Author Archive

The Bible in Public Schools: Q&A   Leave a comment

This article was first published on June 5th, 2017 at progressivechristianity.org

Becky via Facebook, writes:

Question:

Why is it that our children can’t read a Bible in school, but they can in prison?

Answer: By Rev. David Felten

Not to put too fine a point on it, but where did you get the idea that children can’t read a Bible in school?! Of course kids are allowed to read the Bible in school – ANY tax-supported public school. I’d hope the school would expect the students to complete their other class work prior to reading their Bible, though. Kids are in our public schools for a general education, not religious training.

As I see it, this is one of those trigger questions that usually exists for the sole purpose of provoking a self-righteous tsk-tsk-tsk and a head-shaking “Isn’t it a shame what our country has come to?” response. Most of those who “like” or “share” these intentionally incendiary questions don’t actually follow up on whether the questions are based in reality or not. They’re simply happy to point to another supposed example “proving” their bias that liberals are disrespecting the Bible and ruining the country.

But regardless of whether this is a provocative rhetorical question designed to stir righteous indignation or a legitimate question, it deserves a legitimate answer.

At present, the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment has been interpreted as guaranteeing both the respect of and freedom from religion, so the issue is not primarily about the individual student’s rights as it is about school sponsorship. In practice, Supreme Court rulings basically steer schools toward establishing a non-religious or neutral atmosphere – which is why teachers are discouraged from overt displays of religious paraphernalia at their desks and church groups are not allowed to hand out Bibles and other evangelistic propaganda at public schools.

Why would distributing Bibles at schools be a bad thing? Well, for one thing, not all Bibles are created equal. I wouldn’t want para-church groups distributing The Living Bible, for instance. The Living Bible is a loose paraphrase that, wherever possible, opts for anti-Semitic and homophobic language in its paraphrase – all the better to shore up their pre-existing prejudices.

When I was attending public High School, I took a course that had been intentionally designed as a non-devotional and impartial look at “The Bible as Literature.” This class familiarized us with the text, its origins, and from an objective perspective, analyzed the literary forms and stories in a variety of versions. Extra care was exercised by the teacher to make sure there was no proselytizing and that politically biased translation choices were acknowledged for what they were: theological propaganda. This academic approach to the Bible did not go over well with the more pious students who were not only unable to make the leap to reading the Bible critically, but saw the exercise as an attack on their faith.

And that’s the rub. Many fervently religious Americans just don’t get the fact that the beauty of our civic life together is its intentionally secular nature. This is not an attack on religion but the creation of one of the greatest gifts of democracy to the Western world: an open and tolerant society free from the disruptive influence of religious extremism. Schools and other public institutions must constantly defend against the encroachment of religious bias – or risk the proverbial slippery slope that, unguarded, leads to various worst-case-scenario “Handmaid’s Tale”-style theocracies.

So while Bibles and Bible reading are allowed in our schools, it is with the express understanding that the school is not sponsoring devotional Bible reading. The establishment clause was included in the First Amendment as a safeguard against the tyranny of the religious majority crushing the minority. To that end, it is the obligation of our schools that classrooms remain free of actions or displays by a dominant religious voice that intimidates or discriminates against those of a minority – or no – religious tradition.

Likewise, schools are not allowed to sanction prayer at official events. As a pastor and father, I agree. I am opposed to school prayer on two grounds: compulsion and content. As with Bible reading, I don’t want my kids forced into compulsory prayer and I don’t want to open the door to Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christians shaping the content of those prayers.

There are plenty of opportunities to cover the content of various religions and the influence of religious figures in history class, literature, and social studies. But if the Bible reading you do at home and at church is not enough, then you may want to investigate enrolling your child at a private religious school where devotional Bible reading is part of the curriculum. However, be forewarned. Many schools that include devotional Bible reading will often promote doctrinal compliance over critical thought – and may even expect your child to believe that dinosaurs and humans co-existed together on a 6,000-year-old flat earth created in six literal days.

So, be not afraid of the zealous but ill-informed Christians who continue to warn of certain apocalypse because Bibles are not allowed in schools. Bibles most certainly are allowed – and are sometimes even studied. They just aren’t allowed as a means of evangelism, discrimination, or intimidation.

~ Rev. David Felten

About the Author

David Felten is a full-time pastor at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, Arizona. David and fellow United Methodist Pastor, Jeff Procter-Murphy, are the creators of the DVD-based discussion series for Progressive Christians, “Living the Questions”.

 

A Legacy Worth Pursuing: Jack Spong and The Rest of Us   Leave a comment

This column first appeared on johnshelbyspong.com on Dec. 1st, 2016. It is re-posted here with permission. 

img_4994

At home with Jack and Christine, 2015

Dear Jack,

When I learned of your stroke in September, I was en route to the fourth Common Dreams Conference in Brisbane, Queensland. Having no details at that point and being a half-a-planet away, I was anxious about having to endure the uncertainty of this news on my own. I needn’t have worried, though. As it turns out, I couldn’t have found myself in a more supportive and equally concerned crowd anywhere in the world.

Few people know as well as you the peculiar feeling of being both reviled and beloved around the world. But it seems to me that nowhere are you more respected than in Progressive Christian circles Down Under.

I look back with fondness on the inaugural Common Dreams event in Sydney back in 2007. Although it wasn’t your first trip to Australia, CD1 was a seminal event I feel fortunate to have attended. As you’ll recall, when news broke that this “rogue heretic” (that would be you) was once again descending on Australia, the Archdiocese of the Sydney Anglican Church sent out a press release banning you from setting foot on any Anglican property while in their city. This was, of course, the best publicity the organizing committee of Common Dreams could have ever hoped for. I recall the delight (tinged with sadness) you expressed in having your infamy splashed across the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald. While providing further proof to the non-religious that the church (or at least the Sydney Anglican Church) was hopelessly irrelevant in its obsession with the past, your notoriety resulted in interviews and other media exposure that drew a crowd exponentially larger than expected. I remember your presentations being both inspiring and encouraging to a crowd that was yearning for new directions. Looking back, your trademark tenacity in the face of controversy seems to have been one of the catalysts for what continues to grow as a broad and evolving network of Progressive Christians in Australia/New Zealand.

And so it goes – all across the globe – a legacy of certainties called into question, death-dealing dogmas called out, exclusive and privileged institutions put on notice. You are at one and the same time one of orthodoxy’s worst nightmares and a cup of cool water to the beloved community of “church alumni/ae” – and all of this with a focus, a grace, and a humility that confounds your critics.

Those very traits were foremost in my mind when, as you may remember from last summer, eight churches in our town decided to preach a six-week sermon series on whether “Progressive” Christianity was “fact or fiction.” As the only progressive church in Fountains Hills (one that welcomes the LGBTQ community and shares its space with a synagogue and a Buddhist Center), there was really no doubt in anyone’s mind who this smear campaign was directed towards. As it turns out, the whole episode turned out to be the best advertising campaign we could have never otherwise afforded. The advice you shared with me from your cousin, U.S. Senator William Spong, couldn’t have been more apropos:

“The way you really get to the public is by having the right enemies, not the right friends. The friends don’t do you that much good, but the right enemies attacking you really do open up the possibilities.”

Our attendance that summer was the highest The Fountains had ever had – with lots of first-time attendees who had never heard of “Progressive Christianity” before their pastors started preaching against it. It remains to be seen what the long-term effect of this episode will have on people’s overall impression of Christians. I fear that for many, witnessing a gang of conventional Christian churches essentially bullying a theological minority was just more proof that the American practice of Christianity is hopelessly damaged and irredeemable.

In fact, Jeremy Greaves (the Venerable!) and I were just reflecting on that sentiment earlier today. You might remember that Jeremy is serving as the Rector at St Marks, Buderim and the Archdeacon for his area of Queensland. We were Skyping today about his having been chosen to become the new Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Brisbane. No sooner had the announcement been made than the denunciations began — including enough hateful phone calls that Jeremy is considering changing his phone number!

Jeremy said, “It’s strange how people who I’ve never met feel like it’s important to ring me and tell me why I’m wrong. And what takes me by surprise is not that people want to ring me and disagree, but the level of anger, venom, and nastiness. It must be exhausting being that angry. It certainly is exhausting being on the other end of it.”

Jeremy’s friends outside the church see this all happening and say, “Really?!?” They’re bewildered because they know the sort of person Jeremy is and don’t care much about what doctrines he holds to be true. It simply confirms the suspicions they’ve had about the church and Christians for most of their lives.

So for Jeremy, Jeff Procter-Murphy, me, and so many others like us, you remain a profoundly important role model. Despite all its flaws, its backwardness, and downright mean-spiritedness, we are still drawn to the promise of “the church” and its potential to be a force for good in the world. We resist the urge to throw up our hands in frustration or sink into a funk of inaction. We have seen in you the example of one who refuses to abandon the church to those who would turn back the clock and leverage the institution to legitimate their fears and prejudices.

The challenge for many Progressives, both clergy and laity, is daunting: to stay in the institution and not be broken by it. In you we’ve seen what it takes and are inspired to rise to the challenge.

No matter how controversial, it is crucial for those of us who are clergy to follow your lead in translating the often esoteric theological musings of academia into language that is both understandable and relevant to thoughtful lay people. We need to muster the courage to be outspoken social critics, ecclesiastical whistle-blowers, and prophetic voices calling discrimination and injustice what it is, even in the face of a persistent status quo. All the while being able to express a genuinely pastoral ethos in the advocacy of the most radical of ideas. Sheesh. I don’t think you realize how high you’ve set the bar for us.

And that doesn’t even begin to acknowledge the challenges posed by our presidential election. What’s a self-respecting Spongophile to do? How do we face the coming whirlwind of priorities, policies, and actions that discredit, disrespect, and cast disdain on the very people and ideals that you’ve spent a lifetime defending?

In light of the confusion, fear, vengeance, and violence that seems to have been unleashed in our midst, I ask myself how I can possibly resist the urge to despair. But then I turn to my own personal canon of texts that serve to renew me in challenging times. One of those for me is an excerpt from your talk in Session 12 of LtQ’s series, “Saving Jesus Redux.”

In it, you remind us why our mission as followers of Jesus is so crucial in our day:

“Those of us who want to constitute ourselves as disciples of this Jesus have a single responsibility and that is to try to build a world in which every person in that world has a better opportunity to live fully and to love wastefully and to be all that they can be in the infinite (variety) of our humanity. And when the world learns that that’s our message — and we begin to be faithful to that message — then there will come forth from the disciples of Jesus such a mighty reformation that the whole world will begin to find in the body of Christ life and love and wholeness. That’s what God is all about. That’s what you and I as disciples of Jesus must also be all about. It’s a universal message that transcends the boundaries of that religious enterprise that so often sets us at odds, one against another.”

Over and over again, you’ve reminded us that Jesus’ call is for us to be whole and real, not religious; loving, not moral and righteous; inclusive, not hating everybody that disagrees with us and claiming superiority over them. You’ve proclaimed it wherever there are ears to hear: the mark of Jesus’ disciples is to be loving. A call to life. A call to love. A call to be all that we can be.

I don’t know if you read the pep talk that President Obama gave his daughters after Donald Trump was elected, but it seemed to be of a piece with what you have said and demonstrated in so many ways:

“You should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or maybe inside you that you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop. You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, OK, where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward?’”

And that’s really the motive for this note to you – expressing my gratitude (and maybe a little aggravation!) at your having pointed out SO many places that need to be pushed to keep things moving forward. It is downright daunting.

But perhaps one of the things I’m most grateful for is your expectation of not just me, but of all of us, clergy and laity alike. It’s a kind of unspoken summons where, in so many different circumstances, you have demonstrated the importance of standing up and speaking out — not just as “professional” public theologians, but as informed lay people in particular.

I’ve seen it at work. It happens around kitchen tables and in coffee shops, on long drives and quiet walks where conversations turn to the things that really matter in life – and often those “things” are weighed down by the burden of long obsolete religious ideas and assumptions. Through your books, lectures, and columns, you provide the vocabulary and give permission to ordinary people to struggle, doubt, and even reject the dogma of their birth. You’ve opened new spiritual vistas for them. You’ve shown the power of simply sitting with and encouraging the hurting and the fearful without burdening them with platitudes or the weight of long-irrelevant theologies. And taking all of it together and holding it up to the light, one of your greatest gifts becomes clear: the ability to stir even those who consider themselves the “least of these” into action.

Let’s be honest. People cannot not have an opinion about Jack Spong.

Whether you’re stirring people up to totally reevaluate everything they’d ever thought they knew or steeling a Fundamentalists’ resolve to maintain the status quo, your life and teachings demand a response. And THAT’S what I’m going for. That’s a legacy worth pursuing. And insofar as I’m able to achieve even the tiniest sliver of that goal, I can say without hesitation that it is all your fault.

Working with Jeff to develop Living the Questions has had a lot of unexpected benefits, not the least of which has been your friendship and mentorship. I will always be grateful for your wisdom, your support, and your encouragement. I look forward to connecting with you and Christine in person sometime soon.

In the meantime, best wishes to you in your continued recovery. We who seek to live, love, and be all that we can be offer our love and gratitude!

With love,

David

PS: Tell Christine I’m grateful for her encouraging note. She must be taking lessons from you. All it said was, “We hope you are still raising a ruckus!” Tell her she can rest assured, there’s plenty to raise a ruckus about. I’m on it!

____________________________

Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Jeff Procter-Murphy, the Venerable Jeremy Greaves, and Penny Davis, Director of the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology for their input.

 

davidjackspong281x200

David with Bishop Spong in 2003

David Felten is a full-time pastor at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, Arizona,  a musician, and with Jeff Procter-Murphy, is one of the co-creators of Living the Questions. He is also a co-founder of the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology and  a founding member of No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice, an outspoken voice for LGBTQ rights both in the church and in the community at large.

No Way to Live   Leave a comment

Brueggemann Contradict
“Our society is dominated by the self-serving who proceed by ways of calculation and cunning and manipulation and deceit. But such a society — with its violence, its consumerism, its militarism, its alienation — is no way to live. To ponder an alternative, from greed to generosity, from self-serving to gratitude, our whole life made available as one long thank offering” is transformative. “Such a way of life contradicts the way of the world.”

— Walter Brueggemann in Living the Questions’ “Countering Pharaoh’s Production-Consumption Society Today”

Unknown-1Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the world’s leading interpreter of the Old Testament and is the author of numerous books, including Westminster John Knox Press best sellers such as Genesis and First and Second Samuel in the Interpretation series, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, and Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes.

 

 

Celebrating TEN YEARS of Living the Questions! 20% off!   Leave a comment

LtQ Catalog Cover 2015Ten years ago, the real world needs of two United Methodist pastors in Arizona led to the development of a DVD and web-based curriculum designed to help people wrestle with the relevance of Christianity in the 21st century.

Rev. David Felten and Rev. Jeff Procter-Murphy believed that, “at its core, Christianity has something good to offer the human race. At the same time, many have a sense that they are alone in being a “thinking” Christian and that “salvaging” Christianity is a hopeless task. What is needed is a safe environment where they have permission to ask the questions they’ve always wanted to ask but have been afraid to voice for fear of being thought a heretic.”

The result was Living the Questions, a program designed to help people wrestle with basic spiritual and theological questions often avoided by the Church.

Now an entire catalog of DVD curriculum and resources, Living the Questions seems to have struck a nerve. Today, over 6,000 churches around the world use LtQ curriculum as a catalyst for asking important questions about where the church is going and the part each of us has in the process.

To celebrate the ten year anniversary of material that has been called both “inspiring” and “transformational,” Living the Questions has released A NEW CATALOG FOR 2015. Distributed as an insert in a recent volume of The Christian Century, we offer it here as a pdf file for your perusal.

Also available for a limited time is a SPECIAL 20% DISCOUNT on any adult curriculum order. Just enter the discount code LtQB2 as you check out at www.livingthequestions.com

Thank you for your continued support and encouragement. We look forward to the next ten years of “Living the Questions” together!

CLICK HERE TO OPEN A PDF FILE OF LtQ’s 2015 CATALOG

LtQ Catalog 20% off testimonial page 2015

In Memory of Marcus: March 11, 1942 – January 21, 2015   1 comment

A memorial celebrating the life and influence of Marcus Borg will be held on Sunday, March 22nd, 2015. This public service of remembrance will be at 2pm at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. As a modest tribute to Borg’s contribution to “Living the Questions,” we offer this clip of Marcus demonstrating a body prayer for your own devotional and memorial use in concert with those celebrating in Oregon this weekend (excerpted from “Living the Questions: An Introduction to Progressive Christianity”).

 

Save 50% on Saving Jesus Redux Curriculum Edition   Leave a comment

SJ2 LogoSPECIAL LIMITED TIME OFFER

Save 50% on Saving Jesus Redux Curriculum Edition now through Tuesday March 24th when ordering online at www.livingthequestions.com!

Ever feel like Jesus has been kidnapped by the Christian Right and discarded by the Secular Left? Saving Jesus Redux is total revision of Living the Questions’ popular 12-session DVD-based small group exploration of a credible Jesus for the third millennium. New contributors including Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, and Robin Meyers join Marcus Borg, Walter Brueggemann, John Dominic Crossan, Matthew Fox, Amy-Jill Levine, and a host of others for a conversation around the relevance of Jesus for today.

The 12-session curriculum edition program includes a printable participant reader/study guide with background readings and discussion questions. The basic format for each 1 – 1½ hour session includes conversation around the readings, a 30-minute video segment and guided discussion.

Saving Jesus Redux Curriculum Edition is licensed for small group use and includes a two-disc DVD set and one year renewable subscription to the downloadable study materials. List Price = $250.00 plus s/h.

Use coupon code SJR5CC before March 24th to receive 50% off the list price.

Simply go to the Living the Questions Web Site and place your order using coupon code: SJR5CC

Please Note: You must be logged in to your member account when placing your order/entering the coupon code for the coupon code to be recognized and the discount to be deducted. If you do not have a member account set up, please do so at Create an Account prior to placing your order. You are welcome to share this offer with others.

Offer Expires: March 24, 2015

LtQ Keynote in Canada, Eh?   Leave a comment

EE 2015 poster

David Felten, author and co-creator of Living the Questions, joins author, storyteller, and professional firebrand Peter Rollins presenting keynote addresses at this year’s Epiphany Explorations in Victoria, British Columbia.

Since 2003, First Metropolitan United Church has organized this eclectic mix of presentations, music, and visual arts. The conference includes stimulating and provocative presentations by prominent theologians, authors and writers from many Christian denominations, as well as speakers on social justice issues. Topics include church renewal, recent findings of theological scholarship, contemporary understandings of faith, as well as opportunities for spiritual nurture.

For more info on the Conference, CLICK HERE. For info on livestreaming the conference, CLICK HERE

%d bloggers like this: