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Chris Thompson: Seminars offer religious training to leaders and laity alike

Over the course of the past year, I've written about the slipping status quo of biblical and religious literacy (see tinyurl.com/ozzurcw). Alaska's remoteness, compared to the Lower 48 where opportunities abound to access Bible and religious education, contributes to this problem, especially for those past high school age. Two major religious communities in Alaska have aggressively been addressing these deficiencies with in-state training opportunities. This column highlights two upcoming programs.

Illiteracy update

In a recent post at "The Exchange" (see tinyurl.com/o36bkgh), church researcher Ed Stetzer writes, "Christians claim to believe the Bible is God's Word. We claim it's God's divinely inspired, inerrant message to us. Yet despite this, we aren't reading it. A recent LifeWay Research study found only 45 percent of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week. Over 40 percent of the people attending read their Bible occasionally, maybe once or twice a month. Almost one in 5 churchgoers say they never read the Bible -- essentially the same number who read it every day."

Eagle River Institute

Beginning Saturday, Aug. 1, the Eagle River Institute offers five days of religious and biblical instruction at St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River. The Rev. Marc Dunaway, pastor of St. John, sharing a bit of the background of ERI notes, "We realized many years ago that the people in our congregation, being in Alaska, did not have easy access to conferences regularly held in the Lower 48. In 1995 we began the Eagle River Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies as a way of inviting two speakers up each summer to conduct a series of classes intended as general education for Christian lay people. Since then many Orthodox Christian teachers from around the world have addressed a great variety of theological and spiritual issues. The beauty of Alaska also provides an extra draw for speakers. A few years ago one attendee told me that the lectures by Bishop Kallistos Ware 'reached deep into my heart and reinforced that God is a loving and forgiving God.'Another said it helped her 'not be quite so judgmental.' The lectures are usually attended by 50 to 75 people. Orthodox Christianity represents the faith of the ancient churches from Greece, Russia and the Middle East, which in this century is being rediscovered in America and connecting people to a Christian tradition rooted in history yet alive with deep spirituality. Hundreds of people have come to the Eagle River Institute and opened the door to a Christian tradition they previously knew little of."

I attended ERI last year receiving a significant blessing from associating with people coming to learn more about this faith. One of this year's speakers is the Rev. George Shalhoub, a teacher at Madonna University and Antiochian House of Studies. His topic will be "Christianity in the Arab World." The other speaker is the Rev. Andrew Stephen Damick, whose topic is "Key Themes in Saint Ignatius the God-Bearer." A PDF brochure can be viewed and downloaded at tinyurl.com/q27eh2t. Last year I attended ERI and heard two marvelous Orthodox presentations in a co-presenter format. The Rev. David and Rozanne Rucker, an Orthodox couple doing mission work in Mexico and Guatemala, gave riveting presentations about the challenges in these mission fields. The Rev. Nicholas and Anastasia Molydoko-Harris gave touching presentations about their Russian Orthodox (now Orthodox) service in Alaska, including the establishment of St. Innocent Orthodox Cathedral. I say, come for a blessing; the Rev. Marc Dunaway says, "All are welcome to attend and join us."

Alaska School of Theology: SMU and Alaska United Methodist Conference

Sept. 18-19 will mark the 19th year that the Alaska United Methodist Conference has teamed with the prestigious Southern Methodist University Perkins School of Theology to present short but in-depth excursions into the Bible. (Descriptive brochure at tinyurl.com/qjo5nn9.)

This seminar brings two SMU faculty members to Alaska for a 1 1/2-day seminar on biblical and faith topics. I've attended these conferences several times over the years and found them rewarding. Alyce McKensie, professor of preaching and worship, presented on the parables of Jesus several years ago. Jamie Clark-Soles, a New Testament professor, presented an engaging and contemporary study on the Book of Matthew. Each presenter has authored multiple volumes and articles.

"In 2002 our faculty consisted of Scott Jones, professor of Evangelism, and Jouette Bassler, a giant in the field of New Testament studies," said Lonnie Brooks, local SMU co-coordinator of the Alaska School of Theology. "Jouette taught a class on the Book of Revelation, and Scott taught in his field. At the end of Jouette's class, which I myself attended, one of the students said in class, 'Dr. Bassler, you have given me a whole new way to look at this material. It was primarily because of the way this book has been presented historically in churches that I left the church. But now I'm coming back.' At dinner that night with the two professors, I said, 'Scott, you need to hear this story.' I told what the student had said, and Scott said, 'You mean to tell me that Jouette is an evangelist?' Jouette said, 'Well, by my count it's Jouette one, and Scott zero.' Shortly after that, Scott Jones was elected to be a bishop of the UMC, a calling in which he continues to serve."

This year's presenters, wife and husband team Heidi Miller, an Anabaptist liturgical scholar, and the Rev. Gary MacDonald, a United Methodist elder studying social ethics, engage and lead a discussion on worship, theology and ethics, and the place of dialogue and action in the life of the church. Their presentation begins Friday evening with a joint presentation, "A Pacifist and a Realist Walk into a Bar: How Can Christians Talk With Each Other?," and continues with separate tracks on Saturday. Her talk is titled "Transforming Bodies: Reclaiming Worship That Matters"; his is " 'God Grant Me the Serenity …' Exploring Faith and Politics."

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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