In the monastic tradition of Catholicism, few names in the modern era stand out more than Thomas Merton (pictured here). Today is the right day to commemorate this wonderful writer and thinker because it was on this date in 1968 that Merton died, victim of an accidental electrocution while attending a conference of Buddhist and Catholic monks in Thailand.
One of my early exposures to Merton was the opportunity to write about his book Faith and Violence for a section of the Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union (RIP) I then was editing. (This was in the late 1960s.) The section, called "listen. . .", was aimed at young readers.
I found Merton's writing clear, compelling and insightful. And I've been a fan ever since.
In fact, a few years ago I attended a one-man show about Merton at Rockhurst University, and although I no longer remember the name of the production or who did it, it provided a wonderful look at this complex man, who sometimes pleased the Catholic Church and sometimes infuriated it.
In honor of Merton today, let me recommend two books that at least in some way touch on his life and influence. The first is Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey, by Fenton Johnson, who grew up in Kentucky on land adjacent to the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Merton lived. Next is The Abbey of Gethsemani, by Diane Aprile. It's a big, beautifully illustrated volume that will make you long for a trip to the abbey.
(And for a reflection on Merton published a year ago on Leroy Seat's blog, click here.)
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THE PURPLE PROSE OF CAIRO
Egypt, churning with political and religious turmoil, is getting what it needs -- satire, as this report notes. As someone who wrote satire and humor for several decades, I can tell you that often people understand serious points best through humor. In this case, the satirist is taking on, among others, "mercants of religion." Good.
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THE BOOK CORNER
Western Christians in Global Mission: What's the Role of the North American Church?, by Paul Borthwick. The traditional -- and sometimes repulsive (read Barbara Kingsolver's novel, The Poisonwood Bible) -- of Christian missionaries has, thank goodness, changed over recent decades. Today foreign missionary work is much more about understanding the needs and wants of the local culture and less about imposing Western ideas and demanding that indigenous people convert to a particular brand of Christianity. This new book properly reflects that reality, and yet running through it is an insistence on exclusivist claims about eternal salvation that, expressed in certain ways, cannot help but get in the way of effective mission work in tune with local needs. A small example is Borthwick's use of the code phrase "Bible-believing Christians" without further explanation. Generally that term is used by Christians who would identify themselves as fundamentalist, conservative or evangelical and, at its most extreme, refers to a belief in an inerrant Bible that must be read literally. He also talks about "Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation." Many Christians hold to that, but if one begins foreign mission work with that claim assertively expressed to non-Christians, the missionary's work is pretty much doomed. This book's strength is its recognition that American Christians are not the source of all good missionary work today and that think they are is to cause nothing but trouble. (Indeed, a few years ago I was in, of all places, Uzbekistan, where I found Christian missionaries from South Korea at work. This book recognizes the reality of similar situations today.) A chapter in the book urges a "posture of humility." That's the right approach, but that fails when missionaries lead with exclusivist claims.
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P.S.: I've just updated my "2013 Ghost Ranch class" page found under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. It now contains a link to get more information and to register for the class I'll co-teach (with my pastor, Dr. Paul T. Rock) April 8-13 on "A GPS Approach to Your Congregation's Future." I hope you and other leaders from your church can join us.
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ANOTHER P.S.: I heard the Kansas City Chorale's fabulous performance of British Christmas music Sunday at Redemptorist Cathlic Church. The concert will be repeated tomorrow evening at Asbury Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kan. If you're free, don't miss it. The link I've given you will connect you to a page for tickets.
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ALSO: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online. To read it, click here.