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My Bright Abyss

DSCN4959As Earth Day recedes in our rear-view mirrors for another year, I remain impressed and troubled by the following statement by American poet Christian Wiman, in his new book My Bright Abyss (2013). And thanks to daughter Sarah, by the way, for bringing this remarkable volume to my attention:

“What is poetry’s role when the world is burning? Encroaching environmental disaster and the relentless wars around the world have had, it seems, a paralyzing, sterilizing effect on much American poetry. It is less the magnitude of the crises than our apparent immunity to them, this death on which we all thrive, that is spinning our best energies into esoteric language games, or complacent retreats into nostalgias of form or subject matter, or shrill denunciations of a culture whose privileges we are not ready to renounce—or, more accurately, do not even know how to renounce. There is some fury of clarity, some galvanizing combination of hope and lament, that is much needed now, but it sometimes seems that we—and I use the plural seriously, I don’t exempt myself—are anxiously waiting for the devastation to reach our very streets, as it one day will, it most certainly will” (p. 52).

The anxious paralysis of which he speaks is surely not confined to poets.

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Inside Scoop on New Dictionary of Christian Spirituality


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      Members of the Bethel San Diego Spring 2011 Class on Spirituality & Prayer

 

Zondervan Q&A with Glen Scorgie, general editor, Dictionary of Christian Spirituality

 

Congratulations on the publication of the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. In terms of the writing and editing, what kind of work hours do you think the project represents?

The Dictionary project took four years of focused effort. The workload ebbed and flowed across these years, but I’d estimate it involved 10-20 hours a week on average. The other editors and I managed to keep organized with an Excel spreadsheet; each entry involved 17-19 discreet steps.

 

Writing for this book was certainly not a sensible strategy for getting rich. Sometimes I cajoled reluctant contributors to join the company of the cheerfully exploited. Usually that phrase won them over. But I must say the whole project, from start to finish, was an absolute delight. For one thing, the DCS team got to interact with some of the finest people on the planet. I’ve often said that without the excuse of this project, how else would I get up the nerve to bother Eugene Peterson in his cabin up in Montana, or Dallas Willard or J. I. Packer?

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New Dictionary of Christian Spirituality Just Released


DCS

 

Zondervan publishers has just released the hardbound Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. After four years of effort, we are delighted to see this unique volume finally in print. It is a biblically engaged, reliable and accessible resource for contemporary Christians. Writers from across the globe have contributed thirty-four “integrative perspective” essays and nearly seven hundred alphabetized entries. Together these offer a discerning orientation to the wealth of ecumenical resources available today while still highlighting the distinct heritage and core grace-centered values of classic evangelical spirituality.

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The Canary in the Gulf of Mexico


China Recycling

 


At the moment the world is fixated on the video-cam of oil spewing up out of the earth to defile the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone is hoping and praying that a technical solution will be found to stabilize this environmental holocaust. Should this occur in the near future, we will breathe a collective sigh of relief. Inevitably there will be resolutions to tighten up oil drilling safety standards and improve emergency response strategies, but perhaps the greater tragedy will be if in a few weeks or months we resume our same dangerous and unsustainable way of life. If this disaster proves to be of sufficient magnitude that it will not be possible thereafter to revert to business as usual, the tragedy itself may end up a “severe mercy.” We may look back on it as the moment when “the canary died in the coal mine.” It may be our chance to break out of something that is otherwise going to kill us all.

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Please, Help Me!

 Taoism


One of the near-universal functions of religion is to solicit help from the Higher Power to meet our needs. The main function of prayer, it seems, is petition—asking, begging, making promises and cutting deals, in order (we hope) to get stuff. I saw this dynamic alive and well at the White Cloud Taoist Temple I visited in a slightly scruffier part of Beijing. People kept arriving with gifts of fruit and flowers for the various deities (idols), and lighting incense sticks before kneeling before the images to ask for favors. It got me wondering how the prayers that Christians tend to ask are really much different.

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Religion as Therapy in China

Lama Temple Beijing

 

I have been in Beijing, China for about three weeks now as a visiting scholar at Renmin (the People’s) University, founded by Chairman Mao, and at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. I am comfortably housed in the Foreign Expert Building on the University campus, and get to bike around the leafy campus alongside many of future leaders of the Communist Party and of China itself. Without denying the real differences between West and East, it’s surprising how much is the same, even in the sphere of religion.

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It All Starts with a Child

We have entered the Advent season once again. The Sunday before Advent was the final one in the annual church calendar—Christ the King Sunday. The whole cycle culminated in a celebration of Christ’s final victory and glory. It ended on a high note. But now with Advent it starts up all over again. We begin at the beginning. The story we rehearse is a journey toward glory, but it gets there only by way of Good Friday, the cross and suffering. In biblical imagery it is the Lamb that is upon the throne—the one who suffered and died was vindicated by God and now has a name that is above every name.

But Advent is a reminder that the one who became King of Kings began his journey as a child—as one without power or clout, as a dependent who was obliged to submit to earthly parents during his growing-up years. The story begins with the Eternal Son’s acceptance of the identity and place of a child. The first Adam hit the deck running as a mature adult, but the second Adam—the one who symbolized a new beginning for humanity—began not as an adult, but as an infant, a dependent.

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Toward an Integrated Spirituality

Many years ago I joined some teenage Inuit friends on a two-day Arctic caribou hunt up the west (left-hand side) of Canada’s Hudson’s Bay. This is still one of the most unpopulated places in the whole world. We felt how small and mortal we were in that vast, silent emptiness that spread to the horizons. Our destination was Maguse River, where a small cluster of derelict buildings would provide a place to overnight. Thousands of white geese rose suddenly from the long grass as we approached at dusk, with such a shocking blast of sound that we literally staggered and our hearts raced. So much sound puncturing that much silence was almost too much to bear.

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The Quest for Significance

According to the Greek poet Homer, Sisyphus was a tragic figure who had had gotten on the bad side of the gods. As a result, the poor guy was blinded and doomed to push a massive rock up a mountain. He had no choice but to try and fulfill his assignment. He strained and grunted, grinding his heels into the flinty ground for traction. But as soon as he neared the peak, and the accomplishment of his objective, the massive stone would roll back down to the bottom and he would have to start the arduous effort all over again. The cycle played out with numbing repetition. He was doomed always to labor in this fashion, but never to accomplish his task. His life was cursed with futility.

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Our Curious Shortage of Saints

It was the first night of our seminary course in Christian social ethics, and the classroom was packed. At our school we have three required courses in theology, but just one in ethics. I don’t want to read too much into this uneven weighting of our core curriculum, but most would agree that it is classically evangelical. I began that evening with a question that seemed to throw a few of the students: “Why should we be good?” There was general agreement that we ought to be, but a good deal of confusion about why we need to be. For centuries, Protestants, and evangelical Protestants in particular, have struggled to answer this clearly and well, and the seminarians that night were no exception. Our great fear, I guess, is that we might compromise the Gospel of grace by making it conditional on moral performance. If the moral imperative is less than imperative, we should not be surprised that we face a shortage of saints.

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