Category: Mainline/Liberal

Gerard van Honthorst - Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)

Christmas Without Incarnation

This past Christmas I noticed something: a lot of Christians talk about Christmas without talking about the incarnation, at least not in any meaningful way. This can be from conservatives or liberals (usually the terms theologically, not politically). For conservatives, it most often appears by way of talking about the incarnation as nothing more than a first step in getting to the cross where the real work happens. That’s a problem. The cross was a big part of what the earliest Christians wrote down as “the Gospel” but there’s a lot of other stuff in there, too.

I’m going to focus on the liberal side today, though. Liberals do this more by abstracting away the Christmas narrative into a good inspirational story. To be clear, there are a lot of important details in the Gospels about the birth of Jesus that provide important social commentary. The shepherds being included is a big deal because they were generally not welcome in the upper echelons of society, much like we look down on many blue-collar professions today. The magi were from farther East – probably something like modern day Iran – and were astrologers, a profession explicitly forbidden in the Law and probably associated with another religion.

WikiGodPod: Our Stories Shaping God

Faith Turning Points

WikiGodPod: Our Stories Shaping GodRecently I was talking about stuff on WikiGodPod, a podcast out of the Greater Toronto Area (I live close to the GTA in Kitchener) centred around our stories and how that shapes how we understand God. I’m not somebody who speaks well without preparation, so the potential questions were sent in advance and I spent a few hours the night before and morning of planning. I figure since I already spent those hours writing notes, I may as well clean them up a bit and publish them here.

Mark’s next question for me was:

What were major turning points in terms of faith and God?

Embracing Ubuntu: Queen’s School of Religion

This post is the fourth in a short semi-autobiographical series I’m doing called Embracing Ubuntu. Ubuntu, for those who aren’t familiar, is an African concept that is hard to translate but means something like “diversity in unity.” It is neither uniformity – making everyone the same or not talking about differences – nor is a free-for-all battle where anything goes. It is a recognition that is simple in theory but hard in practice: we are all different and that doesn’t make me better than you. I’ve expressed this idea many times, often using the Anabaptist phrasing the “Third Way,” but in this series I want to give examples of where I have encountered it working.

Many of my conservative friends warned me about going to Queen’s School of Religion for my M.Div. I would constantly be on the defensive, they warned. I would have my faith torn apart, some pretty much guaranteed me. I may come out with a degree for an actually-affordable amount thanks to their bursaries but it would clearly not be worth it.

I did it anyway. I’m glad I did.

My Denominational Story

Recently on the MennoNerds Facebook group, Robert was brave enough to ask for denominational history represented amongst our 199 members (as of writing this). I gave the short version there: United Church of Canada (evangelical), Canadian/Convention Baptist, non-denominational conservative evangelical, non-denominational post-conservative/”emerging”, non-denominational charismatic evangelical, United Church of Canada (liberal), Free Methodist, and (neo-)Anabaptist/Brethren in Christ. Those are the groups who I have been actively engaged in their ministry work. But I’m sure you all want to hear the long version along with some of the main things I learned in each “phase.”

The Decline of Liberal Christianity

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times had a controversial editorial asking Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? It sparked off a great deal of debate about the Christian blogosphere. It mostly stuck to the American context, though. Then a few days ago, Margaret Wente wrote a similar editorial for The Globe and Mail here in Canada, with the focus on The United Church of Canada. The central question: what is going to happen with the liberal forms of Christianity? Wente points out that the average age of members of the United Church is 65, and there are a lot less children joining and sticking around than there are older members dying.

Why is this happening? This is the common answer:

Back in the 1960s, the liberal churches bet their future on becoming more open, more inclusive, more egalitarian and more progressive. They figured that was the way to reach out to a new generation of worshippers. It was a colossal flop.

The Necessity of Simple Living

This is an interesting article from the United Church Observer. It compares two couples, one which reduces its standard of living and another which works a lot of extra hours to continue to have all the extras. If you know me, you’d know that while I also applaud the latter to some extent, I particularly applaud the former. I’ve said before that Christians should be living simply because that was the way and teaching of Jesus and because it enables us to give our excess to those in need. This article talks about another very simple practical concern for our generation: we usually can’t afford to be excessive. Our economy is actually forcing us to be simple. This works for me, honestly, because if the other reasons aren’t good enough for you then hopefully this one will give you the turning point. Regardless of what your motivation is, the article raises some good points: we don’t need to live an excessive life. Even in the rough economic times at the moment, you’ll be fine if you are willing to lower your standard of living from excessive to comfortable.

United Church of Canada: 25 Theologians to Broaden Your Faith

It seems like there is always one interesting article in each month of the United Church Observer about the state of the United Church. This one lists the top 25 theologians, as suggested by a survey of 30 UCC ministers, which they would recommend to their parishioners. I’ve read some, heard of others but haven’t read, and haven’t even heard of others. But I do feel proud that when I saw a Twitter post saying “guess who got number 1?”, I called it – guess I know something about the United Church. The list is after the break, and if you want to read the whole thing which includes some description of who these people are and some of the recommended books from it, jump over to the Observer page.

  1. Marcus Borg
  2. Douglas John Hall
  3. John Dominic Crossan
  4. C.S. Lewis
  5. Karen Armstrong
  6. Barbara Brown Taylor
  7. Annie Dillard
  8. Robert McAfee Brown
  9. Thomas Berry
  10. John Shelby Spong
  11. Karl Barth
  12. Frederick Buechner
  13. Elizabeth Johnson
  14. Margaret Laurence
  15. Jurgen Moltmann
  16. Marilynne Robinson
  17. Dorothee Solle
  18. Phyllis Tickle
  19. Kathleen Norris
  20. Matthew Fox
  21. John Polkinghorne
  22. John Haught
  23. Walter Brueggeman
  24. Martin Marty
  25. N.T. Wright

United They Fall – The National Post on The United Church

Here’s an interesting one for my United Church friends and classmates.  The National Post on May 14 did an article entitled United They Fall about the decline of the United Church of Canada.  I’m not particularly involved in the United Church.  I grew up in one and do currently go to one, but I also have been known to grumble about it too (although if you read this blog you know I also grumble about pretty much every other denomination too).  For those outside the United Church, this article does a great job of summing up the direction of the United Church over the last generation or so.  I thought this quote from Connie denBok said it well:

“In the 1960s and ’70s, we became embarrassed about Jesus. And so we distanced ourselves from Jesus, and the point is, without Jesus there’s no point in having a church. iTunes has better music and the NDP has better policies; everything else we do now somebody else does way better. The only thing we can do is this Jesus thing,” she said.

Book Review: Divided Heritage

This book review was initially prepared for the course History and Theology of the United Church of Canada in Winter 2012.

Divided Heritage: The Presbyterian Contribution to the United Church of Canada goes into great detail of the early years of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. I approached the book with my primary interest being that of the subtitle: what parts of the Presbyterian Church were integrated into the United Church? On this point, I did feel as though the subtitle was a bit of a misnomer, as very little of the book deals with anything after the union in 1925. Instead, the book is primarily about aspects of Presbyterianism prior to union, with one chapter about the union process and nothing about after the union. My primary task of interest as I continued to read, then, was to extrapolate what is described in the book with what I knew of the early United Church. In conclusion, there are undoubtedly many aspects of the United Church which did derive from Presbyterianism, but it was still surprising how little those connections were explicitly made, considering the subtitle.

Book Review: Serving the Present Age

This book review was initially prepared for the course History and Theology of the United Church of Canada.


Methodism is definitely the most interesting to me of the three major traditions which merged into the United Church of Canada in 1925. The main reason for this is probably largely because of the revivalist aspect of that tradition. Serving the Present Age clearly covers an intriguing topic to me, then: the decline of the revivalist form of religion in Methodism and in North American Protestantism in general during the late Victorian era to the point that it was hardly if at all a factor by the time of Union. In the early years of Methodism, there was no doubt that revivalism served as its single most defining feature. Many religious movements begin with a revivalist flavour but quickly fade out; Methodism took longer because it was such a strong emphasis. Over time and with the solidification of North American Protestantism as a whole, though, it eventually declined and Methodism lost its distinctive revivalist flavour. The progressive spirit that characterizes many Methodists to this day came out of this, as the two ideas of saving souls and saving the social order were not considered in opposition in early Methodism as they are often treated today.[1] Over time as North American Protestant began to divide into one emphasis or the other, Methodists moved toward progressivism and the salvation of the social order.