Aug 28, 2015

New study Bible looks to be best seller

A new study Bible out this week underscores how simmering questions about the accuracy and authority of translations drive demand for new versions of an old text. A mix of firm authority and breezy accessibility seems to be key to the commercial success of many study Bibles.

No official sales projections are publicly available, but if history provides a guide, the “NIV Zondervan Study Bible” could easily sell 100,000 copies by the end of the year -- probably a lot more. The new study Bible by Zondervan, a Christian publishing house in Grand Rapids, Mich., owned by HarperCollins, could follow earlier blockbuster sales. The last NIV study Bible, published by Zondervan in 1985, sold more than 9 million copies.

The Bible business is booming. There are annual sales of 40 million Bibles -- from study Bibles to family Bibles to pocket Bibles. That’s not even counting foreign markets. As journalist Daniel Radosh observed, “The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: The Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year.”

The proliferation of Bibles underscores the anxieties people have about whether or not they are reading the right Bible.

Read my latest essay at the Washington Post: The most popular Bible of the year is probably not what you think it is

African Methodist Episcopal Church, Indianapolis, Ind.

Aug 24, 2015

How Donald Trump felt like Billy Graham

Donald Trump, the populist presidential candidate currently leading in the Republican primary polls, has connected himself to Billy Graham, the famed evangelist and pastor to presidents.

At a rally in Alabama last week, it was the first thing Trump said.

He came out on stage and "Sweet Home Alabama" was playing and people--about 20,000 people--cheered and applauded.

Trump said, "Wow wow wow. Unbelievable. Thank You. That's so beautiful. You know now I know how the great Billy Graham felt. Because this is the same feeling. We love Billy Graham. We love Billy Graham."

What does it mean to say he felt like Billy Graham felt?

It doesn't seem obvious, in context.

Aug 21, 2015

United Church of Christ, Chicago, Ill.

Aug 14, 2015

 United Methodist Church, Muncie, Ind.

Aug 12, 2015

The secret of 'The Shack'

William Paul Young, author of the bestselling evangelical fiction The Shack, talks about healing from childhood sexual abuse.

The trick, he says from personal experience, is losing your secrets.

"You cannot keep the secrets," he says. "And we hide our secrets because we're terrified. We're terrified that if we let somebody in there we will lose the little bits of light and grace that we've managed to scrabble together, you know, by working so hard. Because if they know the truth of course, they'll hate us as much as we do. And at the same time if somebody brings into our world the possibility of grace, the possibility of forgiveness, the possibility of kindness, we don't believe them, because they don't know our secrets. So we're absolutely trapped by our secrets."

Aug 10, 2015

A case study of confused conversations over abortions

Howard W. Jones Jr. was expecting controversy.

But not this controversy.

Jones was pioneering the developing science of in vitro fertilization in the United States. He and his wife, Georgeanna Jones, one of the nation’s first specialists in reproductive hormones, had retired from Johns Hopkins University in 1978. They moved to Norfolk, Va., the next year and were trying to start a clinic at Eastern Virginia Medical School to help couples struggling to conceive.

The Joneses were familiar with opposition to fertility treatment and fears about so-called test-tube babies. But they didn’t expect their work to become a flashpoint in the then-burgeoning battle against abortion. After all, they weren’t in the business of unwanted pregnancies. Theirs was the science of helping people who desperately wanted babies.

It was actually supposed to be a fairly straightforward and bureaucratic meeting of the Virginia Statewide Health Coordinating Council. Yet the hearing room filled to capacity on Halloween day, 1979, and pro-life protestors gathered outside making dire predictions about this new science.

“Incredible claims were made,” Howard Jones recalled in his memoir. “Protestors [said] that in vitro fertilization would surely promote incest, human-animal hybrids, and other bizarre scenarios which were both shocking and unbelievable.”

It wasn’t the last time Jones found himself confused in a conversation with the pro-life movement. Jones died July 31 at the age of 104. In the years between that hearing and Jones’s death, little changed in the public conversation over abortion.

Jones’ life provides an interesting case study of confused conversations over abortions. For more than 30 years, he engaged pro-life advocates, who frequently opposed his work helping people conceive.

The science he helped develop was “far too wasteful of human life,” as one pro-life group put it, “resulting in thousands of embryos which are destroyed, either by chance in the womb or on purpose when they are no longer needed for the treatment. The process also encourages a mentality which views people as things to be bought or sold.”

He tried to talk to them out of that opinion. Some conversations he was invited to while others were thrust upon him. None resulted in any sort of consensus or clarity.

Read the easy at the Washington Post: How one doctor tried for 30 years to bring clarity to the abortion conversation

Will super-intelligent AI be religious? Some say yes.

In the world of big-budget, blockbuster comic-book movies, it is plausible: a religiously motivated robot.

As imagined by Joss Whedon, the super-smart artificial intelligence at the center of the most recent Avengers movie turns to villainy because of a religious question. Ultron asks about the meaning and purpose of existence, then, frustrated, committed itself to destruction.

"It's our new Frankenstein myth," Whedon said, doing promos for Avengers: Age of Ultron. "We create something in our own image and the thing turns on us. It has that pain of 'Well, why was I made? I want to kill Daddy.'"

Whedon is an atheist whose many projects have frequently explored religious questions. The most recent Avengers villain raises an unusual one: When humans eventually create super-intelligent artificial life, will it be religious?

Some people think it's plausible even in the real world.

Lincoln Cannon, president of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, says it's definitely possible.

Jul 30, 2015

Faith, light, barbecue

The Thomas Kinkade wall at The Original Ridgewood Barbecue in Bluff City, Tenn.:

Thomas Kinkade wall

Jul 27, 2015

Beth gets ordained


My wife gets ordained at Hopwood Christian Church in Johnson City, Tenn. 

Jul 15, 2015

Episcopalians, swimming against the culture

People talk about how Episcopalians used to stand against the culture. They swam against the current. They weren't so accommodating, then. They did things differently.

This isn't what they meant:

I've written before that I think a lot of the conservative critique of the contemporary Episcopal church is based in a false history of the denomination, which was actually at its zenith when it was most aligned with the status quo. This 1917 Chicago headline goes to show, though, that even back then the minister of a "Fashionable Oak Park Church" could sometimes shock -- or at least titillate -- mainstream American culture.

The paper reported that when the minister was informed of the court testimony, he exclaimed, "Oh, horrors!"

Jul 13, 2015

Dante's modern American spirituality

The conservative Christian blogger Rod Dreher made a discovery about Dante.

Here's how he phrased it in a piece published by the Wall Street Journal:
I always thought "The Divine Comedy" was one of those lofty, doorstop-sized Great Books more admired than read. Its intimidating reputation is likely why few people ever walk with Dante through the fires of the Inferno, climb with him up the seven-story mountain of Purgatory and rocket with him through the stars to Paradise.

What a pity. They will never discover the surprisingly accessible beauty of Dante's verse in modern translation. Nor will they grasp how useful his poem can be to modern people who find themselves caught in a personal crisis from which there seems no escape.
He discovered, that is, that Dante is useful. Specifically: therapeutic. Dante's Divine Comedy is "the ultimate self-help book."

Another way of saying this would be to say that Dreher found out that Dante is not literature. It is, rather, middlebrow religious writing, of the sort that Erin A. Smith writes about in her new book, What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America.

Popular religious books, Smith argues, are defined most essentially by how they are read therapeutically. The aesthetic standard for this reading is personal and social transformation. The classic example is Charles Sheldon's book about a town where everyone started to ask themselves in every situation, "What would Jesus do?"

Smith writes:
Although a disaster by conventional literary standards, In His Steps was immensely powerful for communities of nonliterary readers. (Charles) Sheldon made the case for traditional literacy -- the intensive reading of a small set of classic texts -- at the same time that his own mass-produced fiction urged reading godly novels as one read the Bible, with an eye toward immediate application to one's daily life. By valuing what texts do in readers' lives over style, form, aesthetics, or understanding them in their historical context, In His Steps challenges literary historians to restate their own professional practices as one among many possible ways with words. 
In His Steps and other similar works are not merely aesthetically bad books; they are books that seek to succeed on entirely different terms -- the transformation of individual and social life.
Like Dante for Dreher, Sheldon only makes sense when not thought of as literature. Only then can you grasp how useful the text truly is.

This sort of reading practice has been strongly identified with evangelicalism, historically. But it also reflects the ethos of the early 20th-century Protestant Social Gospellers, who thought that true religion should be transformative in practical ways, directing men to immanent rather than transcendent purposes. This sort of reading has also largely defined and arguably shaped liberal spirituality, which is eclectic, like middlebrow religious reading, and therapeutic, like middlebrow religious reading.

It also works fine for an Eastern Orthodox Christian with socially conservative politics, like Dreher.