Columns Opinion Richard Mouw: Civil Evangelicalism

Looking back with lament, and forward with hope

(RNS) — The final days of 2017 have been the occasion for various published lists of “the most notable” happenings of the past year. I have read many of those lists, including the ones focusing specifically on religious happenings. But nothing in any of those summaries can match for me an intriguing account of a faith-based “annual review” told by Rabbi David Wolpe in his 1991 book, “The Healer of Shattered Hearts: A Jewish View of God.”

Here is the story: A distinguished rabbi was getting ready for the opening service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in the Jewish year. It was a requirement that the rabbi could not begin the prescribed prayer until the exact moment of sunset, so he stood in silence before the Ark of the Covenant, waiting for the right moment.

The rabbi seemed to be so deep in thought that his congregants were wondering if the prayer was going to begin on time. But then he began to speak: “Dear God,” he said, “we come before You this year, as we do every year, to ask Your forgiveness. But in this past year, I have caused no death. I have brought no plagues upon the world, no earthquakes, no floods. I have made no women widows, no children orphans. God, You have done these things, not me! Perhaps You should be asking forgiveness from me.”

At that point, however, the rabbi’s voice softened: “But, since You are God, and I am only Levi Yitzhak, Yisgadal v’yiskadah sh’mei rabah (Magnificent and sanctified is Thy Name),” and he proceeded with the time of worship.

I know that many of my fellow Christians would be shocked by the way that rabbi addressed the deity. There is a thin line that separates blasphemy from the genuinely spiritual. In commenting on this story, though, Rabbi Wolpe insists — and I agree — that in this case the rabbi did not cross the line into the realm of blasphemy. He knew, Rabbi Wolpe explains, that God is the Author of the very standards that he asks us to uphold in deciding matters of right and wrong. “To assume that we may not question God,” says Wolpe, “is to assume that we have no real handle on what is good.”

In fact, the complaints that the rabbi addressed to God have a strong biblical feel to them. Many of the Hebrew psalms are prayers of lament, some of them directly challenging the deity. Psalm 44 provides a clear example: “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? … Why do you forget our affliction?” The freedom to express that kind of complaint to God, as Rabbi Wolpe points out, is a sign of a profound intimacy between a human being and God.

While I may not have yet acquired the requisite degree of intimacy with the divine, I am inclined nonetheless to do a lot of lamenting as I look back on the events of 2017. The tragedies that have long plagued the human condition were clearly on display on a daily basis. In addition to the injustice and mean-spiritedness — a lot of it outright wickedness — for which we humans are directly responsible, we have also seen unimaginable human suffering caused by natural disasters.

The complaints uttered by the rabbi standing before the Ark of the Covenant, then, ought not to be all that shocking to our spiritual sensitivities — which means that many of us will also feel the need to offer up the kind of prayers that the rabbi went on to address to the deity in that Day of Atonement service. We too can acknowledge that God is God and we are at best finite and broken creatures who must look beyond ourselves for both forgiveness and signs of hope.

Several years ago a reporter called to ask me what I thought the most important religious event was of the year that was coming to a close. I gave a different kind of answer than what she was looking for. For all I know, I said, the most important event of the year occurred one Sunday morning in an inner-city church service in the South side of Chicago, when a 13-year-old girl, having heard a sermon about God’s concern for the oppressed, bowed her head and promised the Lord she would devote her life to the struggle for justice.

I am grateful for the lists I have been reading of “the most notable events” of the past year. But at present many of the most hopeful occurrences of 2017 are likely hidden from our view.

Rabbi Wolpe’s story is about lament. But it is also about a profound sense of mystery that gives hope to those of us who see this new year as yet another “year of our Lord.”

About the author

Richard Mouw

Richard Mouw is Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he also served as president for twenty years. He is the author of twenty books, including Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. He earned his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Chicago.


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  • “when a 13-year-old girl, having heard a sermon about God’s concern for the oppressed, bowed her head and promised the Lord she would devote her life to the struggle for justice.“

    A burning bush, a burning heart, it’s the same God speaking, if, you are willing to be intimate. Isn’t it? To me the differences are, one is biblical, the other is significantly Godly and life changing.

  • Rabbi Wolpe also is one of the authors of the new Torah for modern minds:

    A review:

    origin: NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob·a·bly
    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

    The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions — the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years — have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity — until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called ”Etz Hayim” (”Tree of Life” in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

    The notion that the Bible is not literally true ”is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis,” observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to ”Etz Hayim.” But some congregants, he said, ”may not like the stark airing of it.” Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that ”virtually every modern archaeologist” agrees ”that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all.” The rabbi offered what he called a ”LITANY OF DISILLUSION”’ about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have ”found no trace of the tribes of Israel — not one shard of pottery.”

  • 1 Corinthians 1: 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach[b] to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

  • Written by a man who suffered a severe concussion when he fell off a horse. His writings thereafter were full of god gibberish written for the gullible.

  • It sounds like you might have your history wrong about the Apostle Paul!

    You sound like you’re that “man who suffered a severe concussion when he fell off a horse”–or donkey!

    Please give us a break and stop posting such MISERABLE CRAP on here!

  • Obviously, today’s followers of Paul et al’s “magic-man” are also a bit on the
    odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting,
    and exorcisms, and miracles, and “magic-man atonement, and infallible,
    old, European/Utah/Argentinian white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

  • There’s nothing RATIONAL about your sick, anti-Christian conclusions here!

    You are one PATHETIC human being! I won’t be reading any of your crazy responses, or comments on here. I doubt that any other truly RATIONAL people will be either.

    Get a LIFE!

  • Life in the lane of education:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2018: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of
    historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss
    called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.


    (references used are available upon request)

  • I’ve heard men say Paul suffered from a Vitamin B deficiency.
    At least RC has a more “interesting” excuse for Paul. 🙂

  • Agreed. It’s old and tiring. I’m beginning to feel bad for RC….like he was abused by a c hristian or something.

  • I’ve heard that Paul could not stand upright because of all the times he had been scourged and the skin stripped from his back……hmmm

  • Everything and anything to “not” listen to his words. The Spirit of Anti-Christ is persuasive and clever.

  • Of course it is. It is simply called “Ad Hominem.” Now….whether someone like RC “knows” he is applying the tactic of ‘ad hominem’… can never really know.
    Is RC simply ‘blinded’. Or is RC an active agent — 2 Corinthians 11:15. ???
    We will most likely never know.