Main Article
Response Articles
Fear and the American Church
Barbara Brown Taylor
Author's Response
Readers' Responses
Resources
Edition Resources
Marissa Myers and Jiyhun Oh
Editor's Notes
A Note from the Editor
Mark Douglas

Edition Resources

Annotated Bibliography: Theology and Fear

Lesson 1 - Facing Our Fears

Lesson 2 - Fear and the Mission of the Church

Lesson 3 - Fear and God

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY: THEOLOGY AND FEAR

Coleman, Will (1998). "Being Christian in a world of fear: The Challenge of Doing Theology within a Violent Society." in Walter Brueggemann and George W. Stroup, eds. Many Voices, One God Louisville , Ky : Westminster/John Knox Press. pp. 35-45.

Coleman explores how we can be Christian in a world of fear, paranoia and anxiety. Yahweh is the one who builds and protects (Ps 127:1-2; 33:16-22), yet our culture thrives on fear and pursues other sources of security, such as guns.  The rationale for violent behavior has been extracted from the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam that privilege a "chosen people," often at the expense of heathens and infidels.  The more we militarize our streets and homes, the more fearful and less secure we become.  Coleman holds up James and 1 John as resources for conquering fear.  In James 4:1-7, conflicts arise from tensions within ourselves and between others.  War, murder and intrigue happen when we can't distinguish between our allegiance to God and the values of dominant cultural structures.  Injustice signals a need for radical transformation in Christian thought and practice.  James asks Christians to resist the powers of injustice and unrighteousness in order to return to faithfulness to God.  The letter of James suggests a spirituality that is grounded in a deep sense of commitment to God through the transformation of our "worldly fears" into courageous acts of faithful responsiveness in the world.

Jones, Gregory L. (2002). "What We Fear," Christian Century, vol. 119, no. 25.

"We will not live in fear." President Bush told the American people, and the way the way to ensure that we to will not live in fear is to attack . Can we live without fear if we exert our power and eliminate the threat of our enemies?  What will cast out fear – the overpowering use of violence, or perfect love (1 John 4:18)?   What would it mean to believe that the way to cast out fear is to learn more perfectly how to love?  We might have to be willing to recognize the costs of such love.  We may be inflicting violence in order to avoid suffering. Strike them before they can hurt us, so we don't have to suffer.   But has overpowering force cast out our fears, or diminished our capacity for love?

Keizer , Garret (2002).  "Anger as Fear," in The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin.   San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Episcopal priest Garret Keizer's wise and beautiful confessions and ruminations on his own anger include an essay titled "Anger as Fear," in which Keizer explores the notion that anger is nothing but fear. He is humbled to consider that his "robust capacities for anger" might be connected to anything as "paltry as fear."  Is it an indication of cowardice?  He reviews situations in his life, and discovers that he was indeed angry because he was also afraid.   Anger may arise from fear; it may also arise from recognizing the fear, and loathing it.  It's futile to eliminate it; anger is a feeling like any other.  Anger is constructive so long as the fear is reasonable.  If anger is nothing but fear, what do we fear that has much power over out emotions?  We are afraid of losing a battle. We are afraid of suffering, even though we worship a man nailed to a cross. "I am afraid because I do not wish to end up like the person I believe to be the end of all human love, hope and striving," Keizer writes. He concludes, "Whom do I love, and what does that love require? Sometimes it requires me to wield my anger like a sharp sword. But more often it requires me to suffer, and to do so fearlessly and without complaint."

Kierkegaard, Soren (1981).  The Concept of Anxiety. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press  

The Concept of Anxiety (1844) is Kierkegaard's fundamental discovery that anxiety is a primal element in man, the very sign of being human. Kierkegaard deals with the relationship between anxiety and existential guilt (traditionally called "original sin") — a sense of ‘guilt' that is not related to moral misbehavior.  He describes anxiety as a stage that is necessary before one makes the leap of faith into Christianity, the stage where one shudders at one's freedom. Anxiety can lead to sin, sin compounds the anxiety of freedom, and freedom is lost through sin. This cycle of sinfulness and anxiety can be broken only by faith. 

Kierkegaard, Soren (1986).  Fear and Trembling.  New York : Penguin Classics

Fear and Trembling, written  in 1843, deals with the conflict between the ethical and the religious—namely, Abraham's decision to sacrifice his son in obedience to God's command.  According to Kierkegaard, Abraham believed in the absurd and got his son back after proving his faith, showing that with God anything is possible. Abraham demonstrates that one can be forced to disregard ethics if God commands it, which is the paradoxical nature of religion.  God can accomplish what to the human mind is absurd; and, by having faith in the absurd, one can recover what was lost.

May, Rollo (1977). The Meaning of Anxiety. New York :  W. W. Norton

Anxiety is a stimulus toward creativity, not a symptom to be removed, according to Rollo May.  When you're in a situation of anxiety, you can of course run away from it through pills, cocaine, meditation, etc –– but that's not constructive.   None of those things lead you to creative activity.  When you're anxious, it's as though the world is knocking at your door, and you need to create, you need to make something, you need to do something.  Anxiety, for people who have found their own heart and their own souls, for them it is a stimulus toward creativity, toward courage. It's what makes us human beings.  Our knowledge of our death is what gives us a normal anxiety that says to us, "Make the most of these years you are alive." When May lets himself feel that anxiety, then he applies himself to new ideas, he writes books, he communicates with his fellows. We're aware that what we do matters, and that we only have about seventy or eighty or ninety years in which to do it, so why not do it and get joy out of it, rather than running away from it?

May, William F. (2003).The shift in political anxieties in the West: from "the Russians are coming" to "the coming anarchy," Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 23 no 2, pp. 1-17

The West's biggest political anxiety is shifting from injustice (tyranny) to anarchy, according to May.  Both anxieties are found in scripture. 1 Samuel warns against the social evil of injustice (tyranny), kings that rule arbitrarily and oppressively.  Tyranny dominated Western concerns during the Cold War.  The book of Judges identifies the social evil of anarchy: "In these days there was no king in ; every man did what was right in his own eyes."  Worries about anarchy have come to the fore since the 1990s.  Although 9/11 seized Americans with anxiety, most high civilizations die of suicide, not murder.  The biggest internal threats of anarchy in the are the permanent underclass, burgeoning jail populations, huge gap between wealthy and poor, decline of inner cities, and the "secession of the successful" – the withdrawal of American ruling classes into gated communities and private schools.  May argues that order ultimately derives from justice.  Jews and Christians express this priority when they proclaim that the God of order and peace is, first and foremost, righteous and just.  The prophets saw God's justice is a way of creating order, whereas rulers see justice as a threat.  Likewise in the New Testament, ordering and doing justly are anchored in the final reign of charity.  

Nuth, Joan M. (2001). God's Lovers in an Age of Anxiety: The Medieval Mystics. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis

Christian spiritual authors flourished in during a calamitous century (roughly 1350 and 1450).  The dazzling spiritual insights of these medieval mystics (Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Richard Rolle) are unparalleled in their diversity of tradition, style and approach.  Nuth describes the contribution of each author to the developing voice of the English mystical tradition.  The first chapter raises some provocative questions about calamities of the fourteenth century and the developments in Christian spirituality. The last chapter relates the insights of the English mystics for our own calamitous age.

Robinson, Anthony B (2004).  "Vicious cycles: the anxious congregation."  Christian Century, vol. 121, issue 22, pp. 8-9

Many congregations and clergy are caught in vicious cycles, according to Robinson.  They operate in a climate of anxiety, heightened by their awareness of decline and vulnerability, expressed in statements like "we must do better."  But this anxiety only leads to more activity without clear sense of purpose. When a congregation is not effective or successful, it gets more depressed, fatigued, and scattered – and people are even more vulnerable a downward spiral of anxiety, activity, fatigue and anxiety.  Clergy and lay leaders throw up their hands: "Nothing I or we do makes any difference."

 

 

 

Psalm 127 speaks to a congregation experiencing sleepless nights and eating the "bread of anxious toil."  The letter to the Hebrews reflects on vicious and virtuous cycles.  The old priesthood is characterized by relentless, repetitive and ultimately ineffective activity. "Every priest stands day after day at his service offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins" (10:11). The priests of the old cult are like rats on a wheel, constantly running faster and faster but getting nowhere. In contrast, "When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God."   Robinson says that this confidence in powers that are not our own can help clergy and congregations to focus on "the one thing" or the few things needful and central. Our trust in God's work and grace leads us to focus.

Tournier, Paul (1976).  The Strong and the Weak.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press 

"Fear creates what it fears," writes Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician and Christian counselor who probes Christian experience with the light of medicine, psychology and scripture.  He dismisses the notion that there are two kinds of people –– the strong and the weak –– as illusion.  Only the masks we wear are different. Some of us cope with life by strutting (strong) and others by cringing (weak), some by optimism (strong) and others by pessimism (weak).  "These appearances . . .  hide an identical personality . . . all men, in fact, are weak. All are weak because all are afraid . . . they are all afraid of other men, and of God, of themselves, of life and death."  The strong repress the conscience; the weak repress their aggressiveness.  Neither is whole nor truly free.  The freedom of the spirit (the freedom in which Christ makes one free) is the freedom of knowing God, being accepted by God's grace, and living intimately ad honestly with God through prayer.  In the life of the spirit, the strong can stop pretending to be above pain and fear, and the weak can come out from behind the shield of past hurts and failures.  The strong can relax and be cared for, while the weak can stretch and assert themselves.

Von Balthasar, Hans Urs (1952).  The Christian and Anxiety.  Ignatius Press

Von Balthasar wrote during the anxiety crisis of the modern mind, and the many philosophical and psychological efforts to interpret and overcome it (Kierkegaard, Freud, Heidegger).  He advances a theology of anxiety, arguing that the biblical approach gets more traction on anxiety than Kierkegaard's psychological approach.  He turns away from the "feverish questioning of the modern soul" –– its culture, its religious anxiety and religion of anxiety –– and turns toward the source of revelation. For Von Balthasar, the Word of God offers distance from Christian prophets of doom, who announce the demise of everything, and those who ignore anxiety and bewilderment and "blithely carry on a serene theology of irrelevance."

He begins with a scriptural review of anxiety and what it means in scripture, pulling together many threads from the wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs, Wisdom, Sirach, etc).. He explores the diversity of scriptural references, their distinctions, interrelationships and dynamics. Out of this comes his Christian theology of anxiety.  He also explores the essence of anxiety, where the philosophical-theological efforts at interpretation (Kierkegaard and his successors) take place.  Von Balthasar says that the Christian faith does not offer a ready made response, but is simultaneously a journey through the torment of the cross and the liberation from fear by the gift of grace.  He emphasizes how much confidence in God leads to a hope which is inexhaustible.

Wright, H. Norman (1989). Uncovering Your Hidden Fears.  Wheaton, IL : Tynedale House Publishers

Norman Wright, a Christian counselor and author, wrote this book to help people conquer their fears.  He focuses on the fear of life –– the fear of being hurt, being rejected, making a mistake, showing our imperfections, and failing as a person.  This very accessible book includes practical steps on overcoming fears. 

Lesson 1 – Facing Our Own Fears

By Jihyun Oh (M. Div. Class of 2006)

Purpose

This lesson is an examination and exploration of our fears and an exploration of our trust in God's providence as that which enables us to live faithfully in the world.

Goals

  • To name some individual fears and the effect of fear
  • To share our own stories of fear
  • To envision ways to live out trust in God in the midst of a fearful world

Mission

Bible, markers, writing implements, copies of paragraphs 1 and 2 of Ufford-Chase's article.

Preparation

The questions/statements for Step #1 will have to be written on poster paper and posted on the walls before participants arrive.  Also, the room should be set up for small groups.

Sequence

  1. Opening – As participants enter the room, ask them to take a pen or marker and write on the poster their answers to the following questions/statements, which are posted on the walls:
    • "I am afraid of ...."
    • "I am afraid that ______ will happen to _______."
    • "When I am afraid, ________ happens."
    • "Is fear a bad thing?"
    • "The absence of fear equals...."

    Ask participants to share some thoughts about the questions/statements when everyone has had a chance to interact with the posters.
  2. Explore – Rick Ufford-Chase refers to his experience in as "the last time [he] felt real fear."  Ask participants to read paragraphs 1 and 2 of his article, then share their own stories of a time they felt real fear. 
  3. Encounter – Scott Bader-Saye suggests that recovering an understanding of divine providence is one way to find hope in the midst of fear.  Read Proverbs 3:1-6.  The writer of the passage urges the listener to trust in the Lord instead of relying on one's own insight.  As a large group, consider some of the following questions: What does providence mean?  What does it look like?  How does it feel? What does it mean for us to trust in the Lord?  What does it mean for us not to rely on our own insight?  Thinking back on Ufford-Chase's story, what else could he have done in that situation?  How does the Bible challenge us to act?
  4. Making it personal – Going back to the stories of real fear, ask participants to share within the small groups what difference, if any, trusting in God and God's providence could have made in their stories.
  5. Moving forward – Toward the end of his article, Ufford-Chase writes that the way " ‘we become a people shaped by a story that does not provoke fear'... lies in our willingness to become protagonists... in the story of God's people who are struggling to be faithful."  In the large group, ask participants to envision some concrete ways that they can become protagonists.
  6. Closing – Close in a time of prayer offering thanks for God's providence and asking for trust and hope to do the things mentioned in #5 above.

Lesson 2 – Fear and the Mission of the Church

By Jihyun Oh (M. Div. Class of 2006)

Purpose 

This lesson explores communal fears, fears of our society and perhaps more importantly, the fears of our church, and their relationship to the mission of the church.

Goals

  • To identify communal fears
  • To identify ways that communal fears stand in tension with the church's mission
  • To develop ways to move beyond the communal fears as a church

Materials

Newspapers and/or magazines (a variety, with both local and national publications), church newsletters, church bulletins, church annual report (if available), Bibles, poster paper or whiteboard, markers.

Preparation

Set up tables for small group discussion.  Have the newspapers and/or magazines for Step #1 already on the tables before participants enter the room.  Also for Step #1, have a sign/Powerpoint/poster with the quote from Scott Bader-Saye's article up as participants enter the room.

Sequence

  1. Opening – Post or project this quote from Scott Bader-Saye's article: "Every time an advertiser urges us to buy a product or risk being _____ (fill in the blank: uncool, unsafe, unwanted), our fears are being aggravated and manipulated....  Unfortunately, the news media has been at the forefront of fear-mongering – overemphasizing shocking and frightening stories to gain an audience and boost ratings."  Ask participants to look through the publications with the quote in mind.  What does our society fear?  Have participants share their findings with the larger group.
  1. Explore – Bader-Saye suggests that the church also plays a significant role in the fearful culture of our society.  Consider together in the large group:  In what ways do you see the church playing a significant role in fear-mongering? To make the transition from church as fear-monger to church as fearful say something like, "As a church we are agents of fear, but are also fearful due to the actions of others both within and outside of the church. As we continue our discussion, we change our focus to the second of these roles, that of being persons of fear."
  1. Explore further – The church's fears are sometimes more subtle than those of the broader society's.  Hand out the church documents to each table.  Have participants look through the church bulletin, newsletter, annual report, etc. and consider the church's history.  Ask them to discuss within the small group what, if anything, your church fears and how the documents reflect that fear? 
  1. Encounter – Read Romans 12:12-14.  In this passage, Paul gives instructions to the church in Rome about what they are to do, what their mission is.  Bader-Saye writes that "[i]n the face of fear, we are tempted to contract or attack."  In her response Barbara Brown Taylor identifies the church's allocation of financial and human resources, ways of reading scriptures or doing theology, and identifying our enemies as manifestations of this temptation to contract or attack.  Reconsider your own church in light of Paul's instructions regarding the church's mission and Brown Taylor's assessment.  What does your church fear?  Ask participants to share their thoughts with the larger group.
  1. Moving forward – Ask participants to envision what the church might do differently to stop contracting or attacking and fulfill its mission.  What might the church look like?  What sorts of programs would the church offer?  Where might budget adjustments need to occur?  How could the church identify itself in its publications or its spoken word?  Who would be a part of the church?  Write answers on poster paper or the whiteboard as they are given.
  1. Closing – End with a time of prayer.  Allow space for participants to pray as they feel led.  Close the prayer by asking God for help and wisdom in continuing to think about #5 above and carrying out some concrete steps identified there as a church.  The following suggested closing, can also be used.

God of hope,
You are the one who gives us our mission,
the one who gives us our hope. 

Teach us to fear rightly,
to fear our contracting.

Teach us to fear when there are too few strangers in our midst.
Teach us to fear when we focus on ourselves.
Teach us to fear when we close in on ourselves.

Teach us to fear rightly,
to fear our attacking.

Teach us to fear when we would point fingers.
Teach us to fear when we don't know ourselves.
Teach us to fear when we insist on our own ways.

Holy Spirit, give us ears to hear and hearts to understand.

In Christ's name we pray, Amen.

 

 

Lesson 3 – Fear & God

By Jihyun Oh (M. Div. Class of 2006)

 

Purpose

This lesson explores fear as a response to God and the nature of that fearful response.  Additionally, this lesson incorporates elements of group lectio divina as a way of encountering and fearfully responding to God.

Goals

  • To discuss biblical examples of fearing God
  • To write our own prayers of fearful response

Materials

Bible, Question sheet for Step #2, paper, writing implements, CD/cassette player (optional), meditative music (optional)
 

Preparation

The statements for Step #1 will have to be written up somewhere and covered prior to the beginning of this lesson so that they can be revealed for the brainstorming. The room should be set up with tables and chairs for small groups.  The questions for Step #2 should be prepared as a handout.  For Step #3, ask volunteers ahead of time to read the passage.  Each volunteer should sound different from the others.  If using music in Step #4, cue the CD or cassette ahead of time.
 

Sequence

  1. Opening – Brainstorm as a large group using the following statements consecutively:
  •   When I think of God, I think....
  •   One word to describe my/our response to God is.... 

2.  Explore – There are many ways to describe God and our response to God.  "Scary," "powerful," etc. could be ways to describe God, and "fear," "respect," etc. could be our response to God.  Have half of the small groups consider Jeremiah 8:14-15 and the other half consider Psalm 111.  Hand out the sheet with the following questions to help them in their exploration: 
  •   What about the passage stands out to you?
  •     How is God described in the passage?
  •      What is the author's response to God?
  •      How do you react to the God who is described in the passage?
  1. Encounter – Bill Brown writes that while the "fear of God" in the Jeremiah passage "is terror with purpose, for the appropriate response that Jeremiah identifies is not resistance but contrite repentance, not retaliation but confession," it is the "fear of God" in Psalm 111 that is "the beginning of wisdom" or "fear seeking understanding."  This fear, Brown writes, "impels us to obedience and responsibility, confession and conversion, to radical discipleship and hospitality."  Deuteronomy 10:12-22 is a passage that talks about the "fear of God" and one that participants will encounter through lectio divina in this step.

Not everyone will be familiar with lectio divina.  Explain by saying something like, "Lectio divina is a way of reading Scripture and listening to God.  We will have three people read the passage.  After each reading, there will be a time for silent meditation as you allow the words of the passage to soak in and as you listen.  After the silence, we'll have some time to share some of our thoughts and what we heard before going on to the next reading."  Have the first volunteer read Deuteronomy 10:12-22 slowly, meditatively.  Give a couple of minutes of silence.  Ask participants to share what words stood out to them or touched them in the passage.  Have the second volunteer read the passage slowly.  Ask participants to think about how the words touch their daily lives.  Give a couple of minutes of silence.  Have participants share what they have heard.  After the third reading and silence, ask participants to share what the God is calling them to be or to do through the passage.

  1. Making it personal – Hand out paper and writing implements and ask participants to write a prayer that flows out of the lectio divina above – what they heard, what they feel God is leading them to do or be, how God is touching their lives, what fearing God means to them, etc.  If using music, play softly in the background as participants work.
  1. Moving Forward – As a large group, ask participants to envision and share ways that fearing God will transform them and the way they live out their Christian life.
  1. Closing – As participants head out into the world, close with a prayer, and a call to trust and fear God.  Give instructions for this time by saying something like, "For our closing prayer, those who feel led, please read your prayers.   After a time, I will close the prayer and will call us to worship as we head into the world.  When I say, ‘Trust in the Lord,' please respond with ‘He is their help and their shield.'  Instead of passing the peace, we will end by passing the fear of the Lord."

Call to Worship (based on Psalm 115:9-11)


                   One:       O, trust in the Lord!

                     All:        God is their help and their shield.
 
                  One:        O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord!

                     All:        God is their help and their shield.

                  One:        You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord!

                    All:         God is their help and their shield.

                  One:        May the fear of the Lord be with you.

Respond to this article