Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ecumenism Means You, Too book excerpt #1

Read the book description.
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Read the table of contents.
Read an excerpt from chapter 1.

The following is an excerpt from chapter 1, "Here to Play Jesus: Why Ecumenism Isn't Dead" (pp. 2-6 and 14-16). Follow the hyperlinked song title for supplementary audio/visual content.

A couple of years ago I e-mailed my associate dean at Campbell University Divinity School to propose teaching a divinity school summer term course on ecumenism, which is theologian-speak for the quest for Christian unity. His reply kindly commended the proposed course and concluded with the observation, “After all, as U2 said, ‘We’re one, but we’re not the same.’” That line from the band’s song “One” (Achtung Baby, 1991) was appropriate for that course proposal and this book in more ways than he may have had in mind. Bono has offered various explanations of the song’s meaning. It’s about a lovers’ quarrel; it’s about the differences between men and women that pull them together and drive them apart; it’s about a son coming home to tell his father that he’s dying of AIDS. Bono lends the song yet another layer of meaning in the band’s official memoir U2 by U2, where he recounts the pre-history of that line: We had a request from the Dalai Lama to participate in a festival called Oneness. I love and respect the Dalai Lama but there was something a little bit “let’s hold hands hippie” about this particular event. . . . I sent him back a note saying, “One—but not the same.”


Bono’s reply to the Dalai Lama’s invitation points to an important distinction: ecumenism is not pluralism. Ecumenism is the quest for unity among Christians now divided by denomination. It is not the effort to find some generic essence of religion that might minimize conflicts between the religions. Interreligious dialogue that respects the real differences between the religions is necessary to clear up misunderstandings that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and adherents of other religions may have of one another, and this too is an important task for the church’s theologians. But even though interreligious dialogue is sometimes called a “wider ecumenism,” it is not the same thing as the quest to embody the unity of the church as the one body of Christ.

Ecumenism is not a relativistic pan-religious pluralism, and the healthiest approaches to ecumenism—the quest for specifically Christian unity—do not minimize the significant differences of faith and practice that exist between churches. We are one body of Christ, but we are not the same, and it remains to be seen which of our differences are healthy forms of Christian diversity and which differences reflect patterns of faith and practice that must be transformed en route to the full visible unity of the body of Christ.


Many observers of the quest for Christian unity are convinced that for a variety of reasons the modern ecumenical movement is dying or already dead. Not everyone is ready to declare this movement dead. One theologian respected internationally as a key long-term participant in the quest for Christian unity has been overheard to remark, “the ecumenical movement isn’t dead, but it hasn’t breathed in a long time.” That may be true. Yet I am hopeful that the ecumenical movement may not only breathe again but even flourish in the future, for many Christians today have perspectives on the church that can contribute to the re-emergence of ecumenism as a vital force in contemporary Christianity.

Typical American Christians increasingly do not feel bound to the denomination of their upbringing. If they were raised in a churchgoing family, they have probably belonged to congregations of more than one denomination along the way. While in college, they routinely attend more than one church, and there’s a good chance that those congregations are not of the same denomination. Many younger Christians today are attracted to a tradition significantly different from the one in which they were raised and have experimented with participation in that other tradition. At the Baptist university where I previously taught and delivered the series of lectures that served as the basis of this book, more than a few students came there as Baptists and left as Catholics, Episcopalians, or Presbyterians, for example, and more than a few students came there from another tradition and graduated as Baptists. Some will one day return to embrace the tradition that nurtured them in the faith, while others will continue exploring. At both private and public universities, Christian students’ participation in Christian organizations on campus doesn’t necessarily match their stated denominational preference. A Baptist Student Union will regularly provide a spiritual home for many non-Baptists. Curious evangelical students may sojourn for awhile with a Roman Catholic-sponsored Newman Center. A great many Christians away for college will eschew the student fellowships sponsored by the denominations of their preuniversity nurture for involvement in non-denominational organizations such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship or Campus Crusade for Christ. These younger Christians tend to attribute denominational divisions to human sinfulness, and they instinctively embrace unity as something that God desires for the body of Christ. Many younger evangelical Christians today have a keen interest in the ancient patterns and practices of worship and spirituality that have continued in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions but have long been absent from evangelicalism. This interest in recovering ancient liturgy for contemporary worship figures prominently in the “emergent” or “emerging church” movement with which many younger Christians identify.

Some of these perspectives on the church can also be causes for concern. Abandoning denominational commitments in the interest of being “non-denominational” can actually undermine the quest for Christian unity in some unanticipated ways, and moving easily from a church of one denomination to a congregation of another can be a symptom of the consumer mentality that is endemic to American Christianity. Yet I see aspects of these trends as evidence that a critical mass of ordinary American Christian laypersons want what Christ wants for his church. In the words of the lyric from “One,” they know that they are “here to play Jesus.”

(pp. 7-15 are not available as part of this book excerpt)


Ecumenism Means You, Too is not a book about theological themes in the music of U2. Now that these themes have persisted across the three-decade span of the band’s career, ministers and academic theologians have already written such books. This book rather invokes the theological dimensions of U2 songs when they cast artistic light on various aspects of the quest for Christian unity. The lyrics of “One” and other songs referenced in each chapter do not have the unity of the church in mind, yet the Christian theological framework apart from which the import of U2’s art cannot be fully appreciated is the same framework that makes sense of the ecumenical enterprise. The members of the band would probably not agree with my interpretations of that theological framework and how it functions in their music, nor with everything that I have to say about the nature of Christian unity (though I imagine that they might concur that the visible oneness of the body of Christ is a good thing). Nonetheless, U2 and their music will help me make the case that inasmuch as seeking the unity of the body of Christ is an inescapable obligation of Christian discipleship, ecumenism means you, too (and I hope you’ll pardon the pun).

Toward that end, the chapter titles incorporate snippets from the lyrics of the studio version of “One,” plus an extended coda from live concert performances of the song on tour in the case of the final chapter. Chapter 2, “One, but Not the Same: Ecumenism 101,” is an introduction to the history of the ecumenical movement and the divisions that it seeks to heal. Chapter 3, “One Life with Each Other: The Theology of Ecumenism,” explains the biblically-grounded theological concepts that drive the quest for visible unity and make it an unavoidable obligation for all churches and all Christians. Chapter 4, “Leaves You If You Don’t Care for It: 10 Things You Can Do for the Unity of the Church,” outlines an action plan for ecumenism as an embodied practice of grassroots Christian activism in which all Christians can and must participate. Chapter 5, “Hear Us Call: The Eschatology of Ecumenism,” is a theological epilogue that encourages patient perseverance toward a goal that is not likely to be realized in the lifetime of anyone reading this book (but God has done surprising things before, and may yet again in our lifetimes). Appendix 1, “Resources for Ecumenical Engagement,” provides an annotated bibliography of books, periodicals, and Internet resources that will provide additional help for those who may take up the challenge of this book to pray and work for the unity of the body of Christ. Appendix 2, “Glossary of Key Ecumenical Terms,” defines the technical language that may be encountered when utilizing those resources.

Many of the resources included in Appendix 1 will make concrete proposals for convergence on the issues that continue to divide the church, to which I hope readers will give serious future consideration. In this book I refrain from making any such specific proposals for ecumenical progress, save one: that the quest for Christian unity includes you, too, and its future depends in part on your personal commitment to embark on that quest as a matter of being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.

Want to read more? Order Ecumenism Means You, Too directly from Cascade Books or via Amazon.

Read the book description.
Read the endorsements.
Read the table of contents.
Read an excerpt from chapter 1.

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