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Thinking Out Loud
  • Free Finally

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 17, 2012

    Long before Rudolf Bultmann preached about the existential power of the Easter message, slaves in the American south lived it. Like the earliest Christians, driven to the catacombs, these enslaved men, women, and children lived in hope that earthly chains could not hold them forever, that no earthly tyrant could finally enthrall a people created by God for freedom. They heard the story of Moses liberating the people of Israel as a clear and direct promise. And they held to the hope of Jesus whom even a grave could not imprison forever. Slave owners in many places were, in fact, so concerned about the liberating power of the gospel that unsupervised Christian worship for slaves was forbidden.

    Without a doubt, the secret midnight prayer meeting was the most daring practice of enslaved persons in the South, according to Sydney Nathans, Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University. He elaborates: “Forbidden to meet for unsupervised ‘prayer & singing & reading the Bible,’ they arranged their gatherings ‘with the greatest care & secrecy’ in ‘some lone hut, where one or two are stationed outside . . . to warn them if their voices rise too loud.’”

    In his superb new book, To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker (Harvard University Press, 2012), Nathans invites us to understand something of the experience of enslaved African Americans in the nineteenth century through the prism of the life of one particular woman, Mary Walker. In her youth, Mary refused to attend the secret worship services on account of her fear regarding the fate of those slaves who were caught in the underground services and who suffered imprisonment and the lash. Yet, she later found the courage to escape slavery; make a new life first in Philadelphia, then in Cambridge, Massachusetts; gather her previously enslaved children together in safety after the Civil War; and, at long last, find peace and redemption in her faith.

    In those secret gatherings, the elders had sung the lines, “Our bondage it shall end . . . Jesus shall break the chain . . .”,from a hymn slave-owners found “especially obnoxious.” As she continued to avoid the worship services a gulf formed between Mary and her mother. When, however, in August 1848, Mary escaped while on a trip to Philadelphia with the family that enslaved her, perhaps without realizing it she set herself on a torturous journey that closed the gap between her mother and herself. It was a journey that would lead Mary to her own spiritual awakening and the spiritual rebirth of the white family that offered her protection from the authorities, who were seeking to return her to slavery, along with assistance in securing the freedom of her family still in chains.

    The story that Nathans tells is searingly honest. The sometimes subtle racism and condescension of even Mary's champions (abolitionists and emancipationists included) is on display, along with the venality, bigotry, and manifest cruelty of the powers that justified slavery and subverted human rights to economic and social privilege. But, because the story is told with such honesty, one gains a real sense of perspective, not only on a pivotal historical period, but on the human condition.

    Because To Free a Familymakes no pretensions to a faith perspective, the story of Mary Walker's own faith struggle is all the more compelling. She struggled with the guilt and shame of leaving her children in bondage when she escaped slavery. No amount of rational reflection could assuage this guilt, a fact with which any parent can identify. Her guilt as well as her love motivated her to redeem her children. Her fear over what would become of her daughter, approaching puberty, drove her to scrape together whatever she could earn to commission one failed attempt at negotiation and escape after another.

    When, in 1855, after a long illness and years of separation from her enslaved family, Mary was baptized, she "at last experienced the rapture felt by her mother at secret midnight prayer meetings in slavery, where they had sung, "Jesus shall break the chain . . . And they shall part no more, who have loved, who have loved."

    The story of Mary Walker's journey takes us from the depths of bondage on a North Carolina plantation to the lofty social circles of New England, from the cruel caprices and breath-taking rationalization of slave-owners to the well-meaning, but sometimes doomed, idealistic schemes of white social reformers in the wake of the Civil War. Through Mary's eyes we see a country struggling to come to terms with what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as the unredeemed "promissory note" of American freedom. We also see through Mary's eyes the personal and spiritual dimensions and the familial cost of slavery and its aftermath.

  • Good Question

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 16, 2012

    When John Calvin agreed to return to Geneva after his first failed attempt to lead its church, he returned with a requirement that the church teach the catechism he had written to its youth and children. Obviously, Calvin understood the importance of a good youth program. But there's something more here that we might have missed. This Reformer who was willing to sweep away anything he believed to be unsound steadfastly retained and resuscitated an educational method that can be traced in various forms back to Socrates: the venerable Q&A.

    When we read through the Geneva Catechism, we are immediately struck by three things: (1) the sophistication of the answers placed in the mouths of young people and children; (2) the conversational tone sustained throughout as though the minister (or author, in Calvin's case) is engaged as a peer with a twelve year old; and (3) the confidence reflected by the questions asked. The first two points are worthy of reflection, but today I want to focus on the third point, the particular kind of confidence reflected by the questions of the catechism—a confidence in the truth of the gospel and the claims of the Christian faith upon our lives.

    In one of Flannery O'Connor's last-published short stories, entitled "The Enduring Chill,"[1] we meet a young man who has returned home to die (or so he believes). He is arrogant, pretentious, intellectually proud, and impatient. He decides he wants to see a priest, but not just any priest. He pictures in his mind the dramatic interest of his end-of-life conversations with a well-educated priest, a person of culture as well as religion.

    To his irritation, the instead of an urbane, worldly, sophisticated, and slightly cynical Jesuit (the priest of his imagining), the priest who actually arrives at his bedside introduces himself as follows: "I'm Fahther Finn—from Purrgatory." And, instead of responding to the "dying" young man's questions about the literary merits of James Joyce, or the significance of myths behind the world's religions, the priest insists on asking the questions: "Now. Do you say your morning and night prayers? . . . You don't eh? Well you will never learn to be good unless you pray regularly. You cannot love Jesus unless you speak to Him. Do you have trouble with purity? . . . We all do but you must pray to the Holy Ghost for it. Mind, heart and body. Nothing is overcome without prayer. Pray with your family. Do you pray with your family?"

    By this point the proud young intellectual is almost fit to be tied. He isn’t having the kind of conversation he has imagined. And at the suggestion that he should pray with his family he shouts, "God forbid . . . My mother doesn't have time to pray and my sister is an atheist."

    The simple priest responds, "A shame! . . . Then you must pray for them."

    The conversation only becomes more tense from here on out as the young man attempts again to steer toward the comfortable shores of the arts, saying, "The artist prays by creating," to which the old priest responds, "Not enough! . . . If you do not pray daily, you are neglecting your immortal soul. Do you know your catechism?"

    Here the young man feels on firm ground. He doesn’t need a catechism. He is an intellectual, an artist, free to experience the world and form his own opinions of it. "Certainly not!"

    The priest moves on relentlessly, not justifying, not explaining, just walking through the catechism.

    "Who made you?"

    "Different people believe different things about that," the young man replies.

    "God made you," the priest says. "Who is God?"

    "God is an idea created by man," the young man answers.

    The old priest knows better. "God is a spirit infinitely perfect," sighs the priest. "Why did God make you?"

    The young man starts to deny the premise, but the priest cuts him off. "God made you to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next."

    Exasperated, the priest at last says, "If you don't apply yourself to the catechism how do you expect to know how to save your immortal soul?"

    "Listen," says the young man, "I'm not Roman."

    "A poor excuse for not saying your prayers," the old priest says.

    "I'm dying," says the young man.

    "But you're not dead yet," says the old priest.

    After a turn in the conversation, in which the priest instructs the young man on how to receive the Holy Spirit, the old priest leaves. The last thing the young man hears the priest say, however, is a comment to his mother: "He's a good lad at heart but very ignorant."

    What strikes me most in this wonderful, sad, and funny story is the confidence of the priest. He knows that the questions received in the catechism—fashionable or not—are the real questions at the very heart of life. The old priest standing beside the young man's sick bed, tenaciously asking questions the young man brushes aside, reminds us of what faith looks like and the contribution it can make to knowledge. Questions like some of the great questions in the catechism remind us that sometimes going deeper means asking tried and very true questions, whatever the preoccupations and distractions of contemporary culture may say about what matters most.

    A member of a congregation I served told me the story of her niece who, in her first philosophy course in college, reflexively responded to the professor's (perhaps rhetorical) question, "What is God?"

    She answered immediately, "God is Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth."

    The answer amazed the professor who asked, "Where in the world did you come up with that? That's brilliant!" To which she responded, "The Westminster Shorter Catechism." A recovery of confidence for the church might begin when we remember that the cloud of witnesses is on our side, and they are not silent.

    [1] The story is found in a collection of stories by Flannery O’Connor published posthumously: Everything That Rises Must Converge (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1965).

    Image source: Cover of the Catechism of the Church of Geneva (1815) as translated by the Rev. Elijah Waterman, http://openlibrary.org/

  • Redefining the Possible

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 10, 2012

    They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32 NRSV)

    On this Tuesday after Easter, I want to consider for a moment what it means for us that Jesus Christ calls us to follow him, and to invite reflection on those moments throughout our lives when the call of Jesus Christ has come to us personally.

    Even Christians from traditions that do not emphasize a born-again experience need to remember that all Christians are born-again as disciples of Jesus. We aren’t reborn just once, however. We are reborn and again and again throughout our lives. Daily we rise to new life in Jesus Christ. Indeed, we keep on rising daily to new life, day after day and year after year. And isn’t this a better arrangement than sleepwalking through our lives?

    St. Luke tells us that two disciples of Jesus were walking to the village of Emmaus. Ironically, they were living already in the era of resurrection but didn’t know it. They were walking as though their hopes were dead, nailed to a cross, a victim of a conspiracy between the Roman state and powerful religious leaders. They were walking as though their hopes were walled-up in a tomb. The rumors of resurrection could not dispel their gloom. The rumors they had heard about Jesus having risen only compounded their grief with confusion and dismay.

    And, then they met Jesus on the road. They didn’t know that it was Jesus, even though they were disciples. Why didn’t they recognize the Jesus who was walking beside them? The answer is simple. They knew that Jesus was dead.

    As they walked along with Jesus, they could not recognize the Jesus their own minds hid from them. Their vision problem wasn’t a failure of the optical nerve, but of the imagination. So, Jesus himself provided the fresh intellectual framework, the new understanding that they needed in order to recognize him. He spoke directly to their minds, inviting them to rethink how they construed the Scriptures as well as their own expectations and offering access to a new faith and hope—faith not in the advent of a triumphant messianic general but in a savior who revealed God’s love for the whole world by releasing his hold on his own survival.

    We are told that in the moment when Jesus broke bread with them their eyes were opened and they recognized him. Why were they able to recognize Jesus at that moment? Because he had been opening their minds all afternoon, enlarging their imaginations enough, first to glimpse God’s purposes and then to envision their own participation in them.

    They recognized Jesus at that moment because he had illumined their minds to know what to look for. They said to each other. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem and told the other disciples how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

    The resurrection redefines the possible. This redefinition is why the disciples’ hearts burn within them: because through the living Jesus’ presence they have experienced God’s resurrection in their own lives. Suddenly they understand who Jesus Christ is and what his calling means. Suddenly they realize that a new era has dawned. Suddenly their minds are open to all that this new era will demand of them as they follow Christ in faith and learn to live in scorn of the consequences.

    Some years ago, I was climbing into the pulpit of a church, First Presbyterian Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma, when I stopped for a moment before preaching to read a message carved into the pulpit desk. The carving faced the preacher. It was clearly meant to serve as a message from the congregation, to remind the preacher of his or her duty. It read simply: “We would see Jesus.”

    “We would see Jesus.” That is the implicit request of everyone who walks through the doors of a church on any given Sunday morning, or a seminary chapel on a Friday morning. We want to see Jesus.

    If this is what we want, and if Luke’s Gospel is true, what prevents us from recognizing Jesus are our own expectations. Perhaps our vision is obscured by our expectation of what Jesus should look like, how Jesus should behave. Perhaps by our expectation that heaven is no match for the proud powers of this earth. Perhaps by our expectation that death is inevitably stronger than life. Perhaps by our expectation that resurrection is only a childish hope to help us get to sleep at night.

    “We would see Jesus.”

    Well, perhaps unrecognized, perhaps unacknowledged, perhaps unseen, perhaps unloved, Jesus walks among us today, and every day. And whenever he walks among us, wherever he meets us, Jesus calls us to follow him into his risen life.

    Are not our hearts burning within us?

  • Knowing How to Act

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 29, 2012

    This blog post was originally published on March 29, 2012.

    In 1853, the year our Seminary was established in Danville, Kentucky,
    Antoinette Brown (Blackwell) became the first woman ordained in the Congregational Church. The Universalist Church (1863), the Unitarian Church (1871), the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (1889), and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1948) soon followed in the ordination of women. It would take 40 years and dozens of overtures to the General Assembly, however, before Margaret Towner became the first woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) in 1956. The journey toward ordination has been long and arduous for women, and asKaren Russell (MDiv ’08; ThM ’10) reminds us, being a woman in ministry is still uncharted territory. I hope that sharing the insights from some of our many tenacious, courageous, and creative female graduates in these “special edition” posts of Thinking Out Loud during the month of March has helped all of us celebrate anew the significant contributions of women in leadership roles and importance of women in ministry.

    Knowing How to Act

    By Karen Russell

    The most challenging thing I’ve found as a woman in ministry is knowing “how to act.” I was raised in a tradition where the idea of women preaching, pastoring, teaching, or leading was tightly proscribed, so I had no models of what ministry looked like for women other than as a spouse or Sunday School teacher. I eventually took a job with an Episcopal ministry, and my supervisor was a female priest. But I never saw her in a parish situation. I was 40 years old before I experienced a woman in a pastoral situation, which also was the first time I heard a woman preach during a worship service.

    I cannot tell you what the sermon was about, what scripture was used, or anything she said. What I do remember is a feeling that a veil had somehow been pulled down, showing me opportunities I had never imagined. That worship service started me on a journey that has led to places I had not expected, doing work I’d never envisioned, and feeling a sense of satisfaction that far exceeds anything I’ve experienced before. But knowing “how to act” continues to be a question for me.

    The question of how to wear the mantle of pastoral authority without being authoritative is a constant struggle for women, I think. One of the great gifts women bring to pastoral ministry is our innate tendency to nurture, but the balance between nurturing others and retaining the pastoral authority to shepherd is difficult for me. The lack of female pastoral role models as my faith was forming contributes to this difficulty. I know how to lead a meeting, administer a program, negotiate difficult financial times, or create interesting marketing materials. I am less confident about my skill in leading a group of people to be part of the body of Christ when change tends to brings out our most un-Christ-like qualities.

    Luckily, I have found many good role models in the women ministers I have encountered in seminary and in my current work, most of them younger than I am. I am often envious of these women who, while still facing significant challenges, were lucky enough to see the opportunities of ministry earlier in life and who took advantage of those opportunities. I believe the female voice I heard proclaiming the gospel that Sunday morning proclaimed that with God not only is nothing impossible, but everything is possible. In the light of these infinite possibilities I can worry less about knowing how to act, trusting that the God of possibility can use even my miss-steps.

    The Rev. Karen Russell (MDiv ’08; ThM ’10) is Program Associate in the Office of Theology and Worship, Presbyterian Church (USA).

  • Where's Pogo When You Really Need Him?

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 26, 2012

    Many years ago, Walt Kelly's comic character, Pogo, made the painful observation: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

    In a recent National Public Radio interview with Bob Edwards, Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption (2012), said that the two things people need informationally to make good decisions in our society are pragmatism and synthesis. And we are getting less and less of both these days from our journalism. People who already agree with MSNBC tend to watch MSNBC, he observed. People who already agree with Fox News tend to watch Fox News. And a growing portion of each group tends to believe members of the other group are unreliable and may even be out to get them.

    Each group finds itself becoming increasingly confirmed in the opinions its members already firmly hold. Each group is carefully shielded from having to face any facts that don't square with its members’ already strong beliefs. Neither group is encouraged to synthesize various perspectives, including perspectives that might differ from either extreme. And no one in either group is encouraged to think in pragmatic terms, which almost invariably require mediation, negotiation, compromise, weighing options and alternatives, and living with the uncomfortable insight that none of us has a monopoly on truth. This is unfortunate, because most of the best decisions result from the collective wisdom of highly differentiated groups.

    It would be convenient but inaccurate simply to blame the present situation with respect to public information on corporate greed or partisan politics, Johnson went on to note. We aren't being forced to consume propaganda in a totalitarian state. We are choosing to propagandize ourselves. If our nation is becoming hooked on the mentally polarizing equivalent of crack cocaine, it is because we are demanding it from the information dealers of our own choosing. The problem, Johnson reports (and his analysis is based on a careful study of our behavior) is that we tend to want to be confirmed in what we want to believe is true. We resist information, data, ideas, and facts that are contrary to our immediate self-interest, or, even more problematically, to our wishful thinking about ourselves.

    Where's Pogo when you really need him? Or, for that matter, where are John Calvin and St. Augustine of Hippo?

    It has become fashionable for even some of the most moderate, the most sensible, voices in our society to try to pin the rap of the progressing polarization of our society on somebody out there. We'd all prefer to believe this is the case. But the enemy resides in every human breast. We really are our own worst enemies when it comes to living in a functional society. The culprits are not simply the venal politicians who will say whatever they think people want to hear just to get elected. The culprits are not just the heads of news corporations pandering to the lowest common denominator in the most sensational terms. Unappealing as their actions may be, they are just delivering the packages we ordered.

    So, Pogo, having met the enemy, how do we love him enough to tell him the truth that will set him free? That is, when the "he" or "she" is us!?

    Walt Kelly created this poster for Earth Day in 1970 (http://www.igopogo.com/we_have_met.htm). The image is copyright (c) 2011 OGPI and used with permission. To learn more about Pogo and his creator, visit http://www.pogopossum.com/index.htm

  • Blazing New Territory

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 22, 2012

    Snowden Isaiah McKinnon (BD ’53) was the first African American to graduate from Louisville Seminary, and Dora Pierce(BD ’61) was the first women to complete her degree. It wasn’t until 1980 when F. Camille Williams-Neal became the first African American woman to earn the divinity degree from our Seminary. During the month of March, I am pleased to offer weekly “special edition” posts of Thinking Out Loud which are helping us to celebrate the perseverance of all women who have followed God’s call to a variety of ministries despite many forms of discrimination and inequality, including alumna Teresa Snorton (MDiv ’82), the first female bishop in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, who reflects on some of my questions about being a woman serving in ministry.
    Blazing new territory

    By Bishop Teresa E. Snorton

    What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of being (a woman) in ministry?

    I entered ministry in the late 1970s when there were few women in formal ministry in the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) denomination. This was compounded by my decision to attend seminary, which few men, let alone women did in my home conference, the Kentucky Conference of the CME Church.

    It was a personal challenge to discover who my role models would be. Most of my mentors turned out to be males who had a commitment to inclusivity in ministry.

    I am grateful to clergy women like Johanna Bos at Louisville Seminary and Jacqueline Grant at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta who wrote and taught about feminist and womanist theology, thus helping me find my voice and identity as a woman in ministry.

    I continue to find it challenging to balance family and ministry, since as a woman I have always maintained the traditional roles of mother, nurturer, cook, housekeeper, etc., along with ministry. My perception is that male clergy often get “excused” from certain family expectations because of their ministry vocation.

    What has surprised you the most about being (a woman) in ministry?

    When I first entered the ministry, I was surprised by the resistance of some to the concept of women in ministry. I did not understand how they could profess a belief in a loving, liberating God/Jesus, yet still discriminate against women.

    Some 35 years later, I am still surprised by the resistance to women in ministry in some geographical areas and faith traditions. In the black church, I am struck by the irony of those who did not want to be discriminated because of their race/color (which was said to be a God-determined fact) yet who subsequently discriminate against some because of their gender (another God-determined fact). The dogmatic use of scripture to justify these positions continues to puzzle me, perhaps because I have a dynamic, transformative view of theology and God’s work in creation.

    What have you found especially gratifying about being (a woman) in ministry?

    I am especially gratified to blaze new territory, especially as the first female Bishop in my denomination. Rather than see myself as a token woman in many places, I see the opportunity to introduce a new relational approach to ministry that is directly connected to my feminist/womanist theology. I love to invite people to see themselves beyond where the world and even they can sometimes imagine, using my own story as an illustration.

    The Rev. Dr. Teresa Snorton (MDiv ’82) is Presiding Bishop of the Fifth Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, and she will be the Festival Preacher at Louisville Seminary's 2012 Festival of Theology and Reunion, April 29-May 1. See also “First female bishop in Christian Methodist EpiscopalChurch oversees Alabama" in Birmingham News (March 5, 2012).

  • Self-righteousness Is Not Righteous

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 20, 2012

    Christianity keeps getting a bad rap. This is at least partially our fault as Christians.

    There are days when it is hard to turn on a television or radio, or to open a newspaper, to discover again what “Christians” are saying about somebody else’s behavior, lifestyle, values, morality, perspective on the environment, sexuality, economics, etc. etc. etc., in the most judgmental and self-righteous terms. In the last few weeks alone I have been stunned to hear repeatedly “Christian” leaders, “Christian”politicians, and representatives of various “Christian” organizations and churches denounce one group or individual after another in favor of their own righteousness.

    At one point last week, I was reminded of that scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the village turned out to stone to death a person accused of blasphemy only to stone also the chief prosecutor for repeating the blasphemy in the course of making the official accusation. Once the stoning starts, nobody is safe.

    Where did we ever get the idea that being Christians gave us the inside track on righteousness? The Bible, by contrast, shows the most religious folks, the folks convinced of their own righteousness, in a consistently bad light.

    According to Jesus of Nazareth, his followers are to be good and faithful; he didn’t come to destroy either the law or the prophets (Matthew 5:17-20), but our goodness and faithfulness are defined in terms of rejecting revenge, placing the needs of others before our own needs, and rooting violence, hatred, envy, and lust out of our own hearts (Matthew 5: 21-42). Followers of Jesus are not, in fact, to be confident in our own goodness or righteousness at all. The emblem of our faithfulness is a wholehearted trust in God’s grace. According to Jesus, our resemblance to God has more to do with the quality of our mercy and forgiveness toward others than what most of us regard as ethics, morality, or even religious behavior (Matthew 5: 43-48). Jesus warns against praying and practicing our religion in front of other people so that they will notice how religious we are (Matthew 6: 5-18). He warns against trumpeting our generosity so that others will notice (Matthew 6: 1-4). And, in a remarkable passage about “values,” he is careful to say that seeking the reign of God in this world has to do with God’s righteousness, not ours (Matthew 6: 24-34). Jesus warns us not to draw too tightly our circle when it comes to those we will include, implying that the real question isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?” but“Am I a neighbor to others?” (Matthew 5: 43-47; cf. Luke 10: 25-37).

    Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has been described as teaching the ethics of the kingdom of God. But, if this sermon does teach ethics or morality, they represent a very different version from what we get in contemporary discourses on Christian values. Jesus’ approach to morality turns the light back upon us, his followers, asking us to look at ourselves, to look at our own hearts, to look at our own trust, mercy, forgiveness, lack of openness, lusts, the violence we harbor, and our desire for revenge. There is no encouragement at all here for Christians to examine the ethics and morality of others.

    From where, then, does the compulsion come to equate faithfulness with self-righteousness, especially for us Christians?

    C. S. Lewis seemed to point to taking ourselves too seriously. In his wonderfully diabolical little book, The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior demon instructs a demon-in-training how to ensnare human beings, Lewis describes a close connection between self-seriousness and self-righteousness. “For humor,” Lewis writes, “involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside. Whatever else we attribute to beings who sinned through pride, we must not attribute this [a sense of humor]. Satan, said Chesterton, fell through force of gravity. We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance and where everyone lives in the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.”[1]

    Hell, and a whole lot of other places (some of them very religious, some of them even “Christian”), could be characterized in these terms. Pride, ambition, lack of proportion, self-importance, envy, resentment, and a perpetual attitude of grievance, all of which are enemies of faithfulness, do not belong to any particular Christian denomination or religious faith alone; they are not the exclusive property of the left, right, or center (politically, socially, or theologically); they are, sadly, human failings in their inhumanity. They place us above others, and the higher we place ourselves above others, the harder the fall. Pride is the most unoriginal of sins.

    Recently, in a lunch conversation organized by Louisville Seminary Trustee Kyle Lanham for two of his friends from Indianapolis, our professor, Cliff Kirkpatrick, shared another perspective on the problem of faithfulness and self-righteousness. Cliff paraphrased the late Lesslie Newbigin, who reminded Christians that God has called us “to the witness stand”not “the judge’s bench. Maybe that’s where the problem lies. Maybe we just aren’t clear about our role.

    Jesus himself warned that religion can become sacrilegious. In the venerable Authorized Version (aka the KJV) of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s [or sister’s] eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”(Matthew 7: 1-2)

    Anne Lamott has said: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates the same people you do.”

    What gets lost in the “Holier than Thou Shuffle” (the only dance to which even Christians who don’t believe in dancing know all the steps) is the good news of the gospel. And the good news of the gospel is not that any of us are “holier than thou,” nor that we have better values“than thou,” nor that we are more righteous “than thou,” whomever “thou” may be.

    The good news of the gospel is that God forgives sinners. There may be more than this to the gospel, but there’s certainly not less. Will Campbell famously said that the Christian gospel can be boiled down to this single phrase (please excuse Will’s French):“We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” That is a message our society needs to hear, if indeed it could only hear it over the clatter of us “Christians”trying to prove that somebody else is the b*****d, but that we deserve God’s love.

    Whatever else Jesus taught, there's no doubt he taught us this: Self-righteousness is not righteous.

    [1] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters(London: The Folio Society, 2008), xiii-xiv.

  • Louise Glϋck speaks the truth

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 13, 2012

    In a course I taught a couple of years ago, I began each class with a poem. One day, I read a long section from Louise Glϋck’s volume, Averno. I began the reading with the passage, “death cannot harm me/ more than you have harmed me,/ my beloved life”and ended with the words, “It is true there is not enough beauty in the world./ It is also true that I am not competent to restore it./ Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.”[i]Between these two passages lie verses that repeat the theme of loss, “You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared,” but they do so in a way that speak less of resignation than of acceptance and even of a profound (I hesitate to use the word but cannot find another) beatitude. The poet confesses at one point, “Surely it is a privilege to approach the end/ still believing in something.”[ii]

    When I finished reading the poem that day, I looked up from the book and observed one of the students with tears running down her cheeks. After class we spoke briefly about the poem, about how these verses touched the quick. She was awaiting a diagnosis from her doctor. She was struggling with her faith.

    A year or so later, I was leading a discussion on poetry in a local congregation. I happened to read this section of Averno again in that setting. The same young woman was in the discussion that day. After the class was over, she came up to me, and said, “I had hoped I would never have to hear that poem again. Thank you for reading it.”

    The young woman’s reaction in all its complexity—distressed, yet grateful—begins to explain why Louise Glϋck is probably my favorite contemporary poet. The beauty of her verse is inseparable from its stark aspiration to speak the truth.

    “And your hunger,” she seems to say directly to me, in another poem, “is not for experience but for understanding, as though it could be had in the abstract.”[iii]She knows better, of course, that understanding is inextricable from experience, or from some sorting out of experience, whether our experience is recast in mythological terms (Glϋck breathes classical mythology, Greek and Roman, as naturally as Gerard Manley Hopkins breathed a Christian sacramental view of life) or in naturalistic terms (as when Glϋck gives voice to the wild iris or the red poppy).

    I have read her poem, “The Wild Iris,” dozens of times. Each time I read it, it offers more. Yet, it also resists me. It resists my attempts to appropriate it directly or utilize it in any literal sense to Christian ends, though it does seem to speak of resurrection. The poem invites me to enter into it, but demands that I accept it on its own terms.

    At the end of my suffering

    there was a door.

    Hear me out: that which you call death

    I remember.

    Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.

    Then nothing. The weak sun

    flickered over the dry surface

    It is terrible to survive

    as consciousness

    buried in the dark earth….

    You who do not remember

    passage from the other world

    I tell you I could speak again: whatever

    returns from oblivion returns

    to find a voice:

    from the center of my life came

    a great fountain, deep blue

    shadows on azure seawater.[iv]


    The line that haunts me in this poem is this one: “whatever/ returns from oblivion returns/ to find a voice.” On a purely natural (or maybe naturalistic) level, we are listening to the voice of a wild iris, whose brilliant blue life springs from an apparently dry and dead bulb buried beneath the earth. And maybe that is all. Isn’t it enough? The poem holds me in its literal grip, but whispers transcendent possibilities that resist my appropriating them into any doctrinal form. I think resurrection; then I think again. The poet, in “Field Flowers,” seems to read my mind, conflicted as I am, seems to overhear the argument I am having with myself, when she asks wryly:“What are you saying? That you want eternal life? Are your thoughts really as compelling as all that?”[v]Well, no, my thoughts aren’t all that compelling. My thoughts are (at their best) like the flowers of the field which bloom today and tomorrow are dry as straw and ready to be burned away. But Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as richly and beautifully as are these flowers of the field that are here today and gone tomorrow. Should I not wish that they would last forever?

    In “The Red Poppy,” the poppy, scarlet like blood, like fire, speaking to humanity, wonders if maybe we humans were once poppies ourselves, sometime, long, long ago, when we allowed ourselves to open up, to reveal the fire of our hearts, a fire that reflects the “lord in heaven/ called the sun."[vi] By holding firmly, sticking closely to the natural, we find ourselves inevitably drawn toward transcendence.

    Her poem, “The Garment,” which begins, “My soul dried up,/ Like a soul cast into fire, but not completely,/ not to annihilation,” closes with words that could be transcribed as a cartoon text bubble over the heads of the bewildered disciples that Jesus met on the Emmaus Road: “And when hope was returned to me/ it was another hope entirely.”[vii] But which of us has not lived through some experience when our souls were dried up, when our hopes were taken from us? Surely, most of us have known hopes that were stolen or eclipsed by misfortune only to be returned or to rise to possibilities we had never dreamed of. “Bright wings” brush against us most often when little else is bright.

    And in her poem, “The Untrustworthy Speaker,” Glϋck says:“Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken./ I don’t see anything objectively./ I know myself; I’ve learned to hear like a psychiatrist./ When I speak passionately,/ that’s when I’m least to be trusted.”[viii] We feel the “bright wings” brush against us here too, because we have learned to distrust our wants most when we are most passionate. We have learned to hesitate before we attribute to truth or to God that for which our hearts clamor most loudly.

    If it is the case, as Louise Glϋck says in Averno, that there is not enough“candor” in our world, I think we have at least one poet competent to help us restore it.

    [i] Louise Glϋck, Averno (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), 10, 13.

    [ii] Ibid., 12.

    [iii] Louise Glϋck, “Moonbeam,” in The Seven Ages (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 5.

    [iv] Louise Glϋck, The Wild Iris (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 1.

    [v] Ibid., 28.

    [vi] Ibid., 29.

    [vii] Louise Glϋck, Vita Nova (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 20.

    [viii] Louise Glϋck, Ararat (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 34.

  • Challenges, Surprises, Fulfillment and the Wall of Pastors

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 08, 2012

    The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, established in 1992, serves the campus and larger community by informing individuals on matters of concern and justice related to women and all people who suffer discrimination, violence, and inequity; and by celebrating the gifts and achievements of women in the Church and the world. During the month of March, I am pleased to offer weekly “special edition” posts of Thinking Out Loud in which several of our women graduates work toward these same aims, enlightening and educating all of us about the opportunities and difficulties that they have faced as women in ministry. In turn, their accounts give us opportunity to learn about and celebrate their own distinct gifts, achievements, dedication, and courage as Christian leaders. In today’s post we hear from Angela Cowser, a 2006 graduate and PhD student at Vanderbilt, who answers my queries about the challenges, surprises, and joys of being a woman in ministry; and Melissa DeRosia, a 2005 graduate and pastor in New York, who reflects upon her experience of being the first female pastor in her 100-year-old congregation.

    Challenges, Surprises, and Fulfillment

    By Angela Cowser

    What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of being in ministry?

    • Sexism. In my role as a community organizer, being female has been a challenge when working with male clergy who’ve been steeped in and affirmed inside an unreflective, unreconstructed, patriarchal understanding of ecclesial leadership.
    • A lack of sustained engagement, camaraderie, and fellowship with other female clergy, especially inter-racially. Wise leaders need people around them who love them, question them, and push them to think and act with more imagination, honesty, and faithfulness. A group of female clergy who are in sustained relationship with each other, especially across race and ethnicity, can be an important support in helping women better understand what they do and why.
    • A privatized practice of religion that disconnects and neglects the public and policy implications of Christian ministry. I have been troubled by the pervasiveness of private, therapeutic hermeneutics, ethics, and pastoral care, which are disconnected from or silent about the public implications of the gospel. Should churches have a role in public education when systems are found to be inequitable? Could we have been pro-active in helping potential homeowners understand the mortgage market, thereby avoiding toxic mortgage products? Is there more we can say and do over time—to help members in both congregations and communities improve their health? We are good at emphasizing religion’s private face, while neglecting a more public, political, and prophetic role. The public and prophetic are equally important, necessary, and faithful to Jesus whose private healings and confrontations had significant public implications and impacts.

    What has surprised you the most about being in ministry?

    I’ve been surprised and delighted by the level of affirmation and support that I’ve received from my congregation. I continue to enjoy and need to work off of the synergies that exist between congregational ministry, teaching, research, and community organizing. Each discipline and calling nurtures and informs the others.

    What have you found especially gratifying about being in ministry?

    The place of joy for me is being in the midst of people who love each other and enjoy praying with each other, and who value and celebrate sustained engagement, camaraderie, deep learning, and fellowship. Ministry creates spaces in the Sunday school classroom, the seminary lunchroom, and the research table where moments of exhilaration and freedom can happen.

    The Rev. Angela Cowser (MDiv ’06) is a PhD Candidate at Vanderbilt Divinity School and lead organizer for POGO (People of God Organized), a community group of churches organized for justice and reconciliation in east Nashville, Tennessee. While at Louisville Seminary Angela was one of the co-founders of Women at the Well, a campus organization for women of color.

    The Wall of Pastors

    By Melissa DeRosia

    The church was overwhelmingly beautiful. Light streaming through stained glass windows flooded the sanctuary with rainbows. The building held the memories and stories of generations of churchgoers in this small Midwestern town. In every room you could smell Church—stale coffee, mildew, crayons, and a mixture of aftershave and old lady perfume. I secretly believe that this is what God smells like. The mauve colored carpet had seen the spills of one too many potlucks. Now tarnished brass name plates “in memory of” were affixed to everything that wasn’t nailed down.

    The search committee and I were in conversation about our call, my call to be their pastor and their call to take a chance on a young, fresh-from-seminary, female pastor. We were all giddy and naively optimistic about the journey God was laying out before us.

    Then I saw it.

    The wall.

    The wall is in the church parlor, where people gather after service to drink coffee and catch up on the town news, and it can be seen from the sanctuary when a curtain is opened to accommodate the rare overflow crowd. On this wall are mounted, from floor to ceiling, photographs of every pastor who has served the church for more than 100 years. As I scanned the wall, I quickly noticed: all of the pastors were male—and all of them were staring at me.

    I stood there, staring back at them, in disbelief that I might be the first woman to have a portrait hanging on this wall. I grew up in a church that always had a woman pastor. I went to a seminary where more than half of the students were women. How was it possible that I would be the first woman pastor whose portrait hung on this wall?

    It was possible, because people from the congregation told the pastoral search committee, “If you ever call a woman pastor, I won’t come to church anymore.” It was possible, because this was a town where there are more churches than restaurants and hair salons combined, and there wasn’t one female pastor to be found. It was possible, because even the most progressive congregation, even in a metropolitan area where a generous number of women serve in leadership, there are still barriers of gender stereotypes for women who seek to respond to God’s call in ministry.

    These barriers aren’t new. After writing The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion (Alban Institute 2011) one of the most common responses shared with me by women who pioneered the ordination of women in mainline denominations was“I can’t believe these same stories are being lived out decades later.” While in a growing number of congregations it is no longer surprising or incongruous to see a woman in the pulpit, it can be very wearisome to encounter the same gender stereotypes over and over again. Regardless of the number of times we are stared down by the wall of pastors, the only way to break down the barrier of the stained glass ceiling and be the first woman to serve as a pastor is to be a persevering, determined, and thick-skinned woman who isn’t afraid to dance, tip-toe, stomp, and if necessary kick our way through them.


    The Rev. Melissa DeRosia (MDiv ’05) is the pastor and head of staff at Gates Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, where she lives with her husband Matt and two young daughters. Passionate and dedicated to follow God’s call in the changing landscape of the church, she has served as moderator of presbytery and is an elected member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly Mission Council. Melissa also is co-author with Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan, and Amanda Adams Riley of The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry (The Alban Institute, 2011).

  • Jane Kenyon will break your heart

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 06, 2012

    Over the next two weeks, I want to introduce you to two of my favorite poets. But before I do that, I want to say a word about poetry. During the past several years, I have led workshops and conversations on poetry. One of the reasons I do this is to encourage appreciation for poetry's capacity to do things for us that nothing else can do. From time to time, someone will say to me, “I don’t like poetry.” Most of the time what they mean is, “I don’t like bad poetry.” When exposed to good poetry, they are usually surprised to discover not only that they “like” it, but also that they feel a “need” for it.

    Jane Kenyon will break your heart. She will break your heart because of how she says what she has to say. Her verse keeps to a trim sparring weight, saying much by saying little. She will also break your heart because she falls silent far too soon—dead at forty seven, and conscious of death’s approach long before that. Her struggle with depression and, finally, leukemia provides an inner landscape for much of her poetry, but this inner struggle is vividly cast against the natural world, as in the opening lines of the poem which begins her collection, Let Evening Come (1990), “Three Songs at the End of Summer”: 
                                                                                                Jane Kenyon
                                                                                Source: http://www.aprweb.org

    A second crop of hay lies cut                                             
    and turned. Five gleaming crows
    search and peck between the rows.
    They make a low, companionable squawk,
    and like midwives and undertakers
    possess a weird authority.[i]

    Our lives, it is clear from Kenyon’s poetry, are part of nature. We find ourselves; we learn to know ourselves, in and through this natural world. The natural world of the Midwest, from which Kenyon came, and the Northeast in which she spent her most productive years, echo through her poetry. Kenyon was a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she attended the University of Michigan, before marrying poet Donald Hall, a professor at the university. After their marriage, they moved to New Hampshire where she lived the rest of her life, becoming, in time, the poet laureate of New Hampshire. Hall, who would go on to become poet laureate of the United States, wrote arguably his most powerful volume of poetry, Without(1998), in response to Kenyon’s illness and death. And Wendell Berry reflects also on the loss he felt at Kenyon’s death in one of his Sabbath poems of 1998 (poem VI), writing: “For every year is costly/ As you well know. Nothing/ is given that is not/ Taken, and nothing taken/ That was not first a gift.”[ii]

    Jane Kenyon will break your heart. But enough of my telling you why; let me show you how.

    First, a poem from her 1993 collection, Constance, perhaps her most haunting poem, “Otherwise”:

    I got out of bed
    on two strong legs.
    It might have been
    otherwise. I ate
    cereal, sweet
    milk, ripe, flawless
    peach. It might
    have been otherwise.
    I took the dog uphill
    to the birch wood.
    All morning I did
    the work I love.

    At noon I lay down
    with my mate. It might
    have been otherwise.
    We ate dinner together
    at a table with silver
    candlesticks. It might
    have been otherwise.
    I slept in a bed
    in a room with paintings
    on the walls, and
    planned another day
    just like this day.
    But one day, I know,
    it will be otherwise.[iii]

    The poem takes in the world we take for granted with the same steady dark eyes we see in photos of Jane Kenyon, eyes that refuse, in the gathering darkness, to look away, but refuse also to grow maudlin and self-pitying.

    Finally, a few lines from one of my favorite poems; it appeared in the posthumously published collection, Otherwise (1996), “Happiness”:




    There’s just no accounting for happiness,

    or the way it turns up like a prodigal

    who comes back to the dust at your feet

    having squandered a fortune far away.


    And how can you not forgive?

    You make a feast in honor of what

    was lost, and take from its place the finest

    garment, which you saved for an occasion

    you could not imagine, and you weep night and day

    to know that you were not abandoned,

    that happiness saved its most extreme form

    for you alone…

    I must leave it to you to read on in these poems, and to let Jane Kenyon break your heart, too. But, perhaps, in this breaking there is also a heart healing we also need.

    [i] Jane Kenyon, Let Evening Come (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1990), 3.

    [ii] Wendell Berry, Given: Poems (Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker Hoard, 2005), 60-61.
    [iii] Jane Kenyon, Collected Poems (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2005), 266.

  • Call me “Mother”

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 01, 2012

    Women Making History: A Special Edition of Thinking Out Loud

    Louisville Seminary is very proud of its progressive commitments regarding the education and preparation of women for ministry. Women have served on the faculty since the mid-1970s, and for more than fifteen years the faculty has consisted of nearly fifty percent women. The student body over the past ten years has even exceeded fifty percent. While Louisville Seminary holds all of its graduates in high esteem, during this Women’s History Month Thinking Out Loud will share insights from some of our many tenacious, courageous, and creative female graduates. I have asked several of our alumnae to write about their experience as a woman serving in ministry: What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of being in ministry? What has surprised you the most about being in ministry? What have you found especially gratifying about being in ministry? Their reflections will no doubt enlighten and inspire you, as they have me.

    Michael Jinkins,

    Call me “Mother”

    By Anne Vouga

    I am old enough to have felt a call to ordained ministry before ever having met any female clergy and old enough to remember the people who gruffly changed lines to avoid taking communion from the hands of a woman priest. I was not one of the brave pioneers, however. It has taken God decades to get me into the Church, and while I have guiltily watched from the sidelines, women have taken their places as ordained leaders all around me. In seminary, surrounded by talented women professors and by female students of all ages, I thought that women were now seamlessly integrated into the life of the Church, and that my gender would hardly be noticed in my ministry. That notion evaporated my first week on the job, when my attempts to promote good environmental stewardship by accepting a donation of new dishes and getting the dishwasher repaired (so that the parish would no longer use environmentally harmful plastic) were met with resistance and the comment, “Well, it figures. We get a woman priest and the first thing she wants to talk about is dishes …!”

    First, I must point to the widespread consternation over how to address me. In the Episcopal Church, male priests are commonly called “Father,” but the female equivalent, “Mother,” makes those of us who are not highly Anglo-Catholic cringe. It conjures up a picture of a pious Mother Superior in a habit. “Rev. Anne,” on the other hand, sounds rather like a country parson and is grammatically incorrect. And as for just plain “Anne,” why should my parishioners call me only by my first name while they honor a male colleague with the title, “Father?” I have been called everything from “Father Anne,” to “Madre,” to “Priestess” in an attempt to cover the discomfort with humor, and there is no perfect solution in sight. A title is perhaps not a big deal, but the inability to name an identity is surely a sign that the identity itself is not clearly and unambiguously formed.

    While the title “Mother” might still make people uncomfortable, I must say that the life experience that has best prepared me for the role of parish priest is my experience as a mother, and a single mother at that! On the one hand, I was prepared for the long hours of never-ending work and the deep loneliness of the responsible caretaker. On the other hand, I recognize the duty to love and guide while letting go and encouraging independence. The same nerves of steel and heart of love that allowed me to care for my sick child in the hospital now allow me to pray with a grieving spouse in the ICU. I recognize the same feelings of pride and satisfaction when the governing board takes ownership of a difficult issue as I did when my teenager got behind the wheel of the car for the first time. And the eyes peering over the edge of the chalice and over the silver baby cup look up with the same openness and vulnerability. I had no idea that motherhood was preparing me for ordained ministry. That is both surprising and strangely gratifying.

    The Rev. Anne Vouga (MDiv ’08) is the Rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky. She also blogs at “Writing What I See” | annevouga.blogspot.com

  • Intellectual Empathy

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 28, 2012


    Our old professor would enter the classroom like a phantom from another age. His black master’s gown billowed behind him as he came through the door, the North Atlantic wind whipping across the quadrangle of King’s College and into our drafty ground-floor classroom. Halfway through his lecture, what with his frenzied scribblings on the ancient rotating chalkboard, his gown would be covered in a dusting to compete with the snow on the lawn. But what I remember most distinctly from that course was not its picturesque quality but Professor James Torrance’s embodiment of intellectual empathy,

    Professor Torrance had a way of taking us deep into the context that gave rise to a philosopher’s thought, of exploring the inspirations and motivations behind it. It didn’t matter whether he agreed with the thinker’s arguments or not; his aim was to help us to glimpse the unique genius of that philosopher’s insights. After such lectures, we would dash off to the university library to read everything we could find about the perspective in question, having glimpsed (if only momentarily) its inner logic and beauty.

    Isaiah Berlin argued that genuine intellectual empathy requires creativity and commitment—a commitment and a willingness to imagine others’ ideas from within. One has to come alongside another person. One has to be willing to say, “I may not share your perspective—in fact, I may disagree with you entirely!—but we share a common humanity and so I want to understand what you think.”

    This capacity for intellectual empathy is essential to those who wish to live generously and with integrity in a pluralistic society. Perhaps it is even more essential today than in times past, given the social and cultural forces that presently foster division and encourage peremptory dismissal of opposing views—not to mention our enhanced capacities to destroy one another. Practicing intellectual empathy is a kind of spiritual discipline, because it necessitates that we put aside our belief that the lens through which we view the world is the only right one (see Rom 12:3). In intellectual empathy we do not sacrifice critical thinking, but before we move in to offer critique we first hear others thoughtfully and try to imagine what it would be like to share their convictions. It was just that kind of intellectual empathy that I saw lived out in Professor Torrance’s classroom. He would wait until we were thoroughly entranced with whatever perspective we were studying before he would enter into his careful, critical analysis. Never once, moreover, did he exhibit the least bit of rancor or partisanship. His task was always to seek and to find the truth.

    My thoughts returned to these lessons learned from Professor Torrance as I was reading Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). In one passage Burke takes issue with a sermon by Dr. Richard Price, an eminent dissenting minister of the time, who on November 4, 1789, preached a sermon in London praising the French Revolution. Burke, deeply suspicious of political and social revolution, contended that “we ought to suspend judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided.” Congratulations should not be offered too soon, until it could be seen whether discipline, order, religion, and property could be properly managed—otherwise our congratulations “may be soon turned into complaints.” Burke’s response to Price gave rise, almost immediately, to a further response by Thomas Paine. Paine’s “The Rights of Man” was influential to our American democracy in its infancy (as his earlier “Common Sense” had proven influential in our own revolution against Britain).

    I find myself wishing that educators today would spend more time helping us see the deep connections among the countervailing arguments that have given rise to our cherished convictions. Here we have such a good example: Price’s sermon provoking Burke’s Reflections and giving rise to Paine’s tract. In some sense becoming educated—and this is certainly true of becoming theologically educated—is a matter of taking our own place in the vast, centuries-spanning conversation about what it means to be human. It is a conversation that began long before we entered the room and will continue long after we have exited. How might the debates that polarize our churches and our society today be different if students were practiced in such intellectual empathy?

    Teaching methods have changed. Chalkboards and chalk dust have given way to other media, and classrooms are a great deal more interactive. But what my old professor modeled years ago remains true today: to be educated is not simply to know some things; rather, it is to cultivate a posture of humility and respect toward those others who have tried (with more or less success) to understand the things that we also are trying to comprehend.

  • An Apocalypse of Hope

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 21, 2012

    A few weeks ago, board chairs and presidents of Presbyterian seminaries gathered in New York City for our annual meeting. As is our custom we began our daily sessions with a prayer and devotional. This year, we were in for a very special treat: the leader of our Saturday morning devotional was Dr. James Forbes, former pastor of the Riverside Church in New York and one of the greatest preachers of our time.

    There were so many memorable aspects of Dr. Forbes's devotional. First, there was the way he redefined the very term "devotional" into a moment of pure proclamation. Second, there was the lesson he taught us about passion and rhetoric. He filled a small room at Auburn Theological Seminary and shared with a small group the level of energy we ordinarily associate with a cathedral stuffed to the rafters. Third, there was the way he used the familiar parable of the prodigal son as a lesson about the humanizing power of employment, the redemptive power of work.

    But for me, the most memorable aspect of his devotional was in an aside. (Isn't it interesting how often God's Word breaks through when the preacher says something that isn’t on the main point? It reminds me of the old Scottish theologian's remark that the Word of God lies between the lines of the Bible.) Dr. Forbes, just as an aside, mentioned how much he loves and how often he returns to read James Washington's collection of the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope. Dr. Forbes directed our attention particularly to the address Dr. King delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. It was his famous sermon, "I See the Promised Land" (aka “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top”).

    While Dr. Forbes mainly drew our attention to the redemptive power of work, his comments about Washington's collection opened a floodgate of associations for me. This wonderful book has served as a text book in classes I have taught for years on "power and change," a subject about which Dr. King had a subtle and profoundly theological understanding. In his essay, “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” Dr. King places the civil rights struggle in theological context in a way that invites persons of all races and ethnicities into a common undertaking for the sake of God's reign. In lesser known pieces, like "An Experiment in Love" (1958), "My Trip to the Land of Gandhi" (1959), "Suffering and Faith" (1960), and "Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience" (1961), Dr. King invites us to understand the spiritual and intellectual, as well as the philosophical and theological, potential of what he described as "the only road to freedom."

    James Washington titled this collection of the essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope. And that is appropriate. But reading them today, in light of all that has been accomplished but also in light of all that remains to be done in order to free persons of every race and ethnicity from the godless fetters of oppression, to open the doors of opportunity to full employment and the dignity that goes with meaningful work, to ensure that justice rolls down like a rushing stream and love finds a way to triumph over hatred and violence, I cannot but think of this "testimony" in different terms, in "apocalyptic" terms. Among doomsday prophets both religious and secular it has become fashionable to envision dire scenarios of famine and warfare, hatred and violence in the streets of our cities. But Dr. King's writings show us "a more excellent way," by recasting a biblical promise of an apocalypse—literally a “revelation”—of hope.

    I know the cynics would have a field day with a phrase like "an apocalypse of hope"—so addicted has our culture become to the rhetoric of despair. But Dr. King, like Gandhi before him, knew from bitter experience that "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" ultimately leaves the whole world toothless and blind. Dr. King knew that Jesus of Nazareth has given us an alternative, and he showed us what can be accomplished when we are willing not just to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ but to embody that gospel, to employ love as a social force, to let God use us as agents of liberation working to transform the social realities and the hearts of humanity.

    Dr. King looked into the future that we now inhabit. Despite the challenges he foresaw and in the face of monumental opposition, he etched the future with words that ring with apocalyptic hope: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

    Can he get an Amen?

  • Lessons from a Sandbar

    by User Not Found | Feb 07, 2012

    The gospels don’t have much nice to say about sand. The most familiar reference in the Bible warns us not to build our houses on the stuff. Good advice. I’ve spent some time reflecting on sand, sand dunes, and sand bars while meandering along a beach near our summer retreat, and I’ve noticed a few things which, frankly, I had not noticed before.

    Sandbars are a landform right out of the pages of Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher who famously observed that we cannot step into the same stream twice. From one tide to the next, sand bars are always changing, shifting. Walking among them your feet actually feel the change happening right between your toes, the water swirling little clouds of sand in the sparkling salt water. If you were to map the sandbars on a beach one day, the next day you’d almost have to start from scratch with a new map.

    For example, I encountered two huge tidal pools the size of good-sized ponds at the beach near our place. They were so large, it was impossible to walk down the beach at low tide without crossing several small rivulets. For over a week, the larger of the two pools supported several schools of fish and supplied cranes and other sea birds with three square meals a day. A week later, an especially high tide opened up a stream again to the ocean, and one of the pools drained completely away.

    I came across a group of kayakers who had been reliably navigating some of the larger streams among the bars the week before. To their surprise, however, the streams they had taken for granted had become so shallow, they spent more time portaging than paddling. Eventually, they gave up and put out to sea.

    It occurred to me that there are some really valuable lessons hidden among the changing sand bars. The most obvious lesson is that everything really is changing all the time. Among the sand bars, this is obvious. You can’t ignore it. The mountains, plains, even the continents are always on the move, too. But their rate of change is so slow that you don’t see it, unless you check the fossil record. The change among the sand bars is something you can’t ignore, and it is a great place to think about life, in general, and the church, in particular.

    Well, actually, you can ignore change among the sand bars. But, if you do, you could drown, as a group of tourists did about ten years ago. They weren’t watching the changing of the tides as they frolicked on a sand bar that had formed way out in the Atlantic. When high tide came rushing in (as it can do!), they found themselves cut off from the shore and pulled out to sea on a rip tide.

    Another lesson occurred to me as I was walking in the shallow water off one of those sand bars farther out. You really need to learn the difference between the dorsal fins of sharks and dolphins. This is a lesson of some urgency when you are waist deep in the water. If it is a dolphin, you’re heart will sing with joy. There are few more graceful, beautiful creatures on God’s earth than a dolphin, and they will come right up to you in the wild. If it is a shark, well, you may want to be elsewhere. There’s also a lesson here about unnecessary anxiety. There are times when I suspect that lots of people are just too frightened to go into the water because they have convinced themselves that every dorsal fin they see is a shark. You will miss some beautiful, awesome sights if you let ignorance and anxiety keep you out of the water.

    Two other very quick lessons from the sand bars: Not everything that is pretty is safe. Anyone who has ever tangled with a Portuguese Man of War or gotten a barb from a Sting Ray knows this lesson, and both of these lovely creatures are abundant in the streams that cut through the sand bars. Debbie and I saw a fellow yell out to his buddies, “Hey, watch this!” as he grabbed the tail of a Sting Ray. I wonder how often in life the spurting of blood has followed those fateful words. We suspected that a liberal quantity of beer was related to this particular close encounter of the painful kind.

    And, the final lesson: If you know where to go, just as the tide is shifting, you can walk along the top of a sand bar that is still slightly covered with surf. And it looks exactly like you are walking on water.

  • Faith and Political Rhetoric

    by User Not Found | Jan 31, 2012

    For some time now, a sort of economic and political rhetoric has grown up around the country. This rhetoric belongs exclusively neither to the Republican nor to the Democratic Party, and, indeed, has “liberal,” “conservative,” and “libertarian” supporters. Its variants are many. The premises of this view might be summarized as follows:

    · Individuals have priority over community, and the only right that ultimately counts for anything is the right of the individual not to be constrained by the needs or interests of others.

    · Altruism is suspect because the only thing we can vouch for with anything approaching certainty is the purity of self-interest and the will to survive.

    · The single great power we can trust is the power of the economic free market to reward industry and provide the greatest good.

    · The middle way, moderation, negotiation, and compromise are evils because morality has no shades of gray.

    In recent years, we have all likely heard various applications of this rhetoric (and perhaps seen it on the silver screen, in the 2011 film Atlas Shrugged, based on the novel by atheist and ideologue Ayn Rand). We have heard this world view articulated by representatives of different political parties. Both liberals and conservatives have been among those who have exalted the “individual” to the point that the “individual” of whom they speak bears little to no real relationship to actual persons in community (the only sort of people who actually do exist!). Some politicians have run for office arguing that if persons do not have the means to afford health insurance society should, essentially, let them die. Others, building on the premise that welfare in certain circumstances unintentionally undermines personal responsibility and industry, go on to argue that, therefore, all social altruism and all programs to help the poor are confidence tricks. Such unyielding positions are correlated with one of the most disconcerting developments in contemporary politics: the rise of politicians who refuse to work together with other elected representatives for the common good if working together means listening, negotiating, and compromising.

    Among those who have critiqued this political rhetoric, there have been responsible commentators on both the left and the right. As Carl T. Bogus observes in his fascinating (and, at points, disturbing) new book, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011), one of the most vocal critics of one version of the premises bulleted above was Whittaker Chambers. Another was William F. Buckley Jr. While both Chambers and Buckley were vigorously argumentative and conservative, they recognized in the rampant individualism, self-centered rejection of altruism, absolute faith in the power of the marketplace, and arrogance, represented in the premises listed above, as a fundamental danger to society as a whole. They were particularly concerned about the undermining of altruism — that empathy for others which is an expression of generosity of spirit and a commitment to mutuality, and that serves as the basis for the social capital that binds us together as a society.[1] M. Stanton Evans, a colleague of Chambers and Buckley, weighed in on the explicitly anti-Christian message of Ayn Rand’s version of these premises, appealing to Christian faith as a belief system "predicated on something more than mere survival."[2]

    These conservative criticisms of the set of economic and political premises I have enumerated could be seconded by critics in the ideological middle and on the left, of course.[3] But perhaps the most trenchant criticism I have ever heard comes from an old personal friend of vaguely libertarian stripe. One day, he and I were having a discussion about altruism, specifically about whether it is right or socially constructive to give to someone in need (a panhandler, for example), or whether one might be simply enabling that person to remain dependent. He shook his head and said that while he could make some really good arguments against helping someone else in need, nevertheless he knew he had to do it.

    "Why," I asked.

    "Jesus told me to," he said.

    This is where I ended up, too.

    The interchange reminded me of something Garrison Keillor said about the Lutheran minister in Lake Wobegon. When the pastor was doing carpentry in his garage and he hit his thumb with a hammer, he was, said Keillor, somewhat limited by his vocation with regard to his vocabulary. So it also happens whenever we as Christians are confronted with the needs of others — needs that call us beyond our self-interests, needs that place on us burdens binding us one to another and obstructing our allegiance to various political premises that might otherwise appeal to us. Our vocation as Christians qualifies our responses. If we don’t like that fact, well, I guess that’s something we will just have to take up with the author of the Sermon on the Mount.


    [1] Carl T. Bogus, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), 198-221.

    [2] Ibid., 217.

    [3] See, for example, Barbara Jordan, Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder, ed. Max Sherman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 43-48, 56-65; Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief (New York: Basic Books, 1993); and Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).

  • World Changers

    by User Not Found | Jan 24, 2012

    Last week, I heard two riveting addresses on the future of the church and theological education, the first by Barbara Wheeler, Director of the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education, the second by Dan Aleshire, Executive Director of The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. Together they painted a portrait of unprecedented societal changes that have major implications for the future of the church — societal, demographic, and cultural shifts that leave the church in a less privileged position; financial shifts that make it more and more difficult to provide the kind of theological education we know improves the work of ministry; and shifts in the culture that make it easier for persons to church-hop, placing enormous pressure on pastors and congregants to appeal to the interests and needs of people who, years ago, they could have assumed would come to church with little prompting at all because going to church was just something people did.

    But throughout the portrait they painted, amid the news that tends to deflate us, there were opportunities scattered everywhere.

    For example, predominantly Euro-American denominations like Presbyterianism and Methodism (both of which originated in the British Isles) often throw up their hands when they look at the graying of their congregations, fearing the implication that in two decades or so the church will have shrunk by half (if not more). But there is an extraordinary opportunity for the transformation of these very churches by persons around the globe who have been called to follow Jesus Christ and are members even now of Presbyterian Churches and the Methodist Churches and others. These Christians (often from the Global South) have much to teach us if we are willing to learn and are willing to join with them. But there has to be a true partnership, in which we really do listen and join with them. This means relinquishing our assumption that we have the right to determine how they must change in order to join with us, and finding ways to collaborate on our shared commitment to spreading the good news of the Gospel and to working for justice, peace, and reconciliation wherever there is war or strife, as expressions of God’s reconciling love.

    And this is only the tip of the iceberg of one opportunity. Just one! There are so many other places where our mainline denominations can expand partnerships and reach across lines that divide us, even within denominations: lines of race, and of economic inequality, to give just two examples.

    Now, more than ever, I believe "Job #1" for us — as people who love the Church of Jesus Christ and who are called to follow Christ in witness and service — is to seek out for ministerial leadership the kind of people who see the opportunities amid the apparently dismal news, the people who want to grow new churches and revitalize established ones, who respect all persons and are willing to learn from them. We need to seek them out, provide a theological education that supports them in ministry, and send them out in a position to take risks, fail, and succeed for the sake of the gospel (which is why at Louisville Seminary we intend to make seminary debt a thing of the past).

    But as we recruit this kind of risk-taking, self-starting leader, we must be aware that the sort of people who make great leaders are sometimes least compliant to rigid institutional norms and standards. They are not typically identified as teachers' pets. They may take more mentoring and coaching (not least in theological field education internships), and they are unlikely to take to old-fashioned “sage-on-the-stage” classroom instruction. But, they will endure in ministry when others have decided to pack up and go home, because they have a tremendous capacity to live with risks and failure. They are more likely to keep trying new things till they find that breakthrough.

    This is good news for the future of the church. It may be that just as in the time of Saint Paul the Spirit of God took advantage of the Roman roads (which the Romans built for military purposes) to spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire; and just as the Spirit of God, in the time of Luther and Calvin, used the newly invented moveable print press and the changing alliances in Europe as nation-states emerged to fire the Reformation; so today, the Spirit of God is working amid the startling shifts of society, culture, and demography to create new hearings for the liberating power of the gospel.

    The challenges we face are huge today. But the opportunities are just as great.

  • Spirits that Encourage

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 17, 2012

    They say that you learn something new every day. I don’t know if that is true, but I remember the day last fall when I learned something genuinely new to me.

    I was reading Barbara Dianne Savage’s Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2008), which has been selected as the recipient of the 2012 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. What I learned may surprise you, too.

    According to Dr. Savage, it is really something of a miracle that “religious belief, religious institutions, and religious people came to be seen as so essential” to the civil rights movement. She says the fact that Black religion did play a central role in the movement “remains the central paradox in African American political history.”

    Perhaps this should not surprise us, however.

    Dr. Savage reminds us of the debate that at one time raged over the role of religion in the struggle for civil rights. Some African American leaders, for example the great W. E. B. Du Bois, expressed disdain for the practiced faith (popular religion) of many Black Christians, a fact that Cornel West has also noted.[i] Savage observes that "Du Bois had explored the question of black elite disillusionment with traditional black religion and the resulting political implications in his 1928 novel, Dark Princess."[ii] However, as she also observes, Du Bois, Carter Woodson, and Benjamin Mays “diverged on many points, but believed in the centrality of churches to the institutional structure of African American communities and to the political fortunes of the race." Nevertheless, "for them, black churches were too emotional in worship style and too focused on heaven and not enough on earth. Churches were too small, too many, and too independent of any centralized authority, including any control over their growth and direction."[iii] Thus, Savage writes: "The search for an institutional base for black political and social advancement seemed to run into a dead end at the church door."[iv]

    And yet, by the mid-twentieth century civil rights leader John Lewis would describe the civil rights movement as a "religious phenomenon." Lewis wrote of the civil rights movement in which he then participated: "It was church-based, church-sanctioned; most of its members and its activities flowed through and out of the black church, in small towns and rural communities as well as urban areas. The church, in a very real way, was the major gateway for the movement. It was the point of access in almost every community."[v]

    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in many ways, serves as a critical and constructive bridge, as James M. Washington writes in the introduction to A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., which he edited: "Although he often criticized black Christians for their complacency, King never disowned either the black church movement or his own early faith commitments. He deepened their intellectual grounding, but he never belittled the faith of the people or their powerful spirituality. In fact, he tells story after story of how black people of faith, such as Mother Pollard, emboldened and inspired him to press forward."[vi]

    The story of how the situation changed so dramatically—of how, over the course of two generations, Black churches came to play a central role in the civil rights movement—provides the original power of Savage’s must-read book. She is careful to differentiate among the variety of responses from Black churches, resisting the temptation to speak simplistically of "the Black church." She also reveals the role African American women played in and through Black churches, supporting the civil rights movement and calling forth better leadership in the congregations in which they served. As Savage demonstrates, the often unsung heroes of the civil rights movement were these African American women congregants. She writes: "While formal leadership roles often went to black men, black women also maintained a great deal of authority and clout in community and political work and in the family." Black women were the "'spine’ of the civil rights movement."[vii]

    With clarity and force, Dr. Savage tells a story that all our churches and, indeed, our whole country need to hear, reminding us that we still walk shoulder to shoulder with spirits that encourage us to act for justice across our society.

    The Grawemeyer Award in Religion is presented jointly by Louisville Seminary and the University of Louisville. It will be presented to Dr. Barbara D. Savage on April 11, 2012, and she will present a free public lecture on her award-winning book. Dr. Savage is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the first African American woman to be honored with this award. www.grawemeyer.org



    [i] A point Dr. West made in a lecture he presented to a meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Philadelphia not long after the publication of his groundbreaking book, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993). See also David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (New York: Henry Holt, 1993) and, of course, Du Bois’ classic study, The Souls of Black Folk (originally published in 1903; New York: Penguin Books edition, 1989).

    [ii] Barbara Dianne Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2008), 63.

    [iii] Ibid., 65.

    [iv] Ibid., 67.

    [v] Ibid., 262.

    [vi] James M. Washington, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), xi. See also Noel Leo Erskine, King Among the Theologians (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1994), 1-10.

    [vii] Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us, 254.

  • Secularism and Pluralism

    by User Not Found | Jan 10, 2012

    I greeted the recent publication of Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor's essay, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience,[1] with considerable enthusiasm, because we need the best and most serious minds of our time wrestling with the most crucial issue of our time: how to manage moral and religious diversity. We must marshal the elements of understanding and persuasion to bring along those who disagree with one another, and build or reinforce the institutional and social structures that represent a morally sustainable social compact—one that allows us to differ with respect while holding responsible those who underscore their contempt for difference with violence.

    These tasks will require our best thoughts and our best efforts.

    I find much to applaud in Maclure and Taylor's essay, including their contention that "respect for the moral equality of individuals and the protection of freedom of conscience and of religion constitute the two major aims of secularism today." I agree that these are indeed the goals we ought to pursue, because if we do not manage to protect these freedoms of individual conviction and expression, society will disintegrate. But I must critique Maclure and Taylor for their account of “the ethos or ethic of citizenship” most likely to support social cooperation in diverse societies—an account that is so atomizing and so focused on the individual that it undercuts the solution it offers.

    They begin with John Rawls’ idea that pluralism is necessitated by "the limits of reason" (in other words, it is necessary because in our finitude we are prevented from knowing the “ultimate meaning of existence”). They next assume that we come individually to choose our structures of meaning and purpose from a kind of smorgasbord of possibilities. But two of these assumptions can set us on a path to treating one another's differences of conviction and conscience as mere matters of individual taste and preference. If we get to that place, then we will be unable to make the intuitive leap of empathy that says, "While I do not see the world as you do, I can understand how one can be fully human and faithful and see the world in that way."

    I believe that there is a more constructive starting point. First, it may be that the reason we are confronted with so many ways of accounting for ultimate meaning is not because of our finitude or ignorance, but because there really are a variety of ways to be faithfully and fully human.

    By way of illustration, we might note the variety of theological ends and ways of being faithful embraced in the Old and New Testaments—variety that it actually takes effort to ignore. Consider the four Gospels: the compilers of the New Testament titled each of them "According to…,” reflecting the evangelists’ distinct perspectives on the church’s story of Jesus. It must have taken a Herculean effort on the part of Tatian, a second century theologian, to produce the first harmony of those Gospels: so many details had to be suppressed or ignored! The pluralism that is at the very heart of our biblical faith reflects the breath-taking variety in God’s world.

    The second issue of my critique is that the authors of this important essay somehow do not notice that as humans we do not disinterestedly choose from among a range of axiological options, but are formed in and through communities that that believe certain things in certain ways and value particular things and ideas in particular ways. It is from within that formation and in relationship with the persons among whom we are formed that we make all our choices regarding beliefs and values. For example, I was "converted" to Christianity as a child because I was formed in a Christian community that conceptualized the basic problems of existence and meaning in a way that required sin and forgiveness to take center stage.

    If we construe our differences as merely matters of individual taste and preference, we trivialize the religious and moral questions that unite and separate us. We also cut ourselves off from the basic social unit of understanding and persuasion, which is not the individual exercising choice among isolated reasoned options in a graduate seminar on moral topics, but the person in community, where moral choices are made in several dimensions at once, all of which are fraught with social, personal, familial, political, cultural, and religious significance.

    The difference is crucial.

    We must learn to speak from within our different cultural and religious communities—the very communities that divide us— if we are to learn and to be heard. The great challenge of our time is to live and flourish together though we are different in important respects, but similar in ways that are just as important. To succeed at this critical endeavor, we must acknowledge how the groups and communities that shape us value certain ends and not others. We will not convince one another of our mutual rights to live and practice our faith (or our right to claim no faith at all) as long as we regard one another merely as atomistic ideological or religious consumers.

    By respecting the human necessity to seek meaning in and through communities, including communities of faith (diverse as they are) we have the opportunity to make real progress at living together in peace. By knowing one another through our communities of faith and other complex meaning-shaping groups we will come to see that which we have most truly in common: our human existence as ones created in the image of the God whose very being is in Communion.


    [1] Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). Translated from French by Jane Marie Todd.

  • Scoundrels

    by User Not Found | Jan 03, 2012

    Among several books in my bedside stack this year were two about reputed scoundrels: Aaron Burr and Sir Francis Walsingham.

    I had long suspected that there was more to their stories than we get from popular depictions.

    In the popular mind, Aaron Burr is the bad boy of the founders. He killed Alexander Hamilton, after all, in a duel on the banks of Weehawken, New Jersey. If your only encounter with Burr is through Ron Chernow’s excellent and magisterial biography of Alexander Hamilton (as mine had largely been), you are not likely to have a very high opinion of him. But, even after reading Chernow’s book, I had this nagging feeling that there was more to Burr than I was being told. After all, Hamilton was no Boy Scout either.

    How could the man described so negatively by Chernow (and many other historians) have been so respected at one point as to have tied with Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election, an election which was eventually decided by Congress in favor of Jefferson? [1] Burr is buried in the old Princeton Cemetery at the foot of his grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, the greatest theologian in American history, and near his father, Aaron Burr Sr., a revered president of Princeton. Burr was a devoted Enlightenment philosophical thinker, a critical reader of Rousseau, and a careful student of Mary Wollstonecraft. He was deeply committed to the liberation and political enfranchisement of women in a time when such ideas were considered bizarre, educating his beloved daughter with the same care reserved only for male children of that time. After reading Jeremy Bentham’s philosophical writings (in a French translation), Burr became a champion of the most humane aspects of Utilitarianism and a close friend of Bentham. And while he was vilified by political opponents as a debauched rake, an unscrupulous liar, and a traitor (and by some of Hamilton’s colleagues as a cunning assassin), he was also admired by others as the most reliable of friends, a person of unyielding integrity.

    All of this I discovered in a fascinating book, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg (Penguin, 2007). Isenberg, a professor of nineteenth-century American history at the University of Tulsa, refuses to airbrush Burr’s faults (and there were many), but she also provides the political and historical context for understanding perhaps the most complex of all the founders of the new republic. Her insights, especially her understanding of how the popular press of the time was enlisted by partisan politicians to use innuendo and hints of guilt by association to destroy the reputation of a potentially important political opponent, are more relevant today than ever.

    My second scoundrel takes us further back in history to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. If your only acquaintance with Sir Francis Walsingham is from Geoffrey Rush’s superb portrayal of him in the Hollywood film, “Elizabeth” (as mine was!), then I want to encourage you to look deeper into this scoundrel too.

    In his book, Her Majesty’s Spymaster (Viking, 2005), Stephen Budiansky introduces us to a person who is just as ruthless as the person Rush portrayed in film. There’s no denying that. But, in addition to the Machiavellian servant of a Renaissance queen, a master of spycraft and espionage, we discover a person of deep faith, a person who had to negotiate his way between conflicting loyalties.

    From the opening pages of the book, I was struck by the fact that Walsingham, a committed Protestant, was the English ambassador to France during the infamous Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre of Huguenots (i.e., French Calvinists) in 1572. In fact, Walsingham’s residence was just across the Seine from Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, not far from the area of the city where the massacre began. Walsingham personally is credited with saving many people who otherwise would have been slain. His reports from the scene helped alert people outside of France to the slaughter and helped set the record straight, so that the propaganda of the French rulers would not have the last word.

    Were Burr and Walsingham really scoundrels? Yes, probably by almost any standard. But, reading their stories in fuller detail, we are able to see that they were complex people, motivated by many different, complicated, often competing factors. Their faults were real faults and large faults. But so were their virtues.

    After reading their stories, my thoughts returned to a comment Luke Timothy Johnson made when he received the Grawemeyer Award in Religion at Louisville Seminary last year. He was reflecting on why he would rather dine with a particular major theologian, with whom he disagrees deeply, rather than with another religious figure, with whom he would probably agree on most doctrinal issues. I reflected on whether I would like to dine with either Burr or Walsingham. Yes, I decided, I would. I’d like Burr to choose the wine, however, and I wouldn’t let Walsingham have access to the food before we ate it. There are stories about poison, you see.


    [1] See also American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011) by David O. Stewart, also author of The Summer of 1787 and Impeached.

  • "Behold"

    by User Not Found | Dec 22, 2011

    Louisville Seminary is pleased to share the following link to a special Christmas message from President Michael Jinkins. May the miracle of Christmas shine ever-more brightly in a world where we truly see Christ through one another.


    By Michael Jinkins

    Lilly Endowment Inc.
    Christmas Luncheon, Indianapolis, Indiana
    December 22, 2011

    Text: Luke 2:1-20

    Traffic was bad that morning as my car crept into town on the expressway during that misnomered period of the day we call “rush hour.” It was a few days before Christmas. I was listening to NPR on the car radio. For some reason, someone was reading this passage of scripture:

    “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

    You know how your mind can catch on a word? It’s like how a hangnail can snag if you trail your hand across satin. My mind snagged on that word, “behold.” It occurred to me how peculiar, how out of place in the course of my day, that word is. We don’t ordinarily use it. I don’t walk into the copy room at the Seminary and say, “Behold, this paper upon which is written words needs to be photocopied!”

    “Behold” signals something contrary to ordinary.

    Hearing that word, stuck amidst my fellow commuters on the freeway that December morning, for just a moment something was kindled in me, a longing was evoked, rich with memories of smells and sounds of churches and forests; something was awakened. I longed to hear the word again, “Behold,” because something in it associated with things over which we have no control, things we need that we cannot do for ourselves.

    It was as though, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, my car was commandeered for serendipitous purposes. The Holy intruded on my commute. I remembered how C. S. Lewis described being “surprised by joy,” surprised by that “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” “Anyone who has experienced it,” Lewis says, “will want it again."[i]

    I remember still the lump in my throat that morning, the feeling of having been brushed against by someone else, something other, the Word of God, perhaps, or the Angel of the Lord, because, you see, only angels get up in the morning saying things like “Behold” or “Fear not” or “I bring you good tidings of great joy” or “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will” – we don’t.

    “Behold,” something is going on here that could change your way of seeing and hearing and knowing God and experiencing the world we take for granted. “Behold.”

    “Behold,” something is going on that will claim you in a whole new way, something so unprecedented that it won’t allow you to remain a disinterested bystander. This will demand that you belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to yourself, but to God. “Behold.”

    “Behold what?”

    Something you never dared to dream, something only prophets hoped for on your behalf, has happened, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

    “And they came with haste and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”

    You are invited to download the entire Christmas message
    at the following link: Behold


    [i] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (London: Collins, Fontana edition, 1959), 20.

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