Sunday, September 27, 2015

Religion Makes a Few Appearances in the 2015 Canadian Election

Unlike in the U.S., where American politicians are expected to talk about their faith, religion hardly comes up in Canadian elections. That’s certainly the case in this election; religion has hardly made an appearance. It has come up at least four noteworthy times, though.

it started with a report about two-year-old tweets from Thomas Mulcair’s senior aide Shawn Dearn. In one tweet, he told Pope Benedict to go “f*** himself” over the issue of gay marriage.

In a second tweet, he said: “Memo to CBC and all media. Stop calling the misogynist, homophobic, child-molesting Catholic church a ‘moral authority’. It’s not.”

Dearn, who is gay, quickly tweeted an apology, saying that "some tweets that pre-dated my current role were offensive and do not reflect my views."

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair defended him. "He felt very bad about it and I'm more than willing to move on from that," he said.

The episode prompted an anonymous tweeter to wonder why someone who urinated in “a customer’s cup”—former Conservative candidate Jerry Bance—was immediately dropped by that party, while someone who urinated “on a whole religion” was given a pass.

Then there was Michael Coren writing in the Toronto Star on September 8 that he will not be voting Conservative “because I am a Christian.”

Coren, best known as a provocative conservative journalist—including a stint on the Sun News Network—gave four reasons for why he won’t vote Conservative: The Party’s positions on the environment, care for the poor and marginalized, the pursuit of peace, and personal integrity.
“There used to be a fashion for Christians to attach ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ stickers to the back of their cars,” he wrote. 
“Not my sort of thing at all, but in that He repeatedly spoke up for the poor, criticized the wealthy, condemned the judgmental, welcomed the stranger and lauded the peacemaker, perhaps we have a few clues to the answer.”

On September 11 CBC Radio’s The Current had a panel discussion about religion and the election. One of the panelists was Darrel Bricker, the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs.

Asked if there was a strong connection between religion and voting, Bricker said that “core values as defined by religion find their way into every single issue . . . we find this in voting.”

He noted that while their surveys find that certain groups will vote certain ways—Evangelical Christians are more likely to vote Conservative,  and Muslims are more likely to vote Liberal—the strongest indicator of whether people vote at all is if they attend worship services regularly.

“When we take a look at who actually turns up and votes, people who have more of a religious background and who are more likely to participate in their churches are more likely to participate in communities and in politics,” he said.

People who dismiss religion and see voting as “more of a secular process are missing a key element,” he added.

As for why we don’t hear more about the role religion plays in voting, Bricker implicated the media.

“We have a pretty secular media, they don’t necessarily bring it up,” he said. “But when you take a look at the indicators of who participates in the political process, voters, religion is a pretty big marker for them.”

Finally, there’s the Syrian refugee crisis.

Stephen Harper has been criticized for not showing enough compassion for those fleeing war and hardship in Syria and other countries.

But Harper knows his base; as an Angus Reid survey found, Canadians who support the Conservative Party are less inclined than Liberal or NDP supporters to agree we should accept more refugees.

But the survey also showed that support for that position in the Conservative Party is not unanimous. The Party’s Christian supporters are at odds with other Conservatives on this issue.

While only 32 per cent of Conservative supporters think Canada should be more welcoming of refugees, 48 per cent of practicing Christians who support the Party—people who Angus Reid defines as those who go to church regularly—think Canada should be more open and accepting.

The same survey showed that 45 per cent of those who consider themselves practicing Christians support the Conservatives, compared to 25 per cent for the NDP and 20 per cent for the Liberals.

There are still a few weeks left in this election; I wonder if religion will make any more significant appearances?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Phyllis Tickle on Emergent Christianity, and Why it Matters

Author, speaker and theologian Phyllis Tickle died today (Sept. 22). She had been diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. It was my privilege to interview her twice, and meet her twice as well. Although we were never close friends, we stayed in contact from 2009 until early August, when she was no longer able to answer e-mail. In one of our last exchanges, we talked about how Tony Campolo had “come out” in favour of gay marriage and accepting gay people into the church. “Tony is a good man, married to a good woman,” she wrote of his decision. “It just may be that she wore him down, but whatever works, works. Let us be grateful.”

Below find my second interview with her, prior to her visit to Winnipeg in 2013.

When she was in Winnipeg in 2009, Phyllis Tickle talked about the Great Emergence, a "monumental" shift in Christianity that is changing the church in Europe and North America.

Based on her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why,  she said it was part of a 500-year cycle that included bringing the church out of the dark ages, the Great Schism between Eastern and Western churches and, most recently, the Protestant Reformation.

These cycles are like giant garage sales, she added, a time when the church takes a look at the stuff it owns and decides to get rid of what it no longer needs.

For some, it's an energizing time of newness and vitality. For others, it's an uncomfortable and disquieting experience as longstanding and cherished doctrines and traditions are deemed unnecessary by a new generation of Christians.

Out of this upheaval is coming "a new gathering of believers that is not based on traditional denominations, creeds or beliefs," she said, noting it's a "mix of Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, the mainline Protestant churches and the liturgical tradition, together with an emphasis on head and heart—not just one or the other—along with the deep commitment to social justice."

Since that time, Tickle has been exploring this "fresh expression" of Christianity, compiling what she's discovered into a new book titled Emergence Christianity: What it is, Where it is Going and Why it Matters. 

And now she's coming back to Winnipeg for one last visit to share what she's found—at the age of 80, she says it's time to slow down and spend time finishing two more books.

I spoke to Tickle last week about what she's found out about Emergence Christianity over the last few years.

First off, she says that it's "changing from a conversation into a movement," although that movement is really just "in the toddler stage."

It's impacting every denomination, she says -- there are "Presbymergents" and "Anglimergents" and many other forms of emerging Christianity.

In terms of their approach to faith, Emergents are more interested in community and conversation, not a set of beliefs and creeds -- for them, how people behave is more important than what they believe.

Emergents are not interested in structures and hierarchies and buildings, she noted. "They're not going to own real estate," she says, adding that they prefer to meet in homes, pubs, community centres and other non-traditional meeting places.

Emergents have also accepted the fact that they live in a post-Christendom world -- a world where being religious confers no special treatment or favours.

"The last thing they want to be is part of a socially acceptable religion," she says.

Tne things she does find interesting is that Emergents are attracted to Anglicanism, preferring its liturgies and its way of living out the faith.

"Of all the traditional denominations, Emergents find the Anglican Church to be the most appealing," she says.

Although she has tried to capture the essence of this new expression of Christianity in the book, Tickle is careful to describe it as an "interim report."

"I'm not sure where it's going," she says. "Nobody knows."

Her book, she says, is a "dispatch from the field, an opportunity for us all to assess where we are, project where we probably are going, and enter prayerfully into this new thing that God is doing."

What she can say for sure about Emergence Christianity is that "it is growing and shifting and reconfiguring itself in such a prodigious way as to still defy any final assessments or absolute pronouncements."

For traditional Christians, all these changes can create anxiety -- including for parents who don't see their kids going to church on Sunday mornings anymore.

"Well, of course they are not there," she said in another interview. "They're down in the pub every Tuesday night, having a beer and doing pub theology. It's just church in a new way. God is doing a new thing again and we're living in it."

Click here to read the first of my two interviews with Phyllis.

Click here  to read the final interview that Phyllis gave after being diagnosed with cancer.

Phyllis Tickle and the Great Emergence

Author, speaker and theologian Phyllis Tickle died today (Sept. 22). She had been diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. It was my privilege to interview her twice, and meet her twice as well. Although we were never close friends, we stayed in contact from 2009 until early August, when she was no longer able to answer e-mail. In one of our last exchanges, we talked about how Tony Campolo had “come out” in favour of gay marriage and accepting gay people into the church. “Tony is a good man, married to a good woman,” she wrote of his decision. “It just may be that she wore him down, but whatever works, works. Let us be grateful.”

Below find my first interview with her, prior to her visit to Winnipeg in 2009.

Declining church membership, the breaking down of denominational loyalty and barriers, the rise of new "emergent" churches that blend ancient rituals, litanies and hymns together with contemporary forms of worship and calls for social action--something is happening out there. But what is it? And why is it happening now?

What's happening is as old as religion itself, says Phyllis Tickle, author of the book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.  In an interview with Free Press columnist John Longhurst, she explored the link between the church's history of change and the new face of the church today .

What is the Great Emergence?

Tickle: The Great Emergence refers to a monumental phenomenon in our world today that affects every part of our lives-religiously, socially, culturally, intellectually, politically and economically. The world is changing rapidly, and in so many ways, that we can hardly keep up with it.

In the religious sphere, many people have observed that these kind of changes seem to happen every 500 years-a period of upheaval followed by a period of settling down, then codification, and then upheaval again because we do not like to be codified.

For Western Christianity, the Protestant, or Great Reformation was about five hundred years ago. Five hundred before that you hit the Great Schism, when the church divided between east and west. Five hundred years earlier you have Pope Gregory the Great, who helped bring the church out of the dark ages.

During these 500-year episodes the church has what Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer calls a giant rummage sale--it takes a look at its old stuff and decides to sell what it no longer needs. We are going through this kind of giant sale today.

What happens to the church during this giant rummage sale?

Tickle: During these times of rearrangement and upheaval, the institutionalized church throws off things that are restricting its growth. When that mighty upheaval happens, history shows that at least three things always happen.

First, a new, more vital form of Christianity emerges. Second, the organized expression of Christianity, which up until then had been the dominant one, is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self. During the Protestant Reformation, both the reformers, and those they are reacting against, ended up being better churches.

Finally, every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity is broken open, the faith has spread dramatically, thereby increasing the range and depth of the church's reach. Following the Protestant Reformation, Christianity was spread over far more of the earth's territories than had ever been true in the past.

Every religion is subject to becoming encrusted and institutionalized over time. It appears to take the Abrahamic faiths—Christianity  Judaism and Islam—about 500 years before people rebel and seek reform. When that happens, new and vigorous expressions of faith break out, breaking the molds that have held them and scattering the pieces.

How is this change evidencing itself in the church today?

Tickle: Evangelicalism has lost much of its credibility and much of its spiritual energy of late, in much the same way that mainline Protestantism has. In their place is a new approach called the Emergent Church. This is a new gathering of believers that is not based on traditional denominations, creeds or beliefs.

It is a mix of Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, the mainline Protestant churches and the liturgical tradition, together with an emphasis on head and heart-not just one or the other-along with the deep commitment to social justice.

This new style of Western Christianity is not hierarchal or based on a certain doctrinal system. It's more about community and conversation, not about a set of beliefs and creeds. They are incarnational, not creedal. They are not interested in structures and hierarchies and buildings.

Does this mean the death of traditional mainline denominations?

Tickle: No! Just as the Protestant Reformation didn't spell the end of the Roman Catholic Church--it emerged stronger and more vibrant--mainline denominations won't disappear. They are losing their dominant position, but they can use this experience to reform themselves and become more relevant in the world.

How is this current upheaval different from what the church has experienced before?

Tickle: For the first time we are doing it in an age of instant media. The Internet makes it very easy to talk to each other across national and denominational boundaries in a way that wasn't possible before. But the Internet isn't causing this change; it is enabling it, just as the printing press assisted the growth and development of the Protestant Reformation.

E-mail, the Web and social media are allowing people to become connected in new ways. They allow this new form of church to be a self-organizing system-it is not dependent on central offices and structures. It's a leveler, it's egalitarian.

What are people looking for during this Great Emergence?

Tickle: People are looking for a new and different encounter with God. The strength of Protestantism was its rationalism; it took religion to the head. But today people want religion that also touches their hearts. It's not anti-intellectual; mind and reason are still very important. But people want more than just an intellectual challenge. They want something that moves them emotionally, as well. It is bringing the heart and the head together.

One characteristic of this emergent view of the church is a return to, and recovery of, liturgy and connectedness to church history. Many Western Christians have acted like the first 1,500 years of the church never happened-they start in the 1500s with Martin Luther and go from there. But there is a rich tradition of church fathers and mothers who lived faithfully and thoughtfully between those two events. The emergent church is going back to that time and finding deep meaning as they use those old prayers and litanies in worship, along with things like the Book of Common Prayer.

How might Christians respond to these changes?

Tickle: We need to respond prayerfully and carefully. This change isn't happening all at once-it will occur over many years. Like previous social, political, economic and religious upheavals, how we should respond is not always clear on a day-to-day basis.

It was the same during the Protestant Reformation, a time filled with reformers, protestors, puritans, pietists and others. We have to remember that it's not as if Protestantism came forth in one perfect or cohesive package; they didn't always know where things were going, or the consequences of their decisions and actions. Yet it all came together to create this new construct we have called Protestantism, the very thing that is under challenge today.

How do you feel about the changes you are seeing today?

Tickle: I am optimistic about the future of the church. For me, Christianity has never been more alive and vigorous than it is right here and right now. The kingdom of God is coming in many forms and many places these days. All I can say is: "Thanks be to God!"

Click here to read the second of my two interviews with Phyllis.

Click here to read the final interview that Phyllis gave after being diagnosed with cancer.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Health and Other Benefits of Religion

There are lots of studies which show the benefits of religion (like the ones below). But are the benefits due to something supernatural, or to how religion brings people together to help each other? Maybe it’s both. After all, challenges are more bearable when a burden is shared. And as church historian Martin Marty pointed out about the downside of being spiritual but not religious: “Spirituality doesn’t bring you a casserole when you are sick.”

Despite what some American televangelists like to say, having faith is no guarantee that life will work out perfectly.
Like everyone else, people who believe in God have bad things happen to them, too—they lose their jobs, get cancer, die in accidents or suffer any of the other maladies and afflictions that arise from simply being alive.
But if having faith doesn’t prevent these things from happening, it seems to help when problems and challenges come our way. At least, that’s what some recent studies are showing.

According to a German study, people who lost their jobs but attend church frequently reported they were more satisfied with their lives than non-attenders.

“This study asked whether religious attendance buffers the psychological impact of unemployment. The answer is yes,” researchers from the Center for Applied Developmental Science at the University of Jena, Germany, and the University of Amsterdam reported in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

A study in Poland found a similar result. That study of 1,600 workers who faced uncertain future employment discovered that frequent church attendance and having strong religious beliefs were related to fewer symptoms of depression and higher life satisfaction.

According to the study, by University of Jena and the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities, highly religious individuals reported fewer signs of depression in the face of work and financially-related stress.

For the researchers, the study shows that “religiousness acted as a protective factor.”

When it comes to money, a U.S.reported by the July, 2010 issue of the journal of Social Science and Medicine found that going to church regularly and belief in the afterlife were related to lower levels of psychological distress for people experiencing financial hardship.

The reasons people of faith feel less stress, the study suggests, include belief in a loving God who cares for their well-being, and the belief in a rich and rewarding afterlife. This world isn’t all that there is, in other words.

Additionally, the study points to how religion often provides people with a supportive community. Not only does a faith community offer friendship and practical help, but people who are have lost their jobs or are facing money troubles feel their self-worth is validated by the community—it doesn’t matter if they have a job or a lot of money in the bank.

But faith isn’t only helpful to those who are in the workforce or worried about work; it can also be a benefit to people who are retired and aging.

That’s what a study by Lydia K. Manning of Duke University ’s Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development found. 

According to Manning, people who are spiritual have a tool that can promote and maintain health and resilience in later life.

The benefits of increased spiritual activity ranged from “battling loneliness through personal faith and church, synagogue and mosque attendance to reducing death anxiety through religious music,” she says, adding that spirituality “serves as a promoter of healthy aging.”

The role religion plays in combating loneliness is echoed by a study by Sunshine Rote and Terrence Hill of Florida State University and Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas at San Antonio .

“We find that religious attendance is associated with higher levels of social integration and social support,” they wrote.  

“Taken together, our results suggest that involvement in religious institutions may protect against loneliness in later life by integrating older adults into larger and more supportive social networks.”

Getting a benefit from religion isn’t limited to being part of a faith community; apparently just listening to religious music can help.

Research by Christopher Ellison, Matt Bradshaw and Collin Mueller of Duke University and Qijuan Fang of Bowling Green State University found that listening to religious music is associated with increases in life satisfaction, a greater sense of control and a decrease in anxiety about death.

“This study shows that listening to religious music may promote psychological well-being in later life,” the researchers say, although they don’t say what kind of religious music may be best.

So there you have it; if being religious won’t protect you from problems and suffering in life, it seems to help people weather them better.

From the Sept. 19, 2015 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Of Whiskey Priests and Ragamuffins: Brennan Manning & Living By Grace

It was author Graham Green who popularized the idea of the whiskey priest, a flawed member of the clergy who, despite failings, still manages to inspire others in their relationship with God.

In his novel The Power and the Glory, the unnamed fictitious priest at the centre of the story is a fugitive in Mexico in the 1930s, on the run from the authorities during a time of persecution.

He’s not a very good priest; he drinks too much, he has doubts, and he has fathered a child. But when a dying man in another village needs a priest to hear his last confession, he comes out of hiding to help him—despite knowing he will likely be caught and executed. And that is exactly what happens.

In the end, the whiskey priest achieves a sense of dignity, nobility and holiness; villagers are heard to be talking about whether he could even be declared a saint.

Thoughts about whiskey priests came to me after reading All is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir, a book by a real-live whiskey priest by the name of Brennan Manning.

Manning, who died in 2013, was the author of 21 books including the popular The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, the Beat-Up and Burnt Out.
Born and raised in a tough Catholic home in Brooklyn , New York , Manning enlisted in the U.S. Marines during the Korean War. Upon return to the U.S. , he enrolled in journalism school but left after a semester in search of something more.
“Maybe the something ‘more’ is God,” an adviser suggested. Manning agreed, and decided to study theology.
In 1956, while meditating on the Stations of the Cross, he had a powerful experience of the personal love of Christ that confirmed God’s call on his life. After additional studies, he was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1963.
Following his ordination, Manning served as a campus minister and teacher before dedicating himself to living and working among the poor. He also spent time alone as a contemplative, living alone in a cave in a desert for six months.
Through his books and public speaking, Manning became a respected, appreciated and much-admired teacher and inspiration for many people who were seeking a deeper and richer relationship with God.
But behind his public persona was a man who struggled mightily with alcoholism. In his memoir, he recalls how he would drink a dozen beers every night by the age of 18—and also how later, as a spiritual mentor and teacher, he would sometimes drink himself into a stupor after presentations.
In 1982, Manning left the priesthood to get married. The marriage ended in divorce 18 years later, partly due to his drinking.
Yet despite his flaws and up-and-down personal life, he still had a positive impact on the lives of many.
“He held audiences spellbound,” recalls his friend and fellow-author Phillip Yancey. “One university chaplain told me that no speaker had ever had more impact on his fickle students than this aging, alcoholic failed-priest from New Jersey .”

To the end, Manning maintained that anything good that came through his ministry was due only to God’s grace in his life.

“To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark,” he wrote. “In admitting my shadow side, I learn who I am and what God’s grace means.” 

For Manning, it was all about what God did for him, not what he could do for himself. And what God did for him, God could do for others, too.

In Ragamuffin Gospel, he wrote about the many people he expected to see in heaven—prostitutes, addicts, criminals, those with doubts, the insecure, the scared, all the flawed and fearful people who were just like him.

“There they are,” he wrote. “There we are—the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life's tribulations, but through it all clung to faith. 

My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.” 

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From the Sept. 5, 2015 Winnipeg Free Press.