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Getting back in the swing of things: My first column post-baby

June 6, 2009

So, it wasn’t the navel-gazing piece I had initially planned to write for my first faith column in my new status as a freelancer, but here it is.  I wrote about Bob Jensen’s new book “All My Bones Shake” because it was hip. It was happening. It was (is?) now.


Seriously, though, I wrote about him because he was supposed to have a local book event on Tuesday. That got canceled because of a last-minute surgery (am I violating Bob’s HIPAA here?). But in the end, I’m glad I didn’t do an over-the-top piece about my years as a religion writer, my vision for the future, yadda, yadda, yadda. This was a good way to get back in the swing of things.

Full text of column:

Finding a community as an atheist in church

Despite rejection of faith’s tenets, UT teacher finds comfort in Christianity

By Eileen Flynn
Saturday, June 06, 2009

At the root of Robert Jensen’s new book, “All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice,” is a longing for community and for meaning, two universal human pursuits.

Jensen, a decidedly secular leftist who teaches journalism at the University of Texas, happened to find both a few years ago in a mainline Protestant church in North Austin. His convictions revolved around anti-war, feminist, anti-capitalist movements, but to him, the left seemed dead without a community that could lend deeper meaning to those convictions. And he found himself in a pew on Sunday mornings.

OK, so the church was the very liberal and radically welcoming St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, but it was still surprising to many when Jensen joined. He raised more eyebrows (and the ire of many traditional Christians) shortly after, when he published a newspaper column stating unapologetically that he did not believe in God (never mind the virgin birth, Resurrection or the divinity of Christ) but still thought that he could be considered a Christian.

“All My Bones Shake” is a fascinating account of his church experience: his faith being put on trial in the Presbyterian Church, his sorrow over what he sees as a fallen world, the sense of wholeness he finds in a congregation and a radical reinterpretation of religion.

Political and religious conservatives likely will dismiss Jensen outright. Moderates might write him off because they don’t identify with his radical politics. Secularists might roll their eyes at his church talk.

But in a country that continually struggles to neatly fit together the puzzle pieces of religion and politics, Jensen’s perspective is worth hearing.

He is, after all, traveling a path familiar to many people. How often are we wrangling over what makes a real Christian? Over biblical interpretations? Over the application of religious tenets to today’s world?

I spoke to Jensen recently just after he returned from a trip to South Africa. Folks there, he said, put a high premium on ubuntu, the concept that people become fully human by living within a community and recognizing the humanity of others.

In his mind, that’s crucial in trying to address problems such as racism, imperialism, sexual exploitation, environmental destruction and economic injustice.

And I remembered something Jensen told me a few years ago over coffee. The left, he said, needed community. St. Andrew’s offered that, as he writes in the book, through speakers, film screenings and organizational meetings.

Initially, he attended the church as an atheist who participated in events but kept his distance from the religious components. In 2005, the pastor, the Rev. Jim Rigby, asked Jensen to deliver a sermon. Afterward, Jensen felt the urge to return to the pulpit and lead the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer. It was then he discovered a greater depth of meaning in his relationship with St. Andrew’s.

He had found a church where the pastor was in “constant struggle for the truth, for the meaning” of his religious tradition, where belief evolved, where it was OK to question the divinity of Christ and to define God simply as “mystery.”

Jensen says he’s realistic about the way the world works and the daunting problems for which there is no ready solution. But he also has developed a faith in the role the church can play in taking on those challenges.

“I joined a Christian church to be part of that hope for the future, to struggle to make religion a force that can help usher into existence a world in which we can imagine living in peace with each other and in sustainable relation to the non-human world,” Jensen writes. “Such a task requires a fearlessness and intelligence beyond what we have mustered to date, but it also requires a faith in our ability to achieve it.

“That’s why I am a Christian.”

A return of sorts

For those of you who pay attention to bylines, you might have noticed mine has been missing lately. I had a baby in January and after my maternity leave decided not to return to the newsroom so that I can stay home with my daughter. But I will still contribute a column to these pages every other week. After seven years of reporting on religion, I still have much to learn and many, many more stories to tell.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. andrea permalink
    June 7, 2009 3:45 pm

    First column back and lots of comments! No one ever comments on my crappy columns…

  2. andrea permalink
    June 7, 2009 3:46 pm

    Of course you are “Special to the American-Statesman.” Being special makes a difference, you know.

  3. Bob Kinney permalink
    June 9, 2009 7:47 pm

    Gurgling Waters after a five-month drought!
    Keep On Keepin’ On, Eileen

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