March/April Issue


Running to Stand Still

From Jason Lief

And so she woke up
Woke up from where she was lying still
Said, "I gotta do something
About where we're going"

You gotta cry without weeping
Talk without speaking
Scream without raising your voice

You know I took the poison
From the poison stream
Then I floated out of here

I never really knew my grandpa Magnuson--he died shortly after my fifth birthday party. I have a picture of him and my grandma on their wedding day--he's dressed in his best suit and she's wearing a nice dress. It's somewhat of a sad story, really. None of my grandma's family came to the wedding--grandpa didn't have the right religious pedigree. I think about the hard life grandma lived every time I look at their wedding picture. Her married life began in loneliness and shame; truth be told, it didn't get much easier. My grandpa worked as a janitor at the local elementary school while grandma worked as a cook at the hospital. My mom remembers how as a young girl she would go along to pick grandpa up from the local bar. The bar tender would compassionately set her up on a stool and give her a bottle of coca cola as they calmly tried to talk grandpa into going home. He had the volatile mixture of a bad temper and alcohol, but my mom only has good things to say about him. "He was my dad," She says, "I loved him."


Quotidian Mysteries

From Theresa Latini

Two weeks ago author Kathleen Norris presented the James I. Cook lecture in Christianity and Literature at Western Theological Seminary. For those unfamiliar with her work, Norris is a New York Times Bestselling author who weaves together themes of faith, community, simplicity in elegant prose and poetry that delights. Norris is also a Benedictine oblate. Her conversations with faculty and students at Western Seminary were brimming with insights, quotes, and wisdom gleaned from the Christian Patristic and mystical writers as well as her own experience. 

I had the good fortune of being invited to lunch with Norris and three other women colleagues. I imagined scintillating discourse about spirituality and the craft of writing. And then I realized that it had been many years since I had read any of Norris’ works and that I ought to familiarize myself with more of them. This was born of respect, on the one hand, and to be honest, of fear that I wouldn’t keep up with the conversation, on the other. As for the latter, graduate studies and nine years of scholarly conversations have socialized me into a competitive academic culture built around proving one’s erudition. I’ve been part of far too many conversations characterized by insecure attempts to demonstrate one’s intellectual capacities—and actually I’ve avoided much of this, perhaps to my detriment, because I find it so far from life-giving.

As an aside, I would offer this response to Jessica Bratt’s “Doctoral Student Dispatches.” The posturing, the politicking, and the pressure to conform to a particular form of self-expression: it can all be deadening and you are right to notice it and carefully attend to its impact on your soul. Shaping a vocation that avoids what Kathleen Norris calls an “assault of verbiage” and what others have identified as a lack of nuanced, thoughtful, clear intellectual work for the sake of branding is no easy task.


Common Grace and Race

From Jennifer L. Holberg

That Abraham Kuyper was a racist, following the conventions of his time, is something that no neocalvinist today would deny.  His views on race and his theological impact—to some degree—on the rise of apartheid South Africa have been well documented. Nevertheless, beyond being a mere blind spot, the problem of race in Kuyper is situated within some of his most important theological formulations, namely his doctrine of common grace. With Kuyper, common grace is linked to a racialized theological anthropology that disparages the cultures of non-European/American peoples. I raise this not in order to dismiss Kuyper but, rather, because if we in the Reformed tradition don’t attend to this, we won’t be able to address the ways in which racial biases are reproduced in our thoughts and practices. Any assessment of the Reformed tradition’s strength/weakness to address the dynamics of institutional racism has to eventually go through Kuyper, and one place to begin is with common grace.

In his 1898 Lectures on Calvinism, Kuyper writes: “…there is a particular grace which works Salvation, and also a common grace by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammelled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator” (30). Although sin has touched everything, God has given a common grace to the whole world. This sin-restraining grace allows Christians to still see God’s glory reflected, however imperfectly, in creation and in non-Christians. For Kuyper, common grace becomes the basis for Christians to not retreat from the world. The church has plenty to learn from “pagan” philosophy, literature, art, and government. 


Fred Phelps Should Go to Hell?

From Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Fred Phelps, the controversial founder of Westboro Baptist Church, died last week. If you want to know more about Fred, you’ll have to read elsewhere. Was he really excommunicated from his church near the end of his life? I don’t know. In a case of reverse-Damascus-road, is it true he was a civil-rights lawyer as a young man? Weird, if true.

I am more interested in the reaction to Phelps’s death. It seemed like even before he was pronounced dead, I saw all sorts of writing and posts about God’s mercy, even for Fred. Christians seemed to be tripping over themselves trying to do outdo one another in being gracious and compassionate to Fred. It reminded me of the reaction by some to the death of Osama bin Laden. Every possible precaution taken to avoid triumphalism, recrimination, or celebration.

I get it. Trying to be Christ-like. Turning the other cheek. Going the extra mile. No judgment. Not mimicking the hateful bile of Phelps. But some of it felt a little self-righteous, maybe even moralistic. A bit of me wondered if this reaction was really authentic. It felt too smooth and easy. Did it suppress all the pain this man has caused?  Were we too quickly whitewashing all the vitriol he has spewed?

I also saw some of the opposite reaction to Phelps’s death. “Let him rot in hell!” “Glad he’s dead.” “May he receive tenfold what he gave.” I understand this reaction too, even if I don’t endorse it. It has a visceral truth to it. Too often when watching the TV news, I find myself muttering, “I hope there is special place in hell for people like that.”



From Jessica Bratt

Saima Mohsin/CNN

Last week I heard Colin Powell speak here at Vanderbilt, and during the Q&A session afterward, he was asked about the current political situation in Russia, Ukraine, and the Crimea. He gave his opinion and some predictions, but also pointed out that, as far as he could tell, the American public didn’t seem too concerned. “I think most people are more interested in the missing plane,” he said.

Well, yes. Along with people all over the globe, we are still waiting to hear whether the ongoing searches will yield any new information or definitive answers. It’s been over two weeks now since Malaysia Airlines flight 370 vanished with 239 people aboard. Some of us are more interested in the story than others, and of course those who gravitate towards conspiracy theories are having a heyday. But I think most of us, to some degree, are fascinated by this mystery. It confronts us with the limits of technology, reminding us that for as much as our whereabouts and goings-on seem ubiquitously tracked and recorded, it is still possible to vanish completely from the face of the earth. In a 200-foot jumbo jet. With hundreds of other people.

It jars something deeply ingrained in our human psyche, I suspect, when we come up against the limits of our human capabilities in such a striking way. Two weeks and two dozen nations later, the search for the plane has yielded little more than confusing, conflicting data and high hopes about every new piece of floating debris. If nothing else, this saga reminds us how big the earth is, how much of it is covered with water, how little we really have dominion over.