All posts tagged “religion

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Repaso: June 14, 2013

1. Learning about our faith from atheists
Larry Alex Taunton writes for The Atlantic about the reasons college students walk away from religion. As he talked with members of campus atheistic groups about their journeys away from faith, he got some surprises responses about what pushed them away (and what didn’t). Interestingly, he found that these young atheists had a tremendous amount of respect for those who, in their estimation, actually believed what they claimed to believe and who stood by their convictions.

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2. The future of poverty reduction
The Economist weighs in on emerging post-MDG plans to continue reducing extreme poverty:

So how realistic is it to think the world can end extreme poverty in a generation? To meet its target would mean maintaining the annual one-percentage-point cut in the poverty rate achieved in 1990-2010 for another 20 years. That would be hard. It will be more difficult to rescue the second billion from poverty than it was the first. Yet it can be done. The world has not only cut poverty a lot but also learned much about how to do it. Poverty can be reduced, albeit not to zero. But a lot will have to go right if that is to happen.

3. Christianity in its Global Context
While it may not make for particularly riveting reading cover-to-cover, there’s a lot of helpful and interesting stuff in this new report from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Seminary.

4. Common Good Edinburgh
I had a great Skype conversation yesterday with Duncan McFadzean (@DuncanMcFadzean), comparing notes about what we’re trying to do with Common Good PHX and Common Good Edinburgh, respectively. Here’s a bit about what’s happening in Scotland:

We are a group of people who care about Edinburgh. We believe that our city has very great potential for good, both as a place to live together, and in its wider effects on the world. We appreciate that lots of people are working hard to keep the city running, to solve its problems, to try to ensure everyone is cared for, and to develop new ventures. And we recognise that it is often these people, all across our communities, who are best placed to imagine and see this potential and to increasingly see it realised. We want to encourage, provoke and facilitate conversations around the ‘common good’ of the city. What would the city look like if it fulfilled its potential for good?

5. Syncopated

[Photo: Edinburgh, Scotland via gdefon.com]

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Complicating religion (Guatemala, Day 1)

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When I first heard about Lemonade International two or three years ago, it caught my attention when I learned it supports Guatemalan-initiated community development work in a marginalized part of Guatemala City, just miles from where I was born and grew up. As I got to know the people behind the organization, it quickly became apparent just how committed the organization is to being highly relational in all they do. On top of that, I was drawn to the organization’s hyper-local geographic focus – a slum community of 60,000 situated in a ravine a mile long and less than half a mile wide.

At that time I was working for a behemoth of an NGO (a good behemoth, generally speaking), and while I certainly recognized the potential impact of a multi-billion dollar budget allocated for relief, development, and advocacy among the world’s poor, I was becoming more and more interested in organizations small enough to be relational and focused enough to have a tangible impact in a specific community over time.

LI-53After a day of walking the steep, narrow streets of La Limonada and crowding into tin, wood, and concrete feats of architecture with Tita Evertsz, the unassuming hero of the story, that commitment to deep, ongoing relationships in a particular place has only been reinforced.

On Sunday night, after telling us a bit about her work in the context of an urban slum among gang members – including more untimely funerals than she’d care to count – someone asked Tita what these experiences have taught her about God. She paused, with tears in her eyes, and responded, “True religion is simple, but we have made it complicated.”

As someone who reads a lot, thinks a lot, writes a lot (often on this blog), and talks a lot – all related, one way or another, to my faith – it struck me that complicating religion is too often precisely what I do. Meanwhile, Tita and 40 or 50 others in La Limonada are practicing true religion. They’re visiting actual orphans and widows in their distress, whose names they know, with loved ones’ blood stains still wet on the street outside. And they’re doing this while keeping themselves unstained from the ways of the world – the violent, selfish world crying out for redemption.

That’s not to say they’re keeping their distance. Precisely the opposite is true. They’re in the midst of their world, bearing the burdens of their brothers and sisters, sharing in their impossible, indomitable joy, and bearing witness to the certain hope that one day all things will be made new.

It’s an honor to be here, and it’s an honor to tell their stories. And it’s good to be reminded just how simple true religion really is.

Over the next couple of days I’ll be sharing more stories from La Limonada. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to learn more about Lemonade International and get to know Tita.

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[Photos by Scott Bennett. In the photo at the top, the Ministry of Justice’s highrise building towers above La Limonada. The second photo is of Tita Evertsz.]

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Five essential books on Guatemala

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In a few short days we’ll be in Guatemala with Lemonade International on our long-awaited bloggers trip. In addition to the inevitable logistical details to take care of before the trip, I’ve also been trying to get my heart ready for all this experience will mean, wanting to be sensitive to what God will reveal to me about himself and about his love for this cruel, crazy, beautiful world.

At the same time I’ve been thinking of the many books I’ve read over the years having to do with Guatemala, remembering all they’ve taught me about the land where I was born, a country I’m even still getting to know. If for one reason or another you’re interested in learning more about Guatemala – say, because you know next to nothing about it or because you’re headed there on a summer mission trip or because you’re curious where that fair trade coffee you’re enjoying came from – below are five books I’d recommend getting and reading.

But first, a disclaimer. Guatemala is a beautiful country, with warm, friendly people, a nearly perfect climate, and some of the most beautiful vistas you’ll find anywhere. But to understand Guatemala in all its beauty and brokenness today, we need to grapple with its painful history. These books do that.

bitter-fruitBitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala
by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer

The definitive book on the events that led to the country’s 36-year civil war, beginning with the toppling of a democratically elected government because of the much feared “domino effect” of the 1950s and 60s. It’s an uncomfortable book for American citizens to read, given our country’s role in the war, but it provides important historical lessons we’d do well to learn.

silence-mountainSilence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala
by Daniel Wilkinson

Once you read Bitter Fruit, you’ll have a good frame of reference for this look at what the war years were like for landless peasants working on large coffee plantations in the western highlands, and what it takes to return to “life as usual” even in times of relative peace.

nouwen-guatemalaLove in a Fearful Land: A Guatemalan Story
by Henri Nouwen

The early 1980s were some of the most tumultuous and gruesome years of the war, as the ongoing genocide trial against former dictator Rios Montt is reminding us. This short book tells the story of two Catholic priests who refused to take sides in the war, while also refusing to abandon their people. It eventually cost one of them his life.

city-of-godCity of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala
by Kevin Lewis O’Neill

In recent decades, Protestant churches in Guatemala have grown numerically in leaps and bounds. Here’s a fascinating look at how members of one prominent Pentecostal church understand what it means to be good Christian citizens in the midst of the country’s political, social, and economic situation.

homies-hermanosHomies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America
by Robert Brenneman

Guatemala City’s street youth gangs are notorious, but a surprising number of members are leaving the gangs and becoming evangélicos. The author of this book interprets the phenomenon in purely sociological terms, which I’d suggest only tell part of the story, but it’s illuminating anyway.

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Faithful presence and its antithesis

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As I mentioned last week, I recently read To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford), the phenomenal book by University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter. In the book, Hunter goes after prevailing views of culture and “world-changing” among Christians, suggesting that most of us – the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and Neo-Anabaptists (to name three broad groups) – really don’t grasp the complexity of culture or the ways in which it actually changes. As such, he says, our efforts in cultural engagement are generally in vain, and sometimes even destructive.

Hunter’s proposal is that we redirect our energy to the practice of faithful presence – bearing witness to the coming Kingdom in small but faithful ways “in all spheres and all levels of life and activity.”

toChangeTheWorldBookI find myself quite sympathetic to his argument, but I confess I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around all of the implications for how we speak about (much less practice!) mission, community development, politics, education, business, arts, media, and all sorts of other worthwhile undertakings that, it would seem, do in fact change the world, or at least shape it.

Others whom I really admire have reviewed and interacted with the book thoroughly, so I won’t do that here. But I do want to draw attention to one key insight I think is particularly poignant, and will be especially challenging to those of us who are pastors, ministry leaders, authors, bloggers, or anyone else with any sort of a public platform.

The practice of faithful presence, Hunter writes, requires that we be “oriented to the fruitfulness, wholeness, and well-being of all.” This sort of a posture may sound compelling in theory, but it’s very unpopular in practice, largely because it costs us something, and it rarely helps us get noticed or stay in the spotlight.

Instead, in my observation, pastors (especially those at the helm of larger churches) easily slip into a sort of territorialism, afraid or simply unwilling to publicly acknowledge the good, the true, and the beautiful represented in the ministries of other churches in town. While this may at times be rooted in a desire for “doctrinal purity” or simply the wisdom of learning when to say no, it often seems to have a great deal more to do with maintaining a sort of ecclesial empire. Savvy bloggers, meanwhile, jump on all the latest controversies (and some timeless ones too) – not because they have anything particularly interesting to say about them, much less any unique qualifications for weighing in – but because they’ve figured out what drives web traffic, and they like the adrenaline rush that comes with seeing a spike in Google Analytics. Empire-building is quite possible even in the world of pixels.

These temptations are understandable, certainly, but in the end they are still just that – temptations to be named, wrestled with, and resisted.

Hunter call these the temptations of celebrity, “a model of leadership that many Christians in prominent positions have a very difficult time resisting.” Celebrity, he argues, is “the antithesis of faithful presence.” He continues:

Celebrity is, in effect, based on an inflated brilliance, accomplishment, or spirituality generated and perpetuated by publicity. It is an artifice and, therefore, a type of fraud. Where it once served power and patrons, in our own day it mainly serves itself and its pecuniary interests. Celebrity must, of necessity, draw attention to itself. In American Christianity, the relentless pressure to raise funds within churches and para-church organizations reinforces the pressure toward celebrity, with an endless flow of direct mail, advertising, and ghost-written sermons, speeches, articles, editorials, and so on. These pressures are difficult to resist even for those who, by instinct, might find celebrity either tasteless or problematic. The reason is that celebrity is not just a certain kind of status one achieves but it is also a powerful institution the entire structure of which is oriented toward burnishing a leader’s image and projecting his or her visibility. The justification one often hears is that more people are reached in this way, yet there are often financial interests at stake for the celebrity leader and his or her organization, and these can either obscure or undermine the ends of outreach.

And so, whether leadership is expressed within the dynamics of celebrity or outright arrogance rooted in a sense of superiority, such leadership is artificial, unbiblical, organizationally unhealthy, inherently corrupting, and all too common in the Christian world – especially in the United States. Christianity needs to rediscover an alternative.

That alternative, as he sees it, is of course the practice of faithful presence. You’ll need to read the book for yourself to really grasp the extent of what he has in mind in using that term – and again, I really hope you do read it. And then, like me, you’ll probably need to spend some serious time pondering all the implications. But for now, I’d invite you to chew on this small but provocative snippet.

[Photo credits: jamesdavisonhunter.com and onlineuniversities.com]

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Repaso: February 1, 2013

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1. Hugo Chávez, slumlord
Jon Lee Anderson, perhaps best known for his massive biography on the life of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara, has written a piece in The New Yorker on how Hugo Chávez, who has been MIA with uncertain health for more than 50 days now, has failed Venezuela generally and its capital city specifically. For those of us who don’t subscribe, there’s just a summary of the piece available for free (plus a related photo essay), but the abbreviated part is telling enough:

Hugo Chávez has said that he wants to remake Venezuela into “a sea of happiness and of real social justice and peace.” His pronounced goal was to elevate the poor. In Caracas, the country’s capital, the results of his fitful campaign are plain to see. For decades, as one of the world’s most oil-rich nations, Venezuela had a growing middle class, with an impressively high standard of living. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the rest of Latin America and from Europe helped give Caracas a reputation as one of the region’s most attractive and modern cities. That city is barely perceptible today. After decades of neglect, poverty, corruption, and social upheaval, Caracas has deteriorated beyond all measure.

2. The gospel of immigration
Over the past week, a surprising range of figures from across the political spectrum have come together in support of making immigration reform a high-level priority for this year. Sure, there’s a lot of political pandering going on, and yes, building a true consensus on the nitty gritty details will be a real challenge, but it’s at least an encouraging step. RELEVANT reposted a timely blog post from Dr. Russell Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which he originally wrote in the summer of 2011. Here’s the opening paragraph of the piece:

I’m amazed when I hear evangelical Christians speak of undocumented immigrants in this country with disdain as “those people” who are “draining our health care and welfare resources.” It’s horrifying to hear those identified with the Gospel speak, whatever their position on the issues, with mean-spirited disdain for the immigrants themselves. While evangelicals, like other Americans, might disagree on the political specifics of achieving a just and compassionate immigration policy, our rhetoric must be informed by more than politics, but instead by Gospel and mission.

3. Two kinds of politics
Religion and politics is an explosive mix, as we all know. You don’t have to look far to see politicians seeking to co-opt people of faith, or people of faith seeking to baptize a particular brand of partisan politics. But those who claim the gospel is apolitical must deal with their own share of problems. Daniel Camacho, a Junior Fellow at The Colossian Forum, writes on the significance of our worship itself being political:

Separating our worship from our politics neglects the way in which our worship is a form of politics, and the way in which it can inform our involvement in our government’s politics. From this vantage point, a Christian is always involved in two kinds of politics. To borrow from Augustine’s The City of God, Christians are simultaneously involved in the politics of the heavenly polis and the politics of the earthly polis. Our participation in the Body of Christ gives shape to our involvement in society at large.

4. Beyond state and market
Matthew Kaemingk writes for Fieldnotes about the irreplaceable importance of the third sector, on the basis of who we are as human beings:

Instead of simplistic descriptions of human beings as either clients of the state or competitors in the market, the Christian Scriptures present humanity in a refreshingly complex way. We find a complex creature with a wide variety of gifts, abilities, interests, aspects, loyalties, and solidarities. Created in the image of God, human beings in the Bible are anything but simple. They are musical, communal, religious, artistic, familial, charitable, scientific, literary, moral, athletic, fun, and funny. The robust anthropology found in the Bible depicts a creature that could never be fully defined, controlled, content, or nourished by the market or the state alone—thank God.

5. The art of restoration
Nate Clarke, the filmmaker behind all of This Is Our City’s short films, has done it again with this one, rolled out this week as part of the project’s coverage of the ways Christians are seeking the flourishing of Detroit.

Repaso is intended as a thought-provoking compilation of news and commentary related to the intersections of faith, development, justice and peace. As always, I welcome your thoughts on any of the links and ideas in this roundup!

[Photo credit: Man lifting weights on a rooftop in Caracas, Venezuela via morethangreen.es]