Saving the Planet: a short list of books with a hopeful point of view

January 30, 2018

It may be that people talk about the environment and climate change even more than about politics. Newspapers and electronic media run feature articles with vivid photography, and new titles show up on book lists, it seems, every day. Which should we read? How can we develop a point of view and course of action that make sense and offer hope? In connection with a seminar on this topic at my church, I developed a short reading list. These books are keyed to what I, along with many others, believe to be one of the most persuasive publications on this subject in recent years, which is the book that tops the list below. The books that follow are happily consistent with the “integral ecology” that is key to Pope Francis’ book.

On Care for Our Common Home: Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality by Pope Francis (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015). Pope Francis describes the crisis now facing creation and outlines a biblical doctrine of creation to point to a new future. He says that wisdom from many sources is needed and he describes the future we should develop as an “integral ecology,” a world in which both people (especially the poor) and the natural world prosper.


Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet, by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017). An “unrepentant capitalist” and the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club write paired essays on seven topics and a unified conclusion in which they state their belief that a better future can be achieved as people everywhere, and especially in cities, take doable action now.


Stitching the West Back Together: Conservation of Working Landscapes, edited by Susan Charnley, Thomas E. Sheridan, and Gary Nabham (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014). It includes essays by ranchers, environmentalists, and government officials in the southwest who discuss “community-based collaborative conservation” that protects land and waterways from abuse while making it possible for people to live in these regions and prosper.


Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, by Steven Solomon (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). The availability, utilization, and control of water has from ancient times until now been one of the most important factors in human life, both of individuals and the larger communities in which they live. Solomon presents a detailed history of this history and of the current state of affairs. He believes that the societies that find the most innovative responses to the crises related to water now facing the world will most likely come out as winners, while the others will fall behind.

Green LivingGreen Living: The E Magazine Handbook for Living Lightly on the Earth, by the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine (New York: Plume, 2005). The book consists of thirteen chapters on topics ranging from “smart food choices, natural-fiber clothing, socially responsible investing, the healthy home, planet-friendly cars, using transit and bikes, and the rewards of reuse and recycling. Each chapter is arranged in short discussions of basic ideas, practical suggestions, and further reading. The book focuses on what people can do rather than on what they should do.

Caring for Creation: Spiritual Wisdom that Can Save the Planet

January 24, 2018

A recent book I can’t set aside is Pope Francis’ on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home, which was published in 2015. In this book, one of the world’s most respected spiritual leaders describes the environmental crisis that threaten people everywhere, explains ways in which human activity contributes to changes in the environment, and casts a vision of the transformed world that people like us can help to create. He declares that many kinds of wisdom are needed, but as a representative of a biblically-based Christian faith community, he offers his guidance from that perspective. His ideas can be summarized under five headings.

God’s design for creation: God’s love has brought creation into existence and every creature is enfolded by God’s love. God has given a special responsibility to humankind, to care for creation. We are to respect its laws and the “delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world (¶ 68). “A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our powers” (¶ 78).

The human response: Human beings misunderstand our original assignment to care for the world and its creatures so that each part lives in ways that are consistent with God’s design. Instead, we act as though we are in control, with the right to dominate all things for our own good. Pope Francis talks about the cult of unlimited human power and the “technocratic paradigm.” We master natural processes and do with them as we will.

The results: Some of the results of our technological prowess are good and lead to better lives the world over. Even so, our manipulation of nature also gives us power which often we do not use well. The exercise of this power can lead to suffering, destruction, and death. “When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay” (¶ 122).

Vision for the future: Pope Francis uses the term “integral ecology” to describe his vision of the world we can help to create. “Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop.” Since all aspects of life are interrelated, he continues, the term “integral ecology” describes the world we hope to live in. The Pope discusses environmental, economic, and social ecology; cultural ecology; and the ecology of daily life. He affirms the importance of “the principle of the common good,” and the fact that this principle extends to future generations. If we face these issues courageously, we will be led to a deeper understanding of our purpose in the world and be able to live with greater dignity (¶ 160).

The response by people of faith: One of the strengths of the Pope’s encyclical in his emphasis upon the need for insights from all sources of wisdom: religious, scientific, philosophical, economic, political, artistic, and all the others. He also urges dialogue at all levels—individual, local, national, and international. As is appropriate for a leader of the Christian faith, he concludes his book by discussing “ecological education and spirituality.” He writes that “we have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends,” and encourages people to develop simpler life styles. Doing so, he continues, could have a positive effect upon businesses and lead then to give more consideration to the environmental impact of how they do business. In our faith communities we need to provide education and encouragement to help people live in simpler, gentler, and more peaceful ways.

The Pope concludes the encyclical by reaffirming the value of Christian sacraments in leading to a way of life that is right for us and for the world. He discusses baptism and the live-giving qualities of water; eucharist (the communion service) and the way that food and drink connect us to God and one another; and the Sabbath (weekly day of rest and gladness) that helps us live a slower and more fulfilling life.

Other people also are publishing books that provide solid information and persuasive recommendations for how people in developed countries can live their way into a new future. A later column in this series will give a short list of those that I find especially helpful. The encyclical is published online by the Vatican and also is available in several trade editions from book dealers.

The Americanization of Christian Worship

January 16, 2018

Much of my working time is focused on two book  length manuscripts, both of which are related to my part of the church family, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.) In his 1989 book, Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition, United Methodist church historian James F. White places my church in a chapter that he entitles “Frontier Worship.”

He devotes eight chapters to patterns based on earlier traditions, including Roman Catholic, major protestant, separatist and Puritan, Quaker, and Methodist. He then turns to what he terms the “most prevalent worship tradition in American Protestantism (and maybe American Christianity),” noting that it “lacks any recognized name.”

While “Frontier-revival tradition” would be more complete, he decides that this term is too cumbersome and abridges it to “Frontier religion.” As the prominent representatives of this tradition, he names Southern Baptist, Disciples of Christ, and Churches of Christ.”

The “essential discovery” of these churches, he writes, was “a form of worship for the unchurched. . .Although several traditions practiced evangelistic preaching outside the church, none of them developed a whole system of worship that led to baptism rather than leading from it.“ While worship in the other churches was “still operating within a world of Christendom when it reached the American frontier,” churches of this new tradition “acquired their distinctive characteristics on the American frontier” (171).

The practical problem was ministering to the scattered population in the newly occupied middle-western territories.  Church leaders found that evangelizing the unchurched was better served by sacramental worship, based on the sacramental seasons within the Presbyterian traditions, than by preaching services. These multi-day, ecumenical events began with preaching and spiritual awakening and led to baptism and the eucharist. The music that developed was easy to sing. “Even obdurate and unrepentant sinners might be worn down by four days of incessant singing, praying, and preaching.” Baptism would be administered and the converts welcomed to the eucharistic table. When they returned to their home communities, they would be received into membership in a congregation there.

Another characteristic of the Frontier tradition was the use of the Bible as the source of teachings about the shape  of church organization and practices of worship. New Testament worship was most clearly seen in the Disciples of Christ movement where conducting the communion service every Sunday became standard practice. Because of the influence of Sidney Rigdon, an early Disciples leader who later became a Mormon, that new church also adopted a variant of the Lord’s Supper as part of its regular weekly meetings. The frontier churches also established the practice of adult conversion and baptism by immersion.

“Sacramental piety,” White continues, “was largely shaped by the rationalism of the Enlightenment [which was] the only available option. They did not go out of their way to refute the traditional approach found in Calvin or Wesley; they simply no longer lived in a sacral universe” (181). The pastoral prayer as a regular part of the Sunday service and the use of evangelistic music also emerged in the Frontier tradition churches. The traditional Christian year was given little attention and instead a pragmatic year with new events such as Mother’s Day, Rally Day, and Homecoming became normal practice. White also notes that these churches have largely resisted post-Vatican II reforms in worship.

White describes the later manifestations of worship designed for the unchurched in revivalism and the development of variant groups such as Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists. Radio and television preachers and their churches represent this continuing strain. White does not, however, note that the Disciples of Christ has in later years identified more fully with other ecumenical protestant churches, such as Presbyterian and United Church of Christ, rather than continuing forward with variants that embrace conservative theology and other characteristics of the twentieth-century evangelical movement. Disciples combine distinctive Frontier features, such as the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper and prominent lay leadership. I think of Disciples as being “low-church Episcopalians” rather than “high-church Baptists.”

We live in a time when a new cultural frontier is opening upon us. The Christendom that was still dominant in the early 1800s has essentially disappeared in American life. Instead, we inhabit a post-Christian frontier, in which former mores and prejudices are disappearing. New generations of unchurched, individualized, unconventionally defined ways of life are coming into being. If there is a religious modality common among younger generations, it could be described, Kenneth L. Woodward writes in Getting Religion, as “moralistic, therapeutic deism” or “religion with a shrug.” It’s time for churches, like my own, that emerged to serve the frontier 200 years ago, to remake themselves to serve the new frontier in which we now live.

Protestant Worship was published in 1989 by Westminster/John Knox Press; Getting Religion was published in 2016 by Convergent.



The American Church That Might Have Been

January 2, 2018

The American Church That Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union. By Keith Watkins with Foreword by Michael Kinnamon (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014). I am grateful to the editors of the newsletter published by the Association of Reformed & Liturgical Worship for publishing a new review of my book recounting the forty-year history of a serious attempt to reunite Protestant churches in the United States. This review appeared in the AR&LW Newsletter, Fall 2017 and is reprinted with permission.

In December 1960, shortly after John F. Kennedy was elected as the first Roman Catholic President of the United States, an event that brought to an end the Protestant political hegemony (at least at the Presidential level), Mainline Protestantism remained a powerful force in American life. In an age when Mainline Protestantism and the ecumenical movement has moved into the shadows of our culture, it might be difficult to imagine the power and prestige of that these denominations had in their grasp as a new decade began, but such was the case when the leader of the United Presbyterian Church and an Episcopal bishop announced their dream of a truly united church. The dream was for Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, and the United Church of Christ to unite as one church. For a moment in time, it seemed as if such a united church could emerge here in the United States.

This ecumenical moment took place on December 4, 1960, when the Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church, Eugene Carson Blake, at the invitation of Episcopal Bishop James Pike, preached a sermon at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. In this sermon Blake laid out a vision of Christian unity that caught the imagination of the nation. Blake and Pike believed that the time was ripe for birthing a Protestant church that could stand tall and influence the nation and the world. There were, after all, models like the Church of South India, already in existence. In the minds of these founding figures, this new church would be catholic, reformed, and evangelical. Eventually nine denominations would join in this venture, and among them would be three African American Methodist denominations.

The story of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) is an important one, but it is in danger of being forgotten. I occasionally hear younger clergy call for the unification of Mainline Protestantism, along much the same lines as COCU, yet they show little knowledge of this movement for unity. As time passes and the memory of this effort fades, the story needs to be told. Keith Watkins, Professor Emeritus of Worship at Christian Theological Seminary, has taken on that mission, producing an in-depth history of the COCU.

This book should be of special interest to members and friends of AR&LW, for while COCU failed to create the church envisioned by Blake and Pike, the work done by the consultation had significant impact on the worship and liturgy of these churches. These included the Revised Common Lectionary and agreements on baptism and church membership.

As for COCU, while the vision was articulated in 1960, it was not until 1962 that the consultation finally got underway. It would continue in existence until 2002, when COCU evolved into Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC). During the forty years of COCU, representatives of participating churches gathered on a regular basis, including nearly annual plenary sessions. Those involved in this work explored points of agreement and disagreement on matters theological, liturgical, and structural.

Interestingly, the consultation came to agreement on a basic theological foundation early on, agreeing to ground their work in Scripture and the witness of the creeds. They found agreement on baptism, allowing for both infant and believer’s baptism. There would be freedom in terms of form and understanding of baptism, though the participating denominations were to refrain from requiring rebaptism for those moving from one denomination to another. It took much longer to come to agreements on the Eucharist. Significantly, the participating churches could never agree on what constituted the ministry of the church. Episcopalians held tightly to the belief that the Episcopacy was not simply an administrative entity, but a sacred entity. At the other end, non-episcopal churches were not willing to accede to the requirement of being reordained by bishops in apostolic succession.

While early on it appeared that the merging of the churches would be accomplished by the end of the 1960s, by the end of the decade interest in actual union began to wane. Churches found themselves giving their attention to issues other than the ones that were the focus of the consultation, including the early signs of decline in membership and attendance. Despite the many distractions, the participating churches continued to forge ahead, hoping that the Plan of Union that was agreed upon in 1970 would receive support from the churches. That support, however, would never be forthcoming. With waning support for union, the churches began to look for ways to come together without moving toward full merger. By the 1980s the churches began speaking in terms of covenanting to live as one church, while keeping their separate identities intact. The hope was that memberships and ministries could be reconciled, even if churches continued to worship separately.

One of the most significant components of this work, which Watkins highlights, is the contribution made by the three historically black churches that were involved in the consultation. They brought in a dimension to the conversation that had rarely been considered in ecumenical conversations—and that was the issue of race in America’s churches. It needs to be remembered that the original four original denominations, while differing in their polity and at points in their theology, were rather culturally homogeneous. The addition of the Disciples and United Evangelical Brethren didn’t change that very much. The injection of race into the conversation also made the work of the Consultation more complex. The churches involved in the conversation were required to deal with the reality of racial injustice embedded in church structures. It also had to make sure that “the new church order its life so that people of color would be able to maintain the dignity and freedom of action that they had enjoyed in their separated churches” (p. 188). In other words, the price of union for churches of color could not be willingness to be assimilated into a church defined by white values and experiences.

Despite the failure to fulfill the original vision, the COCU served to push Protestant denominations to consider ways to express Christian unity visibly and recognize each other’s ministries and sacraments as valid. It also lifted up the issue of race and the possibility of moving toward reconciliation. We may have a long way to go on all these issues, but we benefit today from these efforts, especially the contributions made to conversations about liturgy, preaching, and the sacraments.

This is an important book written with great care and passion by one who not only studied the movement, but participated in it. Watkins served on the Commission on Liturgy for many years, and brings that experience into the conversation. Therefore, this is both history and memoir, even if the more personal aspects are sublimated into the broader story. It is scholarly, but very accessible for readers willing to engage in the conversation. While AR&LW might be Reformed in its orientation, there is considerable overlap between it and the vision espoused by COCU. It might be the story of an American church that might have been, there is much to learn from the efforts undertaken by COCU that can inform our current conversations as we forge ahead in an increasingly complex and diverse nation, one that looks very different from the one that existed in 1960, when Blake and Pike shared their vision. Having a thoughtful guide is mandatory, and Watkins is just that needed guide.