Monday, April 11, 2011

What is the Life of Faith?


Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
—John 20:29

David Ponder’s chief recommendation to lead a summit to save humanity from another Flood appears to be his immense wealth.  This quality seems to separate the sheep from the goats in Andy Andrews’ The Final Summit.  Maybe that’s why, at the end, the conference yields an obvious but uninspiring conclusion.  I wish that ended my problems.

I could list the lopsided selection of luminaries deciding humanity’s kismet: predominantly white, overwhelmingly Euro-American, chosen to ratify a Protestant ethic.  I consider the high regard for soldiers at least problematic.  Offering token minorities like Anne Frank, Booker T. Washington, and Gandhi doesn’t conceal that well-heeled whites hold humanity’s fate in their hands.

I could list the contrivance of the story, in which the Archangel Gabriel gathers everybody who Andrews thinks matters in a no-place to make a decision Scripture says will never happen.  But the spirituality—and indeed the story—don’t matter.  This is a self-help book, and anything that happens is a contrivance.

At least The Final Summit features a conclusion I can support.  That’s more than I can say for Don Furr’s Quest for the Nail Prints.  From the Indiana Jones-y title, to the nail hole drilled cover to cover, to the studiously unthreatening, pietistic narrative, this is one of the vaguest, least challenging religious novels I’ve ever seen.

Three Americans visiting the Holy Land, each with their own doubts, find themselves transported back to the first Palm Sunday.  Once there, each pursues their own agendas, facing the unexpected hardships of First Century Canaan.  And each has their own life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ.

I don’t recall who first pointed out that empires don’t nail provincial preachers to planks and stake them up to die for being pleasant and soft-spoken.  I forget who said that temple leaders don’t conspire against reformers for merely encouraging people to pray more.  But I certainly remembered their words while reading this bloodless, uninspiring froth.

No, I much prefer teachers like Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.  In Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers, these modern monks describe how prayer opens our hearts to the Kingdom.  And when our hearts open, and our souls listen for the Spirit, we hear God telling us how to get up and move.

Our authors analyze three New Testament prayers to see, not just howJesus and Paul prayed, but what they prayed for.  Wilson-Hartgrove and Claiborne find hope, love, and a spirit-filled life.  But they also find justice, advocacy, and Kingdom economics.  These prayers, they say, call us to get up and act.

Prayer, they say, is no passive petition we offer God like a letter to Santa.  From lives lived on the margins, these preachers know that prayer is a way of life.  Prayer is how we build communities of faith, how we face a deeply conflicted world, and how we stay true to faith’s message.  True believers have a mission in this world, and part of that mission is to pray.

But “faith without deeds is useless” (James 2:20).  After a life-changing encounter with new views of God, Pastor Curtiss Paul DeYoung studied how different people of different cultures live out faith.  The result is Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice.  Half scholarly study, half call to action, DeYoung’s words give us something to hope for and something to strive after.

Though DeYoung himself is Christian, he studies people of many nationalities and religions.  His most detailed examinations focus on three faithful witnesses: the Christian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Muslim Malcolm X, and the Buddhist Aung San Suu Kyi.  He also considers diverse “mystic activists” like Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, Winona LaDuke, and Thich Nhat Hanh.  Each feels called to stand strong for their deepest beliefs.

DeYoung finds many threads linking these activists across faiths.  Some, like Bonhoeffer or Dorothy Day, were born to privilege, but found their hearts drawn to people living on society’s margins.  Others, like Malcolm X or Rigoberta Menchu, were born on the margins and found faith enough to confront the powers of this world.  But they all have hearts for peace and justice inspired by souls for their beliefs.

Between the prayers of Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove, and DeYoung’s action, I believe that faith can shape a life to change the world.  That sure beats the vagaries and bromides propounded by feel-good writers like Andrews and Furr.

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