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A Method in the Midst of Madness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Bridgett Green

What happens when chaos steps in and disrupts our present circumstances? We become dizzy and disoriented us as our world changes beyond comprehension. We lose a sense of who we are and what we’re doing. And we wonder what is God doing and trying to show us.

When the method to the madness is lost and we are simply left with just madness, how are we to respond? Examining the courageous leadership of Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow nation, Jonathan Lear offers Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. His anthropological analysis with theological insight into Chief Plenty Coups and the Crow nation’s experiences of radical hope provides insights about how to face an uncertain reality with courage and conviction.

Chief Plenty Coups led the Crow nation at the turn of the 20th century when seismic cultural and political shifts devastated their way of life. Preserving their land, living off wild buffalo, and having a rich spiritual life were central to their culture. Invasions by white settlers, wars with other Indigenous nations, broken treaties with the U.S. government, and the utter annihilation of the buffalo created a massive shock wave to the Crow’s way of life and concepts of living.

Devastated by their reality, the Crow nation engaged in a radical hope to confront their present circumstances by synthesizing their traditions with a new conceptual framework for flourishing. Radical hope is the exercise of imaginative excellence for generating creative responses to world challenges. Rooted in vibrant ideals, it allows for a rewarding life in the face of hard realities. To have a radical hope, one must have a faith, or what Lear calls a psychological flexibility, to believe in possibilities without knowledge of how they would manifest.

As a young man, Chief Plenty Coups received a divine message warning him of future destruction and encouraging him to listen carefully and to learn from others. The elders and the community adopted his dream. Not knowing how it would manifest, the people allowed the dream to generate a radical hope for survival that would surpass their understanding.

With radical hope, the Crow nation kept their lands and mountains despite the pressures and broken treaties by the U.S. government enacted in the reservation system. Chief Plenty Coups encouraged generations to go to white schools, explaining that knowing what the white man knows would keep him from being able to oppress them. Eventually, the Crow nation built on their reservation Little Big Horn College that incorporated their history and traditions with western education. The Crow nation developed a new conceptual framework for flourishing.

When we experience a loss of identity, culture, or vocation, it’s an opportunity to follow the wisdom of Chief Plenty Coups: 1) access the real challenges; 2) seeks God’s will; 3) discern with community the vision; 4) have faith God’s vision (versus the prescription); 5) listen and learn from various sources; and 6) respond creatively and courageously to the present reality (and not a reconstructed version of the past).


Bridgett A. Green is a teaching elder and is completing her dissertation as a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. Living outside of Nashville, she serves the church as an acquisitions editor at Presbyterian Publishing Corporation; as a trustee on the board of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary; and as a trustee on the board of the Mountain Retreat Association (aka Montreat). She resources people as they practice Christianity with the tools of sound biblical interpretation, rigorous theological inquiry, and good questions.

Fighting About Politics and Religion: Why Do We Do It?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Nanette Sawyer

“Even before I knew why she was criticizing me, I knew I disagreed with her…” This line got a laugh when I recently quoted it in a sermon. Perhaps people could identify with it; if I’m honest, I certainly can. No one likes to be criticized.

Author and moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote these words in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. He was describing the day his wife asked him to not put the dirty dishes on the counter where she prepares the baby food. His disagreement with her came before he even knew what she was going to say, because he wasn’t reacting with his rational mind, he was reacting with his instinctive need to self-protect. In a light tone he admits that he realized on that day that he was a chronic liar.

He’s not alone, of course; Haidt was using himself to explain the human tendency to want to defend our reputation or the reputation of our “group,” whatever that group may be in any given situation. It could be a sports team, a political party, a family, a religion — any group of which we are a part and which defines some aspect of our identity.

One of Haidt’s major points is that our sense of being right, our sense of moral righteousness, comes not from our rational mind, but from an instantaneous “intuition” or intuitive cognition. Our intuition is like an elephant that we ride — it’s large, powerful, and in control. Our strategic reasoning is like a small rider being carried around on the elephant trying to explain why the elephant is right (even when it’s not).

It’s easy to say that other people’s deeply held beliefs are irrational, but more difficult to admit that mine are irrational, too. Irrational doesn’t necessarily mean wrong, it just means that our moral judgment, our sense of what is right and wrong, happens instantaneously and unconsciously in a flash of intuitive cognition, influenced by prior experience and beliefs.

This changes how we might think about discussing religion and politics with people who differ from us. Giving people more and better “reasons” as to why our opinions are better than theirs will generally not lead to either party changing their perspective. To effectively engage with people who disagree with us means befriending the elephants, theirs and our own, and accruing new experiences so that our intuitions change.

In addition to recognizing that there are both elephants and riders in the room, Haidt outlines moral foundations theory and shows that self-identified liberal and conservative people make moral judgements based on different types of criteria. Six classic moral foundations are:

  1. Care / harm
  2. Fairness/ cheating
  3. Loyalty / betrayal
  4. Authority / subversion
  5. Sanctity / degradation
  6. Liberty /oppression

You can take a free test (start with the Moral Foundations Questionnaire) and see how you measure up at www.yourmorals.org.

Haidt’s book is smart and well-documented, but grounded in story telling that makes it easy to read and understand. I have found it incredibly helpful as I try to wend my way through complex relationships with people who disagree with me and with each other in profound ways. Jesus said, “how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4). Haidt’s book helps me take a look at the log in my eye.


Nanette Sawyer is a Presbyterian pastor who leads faith formation and small group ministries at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago. Nanette was the founding pastor of Grace Commons, a small emergent church formed in an art gallery on the west side of Chicago. The author of Hospitality the Sacred Art (Skylight Paths, 2008), she feels called to guide people in spiritual practices that prepare us to be deeply rooted in God’s love and brave in extending that love to others.

The Civil Rights Movement: Important History, but Not in the Past

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

I have a lot of friends these days who are reading books about the rise of fascism in Germany. I will leave it to the reader to consider the reason for consuming such reading material, and any resonances between that time period and our modern day. (For now, I am content with occasional binges of The Man in the High Castle on Netflix, which imagines a world in which the Allies lost World War II, and a small band of dissidents imagines a better, more peaceful and compassionate world. They call themselves the Resistance.)

Rather than fill my Kindle and nightstand with the history of Nazism, I’ve decided to focus my heavy reading on the civil rights era in America. At the beginning of the year I resolved to read Taylor Branch’s three-volume series, beginning with the 1,000-page Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963.

Some time after undertaking this project, a friend informed me that there’s a summary book that condenses this history into one volume. But I’ve committed at this point. As for how long it will take me to read almost three thousand pages? I can only promise that it will be less time than the 14 years that comprise the movement Branch chronicles.

At last year’s NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta, I heard loud and clear our call as an 89% white denomination to undertake conversations about race and racism, however uncomfortable these conversations may be, and however much some may push back at us for “dwelling on the past rather than moving on.” As I read Branch’s careful accounting of the ills of white supremacy, I consider today’s travel bans and border walls, and Iowa Congressman Steve King’s odious comment that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Meanwhile many of us carry signs and risk arrest, and we rejoice when the judicial branch puts a check on bigotry through legislative executive order. And I marvel at the truth of the words, attributed to William Faulkner, that the past isn’t dead — indeed it isn’t even past.

Like many of us, I knew much of this history only in the most cursory way. We studied civil rights in school, and I remember my AP Government teacher arranged for after-school showings of the magnificent documentary Eyes on the Prize. (He felt it so important for a bunch of white suburban smartypants to see it that he offered two additional points on our entire semester grade if we watched the whole thing. In retrospect, it was so wrenching and transforming I would have done it for free.)

I did not know, or perhaps didn’t remember, that Martin Luther King Jr.’s first major troubles with the law came when the state of Alabama tried to get him on charges of felony tax evasion related to his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. What ultimately saved him was his incredibly meticulous record-keeping; attorneys and accountants working on his behalf were stunned at the painstaking way he kept track of his expenses. I think about my haphazard financial records and how they would not hold up to such scrutiny. And I recall how African-American friends talk about learning from a young age that they must always, always “be better.”

I also offer my own confession, prompted by a section about the 1957 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Eisenhower. The bill was watered down as to be almost useless (though that didn’t stop Strom Thurmond from filibustering it for some 24 hours). Many civil rights leaders refused to support it because it was so weak. Yet King and other civil rights leaders ultimately signed on. As Roy Wilkins put it, “If you are digging a ditch with a teaspoon and a man comes along and offers you a spade,” he said, “there is something wrong with your head if you don’t take it because he didn’t offer you a bulldozer.”

As I read this section, I remembered King’s injunction that justice delayed is justice denied — and yet here he was, putting his stamp of approval on an almost useless bill. Here is the confession: I felt welling up in me a sense of self-righteous “gotcha-ism”: See! Even a civil rights icon acknowledges that progress is slow, and sometimes you take what you can get rather than hold out for real justice. Take that, Letter from a Birmingham Jail!

Except there’s a big difference at work here: I am white, and King was black. Yes, in the struggle for civil rights, sometimes the progress is slow. But there’s no way for me as a white person to push for baby steps and partial measures without getting tangled up in my own motivations: Am I really on the side of the angels, or am I trying to preserve my own sense of comfort? As an ally, it is my call to listen to the voices of people of color and follow their lead in terms of strategy. When they say it’s time to turn up the heat, we do. When incremental change is called for, they alone drive that, not my desire to placate white America.

When my kids come home from school every January with photocopied handouts about Martin Luther King Jr., I like to ask them if they knew what his profession was. The older ones are used to it by now, and sigh as they say, “He was a preacher, Mom, like you.” In my defense, I want them to know that the struggle for civil rights — whether it’s justice for the descendants of enslaved Africans, or the right of transgender people to use the bathroom with which they identity — is work we do in light of our Christian faith, not independent of it. But it’s also a sinful pride, I admit: a desire to hitch my wagon to one of the great heroes of the 20th century simply because we share a common vocation.

Reading Branch’s book, I catch a glimpse of King’s frail humanity as well as his gifts for ministry (prodigious beyond my own though they were). He soared and he struggled. He felt a strong sense of God’s call, and he wasn’t always sure which strategy was best. In that way, he resembled all of us who have had heavy hands laid on our head and shoulders, who try to do God’s will yet often muddle our way through.

The struggles of 2017 are different, yet frustratingly similar. King was a pastor, like me. But that also means I am a pastor, like King. And it’s time for me — for all of us who lead Christ’s church — to make that real.


MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a frequent retreat and workshop leader and has written for a variety of books and publications, including her website, The Blue Room. She served as a congregational pastor for 12 years. She and her husband Robert Dana have three children. MaryAnn is the recipient of the 2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award from the Presbyterian Writers Guild.

Reaching Out with the Gospel in Intercultural Mode

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Doris Garcia Rivera

In his book La interculturalidad un nuevo paradigma de evangelización, Jit Manuel Castillo offers the view of interculturality as a new paradigm of relationships and evangelization. The strong theoretical support to explain our present postmodern world, plural and multiethnic as the most challenging, yet most beautiful opportunity to rethink our witness as followers of Christ is unparalleled.

Jit takes us on a voyage to understand our present world with five deep metaphors – the tunnel, a broken, a liquid, and unbridled world, and an era of emptiness. Facing these as obscure realities, fragmented identities, fluid relationships, frontiers and truths, lighting speed processes of knowledge and increased difficulty to feel connected (a deep collective meaningless and depression), the author sets us into the emblematic processes of our time.

Identity processes take a leading argument, for our identities not only define us, but also help us interpret reality. Identities have never been static, but are in process of continuous change. Jit challenges us to see the new subjectivities (that many fear) as ways of being human, with flexible contours, embodied within flesh and cultures – just as my own identity is also embodied. It is interesting to see how these processes of creation and affirmation of new identities at the same time also affirm closed, inflexible, and exclusive fundamentalist and extremist identities.

One of the things that most struck me was his affirmation of the postmodern industrial society of “being seen” as opposed to “to be or to have” as the new understanding of existence. If we are not seen in social media, we don’t exist. If that is not seen, it didn’t happen. The change to a technologically dominated society, where the question is not why, but for what?, summarized many of my own observations of society. Utility is the horizon of technology and the techno-scientific project is to transform our human condition, to produce new subjects based on states, globalization, neoliberalism, capital, and pharmaceutical industries’ alliances. The author gives strong arguments to the proposal that new bodies and souls are being created – a digital post-organic and post-biological human being, devoid of holistic, universal, and contextual understanding of themselves.

Interculturality is a vital paradigm where we can face the manipulation of our identities by these somewhat abstract powers or by either more closer politicians or religious leaders. Interculturality is defined as a posture, a disposition to share our lives with the other – a space where all cultures are required to truly read and interpret the world in a more comprehensive way, is challenging. It is more than just eating a different food, or sharing a physical space with a different one. It takes place when a group begins to understand the meaning that things have for others. And it will be all the more profound where more significant aspects are shared – is the degree of shared life. Every time we lose the opportunity to connect with those who are different from us – we lose the opportunity to grow as human beings.

The reading reviewed Bosch’s missionary paradigms that I often use in my classes and applied these to intercultural evangelism as the new paradigm for the church. It opened many questions for me. What this means for our mission and evangelizing efforts? If interculturality is required to read and interpret the world – it is also required to interpret God in action in our midst. Becoming truly intercultural is to empty us, to reduce our own discriminating boundaries to make space for “otherness.” In this we follow Christ who emptied himself to take the form of a servant – as “other” – a human being. Becoming intercultural is a way of becoming incarnated, to truly reach out in love.

As a teacher and president of a seminary I also asked myself; what about theological education, how can I make it more intercultural? What about our teaching processes? What are our cultural presuppositions of intelligence, of learning?  How much are we still ingrained with a religious or theological superiority? How does God see that? How can we empty ourselves as Christians, as denomination to make space for others who yearn to be part of the body of Christ within our midst?

Overall, this is a reading for the strong heart who wants to be challenged to become more like Christ!


Doris Garcia Rivera is president of the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico, the only Hispanic speaking, evangelical, protestant and ecumenical seminary born from several protestant denominations and the Presbyterian Church’s commitment to train the leadership for the church almost 100 years ago. Her vocation as a teacher and her call and work as missionary in theological education and development for 23 years shaped her to develop ministries to reach out to others, to make connections, to create spaces for personal, community and spiritual growth. 

Resist Right Now

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kathy Wolf Reed

Earlier this year I was fortunate to read Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Like many of Brueggemann’s works, the book is both brief and powerful, making it (somewhat ironically) an ideal choice for those in professional ministry.

Striking to me was Brueggemann’s description of ancient Egypt: defined by anxiety, overly concerned with productivity, and overcome with an idolatrous worship of commodity. This exhausting mode of existence is not only an apt description of modern day society but modern day mainline Protestantism as well. I suppose that’s why I have not been able to get this book out of my mind.

Amidst threats that somehow our hard-earned commodities might not be safe or our ability to be productive could become compromised, human fear propels us into overdrive. We believe that if we could just do or have more, we might attain the peace our hearts long for – peace that in truth comes only from relationship with God. In the church, the tendency toward commoditization manifests itself as measuring ministry in numbers: membership, budgets, baptisms. We look across the street at what others are doing and think, “Maybe we should start a new program for singles/coffee ministry/contemporary worship service.”

Brueggemann names the flaw in our logic, describing the “endless pursuit of greater security and greater happiness, a pursuit that is always unsatisfied, because we have never gotten or done enough… yet” (page 13). He reminds us how in the Sabbath commandment, our God “nullifies that entire system of anxious production” (page 27). God gives us not just an option but a direct order to place boundaries on our inclinations to perpetuate anxiety.

“Such a faithful practice of work stoppage is an act of resistance.” Brueggemann writes. “It declares in bodily ways that we will not participate in the anxiety system that pervades our social environment” (page 31). He goes on to remind us how Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)

I cannot think of a more relevant book for today’s world and church. I am grateful for the gift of a biblical framework through which to understand my own anxieties and the restlessness of the society and systems in which I serve. I recommend this book to all church leaders as we continue to navigate anxious times.


Kathy Wolf Reed has served as co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Auburn, AL since 2014. The Mayberry-esque setting of Auburn provides a context in which Kathy and her family (co-pastor husband Nick and their three small children) can enjoy all the perks of small town life while the presence of a major university offers them constant opportunities to attend interesting programs and cheer on the Tigers from football games to equestrian meets.

Becoming Who You’ve Always Been

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri

“What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been!” These words by author Parker J. Palmer – a teacher, writer and member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) – exemplify part of the insights I gained reading his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

Let Your Life Speak was recommended to me at a time marked by endings: service in a committee nearing its end, my father’s terminal cancer diagnosis, deciding whether or not to quit a job… I was feeling somewhat lost and wondering what was next, spiritually and professionally; where and how to best serve God, contribute to the church at large and the community.

Teaching about the gift of vocation and writing about his life experiences, including times of depression, Palmer conveys the message of claiming one’s truth and explains the concept of “true self.” His candid approach is refreshing and challenging. It encourages the reader to dig deep, recognizing limits, potentials, even failures and mistakes, as starting points in discerning “what’s next?” I recommend this book to all those who, like me, find themselves at a crossroads or for those who feel “true self” is still to be discovered. It is not a book to read over a weekend as it calls for honest reflection.


Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri serves as the moderator of the Presbytery of Tropical Florida and works part-time as an ESL teacher and trainer. She is also part of a CREDO faculty team. She has spent spent most of her adult life teaching teenagers and adults and serving in the church context. 

Living in a Constant State of Motion

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Erin Hayes Cook

Put away your Bible cassette tapes and overhead projectors: the future is now. Journalist and author Thomas L. Friedman pauses his life to hear the cultural significance of busyness in his latest book, Thank You for Being Late. What he hears is not what you expect. Friedman realizes that our technological innovations move faster than our society and institutions can adapt. We are left feeling exhilarated and left behind all at the same time.

Friedman interviews everyone from the CEO of Google X research and development lab, Eric “Astro” Teller, to his hometown’s mayor. What humans need to develop in this age of accelerations is dynamic stability. Teller points out, “there are some ways of being, like riding a bicycle, where you cannot stand still, but once you are moving it is actually easier. It is not our natural state. But humanity has to learn to exist in this state.” Yes, humans are adaptive creatures but we have never had to adapt so quickly and with such versatility.

Through Friedman’s colorful and thorough research, I’ve learned what many of us knew but could not put into words. The institution of the church needs to teach her leaders, people in the pews, and potential community members how to develop their adaptability skills. We no longer move at the pace of the printing press. It’s Twitter’s fault. How can we learn to share the gospel when the vehicles of human experience change so rapidly? Be ready to be moved by the Spirit wherever she blows. And get rid of the overhead projectors. I’m sure Apple will come out with an app for it next week.

Send this book to your pastor friends and those considering ministry. Anyone who enjoys a detailed read interwoven with human story will appreciate it. However, Thank You for Being Late would not lend itself to a book study in my opinion. If you’d like to use it as a teaching tool, I would suggest putting excerpts in a bible study or topical discussion.


Erin Hayes-Cook serves a multicultural PC(USA) church in the small city of Rahway, NJ. She believes her call is to be bridge between cultures and generations where she currently serves. Outside of ministry life you will find her at the CrossFit gym or looking for a new recipe.  

Speaking Our Truth Without Shaming Those Who Don’t See It: The Soul of Shame

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Linda Kay Klein

One of the most meaningful influences on my ministry and work today is Dr. Curt Thompson’s The Soul of Shame — a Bible-based exegesis of shame authored by a psychologist most comfortable in the intersection between interpersonal neurobiology and Christian spirituality.

At a time of tremendous national division, I wonder if some of us have become too comfortable with the notion that we and our kind are “right” and “good,” while others are “wrong” and “bad.” For example, I recently heard a pastor say that she would not speak with anyone from “the other side” unless they first admitted to her that they were a bad person. The room full of similarly-politically-minded pastors and other religious leaders mmhmm’d in agreement.

I am uneasy with how easy shaming has become among us. And I fear that, if left unchecked, it will continue to lead us down a very destructive path.

After all, that’s just what shame does.

Let’s pause for a moment and talk about what shame — or what Thompson calls “the primarily tool that evil leverages, out of which emerges everything that we would call sin” (page 22) — actually is, and how it affects us. From a research perspective, shame is different from guilt, humiliation, embarrassment or any of the other words we tend to lump together.

For example, researchers consider guilt the feeling “I have done something bad,” and shame the feeling “I am something bad.” The effects of these two neuropsychological states on people’s lives could not be more different. Whereas guilt makes us reach out to people and connect in an effort to repair relationships, shame inspires us to disconnect — perhaps we withdraw, lash out (either at ourselves or others) or hide.

It is important to name and fight for what we see as right, and against what we see as wrong. But when we engage in shaming — dehumanizing others by declaring them, rather than their positions or actions, to be wrong or bad — we create what Thompson refers to as “states of aloneness within us and between us, and most substantially between us and God” (page 54).

It is the disconnection that shame and shaming engenders within and among us that causes Thompson to refer to shame as “the emotional weapon that evil uses to (1) corrupt our relationships with God and each other, and (2) disintegrate any and all gifts of vocational vision and creativity” (page 13).

For communities that are, like me, trying to find ways to unapologetically speak and fight for our truths while honoring the humanity of those who disagree with us, Thompson’s book is a resource. He presents meaningfully about the nature of shame, which can help us understand the dangers of shaming, and offers Biblical tools for growth and healing. Thompson’s review of Biblical stories through the lens of shame also makes it a particularly strong tool for those interested in offering sermons and Bible studies on the subject.


Linda Kay Klein blends research and stories to expose unseen social problems and devise potential solutions. Her current project centers around the developmental effects of purity-based religious sexuality education programs on the lives of girls as they grow into adulthood. Formerly, Linda was the founding director of the Work on Purpose program at Echoing Green, a social entrepreneurship accelerator best known for helping launch Teach For America, the Freelancers Union, City Year, and over 600 other ground-breaking social change organizations.

Bonhoeffer Biography Espouses Transforming “The Proud and Hateful” into Love

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Ken Kovacs

One book that is providing theological perspective and inspiration in these days is Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

For some time now, I’ve been interested in the experience of the Confessing Church, the resistance movement (from 1933 to 1945) within German Protestantism against the policies of the Third Reich. Marsh’s remarkable biography of Bonhoeffer, who was an active member of the Confessing Church, provides a fascinating window into the emergence, objectives, activities, struggles, and many disappointments of the movement.

Most striking is the way Marsh charts the changes in Bonhoeffer’s own theology, as he internally wrestles with and actively engages the demonic principalities and powers of National Socialism. Bonhoeffer’s activism and call to resistance were in response to, “The absurd, perpetual state of being thrown back upon the invisible God” (156), as he put it, to renewed Christological commitments, as well as a new interest in the centrality of prayer, worship, and life in community. “And the church,” Bonhoeffer said, “that calls a people to belief in Christ must itself be, in the midst of that people, the burning fire of love, the nucleus of reconciliation, the source of the fire in which all hate is consumed, and the proud and hateful are transformed into the loving” (204).

While it is false (I hope) to say that the present climate in the U.S. is exactly parallel to what happened in Nazi Germany (though there are eerie similarities), the church can be informed by what happened then as it seeks to be faithful today. Bonhoeffer witnessed a swift increase in authoritarianism, xenophobia, aggression toward the feminine, populism, and the dangerous conflation of religion, politics, and belief in an illusory national myth.

And, significantly, he soon realized that the church, along with its theological faculties in German universities, were theologically weak and ill equipped to withstand the collective force of what was happening around and in them. The Barmen Declaration, for example, expressed potential political resistance, but was largely ineffective and didn’t constitute real resistance. (Some of the Confessing Church members at Barmen were also members of the Nazi Party.)

Marsh maintains that, “[D]ogmatic proclamation would never be enough” for Bonhoeffer, because “every confession of Christ as Lord must bear concretely on the immediate work of peace. Obedience could not be separated from confession. The kingdom of heaven does not suffer lip service” (225). These are challenging words for all of us, especially for pastors and preachers.


Ken Kovacs has served as pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, since 1999. Catonsville, situated in Baltimore County, borders Baltimore City to the east and the wealthy suburbs of Howard County to the west. As a result, their ministry reflects the experiences and needs of an economically-socially-politically-racially diverse demographic. Ken’s academic work is in practical theology, which explored the relationality of the Holy Spirit and the human spirit.

Prophetic Theology From a Non-Theologian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Teri McDowell Ott

James Baldwin was not a theologian. He, in fact, left the church after a friend helped him realize he was only going because he was too afraid to leave. The church shaped him, though. His father was a preacher whose unsuccessful ministry took his family from church to church where he would show off young James’ singing voice. For me, Baldwin’s essays, particularly those in Notes of a Native Son, reside in the realm of prophetic theology because of the extraordinary way they describe and illuminate the African-American experience and call to account those of us who live in privileged ignorance.

In the “Autobiographical Notes” at the beginning of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin shares what could be read as his personal mission statement: “I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done. I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

Baldwin himself, who began writing essays and novels in the 1950’s, perhaps never imagined the lasting mark he would leave. But today he is constantly quoted when race relations boil over and a relevant voice is needed. One reason why Baldwin’s words have been so influential is because of his honesty and his “enormous humanity.” He is fair and just, giving advice to other writers that “you do not have to fully humanize your black characters by dehumanizing the white ones.”

In this fair, honest approach, Baldwin is able to articulate and describe the human experience in a way that you, as a reader, know to be true, but could never articulate for yourself. In his introduction to Notes, Edward P. Jones describes reading Baldwin as wonderful: “We read [him] and come across passages that are so arresting we become breathless and have to raise our eyes from the page to keep from being spirited away.” This was my experience of reading Baldwin and why I recommend him so highly. He will take you places. He will take you to places of honest self and social examination, to places of epiphany and insight and crucial connection. Reading Baldwin is simply divine—and necessary for those seeking to be faithful.


Teri McDowell Ott is a Presbyterian pastor who currently serves Monmouth College (IL) as chaplain. After serving in parish ministry for 13 years, Teri now feels called to the liminal space between the sacred and the secular, the church and the ‘nones,’ the traditional and the contemporary. Teri feels called to build bridges between these spaces, especially through her writing and blogging. She has written essays for Hippocampus, Mamalode and The Christian Century and she blogs at www.terimcdowellott.com. Teri, her husband, Dan, their two tow-headed children and their skittish German Shepherd live in the middle of a corn field in Western Illinois.