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Thinking Out Loud
  • The Foolishness of the Gospel vs. Rank Silliness

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 14, 2010

    Morning “news” programs have never been just news. Chimps provided comic distraction from heavier news items in the early days of television. So for me to complain about a latter-day “Fall” from some mythical Golden Age rings hollow. But, these days, I feel almost as though the Morning “news” programs on all the major networks are trying to out-do one another in becoming caricatures of themselves. Silliness reigns supreme.

    Okay, I can accept this, though with some real regret. And I can make alternate arrangements—as I do now—to get my news otherwise. But what is really bothering me is that many churches seem to be taking their cues from the same cultural trends that have nearly trivialized to death the morning programs. I fear walking into some churches these days to be greeted by a dancing chimp, or worse.

    A few weeks ago, a student reported about an ordination service in which the head of the ordaining commission paused from cracking jokes (some of which were in really poor taste) to say, “Now we have to get to the boring stuff. I need to ask you these questions.”

    The “boring stuff,” incidentally, was not just any set of questions, by the way, but the vows by which the new minister was promising God and God’s people to trust in Jesus Christ as Lord of all and Head of the Church; to accept the Bible as God’s Word; to be instructed and led by the confessions as she leads the church; and to be a friend among her colleagues as she seeks “to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.”

    When we make vows in the presence of God, as Thomas More says in Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons,” we hold our souls in our hands. This is a sacred drama unfolding in real life, in other words. And the drama played out in the service of ordination is far more powerful, provocative, and interesting than any weak comedy being contrived.

    I’m a funny guy. Really, I am. Everyone says so. And I enjoy being light-hearted, even in church. But we are in danger of converting the Temple of the Most High God into a bad imitation of Caesar’s Palace—and I don’t mean the Caesar’s palace we conquered by dint of faith two thousand years ago.

    In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks wrote a fascinating essay, “Weekness and Endurance,” about a new trend he is seeing. People, he said, in this post-bubble age, have rendered a judgment on the shortsightedness of the past two decades. It’s time, they are telling us, “to be a little more serious, to think about the long term more, to return to fundamentals.” Over-against the tide of ephemera and superficiality that has characterized the media and much else, “there must be room,” he writes, “for a magazine that offers an aspirational ideal… that separates for busy people the things that are enduring from the things that aren’t.”[1]

    If there’s room for a magazine to do this, I guarantee there’s room for a church. We’re in the “enduring ideals” business. And it is time we remembered this. Conan, Letterman, and Stewart have the comedy market covered. There are better story-tellers on NPR. And as long as Eric Clapton keeps doing his Crossroads tour, the church will never be better than a third-rate venue for rock music.

    What does the church have that others don’t? Please excuse me while I get biblical, but we have the Word of God in an earthen vessel. We have a genuinely serious response to the genuinely serious realities facing the peoples and societies of our world. We don’t need a church that humors our foibles, but a God who forgives our sin. We don’t need a liturgy that tells us to try a little harder, but a God who raises us from every death. There’s not much room in the foolishness of the gospel for base silliness; the folly of the cross is for real.

    We are in danger of trivializing ourselves right out of business here, dear friends, in our quest to look cool; and where else will the world turn when the world finally begins to wonder if someone somewhere has something serious to say about the human predicament and the state of the cosmos.

    When I finished reading Brooks’ essay, my thought went immediately to St. Paul, a pretty fair evangelist who was convinced that the gospel is a matter of life and death. But my thoughts went somewhere else, too. I returned to one of my favorite poems by that dyspeptic, old, agnostic Anglican, Philip Larkin, who visited an empty church one day and wondered at the mystery entailed in that “serious house on serious earth” where “all our compulsions meet, are recognized, and robed as destinies.” He reflected that such a place can never be obsolete “since someone will forever be surprising/ a hunger in himself to be more serious,” and will, therefore, gravitate “to this ground,” which is “proper to grow wise in.”[2]

     


    [1] David Brooks, “Weekness and Endurance,” The New York Times, Friday, November 19, 2010.

    [2] Philip Larkin, “Church Going,” Collected Poems, Anthony Thwaite, ed. (London: Marvell, 1988).

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  • Reports from the Field #2: Education for the New President (Continued)

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 07, 2010
    Recently, I asked one of our professors a question that I am asking a variety of people in our larger Seminary community: “What are the challenges facing the church (both the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the larger church), and how might our seminaries serve the church to meet these challenges?”

    The professor was ready for this question. In fact, he had a book sitting on the table with a passage underlined. He read it to me: “Wherever ecclesiology [the doctrine of the church] moves into the foreground, however justifiable the reasons may be, Christology [the doctrine of Christ] will lose its decisive importance, even if it does so by becoming integrated, in some form or other, in the doctrine of the church, instead of remaining the church’s indispensable touchstone.”[1]

    After reading the passage, he gave me the book. I am grateful to my faculty colleague and to the author of this passage, Ernst Käseman. They both remind us of how easy it is for our focus to slip from what Paul Tillich called our “ultimate concern” to lesser matters, even when the lesser matters matter as much as “the church.”

    In another conversation, this time in a suburb outside Detroit, a young pastor who graduated from Louisville Seminary just a few years ago put his finger precisely on the issue. When I asked him what are the challenges facing the church, he immediately said that our church isn’t focusing on the right things. We are locked, he said, in interminable arguments to which there is no end, while all around us there are people in need of the good news of Jesus Christ, people in need of grace and love and care.

    We might call this “the theory of displacement of vision.” Focus on our ecclesiastical agreements and disagreements, focus on our institutional stability, organization, and survival, displaces focus on Jesus Christ as the revelation of God. It distracts us from the call that Jesus Christ addresses to each of us, to follow him in the way of the cross. And, paradoxically, it is only inasmuch as we focus on God that our own lives (not least our own life as church) comes into proper focus.

    Maybe we can only see the church well if we see the church with our peripheral vision.

    All of which brings me to one more conversation, this one with a student. Over a hamburger at a local Louisville restaurant he told me his story, of how God called him and his wife from lucrative careers and relative wealth to come to Seminary to prepare for a life in ministry. He told the story of his son’s grave illness and how God touched their family and transformed them all in the midst of near tragedy. This student was absolutely radiant. And his radiance did not come from confidence in the ability of the church to realign its structures. He reminded me that the church, for all her gifts and wonders, the church even as (to use St. Paul’s metaphor) “the body of Christ,” is really something of a by-product of humanity’s redemptive encounter with God.

    God brings us together. God creates the church by calling us. And if we hope for the church’s health, it is upon God that we must focus our attention. If we do this, then perhaps, out of the corner of our eyes, we will catch a glimpse of a renewed church. When we get our focus right, the challenges facing the church fall into place.


    [1] Ernst Käseman, Perspectives on Paul (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 120-121.

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  • Reading People with Whom We Disagree

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 30, 2010

    I am told on good authority that people today increasingly read only people with whom they already agree. If this is true, I think it is both pointless and sad. And it may be one of the factors contributing to the increasingly uncivil tone of our disagreements.

    Some of my fondest youthful memories revolve around reading William F. Buckley Jr., a person with whom I often disagreed. I recall something Buckley wrote asserting that the Jeffersonian notion that “all men are created equal” is a metaphysical affirmation that has only tenuous political application. I think Buckley was probably wrong, but I’ve been chewing on his remark for more than thirty years. His insight was penetrating and worth the thought. His insights often were. I also confess that I love Buckley’s brilliance and wit. When asked, for example, what was the first thing he would do after the election (he once ran for mayor of New York) if he won, he answered, “Demand a recount!” Who but William F. Buckley would have said that?

    My life would be much poorer if I ignored the thought of a thoughtful writer simply because our views differed. Why, in fact, ought we to read at all if not to encounter difference?

    Another case in point is Philip Larkin. While his poetry is unparalleled, I often have disagreed with Larkin’s musing on life and music. Larkin could not stand Charlie Parker or the progressive jazz developments exemplified by Parker and Miles Davis. Larkin said of this movement’s use of the chromatic (instead of the diatonic) scale: “The diatonic scale is what you use if you want to write a national anthem, or a love song, or a lullaby. The chromatic scale is what you use to give the effect of drinking a quinine martini and having an enema simultaneously.” How could you not enjoy someone with such wit, even if he utterly misses the genius and beauty of the music produced by Parker and Davis?

    An even deeper value of reading people with whom we disagree is illustrated in Larkin’s comments on children. He once wrote that “the first sharp waning of my Christian sympathies” occurred when he heard the verse, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these [little children]” (Mk. 10:14). Larkin said that if heaven is populated by children he would be miserable there. Children, according to Larkin, are noisy, nasty, cruel, and silly. Perhaps Larkin was bullied as a child, or not chosen for childhood games. Or, maybe, he was just inoculated against the sentimentality with which many people view childhood. Personally, I think Larkin is wrong about children. I tend to side with Kenneth Graham in believing that children are the only completely real human beings among us. But Larkin makes me stop and think about a biblical text I have taken for granted.

    Good writers stimulate our thinking. They set the conditions in which we are encouraged to see things anew, because they refuse to be ruled by intellectual clichés. Writers should, I think, be judged as bad, not if we disagree with them, but if they leave us where they found us, unmoved, unchallenged, and unchanged. I would hope we would hold writers with whom we agree to this standard too. I would hope that we would enjoy writers large enough to encourage disagreement and agreement, people who think expansively enough that we cannot predict where they will land on a given issue.

    Arthur Schlesinger Jr., for example, is a writer with whom I have generally shared a similar worldview. But one reason I appreciate him so much is because he thought so expansively, and about so many things than there are subjects, that in certain cases, I simply cannot agree with him. His brilliant essay, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (1992), for instance, argues for an America in which “ethnic differences” must melt away, or else (he believed) we are threatened by “Balkanization,” the violent opposition of different groups against one another. I disagree strongly with Schlesinger on this point. Balkanization is not the inevitable consequence of ethnic, tribal, or religious differences, but the result of one group (which believes it alone has the claim to truth and the privilege to exist) attempting to enforce homogeneity at the end of a gun. However, because I respect the thoughtfulness with which Schlesinger engaged this and other subjects, he makes a winsome and worthwhile debating partner. I could say the same thing about so many other writers with whom I usually (though not always) agree, including Barbara Brown Taylor and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Annie Dillard and Will D. Campbell.

    My point is this: The uncivil discourse that dominates the airwaves and coffee-counters of our country could be moderated, at least somewhat, if (1) we demanded more thoughtfulness of those with whom we agree and (2) if we were more willing to listen to those with whom we disagree. The interminable shout-fest that has become the norm in our society—whether the subject is politics, religion, or culture—will only be displaced if we demand better. And I think the first step toward demanding better is to listen to thoughtful people with whom we disagree (and, yes, I would differentiate this category of writers from mere demagogues and partisan hacks).

    Would you agree?

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  • Gratitude Is the Meaning of Life

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 23, 2010

    A few years ago, I participated in a luncheon to honor a wonderful man, the late Ed Vickery, an attorney and banker, whose generosity to theological education was legendary. Several members of his family spoke, including his daughter, Ann. She related something that had happened that very morning as they were driving to the luncheon.

    Having forgotten to check how much gas they had in the tank before leaving Houston, they ran out on a lonely stretch of road halfway to their destination. A phone call later, a young man from a gas station at the next town arrived. He put enough gas in the tank to get them to his station, where he filled up the car and they were ready to resume the trip. After the bill was settled, Ed handed his daughter two fifty-dollar bills to give to the young man. She said, “Daddy, I’m sure he would be more than happy with one of those.” To which Ed responded, “I don’t want him to be happy. I want him to be ecstatic!”

    Generosity is the consequence of gratitude. Whether we are expressing our gratitude toward someone who has helped us out of a jam, or whether we are helping someone in desperate need; whether we are extending care to an individual we know, or developing social structures of economic support to make the world more just; whenever we act generously, in big ways and small, we are reflecting gratitude to the Giving God. We are also reflecting the character of this God who throws lavish parties for prodigals and pays ridiculously high wages for embarrassingly short hours.

    Perhaps this sounds strange, but I think the meaning of life is stewardship, which is just another way of saying that the meaning of life can only be expressed in words like gratitude and generosity.

    The poet W. B. Yeats ends his poem, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” with the words, “We are blest by everything,/ Everything we look upon is blest.” Yeats is close to Genesis at this point. You will, no doubt, remember God’s statement to Abraham, telling him that he was “blessed to be a blessing.” So are we all, “blessed to be a blessing.”

    We are not meant to understand Christian faith as some sort of inquisition into the faults and failings of our neighbors, nor the gospel of Jesus Christ as a conditional contract intended to exclude others, nor to see the way of God as an imperial victory march over the backs of those who differ from us. We’re meant to see the gospel as a lifelong expression of gratitude toward God. And that gratitude takes the form of generosity to others.

    Even the libertine antihero of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (which was reduced to a movie as “Dangerous Liaisons”), who acts charitably just to try to impress and seduce a beautiful and virtuous woman – and, in turn, is himself ultimately seduced by God into virtue and self-sacrifice – bears testimony to the power of generosity. “I was astonished,” he says, after engaging in acts of charity and kindness, “at the pleasure to be derived from doing good, and I am now tempted to think that what we call virtuous people have less claim to merit than we are led to believe.” The joy derived from generosity is only strange if we assume that virtue must inevitably accompany mournful piety. But if goodness and joy come from the same divine root, doesn’t it make sense that a joyful life and a self-giving life are synonymous?

    Of course, there’s another good reason to be grateful – everyday and not just on Thanksgiving Day. To be grateful is just about the least we can do in the face of the life God has given us. And to be ungrateful is not only a sin, it’s just plain tacky.

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  • The Ministerial Credibility Gap

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 16, 2010
    Prepare yourself for more bad news.

    According to a survey conducted by Scientific American and reported in its October issue, “religious authorities” rank at the bottom of eight categories of persons the respondents would trust “to provide accurate information about important issues in society.” On a 1 (strongly distrust) to 5 (strongly trust) scale, clergy (at 1.55) ranked below “elected officials” (1.76), “companies” (1.78), “journalists” (2.57), and “citizen groups” (2.69).[i]

    I want to reiterate this point, just so we don’t miss it. In this study, ministers rank below politicians in believability and trustworthiness.

    At a time when a lot of us are wondering why many people find it more inspiring to have a second cup of coffee on a Sunday morning and a leisurely read through the Sunday paper, maybe we have one piece of the puzzle why folks are not beating a path to the doors of the church. Please note also that the question wasn’t who you trust to provide good “scientific” information, as one might expect of the Scientific American—and by the way, scientists came out at the top of the reliability scale at 3.98, above “friends or family” (at 3.09), which tied with “nongovernmental organizations.”

    Granted, the population polled by this study is scientifically-minded and may be more skeptical than the general population. They may be more inclined to trust empirical evidence, and their lack of confidence in clergy may just say that they don’t trust the reliability of the data on which ministers make decisions.

    Nevertheless, this study still disturbs me and leaves me wondering about other possible reasons why those polled distrust ministers. The results of the survey may be influenced by the actions of pastors on the angry fringe (at least I hope it is the fringe), like the one in Florida who advocates the burning of the holy book of another religious tradition. The results may also be influenced by the actions of an outrageous congregation in Topeka, Kansas, that seems to hate everyone else in the name of God. Or the results may be influenced by the endless culture wars and worship wars and ideological wars that continue to rock mainline denominations. Or the results may simply be influenced by the anti-institutionalism that is so much a part of our society. I don’t know. But the results are disturbing to me, because faith and trustworthiness go hand-in-hand. And I would like to think, as a minister, that an engineer or a biologist or a physicist would be able to trust what I have to say.

    I also want to believe that a well-educated clergy (i.e., ministers with the deep knowledge and critical judgment that come from careful study of complex issues in light of many factors including their religious tradition) could provide some bulwark against this erosion of trust. But there are very smart and well-educated people who have proven untrustworthy.

    A few days ago I invited a few members of our staff at Louisville Seminary to reflect with me on the results of this survey. They stated their surprise, especially since, as one staff member said, “Ministry is all about relationships, and that is the basis of trust.”

    Could it be that she has the answer? Have we, in ministry, in our quest for all sorts of relevance and effectiveness, forgotten ministry’s core competency: relational trustworthiness?

    A close friend, who serves as the senior pastor of a large congregation, confessed to me that in his first year or so after coming to his church, he was so busy, so pressed by the enormous challenges facing his church in the midst of the largest economic downturn in living memory, that he simply forgot to forge those relational bonds with his people that make everything else possible. He forgot, as he said, “just to love on ‘em.” He told me this as a warning as I began my tenure as president of Louisville Seminary.

    Reading the results of the Scientific American survey, his words came back to me, as do the results of a study the faculty of Austin Seminary conducted while I was their Dean. In that study, we found that one of the most important qualities lay persons wanted in their pastors was “humility.” They said it in lots of different ways. They wanted a pastor who listens more than he or she talks, a pastor whose leadership builds confidence among the people, a pastor who can take advice, who is not arrogant, who (often this was the word chosen) is “humble.”

    I would venture to guess that there’s something about the entire empirical approach that tends to undergird the trustworthiness of scientists. You might call it “humility in the face of empirical evidence.” The public probably assumes that scientists are just a little less likely to have an axe to grind or an agenda (hidden or otherwise) to pursue. Maybe there’s something we can learn from them. But the second most trustworthy group, “friends and family” are not empirical scientists, and I dare say there was a time that ministers were seen at least as trustworthy as this group. Our trust in “friends and family” is not built on professional standards, but bonds of affection, mutuality, reciprocity, and love.

    Clearly, those of us who are in ministry have some fences to mend. Or, to reach back to the jargon of the sixties when the phrase was first coined, we have a “credibility gap” that needs to be bridged. The only way to gain trust is to earn it.

     

    [i]In Science We TrustScientific American, October 2010, Volume 303, Number 4, p. 56.

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  • Reports from the Field #1: Elementary Education for the New President

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 09, 2010

    The first goal I set after becoming president of Louisville Seminary was to visit with every current board member and every faculty member, all of our staff, and as many current students as are available, as well as many past members of the Board, alums, pastors, other church leaders, and friends of our school, within the first year of my presidency. I am eight weeks into the project, and we are well on our way.

    We might call this “elementary education for the new president.” I want to tell you a little about what I’m learning. But to do that, I need to frame this learning by telling you what I’m unlearning.

    A couple of years ago, a faculty colleague in another seminary wrote an essay in which he starkly contrasted seminary board members to seminary faculty members. His argument was that board members are driven by fairly uniform “business” or “consumer” models that put profits and efficiency first and faith last, while seminary faculty members are motivated more by faith and the ideals of justice. I told him, at the time, that I thought his essay was inaccurate and simplistic and that it didn’t reflect my own experience with board members as an academic dean. I found most board members to be persons of deep faith who speak from a different perspective than faculty, certainly, but who share similar hopes.

    What I have discovered already in my listening tour leads me to go even further. The persons I have encountered around the country include physicians and attorneys, business leaders, pastors, teachers, and directors of non-profit organizations that provide mentoring to inner-city children and a variety of social services for the neediest members of our society. I have met active church members so concerned about the hatred and intolerance in our culture that they have built interfaith networks on their own in their communities and have brought in some of the leading comparative religion scholars in the country to facilitate their groups. I have met board members and Seminary friends who are placing their lives, their reputations, and their treasure on the line daily to address injustice and violence, not only in their communities but around the globe.

    Sitting at breakfast with one couple, I was inspired by the imagination of a business man who is concerned about the depletion of drinkable water in arid regions. Across the table from another couple over lunch, I was challenged to make sure the Seminary’s investment policy does not unintentionally finance injustice. At dinner with a group of friends of our Seminary, I was moved by stories of a surgeon’s attempts to put the lives of children back together after debilitating accidents.

    In case after case, I have found Seminary board members and friends who simply do not fit the so-called “corporate” stereotypes, people who quietly live the reign of God, who serve the common good and transform some corner of our world, though, frankly, none of them would use these lofty terms. They are just doing what they can where they are.

    You know, stereotyping and caricaturing has never really served anyone well. I’ve known very few faculty members in my experience who dwell in fabled “ivory towers.” Most faculty I’ve known in seminaries are dedicated teachers who work hard every day to help students learn what they need to know to lead congregations and preach, to work for justice in their communities, and to counsel persons in need. And most faculty members I’ve known are as dedicated outside the classroom as they are in it—in hundreds of different ways—making a difference in the world, following the call of the Gospel, extending the neighborhood of Jesus Christ. Certainly, faculty members are well-schooled in critical reflection, and they can turn their critical facilities on all sorts of questions, but just as impressive are their extracurricular commitments.

    We have faculty members who for years have faithfully and quietly taught Sunday school in their local congregations. Other faculty colleagues devote enormous amounts of energy and time engaging in mission trips and relief work, organizing teams for AIDS walks, and pouring their lives into ministries dedicated to serving those persons Jesus called, simply, “the least of these.” And (surprise of surprises!), we even have faculty members who serve on the Boards of other nonprofit organizations.

    Perspectives are different depending on differences of vocation and social location, certainly, but our focus is shared. And we could go on observing the different perspectives of administrators, staff, students, and other friends of the Seminary, all of whom bring their commitments and interests to bear on our mission. Together we are dedicated to the education of the next generations of women and men for ministry in the name of God in this world God loves.

    I can hardly wait for the next class in the education of this president to begin. In fact, I’m on my way to the airport now. Another learning opportunity awaits me this evening. I wonder what we’ll learn next.

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  • The Irony of Leadership

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 01, 2010

    Within a week of one another, two of my favorite columnists, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman, both of the New York Times, wrote on the subject of the kind of leadership our country needs today. I highly commend to you both essays: “The Responsibility Deficit” (Brooks, September 23, 2010) and “The Tea Kettle Movement” (Friedman, September 28, 2010). They are important for what they say about leadership, but perhaps even more about followership.

    The irony of leadership, you see, is that the quality of leadership ultimately depends to a large degree on the quality of followership.

    David Brooks predicts that in the short term our divided nation is likely to only get angrier while our politicians are likely to grow more partisan. “The rhetoric will fly. Childishness will mount. Public nausea will hit an all-time high.” But, Brooks adds, with that characteristic hopefulness that separates him from so many commentators: “Somewhere in the country, though, there is a politician who is going to try to lead us out of this logjam.” If that person is going to be successful as a leader, Brooks argues, he is going to “notice the public anger doesn’t quite match the political class anger. The political class is angry about ideological things: bloated government or the predatory rich. The public seems to be angry about values.” Now, this is the point we need to hear from Brooks’ essay: “The heart of any moral system is the connection between action and consequences. Today’s public anger rises from the belief that this connection has been severed in one realm after another.”

    Hold those thoughts.

    Friedman observes two Tea Party movements in America. One grabs all the headlines and may in the short term affect the midterm election. This “amorphous, self-generated protest against the growth in government and the deficit” should be called, according to Friedman, the “Tea Kettle Movement” (as in tempest in a teakettle) “because all it’s doing is letting off steam.” This movement, he continues, “can’t have a positive impact on the country because it has both misdiagnosed America’s main problem and hasn’t even offered a credible solution for the problem it has identified.” A leading republican governor was reported by The Economist to have asked of this movement: “Don’t these people know anger is not a strategy?” There is another Tea Party movement Friedman detects, however, and it stretches across party lines and includes a large swath of what we often call moderates or centrists. They are looking, Friedman says, for a leader who (1) places the country’s interests above his or her party’s; (2) has a real strategy for making “America successful, thriving, and respected again;” and (3) is able “to lead in the face of uncertainty and not simply whine about how tough things are—a leader who believes his job is not to read the polls but to change the polls.”

    Both Brooks and Friedman have something really important to say about leadership. And anyone in leadership should listen to them carefully. People need to be inspired. But inspiration is not an end in itself. People need to be moved in a direction that will inevitably require things of them that they would not find the courage to face if left to themselves.

    This is where the challenge of leadership meets the irony of leadership. As another Friedman, this time Edwin Friedman, the rabbi and family systems expert, once observed: “Insight alone does not change unmotivated people.” He might have added, in the spirit of Thomas Friedman, “and it doesn’t do any good for leaders to whine about this fact.”

    Good leaders call forth better behavior in followers. They listen and seek to understand the makings of a vision that can capture the peoples’ imaginations. They tap into deep streams of tradition and character and commitment that lie within a people. And they articulate memorably and movingly the vision that makes a people who they are, so that the people can imagine themselves anew, adapting, changing, to meet the challenges before them. A leader who doesn’t reflect the deep values of a people will not remain their leader for long. A leader who doesn’t articulate these deep values will not move a people at all. But a leader cannot just understand and speak. He or she must be able to translate values into actions. That requires political skill and will.

    Whereas, Brooks and Friedman are speaking to national political leadership, their insights apply also to religious communities and society at large. Anyone who leads a Christian congregation will feel the parallels.

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  • Today’s Reinhold Niebuhrs

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 26, 2010

    A couple of weeks ago, the faculty of Louisville Seminary extended to me the privilege of speaking at our annual fall convocation, the event that welcomes students, staff, and faculty back to school and signals the beginning of our academic term.

    In that address (Read or Listen | 2010 Fall Convocation Address) I discussed the priority we have historically placed on “the life of the mind in the service of God,” to use Calvin’s phrase. One only has to turn on the television or surf the internet for a few minutes to be reminded how much our age needs the gifts of a thinking faith and a more civil discourse to counteract the corrosive effects of hateful speech. We need Christian faith secure enough to risk conversation with persons of other faiths (or no faith at all). We need public intellectuals of the stature of a Reinhold Niebuhr who are at ease reflecting on politics, culture, and economics from the perspective of faith.

    At the close of the convocation address, I asked the Seminary community to share with me their nominees for today’s Reinhold Niebuhr. I offered three nominees of my own: Cornel West, whose books, like Race Matters, bring a thoughtful and lively faith to bear on core issues of our society; Marilynne Robinson, whose novel, Gilead, and non-fiction essays, plumb the depths of the mysteries of humanity and God; and Stephen Prothero, who reminds us that respect for differences of faith is consistent with reverence for God. I cheated a little too and offered other possible nominees: Serene Jones, Kathryn Tanner and Charles Taylor, for example, just to prime the pump.

    I’ve already begun to receive nominees for today’s Reinhold Niebuhr from the Seminary community. And, today, I want to invite you to offer yours.

    Please post your own nominees here or email me at PresidentListening@lpts.edu. I look forward to hearing from you.

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