Thursday, February 28, 2013

A dialogue with Peter Rollins

Peter Rollins is this year’s ESR Willson Lecturer on April 8. Our hope going into this year’s Lectures was that they would not just be a one-time encounter with a theologian, but include community-wide discussion both before and after Peter’s visit to campus. We are pleased to share that this is already taking place online, and invite others into the discussion. Below is a summary of a recent dialogue between Peter and ESR alum Micah Bales:


Among other things, Peter is behind a campaign called “Atheism for Lent.” As described on the site, “Atheism for Lent seeks to use some of the most potent critiques of Christianity as a type of purifying fire that might help us appreciate and understand Christ’s cry of dereliction on the Cross in a new way. Just as Christ experienced the loss of God on the Cross, so Atheism for Lent invites participants into that desert space traditionally called the dark night of the soul.

After hearing about and looking into this campaign, Micah posted an article on his blog – “Should we give up God for Lent?,” in which he makes the case that “Tearing down false images of God is an important task, but this cannot be the end of the story. God does not leave Job sitting on ashes and picking at his sores. After the night must come the dawn. Unfortunately, Rollins seems unwilling to engage in the process of developing an alternative vision. Rather than offering a positive understanding of who God is, he seems solely interested open-ended deconstruction.”

After some online discussion, Peter responded to Micah with the post “How Could I Possibly Need Atheism For Lent? I Need God Like I need Air!” In this response, Rollins suggests that “those in the Liberal tradition generally advocate a form of perpetual concrete action when faced with the injustices around them. In the words of Levinas, the face of the other issues a cry for help and the liberal is one who responds directly to that cry. The issue here is the nature of the response, one that can be termed ‘perverse.’ The pervert is, psychoanalytically speaking, unable to say ‘no’ to the desire of the other. The pervert’s desire is to be the object of the others pleasure. They are the one who always says ‘yes.’

“In a similar manner the liberal experiences a cry in the concrete face of the other that always demands a direct response. Hence there is a dislike of critical theory, which involves a form of stepping back from that cry (attending university, reading, writing etc). In Micah’s piece this is classically played out in his use of words such as ‘intellectualism’ and ‘elitism.’ Because the liberal tradition always attempts to say ‘yes’ to the call of the other any form of theoretical activity is viewed as oppositional to (or, at best a distraction from) the emancipatory project. The European tradition of Leftist theory is seen as divorced from the exigencies of actual action to eleviate inequality. Theory is seen as a type of second-order reflection on political activity rather than a form of political (in)activity. We see here, of course, the influence of American pragmatism.

“From the Radical perspective however the perverse response needs to be avoided. This means that there are times when we should refuse to respond to the concrete cry of the other for the sake of wider and deeper transformation. This means having to take on a certain guilt while working toward real change.”

Micah followed up with a response to this, “The Radical Within,” where he argues “that the answer to an unreflective faith is not to cease action, but rather to engage in action that is informed by reflection. The proper response to a religious life that is overly dependent on individual experience is not to deny experience, but rather to hold that experience in dynamic conversation with theory. If we are to live out the full gospel, a balanced and complete gospel, we must wed faith and action, experience and analysis.”

What do you think about Micah’s and Peter’s comments? Do you find the concept of “Atheism for Lent” helpful or not? What other elements of Peter’s work do you find yourself either resonating with or pushing against?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

ESR Alum releases new CD

ESR Alum Adam Webber shares a bit about his new CD project - how it developed during his studies at ESR , and how it fits into his pastoral ministry now:

My new CD, "As a Deer Longs", should probably have been subtitled, "A Soul Slogs through Seminary".  I wrote most of the songs on it while I was working on my M.Div. as an Access student at ESR, between 2007 and 2011, and I recorded, mixed and mastered six of the songs during my Supervised Ministry project with Stephanie Crumley-Effinger.  The artwork for the album (including the 12-page booklet insert) is the inspired contribution of my dear seminary friend and fellow graduate Rob Pierson.  So maybe the album should have been subtitled, "Two Souls Slog through Seminary".  But Rob can speak for the artwork himself, if he chooses.  Here’s my rundown on the music, track by track.

The first song is called “Longs for You”. I think this song is my elevator pitch for God.  What I don’t know about God is a lot -- Master of Divinity, indeed! -- but the diamond core of the little that I do know is in this song: the intensity with which God loves us and longs for us.  I wrote and performed this song for a day-long retreat I led as part of my supervised ministry project.

Next, there’s “Me and Joe and What’s-His-Name”.  This is in more of a folk-song style, and you can hear a bit of the English folk ballad “The Three Ravens” here.  It tells, from a different perspective, a story from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 23.

Then there’s the “Prophet’s Lament”.  This is an autobiographical, comical song about my recent change of career.  I used to listen to my parents’ Tom Lehrer records, and I guess his influence on my songwriting is pretty clear.

The fourth cut is an instrumental version of my “Rider’s Lament”.  I originally wrote this for an a capella vocal trio.  Fans of Tolkien will be able to guess what the words were, laden with the sadness of mortal life.  (I’d publish the sheet music for the vocal version but, sadly, one can’t get rights for the lyrics.)

The fifth track is “Clear Fountain”.  The beautiful background vocals are by my wife, Kelly Autrey-Webber.  My French Canadian grandmother used to sing an old folk song, “Ã la claire fontaine”, well known to French-speaking people the world over.  I don’t suppose anyone else thinks of that as a religious song at all, but for me the clear fountain long ago became an image of God.  My song “Clear Fountain” expresses this.

Then there’s “I Don’t Believe in You”, a blues ballad.  I wrote this song to share the story of a man I met, a Vietnam veteran who was camping, or perhaps living, under a highway overpass not far from Richmond.  When I told him that I was a seminary student, he told me that he didn’t believe in God -- and he told me why.  My brother Ben helped with the piano arrangement for this.  He’s a jazz genius.

Track seven is “Fear Not, Said the Angel”. It’s the only song on this album that I’ve recorded before.  It’s about some of the experiences of God’s presence that I had as a child.  I used to find these very frightening, and I didn’t tell anyone about them at the time.  I didn’t want people to think I was crazy, and I didn’t want them to be right.  In fact, writing this song was the first time I shared any of these experiences with anyone but my wife.  Kelly and I sing this one together.

Next is another reflective instrumental number: “One Needful Thing”.  It’s part of a song cycle about the six-day creation story from the Book of Genesis.  This is Day One -- let there be light -- and the last cut on this album is Day Five -- the creation of the animals.  I wrote these as part of my work for a class led by Bethany professor Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm, a class on Celtic Christianity that took us to the island of Iona in Scotland.  My blog at has links for downloading sheet music for the choral versions, as well as more information about my CDs and other works.

Track 9 is my “Treesong” -- a choral/instrumental anthem as sung by a tree.  A worshipful tree.  It’s hard to explain, but my wife says it’s her favorite.

Next is “Love Small”.  This is a sort of alternative-country song in praise of my little home town of Princeton, Illinois, and in praise of small things in general.  I couldn’t decide whether to include this one on the album or not.  Sometimes, when I listen to it, it seems too corny.  Other times, I think that corny was just the right note to hit for Princeton.

The final cut is “Come to Me” -- an over-the-top, wall-of-sound take on the creation of the animals, complete with animals.

I am currently an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, serving for 30 hours a week as the sole pastor of a small UCC church in Clare, Michigan.  I enjoy the work of pastoral ministry: making pastoral visits, planning worship, preaching, and so on.  But even as I enjoy the work, I know that there are many people I will never be able to reach with it -- many people who will never set foot in my church, or in any church.  For me, music is another channel, a further way of answering my call to ministry.  It certainly isn't a money-making activity.  I'll be very happy if I can sell enough copies of the CD to cover the costs of production.  But it satisfies my restless heart, my need to share with other people what God shares with me.  And it was a great blessing to attend a seminary where this and many other forms of ministry are valued and supported.