Frank Schaeffer in interview with Brian McLaren

“In the end the only book that matters to me is what I see in the eyes of those who know me best”.
Frank Schaeffer in interview with Brian McLaren, 2014.

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“Valley of the Shadow: Rites of Loss” is now available.

I’m very happy to announce the album that’s been a long time coming: “Valley of the Shadow: Rites of Loss”.

This eclectic, classical crossover suite for strings, voices and sound design explores the universal narratives of loss through moods like denial, bargaining and anger. It prominently features string quartet, but incorporates solo and choral voices and a wide variety of genres and instrumentation.

You can hear it online, and it is available on all major digital platforms including iTunes. My hope is to create a space for conversation and contemplation around issues so often shrouded in obscurity, so please get involved, comment, share, and enjoy.

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Book review: The Jihad of Jesus

The Jihad of Jesus by Dave Andrews

Dave Andrews’ “The Jihad of Jesus – The Sacred Nonviolent Struggle for Justice” is a brave, compelling, succinct and yet accessible entry point into one of the most critical questions of our age, that of the relationship between Islam and Christianity.41nwlifu4il

Andrews’s book tackles head-on many core issues arising from this ancient and mostly bitter rivalry with their competing truth claims: intolerance of the other, the constraints of thought and action, and violence, precluding a truly mutual co-operation between those deemed to be different.

The Quranic and Arabic term jihad as he explains means at its core, “struggle”, (and not “war” which is qital), despite its common contemporary usage. Jihad comprises a greater aspect – the inner struggle of the believer to submit to God, and a lesser one – the outer struggle of the righteous community for justice. 35 of the 6000 verses in the Quran use the term jihad, 11 unambiguously in terms of peace, 4 unambiguously in terms of war, and the remaining 20, ambiguously. (And when used in terms of war, strict rules of engagement apply).

Now, over half (54.7%) the worlds people are either Muslims or Christians. Together these traditions have contributed directly to centuries of division, suspicion, domination and violence; the key to overcoming these dark pasts must lie in a transformation from within of both, a revisioning of their God images, their interpretations of their texts, a new understanding of belonging and belief systems, and an active, generous openness between “believers”, and attitude towards “unbelievers”.

Key to Andrew’s success is his thoroughly pluralistic, and painstakingly fair, co-evaluation of the evil pasts of both blocs. He asks a “Life or death” question:

“Are the atrocities that are done in the name of Christianity or Islam true indicators of the nature of Christianity or Islam, or not? If [no] then we have nothing to fear from the continued expansion of Christianity or Islam. But, if … these cruelties are true indicators—and inevitable consequences—of the way we have constructed our religions, then we have everything to fear from Christianity or Islam in the coming millennium.”

He goes on to analyse these “constructions”, exploring fear of exclusion, avarice, power, authoritarianism, and blind obedience.

A Dave+meme+5key tool he provides is the idea of “closed (bounded)” and “open (centered)” perspectives (which he attributes to Paul Hiebert). In a closed perspective, a boundary creates an “in” and an “out” group. These boundaries are defined by dogma/sunna and defended by war and violence if necessary. The Quranic kufr (unbeliever) and the Biblical “heathen” are well used closed-set words. A main advantage of the closed set is its simplicity.

But the disadvantages are pernicious. A closed set “creates no room for diversity, dissent or disagreement.” (p 72). While most adherents of Islam and Christianity so take for granted their “special” and “chosen” status that they are unable to question the nature of these boundaries and their implications for the life of faith, let alone for the future of the planet.

People committed to “closed set” religion tend

“to be dogmatic and judgmental and, consequently, quite intolerant of political dissent. They have constantly been shown to be more egocentric, more ethnocentric, and more uncharitable towards disreputable minorities than their nonreligious compatriots.”

Ultimately, it is the religious, “devoted to our mutually exclusive, inevitably conflictual, collision-bound bounded sets, that are directly, or indirectly, moving millions towards a [global militant] jihad of violence everywhere…”, be they medieval Crusaders or 21st Century organisations like the Islamic State.

dave+jihad+jesus+quote+meme+2So Andrews proposes an open perspective, in which belonging to a religious set means not defending the sets boundaries but choosing and striving to overcome these very boundaries. It is the guiding spirit of both the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6) and the Bismillah (Quran, Surah 1 Al-Fatihah) that provides hope of an overcoming compassion and a way forward for religions deeply in need of their own redemption. And he admits the problems with such an approach, including the challenge of knowing who is “in” and who is “out”.

Breaking down the psychology of killing is an important aspect to revisioning nonviolence. Towards this he quotes extensively from “On Killing” by US military psychologist Dave Grossman, who shows that the vast majority (98%) of people including conscripted soldiers, are not “born killers”. He explains the mechanism by which killers are created, in both regular military and terrorist programs such as the Jemaah Islamiyah (based in South East Asia). This includes for example framing killing as saving lives, portraying the enemy as sub-human, and developing each unit’s capacity for collective violence.

But the main focus for Andrews, as a Christian, is Isa / Jesus. For him, Jesus embodied jihad, a struggle to live a righteous life in community in an unjust society. He points to the fact that Jesus was not a mystic like Buddha, a Scholar like Confucius, a Lawgiver like Moses, or a warrior like Mohammed. This difference can only make stronger that which might emerge from a thorough interreligious dialog. It is his view that

“It was never Jesus’ intention to start a religion—still less a monopolistic religion that saw itself in competition with other religions for people’s allegiance. Jesus said he simply came “to bring life and life in all its fullness” (see John 10:10). Thus, he would affirm all that is life-affirming and confront all that is life-negating in the world’s religions—especially in the religion that now bears his name.” (p. 121)

If there is anything missing in Andrews’s thesis, it would be to account more thoroughly for the intensely dualistic nature of the Quranic text. My bias notwithstanding, I am unsure of how it is possible to derive a systematic theology of tawhid (oneness) or of nonviolence based on its structural dualism and (largely) punitive God image. But I’m very open to ideas. For this, we might have to rely more heavily on the Hadith or second-tier Islamic writings. In comparison, due to its wider sources, the Bible gives us far more room, (even in the light of much which is unacceptable or outmoded) to construct an integrated theology of peace.

Dave+Meme+6+(1)Having said that, it is the heart that will lead to tawhid and unity. Dave Andrews finishes his book with 4 powerful stories of nonviolent jihad of compassion from Muslims and Christians past and present: St Francis of Assisi, the Pakistani Badshah Khan, the Nigerian Muhammad Ashafa, and the Liberian Leymah Gbowee.

These stories of peace from within both traditions give immense hope to those of us who might feel there is no real way to overcome the burden of history.

“The Jihad of Jesus – The Sacred Nonviolent Struggle for Justice” is a contemporary toolkit for Christians, Muslims and everyone who cares enough to summon the patience/sabr and compassion/rahman to make a start in their own jihad/struggle towards tawhid/oneness, however small or seemingly insignificant that start may be.

Dave Andrews’ website
The Jihad of Jesus website
The Jihad of Jesus on Facebook

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The most skilled healer

According to an old story, a lord of ancient China once asked his physician, a member of a family of healers, which of them was the most skilled in the art.

The physician, whose reputation was such that his name became synonymous with medical science in China, replied:

“My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house.

My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighbourhood.

As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords.”

[From Thomas Cleary’s introduction to Chinese classic “The Art of War” (Sunzi Bingfa)]

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Michael Dowd on TEDx – Why we struggle now.

The evolutionary evangelist continues to impress. Here he discusses an evolutionary perspective on the stubbornness of our human condition  – sin – in a recent talk for TEDx Grand Rapids.

“Prior to microscopes, it wasn’t just difficult to understand infection, it was impossible. Prior to telescopes, it wasn’t just difficult to understand the large scale structure of the universe, it was impossible. Two or three hundred years ago it wasn’t just difficult to understand our evolved nature, it was impossible.”

“History will show that the greatest psychological and spiritual realisation – revelation – of our time is the understanding that human beings have instincts like all other animals do and if we don’t understand appreciate and respectfully manage – that is honour and harness our inherited drives, we are bound to be enslaved to them.

What you resist persists, but what you can be grateful for – honour – can transform and empower you.”


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Zane Lang encounters Zane Lang

“Zane Lang encounters Zane Lang”, a film by Patrick Royal:

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Parallel sayings – storing and hoarding

[Matthew 6:19, TNIV]
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.

[Tao Te Ching 44, Ursula Le Guin]
Which is nearer, name or self?
Which is dearer, self or wealth?
Which gives more pain, loss or gain?
All you grasp will be thrown away.
All you hoard will be utterly lost.

The parallel sayings are similar in exhorting us not to store up or grasp things, or become attached to reputation or power. They both point out the transience of a purely material life, and the need to develop a deeper and longer view of lifes purpose.

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