Saturday, January 14, 2017

"Souls on the tree of pain": an Ellacuría echo in U2's "Bullet the Blue Sky"?

Now and then my theological vocation and U2-fandom avocation intersect. Some of those intersections have fueled my writing, from one-off theological reflections on album releases (most recently on Songs of Innocence) to a book offering a popular introduction to the ecumenical movement and ecumenical theology, drawing on U2's music for illustrative material (Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity).

This week I experienced another of those theology-and-U2 intersections in connection with the band's announcement of The Joshua Tree Tour 2017, revisiting their classic fifth studio album 30 years later. The news had me listening to the album again this week, and this time I heard something I'd not noticed before.

While preparing to preach on the Lukan account of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan during the last lectionary year, I read Salvadoran theologian Jon Sobrino's essay on "The Samaritan Church and the Principle of Mercy." After the sermon I continued reading Sobrino's book in which it served as the lead chapter, The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (Orbis Books, 1994). Soon I read the chapter "The Crucified Peoples: Yahweh's Suffering Servant Today," which drew heavily on the thought of his fellow Salvadoran theologian Ignacio Ellacuría (1930-1989), to whom that chapter was dedicated in memoriam. I discovered that Ellacuría had been writing about the historical incarnation of Christ in the "crucified peoples" of the world since 1978, in particular the Salvadoran people oppressed by successive military regimes, in whom the body of Christ was being crucified afresh. Ellacuría himself joined this crucified people as one of the six Jesuit Martyrs of the University of Central America on November 16, 1989. I revisited these ideas during the past academic semester when one of my students wrote a paper on the relation between personal sin and historic sin in Sobrino's thought.

All this came back to mind when I listened to the song "Bullet the Blue Sky" on The Joshua Tree during the past week. It begins with these lines:

In the howling wind
Comes a stinging rain
See them driving nails
Into the souls on the tree of pain

The inspiration of the song was a trip U2's lead singer Bono took to El Salvador in 1986 at the invitation of the Sanctuary movement. The working title for the album that became The Joshua Tree was "The Two Americas," and Bono wanted to experience one of those Americas, the one represented in this case by American military assistance to the oppressive regime in El Salvador. (The final album title is a double entendre, referring both to the desert tree in the southwest American landscapes that supplied aesthetic inspiration for the album and to the tree on which Jesus--Joshua in Hebrew--was crucified.) While in El Salvador Bono learned about and became attracted to the liberation theology that emphasized God's solidarity with the oppressed Salvadoran people and the responsibility of the church to join God in this solidarity with the oppressed, working for the liberation God desires for them. He also witnessed an air strike against a village of campesinos.

When Bono returned home to Dublin, Ireland, he shared those experiences with guitarist The Edge and asked him, "Could you put that through your amplifier?" The result was the closest a U2 song has come to heavy metal blues generically. The live performance of "Bullet the Blue Sky" at a December 1987 concert in Tempe, Arizona preserved in the film Rattle and Hum made connections between El Salvador, Ronald Reagan, and the kind of Christianity represented by Jerry Falwell that made some expressions of the American church complicit in the American proxy war in El Salvador (see video at the end of this post, or click here). The final song of the album, "Mothers of the Disappeared," is also about the conflict in El Salvador.

I'd never made the connection before in three decades of listening to the song while also being well acquainted with liberation theology, but I'm now convinced that the line "see them driving nails into the souls on the tree of pain" is a reference to the theological concept of the "crucified people" advocated by Ignacio Ellacuría. Since Ellacuría began writing about it in 1978, the concept had gained currency in discussions of liberation theology in El Salvador, so that by the time of Bono's visit in 1986 it surely must have been featured in his conversations with Christian contacts of the Sanctuary movement there. Even if Ellacuría was not mentioned by name in these discussions, he is the source of this way of framing things theologically, so that when Bono sings "see them driving nails into the souls on the tree of pain," he's conceptually echoing Ellacuría in theologizing lyrically about the air strike. Bono may not be aware of the connection with Ellacuría--but then again, we're talking about the same man who read Walter Bruggemann on the Psalter in preparation for a recent documentary of a conversation between Bono and Eugene Peterson on the Psalms, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What's that on the cover of Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future?

What's the image on the cover of my new book Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recover of Community (Baylor University Press), and what in the world does it mean? I answer those questions in my response to four reviewers of the book in the linked issue of the Pacific Journal of Baptist Research (vol. 11, no 2; November 2016) [click on hyperlink].

Interested in Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future? Order the book from Baylor University Press or via Amazon.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

New publication--Preaching Conversations with Scholars

I contributed the lead "scholar's response" to the initial sermon by Rodney Wallace Kennedy, recently retired as pastor of First Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio, in Kennedy's new edited book Preaching Conversations with Scholars: The Preacher as Scholar (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2016). My full response, along with the sermon to which it responds, is currently available online via the "Look Inside" feature on the book's page on the publisher's web site. Here's a teaser excerpt from my response:

As I read this sermon, preached originally in May 2015, I kept thinking about all the ways our contemporary culture, in the United States and more broadly in the Western world, has quickly become even more concerned with boundary-keeping than it was in May 2015—and it was certainly marking our culture then. It made me think of our treatment of immigrants, of refugees, of the racial 'other,' of those whose sexual identities are 'other.' It made me connect all this with the boundary-transcending God whose story is told by the story of Jesus, and it reminded me that the boundary-transcending story of Jesus should become more and more my own story. I pray that it does, and I’m grateful to Rodney for writing and preaching a sermon that made this my prayer. The Gospel is relevant, indeed. (read the full response and other sample portions of Preaching Conversations with Scholars)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

A final Compline prayer for 2016

Remembering the past year and anticipating the one to come may be difficult for many this particular New Year's Eve. Here's something I wrote as my prayer for Compline on this night in which 2016 ends and 2017 begins (with a couple of echoes of the Book of Common Prayer and the New Zealand Prayer Book):

O God, it is night at the end of a long year. 2016 has brought us varied experiences. We have experienced you as God-with-us in "sacraments of the present moment" by which we receive the grace of your life-giving presence in various expressions of your creation--loved ones, strangers, creation itself, opportunities to participate in your work in the world for its salvation. For these graces we give you thanks.

We have also experienced or observed what has sometimes felt like your absence from this world--alienation instead of love, discord instead of harmony, exclusion instead of welcome, violence instead of peace, poverty instead of provision, hunger instead of nourishment, despair instead of hope. These things we lament, knowing that you lament them, too.

We have recognized, though often not as fully as we should, our own complicity in these things, our failures to lament them as we ought, and our refusals to participate in what you are doing to transform these aspects of our world in the direction of your good intentions for it during the past year. These things we confess as sin, and we ask for your forgiveness.

But this night ushers in a new day and a new year. For 2017 we ask the help of your Spirit, that in this new year we might delight in your will and walk in your ways that you have made known to us in Jesus Christ, for the glory of your name and for the good of your world.

Now guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Ecumenical thoughts on post-election unity

Some thoughts from an ecumenist about the post-election call for American national "unity":

According to Ephesians 4, "making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (v. 3) entails "speaking the truth in love" (v. 15), which contributes to the body's growth toward mature unity (vv. 15-16).

The history of the modern ecumenical movement includes failures to do that (for example, the failure of the Conference on Life and Work to denounce the Reichskirche and recognize the Confessing Church as the authentic church in Germany, which greatly frustrated Dietrich Bonhoeffer) as well as more faithful acts (for example, the efforts of the World Council of Churches' Programme to Combat Racism in relation to the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches' expulsion of that church, with both forms of truth-speaking leading to eventual restoration of that church to ecumenical fellowship).

All this may be applied to this moment in our national civil life and the days ahead. Speaking truth is a way of embodying love for our national community. When people are publicly grieving and lamenting and calling for justice and engaging in acts of nonviolent protest, they are loving their national community and making their own contributions to its unity--not a quick and ultimately false unity superimposed on division and its causes, but a unity forged out of our earnest and honest contestation of what sort of community we are going to have. Let the truth-speakers speak, and let us enter into genuine dialogue with them.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Pacific Journal of Baptist Research issue explores Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future

National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion plenary
book symposium panel session, Waco, Texas, May 24, 2016
The new issue of the Pacific Journal of Baptist Research (vol. 11, no. 2 [November 2016]) is devoted to a book symposium exploring my new book Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community (Baylor University Press, 2016]). The four essays and my response to them are lightly revised versions of presentations made in a plenary panel session at a joint meeting of the National Association of Baptist Professor of Religion and the Baptist History and Heritage Society held on the campus of Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas, May 23-25, 2016. The contents of the issue appear below:

Adam C. English     2
David E. Wilhite     3
Baptists, Catholicity, and Visible Unity: A Response to Steven Harmon
Amy L. Chilton Thompson     12
Response to Steven R. Harmon’s Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community
Courtney Pace     16
Baptists, Catholicity, and Missing Voices: A Response to Steven Harmon
Andrew Smith     20
Description, Prescription, and the Ecumenical Possibilities of Baptist Identity: Reading Steven Harmon’s Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future
Steven R. Harmon     24
Locating the Unity of Christ’s Rule: A Response to Respondents to Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future 
Panelists (L-R): David E. Wilhite, Amy L. Chilton Thompson,
Courtney Pace, Andrew Christopher Smith
The issue is edited and introduced by Dr. Adam C. English, Chair of the Department of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Theology and Philosophy at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina, who also moderated the NABPR/BHHS panel discussion. Contributors of the review essays are Dr. David E. Wilhite, Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary; Dr. Amy L. Chilton Thompson, Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California; Dr. Courtney Pace, Assistant Professor of Church History at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee; and Dr. Andrew Christopher Smith, Assistant Professor of Religion at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee.

Read the full November 2016 issue of the Pacific Journal of Baptist Research as a downloadable PDF file here.

Interested in reading Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future? Order from Baylor University Press or via Amazon.

Friday, October 14, 2016

"Real Baptists Pursue Church Unity"

The new issue of Baptist World, the magazine of the Baptist World Alliance, includes my article "Real Baptists Pursue Church Unity" (vol. 63, no. 4, October-December 2016, pp. 9-10). The article is part of a feature section of articles on Baptists and unity, with other contributions by John Briggs, Elizabeth Newman, Ross Clifford, and Frank Rees and several news articles reporting on various regional and national expressions of Baptist involvement in the pursuit of Christian unity. The issue is available online; an excerpt from the beginning of the article follows:

The experiences of many Baptists and the impressions of many of their external observers run counter to the assertion made by this article’s title. Baptists have their origins in ecclesial division, and their subsequent history is marked by ever-increasing intra-Baptist divisions. Division is certainly a DNA sequence in the genetic code of “real Baptists.” Yet intertwined with it are genetic markers of an impulse toward ecclesial unity, and Baptists are being “real Baptists” when they allow that impulse to move them toward the full participation in the life of the Triune God and in the life of the body of Christ that Jesus prayed would mark his followers: “that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:22 NRSV)....(read the full article and other articles in this issue here)

Friday, September 16, 2016

Baptist Identity, the Whole Church, and God's Future (Boiling Springs Baptist Church)

If you're in the Boiling Springs, NC area, at 5:00 PM this Sunday (September 18) I'm doing a talk at Boiling Springs Baptist Church (down Main Street from the Gardner-Webb campus) related to my new book Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community (Baylor University Press): "Baptist Identity, the Whole Church, and God's Future." I'd enjoy having you join the conversation. The address of the church for GPS purposes is 307 S Main St, Shelby, NC 28152; the venue will be the Lighthouse Room in the church's educational space.

Interested in reading Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future? Order from Baylor University Press or via Amazon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Molly Marshall on Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future

In her Baptist News Global opinion column "Can a Baptist Be a Catholic?" published today, Molly T. Marshall, President and Professor of Theology and Spiritual Formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, references my new book Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community (Baylor University Press). Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the column:

A cadre of Baptist scholars has been writing about emerging catholicity, the holy desire for unity among all ecclesial communions. Taking tradition more seriously as a source for theological construction, these Baptists urge usage of the ancient creeds of the apostolic heritage of the whole church to supplement their reading of Scripture. A leading theologian in the movement, Steven Harmon, contends, “Baptists have their own distinctive ecclesial gifts to offer the church catholic, without which even the churches currently in communion with the bishop of Rome are something less than fully catholic themselves.”

As a staunch Baptist I, too, long for catholicity. In many respects the future of Christianity depends upon a greater ecumenicity .... (read the full column at Baptist News Global)

Interested in reading Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future? Order the book from Baylor University Press or via Amazon.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Baptist Catholicity: An Introductory Bibliography (David Rathel)

David Rathel, a Ph.D. student in theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has posted a bibliography of publications connected with "Baptist Catholicity" on his blog "David Rathel's Research Page." It includes my books Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision and Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community, as well as a chapter on "'Catholic Baptists' and the New Horizon of Tradition in Baptist Theology" that I contributed to the book New Horizons in Theology (published in the series of annual volumes of the College Theology Society).

Interested in Towards Baptist Catholicity or Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future? Click on the hyperlinked titles to order them from the publishers, or follow this link to my Amazon author page.