Literary But Not Literal: Spong on the Gospel of John

The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, John Shelby Spong (HarperOne 2013)  $26.99

fourth gospelJohn Shelby Spong is something of a legend within the contemporary Christian thought leadership. Through a 24-book writing career and two-and-a-half decades as bishop to New Jersey Episcopalians, Spong is known for trenchant comments in interviews, dismantling the claims of evangelical orthodoxy, and furious pushback from those who deem him a heretic and a threat to the Christian flock.

A Gentle Testimony

Given Spong’s reputation for boundary-pushing and dangerous thinking, I was a bit surprised to see this gentle testimony in the preface:

Jesus walked beyond the boundaries of his religion into a new vision of God. I think that this is what I also have done and that is what I want to celebrate. God is ultimate. Christianity is not. The only way I know how to walk into the ultimacy of God, however, is to walk through Christianity. I claim not that the Christian path is the exclusive path, but that it is the only path I know and thus the only path on which I can walk. (x)

This sentiment, not wolf-like at all, represents the book’s deep, non-creedal commitment to Christianity as “the way of Jesus” that inspires life. It’s also a foundational component of the book that might resonate with readers who want to hear more from non-literalist Christian writers, teachers, and lay members. The Fourth Gospel is designed for that audience; it’s a thoroughly Christian literary reading of John, and emerged from a five-year study of the gospel text, translations, and all major commentaries on John’s gospel published since the 1800s. Continue reading

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The Poetry Drone: Prophecy for Our Time

The Poetry Drone (known lovingly as the “Po Dro”) is a creation of LA-based poet, David Shook. In a modern-day effort to “beat swords into plowshares” Shook is seeking to arm a drone with—not bombs—but anti-war poems printed on flower paper. The project’s received considerable media attention with write ups in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, Vice, Huffington Post, and even a mention in The New Yorker. It is what Dave Harrity of Antler calls “a contemporary act of prophecy, though it professes no religious affiliation.” In his brief interview with Shook, Pedrito Ortiz finds out where Shook got the inspirationally “ludicrous” idea for this project, as well as his take on poetry and politics. To learn more, visit the Kickstarter page here.

—The Editors

Poetry-DronePedrito Ortiz
How did you come up with the idea for the poetry drone?

David Shook I had just translated an interview that Nathalie Handal did with the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, who I admire a lot. In it he discusses his work with the Colectiva de Acciones de Arte, a collective he was a part of under Pinochet, which eventually led to two of his most inspiring projects: writing a poem with a plane in the sky over Queens, and bulldozing another into the Atacama desert in Northern Chile. The next day, I was meeting with a visual artist, my friend Laura Peters, to discuss an installation I had commissioned her to build for a festival, an enormous nose made of foam, about 2’ by 3’, to promote Mario Bellatin’s Shiki Nagaoka. We were discussing the nose, brainstorming other unconventional methods of promoting literature, when our waiter, another friend of mine, approached. He listened in for a second before offering his own seemingly ludicrous suggestion: a poetry drone. He might have been stoned. I left the meeting and immediately went home to google drones, to see if the idea was even possible, affordable, legal. A couple days later I launched my fundraising campaign.

PO Do you consider yourself a political poet? Continue reading

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Sex, Shame and Healing: A Memoir of a Sex Surrogate

An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner, Cheryl T. Cohen Green with Lorna Garano (Soft Skull Press, 2012)  $15.95

an-intimate-life-sex-love-and-my-journey-as-a-surrogate-partnerFollowing Helen Hunt’s portrayal of her in last year’s The Sessions, Cheryl Cohen Green decided to write a book to better explain her profession as a sex surrogate. Based in San Francisco and a student of the Masters and Johnsons model of sex therapy, Cohen Greene offers a series of vignettes interspersed with her memoirs of a good Catholic girl who grew up to disappoint and frustrate her parents. A familiar and cliché trope perhaps, but given the nature of her work a curiously unique one. What does one do as a sex surrogate? And how is that different from prostitution?

Unfortunately, Cohen Greene’s memoir doesn’t answer either of those questions. I’ve read several articles, books, and essays on sex surrogacy and while this is certainly one of the more human treatments of the profession, the book suffers from the author’s inability to expressly name how her work differs from prostitution – a fact that she readily admits neither The Sessions nor, in her final paragraph, she herself has been able to resolve. Continue reading

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A Little Borrow, a Little New, What’s Scriptural to You?

A New New Testament, Ed. Hal Taussig (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) $32.00

NewNewTestamentOne of the primary questions you will need to ask yourself before picking up A New New Testament is whether you are comfortable reading religious texts at all. For many Christians, there is a strong compulsion to categorically reject “extra” texts – the Book of Mormon and the Apocrypha being the most readily known examples.

Collected here are a handful of documents that challenge, even at times subvert, conventional doctrine and what we think we know about the Christian Scriptures. Are we comfortable with Paul being a celebrity, even (arguably) a heartthrob to young girls as he is in The Acts of Paul and Thecla? Editor Hal Taussig is one of the world’s foremost scholars on worship and culture of early Christian communities and his scholarship is most evident in the introductory notes to each book (even the globally accepted standard 27 with which you are most familiar). It is there, in the notes and commentary rather than the 10 “new” texts that Evangelical thought will be most challenged. Taussig makes no apologies for his scholarship but presents a more well-defined constellation of beliefs that were being discussed after the death and supposed resurrection of the Christ. Continue reading

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Postmodern Apologetics?

Hillhurst Review Editor-in-Chief, Ryan Bell, has joined a group of bloggers at The Spectrum Blog to reflect, chapter-by-chapter, through Christina M. Gschwandtner’s book Postmodern Apologetics? (Fordham University Press, 2012). His post on chapter 2, “Emmanuel Lévinas and the Infinite,” is online now. Read it below and join the conversation at The Spectrum Blog.

postmodern apologeticsJust over two years ago I got a tattoo on my left forearm. It is a single word in Hebrew: hineni. In English, hineni means, “Here I am.” It is what Abraham says to God when God calls his name, asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. It is what Samuel says after discovering that it is God, not Eli, calling his name. It is what Isaiah says when he is overcome by the glory of God in Isaiah 6—“Here I am.” In Lévinas’ native French, it is easy to see that the expression is in the accusative. The speaker is not the actor but is rather the acted upon, the called upon, the “accused.”

For Lévinas, this is the appropriate response when we are encountered by the other. He departs from Heidegger in a fundamental way in his approach to phenomenology. For Heidegger, the emphasis was on the knowing subject, concerned with Being and apprehension of the things themselves. Lévinas argues that this desire to apprehend and understand objectifies the other—particularly the human other—and reduces them to “the same.” This approach to philosophy collapses what Lévinas sees as the irreducible alterity of the other. This difference must be maintained, otherwise we do violence to the other.

In a telling statement, Gschwandtner writes:

What is other or different or strange or incomprehensible is scary, unsettling, and fearful. The stranger has always been a threat on some level. So what do we do when something or someone is “strange” or “different”? Either we destroy: try to eliminate the scary stranger, to wipe out anything that induces fear. Or we assimilate, comprehend (encompass), make like us—so the stranger really becomes merely another version of the self. Lévinas calls this “reducing the other to the same” (42).

Read the rest here.

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Thriving in the Connection Economy

The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin (Portfolio, 2012) $24.95

icarus-deceptionAre you an artist? In today’s connection economy you better be.

Seth Godin offers an ultimatum to the readers of his self-proclaimed most daring book yet, The Icarus Deception, a book he funded on Kickstarter, meeting his $40,000 goal in the campaign’s first three hours. Godin challenges his readers: become and artist or…

  • Remain stuck where you are—lonely, bored, and uninspired.
  • Face the slow death of the status quo.
  • Risk trusting that the system will take care of you.
  • Become the Man’s Dancing Monkey.
  • Be safe and sorry.

“The connection economy works because it focuses on the lonely and the bored. It works because it embraces the individual, not the mob; the weird, not the normal” (59).

This book beckons the everyman and everywoman into a new and burgeoning world based on an entirely different set of economic principles. The Icarus Deception is not a how-to-manual, a self-help book, or a roadmap. It’s more like a compass that positions risk at due north and includes a packing list telling you what to bring with you on the journey (emotional labor, abundance, vulnerability, and connection) and what to leave at home (comfort, applause, the resistance, and the lizard brain).

True to form, Godin is extremely accessible in his most recent book. Whether you are unemployed, a school teacher, a Fortune 500 executive, a homemaker, a pastor, a professional musician, a high schooler, or an office worker, Godin has something to say to you. He predicts the excuses you may employ as to why you, your job, or your situation won’t apply and works to reject your cynicism and self-doubt. The only way to avoid seeing yourself in this book is to close it.

“We’ve been trained to prefer being right to learning something, to prefer passing the test to making a difference, and most of all, to prefer fitting in with the right people, the people with economic power. Now it’s your turn to stand up and stand out” (19).

As with any pioneer, understanding Godin is about re-wiring some fundamental understandings of our story and vocabulary. For example:

  • What did the Industrial Revolution do to our identities, our jobs, and our sense of success? It turned us into obedient cogs in a factory system where compliance equals security.
  • What is art? Whatever you do when you’re truly alive.
  • Who makes art? You do. Because everyone does, or at least everyone can.
  • What’s stopping you? The lizard brain mixed with misplaced fear of shame and failure.

“Your worldview, by its nature, keeps you from seeing the world as it is. A lifetime spent noticing begins to turn into the ability to see what others can’t. Artists learn to see all over again. Art is the act of pointing a light at the darkness” (148-49).

I’ve been reading Seth Godin’s blog everyday since 2008. That’s 1825 days. As one of the only consistent and most frequent voices in my life, I often feel like Seth is speaking directly to me and my life circumstance. Whatever my title at the time: student, friend, girlfriend, mentor, entrepreneur, daughter, pastor, business partner, teacher, etc., I have often been struck by this strange sense that Seth is watching me. That he’s following my journey and nudging me to think just a little bit bigger, to be a little more daring, and to do my work a little differently. And my life, my relationships, and my calling have actually been transformed as a result.

If you’ve never read Godin before, The Icarus Deception is a great place to start. If you’ve been reading him for years, The Icarus Deception will read like a familiar, yet perfectly surprising classic.

In a world that is disjointed, in which we struggle to understand one another and find some sort of common ground and shared experience, Godin gives a bit of unity to each of our stories. He forces us to look inside the particulars of our own lives while he poignantly speaks to that place, asking us to make a connection.

“What we are drawn to is the vulnerability and transparency that bring us together, that turn the “other” into one of us” (41).

This book will confront your assumptions about getting ahead and challenge the excuses that are holding you back from making a difference. Godin will ask you to pick yourself and find the guts to make important, interesting work. He will ask you to become a better kind of person— a better boss, a better parent, a better artist, a better human—which is the work of a lifetime.

“If you want to, you can be never finished. And that’s the dance. Facing a sea of infinity, it’s easy to despair, sure that you will never reach dry land, never have the sense of accomplishment of saying, “I’m done.” At the same time, to be finished, done, complete – this is a bit like being dead. The silence and the feeling that maybe that’s all” (191-92).

Samantha Curly is originally from Chicago where she hails as a Northwestern Wildcat alumna. Samantha is a recent graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. She is the co-founder and executive director of Level Ground, a nonprofit organization that seeks to create safe space for dialogue about faith, gender, and sexuality through art. A writer by nature, Samantha also enjoys film, bread baking, and running. Check out her blog at Sam’s Storybook.

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Nailed to the Center of the Universe

despair_3Affliction, says Jewish-Christian mystic, Simone Weil, is like a nail being driven into a piece of wood: it brings the one whose orientation is to love, into the very presence of God.

Extreme affliction, which means physical pain, distress of soul, and social degradation, all at the same time, is a nail whose point is applied at the very center of the soul, whose head is all necessity spreading throughout space and time.[1]

Weil makes a categorical distinction between suffering and malheur, which can be translated “misfortune,” “tragedy” or, as most of Weil’s translators render it, “affliction.” In English, affliction carries the meaning of persistent distress or pain, such as disease. Weil infuses this word with a sense of inevitability and dread; a kind of ‘dark night of the soul’ which goes beyond, but includes, physical and emotional suffering.

What is remarkable about Weil, and others like her, is her ability to understand suffering without the imposed moralism that typically goes with it. She saw affliction as both a function of necessity and chance. Necessity, in the sense that affliction is part of the normal order of things and thus inescapable, let alone surprising. Chance, in that affliction does not have a moral valence. It is random and not necessarily related to the sin of the one being afflicted.

Speaking about suffering is a challenging thing. The minute you attempt to explain it you risk glorifying or justifying it in some way; minimizing the horror. I respond negatively to any notion of determinism, and Weil’s philosophy of affliction comes close to this, as she describes nature and matter simply being obedient to God. She writes:

All the horrors produced in this world are like the folds imposed upon the waves by gravity. That is why they contain an element of beauty.

I rebel: suffering is not beautiful! Continue reading

A Call to Faithful Creativity

Manifest: Our Call to Faithful Creativity, ed. Nathan Brown & Joanna Darby (Signs Publishing, 2013) AU$ 24.95

ManifestAs cultural and economic shifts continue to take place, more people are calling themselves “Creatives.” It seems almost anyone, doing anything, can be a virtuoso, cultural kingmaker, filmmaker, or the catchall “artist.” But whether these people are formally trained, self-taught, or simply seeking value for their uniqueness, the Church has not yet begun to tap into the energy and creativity of congregants who are pursuing their passions. Pews and folding chairs both remain empty as religious leaders persist in thinking that the biggest creative choice they will make this year concerns the color of the carpet.

Genuine creativity is, in many ways, absent from our sacred spaces. The evidence is all around us. More churches are turning to portable buildings and weekend rentals that discourage decoration, stained glass, or anything that might develop into differences of opinion. What is it about congregations, committees, and Christians that sidelines ingenuity, given how many of us are designers, painters, musicians, and creative in some many profound ways? And what if the choice were not always presented as creativity or faithfulness?

Manifest: Our Call to Faithful Creativity is a collection of essays addressing those kinds of questions. Continue reading

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Seeing God in Surprising Places

When “Spiritual but Not Religious” is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church, Lillian Daniel (Jericho Books, 2013) $19.99

spiritualnotreligiousIf nothing else, Lillian Daniel has a breadth of experience in her years of ministry! In her book, When “Spiritual but Not Religious” is Not Enough, Lillian takes us along for the ride as she chats with random strangers on the bus, visits prisons and monasteries, philosophizes with her dog about late-night TV evangelists, and deals with family crises as she takes on the task of “Seeing God in surprising places, even the church.” Her quirky anecdotes draw the reader into her inner thought circle, giving the book the feel of a rambling campfire rant among friends. With each section divided into bite-sized chapters, the author challenges many commonly-held beliefs, both in and outside the church, and shows us through her stories that we need to look deeper into the every day fabric of life than we are accustomed to, in order to find the answers to the big questions.

You won’t find quick and easy theological answers to the questions she poses. You won’t find loosely superimposed object lessons, and you won’t find hum-drum do-it-yourself suggestions for cultivating a lifestyle of prayer or confession or communion. The author resists giving you the answers to the test at all costs. Instead, she tells you about her experience with these aspects of spiritual life, and lets you fill in the blanks. In her discussion of communion, for example, one moment, you’re sitting in her financial planner’s office discussing tithing, and the next minute, you’re whisked off to O’Hare airport to discover the joys of impromptu road trips with strangers in snowy weather—and then you’re in her mother’s dining room, waiting to be served roast duck! And, while there is a conclusion to be drawn from her sharing each of these stories in short succession, the author leaves us to draw that conclusion on our own.

The abruptness of her transitions, interjected with the odd chapter where she can’t resist jumping up onto her soapbox, can be disconcerting. Even the conclusion of the book is abrupt. Yet, there is an endearing quality to the way the author tells her stories. A keen mind and gentle heart shine out of every chapter. It is obvious that Lillian Daniel is actively engaged in wrestling with the deep, unsettling questions of spirituality, and even more impressive—she’s comfortable with the patchwork gaps in her knowledge of God, assured that her faith and her experience will continue to fill the gaps. Indeed, it would seem that from her perspective, the only way to allow the gaps to be filled is to continue to experience life through the lens of faith.

If you’re looking for a book that will encourage introspection, challenge complacency, and make you laugh all at the same time, pick up a copy of When “Spiritual but Not Religious” is Not Enough. You never know where you’ll find God.

Holly Messenger Aamot studied philosophy and botany at the University of Alberta, and now work as the Business Manager for the Chokka Center for Integrative Health in Edmonton, Alberta. When she is not working or reading she enjoys writing, crocheting, and making music. She lives in Edmonton with her husband and daughter.

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History of the World Christian Movement, 1454-1800

History of the World Christian Movement, Volume II: Modern Christianity from 1454-1800, Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist (Orbis Books, 2012) $40.00

history-world-christian-movement-vol-iiDale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist changed the academic game of Christian history in 2001 with the publication of History of the World Christian Movement, Vol I. That previous tome reaped several awards and almost unanimous critical praise for its comprehensive look at all facets of Christianity—Latin and Greek, male and female, orthodox and schismatic, from Spain to China, from Scandinavia to Ethiopia. The second volume continues the series with all the vitality and thoroughness of its predecessor – little surprise, as Irvin is President of New York Theological Seminary and Sunquist was recently appointed as Dean of Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies. Their scholarship is impeccable.

Volume II begins with the immediate aftermath of Constantinople’s fall to the Ottomans in 1453. It is a tipping point in world history; Latin Christendom, previously preoccupied with a great deal of infighting—politically and theologically—realizes that its sister-state, the Byzantine Empire, is dead at the hands of the Turks. Though Byzantium had long been in decline, its complete disappearance provokes a new and fearful mindset for Rome. The Vatican suddenly is very interested in recent technological developments in seafaring, and the two greatest kingdoms of Christendom—Portugal and newly-birthed Spain—find their navigating experiments for the sake of commerce backed by the Pope. The Age of European Exploration begins with the hope of finding spices, cloth, and the far side of India, but perhaps most importantly—a way to outflank and surround Islam. Ships are equipped with soldiers and missionaries for just such an opportunity as Catholic priests are sent into Islamic territories, looking for Orthodox survivors. Continue reading