Reading Challenge 2016: A Resolution for Bibliophiles….

reading challengeBy Joe LaGuardia

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions.  In fact, I avoid making them because I know I’m going to break them.  This season, however, something caught my eye on social media that I could not resist: the “2016 Reading Challenge.”

I do not know its source, but it demands that participants read a dozen books: one published this year, one you can finish in a day, one you’ve been meaning to read, one recommended by a librarian, one chosen for you by a partner or BFF, one published before you were born, one banned at some point in time, one you previously abandoned, one that you should’ve read in school, one owned but never read, one that is intimidating, and one you’ve already read.

As a bibliophile, I knew that I had to take on this challenge, if not for the joy of it, then for the mere excuse to read some books I previously thought a waste of time.

Granted, we know as Christians that the Bible should be our first priority, but books can inspire deeper faith, challenge the mind, and bear testimony to the blessings of life.  It was Karl Barth who said we should have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, lest we be ignorant of the world in which we’re called to serve.

The first read is one “you’ve been meaning to read.”  For me, its Jon Meacham’s Power and Destiny, a biography on George H. W. Bush, that I hope will enlighten me of the world in which I grew up and now live.  As a political junkie, I anticipate that this book will inform of current political events surrounding the Middle East, the economy, government intelligence, and the Bush legacy.

One of my BFFs recommended Short Stories by Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine.   Levine, a New Testament scholar with a Jewish background, provides deeper insights into the parables of Jesus and corrects some often-misunderstood premises upon which current parable scholarship is based.

Levine’s assumption, according to an article for The Christian Century, is that our reading of the parables is born out of an anti-Semitic interpretative (Protestant) legacy in which Jesus advocated for those outside of Judaism, while ostracizing those who are Jewish.

Levine argues the opposite: Jesus’ parables do not ostracize but enlarge God’s blessings on Israel, as well as the rest of the world.   The parables humiliate immoral archetypes in general, not Jews in particular, that fail to embody the values and principles inherit in Jesus’ understanding of God’s kingdom.

The book published before I was born is any one by Zane Grey.  I don’t know if this is a Southern thing or not, but I’ve found many of Grey’s books in the libraries of my church members.  I hear that they make for great reading and provided many an adventure for young people playing “cowboys” back in the day.

The book that intimidates me, and one I’m going to try and tackle by the end of the year, is Moby Dick.  This is one of those books I’ve picked up and skimmed through, only to put it back on the shelf.  All I know (aside from the fact that we have a little bit of Ahab in all of us) is that the pages of this book are many, and the words are small.

It can also double as a booster seat in my car or at the barber, or perhaps serve as a step-stool so people can actually see me when I preach from Trinity’s pulpit.

The book I’ve abandoned is Stormie O’Martian’s Power of a Praying Husband.  I must admit, I’m not a pop culture Christian book fan, so when my wife recommended this long ago, I was hesitant.

I started reading it to keep her from asking me about it every week, as well as my realization that I don’t pray like I should anyhow.  I will finish it this year, I promise.

As you consider your New Year’s resolutions, perhaps you too would like to take the 2016 Reading Challenge.  If so, let me know by email or letter.  I’d like to hear about the books you plan on reading.

Understanding world religions encourages dialogue, peace

interfaith tree

By Joe LaGuardia

Last week I wrote about violence against Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.  It wasn’t the only time I wrote about conflict on the global stage, nor will it be my last.

I feel that, as an author on the religion page, it is one of my jobs to educate you, dear reader, in what is going on beyond our community to remind all of us of the work of God and the cause of peace that remains before us, even if it is not at our doorstep.

I am not ignorant to the fact that conflict has always been an issue for us humans; and I fear that it will be around far longer than I will walk this earth.  Yet, I also believe that we assess conflict in our world differently than we have in years past, sometimes to our detriment.

Yesteryear, people learned about conflicts by reading newspapers and watching a couple of broadcasts.  When the Vietnam war was underway, people got news from a media that largely agreed on the facts that made for headline news.

These days, our news comes to us in snippets through a variety of sources ranging from traditional media to the internet.  This does make us a more-informed people, but it can also be confusing.

Our large planet grows ever smaller with 24-hour news cycles and real-time reporting.

In order to make sense of this fragmented source data, however, cable news networks now provide “commentary” on the news.  But it is commentary that is biased, often to the extreme poles of our unique ideologies.

This makes for exciting news, but not for news that promotes peace and reconciliation in local and international communities.  Often, this kind of news-reporting does the opposite: It creates “sides” in debates and adds fuel to (in)tense conflicts that can sometimes get blown out of proportion.

One “victim” of this type of sensational media is our understanding of the world’s largest religions.  I bet if you were to poll a bunch of people, you would get various opinions about, say, Christianity — opinions formed not by the truths that exist in the belief system itself but based on caricatures of Christians from the news.

In fact, some of these surveys already exist.  Surveys of people ages 18-34, for instance, consistently show that a majority of people in this age group have a negative perception of Christianity.  This negativity stems not from the reality of what Christians believe, but on what those who are surveyed perceive to be true about Christians based on what they’ve heard in the news or the movies.

Same can be said of Islam.  Although a majority of people have a favorable view towards American Muslims, only 44% of evangelicals have a positive view of Muslims, according to a report in the Christian Post.  A majority of people who are religious also fear living near a Muslim mosque.

One of the ways to combat the misunderstanding of any religion is to be educated on what religions are really about.  Although every religion has a radical minority longing to convert others by means of violence, intimidation, or coercion, a majority of the world’s religions are positive, peaceful contributors to society.

Yet, if our only information of the world’s religions come by way of a sensational media or neighbors who believe in stereotypes rather than the reality of what religions are all about, then our misinformation can foster greater conflict rather than dialogue and healthy community formation.

A well-rounded education is essential, and understanding provides a path to greater conversations grounded in reality.

And with a world torn asunder by conflict, religious or otherwise, it becomes ever more important to learn about the religions of people who are our neighbors, allied nations, and–perhaps someday–our very friends.  May the Prince of Peace guide our path.

Dr. Joe LaGuardia serves as Interfaith Congregational Liaison for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.  

He is also pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, which is hosting a 10-week seminar “Tour of World Religions” free and open to the public beginning Wednesday, January 7th, at 6:45 PM.  

Make Hospitality a part of your New Year’s Resolution

new-years-clockLast autumn, I held a respectful yet heated email and snail mail debate with a family member who saw the importance of taking a stand on certain divisive social issues relevant to the election season.  He sent me a book on the encroachment of government, I sent him a letter about how Christians need not fear any government.

He sent me a statement of beliefs that his church drafted and published designed to exclude certain people from fellowship. I sent him an email questioning why a church needed to ostracize people before they even entered the building.  He argued that the Bible tells us to be holy; I agreed and then argued that Jesus’ compassion doesn’t condone a spirit of discord and judgment.

This was but one conversation of many I had with folks over the past year, a year characterized by a divided political landscape.  So, as we stand on the precipice of a new year, I would like to propose, dear reader, some resolutions that might benefit all of us who want to enter 2013 with a new, more conciliatory–albeit, thoroughly Christian–perspective.

Resolve to let joy rather than fear determine how we go about engaging our communities and public spaces for Christ.  In John 15, Jesus gave a sermon that discussed the notion of abiding in him.  When we abide in Christ, we abide in the Father; and they abide in us.  This abiding produces a type of joy that remains in our life despite all odds.

First John 1:6 says, “Whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection.  By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.”  Love, John writes later, “casts out fear” (4:18).

Resolve to see people in terms of their relationships rather than as adversaries or mere political or social “groups.”  What I mean by this is that it benefits us to see people in terms of who they are in the midst of God’s creation.  People are not animals, caricatures, or political footballs to be coerced or managed; they are sons, daughters, spouses, friends, mothers, fathers, grandparents.

I always cringe when I hear politicians and preachers talk about people as if people are lone creations that stand apart from everything else.  When you isolate someone, it becomes really easy to oppress them and treat them as “the other.”

If we see people as interconnected, however, we start to see that even our enemies are not very different than us.  After all, did God not say that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves?

Resolve, finally, to make a friend with someone whom you would not otherwise befriend.  This is the surest way to make hospitality–the welcoming of a stranger (Matt. 25:35, 48)–a part of a well-balanced spiritual diet.

Some of the most beneficial friendships I have made came out of an interfaith group with which I meet on a regular basis.  We have plenty of differences and dissimilarities–both culturally and religiously–but, there is never any shouting or debating, only a sharing of stories and, inevitably, of lives.

Resolve to read up on something you know very little about as it relates to the Bible, other faiths or persuasions, or history and traditions.  We spend so much time ingesting information from media outlets that agree with us, it’s good to step out of our comfort zones once in a while to read something with which we’re not familiar.

I hope that, whatever resolutions are made, the year 2013 will be different than the last in that we can make reconciliation more valuable than division, compassion more widespread than condemnation.