The Life of Pi and the Father Almighty

In Canadian novelist Yann Martel’s runaway-bestseller-turned-award-winning-movie Life of Pi, we’re introduced to Pi Patel, a precocious boy from Pondicherry, India.  The son of a zookeeper, he survives a shipwreck on the Indian Ocean on a life raft, with a 450 lb. Bengali tiger named Richard Parker for a companion. Raised Hindu, he experiments with Christianity and Islam, as well, and decides he will practice all three simultaneously, saying he “just wants to love God.” 

This pastiche practice of spirituality is enormously popular- “I just want to love God!” And yet, Christians stubbornly tether themselves to approaching God as “Father Almighty.” In his signature teaching on prayer, Jesus, following the practice of Israel, teaches us to approach God as “our Father in heaven.” Why? Why does it matter what name we use for God?

For one, all of us know from experience, and perhaps embarrassment, that names matter. Anyone who’s ever accidentally used the name of an old flame to address a significant other, or who’s labored beneath stacks of baby name books, agonizing over what to call the embryonic life she’s been entrusted to bring to birth, knows this.  

The pastor/writer/novelist Frederick Buechner, in his fabulous Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, under the entry for his own name, writes “It is my name. It is pronounced Beekner. If somebody mispronounces it in some foolish way, I have the feeling that what’s foolish is me. If somebody forgets it, I feel that it’s I who am forgotten. There’s something about it that embarrasses me in just the same way that there’s something about me that embarrasses me. I can’t imagine myself with any other name- Held, say, or Merrill, or Hlavacek. If my name were different, I would be different. When I tell you my name, I have given you a hold over me that you didn’t have before. If you call it out, I stop, look, and listen whether I want to or not.”

Names are doorways into relationship; they are gateways into intimacy and communion. And ironically, when we forsake calling God by name, in the name of pursuing spiritual experience, this is just what we miss out on- often, when it matters the most.  

This came home to me as I listened to the late (and great) Jaroslav Pelikan, a leading church historian who taught at Yale for four decades, converse with Krista Tippett on NPR’s On Being. When he was asked by Tippett why the Creed matters, he wisely observed that “the only substitute for good tradition is bad tradition.”  He went on to elaborate that, in life’s darkest hours, faith-in-general, or, in his words, “prayers sent To Whom It May Concern,” simply don’t cut it.  

It is good news indeed that followers of Jesus aren’t left to address our prayers “To Whom It May Concern,” but, as our Lord taught us, are bold to say, “Our Father in heaven…”

Jared Ayers is the founding and preaching pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, PA. He is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College, and is currently finishing an M.Div. from Western Theological Seminary’s Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 10 years, and love calling Philadelphia home. They’ve been graced with two sons (Brennan and Kuyper) and a daughter (Rae Ann).


The Half Has Never Been Told

From James Bratt

From time to time I like to use this blog to air out some conversation, or combat, going on inside the guild of American historians. The arguments never stop, with the happy consequence that we members of the profession are kept in work. But sometimes things get tiresome. That’s the case with the hubbub you might have overheard recently over the revision of the AP U.S. History course; all that shouting’s largely a rehash of the big debate in the late ‘90s over national U.S. history standards in the schools.  

Not so with the sharp but brief exchange occasioned last week by The Economist’s review of Edward E. Baptist’sThe Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, just out from Basic Books. The review accused Baptist of miscalculation and bias for his apparently overlooking the remarkable gains in productivity in U. S. cotton production over the first half of the nineteenth century. Surely Southern masters must have created some positive incentives, improved their care and treatment of their laborers, to achieve such wonders. By ignoring this evidence and more like it, the anonymous reviewer concluded, Baptist demonstrated that “he has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.”

The review kicked up such a fury of ridicule that within a day the magazine retracted it. The critics were right, said The Economist; “slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published” intimations to the contrary “and apologise for having done so.”


The Virtue of Brand

From Jason Lief

Judging by its reaction to the Ray Rice situation—the NFL cares deeply about the issue of domestic violence. The Ravens cut Rice immediately after "seeing" the despicable event in the elevator. (Because they couldn't possible imagine how a young woman gets knocked out cold?) But, hey—they did the right thing. They gave Rice his walking papers. Numerous owners, along with Roger Goodell, have expressed indignation at Rice's actions, showing exactly how much they are concerned with the issue of domestic violence.

Yesterday morning I listed to a journalist from the New York Times call all of this concern and moral indignation into question. He argued that the commissioner and owners are less concerned with domestic violence and more concerned with protecting the NFL shield—protecting the "brand." Goodell, who initially gave Rice a 2 game suspension, back pedaled when people complained. "We got it wrong," Goodell claimed as he proposed a tougher approach to domestic violence. The possibility that the NFL would get bad press, and lose money, apparently forced those in power to rethink their moral standards. This is the virtue of capitalism, right? When we all act in self interest inevitably society will benefit. The NFL's concern for making money means it has to take a tough stand against domestic violence, otherwise we won't watch. 

The problem with the cult of "brand" is that it is an abstraction. What is the "shield"? What is the NFL? Is the NFL more real than a young woman getting pummeled by her football fiance? Are corporations and institutions and the "brand" they project, more real, and thus more of a moral concern, than the real people who work for them? The problem with "brand" is that it constantly abstracts the humanity of real people, turning them into cogs that are all dispensable, they are all replaceable, and every one of them can (and inevitablly will?) be sacrificed for the greater good. 


The Problem with “Seeing is Believing:” Reflections on the Ray Rice Video

From Theresa Latini

Of the many new stories in the airwaves this past week, the Ray Rice video rose to the top. Rice, a Baltimore Ravens running back, was suspended for two games at the end of July after a video showed him dragging his unconscious fiancée, Janay Palmer, from an elevator. The incident occurred last February. Rice was arrested but his fiancée (now wife) did not press charges. The case was dropped, but the NFL was pressured to respond with some sort of discipline. So they did—the two game suspension. After a firestorm of public criticism that this fell far short of adequate, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued a public apology and instituted a new and rather commendable policy on assault, battery, domestic violence, and sexual assault applicable to all NFL personnel (not just players). 

A few days ago, the full video of the incident was leaked to the media. It shows Rice punching and knocking out Palmer and then dragging her from the elevator with obvious disregard. Again, public outcry intensified. Rice was let go from the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL.

Much could be said about this incident as it has unfolded, but one question has stuck with me: What did people think had gone on in the elevator before we saw him drag her out?” Marie Fortune, executive director of Faith Trust Institute, arguably the most influential organization in the United States dedicated to training clergy and theological educators about domestic violence, sexual abuse, and clergy misconduct, asked this precise question in her recent blog. While she didn’t reflect further on it, I can’t seem to let go of it.


A Personal Invitation

From Jennifer L. Holberg

Let me begin by expressing my deep gratitude to Sarina Gruver Moore for guest-blogging for me all summer here on The 12.  Sarina is such a talented, wise writer—I know from the emails I received when people realized that I was not the source of the postings under my name how much she was appreciated by all of you.  For me personally, Sarina’s willingness to take over the blog this summer was a great gift that allowed me to really focus on learning: I was in Italy much of the summer, where I had the privilege of studying Dante’s Commediaas part of a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar.  Despite the direness of the summer—what theNew York Times described yesterday as “the worst summer of news ever”— the summer of 2014 for me was rich and restorative. But that is thanks to Sarina and my other friends who made my being away possible. 

It’s the possibilities of friendship, then, that made me want to think a little more about what Jeff Munroe explored last week in “What the Ice Bucket Challenge Means for Fundraising.”  Curious about the phenomenon of the ASL Ice Bucket Challenge that swept the internet over these last months, Jeff notes at one point: 

And not being famous or popular enough to be named by someone is the downside of this challenge.  Millions of people were named, but millions of others who probably would have participated were never challenged by someone else. 

I wonder if the “downside of this challenge” is actually the biggest lesson: people participate—even in things that seem odd or unexpected or costly or potentially uncomfortable—when they are asked.  They typically don’t when they aren’t.  That’s a simple but provocative idea.  Think about its implications. 

Think about how it might change how we do church, how we do ministry, how we do life.