Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Good Pope: John XXIII and Vatican II

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. There will be many books and magazine articles devoted to Vatican II as well as conferences and discussions based on this very important part of Church life.

However, we cannot talk about Vatican II without talking about the inspiring work of Pope John XXIII also known as "Good Pope John" or as the Italians called him, "Ill Buono Papa." It was his initial thought about calling another council which literally brought in fresh air to a stagnant Church.

Greg Tobin's new book, The Good Pope (NY: Harper One, 2012) gives readers a very good overview of the work and ministry of Pope John XXIII as a way to reflect upon the ongoing dissemination and reforms of Vatican II.

The book is divided into three sections: Priest and Protector, The Soul of a Pope, and Father of the Council. Tobin traces Pope John's lively personality to his family whom he loved very much but also to his own pastoral career. Rather than remain in Italy, Pope John spent much time in Bulgaria, Northern Greece, and in Turkey. While traveling and ministering in these countries he encountered the Eastern Catholics as well as the Orthodox. It was this that would foster and encourage his thinking about reform and renewal.

One of the major obstacles that Pope John had to fight against was the Roman Curia and its administration. Pope John was a prophetic figure, seeking change and renewal, things that the Curia did not want to deal with. Tobin tells us that they were shocked when Pope John even considered calling a world-wide council! Yet he bucked the system and went full steam ahead, not only calling the council but encouraging the bishops and theologians to actively participate in it's workings.

While reading Good Pope John one thing kept coming back to me again and again and that was how each of us can be the agent of change in this world. Very often I get discouraged as I see the potential for change and renewal in my parish for example or in the larger Church. It is easy to say, "Oh well, there's nothing that I can do" or "Who cares if I get involved or not." These negative feelings and thoughts usually guide us in our daily life. However, reading this book showed me how one person can make a difference in the world and in the  Church. If Pope John XXIII had negative thoughts he would have never called the Second Vatican Council in the first place. Yet he had deep hope. Hope that bishops, priests, and theologians could discuss, debate, and reflect upon the true calling of the Church to be the light, peace, salt, and leaven in the world, and that if we all work together great things would happen.

I am grateful for Greg Tobin and his book. I hope other readers will take time to learn more about the life and ministry of John XXIII in this special anniversary year.

For more information about the book click here 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book Review Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope

Hope is a powerful motivator, it keeps us moving one step in front of the other. Hope of course is a cornerstone in the Christian life, it binds us as disciples of Christ.

Many of you may not have heard of Christian de Cherge, the Abbot of the Trappist Monastery in Algeria. But you may have heard of the famous French language movie several years ago called Of God's and Men. The movie was based on the work and ministry of the monks at the Tibhirine monastery in Algeria. In 1996 six monks were kidnapped and eventually murdered by their Muslim captors. They were caught in much political and religious turmoil in the region. I saw the movie which was very powerful but had no idea that there was a book about this monastery. Thankfully, due to the work of Christian Salenson, a priest of the diocese of Nimes France we have an excellent volume about Abbot de Cherge and his views of Christian-Muslim relations.

The entire book rests on a highly ironic encounter between a young Christian and a Muslim layman named Mohammed, a village policeman. In 1961 Christian was in the French Army in Algeria working for the SAS a special section of the army that deal with administrative matters. During his time there he met a man named Mohammed who was married and had ten children. Christian tells us a little about their relationship:

"In the blood of this friend, I came to know that my call to follow Christ would have to be lived out, sooner or later, in the very country in which I received the token of the greatest gift of all." 

Through the course of tense events Mohammed was found dead, shot by insurgents at his family well. Mohammed had protected Christian and his fellow monastic brothers from and uprising, and for that he lost his life. Christian called Mohammed his "eucharistic brother" because it was Mohammed's devotion to his own Islamic faith, to his wife, and to his ten children, that showed Christian what it meant to be a true monk and follow God. In other words it was Mohammed's faith that lead Christian to deepen his own faith.

In a very tense time as today, with Christian-Muslim relations at a seemingly low tide I highly recommend anyone interested in ecumenism or Christian and Islamic studies to read this book. Salenson weaves together not only a very good biographical story about Christian and his fellow monks but at the same time discusses how the Christian practices of prayer, lectio divina, eucharistic, sacraments, fasting, feasting, and almsgiving can be deepened by an openess to what Abbot de Cherge called "radical hospitality" or "friendship." It is in deep friendships, in de Cherge's case it was Muslims, that helped foster dialogue, understanding, sharing, openess, appreciation, and love for the neighbor. The monks at Tibhirine did not live in some outpost away from their Islamic neighbors, but right in the center of the village. They worked, ate, and sometimes even prayed with one another, showing the world that true friendship and co-existence is truly possible.

There is so much more that can be said about Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope. When I came to the end I was a little sad because I wanted to read more. I wanted to read more of Abbot de Cherge's sermons and chapter talks that were quoted in the book. I wanted to read more about the other monks who lived at Tibhirine as well. I hope that Cisterican Publications, an imprint of Liturgical Press, will publish Abbot de Cherge's writings and sermons in the future.

Today, as parts of the Church become more closed minded, more sectarian, more inward looking, we need more words of wisdom from people such as Abbot de Cherge who provide us with hope in this world which seems to lack hope.

To read more about A Theology of Hope click here 

To read more about the movie Of God's and Men click here 

Friday, September 21, 2012

We Sinners Book Review

There are so many books and so little time! Yet when I saw the title and cover of We Sinners  I knew I just had to read this book.

We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen (NY: Henry Holt Publishing, 2012) tells the tale of the Rovaniemis family and their nine children: Brita, Tiina, Nels, Paula, Simon, Julia, Leena, Anni, Uppu. As you can see these aren't your average American names. The Rovaniemis family are Finnish and members of the Laestadian branch of the Lutheran Church. I have a very solid background in theology and in Church History and have been a pastor for thirteen years but this was the first time that I heard about this particular group of Christians.  Started in the 19th century by the Lutheran pastor Lars Levi Laestadius, the Laestadians are a very conservative community focusing almost exclusively on a personal confession of faith and belief and many live in Minnesota and Michigan.

This book is told from the vantage point of the children. The writing is crisp, flowing, and very sparse.  Plyvainen weaves her tales of sin and temptation  using minimal language, subconsciously perhaps, mirroring the minimalism in the Rovaniemis family? After all they have very little as far as material possessions and what little they do have they have to share with eleven people.  At one point, Pirjo, the mother takes her teenage son out to purchase their first TV and VHS. All of their friends already had a TV.

We Sinners is very startling. The book is about the family and normal family struggles especially since their are nine children. But it's also a story about identity, about balancing faith and life which it seems is not easy according to Laestadian teachings!

I read this book with a bit of horror. As a pastor I can see how people can take faith in Jesus to an extreme. I knew a family once who were adamant about getting cable television for their house but not just cable but a new "Christian cable" company that only showed G rated shows and only Christian oriented programs. How boring I thought. Or the family who fasts very so strictly that the mother gets herself sick. Or the father who will not let their children play sports because "Church comes first." And on and on it goes.

So many Christians have become so sectarian they have forgotten that Jesus himself didn't come just for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles, the non-Jews. He spoke and ate with outsiders like the Samaritans, he ate with prostitutes, he spent time with tax collectors and lepers. In other words Jesus came for the "life of the world and its salvation" not just a small group of people. We Sinners shows us how constricting life can become in a sectarian type of Christian community and how difficult it is to live up to standards that Jesus himself probably didn't and couldn't keep. The gospels themselves show us how he broke many of the Jewish rules and rituals to teach the point that love is the ultimate goal, not the rule, ritual, or regulation.

There are so many other wonderful themes in this book I could go on and on but I won't. I'll leave it up to you, the reader, to purchase a copy of We Sinners and start reading. You'll enjoy it!

For more information about We Sinners click here 

For Hanna Pylvainen's website click here 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Schmemann on Clericalism

I am very excited about my new book coming out, Church, World, and Kingdom: The Eucharistic Foundation for Alexander Schmemann's Pastoral Theology which will be available soon. One major theme in Schmemann's writings, especially in his journals, is the problem of clericalism.

Clericalism is the false separation between clergy and laity, where the clergy assume too much power and control over the laity. Clericalism envisions the Church as a top--down power structure where the clergy have the final say on things and the people just "pray, pay, and obey" as they say.

Schmemann saw this as a problem because this is not the way the Church is presented in the Scriptures, in our theology, and in our liturgical practice.

“Clericalism suffocates; it makes part of itself into the whole sacred character of the Church; it makes its power and a sacred power to control, to lead, to administer, a power to perform sacraments, and in general, it makes any power a “power given to me.”
Clericalism separates all “sacredness” from the lay people." (Feb. 2, 1982, p. 310).

One of the major problems today in our Church is clericalism. We have to remember the Church is not just the clergy alone, or the laity alone, but the entire people of God working together for the good of the Church. 

I hope that all of you have a wonderful parish community where everyone works together for the building up of the Body of Christ. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book review coming soon

I am looking forward to reviewing a new book that just arrived in the mail the other day called Tasting Heaven on Earth: Worship in Sixth-Century Constantinople (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2012). It has a lovely cover of the dome of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) which was the main cathedral in the Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately Hagia Sophia is now a mosque and a museum and no longer functions as a center for Christian worship.

The author is Walter D. Ray an associate professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and a scholar in early Christian liturgy. This book looks beautiful inside and out and includes many color prints as well as black and white drawings of the various aspects of early Byzantine liturgy.

Here is what the publisher has to say about the book:

The Church at Worship is a series of documentary case studies of specific worshiping communities from around the world and throughout Christian history. In this second volume, Tasting Heaven on Earth, Walter Ray provides vivid descriptions of Constantinople, its history, its people, and its worship practices, setting the stage for a rich selection of primary documents that present readers with a vibrant snapshot of Byzantine Christianity in the sixth century. This illustrated, reader-friendly volume also features discussion questions for each chapter and suggestions for devotional use.

Primary materials collected in this book
  • Photos of mosaics, liturgical vessels, icons, and manuscripts
  • Drawings, diagrams, descriptions, and photographs of Hagia Sophia
  • Firsthand accounts of worship by Maximus the Confessor, Eutychius, and Procopius
  • Liturgical prayers and a reconstruction of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil
  • Sung and spoken sermons attributed to Romanus and Leontius
  • Imperial decrees on worship practices

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rosh Hashanah

Wishing all of our Jewish friends a happy new year. Tomorrow is Rosh Hashanah the beginning of the Fall Jewish festivals. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the new year for Jews and ends on Yom Kippur ten days later which is the day of judgment (September 25 this year). Jews believe that on Rosh Hashanah the names of the righteous Jews are inscribed in the Book of Life and those who are not have ten days to repent. Yom Kippur is also known as the Day of Atonement. Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are sometimes referred to as the Days of Awe.

It is customary to blow the ram's horn (shofar) on Rosh Hashanah marking the beginning of the New Year.

You might be wondering, why should Christians be interested in Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or any Jewish holiday for that matter?

Actually, many of the Jewish feast days are included in the Old Testament Scriptures and Jesus and the early Christians were from the Jewish religious world. Several of these festivals are recorded in the New Testament such as the Passover, Feast of Tabernacles (Booths), and Hannukah which marks the Dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Book review coming soon

I am looking forward to reviewing this new book published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press called Seven Day on the Roads of France June 1940. Written by the theologian Vladimir Lossky, this books gives us a little glimpse into the life of a Russian intellectual who wanted to join the French resistance after the Nazi occupation.

Below is more information about the book from the publisher:

This book follows Vladimir Lossky's attempt to enlist in the French army after the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. It records his reflections on suffering; the true nature of Christian or Western civilization; the rightness or otherwise of war; the problematic relationship between Church and State; what we mean by a "nation"; and secularization. Such issues are mulled over, not as arid abstractions, by someone who, as he walks across an increasingly war-torn landscape, quite literally has his feet on the ground.

A revelation to those who know only Lossky's more scholarly works - here one discovers his rounded personality, his warm humanity, and his love not only of Christian France but of the West in general.

Vladimir Lossky was one of the most influential Orthodox thinkers and writers of the twentieth century. Michael Donley is a writer and translator, and an expert in French literature.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Book Review Emergence Christianity

One of my favorite liturgical seasons of the year is Pentecost. At Pentecost we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and recall the first Pentecost in Jerusalem when the Spirit came upon the disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Something new and life-giving was in the air. The disciples were filled with the Spirit, not with wine, as some onlookers thought.

For me Pentecost marks a time of change, of renewal, of life.

In her new book, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It is Going, and Why It Matters (Baker Publishing, 2012) basically tells us that the Church is a time of renewal. We are going through a long Pentecost.

Many have written about what has been called Emerging Christianity or Emergence Christianity. A few months ago I reviewed a book here by Diana Butler Bass called Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Many other similar type books have been published.

In short, these authors tell us that the Church is going through a massive change. People are very interested in God, holiness, liturgical worship, monastic practices; but the old bricks and mortar congregational life with parish halls, bell towers, large physical plants, not to mention large paid staffs are slowly dwindling. Across the country people are flocking to newer type Christian communities who focus on traditional spiritual practices but leave behind the old "forms" of what we consider Church life. Recently I was reading about St. Lydia's in Brooklyn, NY, a new emergence type Christian community that meets on Sunday morning, is inclusive, and also has no paid pastor. Tickle says that these types of groups are more common than we think.

Her book, Emergence Christianity, takes the reader through some historical background material in order to understand what is going on. Emergence Christianity is more of a survey than an in-depth study. She discusses some of the hallmarks of what we would call emerging or emergence Christianity and then discusses a few of them:

Lively worship
Focus on community
Smaller rather than larger
No paid pastor or maybe a pastor who works full time and pastors on Sundays
Focus on outreach and philanthropy to local community
Inclusive rather than exclusive
Thoughtful and reflective, some communities are neo-Monastic communities

Another really good benefit of Emergence Christianity is that Tickle includes color pictures of these communities, something which I found fascinating. As the old adage goes a picture tells 1,000 words and these pictures do just that! I just wish there were more.

Finally, if after reading Emergence Christianity you want to learn more, Tickle includes an annotated bibliography for further reading, guiding the reader to more resources.

I have been thinking a lot about the emergent Church movement and will most likely read more about it in the coming weeks and months, struggling to hear God speaking in this new Pentecost that we're experiencing. As a pastor of what we call a "traditional Church" (I am a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church) I am very much aware that most people I know are actually attracted to the hallmarks of "emergent Christianity" but find themselves in a bricks and mortar congregation. I look around my town and see mainline Christian congregations that are forced to share pastors since their income is down or have no more Church school programs because there are few children left. Pastors are being forced to work part time or three quarter time because income is down. Parishioners are no longer interested in keeping up with the physical plant, especially those with larger properties, halls, parsonages or manses.

The emergent Christian movement will certainly force us to seriously take a look at how we all "do Church" in the months and years to come.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review coming soon

I am looking forward to reviewing Hanna Pylvainen's new book We Sinners which was recently published by Henry Holt Co. We Sinners is about the toxicity of religion, how religion can destroy and chip away at ones life, and in this case a family.

Those of us who regularly attend Church and who are active in parish life tend to notice the good things; fellowship, outreach, uplifting worship. However we sometimes overlook the real tragedies in parish life, stories that Ms. Pylvainen brings up in her book.

Below is a description of We Sinners from the publisher:

This stunning debut novel—drawn from the author's own life experience—tells the moving story of a family of eleven in the American Midwest, bound together and torn apart by their faith

The Rovaniemis and their nine children belong to a deeply traditional church (no drinking, no dancing, no TV) in modern-day Michigan. A normal family in many ways, the Rovaniemis struggle with sibling rivalry, parental expectations, and forming their own unique identities in such a large family. But when two of the children venture from the faith, the family fragments and a haunting question emerges: Do we believe for ourselves, or for each other? Each chapter is told from the distinctive point of view of a different Rovaniemi, drawing a nuanced, kaleidoscopic portrait of this unconventional family. The children who reject the church learn that freedom comes at the almost unbearable price of their close family ties, and those who stay struggle daily with the challenges of resisting the temptations of modern culture. With precision and potent detail, We Sinnersfollows each character on their journey of doubt, self-knowledge, acceptance, and, ultimately, survival.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Review coming soon........

I am looking forward to reviewing A Theology of Hope. This is a very moving collection of theological reflections based on the life and ministry of Christian de Cherge. A description of the book is noted below.

Christian de Chergé, prior of the Cistercian community at Tibhirine, Algeria, was assassinated with six of his fellow monks in 1996. De Chergé saw his monastic vocation as a call to be a person of prayer among persons who pray, that is, among the Muslim friends and neighbors with whom he and his brothers shared daily life. De Chergé’s writings bear witness to an original thinker who insists on the value of interreligious dialogue for a more intelligent grasp of one’s own faith.

Christian Salenson shows us the personal, ecclesial, and theological foundations of de Chergé’s vocation and the originality of his life and thought. He shows how the experience of a small monastery lost in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria contributes importantly to today’s theological debates.