Recent Writing

Unclean Spirits


America is getting so stressed out – awash in show-biz values, a scarcity of political solutions, and a lack of embarrassment about it all – that it was time to take a little break.

So I reached for the Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the New Testament’s four Gospels. It’s a jolt to move from the mocking Twittersphere to the strenuous Judean air. Mark’s narrative is blunt and strange. But it’s a relief to be invited into its big story. It regards life as something grand, where the stakes are high and the soul is real. It trusts that we can handle this truth without freaking out.

Jesus enters the scene as an adult (Mark contains no Christmas story). He gets baptized, survives a desert visitation, calls disciples, heals people. The action is fast and cinematic. He’s getting things done, on foot, going from town to town. He speaks with authority, politely. Unclean spirits flee him. Crowds gather. So do enemies.

His message is mostly conveyed in good works, not words only. He is resetting civilization’s relation to God, giving people new confidence: They are forgiven. This frees everyone to forgive.

But the story isn’t over, of course. It presses on to Jerusalem: his arrest, trial and death after the mob bellows, “Crucify him.” Then come reports that he lives again.

It’s a challenge to sit quietly with this material these days. But it’s detoxing to watch Jesus walk into the plot, bisect the horizon, move in from the periphery. It measures the distance between the screaming insecurity of the next media sensation and a welcome silence that is still within reach.

After this immersion, the reader has work to do – return to the present moment, where we’ve turned politics into blood sport. People want that winning feeling, that dopamine fix, the opposition’s humiliation. (I’ve certainly felt it.) Politics was always rough, but it didn’t try to colonize the national brain 24/7 like it does now, like an unclean spirit.

Religion (on good days) eclipses destructive emotions. It counsels a little modesty. It speaks for a checks and balances – a belief in human potential yet a wariness about human corruption. Society now seeks liberation from that regime. Emotions – bewilderment, envy, distrust, nameless yearnings, violent anger – are given free range in public now, and they look for a place to land, and find politics. But politics can’t carry that load. And people are miserable for it.

In the Gospel of Mark, the unclean spirits meet their match. Their game of tormenting others falls apart.

The presence of God implies getting over the addiction to drama and attending to the real world, and each other.


Footloose and Flung

Editor’s column, Spring 2016 issue of Reflections journal, Yale Divinity School

Fifty years ago, Time magazine turned a small cadre of theologians into unlikely celebrities. The Holy Week cover in 1966 asked, in huge provocative font, “Is God Dead?” The God-is-dead debate, already a century old (maybe three) and often misunderstood, was suddenly news.

I was just a kid at the time, but I could see the adults were worried: This death of God thing was a sign that the church was entering new territory. It must brace for post-Christian pluralism. We must gird ourselves against the chaos of new choices, new arguments, the scattering of the old truth.

Ever since, the temptation of many a believer has been to dream of returning to an old cultural unity that would silence the new cacophony of voices, assertions, and dissents that define the 21st century.

And if a denizen of our times finds this sort of religious unity unappealing – Bible-oriented, nostalgic for postwar American preeminence – other unifying principles stand ready at hand. A trust in the relentless rationalism of the global marketplace … or a commitment to the clash of civilizations … or a faith in a liberating, frictionless online future – these appear to be mutually exclusive, yet what they have in common is an attractive simplicity, the grand search for a way to organize or minimize the teeming, in-your-face rush of pluralism.

Perhaps this is one shape of the pluralism of the moment, a competition between ambitious secular or religious worldviews, none of which are comfortable with … pluralism.

The Death of God dust-up anticipated these new open spaces, where fresh contentions for truth face off. The naughty phrase itself was really just shorthand for some familiar nagging dreads – despair of the nuclear threat, the shame of the Holocaust, the failure of traditional religion to hold the imagination – that new generations felt. These theologians were insisting on new ways of talking about divinity outside the old metaphysics. Ultimately, it seems now, the controversy was a (mostly Protestant) plea to churches to embrace their own ethical commands and fight for humane social change in the secular city. Space was being cleared for new spiritual adventures.

Some years later, writer Annie Dillard, an early writer hero of mine, used the sheer force of poetic rhetoric to imagine a new – actually very old – source of unity that might mend this fragile vessel holding our existential agonies. She reached for an ancient Christian speculative idea that she called Holy the Firm. She described it as the divine substance at the base of everything, sub-mineral, unseen, yet linking heaven and earth, matter and the Absolute, perhaps a mystic emulsion that knits immanence to transcendence, God’s otherness to God’s intimacy, accessible to us if we dare. In the wake of a shattered post-Enlightenment consensus, old rifts in our psyches, and between each other, might finally be healed. God has a stake in this, she declares.

“And the universe is real and not a dream, not a manufacture of the senses,” she writes in Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977). “Subject may know object, knowledge may proceed, and Holy the Firm is in short the philosopher’s stone.”

By a kind of ecstatic Neoplatonism, declaring God “footloose and flung,” she melds poetry to prose and reclaims a wholeness available to anyone at the salty foundations of grainy daily existence.

“It is the one glare of holiness: it is bare and unspeakable,” she writes. “There is no speech nor language; there is nothing, no one thing, nor motion, nor time. There is only this everything. There is only this, and its bright and multiple noise.”

She speaks, in other words, of our capacity for holy astonishment. It’s a capacity every human being shares. Maybe pluralism is God’s way of making everyone look each other in the eye on this crowded planet, acknowledge that other people and other tribes actually exist, and share in the abiding wonder.

We can’t hide under the overweight architecture of ideologies, not for long. The jarring contemporary klieg lights expose and bleach them. They weaken and collapse without warning. We nevertheless hold things in common, miraculously yet pragmatically – this earth, seasons of perplexity and gratitude, the surge of words, the power of human touch, the dream of love.


Dress Code

Editor’s column, Fall 2015 isue of Reflections, Yale Divinity School

I once knew a minister who sent a memo to his flock of 1,000 imploring them to dress better for Sunday worship. Please, no flip-flops or tank tops, he declared. You’re in church, for heaven’s sake – let’s make a special effort for God.

The memo was unusual, and it made page-one news. He didn’t mean to be judgmental. He just thought society was changing in unthinking ways, getting too lax about important practices. Standards were at stake. This was the late 1990s, when trends of informality, evident in American society since the 1960s, would soon be irreversible.

I think the pastor was trying to make a point about the distinctiveness of the Christian faith: Church should be different from the rest of the week. Alas, his strategy looked self-defeating and inhospitable. He had also underestimated a force barreling through society for decades if not centuries – the individual’s power of choice, the choice to show up dressed as we are, or the choice to show up not at all.

As much as anything since World War II, this has changed the dynamics of churchgoing in America.

Before the modern period, religion was a taken-for-granted fact of life. One’s tradition of belief was mostly an accident of birth, part of a person’s identity in an unalterable social fabric. Not so long ago, churchgoing was a social expectation. People dressed for it. They networked there. But forces of modern history undermined that architecture of stable assumptions. Hierarchies fell, social consensus weakened, the economy turned punishing. And individual choice awakened. The individual was liberated, free to craft a personal destiny, a personal path to truth in an internet-inflected cosmos. Trust in traditional gatekeepers of knowledge declined.

According to certain academic orthodoxies, religion itself was supposed to evaporate under such secularizing stresses. Yes, traditional belief by now shows measurable diminishment. But religion and spirituality do not. In his 2011 memoir Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist, Peter Berger amended the secularization theory to say: “Modernity does not necessarily secularize; it necessarily pluralizes.” Pluralism erodes religion’s taken-for-granted status, but it doesn’t destroy religion. It creates more spiritual choices, a cacophony of gods.

This has triggered a long season of soul-searching for congregations. If churchgoing is now a matter of choice, not fate, then it’s plausible to expect fewer people will attend, at least at first. Those who choose to attend don’t have to be there – they arrive and they stay for their own good reasons, perhaps more purposefully and mindfully than many did before.

In such conditions, religious institutions are endeavoring anew to make the case for belief. They can no longer depend on brand loyalty or a captive audience. They are determined to retell the story and renew the gospel adventure in fresh ways.

The writers in this Fall 2015 Reflections are declaring the urgency of church today – witnessing to the power of public confession, the courage to make new neighborhood connections, the wisdom of the long view.

Despite the dazzle and disasters of the 21st-century, human nature hasn’t changed. Old-fashioned brokenness and devastation haven’t moved off center. A church is the place where the soul is acknowledged, where a person can hear oneself think, connect to vast currents of holiness, or find common cause with a stranger. Congregations are also partners in democracy: People learn to work with others, put aside despair over our political, class, or racial divides – or learn to break through them.

Congregations are the last places in America, I think the very last, where time is set aside for values and motives that resist the oceanic self-promotion of the culture, the laws of raw self-interest, or the sleepless digital fear of missing out.

G.K. Chesterton once said a person should always be in opposition to the strongest thing in one’s time, “for the strongest thing of the time is always too strong.” The church of the present and future is a spiritual, political presence that must stand up to the inhuman powers of every moment – the violent solutions, national myths, ruthless materialistic advantage, and the lack of skepticism about these things.

The reign of God is always near, very near. The writers in this issue all speak to that calling – which includes prayer, reverence, mirth, vulnerable emotion, beauty, and thankless acts of mercy. A Sunday morning dress code isn’t on the list.