Sermons about God in a University Church

June 5, 2018

Late in the evening of June 5, 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California presidential primary. He died the next day. Two months earlier he had consoled a mostly black assemblage in Indianapolis who were just hearing of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., earlier that evening. These murders were but two of the events during one of the most tragic years in modern American history.

They climaxed the academic year that my family and I spent in Seattle while I served as visiting minister-theologian at University Christian Church. Living and working in the vibrant, complex, controversial, and liberal university community was a life-shaping experience for me and my family. We went back to our ordinary lives in Indianapolis significantly changed.

As I remember that brief period of life half a century later, I realize that one of the most important aspects for me was learning how to present the Christian gospel to the increasingly skeptical, irreligious, anti-war, pro-personal-freedom constituencies who seemed to dominate the U-District where I spent most of my working hours during that academic year.

So, who is Jesus? And God…how can we talk seriously about a fatherly divine being in heaven above when the world that he supposedly created and cares for is in such a mess? What does the church, with its quaint ideas and fussy ceremonies, have to do with anything, anyway?

These issues consumed the mind, heart, and work of Robert A. Thomas, senior minister of the church, and in his sermons week after week he dealt seriously with the contemporary challenges to Christian faith and proclaimed its relevance to a world that seemed to be falling apart. I had never heard preaching like this before. Bob wrote his sermons in serious, declarative prose, long sentences, complete with dependent clauses. He frequently included quotations from the Bible, modern scholars, and current news sources. Dressed in his black academic gown with wide sleeves, he read the sermons word for word, standing tall in the high pulpit, full voice and animated style, his arms flailing the air.

His liberal theology had been formed during his studies in the divinity school at the University of Chicago, one of the nation’s most prestigious and influential seminaries. He believed that science, history, and the Christian faith could live together and unite in solving the social and personal crises of human life and society. Week after week, I could scarcely contain my sense of excitement as sermon time drew near.

Midway through the fall season, Bob invited three younger clergy related to the congregation to join him in planning and preaching a series of dialogue sermons during the Advent Season that would begin a few weeks later. He proposed that we choose a theme that was rooted in the Christmas story and relevant to the tempestuous world in which we lived. He invited the religion editor of one of the Seattle newspapers to join us for one or two of the planning sessions.

We agreed that Bob would begin the series on November 26, the Sunday between Thanksgiving and the beginning of Advent. He would explain the series, announce the theme, and spend most of the sermon describing the central challenge of our time that we believed the Christian gospel could overcome. During each of the next three weeks, Bob and one of the younger clergy would describe one aspect of our human condition and point toward the Christ-centered response that the Christmas story offers. On the last Sunday of Advent, which that year was on December 24, Christmas Eve, Bob would proclaim the miracle of new life that Jesus brings to the world.

The process was exhilarating for the four of us and well-received by the congregation, enough so that early in the new year, we decided to do it again on the Sundays in Lent, beginning March 3, 1968, and reaching their climax on Easter Sunday, April 14. We gave a general title to the two sets of sermons: Dialogues on the Incarnation. The Advent series we entitled Born to Set the People Free, and the Lenten series, The Tragic Vision.

Walter Hansen, the church’s business manager, typed the scripts for us each Sunday, and my carbon-copy set has been tucked away in my files all these years. As part of this year’s remembrance of that tragic year in American life, I have transcribed these sermons—all 30,000 words—and plan to spend the summer, which will include a two-week period visiting family members who live in Seattle, studying them and reflecting upon the form and character of this experiment in preaching. I look forward to conversations with the two colleagues from long ago who have maintained connections with University Christian Church all these years.

When the time seems right, I hope to write columns that highlight leading ideas in these two sets of sermons and then offer my comments, half a century later, on these sermons about God preached in a university church.


A Civilization Built on Slavery

May 18, 2018

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, and the eastern-most sections of the country across the mountains in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. The civilization discussed in the book was essentially English-speaking, Christian, Protestant (with strong rivalries between Puritan and Anglican colonies), and white. The academies included virtually all within this territory that were founded prior to the beginning of the Civil War: among them the most prestigious, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; some that became state universities, including University of Virginia and University of North Carolina; and smaller colleges such as Amherst, Dartmouth, Washington and Lee, and Transylvania.

Wiley mentions Hanover, a church college in Indiana close to the Ohio River, noting that its president was a slaveholder and that in 1836, when an antislavery association had begun meeting on campus, the trustees declared that it was “incompatible with the culture of the school [and] opposed by ‘at least nine-tenths of the students associated with the institution’” (p. 268).  The enslaved people whom Wiley discusses were primarily persons of African descent, but he gives some attention to the place of Native Americans in his historical account. He also shows that until late in the 1700s owning and working slaves was commonplace among northern and middle Atlantic academics and clergy (including John Cotton, Increase and Cotton Mather, Ezra Styles, Jonathan Edwards, and John Witherspoon).  Read more Ebony & Ivy


Home-Front Letters during the Civil War

April 17, 2018

Responding to Affectionately Yours: The Civil War Home-Front Letters of the Ovid Butler Family, edited by Barbara Butler Davis, with a Foreword by Alan T. Nolan (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2004)

Ovid Butler (1801–1881) was a successful attorney in Shelbyville, Indiana, when, in 1836 he moved to the fledgling city of Indianapolis to form a law partnership with Calvin Fletcher. His legal practice prospered, and Butler soon became a prominent community leader as the city developed. He was an active church leader, committed to the Disciples of Christ movement that was being shaped by the theological and social ideas of Alexander Campbell in Bethany, [West] Virginia.

As soon as Butler came to Indianapolis, he became a member of the Central Christian Church and quickly was elected to be a bishop (elder) of the congregation. Following the death in 1850 of John H. Sanders, a physician and community leader, who had been president of the church’s board of officers for many years, Butler was elected his successor and served in that capacity until his death in 1881.

Because of declining health, Butler retired from his legal partnership in 1847 but he continued his active role in public life and church leadership. He was deeply committed to overcoming slavery, which he referred to as “the great national sin” (Davis, 42), and became one of Indiana’s most vigorous proponents of the nation’s struggle to create a new social pattern. In a letter dated January 22, 1865, to his son Scott, who was a volunteer in the Union Army, Butler commented on the appearance that the rebellion would soon be over.

“But there is a Power higher and more potential than the power of the Social Good or of the President or of both combined. Who holds in His own Hand the issues of this conflict and He will dispose of them for the accomplishment of His own purpose. The whole history of the war so far shows that God is in it—controlling its events and that His purpose is not or at least has not hitherto been the purpose of either the North or of the South. But it is written in letters of blood upon the unrolling canvas of the conflict and whenever the Nation shall be willing to accept peace upon His terms—it will come and will be abiding. As I read His purpose those terms are the utter abolition of Slavery—the putting away of that sin—the blotting out that stain. Then—in the language of inspiration shall “our peace be as a river” and a future will open before us—more brilliant and more glorious than any Nation as yet enjoyed” (Davis, 141).

Butler was committed to establishing a college that would educate leaders for the new society that was emerging in the new states of the former Northwest Territory. With other Disciples leaders from Indiana, he developed plans for this new academic institution and they created North Western Christian University. Butler “wrote the charter, shepherded the bill through the legislature, and procured the necessary financial backing” (Davis, 4). They had to break with Alexander Campbell who had already established a college for Disciples, Bethany College in the village where he lived.

A major factor in the dispute was that Campbell, while not endorsing slavery, was willing to accommodate himself and his church to this social and cultural practice. “Breaking with Campbell, [Butler] and other members of the charter committee succeeded in seeing North Western Christian University become the first private, nonsectarian Christian college in the country to allow men and women, regardless of race, to pursue the same degree in the same four-year study of the classics” (Davis, 4). Because of Butler’s continuing importance in the development of this school, the trustees later named it in his honor.

From 1862 through 1865, Scott Butler served as a signalman in the Army of the Cumberland, participating in the battles of Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Franklin, and Nashville. “His Signal Corps unit also marched with Sherman to the sea” (Davis, xi). During this time his family wrote him frequently and sixty-five of these letters survive. Barbara Butler Davis, a great-great-granddaughter of Ovid Butler and Elizabeth Anne McOuat Butler, has transcribed and annotated these letters. She has added eighty pages of additional material about the several families that are intertwined in the Butler lineage. This book provides a window into an important period in American history and culture.

[Personal note: My interest in this book is heightened by my family’s nineteenth-century Indiana heritage. I am a Butler graduate and for many years our family lived near the university’s modern campus, and two of my children are Butler graduates. I currently am a member of Central Christian Church in which Butler worshiped and worked for forty-six years.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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.

 

 


Reading the New Testament Beginning with Paul

December 8, 2017

Since I began writing blogs in April 2017 as keithwatkinshistorian.wordpress.com, I have published 441 columns on American religion, bicycling, and the environment. Month after month the column with the most readers is one I posted on September 6, 2013, with the title “Reading the New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written.”

Borg Evolution

New Testament Books in Historical Context

I described the Bible reading program that Marcus J. Borg had recommended in his recently published book, Evolution of the Word, which was to read the New Testament in the order that the books were written rather than in the order they are arranged in the Bible. This meant starting with seven epistles by Paul before reading any of the gospels or Acts.

New insights and new questions were among the results of this different way of reading a very familiar book. Why does Paul say so little about the life and ministry of Jesus? Much of his theology was a response to specific problems that his intended readers were facing, but we face different problems. How can Paul’s theological insights and pastoral guidance be applied to our situations?

I used the New Revised Standard Version because that and its predecessor have been the translations of choice much of my adult life. Along the way, I also consulted The New Interpreter’s Study Bible and The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, and I occasionally used other commentaries to clarify obscure points.

Along the way, I made notes, and when I finished my reading, nearly two years after starting, my personal commentary totaled 140 manuscript pages and nearly 20,000 words. Although it has not been my intention to publish these notes, a colleague (who has seen the set on Paul but has not read them) has urged me to make them available in a more public and permanent form.

Before showing him these notes, I had begun a second reading of the New Testament in chronological order. I’m still early in the project, having read only two short epistles (1 Thessalonians and Galatians) and half of a long one (1 Corinthians). I am using the Common English Bible (CEB), which is new to me, as my primary text and referring to notes in the CEB Study Bible.

In addition, I am using N. T. Wright’s series of popular commentaries entitled Paul for Everyone. Wright provides his own translation of these texts and it is interesting to compare his effort to translate these texts so that “the words can speak not just to some people, but to everyone” with the hope of the CEB’s translators that their new translation will “speak to people of various religious convictions and different social locations.”

I am reviewing my first set of notes as I read, but I am also creating a second set. From time to time I will consolidate the two sets into one new commentary which will replace the two previously developed sets of notes.

Years ago I read a book in which the author (neither the author’s name nor the book’s title come to mind) proposed that preachers develop a series of sermons each of which proclaims the central message of an entire book of the Bible. I may not write entire sermons, but I intend to select the text and suggest the sermon’s outline for each of the New Testament books as I make my second trip through the New Testament in the order that the books were written.

How long will this process take? Just reading and making notes is moving more slowly than the first time through. Consolidating the two sets of notes and developing sermonic possibilities will increase the time even more. Early this Advent season, my working plan is to finish this second reading of Paul’s epistles by Easter and the revised commentary with sermonic notes by Pentecost.


Wondering Around God

September 21, 2017

Two questions arise for most self-reflecting people. How did I come to be the person I now am? Have I become my real self yet? Elva Anson’s memoir, Wondering Around God (Fair Oaks, California: Emidra Publishing, 2017), is a thoughtful and candid exploration of her eighty-five years of life in which she seeks to answer these questions.

She describes her childhood and coming of age in small communities in the South San Joaquin Valley near Fresno, California. Because her father was pastor of Assembly of God churches, much of the detail in her life was shaped by religious ideas and practices—intense religious experience and the sense of the immediacy of God and Jesus; conservative, Bible-based doctrinal system; and strict rules about behavior, including a social pattern in which the father is head of the household and very much in control.

Despite a deep love for her family, Anson struggled with this system. She was fully engaged in church and public school activities, often in leadership positions, and sometimes experiencing conflict between competing systems. When she was invited to play cymbals in the school marching band, her father would not consent because his understanding of the Bible would not allow her to wear pants.

This challenge was resolved at one level when the band director decided that all the girls would wear white skirts while marching. At another level, however, the conflict remained. When she was visiting her grandpa’s farm, she was permitted to wear overalls when cleaning out the fox pens, and in the Bible men wore robes that looked like women’s clothing. How did these facts mesh with the rules her father laid down?

Anson’s struggles became more intense during her late teens as she focused attention on who she wanted to be. She knew that she did not want to be a missionary nor did she want to be a minister’s wife. “All of my wondering made thinking of the future confusing and difficult. “What I knew I didn’t want to be made me reluctant to try to find out what God wanted me to be” (p. 75).  Read more Wondering Around God


Liturgies in a Time When Cities Burn

September 6, 2017

Fifty years ago, in August 1967, my family and I moved temporarily to Seattle. Although the political temperature was heating up all around the country, we could not have imagined the terror that would descend upon the nation during the next few months,  a period that was climaxed by the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, riots and burnings in more than a hundred American cities, and the anti-Vietnam War rage in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.

By design, I spent part of my time that year working as a member of the staff of University Christian Church, presiding at worship, teaching classes, and serving as consultant to church committees. I talked with people and listened to their conversations, trying to sense the mood of congregants in one large metropolitan congregation.

Most of my time, however, was devoted to research and writing. My intention was to read in the fields of anthropology and sociology in order to broaden my understanding of the cultural function of worship and other modes of public ritual. Quickly my attention came into focus on a short list of philosophical writings.

I wanted to understand Ernst Cassirer’s writings on the philosophy of knowledge and Susanne K. Langer’s exposition of the relation of cultural forms to human feeling. These two philosophers drew upon a wide range of scientific data in order to develop their overlapping philosophies of feeling and form. Although neither of them affirmed the Christian gospel, they helped me understand religious faith and liturgical action in ways that have sustained me ever since.

I also took advantage of the year to read more broadly in a wide range of theological and cultural studies, guided in part by articles in Saturday Review which I read faithfully. I jotted down notes and reflections and incorporated some of these ideas into longer essays or presentations that I made in my work at the church and in travels around the country during the year.

During the final weeks of my research leave, I gathered these occasional writings together and edited them into a book that was published in 1969. Its title, Liturgies in a Time When Cities Burn, identifies its central idea. The final paragraph gives a succinct summary of what the book contains.

In this time of violent passage various forms of the racial myth, with their intimations of the miraculous and the mysterious, have arisen to give us hope. The results—injustice, inhumanity, genocide, assassination—reveal the inadequacy of this way out of our deep anxiety.

Impotent, too, is the traditional wisdom enshrined in the liturgies of the church, for Christian worship has been demonized, transmuted from a witness against us to a means of our self-justification.

In order to lead us in creating a new society, in some time yet to come, the Christian liturgy of Word and Sacrament must be revivified, purged of its demonic traits, filled again with the qualities which it is supposed to have.

The table of contents indicates the scope of this relatively short book: Violent Passage; Ritual Becoming High Art; Feeling and Form; Liturgical Style; Guidelines for the Free Tradition; Weekend and Holy Day; How Do We Get There from Here? An Interesting Thought, but Can It Cool the Summer? The book concludes with an appendix of prayers for worship, bibliographic notes, and index.

Despite the fact that this book is grounded in events and research that took place half a century ago, it still seems relevant to church people today. It would be difficult to rewrite the book because it is so intertwined with what I was reading and experiencing in the 1960s. There are places, however, where relatively simple editing could be done that would increase its usefulness for today, and that I may decide to work at this kind of uipdating.

The book is available in a few libraries here and there. Used copies are listed by some book sellers. Let me know what you think about it.

As frontispiece, I used a statement from Philosophical Sketches by Susanne K. Langer. We are living, she wrote in 1964, in a new Middle Ages, “a time of transition from one social order to another. . .We feel ourselves swept along in a violent passage, from a world we cannot salvage to one we cannot see; and most people are afraid.” Half a century later, we seem to be living in that same world.