Review: Reclaiming Hope

Reclaiming Hope

Reclaiming HopeMichael Wear. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2017.

Summary: Written by an Obama staffer in his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and faith outreach director in his 2012 campaign, this is not only a narrative of that work, but also an exploration of controversial decisions made by this administration, and how Christians might think of the possibilities and practice of political involvement.

Michael Wear got involved in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign after following his rise in politics following the 2004 Democratic convention speech that brought Obama to national attention. After the election, he was appointed as a staff member in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under Joshua DuBois. He worked in this office, contributing to efforts to provide tax breaks for adoptions and commitment of the administration to actively fighting human trafficking. He completed his service in the Obama administration heading up the 2012 faith outreach efforts during the presidential campaign. This book discusses that work, which ended with the second inauguration, after which he launched a consulting firm.

It begins with the idealism that surrounded the election of Obama, and the early hopes of an inclusive politics. He highlights Obama’s defense of the inclusion of Rick Warren against people who opposed him for his support of California’s Proposition Eight. An administration that started with a concern to include differing views at the table changed as the Affordable Care Act legislation worked its way through Congress. Concerns about abortion, and the unbending resistance on the contraceptive mandate aroused a sense that the administration was engaged in a war on religion.

Likewise, Wear wrestles with seemingly sincere statements about religious faith and support of traditional marriage by candidate Obama, only for him to “evolve” to a different position, eventually supporting gay marriage, with evidence that this had been the end goal all along. It causes him to wrestle with some of his own work, including speech-writing research that drew on his knowledge of religious audiences.

In reading this, one has a sense of missed opportunities, by both the Obama administration and the political opposition, that led to a hardening of attitudes and deepening of divides. Yet for all this, Wear is neither bitter nor disillusioned. His last two chapters concern the theme of hope. The first of these concerns the error of placing hope in politics. Here he recounts a fascinating interchange between writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Washington pastor Thabiti Anyabwile over this subject. In the final chapter he talks about the important role Christians, who do not put their ultimate hope in politics, can play in reclaiming hope for engagement in the process–hope that is committed, seeks justice, and is humble. He contends there is important work to be done and for Christians to come together around in both racial justice issues and religious freedom.

This last was particularly striking. It seems like these often are treated in a mutually exclusive fashion–you can only be for one or the other. Yet we are in fact in a country where there are both deep racial inequities, and where religious freedom faces real threats. Rather than accepting partisan binaries, why not stand together in a both-and fashion on this and other issues? Similarly, he contends that since marriage has been extended to same sex partners, why not strengthen the incentives for others to marry as well and revisit the ease with which we grant divorce?

Against a temptation in the current toxic climate to withdraw, he writes:

    “In the face of hopelessness, Christians cannot withdraw from their neighbors, under the impression that they are unwanted and so grant what they think the world wants. We do not love our neighbor for affirmation, but because we have been loved first. Now is not the time to withdraw, but to refine our intentions and pursue public faithfulness that truly is good news.”

Wear has given us a thoughtful book about political engagement, one where we see his own growth, and yet one that does not end, like so many, in disillusion or bitterness. He models the deep resources Christian faith brings to sustain a resilience when one faces deep disappointment, opposition, or simply the realization that the road is a long one. While written out of the context of a Democratic administration, it is not a partisan version of faith in politics, but one that any thoughtful Christian, no matter their party affiliation, may read with profit.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Change of Heart

Change of HeartA Change of Heart, Thomas C. Oden. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Thomas Oden narrates his personal and theological journey through social leftist thought, neo-orthodox and process theology, and trends of ecumenism, feminism, and small group psychotherapy until a personal conversation led to repentance and an embrace of classical, patristic Christianity (paleo-orthodoxy) and landmark works in patristic scholarship and the North African origins of Christianity.

Thomas Oden no doubt would go down as one of the most significant theological scholars of the late twentieth century. Authoring numerous books on pastoral and systematic theology, late in life he led a monumental publishing project, the Ancient Christian Commentary Series and a three-volume series on the influence of early North African theologians on European Christianity. In this volume, he narrates the course of his life, which hinged on a pivotal conversation and the changes of heart and scholarship that resulted.

The first part of the book (roughly the first 130 pages) reflects the course of his life up through the 1960s. From his birth and boyhood in rural Oklahoma, we see the rich fabric of family life and faith, challenged for the first time with the ordeals of Depression and World War 2, with older friends who did not return. We see Oden’s turn in college to pacifism and the leftist ideologies favored by mainline youth ministries. He speaks at several points of the common journeys as Methodist youth he and Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled and the common influences of people like Saul Alinsky and Joe Matthews. He eventually pursues doctoral work at Yale and later travels to Europe, intersecting with Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Gunther Bornkamm, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. This section of the book reveals an Oden imbibing successive “movement” theologians and immersing himself deeply in World Council of Churches ecumenism. All of this led to his appointment at Drew, and to a life-changing friendship with Jewish scholar Will Herberg. He describes a meeting with Herberg to receive Herberg’s critique of his latest book, Beyond Revolution:

    “Holding one finger up, looking straight at me with fury in his eyes, he said, ‘You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas.’. . .

“Herberg reminded me that I would stand under divine judgment on the last day. He said, ‘If you are ever going to become a credible theologian instead of a know-it-all pundit, you had best restart your life on firmer ground. You are not a theologian except in name only, even if you are paid to be one.’ ” (pp. 136-137).

This led to the “change of heart” referred to in the title, beginning with repentance from the obsession with originality to a dreamed epitaph saying “He made no new contribution to theology.” He moved from the contentious theologies of his peers to the consensual approach to theology of the early fathers. In the circle of New York intellectuals gathered around Richard John Neuhaus bringing together thoughtful evangelicals, Catholics (including then Cardinal Ratzinger) and Orthodox, Oden discovered a different ecumenism energized not by the latest radical theology but rather the classical Christianity articulated in creeds and councils.

This turn to the church fathers and away from the latest progressive causes led to painful breaks with some of his Drew colleagues, but also to the landmark publication project of The Ancient Christian Commentary Series, a commentary series based on the idea of a catena of citations of the church fathers on the biblical text. In the midst of this project, he describes his loss of Edrita, his college sweetheart with whom he was married for 46 years. We see the deep grief of one parted from his beloved only by death, the comfort of the birth of a granddaughter two weeks later and the healing that came in praying the hours, believing that somehow he was communing with both the Lord and Edrita.

The book concludes with the development of a finding implicit in his study of the fathers–the critical role African theologians played in the first five centuries of Christianity, a heritage that has implications for the West, profoundly for Africans and for Christian engagement with the Islam that supplanted it in North Africa. In addition to his writing, Oden founded the Center for Early African Christianity.

I found this to be a powerful narrative of Oden’s life but also the follies of many of the successive theologies of the twentieth century, theologies that distanced Oden from the centrality of the crucified and risen Lord for an empty and unsatisfying activism. His turning makes me examine how deeply I am listening to Christians across the centuries, and not just the “latest thing.” I found myself warned of the danger of being the “know-it-all pundit”. And it left me with a profound sense of thankfulness for Oden’s Jewish friend who risked affection to tell the truth. What a gift this resulted in not only for Oden but for the church.

A colleague, Mark Hansard, also reviewed this book recently. For another take on it, I’d invite you to check out his review.

Thirteen Years Ago

September 11, 2001. I was in Cleveland because I had been asked to speak at the funeral of a good friend that afternoon. I was staying with friends and I left their home a few minutes before 9 a.m. to meet another friend for coffee. It was a cool crisp, late summer day with azure blue skies–it was like this all over the northeast. I had the local public radio station on when the first reports of a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center Towers came on. As I remember, at first they thought it was simply a small plane. No one could conceive of crashing a commercial jet liner into a building. That is, no one until the second hit and was captured on numerous media.

“9-11-11 WTC Tribute In Light from Jersey City, NJ” by Kim Carpenter – Flickr: 9-11-11 WTC Tribute In Light from Jersey City, NJ. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – 

My friend and I talked in fits and starts between watching the coverage and then witnessing the sickening fall of first one tower, then a second. We knew this couldn’t be good, especially for those in the floors above the crash, or anyone else still in those buildings. The stories of tragedy and heroism only came later, as did news of the crash into the Pentagon, and Flight 93 that crashed in PA (which probably made a U-turn right over our heads in Cleveland).

I had some time to still wait before the funeral and so I did what millions of others did that day–call home. All we could do is share our mutual disbelief at the horror unfolding before our eyes–replayed again and again during those days. All we could do is assure each other of our love, clinging to that in the midst of a flood of emotions and confusion. I wanted so bad to be home.

When I arrived at the funeral for my friend, I saw the friends I had stayed with and our first words to each other was about how the world had changed since we had had breakfast together. Little did we know yet of how much would change. But for that space of time, I had to set it aside to pay tribute to my friend, and my friend’s faith in the face of his own death, conscious at the same time of the thousands of others who had very little time that morning to confront those same realities.

As I reflect today, I remember the courage and tragedy of that day–of passengers on Flight 93, of first responders who gave their lives to rescue others, of phone calls from planes and buildings to speak of love and to say good-bye. I also think of the courage and tragedy of the years since. I think particularly of so many young men and women who responded to our country’s call to put their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan or supported efforts in these countries. Some only came home in caskets while others returned bearing physical and mental wounds from their service. We must remember them and continue to see that they receive all the support and care they need, as far as it is humanly possible, to bring healing.

I also think of what we’ve lost as a nation. We’ve sacrificed privacy for protection as we’ve become a heavily surveilled land. We’ve sacrificed investment in our infrastructure, the education of our citizens, and cutting edge research in non-defense related areas to meet real or perceived threats in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the insurgencies we’ve faced seem like hydra-headed monsters–cut off the al-Qaeda threat only for ISIS to arise. We’ve mortgaged our children’s future to pay for the safety and defense of our place in the world.

What I hope we have learned and gained as a nation is a greater sense of that place and our responsibilities in the world, and I hope we find that humbling, and not exalting. All our military and economic power will not make the world behave and act as we wish–it may only engender greater hate and resentment. All our dependence upon our government to protect us has not made us a freer people. I don’t think we can wave a magic wand and make it better–that is also an American myth that I think we would do well to question. I don’t think we can walk away from the challenges we face and the commitments we have made. But I wonder if this is in fact a good day to consider the challenge of Micah 6:8:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (NIV)

Goodness, justice and mercy are ideals we espouse, at least in the abstract. Humility, not so much, but to acknowledge at very least that we are not “the greatest thing on earth” and to recognize our answerability to Someone greater (as well as our place among the other peoples made by this God) might be a far better response to this day than nationalistic chest-thumping.

We remember.

Remembering Mom

It seems appropriate on Mothers Day to remember Mom, who passed away nearly four years ago at age 90. It is likely due to her that this blog exists. Not only did she do the obvious of giving birth to me (and my two siblings). She was an avid reader and I still remember lunch times at home. Part of the time was spent reading our books. Part of the time was spent talking about them–I guess that’s where the reviewing part comes in. I loved exploring the shelves of books in our house, including the stash behind the clothes rack in my closet. I guess that might explain the proliferation of books in my own home.

Mom after Carol was born

The first picture here is of my mom after giving birth to my sister in 1960. She looks pretty amazing considering she was nearly 41 and had just had her third child. The second picture was taken around 1990 when she would have been 70. I remember one of my male friends visiting our home when I was a teenager and when we were alone, he said, “Boy, your mother is hot!” I nearly punched him because you just didn’t go saying those things about one’s mother. But with the perspective of age, I have to say my friend was right!

Mom cropped

Mom was beautiful and smart as well. She was a good student and represented her high school (Chaney High School, the same school I attended) at a statewide Chemistry competition. If she were growing up today, she might have gone on to college, and perhaps a career in science or engineering. She loved learning all her life and was mentally sharp to the last.

In her later years, we would talk on the phone every Sunday, about what was going on in Youngstown, what she was reading, and politics local and national. She was a “died in the wool” Republican despite living in a heavily Democratic part of town. Consequently, for years she was recruited to work at her local voting place. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but you could always count on a lively conversation!

What I most remember was how she was always there for us as a family. I was sick quite a bit in my early elementary years until I got rid of my inflamed tonsils. I never was made to feel bad for being sick. Rather, it seemed like she always knew what to do to make one comfortable, whether it was a pain-reliever, a re-made bed, putting on the TV to watch (something we rarely did during daytime hours), or a glass of orange juice. She was also there to talk with when we came home from school. She wasn’t a helicopter parent running into school whenever there was a problem. Most of the time we talked it out and she helped me think through how to deal with a teacher, or a kid who was picking on me.

My mother’s name was Dorothea. I always thought that was one of the most beautiful names I knew. It means “gift of God” and I think we all would agree that she was that to our family. She stood by all of us in hard times and good.

Our own son and daughter-in-law treated us to a trip to Outback today and in ordering a steak, I was reminded how much my own mom loved a good steak, medium to medium rare. We were celebrating my wife, who also is a wonderful gift, but I could not help remembering with gratitude the “gift of God” my own mother was, and how much I loved her, and how much I miss her this day.



Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Part One

OH Youngstown aA while back I wrote a post titled “What’s Missing in the Diversity Discussion” and I observed that what we often don’t explore, although good work on this has been done, is the area of class differences. I mentioned growing up in working class Youngstown and being in a seminar where as a “get to know you” exercise, we could propose a question we’d like others to ask us about ourselves.  Mine was, “I’d like to be asked what it was like growing up in working class Youngstown.”

In response to that blog, “Steve” actually asked that question. I don’t think I can answer that in a single post but I’d love to give it a start with this post.

The first thing I can say is that, far from being conscious of this being a struggle, my memory of growing up in my neighborhood is generally quite positive. Our home was located on the inner west side of Youngstown, roughly a mile or so from the Briar Hill steel mills. The men who worked in these mills could walk to and from work, and the community was laid out so that almost everything you really needed was within walking distance.

So one thing growing up was that this idea of being driven everywhere was foreign. I walked to school, to the post office, the “Pops” grocery for baseball trading cards, to the Dairy Queen, and Isaly’s for ice cream, to the bank to deposit my paper route earnings, to the library for books, and to Borts Field to go swimming, or meet up with friends for pick up games of baseball, basketball, and football.

What strikes me is that from a fairly early age (say by 8 or 10) I got used to doing much of this on my own, without parents hovering about. There were no parents arbitrating game quarrels. We worked things out, often with the “do over” rule. Yet they were still a significant part of our lives. All of us ate at home nearly every night at a certain time, and often that was between 4 and 6 pm, timed to the end of labor shifts.

I think what made this independence at an early age possible was the combination of this neighborhood web where if you really got out of line your parents heard about it, and those evening meals.  It wasn’t perfect. Sometimes there were dinner table fights. But this sense of early independence combined with a community and family that really was in your life prepared us at an early age to assume our place in that community.

We didn’t know anything about extended adolescence. When you graduated from high school, you either started working (often in the mills or the Lordstown GM plant) or went to college — and often worked in the mills or elsewhere during the summer to pay for it.  Many of our families wanted us to go to college, because work in many factories was hard, dangerous and wore you down physically. They were aware that education afforded the “opportunity for a better life”. Yet there was an ambiguity about this. Education meant becoming part of “management” which was always suspect, or one of those “pointy-headed intellectuals”.

Steve, that’s part one of an answer. Stay tuned for more.

Review: Holy Is the Day: Living in the Gift of the Present

Holy Is the Day: Living in the Gift of the Present
Holy Is the Day: Living in the Gift of the Present by Carolyn Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How often have you’ve been in a conversation where you’ve felt like the person you were speaking with was distracted? It could be something they were anxious about or somewhere they needed to be next. Perhaps you were that person. So often in the breakneck pace of modern life, we are constantly tempted to live in the future.

Carolyn Weber’s book, Holy is the Day, explores this temptation and the gift that living in the present, and being present to the Presence of God can be. She does this through a memoir style of writing, focusing around significant ‘days’ in her life over a several year period, beginning with the day she was sliced open without time for anesthetic for an emergency C-section during the delivery of one her twin boys–and experiences the presence of God as she is facing a situation that threatens her life and that of her unborn son.

Succeeding ‘days’ include the decision to write her conversion story while facing tenure consideration as an English professor, surviving an excruciating migraine with a “U-turn” friend, struggling with the harried life of a mom with three children under three and being reminded that “even Jesus went out on a boat” and so she also could take moments, walks, retreats to remember the Presence. We follow her and her husband on sabbatical, to a visiting faculty appointment and the “exclamation point” house, and the decision to leave faculty life to return to her Canadian home to care for parents and the day of the wonderful news that she was pregnant when physicians said this was impossible, and the day she learn of possible birth defects in her child. The book ends leaving us uninformed of the outcome but conscious of someone who is living in the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, awaiting with hope the One who is Present to her.

The book is written by one who loves words, literary allusions, and the metaphorical use of language, and word play. I found that because of this, I needed to slow down to be present to this writing, to reflect on the metaphors and the poetry of MacDonald and Wordsworth and others. This is a book to be savored slowly and thoughtfully but doing so can take one into a place of being present to the present moment, and to the One whose Presence matters above all else.

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(I should also mentioned that my good friend and colleague Jamie Noyd, has just written a review of this book as well on her blog, “Walking the Path of Story.”)