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The Software Soul

| 12.8.06
'The Software Soul', by Brian Plante

This was another great short story by Brian Plante, this time dealing with an issue I've been thinking about for awhile --virtual churches.

I've moved around geographically quite a bit during the last ten years, and I've switched churches even more often than I've moved. When I think about what kinds of spiritual communities have truly nurtured my religious quest over the years, on-line communities outnumber bricks and mortar by almost two-to-one.

Wouldn't it be great to be able to actually attend worship on-line? To have some sort of immersive three dimensional virtual reality experience? It would be so convenient, allowing one to transcend purely geographic boundaries. It would allow truly niche church 'markets' to emerge, catering to every whim.

Plante's short story isn't about that, however. He explores the implications of a virtual church left running after all the flesh and blood parishioners have abandoned it. He tells the story from the perspective of a software priest who continues to perform Mass even as he is unaware of events taking place in the outside world. One day attendance starts picking up unexpectedly, including some out-of-this-world visitors.

I won't spoil the ending. Another great short story by Brian Plante!

PUBLISHER: Analog Science Fiction and Fact (Astounding); Dell Publishers; ISSN: 10592113 (July/August, 2006)
SEE ALSO: 'Dibs', 'In the Loop', and 'Lavender In Love'

Rachel and Leah

| 5.8.06
Rachel and Leah: Women of Genesis, by Orson Scott Card

This third installment of Orson Scott Card's "Women of Genesis" series was noteworthy because it casts Leah, --the daughter of Laban notorious for tricking Jacob into marrying her-- in a sympathetic light. At the end of this novel I was left feeling wistful about Leah's predicament, and felt that Jacob definitely chose the wrong daughter to fall in love with. Card writes an interesting story without contradicting the Bible's version of Jacob and Leah and Rachel (although certainly embellishing it, providing additional motivations and a look inside the heads of the characters that we don't get in the biblical account.)

I didn't enjoy this installment as much as I did Sarah or Rebekah. The pacing in Rachel and Leah seemed to be a bit off compared to the earlier two books. Maybe it was the way Card tried to tell four stories at once. Although Zilpah and Bilhah are both in the biblical account, the story gets stretched too thin when Card tries to cover all four story lines, and the two servant girls really don't contribute too much to the conclusion --certainly not enough to justify the number of pages devoted to them. I think if Card would have cut much of this material and focused on the two sisters, Jacob, and Laban the novel might have felt "tighter" and the final result more satisfying.

That aside, I have enjoyed this series and would recommend it. However, the first two books were more enjoyable than the latest.

PUBLISHER: Forge Press, 2005. ISBN: 0-765-34129-8.

See also: Sarah and Rebekah, by Orson Scott Card.

The Dwelling of the Light

| 15.7.06
The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ, by Rowan Williams

This wonderful little book is a great introduction to anyone who is curious about religious icons, their significance, and their history. Written by the current Archbishop of Canterbury and Anglican theologian Rowan Williams, this short readable book brings scholarship and devotion together in a very accessible manner that specifically addresses Protestant questions and concerns about icons.

The Dwelling of the Light begins with a helpful introduction which briefly sketches the history of icons, theological arguments for and against them, and the distinctions that Eastern Christians draw between icons, images, and statues. Understood correctly, icons are a window through which one looks to see the Divine, not an idol to be worshiped in its own right.

The part of the book I enjoyed the most was the middle section, where Williams takes four different icons of Christ --Christ's transfiguration, Christ's resurrection, Christ in Trinity, and Christ as ruler of all-- and explicates each one in detail, drawing our attention to various aspects of the paintings, suggesting ways in which the representations can invite us into a deeper theological and spiritual understanding of Christ.

Ironically enough, I felt the weakest part of the book were the reproductions of the icons themselves! One would think that a book about icons would have large, glossy reproductions and detailed close-ups. While the reproductions "get the job done" in this teaching tome, I felt they really short-changed the beauty of the subject matter. If I had picked up this book browsing in a bookstore, the ugly reproduction of The Transfiguration on the cover would have caused me to overlook what is otherwise a wonderful book, well suited for summer reading on vacation, yet leaving one with the sense of having learned of something profound.

PUBLISHER: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (January 2004); ISBN: 0802827780

Popular Music from Vittula

| 1.7.06
Popular Music from Vittula: a novel, by Mikael Niemi
(translated from Swedish by Laurie Thompson)

While this short novel is mostly a coming-of-age tale for two boyhood friends who grew up in Vittula, a town near the Finnish-Swedish border, I enjoyed it both for its evocative imagery of life within the arctic circle, and the role that Laestadianism plays in the lives of the two main characters. Niila is the son of an emotionally and physically abusive Laestadian preacher. Matti, who is also the voice of the narrator, is his best friend. Matti is not a Laestadian.

As a third generation American of Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish ancestry, the occasional sauna and lefse is as close as I get to rediscovering my roots! From my perspective, the world presented in Niemi's novel seems very far away. Yet while I read it I couldn't help but feel haunted by images which evoked vivid memories of childhood. Perhaps this haunting is not entirely coincidental, as I recently found out from a relative that my ancestors originate from this very region of Finland and Sweden.

The wedding banquet chapter reminded me of the strong black coffee, hearty rieska, and earthy camaraderie that existed at family events growing up. The portrayal of the mother-in-law as a woman whose purpose was to force the guests to eat and eat until they could eat no more --and then eat a few more things-- recalled to mind the important role that food played in hospitality. The wedding banquet concludes with the men taking an intense saunas where, "the steam was as merciless as a Laestadian sermon." (p. 122)

Seeing Laestadianism through Matti's eyes left me with a "grass is greener on the other side" reaction. Growing up as a mainstream Lutheran, Matti's father warned him that "[i]t was particularly important not to brood about religion. God and death and the meaning of life were all extremely dangerous topics for a young and vulnerable mind, a dense forest in which you could easily get lost and end up with acute attacks of madness. You could confidently leave that kind of stuff until your old age, because by then you would be hardened and tougher, and wouldn't have much else to do. Confirmation classes should be regarded as a purely theoretical exercise: a few texts and rituals to memorize, but certainly not anything to start worrying about." (p. 176) While I wouldn't go that far, I was struck by the mirror image of Laestadian spiritual excess painted so starkly.

"Life is a vale of tears." I don't know if that idea is primarily Laestadian or primarily Finnish, but it is an important theme that pervades the novel. While the novel is not unhappy, or depressing, life in Vittula is hard and rough, and pleasure, while obtainable, is always understood within the context of suffering.

PUBLISHER: Seven Stories Press. New York. 2003. ISBN: 1-58322-523-4
KEYWORDS: Fiction, Sweden, Finland, Laestadianism

Because I Love You

| 29.6.06
Because I Love You, by Max Lucado

Well, I just re-read Max Lucado's story for children Because I Love You and now I remember why I thought it was so creepy the first time I read it --especially in light of my fundamentalist upbringing.

One of the main messages of this book seems to be that curiosity is dangerous. Don't inquire. Don't question. Just accept what an authority figure tells you. If you do question, you risk alienating yourself from your community. Once you've gone down the questioning path and left the sheltering walls of religious totalism only an act of God can bring you back.

To me the book seems like an insidious attempt to try to frighten children out of questioning the values of the authority system. I see this with so many adults too, that seem afraid to question, that would rather live in a secure little bubble of never examining the assumptions behind what they believe.

The lie is made all the stronger because it is partly true. As one who has rejected the fundamentalism of my upbringing, it does feel lonely and dangerous sometimes to be "out in the cold," outside of the authoritarian system that promised simplicity and security if one didn't question things. Yet there is also great beauty and truth outside the walls.

I guess I'd even go so far as to say that the whole truth is only outside the wall, and what it means to be human is to seek after the whole truth. This book does a terrible disservice by implying otherwise. It certainly feels safer inside the walls, but I was raised to shun "feel good theology!"

And what the is Lucado trying to imply by naming the curious kid "Paladin?" All the good conformist kids got normal names. Paladin sounds like something out of Dungeons and Dragons, which of course every good fundy knows is a Satanic game. :)

Okay, I'm done ranting now. Few things get me as irate as the manipulation of children.

Publisher: Crossway Books (February 1999); ISBN: 0891079920

The Book of Tea

| 16.6.06
The Book of Tea, by Kakuzo Okakura

Reading and drinking tea have been connected in my mind for a few years now. My introduction to teas began quite accidentally. I was looking for a nice quiet neighborhood coffee shop with comfortable chairs as a place to escape family life for the occasional evening, and catch up on my reading. This search brought me to a tea shop, where I immediately fell in love with the different blends of green tea. I've been hooked ever since!

The Book of Tea is a short work that traces the history and development of tea drinking and the tea ceremony as it came from China to Japan in the 9th century, became tied to Zen Buddhism, and survives to this day. In one interesting quote that reminded me of my own favorite tea shop, "The tea room or tea house avoids any note of ostentation. It is made of common materials. The tools, the table, the teapot, and the ornament --all must be humble and harmonious." (p. xiii) Okakura goes on to tie tea drinking to a balanced, non-elitist sensibility. "It has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocao." (p. 12).

Yet he can't just leave it at that. Okakura reminds me of more modern marketing for green tea (what hasn't green tea been claimed to cure?) when he ties tea drinking to philosophy, aesthetics, religion --even hygiene. "The philosophy of tea is not mere aetheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry; inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe. It represents the true spirit of eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste." (p. 4)

"Lao-tzu himself, with his quaint humor, says, 'If people of inferior intelligence hear of the Tao, they laugh immensely. It would not be the Tao unless they laughed at it.'" (p. 29)

Maybe tea really is "all that." Maybe it isn't. Either way, I enjoy a good bracing mug of gunpowder green tea in the morning, a lighter green tea with mango for the afternoon, and a low caffeine China white in the evening.

PUBLISHER: Shambhala. Boston and London. 2001. (originally written around 1904) ISBN: 0-87773-918-8

Making Sense

| 14.6.06
Making Sense: Philosophy in the Headlines, by Julian Baggini

I was originally drawn to this book because of the title, "Making Sense" with its constructionist overtones. While the book is more an overview of philosophical thinking and how it can be applied to understanding current events, I still think it was well worth my time.

First, this was a great book for explaining philosophical concepts and critical thinking without getting weighed down in big terms. I took one philosophy class in college. We read Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, and others. My mind quickly glazed over in that way that only philosophy can make a young mind glaze over. Baggini, on the other hand, is very practical in his approach to philosophy. In this book philosophy is a means to an end; used to think clearly and help unravel the assumptions behind the issues for major news stories of our day. Of course the fact that utilitarianism seems to be Baggini's core philosophical assumption doesn't hurt his presentation!

Most of the book is devoted to taking specific examples and thinking through them in a rational manner. The Clinton sex scandal, the war on terrorism, stem cell research, abortion, and genetically modified foods are just a few of the issues he tackles. In each case he carefully asks questions aimed to deconstruct the arguments used for and against. Disassembled in this way, the reader can take a look at the various pieces that make up an argument and decide for themselves what is compelling and what is not. Even when you don't agree with Baggini's conclusions on the matter (and often I did not) his process helped me think through issues in a more reasoned way.

The strongest part of the book was Baggini's contrast between rhetoric and reasoned argument. Watch closely the next time you see a politician speak on TV. Do they assume their conclusion (rhetoric) or do they provide evidence to support drawing their conclusion (reasoned argument)? If every voter could make the distinction between reason and rhetoric there would be a revolution in the way people think about issues! While it may not end up affecting the outcome of elections (for I think reasoned arguments can often be made on many sides of an issue) I think it would inoculate us against some of the more extreme positions out there, and foster better domestic and foreign policy.

Baggini's treatment of religion, on the other hand, was somewhat weak. I was raised as a fundamentalist and trained to see reason and faith to be in strict opposition; now I'm an Episcopalian who sees reason and faith as complementing each other. Baggini critiques the fundamentalist view of religion, but seems unaware of any alternatives to this other than atheism. Most people of faith lie somewhere in the middle, and it was disappointing to read Baggini paint them with such a broad brush.

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (January 15, 2004); ISBN: 0192805061


| 11.6.06
Gilead: A Novel, by Marilynne Robinson

This was a truly beautiful novel, like an ember glowing after the fire has died. It was not apparent to me from the beginning, however. This is the kind of book that slowly reveals its secrets and its beauty. Like a hard life lived well, meaning is hard won, wrested from the soil, from suffering.

Robinson's primary character, a preacher named John Ames, says it best when (describing baptism) he states, "There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be primarily. It doesn't enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that." (p. 23) In the same way, Gilead acknowledges the sacredness in what may seem from an outsider's point of view to be ordinary lives in an ordinary Midwestern town. The sacredness of Iowa, of all places! It also acknowledges the sacredness in those of us who may consider ourselves beyond redemption.

The novel takes the form of an extended letter from father to son. John Ames is an old man with a young son, and pens this letter turned memoir as an attempt to communicate critical wisdom to his young son from beyond the grave. As the father tells the convoluted tale of a life that was shaped significantly by the experiences, heartaches, and wisdom learned from his forebears a picture of four generations of preachers emerges --each with different styles, personalities, and convictions bound by a common vocation.

John Ames' grandfather was a firebrand; an abolitionist who believed in passionate pursuit of social justice, working for the cause to end slavery, even to the point of advocating violence and revolution. He was noted for strong views and strong convictions, even giving away his own possessions to everyone that had need of them. His prophetic ministry was grounded in a vision from childhood, a vision of Christ shackled in chains that cut so deep they went "to the bone."

In stark contrast, John Ames' father never had a vision, discounted the importance of religious experience, and "went to sit with the Quakers" after the Civil War. The rift between these two strong-willed characters profoundly shapes the narrators life.

John Ames, our narrator throughout the novel, was a preacher during World War I, the Flu epidemic, and World War II. He is an interesting mix of his father and his grandfather. A pacifist, he once wrote a fiery sermon casting the flu as God's judgment against a people to willing to go to war. However he never preached that sermon out of compassion for a suffering flock. Perhaps he is the synthesis of what was best about both his father and his grandfather. A seemingly simple country preacher haunted by the ghosts of his father, grandfather and a late wife who died in childbirth, he has hidden depths with which we become increasingly familiar as the novel progresses.

John Ames' son takes two forms, one literal and the other metaphorical. On a literal level Ames is writing to a son who will come of age only after he is dead. On a deeper level, there is John Ames Boughton --ne'er do well son of his best friend-- who the preacher must come to terms with, forgive, and see God's grace within. Through this revealing of grace the glory of the old man's life, and the dusty Iowa farm town, is revealed.

PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York, 2004; ISBN: 0-374-15389-2
KEYWORDS: fiction, Iowa, preaching, relationships


| 29.5.06
The BFG, by Roald Dahl

I can't think of a finer way to spend a lazy three day weekend than to kick back with some good, light reading. Now that I am a parent this simple joy can also express itself reading a book out loud to a young child. Not only does it provide some quality time together, but it gives me a chance to see life through a child's eyes once again.

The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) provided all of that and more. While Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is still my favorite, followed closely by James and the Giant Peach, BFG had plenty of entertaining moments. Surprisingly, my young audience was most enthralled by the silly words coined in the novel, such as snozzcumber (a bad tasting vegetable), frobscottle (soda pop where the bubbles float down instead of up), and whizzpoppers (flatulence!) What kid doesn't enjoy joking about flatulence?

The story line is simple enough. Young Sophie is abducted by the BFG, wins him over, and enlists his help in saving the world from the meaner sort of giant. She pleads her case to the queen of England, and hilarity ensues.

Great summer fun!

PUBLISHER: Puffin; Reissue edition (June 1, 1998); ISBN: 0141301058 (originally published 1982)

What Rough Beast

| 15.4.06
What Rough Beast: Images of God in the Hebrew Bible, by David Penchansky

With provocatively titled chapters such as "YHWH the Monster (Genesis 3)", "The Bloody Bridegroom: The Malevolent God (Exodus 4:24-26)" and "The Mad Prophet and the Abusive God (2 Kings 2:23-25)" Penchansky's startling thesis is that these texts were written by people of faith bearing witness to their experience of God as "rough, violent, unpredictable, liable to break out against even his most faithful believers without warning." (pp. 1-2)

This was one of the most upsetting and disturbing books I've ever read, but I think the author is on to something. He presents a dark view of God very different than the God of sweetness and light espoused by many liberals, yet he is not willing to call evil its opposite when the act is attributed to God, as many fundamentalists will do.

Even if much of Genesis and Exodus is more parabolic than historical (and I think there is a good case to be made for that view) we're still left with the troubling images of God portrayed in the stories. Penchansky challenges us to "look into the very face of the abyss" with intellectual honesty, courage, and wit.

PUBLISHER: Westminster John Knox Press (September 1999); ISBN: 0664256457

Plan B

| 1.3.06
Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, by Anne Lamott

In this short, rambling, yet entertaining book the reader is treated to an inside view of one middle-aged west coast liberal's attempt to make sense of life as a Christian, parent, Sunday school teacher, writer, and citizen under the Bush Administration.

Yes, I kid you not. A big subtext in this series of autobiographical spiritual musings is the despair that liberal types feel when the right wing is in power. I suppose anyone with strong political leanings is subject to this kind of despair. While most of the electorate are probably somewhere in the middle --with something to like and dislike about anyone who might occupy the White House-- those on either fringe fear the worst, braving the current Administration like a raging storm, hoping it will end without destroying everything in its path.

I couldn't help but think, "this must be how Christian conservatives felt during Clinton's eight years in office." As someone with a very conservative extended family, I'm constantly hearing ranting from that end of the spectrum. I can only hope that I don't rant like that myself. Lamott definitely shows that ranting isn't the sole property of one political party.

Part of me wondered, why put so much partisan politics into this book? Lamott has a lot of down-to-earth wisdom to share, wisdom gained from her own rocky experiences, wisdom that could be even be useful to certain Republicans. However any self-respecting Republican will probably toss this book after reading the first few pages of Bush bashing. Here are some nuggets of her wisdom. The tone is quirky, pithy, and down-to-earth:

". . .when you pray, you are not starting the conversation from scratch, just remembering to plug back into a conversation that's always in progress." (p. 25)

". . .if you want to change the way you feel about people, you have to change the way you treat them." (p. 143)

"This drives me crazy, that God seems to have no taste, and no standards. Yet on most days, this is what gives some of us hope." (p. 222)

"She said you could tell if people were following Jesus, instead of following the people who follow Jesus, because they were feeding the poor, sharing their wealth, and trying to help everyone get medical insurance." (pp. 222-223)

"If I were God, I'd have the answers at the end of the workbook, so you could check as you went along, to see if you're on the right track. But nooooooo. Darkness is our context, and Easter's context: without it, you couldn't see the light. Hope is not about proving anything. It's about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us." (pp. 274-275)

"Every single spiritual tradition says that you must take care of the poor, or you are so doomed that not even Jesus or the Buddha can help you." (p. 307)

Great stuff.

On the other hand, maybe politics and religion do go hand in hand. For years I was a left-leaning parishioner in right-leaning churches. This gave me no end of consternation while I told myself I was holding out hope that church could transcend partisan differences.

Now I attend a church that more closely matches my political views, and I feel like a decades long hangover has finally ended! While it is nice to imagine that church can transcend politics, the reality is that everything is political, and the only way you can be represented is to be part of a group that shares your interests. That, and you can come out of church without fuming and bitching for days on end about what you just heard from the pulpit.

Lamott has the guts to be completely honest, even when it doesn't make her look good. She's comfortable enough about who she is that she can trash the Bush Administration yet also question her own motives for doing so. She just lets it all hang out, and then she attempts, albeit mostly unsuccessfully, to heal from the hatred. I can't help but admire her honesty and her struggle, which comes to a climax about two-thirds through the book:

"The sermon ended; people were crying. Veronica [Lamott's pastor] asked if anyone wanted to come forward for special prayer. . . I struggled to keep in my seat, but I found myself standing, then lurching forward stiffly. . .I whispered that I was so angry with and afraid of the right wing in this country that it was making me mentally ill.. . and the church prayed for me, although they did not know what was wrong." (p. 224)

This wound up being a very interesting read! Not what I expected and well worth my time. In a way Lamott's ranting is redeemed because it leads to a deeper insight into her own hopes, fears, and insecurities. This makes the book unlike anything I'd read before in this genre. Anyone can attack their political opponents, but it is a rare person who can also admit their own vulnerabilities at the same time.

PUBLISHER: Riverhead Books, New York, 2005. ISBN: 1-57322-299-2.

Our Endangered Values

| 1.2.06
Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis, by Jimmy Carter

I was a bit underwhelmed by this book, partly because I expected it to comment more on the state of religious fundamentalism in America, and partly because of its style. I was thinking this book would be an in-depth analysis of the fusion between right-wing religion and politics. Having recently finished Jim Wallis' "God's Politics: Why the Right is Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," perhaps I expected more from the former president and Nobel laureate.

"Our Endangered Values" begins with Jimmy Carter's self-described "traditional" Baptist beliefs, and continues with how he views current political issues. Yet Carter doesn't explicitly make the connection between religious belief and policy position as often as one would like. Instead the book is packed with a superficial critique of many Bush administration policy positions, as well as some justifications for Carter's own policies when he was president.

While I am certainly no admirer of Bush's policies and should have a sympathetic ear for Carter's arguments, I did not find the way he presented his case very compelling. I certainly admire what he has done through the Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity. I even believe that there are religious convictions that underpin compassionate behavior for both individuals and governments. I am certainly no endorser of the pre-millennial dispensationalism and fundamentalism that Carter sees as the root and the cancer of many American foreign policy decisions. Yet Carter's approach --lots of examples, lots of statistics, but no citations or in-depth analysis-- left me strangely cold.

The biggest question this book raised for me was, "Why is Carter the anomaly --a Baptist with relatively traditional spirituality, yet progressive on many political issues?" Carter claims that it is the Southern Baptist Convention (and by proxy the larger conservative culture) that has changed, but I tend to think that it's the other way around. With the vast majority of Southern Baptists finding right wing, not left wing politics as the most natural expression of the their convictions, Carter has the burden of proof in showing why being liberal is a more faithful expression of his religious tradition.

Carter remains fascinating to me nonetheless. The earliest president I can remember firsthand from childhood, I remember my fundamentalist parents voting for him because he was "born again," yet becoming bitterly disillusioned with what they perceived as his ineffectual handling of the energy crisis and hostage crisis of the 1970s. By the 80s they were Reagan supporters, Moral Majority supporters, and to my knowledge never again voted for a Democrat.

Almost every conservative Christian religious tradition I can think of imagines a golden age in the past, and claims its authority based upon being in agreement with that past, or trying to return to that past. Interestingly, Carter tries to do the same thing in his book, claiming that we used to have thoughtful, civil discourse which has been ruined by the fundamentalist influence in politics and culture. I found the approach interesting, and wonder if it is convincing to it's target audience.

Maybe progressives DO need to couch their arguments in traditional language in order to relate to a broader audience. I take a "re-constructionist" approach in my own theological views, using traditional symbols and language to articulate new ideas. Maybe the time has come for a similar approach in politics?

PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster (November 1, 2005); ISBN: 0743284577

God's Politics

| 1.1.06
God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, by Jim Wallis

One thing you can't help but notice reading this book is the forceful personality of Jim Wallis. He obviously believes what he says, and has "put his money where his mouth is" with his life. Arrested over 30 times, Wallis lives the life of an activist, tirelessly proclaiming to anyone who will listen that how we treat the poor, or "the least of these" illustrates the authenticity of our Christian faith.

I agreed with a lot of this book. I think the religious and political discourse in the United States is too narrow, and has been co-opted by religious fundamentalists and secular leftists. I think there are valid problems worthy of critique on both the right and the left. Yet something also bothers me about this book.

What I like about Wallis is that he wants to critique both the religious right and the secular left. He even had a few barbs to throw in about the religious left. On the basis of the Bible, Wallis sees Christianity as the high ground upon which opposing sides can come together to provide a more consistent ethic that sees moral issues as both social and individual.

"Change the wind, transform the debate, recast the discussion, alter the context in which political decisions are being made, and you will change the outcomes." (p. 22) Wallis sees people of faith as "wind changers." I like this metaphor, which also refers to the Spirit of God, depicted as "wind" in various parts of the Bible (perhaps most notably, Genesis 1)

What I don't like about Wallis is his tendency to be a biblical literalist (although not a right-wing biblical literalist, as is so often the case). I suppose everyone who tries to live by the Bible takes some parts of it literally, and other parts of it metaphorically. Since the Religious Right couches their arguments in "proof texts" and politically expedient hermeneutic, it is probably useful to see the same thing coming from a more moderate perspective. I think it is a conscious choice on Wallis' part to see the Bible as providing a consistent moral ethic that ought to inform our politics. I tend to mistrust such attempts to systematize, but I suppose that is part and parcel of organizing politically. If Wallis was riddled with self-doubt and questioned his own beliefs, perhaps he wouldn't "have what it takes" to organize and give his whole life to his cause.

Wallis wants the Christian community to be the community that undermines, critiques, and revitalizes political discourse in the United States --a prophetic voice speaking on behalf of the marginalized. While this can be found in Scripture, many other things can also be found in Scripture. Wallis uses the Bible as his authority, and this I find somewhat troubling because in my view the Bible actually undermines all authority.

Ultimately people must take responsibility for their morality, drawing inspiration and guidance from God, the Bible, and their own conscience. I think the call to justice Wallis finds in the Bible is every bit as much of a construction as are the types of things the Religious Right constructs out of the Bible. I happen to like what Wallis has constructed, but I don't like how he pretends it is "what the Bible says" when the reality is a bit more complicated. Jim Wallis thinks that if you'll read your Bible with an ear toward the poor, you can't help but question the status quo in what he calls "our war-mongering, greedy, capitalist society." That is certainly true, but it is "having an ear toward the poor" that makes the difference, not the Bible.

Wallis shows that he is at least somewhat aware of hermeneutical difficulties when he writes, "Social location often determines biblical interpretation, and that truth goes a long way toward understanding why Christians from the United States and many other wealthy countries simply miss some of the most central themes of the Scriptures." (p. 211) Wallis interprets Mark's gospel "the poor you will always have with you," helpfully pointing out that the disciples social location assumed that they would always be dealing with the poor. The fact that they are having dinner with Simon the Leper as the story plays out proves that Jesus and his disciples were concerned with social outcasts. Yet an affluent America reads this text as an excuse to do nothing about poverty, because it can never be eliminated.

Wallis is amazingly critical of the Bush administration. Seeing this kind of critique come out of evangelical circles is perhaps the most amazing thing to come out of this book. Much of the book scathingly attacks Bush's policies at home and abroad. "The real theological problem in America today is no longer the religious Right, but the nationalist religion of the Bush administration, one that confuses the identity of the nation with the church, and God's purposes with the mission of American empire." (p. 149)

Wallis imagines an activist Christian who is not afraid to get arrested for the sake of social justice. "If biblical prophets like Amos and Isaiah had read the news about what happened to child tax credits for low-income families, for example, they surely would be out screaming on the White House lawn about the justice of God--and be quickly led away by the Secret Service." (p. 247)

The limits of Wallis' leftward leanings are most apparent in his views on gay issues. He is against gay marriage, but also against using gays as the scapegoat for straight families' problems. Wallis does favor legalizing civil unions. (p. 332). Perhaps as an evangelical the only way he can be pro-gay is to leave it to the civil government. I find it a little inconsistent that this is the only issue that he doesn't want to bring the Bible to bear on. While a more liberal religious outlook might question the Bible's applicability to modern gay and lesbian concerns, Wallis wants to stay in the evangelical camp and defuse gay marriage as a wedge issue. It seems to me like he punts, but it is hardly surprising given his social location and his over-riding passion for the poor.

Ultimately, I think Wallis' message is one America needs to hear. His call to return to biblically based values regarding the poor and disenfranchised is timely and refreshing. He models an authentic way to be Christian that differs from the prevailing conservative fundamentalist views that dominate the airwaves and the headlines. He is scandal free, lives what he believes, and has a clear and articulate message of hope for both the poor and for the rest of us called to serve Christ through serving the poor.

PUBLISHER: HarperCollins, New York. 2005. ISBN 0-06-055828-8

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