Deed vs. Creed
March 6, 1998
Conroe, Texas -- A priest who turned his garage into a church is getting pressure from his neighbors to find another place of worship. Ken Walsh, an Anglican priest and Latin teacher, has been holding prayer sessions in his chapel since January. He has no plans to stop. "Perhaps other people should consider putting one in," he said. Walsh's chapel is a problem because he's been running newspaper advertisements seeking worshipers. That means he's technically seeking business, which violates the restrictions of his subdivision deed, said Gwen Hruska, president of the River Plantation homeowners' association. "We're not trying to be mean or ugly, we're just trying to abide by our deed restrictions."
300,000 Pilgrims Flock
Rome for Holy Year 'Rehearsal'
Reuters News Service
May 30, 1998
Rome -- Hundreds of thousands of exuberant pilgrims poured into Rome on Saturday, bringing it to a standstill on the eve of Pentecost in a "dress rehearsal" for the Church's Holy Year celebrations in 2000.
Roads in and around Rome were gridlocked for miles as the crowds swarmed their way to St Peter's Square in the Vatican, where they sang, cheered and waved brightly-colored scarves to greet Pope John Paul as he was driven through in an open jeep.
Police said some 300,000 people packed the square and the broad Via della Conciliazione leading up to it, stretching back almost a quarter of a mile to the Tiber river.
Members of Catholic groups from all over the world came to receive the Pope's blessing and see in Pentecost, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles.
The scenes gave a foretaste -- not to everyone's liking -- of official millennium celebrations that are expected to draw some 30 million visitors to Rome.
During the Holy Year celebrations, which will begin on December 24, 1999 and last for 54 weeks, the Pope will deliver a blessing every day to crowds in St Peter's Square or elsewhere.
The celebrations will include 29 individual "Jubilee Days" for various professions and social groups, such as children, artists, prisoners, politicians and the world of sport.
Giovanni Negri, coordinator of a lay committee set up to study the effect Holy Year events will have on Rome, slammed Saturday's disruption, saying roads were choked by coaches and local residents had been advised not to go out.
"This is a humiliating day which we would have preferred not to see," Negri said. "Is it right that Romans should pay for the city's lack of modernization? And how can it be right for public authorities to force people to stay shut up in their houses?"
He said he was consulting lawyers on a possible appeal to the constitutional court, saying that many Jubilee events would draw crowds even larger than those seen on Saturday and that not all of them would fall on weekends.
Indian Monk Claims
May 1, 1998
Bangalore, India (AP) -- Devotees who believe he has godlike powers gathered in southern India Friday to watch a monk eat what he claims was his first food in a year: a combination of spices and ground peas mixed in water.
Sahaj Muni, a 65-year-old monk of the Jainism religion, an offshoot of Hinduism, says he lived on just warm water since last May 1. Hindus, Jains and Buddhists believe the soul can be released from the cycle of death and rebirth through penance and asceticism.
No independent observers have been able to confirm Sahaj Muni's claim. But in recent weeks, thousands of Indians have traveled to his temple in the southern city of Bangalore in a demonstration of faith.
"The monk is like God to me," Vimal Kumar Jain, a lawyer who came 1,250 miles from New Delhi to seek Muni's blessing.
Some 20,000 people came to the temple Thursday. Crowds were smaller Friday, because Muni had said he needed rest.
Wrapped in a white wool blanket and lying on a wooden cot, Muni swallowed a concoction of clove, black pepper, raw sugar and pea flower mixed in a half glass of water Friday morning. The monk says he lost more than 65 pounds.
Dr. Chanchal Raj Chhallani, a doctor and follower of Muni who has attended Muni during his fast, said he was weak but mentally alert.
Dr. Sitaram Venkatech Chowti, a physician at a leading Bangalore hospital who was allowed to see Muni's medical records but not to examine him, said his claims were "difficult to explain on medical grounds."
Followers say there is no need for Muni to prove his claim to outsiders because his fast was undertaken for religious reasons, not to set records or challenge scientists.
Plan Waco Museum
April 20, 1998
Waco, Texas (AP) Sheila Martin thinks there should be more to commemorate the deadly Waco standoff than the burned rubble of the Branch Davidian compound.
Ms. Martin, who lost her husband, a son and three daughters in the inferno that ended the 51-day standoff, hopes a museum slated to open Sunday -- the fifth anniversary of the fire -- will help her deal with the loss.
"For so many days, I was looking at the building, or looking at the building on fire, but I don't see any of the faces," she said. "When I remembered when I was in there, I remembered what it was like ... I remembered those faces."
Ms. Martin, who escaped the compound before the fire, wants more people to see those she remembers.
"There are so many things that people haven't seen and understood," she said. "This way, they can have faces."
About 80 people died when the fire erupted as federal authorities moved on the compound April 19, 1993, in an attempt to arrest Branch Davidian leader David Koresh on weapons charges.
Each of those who died in the fire will be remembered in the museum by a plaque and a tree planted at the Mount Carmel site. A memorial service will take place Sunday.
"A lot of people come out and there's not much to see out here," Davidian Clive Doyle said.
Doyle began work last month on the wood-framed museum with the help of a handful of volunteers.
"The (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) and the FBI didn't leave much behind," he said. "We hope through the pictures and whatever else we put in there that they will have something to enjoy."
Those who visit the museum will be able to glance at photographs, a timeline of the standoff, and historical memorabilia, including books and videotapes of speeches from Davidian leaders. A model of the Davidians' compound before the fire also will be part of the exhibit.
"We've had a lot of people out here -- I guess what you would call -- squatting, talking about what was supposed to have happened and what didn't happen, and most of it was misinformation," Doyle said. "This will give people something worth looking at, something more informative."
In the five years since the fire, members of several Davidian factions have feuded over ownership rights to the site of the compound, even taking their battle to the courts.
Several have lived on the land since the standoff ended, including Amo Roden, the ex-wife of former Branch Davidian leader George Roden, who once operated a makeshift museum telling her version of the Davidian story.
Koresh took control of the Branch Davidians in 1987 following a shootout with George Roden, who was sent to a mental hospital in 1995 after being found innocent by reason of insanity in a murder case.
More recently, the land has been occupied by a Koresh follower and several members claiming to have stayed true to the original Davidians after Koresh broke away from the sect.
At the same time, some "original" Davidians have converted a dairy barn at Mount Carmel into a church, where they currently hold Sunday services.
But while knowing the property dispute hasn't yet been decided, Doyle forged ahead with building the museum.
"It's going to be an ongoing project, I hope, unless the courts rule against us and tell us to get the heck out of here," said Doyle, who envisions building a chapel and living quarters at Mount Carmel once again. "If they do, it will be just another indication of the prejudice that's been shown against us."
© Copyright 1998, Associated Press
Two bishops debate
whether it's time to update
our image of God
by Bishop James M. Stanton
Dallas Morning News
July 18, 1998
Dallas -- "What kind of God does the world need now?"
This is a peculiar question. If God is, then the only possible answer is "the real one." But if God is, the more important question is "What kind of world does God need now?"
I take it, however, that the question concerns the truth about God. Does God exist? If so, how could we ever know unless God revealed Himself? Has God revealed Himself? And has this revelation any abiding significance?
There are those who subscribe to what I call a kind of "Star Wars god" -- you know, the "Ground of Being," the "Life-Force," "the Essence of Existence." These abstractions have "deeper levels of meaning," they say, far beyond the grasp of "merely" human language. But if God existed and desired to reveal Himself, how could He do so without communicating to human beings in a way that could be understood?
Some people think that Christian language about God is dead. What is fascinating is that these same people always come round to "reinterpreting" Christian language. If a language is dead, however, you don't "reinterpret" it -- you abandon it.
Christian language is vital, and it is direct. God really made us (creation). God really loves us (grace). We really do reject God in favor of going our own way, defining our own being (sin).
The Christian story is, moreover, simple: God will not let us go. In Jesus, God really has confronted our self-preoccupation and paid the price of our sin. In Jesus, God has called us to turn from "self" and surrender our lives to Him (faith). And when we trust Jesus and pattern our lives on His, we are trusting God. In Jesus alone -- not in our "selves," however defined -- is our fulfillment, our joy and our hope. So Jesus claimed, and so Christians have believed.
Is this true? That is the question. If it is not true, Christian language is not only dead, but a lie. If it is true, then God deserves our trust -- and all our passion and reason and service.
The world needs such a God. And God needs a world of people who trust Him and know Him to be real.
Bishop Stanton, who leads the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, is an outspoken conservative within his church and a contributor to Can a Bishop Be Wrong? (Morehouse Publishing).
by John Shelby Spong
Autun, France -- In my book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, I describe myself as a "Believer in Exile." I am a Christian who meets God in Christ, but I am exiled from the explanations that Christianity has traditionally employed. The Bible, written between 1100 B.C. and A.D. 135, reflects assumptions no longer possible.
Jesus' virgin birth assumed a view of reproduction where the whole life was contained in the male seed. The 1724 discovery of egg cells rendered all virgin birth stories meaningless. Jesus' ascension assumed a three-tiered universe that departed with the work of Galileo.
Jesus' saving action is told in terms of the sacrificial rituals of Judaism, interpreting him as the lamb of Yom Kippur slain for the sins of the people. Religion based on human sacrifice has little appeal.
After Charles Darwin in 1859 it became impossible to think of human beings as fallen creatures destined for hell without God's intervention. Instead we saw ourselves as emerging creatures needing to be lifted beyond our evolutionary limits into more complete humanity. So Jesus can no longer be viewed as a sacrifice for sin but as the source of infinite life-giving love.
I no longer conceive of God as a supernatural being, above the sky, keeping record books so that rewards and punishments can be dispensed. I see God rather, in the pattern of the mystics, as the source of Life and Love and the Ground of Being. This is the God who meets me in Christ. Worshiping calls me into life, into love and into being. The Church's mission is to transform the world so that everyone might have the opportunity to live fully, to love wastefully and to be themselves courageously.
Rethinking Christianity in these nontraditional categories will bring about a mighty but saving Reformation.
Bishop Spong, who leads the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, N.J., is the author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die (Harper: San Francisco) and a high-profile advocate of change in the church.
Dallas -- Bishop Spong, you have given up belief in a God "above the sky." This is good news! But what do you believe in? The Christian God is accessible to both the simple and the scholarly. Why, even Galileo was a believer. What about your God?
To hear you talk, God is pretty much about self-fulfillment: "living fully," "being courageously." Sounds like self-esteem writ large. "Be all you can be!" (But wait -- that's an ad, not theology.)
You trash Christian teaching. Bishop, Jesus' birth is not about "seed and egg," but about God giving Himself. Jesus' ascension is not about elevators, but about His dignity and glory -- and our hope. The crucifixion is not about "human sacrifice" -- but God's supreme and costly love.
After Darwin, you say, we saw ourselves "emerging" to completeness. No need for a savior. After Hitler, can anyone remain so naive? Without God, we don't "emerge." We sink.
London -- In my book, I pose the distinction between the timeless experience of God and the time-bound explanation of that experience, which is inevitably distorting. Christianity explains Christ in archaic language.
If the cross is about love, why constantly speak of Jesus' "saving blood," of ransom, of Christ as the Passover sacrifice, or of Christ as the "lamb of God" slain for our sins? Christian liturgy employs the concepts of human sacrifice, repelling more than it attracts.
We need to expose and reject the Church's assessment of humanity as fallen, born in sin, and its destructive use of guilt to motivate behavior. Loving lives are never produced by moralists' condemnation. The linchpin of this mentality is a theistic God viewed as judge. Surely a Christ as incarnate Love can be presented differently.
Bishop Stanton, I'm pleased that you seem ready to abandon the literalized framework of Virgin Birth and Cosmic Ascension. That's a start toward the Reformation for which I am calling.
Dallas -- Your religion is best described as do-it-yourself. You are entitled, of course, to promote it. But why do you insist on trading on your office as a bishop to do so?
The trouble with do-it-yourself religion is that it is as limited as the self who puts it together. The early Christians believed that they were called by God to something real, bigger than themselves, and eternal. Maybe they were wrong. But just maybe they were right. In any case, they didn't cook it up from their own ingredients.
Mature Christians today have wrestled through the doctrines of their faith and been able to affirm them. If after thinking them through one cannot espouse faith any longer, the honest thing would be to say so and leave the Church behind.
You posture instead as the only honest churchman -- one who honestly believes what only he can put together. And swallow.
Milton Keynes, England -- Frightened people always seek to purge the church of ideas that differ from their own. Again, they tend to identify the experience of God with a particular explanation. When the explanation is challenged, they believe that the experience itself is being questioned.
Christian thought has had a long, complex and as yet unfinished history. Earlier, Bishop Stanton, you suggested that the idea of God as Ground of Being came from Star Wars. Yet this concept was present in Thomas Aquinas and undergirded such mystics as Meister Eckhart some 700 years ago. Even the Creeds were not written until the fourth and fifth centuries. Theology is never static.
What I as a modern Christian am seeking is a pathway to God that does not violate my integrity or produce passive dependency, anger, defensiveness or righteous moralism, which are unfortunately so often the marks of organized religion.
Jesus calls us to abundant life. A Church that continues to use the outdated concepts of yesterday, which have lost their meaning, will never give us that life. But a radically reformed Church just might.
Canterbury, England -- Christianity is a way of life. It is not, however, about serving the self. It is about serving God.
I admire the young people who wear those little wristbands with WWJD on them. "What Would Jesus Do?" is a simple question but one that is right at the heart of Christian believing. Faith means trusting that the answer to this question is a sure guide to right relations with God and with others.
These youths are willing to risk ridicule and derision for their faith. But they are also placing themselves under a demanding standard. This is what it means to call Jesus "Lord." Accepting this risk and demand is what I call courageous.
The Church is a community that is shaped by this risk and demand. You have decided that the Church is wrong. To remain a bishop in these circumstances is not "courageous." It is presumptuous.
Yorkshire, England -- God is intensely real to me. To suggest otherwise is to distort truth. However, the days of envisioning this God theistically, as supernatural and invasive, are over.
Theism's God was never especially moral. "He" justified war, slavery, chauvinism and homophobia. If worship shapes worshipers in their God's image, then history has seen quite enough of theism.
God to me is Life, Love and Being. This is the God sought by mystics, hinted at by process theologians, and given rational shape by Paul Tillich. This God's call is to life, love and being transforming each of us into becoming God-bearers. This is also the God I meet uniquely in Jesus.
This God is not served by biblical quotations or theological rigidity, but by loving lives.
Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile, by John Shelby Spong (HarperSanFrancisco, $24). Bishop Spong has taken upon himself the mantle of Luther. The Internet, where he has posted 12 theses, and this best seller are his Wittenberg Door. The "believers in exile" to whom he writes are people who may still believe in God in some sense but can't stomach traditional Christian teaching. The bishop is with them. He takes offense at much of the Creed, contending that phrases such as "the Father, Almighty" and "his only Son" are sexist; that "he rose again" and "ascended into heaven" are unscientific. And the notion that Jesus died for human sin, the bishop says, is barbaric. Christians have ordinarily believed in a Creator God who relates personally to the creation, and the bishop disagrees with that idea as well. The question of "who" God is, he says, is no longer valid. That has ramifications for everything, from the understanding of Christ to the meaning of prayer. This book aims to spell them out. -- Paul R. Buckley
Can a Bishop Be Wrong? Ten Scholars Challenge John Shelby Spong, edited by Peter C. Moore (Morehouse Publishing, $17.95; available from the publisher at 1-800-877-0012). Bishop Spong's new book and this scholarly riposte were released about the same time, and it is helpful to read them together. There's no mistaking the firmness of the writers' disagreement with the well-known bishop, but the tone is never histrionic. Bishop James M. Stanton of Dallas has an essay that summarizes "the essential Spong." Other contributors seek to answer Bishop Spong's views on issues such as biblical authority, sexuality, God and sin. Edith M. Humphrey, in her chapter on the Virgin Birth, believes that a key problem with the bishop's thinking lies "not in what the bishop affirms about the nature of God, but in what he thinks must be denied." She finds him guilty of emotionalism at times. That, she says, and his "distress with fundamentalism" show that simple, scientific neutrality isn't possible for Bishop Spong, or for anyone else. -- Paul R. Buckley
© 1998 The Dallas Morning News