Saturday, September 27, 2008

Read, read, read, read, we're pirates who love to read!

A post I recently read claims that the average American adult has read only six of the top 100 books ever written. I'm not sure who put this list together, or what (if any) significance there is in the numbering, but I thought this would be fun. Try your hand at the list.

The Rules:
1) Look at the list and put one * by those you have read.
2) Put a % by those you intend to read.
3) Put two ** by the books you LOVE.
4) Put # by the books you HATE.
5) Post. (Don't forget to tag me.)

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen# (she's just so freaking whiny!!!)
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien **
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling **
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee*
6 The Bible **
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte* (Monty Python's semaphor version was much better, though)
8 1984 - George Orwell**
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens*
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott*
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare**
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien**
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger%
19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell# (I'm sorry, Jessica, I just can't stand Scarlet...)
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald**
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy%
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams%
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky*
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck*
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll%
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy%
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens%
33 Chronicles of Narnia- CS Lewis**
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis** (although this is part of the Chronicles of Narnia)
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini%
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the pooh - AA Milne*
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell*
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown* (Angels and Demons was better)
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood%
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding*
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan%
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel%
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens*
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley*
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck*
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas*
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac**
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville*
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker*
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett *
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce 
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens*
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker%
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web - EB White *
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle**
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad *
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery*
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare ** (again, this was already included in Shakespeare's "Complete Works")
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl *
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo **

36 of 100. Not bad. I guess this makes me one of those arugula eating, snobbish, elitists that's not in touch with real Americans...

Please feel free to argue with the composition of this list. I could list a dozen or so books that should have been included, and quarrel with a few that are on there. Do we really need this much Jane Austin? Really?...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Growth in the Small Church

I just read an interesting article by Lewis Parks, who is a professor at Wesley Seminary, on the types of people who visit small membership churches.

Church growth can be a touchy subject for clergy and laity in small membership congregations because most of the rhetoric among the church growth crowd tends to have a "bigger is better" mentality, where people not-so-subtly suggest that if your church is small you're doing something wrong. That's kind of like saying "you're not rich because you don't work hard enough" to someone with a back breaking minimum wage job.

At the rick of oversimplifying Dr. Parks' argument, those who need the small membership church are often those who are turned off by and/or have been hurt by mega-churches where they have felt lost in the crowd, and who seek the type of intimacy that it can be difficult (though certainly not impossible) to find in large churches.

It bears mentioning, of course, that not all small membership churches offer the kind of intimacy that these people are looking for. Lots of people visit smaller churches where they are obviously the only non-member, and yet no one says hello to them. Some small churches are comfortable being their own little religious club and have no interest in helping others grow in their relationship with God.

What Parks' article does do is remind us that not every church visitor (I intentionally avoid the term "seeker") is looking for the same thing. Perhaps before churches decide they want to advertise themselves they should evaluate their strengths, have a good sense of who they really are as a community, and seek to put that image out there instead of simply trying to replicate miniature versions of mega-churches.

Friday, September 19, 2008

It's time for more shameless self promotion

My latest article is up on Worship Connection. You can check out out here.

If your browser doesn't like the link, here's the text to cut and paste:

Friday, September 12, 2008

An Open Letter to Governor Sarah Palin

Dear Governor Palin,

First of all, congratulations on your nomination for Vice President. Your candidacy is truly historic.

But as glad as I am that your candidacy represents the great steps toward gender equality that our society is making, some of your recent statements give me cause for concern. OK, I’ll be honest. Some of your recent statements flat out scare me.

In your recent interview with Charles Gibson, he asked you about your view of your fitness to be Vice President. This is an especially important question given the age and previous health problems of Senator McCain. To his question, you said, “You have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on — reform of this country and victory in the war. You can't blink. So I didn't blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.”

I find this disturbing given the practices of the administration you are seeking to replace. President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, and those who serve them have demonstrated their “commitment to the mission” (to use your words) of preventing any future terrorist attacks on this country that they have authorized the invasion of a country that posed little threat to us based on evidence that we now know to be flimsy and intentionally misleading. In their “commitment to the mission” they have authorized torture on individuals to extract information, something which you as a Christian should oppose.

I appreciate and celebrate your commitment to keeping our country safe, but “not blinking” seems to suggest that you will continue the policies of the current administration, and not bring the change that you and Senator McCain are promising.

If you aspire to be one of the leaders of this nation I would hope that you would want to be a moral leader, as well. A true moral leader holds themselves to the highest standards in how they treat all people, especially those to whom they owe nothing. A true moral leader asks difficult questions of themselves and those that follow them to make sure that they are, indeed, doing unto “the least of these” as they would to Jesus Christ himself. A true moral leader considers the complexities of the issues they face and thinks through their decisions before committing to a course of action.

If what I have just described is what you consider “blinking”, then I hope you, Senator McCain, Senator Obama, Senator Biden, or whomever else may sit in the Oval Office will “blink” and think through their decisions in a timely manner befitting the seriousness of their duties and respecting those whom they serve.


Rev. Matthew L. Kelley

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

"Reveal"ing our assumptions

Our congregational visioning team has begun its work, and one of the things we’re doing is studying books about what other churches are doing to work with cultural changes. Two of the books I’ve been considering for our group are from the Reveal series, detailing what Willow Creek Church has been up to in the last few years. Although I ultimately decided against using these books for our visioning process, they brought up a lot of interesting issues for discussion.

My biggest issue with these books is that they’re fundamentally rooted in the assumptions of modernity. Specifically, they work under the assumption that something as abstract and subjective as spiritual growth can be quantified, the variables identified, and that a one size fits all program for furthering people’s spiritual growth can be created. This isn’t terribly surprising, since Willow hired a top marketing consultant for the study they describe in the books. In this conversation, “Christian spiritual growth” is the product in question, and they are using the assumptions and tools of the corporate world to assess how well they are selling said product. When the questions are set up in this way, it’s no wonder that they concluded that spiritual growth could be measured and its implementation managed.

To give an example of how these assumptions play out, in the course of the study they “discovered” what they call a “continuum of spiritual growth” with four components: exploring Christ, growing in Christ, close to Christ, and Christ centered. People can answer a few questions and quickly tell at what point they are on the continuum. But anyone familiar with the theology of Willow Creek knows that the assumptions about definable stages of spiritual growth were already present before this continuum was “discovered”. Senior Pastor Bill Hybels frequently talks about people crossing “the line of faith”, where one goes from being damned to saved, from no faith to having faith. When their soteriology (theology of salvation) is already set up in linear, definable paradigms, is it really a surprise that the conclusion of their research revealed a measurable continuum of spiritual growth?

The questions used in this study to gauge people’s levels of spiritual growth also lead one to question the objectivity of the study. In short, if one responds positively to statements of evangelical orthodoxy, they are judged to be farther along the continuum of spiritual growth. Someone who is absolutely sure that the Bible is authoritative in all areas of their life and absolutely sure that receiving Christ is the only way to salvation is judged to be more spiritual than one who is not sure of such statements. But what if wrestling with those questions is a significant part of someone’s spiritual growth? By this measure, they are still in the “exploring Christ” stage until they come to what the authors see as the “correct” conclusion.

Another one of the modernist assumptions present in this study is the ability to place everything into definable categories. The books frequently talk about “spiritual attitudes” and “spiritual behaviors”, and discusses how one’s spiritual life affects other areas of life. This understanding of compartmentalized spirituality (however influential said compartment may be) ignores belief systems that see the spiritual life as integrative and holistic.

The problem of modernity when it comes to talking about theology is that we assume (falsely, I believe) that one can speak the same way about every field. A proposition can be tested and sufficiently proven or disproven in physics, so it must be the same with theology. The problem is that the laws of physics can be observed and tested using the five senses we have. The subject of theology is something that fundamentally transcends our ability to fully perceive with those five senses, so the language and assumptions in conversations about physics will, consequentially, be fundamentally different than the language and assumptions in conversations about theology. This is why Jesus taught in parables. He would say that the Kingdom of God is like a pearl or like a farmer or a fisherman. He didn’t say, “here are the seven principles to understanding what I do in people’s lives”.

To their credit, the authors admit that it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. They admit that spiritual growth looks different for each individual, even though they stick to their arguments about definable categories. They say that their thinking is not linear in nature, even though their frequent use of graphs showing linear progressions suggests otherwise. It raises the question of whether the writers are simplifying complex concepts for the sake of clarity or merely giving lip service to the idea that God is mysterious.

These critiques should not be taken, to say, however, that the Reveal volumes are totally without value. Far from it. The books have several very important correctives to problems that exist in many churches, evangelical or otherwise. First of all, the books point out that attendance and participation in worship services is not the chief catalyst for spiritual growth. Churches often assume that the more one participates in church activities, the more one grows spiritually. The Reveal study insists (rightly, I believe) that relationships with others is the most important factor to spiritual growth. The books also emphasize service to those less fortunate as a key factor to spiritual growth. These emphases help correct the inherent ecclesiocentrism (everything being focused on the Church) present in most large congregations, and reminds us that Christ is everywhere.

So while I clearly disagree with many of the fundamental assumptions present in the Reveal study, there are a number of valuable things to be learned from it. These books are very interesting and would make for good reading for pastors and congregational leaders, although I’d recommend taking it all with a few grains of salt.