In a few weeks I’ll begin a sabbatical year of travel, research, and writing. (Not that I’m counting the days or anything).

Sabbatical: from sabbath (shabbat), meaning to cease or stop or rest.

Academic sabbatical: a period in which one is to be demonstrably productive.

In my application for sabbatical leave, I noted this contradiction by citing an observation by Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts:

What “sabbatical” meant was that the land—your productive capacity, your brain, your heart—should not be used or exercised in exactly the same way it had been for the previous six years. It needs to be refertilized. It will be more productive and life giving (and refereed journal article producing) if it is allowed a rest from its usual activities. I found it particularly remarkable, and disturbing, that in the sabbatical seminar I attended no one spoke about improving the quality of the work of their sabbatical, only that they produce more, and faster.

I hope to take the “rest” part of sabbatical to heart but will also work, reasonably productively, I hope, on a project that is situated at the intersection of religion, science, and art; one that begins with an uncontested truth—our planet is in crisis—and proceeds with an unconventional claim: we have neglected the aesthetic response to this crisis. I want to show that at the intersection of theology and poetry lay fertile ground for confronting the problems of ecological degradation and matters of culpability, accountability, and the flourishing of all of creation.

I will not argue that poetry helps us to better appreciate the natural world (though poems can do that). Nor will I champion the polemical—poetry as argument for political change. I’m with Robert Lowell, the American poet who once confronted a Soviet bureaucrat who was urging more frequent exchanges between poets and superpowers for the purpose of promoting peace. “Art,” Lowell snapped, “does not make peace. That is not its business. Art is peace.”

I am most interested in the intrinsic connection between the loss of linguistic capacity (our ability to speak truthfully, to wield language responsibly) and the loss of the world (its destruction by forces driven by ignorance and self-interest and our culture’s willing and often unwitting collusion with them). Poetry, I will suggest, is one way to recover from this loss—not because it is “useful” but because, as Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney has said, it “offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things ‘beyond confusion.’”

There’s much more to say and I’m grateful that I have a couple of summers and a couple of semesters to try and say it. But lately I’ve been thinking about the connections between poetry and politics. Not so much in the sense of how nice it would be if politicians spoke in more poetic terms but wouldn’t it, though? The linguistic gutter that Trump and Rubio have dragged us through is foul territory indeed.

But much more than that, what would it mean to attend to the aesthetic dimension of our political plight in this particular historical moment? To take account of the diminishment of language broadly (not just vulgar political speech) that keeps us from desiring, seeking, and living into the beauty we were made from and for? To even ask such questions in our current political culture sounds naive, a little ridiculous, even.

We would have to get our heads around the idea that language is creative of meaning, not descriptive of something we call “reality.” (An idea whose explication requires more than a blog post, I realize). We would have to agree that, on one level, at least, theology is the work of giving an account of the world that makes possible certain kinds of communities, produces certain kinds of people. The theo-poetic speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. was about this kind of work: “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.” As is that of  Pope Francis: ““Give us a holy courage to seek new paths, that the gift of unfading beauty may reach every man and woman.”

Where we have been paralyzed by information overload–almost all of it maddeningly contradictory–or polarized by soundbite one-upmanship, how might we recover the language, the speech-acts of shared responsibility and care, of mutual joy and delight, such that we might desire, seek, and work for the well-being of our neighbor above our own?

And how does poetry help with this?

Poetry, I suggest, is a kind of witness, a form of protest (things can be otherwise), a vision of wholeness out of disorder, for it is the art of making a new thing with the material—human language, a nearby dictionary—at hand. (No creation ex nihilo here. As Wendell Berry says, “poetry can be written only because it has been written.”)

But we don’t mine poems for meaning or to see what truths they might express for application to this or that situation. Good poems are “beautiful and pointless.” That is, they don’t mean; they—not unlike the liturgy—do. “Authentic poetry,” says theologian Rowan Williams, “is labour, it’s work: the doing of something which has its own integrity.”

So I vote for poetry.

I vote for exposing ourselves and our children especially to the contagion that good poetry is–poetry of all kinds. For, as Mary Oliver has said, “poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” And like a contagion, good poems, says Pulitzer prize-winning poet Jorie Graham, “want to go from body to body. Built in is the belief that such community—one could even say ceremony—might ‘save’ the world.”

Well, if not the world, then maybe our dismal politics.


From Blossoms

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Li-Young Lee, “From Blossoms” from Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee

Recently, a theologian friend penned a Facebook post that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. The crux of it was this:

“It would be good for all people of faith to remember that any politician who invokes the name of God in order to bolster his or her poll numbers, or court an interest group, has taken God’s name in vain. It uses God for empty things, one of the gravest evils possible . . . Only the politician who dares to be silent about God could possibly be a person of genuine faith.”

This long-time friend had me at “it would be good.” But I suspect that for many Christians on both
the right and the left (and likely for some Jews and Muslims) this is exasperating if not infuriating
speech. Most Americans, it seems, take it as a given—as a good—that, in one way or another,
presidential candidates have to say something about God. Generally, Republicans embrace this expectation enthusiastically; Democrats variously so. The image of America as a “city on a hill” was conjured by the Puritan John Winthrop and invoked by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, enshrining the myth of American exceptionalism and the belief in God’s special favor on America as hallmarks of presidential politics.

When Jesus says the phrase “city on a hill” in St. Matthew’s gospel, he seems to be enjoining among his followers a witness  against the Pax Romana, not endorsing its strength or greatness. He was not a patriot or a champion of Empire or a would-be reformer of it but its willing victim. Arrested, tortured, tried, and executed on a charge of sedition, his aim was not to be the commander-in-chief but to embody a radically alternative politics—of non-violence and revolutionary love—to the sham political system and its death-dealing ways.

In 2016, a number of presidential candidates want us to know that their Christian faith will be central to their governance should they be elected, especially, it seems, as they plot violence against our enemies. They give no hint that there might be conflict between being a president and being a Christian. They routinely, as my friend put it, “use God for their political aspirations.” And they rouse people of faith from across a range of traditions, treating them as just another interest group—the evangelical vote or the Catholic vote (neither of which is a monolith)—and thus take God’s name in vain.

Much of the candidates’ Christian rhetoric either rings hollow (Donald Trump) or is unrecognizable as Christian speech (Ted Cruz). (Trump is also admired by many Christians for being blunt, unfiltered, and combative in saying what he thinks. Drunk people and three-year-olds also often speak this way. We don’t usually salute them for it).

Hillary Clinton has spoken of the importance of her Methodist faith, though one might wonder how her lucrative alliances with Wall Street investment firms, many of whose practices are unconscionable from the perspective of almost every religious tradition, would square with, say, John Wesley’s concern for the working poor. Or how her “boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine” is consistent with Wesley’s and Methodism’s call for judicial and prison reforms.

And then there’s Bernie Sanders. I have no idea if he would be a good president. That he has so expertly diagnosed many of our social and political ills does not necessarily mean he can apply the cure. Probably no president can. For all his (welcome) silence on the campaign trail about his religious heritage, there’s something appealing about a passionate Jew who angrily condemns corrupt bankers—echoes of rabbi Jesus and the money changers.

But Sanders, like Clinton, like President Obama, talks in tired tropes when it comes to abortion. The shallow slogans on both sides of this issue are evidence that 40-plus years of a poorly-conducted public debate has only entrenched the divisions and the false notion that this is and only can be a two-sided “battle,” and that to identify with one side is to feel no affinity for the other.

Fredericka Mathewes-Green’s recent essay on abortion unsettles all the tired tropes, even as the current presidential candidates routinely, if sometimes subtly, claim God for their side. And the fact that Mathewes-Green’s article appears in National Review means that left-leaning Christians will write it off before reading it, or likely won’t read it at all; that sacrosanct binary, that entrenched divide again.

But I think it’s possible to be a Christian who doesn’t lobby for the overturning of Roe v. Wade but who has deep, deep concerns about abortion and its practice in the United States. It’s hardly ever acknowledged, for example, that abortion and capitalism are intimately linked but, as Mathewes-Green notes, “we’ve agreed to surgically alter women so that they can get along in a man’s world. And then expect them to be grateful for it.”

Would-be American presidents may always feel this pressure—either from within or without—to cloak themselves in religious garb, sometimes heavily, sometimes lightly; to see themselves as saviors of a sort, as those called to run “the greatest country in the world” and thus have a powerful hand in running the world. This seems laughable when it comes to the kind of servant leadership, the kind of counter politics that a crucified messiah asks of his followers. But it’s not funny. Especially when the religious rhetoric we’re hearing is so charged with murderous hate.

But, then again, there’s Bernie Sanders. I don’t think he has aspirations to run the world. He is—unlike almost every other contender in the race, Democrat or Republican—without affect or grandiosity. I don’t know that I’ll vote for him. I don’t know that I’ll vote. It’s not a settled question that Christians have an obligation to or even ought to. (Another idea that may seem exasperating if not infuriating to many.)

But I like Sanders’ rumpled, scruffy, scrappy ways. I like how he is both erudite and populist. I like that he doesn’t talk in soundbites and that he refuses to simplify hard, complex problems. I like his passion and compassion. I don’t know that he has ever adequately described the democratic socialism he espouses to the satisfaction of his critics. And maybe he can’t, given most Americans’ knee-jerk alarmism when the phrase is uttered.

But I think he articulates a vision of political community and human flourishing that is compelling and worthy of consideration in an era of astonishing injustices toward those on the edges. And yet it is one of the deep ironies of this political season that among many Christians, for whom Sanders’ vision of the good ought to have at least some resonance, he is at best dismissed and at worst reviled.

But he carries on, a flawed human being for sure, a predictable politician in many ways. But also, consistently, rightly, leaving religious pandering out of all of it.

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Took a turn on the bLOGOS rotation at the Ekklesia Project website:

Widow's Mite - Ancient Roman Bronze Coins

Widow’s Mite – Ancient Roman Bronze Coins

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 (RCL); I Kings 17:10-16 (LM)
Psalm 127 or 42 (RCL); Psalm 146:7-10 (LM)
Hebrews 9:24-38Mark 12:38-44

For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood. 

Mark 12:44

By the time we get to the familiar text in this week’s Gospel reading—sometimes referred to as the story of the widow’s mite—Jesus has made his so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem. More street theatre and political satire than victory parade, the festivities end with Jesus casing the temple late of an evening. He returns the next day and turns over a few tables, infuriating the religious authorities and confounding everyone else. He enters the temple a third time on the third day (a detail not extraneous to Mark’s purposes, we might suppose), and offers an accusatory parable. Pharisees and Herodians are dispatched to trap him; they find themselves amazed instead. He bluntly tells some Sadducees: “you are wrong . . . you are quite wrong.” Third up are the scribes, for whom Jesus reserves his most caustic criticism:

Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes
and accept greetings in the marketplaces,
seats of honor in synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext
recite lengthy prayers.
They will receive a very severe condemnation.

Jesus then takes a seat “facing” (kateanti) the treasury. This detail, too, seems deliberate on Mark’s part: a short while and a few verses later Jesus will “face”—the same word in Greek—the temple mount as he foretells its imminent destruction (13:3).

 From his choice seat, Jesus carefully “scrutinizes” (etheōrei) the scene, observing “how the crowd put money in the treasury,” and noting that “many rich people put in large sums” (41).

Just the day before he had directly attacked the temple establishment so we might assume he’s still seething a bit. Not because a sacred place had been profaned by commerce—the temple was an economic institution as well as a religious one. Rather, Jesus is scandalized by the exploitation of the poor in their attempts to participate in Israel’s cultic life.

But his anger at what he sees in the temple treasury has a sharper focus. He has just depicted the scribes—the temple lawyers—as not only religious hypocrites but also as abusers of their fiduciary power: “they devour the houses of widows.” (40)

To read the rest click here.

There are the contradictions in the man himself: Pope Francis presides over an institution of enormous wealth, power, and privilege, while in his very being embodying—effortlessly, compellingly—the poverty, humility, and simplicity of the way of Jesus.

This was evident at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday night: wealthy donors sitting in prime seats while the Pope gave a beautiful shout-out to women religious—in the cheap seats—who have been much-beleaguered by the Vatican in recent years.

There are the contradictions in the giving of his astonishing speech to Congress: One could describe it as power speaking truth to power, while at the same time starkly, radically calling into question America’s notions of what actually counts as power and truth.

There are the contradictions in the canonization of Junipero Serra: Pope Francis is clearly the antithesis of what the colonial project embodied—and what it wrought—yet he sanctioned the sainthood of a man whose life and legacy leave deeply troubling questions about the Church’s collusion with the worst of globalization. Supporters of Serra, the first saint canonized on American soil, summon the mildest of endorsements: at least he wasn’t as bad as the others.

(This one, I admit, mystifies me. As a Catholic friend noted: The Serra canonization was rife with missed opportunities and bridges left unbuilt. Yes and yes).

What to make of these and other such contradictions?

It’s hard to avoid striking the stance we all learn as heirs to modernity–that of the autonomous self with its view from nowhere and its reasoned, privately-held “opinions” offering or withholding approval for this or that position, this or that pope. In relation to Pope Francis (and to Catholicism and Christianity generally), such a stance generates questions like “do the Pope’s words and the Church’s actions align with my own securely-held convictions?” or “Does this or that doctrine (or political idea or economic policy) square with what I believe?” These seem like reasonable questions; we can hardly help asking them, even tacitly.

But they assume, wrongly I suggest, that the Church is an organization I belong to—like the Kiwanis Club or the Junior League—and, as such, the unencumbered “I” gets to negotiate my relationship to it on my own terms. Rather–and I know how weird this sounds to those outside of Christianity and even to many within it—the Church is the sign and sacrament of Trinitarian communion. “The individual personal spirit lives solely by virtue of sociality,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, linking anthropology and ecclesiology in ways unintelligible to our default understandings of both self and church.

What this means, in part, is that as members of Christ’s body, the Church, our primary identity is that of those who share in the divine life of God, with all of the real-world, nitty-gritty implications of such a claim (political, social, economic; implications of race, gender, and class). The true humanity we take on in baptism summons us to the freedom to love beyond the bounds of family, tribe, and nation. This is the nature of the ekklesia itself, as it bears witness to the new creation made possible in Christ through the power of the Spirit: we are the community of the baptized whose love for the world (the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy) glimpses the eternal self-giving love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a love without partiality because its source is the Trinitarian love-in-communion that transcends every exclusivism. It is not a love that we muster by our own power, through force of will or personal resolve. Rather, it is a love imputed to us and efficacious through us. We are its vessels, not its wellspring.

So what?

What does this mean for the contradictions I feel in this historical moment? It means that I am part of a body of flawed, weak, striving, broken, yearning, conniving, beautiful, irritating, struggling human beings. (If one more student tells me they can’t go to church because of the hypocrites . . . ). Messed up though we are, who we are is not dependent on who we are, thank God.

And so in the big, messy house that is the Catholic Church we live with people we might not agree with, who can make us a little crazy. But we know that our membership in this body is not based on like-mindedness but on the One who gathers us at his table and feeds us that we might then scatter and feed a hungry world.

Who knows? The canonization of a colonizer might open the way for repentance and reconciliation. And Pope Francis, in America, and in his everyday life and living, shows us, with great tenderness and love, what might be possible.

I was interviewed by Mary Ann McKibben-Dana of The Englewood Review of Books for their latest issue. We talked about my new book, Happiness, Health, and Beauty: The Christian Life in Everyday Terms. Here are a few excerpts.

ERB: You do a good job of putting happiness into a broader and deeper context than the sometimes banal version of happiness that popular or consumer culture wants to serve up. Still, I found myself having to translate in my head what you meant versus the way the word is used colloquially.

DDM: A theological account of happiness has some affinity with certain cultural conceptions of the term, even as it critiques much of what Westerners mean by it. We are created for happiness. Human beings long for steadfast, deep-seated contentment, for full and satisfying lives, for fundamental well-being, but modern marketing has seduced us into thinking that such happiness is found in the endless pursuit of things—not in the things themselves,
interestingly, but in our insatiable desire for the next thing, the next experience, that next feeling of happiness. Of course, advertisers brilliantly exploit the fact that this quest is illusory. (On this note, I have found the recently concluded TV series Mad Men—about Madison Avenue in the 1960s—particularly suited for this kind of theological exploration).

Classic Christian doctrine has insisted that we are happy only in God, but also that such happiness is found in relationship with others as we seek to be like God in goodness. And Jesus shows us very concretely, very specifically, what God’s goodness looks like; we don’t have to wonder or guess. Happiness, then—our flourishing together in the goodness of God—is relentlessly social, unavoidably political, and delightfully (and sometimes riskily) countercultural.

ERB: You ask a wonderful question in the health chapter: “What are we to make of the unhealthy, overweight body we have become? How do we address—with grace, not judgment—the alarming rise in food-related illness and obesity in the bodies of men, women and children who are members of the Eucharistic body?” You answer that in your book but I wonder what you might share with readers here.

DDM: Increasingly grim health statistics (skyrocketing rates of type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, and cancer) have mostly to do with food— eating the wrong kind and too much of it. At the heart of Christianity is a ritual that has to do with food—bread and wine that we believe is Christ’s body and blood given for the well-being of all who partake of it. That we have failed to see the connections between these two kinds of eating—one to our detriment, one to our salvation—is due, at least in part, to the pervasive idea that what matters most in the Christian life is our spiritual well-being. We are dualists, basically; we believe that each of us is an immortal soul housed in a temporary body.

But this is Plato, not Jesus. In the New Testament, the word for “salvation” implies cure, remedy, recovery; it connotes the health and well-being of individuals and communities. Jesus doesn’t save disembodied souls; he rescues whole persons—body, mind and spirit— that they might live abundant lives of wholeness and happiness and bear witness, that this is the way of the kingdom here and now. Yet our contemporary imaginations are held captive by the dualistic view. If our bodies are sick or chronically obese, at least we’ll be well when we get to heaven— so the thinking goes. It’s no wonder, then, that most churches are bereft of resources to address these mounting health crises in a rigorously theological, responsibly biblical sort of way.

But for those who want to try, who sense that these problems are not, at root, a failure of individual willpower but a crisis of community, we begin where we always do—at the Eucharistic table. From the sharing of this simple meal flow sermons, studies, and conversations about physical health; community gardens; adventures in eating slow and eating together (we often eat to to our harm when we eat alone); and a reckoning with our complicity in unjust food systems.

ERB: Moving on to your third section, my perception is that many theologians are okay with beauty so long as it has a sense of utility—so long as it points us to truth or right living. What’s your response to that? Can and should beauty exist for its own sake?

DDM: Yes, there’s a long-standing tradition of valuing beauty for its benefits. I note in the book that one of the few occasions when Wesley allowed himself to be caught up in beauty was when he read Homer’s Odyssey during a long stretch of riding horseback. His journal entry on this occasion is uncharacteristically effusive and he reveals a kind of playfulness and delight often absent in his reflections on art and beauty. Still, for Wesley, Homer’s true value lies in how he (and poetry generally) can be instructive for the moral life.

But if the best of the Christian tradition has held that beauty inheres in the beingness of things, then of course beauty does not exist primarily to serve our interests or agendas or moral advancement. To insist that it must reveals something of the arrogance and solipsism to which we are easily prone. In the book, I mention the gospel story of the woman who anoints Jesus with costly perfume. Jesus says of her action that “she has done a beautiful thing for me.” On one level, I suppose we could read the utility of the action: she prefigures Jesus’s burial, she does a beautiful thing for the sake of something else, etc. But I’m more persuaded by the idea that this unknown, unnamed woman simply makes beauty visible: she bears the beauty of the divine image in self-emptying action. For all that seems extraordinary about this tender act, it offers for us a witness, a model for how we, too, in ordinary, everyday ways might learn to be possessed by beauty, to open our lives, individually and corporately, to the gift, the call, the joyful art of becoming beautiful.

To read this issue’s full table of contents, click here.
For more about Englewood Review of Books, click here.


Archbishop Oscar Romero has been beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. It’s no doubt a coincidence that this happened on Memorial Day weekend; much more significantly, it’s the feast of Pentecost.

And it’s a remarkable thing.

Both church and state villified Romero in his lifetime and in the early years after his murder. For the Vatican, the fear was that Romero, with his Marxism-infused rhetoric, was a practitioner of liberation theology. (He was). For the state–the governments of El Salvador and the U.S.–Romero was an obstacle to securing popular support for El Salvador’s regressive, repressive military government. (True again).

Oscar Anulfo Romero, bookish priest, reluctant archbishop, firebrand preacher and populist, was a thorn in the side of both the religious and political establishments.

We know now, and have always known, of course, that the corrupt government that Romero called out time and again–always with unflinching honesty and Christ-like charity–was supported and defended by the United States. By Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. By six billion dollars in military aid to prop up a regime which oversaw unspeakable abuses of the Salvadoran people, a breathtaking range of human rights violations: torture and rape, the disappearing of dissidents, the slaughter of priests and peasants as a matter of course.

This weekend, if you’re Catholic, if you’re Christian, if you’re human, you have to take this historical reality into account.

But much of our memorializing will trend, as it always does, toward the jingoistic, the simplistic, the cliche-riddled hyperpatriotism that does a disservice to the women and men who fight and die in wars conceived by powerful men whose own sons and daughters are largely spared the suffering and the dying.

Surely it’s possible to honor the selflessness that’s part of soldiering and to mourn the fallen without slipping into the kind of sentimental white-washing that denies the complexities and ambiguities, the compromises and betrayals, both large and small, that the war dead knew well?

Why, then, can’t we–in their stead, on their behalf, for their sake–be honest enough to honor such truths?

On Pentecost, we celebrate a most unlikely gift: that a beleaguered and bewildered band of followers of a failed Messiah (he didn’t stick it to Rome as many had hoped) became a body, his body, for the sake of a broken, suffering, war-torn world. Through the Spirit’s power, this body is the sign, servant, and foretaste of God’s reign of justice and shalom.

One of the readings for mass this weekend is from 1 Corinthians, where St. Paul describes the unity of the body. As members of the one body, our lives are linked with sisters and brothers everywhere–in El Salvador, Syria, Iraq, and the ends of the earth. We are the church not in lordly domination but in solidarity with the suffering.

Many Protestants will hear Paul’s words to the Romans where the same spirit of unity and humility obtains: the whole creation groans and waits; we don’t know how to pray as we ought but we trust the Spirit’s sighs of intercession for us. This, too, is the posture the people of God are called to assume–not one of might-makes-right or of glorifying death but one of hope and humility in a world that aches for peace.

Our brother, Oscar, bore witness to this in his life and his death. And for that, they killed him. May we remember and memorialize his death and all deaths, this day and every day, with the truth-telling they deserve.

Blessed Oscar, pray for us.