• Laurel Contributor

The Pursuit of Understanding

by Martha Porter


Highlands author Martha Porter, whose latest book, “Advent in the Real World,” was released last year, is a graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University, with a focus on pastoral counseling and the role of language in the formation of self. She trained at the Pastoral Psychotherapy Institute and worked at the Center for Religion;and Psychotherpy, both in Chicago. A Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counseling, Martha’s first career was in education. She holds a doctorate in education and has taught math from 8th grade to graduate level statistics in college. She and her husband, Peter Ray, also an ordained minister, continue to lead the Contemporary Theology class at the Church of the Incarnation in Highlands.

It is difficult to pick a beginning point for this story because I could easily trace my interest in writing, and especially writing on theological subjects, to being a very early reader who was also immersed in Bible stories and what I saw as many contradictions.

This awareness of the contradictions in the stories as well as the contradictions in the lives of those who revered them led me to be a questioner. Many years down the road I would wonder about this God people talked about who, in their thinking, required a death to pay for sins committed. The stories began to make less and less sense.

It was in part to pursue, if not answers, at least more in-depth understanding of these stories, that I left an 18 year career in education to attend seminary at Emory University. Imagine my surprise and relief when I heard the stories approached from a historical, literary perspective and was encouraged to research texts taking into account the author, the intended audience, the form, and the context. Even more liberating was the requirement that in our writing all references to God be made in gender neutral terms. I learned about feminist theology, and saw the value and impact of the religious language that we use. I discovered a whole world of writers, books, lecturers, and preachers and other resources that expressed a “progressive” theology that turned on its head the fundamentalist perspectives I had known.

What I thought was missing, however, were resources that would fall into a “devotional” category and still reflect the progressive view. Lent was a particularly difficult period in the church year because of its emphasis on sacrifice (for me that meant no chocolate) and how suffering was the price of redemption. That view was embodied particularly in The Nicene Creed in the words “…for our sake he was crucified….” I decided to take the Creed apart, phrase by phrase, breaking it into 40 segments to fit the period of Lent and in brief reflections include both history and theology and contemporary, progressive perspectives on each segment. From that effort came “The Nicene Creed: Ancient Words in the Light of Modern Faith.”

A second book with the same structure and goal, “The Soul of the Psalms,” drew upon the Psalms as the content, offering both a historical perspective and a contemporary rephrasing of 40 lament psalms.

My most recent book, which has been available for Advent, is titled Advent in the Real World, and offers brief vignettes and reflections for each day of Advent.

Some might be concerned that raising questions or turning a critical and creative light on tradition would distance people from their faith. It has been my experience that this process rather allows people to cease trying to reconcile contradictions or rigid belief systems and instead live more comfortably and creatively with ambiguity and the rich metaphors held in our religious history.

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