People I Read: James McGrath

In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.

But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. So here’s a new series titled People I Read. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.

This post’s person I read is James McGrath from Exploring Our Matrix.

I’ve been reading Exploring Our Matrix for a long time, which makes sense since James – the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis – has been writing there since February 2007 (when he started it as a ‘sequel’ to a previous blog). Professionally, he writes on early Christianity, Mandaeanism, and religion and science fiction. While those are all interesting subjects, I read him mostly for his work on mythicism.

Mythicism is the idea – popular in some corners of the internet – that Jesus never existed as a real, actual human being. Mythicists argue that Jesus was originally a mythic figure like Hercules or Perseus who was later imagined as a historical figure. James writes passionately and compellingly against this position. He also does an excellent job of linking to other authors making a similar case. If you’re interested in the case for the historical Jesus, Exploring Our Matrix is a great place to start.

On the Division between Charity and Justice

You’ve heard this one before:

Once upon a time there was a village that sat just past the bend in a river. One day, the villagers noted a few people floating past the bend and pulled them out of the water. Some were dead and the village buried them. Others were sick and the village nursed them back to health.

A few days later, more people came floating down the river. Then more people, and more, and more. And every time, the villagers responded the same way. They pulled the people out of the river, buried the dead, and restored the living to health. The work of tending to the people floating around the bend in the river became never-ending.

One day, an intrepid young woman went up the river to discover where these people were coming from. She found another village where the villagers were throwing their people into the river. She returned to her home village and organized her people, leading them against the village upriver. After a fierce battle, she and her people were victorious against the village upriver. There were no longer people being thrown into the river. Life in her home village returned to normal.

The first response by the village is charity. It solves an immediate problem without addressing the root causes. The problem is never solved, and charity becomes a constant, never-ending practice.

The second response is organizing for justice. It works to solve the cause of the problem and end the suffering.

Or so the story goes.

All parables simplify. This one simplifies in a way that creates a convenient distinction between charity and justice and obscures the deep connection between the two. And it does this by pretending that people fall into neat categories: the people being thrown in the river, the people throwing people in the river, and the people fishing folks out of the river; the oppressed, the oppressors, and the charitable.

The reality is that almost no one is in just one of those categories. Many of us, in one way or another, are in all three. We live in a world where we suffer from injustice. We live in a world where we benefit from injustice. We live in a world where we fight against the effects of injustice (and sometimes against injustice itself).

That reality is why I find the division between justice and charity… lacking.

When we favor justice over charity, we so often think that we are reforming the systems that those people – the oppressors – benefit from. We don’t always recognize that we are the ones who need to be reformed. Through justice, we hope to change systems.

When we favor charity over justice, we are reforming ourselves. Through charity, we hope to change our hearts. And with changed hearts, perhaps we’ll stop throwing people in the river. Perhaps we’ll refuse to benefit from systems that throw people in the river. And, of course, we’ll keep helping the people who are thrown in the river.

But maybe charity and justice aren’t in opposition. Maybe there isn’t a division between them. Maybe the attitude of charity – the deep love for every person as a precious child of a loving God – leads us both to help the people in the river and to stop throwing them in. Maybe a just world is one where our natural response to need is a charitable one: to meet that need.

Maybe justice and charity – once they’re realized – look the same.

People I Read: Addie Zierman

In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.

But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. So here’s a new series titled People I Read. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.

This post’s person I read is Addie Zierman from

I’m not sure when I started reading Addie’s blog, but it was in the days when she was still writing about ‘how to talk evangelical.’ Every post would be about a word or phrase from evangelical culture, providing a short definition and a reflection that was often marked by both a nostalgia for that culture and an awareness of its absurdities. Since then, she’s broadened her topics, started writing an advice column, and published a couple of books. And all of it’s very, very good… I assume… I haven’t read the books.

What I like most about Addie’s writing is that she pulls me in. Her writing makes the reader feel like he can call her ‘Addie’. It makes the reader feel like he’s part of a conversation. In other words, it’s not just good subject matter or good ideas; it’s good writing. And that’s important: it’s the kind of writing that writers should read.

Eric Reitan: Is Social Democracy About the Poor Being Greedy?

The disagreement between people on the right like Sowell and people on the left (like, say, Bernie Sanders) isn’t about whether it is greedy for people to keep what is rightfully theirs. The disagreement lies elsewhere. It’s about where and whether exploitation is going on, where and whether some people have come to enjoy an unfair share of the common resources of the planet, and where and whether people are benefiting from public goods without doing their fair share to maintain them.

Poverty and Other Problems

Last week, I posted a link to this post by Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money. The first comment on that post (the one at LGM) seemed like an excellent opening to a post I’d been thinking about for a while. Here’s the comment:

My Jesuit moral theology professor used to say “The number one cause of poverty in the US is not having enough money”, and then deal with the predictable chorus of counterarguments. He used to continue “Those are all interesting questions, but they’re other questions…”

Drove people nuts…1Davis X. Machina, April 4, 2016 (12:08pm), comment on Erik Loomis, “Stop Trying To Fix Poor People,” lawyers, Guns & Money, April 4, 2016

One of the biggest challenges to addressing poverty effectively is that we constantly try to address poverty by addressing other problems.

Poverty, pretty much by definition, is the condition of not having enough money. If you give enough money to someone who doesn’t have enough money, then you have solved her problem of poverty. She is no longer poor. She might have other problems, but the point is that those are other problems.

Unemployment is another problem. Financial illiteracy is another problem. Lack of education is another problem. As the Jesuit moral theology professor might say, they are interesting problems, they are problems that need to be solved, but they are other problems.

But anti-poverty programs spend their time and effort trying to solve other problems. Some do that in tandem with efforts to address poverty. Some make it a prerequisite to addressing poverty. For example, an anti-poverty program might require proof of a job search or a financial literacy class as a condition of receiving financial help. And this approach stems from the idea that poverty is ultimately caused by the moral or intellectual deficiencies of low-income people.

As Erik Loomis put it in that post at Lawyers, Guns & Money, we keep trying to ‘fix poor people’ instead of solving the problem of poverty. And that doesn’t work.

Emerging research suggests that poverty isn’t simply – or even mostly – the result of bad decisions made or inappropriate behaviors engaged in by low-income individuals and families. Poverty is a major cause of those decisions and behaviors. And that means that we may not have to address those other problems in order to address poverty. Instead, it may be the case that addressing poverty first will help with addressing those other problems.

It’s also true that some of those other problems might not even exist. Despite the stereotype that low-income people are bad at managing their finances, low-income individuals might actually be better at managing their finances than high-income people.

There’s plenty of research still to be done, but I have suspicions about what it will reveal. Philanthropy in America needs to make a huge cultural transition. We need to stop focusing on ‘fixing the poor’ – on the other problems that we’re so often told we need to address – and focus on poverty. And it may well be that the best and most effective anti-poverty programs will be simple: giving enough money to people who don’t have enough money.

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Lawyers, Guns & Money: Stop Trying to Fix Poor People

One of the two fundamental problems with American welfare policy is that at its core, it assumes that the poor are morally deficient and need to be fixed instead of just poor. So rather than just increase the money in these programs, politicians blather on about the morality of the poor, which is an excuse not to fully fund them.

Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence… and Me

I’ve been a development professional ever since I graduated from seminary almost (gasp) ten years ago. I’ve worked in higher education – both religious and secular – and in community organizations. I’ve volunteered with local congregations and middle judicatories. In my free time, I’ve read and written about charity and fundraising from a variety of perspectives. A couple of years ago, I felt that this career was more than a career… it was a ministry and a calling.

And on April 3, I was ordained into Christian ministry in the United Church of Christ.

I won’t be changing jobs. I won’t be looking for a local congregation. I won’t be preaching every week or performing sacraments regularly or providing pastoral care. In a sense, very little has changed.

Except that my work is no longer my work… it’s the work of the church.

Ordination in the United Church of Christ begins with a process of discernment. During this process, the candidate meets with a committee from his or her local church as well as a committee from the Association (the geographically related group of churches of which the congregation is a part). Some of these meetings involve questions; and one of the questions that came up a lot in my process was why ordination mattered if I wasn’t going to be doing those things I won’t be doing.

My answer was that this was a ministry and a calling… and that my work isn’t just my work, it’s the work of the church.

So there was a certain joy for me when I read a post by Chris Xenakis at Vital Signs & Statistics, the blog of the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD). Xenakis pointed to a recent-ish study by CARD entitled Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellent: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry. Today, I want to talk a little bit about that study and what it found.

The study asked members of the United Church of Christ to rate their congregations on a set of marks of congregational vitality and their pastors on a set of marks of ministerial excellence. CARD then took the ratings in each area – congregational vitality and ministerial excellence – and ranked them from highest rated to lowest rated. Finally, they looked at the relationship between the marks of congregational vitality and the marks of ministerial excellence.

Here’s what they found.

First, they found that there were four marks of ministerial excellence that were significantly related to a large number of marks of congregational vitality:

The ability to mutually equip and motivate a community of faith (related to 8 vitality factors)

The ability to lead and encourage ministries of evangelism, service, stewardship and social transformation (related to 6 vitality factors)

The ability to read the contexts of a community’s ministry and creatively lead that community through change or conflict (related to 5 vitality factors)

The ability to frame and test a vision in community (related to 5 vitality factors)1Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, William McKinney, Holly Miller-Shank, and Cameron Trimble, Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry, Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (2015), 30

Second, they found that these marks of ministerial excellence “were the lowest-rated items by congregants.”2Lizardy-Hajbi et alCongregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry, 30

Think about that: the abilities that clergy might have that correlate most closely with congregational vitality are the abilities that congregation members were least likely to say that their pastors displayed!

That’s not good. But it’s entirely understandable.

Here are the four marks of ministerial excellence that were rated highest:

Preaches the good news, lead worship and participate in the sacraments in a manner faithful to the broader Christian heritage and appropriate to the characteristics of a specific culture and setting

A thorough knowledge of, and personal engagement with, the Bible

Demonstrates moral maturity, including integrity in personal and public life and responsibility to self, family, church, and community

Communicates biblical knowledge in an understandable way3Lizardy-Hajbi et alCongregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence: Intersections and Possibilities for Ministry, 29

These, not the marks linked to congregational vitality, are the skills we learn in seminary and through the discernment process. I was never asked about equipping a community of faith, stewardship and social transformation, leading a community through change, or framing a vision for a community. Instead, I was questioned about my belief that a person doesn’t have to be ordained to preside over communion.

Let’s own this: the church is focused on preparing clergy who are functionaries, not facilitators. We’re focused on preparing clergy who do very specific things – preaching, leading worship, presiding over sacraments, communicating biblical knowledge, being a good moral example, etc. – instead of empowering a community to do all of those things together.

What lesson can we take from this? I don’t think it’s that members of the clergy don’t need a seminary education, deep knowledge of the Bible and the Christian tradition, moral maturity, and so on. Neither does Xenakis.

I think the lesson is that we need more people being ordained to more work. We can recognize that different pastors will have different specialties. Not everyone will be an excellent preacher, or youth minister, or pastoral caregiver, or administrator. But among all of us – among the entirety of God’s people – we have all of these skills and more. We could have pastors who specialize in worship, youth ministry, pastoral care, administration, community building, stewardship, and so on. And we could educate clergy who could do those things – who could develop those “marketing, fundraising, vision-framing, entrepreneurial, and leadership skills”4Chris Xenakis, The Politician-ization of Authorized Ministry: Some Lenten Thoughts about Dying Churches, Congregational Resurrections, and Pastoral Leadership, (Vital Signs and Statistics: Blog, March 20, 2016)  – with theological and biblical integrity.

We could, in other words, give clergy the opportunity to specialize in the same way that we do with youth ministry. And we could recognize that those clergy who do specialize are not ‘junior clergy’, but simply clergy whose calling is narrow for good reason.

So… what does this have to do with me? I know the challenges of being ordained to a ministry that doesn’t look like traditional congregational ministry. I know what it is to have to justify the church’s sanction of a call. I know what it’s like to be asked why I’m bothering to go through this process if I’m not going to be a traditional pastor.

And as much as this was a process I went through because I feel called to be ordained. I also went through it because I think that the church is being called to something new, and because there are people who will come after me and I wanted to do my part to open the doors a little wider for them.

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