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Book Selections:
Honest Christianity

If someone who had never heard of Christians or Christianity were to emerge into America at the end of the Twentieth Century, would she be able to tell the difference between the Republicans, the Democrats, and the Christians?  between the Christians and the Rotary Club?  the Christians and the country club?  Or, would the Christians be just another political party, civic group, or social club?  Sadly, I think this is a serious question, especially the part about the difference between the Christians and the political parties.

Christians, by definition, practice, faith, and claim, are followers of the teachings of Jesus Christ.  And, Christians believe certain things about this 1 B.C. Jewish rabbi:  we believe in his divinity,  the virgin birth, the preachings and precepts, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.  But most importantly -- and my own prejudices are showing now -- we believe most strongly that the gospel of Jesus is an action gospel, a loving gospel, and an inclusive gospel.

Jesus took his preaching and healing and his example to the poor, the outcast, the minority, the stranger, and the powerless.  He preached the love, peace, mercy, and humility of Judaism.  These teaching were in opposition to the legalistic religion of the rich and powerful and they killed him because of his challenge to them.

Today, the same division exists.  The Christians with the 800 numbers and the television stations are the legalistic Christians.  Jack Van Impe manipulates numbers, compares today's headlines, the Julian calendar, and the books of Daniel and the Revelation to predict the second coming.  Pat Robertson proclaims:
 

Christianity is not about predicting the second coming, it's not about controlling the public schools or coded prophecies in the old Hebrew texts.  Christianity is about loving the least of these, all of whom are our brothers, right where they are, just the way they are.  It's about going to the same people Jesus went to -- the outcast, the old, the feeble, the sick, the poor.  Did you ever notice that nowhere in the Bible are the poor ever held responsible for their condition?  Instead, when we read of the poor in the Bible, they are described as being the victims of injustice and unrighteousness, not the victims of laziness. ( Tell that to your local aristocrat whenever he declares that "The Lord helps those who help themselves."  Exactly where in the SCriptures is that found?  I'll save you the time -- it's not.  Someone else made that up.)

I have listed here four of my favorite books that attest to the deep springs of peace, humility, love, inclusiveness, and joy that are in Christianity.   Click on the title to read the little bit I have to say about each book.  
bullet Living Faith.  By Jimmy Carter.
 
bullet The Good Book:  Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart.  By Peter J. Gomes, Preacher to Harvard University.
 
bullet The Jesus I Never Knew.  By Philip Yancey.
 
bullet Stealing Jesus:  How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity.  By Bruce Bawer.

Living Faith.  By Jimmy Carter

When he was President, Mr. Carter attended a Baptist church near the White House where he often taught Sunday School.  Now, to understand the significance of this, you need to understand the importance of the Sunday School teacher in the Southern Baptist tradition.  Simply put, the Sunday School teacher is an important individual.  Even now, at age 53, I still recall details of the Sunday School lessons from the Centreville Baptist Church in Centreville, Mississippi (Find it on a map!!)  While one would expect a child's Sunday School teacher to be important, the adult teacher is just as important to the adult church-goer in the South.  The Sunday School teacher is something of an unordained pastor, a lay counselor, a good friend, a confidant, and a respected member of the community, especially in the small towns of Plains, GA, and Centreville, MS.  so, when Jimmy Carter taught Sunday School in Washington, DC, or back home in Plains, he was attesting to the depth of his faith as he shared it with others.

The theme of this book is how Carter's close relationship with his God sustained him through personal, professional, and international tests of will and strength.   This book is not an attempt by Carter to convert anyone.  In fact, his words from the back cover attest to the inclusive nature of Jimmy Carter's Living Faith:
 
"This is a book about the values and experiences that have shaped my life, and how the religious beliefs I inherited have been transformed into a living faith.  I have waited a long time to write these words, because religion is a private matter -- and my own faith has been the subject of much public speculation.  Yet I that that my close relationship with God is something I share with many Americans of different traditions."

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Living Faith, by Jimmy Carter.

The Good Book:  Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart.  By Peter J. Gomes, Preacher to Harvard University.

In early 1997 (or was it ate 1996?) a book was published that shot up the best-seller list.  The Author made  the usual talk show rounds.  The book was without merit and it went a long way toward supporting the case of folks who claim that Christianity and Christians are a little out on the wacky edge.  In case you want to waste some money and time, read The Bible Code, by Michael Drosnin.  Briefly, the author goes back to the "original" Hebrew text of the Old Testament where he claims that he finds all sorts of predictions about things that have happened throughout history.

A review on Amazon.com describes The Bible Code thusly:  "Drosnin claims that, as God dictated the first five books of the Old Testament, He enclosed prophecies in a skip code--that is, every fifth letter in a sentence forms a word. The trouble is, the Code is so divinely complex, you need a computer to find it. Now that we have those, and author Michael Drosnin, you too can read God's secret messages in The Bible Code. Drosnin was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who turned into the Jeanne Dixon of the Middle East after "predicting" Rabin's assassination a year before it happened. Since then, with the help of mathematicians, he's been finding the bleak Future all over the Torah: an earthquake in L.A. (2010), a meteor hitting the Earth (2006, 2010, 2012, or all of these), and, of course, nuclear Armageddon (2000 or 2006). But don't write 2006 off yet, because the book says that the Code doesn't predict the Future, it merely reveals one possible future. Hmm. The Bible Code is this generation's The Late, Great Planet Earth. For those in the market, it delivers."

I do not recall if there were any coded Biblical passages about Area 51 and the alien autopsy, but he came close.

Friends, the Bible is not a magical book of sorcery and predictions.  It is a compendium of joy, faith, love, guidance, comfort, and strength.

About the same time that The Bible Code was published, the book that I recommend -- The Good Book -- appeared, although to much less fanfare.  It never showed up on any best-seller lists and the author made only one appearance, on Sixty Minutes, where he talked about his faith and his position as Preacher to Harvard University; he did not thump his book.

Reverend Gomes has divided his book into three sections.  In the first section "Opening the Bible," he provides a quick course in Bible history and interpretation.  The second section is titled "The Use and Abuse of the Bible."  Here Gomes looks at the hard passages of the Bible.  What does the Bible really say about race, homosexuality, and women?  The last, and longest section, "The True and Lively Word," Gomes helps us understand what the Bible has to day to us today.

The Bible of Gomes' book is not the legalistic text of Pat Robertson's 700 Club nor is it the homosexual-bashing, keep-the-women-in-their-place rule book of the "Christian Right."  If more folks read and heeded Gomes' Bible, what a grand place this old world would be.

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Click on the title to go to Amazon.com and see more about:
The Good Book:  Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart.
By Peter J. Gomes.

The Jesus I Never Knew.  By Philip Yancey.
Philip Yancey grew up with the Jesus that most of us remember:  An oil-painting or faded photograph of a long haired, strong faced man looking down from the wall of the Sunday School class, or from our great-grandmother's parlor wall, or from a calendar in Mrs. Hutchinson's dress shop.  Those of us who came of age in the Sixties remember struggling with Jesus as a revolutionary.  The gentle man of the Sunday School class, the little Babe in a manger, had grown up to be a rabble-rouser.  He challenged the legalistic religious leaders and the power structure of his day, much as the "radicals" of the Sixties did in their time.  Was this confusing?  And, who is Jesus anyway?

Yancey explores Jesus' persona and divinity in depth.  He concludes that Jesus is a friend to sinners, a "God-Man," a portrait of God, a portrait of humanity, a lover, and a wounded healer.  Enroute to these conclusions, Yancey uncovers truths about Jesus that will keep you coming back to this book.

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Click on the title to go to Amazon.com and see more about:
The Jesus I Never Knew.  By Philip Yancey.

Stealing Jesus:  How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity.  By Bruce Bawer.

You can probably guess from the title of this book, and the fact that I have put in on my recommended list, that I am not a fan of the "fundamentalists."  In fact, the labels fixed on these folks do not adequately describe them -- the Religious Right is neither, the Christian Right does not know what it is, and the fundamentalists are based on some shaky fundamentals.  The theology pressed by today's "fundamentalists" is closer to the legalistic religion of the New Testament Pharisees than it does to the teachings of Jesus.

The true fundamentals of Christian faith have to do with love, mercy, humility, and service.  True Christianity breaks down barriers of race, sex, age, income, hate, and prejudice.  The "fundamentalists" who rail at us from their TV shows, who distribute their voters' guides, who ban books from school libraries, and who insist that the removal of prayer from the schools causes teenage pregnancy have nothing to do with the fundamentals of Christian faith and belief.

Bawer examines, as his subtitle says:  "How fundamentalism betrays Christianity."  His examination illustrates how, in the words of Paul Tillich, "...those who surrender their intellectual autonomy to Ecclesiastical or Biblical authorities" are actually turning to religion as "an expression of their despair, not a victory over it."  The "fundamentalists" who have stolen Jesus, then, are but demagogues playing on the fears and uncertainties of people caught up in the rapid change of the end of the 20th Century.  Instead of offering these searchers the comfort and guidance of Jesus, the "fundamentalists" force troubled people -- and we are all troubled -- to accept rigid rules, not the love, peace,  and freedom that comes from honest Christianity.
 

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Click on the title to go to Amazon.com and see more about:
Stealing Jesus:  How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity.
By Bruce Bawer.


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