Archive for the Books Category


Posted in Books, Education, Rationale with tags , , , , , , on August 8, 2015 by timtrue

Sewanee fall

Elated to be returning to my alma mater for two weeks this fall!

If you know me half-well, you might wonder if I’m headed to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee to see my two daughters who are presently students there.

Or you might be wondering if I’m returning to spend more time playing Sewanee’s 54-bell carillon, a one-of-a-kind instrument I performed on from time to time during my tenure as a graduate student; the tower in which it is housed stands tall in the photo above.

Or you might be wondering if I’ve got some pressing business with the School of Theology–to attend the Daily Office in COTA (Chapel Of The Apostles) or to sit in on some especially riveting lecture or other or to press a former professor or three on some vexing theological question.

Or maybe I want to spend time with my good friends in the classics department.

Or maybe I’ll be stopping by some of the area congregations in which I served as an organist, deacon, or preacher.

Or maybe I just miss the burgers at Shenanigans.

Truth be told, that’s all part of it, sure.  No doubt I will be trying to see as many people and enjoy as many meals as I can with them, especially the two favorite people mentioned in the first paragraph–not to mention visiting the tavern a time or two too with the older one since she’s turning twenty-one tomorrow.

But none of this is actually why I’m going.  Not technically anyway.  Unless, arguably, it all is.

The truth is I’ve been awarded a fellowship to research and otherwise work on a book.

The book’s subject matter is quintessential Sewanee history–albeit with a splash of lore.  Or, on second thought, it’s quintessential Sewanee lore with a splash of history.  Ghost lore, to be specific; which is indeed a significant part of Sewanee’s history (as is angel lore).

So you know, my fellowship proposal stemmed from a desire that went unfulfilled all my while as a student.  For, as a student (who also happened to be a father struggling to make ends meet–and thus all the carillon performing, Latin teaching, and organ accompanying), I never had adequate time to explore all the ghost lore that captivated my imagination while in the old town (by American standards).  It simply would have been too difficult to write all those theology and church history papers with ghost stories on my mind.  So, while a student, I set the captivation aside, calling it too distracting or whatever, trying to ignore it and hoping it would go away.

But it didn’t.

So now, I’d like to return to Sewanee, I said on my fellowship application, to explore this ghost lore in a focused way.  I want to eat meals and drink pints in the tavern with those who have a story to tell–with those who have lived and breathed long enough in the community to have heard a tale or two enough times to have most of the details worked out.  I want to climb the stairs in the bell tower again to the carillon cabin–a bell tower with a tale or two of its own–and maybe even play a piece.  I might even want to explore one of the graveyards or any other haunt with anyone willing to explore with me–might want to go on a bona fide ghost hunt or two!

And so, yes, technically, I’m returning to Sewanee for none of the reasons listed above.  But, on the other hand, it’s kind of for all the reasons above–and many more.

So if you are a Sewaneean with a ghost story to tell and will be around Oct. 26-Nov. 6, please let me know when and where we can meet for a conversation.

And–oh yeah–Halloween, conveniently, falls right in the middle of my time there.  I’m hoping to share some of my findings in Hamilton Hall during my stay.  Who knows, maybe it will be on Halloween itself–right before a midnight graveyard ghost hunt?

Is Christian Atheism an Oxymoron?

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on January 3, 2014 by timtrue

Browsing through Amazon’s search engines one day not so very long ago, part of a book title caught my attention: Christian Atheist.  An oxymoron, I wondered?  So I placed the book on my virtual wish list for a closer look later–along with other curiosities like (I just looked up my account and these were on it, in fact) Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years around the World on a Triumph, One Man Caravan, and A Child’s History of the World.  This ever-transitioning wish list, incidentally, gets the occasional makeover, when I delete almost everything for lack of interest (though the history book’s been on it since 2003).  It’s a good tool against impulse buying–whether or not Amazon knows it.

So, not so very long ago, I returned to my wish list after something of a hiatus to find this title still flummoxing me: Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing, by Brian Mountford.  No one I know had read it, so I couldn’t go on a trustworthy recommendation.  But the Amazonian description said a thing or two about the author being a priest of the Church of England and that he was convinced that this topic needed to become a part of the ongoing conversation on Christianity’s place in society.  Thus, what with that and the relatively small price tag, I bought the book.

When it arrived some days later I picked it up with a casual interest, like I might be thumbing through a magazine I’d never seen before, curious, perhaps hoping for a flavorful mind cocktail, you know, something tasty to loosen me up a bit but pretty much lacking in any nutritional value.  But within a few minutes I found myself more than intrigued.  I was even almost delighted by what Mr. Mountford had to say, persuaded that what he had to say was right, that Christian atheism (as he defines it) does indeed need to become part of the conversation.

That’s because, in part, Mountford has been able to interact with people like Philip Pullman, author of Northern Lights, upon which the controversial film The Golden Compass is based.  Do you remember when that one came out?  American evangelicalism just about blew a fuse!  The film would somehow entice children away from the Christian faith and convince them all that atheism was the Gospel truth, or so it was suggested.  But Pullman himself has this to say: “I am a Christian Atheist; a Church of England Atheist; a Book of Common Prayer Atheist.  You could add a King James Bible Atheist, if you want.  All those things go deep for me; they formed me; that heritage is impossible to disentangle, like a piece of barbed-wire fence embedded in the bark of a tree.  I’ve absorbed the Church’s rituals and enjoy its language, which I knew as a boy, and now that it’s gone I miss it” (p. 1).

For Pullman the terms Christian and atheist are not mutually exclusive, but something that can be shared.  My wife had a professor in college with a similar sort of outlook; he called himself an Episcopal Buddhist because, he said, he practices Buddhism now but absolutely cherishes the traditions with which he was raised.  I didn’t get it then; I still don’t totally get it now.  But here is a book that addresses this apparent oxymoron in an intelligent, serious way.

Mountford himself has difficulty defining Christian atheism.  “The phrase Christian Atheist stayed with me,” he writes, “because it seemed such a good description of all the people I know who value the cultural heritage of Christianity–its language, art, music, moral compass, sense of transcendence–without actually believing in God; or,”–and here’s a key difficulty in my thinking–“at least without believing in God in a way that would satisfy Christian orthodoxy, particularly in the metaphysics department” (p. 1).

What Mountford speaks of here is not quite Christian; but neither it is quite atheism.  But which is emphasized more, Christianity or atheism?  There is a growing number of people in our churches who believe in church–its traditions, aesthetics, morality, and so on–without believing everything the creeds say about Christ.  At the same time they rely on science for their metaphysics; but that does not necessarily mean that God does not exist.

Interestingly, in his conversation with Philip Pullman, Mountford–a priest, remember–described himself as having more of a secular temperament than a religious one, “because I wanted to dissociate myself from the Church’s introspective agenda of gays and women bishops and to make him see me as a man of the world, an open thinker who looks to the concerns of the bustling metropolis rather than the reflections of the cloister” (p. 9).

But Pullman balked at this idea and said that he, a self-proclaimed atheist, in fact possessed a religious temperament, for he has a sense of awe and wonder, he says, and he asks bigger questions–who we are, what is our purpose, why we are here.  Then, tellingly, he adds, “Some people are satisfied with one sort of answer, others want a mythological answer.  Of course you can’t prove that there’s no possibility of God, and in that sense I suppose I ought to call myself an agnostic rather than an atheist, but I see no evidence for a God” (p. 9).

Hmm.  I wonder, then, would Quasi-Christian Agnostic be a better term?  Christian Atheist certainly has a better ring to it.

Anyway, the point in all this is conversation.  Is it too much to “welcome those who want the values of religion without its metaphysics” (p. 129)?  Christians and atheists have not ever really been on speaking terms, at least with respect to religion.  (Sports and politics might be a different matter.)  But what Mountford is exposing here is that they are already sitting in the same religious venues: on the one hand, (at least some) self-proclaimed atheists value Mother Church; and, on the other hand, (some, maybe many) Christians recognize and embrace the contributions science has made to the collective pool of metaphysical wisdom despite whatever conundrums it has stirred up.  Why not then talk?  Otherwise we are very much like middle schoolers at a dance, too preoccupied with our own self-image and too worried that we might be rejected by the other side to walk across the room, introduce ourselves, and seek out common ground whence we can begin to foster and develop a friendship.