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Cover of Solus Jesus - multi-colored cross behind the book title and sub-title

Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, A Review

Cover of Solus Jesus - multi-colored cross behind the book title and sub-titleA well-hosted dinner party is a work of diligence and artistry. Even leaving culinary gifts aside, strategy and insight go into cultivating the guest list, arranging seating, introducing new topics of conversation, drawing guests in and lifting up the commonalities and unique expertise around the table. By the end of the evening, all the guests feel well-fed, not just by the content of the meal but by the characters around the table.

In Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, authors Emily Swan and Ken Wilson invite the reader to a sumptuous 3-course feast around a table filled with friends both familiar and yet-to-be-made. First, let me introduce you to our hosts. Emily Swan and Ken Wilson co-pastor Blue Ocean congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their story of leaving the Vineyard (charismatic, evangelical denomination) congregation where they previously served (a church that Wilson himself planted) folds into the content of the book.

Swan’s approach is shaped, in part, by her experiences as a missionary in China, by her wide range of reading interests, particularly theological voices from the margins and by her own story of falling in love and coming out as a queer woman. Wilson’s contribution to the text is shaped by his interest in mystics and patristics, his own experience of bereavement in the loss of his wife and by his evolving conviction regarding the full-inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community within his native evangelical Christianity.

In this book, our hosts prepare a three-course meal. First is the premise from which the book derives its title: “It’s enough to say a living Jesus is the final authority in Christianity.” (15) Rather than the doctrine of “sola Scriptura,” what if the church were led — now and always — by Jesus as revealed in Scripture and experience, in other words: “solus Jesus?” To this end, the authors introduce readers to Jewish scholarship, early church and recent church history—especially some of the finest work within their own charismatic, Pentecostal tradition—to prove the validity of experience as a teacher. One wonders if Martin Luther himself might agree with the authors’ premise as he never intended Scripture to be interpreted outside the received and living tradition of the church.

The second, most filling, course offers up an opportunity to investigate more recent theological understandings of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Rather than penal substitutionary atonement, where the primary work of the cross is to satisfy the wrath of God in God’s own son, scapegoat theology teaches that to look to the cross is to see all those who have been cast aside, misunderstood and crucified by our world’s insatiable demand for defining who’s in and who’s out. In a uniquely Christian response to hate, understanding Rene Girard’s view of Christ as victim on the cross allows us to gain a new lens by which to value and to stand in solidarity with all those who are victimized in our world — and our churches — today and, in particular, those  LGBTQ+ members of the Christian family.

The third course is the richest option, in which our hosts ask us to act according to the theological convictions laid out in the previous two courses. Again, pulling from a wide range of sources, our hosts ask us to consider this question: “What if we could learn to step away from the magnetic pull of rivalry and learn to be with each other differently?” (321) In a startling last chapter, our hosts leave us to consider the implication of a “non-rivalrous Gospel” amid other world religions.

Throughout each course, our hosts draw out the other guests around the table: their own Pentecostal tradition, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Cone, Rene Girard, Jewish midrash, Tibetan Buddhism, Eastern Orthodoxy, inviting each to interact with the hosts’ and readers’ own stories of faith. In this way, the authors of the text model their own thesis—a wide welcome in solidarity with Christ who identifies himself on the cross with all those who have been excluded from invitation in the past.

If I could be afforded one quibble it would stem from my own Calvinist-Reformed theological conviction, of which the authors write, “It’s difficult to picture solus Jesus taking root in churches tied to sola Scriptura as their institutional narratives (the Calvinist-Reformed and Lutheran sectors, in particular.)”  (362) In fact, a notable exclusion from this book’s guest list is Karl Barth, the 20th century’s greatest Calvinist-Reformed thinker who wrote, precisely, in favor of the centrality of the Word-made-flesh rather than the word of holy writ.

This is why, in many Reformed congregations today, you will hear the reading of Scripture prefaced not by “Listen to the word of the Lord” but, rather, “Listen for the Word of the Lord.” Surely there is some collegiality between Barth and the authors of this text. I would have delighted to hear his voice afforded a greater hearing at the table.

It is probably safe to say that this book is not for straight-ticket theological voters. Each voice around the table deserves its own consideration and, whether you are coming from the hosts’ own evangelical charismatic background or not, you will have opportunity to re-evaluate your tradition’s certainties and to wonder about the wisdom just past the borders of your own theological construct.

I’m struck by both the patience and the impatience of this book — arguing their case with urgency but rarely brushing off those who disagree — struggling to make the circle wider in a way that does not attack but that comes alongside. In this way, it reminds me of another host at another table who invites us to come, to partake, to remember and to believe as part of a community that is not made by our own choosing.

cherry tomatoes, garlic, red peppers and herbs in a cast-iron pan on a wooden table next to a red and white gingham checked cloth

A Place at the Table: Thinking Theologically about Hunger and Poverty

cherry tomatoes, garlic, red peppers and herbs in a cast-iron pan on a wooden table next to a red and white gingham checked clothHere in rural Illinois where I live, the leaves on the trees are starting to change—red, orange, and yellow gracing our streets and college campus green spaces. Alongside the color, you’ll find bare expanses of dusty dirt fields, where thousands of farmers seem, en masse, to have harvested all of their corn and soybeans at once, leaving the majority of the state of Illinois brown and flat until cover crops come poking through to add a little color before snow comes.

I live in two worlds all year long, and one of those worlds points me always toward summer. I’m the Associate Chaplain at Monmouth College, but also the director of a grand experiment on our campus called the Lux Summer Theological Institute for Youth. The Lux Institute brings high school students to our campus for two weeks each summer to study a prominent global issue alongside theological reflection.

In Summer 2019, we’ll be focused on the theme “A Place at the Table: Thinking Theologically about Hunger and Poverty” from June 16-30. I’m already busy searching for curious students to join us for this free program, and already thinking about the nuances of each class, activity, reading assignment, community building exercise, and meal. I’m adding “remember to pick up laundry quarters from the business office” to my growing list of summer responsibilities for the Institute (because even student laundry costs are covered!).

As those preparations continue, I’m turned back to focus on the intersections between my work with high school students from around the country and the college students here on campus. The Lux Institute was started two summers ago, and its first program theme focused on food security. In the academic year that followed, I discovered that many of my college students struggle with food security of their own. I had spent two weeks with high school students exploring the ways that hunger and food insecurity impacts their local communities around the country, and I was prompted to explore my own immediate context. Read more

woman with head in hands

WTF, God? A Prayer after Pregnancy Loss

woman with head in hands

I was in a church meeting when I found out I was having a miscarriage. I had stepped out of the conference room at our diocesan offices when my phone rang, assuming it was the fertility clinic calling to give instructions for starting the next round of medications. We had been told that the last round had failed, and we were hoping to try again as soon as possible.

I went into a small meeting room for some privacy while I spoke with the nurse and, as she began to talk, her words made no sense. She didn’t give instructions for when to start the medication or the the dosage I should take. She explained that the blood work I’d had that morning showed I was pregnant. Or I had been pregnant. Well, I was technically still pregnant. But I wouldn’t be for much longer. I needed to return for more blood work to be sure.

So I got more blood work. The results were unclear. It might not be a miscarriage.

Maybe an ectopic pregnancy. I had to come back again immediately. My life and future childbearing at risk.

“Well we don’t see anything. So it’s not ectopic. Guess it’s ‘just,’ a miscarriage after all.”

I hadn’t even known I was pregnant.

I bled for eight weeks.

When the initial shock started to lift, and I gradually felt able to tell people what had happened, I was amazed by the stories that flooded out of others, of their own experiences of losing loved ones they’d never known. Several people spoke about their difficulty setting foot in church after this kind of loss. Certainly not at Christmas when church is all about expecting a baby, but other times too. It’s so easy to talk about God when pregnancy is going well. “What a blessing!” “A gift from God!” But when that gift, that blessing, is gone before it’s even visible to the people in the pews, the silence is staggering.

I felt this same silence. From the people who had no idea what I was losing as I led them in worship each of those long weeks. Week after week, I consecrated the body and blood of Christ, and I bled. Read more

dark coffee in small cup with saucer decorated with flowers on a wooden table top, looking from the top

A Young Christian Woman and a Young Muslim Woman Walk into a Cafe

dark coffee in small cup with saucer decorated with flowers on a wooden table top, looking from the topA young Christian woman and a young Muslim woman walk into a cafe…no, this isn’t the beginning of a joke. Interfaith jokes rarely include women – in fact even more serious images of interfaith relationships depict male priests, rabbis, imams, or monks gathering for a meal, a drink, or a football game. These images are often quite moving, serving as powerful reminders that God is at work through many religions and giving us glimpses of hope that we can get along. But such images are also not as accessible to me as a young clergywoman nor, I suspect, for the many people who see them as feel-good niceties that don’t have any real influence on how we understand God. I want to offer a new image for interfaith relationships from my own life, one anchored in the messiness of life and friendship and featuring young women:

It was one or two in the morning, so we were not in a cafe, but we’d had so much Bosnian coffee that day that we still couldn’t shut our eyes. We hadn’t seen each other in person for a few years so we had plenty to talk about: married life, new jobs, what it is like to be young women leaders in our communities. But, of course, we instead were talking about which Turkish soap opera actors are the cutest; at least, until Đana’s voice became serious: “Can I ask you something?” “Of course,” I responded, but I was still scrolling through overly dramatic stills of scenes from the soap operas we had been talking about. She asked, “What is this Trinity? God is one. How can God also be Jesus, a human?”

This was not the question I was expecting. As often as we spoke of God throughout the years of our friendship, I was wary of talking about theology and doctrine or even Jesus because I didn’t want to seem pushy, offend her, or hurt her. Đana is a Muslim who was targeted for genocide when she was a child by people claiming to share my faith in Christ. But now Đana was asking me (at a ridiculous time of day and while I was looking at pictures of Murat Yıldırım) to talk about my Christian faith. Her question challenged me to identify the difference such stories and doctrines made in my life, and why they matter. Read more

God Grew Bigger: A Review of This Is My Body

cover of This is My BodyHannah Shanks’ This is My Body came out the same week that I learned I was pregnant. I had already been planning to buy and read the book – the author is a friend – but that pee-saturated stick gave special urgency to my reading. On the first page the author finds out that she is pregnant and immediately “freaks out at life changes.“ This is familiar!

But don’t assume that this book is only for pregnant people or people who have given birth. My college self, for example, could have used the steady insistence that this is my body, holy and good, revealer of God’s image. Anyone who struggles with body image will find this book life-giving. And it would be an extraordinary mistake — a mistake born out of patriarchal assumptions — for men to skip this book. The final chapter encapsulates why: “When we are made one [in Christ], our stories are no longer relegated to a genre or niche of ‘women’s issues’… Though our experiences have been resigned to a market segment… Jesus’ story is our story — a birth story” (126-127).

This Is My Body weaves one particular human story into God’s unfolding story. Read more

Facing Fear: A Review of Everything Happens for a Reason

The other day, after school pick-up, my daughter and I swung by the church I serve to quickly pick up something. Naturally, my daughter had to use the restroom. While washing our hands, she asked with an earnest curiosity, “Does God brush his teeth here?” I asked her, “What made you ask that?” She responded, “Well, this is God’s house, so this is his bathroom – he must brush his teeth here.”

My biggest fear is being separated from my children by death. To miss moments like that one, or the feel of her hot breath on my neck as she naps on my shoulder. To no longer feel the weight of my son as he barrels at me as fast as he can with joy and excitement when I come home from work. The feared absence strikes without warning: in moments of utter bliss as I watch them sleep or moments of the unforgettable mundane as we prepare for school in the morning.

There is something (to borrow from Glennon Doyle Melton) “brutiful” about watching your worst fear played out in print. Brutal and beautiful: this is Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler captures the reader with honesty, humor, and raw emotion as she dives into her story: how to live life in the midst of dying; how to love others when you’re about to say goodbye.

None of us are strangers to loss, but Bowler’s vulnerability brings the intimacy of fear and love and longing right into our very lives. I tend to anxiously avoid facing my fears of “what if” the very worst happens. This book brought me face to face with those fears, while at the same time I was comforted and held in the structure of Bowler’s story. A difficult but important read, I discovered that as a priest and as a mother, my life needed this book. Read more

Learning to say “Yes, And…”: A review of God, Improv, and the Art of Living

I still remember that gathering in a hotel meeting room in Kansas City. The NEXTChuch conference had just ended, and a group of pastors gathered to learn about Improv and how it could impact our ministries. Our speaker was snowed into her hometown, and the leaders began to change their plan. Yes, we were going to improvise a 24-hour workshop on improvisation. Throughout our sessions, as we played and then debriefed, I kept asking for the rulebook, the place where I could read about what we were doing to understand it better. MaryAnn McKibben Dana was one of those facilitators, and she very patiently kept reminding me that she was in the process of writing the book for which I hungered.

When I finished reading the book, it took all I had not to race to the internet and preorder copies for all of my clergy colleagues and church leaders. It was this paragraph that held the book together for me and helped me pivot from “principles of improv” to “heres what it means”:

“The truth is, were not in control of our lives, and the unforeseen happens. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. The plant closes down. Loved ones die. Our job as improvisers is to use our resources to put together a life in the wake of these things – maybe not the life we had planned, but a good life, a life with dignity, fashioned out of whats on hand.” (p. 119)

How much of ministry, how much of life really, is using our resources to fashion meaning out of what may appear to be chaos? The book is filled with examples of how this happens in workshops, on stage, and in the church. The way this works for those who look at life through an improv lens is saying “yes, and…” This is the key theme in McKibben Danas book. When we say “yes,” we accept the reality of what has been given to us. Be it the character to include in a skit, the terminal diagnosis, the relocation for a job, the burnt breakfast or any other number of circumstances we cannot change, the basics of improv include saying “yes” to the reality in front of us. Read more

Not What You Meant: The Bible and the Gospel in The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, the new Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, needs a trigger warning. It’s “intended for mature audiences,” but it’s hard to watch if you’ve ever been in a relationship with a total imbalance of power, if you’ve ever been pregnant or nursed an infant, or had a child die, or been sexually assaulted. It took me four tries to get through one scene: I kept pausing and switching windows in my browser, so great was my anxiety about what was coming next.

When I first picked up the novel, I was a freshman in college – a preacher’s kid in an interdisciplinary program in Boston. I’d grown up in Midwestern churches, the words of Psalm 19 and the words of institution and my father’s preferred baptismal covenant and benediction etched on my heart. I could recite them from memory years before I entered ministry myself. But when I read Atwood’s novel, which depicts a dystopian future theocracy where women are not allowed to read, much less own anything, work, or maintain bodily autonomy, I did not recognize the ideological roots of the regime as Christian. Atwood’s world-building is incredible; and though I got references to “Loaves and Fishes” and “Milk and Honey,” I felt certain she’d also made up most of the cited religious language. At the Prayvaganza, as a handful of girls are offered in arranged marriage to returned soldiers, the Commander in charge says, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection… [For] Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”

I grew up in churches, but my dad had taken Old Testament with Phyllis Trible in the 1970s. I had no idea what 1 Timothy was about. I was sheltered.

I reread the novel last fall, when #repealthe19th was trending on Twitter. The Nineteenth Amendment, you’ll recall, is the one which grants women the right to vote. The hashtag gained popularity after statistician Nate Silver suggested that if only women voted in the presidential election, Hillary Clinton would win hands down. I’m no stranger now to the realities of misogyny, the ubiquitous evidence of rape culture, even as a privileged white woman, but the threat, however far-fetched, of disenfranchisement seemed to raise the stakes.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, both the show and the novel, a violent act that takes out Congress precipitates the imposition of martial law and ushers in the theocratic, totalitarian regime known as Gilead. Facing cultural upheaval and global infertility, fertile women are assigned to marriages, to serve as handmaids to the wives of powerful men in the manner of the biblical Rachel and her slave Bilhah. These handmaids are infantilized and treated alternately as holy vessels and sluts; they are covered in billowing red dresses and starched white veils; they are stripped of their names, known only in relation to the man they serve, Of-Fred, Of-Stephen, Of-Glen.

After November, it feels all the more timely. Read more

Meeting God in Broken Places: A Review of The Shack

God the Father

When the novel The Shack was published in 2007, everyone was talking about it, particularly its unusual portrayal of the Trinity. Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter was hard to dispute, but the Holy Spirit in the personified form of an Asian woman? God the Father represented as a black woman seemed to raise the most objections. None of these struck me as quite the dangerous heresy they were being declared by more conservative folk, and religious fiction isn’t usually the section I target in Barnes and Noble. But the book was gaining popularity and my congregation was reading it. They wanted to know what their pastor thought of the ideas in the book, many of which were new to them, and so I read the book out of obligation.

With the recent movie release, clergy are in a similar position of being asked what we think about The Shack. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it much. I found the book alternately pedantic and vague, and too blithe in its treatment of grief and guilt. The latter statement might also be made of the film, which moves at Hollywood pace through tragedy, fallout, and recovery. Still, I was moved by its portrayal of a man trapped in loss and shame who meets God and finds the ability to forgive himself.

The characters of the Trinity are compelling and provocative, if we can set aside the need for absolute theological accuracy at every moment – and after all, who has ever represented the Trinity with absolute theological accuracy in any single statement or metaphor? This version of the triune God is personified separately, in a way that brings out their vitality and relationship. That each person of the Godhead appears as a person of color was to me a relief and delight. And although it’s not explored in detail, “Papa” is played by the same woman, Octavia Spencer, who offers the young Mack pie and empathy in his abused childhood. Plenty of commentators have had difficulty with God being portrayed as a black woman. Some of our people may well have questions about the gender and skin color of God, or about God being visually represented at all. But it seems to me to be downright biblical that God appears to Mack in the one form that he might accept as benevolent. Isn’t the whole story of Scripture rife with examples of God appearing to humankind as we are best able to perceive and receive God? Isn’t this the story of Jesus, God made one of us so that we might see divine love personified? Read more

Good Christian Sex cover

Good (Progressive) Christian Sex (Resources): A review of Good Christian Sex

Good Christian Sex cover

Good Christian Sex

I have an entire shelf of books about sex in my office at church: historical critical analyses of sexuality in ancient Israel and first century Rome, dense volumes of theology and ethics, some psychology, and a distressing number of books about clerical abuse and safe spaces in church. One of my seminary professors instilled in me the practice of “the ministry of the well-placed book,” (thank you, Dr. Dykstra!) and I keep this shelf front and center in my office, hoping the message will be literally seen and figuratively heard: I am not afraid to talk about all aspects of being human, including (but not limited to) sexuality. It’s a bummer that we in the church have such a garbage history of dealing with sexuality that I have to think of creative ways to make this point well with my parishioners.

I’ve consulted this shelf many times over the years as I offer pastoral care, but I’ve never had a book I feel like I can just pull off the shelf and hand to church members to read on their own. The wisdom I’ve found is spread between them, never in one place. Far too many of these books are tomes of theological jargon written for seminary educated “experts.”

But the minute I’m done writing this review, Bromleigh McCleneghan’s book Good Christian Sex (http://www.bromleighm.com/book/) will be sliding into its well-earned place on my sex book shelf. This short read is theologically thoughtful, ethically coherent, narratively interesting, and accessible to an audience who has never set foot in a Systematic Theology 101 classroom. I can’t wait to hand it to members of my church. Read more