How one religious idea gave us integrated lunch counters (and so much more)

How one religious idea gave us integrated lunch counters (and so much more)

Sure, religious zealots have done some terrible damage throughout history, but some beautiful religious ideas have also shaped history for the better. This post is part of a series looking at some of the ways religion has changed the world. I look at how the Benedictines figured out how to make amazing beer here, how a Calvinist preacher created a world where John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme was possible here, and how an 18th century renewal movement unleashed the abolition movement here. Here’s a fourth religious idea that changed the world.   THE IDEA: THAT HUMAN SUFFERING CAN BE REDEMPTIVE The idea that the suffering of one Christian can be used by God for the benefit of others is as old as the Christian movement, but one regularly ignored or forgotten by believers and nonbelievers alike. Christians believe that Jesus’ suffering on the cross pays the penalty for their sins, but even before his death Jesus taught his followers that their own suffering could have a redemptive power. In Matthew 5:38-39, he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” It’s a well known saying, but its meaning

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How one religious idea produced the greatest activist you’ve never heard of

How one religious idea produced the greatest activist you’ve never heard of

We often hear about all the harm caused by religious people in the name of their religion, but good religious ideas have continually made the world a better place. I can think of plenty of simple religious ideas that have created such a ripple effect that they changed the course of history. In an earlier post I looked at how the Cistercian idea of work created an economic boom. In a second post looked at how the idea that beauty is the key to understanding God led to some of the world’s most magnificent architecture, film and music. Here’s the third in this series. How a single religious belief unleashed a remarkable activist and a global movement.   THE IDEA: THAT EVERY PERSON CAN HAVE A SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE OF GOD’S GRACE In the 17th and 18th centuries, there arose a Protestant movement referred to as Christian Enthusiasm. We don’t use that term much these days but its adherents were so transformed by its central idea that they turned the world upside down. Today, we use the word enthusiast to refer to someone who’s really passionate about a hobby or interest. Hence we have car enthusiasts and football enthusiasts, etc. But in around 1700 that term was used in a very specific way. The Greek from which we derive term, enthusiasm, connotes being taken

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How one religious idea gave us the best album of all time

How one religious idea gave us the best album of all time

Recently, I met a gentleman who, upon discovering I taught theology, asked me what was the good of studying religious ideas in our secular world today. When I told him religious ideas have continually made the world a better place, he challenged me to name one. I told him there are plenty of simple religious ideas that have created such a ripple effect that they changed the course of history, and shared a few of them with him. I’ve decided to turn my response into a series of blog posts. The first one, about how the Cistercian idea of work created a Europe-wide economic boom in the 12th century (and helped produce some amazing beer), is here. Here’s the second of those world-changing ideas.   THE IDEA: THAT BEAUTY IS THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING GOD The Christian doctrine of creation is a bit different to that of other religions. Christians don’t believe that God created the world and then sat back and admired his creation from a distance. Instead the church teaches that while God is separate and beyond all creation, he is nonetheless integrally involved in that creation, sustaining the universe from moment to moment. Theologians and writers from Irenaeus to Thomas Aquinas to Julian of Norwich wrote about how creation is an ongoing process, with God actively involved in the

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How one religious idea gave us the best beer in the world

How one religious idea gave us the best beer in the world

Recently, I met a gentleman who, upon discovering I taught theology, asked me what was the good of studying religious ideas in our secular world today. When I told him religious ideas have continually made the world a better place, he challenged me to name one. I told him there are plenty of simple religious ideas that have created such a ripple effect that they changed the course of history, and shared a few of them with him. In coming weeks I’m going to share a series of posts on a number of them. Here’s the first of those world-changing ideas.   THE IDEA: THAT RELIGIOUS DEVOTION CAN BE EXPRESSED THROUGH MANUAL LABOR In the 11th century, a group of extremely devout monks withdrew to a monastery in Cistercium, near Dijon, to live under the strictest interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict. They embraced a severe form of asceticism, seeking to be purified and strengthened for a life-long labor of prayer. They also refused to accept any feudal revenues, believing it to be sullied by the church’s collusion with the state. We’re talking about hardcore monks here. They combed the writings of Benedict, looking for ever-more demanding ways to submit themselves to God, when they came across this reference in the forty-eighth chapter of the Rule, which states: “…for then are

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Don’t let policymakers tell you we don’t care about the poor

Don’t let policymakers tell you we don’t care about the poor

“It’s an 80-percent issue, people want to close down the borders.” – Deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley   “80 percent of Australians do not support any further spending on foreign aid.” – Australian minister for international development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells   Sometimes, when you read the studies into attitudes toward the most needy in our world you wonder where all this heartlessness has come from. We’re told people want DACA dismantled and immigrants deported. We’re told people want a great big wall on America’s southern border. We’re told Australians want refugees incarcerated on Pacific islands, and cuts to foreign aid. When did everyone get so stingy?   LIES, DAMNED LIES AND STATISTICS Relying on a Lowy Institute poll that said 80% of Australians supported reductions in overseas aid, the Australian federal government recently did just that. They lowered the level of foreign aid in the national budget. In fact, the minister responsible for international development quoted the poll itself to justify the cuts. Which must have made the folks at the Lowy Institute a bit uncomfortable. Being cited while they take money away from the neediest people in South East Asia and the Pacific wouldn’t sit well with me either. So they decided to dig a bit further. And what they found surprised them. Yes, it’s

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One of the reasons I’m a feminist is in this urn

One of the reasons I’m a feminist is in this urn

When my mother passed away 18 months ago we undertook that sad task of dividing her possessions and dispensing of those we didn’t want. She didn’t have much left, frankly, having downsized to a room in a nursing home a year earlier. Jewelry, photograph albums, trinkets, a few paintings. And a big old brown urn that she’d had in her home since I was a kid. As we were going through the old photos and jewelry, my youngest daughter Fielding asked if she could have the urn. No one else wanted it, so of course we agreed. On our way to the car with the few items we’d retained from my mother’s long life, I asked my daughter why she wanted the urn. I mean, it’s not the most appealing object I’ve seen. I couldn’t imagine why a young woman would want it in her home. “You don’t know the meaning behind this urn?” Fielding replied. “There’s a meaning behind it?” I asked, baffled. When I reflected on it, every time my mother moved house, from our large family home, to a smaller seaside home after my father died, to an even smaller mobile home, to a room in a nursing home, that urn made the transition with her. Of all the vases, bric-a-brac, and keepsakes that had disappeared over

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The Beast in Me and the Monstrosity of the Cross

The Beast in Me and the Monstrosity of the Cross

The beast in me/ Is caged by frail and fragile bars,/ Restless by day/ And by night rants and rages at the stars,/ God help the beast in me.   If you’ve heard Johnny Cash’s tortured version of Nick Lowe’s The Beast in Me you’ll know he was destined to growl those aching lyrics. God help the beast in me, indeed. The beast in Johnny Cash imagined all sorts of depravity, like senseless violence (“I shot a man in Reno/ just to watch him die”) and petulant arrogance, like shooting a woman because she was lowdown and trifling (“First time I shot her in the side/ Hard to watch her suffer/ But with the second shot she died”). Recently, a friend gave me an old LP version of Cash’s At San Quentin live album. The record opens with the beast in Johnny Cash ranting and raving about how annoying the recording crew were by getting in his way. He swears like a sailor and boasts about his own stints in jail, and his drug use, all the while fulminating about the cruelty of the American criminal justice system. This is Johnny Cash at his most beastly. In fact, this is the concert where Cash was snapped flipping the bird in that now-famous photograph. Little wonder then that Cash was attracted to

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Two apostles walk into a bar…

Two apostles walk into a bar…

Two old men meet in a tavern in a small, unremarkable village. They embrace, their heavy, solid hands slapping each others’ broad backs affectionately. They kiss twice, on each cheek. They sit and drink, hunching over the shared table in a conspiratorial way. The dust that coats their faces highlights the deepening lines around their eyes. Their graying beards betray the years. They are like two old lions, warriors who’ve fought many a battle, but live to fight another day. Wiping crimson wine from his moustache with the back of his hand, one says with a smirk, “You’ve gotten old quickly.” The other looks up and raises his eyebrows. “I just mean,” continues the first man, “I haven’t seen you for a while and you seem to have aged quite a bit in that time.” Another smirk. The other man goes to defend himself or make some equally rude comment, but finally waves his hand dismissively at his friend. “Why do I even bite at comments like that?” he smiles. “You’re not exactly the strapping young fellow you used to be either, you know.” They both smile and the first man reaches across and places his hand on his friend’s arm. The tone turns serious. “It’s the travel that wears me out,” he confesses. “Agreed. And the disappointment. I could

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We can all use a little upgrade

We can all use a little upgrade

This week I saw Leigh Whannell’s new film, Upgrade, a sci-fi horror film that really got me thinking about the nature of Christian discipleship. The movie introduces us to Grey Trace, a bit of an everyman, an old-school car mechanic who loves his wife Asha and distrusts all this new-fangled technology (the action takes place slightly in the future so there’s some cool gadgets on display). When Asha is murdered and he is left a quadriplegic in a vicious gang attack, Grey finds himself confined to a wheelchair seething with desire to track down his wife’s killers but unable to do anything about it. He is approached by Eron, a world-renowned tech genius (with very limited social skills, you know the kind by now) who explains that his company has developed a stop secret, biomechanical enhancement, a beetle-like computer chip, that when implanted in a person’s spinal column can send signals from the brain to the body. Eron calls it Stem, and says he’s willing to trial it on Grey. Stem, he promises, can “bridge the gap between brain and limbs.” It can restore the life that’s been taken from Grey. And sure enough, with Stem implanted in his neck, Grey can walk and move freely. But there’s a catch. Stem can not only interpret brain signals and convey messages

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Tis Merely a Flesh Wound: when Social Justice Warriors feel like the Black Knight

Tis Merely a Flesh Wound: when Social Justice Warriors feel like the Black Knight

It hasn’t been a good week to be a social justice warrior. And I don’t use that term in its pejorative sense. To me, a social justice warrior is what the term suggests at face value, a person committed to fighting for justice. I know Twitter has turned “SJW” into an insult to describe young progressives, offended by everything, incapable of reasoned debate, blah, blah. But for me, fighting the good fight for justice and peace in this world is exactly what Jesus calls us to, and what his followers have been doing for centuries. Being a social justice warrior shouldn’t put you on the left or the right. It shouldn’t deem you a liberal or a conservative. Rather, it should put you firmly in the will of God. The kind of religion the Bible advocates is rooted in justice that flows from the heart of God. It seeks to bring all things into the wholeness of God. As one justified by faith in the God of all justice, I believe we are to experience the wholeness God brings and extend it to others.   This week, those of us committed to that task were dealt a crushing blow when the richest nation in the world, and the one most likely to refer to itself as Christian, enacted a policies that

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