Thursday, November 20, 2008

Book Review: The Faith of Barack Obama

In this short, accessible book, Stephen Mansfield explores the religious beliefs, commitments and convictions of Barack Obama. Additionally, Mansfield supplies a short Spiritual biography for Obama and explores the theology that underlies his faith. Some might assume that Mansfield’s book is an attempt to “Christianize” Obama in order to make him more palatable to Evangelicals. Others might assume that it is a thinly disguised hatchet-job expose’, written with the intention of showing Obama’s supposed Christianity to be a politically expedient prop. Both of these assumptions are incorrect. For starters, Mansfield is also the author of “The Faith of George W. Bush”, and “The Faith of the American Soldier”. He approaches the subject as an investigative journalist, with neither rose-colored glasses or an ax to grind.

Mansfield offers us profiles of both Barack Obama and his controversial former pastor Jeremiah Wright. In this context, he also offers a brief, but accurate explanation of “Black Theology”. Mansfield has also really done his homework here, as he correctly points to the influential work of James Cone. Crucial to this theological perspective is the recognition that the Bible is primarily written by oppressed people to/for oppressed people. The assumption is that the experience of African Americans, with their history of slavery and oppression, are in a unique position to hear and understand the message of Scripture. Thus, a major focus of this theology is justice (with all of its social implications) for the poor and the oppressed. Even a casual reading of the Prophets, and the words of Jesus will prevent you from simply dismissing such a reading as completely ridiculous. This is the theological framework that underlies both Wright’s comments and Obama’s application and understanding of Christianity. While Wright is apparently a bit of an attention junkie, and I still find his comments to be inappropriate, the proper theological context certainly casts all of this in a somewhat different light. Mansfield also gives an insightful account of actually attending a service at Trinity United Church of Christ, which in some ways defied his expectations. As an interesting exercise in contrast and comparison, Mansfield offers one chapter comprised of short spiritual biographies/profiles of John McCain, Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush. Some may see this chapter as extraneous, but others may find the thought exercise helpful.

Mansfield does not shy away from posing difficult questions for Obama, particularly when it comes to difficult issues such as his position on the question of abortion. He examines several areas of Obama’s faith and its application that may be at least uncomfortable for may Evangelical Christians. However, he does not succumb to “Secret Muslim” conspiracy theories or wild sensationalism. His investigation is fair, and leaves it to the reader to make his or her own decisions and evaluations based on a reasonably non-biased and accurate account of Obama’s apparently sincere faith. Some Christians may find their fears or misconceptions dispelled. Others may be deeply troubled by what they read. However you react, you will at least be making an evaluation from a place of understanding rather than speculation or unsubstantiated rumor.

CLICK HERE to go to Thomas Nelson's Page for this book.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Children, Mustard Seeds, & The Kingdom of God

A couple of years ago, I was at the library with Dana and our oldest daughter, Emma. As we were walking back to the car, Emma suddenly bolted down a cement staircase right outside the library doors, which seemed to go down into an unused area of dirt and rather pathetic looking bushes. I started to say something to stop her, but then I noticed that she was picking up trash. I turned to Dana (who had also bent down to pick up some trash while I wasn't looking), and asked what she was doing. Dana said, "We always do that. People always throw trash down there and Emma likes to clean it up." Emma came back up the steps and started putting the trash in the trash can (which, incidentally, was approximately 5 feet from the stairwell, .) Fearing that I had a developing Adrian Monk on my hands I asked her why she picked up the trash. My (then) four-year-old daughter looked back at me with a mischievous grin (like she was inviting me into some kind of conspiracy), and said, "I'm making the world a better place, Daddy." I just stood there stunned until I was able to swallow the lump in my throat. Then, I walked down the steps, grabbed some trash and threw it in the garbage on my way to hug my smiling little girl.

Don't get me wrong. There was still a lot of trash at the bottom of those stairs. She couldn't possibly clean it all up herself. Even if she could have...even if the 3 of us had talked a group of people into helping us clean up that spot of ground...the world would still be a mess. I realize that there are bigger problems in the world than people who throw garbage on God's creation because it was too difficult to walk the extra 4 steps to the garbage can. But that's the trick, isn't it? We skip the little problems because, in our view they pale in comparison to the big problems. At the same time, we don't engage the big problems because we know they are far to large for individuals like us to have any kind of significant impact. The problem is, that every time I start to play that little justification game with myself about the issues in front of me, whether they are "too big" or "two small", I remember Emma's mischievous little grin and her conspiracy to "make the world a better place".

I remember Jesus saying:

"I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven"

Then, his words wash over me again:

"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”

I am reminded that this is how the Kingdom of God breaks through...a conspiracy of childlike mischievous grins, defiantly planting mustard seeds of hope in a world that often appears to be littered with despair, injustice and hopelessness.

As we walked back to our car that afternoon, I silently prayed, "Dear God, please help me be like Emma. Thank you for Dana, who is teaching her to be like you."

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

2 Great Speeches and the end of the Election

I watched 2 great speeches last night. I am well aware that opinions are very divided on this election, particularly among Christians, but I must say that both speeches were inspiring to me.

McCain was gracious, noble and honorable. His plea for unity and his pledge to help (an offer I sincerely hope Obama considers, as a means toward unity) displayed character. His heartfelt comments about Obama's grandmother were touching. Thank you for the way you handled this John McCain. May your supporters display the same grace and character.

Barack Obama's speech was inspiring. As someone who speaks for a living, I was impressed by the delivery. I was further impressed by the absence of gloating. Obama displayed character in his comments about John McCain and Sarah Palin. I was further impressed by his plea for unity and his insistence that, though a segment of the population didn't vote for him, he intended to be their president too and he was listening.

I was also impressed by the way that President Bush congratulated President Elect Obama and called our country to unite.

The call to unity is refreshing after such a bitterly divided political season. May we heed it in prayer, while at the same time we remember that our "first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man. Our first allegiance is not to democracy or blood. Its to a King and a Kingdom."

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Live Election Results

This gadget I'm embedding from Google Maps should track the presidential election results live. I'm really interested to see how it turns out, but I"m also ready for this to be behind us.
I should get back to blogging next week. I have a few theological thoughts I'd like to flesh out here and a few book reviews/recomendations I'd like to post. Until then...enjoy!