Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future's release anniversary

My book Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community was officially released by Baylor University Press a year ago today. Since then I've enjoyed opportunities to speak about the book and participate in conversations engendered by it (and continue to be available for such opportunities). I've also appreciated the reviews that have begun to appear. Some are available online: An issue of the Pacific Journal of Baptist Research published extended responses to the book by David Wilhite, Amy L. Chilton Thompson, Courtney Pace, and Andrew Christopher Smith, and the American Academy of Religion's review site Reading Religion recently published a review by Spencer Boersma. Other reviews are in press in print journals. Excerpts from some reviews are gathered on the book's page on the Baylor University Press site, from which the book may be ordered; it's also available via Amazon.

Monday, February 27, 2017

AAR's Reading Religion reviews Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future

The American Academy of Religion's online review site Reading Religion has published a review of my book Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community (Baylor University Press) by Spencer Boersma. Excerpts from the review appear below:

Steven R. Harmon’s Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community is perhaps the most constructive proposal of ecumenical reflection for Baptists to date.

Anyone acquainted with Harmon’s work will know that this is not a recent interest. In particular, his work, Towards Baptist Catholicity (Pasternoster, 2006), can be regarded as this book’s prequel. In Toward Baptist Catholicity, Harmon proposed a recovery of the authority of tradition and its content (i.e., the use of creeds, church fathers, sacramental theology, liturgy, etc.) in wider theological discussion and shows how Baptists are already indebted to this. Thus, a more conscious retrieval of tradition in Baptist theology will be beneficial. Now ten years later, Harmon presents a more refined proposal....

....Harmon’s book offers the research and wisdom of a Baptist thinker at the forefront of ecumenical work. His methodical analysis of Baptist history and ecumenical documents, coupled with practical constructive proposals for congregations to change, has made this book original, essential, and necessary to the future of Baptist life. (read the full review at Reading Religion)


Friday, February 3, 2017

Baptist World Alliance news: statement on refugees; dialogue with World Methodist Council

The Baptist World Alliance, the Christian world communion to which I belong, has issued two press releases this week of interest to readers of Ecclesial Theology.

Today (February 3) the BWA issued a statement on refugees that "decries recent actions by the United States Government to issue a blanket travel ban on seven countries that specifically targets refugees and that seems to especially affect Muslims" (click on hyperlink for full statement).

Earlier this week delegations from the BWA and the World Methodist Council convened in Jamaica for the fourth annual session of a five-year bilateral ecumenical dialogue between the two communions, February 1-8 (click on hyperlink for press release).

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why I marched in the Women's March

I've never before participated in a public demonstration, but today I marched with my wife and son in the Women's March on Charlotte, North Carolina. I did so because I'm trying to follow Jesus in a culture in which patriarchy is still a thing--a thing that has manifested itself in truly nasty ways recently. I marched to show solidarity with my wife and all women who have been demeaned by this nastiness. I marched because I want my son to grow up to regard women as equals and treat them with respect. It was a small symbolic act, but signs can be effective. (Here I'm echoing language some theologians have employed with reference to the sacraments as "effective signs"--symbols that have an effect upon the lives of those who participate in these symbolic acts of worship.) I hope and pray that these symbolic acts of solidarity that took place in over 60 countries around the world today (even on Antarctica!) will have a transformative effect on our world.

Friday, January 20, 2017

A vision incompatible with Christian faith and faithfulness

Earlier this afternoon America and the world heard and read President Trump announce in his inaugural address that "from this day forward a new vision will govern our land." If the new vision is that "from this day forward it's going to be only 'America first! America first!'," American Christians must reject and resist it from the outset. For followers of Christ, our vision in relation to the polis is summarized in the Epistle to Diognetus in the 2nd century AD: "[Christians] live in their respective countries, but only as resident aliens; they participate in all things as citizens, and they endure all things as foreigners. Every foreign territory is a homeland for them, every homeland foreign territory."

Therefore we must reject and resist also this expression of the new vision: "At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, 'How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity.'" NO! Our total allegiance is to Christ alone, and then comes our obligation to the global community--God's world in which God's reconciling work is to make the community for which God created the world--of which our national community is a part, and only then our national community in relation to those larger loyalties. There must be no giving it a chance and seeing how it goes--the vision has been clearly articulated, and it is one incompatible with Christian faith and faithfulness.

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.