Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike: a writer for thinking Christians

John Updike died on Tuesday at age 76.

His passing will be mourned by everyone who loves great writing and there will be many essays about his gifts for prose and poetry. But within it all, what was most appealing to me was the way that he presented the faith struggles or thoughtful Christians. His characters were generally flawed, as human beings are. But they were also deep. And he gave us deep insights into the human spirit.

When asked why he chose to live in Ipswich, a suburb on the north shore of Boston, he talked about getting away from the hustle of New York City, and then added,

''There were also practical attractions: free parking for my car, public education for my children, a beach to tan my skin on, a church to attend without seeming too strange.''

That’s right, “a church.” And more than that, “a church to attend without seeming too strange.” John Updike was a self-described Christian. In fact, I think he claimed Karl Barth as a major philosophical and theological influence. Updike was the thinking Christian’s writer. Always a little off balance in a universe that one could not completely understand. But convinced that whatever one could see or measure or comprehend, there was always something more. It could not be simply understood or explained, but it was there. And one had to honestly come to terms with it.

In a wonderful short story called, “The Christmas Carolers,” Updike asks why we come for the caroling -- "come every year sure as the solstice to carol these antiquities that if you listened to the words would break your heart. Silence, darkness, Jesus, angels. Better, I suppose, to sing than to listen."

It breaks your heart. The hopes and fears. The solitary struggle. The stars and the darkness, and eternity breaking in. It was John Updike’s gift to speak of such things in a language that transcended religion, that was deeply human.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Racism and the Inauguration

I was deeply moved on Tuesday as I listened to the benediction by the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, a retired United Methodist minister who was director of the Southern Christian Leadership Council and a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King.

This morning as I was writing the “Welcome” for the Sunday bulletin I wanted to reference the benediction and I went online to find the text. I was shocked to discover thousands of comments labeling Dr. Lowery’s remarks as racist. I couldn’t imagine what they were talking about.

The prayer began with a quotation from James Weldon Johnson’s great hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has become the Black National Anthem. And it ends with references to the Hebrew Prophets. In between, he called on the nation to reject greed and violence, to embrace inclusion rather than exclusion, and love rather than hate. It was, in short, about the Kingdom of God; a vision of what ought to be.

What set the bloggers all atwitter was the last paragraph, when he called on the nation to work toward that day “when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”

In the spirit of the rhyme, for those who are offended I might add that we also hope for a time, “when nobody’s skin will be that thin!”

But those words were not original. They were meant to recall an earlier time, not that many decades ago when the rhyme told the story of race and color in America: "If you're white, you're right, if you're yellow, you're mellow, if you're brown, stick around, but if you're black, get back." (See an explanation by Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith at

And in the 1970’s those words, just as Dr. Lowery spoke them, were used by Black preachers as a call to action. I do not know Dr. Lowery personally, but I have known of him for more than 30 years. I am certain he did not mean to suggest that white people had never embraced what was right, and he did not mean to divide. He did mean to raise up a vision of the future by remembering the past. And one can see by the angry responses that the past is not really past, in part at least, because too many people just don’t know their history.

This is the text of Dr. Lowery’s benediction:

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand -- true to thee, O God, and true to our native land.

We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we've shared this day. We pray now, O Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant, Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration. He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national and, indeed, the global fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hand, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations. Our faith does not shrink, though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.

For we know that, Lord, you're able and you're willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.

We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that, yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed -- the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.

Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little, angelic Sasha and Malia.

We go now to walk together, children, pledging that we won't get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone, with your hands of power and your heart of love.

Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around -- (laughter) -- when yellow will be mellow -- (laughter) -- when the red man can get ahead, man -- (laughter) -- and when white will embrace what is right.
Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.
REV. LOWERY: Say amen --
REV. LOWERY: -- and amen.
AUDIENCE: Amen! (Cheers, applause.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Barack Obama and Reinhold Niebuhr

I was reading a reflection on the inauguration by Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary, when I encountered the following observation.

Our new president, more than many others, seems to have a pragmatic sense of limitation built into his exultant rhetoric. The master of “Yes, we can!” has read his Reinhold Niebuhr.

Niebuhr is probably the greatest American theologian. There are some Calvinists who will argue for Jonathan Edwards, and you could make a case that since Paul Tillich wrote most of his best theology after he came to the United States from Germany, he might claim first place. But as much as I love Tillich, my vote goes to Niebuhr. It’s not just that he is a great theologian; his perspective is in many ways uniquely shapes by his experience in the United States. And his insights speak with special depth to our national soul. But even beyond his theology, Niebuhr might also be the greatest American political philosopher.

Reading Reinhold Niebuhr used to be expected of anyone with serious political aspirations, but in recent decades as our politics have become increasingly polarized, few people want to spend time reflecting on shades of gray or contemplating the ways in which self-interest corrupts even our highest ideals.

I did a quick internet search and came up with several references to Obama and Niebuhr. David Brooks heard of Obama’s interest in Niebuhr and asked him about it. “I love him.” Obama answered. “He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

Brooks asked him what central point he took away from his reading of Niebuhr. Obama answered, “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from na├»ve idealism to bitter realism.”

It would be a wonderful thing for our nation and our world if the world view of our government were shaped by the “Christian Realism” that Niebuhr advocated and President Obama seems to endorse.