Sunday, August 31, 2008

Quote - Bauckham on Divine Humility

Richard Bauckham, in God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament:

The divine identity is known in the radical contrast and conjunction of exaltation and humiliation--as the God who is Creator of all things, and no less truly God in the human life of Jesus; as the God who is Sovereign over all things, and no less truly God in Jesus' obedience and service; as the God of transcendent majesty who is no less truly God in the abject humiliation of the cross. These are not contradictions because God is self-giving love, as much in his creation and rule of all things as in his human incarnation and death. (pg. 68)
UPDATE: Fixed title from "Humilty" to "Humility." Heh, "humility" indeed!

Friday, August 29, 2008


I generally avoid politics around here (except the occasional joke), but I did want to take a moment to register my congratulations to both Democratic and Republican parties for taking truly historic steps in their nominations. If reports are true that McCain has selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential candidate, that means that this November we are guaranteed to elect either a black President or a female Vice President.

Congratulations to both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin (and McCain and Biden as well)! Though I have often been cynical and skeptical of both major parties, this is a remarkable turn of events!

Quote - Berger on The Voice of God

I keep seeing this on Ryan Dueck's sidebar (though I haven't read the book). Here's Peter Berger, in The Heretical Imperative:

It is not given to men to make God speak. It is only given to them to live and to think in such a way that, if God’s thunder should come, they will not have stopped their ears. (pg. 172)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Five O'Clock People

Ack! I just discovered that one of my all-time favorite bands, which broke up 6 years ago, is back together with a new CD out, but I can't figure out how to buy a copy! Grrr, at least the tracks on their MySpace page sound good....

Anyway, do check out the Five O'Clock People (if you click through, scroll down), an indie folk-rock band out of Portland, OR (though they now sound less folk and more alternative rock, ah well):

The more that I try to explain
Only the questions remain
Take these words that I say
Wash them all away
(Same Old Line)

How I Became a Christian Part IV

Responding to recent posts, commenter Hugh has been emphasizing the absurdity and danger of uncritically seeking “God’s will” for every detail of one’s life. It may surprise him, but I agree. As I have told my story, I have described a handful of points in my life when God seemed to be guiding me down certain paths, mostly ones that I wouldn’t have chosen on my own. These have only been examples, highlighted because they were significant for the course of my life, but if the impression I have given is that this guidance is only occasional, that is the correct impression. Unlike the conscience, which is pretty much always there if you take the trouble to listen, God’s voice is much more elusive.

John’s Gospel compares God’s spirit to the wind, unpredictable and uncontrollable, and this has certainly been my experience. Though it is possible to stifle God’s promptings, just as it is possible to deaden one’s conscience, it is not possible to force God to speak. Most of the time, we are left to think and decide for ourselves, in dialogue with scripture and the community of fellow believers. Though Christians believe God’s providence encompasses the whole of our lives, trusting in God does not mean expecting him to plan out every detail thereof, nor does it mean giving up your responsibility to make wise decisions. As I recently argued concerning the Bible, Christianity does not expect unthinking conformity, but calls us into a dialogue. Above all, it calls us to an outward-focused life, which is the antithesis of obsessing over one’s own needs and desires.

I suspect that one important reason for this, as for why God doesn’t always answer prayer, is because he intends us to grow into spiritual adulthood. He intends us to be the kind of people who choose rightly on our own, who can be genuine partners with God in the world, and not remain spiritual and moral children indefinitely. I think this is also why new converts tend to see even their foolish prayers answered more directly. At the least, I can say that the promptings I have described have steadily decreased in frequency the longer I have been a Christian, and I don’t think this is a coincidence. As a parent, I can understand the principle very well: I will do many things for my one-month-old son that I expect my two-year-old daughter to do for herself. Though God may make his presence especially known at first, he doesn’t intend to take over our decision-making process for us, nor does trust in “God’s will” excuse you from critical thinking, though it does mean stepping out in trust without knowing how things will turn out.

But if this is how God works, then like immature children, we can sometimes react badly to God’s refusal to coddle us. For instance, while God expects us to grow into responsible, decision-making adults, it is possible to take this take this too far and convince yourself of God’s sanction and approval of your own self-serving and destructive plans. Oppositely, it is possible to become so obsessed with knowing “God’s will” for every detail of your life that you become utterly indecisive. Over the years, I’ve at times been guilty of both extremes.

For example, one summer in high school I felt like God was calling me to fast. Now if done right, fasting can be a very healthy practice, both spiritually and physically, but I didn’t take any trouble to learn about how to do it right; I just stopped eating, thinking God would tell me when it was OK to eat again. Well after a few days and no such signs from God, I gave up and ate a meal. I then felt guilty about it and started the fast over, this time obsessing over every meal, whether it was “God’s will” for me to eat. As you might expect, after a few days I broke down and ate again, felt guilty again and started over. This very destructive cycle of eating and not eating, obsessing over God’s will, but really just inconsistently following my own desire, continued for several weeks.

Eventually, my pastor discovered what I was doing and advised me to stop, emphasizing that this was not the proper way to do a fast, and I took his advice and gave up on it. In truth, the affair did me no good, but it does provide a helpful illustration of the danger of treating what we think is God’s will as a license to stop thinking. Perhaps if I had approached it critically from the beginning, and stuck with it, it would have done me good (after all, I've known plenty of people, that pastor among them, who have found fasting to be a very helpful discipline), but my immature and inconsistent approach had no such positive effects. Indeed, to this day the very thought of fasting makes me uncomfortable, and I've never tried it again, which is a shame, really.

In any case, a more significant example involves my decision on where to attend college. I mentioned that I met the woman who I would eventually marry just two days after my family moved. We hit it off right away, and it wasn’t long before we became very close (though I told myself that we were “just friends”). She was a year ahead of me and the next fall she went off to the local liberal arts college while I started my senior year, fully intending to go to the same school the next year. So when the time came, I applied, was offered a scholarship, and accepted.

By that point, however, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was breaking my commitment not to date in high school, and that we needed to take a step back from our relationship. Like with the fasting incident though, I wasn’t very thoughtful about it, nor did I seek out anyone's advice or guidance. I didn't even discuss the matter with her; I simply informed her that we shouldn’t see or talk to each other for a while. And from March through May of my senior year, we didn’t.

It was a very difficult time, particularly for her, but despite my foolish and insensitive approach, it wasn’t for nothing. Not long after the break up that old feeling came back (for the first time in a long while), and quickly it became clear that I had chosen where to go to college based on her, and this was not where I should be going. This was extremely hard for me to accept, but I trusted God and went looking for other options, eventually settling on a school in Canada, and withdrawing my application from the first school. I was extremely disappointed that I would be leaving the woman I loved, but the new school looked to be a good fit and I felt comfortable with the decision, though I dreaded telling her about it.

Little did I know that over those two months she had been going through much the same process, and when I finally told her what I had decided, I was shocked to discover that she too had come to the very same decision. Soon after, I graduated high school and we began dating (“again”). But that was when I started to second-guess myself. Though the decision to attend the school in Canada had been made for good reasons which had not changed, and I didn’t even feel any prompting that it was a mistake, I wanted certainty about “God’s will” in the matter, and kept asking for some kind of sign to confirm or condemn my decision. None came, and by July I had no choice but to make the decision for myself, and went ahead and confirmed my registration.

Perhaps God wanted me to grow up and be decisive, or perhaps he just didn’t feel like repeating himself. Who knows, but despite all the subsequent obsessing, the decision turned out to be the right one. That fall we headed off for the new school, which (thanks to an excellent exchange rate) ended up being cheaper without a scholarship than the first would have been with one. In the end, the program I majored in (Biblical Studies) was not even available at the first school, and the new school ended up being just what I needed. But I had also learned an important lesson: Like any relationship, following God requires both trust and decisiveness. Neither obsessive hand-wringing about his wishes, nor uncritical acceptance of one’s own will do. He’s not looking for unthinking drones who expect to be told what to do with every detail of their lives; he’s looking for partners in his work in the world.

Monday, August 25, 2008

McCain a Cylon Sleeper Agent?

If Obama is the Messiah, what does this make McCain? (HT Catholic and Enjoying It):

Maybe I really will vote for Warren G. Harding this November!


A few items of interest:

Conscience For Me But Not For Thee: The Case for Pro-Life Docs and Pharmacists from the Bad Idea Blog, provides a fairly thorough defense of the concept (see my own post on the subject, from June).

In What Lies Beneath, James McGrath offers a great analogy for the importance of critically examining one's own beliefs.

Peter Chattaway links to a number of early reviews of Religulous, including especially this one by John Nolte, via which I discovered this:

Bill Maher hates your (fill in the blank) religion, which reveals that many of the interviews for the film were acquired deceptively. People were told the movie would be called "A Spiritual Journey" and were not told that Maher would be the host until they were already caught on camera. I'm curious how many of those who (rightly) condemned Expelled for lying to it's subjects will defend Religulous for the using the same tactic. At least Expelled chose recognized experts to interview; Maher apparently went looking for the most ignorant folks he could find.

Finally, and just for fun: In Which Scott Goes To The Fourth Heaven…

Saturday, August 23, 2008

What's in a Name?

Does it matter what names we use, particularly when referring to the deity? This issue has arisen several times in recent conversations around here. I consistently refer to “God,” which Hugh believes unfairly biases the matter in favor of one tradition. For instance, as he wrote here:

You [have] been misled by the fact that Christians call their god, God. The gods have many other names... you might as well call it Allah, Zeus, Huitzilopochtli, Osiris, Hanuman -- the list is endless. Why not just call it Steve (or to avoid sexism) Pat?
At the time, I responded that the name isn’t the important thing, that even Christians have used many different names for the same God:
Ultimate reality is what it is. It isn't as though different religions each follow different gods which all exist side-by-side; rather different religions make claims about what ultimate reality is (some of which are mutually exclusive, but that's a separate matter)....

It isn't a matter of choosing Yahweh or Allah, as though both exist and we must choose between them (or as though neither exist and we are just making things up). Rather, we are all trying to determine what God is like, so we ask whether the Muslim claims about God are more accurate than the Christian ones, or vice versa, or whether some aspects of God are better understood by one group, and others better by another group.
All of which is true, but as Hugh has since pointed out, I continue to refer to the deity as “God” and (illegitimately, he implies) assume that my experiences point to this particular deity, when they could just as well point to any other. Does this not contradict my insistence that what matters is not what one calls God, but what one believes about him (and even more importantly, whether one trusts him)? If “God” is just a name, as arbitrary as any other, why not use a different one. Why not pepper my speech with all manner of names and titles for the deity, rather than unfairly biasing the conversation by using the Christian term? Why not speak variously of Allah, Shiva, Cthulhu, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, if names are not important?

The answer is simple, really: Though names are, ultimately, arbitrary, they acquire meaning with use, and the meanings associated with those other names for the deity are very different than the meanings which are associated with the term “God.” Since I have no interest in maintaining those meanings, I have no reason to use those names. If I were to occasionally refer to the deity as Cthulhu, what purpose would that serve except to bring to mind an image of an enormous and wicked sea monster? Since I do not believe this is what the deity is like, why should I use the term?

Just because it is a brute possibility that, had history played out differently, the things now associated with the Christian “God” might have been applied to a different term, does not make it helpful or necessary to dispense with it for another. You can call the deity “Pat” if that's helpful to you, but for me and many others, “God” carries the meanings and associations that we attribute to the deity in ways “Pat” does not (though, presumably, could have, had our history been different). On the other hand, most other names for the deity (particularly those from other religious traditions) carry for me different connotations such that if I were to use them, would imply beliefs I do not maintain. Thus, though it is not the name itself that matters, my history and the history of those in my tradition who have gone before me have shaped the meanings of these terms in certain important ways.

Perhaps an analogy will help: I call my father “Dad,” not because there is anything inviolable about that particular set of phonemes, but because I happen to have been raised in a particular English-speaking culture which employs that term. “Dad” is, therefore, what I have always called him and because of that history the term now carries for me connotations of our whole long experience together. No doubt, if I had been raised in some non-English speaking culture I would call him by a different name and that name would carry those connotations for me, but whatever the name, it is the person and our relationship that matters. To insist that I instead call him “Man” or “Pat” on the grounds that names don’t matter would be absurd and a violation of my history.

On the other hand, for some people whose experiences with their own fathers have been less positive than mine, “Dad” might carry associations that are not helpful for them, and I certainly would not insist that they use the term. Similarly, strangers who have not had the same parent-child relationship with my father obviously would not call him “Dad,” as I do, nor should they. And so it is with the deity as well.

Based on my long experience, I have come to associate many things with the name “God,” and in using the term I respect that history. Moreover, as the usual Christian term, “God” also serves to call to mind other meanings and associations with Christian theology, many of which (though not all) I also affirm, for reasons that I have explored in many other posts (and so will not rehearse here). But I recognize that for some people that term may not be as helpful, and I would not expect them to conform to my usage. In the end, whatever name a person uses, what matters is whether the meanings and associations they tie to that name are right and true.

Friday, August 22, 2008

How I Became a Christian Part III

Commenting on the last segment of my story, Hugh questioned why God would waste his time focusing on such “paltry” matters as a high schooler’s social life. I must admit that on the face of it, it does seem preposterous, like a king worrying about the petty concerns of a beggar. But that is precisely why Christians insist on God’s goodness and love because, preposterous as it may be, he does seem to take an interest even in such trivialities. If God is infinite as Christians claim, then he is in no way hampered by the time constraints that force us to limit our involvements, but that doesn’t change the loving and compassionate nature of the matter.

That said, if I am anything like typical, I suspect social matters are the most important to most teenagers. I know for a fact that my teen-aged self would have been more willing to be killed for my beliefs than to be thought uncool, and I don't think I was alone. For that matter, I'm not sure how much things have changed: how many of us wouldn't more readily accept a grand sacrifice than the small and daily sacrifices which are in fact far more important? Perhaps that is precisely why God does focus on such small matters in our lives, for he recognizes that fixing the world is not so much a matter of solving the “big” problems, but of changing us, making us into the kind of people who live selflessly in community and love. After all, history has constantly revealed the terror and violence that attend all attempts to enforce morality, even for society's own good. True justice can only be established on a person-by-person basis, through the free choices of individuals, and my own long experience with God confirms, for me at least, that this is how God does in fact choose to work.

Nevertheless, not every aspect of God’s role in my life can be reduced to such small matters. I could name many examples of God’s work at significant points in my life, but as this story is already growing long I’ll skip to the most important: The next fall, during my Junior year of high school, my dad was informed that his company needed him to move to a different office in Denver (several states away). As you might expect, I had no desire to leave my friends (and church) just a year and a half before finishing high school, especially considering how much I was enjoying my life there. In deference to my concerns (and likely his own as well), my dad went looking for options and found job opportunities at two start-up companies, one of which would have allowed us to stay where we were, and the other which would require moving, but only across the state. All three jobs (including the original) were roughly comparable in pay and responsibilities, and I was adamant that he take the one that didn’t require moving.

It wasn’t long, however, before that now familiar nudge began telling me something quite different. Though I had no additional information to suggest that it would be better to move, and outwardly I continued to insist that we ought to stay where we were, deep down I couldn’t shake the feeling that we actually needed to take the job across the state. I can’t tell you how I knew, but I knew, and I hated the idea. For weeks I held to my line that my dad should take the job nearby, knowing full well that this was a lie, until finally, with just three weeks to spare, I admitted the truth. I suspect that my parents were already planning on taking the job anyway (though they have never admitted this), but in respect of my wishes they had not done anything to pursue it. So when we moved, just three weeks later, the delay forced us to live in a rental house until we had time to buy one. It also meant much more abrupt goodbyes for all of us than it would have, had I not stalled for all those weeks.

Yet once again, when I did obey, I found that God knew what he was doing far better than I did. My dad was much happier with his new job. I ended up at a far better school than I had been at previously. My parents marriage, which had been in a very poor state, improved dramatically, as did my own with my brothers. We also found a new church that I not only liked as much as the previous, but that reinvigorated my parents’ own faith, which had (particularly for my dad) long since grown cold. And to top it all off, I met my future wife on the second day I was there.

In time, however, I discovered that the most important thing about the move was what it saved our family from. Within a year of our moving away, we learned the start-up for which my dad would have worked had we stayed had gone bankrupt. Worse, the group of friends my middle brother had been hanging out with before we moved had since taken a dark turn towards drug addiction and my brother, up to that point always the rebel of the family, would almost certainly have joined them had we stayed. On that score, it was probably my brother who most benefited from the move, for later that year one of his previous friends shot another and then killed himself, at a party that he may very well have attended had we stayed.

Nor was this the first time that our family had such a near-miss with tragedy. When I was in middle school, my dad’s company had once before tried to move us to Denver, and we actually visited and looked at houses in the Littleton area. That time, my dad took a different job nearby (though eventually the old company wooed him back), which postponed the move until, as I said, my Junior year. But my life might have been very different if he hadn’t. For it was only a few years later that the Columbine massacre occurred in the very school in Littleton that I would have attended.

I remember reading the newspaper the day of after the attack and being so angry at God that he would allow such a terrible thing to occur. It was only much later that I realized how close my own family had come to being there. Sometimes, I can now see, we are so eager to blame God for “failing to act” when people use their God-given free will to do terrible things, that we fail to consider the possibility that he has acted to limit the damage as much as he could without violating our freedom. As it turned out, when I got to college I discovered that one of my roommates had been there at Columbine, and was himself spared when the bomb under his table (miraculously?) failed to detonate. Perhaps God was there, even at Columbine, after all. In any case, I can now say with confidence that he has saved my family from far worse fates than the petty concerns of a self-conscious teenager.

Continued in Part IV

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How I Became a Christian - Part II

It has been said that if a man talks to God, he’s pious, but if God talks to him, he’s schizophrenic. If that is true, it bodes ill for me, but I suppose I’ll have to let you judge for yourselves. As described in the first part of my story, though I was raised in the church, it was a long time before I was willing to admit that fact to my (mostly non-Christian) friends. When I finally did so, in ninth grade, it was revolutionary. Of course, simple honesty with oneself and one’s acquaintances accounts for much of the change, and would likely have done so regardless of what religion (or lack thereof) I had finally admitted.

But the change went deeper than that, as I stopped looking for my identity and validation in what others thought of me, stopped worrying (as much!) about being well-liked or popular. Ironically, the very act of deciding to care more about my relationship with God than my relationship with others in fact improved my relationships with others as well. As it turned out, not only did my relationships deepen but, quite unexpectedly, I found that my two circles of friends (“church” and “school”) begin to coalesce in a way I could not have thought possible.

But I also found, not for the last time, that God was not satisfied to improve my lot in life; he wanted to improve me. It wasn’t long after that I first became aware of God’s promptings, his “still small voice” (as it has been called), which rather insistently began to demand that I live my life better than I had been doing. It is difficult to describe this “voice,” and those who have not experienced it will be forgiven for finding the notion strange, if not absurd, but it will become central to my story so I must try to explain it. In truth, it’s not really a “voice,” at least not an audible one, but neither is it simply an amorphous “feeling.” As I said in my review of The Shack, the closest thing I could compare it to would be the conscience, but it is distinct from the conscience, and not quite the same.

While the conscience will leave you feeling guilty about certain moral choices (real or potential), God’s promptings are deeper and feel, for lack of a better word, more foreign. The conscience is, after all, just another part of your own mind, and expresses values you already hold, even if you would prefer not to at the moment. The voice of God is like having another mind altogether, simultaneously more elusive and more persistent than the conscience. As I said before, it is not (at least in my experience) a source of information so much as of direction, and it isn’t always limited to strictly moral choices. I’m certain I’ve done a poor job of explaining it, but hopefully the rest of my story itself will clarify what I mean.

In any case, in this subtle but unmistakable way, God began helping me to recognize a few of my worse qualities and begin to move beyond them. For instance, I had a very short temper and could sometimes get violent over very minor things (just ask my younger brothers), and this was one of the first things that God began working on. I came to recognize that television, film and video games were particular problems for me in this area. I would become inexplicably enraged playing even the most innocuous video games (I was a sore loser, I guess), and watched some extremely violent movies.

Looking back, I can see that the problem wasn’t always the shows or games themselves, but simply my own immaturity, but in order to recognize that I had to get away from them for a while, and one of the first things God convicted me of was to take a break from them. And for nearly a year I did so, and apart from a few weak moments, I didn't watch or play any of them. This made a huge difference, beginning me on the path that has led to my current mellow self. Heh. Other issues God took up were my pride and vanity, odd though they might seem for a geeky teenager, and a perennial struggle with lust (made worse, no doubt, by the nudity in some of those movies I had been watching).

But while feeling pressed for moral progress is one, and perhaps the most important, aspect of intimacy with God (I said his voice is very like the conscience), it is not the only one. The summer after ninth grade was a particular turning point for me on that score. My youth pastor had started a program called Summer Servants, which was essentially an extension of small group I had been attending, except that it ran all day, every day, for eight weeks. Only five of us were crazy enough to sign up, but that summer changed all of our lives. There is much that I could say about it—how I made some of the deepest friendships I’ve ever had, experienced for the first time how overwhelming an experience prayer and worship can be, and faced my first serious challenge to my faith, among others—but I’ll limit myself to one point:

I’ve said that before I became serious about my faith the only thing I wanted was to be popular, but that isn’t exactly true. There was one thing my teenaged self wanted more: to have a girlfriend. As I was a shy and unattractive pre-teen (or do them call them “tweens” these days?), you wont be shocked to hear that my one relationship during that time consisted almost entirely of passing notes. The one time I worked up the nerve to call, her dad answered the phone, told me it was too late to be calling—it was 8pm—and hung up on me. Finally, I asked her (by note) to a dance, at which we stood ten feet apart and said not a word. A week later, a mutual friend informed me that we had broken up. The only reason I’d even call it “dating” is because it led to a fistfight with her next boyfriend (there was that temper I mentioned), but it sapped any nerve I had to ask another girl out.

Despite that utter failure (or perhaps because of it), however, dating became my dearest wish. Thus, even after I gave up to God my desire to be popular, it took until that summer for God to convince me to give up my obsession with finding a girlfriend. Though no one, that I can recall, ever suggested such a thing to me, it became clearer and clearer that God wanted me to give up dating. Not just to stop worrying so much about it, mind you, but to consciously choose not to date. You might think that a kid who hadn’t managed to ask a girl out since the sixth grade wouldn’t have been too opposed to the idea of giving up for a while, but you would be wrong. The fact that it seemed an unattainable goal only made it harder to give it up, and I fought God on it all summer. Slowly but surely the feeling built that this was what God wanted me to do, but just as steadily my own resistance to the idea grew as well.

By the end of the summer things came to a head. It seemed like every time I opened my Bible I’d stumble on some text like Matthew 19 or 1 Corinthians 7. At one point I even went cliff-diving with the youth group, decided to try a swan dive and instead landed, well in a very uncomfortable position, and got to spend the whole bus-ride home listening to my friends chanting the Beatles’ song Yesterday, especially the line: “suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be.” I actually became quite distressed about the whole affair, as I continued to hold on to what I thought I wanted most, but God was very persistent, and finally, the last week of Summer Servants, I gave in and handed that area of my life over as well.

Once again, and quite immediately, it was startling how freeing it was to let go of the issue. The funny thing was (God’s sense of humor?), just as I decided to give up dating was when I finally got a new hair cut, grew into my feet, and (if I’d have known it), actually did have the chance to go out with the girl I liked. But I stuck with my decision and soon discovered just how valuable refusing to date could be. While all my friends were coupling off, I was able to maintain much closer relationships with our female friends than any of my other guy friends did (the girls called me “as good as gay,” which I guess was a compliment). Freed of sexual tension, some of my best friends during that period were female, and we were able to talk with remarkable candor. Yet the greatest benefit I found was in avoiding the pain caused as my friends who dated inevitably broke up, usually on bad terms, causing divisions and rivalries among their own circles of acquaintances. For those of my friends who had gone further, sexually, this naturally led to worse grief, including at least one pregnancy, and I was spared all of that.

The truth is, God knew exactly what he was doing when he called me not to date, and the next couple years were among the best of my life. I generally found that I knew what it was God wanted of me, though I didn't always succeed in doing it, but as often as I obeyed things worked out better than they would have otherwise. Yet the most significant examples of this pattern will have to wait for the next installment.

Continued in Part III

"Christian Atheism" and the Christian Carnival

This week’s Christian Carnival is up at Parables of a Prodigal World, including my review of The Shack and the usual assortment of interesting posts.

Readers might also be interested in this outstanding article on “Christian Atheism” at The Other Journal (HT James KA Smith, at The Church and Postmodern Culture):

Why Every Christian Should ‘Quite Rightly Pass for an Atheist’, by Jon Stanley:

Perhaps we will tolerate some level of ambiguity when it comes to politics. After all, it may be perfectly legitimate to be authentically “torn” between being either a Republican or a Democrat (and the Independent vote is becoming an increasingly viable position). But this level of ambivalence is rarely tolerated when it comes to religion. Being torn between being an atheist or a theist, or confessing one’s uncomfortability with the categories themselves, is usually interpreted as either weak-willed, weak-minded, or both....

[Yet post-modern philosopher Jacques] Derrida has continually drawn attention to the “porous boundaries” between atheism and theism. He speaks of a certain type of "theism" that “at times so resembles a profession of atheism as to be mistaken for it,” as well as a certain form of “atheism” that has “always testified to the most intense desire for God.”... While this may at first sound like an affront to believing ears, Derrida... is actually echoing a very biblical notion. In biblical terms, authentic faith is not characterized by the denial of one’s doubt and unbelief, but by acknowledging it (dare I say, embracing it), and praying along with the father of the boy who had just been healed by Jesus, “I believe, I don’t believe, help my unbelief.”...

For [Soren] Kierkegaard, the virtues that characterize the life of the one who recognizes they are always “becoming Christian” are “humility” and “rigor” (the humility of admitting that we have not fully arrived at Christ-likeness, and the rigor of the whole-hearted pursuit of becoming like Christ). Contrast these virtues with the vices of “pride” and “sloth” that characterize the life of the one who confesses to having arrived at “being a Christian.”

Read the whole thing, then read Ben Suriano's response:

On What Could Quite Rightly Pass for a Fetish: Some Thoughts on Whether “Every Christian Should ‘Quite Rightly Pass for an Atheist’”

Reclaiming something of the subversive core of Christianity in order to more radically challenge and transform our dominant social ideologies is of utmost importance for Christians today. Indeed, Stanley has done us a great favor in passionately articulating this urgent need, and I therefore stand with him in pursuing these concerns.

Yet I believe that such concerns could be more fruitfully pursued without an appeal to atheism or Derrida. I believe that, at times, Stanley obscures some of his best insights about the radicality of Christianity by placing too much emphasis on how it “quite rightly passes for atheism” and not enough emphasis on how it more significantly does “not quite” pass.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How I Became a Christian

A while back, commenter N. Adam responded to my post on “Why I Am a Christian” by suggesting that, if I was raised on the church, that post could have been a lot shorter. I took him to mean that if the “real” reason I am a Christian is because I was raised that way, then all the other reasons I give are invalid, or unnecessary. N. Adam, admirably, clarified that he was just trying to raise questions, and he was right to do so, for that post did leave out the most important reason I am a Christian: my history. With apologies, however, I must say that he was quite mistaken about how much “shorter” the post would have been. Belatedly, therefore, I will tell that story now, but I’m afraid that even an abbreviated account will take several posts to describe. Here is the first:

Though I was raised in the church, my family was never particular religious. We weren’t the type to do family devotions, we rarely even ate meals together. In truth, my dad was often gone on business trips, and I was never very close to my mom. Nevertheless, one of my earliest memories is “asking Jesus into my heart,” at five years old, which must have made an impression on me, though you’d have never known it from looking at me. I was the problem-child that all the other church kids were warned to avoid. By 6th grade I still attended church every week, but none of my school friends were Christians, and I did everything in my power to hide from them that I was. I would have said I wanted their approval more than anything, but in truth it wasn’t them I cared about; what I really wanted was to be liked, not just by my small circle of (generally nerdy) friends, but by the whole school. It was a silly, if understandable, wish for a goofy kid with a bad haircut, thick glasses, and a pair of feet way too big for my body, but my whole school life was built around that dream.

When I was in 7th grade, our church hired a new youth pastor who started a small group which met weekly on Tuesday afternoons. Since I had always attended church, I joined the group more out of obligation than interest, and was horrified to learn that we would be picked up in the church van right in front of my school. I remember my desperate, and ridiculous, lies to friends who would ask who I was waiting for each week, as I stood there pretending not to associate with my “church friends.” But ashamed and deceptive as I was, I kept going to the meetings. If I’d been honest with myself, I would have realized that it was usually the high point of my week (which is probably why I kept going). We’d play a game of Ultimate Frisbee if it was sunny, or go to a fast food restaurant if it was rainy, then talk about our week, about the Bible, or whatever was on our minds. We were also expected to do a certain amount of reading each week (mostly from the Bible), answer some questions, memorize a verse of scripture or two, and occasionally do “service projects” like cleaning up trash around town (which I again found immensely embarrassing).

For two years I lived like this, hiding my growing interest and enjoyment of church activities from my friends at school. Looking back, I can only say that God was working on me (I guess he must have heard that five-year-old’s prayer, childish though it was), and by ninth grade I slowly and apprehensively came to recognize the foolishness of trying to live two lives in that way. I finally realized that if God truly was who I had always been taught, he couldn’t be just one part of my life, hidden in some corner where no one could see it. My faith, small and fledgling though it was, either needed to be the center of my life, or I needed to give it up entirely. Thankfully, I chose the former, and in the fall of ninth grade I decided (rather audaciously) to stop worrying about what anyone else might think, and concern myself only with what God thought of me.

For a nervous and self-conscious freshman, this was no small step—it meant giving up everything I had built my public identity around, all the “safe” barriers I had erected to protect myself from rejection. When I finally admitted my Christianity to my “school friends” (which they had of course known all along), it was incredibly freeing. But more than that, I found that what I had taken for friendship was really a pale reflection thereof, as I had been so worried about being liked that I hardly actually loved anyone. When I stopped looking for my self-worth in them (for I had already found it in God), I was free to love and be loved in ways I never previously imagined.

But that is not the end of my story; it is only the beginning, as continued in Part II.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Shack

Though I had been encouraged to read The Shack, by William Young, I wasn’t sure what to expect from it. I suppose I assumed that a spiritual book at the top of the bestseller list and condemned by so many Christians was likely to be well-written but heretical. And it's true, its theology is at times questionable, though it also gets a lot right. On the other hand, the quality of the writing was oddly uneven. The first chapter or two are painfully bad, and if I had picked up the book without knowing anything else about it, I doubt I would have continued past them. But after that, the writing suddenly improved into a genuinely enjoyable read. Despite Eugene Peterson’s comparison with Pilgrim’s Progress (which I never much liked anyway), this is no literary masterpiece, but not only was I impressed, I was at times deeply moved.

For those who don’t know, the story is pretty straightforward: Mackenzie Allen Phillips takes three of his children on a camping trip in Eastern Oregon when Missy, the youngest, is kidnapped. They later discover her bloodied dress in an old shack deep in the wilderness and determine that she was murdered by a serial killer. Devastated and blaming himself for her death, Mack falls into depression (“The Great Sadness,” as he calls it) and withdraws from his family and God. Then one day he finds a note in his mailbox, signed “Papa,” proposing a meeting back at that old shack. Unsure whether it was a cruel joke, he has an odd suspicion that it might in fact be from God, for Papa was his wife’s name for him and no one else who knew that was likely to send such a note. This thought gave him no pleasure though, as he blamed God for Missy's death as much as anyone else. Eventually curiosity (and anger) got the better of him and he made the trip back, where God did indeed meet him, though not as he had expected. There he finds a gregarious black woman named Papa, a willowy Asian woman named Sarayu, and a middle eastern peasant named Jesus, who all together represent the Godhead. The bulk of the book is then devoted to Mack’s conversations with these three over the course of an unbelievable weekend in which God offers loving and straightforward answers to Mack’s many questions.

The book has drawn a great deal of criticism from traditionally-minded Christians, and if judged as a piece of systematic theology, it is not without problem. I don’t agree with all of the theological objections raised against it (for instance, see Ben Witherington and Tim Challies), but I’ll save discussion of that for another post, if I can find the time. Here I want to deal with a more fundamental issue: Though this is not the sort of book to be taken literally, it does seem to imply (perhaps unintentionally) that if you want to understand how and why God works, you don’t need to study and think, you don’t even need to read the Bible, all you need do is ask God and all your questions will be answered. But this just isn’t the case, at least in my experience. Those times when I have most felt the presence and promptings of God, that “still small voice” has never been a source of information or explanation (and believe me, I’ve asked) but more like a stronger form of conscience, directing towards certain choices and warning off others. It’s rather like the old metaphor that God’s word is a “lamp for my feet”: it reveals the next step or two, but rarely much more than that.

If you want to understand theology, don’t hide in your prayer closet (though do pray!) or wait for your own weekend at The Shack. Read those who have gone before. Nearly everything we know about life, the world, God, and the relationships between them, is built on the thought and experience of those who have preceded us. Though we all must begin with our own experiences, to ignore this massive body of wisdom and expect God to call down unique answers to us alone is ignorance and foolishness. And I think Young knows this, despite the structure of his book. After all, his own acknowledgements point to folks like Kirkegaard, Tozer and Lewis, and I’m sure he has read and learned from far more (though those criticizing his theology might wish he had read a bit more!).

By putting its claims in God’s own mouth, however, The Shack makes them accessible and emotionally engaging in a way that no systematic theology could ever hope to be. And this, I think, goes a long way to explaining why reactions to this book—positive and negative—tend to be so strong. To those who find its claims false, this amounts to claiming divine sanction for what some perceive as heresy. But to those who accept its claims, this format is refreshing and freeing. It is one thing for a theologian or pastor to say that God is love, perfectly good, the only true judge. We are skeptical people, and they are just men, so we can easily dismiss them. But to hear it directly from God, in a story full of wonders and openness in which no question is refused an answer and every answer points to God’s goodness—that is much more engaging. If only we could experience such a weekend, we feel, that would be enough.

Of course, I don’t think William Young expects us to believe that Mack or anyone else “literally” spent a weekend walking on water with Jesus, eating scones made by a matronly God, or gardening with the Holy Spirit. These are metaphors, pointers to the depth of relationship that we can have with God. And in fact one of the things the book gets especially right is its insistence that intimacy with God is possible, and begins with obedience. In the book, this is seen in Mack’s willingness to trust the note and drive to the shack. Though God could have barged himself into Mack’s life anywhere, he instead offered Mack a choice, and met with him only when Mack responded in faith (small and angry though that faith was). I don’t know if God always acts this way (rumor has it, Paul wasn’t looking for Jesus when he got knocked off his horse), but I think it is God’s usual mode of operation, or at least it has been for me.

To picture this mystery by telling a story in which God appears in person makes it easier to discuss, but I do wonder if much of the book’s appeal derives from the fact that we do want such a literal display of openness. We wish God would give us a weekend like Mack’s, and we imagine (rightly or wrongly) that such would be enough to dispel our doubts. To treat it as a metaphor and not a real possibility would, I suspect, rob the story of its power for many readers. In one sense, this is true of all good fantasy (and The Shack is basically a work of fantasy): We know the stories told in The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter are impossible “in the real world,” but part of the enjoyment they give lies in our wish that they were true, our desire to be there and see it. To reduce these stories to a metaphorical “explanation,” however apt, would be to cut out much of the interest. Thus, the fact that we might wish this story were true doesn’t make it illegitimate even if God never does appear in the way the book describes, any more than the fact that magic doesn’t really exist makes Harry Potter illegitimate.

And in point of fact, it is possible to have a relationship with God more like The Shack’s than like the stale religiosity so many feel. No, God doesn’t appear and make us scones, but to those who truly pursue God with faith and obedience, such experiences are possible, and I’ve had them. But they can’t be taken by force, nor do they force themselves upon us. And as Mack discovers, such an encounter with God is likely to prove more than you bargain for. It changes your life, and not just in the sense of making it more fulfilling, but also in the sense of requiring change. God isn’t content to leave us comfortable and comforted, but wants us to grow, to challenge us out of our apathy and self-serving lifestyles. Intimacy with God requires that we give over our independence and trust his guidance, that we give up our fear and step out in faith. Ultimately, and this is perhaps the book’s best point, intimacy with God means a call to live a life of love and forgiveness.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Quote - Phillips on the Power of Scripture

From the introduction to his classic translation of the New Testament epistles (Letters to Young Churches, by J.B. Phillips):

The present translator who has closely studied these letters for several years is struck by... their surprising vitality. Without holding fundamentalist views on "inspiration", he is continually struck by the living quality of the material on which he is working. Some will, no doubt, consider it merely superstitious reverence for "Holy Writ", yet again and again the writer felt rather like an electrician rewiring an ancient house without being able to "turn the mains off". (pg. xii)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Image Is Everything...

Jim West points to the revelation that the cute little girl who sang at the Opening Ceremony last Friday was lip-synching. Chinese officials now admit, the real singer wasn't cute enough:

One little girl had the looks. The other had the voice. So in a last-minute move demanded by one of China’s highest officials, the two were put together for the Olympic opening ceremony, with one lip-synching “Ode to the Motherland” over the other’s singing. The real singer, 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, with her chubby face and crooked baby teeth, wasn’t good-looking enough for the ceremony, chief music director Chen Qigang told state-owned Beijing Radio. So pigtailed 9-year-old Lin Miaoke, a veteran of television ads, mouthed the words with a pixie smile for a stadium of 91,000 and a worldwide TV audience. “We had to make that choice. It was fair both for Lin Miaoke and Yang Peiyi,” Chen told Beijing Radio. “We combined the perfect voice and the perfect performance.”
Jim responds:
And that, curiously, sums up the whole of China. It is a society dominated by a facade. Underneath, it’s something quite different than the face it puts on for the world. Its fake Gucci bags and its fake churches and its fake singers are all part and parcel of the falsity endemic to the government of that ancient culture.
As if to prove the point, even as the Chinese government tried to defend the choice, they were quietly forcing the major Chinese news outlets to remove all references to the incident from their websites. In fact, it turns out this wasn't the only part of the ceremony that was staged. The 55-second opening sequence, including the giant footprints leading to the stadium, were CGI:

According to The Beijing Times what people inside the stadium and watching on television saw were computer graphics of the footprints inserted into coverage.

Gao Xiaolong, the head of the opening ceremony visual effects team, said it had taken almost a year to create the 55-second sequence.

Actual fireworks could be seen outside the stadium but it was logistically impossible to film them by helicopter, so the decision was made to recreate the effect digitally. The last foot print was visible from inside the stadium and was captured on film.

But you can't just pin the fakery on China, this is just a symptom of our television culture which routinely replaces image for substance. After all, NBC itself isn't free from guilt in their presentation of the games.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Religulous Trailer

I have to admit, I found the trailer entertaining, but it does nothing to diminish the impression that this will be a very biased and one-sided presentation of religion (as though the film title didn't give it away, right?). I did appreciate the dc Talk background music though:

HT Bag of Nothing, via Christ and Pop Culture

My Atonement Review at Looking Closer

Jeffrey Overstreet very kindly choose my review of Atonement as first runner-up in his Looking Closer review contest. The winner was an excellent review of WALL*E by Philip Johnston.

Thanks Jeffrey; I'm honored!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Dharma Wants You "Security Upgrade" and "Glitch"

More for you LOST fans: Dharmawantsyou sent out a new email condemning:

the unauthorized release of confidential video documentation during a sponsored panel discussion with the makers of the TV show "LOST" at Comic-Con 2008 in San Diego.
That would be this video, which shows Dr. Marvin Candle (who reveals his real name to be Pierre Cheng) 30 years in the past but predicting the future. There is also a baby in the background and what seems to be the voice of Daniel Faraday and includes other points of interest.

In any case, the email states that the Volunteer Assessment will be delayed until a "security upgrade" can be added to the site and warns that any leaked information will result in the immediate termination of one's volunteer status (well, good luck terminating mine!)

So if you go to the site and sign in, then about 20 seconds after the "Volunteer Assessment Commencing Soon" notice appears, there is a "glitch" (see here), causing the screen to get blurry and displaying a series of apparently random letter combinations, one of which (kept on the screen longer) is always some arrangement of the letters aeeiiio dhmnnst, for instance:

Lostpedia claims this is an anagram for "I am on the inside" (which is probably right), but other (more fun) options I've found include: "He is a demon in it" or "adhesion in time." (And yes, James, I'll be sure to watch out for Sayid. After all, he might be interested to know that Dharma has a security breach!)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

C. Orthodoxy is One Year Old

I began this blog one year ago, mainly so I could write on the more theologically-oriented topics that would have been out of place at Signs of the Times (where I got my start). For the first six months I didn’t post much, but I made a few new friends and eventually got drawn into more regular blogging. Though I’ve at times wondered whether all the time I spend writing (and worrying about) this blog are really worth it, what always draws me back are the conversations. Blogging has introduced me to many wonderful people, Christian and non-Christian alike, who have widened my perspectives, stimulated my thinking and improved my writing in countless ways. So to all of you who have taken the time to discuss and debate with me, thank you!

In the past year, I've published 230 posts, the most popular of which (by pageviews) have been:

1. Self-Interest and Sacrifice in The Dark Knight
2. Inclusivism Bloggersation
3. Reactions to PZ Myers and the Catholic League
4. PZ Myers Follows Through on His Threat to Desecrate the Eucharist
5. Knocked Up and Juno, “Pro-Life” or “Pro-Family”?
6. Prince Caspian Review
7. Holy Week without Jesus’ Death and Resurrection?
8. Hope and Sacrifice in The Shawshank Redemption
9. Why I Am a Christian
10. Welcome to C. Orthodoxy

For a few of my own favorite posts (some of which have received less attention), see the "Featured" section of the sidebar.

In its first year, C. Orthodoxy was visited 6,671 times, with 11,543 pageviews, nearly all of them in the last six months (as recently as December, there were only 60 visits and 78 pageviews for the whole month, less than this past month’s daily average of 63 visits and 111 pageviews). I have to admit that I tend to obsess about these numbers, small though they are. I think it’s my way of compensating for the computer games I gave up when I started my thesis. Cut off from my World of Warcraft fix, pageviews and technorati rank have replaced hit points and levels for this chronic gamer. Yes, I am a geek!

Anyway, here are a few other figures, in case anyone but me is interested (doubtful, I know, but I only do this once a year, right?):

3,839 people have visited from 1,802 cities, 80 countries and every continent except Antarctica (and Greenland, or does that count as a continent?). I’ll have to work on the half-frozen scientist demographic for next year!

C. Orthodoxy has been linked nearly 200 times, by more than 50 blogs (technorati is a bit inconsistent, so I don’t have exact figures).

It is a “multicellular microorganism” in the TTLB ecosystem, and has a reach of 0.00005% according to Alexa (I’m so proud).

It is worth $24,275.22 (and if you believe that, I’ve got some fizzing wizbees to sell you).

But the best figure of all is one I don’t know: the number of stimulating conversations I’ve enjoyed with all of you! Thanks to everyone who made the last year of blogging worthwhile, and here’s hoping for many more!

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Opening Ceremony

I have to say, tonight's Opening Ceremony was incredible. When it was announced that they spent over $300 million dollars on the event, my first thought was: Is this really a worthwhile way to spend the Chinese people's money? But the truth is, that amounts to less than 25 cents per Chinese person, and it went to produce a spectacle for which they should be proud.

There is much about Chinese policy that is tragic and reprehensible, but I can only hope that these Olympics might be a step towards a freer and more open future.

Six Random Things Meme

Super Churchlady tagged me with this meme:

1) Link to the person who tagged you.
2) Post the rules on your blog (copy and paste 1-6).
3) Write 6 random things about yourself (see below).
4) Tag 6 people at the end of your post and link to them.
5) Let each person know they have been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
6) Let the tagger know when your entry is up.
I'm avoiding doing office work, so here goes:

1) My first vehicle got 8 miles per gallon; my second got 45 miles per gallon.
2) My favorite TV show when I was a kid was American Gladiators, followed by a close second in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
3) I've had the same haircut since Freshmen year of High School (a messy Caesar with the front slightly flipped up ).
4) I was on a debate team for exactly one month. I attended two meets, giving "Expository" speeches at each, and took second and first place (respectively). I quit the following week for reasons I can no longer remember.
5) My eyes are so bad that I can't wear soft-contacts; they tend to rotate on my eyes, temporarily blinding me, which is about the last thing you want to have happen while driving.
6) The very first day I had my driver's licence, I cut someone off on the freeway, causing them to crash into the cable-barrier (luckily it only caused minor damage to their gas tank and we were able to resolve the matter without involving the insurance company), but I've never been pulled over for speeding.

I tag: Drew, Alex, Timothy, Ryan, Carmen and Henry (but I'll skip step 5 so they don't feel pressured to continue the meme).

The Problem With Reading "Literally"

Jim West points to this as an analogy for those who insist on reading the Bible "literally":

Thursday, August 7, 2008


I'm sure this will be a nice, evenhanded presentation of religion, sure to raise the level of public discourse to new heights (HT Peter Chattaway, who has more on the subject):

Quote - The Temporary Nature of Divine Law

Alden Thompson, writing in Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God (an excellent book, published, as it turns out, by fellow blogger Henry Neufeld):

The facts of the matter are that divine laws are no more enduring than the human situation which makes them necessary. The beauty of the divine condescension is precisely that God recognized the human condition and molded his revelation accordingly. (pg. 62)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What Does It Mean to Trust the Bible?

I’m often asked how I can trust the Bible when it (particularly the “Old Testament”) includes so many harsh laws and horrific stories, many of which claim divine sanction. Am I not inconsistent to speak of a God of love and goodness when my own scripture includes such atrocities? In fact, too many Christians do seem to be inconsistent on this point, claiming that morality is “absolute” in our own context, but then becoming curiously relativistic when it comes to our own scriptures. They will happily accuse moral relativists of trivializing the holocaust, while simultaneously trivializing the genocides in the Bible itself (such as that described in Numbers 31, to name just one abhorrent example). Even the most horrific biblical commands are sometimes claimed to have been right and moral “back then,” by people who otherwise claim to reject moral relativism.

The problem, as I see it, is that texts like these are generally glossed over or ignored by those who seem to wish the Bible were a monolithic work of systematic theology. Ironically, the common insistence that the Bible is “literally true” on every point leads to some quite outlandish and improbably non-literal interpretations (like the claim that the conquest of Canaan is just a “metaphor” for spiritual warfare). It is little surprise then that many critics reject such obfuscations as ridiculous, and I must agree with them that such unquestioning trust in the Bible is misguided.

But the curious thing is that this view of the Bible is not actually biblical. Yes, there are passages which speak of the truth and inspiration of God’s word (and I agree with them—the Bible truly is inspired), but they certainly don’t require that Christians treat it as a collection of unquestionable propositions, as too many do. For instance, only one verse in the Bible makes any claims about the nature of “all scripture,” and it falls far short of claiming inerrancy: 2 Timothy 3:16 reads, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Whatever “breathed out by God” means (the Greek word is theopneustos, translated “inspired” in other versions, and occurs no where else in the Bible, but in the early church it was also used to describe both scripture and non-scriptural orthodox texts), this verse merely claims that scripture is “profitable” (ōphelimos; which could also be translated “useful,” “beneficial” or “valuable,” but certainly not “inerrant”) for teaching and moral correction. The goal of scripture, according to the following verse, is not that we would be provided with a perfectly accurate knowledge of science, history, or even theology, but that we would be “equipped for every good work.”

Though there are other texts which claim “God’s word” or “the law” is “perfect” or “unbreakable,” such can only be applied to the whole of what we now call scripture by inference (and of course it would be entirely circular to appeal to such texts to “prove” themselves. “The Bible claims it is inerrant, therefore it is inerrant” is not an argument; it’s a false tautology). Inerrancy, then, is a theological construct that is applied to the Bible, not a necessary conclusion from the Bible, and it too often obscures the fact that the Bible itself, upon inspection, is the product of a long process of writing and rewriting, debate and disagreement. The Bible is full of texts which take up previous biblical ideas and modify, extend, or call them into question. For instance, if you read Exodus through Deuteronomy as they now stand, you will find chapter after chapter of regulations concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices, all claimed to have been commanded by God shortly after Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Yet the prophet Jeremiah, writing several centuries later, attributes the following to God in 7:22, “in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (many modern translations, such as the NIV, add “just” after the highlighted terms, but there is no basis for this in the Hebrew).

Now there are only a handful of possible explanations for such a text (other than positing, without evidence, a scribal error): 1. Jeremiah was unaware of the Mosaic legislation, and so was mistaken about what God commanded at the Exodus; 2. What we now call “the Law of Moses” was not yet (fully) written by the time Jeremiah was speaking and/or; 3. Jeremiah knew of sacrificial regulations that were attributed to Moses, but disputed their divine origin or wanted to make a point (perhaps through hyperbole) that such regulations were not (as) vital as some believed.

In all probability, the truth lies in some combination of all three. Jeremiah almost certainly was not aware of all that we call the Law of Moses, because not all of it had yet been written (though some of it had). More basically, in criticizing the corruption and injustice he saw amongst those in his own day who claimed loyalty to the sacrificial regulations of the Jerusalem Temple, it is very likely that Jeremiah was questioning whether such cultic practices deserved the divine approval claimed for them. In short, not only does this text provide direct evidence of the developmental nature of scripture, but it is also an instance of explicit disagreement between biblical authors.

But here’s the key point: Jeremiah’s purpose does not appear to have been to reject the Law of Moses as false (remember, it didn’t even exist in the form we now have it). His point, as the rest of the chapter makes clear, was to convince his contemporaries that injustice and oppression of the poor are far more serious matters than adherence to the Jerusalem Temple. In order to shock his contemporaries out of their self-destructive complacency, Jeremiah here proves himself so passionately committed to justice and faithfulness to God that he is willing to call into question the Temple and the Mosaic law themselves to make that point. And he was right to do so. At that time, Israelite society was corrupt and heading towards disaster. Within a few years, Jeremiah’s prophecies would come true and Jerusalem would be wiped off the map by the Babylonians, her Temple destroyed, and her people exiled.

Jeremiah was right, but to make his point—indeed to remain faithful to God—he was willing to question scripture itself. This, I must insist, gives us a picture not of a static and “eternal” Bible which must be accepted without question, but a text whose very tensions and “contradictions” challenge our complacency and pseudo-piety, forcing us ever and anew to face the God it claims to reveal. To trust the Bible then, means not to maintain a slavish conformity to an eternally unchangeable set of Truths, but to carry forward its calls to faith and justice into our own situations, with renewed creativity and passion.

Nor is this an isolated example. From Genesis to Revelation, scripture is constantly alluding to or citing previous scriptures to make new points, correct old ones, or extend them into new situations. For instance, during the Babylonian Exile, someone composed a rather unflattering history of the Israelite monarchy, which we now know as 1 and 2 Kings. After the return from exile, another group rewrote that history in a more positive (and Priestly) light, and that work is known as 1 and 2 Chronicles. Both works, presenting alternative (and often conflicting) interpretations of the very same history of Israel, were included in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, with no official attempt at harmonization. Clearly those who wrote and collected the Bible did not share our modern obsession with consistency, or at least they considered it less important than the truth they found in these texts, tensions and all.

Such examples could be extended ad nauseam, all of which suggests that Christian scripture presents something far more like an engaging debate about the nature of God and God’s activity in history than a settled and permanent record of True Propositions. Therefore when someone points out to me that scripture describes some terrible things, I don’t feel any need to defend those things as “right” in our or even their own time. Perhaps the people who committed them believed they were following God’s will, perhaps God even commanded them for reasons that I can’t begin to comprehend, but nothing in the Bible demands that I accept that. Rather, the Bible presents me with an authentic portrait of humanity, and humanity has committed some truly awful deeds, many in the name of God.

To trust the Bible, then, does not mean believing it without question, but interacting with it, questioning it, reflecting its claims off of each other and our continuing experience, but, ultimately, letting it transform us. For despite what some seem to think, the horrific parts of the Bible, like the horrific parts of life, are not given the last word. The Bible places far more emphasis on laws which promote love and community; it highlights prophets who bravely condemned God’s own people when they clung to dead rituals and pious platitudes while ignoring justice and mercy; it tells the story of a God who loves the unlovable and constantly takes us back when we rebel; it even incorporates psalms and wisdom literature which question God’s own justice and faithfulness. But above all, it points to Jesus Christ, who calls us to self-sacrificing love as the only true and final answer to the evil we find in both the world and in the Bible, and who himself demonstrated the power and divinity of self-sacrifice through his death. To trust the Bible is to trust that God, not without question, but in the midst of our questions.

Back to Blogging

Well, my baby boy is now a week old, and he’s remarkably less fussy than his sister was. She never wanted to be held and cried whenever she was awake (which was quite a bit of the night for the first few weeks); he would happily lay in your arms (or a “bouncy seat”) for hours at a time, rarely cries unless cold or hungry, and already sleeps very well at night. It’s funny how we have our personalities from the beginning.

So I should be back to more or less regular blogging again, barring any sudden relapse. In the mean time, I wanted to highlight a post at Unorthodoxology which “updates” the parable of the Good Samaritan (HT James McGrath). Also, in all the commotion, I neglected to link last week’s Christian Carnival, at Everyday Liturgy, which included this post of mine. This week’s Carnival is at Brain Cramps for God (it doesn’t include anything of mine).

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Why Worship?

This post first appeared here:

The command to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5; Matt 22:37) is central to Christianity. But why? Is this merely a relic of an outdated worldview, a holdout from days when men would grovel at the feet of kings? Is not worship inherently demeaning, even dehumanizing? Worse, is not a command to worship inherently contradictory, an admission that God is not worthy enough to elicit spontaneous praise? Many think so, and view the Christian God as an egotistical dictator who demands worship on pain of (eternal) death. Even if such a God existed, it is sometimes suggested, worship would forever be a compromise, a betrayal of human dignity in the face of divine terror. Better to die a man (or woman), than to live a slave.

Yet who among us hasn’t stood in awe of a waterfall or a sunset? Who hasn't cheered enthusiastically at a football game or concert? Is such a reaction “dehumanizing”? Hardly, more like an essential part of what it means to be human. How much more, then, ought we to praise the one who created every waterfall, sunset, mountain and valley, the one who dreamed up every star, planet, nebula and galaxy, the one who gave life to every flower, bird, tree and whale, the one who gives strength and skill to every athlete, musician, writer and mother?

If God truly is the source of all these good things, then what other reaction could possibly be appropriate but awe, wonder, praise and worship? Just as our rapture when listening to beautiful music means acknowledging something good beyond ourselves, worshipping God (the highest good) turns us away from ourselves to something better. As N.T. Wright notes, however, this does not reduce our humanity, but expands it:

You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship. Those who worship money become, eventually, human calculating machines. Those who worship sex become obsessed with their own attractiveness or prowess. Those who worship power become more and more ruthless.

So what happens when you worship the creator God whose plan to rescue the world and put it to rights has been accomplished by the lamb who was slain? The answer comes in the second golden rule: because you were made in God’s image, worship makes you more truly human. When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made, you do indeed grow. You discover more of what it means to be fully alive.
So why is it that not all who worship God become better people? Perhaps the answer lies in their vision of God. If you believe God is a cosmic dictator, and worship such a God, you will become more intolerant and harsh yourself. If, on the other hand, you believe God rules through self-sacrifice (cf. Rev. 5:6-14), and worship that God, you will be led to serve others in love.

But, it will still be objected, if God is so great, why should he need to command worship? Doesn’t the very fact that he does so (or rather, that people command worship for him) prove that he doesn’t really deserve it? Not at all. For if God truly is who Christians believe he is, then seeing him in his full glory would without a doubt bring us spontaneously to our knees (either in joy or despair). But we do not see the full glory of God in our everyday lives. At best, we get glimpses of it in the glories of creation and in the story of redemption, but we easily miss these things as we shuffle through life. Perhaps we need to be commanded to worship, because we need to be reminded of something bigger and grander than ourselves, and we too easily forget; I too easily forget.

Monday, August 4, 2008

"Practical" Christianity

I hope you all enjoyed your weekend. I'm probably up to my sleep-deprived eyes in poopy diapers, but hey, I wouldn't have it any other way! The following was first posted here.

A common reason people reject or abandon Christianity is a feeling that it simply isn’t practical. For many in the average church, there is no obvious connection between what is preached on Sunday morning, and what they actually do the rest of the week. Talk of grace and eternal salvation, however uplifting, is often perceived as irrelevant to everyday life.

The problem is that we have shied away from the one aspect of Christianity that really is applicable – its moral teaching. Actually, that isn’t quite correct. The church hasn’t abandoned its moral teaching, but too often it has distorted it. Publicly, at least here in America, we have focused ever more attention on berating the surrounding culture for its sexual practices and selfishness, while paying ever less attention to the state of our own lives. Thus, the non-Christian world sees in Christian morality only a collection of harsh and unnecessary rules, because that is how many of our loudest advocates announce it.

Privately, countless churches do a wonderful job of living out the love of Christ, but as a whole, the Church in America has done a poor job of expressing its moral viewpoint to the outside world. How rarely do non-Christians hear that the heart of the gospel is actually a call to die to yourself, that you might live? How often do we show this by our actions?

The trouble is that we too often accept the assumption that the value of a thing lies in its utility. Dying to yourself is not practical; it doesn’t pay the bills or get you ahead on the ladder of success. Quite the contrary, it might even mean paying other people's bills and letting them go ahead. In the long run, this results in community, love, and mutual encouragement, but in the short run, it is hard, so we avoid it. Instead of dying to ourselves, we rest content in our cheap grace or pile harsh condemnation on those around us. In all that, we forget that Christian morality is intended to be a lively and liberating way of life, the outlines of what it means to be truly human. As N.T. Wright puts it in Simply Christian (by the way, Matt, I’ve changed my view of this book; the second half is excellent):

Only when we have set all that out quite clearly can we ever speak of “rules.” There are rules, of course. The New Testament has plenty of them. Always give alms in secret. Never sue a fellow Christian. Never take private vengeance. Be kind. Always show hospitality. Give away money cheerfully. Don’t be anxious. Don’t judge another Christian over a matter of conscience. Always forgive. And so on. And the worrying thing about that randomly selected list is that most Christians ignore most of them most of the time. It isn’t so much that we lack clear rules; we lack, I fear, the teaching that will draw attention to what is in fact there in our primary documents, not least in the teaching of Jesus himself.

The rules are to be understood, not as arbitrary laws thought up by a distant God to stop us from having fun (or to set us some ethical hoops to jump through as a kind of moral examination), but as the signposts to a way of life in which heaven and earth overlap, in which God’s future breaks into the present, in which we discover what genuine humanness looks and feels like in practice. (pg. 224-25)
If we want to change our culture, we must start by changing ourselves.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Quote - C.S. Lewis on Miracles

From his book, Miracles:

Nothing can seem extraordinary until you have discovered what is ordinary. Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known. We have already seen that if you begin by ruling out the supernatural you will perceive no miracles. We must now add that you will equally perceive no miracles until you believe that nature works according to regular laws. If you have not yet noticed that the sun always rises in the East you will see nothing miraculous about his rising one morning in the West. (pg. 75)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Divine Invisibility

This was previously posted here.

One of the more common objections to theism concerns God’s “invisibility.” Many atheists insist that if God existed, we should expect his presence to be undeniably obvious. For instance, if God is all-powerful and wants us to believe in him, why not provide a steady stream of miracles, that we might see and believe?

There are many problems with this argument. One, as has often been noted, is that it would reduce God to a cosmic vending machine: Just enter the right prayer and—every time!—he'd have to oblige. But God is not a machine to be manipulated, but a person. Another problem is that miracles are always open to interpretation. No matter how improbable an event, its very improbability leaves it open to doubt. The atheist can always insist that even the most far fetched natural explanation is “infinitely more probable” than a miracle. In fact, Jesus himself highlighted this, saying: “If they do not believe Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

For sake of argument, however, let's assume this is mistaken. Let’s assume that if only God provided enough miracles (say one miraculous answer to prayer every week, for every person in the world) that would be enough to prove his existence. Is that really the kind of world we would want?

Many atheists claim that, if God exists, they just want him to prove it to them. Perhaps this is true of some of them, but I don’t think this makes up the majority. No, for many atheists the absence of God is something to be glad of. With no God, we are free to choose our destiny as we see fit (unless we’re not free, of course), whereas if he did exist, we’d have to submit to his authority. The existence of God, many claim, would forever reduce us to the status of children, unable to care for ourselves.

I do not say this in a derogatory manner, nor am I assuming that all atheists think this way, but many do, and it is to these that this argument is directed. The problem is that these two objections work against one another. For what would it accomplish, really, if God were to provide us with a constant stream of miracles? It might convince us of his presence (or perhaps we would simply dismiss it as another, rather odd, law of nature), but it would certainly reduce us to infants.

For if God were to bombard us with constant miracles, not only would he render the world completely unpredictable, but he would undermine our own freedom and responsibility. What motivation would we have to study or grow, if we knew God would solve our problems for us? What need would we have to advance or learn in such a world? For instance, why would anyone become a doctor, if they knew that God would cure every illness within a week? Why would anyone avoid getting sick or injured at all? How could we learn to take care of ourselves in any way, if God did it for us? Indeed, if he ever failed to do so, would we not complain of his inconsistency: “you perform miracles every day, how can you not take care of this as well”?

Occasional miracles are one thing—they can give evidence of God’s power, though only to those who look for them—but if God were to reveal himself as constantly and predictably as many atheists seem to demand, he would in fact be denying us the very thing these same atheists treasure: our freedom to live and learn for ourselves.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Seen in the Maternity Ward

Just thought this was funny, but then again, I am a bit sleep deprived (I fell asleep waiting for a prescription to be filled this afternoon; a friend from church woke me up saying "I guess the baby must have been born"):

The Hope of a "Jesus Freak"

This was first posted here:

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable. (Brennan Manning)
In a fit of nostalgia, I’ve recently been listening to some of the CDs I loved back in Junior High. One of them is Jesus Freak by dc Talk (the above quote appears as a voice-over on the fourth song), which I fondly remember belting out at the top of my lungs. Such reminiscences, however, have got me thinking about how my faith has changed since then. I’d like to think that I’m more mature now than I was, but I wonder what that means, and whether it’s really a good thing or not. I know a lot more now – about God, and life, and how the two interact – and in many ways my faith is stronger for having weathered a few storms, but it is also more cautious and understated. There was a time when I was proud to call myself a “Jesus freak,” when I dreamt of becoming a missionary to some remote and hostile locale, perhaps even giving my life in a grand selfless spectacle. But these days I’d rather fit in than stand out, and I’ve long since embraced the middle-class lifestyle. I may have been naïve before, but I was passionate, and it’s a shame to have lost that.

I often write about hope and sacrifice (e.g. here, here and here) because I think these are the two primary poles around which human nature turns: Hope is what gets us out of bed in the morning, what gives us direction and urges us forward. Sacrifice is necessary when the road inevitably grows rough. Perhaps that’s why new converts seem so alive, why my younger self could belt out Jesus Freak without embarrassment – they’re filled with indescribable hope, and they’re willing to make almost any sacrifice for its sake (the hysteria surrounding Obama is an ironic reflection of this principle, which isn’t restricted to Christianity). In time, the cares of life crowd that enthusiasm out; we’re less willing to sacrifice, and so we in turn grow a little less hopeful, which makes us still less willing to give up what good we currently have in hope of something better. If we are not careful, we can quickly become those “Christians” that make the unbelieving world wonder what good our faith is, anyway.

Perhaps that’s why my favorite books and movies are always those that celebrate hope in the midst of despair, stories of ultimate sacrifice and resurrection. I read about Jean Valjean in Les Misérables or watch William Wallace in Braveheart and they remind me what it means to hope; they make me more willing to sacrifice. But sometimes I think those stories are too big for me. I’ve never faced death or imprisonment; I’ve never had to choose between my integrity and my life. I enjoy those stories, but I don’t often live differently because of them. It’s easy to dream of a grand sacrifice that I’m unlikely to ever face, but it’s also easy to ignore the countless smaller sacrifices I face on a daily basis: Turn off the TV and do something nice for my wife, skip that new movie and send the money to those who really need it, give up a Friday evening to help at a soup kitchen. If I’m not even willing to make those sacrifices, what makes me think I’d truly give my life to save another, even if faced with the need?

I don't know whether Brennan Manning is right, but I do know this: There’s little good in dreaming of a grand sacrifice, unless you’re actually living your life for others.