Pulpit and Politics: blogs and books

By Dennis Gruending

Canadian Blog Awards 2009I have been posting to my Pulpit and Politics for just over two years now and it has been a rewarding project. Not long ago the trusty software that counts visits to my blog clocked 50,000 – not exactly a blockbuster but nonetheless significant. I am also pleased that in the Canadian Blog Awards for 2009, Pulpit and Politics placed second in the Religion and Philosophy category. In 2008, it placed first. The awards are based solely upon the number of votes received, so thanks to all of you who cast an online ballot for Pulpit and Politics. The blog is satisfying for a number of reasons. There is an intellectual challenge, which involves a lot of reading, watching and listening. There is the writing, which I love to do. Also, I enjoy the thoughtful responses that I receive from many of you. Often those remarks are posted to the Comments section on my blog, but even more often they take the form of personal email messages from those of you who do not want to have your comments or names posted for all to see. Each of your responses is welcome – including those that are critical of what I have written.

God is Back

I said that I enjoy the reading. Other than my occasional forays into the suspense novels of John Le Carre, Ian Rankin, or various Canadian writers, I like to organize my reading around social and political themes. My stated ambition in creating Pulpit and Politics was to explore the connection between religious faith and public life. This is a broad theme and there is much good writing to support its investigation. In one of my first blog posts, in November 2007, I reported on a special 18-page section in The Economist magazine called In God’s Name: A special report on religion and public life. Editor John Micklethwait said then, “In the 20th century people, particularly among the elites, tended to think that religion was disappearing. That obviously hasn’t happened.” With the exception of Western Europe, he said, “religion has forced itself dramatically into the public square.”

This year Micklethwait and a fellow writer Adrian Wooldrigde delivered a book called God is Back, which extends The Economist’s earlier investigation. The book opens by describing a meeting of Chinese Christians in a house church in Shanghai, attended by a group of young professionals with Blackberrys on their belts and their BMWs parked on the street outside. They believe, among other things, that religion and personal prosperity go hand in hand, because of the disciplined lives that Christians are called to live, and because co-religionists create communities in which people are prepared to support and help each other. There is some truth to that, I suppose, although I much prefer religious faith with a broader perspective. |God is Back then looks into the social and political effects of religious faith in Europe (where it is declining), in America (where it is reviving), and in the Muslim world (where it is thriving but uncertain how to deal with modernity). The authors are quite sanguine about the prospect of greater Christian involvement in the public sphere but they appear more concerned about Islam.

Black Mass

Another writer who I encountered (again) this year is British political philosopher John Gray. He is much more pessimistic in his critique. In his book Black Mass, Gray insists that totalitarian movements, including communism and fascism, were based upon utopian visions that have their roots in religion. “The very idea of revolution as a transforming event in history is owed to religion,” he writes. “Modern revolutionary movements are a continuation of religion by other means . . .With the death of Utopia, apocalyptic religion has re-emerged, naked and unadorned as a force in world politics.”

American Fascists

Another book that is dark in its reportage and analysis is American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges. He believes that the Christian right in the U.S. wants to turn the country into a theocracy governed by Biblical principles as they interpret them. The movement calls for Christian “dominion” over the nation and eventually over the earth itself. “Under Christian dominion,” Hedges writes, “America will no longer be a sinful and fallen nation but one in which the 10 Commandments form the basis of our legal system, and the media and the government proclaim the good news to one and all. Labour unions, civil rights laws and public schools will be abolished. Women will be removed from the workforce to stay at home and all those deemed insufficiently Christian will be denied citizenship.” Hedges believes that this movement in stronger than most of us think, and that it has fascist tendencies. Reviews of Hedges’ book in the New York Times and in the publication Foreign Affairs charge him with over-reaching in his analysis.

Gray makes the point that various religious utopian movements are relatively harmless to society when they consist of small and marginal groups, but become menacing when they achieve power and influence. Obviously, Hedges believes that with Dominionism that movement has arrived in the U.S. There are Dominionist groups in Canada as well although they remain marginal to public discourse. The youth group that organizes events called the Cry each year in Canadian cities is one example, as is a group called the Watchmen.

Feminist Theology

I used the In God’s Name article from The Economist in preparing a 12-week course that I gave at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality early in 2009. (The school is offering winter courses again this year beginning on Monday, January 11 for the information of those of you who live in the Ottawa area). My courses in 2009 allowed me to pull together the disparate threads of much that I had read in the previous year or two and place it into the lecture and discussion sessions that we held. It became clear in my research that men dominate writing and scholarship about religion and public life in Canada. I began to look for a good resource that was written by women, and I found one in a book called Feminist Theology with a Canadian Accent. It’s a collection by a number of Canadian women writers, and one man.

I found the chapters on ecology written by Heather Eaton and Jessica Fraser to be excellent. Fraser, for example, talks about the importance of ecological literacy, arguing that each of us must learn more about the ecological context in the communities in which we live, whether it’s learning more about geology or biology, or measuring our ecological footprint — how much gas we use in our cars, how much we fly, how we heat and insulate our homes. These writers say that we must take heed of the ecological crisis and somehow make that central to our lifestyle, our activism and our theology. I believe that we have done a poor job of this in our churches and our society in general.

Now or Never

An Australian scientist named Tim Flannery, who appeared at the Ottawa International Writers Festival in October, buttressed that point for me.  Flannery has written a book about climate change called, Now or Never: Why We Need to Act Now to Achieve a Sustainable Future. Flannery writes, “With global food security at an all-time low, and greenhouse gases so chocking our atmosphere as to threaten a global climatic catastrophe, the signs of what may come are all around us.” Flannery did not once mention God in his appearance, but upon purchasing and reading his book I was surprised by how clear he is that our scientific crises are at base deeply moral crises. But what, exactly, do we do?  Flannery deals with practical topics such as the practicality of electric cars; whether or not people should stop eating beef; about how we can bring back tropical rain forests; and upon whether the Canadian government’s focus on carbon sequestration rather than upon reducing our carbon emissions is responsible public policy.

I ended the piece on Flannery’s book by writing that “no church that I have attended has placed an emphasis upon the urgent need for environmental stewardship.” A number of you either left comments on my blog or sent me email messages to say that your parish or congregation is, indeed, making environmental sustainability a priority.  Someone even sent me a list of web addresses for faith groups and organizations working on environmental issues. Thanks for that. I hope that we will continue our conversations in the months to come. Happy New Year.

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

2 thoughts on “Pulpit and Politics: blogs and books”

  1. Happy New Year Dennis.

    Blog on!

    Dennis replies: And to you Bene D. Your blogs are among my favourites.

  2. I enjoyed this,Dennis,because it personalizes you. I like knowing what a writer reads and what motivates the work. Congratulations on your win. Happy new Year.

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