Talking About God When People Are Afraid

September 21, 2020

Announcing Talking About God When People Are Afraid: Dialogues on the Incarnation the Year That Doctor King and Senator Kennedy Were Killed. Edited by Keith Watkins; Foreword by Ronald J. Allen

 “The question might come up, ‘Why would a reader in the early twenty-first century be interested in sermons preached in 1967 and 1968?’ The answer is that the 1960s were a period of unusual cultural ferment in North America, a ferment that included changes taking place in churches and in preaching, and we find ourselves in a similar situation as the 2020s unfold.” In these two sentences, Ronald J. Allen, recently retired from the faculty of Christian Theological Seminary, describes the import of this book. “Indeed, as I write in the spring of 2020,” Allen continues, “the United States is in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic with its attendant social crises.”

He describes the conflict during the 1960s between two attitudes toward life. One was the promise, based on the flourishing of science, technology, and the economy, that Americans could an anticipate an ever-increasing good quality of life. The other was a deepening sense of anxiety because of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, generational conflict, poverty, and the civil rights movement.

From August 1967 through June 1968 my family and I were living in Seattle, where I was on research leave from my teaching position at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. I had been appointed visiting minister-theologian at University Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). We participated fully in the life of this large, socially active congregation, and I spent most of my time doing research and writing. Living, working, and ministering in this vibrant, complex, controversial, and liberal university community was a life-shaping experience for me.

Midway through the fall season, Robert A. Thomas, senior pastor of the congregation, invited three younger clergy serving on the church staff to join him in what he called an experiment in preaching. Together we would plan and preach a series of dialogue sermons during the Advent Season. The series was given the title “Born to Set the People Free.” Because of the response from the congregation, we developed a second series during Lent, with the title “The Tragic Vision.” The title for the two series combined was “Dialogues on the Incarnation.”

Although the sermons were fully scripted, we made no effort to publish them, even for distribution to members of the congregation. All these years, I have kept a carbon copy of these dialogues and now, half a century later, have transcribed them. With the new title, Talking About God When People Are Afraid, they now are available to speak again to people living in a fearful time.

Thomas R. McCormick, who was campus minister at the University of Washington, and I are the surviving members of that quartette of preachers, and I thank him for extended conversations while I was working on this book. Robert A. Thomas and Eugene Kidder are deceased, but members of their families still live in Seattle. One of my daughters, Marilyn P. Watkins, was in grade school in Seattle that year and has lived most of her adult life is this city. She continues an active professional life as Policy Director of Economic Opportunity Institute.

At the publisher’s request, Marilyn prepared a statement that appears on the back cover of the book. “Written in an earlier period when protesters were challenging institutions of power, these sermons ask questions relevant today, particularly for white Americans grappling with their own complicity in perpetuating racial inequality. They remind us of the message of liberation at the heart of both biblical and American traditions, and point to our responsibility to challenge authorities that maintain wealth and privilege by oppressing neighbors.”

Talking About God was published September 11, 2020, and is available as a print book and as an ebook. It can be ordered from the publisher (with a 25% discount).


American Pandemic: From the flu in 1918 to COVID in 2020

July 22, 2020

Responding to American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, by Nancy K. Bristow (Oxford University Press, 2012)

In 2012, when historian Nancy K. Bristow, published American Pandemic, she could write that during 1918–1919 “the worst influenza pandemic in recorded history raged around the world.” Experts today, she continues, “estimate that as many as one-third of humans around the globe, perhaps 500 million people, and over one-quarter of Americans, roughly 25 million people, were infected by this new incarnation of influenza.” During the pandemic’s four waves, there were 50 million deaths worldwide. Among those who died because of the flu were the author’s great-grandparents, John and Elizabeth Bristow.

The author, who teaches at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, has meticulously researched this book, basing her descriptions and interpretations on sources from across the nation, among them scientific and medical journals, newspaper accounts, public records, personal correspondence, sermons, popular music, and popular fiction.

Bristow’s expository style is lively so that readers are swept along by the narrative, from the Introduction, “Lost Worlds” to the Conclusion, “Reckoning the Costs of Amnesia.” Chapter titles provide a guide to the narrative flow. Each one begins with an attention-getting clause, such as “The whole world seems up-side-down,” followed by a subtitle that names the topic discussed in the chapter. In order, these sub-titles are: Influenza, Medicine, and the Public, 1890–1918; Patients, Families, and Communities Confront the Epidemic; Public Health Experts, the People, and Progressivism; Doctors, Nurses, and the Challenges of the Epidemic; and Forgetting and Remembering in the Aftermath.

Prior to reading this book, I had heard very little about this pandemic that inaccurately was dubbed the Spanish Flu, and what I had read about it was largely based on guesswork and other unreliable sources. I am grateful to know better now, partly because understanding the pandemic a century ago helps me understand and cope with the corona pandemic that rages as I write this response to the 1918 time of travail.

One of my surprises as I read this book was becoming aware of parallels between these two times of crisis. One is the difficulty in determining what manner of illness was besetting the world. Both of these illnesses were similar to strains already widely spread among the people and for which they had developed somewhat effective modes of treatment. People in both centuries, however, have been forced to acknowledge that they were experiencing something new, not understood, resistant to commonly used treatments, and therefore highly dangerous.

I sometimes have comforted my distraught spirit with the confidence that today’s scientists and medical professionals have advanced far beyond those of a century ago and therefore we can be more confident that we shall overcome. Bristow reports, however, that public opinion a century ago also expressed confidence in advances in research and treatment of serious illnesses. One difference between these two years of crisis is that in 1918 the hawking of alternative medicines and treatment systems spread across a wider spectrum than seems to be the case today.

Western (mainstream) medicine had developed extensively after 1890 and by 1918 was increasingly respected by people across the nation. These doctors were closely aligned with public health institutions, Bristow writes, and these factors “seemed to promise practitioners a future in which they would know and fully understand the causes and transmission of disease.” Our experiences today, however, demonstrate that the etiology of disease evolves so quickly that when we seem to have won the battle with one ailment, a variation of the old or a new type rises up to take its place with new virulence.

Another similarity between these two times of trouble is the alternating public response—ranging from strong positive support to hostile resistance—to measures imposed on the people to cope with the disease and its spread. Although many of the details differ, Bristow’s description of 1918 could be mistaken for something written now. “Those who pushed back against the behavioral restrictions were not unified in their motivations, but prompted variously by disagreement with the approach chosen by local authorities, by growing frustration with government control over their lives as days turned into weeks and then months, or by utter disregard for the importance of public health efforts.”

In the final chapter, Bristow describes narratives of suffering and loss that ran counter to the public stories of success. Among them were folk songs, like Essie Jenkins’s “1919 Influenza Blues,” which remembered the epidemic “as a scourge, a cataclysm for human beings who had no recourse but to God as they faced its trials.” Another song was Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus Is Coming Soon.” These lyrics “blamed the emergency not on Americans’ scientific failures but rather on their spiritual collapse.” Among the writers whom Bristow outlines, one stands out, Katherine Anne Porter and her novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider.

Bristow’s conclusion is unsettling, that the contradiction between national forgetting and personal remembering appears to be “a mainstay of American culture.” She illustrates this claim by citing recent events with the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and continues with a longer discussion of America’s treatment of the history of slavery and related topics. Her judgment is bluntly stated: “As a culture, the United States has exhibited a profound tendency to evade, misrepresent, or even mythologize those parts of its past that are difficult, that do not fit somehow with their view of themselves.” In her final sentences she urges readers to be better prepared to “admit to a tale of sorrow and loss, to acknowledge the trauma such a tragedy leaves in its wake, and to provide the support and understanding sufferers would need in its wake.”




Churches and the 2020 Election

July 16, 2020

Reviewing Letters to the Church: Encouragement and Engagement for the 2020 Election, by William B. Kincaid (Wipf and Stock, 2020)

William Kincaid begins this collection of his letters to the church by saying that “love, peace, and justice are not real until they take on concrete commitments and expression.” His primary purpose is to help readers meet the challenges of the 2020 presidential election. He hopes that by prompting honest conversations he will spark a renewal of courageous imagination and spur Christians in the United States toward “constructive engagement in our civic, social, and political life.”

The book consists of twenty letters, most of them from five to seven pages in length, arranged into three groups: What We Are Experiencing Now, What We Hope For, and What We Are Called To. After introducing its topic, each letter discusses why the issue matters and the witness of the church concerning the issue. Concluding with an encouraging phrase, such as “in trust that we shall overcome,” and his name, “Bill,” he then offers three or four questions for discussion.

Kincaid hopes that these letters will provide the material for discussions—with two or three in a conversation, with larger groups, in a congregation at large, and in outreach into the community. In part because of COVID-19, I currently am talking with myself alone.” Each morning I read the next letter as a spiritual exercise to help make ready for another day when much of what happens will be distressing.

Section Three, What We Are Called To, is especially well-suited to this individualized use. Beginning with Letter 15, Kincaid writes that we are to share in acts of confession, vocation, and justice; Letter 16, to think carefully and critically; Letter 17, to prepare for conflict; Letter 18, to support when we can, to resist what we must; Letter 19, to find allies when possible; and Letter 20, to engage constructively. In his discussion of the need to share in acts of confession, he refers to destructive actions that have taken place in our nation’s past and then writes that we cannot casually speak of these actions as if we are not connected to them just because we didn’t wield the whip used on slaves, build the wall that keeps refugees from entering our country, or build the missile that destroyed a city long ago. God calls upon us to respond in creative ways and by so doing repair some of the damage that has been done.

Letter 17, To Prepare for Conflict, speaks eloquently about the role of churches during times when conflict may well be the outcome. Kincaid relates events related to Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when several hundred people tried to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on a march to Montgomery to declare their right to vote. He describes the importance of Brown Chapel AME Church as the gathering place for protesters and the location where they were coached on how to face the dangers and develop the courage to move forward. Kincaid then writes, “Friends, we need more Brown Chapels. We always have and we still do today.” After summarizing the many things that happen in churches, he declares: “The church is a community where we prepare for the conflict between the way things are now and the way God wants them to be.”

Letter 13, in which Kincaid describes the importance of coming to clarity between ethical commitments and political advantage, is one place where his references to specific aspects of the recent political scene made me uneasy. Referring to the impeachment of President Trump, he writes that he agrees with Senator McConnell who said that it was “a colossal political mistake.” He then expresses his views more fully, stating his belief that “pursuing impeachment was the ethical thing to do. And sometimes doing the right thing carries political costs and disadvantages.” At this point, I felt better, and I gladly recommend that you read this book. And hurry because the election will soon be upon us.

An ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Kincaid is the Herald B. Monroe Professor of Leadership and Ministry Studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. The book can be ordered at

A Civilization Built on Slavery

June 22, 2020

In the two years since I first posted this column and review essay, many Americans are refocusing attention upon our racist history which Craig Steven Wilder declares is built on three pillars: academy, church, and state. Since I have been deeply invested in two of these pillars–the academy and the church–I am especially sensitive to how much my life has been enabled by racist aspects of our American civilization. I am reblogging this post as a contribution to the soul-searching that is taking place today.

Keith Watkins Historian

Responding to Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, by Craig Steven Wilder (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013.

In the final paragraph of the prologue to Ebony and Ivy, Craig Steven Wilder makes a statement that could be looked upon as his thesis: “American colleges were not innocent or passive beneficiaries of conquest and colonial slavery. The European invasion of the Americas and the modern slave trade pulled peoples throughout the Atlantic world into each other’s lives, and colleges were among the colonial institutions that braided their histories and rendered their fates dependent and antagonistic. The academy never stood apart from American slavery—in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on slavery” (p. 11).

The portion of the Americas that this book treats is the eastern seaboard of North America, from New England through Georgia, the West Indies…

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Confronting the History of Racism

June 12, 2020

The movement to remove statues and rename buildings that bear the names of Confederate leaders is rapidly gaining momentum. A recent book that discusses this topic in a personal and constructive way is Mitch Landrieu’s account of removing a prominent statue when he was mayor of New Orleans.

Keith Watkins Historian

Responding to In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History by Mitch Landrieu (New York: Viking, 2018)

Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans,tells two stories in this memoir. One gives the book its title—the removal of four monuments in New Orleans that were erected some years after the Civil War ended to perpetuate false understandings of that war and the racist culture that had made it necessary. The second story contains key passages in Landrieu’s life that formed his character and led him to remove these civil war statues as the culminating action near the end of his eight years as mayor.

He describes his boyhood in New Orleans, education in Catholic schools, and political career in Louisiana prior to becoming mayor of his home city. Landrieu devotes a chapter to David Duke’s brief political career in Louisiana, pointing to the similarities between Duke’s techniques and…

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Our Great Work: Becoming Present to the Planet in a New Way

May 23, 2020

Berry“The modern equivalent of the biblical book of Revelation” is the way that The Bloomsbury Review described Thomas Berry’s book The Great Work: Our Way into the Future when it was published in 1999. The similarity lies not in the literary style since Berry does not write about supernatural events, everlasting torments, and the heavenly city with streets of gold even though he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest early in his career. Instead, he writes in language learned in his later studies that made him an acknowledged authority in the history of world cultures and religions, especially Asian and Native American. This wealth of knowledge is apparent throughout the book. He sometimes referred to himself as a geologian.

Berry focuses much of his attention upon the ecological and climate crisis, convinced that human life in the future needs to be guided by a deep understanding of the evolving universe.

During a sixty-year publishing career, Berry wrote ten books, and The Great Work, which I found on a sale table outside of Annie Bloom’s Books in Multnomah Village, on the southwestern side of Portland, Oregon, is the only one I know. The first few lines of his introduction persuaded me to buy the book: “Human presence on the planet Earth in the opening years of the twenty-first century is the subject of this book. We need to understand where we are and how we got here. Once we are clear on these issues we can move forward with our historical destiny, to create a mutually enhancing mode of human dwelling on the planet Earth.”

Berry provides a synopsis of this book in the first chapter where he states that “history is governed by those overarching moments that give shape and meaning to life by relating the human venture to the larger destinies of the universe. Creating such a movement might be called the Great Work of a people.” He then names earlier Great Works—in the classical Greek world, Israel, Rome, the Western world of the medieval period, China, and the world of the First Peoples who occupied the American continent. European occupation led to dramatic changes that combined assaults upon the indigenous peoples, the plundering of the land, and “a devastation that led to an impasse in our relations with the natural world. . . . . The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial way.”

The Great Work contains a multi-faceted account of the development of the modern period, with chapters on the university, ecological geography, and ethics and ecology. A chapter on “the new political alignment explores a change in the basic tension in human affairs between conservative and liberal. What once was “based on social orientation is being replaced with the tension between developers and ecologists based on orientation toward the natural world.” This conflict cannot easily be resolved because the “violence already done to the Earth is on a scale beyond acceptability. . . . The change required by the ecologist is a drastic reduction in the plundering processes of the commercial-industrial economy.”

Berry’s critique appears in chapters entitled “The Corporation Story, The Extractive Economy, and The Petroleum Interval.” Our challenge is to “re-invent the human” and in the process develop a new era in geological time, moving us from the Cenozoic age to the Ecozoic. Nature requires a radically new response “beyond that of rational calculation, beyond philosophical reasoning, beyond scientific insight. The natural world demands a response that rises from the wild unconscious depths of the human soul.” This response must have “a supreme creative power, for the Cenozoic Era in the story of Earth is fading as the sun sets in the western sky. Our hope for the future is for a new dawn, an Ecozoic Era, when humans will be present to the earth in a mutually enhancing way.”

This new way of being human in the universe will be rooted in four streams of wisdom that Berry identifies as central elements of human reality. In the life, thought, and ritual of indigenous peoples we find agreement “in the intimacy of humans with the natural world in a single community of existence.” In the wisdom of women can be found “the description of the universe as a mutually nourishing presence of all things with each other.” Similar ideas are present in classical traditions and in the traditions of modern science.

We can feel secure as we undertake The Great Work, Berry writes near the conclusion of this book. “The guidance, the inspiration and the energy we need is available. The accomplishment of the Great Work is the task not simply of the human community but of the entire planet Earth. Even beyond Earth, it is the Great Work of the universe itself.”

Rather than the picture language of dragons and angels used John in the book of Revelation, Berry uses a simpler language that combines history, science, culture, and religious vision. Both writers describe the new world that we can hope for and pray for—and, as Berry tells us in this book, work for. As he makes clear, for the people of our age, this has become our Great Work!

A New Future Worth Living For

April 21, 2020

A New Future Worth Living For: Pictures and Portents in the Book of Revelation

 Suddenly the world we know has been torn asunder. Why is this happening, we find ourselves asking. Has God inflicted the world with the corona pandemic as punishment for human actions that violate the divine will? If so, how best can we respond to God’s anger and return to a happier way of life? Many people, however, find it hard to believe that the God of mercy and fullness of life could be so vengeful. How then are we to understand the natural and social terrors all around us?

Many of us, religious people and others not so religious, may turn to Revelation, the last book in the Bible, to find satisfying answers. Instead, we are ushered into heaven where  God is sitting on a throne holding a scroll sealed shut with seven seals. That scroll is important because, as Ronald J. Allen writes in his book I Will Tell You the Mystery, it “contains God’s plan for history” and “reveals how judgment is already beginning now.”

Removing the seals and opening the scroll does more than explain the meaning of what happens. It also sets in motion the “divine metamorphosis,” the emergence of a new heaven and new earth. Only one person can remove the seals—Jesus who remained faithful to God even though the Roman emperor, exercising the power of his position, crucified him, both to crush his resistance to the empire and to weaken his influence among his followers. By God’s power, however, Jesus had come to life again and would take the lead in remaking the world.

Each of the first four seals reveals a mounted horseman who represented a force in history that was threatening the empire. Allen explains that the white horse and rider represented military threats on the eastern edge of the empire. The red horse and rider portrayed tension in the social order and outbreaks of violence. The black horse and rider represented famine that was spreading throughout the world. The pale green horse and rider represented the death of perhaps a fourth of the earth’s population because of violence, famine, pestilence, and being eaten by wild animals.

Here Allen reaffirms a conviction he had stated earlier in his commentary. “I do not believe that a God of unconditional love would deliberately cause the kind of suffering spelled out in the opening of the seals, even to punish the things. That would contradict the divine nature. Moreover, I do not believe God has the singular power to cause or control military action, widespread social conditions, famine, and death.” For readers in our time, this means that God can’t control military actions in the Middle East, doesn’t cause global warming, or create epidemic disease and send it to punish humankind.

How should we understand these conditions? They are signs—and the results—of our continuing disobedience. “God does not directly punish the human family, but we create our own punishment (so to speak) by allowing such things to undermine community.” The opening of the seals can lead to personal repentance and social change, leading us to “turn away from trust in militarism, from cooperating with various forms of social oppression, from assuming that social polarization and chaos are just the way things are, from allowing food deserts in North America while sitting on food reserves, and from permitting conditions that pave the way for death. We can turn toward peace, mutuality, community, and sharing abundance” (pp. 70–71).

Opening the fifth seal reveals that we are not alone in our current struggles to remake the world in which we live. The martyrs, faithful witnesses for justice and well-being who suffered in times past, continue to pray that God to restore “relationship in community so that all may have access to means of blessing, and so that the community is one of mutual support.” Among modern witnesses and martyrs whom we can remember are Walter Reed and associates who led the way in overcoming yellow fever more than a century ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt whose New Deal created new systems of opportunity for people suffering during the Great Depression, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others who worked for racial justice in the 1960s.

The opening of the sixth seal reveals earthquakes and natural disasters, thus anchoring what is to come in the world that we already know. Allen proposes that this section of Revelation can easily be used as a biblical basis for an ecological theology. “When it comes to water (and other things in nature necessary for supporting life), empire-minded nations, corporations, and individuals often pollute it for the purpose of making a profit without regard for consequences for the web of life.” Instead, we are encouraged to consider ways to make sure that the sources of water “can truly function as springs to be water for life” (p. 86).

One way to occupy ourselves during our corona stay-at-home solitude could be to start thinking of how to remake our world after the pandemic releases us from its grip. I Will Tell You the Mystery can be ordered online:






The End of Time: Conversations Beginning with the Bible

April 13, 2020

During my first semester as a student seminary (the fall of 1953) Professor Robert Tobias told a class that “the Bible is the conversation piece with which every Christian conversation begins.” I don’t remember how he unfolded that idea, but this one-sentence statement has stayed with me ever since. In I Will Tell You the Mystery, his new commentary on the Book of Revelation, Ronald J. Allen illustrates a good way for this conversation to unfold.

Although he writes to help preachers use this book as they prepare their sermons, Allen’s conversational method can also be used by other readers of the biblical text. The first step in the conversation about the meaning of the Bible’s last book is “to identify what John asked the followers of Jesus in late-first-century Asia Minor to believe and do.” The second step is to bring the text “into conversation with other sources of insight, such as wider Christian tradition, including contemporary theological and ethical convictions and ideas about how “God works in the universe.” Then we are in a position to consider what we can “believe and do today“ (p. xiv).

The two conversational positions that Allen identifies carry titles that are better known to theologians than to most other people: popular apocalypticism and process theology. By the first term he is referring specifically to the Left Behind series of books and movies by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins and more generally to various premillennial timelines for the “end of the present age.” A major factor in these interpretations is that the world as we know it will end soon, probably in a dramatic, violent manner. A new age will follow in which all people will live in ways that are pleasing to God (p. xvii).

Elizabeth Dias, writer for the New York Times, has published a comprehensive account of this way of understanding what is likely to happen. The headline in her first-page column is “The Apocalypse as an ‘Unveiling’: What Religion Teaches Us About the End Times.” She continues with the sentence “For people of many faiths, and even none at all, it can feel lately like the end of the world is near (NYT, April 2, 2020).

Although these ideas are widely help in evangelical churches today, many members in progressive Christian communities and others in the general population are unpersuaded by them. It’s hard for these readers to believe, Allen writes, “that God would do the violent things associated with popular end-time thinking [but] they do not have the exegetical and theological resources to go beyond their uneasiness” (p. xviii).

Process theology, the second partner in Allen’s conversation about the book of Revelation, is a way of understanding God and all reality that developed a century ago, with a strong base among theologians in the United States. I became aware of this way of thinking early in the years I taught in seminary when it became a leading feature among my faculty colleagues at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis. In more recent years, my understanding of process thought has been confirmed by writings of Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki who taught for many years at the School of Theology in Claremont, California. Her book, In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer makes complicated ideas easy to understand.

Allen conducts this conversation about Revelation under four headings, the first being God’s overarching purpose. Apocalyptic theologians affirm that God’s intention is “to replace the ‘first things (22:4; the present broken world permeated by empire) with a new age, represented symbolically as the new heaven and the new earth (21:9–22:5).” Process theologians describe God’s purpose as “shalom (peace) with oneself, God, all our neighbors, and nature,” or as “inclusive well-being.”

The second heading is the nature and extent of Divine Power. One set of conversationalists understands God to be “all-powerful and, consequently, all things taking place either by God’s initiative or God’s permission.” The other set understands that “God has more power than any other entity” but that “God cannot intervene directly in history to do whatever God wants.”

Judgment and punishment is the third heading in the conversation. In apocalypticism, Allen writes, “the final judgment is final. That’s it. In my thinking, God does not wish ill on people who act against God’s desires. To be sure, God grieves such choices and suffers with their consequences. But, as a friend said, ‘God keeps offering new possibilities for blessing in ways possible in each context.”

Human agency in changeis the fourth heading. Apocalyptic theology “sees God as the agent who will bring about the change from old world to the new. . . . People have agency in deciding whether to join or reject the movement towards the new age, but the church does not have a part in bringing it about.” In contrast, process theologians believe that human action, in partnership with divine presence, is necessary to transform the present world” (pp. xxxi–xxxiv).

This promises to be quite a conversation! With additional posts from time to time, I hope to keep it going.  I Will Tell You the Mystery can be ordered online at this address:

Covid-19 and the Bible’s Book of Revelation

April 7, 2020


Every day the numbers go up—the sharp rise in confirmed cases of infection with covid-19, deaths due to the virus, and the number of weeks we have to live with social distancing. It’s easy to believe that we are facing the end of the way of life that most Americans have assumed would go on forever. Instead, terrors similar to those portrayed by H. G. Wells in his 1898 book The War of the Worlds and reimagined in later books, films, and TV series threaten to overtake us.

A much older story of the end times is told in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. Filled with strange visions, portrayals of distress and destruction, and visions of eternal destruction and everlasting bliss, this book (written near the end of the first century of the Common Era) is hard to understand. Because it can terrify and inspire, Revelation seems to be the right book for this year when Palm Sunday and Easter will be marked not with joyful congregations filling churches but with silent buildings echoing in their emptiness.

Revelation’s central theme is suggested in verse three of the first chapter. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written in it; for the time is near” (1:3).

Although I have read this series of letters to churches in Asia Minor from time to time, and paid attention to scholarly writings about it, Revelation has neither terrified nor inspired me. Maybe it ministered helpfully to the people to whom it was written, I have thought, laboring as they were under the terrible powers of the Roman Empire and living in what might be considered an age of superstition, but what can it possibly say to people like me and most Americans living in the early years of the twenty-first century?

But the corona virus is doing something to me, and to most of us. That’s all we hear on the news. Posts on social media are preoccupied with descriptions of how we are trying to live normal lives even though we can’t come and go in normal ways—and with feel-good posts, photos of peaceful places, and recipes for what we cooked yesterday for the first time in years. Virtual togetherness, however, and kisses thrown toward screened images are not enough.

Now, for the first time, many of us may be ready to read Revelation’s succession of strange letters and even stranger visions. As we read, we are likely to be mystified by what the book contains—dragons and beasts, wars and rumors of wars, and plagues bringing death and destruction. What does God have to do with all of this, we ask? We hope that the time is coming “soon and very soon” when life will be good for people here and everywhere. Most of us need someone to help us understand what we are reading.

I Will Tell You the Mystery, published in 2019, promises to be the guide that can take readers through the revelation that came to John who was “in the spirit on the Lord’s day.” Its author is my colleague and friend, Ronald J. Allen, Professor of Preaching and Gospels and Letters, Emeritus, at Christian Theological Seminary. In the subtitle he describes the book as “A Commentary for Preaching,“ but for people like most of us who are sitting in the pews rather than preaching from the pulpit, this book can serve as a guide for traveling through a spiritual landscape in which we can easily lose our way.

In the preface Ron writes that the book of Revelation can help preachers (other readers, too) “identify phenomena that are similar to the idolatrous, unjust, exploitative, violent, and self-destroying qualities of the Roman Empire.” Even more, he continues, people in our time can be helped to “discern the presence and coming of a new heaven and a new earth with its love, peace, justice, mutuality and abundance.” And for us, a world in which the pandemics of war and pestilence disappear.

In this column, I have introduced this book. In columns still to come, I plan to summarize some of the leading ideas that the book presents. I Will Tell You the Mystery can be ordered online at this address:

The Water Will Come

March 31, 2020


In 2012, soon after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City, journalist and author Jeff Goodell visited the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The neighborhood smelled of mold and rot, but people were putting their lives back together. Although he had been writing about climate change for a decade, this experience “made it visceral” for him in a way that TV images, interviews with scientists, and his previous studies had not been able to do.

The direct result of this experience was writing The Water Will Come in order “to tell a true story about the future we are creating for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. It begins with this: the climate is warming, the world’s great ice sheets are melting, and the water is rising. . . . Sea level rise is one of the central facts of our time, as real as gravity. It will reshape our world in ways most of us can only dimly imagine” (p. 8).

One of the strengths of this book is that it tells stories that are both intellectually persuasive and viscerally powerful. Goodell travels to the places that he discusses, talks with people who live there (either as their home or for extended periods of time), and writes in a way that takes readers of the book along with him. We visit obvious locations in the United States with Miami and environs, New York City, and New Orleans as primary examples. Among the most perilous locations in the United States are military installations and at least one nuclear power plant.

We go to European locations, especially the Netherlands and Venice, where people, in contrasting ways, have lived creatively with ocean waters for generations, but which now are facing even more challenging problems. Along the way we visit Lagos, Nigeria, and other African locations that are trying to maintain urban societies in locations vulnerable to rising seas.

We travel to Greenland and Alaska (with President Obama in Air Force One) and in the process experience the dramatic melting and breaking up of the gigantic ice shields that have long stored vast quantities of the earth’s fresh water. Perhaps the most tragic of the places that Goodell helps us visit are the island states, including the Marshall Islands and the Maldives, which rising ocean waters are making uninhabitable by even a few people, let along ancient civilizations.

He describes the tragic injustice resulting from the way of life in wealthy nations, such as Europe and the United States, which causes the waters to rise and destroy little places that have contributed virtually nothing to climate change. As we travel along, Goodell fills in stories drawn from ancient cultural memories, such as Noah’s flood, and reports geological studies that recount the earth’s history of changing water levels.

During these travels we listen in on conversations between Goodell and experts who are in charge of technological developments designed to keep cities like Miami and Venice and countries like the Netherlands safe from the rising waters. In connection with one of these projects, which had not yet become operable, he writes that “these gates were designed to do nothing less than hold back the sea, one of the primal forces of nature. That humans could even contemplate building such a tool was evidence either of the power of technological innovation or of the folly of human hubris—or both” (p. 131).

Hubris—excessive pride or self-confidence—is the right word to describe the attitude of one public official who spoke to a crowd that was celebrating Miami Beach’s 100th anniversary. Responding to a critic who doubted that the city would be able to stage a 200th anniversary party, he affirmed that innovative solutions would come about “that we cannot even imagine today.” Goodell’s response is that “the future will not take care of itself. It will be shaped by decisions we made yesterday and will make tomorrow. . . . Smart cities will develop master plans, articulate long-term strategic visions, revise zoning ordinances, pass tax incentives to shift to higher ground. But that’s just a start” (p. 269).

The hardest decision, but also the one that Goodell affirms, is to retreat. One reason it is so hard even to consider is that we have spent energy and money to stay where we are and thus it is difficult “to just fold up our tents and move to higher ground.” Retreat, he continues, is the opposite of geoengineering.” Instead of relying on scientists to solve our problems, we have to take individual actions based on the willingness to change how we live. “Most of all, it means giving up the war with water and admitting that nature has won” (270).

As is true for most Americans, I live far from rising seas, so I don’t face the need for immediate retreat. My challenge is, perhaps, more subtle. I am one of countless millions whose way of life leads directly to climate change. Only as people like me change the way we live will there ever be the possibility of saving the civilized world as we know it.

(The Water Will Come is published by Brown, Little, 2017. Other books by Goodell include Big Coal and How to Cool the Planet.)