In the Name of

Posted in: history,Reviews by bill-o on September 07, 2010

I recently had the chance (and the great joy) to view the HBO documentary film “A Small Act”. And just to make sure that I give credit to the people responsible for this outstanding film: It is a Harambee Media Production, in association with Considered Entertainment and Cherry Sky Films, and it was directed by Jennifer Arnold.

The documentary tells the story of Chris Mburu, a young student from a poor, rural part of Kenya who was given the scholarship money that he needs to attend secondary school by a teacher in faraway Sweden, Hilde Back. Chris was the top student in his primary school class but lacked the money to continue his education. Ms. Backe’s donation allowed Chris to attend and complete his secondary school education. From there, Mr. Mburu was able to attend the University of Nairobi for free, and he then able to attend and graduate from Harvard Law on a Fulbright scholarship. After graduation from Harvard, Chris Mburu eventually found employment with the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, where he specializes as a human rights advocate for refugees and for those who have been the victims of genocide and human rights abuses.

Mr. Mburu had never met in person and had lost track of each other sometime after Mr. Mburu’s graduation from secondary school. Grateful for Ms. Back’s financial support at a key point in his life and eager to give back to his homeland, Mr. Mburu started the Hilde Back Education Fund (HBEF) in the name of his former sponsor. This time, instead of receiving the financial assistance of foreigners for scholarships for students to attend secondary school, the HBEF would be for Kenyans to help poor and bright Kenyan students complete their secondary school educations.

Yet something was missing: Hilde Back herself, the namesake of the scholarship program. Mr. Mburu appealed to the Swedish Embassy in Nairobi for help in finding Ms. Back. One thing led to another and Ms. Back, now retired and in her 80s, was located in her apartment in Sweden. She then graciously accepted an invitation to visit Kenya to see the work of the scholarship that shares her name. On arrival, Ms. Back was treated with great honor and made an elder in the Kikuyu tribe.

This amazing story turns out to have an even more surprising history. We learn in the film that Ms. Back is a Holocaust survivor who had arrived in Sweden as a young child during World War II without her parents, who later perished in the concentration camps. Ms. Back comes to learn that the child that she had sponsored years ago had grown up to become a defender of human rights, and Mr. Mburu comes to know that his benefactor was a survivor of genocide.

We see in this film how a woman in the faraway country had become the parent of a great work for sponsoring young students, even though she, at first, knew nothing about it. Yet she had raised up a young person who then grew up to do the same thing for other younger ones coming up behind him. And he had done so in the same spirit of generosity as Ms. Back had done years earlier. This is why the newer scholarship program of Kenyans sponsoring other Kenyans is rightfully named after a refugee to Sweden: Because she had had the foresight to, if you will, “breathe life” into a young Kenyan, who would grow up and later breathe that same life into others in the same way.

I really can’t recommend this film highly enough. Please see it if you can.

This is a book that I had not known about until Peter at Slow Reads gave it to me as a recent birthday gift. I had not heard about it beforehand and was a bit intimidated by its large number of pages. That being said, I’m really glad that I started reading it and had no trouble staying motivated enough to complete this biography all the way through to its end.

The book by Eric Metaxas starts slowly, offering a detailed look into Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s family, even touching upon his great grandfather and great uncle. This first chapter’s detailed look at Bonhoeffer’s ancestry exceeds what is normal for most biographies. However, extended family connections would prove to be important for him throughout his life, and this chapter provides some of the needed context for this. Bonhoeffer’s upper-middle class parents taught their children to come to their own conclusions after a careful consideration of the facts at hand. They also instructed them to eschew emotionalism of any kind. These character traits would later, of course, put the family at odds with the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s.

The pace of the book quickens when Bonhoeffer begins his theological studies. Even though his professors were strongly in the camp of the 19th century German revisionist and liberal theologians, Bonhoeffer oriented his own thinking towards the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth, whom Bonhoeffer would befriend a few years later. The end of Bonhoffer’s period as a young adult student would end with him finding his first best friend, Franz Hildebrandt.

Much of the middle part of the book centers on the split between the “German Christians“, those Lutherans in Germany who acceded to the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish policies, and the “Confessing Church“, which made several futile attempts at reconciliation but eventually ended up as a partially underground church movement. Since Germany followed the continental European model of funding church pastors and buildings via state funds, Lutheran pastors were reluctant to speak out too boldly against the Nazi state. The Confessing Church would not move fast enough for Bonhoeffer away from Nazism; he always seemed to be a few steps ahead when it came to realizing the seriousness of the evil of Hitler and his rule.

The middle part of Bonhoeffer’s short life was taken up with several foreign travels and assignments. Bonhoeffer worked as a pastor for German expatriates in Spain and England. He also spent some time in post-doctoral studies at Union seminary in New York. Bonhoeffer, intrigued by the community-life that he had heard about with Mohandas Gandhi, even made plans to visit India. Yet fate would permanently postpone Bonhoeffer’s trip to India, and the meeting of two of the 20th centuries great religious figures would never take place.

In the mid-1930’s, Bonhoeffer would return to Germany, and begin running the underground seminary at Finkenwalde in Pomerania in eastern Germany (now in western Poland). Here, Bonhoeffer would begin breaking down the usual barriers that separated a professor from his students. He would emphasize personal scripture meditation and servant-leadership and even a revival of Martin Luther’s injunction for Protestant Christians to confess their sins one to another. The Nazi state would eventually discover and shut down Finkenwalde, but the short two years that it was opened produced deep and lasting friendships, including Bonhoffer’s friendship with his second best friend Ebehard Bethge. Rural Pomerania was steadfastly anti-Nazi, so Bonhoeffer found many supporters for Finkenwalde in that region, including especially the grandmother of his future fiancee. Many of the members of Pomerania’s old aristocracy would lead the failed July 1944 assassination and coup attempt against Adolf Hitler.

Bonhoeffer was drafted into the resistance by his brother-in-law in the Abwehr, a German military intelligence operation that was filled with prominent resistance members. Bonhoeffer worked as a double agent, and the Abwehr gave him a means of resistance and the ability to escape being drafted into the military. Eventually, Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law were arrested on a minor charge of helping to smuggle Jews out of the country. For many months, the Gestapo did not realize the full extent of Bonhoeffer’s resistance activities, and, since Bonhoeffer’s uncle had authority over the prison warden, Bonhoeffer was given favorable treatment. All of this changed after the aborted July 1944 coup attempt. Eventually, Bonhoeffer’s activities were exposed and he was ordered executed by Hitler just before the end of the war.

The book only mentions in passing the later controversies over Bonhoeffer’s theology, especially the meaning of the Bonhoeffer’s term “religionless Christianity”. Bonhoeffer was already imprisoned when he coined this phrase and died before he had had a chance to expound upon it in any detail. The author offers passing criticism of more the liberal views of Bonhoeffer’s theology, but a more detailed analysis of post-mortem theological arguments are left to other books.

The author also clearly comes down on the side of being in favor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to involve himself in the plot to kill and overthrow Hitler. The decision to undertake regicide is one that many of Bonhoeffer’s fellow Christians would disagree with. If you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of how Bonhoeffer weighed the pros and cons of this fateful decision, you will need to look at other books and sources.

The surprising parts of this book for me: Bonhoeffer’s deep sense of connectedness to family and friends. Bonhoeffer, a bachelor for most of his life until his engagement just before his imprisonment, believed in fully integrating his life between his family and his friends. Bonhoeffer’s friends often became closely linked to his parents and other family members. Bonhoeffer treated his former students like family. Bethge helped Bonhoeffer with the particularly sensitive mission of helping get Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, her Jewish husband, and their daughters out of Germany, and Bethge eventually married his niece. Bonhoeffer’s lifelong struggle with depression is also a surprise. Additionally, Bonhoeffer’s willingness to explore forms of community life in Protestant Christianity, including New Monasticism, make Bonhoeffer a man who was 50 or 60 years ahead of his time.

The book includes extensive excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s correspondence with family and friends. Some readers may not like switching between the narrative and these letters. Others may appreciate reading from these important original source materials.

All in all, this is a great book and one that I would highly recommend reading.

The Symbolism of Avatar

Posted in: Popular Culture,Reviews by bill-o on December 24, 2009

The 2009 motion picture Avatar is the clear box office winner in the United States and elsewhere this past week. Set on the mysterious moon Pandora in the year 2154, the film chronicles the story of marine Jake Sully and his interactions with the native inhabitants of Pandora, the Na’vi, through his avatar body.

The film is getting the most attention for its fantastic special effects. Yet the symbolism behind the story is also worth paying some attention to.

Avatar borrows from the symbols and ideas of many spiritual traditions. The name Pandora, for example, comes right from an ancient Greek goddess. I’ll focus here on a few of the symbols that I found notable.

Harsh Disorientation. When Jake arrives on Pandora in his wheelchair, he is told more than once, and somewhat harshly, to watch where he is going. Colonial Pandora is place where the weak and broken must make way for the large and robotic. Other marines unkindly refer to him as “meals on wheels”, insulting him for his disability. (This is also an insult to the elderly: Many poor, elderly people in the United States depend upon the meals on wheels program to provide them with food.) They see Jake only as a liability and not as a asset.

Home Tree. The Home Tree is the home for an entire clan of the Na’vi. Symbolic of the Tree of Life from, the Garden of Eden which in turn may have represented the unity of all humankind in connection to God. This tree represents Edenic humankind: The way that the world should have been before things went terribly wrong. Yet the knowledge of good and evil lies beneath the Home Tree, the valuable ore Unobtanium. The symbolism of Unobtainium is obvious (“unobtainable”). Yet the promise of the serpent of the garden, that Adam and Eve would become fully like God was also ultimately unobtainable. The Home Tree represents earth and the temporal, whereas …

Tree of Souls. … the Tree of Souls represents the eternal. Once their earthly home was destroyed, the Na’vi can only retreat to the only place that they know where to go: to the Tree of Souls. This sacred place, where outsiders are prohibited, allows the Na’vi to reach out and touch their mother goddess and their ancestors souls via iridescent strands, which may symbolically be prayers (the natural touching the divine). The Tree of Souls is the place of finality.

Diplomatic Solution? The corporate leadership on Pandora has charged Dr. Grace Augustine with finding a “diplomatic solution” re: the conflict between the colonists and the Na’vi. Grace is a spiritual word and that spiritual emphasis is given more weight with the name Augustine, the great Christian theologian of grace. The word grace means a gift and, even more specifically, a gift that enables someone to do something. At first, it seems as though that gift is Dr. Augustine’s avatars, which might enable a peaceful, diplomatic solution to be found. But a diplomatic solution is not seen in the film as something good or as something that is merely better than war. Rather, it is viewed as an evil in itself: An unwanted displacement of a native people from their home. It is, to put it somewhat theologically, a cheap form of grace. It is not the real thing (the real enabling gift, “grace,” of the colonists to the Na’vi), but it only poses as the real thing. And notice how Grace cannot make the transition into her avatar body: She symbolizes a grace that is not able to bring about salvation. Victory and salvation are the ultimate grace, enabling gift, for the Na’vi.

Humankind Expelled from the Garden … Again. Like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden (the eviction of humanity from the Garden of Eden), most of the humans are expelled from Pandora (a new Eden) at the end of the movie. The immediate cause of this expulsion was the loss of the battle to the Na’vi. Yet the deeper cause was the people’s failure to learn the ways of Na’vi on Pandora. This was because the colonists were more concerned with their provision and protection than with having genuine openness to others. This ending scene in Avatar symbolically confirms why Adam and Eve had to be expelled from the garden: They were spiritually out-of-touch with their Eden.

Adam and Adam. Jake Sully is only able to access an avatar because his identical twin brother had died a violent death. The first man (“Adam” in Hebrew) was shot just a few days before embarking on his mission to Pandora, his brother Jake, another man (in this case, the last Adam), who is of the same image and likeness of his deceased brother, inherited the job. (Notice how another character in the beginning of the movie says that the avatar body looks like Jake, yet Jake says that it looks like his brother. Also, remember how someone points out to Jake that he and his brother have the same genome, the same biological likeness.) The second man becomes the replacement savior and lord for Pandora after the first cannot complete that mission.

Fully Incarnated. The story of Avatar is, in reality, the story of a man, Jake Sully in this case, becoming fully mature. Jake (“Jacob”) Sully’s name may mean sullied trickster. Unlike the corporation’s leader, Parker Selfridge (“the selfish”), who is greedy and never matures, Jake changes from an immature young man (someone with a pure heart but acts like a small child; someone who is just a “poser” for his dead brother) into a mature man and then into a leader. He goes through ritual stages of rites of passage. Jake gets to the point in the middle of the movie where he cannot tell what’s the dream and what’s reality (his human life or his Na’vi avatar life). This is a hint to the movie goers that Jake is undergoing a fundamental change. The story ends with Jake becoming “fully incarnated” into his avatar body, leaving his human body behind forever at the Tree of Souls. He is then no longer an avatar but completely “one of the people”. Notice that this incarnational transformation occurs on Jake’s birthday, thus symbolizing a new birth.

A few days ago, Michael Spencer, a.k.a. “The Internet Monk“, wrote a thought-provoking opinion article about Evangelicalism for the Christian Science Monitor newspaper entitled “The Coming Evangelical Collapse”:

Mr. Spencer, a long-time blogger and commentator about issues related to the Evangelical Church, is also the blogger behind the Jesus Shaped Spirituality site.

The article is divided into four parts: an introduction, an explanation about why, in the author’s view, Evangelicalism is going to collapse, a summary of what will be left in the wake of the Evangelical Church, and, finally, a discussion of whether this upcoming collapse will be good or bad.

The introduction explains the thesis of this commentary article. Evangelicalism will not die but will shrink to half of its current size in two generations. More aggressively secular societies will lead to more hostile public policies towards Evangelical Christianity. In the face of public pressure, many evangelical churches and para-church ministries will either fade away or grow increasingly secular themselves.

The collapse of Evangelicalism will occur because of financial difficulties, too close of an alignment with conservative politics, ignorance about history and theology, and consumerism, among other things. In Mr. Spencer’s view, megachurches will never completely vanish, but they will become increasingly weakened as they emphasize “relevance” over doctrine.

Many evangelicals will go to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Others will go into the growing house church movement. Mr. Spencer also predicts that “emerging” churches will fade away by blending back into Mainline Protestantism. He also sees the rise of Pentacostal/Charismatic churches becoming the dominant part of what remains of the Evangelical Church.

Perhaps in a tip of the hat to Shane Claiborne and other new monastics, Mr. Spencer observes that the church will need to return to being countercultural and “empire subvers[ive]” instead of relying on a sense of entitlement and privilege.

I found Mr. Spencer’s critiques of the “pragmatism and shallowness” of evangelicalism to be his strongest. The failure of Evangelicalism to build across the generations through personal discipleship is perhaps its greatest weakness.

Mr. Spencer provides more detailed information about the coming Evangelical collapse at:

Book Review: “Quitting Church”

Posted in: Reviews by bill-o on October 11, 2008

“Quitting Church” is a very good snapshot of the current state of the Church in the United States. As the field of accounting has both the balance sheet (a snapshot in time of the finances of a company) and the income statement (the top line and bottom line), this book could be compared to the balance sheet of Christianity in the U.S. The book is written by  Julia Duin, religion editor of The Washington Times.

[A little background that is not in the book might be helpful here. “Church quitters” are often looked upon very negatively in evangelical church circles. They are usually seen as spiritual backsliders, a dangerous spiritual state for Christians. “Church hoppers” are those who frequently change church congregations. While not as bad as quitters, hoppers are sometimes looked at with some level of caution, depending upon the circumstances involved. Finally, churches that lose a substantial number of members are often called “dead” or “dead churches”.]

In the past, mainline denominations were losing members during the last few decades. Today, it is the evangelical churches that are cresting in attendance and beginning to lose congregants. Evangelicals, who once openly criticised mainline churches for being “dead” are now beginning to watch their own members head out the doors. The author says the following about what she calls (appropriately) the “evangelical monolith”: “… [It] is simply the emperor before losing his clothes. The form is there, but the substance-the strength and the people-has long departed.” “Quitting Church” is a book which discusses the issues surrounding this new phenomena of people quitting the evangelical church.

A key part of the book was how Ms. Duin compares the state of the Church in the U.S. in the 1970s to today. The 70s were the last move of true spiritual power and fervor in Christianity in the U.S. The 70s were the peek of the Charismatic movement as well as an influx of new believers into non-Charismatic evangelical churches. However, the spontanaeity and freshness of the move of the Holy Spirit thirty years ago has now been replaced with services that are either micromanaged and packaged to the point of being cold, dry, and boring or that revolve around the personalities of their pastors.

The reasons for people quitting their churches are varied: spiritual abuse (not a main topic of this book), boredom, or loneliness (especially in large churches). Men and singles, in particular, are abandoning traditional church structures as they perceive that their particular spiritual needs are not being met. Working mothers may be the next large group of believers to leave. Young adults are also absenting themselves from churches: As Ms. Duin notes, soon, only 4% of U.S. teens will be Bible-believing Christians. If present trends continue, the church in the U.S. will be half of its current size in 15 years.

As with most problems in organizations, we must start by looking at the top, and pastors (ministers) come in for both criticism and sympathy in “Quitting Church”. In the book, pastors are “surrounded by a wall of secretaries and voice mail”. In “Quitting Church”, pastors who started out fearless eventually became timid. After all, fearless leaders “unnerve the structure”. Pastors are caught in a system that requires them to spend 12 to 15 hours of preparation each week to give a sermon each Sunday. This inevitably leads to cutting corners as per the intellectual substance of their messages. What is preached on Sunday mornings is now less and less challenging. Pablum is substituted for substance. In today’s churches, new Christians are spiritually fed, but the more mature are bored. Today’s messages from the pulpit are “spiritual baby food”. Many pastors themselves are burned out and are quitting church, too. Churches in the U.S. are much more akin to Corporate America than to the 1st-century communities of Christ-followers. They are institutions where “senior pastors” and “executive pastors” (terms found nowhere in the New Testament, by the way) act like CEOs and vice presidents of corporations.

So, what would draw people back to church? An answer that Ms. Duin points to is the yearning for community. After all, following Christ means living a way of life. Churches may become more open in format and less focussed on the audience vs. preacher paradigm. House churches are also on the rise. Some will abandon evangelical churches for Catholicsm or Orthodoxy. People could even move to web-based churches where “congregants” log in and out. The emerging church will also draw its share of those who had previously quit church.

As Mark Batterson is quoted as saying in this book: “Coffeeshouse are postmodern wells, and we are following in the footsteps of Jesus and meeting at wells. I have a sense that God is calling the church out of the church.” This reflects what Sam Soleyn calls the “decentering” of the Church. Mr. Soleyn has noted how this decentering process must precede the Church’s eventual “recentering”. The book “Quitting Church” is a good snapshot of the decentering work that is going on in today’s Christianity.

As Ms. Duin quotes a friend of hers saying: “The church is not like Christ”. The church needs to “decenter” to the point where it is like Christ and then it can build towards a brighter and more organic future.


Book Review: “The End of Religion”

Posted in: Reviews,Spirituality by bill-o on August 05, 2008

“The End of Religion” is a book with a serious and provocative title. Yet even though this is indeed a serious work, its touch and tone are light for those readers who are truly seeking Jesus but not a religious institution. As the author, Bruce Cavey, teaching pastor of the Meeting House in the Toronto area, freely explains, this book is for those who love Jesus but who are burnt out on religion.

Even though this is ultimately a theological book, it is conversational in tone. For example, Mr. Cavey’s story of his own marriage having matured into a love-based relationship does more to explain why love is better than law than a long, technical theological dissertation ever could. The author’s retelling of a chance meeting with an atheist who loved the Golden Rule but didn’t know Jesus had said it also provides an important touch of humanity and personality. The reader gets a sense of actually sitting across a comfortable living room and talking to the author over a casual cup of coffee, even though weighty spiritual issues are being discussed.

For those readers more inclined to a Bible-teaching style, a substantive discussion of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as well as an examination of the Greek word skandalon in the gospels, will you provide you with what you are looking for.

The essence of the book can probably best be summarized in the author’s story (parable) of the couple Bob and Sue. To rekindle the romance in their marriage, Bob planned a special dinner at a restaurant, capped off by the presentation of a blue rose. However, Bob then invited Sue to several more dinners just like it at the same restaurant. What started out the first time as something romantic and special became routine, monotonous, and even more than a little strange each time after the first dinner. And so it is with religion.

For Mr. Cavey, excessive religion is an “organzational dependence”. This is where a person depends in whole or in part in a organization (institution) for access to God. Religion, as he sees it, is marked by the presence of fear and not its absence. It seems that avoiding this fear-and-dependence trap will bring someone much closer to the religion-less life that the author extols.

What does the author means when he says “the end of religion”? Mr. Cavey’s ideas about this title phrase come to a climax in the chapter, “The Day Religion Died”. Here, he writes:

“Yes, the Bible says that Jesus died for our sins. But it also says that he died for our religion. In Christ, God crucified the whole mess once and for all. In fact, by repeatedly emphasizing that Jesus died for our sins, the biblical writers were emphasizing the end of religion as a way to God.”

There is not necessarily a lot of practical application in this book (other than a paragraph at the end encouraging readers to “seek out intentional community”). In other words, if you agree with the author that Jesus declared the end of religion, then what do you now? Such a question is valid. However, that’s not the point of a book like this. “The End of Religion” challenges and confronts long-held assumptions about Jesus and religion. The author properly leaves it to others (expressly including his readers) to illuminate the next steps in turning this theory into practice.

It’s not a main theme of the book, but I do appreciate when the author mentions his own church congregation, the Meeting House. The Meeting House is evidently “a church for people who aren’t into church”. Rather than seeking to build the largest possible institutional church, Mr. Cavey freely admits that he expects his church to exist in a radically different form in another gerenation. Mr. Cavey clearly seems not to be a pastor who is writing his book as a stepping stone to megachurch superstardom or as a vehicle to prop up his own ministry.

If you’re looking for a long, technical treatise on theology, this is not the book for you. However, if you’re looking for a breath of fresh air about Jesus and his love, then I would recommend this book to you.

For more information, see: