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Interpreting Newspapers from Your Bible

President’s Blog
May 28, 2014

"[Barth] recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians 'to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible'" (Time magazine, Friday, May 31, 1963).

In yesterday’s New York Times, I noted at least 5 stories that referenced religion, either directly or indirectly.  They included these events:

  1. The fatal shooting of Dr. Mehdi Ali Qamar, a cardiologist from Ohio who was doing volunteer work, for a second year, at the Tahir Heart Institute in Pakistan.  The killing was considered a “faith-based target killing” because Dr. Qamar was serving in a hospital run by an Ahmadi community (a religious group legally banned from describing themselves as Muslim because they recognize a 19th century man as a prophet of God, in addition to the Prophet Muhammed).

  2. A furor over free speech when the planner of the “World’s Largest Brat Festival” in Madison, WI included a Christian worship service, entertainment by a Christian band, and an invitation (eventually rescinded) to a motivational speaker on the topic of teenage suicide.  The speaker had ties to an anti-abortion group.

  3. Pentagon funded anti-terrorist training in the African countries of Mauritania, Mali, Libya, and Niger to assist resisting the intrusion and dominance of Al-Quaeda/”Islamic extremists.”

  4. Pope Francis’ visit to the Middle East and the competitive rivalry between Jewish and Muslim political leaders to influence and narrate the places he visited, the prayers he said, and the meanings of his gestures.  Pope Francis also offered mass at the Cenacle (“upper room”)/ Mt. Zion/the tomb of King David heightening fears that Rome plans to take over this multiply contested holy place.

  5. Preparation for the 2-3 million Muslim pilgrims who will make their way in October to Mecca for the annual Hajj.  The concern for the spread of infectious diseases and other illnesses (e.g., polio, MERS, yellow fever, malaria, gastrointestinal illness, meningitis) has resulted in readying massive resources for vaccinations, quarantining capabilities, testing sanitary food preparation and guaranteeing safe water supplies. 

These events were reported in just one daily newspaper.  I have not yet read today’s paper, but I have no doubt that I will find as many or more religiously related stories than I found yesterday.  It seems increasingly important to read the newspaper with an eye to how prevalent the thread of religion is in much of what is reported – religion for the good, and religion for ill.  Perhaps the number of religiously motivated events exceed what Karl Barth had in mind when he offered the admonition to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

I have also been reading Elaine Graham’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Public Theology in a Post-Secular Age (2013).  She makes an important observation about the co-existing and simultaneous realities of, on the one hand, the decline of institutional religion and on the other hand, a new “public prominence of religion” with increased interest in spirituality and with faith-based interventions in community needs for health care, welfare, and other social justice concerns.  In spite of the challenges to our familiar forms of institutional religion, the significance of religion seems to be almost ubiquitous in world events.  

Our new graduates will need to be intentional about looking up, and looking out in order to keep the larger picture before them in their role as religious leaders in the wider community.  At our May 16 commencement, I was inspired to look upon our large graduating class, to know that they were about to step into the world  and make an impact for good.  I said to them:

“I hope you will become public theologians, thinking critically, ethically, and theologically about the work of God in the public square for the common good.  And, I hope that you will engage with others who share these values and concerns, and that wherever there are those willing to work for the well-being of all persons, whether they be Christian or not, persons of faith or not, that you will find ways to join with them for the greater good that may be accomplished.

There is no lack of need for strong, visionary public theologians who will roll up their sleeves and take on the compassionate and the prophetic work of Jesus Christ in the world.  We are called to, “Hate evil, love good, and establish justice at the city gate” (Amos 5:15).  And, Garrett-Evangelical is proud to have sent 84 theologically educated men and women out there to do just that.  We thank our God for every remembrance of these graduates knowing that God has begun a good work in them and will stay with them until it is brought to completion (Philippians 1:6), for we know the world remains desperate for the gifts they bring!

Class of 2014


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