Weekend Review: The Swerve, New Christianity and Preparing for Lent

As a reader, I am a cross-trainer.  I’m never happy with just one book, and often I will have four to six books in various stages of attention.  (Thank God for Kindle so I don’t have to carry them all!)  It should be no surprise that I don’t finish everything I read.   Right now two excellent books are capturing my attention and will figure prominently in my preaching through the rest of Epiphany and Lent.  The first is entitled “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt.  Greenblatt shares how an ancient book entitled “On the Nature of Things” by Epicurean philosopher Lucretius stimulated his love for literature, and also possibly helped trigger the Renaissance when it was rediscovered in the 15th century.  A troubling part of “The Swerve” reveals how much ancient literature was destroyed when Christianity became the official religion of Rome in the early 5th century after Christ.  In 391 AD under Theodosius, the magnificent Alexandrian library, which housed a tremendous wealth of the world’s knowledge, was destroyed and many of the philosophers were put to death for “pagan” teachings.  Christians were especially hard on Epicureans for their teachings that pleasure and the pursuit of happiness were the goals of life.  Even though Lucretius and other philosophers were actually quite sober and intellectual people who believed happiness stemmed from a life well lived, they were labeled as promoting debauchery and their countless works were destroyed for all time.  Christianity absorbed much of Hellenistic philosophy; Plato’s concept of the soul, Aristotle’s view of God as the Prime Mover, and the Stoic’s moral rigor and self-denial.   But the majority trend of Christianity as it developed into the Middle Ages (often Dark Ages) could not reconcile a crucified and suffering Savior with anything of the Epicurean pursuit of happiness.

 

It is serendipitous that I am also reading “A New Christianity” by Brian MacLaren.  His thesis is that we must begin to think of Christianity in a new way to be faithful to the Jesus of the Bible.  Jesus’ true message has been distorted by Greco-Roman culture that was focused on empire, blood and conquest.  The patriarchal culture of Rome drove out the egalitarian spirit of Jesus from Christianity, and we were left with a fear of Hell and a culture of sacrifice, suffering and asceticism.  MacLaren seeks to scrape away this ancient dross and awaken a more loving, graceful and egalitarian Christianity that is faithful to the biblical Jesus.  Instead of focusing on heaven and hell, “A New Christianity” recovers Jesus central command to love.

 

The themes from these two books are moving me to think about Lent, which is a time of soul-searching and spiritual reflection.  Where has my own faith been too narrow, and unwilling to hear uncomfortable truth?  Are there ways I distort the truth, and fail to listen for the true Spirit of Christ in my prayers? In what way do I need to revitalize Christ’s true message in my life, learning to love again with all my heart, soul and mind?

 

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This week I have selected a few article that raised issues that I feel challenge us to reflect on the place of the church in the modern world.  We live in a more pluralistic world where we cannot take the support of the culture for granted.  The New York Times recently reported on a devisive religious freedom issue in Cranston, Rhode Island where I young woman who is an atheist took legal action against the school because of a prayer that has been in the auditorium since 1963.  The article saddens me because I believe our faith should be strong enough to endure a pluralistic society, where we do not have to have our faith promoted in the public schools to survive.  Early Christians did not need to have prayer in public schools to spread their message and neither do we. This kind of angry, defensive reaction will just create more disillusioned people who will move towards secular philosophies because the church seems like a bunch of intolerent hypocrites.  Let’s make sure we have really got prayer back into the church, before we get worried about the schools.

Speaking of angry, intolerant Christians, what is going on in Kansas?  Kansas House Speaker Thomas O’Neal emailed the following message about President Obama:

Let his days be few; and let another take his office

 

May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.

May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.

May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.

May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children.

O’Neal forwarded the prayer with his own message:

“At last — I can honestly voice a Biblical prayer for our president! Look it up — it is word for word! Let us all bow our heads and pray. Brothers and Sisters, can I get an AMEN? AMEN!!!!!!”

I do not think most Christians would agree with such violent and intolerant veiwpoinys, but we have allowed intolerant Christianity to take the center of the public square without significant opposition.  We bemoan losing a generation of young people, and try to figure out  way to do better marketing or outreach, but what is really keeping a generation away from the church is that so many people associate Christianity with intolerance.  That is a key evangelistic issue facing congregations.

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Speaking of President Obama, here are a couple of articles related to religions that I saw this week:

E.J. Dionne writes that Obama should have done a better job handling the issue of contraception reimbursals for church employers.   However, I firmly agree with the President’s message at the National Prayer Breakfast that Jesus would probably tax the rich.

The rich should pay more not only because “I actually think that is going to make economic sense, but for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required,'” Obama said at the Washington Hilton, delivering remarks at an annual event that every president has attended since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

 

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