Korea’s national parliament. The National Human Rights Council in Korea (NCHKR) is also on board with this effort, but they have asked that this prospective law be named ‘the Equality Bill’, to make it clear that his is an attempt to define and protect equality in South Korea[1].

The rub in this bill, as it has been in the previous times it has been proposed, is the inclusion of ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender’ as categories of people for whom discrimination and harassment are outlawed. As before, the conservative Christian forces (CCFs) of Korea have spoken out against this, saying that this will impair the free exercise of religion and of the ability to express oneself in this nation.

What has been disappointing for many here is the silence of the President, Moon Jae-in, and the Democratic Party. During a presidential candidate debate in 2017, when directly questioned by a conservative candidate about homosexuality, Moon meekly said, ‘I oppose it.’[2] He has since tried to walk a fine line between his reputation as a human rights lawyer and a politician seeking to win over or keep ‘the Christian vote’ in South Korea, he has appealed to the need for ‘consensus’ on issues such as marriage equality, while also trying to stress to religious leaders the necessity of not tolerating discrimination in Korean society[3].

However, it appears as though the Democratic Party indicated, on July 8th, that they might introduce an anti-discrimination law in the National Assembly[4]. Therefore, we have a situation where the Presidential Office (Cheong Wa Dae, of ‘the Blue House’) has not taken an initiative on an issue, and rival proposals on it have been introduced in the country’s parliament, leading to a time of negotiation and, if necessary, horse-trading, until a version of a law sufficiently acceptable to all sides can be passed.

On first glance, one could look at this situation and say that the first stones have been paved on the path to deadlock and failure to pass an anti-discrimination law yet again.

And yet…

…it feels like this time, it is more than just ‘another kick at the can’. There are some significant differences. In the most recent National Assembly elections, the DP succeeded in gaining a clear majority of representatives, 180 seats out of 300. According to the Korean Constitution, this gives the DP the ability to introduce bills which do not require the consent of other parties. Moreover, the passage of the bills they introduce cannot be delayed through procedural strategies like filibustering.

In addition, there are additional MNAs from minority parties like the Justice Party, the Open Democratic Party, and the Basic Income Party, all of which have progressive policy platforms, and which have declared themselves in favor of enacting an anti-discrimination/equality law. The DP will be able to count on the support of these parties, even if there are individual MNAs within the DP who may try to resist a three-line whip,[5] should one be enforced.

The most significant difference this time, though, is that there appears to be a discernible shift in the mood of the Korean populace. A recent poll done by the Korean Women’s Development Institute in May has indicated that over 87% of those surveyed believe a comprehensive anti-discrimination law which includes gender and sexual orientation should be passed. This is a level of support higher than that found by the Institute for Religious Freedom in 2013 (59.8%) and by KBS in 2019 (64%)[6].

Thus, it appears as though the last remaining objection to passing a comprehensive law specifying gender and sexual orientation, the lack of social consensus, is crumbling. Now there has been some discussion in the Facebook groups I am part of as to whether trying to build social consensus is really a productive strategy. Some people I know have suggested that direct action, to the point of confronting political leaders, is the only strategy which will work. This is a strategy which has been employed in many struggles for civil rights and equality. We should perhaps remind ourselves of the words of Martin King: ‘We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.[7]’ There are those in this country who have done and do this demanding for justice regularly, even if it means being arrested for it[8].

At the same time, we also cannot deny the momentum which is created when groups representing the vast majority of society band together for change. Concerning the times when significant political change occurred in the Republic of Korea, ending the military government in 1987 and ending the presidency of Park Geun-hye in 2017, I think it is fair to ask, ‘Would change have come, or come as quickly, if there were not the level of mass demonstrations that there were?’ I believe that is a fair question.

Regardless, I believe it is clear that there has been majority support for a comprehensive anti-discrimination/equality law for a significant amount of time, and that this support is even more widespread now. The government of Moon Jae-in and the Democratic Party have the social consensus and the parliamentary mandate they need. It is time to pull their collective finger out and bloody well pass the law!


[1] Jung, D M (2020, 3 July) Anti-discrimination law back on table at National Assembly. The Korea Times [online]. Retrieved 15 July 202 from https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/07/356_292216.html.

[2] Ock, H J (2017, 26 April) LGBT groups blast Moon for anti-homosexuality remarks. The Korea Herald [online]. Retrieve 27 April 2017 from http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170426001061.

[3] Shim, E (2019, Oct 21) Moon Jae-in: Anti-LGBT discrimination not acceptable in South Korea. UPI [online]. Retrieved 5 November 2019 from https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2019/10/21/Moon-Jae-in-Anti-LGBT-discrimination-not-acceptable-in-South-Korea/1041571673042/.

[4] Amnesty International (2020, 16 July). South Korea: New anti-discrimination bill offers hope and safety to many. Amnesty International [online]. Retrieved 8 August 2020 from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/07/south-korea-new-anti-discrimination-bill-offers-hope-and-safety/

[5] The convention from parliamentary procedure that, if a government requires support on a given motion or law, it will underline the motion three times to indicate that party leaders, cabinet ministers/committee leaders, and backbench/rank-and-file representatives are required to be present and vote in favor, thereby ensuring the government continues to have the support of the assembly.

[6] 박소영 (Park, So Young) (2020, 15 June) 국민 10명 중 9명 차별금지법 제정에 찬성 (9 out of 10 citizens in favor of enactment of anti-discrimination law. Hankook Ilbo [online]. Retrieved 8 August 2020 from https://www.hankookilbo.com/News/Read/202006151405386458.

[7] King, M L (1963, 16 April). Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In Center for Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania [online]. Retrieved 8 August 2020 from https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[8] Case in point, Ock (2017), in the article cited (see Footnote 2).

A Book Review: Worship as Community Drama, by Pierre Hegy

(NB: I have agreed to act as a reviewer for the Speakeasy website (thespeakeasy.com). Hence, I received the book I am reviewing free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the US Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes within this book review are taken from:

Hegy, Pierrre. (2019) Worship as Community Drama. Eugene OR, USA: Wipf and Stock.

In this book, Pierre Hegy, a retired professor of Sociology at Adelphi University on Long Island, New York, USA, does a comparative case study of how worship comes to life in different Christian communities. The communities chosen are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, but a Pentecostal church with many marks of being or becoming a ‘megachurch’, is provided for purposes of contrast. While he refers to a number of different theories and models for worship and faith development, which can sometimes be confusing, his main referent is an adaptation of the social interaction model of sociologist Randall Collins as developed in his work Interaction Ritual Chains.

While it is good to have a model to refer to for a comparative case study, I find his adaptation of Collins’ model problematic. In a description of Collins’ model (Wellman et al 2014: 652f.), there are four conditions in ritual interaction which can help to generate four outcomes. They are indicated in the table below:

Conditions in Ritual InteractionOutcomes from Ritual Interaction
– The assembly of participants
– Barriers excluding outsiders
– A mutual focus of attention

– A shared emotional mood


– Emotional energy
– Membership feelings/group
solidarity
– Symbols that represent the group
– Feelings of morality (idenitfying
with the group and its symbols,
being willing to defend them against
outsiders

Hegy adapts the model using the following designations, as presented by him (Hegy 2019: 17-22)

Processes of Ritual Action for
a Church Worship Context:
Description
Interaction Outcomes for a
Church Worship Context:
Analysis
– Basic information
– Description of the ritual
process
– Attitudes and emotions
– Closeness to others and to God
– What we learned: Leadership
and Growth
– Patterns of Relationship
– Moral Consensus
– Spiritual and Emotional
Energy

I have found it difficult, in spite of Hegy’s explanations, to find the parallels between Collins’ original model and Hegy’s adaptation. For one thing, I am unable to see how ‘basic information’, from Hegy’s ‘description’ corresponds to ‘the assembly of participants’ in Collins’ original conditions. For another, I do not see how one can measure an extremely subjective variable like ‘closeness to God’ in any meaningful way from observation. This is a basic error in methodical design, even from a qualitative viewpoint, and needs to be made more precise. As if these were not enough, I am confused about what the first element of Hegy’s analysis, ‘What We Learned: Leadership and Growth’, corresponds to in Collins’ original list of outcomes. The result? I believe it becomes reasonably clear throughout the remainder of this volume. Hegy’s model is, in and of itself, insufficient to provide adequate description and analysis of the dynamics of interaction in the churches and worship contexts about which he writes.

There is, without a doubt, a fascinating array of contexts: TV masses on Catholic television networks; pontifical masses from St Peter’s Basilica, and celebrations from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; four differing Catholic parishes in the US, of which one relies on lay leadership, and another has transformed its worship life by adapting and using elements from the African-American worship experience; and the archdiocese of Kinshasa in the Republic of Congo, which alone has an official, Vatican-approved, adaptation of the Roman Missal to incorporate African traditions, popularly known as the ‘Zairean Rite’. Hegy has certainly gathered sufficient ‘raw data’ to clearly describe elements of the worship experiences in these contexts, and makes some cogent comments concerning emerging issues in these contexts. However, when he needs to supplement his model with the survey work of the Willow Creek church; the dimensions of religiosity identified by Stark and Glock in their work American Piety: The Nature of Religious Commitment; James Fowler’s work in Stages of Faith; and finally, the contrast between the work of Aidan Kavanagh and the pronouncements of Pope Pius XII, it is clear that Hegy’s adaptation of Collins’ Interaction Ritual Model is clearly insufficient for the kind of analysis he believes he is doing.

In fact, the title of the book itself set up certain expectations in my mind of what it was going to be about, which were unfulfilled. Worship as Community Drama suggested that this would be a discussion of how the worship of a community could be an expression of drama, both the drama of Gospel played out in Word and Table, and of how the community’s situation in life (sitz-im-Leben) both could inform and be transformed by the liturgical experience. There are hints of this analysis in Hegy’s work, but only hints.

This is a pity, because it is obvious to me that he has gathered an impressive amount of data which would provide for good scholarly work. I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if Pierre Hegy had taken a grounded theory approach (akin to Glaser and Strauss 1967) to his data. He could look at common patterns in his data which would lead to the emergence of categories, first substantive and then formal; he has a sufficient range of communities to satisfy the need for site spreading and to engage in constant comparison; following the development of a theory, the literature relating to ritual interaction, liturgical theology, and faith development would have informed his work, and he would know where his theoretical model would fit in sociology and theology.

As it is, this is a book which has interesting descriptions of the dimensions of Christian worship in different contexts, but is hampered by an ill-fitting theoretical model which itself is an inadequate adaptation of another theoretical model, and which needs to be supplemented by other models, because it is simply not up to the task for which the author wants to use it. As I’ve suggested, perhaps a researcher could start with the gathering of data and develop a theory from there. Now that would be interesting!

Works Cited

Glaser, B and Strauss, A (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory. New Brunswick NJ, USA/London: AldineTransaction.

Hegy, Pierrre. (2019) Worship as Community Drama. Eugene OR, USA: Wipf and Stock.

Wellman, J K, Jr., Corcoran, K E, and Stockly-Meyerdirk, K (2014, September). “God Is Like a Drug. . .”: Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains
in American Megachurches. Sociological Forum 29/3: 650-672.

A Review: We Love You, But You’re Going to Hell: Christians and Homosexuality, Agree, Disagree, Take a Look, by Dr Kim O’Reilly (Elm Hill, 2018)

Why is this book worth reading? Because LGBT+ communities in the church is still a live issue –

(NB: I have agreed to act as a reviewer for the Speakeasy website (thespeakeasy.com). Hence, I received the book I am reviewing free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the US Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

When I read books like this one, I begin to think, ‘Do we need the same old message trotted out again?’

If I take even a cursory glance at the Amazon page, I can buy or access numerous books on the place of sexual and gender minority (SGM) persons within religion. Older books are bring updated, newer books are being added, new information concerning archaeological research is being shared – and some books are still proclaiming the old message that SGM persons, especially gay men, cannot be in the Church and ‘cling to their sinful desires’ (I still wonder why there is this disproportionate emphasis on gay men).

That is why books like this one still need to be published. This is still very much a ‘live issue’. With every story of a pastor or minister who has had a change of heart, or even a change of gender; with every televangelist who speaks a word of condemnation, however lovingly they may coach it; with every congregation, or denomination, which goes through painful conversations, arguments, even a schism – I am reminded, as we all should be, that sexuality in the church is still a ‘live issue’.

Indeed, it will NEVER be a dead issue. Just as we are reminded in the Torah and the Gospel that there will always be poverty and need (Deut. 15:11; Mark 14:7), there will always be minorities, including sexual and gender minorities. The existence of minorities is a litmus test for us who are in the cultural and religious majority. Do societies and churches have economic room for the poor, so they have enough to live – not the same as everyone else, but enough? Do we have room for people of differing ethnic and racial groups, so that everyone will have equality of opportunity and treatment, and that people’s unique backgrounds can be celebrated? And, in the case of SGM persons, do our societies and churches have room to allow everyone to express their unique identity, and to love whom they wish in a mature, honest way? Even now, there is lots of evidence that we fail miserably at this.

That is why we still need books like Dr O’Reilly’s. Even if we already know the arguments from scripture and sexuality studies which she brings out, even if we can make the legal arguments she makes concerning marriage equality, we have to remember that people of a different persuasion are still out there, some of whom wish to reverse the rights people have fought so hard to have recognized in law. Conversations still need to be had, and if Dr O’Reilly’s book can help those conversations to happen, then I say ‘Hallelujah’.

Nonetheless, there is one area Dr O’Reilly has not included which I believe merits inclusion. She would have done well to address the fact of the many nations in the world – my native nation of Canada included – which have enshrined marriage equality into law. None of these nations have, to date, fallen apart. There are no marauding armies of homosexual zealots seeking to ‘convert’ unsuspecting youths to take up a homosexual lifestyle. Any problems these nations experience have nothing to do with enshrining marriage equality. As it is, this book is very US-centered, and she may have intended it to be this way. However, taking a more international view would have strengthened her presentation.

This book is an important contribution to an ongoing debate which is not going away anytime soon. Other books will be published, re-iterating much of the same evidence, and hopefully adding new evidence and stories from people’s experiences. As long as this issue is not resolved, these and other publications like it will be needed.

A Review: Power of the Creed, by Mark Nauroth (Worldview Guys Media, 2019)

In this work, Mark Nauroth, co-founder of an enterprise called the ‘Worldview Guys Network’, writes an examination of the Nicene Creed which is intended to convince Christians of the inherent value of the Nicene Creed, the first Christian statement of faith hammered out after Christianity emerged from the persecution of the Roman Empire, and began its journey to becoming the official religion of the Empire.

It is clear he is reaching out to an audience which populates the evangelical churches of the United States because of his references to the ‘culture wars’ in which much of the evangelical church in the US has been engaged. He laments the fact that, in spite of the battles which American evangelicals seem to be winning (elections, Supreme Court appointments, etc), it does not seem that Americans are impressed with the seeming lack of Christian-ness they see in the evangelical movement. He basically admits as much in his introduction: ‘We win elections and court battles but lose souls in our neighborhoods because our lives don’t match up to what we say we believe or, more truthfully, to the Lord we claim to follow.’ (p.6 – I wonder how Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell Jr would react to this?)

His solution to this is to go back to the Nicene Creed (in reality, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed; the first draft from the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 was amended by the Council of Constantinople in AD 381) as the touchstone by which all Christians need to measure their faith. Through the use of illustrations and personal anecdotes, which supplement the copious Scriptural references and quotes from the theologians of the early Christian movement (the early ‘Church Fathers’, with a few mothers referred to, as well), he demonstrates how the doctrines named in the Nicene Creed are a bedrock which can help the Christian grow in the life of faith, growing in the way of the Christ.

Some of the very things which indicate Mark Nauroth’s evangelical background are also the things which will ensure this book will be attractive or even relevant only to those of an evangelical persuasion. The masculine-dominant language in reference to the Deity will be an instant turn-off to those of feminist or progressive orientations. It is also clear that he has a conservative approach to Scripture. He appears to accept the Pauline authorship of letters like Ephesians and Colossians, and even of the Pastoral Letters. He also appears to treat the Gospel accounts as historically accurate recordings of the life of Jesus. These things will play well for some audiences but will be sour notes for others.

He avoids addressing the one aspect of this creed which is a point of separation between the Western and Eastern churches – the use of the filioque (‘and the Son’) to describe how the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’ to the world via the Godhead, although this is not necessarily relevant to the purpose of his book. More interesting, though, is the dearth of references to theological work on the Trinity from any period except the patristic period. In the process, he has ignored a wealth of academic work in this area, such as Jürgen Moltmann (to name only one). To leave out the work of historical Christian scholarship in this area is a significant weakness, if not an act of deliberate exclusion. To conduct an examination of the Trinity using only the Bible and the early Fathers/Mothers of the church is to exclude a wealth of theological work from the length of Christian history, furthering the conservative premise that you only need the Bible and the early Fathers/Mothers to interpret the Creed. This is in danger of becoming another kind of one-dimensional fundamentalism which I don’t think is helpful in the 21st century world where we find ourselves.

This work will appeal to those in American evangelical circles and may provide an opportunity for evangelical Americans to engage with the larger church catholic (universal, not just Roman) in jointly discerning what it means to be Christian in this age. However, the mode of examination it uses is tailored for an evangelical audience, which is a style not easily embraced by mainline churches. Let us hope that this work and others like it will encourage evangelical Americans to take more seriously the ideal to follow the Christ whom they say they follow.

Stone Throwing? Don’t Even Think About It!

It has started.

One person makes an unfortunate decision to go out when they’re sick (it’s not clear if they knew they had symptoms of an illness), and they go to a few nightclubs. People have been exposed to Sars-COV-2, and according to the official statistics from the Korea Centers for Disease Control (KCDC), there have been 33 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far. It’s a localized outbreak, which is a cause for concern, since some of the steps taken toward relaxation of quarantine guidelines will likely have to be walked back.

This could have happened in any number of gathering places, and similar scenarios have occurred in other spots.

Does it really matter that these cases are associated with clubs found in the gay club district of Itaewon?

To some people, it does.

The conservative Christian daily newspaper, the Kookmin Ilbo (People’s Daily), has apparently made this event a major part of their news coverage, accentuating the names and locations of the clubs, and seemingly attempting publishing as much information about the source patient as possible, even to the point of naming the company this person worked for[1].

I can just imagine the fodder this will provide for some Sunday sermons this morning.

Well, since a media mouthpiece for the CCFs[2] in South Korea wants to play up this outbreak, and in the interest of accuracy, let us remind ourselves of where other significant localized outbreaks have occurred – and I’m not even talking about the role of Sincheonji in all this[3].

Let’s have a look in the records of the KCDC[4], shall we?

  • Onchun Presbyterian Church, Busan, where a localized outbreak began on February 24th – 39 cases have been officially linked here;
  • The Archdiocese of Daegu, the Roman Catholic Church in Korea, which sponsored a pilgrimage to Israel – 49 cases have been linked to this trip;
  • Myeongnyun Church, Seoul, to which at least 3 cases have been traced;
  • Geochang Church, which has had at least 10 cases;
  • Saengmyeongsaem Church, Suwon, which was first highlighted on March 4th – at least 10 cases;
  • Haeungae-gu Catholic Church, Busan, first highlighted on March 7th – at least 4 cases traced here;
  • Dong-an Church, Seoul, where an outbreak was first highlighted on March 9th – at least 20 cases;
  • Grace River Church, Seongnam, identified on March 9th – at least 72 cases from here;
  • Sangmyeongsu Church, Bucheon, identified on March 18th – 44 cases identified
  • Manmin Central Church, Seoul, first identified on March 25th – at least 43 cases traced here

That means about 2.7% of the total COVID-19 cases in Korea are non-Sincheonji church-related.

In spite of this, some churches just haven’t been taking it seriously, to the point of a church pastor being detained and his church fined for defying government orders and holding church services. Apparently, this pastor is also head of a group agitating for the resignation of President Moon Jae-In[5].

There have also been 14 cases of COVID-19 linked to a wine bar in Pyeongtaek. Do we now blame it all on ‘the demon alcohol’?

There were over 100 cases connected with a gym in Cheonan. Have people been railing over the evils of exercise?

No one’s sinless here, and no person, or church, or other group, has any reason to be smug. Concentrate on people’s health, by all means, but there is no justification to start a string of stories that suggest being gay is an automatic link to COVID-19, any more than being Christian, or being athletically active, or enjoying a glass of wine. That is simply walking down the lane of false news and conspiracy theories.

Church, you have no grounds for being accusatory or self-righteous. Put down the stones. Better yet, don’t even think about picking them up.

[1] If you find their homepage( http://www.kmib.co.kr/news/index.asp) and use Google Translate, you can get a good idea of what their coverage is like.

[2] Conservative Christian Forces

[3] I’ve already referred to this in a video blog (Bartlett, C (2020, April) ‘Even Gwynne Dyer Get Its Wrong Sometimes’. In On The Outside Looking In. Available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mC6Ubg3TWE&t=124s)

[4] Just go to their Press Release web page (https://www.cdc.go.kr/board/board.es?mid=a30402000000&bid=0030), the information’s there, just do a little reading.

 

[5] Lee, J G (2020, March 31) S. Korean churches continue to act as agents for COVID-19 transmission clusters. In HANKYOREH, English edition [online]. Retrieved 10 May 2020 from http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/935093.html.

Betrayal?

The jockeying for the moral high ground has started in Korea all over again – as if it ever stopped.

In the aftermath of the convincing electoral victory by the Democratic Party (DP) in the National Assembly elections in April[1], the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), one of South Korea’s main non-Catholic ecumenical groups, called on the incoming National Assembly to pass an anti-discrimination law which includes sexual orientation and gender identity. This is a standing policy of the NCCK, in line with its approach to sexual and gender minority persons in recent history[2]. There have been several attempts to pass such an ordinance in the National Assembly and assorted municipalities. While some municipal laws have passed successfully, others have not, or have been rescinded after they have been passed, and attempts at the National Assembly level have repeatedly been stymied by conservative politicians, often working in concert with conservative Christian forces (CCFs).

It’s fair to say that the most frustrating aspect of this ongoing conflict has been the confusing stances taken by Moon Jae-In, the president elected after the removal of Park Geun-hye from office. He was known for his work as a human rights lawyer before entering politics. However, he is also Roman Catholic, and when pushed by an opposing candidate in the 2017 presidential debate, he had to declare (in my view, almost sheepishly) his opposition to homosexuality[3]. He has had to, at times, seek the support of CCFs in Korea on various issues. Last autumn, he tried to tread a fine line with reigious leaders when he said that enacting marriage equality into law could not be done without ‘social consensus’, but that discrimination against sexual and gender minorities simply should not be condoned[4].

Now that the party of which he is a member appears to have a 60% majority (180 out a total 300 seats) in the upcoming National Assembly, they have the technical ability to pass laws without seeking consensus with the conservative minority, now represented almost exclusively by the United Future Party (UFP)[5].

This could include, potentially, an ordinance which guarantees equality before the law as defined in the Constitution to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

The CCFs in Korea are far from done, though. On April 22nd, several para-church organizations protested and condemned this, likening the NCCK’s stance on an anti-discrimination law as being ‘no different from the betrayal of Judas Iscariot.[6]

I guess if you’re going to vent your sense of betrayal, you might as well invoke the ultimate example of betrayal in the Gospels, eh?

If we examine recent polling and census numbers, though, it seems to me that the CCFs of South Korea should make their complaint to Korean society in general, and with younger generations specifically.

Throughout its history, close to half the population of South Korea (the Republic, post World War II) has had no religious affiliation. After significant growth in Catholic and Protestant groups throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the proportion of people claiming no religious affiliation jumped by 10% between 2005 and 2015. Among age groups, all groups under 50 years old showed over 50% of Korean residents claiming no religion[7].

These numbers are generally confirmed by polling done through the KCC in 2017. An even more significant finding was found in a sub-poll of 1,000 non-Protestants, where it was found that less than 1 in 10 of respondents (9.5%) had a favorable impression of Protestant Christians. Among the reasons cited for this dislike, selfishness, a materialistic orientation, and an authoritarian streak were given often[8].

Could this mean that Protestants just – aren’t – liked – in South Korean society? Given that conservative Protestants seem to be the most vocal groups in the media and social discourse, could they be feeding the very dislike they’re experiencing?

In terms of perceptions of sexual and gender minority (SGM) persons in South Korea, there is a truly clear generational gap. In recent polling, it has been shown that acceptance of SGM persons is higher among younger generations[9]. There has been increasing acceptance of marriage equality, and one poll has shown that as many as 80-90% of Koreans are opposed to discrimination against SGM persons in employment[10].

This is not to say that the Democratic Party is a paragon of progressive virtue. In fact, the chance to gain the cooperation of the Green Party in the recent elections was ruined when the President of the DP made anti-SGM remarks at a press conference[11]. There are socially conservative lawmakers within the DP, and there’s no guarantee that all lawmakers would obey a three-line whip[12], so the support of minority and parties like the Justice Party will be needed.

Even having noted these factors, it seems to me the incoming, DP-led National Assembly has an opportunity to at least take a first step in clarifying the status of rights for SGM persons. An anti-discrimination law ensuring employment and housing rights for all citizens, and clearly identifying sexual orientation and gender identity as being included in this legislation, has a good chance of gaining broad support and passing.

Is the language of betrayal appropriate here? The NCCK’s standing policy concerning non-discrimination is a faithfully discerned policy, based in what it means to follow in the way of Jesus in this nation, in this age – how is this a betrayal of Christian norms? CCFs in South Korea have only recently had enough monetary and political power to influence social issues in this nation, and it seems as though they’re losing it again, due to a combination of increasing secularization and their own self-inflicted wounds. If CCFs want to bandy about terms like ‘betrayal’, they’ll need to apply it not only to liberal Christian organizations but to the younger generations of South Koreans for not dutifully following their direction. Something tells me that would only alienate younger people from the church more so than they may be today.

It is not an easy thing to follow the dictates of your conscience when those views become less commonly held. To insist on those views being enshrined in law, and to brand those who do not hold your view as turncoats and betrayers, is show a sense of entitlement. It seems to me that, to make the charge of betrayal stuck, the CCFs in this South Korea will have to accuse not just the NCCK, but more and more, the entire society. Are they willing to do this and risk alienating themselves further in Korean society?

It seems to me that the conservative Christian forces of South Korea need to sit down and have a good think about their entrenched positions on sexual/gender minority people in their midst. Otherwise, they will either turn society against them even more, or they will have to engage in some kind of political power play to construct some kind of theo-oligarchy, and something tells me that South Korean society, especially younger generations, won’t have much time for that.

[1] Min, C (2020, April 16) S. Korea’s Ruling Party Clinches Landslide Win In Parliamentary Elections. In TBS eFM News [online]. Accessed 18 April at http://tbs.seoul.kr/eFm/newsView.do?typ_800=N&idx_800=2391336&seq_800=.

[2] Park, J W (2020, 27/29 January) Protestant church group’s unwavering support for gay rights. In The Korea Times [online]. Accessed 1 May 2020 at https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/01/703_282505.html.

[3] Associated Press (2017, 26 April) South Korean presidential front runner Moon Jae-in says he opposes homosexuality. In South China Morning Post [online]. Accessed 30 April 2017 at https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/2090815/south-korean-presidential-front-runner-moon-jae-says-he-opposes.

[4] Shim, E (2019, 21 October) Moon Jae-in: Anti-LGBT discrimination not acceptable in South Korea. In UPI [online]. Accessed 10 April 2020 at https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2019/10/21/Moon-Jae-in-Anti-LGBT-discrimination-not-acceptable-in-South-Korea/1041571673042/.

[5] NB – even though there are regional and factional rivalries within major political parties, and they often change names like the average person changes their socks(!), the conservative-liberal divide is reasonably clear in South Korean politics.

[6] 지유석(lukewycliff) (2020, 22 April) 보수 개신교 단체, ‘NCCK’ 규탄 기습 시위… 그 이유는? (Conservative Protestant group protests against, condemns ‘NCCK’ … Why?). In OhMy News [online].

[7] Korea Statistical Information Service (1985/1995/2005/2015) 시도/연령/성별 종교인구 1985/1995/2005/2015. In KOSIS [online]. Accessed 8 May 2020 from the pages of http://kosis.kr/index/index.do.

[8] Kim H S (2017, 28 December). “종교인구 비율 46%로 하락…20대는 30%” (“The ratio of religious people in the population ratio fell to 46%… 30% among people in their 20s”). In Yonhap News Agency [online]. Accessed 7 May 2020 at https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20171228175500005.

[9] Pew Research Center (2013/2014). The Global Divide on Homosexuality. Washington DC: Pew Research Center.

[10] Ock, H J (2017, 8 June) 6 in 10 Koreans oppose same-sex marriage. In The Korea Herald [online]. Accessed 10 June 2017 at http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170608000827.

[11] Nam, S Y (2020, 22 March) 녹색당, 비례연합정당 합류 제안에 “참여 않는다” 재확인 (Green Party Reaffirms “Not to Participate” in Proposal to Join Proportional Political Party). In 민종의 소리 (The Voice of the People) [online]. Accessed 7 May 2020 at https://www.vop.co.kr/A00001476701.html

[12] A tradition in parliamentary procedure which says that all members of a political party – leaders, ministers, and regular representatives – are required to vote in favor of a government law or motion.

A Review: Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong: Selected, set to music, and recorded by Paulette Meier

(NB: I have agreed to act as a reviewer for the Speakeasy website (thespeakeasy.com). Hence, I received the book I am reviewing free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the US Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Quaker plainsong? Seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?

This is an ambitious project of American folk musician Paulette Meier, who, when faced with the prospect of losing a salaried job, embarked on a spiritual and musical journey which led to a period as Artist in Residence at the Pendle Hill retreat center in Pennsylvania USA (not Lancashire, UK) and studies in Quaker history and theology. Then, during Quaker services, she would begin singing quotes from Society of Friends founder George Fox and other important luminaries. This led to collecting these songs and officially recording them – hence, this album project.

The quotes she puts to music could be called ‘Quaker theology in miniature’. She has distilled a group of sayings from the leading lights of what became the Society of Friends which magnificently expresses the essence of Quaker writing, speaking, and thinking on divinity, prayer, meditation, gender equality, and social justice. That in itself strengthens the potential for the use of this resource as a teaching tool, a means of making the Quaker faith accessible through music. Sheet music is included, so it seems clear that group/congregational usage of these selections is at least hoped for, if not outright encouraged. This seems especially clear when listening to ‘Seeds of War’, which is done as a round (thanks to some effective multitracking).

There are some aspects of these recordings, though, which leave me less than satisfied. While I do not have formal musical training or a complete command of musical terminology, I can name a couple of things in these recordings which cause me to respond, ‘But that doesn’t sound like plainsong!’ It’s kind of like the Oatmeal Crisp cereal commercials in Canada which featured the actor Nigel Bennett doing a Scottish character who ends each commercial by proclaiming, ‘It’s a bonny cereal – BUT IT’S NOT OATMEAL!’

First, her generous use of grace notes[1] in her singing takes away from the expected plainsong effect. This is not the quick slide sometimes used at the beginning of a singing phrase. This is the clear ornamentation of a sung note by starting a tone below the written note and going up to it. This liberal usage of grace notes, particularly when they are not written in the accompanying sheet music, is jarring to my ears and not something I have experienced, either as a singer or a listener, in plainsong. I gladly concede that many like this vocal technique – I simply do not believe it belongs in plainsong.

Second, while it is appropriate for her to sing in her natural range, which sounds alto, I also say that, for group, choir, or congregational usage, some of these pieces need to be transposed a few tones higher. As a tenor, I would actually find it difficult to sing most of these pieces using the exact ranges of notes as written on the accompanying sheet music. I’ve experienced these difficulties when singing in these ranges. In fact, in such situations, I’ve often gone between octaves in order to keep what I was singing in a range I could sing in! This seems to be a general malaise I’ve found in much group singing, but it seems as though some writers need to be reminded that we’re not all Leonard Cohen, and that not all songs need to be in the key of ‘X’ in order to people to sing them.

Having noted my concerns, I would encourage Ms Meier to continue working with classic texts of faith like these, and perhaps work with singing groups or choirs of mixed voices to find arrangements and settings which would work for group/congregational singing. Moreover, I would not in the least discourage people from buying this album. It is an inspiring musical collection of great nuggets of wisdom from the founding generation of speakers and thinkers in the Society of Friends – this by itself gives this project immense value, and is an example to the rest of us in non-chanting traditions that there are texts in our collections of theology and religious writings which would benefit from a musical arrangement and setting. She’s on to something, and we would do well to take note.

[1] For an explanation of grace notes, a good place to start is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_note.

‘Say It Ain’t So, Jean’*

*NB: This title is inspired by the saying ‘Say It ain’t So, Joe’, the title of a story written by Charley Owens in response to the accusations against ‘Shoeless Joe’ Jackson, who, it was claimed, conspired with other members of the Chicago White Sox to commit intentional errors in the 1920 World Series so that the Philadelphia Athletics could emerge victorious (retrieved from “Black SoxTrial:1921”, found in the Law Library – American Law and Legal Information [online], retrieved 26 February 2020 from https://law.jrank.org/pages/2831/-Black-Sox-Trial-1921–Say-Ain-t-So-Joe.html).

It seems as though none of those we uphold as spiritual leaders and inspirations are above suspicion.

It is now public knowledge that the founder of the L’Arche / Faith and Light movements, Jean Vanier, engaged in what can be termed, at best, as manipulative sexual relationships with six women, both lay and members of religious orders, between 1975 and 1990[1]. This has rocked the religious world in general and the Catholic world in particular. I myself am still trying to process this, even weeks after the evidence has emerged. I’ve read his books, I’ve listened to him speak, both in person and in the media, and I even tried for a few years to work as a support worker for persons with intellectual disabilities. I concluded that I don’t have the gifts necessary for that work, so I’m not doing it anymore.

Nonetheless, I have great admiration for those who are able to do this work, and Jean Vanier has been the ultimate model of such a person – that is, until these recent revelations. If there is anything we can take hold of for hope, it is the fact that L’Arche International itself appears to have been unflinching in its willingness to have the allegations which were placed before them investigated, and has declared its solidarity with the women who have been victimized by Vanier. They have also made it clear, and correctly so, that the L’Arche movement and everything it stands for is greater than the sins of one person.[2]

However, that person is its founder. That founder, it is now clear, fell under the sway of a morally corrupt Dominican priest, Pere Thomas Phillippe, who appeared to give permission to Jean Vanier to use spiritual direction/accompaniment to find sexual gratification. They worked on continuing their relationship, as mentor and mentee, even during the time of Pere Thomas’ period of suspension from priestly ministry and spiritual direction, even when the Holy Office and the Dominican Order were cautioning about the discipline to which Pere Thomas had been subject[3]. These two men, a spiritual father and son, so to speak, are at the foundation of the L’Arche communities and the Faith and Light movement, like it or not.

In spite of all this, I can still say that I find the basic theological, pastoral, and social insights into the human condition offered by Jean Vanier, the same insights which underpin the foundational principles of L’Arche, are sound.

And yet…he refers to Pere Thomas Philippe, his mentor, and I cringe.[4]

That undercurrent, which we’re now all too aware of now, flows beneath all those praiseworthy sentiments, and threatens to sweep them all away. What we know now of Jean Vanier’s actions, having been given spiritual cover by the one who claimed the title of ‘mentor’, endangers the movement which he started. Have the L’Arche / Faith and Light movements been built on foundations of sand, which will be swept away by the shocking events which have come to light? This possibility is even more likely if more revelations of coercion / manipulation / abuse occur. L’Arche is rightly concerned about what effect the reactions to these events will have on the support for their organization, including financial support.

And yet…the underlying messages of dignity for all people; of moving from exclusion to inclusion, to being in true communion with others, especially those who do not have the wealth, resources, or abilities that the majority of society has; surely these are worth something, are they not, regardless of the sins of those who uttered them?

This is an issue which goes back to the earliest stages of the Christian church. After Christianity became a legal, and then the imperial, religion of the Roman Empire, a controversy arose around the consecration of a bishop, Caecilian of Carthage. Apparently, one of the bishops who consecrated Caecilian was identified as a ‘traditor’, who had basically capitulated to the civil authorities. As a result of the synod and theological work surrounding this case, we have the principle of ‘ex opera operato’, that the grace conferred through the celebration of a sacrament is legitimate by the correct form of the ritual and the intention of those to celebrate the sacrament (this is a thumbnail sketch, and I know Catholic theological explanations are much more complex than this)[5]. This might be a principle which we can draw some comfort from.

Knowing that doesn’t provide much comfort, does it? If we’re honest with ourselves, we can find our fair share of examples concerning the ‘great figures’ of our time whose personal exploits were questionable. Mohandas Ghandi had some very strange practices concerning sexuality, including having nude women lie with him so that he could confirm his commitment to celibacy[6]. John F Kennedy, a President greatly concerned with pursuing peace and social justice in his political career, had a very active sexual life outside of his marriage[7]. And it is now known that Martin Luther King Jr, the leader of the 1960s civil rights movement in the US, had engaged in some form of academic dishonesty in his doctoral thesis, and had marital affairs during his life[8].

Aw, hell, whom am I kidding? We’re all angry, hurt, confused, worried, and we don’t know what to do with all our feelings. Some of us may be wondering if we should be trusting anyone who might be held up as ‘exemplary’, for fear of the skeletons which may be hiding in their closet(s). However, before we give in to our disillusionment, we must demonstrate our willingness to act responsibly. We who are in positions of pastoral leadership and responsibility, ordered and lay, men especially so, need to check ourselves. We need to be doubly aware, infinitesimally aware, of the vulnerable parts of our psyches which could lead us into inappropriate conduct. We need to find trusted friends with whom we can exercise mutual responsibility. If we need to, we need to get professional help. Those responsibilities lies with us, and we need to take the initiative on them.

In the meantime, the only resource that will truly help us with this trauma is time. With time, we may be more able to understand Jean Vanier’s brokenness, his relationship with Pere Thomas Philippe, and come to terms with the fact that Jean used his position of authority inappropriately to deal with his brokenness. It’s too early to talk about forgiveness, and some may never be able to get to that space – and that is the way it needs to be. It’s no good for us to stay in shock and plead, ‘Say it ain’t so’. It is so. Hopefully, we will eventually be able to come to some kind of understanding of, while never being at peace with, both the good work and the goodness of Jean Vanier, and of the evil that he perpetuated. Let’s pray that someday, our primary focus will only be secondarily on him, while focusing primarily on the ministry he began, of being in community with those who have developmental disabilities.

[1] The results of their investigation are summarized in in L’Arche International (2020, 22 February), ‘Summary Report from L’Arche International’, retrieved 26 February 2020 from https://www.larche.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=139bf786-3bbc-45f5-882a-9f78bfbc99e9 (NB – this report will be available from the L’Arche International itself as well as many of the national and regional chapters of L’arche)).

[2] This can be seen in the statement issued by the leaders of L’Arche International in the wake of the report and the evidence it uncovered (Posner, S, and Cates-Carney, S, ‘To all members of L’Arche communities throughout the world’ (2020, February, L’Arche International [online], retrieved 26 February 2020 at https://www.larche.org/documents/10181/2539004/Letter-Federation_International-Leaders_2020-02-22_EN.pdf/20d33d55-72e0-4c51-8703-8ab6f0adb9b5)).

[3] See the letter by Fonatine, P, and Glass, E, addressed 2015, 15 March, available at the L’Arche International website: https://www.larche.org/documents/10181/1126084/2015_03_20_Letter_Pere_Thomas-PAF-EGS-EN.pdf/6274fdee-c3a4-48aa-8134-e7a92d840f35 (accessed 26 February 2020), and the documentary Religieuses abusées, l’autre scandale de l’église partie 1 (Abused Nuns, the Other Scandal of the Church, Part 1), a production of Arte France, aired on LCP (La Chaine Parlimentaire, L’Assemblie Nationale – The Parliamentary Channel, National Assembly (France)) 5 March 2019; accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIO85YJgCA8 on 23 March 2020.

[4] All of this can be evidenced during the 1979 Massey Lectures delivered by Jean Vanier, entitled Becoming Human; originally broadcast on Ideas (CBC Radio One) November 1998; retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-1998-cbc-massey-lectures-becoming-human-1.2946860 on 28 February 2020.

[5] My thumbnail sketch comes from Saunders, W P (2020) If a priest is in the state of mortal sin, can he still offer the Mass and perform the other sacraments? In Catholic Straight Answers [online]; accessed from https://catholicstraightanswers.com/if-a-priest-is-in-the-state-of-mortal-sin-can-he-still-offer-the-mass-and-perform-the-other-sacraments/ 28 February 2020.

[6] See Jack, I (2018, 1 October) How would Gandhi’s celibacy tests with naked women be seen today? In The Guardian [online]. Accessed from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/01/gandhi-celibacy-test-naked-women on 23 March 2020.

[7] See Sabato, L (2013, 16 October) John F. Kennedy’s Final Days Reveal A Man Who Craved Excitement. In Forbes [online]. Accessed from https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2013/10/16/john-f-kennedys-final-days-reveal-a-man-who-craved-excitement/#36c9ba6c71a9 on 23 March 2020.

[8] The latest controversies on these issues can be seen in Greenberg, D (2019, June 4), How to Make Sense of the Shocking New MLK Documents. In Politico [online]. Accessed from https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/06/04/how-to-make-sense-of-the-shocking-new-mlk-documents-227042 on 23 March 2020.

A Book Review: Reborn Again, by Christopher VanHall

(NB: I have agreed to act as a reviewer for the Speakeasy website (thespeakeasy.com). Hence, I received the book I am reviewing free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the US Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes within this book review are taken from:

VanHall, Christopher. (2019) Reborn Again: Crucifying Christendom & Resurrecting A Radical.  Christopher Drury.

 

As I write this review, I can’t help but feel that I am writing less about the book Reborn Again by Christopher VanHall and the phenomenon of the book Reborn Again by Christopher VanHall. As I was reading, I began to think, ‘ANOTHER book about how a former fundamentalist who has left evangelical Christendom to embrace progressive Christianity? WHY?’

There have been several ‘former evangelical’ Christian persons who have, after personal and/or intellectual journeys, have come out (no pun intended!) as being progressive Christians. Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Shane Clairborne, Peter Rollins, and Rachel Held Evans (of blessed memory) are perhaps the more prominent, but there are many examples of people who have progressed from a more conservative to a more progressive religious orientation who have documented their spiritual journeys in one or several books, articles, interviews, or podcasts – WHY DO WE NEED YET ANOTHER?!

Simply put, because no one journey is exactly the same. Some will resonate with a theological treatise. Others will identify with a thoughtfully reflective approach. Another type of person will be attracted to a fast-paced, high-octane ride through life, the universe, and everything, peppered throughout with rather salty lexical choices – which is my experience of this book.

I enjoyed the general approach VanHall took to each chapter, which I would characterize as an experience-theology-experience sandwich. He clearly demonstrates that our reflection on faith must first be based on action and events, and that our reflections need to lead us back into renewed and, where necessary, corrected action. It mirrors the action-reflection-action cycle that I and my classmates were always reminded of in seminary Field Education days. Consequently, he’s able to take us through the experiences of losing his grandfather, doing professional ministry in the evangelical megachurch culture, leaving that culture, creating a new spiritual home, and eventually realizing that trying to create this new home meant he had to leave his geographic home, or else potentially lose his dream of ministry. He also created pithy title names which will, no doubt, catch the attention of readers. These range from earlier ones like ‘Hypocrites’ and ‘Idols’ through to the concluding title, ‘Transfiguration’. This chapter is, I found, the most wonderful chapter in the book to read, as it left me with hope for his ongoing work.

I cannot help but think, though, that Christopher VanHall may end up alienating some of the very people he is trying to reach through this memoir. For one thing, his willingness to curse will simply turn off some who think that type of language has no place in a book about Christianity, no matter how open they may be to a new vision. For another, his willingness to jettison classic trappings of the faith, like the doctrine of the Trinity (pp. 75, 88), will be a step too far for others.

What rubs me the wrong way, though, is that his generally combative stance against all aspects of Christianity he doesn’t agree with does not end with standing against Biblical literalism and megachurch culture. He also takes a good swing at the trappings of what we call the ‘mainline’ church. This excerpt from the first chapter (‘Hypocrites’) sums up his critique of what is wrong in ‘progressive Christianity’:

…We progressives are flexible in examining theological views, but we are absolute in our commitment to nurturing tradition. Much of which is meaningless at best and triggering at worst for the average young adult in today’s society. Most millennials find little value in robes, altars, creeds, temples, and songs written 150 years ago. While the evangelical church has yet to accept the indisputable reality of scientific truths such as evolution. As a whole, those of us in the progressive mainline have yet to evolve in our approach to worship. (p. 24)

While there are many progressive-sounding persons and groups bound in ‘traditional church’ trappings which are unhelpful, I can also testify that there has been and still is renewal occurring in worship, church architecture, statements of faith, and hymnody. Lots of people in both mainline and progressive churches are working on new language, music, worship, and forms of community to go with new theology, and to make a broad-brushed statement that progressive Christianity is largely still stuck in the mid-19th century is simply unfair. VanHall himself is working on a new form of faith community, quite admirably, in his work with Greater Purpose Community Church in Santa Cruz, California (check it out on http://gpsantacruz.com/). Indeed, his approach at Greater Purpose will reach some who will not be attracted to progressive Christianity in other ways. However, the statement above leaves the impression (with me, at least) that he believes his approach to be the only worthwhile way to do this. Is that really the impression he wants to leave?

I hope not, because his memoir is otherwise an engaging recollection of a person who has worked through serious issues of faith; deconstructed and reconstructed his beliefs; translated those beliefs into action, often at serious personal cost to himself; and ends with the hopeful first steps taken in establishing an exciting new form of faith community. He has contributed in his own way, as many others have done and are doing, to the redefinition of how one can be Christian in the 21st century. We need more of these stories, told from as many differing perspectives as possible. One story, like one size, does not fit all. Christopher VanHall’s story is told well and needs to be out there. It’s just not the only story that needs to be told.