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Why Rev. Amy Butler is talking politics, sin and loss this Lent March 12, 20199 Min ReadTh

March 12, 2019 The Rev. Amy Butler preaches at The Riverside Church in New York. Photo courtesy of Riverside Church – Jack Jenkins – Share This! (RNS)

During this year’s season of Lent — a time when Christians commemorate the biblical story of Jesus Christ fasting in the desert for 40 days — Riverside Church, a historically liberal congregation in New York City, is focusing on a theme of sin and loss. Riverside’s head pastor, the Rev. Amy Butler, spoke recently with Religion News Service to explain why the influential church is honing in on topics she says progressive Christians sometimes gloss over, and why she hopes examining ancient scriptural stories about sin and loss can speak to the modern-day challenges facing Americans in general and Christians in particular.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to offer a series at your church about sin and loss?
Riverside is a very progressive Protestant congregation, and progressives are notoriously reticent to speak about sin. Because of that, we often cede responsibility for that kind of conversation, theological dialogue and exploration to our conservative brothers and sisters.

I think that’s a mistake.

So we’re going to take the season of Lent, which is a time of the church year for penitence and repentance, and see if we can’t reclaim some of the language for sin.

I’ll be defining it as separation from God and from each other — the things we do and the systems that we participate in that hurt other people, that diminish our relationship with God and with each other, that harm our world and our fellow human beings. We’re going to cover all of that in six weeks.

What do you think is distinct about the way your congregation is going to engage with sin compared to how your “conservative brothers and sisters” might approach the same question?
I’m going to try to steer us away from a transactional understanding of sin. I grew up in a conservative evangelical background, so I understood growing up — as I think many of my conservative friends do — that God was the judge and there’s a certain balance sheet. You get points for this, a point for that — I’ve been watching “The Good Place” — and the way things balance out in the end.

I just don’t think that we live in a world with that much control over the divine. I think that our lives are formed and ordered by the relationships that we build and nurture both with God and with each other. And I think taking a good, hard look at the things that impact and impede those relationships is where I really want to go. That’s going to be a distinction between, you know, “If you dance or drink, you get certain demerits, and then if you bring your grandmother flowers, you get more (positive points).”

The Rev. Amy Butler greets congregants at New York City’s Riverside Church during her candidacy weekend in Aug. 2014. Photo by Dave Cross Photography, courtesy of Riverside Church

You said you’re not just tying sin to a personal action or a personal offense, but also systems and communities. Are you talking about systemic or communal sin?
Yes. And you know, I think it’s a very dangerous bifurcation when we decide that sin is either individual or systemic. This is generalizing, of course, but: (the idea that if) every sin is individual, so that means we don’t look at things like racism. Or that if everything is systemic, that we don’t look at our own anger, our own pride.

We have to find some way to look at both because they both impact our daily lives.

Why do you think progressive Christian communities have shied away from explicit conversations about sin?
I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that for some reason, somewhere along the line, the narrative was co-opted by a much more conservative storyline. Because the general perception of the concept of sin is what we see on TV, or when we hear about hateful protesters at abortion clinics — well, we don’t want to be associated with that.

So we just prefer to step away from the conversation.

The other trap that progressives fall into all the time is we think that claiming our own banners of belief is somehow … oppressive to other people, which is flatly untrue.

We’re not doing the world any service if we can’t fully express what it is we say we believe and what standards and convictions animate our work in the world. So it may be a little provocative for my congregation — and I always like to push them a little bit. But I really want to bring sin (to) the fore this year, give us an opportunity to reclaim the language around it and have some honest conversations.

You mentioned racism as one example of sin. Are there other examples that you plan to lift up?
We’re telling the stories of the Book of Genesis, which are story after story of sin, right? I’m trying to take some of the stories that we don’t normally tell in a pulpit and taking a different look at them. We’re telling the story of Noah. We’re telling the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. These are stories that either people don’t know, or they know in very surface-y ways. And as we look at each of these stories, we’re trying to look at what the sin is in the story and then what is lost.

So sins like pride and violence and corruption and othering and lack of hospitality. And then the things that we lose: intimacy with God and with each other, innocence, community, things to sustain life. And in those broader categories, surely there are things that are going to come up — systems that hurt and oppress. Racism is one of them. Misogyny, sexism — I mean all this stuff about institutions that hurt people.

This Lent is (also) going to be a powerful time of reckoning for the institutional church. For example: the United Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Church.

But also, I don’t want to let our progressive selves off easy now, holding sin out at arm’s length. Let’s look a little closer and see where these sins are coming to be in our own lives, in our relationships with each other, even in our own community here at Riverside.

You also mentioned that loss is a part of this project. Can you unpack that some more?
I wanted to reframe (this topic) because so many times when we talk about sin, we talk about sin and punishment. I don’t want to talk about sin and punishment. I want to talk about sin and loss, because what really happens as the effect of sin is the loss. It’s not punishment, which (brings) along with it shame that further alienates us from each other and from the possibility of redemption.

But if we talk about it in terms of loss, then I think it gives us more of a handhold for finding our way back to reconciliation. When we participate in sinful systems and sinful actions we are losing trust, relationship, accountability, all of these things that build this up and make our better community and better relationships.

The Rev. Amy Butler of The Riverside Church in New York. Courtesy photo

You represent a historic progressive congregation whose messages can carry a lot of weight among progressive and liberal Christians. Is there some part of this that speaks to the rest of liberal and progressive Christianity to inform their spiritual life in this specific political moment of 2019?
Oh, there’s so much to say.

One thing I said often after the 2016 presidential election was that my immediate personal spiritual response was a deep sense of conviction that I needed to repent. That’s a very uncomfortable word for us progressive Christians. But I think for so long — particularly under the Obama administration — we had just sort of been like, “Oh, you know, everything’s fine. There are a few bad things, but in general, society’s moving toward a more just place.”

What we have learned is that we weren’t speaking out enough before, that we hadn’t separated enough our call to be gospel people from the systems of our government that often oppressed and harmed, even if we believed in the ideology of the ruling party.

I think repentance is a wonderful place for us to start as we think about how our actions are shaped moving forward in this moment.

Certainly, if the church doesn’t stand up and speak up and act in the way of Jesus, then I don’t know why the church continues to exist.

This is always a dangerous question that I ask a preacher: Do you think your congregation will be receptive to this message?
I expect people will be uncomfortable. I have one congregation member who says to me often, “You know, I come to church on Sunday morning, I get all uncomfortable. Then I go home and watch Joel Osteen and I feel better.”

Really?
Yes, yes.

Even at Riverside, we are guilty of wanting to be entertained or comforted. And I don’t think Jesus was really in the business of making us feel comfortable. I don’t think it’s my job to entertain people, but particularly during this season of Lent, this is a moment for us to really challenge ourselves to look hard at some very deep and hard places.

When we have national theological conversations about Lent, is there something that you think gets left out or glossed over or forgotten?
It’s interesting that you say that, because I’m advocating for us to take a good, hard look at individual sin. I think this year in particular, as Americans, we have an interesting opportunity to look at some of our institutional sin, because we’re seeing it on a national scale every single day.

Let’s look at what we’re doing around immigration policy, around violence, around government corruption. But then also, what about the institution of the church? Look at what just happened in the United Methodist Church. Look what’s going on in the Catholic Church.

All of our institutions have failed to reflect our highest aspirations for who we can be as a people of God or just as decent human beings.

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A fresh take on Lent from Jewish New Testament professor Amy-Jill Levine

March 7, 2019 by Emily McFarlan Miller

(RNS) — Amy-Jill Levine has described herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist” and said that although she attends an Orthodox synagogue in Nashville, she is “often quite unorthodox.”
For one, Levine teaches both Jewish studies and New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School.
And the professor has written a new Lenten study titled “Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week,” published by Abingdon Press, an imprint of the United Methodist Publishing House.
“If I’m not a believer in Jesus, and I think these are fabulous stories, how much more so should somebody who’s a Christian find extraordinary meaning in them?” Levine said.
And as a Jewish historian, she said, she “can point out meaning that perhaps Christians were not aware of.”
In her new book, Levine walks through several stories Christians typically read during Holy Week, or Passion Week, marking the final days before Jesus was crucified, according to New Testament accounts.
That week also marks the final days of Lent, the penitential season many Christians observe leading up to Easter, when they celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For Catholics and many Protestants, Lent began this week.

Author Amy-Jill Levine
Levine spoke to Religion News Service about Lent and risk and reading the New Testament from Rome, where she recently spent a morning talking to American priests on retreat about “why I think Jesus is wonderful.” In the coming weeks, she plans to present Pope Francis with a copy of the Jewish Annotated New Testament she co-edited.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In your new study, you draw a comparison between Lent in Christianity and the Days of Awe in Judaism. Can you talk about that?
Lent reminds me of what are called the Days of Awe — the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Jewish liturgical calendar. We think about what we’ve done in the past and what we should be doing in the future. We take time to repent. We take time to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing in the world and how we can do it better.
The month that’s the run-up to Rosh Hashanah is also a time of introspection. You make amends — because you can’t put yourself in a right relationship with God if you’re not in a right relationship with people in your life.
It’s kind of like a theological do-over. And I find that remarkably healthy.
Both in Lent on the Christian calendar and in parts of the Jewish calendar, the community does this together. So you’re not alone in the difficulties of assessing what you’ve done. You’re not alone in trying to figure out how to do life better.
How does delving into the history and literature of Holy Week make the texts more meaningful?
Anybody can read the Bible. You can just pick the text up and say, “What does this text mean to me?” And you make a profound response.
But I do think the more history we know, the more profound the reading experience becomes. In the same way, if you fall in love with somebody, you want to know that person’s background.
If somebody claims to appreciate the stories of the Bible, it seems to me they ought to try to know something about the context in which the Bible was written. If we talk about Jesus teaching in the Temple, which is part of Lenten readings, then it helps to know what the Temple was like. It helps to know that there are Roman soldiers who are in the area. It helps to know that there were pilgrims from all parts of the empire — many of them don’t speak the same language — rejoicing and celebrating this Feast of Freedom, and those are the folks who are listening to these teachings. If we think about Passion Week coming at the same time as Passover, it helps to know what Passover is and how Passover is celebrated. If we read Scripture and Jesus quotes a passage from the shared Scripture — what the church would call the Old Testament and the synagogue would call the Tanakh — it really helps to know what that Scripture is and what comes before and what comes after and how people read that text in the first century.
Is there a particular story in these texts that stands out to you?
I like them all, but I’m very much drawn to the story where, at the beginning of these events, Jesus is at dinner — he eats a lot — and a woman comes in and anoints his head with very expensive ointment, like Chanel. People complain, and they say, “Wait a minute, this is expensive perfume. You could have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor.”
And Jesus says, “You’ll always have the poor with you.” And then we stop because that’s a quote directly out of Deuteronomy, and you know the next line is, “And therefore extend your hand to the poor and the needy.” You always have the chance to do this, but, as Jesus goes on to say, “You will not always have me here, and what she has done is anoint me for my burial.”
And he goes on to say, “This story will be told in memory of her.”
The story is supposed to be told in memory of her, so how do we tell that story? And when we tell it, do we tell it about her? What was she thinking? And later on in the Gospel of Mark, when three women go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, did it not occur to them that this woman had already done that — that she got it right, that she understood what was going on?
Why don’t we have, on the Christian liturgical calendar, a dinner celebrating her? I think that’s the new feast that needs to be invented: We have a special dinner at the beginning of Holy Week and we tell stories about all the women who made this mission possible. How cool would that be?
This study is all about risk. How do you see that theme in the stories of Holy Week?
Jesus knows he’s going to die. You don’t have to be supernaturally prophetic to know that if you go into Jerusalem and you’re a popular leader, that’s going to come to the attention of the powers that be and your life is going to be at stake. So let’s talk about the risk-taking in which he engages, and let’s see how Lent can help us take the risks that we need to take in order to live more complete lives.
We’re happy with the status quo. We know that certain things are wrong, but if we have to risk our reputation or our economic status or our political connections or even our own communities because we’re in favor of something that the community is not, when do we finally make that step and take that risk?
Jesus talks about taking up your cross, which is an extraordinary image. It doesn’t mean, “Oh, I have to take up my cross. I have to pick up the dry cleaning today.” It means, “I’m going to do something where I’m going to risk my reputation, my life, but this is exactly the right thing to do.”
I think Lent helps us with that. We can ask not only what should we have done, but what did we fail to do? When were we too afraid? When were we too self-interested to take the steps that need to be taken in order to do what Jews would call “tikkun olam” — to engage in the reparation of the world?
Some people see the New Testament, and in particular, some of the stories of Holy Week, as anti-Jewish. You also co-edited a Jewish Annotated New Testament. Do you see this in the text, or is that in how these stories have been interpreted?
I think one, as a scholar or as a reader, could pick up parts of the New Testament, like much of the Gospel of John, for example, and say, “This is an anti-Jewish text.” I think that’s a fair reading, but it is not the only reading.
Whenever we read, we interpret, and what’s anti-Jewish to one person is not anti-Jewish to another. I just find it more helpful to say it is certainly the case that over time that many of these texts have been interpreted in an anti-Jewish manner. Therefore, it is our responsibility as moral readers to make sure that we do not inculcate or reinforce anti-Jewish views to people who hear what we have to preach or read what we have to write.
Because reading is often a moral act, what choices do we make when we interpret a text in one way rather than in another way? Do we read benevolently or do we read malevolently? And that’s a choice. I don’t think if you read the New Testament, you are going to come out as an anti-Semite. It’s not a necessary reading, but it’s a possible one.
What do you hope people will take from your study?
Part of my goal is to get people to appreciate how each Gospel has a different story to tell. Rejoice in those distinctions. Rejoice in the separate stories. Because these stories are so wonderful that there’s no single way of telling them any more than there’s a single way of telling the creation story in the Book of Genesis. To be Israel means to wrestle with God.

“Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week,” by Amy-Jill Levine
Think about Judas Iscariot and what were his motives, because they vary from Gospel to Gospel. Think about how the apostles felt, because, at best, they’re confused. Look at all those minor characters like the woman who anoints Jesus or later the centurion at the cross — what did they think and how were they functioning? Listen to Jesus’ teaching: What does he say about paying taxes? What does he say about the greatest commandment and why?
Each story opens up to so many possibilities — profound, inspirational, often challenging. And I want people to take that challenge, which is in fact to take that risk, to let the stories challenge us and sometimes to indict us.

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Revisiting ‘Battle for the Minds’ after nearly a quarter of a century

MOLLY T. MARSHALL *| FEBRUARY 27, 2019

I have had much to ponder over the past few days as “Battle for the Minds” has been digitized and placed on YouTube. Given all that is transpiring in Southern Baptist life with reference to sexual abuse, it is timely for this documentary to be on the scene once again. It is not only a historical record of a tumultuous time at what many of us called “the mother seminary” in Louisville, Kentucky, but also serves as a cautionary tale about the ongoing misogyny within the Southern Baptist ecclesial tradition.

Former students and present detractors have responded to the video’s revival and its stark portrayal of what was at stake in “the Controversy,” as we called it then. As the social media engagement suggests, there are many who applaud the clear dissent to the Southern Baptist Convention powers that were circling. Others want to take up the conservative battle again, including some who have written to me to question whether or not I am a confessional Christian. I remain one, a thoroughgoing Trinitarian, even if I do not believe the inerrancy of Scripture or the relegation of women to secondary status are requisite. One writer questioned if you can follow Jesus without the pretext of inerrancy. Yes, young man, I think you can.

“We are now seeing some of the foul fruit of this exclusionary ecclesial vision.”

Filmed in the spring of 1995 shortly after I had been pushed out as a professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the documentary chronicled faculty and student response to the hostile takeover of a beloved theological school for the purpose of preserving a patriarchal vision of ministry and, more importantly, of God. We are now seeing some of the foul fruit of this exclusionary ecclesial vision, and the Southern Baptist diminishment of women is revealing the pernicious outcomes in damaged lives as male hegemony has persisted.

One of the things that struck me as I viewed “Battle” once again were the prophetic voices of colleagues Paul Simmons and Henlee Barnette (of blessed memory) who held forth the best theological ethics of the seminary’s tradition as they questioned the captivity of thought to the agenda of the religious right. They were prescient as they saw the impact of politics and religion too deeply entwined. It took courage for them to appear in the film, and they aptly sized up the implications of the kind of inculcation portended in the seismic shifts occurring then (and now).

One of the students in the film who was supportive of the new regime went so far as to say that one does not come to seminary to learn new things, but to have reinforced what one already believed. The seminary experience was intended to be an affirmation of grassroots theology, not an openness to the wider intellectual heritage of the church.

My experience as a student at Southern was just the opposite. I needed to hear the challenge to my narrow Landmark Baptist identity forged in Muskogee, Oklahoma. (I only discovered the heresy of the Landmarkist “Trail of Blood” theory while sitting in Glenn Hinson’s church history course.) I needed to hear of the common pre-Reformation heritage of the church. I needed to learn from theologians, historians, scripture scholars and ethicists how the faith tradition had developed and been passed on. Even more, I needed to witness the godly example of these faithful scholars who gave themselves in the classroom day by day and offered their gifts in the churches on weekends.

“God put me on the planet to love students and stir the theological pot.”

While many think of the damaged lives of faculty during the fundamentalist takeover of our beloved seminary, it was the students who bore the larger burden of sorting through what was going on. They saw faculty members they trusted pilloried; they saw a shifting landscape for the churches they might serve; and they saw abuse of power in how the board and president disposed of those who did not fit the new symbol system they were erecting. Surely a woman theologian did not fit into the iconography, as my life attests.

A Baptist diaspora followed the conquest of Southern. Faculty members populated established schools like Baylor and helped found new theological schools, most imbedded in universities. The charism of Southern continues as it is scattered throughout these new sites of ministry preparation. Often when the consortium of CBF-affiliated schools gathers, former faculty colleagues from Southern will gravitate toward one another. As Bill Leonard has remarked, “You kind of know who you shot the rapids with.” Truly!

I was very fortunate in that God preserved my vocation to form leaders for the church. Three days after I was terminated, I received a call from Central Baptist Theological Seminary to begin a conversation about planting my life in Kansas City. If that sounds like resurrection, it surely was — and is! God put me on the planet to love students and stir the theological pot.

For these ensuing years, I have served in a hospitable space among the American Baptists and alongside the CBF. I give thanks for this welcome, and I am grateful for the ways the wider Baptist identity continues to become more inclusive of its daughters.

“Dr. Molly Marshall was a favorite speaker in the Hamrick Lectures held at First Baptist Church in Charleston, SC. Her’s is a voice I always turn to for guidance.

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Carol Spurlock Carnell, 1946 to 2018

I hate to post such news, Carol Carnellbut wanted everyone to know that Carol passed away peacefully yesterday. Visitation will be this Friday and service on Saturday. Details are in the obituary. I want to thank everyone for their thoughts, prayers, help, and friendship through these rough times.

She was a gift to everyone who knew her, and I am thankful for the time we got to spend together.

Without a doubt I will be saying more about Carol in the days, weeks, months and years to come, but at the moment words cannot express my feelings.

You can view Carol’s full obituary here.

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