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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

At a Crossroads: When a Young Hindu Converts to Christianity in Delhi

by Emily Frost, guest contributor

Shivanika, friend of KanikaAt a coffee shop in Delhi, Kanika thought she was spending just another afternoon passing time with her childhood friend Jo Jo, avoiding the heat and the crush of people outside. But there was something different in the way Jo Jo approached her that day. He had a special question for her: Do you know what is happening to your soul when you die? Kanika had no idea, and that worried her.

Surprisingly, in their twenty years of friendship, Jo Jo, an Indian Evangelical Christian, and Kanika, a Hindu, had never discussed their religions. That day at Costa Coffee though, Jo Jo started a long discussion, scribbling Christian themes and images on the napkins scattered around him. Kanika collected the napkins and poured over them that night in bed.

In the weeks to come, Kanika began talking to other Christian friends and considering a conversion. She knew hardly anything about Christianity and had grown up in a devout Hindu family, but the question of life after death remained unanswered for her.

Now, four years later, at 24, Kanika is at a crossroads. She has become an Evangelical Christian in secret, and her family disapproves of any reference she makes to Christianity.

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Competing Visions of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth Are Not Mutually Exclusive

by Karl W. Lampley, guest contributor

blue skies bring tearsPhoto by Ibrahim Iujazen/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0

In his Time magazine article, "Heaven Can’t Wait," Jon Meacham contrasts two seemingly competing visions of heaven in contemporary Christianity. One prominent view envisions heaven as the ethereal place one goes when one dies. Images of winged angels, celestial music, golden thrones, pearly gates, and streets of gold variously occupy this vision of the hereafter. Heaven is conceived of as a future paradise of eternal rest filled with peace, light, and love. Everlasting life is seen as an eternal abode in the heavenly realm with God and the angels.

A second well-known view envisions heaven as how you live your life. This standpoint appeals to a younger generation motivated by causes and inspired by heaven to make a positive difference in the world. Guided by this outlook, these young evangelical Christians see themselves as agents of heaven on earth engaged in social justice and peacemaking. For this activist generation, heaven demands stewardship on earth in daily living.

According to New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, heaven is not a future destination but rather God’s dimension in our ordinary life on the earth. For Wright, the hope of a new heaven and a new earth along with the New Jerusalem coming from God in the Book of Revelation should invite work in the world for justice. Wright emphasizes the biblical hope of the bodily resurrection and new creation in the New Testament.

Meacham asserts that early Christians did not understand heaven in the same way as those who now envision a heavenly paradise after death but rather envisioned heaven as a two-step process. First, the soul left the body to a place of rest and peace. Second, a bodily resurrection into a new heaven and a new earth would bring God’s kingdom to earth. Meacham concludes that Christians have largely departed from these concrete beliefs about heaven by Jesus and his contemporaries. For Meacham, Wright and others are bringing this emphasis on the bodily resurrection and the New Jerusalem back to contemporary Christianity. The implication is an active Christianity bringing the Kingdom to earth.

Yet, these two competing visions of heaven and the hereafter need not be mutually exclusive. A vision of heavenly bliss and celestial paradise after death is a compelling way to describe what early Christians saw as the first — temporary — stage of heaven. Immediately after death one returns to God and enters paradise. Notwithstanding, the entire biblical account points to hope in a bodily resurrection and a new eternal life with God in the New Jerusalem. Life with God on earth will be exalted. According to the New Testament, heaven is not the final destination but rather a temporary holding place before the end of the world. One can easily hold these two visions of heaven in tension in one’s faith.

Meacham implies, however, that one cannot believe in heaven as the eternal place of rest and vindication and also work for social justice as an imperative. Thus, according to some, the image of heaven as a future paradise pacifies Christians, most especially the poor and marginalized.

Critics of African American slave religion, for instance, argue that it was otherworldly, escapist, and compensatory. The black spirituals demonstrate the rich imagery of heaven and the hereafter in slave religion as release and vindication in another life. These images of heaven no doubt enabled black slaves to endure hardship and dehumanization. Yet, black slaves also believed in imminent liberation on earth as in the biblical Exodus. They hoped for concrete material and spiritual liberation from bondage in the now.

Rebellious black slave insurrectionist Nat Turner, for example, asserted that blacks should fight for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth through revolt. African American Christian slaves held in balance the hope of paradise in another life and the equally significant hope of heaven on earth. They were able to resist slavery in myriad ways by believing in the God of both the hereafter and the present. Thus, black slave religion was both otherworldly and this-worldly. Slaves embraced the hope of a heavenly paradise after death that would vindicate them and erase the pain of the present life. Yet, they also hoped in imminent liberation on earth and the belief that God would initiate a new era of peace and freedom for blacks here in America.


Karl W. LampleyKarl W. Lampley is Martin Marty Junior fellow and a doctoral candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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That’s way too much earnestness for the ironic. It’s way too much idealism for the cynical. And it’s way too much selflessness for the self-absorbed. In short, people aren’t upset at Tebow’s God talk. They’re upset that he might actually believe it.
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Stephen Tulloch "Tebowing" after sacking Denver quarterback Tim TebowDaniel Foster ends with this provocative thought in the National Review Online regarding Tim Tebow’s response to Detroit Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch mocking his style of prayer after sacking the Denver Broncos quarterback: “He was probably just having fun and was excited he made a good play and had a sack. And good for him.”

The commentary is well worth reading. What do you think?

Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Many people have criticized the so-called ‘social gospel,’ but Jesus taught that we are to take the gospel to the world. Actually there is no such thing as a ‘social gospel.’ It is a misnomer. There is only one gospel … The cup of cold water comes after and sometimes before rather than instead of the gospel. Christians, above all others, should be concerned with social problems and social injustices. Down through the centuries the church has contributed more than any other single agency in lifting social standards to new heights.
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Rev. William (Billy) Graham border=Billy Graham, from his 1984 book, Peace with God

The influential Evangelical preacher’s turned 93 yesterday. Happy belated birthday to you, reverend!

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Is Justin Bieber the Evangelical Christian a Prophetic Figure?

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Happy Birthday Justin Bieber - 01/03/2011You don’t have to “get” Justin Bieber. Just look around and listen to your teenage nieces or your pre-teen neighbors living next door. It’s more than just a love affair with the seventeen-year-old singer and pop star. He’s a heroic figure to many of his fans, so I get what Cathleen Falsani means when she uses the word “prophetic” to describe him (although I do, admittedly, cringe a bit hearing her making the declaration).

In this interview with PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the author of Belieber!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber discusses the cultural icon’s religious background, the role of faith in Bieber’s life, and how the young Evangelical Christian talks about his faith in ways that make his fellow Christians uncomfortable.

Photo by Snow Belieber/Flickr, cc by 2.0)

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U.S. Senators Discuss Religion and Its Role in Political Life (video exclusive)

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

"In some ways, our religious traditions give us guidance about the lack of working together, the partisanship, because as different as our faith traditions are, there are some common values. And one of them is something as simple as justice."
—Senator Bob Casey

"Colson would warn that salvation does not lie in what comes out of the United States Congress or the White House in Washington D.C."
—Senator Dan Coats

"If politics is the art of compromise, purity is not compromise; it’s inconsistent with it." 
—Senator John Danforth

Civil conversation among our politicians is at a premium these days. So rarely do we get to witness our political leaders respectfully engaging each other in a discussion about matters of the spirit and how they intersect with their civic responsibilities that we might not think it possible. But there are places trying to make this happen, venues that provide a human space for this type of thoughtful dialogue.

The Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. and the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis are creating such a communal space. The ”Danforth Dialogues” — moderated by, you guessed it, former Senator John C. Danforth — kicked off its inaugural event with Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat and Roman Catholic from Pennsylvania, and Senator Dan Coats, a Republican and Evangelical Christian from Indiana.

For the most part, the first half of this conversation is a warm-up period that covers somewhat well-trodden ground: the culture of Washington, compromise on taxes and entitlements, the budget. But there are moments of resonance too. When I hear the three men regret that there are limited opportunities for social interaction, I think of Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who posits that regular, seemingly inconsequential bump-ins are a necessary starting point for deeper, more meaningful discussion. Senator Casey puts a point on this idea when he tells a story about introducing his daughter to Senator Coats on an elevator for the first time and says “the fact that it stands out in my memory indicates that those interactions are pretty rare.”

If you’re interested in a more personal discussion about faith and how it influences politics for the two currently serving senators, the discussion gets rolling about 27 minutes in. A couple of moments to highlight come in the form of references: one to a book by a former Nixon aide, the other to a church hymn.

When asked if he thinks religion is more directly involved in politics than ever before, Senator Coats cites Chuck Colson’s Kingdom in Conflict as a philosophy that informs how he navigates his distinct responsibilities as an elected official and a Christian:

"He [Colson] warns in his book that you have to be careful that the kingdom of man, kingdom of government, doesn’t dictate the essential message of the kingdom of God, and vice versa. And so it takes some discernment to not go too far either way."

Near the end, Senator Casey remarks:

"There’s a great hymn in the Church, "We Are Called to Act with Justice." The refrain goes on to say, ‘We are called to act with justice. We are called to love tenderly, to serve one another, and to walk humbly with God.’ If members of Congress focused on those four things, we might be better off."

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To Pray or Not to Pray? Civil Religion and the 9/11 Memorial Service

by Rick Elgendy, special contributor

Obama and Bush Pray at 9/11 CeremonyU.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama and former U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush observe a moment of silence at the time the first hijacked airliner crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center during the tenth anniversary commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attacks at the lower Manhattan site of the World Trade Center in New York. (photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

Last weekend, as the nation marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, our collective media gaze focused on lower Manhattan, where the memorial service and dedication led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already provoked controversy. Though the focal point of these events was undoubtedly — and rightfully — on remembering those lost, that controversy was a revealing glimpse of contemporary American religion.

Bloomberg, concerned to avoid religious entanglements in a government observance, had not invited any clergy to participate, nor had he included prayer in the schedule of the service. This move, predictably, provoked protest from religious conservatives. Chief among these: Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, who entreated Bloomberg to reverse his decision, since “invocations are the quintessential American form of solemnizing events.” Sekulow, whose organization advocates for an understanding of religious liberty wherein religion dwells comfortably in the public square, insisted that his argument had little to do with either partisanship or proselytizing. Instead, worried that “[t]o exclude prayer from any events remembering 9/11 only serves to diminish the purpose of the event,” he engaged in an all-out public relations campaign, including a letter-writing drive, a talk-radio tour, and a debate with David Silverman, president of American Atheists. Bloomberg did not relent, but that was not the end of the story.

The service itself featured, in addition to Bloomberg and the reading of the names of the victims, readings from President Obama, George W. Bush, and Rudy Giuliani. President Obama read Psalm 46 in its entirety. President Bush quoted a letter from Abraham Lincoln, which closed with its own prayer. Giuliani, hardly a darling of religious conservatives, read the well-known opening of Ecclesiastes 3 after a preamble in which he claimed that “[t]he perspective that we need, and have needed…are best expressed by the words of God,” and followed his reading with a benediction: “God bless every soul that we lost. God bless the family members who have to endure that loss, and God guide us to our reunion in Heaven, and God bless the United States of America.” It turned out that no clergy were necessary: the politicians, whether spontaneously or in response to political pressure, brought religion into the service on their own.

Sekulow’s telling response came on Monday’s edition of his daily radio program, aimed at political advocacy. After assuring his listeners that he continues to disagree with most of President Obama’s policy agenda, he gave Obama credit for reading scripture: “[W]hether in his heart of hearts he believes it or not, he said it, and that’s important,” Sekulow responded to one caller. His co-host (and son) Jordan Sekulow then opined, “they’re not theologians, they’re not pastors, [but they were trying to] make the event solemn, and that’s what we do in America. Americans pray at memorial services. We pray in bad times; we pray in good times. We pray when we remember those we lost, and events like this.”

With the exception of the occasion, this exchange might be so commonplace as to go without comment from most corners. But the banality only obscures the strangeness of it all: that Christians who take themselves to be highly traditional, faithful, religious believers, unapologetic followers of Jesus Christ, yearn to hear a politician read a Psalm to them in public — whether earnestly or not! — and shift their use of “we” between reference to “Christians” and to “Americans,” without a thought about the difference. These are the defining features of American “civil religion”: a “God” stripped of most visible, traditional particulars, inserted into a new set of symbols — the flag, the government, a blessing of an American nation — and guaranteeing the basic rightness of the American cause, whatever that may be. This “God” is called upon to solemnize public events by invoking the felt memory of particular religious traditions with all its connotations of “divinity,” but is shorn of any particularity except the American kind. That many Evangelicals have adopted the promotion of civil religion as a Christian calling is one of the most important and most perplexing cultural issues of our day.

Yet, civil religion is not a strictly Evangelical phenomenon. Its presence in American politics harkens back at least to the mention of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. It certainly predates the modern religious right and represents the uneasy compromise between religious liberty as free exercise, seemingly calling for some public acknowledgement of America’s many religious citizens, and as disestablishment, requiring those acknowledgements to be vaguely generic and non-exclusive. On a smaller scale, it is not unusual for many Americans who have never darkened the doors of a church on an ordinary Sunday to seek ceremonies offering religious articulation of life’s major milestones and events: birth, adulthood, marriage, illness, death, etc. For Christians (for whom I can speak), who understand themselves as called to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice, these moments might provide welcome occasions for hospitality.

But there is a darker side to civil religion: if the “we” in Jordan Sekulow’s comment that refers to “Americans” is normative for all, rather than merely descriptive of many, then that “we” leaves out many others who exercise their right not to freely exercise a religion or to exercise a religion incompatible with the civil religion. The impetus to identify with civil religion easily becomes uncivil, for example in fights about whether or not mosques are welcome in local communities, or about the placement of the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses. The connection between specifically Christian discipleship and these types of endeavors, which are usually presented as defenses of religious liberty against creeping secularism, is rarely made explicit, likely because it is tenuous, at best.

In the meantime, perhaps some of those in attendance or viewing at home derived a modicum of comfort from hearing President Obama read Psalm 46, or from Giuliani’s closing words; few would begrudge them that. But we would also do well to treat our civil religion, the cloak of divinity that politics wears uneasily and often dishonestly, as an object of suspicion as much as an American tradition.


Rick ElgendyRick Elgendy is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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How Do We Live and Honor Each Other Despite Our Differences?

by Krista Tippett, host

Richard MouwThis show with Richard Mouw was as hard as any in my memory to produce, edit, script — and even to justify, as news unfolded while we were creating it.

I have known Richard Mouw for 15 years and interviewed him on this program in its early days. Other Evangelical Christian leaders have been more visible in American political and media life: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard, James Dobson, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and on the more progressive side Jim Wallis and Richard Cizik. I have followed them, but I have also always kept my ear and eye on quieter figures like Richard Mouw. As president of Fuller Theological Seminary, with more than 4,000 students from 70 countries and over 100 denominations, he is training generations of Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors and global leaders.

A book he first wrote in 1992, Uncommon Decency, has recently been released in a revised version with the subtitle, “Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.” Mouw has long been a kind of bridge person — theologically conservative on some issues and more progressive on others — but he most fervently insists that the way people are treated is a greater measure of Christian virtue than the positions one takes. I’ve wondered rhetorically how our political life would have evolved differently if the Christian re-emergence into politics in the late 20th century had modeled a practical love of enemies.

My own deepest despair at present is not about the vitriol and division per se — as alarming as they are. It is about the fact that we seem to be losing any connective tissue for engaging at all, on a human level, across ruptures of disagreement. Across the political spectrum, many increasingly turn to journalism not for knowledge but to confirm individual pre-existing points of view. What we once called the red state, blue state divide is now more like two parallel universes where understandings of plain fact are no longer remotely aligned. This leads to a diminishing sense of the humanity of those who think and live differently than we do. And that is the ultimate moral slippery slope, for everyone on it and for the fabric of our civic life.

Richard Mouw lays out the imperative to all kinds of Christians for gentleness, reverence, humanity, and “honor” of the different other at the heart of the Bible and the life of Jesus. But this is not a feel-good plea for harmony. Even as he calls for civility and gentleness, Mouw reasserts his public and private opposition to gay marriage and civil unions. The civility he calls for would not minimize difference, at least at the outset, but would create a different space for discussing and navigating it — indeed for bringing differences into public life with virtue and vitality of expression. Picking up on a phrase coined by Christian historian Martin Marty, Richard Mouw builds upon this idea of “convicted civility.”

We had impassioned and difficult discussions on our production team about his ideas, and the complications and contradictions they present. When he says that, as a Christian, he sees other human beings as “works of divine art,” can that genuinely apply to a person whose sexual identity he defines as fundamentally wrong?

This all drives towards a question I pursue in so many of my conversations: How does social change happen? We will not all be “on the same page,” as Americans like to be, on sexuality or many other issues for generations to come. The 21st century has opened up questions Western civilization thought it had put to rest. Some of them are intimate and raw, terrifying in every life at some point and therefore all the more unsettling when we are forced to ponder them out in the open together. Same-sex marriage is but the tip of an iceberg of human redefinition: What is relationship? What is marriage? What is friendship? What constitutes a family? In this messy moment, we retain our rights and responsibilities as human beings and citizens to discern our truths and live by them. But we have no choice, at the same time, if we want this to end well, to search for new ways to discern our multiple truths while living together.

1990 Ordination of Gay and Lesbian Pastors

Richard Mouw suggests that we need to start some of our conversations again from the beginning, certainly the conversation about sexuality. He believes that only by naming our hopes and our fears, articulating them among ourselves, revealing them to each other, can we begin to recreate something called a common life, which can contain, and not be destroyed by, our differences. I want to believe him, to believe that this is one answer to the question of how social change happens. If I didn’t believe that a new kind of conversation can also be a starting point for walking forwards together — living together, differently — I would not do what I do.

And yet, maybe another reality we have to live with is that these critical new conversations will start small, in many places, compelling us to connect dots for awhile in lieu of convening the sweeping dialogue we might hope for. We’ve posted a piece we admire by fellow journalist Sasha Aslanian titled "Sex, Death, and Secrets" — featuring an interview with two lesbian pastors who’ve experienced a roller coaster ride of discernment within their own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Please add your thoughts, stories, and pictures — your dots, if you will — to this difficult, dispersed, essential conversation.

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Bob Dylan, Musical Prophet: BBC Documentary Traces Singer/Songwriter’s Spiritual Journey on His 70th Birthday

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

'Bob Dylan, Rossilli Bay' by Peter RossPainting of ‘Bob Dylan, Rossilli’ by Peter Ross. (photo: Martin Beek/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

The BBC has released Blowing in the Wind: Dylan’s Spiritual Journey in celebration of the singer/songwriter’s 70th birthday. The radio documentary traces Dylan’s path from a Jewish boy bar mitzvahed in Minnesota through and beyond his conversion to evangelical Christianity in the late 1970s. Even if you’re not a die-hard Dylan fan, it’s well worth 30 minutes of your listening time.

The panoply of voices includes Bishop Nick Baines. A long-time Dylan fan, Baines likens the musician to a modern-day Old Testament prophet, someone who uses poetry to speak truth to power:

"He questions why it is the good people who get it right who end up strung up. … If you go back to the Hebrew scriptures that he grew up with, they’re riddled with these complaints, laments, and this question: ‘Why do the wicked prosper?’ But he comes from a tradition that does that. The Jewish community is very good at questions and Dylan gets it.

Bishop Baines and others point out that religious allusions and imagery are recurring in Dylan’s cannon. “Bob Dylan is very much drawing on ancient texts and integrating them into contemporary concerns,” says author Seth Rogovy. Selected lyrics from "Blowing in the Wind" such as “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?” echo specific passages from Isaiah and Ezekiel, says Rogovy.

Dylan’s musical and spiritual path have led him to explore Jerusalem’s Old City and the baptismal waters of Malibu. For Bishop Baines, the theological thread unifying Dylan’s life and work is his ongoing creative wrestling with the human condition:

"He’s constantly looking at human experience and his experience and the way the world is against this backdrop of God and his understanding of the scriptures. And my guess is if he lives to 100 he still will be doing the same thing. … What Dylan gets is the fact that spirituality isn’t divorced from reality. So Dylan moves through loneliness, love, sex, God, meaning, all of that. It’s all in there."
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Krista's Washington Post Review of "Love Wins" by Rob Bell http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/2011/04/19/AFkomnQE_story.html

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

If you haven’t noticed, Rob Bell’s name has been turning up in lots of high-profile places — like the cover of Time magazine and on Good Morning America — over his take on the ideas of heaven and hell. The Washington Post asked Krista to review his latest book.

Her opening paragraph might give you an idea of where she stands on Love Wins

"Rob Bell’s provocative new book, Love Wins, has taken the world of American Christianity by storm — in particular the world of conservative evangelical Christianity. It’s among the top 10 on Amazon, though on the major print bestseller lists it is unfortunately relegated to categories like “Advice, How To, and Miscellaneous.” Nevertheless, Love Wins is an important book religiously — and in terms of American political and cultural life. Far more serious and intelligent than, for example, Rick Warren’s 2002 devotional blockbuster The Purpose Driven Life, which wrapped good, old-fashioned evangelism in a universalist, inspirational package, Love Wins is a powerful articulation of a new generation’s vision for evangelical Christianity, the nominal religious home of something like 40 percent of Americans.”

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Let the Spiritual Cloning of Chuck Colson and His Centurions Begin

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

"Charles Colson seeks to create clones to send forth with his evangelical message."

Chuck Colson in The Washington Post Style Section This slug sitting atop a photo of the former Nixon staffer and Evangelical heavyweight certainly catches the eye. And even more so when it graces the front page of the Style section of today’s Washington Post.

The article does a fair job of presenting the sincere, measured tone of Colson. You get a feeling of the political warrior who has turned his life around since being incarcerated and released. He’s a pragmatist and an idealist. He’s adamant in his beliefs and willing to argue his point of view, but softly and without concession.

This profile only feeds my conflicted reactions to Colson’s approach to faith, ministry, and politics. In many ways, he remains the same ol’ junkyard dog that knows how to martial forces and impose his will and way of thinking. It’s an admirable trait when you think about his good work with prison ministries and charitable causes. He believes in the redemption of his cause. That is an admirable trait.

On the other hand, he now is trying to create a movement based on his personal Christian ideologies that veer to the far right. Using a term like “Centurions” to describe his followers who have been schooled in his methodologies seems dangerous to me — in the perceptions it creates and the militant connotation the term evokes, hearkening back to the days of the Roman army and commanding legions of 80 to lead Christian soldiers into the battle for America’s soul.

I definitely recommend reading the two-page profile for yourself. Let me know what your read is.

(via washingtonpoststyle)

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How Do We Live and Honor Each Other Despite Our Differences?

by Krista Tippett, host

Restoring Political Civility with Richard Mouw

"Restoring Political Civility: An Evangelical View" with Richard Mouw was as hard as any show in my memory to produce, edit, script — and even to justify, as news unfolded while we were creating it.

I have known Richard Mouw for 15 years and interviewed him on this program in its early days. Other Evangelical Christian leaders have been more visible in American political and media life: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard, James Dobson, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and on the more progressive side Jim Wallis and Richard Cizik. I have followed them, but I have also always kept my ear and eye on quieter figures like Richard Mouw. As president of Fuller Theological Seminary, with more than 4000 students from 70 countries and over 100 denominations, he is training generations of Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors and global leaders.

And in this political season, in which values have once again — and with a new edge of hysteria — come to be a rallying cry for viciousness, I wanted to speak with him again. A book he first wrote in 1992, Uncomon Decency, has just been released in a revised version with the subtitle, “Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.” Mouw has long been a kind of bridge person — theologically conservative on some issues and more progressive on others — but he most fervently insists that the way people are treated is a greater measure of Christian virtue than the positions one takes.

I’ve wondered rhetorically how our political life would have evolved differently if the Christian re-emergence into politics in the late 20th century had modeled a practical love of enemies. My own deepest despair at present is not about the vitriol and division per se — as alarming as they are. It is about the fact that we seem to be losing any connective tissue for engaging at all, on a human level, across ruptures of disagreement. Across the political spectrum, many increasingly turn to journalism not for knowledge but to confirm individual pre-existing points of view. What we once called the red state, blue state divide is now more like two parallel universes where understandings of plain fact are no longer remotely aligned. This leads to a diminishing sense of the humanity of those who think and live differently than we do. And that is the ultimate moral slippery slope, for everyone on it and for the fabric of our civic life.

Richard MouwRichard Mouw lays out the imperative to all kinds of Christians for gentleness, reverence, humanity, and “honor” of the different other at the heart of the Bible and the life of Jesus. But this is not a feel-good plea for harmony. Even as he calls for civility and gentleness, Mouw reasserts his public and private opposition to gay marriage and civil unions. The civility he calls for would not minimize difference, at least at the outset, but would create a different space for discussing and navigating it — indeed for bringing differences into public life with virtue and vitality of expression. Picking up on a phrase coined by Christian historian Martin Marty, Richard Mouw builds upon this idea of “convicted civility.”

We had impassioned and difficult discussions on our production team about his ideas, and the complications and contradictions they present. When he says that, as a Christian, he sees other human beings as “works of divine art,” can that genuinely apply to a person whose sexual identity he defines as fundamentally wrong? And then, in the thick of creating this show, the Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide — one of a string of suicides of gay youth. This sharpened a question of whether religious views condemning homosexuality — however civilly expressed — inevitably fuel hateful, even fatal, behavior.

With all of this on my mind, I was struck by an open letter the Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler wrote in direct response to those teen suicides. Though Mohler is to the right of Richard Mouw theologically and culturally, his letter takes an unexpectedly kindred tone. Mohler leads the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, and one of the most conservative. He spends the first few paragraphs of his statement reiterating his firm theological conviction that homosexuality is a sin. But in words that echo a search for a new way of “convicted civility,” Mohler confesses, “Much of our response to homosexuality is rooted in ignorance and fear.” And he asks, of the faithful and of his church leaders, “What if Tyler Clementi had been in your church? Would he have heard biblical truth presented in a context of humble truth-telling and gospel urgency, or would he have heard irresponsible slander, sarcastic jabs, and moralistic self-congratulation?” I read in Mohler’s statement a profound shift of tone, if not of position — and an opening to new ways of being.

This all drives towards a question I pursue in so many of my conversations: How does social change happen? We will not all be “on the same page,” as Americans like to be, on sexuality or many other issues for generations to come. The 21st century has opened up questions Western civilization thought it had put to rest. Some of them are intimate and raw, terrifying in every life at some point and therefore all the more unsettling when we are forced to ponder them out in the open together. Same-sex marriage is but the tip of an iceberg of human redefinition: What is relationship? What is marriage? What is friendship? What constitutes a family? In this messy moment, we retain our rights and responsibilities as human beings and citizens to discern our truths and live by them. But we have no choice, at the same time, if we want this to end well, to search for new ways to discern our multiple truths while living together.

Richard Mouw suggests that we need to start some of our conversations again from the beginning, certainly the conversation about sexuality. He believes that only by naming our hopes and our fears, articulating them among ourselves, revealing them to each other, can we begin to recreate something called a common life, which can contain, and not be destroyed by, our differences. I want to believe him, to believe that this is one answer to the question of how social change happens. If I didn’t believe that a new kind of conversation can also be a starting point for walking forwards together — living together, differently — I would not do what I do.

And yet, maybe another reality we have to live with is that these critical new conversations will start small, in many places, compelling us to connect dots for a while in lieu of convening the sweeping dialogue we might hope for. I’d point to a few that we’ve pulled together at onBeing.org with this show, including Albert Mohler’s letter in its entirety as well as a Religion Dispatches report about an historic meeting between a senior Mormon elder and LGBT Mormons.

1990 Ordination of Gay and Lesbian PastorsWe’ve also posted a piece we admire by fellow journalist Sasha Aslanian titled "Sex, Death, and Secrets" — featuring an interview with two lesbian pastors who’ve experienced a roller coaster ride of discernment within their own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

And we’ve posted another kind of contribution to civility, an act of care for “despairing LGBT kids who are being bullied and harassed, kids who don’t think they have a future” — Dan Savage and Husband Terry from "It Gets Better" Projecta video project called “It Gets Better” that was created by syndicated columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry. Both come from families with conservative religious roots, and we see photographs that bespeak the embrace they’ve both received as members of these families. They are photographs of love that has overcome convictions — or chosen to live in a gracious, loving tension alongside them. This too is possible. Please add your thoughts, stories, and pictures — your dots, if you will — to this difficult, dispersed, essential conversation.

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Richard Mouw: A Twitterscript with an Evangelical Leader on Civility

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Richard MouwThis coming week we will be releasing our latest show, which focuses on the topic of incivility in political, religious, and civic culture with one of the leading Evangelical Christian leaders in the United States today. On September 8, 2010, Krista interviewed Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a professor of Christian philosophy and ethics, which we live-tweeted (@softweets) from behind the glass of Studio P at Minnesota Public Radio. Here’s a compilation, our Twitterscript if you will, of all those tiny nuggets, and a few exchanges with our followers:

  1. Tweeting Krista Tippett’s interview on civility with @richardmouw
    Wed Sep 8 14:11:57 2010
  2. "The antichrist has changed across my lifetime…in the 1980s it shifted towards Islam" - @richardmouw
    Wed Sep 8 14:12:47 2010
  3. On civility, @RichardMouw quotes the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah: “Seek the shalom of the city in which God has placed you.”
    Wed Sep 8 14:18:06 2010
  4. "What does it mean for me to honor the Muslim..the Mormon..the people of unbelief who are hostile towards Christianity?" - @richardmouw
    Wed Sep 8 14:18:22 2010
  5. "What I owe to my mother and friends, I also owe to the stranger. And that’s more than toleration." -@richardmouw on going beyond tolerance
    Wed Sep 8 14:19:11 2010
  6. "Evangelicalism goes back + forth between alienation to a takeover mentality - but alternate between two theologies." -@RichardMouw
    Wed Sep 8 14:26:32 2010
  7. "I do think Jesus is a model of civility - of convicted civility." -@RichardMouw, president of Fuller Seminary
    Wed Sep 8 14:32:48 2010
  8. "For starters concentrate on your own sinfulness and the other person’s humanness." Evangelical leader @richardmouw on gentle Christianity
    Wed Sep 8 14:32:55 2010
  9. "Glenn Beck + anti-Islam have revived the Evangelical sense that they’re taking something away and we need to get it back." - @richardmouw
    Wed Sep 8 14:36:42 2010
  10. "It’s very important for a leader to approach people having a hard time controlling their fears." -@RichardMouw on conservatives’ concerns
    Wed Sep 8 14:42:13 2010
  11. @mindywithrow You’re welcome! It’s tough keeping up. in reply to mindywithrow
    Wed Sep 8 14:42:52 2010
  12. "We have to be careful that we not sin in the process of acting on those concerns." @richardmouw on “Glenn Beck followers’” moral concerns
    Wed Sep 8 14:45:42 2010
  13. "We’re not messiahs. And God isn’t going to hold us responsible for righting all the wrongs in the world." -@RichardMouw
    Wed Sep 8 14:48:27 2010
  14. "Instead of telling Mormons what they believe, asking them what they believe." @richardmouw on a “gentle” approach w/ those we disagree with
    Wed Sep 8 14:51:19 2010
  15. "GK Chesterton once said, ‘It’s bad to have false gods. But it’s also bad to have false devils.’" -@RichardMouw
    Wed Sep 8 14:52:44 2010
  16. "Seeing other people is a kind of exercise in art appreciation." - @richardmouw on the realization that all people are a work of art
    Wed Sep 8 14:53:02 2010
  17. "Even in expressing our differences we’re dealing with people that are precious works of divine art" @richardmouw
    Wed Sep 8 14:57:41 2010
  18. "One of my stories about learning in civility was going to a gay Mass at an Episcopal church." -@RichardMouw
    Wed Sep 8 14:58:38 2010
  19. "I’m gratified by a growing Christian subculture of the more conservative side that are willing to think some new thoughts." -@RichardMouw
    Wed Sep 8 15:04:05 2010
  20. "There’s a common life. There’s something that bonds human beings together that politics can’t create and shouldn’t destroy." -@RichardMouw
    Wed Sep 8 15:07:58 2010
  21. RT @expatminister: ah yes, the oft-quoted Jeremiah 29. Much more complex, much harder than “I know the plans…” bumper sticker. Good tho…
    Wed Sep 8 15:09:57 2010
  22. "I think more and more we’re committed to bringing people in (@FullerATS)… It’s important to create these kinds of spaces.” -@RichardMouw
    Wed Sep 8 15:11:51 2010
  23. "We need safe places. The problem is that there aren’t safe places any more." -@RichardMouw
    Wed Sep 8 15:13:21 2010
  24. "If more people who have influence and leadership positions can give their blessing to this [civility] and encourage this…" -@RichardMouw
    Wed Sep 8 15:19:56 2010
  25. "In many ways, we are living in a world that’s much like some of the best years in Christianity in the past." -@RichardMouw
    Wed Sep 8 15:23:50 2010
  26. "We have to bracket those kinds of [social] issues and live with more mystery on that." -@RichardMouw
    Wed Sep 8 15:26:29 2010
  27. "We need to see He [Jesus] calls us to go out to identify with the things he cares about." -@RichardMouw
    Wed Sep 8 15:31:00 2010
  28. And that concludes our live-tweeting of Krista’s interview with evangelical leader @RichardMouw. Thanks for reading!
    Wed Sep 8 15:32:35 2010
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Autism and Being Human, Another Take

by Krista Tippett, host

Dancing with Max by Emily ColsonOur show on autism with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder remains one of my favorites. And I’ve been enjoying a wonderfully written and moving memoir by Emily Colson about life with her son Max, now 19. Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free has a prologue and an epilogue written by Charles (Chuck) Colson. Colson, of course, served in the Nixon White House and went to prison for the Watergate scandal, then went on to found Prison Ministries International. He is now something of an Evangelical Christian elder statesman, whom I met and interviewed several years ago together with two Evangelicals of different generations.

Chuck Colson and his daughter have created a searching and sometimes surprising exploration of what autism may teach us about what it means to be human, written from a devout and searching Christian perspective. It is an important addition to our literary and cultural encounter with autism, and I recommend it.

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Martin Marty Swings and Connects

by Kate Moos, managing producer

Franklin Graham at Park Street ChurchA good one. Martin Marty rarely swings for the fences, but when he does he knocks it out of the park. In today’s Sightings column, he takes aim at the son of Billy Graham: 

Franklin Graham on Islam and Violence
by Martin E. Marty

Aestas horribilis, Queen Elizabeth might call the summer just past, or those who care about civility in religious discourse and interfaith relations might judge it to have been. While Sightings took August off, forces, agencies, and voices of prejudice and, frankly, hate-mongering, did not. “Protest mosques,” “Restore America,” “Burn Qur’ans” and many more are keywords in our internet memory. One set of these keywords is so illuminating and nearly normative that it merits comment before we enter a new but not necessarily more promising season. I refer to the pronouncements of evangelist Franklin Graham on Muslim genetics, competition for souls, Islam as killer, and scriptures.

Genetics first: There is no need to repeat Graham’s bizarre charge that Islam is passed through the genes of a father to a son. Scholars of Islam find that idea nowhere in its teachings. Conversion-expert Graham should understand that one becomes a Muslim the way the born-again in Graham’s tradition become Christian: by making a profession of faith and a commitment through word and action. We won’t go into the political dimension of this issue with reference to Graham’s subject, the President of the United States, because, as long-time readers know, Sightings does not “do” Presidents.

Competition for souls, second: Graham’s work is often positioned along lines crossed in Africa, where Muslims kill Christians and Christians kill Muslims. There is little point in going into “Who fired first?” or “Who killed most?” In religion-based warfare, there is never really a first and a second; there are only debates about first and second. Graham has chosen to attempt conversion in the second most tense area known to the two faith communities. Without doubt, there is ugliness and murder, but we picture militant Muslims speaking of Christians the way Graham speaks of Muslims. Call it a draw. (By the way, “the undersigned” is a Christian who sees a place for evangelism.)

Islam as killer of Christians, third: Graham has repeatedly charged this year that Islam, which he frequently calls “a very wicked and evil religion” is mandated to kill, and that it kills. He does not qualify his remarks, as the word “very” suggests and even though he is often cautioned about the possible lethal consequences for Christians and Muslims if things get more heated. Historians have no difficulty finding Muslims in killing modes. The problem is that historians also find Christians in killing modes, from most years of Christendom, when the sword advanced Christianity, down into our own time. Think of the Christian justifications in World War I. Think Christian killing Christian in Rwanda, Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

Fourth, scriptures: It is easy to find passages in the Qur’an and other classic Muslim texts in which Allah’s people may or should kill to advance God’s cause. Isolating these chunks of the Qur’an which are by now most familiar to Americans calls for overlooking Islam’s many peace-promoting texts. And it also means overlooking parallel biblical texts. There are far more pictures in the biblical texts of a warrior God licensing and, yes, commanding “omnicide,” killing of men and women and children who stand in the path of God’s people. Yes, all that was long ago. Now, you will never (at least I never) find Jews or Christians who think that killing people of another faith is a scriptured mandate for them.

Let’s hope and work for a less horrifying autumn.

Rev. Franklin Graham preaches at Park Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts in April 2009. (photo: Rachel Ford James/Flickr via Creative Commons)

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