“Fierce Convictions” book review: Who is Hannah More?

Untitled-8That is the question Dr. Karen Swallow Prior, prolific writer and English professor at Liberty University, sought to answer in her new book, “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.”

In the more than 200 years since the end of the British slave trade, William Wilberforce’s name has become synonymous with the abolition movement — and for good reason. But what about the people behind Wilberforce? What — and who — was it that made abolition possible?

In the book, Prior answers those questions in an engaging way. It was when she was searching for a topic for her doctoral dissertation that the English professor stumbled upon More and immediately knew she had found her topic.

“I had never heard of her, (but) as soon as I read about her, … I knew she was the one that I needed to write about,” Prior said. “I always had in mind that I wanted to write a popular biography of her, and so, 15 years later, here it is.”

More was a member of the “Clapham Sect,” a group of inspired evangelicals, of which Wilberforce was a part. The group was dedicated to social reformation — abolition being chief among their causes.

As the title suggests, More was a Renaissance woman. In her role as poet, reformer and abolitionist, More played her part as a teacher, a playwright, an activist and so much more. In all of her roles, she sought to eradicate the society of the damaging norms with which she grew up, never allowing cultural influence to water down her convictions.

“Of course, her role was less public because she was a woman,” Prior said of why More is not as well-known today. “She was very well-known in her day, so I think her peers would have been surprised to learn that she (was) sort of forgotten in history.”

Previously known only to a small collection of historians and scholars, Prior puts More center stage, and, with the praise of several leading voices within the Evangelical movement, I think she is here to stay.

“As someone who is a committed, conservative evangelical with strong convictions about theology and doctrine and cultural issues, I see in Hannah More an example of a person who can hold those convictions and who can reach across various cultural and theological divides,” Prior said. “But I also see someone who had weaknesses. … So to me, she is a human, fallible, yet exemplary, figure … I want to emulate the strengths that she showed, the victories that she had in bridging divides.”

In today’s Evangelical society, we have moved backward from the place More was so many years ago. In More’s day, her theology cast a wide net, holding fast to convictions on animal welfare, poverty, slavery and education, differing from today’s activist culture in which we often cast a very narrow net, focusing on one particular issue, remaining blind to the implications of our limited interests.

“(More and her fellow evangelicals) were not single-issue Christians,” Prior said. “There were so many issues facing them in their time, and they championed so many causes with the same passion and fervor that many of us champion single causes. That’s something that we in the conservative evangelical pocket of society can learn from.”

More was passionate about the necessity that all people have access to society and education. Hand-in-hand with her convictions against slavery, she held deep convictions for gender equality, too.

Prior, excited about the timely release of the book, described the current Evangelical climate as “ripe” for change in perspective. There are many great examples of leaders within Christianity.

However, very few of them are women. Prior described More as someone who most likely held very conservative views of gender roles — more conservative than most today — yet was still an effective leader, using her “God-given gifts fully to his glory.”

The book has garnered the endorsements of several leading men and women within Christendom who represent a wide spectrum of beliefs on women’s roles in the Church. Prior credits Hannah More as being a catalyst for bridging some of those divides.

During the writing process, Prior journeyed to Bristol, England, More’s homeland, and described streets, schools, nursing homes and the cottage where she taught Sunday school that are now named after the abolitionist. With the release of “Fierce Convictions,” Prior wants to stretch More’s legacy past those schools and streets in Bristol, bringing her to the crossroads of Christianity, in hopes of igniting a renewed unity within Evangelical society.

“I hope that people find a very human, but admirable example of a woman who was able to overcome a number of limitations and social and cultural challenges and make a huge difference in her world,” Prior said of her hopes for the book. “We are all in that place. We are all in a certain culture, in a certain time, with challenges, with limitations, and yet God gives us gifts and opportunities to overcome them, and I think (More is) a great example of that.”

In the spirit of More, I encourage everyone to pick up a copy of “Fierce Convictions,” ready to be challenged and inspired by the life and works of one of the world’s most extraordinary poets, reformers and abolitionists.


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Apple’s Tim Cook isn’t defined by his sexuality, and neither should anyone else be

Tim_Cook_2009_croppedLYNCHBURG, Va. — The big news this week is that Apple CEO Tim Cook is gay. While our personal theologies might not line up on every account, I can tell you that his perspective on sexuality is one that I find both thoughtful and refreshing.

In a Bloomberg Businessweek op-ed on Thursday (Oct. 30), Cook shared that he treasures being gay because it has given him a “deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with everyday.”

“While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now,” Cook wrote. “So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.”

Cook has remained fairly private since he was named Apple’s CEO in 2011, shortly before the death of founder Steve Jobs. This announcement is a shift — for him, for Apple and the larger corporate world. But it’s also a shift he clearly believes is worth the sacrifice.

Cook is willing to allow what he has experienced — the difficulties, the painful moments, the times he felt less-than — to encourage others. I’m sure his life has offered him a smorgasbord of challenges and yet he has risen to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the U.S. But never along the way has he allowed one aspect of his life to become the definer of his life.

“Part of social progress is understanding that a person is not defined only by one’s sexuality, race, or gender,” Cook wrote. “I’m an engineer, an uncle, a nature lover, a fitness nut, a son of the South, a sports fanatic, and many other things. I hope that people will respect my desire to focus on the things I’m best suited for and the work that brings me joy.”

In a time of adamant activism and partisan politicking, Cook’s words seem to be a rare commodity. With pro-gay, anti-gay, and I-don’t-know-yet-gay groups advocating for one thing or another, the individual lives behind these labels of sexual orientation have been lost.

Granted, Cook admits that he works in a field that is innovative, creative, and fairly open-minded, so he has been placed in the best of situations. But I bet it hasn’t always been that way. Had he allowed his sexual orientation to define who he was — had he been gay first, and an intelligent human being, capable of greatness, second — he might not be where he is today.

This is not to say that one’s sexual choices and orientations are unimportant. Because they are. They just do not, or should not, box us in, hold us back, or shut us down. These individuals are human beings first — intellectuals first, entrepreneurs first, engineers first, visionaries first, artists first.

We are human beings with innate value — first.

At the end of the day, we have to find common ground. Common ground is what makes the world continue to move, grow and advance. Cook gets it. He understands the weight of his announcement. He understands its importance, but also sees that there are things in this life of even greater importance — what it means to be human.

I’ve found my common ground and, in Cook’s own words, “We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick.”


Original story on RNS here

Winter is coming: The Arab Church needs us

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Winter is coming.

These three words really have no practical meaning when you have a roof over your head, a designer coat, new jeans and a pair of boots made of genuine leather.

But imagine with me for a moment. Forget your coffee and your closet full of winter clothes. All you have is the shirt on your back, the outfit you had on when you were forced out of your home at 1 a.m., running to escape genocide.

That is life for the nearly one million displaced Christians in Northern Iraq. We cannot allow physical distance or theological differences to silence the urgent call for help. This is a threat to human rights on an international scale, and it affects everyone.

Johnnie Moore, chief of staff for Hollywood producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, just returned from a trip to Iraq and Jordan, assessing the plight of the Christian Church in the embattled region.

“(The situation) is every bit as bad as I expected,” Moore told me.

Many of the Orthodox Christians feel abandoned and forgotten by the West. Moore described them feeling as if the only time the Western Church cares is when they are trying to convert them to Evangelicalism.

“Christians were everywhere — on the streets, in abandoned buildings, in canvas tents that are not waterproof or winterized,” Moore wrote in a press release of his trip to Iraqi Kurdistan and Jordan. “Having survived eradication by terror groups (ISIS), they now might die naturally from the coming harsh winter.”

I would put the survival of the Arab Christians in the non-negotiable list. After running from their homelands to escape genocidal attacks from Islamic radicals, we cannot allow these people to perish. We privileged Christians so quickly forget that our faith has its roots buried deep in the mountains of the Middle Eastern world.

Burnett and Downey, two of Hollywood’s most outspoken Christians, are partnering with the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) to raise $25 million to help these Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria. According to the United Nations, 800,000 people in the area urgently need shelter, and 2.8 million are desperately seeking food.

“To lose the presence of Christians in the birthplace of Christianity is to accelerate instability, while losing precious insight about how best to work in the region,” IGE Director Chris Seiple, who accompanied Moore in Iraq, wrote in the announcement of the Cradle of Christianity Fund. “With the region on the brink, a strategy to rescue, restore and return fleeing Christians is not only the right thing to do, it is in everyone’s interest to do so.”

Winter is coming, so we must move now. And we cannot move alone.

Moore and Seiple met with King Abdullah II of Jordan and the patriarchs of the historic Eastern churches in the region. The Muslim leader is recognized as a direct descendant of Mohammed, so his insistence that Christians are crucial to the identity, stability and well being of Jordan is a big deal.

It is a big deal for the persecuted minorities in the Middle East.

It is a big deal, because Burnett, Downey, Moore and Seiple are not allowing their theological differences to deny help to those in need.

It is a big deal because, according to the UN, they admittedly will only be meeting the needs of 40 percent of the displaced minorities.

In his announcement of the $25-million plan, Seiple wrote that the partnership will honor God, include all demographics in a non-proselytizing way and seek the involvement of regional leaders.

The world is enormous, and the problems we face are expansive. To confine ourselves to working only with those we agree with is shortsighted, to say the least.

The fund, to which Burnett and Downey have already donated $1 million, is exactly what the Western Church needs to be doing — working with the majority of people to help the minorities, the persecuted, the forgotten and the abandoned.

“Donations will go through the churches directly to those who need it the most, and primarily through the Ancient Churches,” Moore said of how the partnership with Abdullah will work. “They know their communities best — where they are and their needs. We will also work to identify and vet other partners as we go.”

Partnership with those in the region is the only real way to solve this. They have the know-how and the relationships. All they need is the resources. With the help of Muslim, Christian and nonreligious allies, the collaborative effort will include three phases — “rescue, restore and return.”

The rescue phase will pour money into Iraqi and Syrian churches that best know how to identify and meet the needs of the native people, and it will provide winterized shelter. At the same time, the second phase, “restore,” will begin. A small amount of money will be designated to establish a center to hold records of wrongs committed against Christians and other minorities, while also housing stories of hope, redemption and partnership between Christians and Muslims.

The third phase, “return,” will aim to “rebuild multi-faith communities of citizens under a consensus constitution,” according to IGE’s strategy. The long-term goal is to facilitate reintegration once the region is secure. Ideally, moving the native Christians back to their homeland, to “maintain a Christian witness and religious diversity in the region.”

For today, winter is coming and Burnett and Downey wanted to act.

“(They) wanted to do something for religious freedom now — focused on the plight of Christians, but serving people of all faiths (or no faith),” Seiple wrote of the producers’ passion for the displaced minorities.

This is a crossroads for Christianity. A crossroads that cannot be ignored. A crossroads that is going to take everyone to solve.

“Things are very urgent,” Moore said. “We have to move fast. Winter is coming. This week’s rain will soon be snow.”

To learn more or to donate, visit cradlefund.org.


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