Friday, April 4, 2008

Book Review: Jim Wallis, The Great Awakening

Book Review: Jim Wallis. The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America. (Harper One, 2008).

In this most recent book from Sojourners founder, Jim Wallis, there is a foundational thesis, reflected in his title The Great Awakening, which church leaders today should ponder seriously. Wallis argues that we are beginning a time of sweeping religious renewal and transformation in America. In the Foreward to the book, President Jimmy Carter prepares the way for Wallis’ thesis by arguing that “there is an almost unprecedented serious and persistent division among us – with faith and politics intertwined as never before in creating disharmony.” (page x). In some ways Carter may be accurately describing the Presbyterian Church with our persistent disharmony around issues of polity. And so Carter sets the stage for Wallis to ask if we are poised to move from a time of disharmony to a new revival. Wallis then begins his book with an introduction titled, “Something is Happening.” “Something is happening. Faith is being applied to social justice in ways that we might have never imagined just a few short years ago. Spiritual power is being harnessed to address the greatest social challenges that we face today.” (page 1).
As a student of American Christian history, I picked up Wallis’ book because of the title, The Great Awakening. In American Church history the phrase Great Awakening is used to refer to two different eras which experienced significant religious renewal and a lot of turmoil. This is old American history which we commonly do not pay much attention to today. These eras of Great Awakening in the American history were also very traumatic times for the Presbyterian Church. Our church had major theological battles in response to these influential renewal movements. Actually these historic, theological battles in the Presbyterian Church were much more divisive, bitter and destructive than the polity battles we are fighting today. The Old School versus New School conflicts, and the New Light versus Old Light conflicts in Presbyterian history were nasty theological traumas for our church.
Although not specifically referring to the Presbyterians, it is the long history of Great Awakening that Wallis wants to connect his thesis into. He argues that what is happening today in Christian America is the latest expression of Great Awakening. His thesis is very compelling and we need to ponder the implications of living through an era of Great Awakening. Is Wallis correct?
Indeed, Wallis begins his book by embedding his thesis in the history of spiritual renewal in America. “There have been other periods in history when faith tangibly changed things. Often called “Great Awakenings”, they are times when the revival of faith alters societies.” (page 2). Wallis then goes on quickly to outline the American religious history of great awakenings. The First Great Awakening was in the 1730s and 1740s and involved huge personalities like Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, George Whitefield and John Wesley. This religious movement shook the young America colonies. The Second Great Awakening was a century later in the 1830s. This religious movement was intertwined with serious social issues including abolition, women’s rights and all the complex issues which fed into the Civil War. Wallis then goes on to claim the Social Gospel movement of the early 19th century as another expression of great awakening. Although in academic theology the Social Gospel movement is not usually named a Great Awakening, Wallis is correct to see it within the long historical flow of powerful spiritual movements in America. Interestingly, Wallis moves forward in American history and considers the “black church’s leadership of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as another great awakening of faith.” (page 2).
Wallis briefly outlines this American history in the first pages on his book in order to ask whether we are now poised for a new great awakening. It is a very important question. Of course, I may sarcastically reply that every era wants to believe that their particular era is of utmost importance and power. Before moving forward through Wallis’ book to consider his litany of social issues which people of faith should respond to with a new authenticity, it would be good to stop and ask this foundational question: Are we living into a new era of great awakening? Are we living into a unique period in history when people of faith step up in a special way to rally the resources of our spiritual lives and our faith communities to respond to the pressing problems of our world? May it be so for our Presbyterian Church.

Harrisburg Mission Initiative

March 5, 2008

Harrisburg Mission Initiative
The Mission Advocacy Committee of the Presbytery of Carlisle called an open meeting of the Presbytery to discuss our mission work in inner city Harrisburg. The meeting was moderated by Executive Presbyter Mark Englund-Krieger and Elder Skip Becker, chair of the Mission Advocacy Committee.

We discussed the theological relationship between mission, evangelism and social justice. What is the unique role of the church in the city? What is unique about the church’s mission? How do we do mission in the name of Jesus? There were several different perspectives on these questions. The theological foundation for our mission work needs further discussion.

What is the unique role which the Presbytery brings to this mission work in addition to what our individual congregations are doing? There was general consensus around the idea of the Presbytery serving as a connecting and communicating function: connecting congregations together in mission, and communicating mission opportunities throughout the presbytery.

As is true in all our mission work now, there was extensive discussion about the need to identify and communicate hands-on, participatory mission projects in which our congregations may be involved. An important role of the presbytery is communicating these opportunities.

Particularly given that Harrisburg is the state capital, what is the role of the church in political advocacy? Our mission work in the city touches upon complex economic and political questions? How does the church respond to these larger political and social issues? There seemed to some consensus that our presbytery has pulled back from political advocacy. This needs further discussion.

There was general consensus that the presbytery does not have a good understanding of or participation with the mission projects we currently support through our mission grants. The Mission Advocacy Committee will continue to raise the profile of our mission work in the city. It was mentioned that the Presbytery has a ministry initiative, led by Suzi Souder, looking the whole question of communication, and a taskforce studying specifically ways to revise and improve our website.

There were a number of specific issues in Harrisburg and specific mission organizations and programs discussed:

After School Tutoring Program: The Harrisburg Public Schools are rated the worst in Pennsylvania. One response we are involved with in the after school tutoring program which Derry Church supports weekly. There is always a need for more tutors and more support. For information contact (the presbytery office). (NOTE: Email addresses are omitted from the blogged version.)

The Check-up Center: This is a free, medical clinic in the heart of one of the poorest areas in Harrisburg. For information contact (the presbytery office).

Susquehanna Harbor, Inc.: The fruits of a long, ecumenical effort have proved fruitful with the acquisition of a large, government grant (H.U.D.) to build a new homeless shelter in Harrisburg. This work is being led by Christian Churches United. As this project develops there will be a great need for volunteers and support. This was identified as an excellent mission project for our churches. For information contact (the presbytery office).

The Allison Hill Fund: A fundraising effort being coordinated by Rick Woodard, Camp Hill Church, to raise funds for ten different mission organizations in Allison Hill. For information contact (the presbytery office.)