Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bible ≠ Jesus

"In Jesus alone do the divine and human appear in complete hypostatic union. Jesus is therefore the Word of God absolutely. The Bible is the Word of God relatively. Yet the only vehicle possessed by the church for knowing the Incarnate Word is the written Word of the Bible. Church and Bible are found to be in a continuous and never-ending dialogue whose purpose is to discover the character of the Word of God with ever more faithfulness."

~ Charles Price in F.H. Borsch, ed., The Bible's Authority in Today's Church (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993), 71.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Nimble, Futile Wit

"What good was it for me that my nimble wit could run through those studies and disentangle all those knotty volumes, without help from a human teacher, since all the while I was erring so hatefully and with such sacrilege as far as the right substance of pious faith was concerned? And what kind of burden was it for thy little ones to have a far slower wit, since they did not use it to depart from thee, and since they remained in the nest of thy Church to become safely fledged and to nourish the wings of love by the food of a sound faith."

~St. Augustine, Confessions, IV:31

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent Reflections II: Exile & Promise in Isaiah

Obviously a full treatment of exile & promise throughout the whole book of Isaiah could fill several volumes. I have been looking at chapters 40-44 today (which could also serve as material for much more than a blog post) and thinking about them as an Advent text.

This morning was the first time I've turned on Handel's Messiah this year. The oratorio begins with Yahweh calling his prophet to declare comfort to his people. This is as good a thematic distillation of Advent as any--God's chosen people in pain, waiting for his promised comfort to come to fruition. Handel made a canny choice in his prologue, apparently grasping the primal appeal of the Messiah--comfort. It recalls Christ's promise of rest for the weary, of the Father's pledge to wipe every tear from our eyes. This comfort is best understood not as an explanation for the existence evil, but rather a concrete response to it. The over-arching theme of Scripture shouts, "God has acted for us!" This was my inspiration for opening my bible to Isaiah 40 today.

As I was reading through the following chapters, it struck me how knowing just a little context about the material illuminated a clear narrative unity. I have most often heard different selections from these chapters preached or expounded as though they were a jumble of disparate oracles to be applied in ways separate from each other. Rather, they fit together to address Israel's exile to Babylon, the idolatry that led her there and the respite Yahweh desired to bring to his people. Once I picked up on this in the first chapter, I was fascinated and kept reading.

God's prophetic purpose here seems to be to encourage his people in exile to continue their devotion to him despite their history of idolatry and their enslavement to the pagan Babylonians. Like the apocalypses of Daniel and Revelation, Isaiah wants to turn the tables on the evil empire: it is not Babylon, her idols and her "king of kings" that are in charge. Yahweh is in charge. The LORD is king.

"Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? ...It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing" (40:21-22).

God is in charge and Israel, though they have been judged and exiled, remains his people. "'I have chosen you and not cast you off'; do not fear, for I am with you" (41:9-10). In theology we call this "election" or "predestination" (I prefer the former); I think it is better to forget the controversial baggage of these terms and grasp them with warm-hearted enthusiasm as the bounteous kindness of God, who called forth a people for himself not because they were special but because he would make them special. It is thereby that we can understand how God can exile Israel yet remain faithful to her, how the whole story of the Old Testament proclaims the grace of the God who was faithful to an unfaithful people. We tell ourselves this story not to say we are better than the Jews, but because we should know that we are no better than them (cf. Rom. 11:17-24).

Israel, as a sort of test-case for humanity at large, showed through its unfaithfulness that the human race was unable to answer and resolve the problem of evil and the tragedy of our alienation from God. God's response comes in 41:25 and following--a divinely-called deliverer, a "servant". Cyrus of Persia (45:1) would in the nearer future physically deliver back to her homeland between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, yet they would remain dominated by foreign and pagan powers (read your Apocrypha, children) and finally Christ would come to enact the return from exile which no one expected: "This is the king of the Jews" (Mk. 15:26).

Yahweh makes it clear, however, that Israel's purpose extends beyond serving as "Exhibit A" in his case against humanity. "You are my witnesses," he declares, "and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me" (43:10). Israel not only proved humanity's sinister frailty, but also learned the strength of God's steadfast love: "I, I am Yahweh, and besides me there is no savior" (43:11). Israel's long and winding road formed a people who preserved a key theological insight for recognizing God in the flesh: only God can save. Their past, namely the deliverance from Egypt (43:16-17), points to the future:

"I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert" (43:18-19).

The first glimmer of hope.

Here is the comfort of Israel: God has saved, God will save. "O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me" (44:21). So the people of God, despite their dire situation in Babylon, will not benefit from idols, from man-made contrivances masquerading as saviors. They need not believe they are abandoned to the cruelty of Babylon. "Return to me," he pleads, "for I have redeemed you" (44:22). God, for Israel. By extension, God for the world.

The Advent season is a time for us to remember that while Christ has effectively brought an end to exile through his death and resurrection the world yet remains full of sin, suffering and the evil powers that foster them. In the face of loss, economic hardship, sickness or whatever might trouble us, it will always be tempting to believe that "Babylon" is in charge. When contemporary society frames Christianity as bigoted or irrelevant or nonsensical, it is tempting to believe that the idols of money, sex and power are what really count. Advent is a time to remember that affirming the lordship of Christ does not mean escaping from the very real problems which surround us.

I am reminded again of Simeon and Anna at the beginning of Luke, two faithful Israelites who lived long lives only to be introduced to the infant Savior in their twilight years. They are models for the people of God living among powerful idolaters (in their day the Romans and their Herodian puppet kings). We too stand between God's past and God's future, remembering the vindication of the resurrection yet groaning in anguish until his glorious return.

Try and hear these oft-cited words with me as Anna and Simeon would have heard them: as people standing in the painful middle between God's promises and their fulfillment.

"Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Yahweh,
and my right is disregarded by my God’?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Yahweh is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint"

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Initial Advent Reflections

I pulled out my bible at the airport yesterday, and turned to the beginning of Luke. I figured it was a good place to start, what with Advent about to begin and everything. Of the gospels, Luke seems to me to have the strongest sense of exile and its coming end, especially because of the Magnificat and the story of Simeon and Anna.

Upon meeting the infant Jesus, Simeon says to the Lord:

"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation... a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to you people Israel" (Luke 2:29-30, 32).

It's the poignant exultation of a faithful Israelite which expresses both the weariness and relief of a people who had been living for centuries with the central hope of their religious-ethnic identity in shambles. It was like if there had been several centuries between the middle and end of Avatar. The word for this in biblical parlance is "barrenness." It specifically refers to pregnancy and the inability of a woman to conceive, and its use has been a part of Israel's history since its beginning in Abraham. Everything in God's redemptive action can be summarized in that story, where the word of the Lord came to a barren couple with the promise of a child.

When God's people found themselves in the prolonged, dire barrenness of exile, God didn't answer them with fanfare and a quick fix, but rather with furtive promises on the edge of their corporate consciousness. The end to his centuries-long silence comes to Zechariah in Luke chapter one, promising the coming herald John the Baptist who would "make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Lk 1:17). Such a situation rewards the careful contemplation of Mary, rather than the casual inattentiveness of nominal religion. It is because of her silent pondering of the words and events she witnesses that she is able to burst into the rich and theologically-reflective song of the Magnificat:

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant... His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation... He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty... according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever" (Lk 1:46-55).

It's a magnificent summary of God's redemptive history with Israel made present tense and realized in the person of Jesus. Mary serves as our exemplary model in these early chapters, standing alongside Simeon and Anna as properly comprehending and responding to the arrival of Christ.

For those of us for whom salvation seems far off, or hidden, or even non-existent, these stories from the beginning of Luke call us to quiet ourselves and listen. Because even in our hour of darkest need, we see that God may very well not come to us in the way we would like him to, but on his own terms. In a way that asks us to be faithful long-term, like Simeon and Anna, even when God's answer feels like it will never come. I have my own struggles with hopelessness, despair and frank impatience with God's timing; these stories encourage me to seek the hope of Christ even when I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's not about insisting to oneself "One day all my problems will be solved and my hopes fulfilled!", but, rather, that there is a way of being faithful in times of exile, there is a living God waiting for us on the edges of our awareness--waiting for us to pull away from despair and towards the groaning expectation of those who put their trust in him.

"Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the Lord. Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns. Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of you widowhood you will remember no more. For you Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a man's youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer" (Isaiah 54:1-8).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

St. Antony the Baller

"Either cleanse these men by your logic-chopping or by any other skill or magic you wish, and calling on your idols, or otherwise, if you can't, lay down your quarrel with us and witness the power of Christ's cross."

~ St. Antony of the Desert

Friday, November 25, 2011

"Life's A Happy Song"

Rather than review the new Muppet movie, I'm just going to share this video of Kermit singing with Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords [which I can't embed! :( ].

The movie not only seems poised to revitalize the Muppet franchise, but it is bringing back an old stand-by: the Muppet characters casually riffing with popular comedians. The mischievous interplay of the crew with Jason Segel during his SNL monologue earlier this week is another sterling example, as well as Kermit's back-and-forth with Seth Myers on Weekend Update.

I don't know whether the Muppets have ever been clinically prescribed for depression (unless you count A Muppet Christmas Carol) but certainly these bits, the movie itself and (newly-discovered for me) "The Rainbow Connection", have gone a long way to warm this cynic's heart.

I recently confirmed to a friend that yes, if she bought into a movie's bullshit then it meant the film's producer had done their job well. I don't know all that went in to making this movie, but if I could talk to Jason Segel, I'd have to thank him profusely. Because the movie doesn't peddle bullshit (my emotionally-charged epithet for false or cheap hope, at least when I'm talking about movies or story-telling in general), but the observation that people can build family through love. It's something I suck at, frankly--my immediately family is a mess and I've always struggled with feeling alienated from whatever social group I happen to be a part of.

I'm probably going to number into a large crowd of late-twenty-somethings and early-thirty-somethings who didn't exactly grow up with the Muppets but will have a fervent response to the movie anyway. So what if I wasn't weaned on "The Rainbow Connection"? It still has the power to speak.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Forgive & Forget It Jesus, It's Chinatown: Christian Reflections on a Few Good Crime Movies

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”
~ Romans 3:10

“And again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.”
~ Ecclesiastes 9:11

Movies about crime allow us an opportunity to become temporary voyeurs of a world we know or assume exists somewhere on the wrong side of the tracks. Most of us would never venture there willingly, but this illicit subculture is ripe with human drama and can offer insights about ourselves and our society.

Crime films are legion and often recognized as the best the medium has to offer--The Godfather, and so on. The subject material autmatically supplies two essential elements of an entertaining movie: conflict and spectacle. Many movies about crime of both high and low caliber coast by on this fact alone. But as I was thinking about how I love a lot of movies about crime, I decided the most interesting ones were not simply about crime fighting (police procedurals, most comic book movies) but also about the criminals themselves. Because taking the criminal perspective offers an opportunity to understand the criminal in all of us, one restrained by social conditioning, fear of the law and hopefully transformed or being transformed by the grace of God.

I scribbled down some crime movies I know and love that fit this description. I didn’t want to have to watch anything new in order to make some good recommendations and offer some thoughts, so there may be omissions that reflect this (like The French Connection, Scarface or A Clockwork Orange). I’ve also omitted some that are over-exposed, so I won’t be writing about The Godfather or Pulp Fiction--God knows there’s enough people on the internet already doing that.

I don’t know whether I need this caveat or not, but if you don’t like blood and profanity in your movie selections—well, stick to the ones that were filmed before Woodstock. This blog entry includes some YouTube clips--I've indicated where I think someone might be offended.

9) The Departed

“When I was your age they would say we could become cops or criminals. Today, what I'm saying to you is this--when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?"

Martin Scorsese is one of several directors on this list who made a career of filming the minds and lives of on-screen reprobates. The Departed came in 2006 as a late career return to form for the director, painting the town (and the walls) red with a cracker-jack screenplay about opposite undercovers in the Boston mob and state police. I think what you can get a sense from in this film is both the capacity for those seeking good to resort to the wrong means and the ability of those seeking bad to masquerade as good guys. It paints the pursuit of justice into a morally murky, testosterone-charged corner. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon both do fantastic jobs depicting men who have lost or are losing their moral center, and all of these boiling identity conflicts seem to literally explode out of their heads by the film's end.

The following video contains brief strong language, a racial epithet and a glimpse of strong violence. The boy Jack Nicholson's character takes under his wing grows up to be Matt Damon--the scene sets up his induction into the criminal underworld. Notice that his gateway to crime is groceries, comic books and a father figure.

8) In Bruges

In Bruges is a witty and elegiac comedy about hit-men sightseeing in “the most well-preserved” town of medieval Europe (Bruges, Belgium). Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson achieve an odd couple rapport in a screenplay that tries to find what dignity a couple of murderers might have. If that dignity remains disconnected from an authentic sense of socio-moral location for these two men, the actors work hard to sell the vulnerability. Farrell’s neophyte gunman is seeking a kind of absolution or reprieve from a tragic hit-gone-wrong, Gleeson comes alongside him with something resembling fatherly compassion and ultimately selflessness. Ralph Fiennes figures in as their livewire boss and wrench in the gears. The resulting and banter and gunfire plays out in stark relief to the somber historical setting and is rendered melancholic by a spare and haunting melodies of the score.

7) Jackie Brown

Adapted from a book by crime-wit writer extraordinaire Elmore Leonard, this hip caper centers on So-Cal flight attendant Jackie Brown as she becomes caught between cops, criminals and a bail bondsman over a bag full of money. Quentin Tarantino cast 70’s icon Pam Grier in the title role and gives her a mo-town soundtrack to underline themes of economic desperation and feminine empowerment. She plays both sides off each other in a series of crosses and double-crosses in order to do something for herself in a world that’s given her nothing. The budding /potential romance between her and the bondsman (the charmingly weathered Robert Forster) adds an element of wistful sweetness amid all the thuggish posturing. Strong supporting performances from Robert DeNiro, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton round out the cast.

6) Fargo

Sarcastically “based on a true story,” Fargo takes a simple tale of blackmail and sublimely twists it into a violent absurdity. A scheming weasel of a Minnesota car salesman attempts to squeeze money out of his cantankerous but wealthy father-in-law by having his wife kidnapped. The aftermath takes one turn down Murphy’s Law lane after the next, until most of the principal characters are dead or in handcuffs. Said salesman (William H. Macy) squirms his way through the film in a staggering display of wimpy depravity. The silent hulking introvert who acts as one of the two kidnappers unravels all the carefully laid plans via violent outbursts which erupt unexplained from his ineffable depths. And the highly-praised Frances McDormand stars as a sweet and pregnant cop who seems smarter than everyone else in the movie, and providing the film’s bleak universe with both a brain and a heart.

In the following clip, you can see the seeds of discontent take root as the car salesman's foolish first scheme unravels right in his face.

5) No Country for Old Men

The film's opening narration:

Also from Fargo’s directing duo of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country is a kind of successor to that film—without the brain and heart. To paraphrase Luke Skywalker, “If there’s a bright center to the universe, this is the film that’s farthest from.” It’s bleakness is accentuated by the casualness with which it transpires couple with the characters’ weary resignation to it. The plot is almost inconsequential—bag of money, wanted by more than one person. However the filmmaker’s find in Cormac McCarthy’s source material another ineffable killer in the creature of Anton Chigurh, a relentless hitman in a bowl cut and armed with a cattle-dispatching tool powered by compressed air. It resonates thematically as crime film especially in its depiction of law enforcement’s confusion and impotence in the face of indifferent and careless evil.

The film's utter hopelessness for mankind to solve its darkest problems forces the question of Christian hope. Where do we place our hope? Who do we trust for our security? The resurrection of Christ calls us to look at a world as bleak as the one of this film and still live and act as beacons of love and selflessness within it.

4) Chinatown

“Forget it Jake—it’s Chinatown.”

The above quote has become a shorthand for the cruel and indifferent mess of the world. It also serves as a shorthand for the movie itself, a meandering noir whose gumshoe protagonist (Jack Nicholson) is lost in a web of murder, a women, powerful men and something to do with water rights in 1930’s Los Angeles. Filmmaker Roman Polanski is a Holocaust survivor and a probably disturbed man with a notorious and high-profile criminal history. In Chinatown he uses noir tropes of elusive truth and capricious conspiracies to flesh out a dark world that exists right on the sunny L.A. streets. The infamous revelation at the center of the film seems arbitrary, and exists almost solely to push home the perverse cruelty of the universe. But as someone with a deeply personal connection to one of the greatest criminal acts of the modern world, the wounded cynicism of this film may have something to say about the toxic circumstances which engender misanthropy and criminal rebellion against society’s norms.

3) Psycho

Hitchcock believed in playing the audience like a musical instrument, keeping a tight rein on their suspense and investment with the events on-screen. If not quite his masterpiece, the stabby thriller Psycho is a virtual study in the manipulation of audience expectation when it radically shifts gears after the “shower scene” it made famous. The film begins with a crime—again a missing bundle of money—which brings an otherwise innocuous woman ought into the countryside where the ominous Bates Hotel and its caretaker(s) wait to receiver her. Rather than play out as a sin-and-consequences morality play, Psycho works mostly as a mystery about evil lurking in unexpected places. Whether a chummy hotel clerk or pretty office receptionist, the criminal mind and behavior is right beneath the surface. One of the many ways Psycho was timely was its release in a year (1960) pitched right as America’s postwar conformity was ready to explode and unravel as the country’s crimes (like racism) began to pierce the repressive Eisenhower-era façade.


2) Heat

What Heat asks of its leading male characters is whether they can live the lives their compelled to have and still function as human beings. Both Al Pacino’s manic cop and De Niro’s laconic bank thief are loners, incapable of maintaining extracurricular relationships due to their work commitments. Pacino holds onto the angst engendered by dead hookers, child-abusing junkies and other tragedies entailed by his job because it “keeps him sharp; on the edge; where [he’s] gotta be.” De Niro’s commitment is to have nothing in his life he can’t walk out on in thirty seconds—otherwise he’s dead. The crime and pursuit essence of the film is slick, smart and excellently choreographed. It takes on an epic scope by the sheer number of sharply-drawn characters caught in a web which boils down to one man’s pursuit of the heist and another’s pursuit of the law.

1) Goodfellas

“Ever since I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

This actually based-on-a-true-story movie is great for so many reasons. Through and through, director Martin Scorsese infuses the whole film with the texture and verve of a raucous Italian family at mealtime. The speech patterns, the cars, the machismo, all the little ethnic idiosyncracies—the film gets them all so right. Moreover, in Henry Hill we’re given an entry into the mafia world we can identify with—and a lifestyle aspiration. Because Goodfellas illustrates the seduction and pull of a lifestyle that offers everything, anything you can think of; it’s the American Dream in a heartbeat. Nowhere is this more lucidly and vividly displayed than the famous Copcabana tracking shot (I can't find a good embeddable version.  Follow this link if you're curious).

It’s at once a technically marvelous, unbroken camera pan through an elegantly choreographed scene and a window into how life in the mob made the world Henry’s oyster. His smitten date can only wonder, “Where do you work?”—it’s uttered with the kind of rapt disbelief usually reserved for high-powered men quick to rattle of their achievements, accolade and prestige. The allure makes the criminal life relatable, demonstrates to us how our often hidden and internal desires for such things could pull us down the same path.

"Everything was for the taking... And now it's all over."

This past year the majority of the ministry work I did was in the local jail. I learned there that I couldn’t afford the pretense that I was a better human being than the men I worked with. I think another reason crime movies are appealing is that they can show what it’s like to act out in seductive, self-serving and ultimately destructive ways. It’s fun to see people run off with the cash, the car, the women, the respect, and so on, but it’s telling that so few crime movies allow their characters redemption without some kind of cost.

Ex-mafioso Hill ended up straight-jacketed by the Witness Protection Program to save his own skin. But he also eventually lost his marriage and his government cooperation by getting slapped with drug charges not too many years later. I find crime movies fascinating because they allow a window into either a take-everything-you-want life I’ll never have or the dark mess of the criminal life or both—because they show human beings letting go of the repressed release valve that keeps so many of our self-destructive tendencies. Sometimes a criminal with nothing left to lose seems more honest, more real about who they really are. He or she can offer us not a window but a mirror, making us ask our usually self-righteous selves—what’s the difference? Acknowledging our own utter helplessness in the morality department empowers us not only to seek the saving power of Christ all the more intensely, but also to see the helpless, broken and cruel in the world around us as desired by God to be recipients of his grace.

Monday, November 14, 2011

God-Loved Ghosts in Broken Machines

This is the homily I gave last Tuesday morning during morning prayer at Trinity. It's based on the psalm for that day, Psalm 78.

Memory. We take it for granted, but all of our perceptions and judgments are shaped by it. It’s where, in one sense, our view of the world comes from. Our minds are host to so many memories we can’t count—weddings and funerals, friendships gained and lost, sought goals that did or didn’t pan out. Probably most of these memories revolve around our connections to other people—the things we did with them, or to them, or vice versa. For better or for worse. But as Christians, we have another category of memory—that of our testimony, our past experiences of being tangibly connected to God. Our psalm for today shows how testimony can overcome living from the cumulative memories of a broken world.

Some ancient songwriter composed Psalm 78 long ago in order to remind Israel of her testimony. “Give ear,” he says, “incline your ear,” pay attention to the things “that our ancestors have told us.” What did the ancestors tell? First and foremost, that Yahweh set it up that Israel would be the people to put their hope in him and keep his commandments. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—these ancestors had a testimony from God setting them apart from their own ancestors, “a stubborn and rebellious generation.” Secondly, they told us through their actions that being the people of God is often, to quote Leonard Cohen, “a cold and broken ‘Hallelujah’.” Because the psalm goes on to recount the people of God’s history of vacillation between faithfulness and rebellion, between “Israel” and “Jacob”. The Psalmist is reminding the worshiper that to be Israel means to bend God’s way and not another, to be, in fact “Israel”—and to leave the wilfullness of “Jacob” behind.

The worshiper is reminded that Israel “forgot what [God] had done, and the miracles that he had shown them.” We’re also reminded of the God whom they encountered—not the bitter, fickle and angry God of some imaginations, nor the stoic dispenser of justice common to others. This God comes across as passionate, involved with and invested in the people he has marked for himself. His anger flares up at their disobedience, but steadfast love comes quickly on its heels, providing water and food. He’s a triune omnipotent groud-of-all-being person on a mission for the redemption of humanity, and in his millenia-long to and fro with Israel he demonstrates both his worthiness of character and humanity’s absolute need to be redeemed from above.

Psalm 78 bracingly reminds us of our shortcomings—Israel demonstrated the human capacity for open rebellion in the face of God’s kindness. The poet protests, “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert!” We’re a fickle species, human beings. Being human can sometimes be like being a machine where some of the most important parts are missing, or a cake missing its best ingredients like sugar or chocolate. God knows that about us—he knew it about Israel, no doubt. To the point of killing some. But despite that, he remains invested in us. Our sinful actions anger him, but he has compassion because he knows our frailty, he knows how we have been compromised by the stain of sin and the poisonous memories bequeathed to us by our lives. It is knowing and trusting in this God which empowers us to transcend the bondage of common fare human living.

That we can see all these things in this Psalm belies the songwriter’s own frustration and love for the sometimes faithful of Israel. He’s rubbing our noses in the past, begging the worshiper to remember the God who saves and act accordingly. And, ultimately, his hope is for a God-sent king to shepherd us in this charge. David serves as the template, the preliminary sketch of the solution this messy situation demands—an unruly people brought under a righteous but deeply invested God demands God’s direct leadership. We are like Isaiah’s sheep, each turning to our own way, but God has instituted Jesus, son of David, to sort us out.

This all suggests that what we’re in desperate need of is an active remembering of God and his works coupled with the example and leadership of Christ. This is not in any way to lean towards a so-called “works righteousness,” but rather to wrestle with the real and dirty problem of being a human being and also a possession and follower of Jesus Christ. Because we all have our demons, so to speak, whether anger, pride, lust, gluttony or fill in the blank. I don’t have to name your sin, or mine, to be confident that it exists and that on some days it exists boldly. It’s why the confession is part of daily worship.

Let us be reminded, then. We must face the fact that our sin angers God, but we can be comforted to know he has compassion nonetheless. Whether this means prayer, or repentance, or bible reading, or journaling, or all of the above and more, we always need to be reminded of the powerful God who doesn’t always seem close and essential to our day to day lives.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Basis of Everything That is Important To Me

The following is a selection is from a brief essay by my systematics professor on the influence that the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury had on the twentieth-century German theologian Karl Barth.  It essentially outlines exactly what reading the Bible means to me and is like for me, and by extension describes the process by which I have any knowledge of God at all.  I am learning that theology can be deeply edifying.

"Although Anselm begins with God's remoteness... he does not stop there.  The theologian pores over Scripture in the hope that God will reveal his very Self through the Scriptural medium.  That this may occur is not, in the first instance, due to any inherent power of the biblical words.  The Scriptures, like any other created reality, cannot reveal god.  If God does reveal his very Self it will be an act of grace.  Therefore Anselm begins with prayer.  Anselm prays because he knows that he cannot know God unless God takes form within the written word.  'What is at stake here is not just the right way to seek God, but in addition God's presence, on which the whole grace of Christian knowledge primarily depends, the encounter with him which can never be brought about by all our searching for God however thorough it may be, although it is only to the man who seeks God with a pure heart that this encounter comes.'*  When God reveals himself he does so by taking form within the written Word.  This is an event; it happens from time to time.  In the moment of speaking, God reveals the Word as Scripture.  As the theologian hears this Word, he grasps the underlying intelligibility of Scripture and formulates it in theological statements.  The statements themselves are comprehensible only when they are also illumined by God as revelatory words.  This happens as God the Word binds himself to the biblical work, similar to God the Word having bound himself to the human nature of Christ.  By the communicatio idiomatum, the divine Word was comprehensible as human words.  Similarly, the divine nature, God the Word, becomes comprehensible as the words of Scripture.  In this way real knowledge of God occurs, a knowledge which is known by the categories of the understanding grasping the intelligibility of the biblical words.  This knowledge depends, in the final analysis, on God's grace.  Without grace, Scripture is silent.  The knowledge of God and the faith to believe it 'does not come about without something new encountering us and happening to us from the outside... The seed to be received is the 'Word of God' that is preached and heard; and that it comes to us and that we have the rectitudo volendi to receive it, is grace.'**  In short, Anselm proposed a doctrine of revelation which depended upon God's act, an event in which God took form within the spatial and temporal existence of the believer to reveal his very Self speaking as the biblical words."

~Robert Sanders, "Barth's Encounter with Kant:  Liberalism, Its Rejection, and Anselm"

I wonder if it's really true, as Barth says, that God only reveals himself to those with a pure heart.  It seems to me that God is in the redemptive business of revealing himself to those with wicked hearts and thereby purifying them.  I know that he reached out to me when I was thinking and acting any other way but pure--and that he continues to reach out to me even as I continue to need purifying.

*Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides quarens intellectum, trans. Louise Smith (New York:  Harper and Row, 1962), 38.
**Ibid., 171.

Theology as Therapy

I'm kind of a neurotic person. I try not to let it show; I probably fail. When I'm at my most neurotic I isolate myself because I don't want people to see me that way--twitchy, clammy, socially mal-adapted. I guess that most people who know me know me as a person of faith, but I'm a skeptic first. I am a person of my mind and sometimes its prisoner.

Maybe I can't avoid sounding obnoxious if I describe myself as intelligent, but it's a designation and reality that has been normal for me since I can remember. It's one I think that most of my close friends would agree upon. My mind works fast and intuitively; I enjoy making connections and interpretations, and I'm constantly stitching together the big picture from all the disparate parts. I'm quick to resist other people's interpretations and explanations--unless they jive with my pre-existing framework--a tendency that does not play well with a good many ways of thinking religiously.

I am in some ways a reluctant Christian, faith thrust upon me by Christ-centered spiritual experiences which I can give no account for other than by responding obediently. And though my mind and body kick and scream as my spirit points them heavenward, I routinely return to Peter's exclamation, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68).

In college, I lived in two worlds which tended to remain unhelpfully separate: secular history and religion classrooms on one hand; biblicist worship meetings and small groups on the other. I'm grateful for both, but over most of the past decade those two strands of thought have met in a chaotic mess on the battlefield of my mind. In the classroom I imbibed more and more the dismal story that is human history (a long tale of Darwinian cruelty, imo) and tortured myself with questions about the socially constructed nature of thought and reality. In Christian community, worship and bible study I could take refuge from these mental torments, but I could not possess intellectually satisfying resolutions--only escape through faithful affirmation that Jesus stands above and will one day save me from the mess.

For many years my main exposure to formal theology came through biblicist Calvinists whose aggressive certainty and investment in the particularity of their various doctrines only seemed to confirm my charismatic-fundamentalist suspicions that most of theology was a distraction from "mere Christianity." This dovetailed nicely with the post-modern suspicion of reason I gained through various classes and conversations in college, leading me to a place where my mind and spirit seemed like they were forever doomed to be reluctant companions.

Recently, some assigned readings in theology have seemed breaths of fresh air to this sordid chaos--it only took two full years of seminary for them to come along.* "To pronounce the name of Jesus Christ means to acknowledge that we are cared for," writes Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics in Outline, "that we are not lost... We do not exist in any kind of gloomy uncertainty; we exist through the God who was gracious to us before we existed at all... God has so acted for our good, does and will so act, that there exists salvation for every lost condition." The phrase "gloomy uncertainty" grabbed my attention as it so aptly described the mental and emotional anguish I am sometimes beset by. It shook me out of my complacency with such quagmire: I realized that I accepted as normative a mental state which does not make sense for someone who believes they belong to and have been rescued by the god of Israel. And I have long accepted it without ever thinking it absurd, but rather felt arrested by the frustration it brings.  His insistence on "salvation for every lost condition" reminded me that I needed to look to Jesus and fight against the chaos.

Barth treats Jesus phenomenologically--his reasoning accepts the historical and contemporary reality of Christ a priori, and he refuses to distance his thought from the person of Jesus through abstraction. This way of thinking is especially appropriate for someone whose adult faith began with a spiritual event which they have had to come to terms with rather than conversion through evangelism, community or some other means.

The other theologian whose words have been soothing salve to my chaotic cerebrum is Richard Hooker. I wish I had read Hooker my first year at seminary, as his Thomist view of law, creational order and wisdom may have settled much of the law-grace perplexity I experienced. "The being of God," he writes in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, "is a kind of law to his working; for that perfection which God is, giveth perfection to that he doth." In other words, God's actions are consistent with his nature--"his most glorious and most abundant virtue." Divine law is not an arbitrary set of commands, nor a merely a redemptive roadblock whereby we are condemned so that we can recognize we need God's mercy. Law has to do with a sacred pattern reflective of God's nature, loving and keeping it the essence of wise human living.

This essentially Thomist perspective establishes a way forward for Christian discipleship and radically undermines common Platonic perversions of Christian thought which see spirit and matter as radically opposed to one another. C.S. Lewis described Hooker's worldview as one "drenched... with deity"--not pantheism, but rather an insistence that ultimately all creation is of and from God, despite the brokenness and sin which come from the fall. A.M. Allchin writes that 

"Above all things [Hooker] is concerned to hold together the glory of God and the true dignity of man. This means that in his controversial writings he finds himself defending the demands of a Calvinism which was already setting the sovereignty of God over against the freedom of man, thinking to exalt God at the expense of his creation. This was never Hooker’s way. He sees God’s wisdom and power shining out in and through all things, in the richness and diversity of the world which God has made, and above all in man whom he has created in his image and likeness."**

I find it to be intellectually healing to read these Christian thinkers talking about God in a way that doesn't require logical and moral gymnastics in order to readily recognize Him as "good," "beautiful," and "merciful."  These are affirmations of a recognizably good person at the center of what can sometimes seem like a veil of nice-sounding God talk that may or may not pan out.  I can be told a hundred times that God is my Father and he loves me and shrug it off.  It's as if by reading these different theological bits I've had someone go beyond telling me I have a loving heavenly Father:  they've actually begun to show me what he looks like.  And God seems less and less like a dream my intense and skeptical mind keeps wanting to wake up from.

*I should note that some readings from Augustine and Aquinas last year on the subject of God and goodness were also helpful, though I think I was too emotionally strained at the time to receive from them all that I could have.

**A.M. Allchin, Participation in God:  A Forgotten Strand in the Anglican Tradition, 7.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Holy Cross Day

"Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen."
~Collect for Holy Cross Day, BCP p.244

"It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was he to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifferences to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself."
~St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, I.6

"And he said to all, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?'"
~Luke 9:23-25

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Chasing God and the Moon"

"This... is about me pursuing God and running after His heart wherever He leads me, and that is something that I hope to be doing for the rest of my life. It’s not something I can check off a list whenever I get off the plane. It’s a pursuit that goes beyond my location or circumstances... God can be found wherever we are at any time; we don’t have to go all the way around the world to find Him. I actually think that I have spent far too much of my life 'waiting for the moment' rather than fully giving myself to the chase. And I think those moments that I wait for end [up] being a disappointment if I haven’t been engaged in the journey and the process of getting there, and if I choose not to remain engaged once the moment has passed.

Right now our plane is literally chasing the moon, and we seem to be catching up. We flew right through our daylight hours and we’re about to cross over into night again. For now, I am chasing God and the moon right into India, and I pray that I will not at any moment find myself waiting to Live."

~ S.D. Zielstorff

Thursday, August 11, 2011

"No Complacency"

"In the two fundamental duties of pleasing God and loving one another there must be no complacency."

~ John Stott, Evangelical Truth (IVP, 2003), 32.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

What You Should Ask For

"Do not ask for what some tell you that you should ask for, but for that which you feel the need of, that which the Holy Spirit has made you to hunger and to thirst for, you ask for that."

~ C.H. Spurgeon, from his sermon "Pray, Always Pray"

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Billy Graham on Compassion, Suffering & Happiness

"Abraham Lincoln once said, characteristically, 'I am sorry for the man who can't feel the whip when it is laid on the other man's back.'

Much of the world is callous and indifferent toward mankind's poverty and distress. This is due largely to the fact that for many people there has never been a rebirth. The love of God has never been shed abroad in their hearts.

Many people speak of the social gospel as though it were separate and apart from the redemptive gospel. The truth is: There is only one gospel. Divine love, like a reflected sunbeam, shines down before it radiates out. Unless our hearts are conditioned by the Holy Spirit to receive and reflect the warmth of God's compassion, we cannot love our fellow-men as we ought.

Jesus wept tears of compassion at the graveside of a friend. He mourned over Jerusalem because as a city it had lost its appreciation of the things of the spirit. His great heart was sensitive to the needs of others.

To emphasize the importance of people's love for each other, He revised an old commandment to make it read: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart... and thy neighbor as thyself' (Luke 10:27).

St. Francis of Assisi had discovered the secret of happiness when he prayed:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
     For it is in giving that we receive;
     It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
     It is in dying that we are born to eternal life!

~Billy Graham, The Secret of Happiness (BGEA, 2002), 35.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Obscene & Inspiring Billy Graham Library

My family and I visited the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, NC today. Upon arriving at the front gate, we are not charged to park or visit, but are greeted warmly and asked if it is our first time. The parking pass we're given doubles as a evangelistic tract. We pull into the lot and see the main building: a large barn-shaped structure with an enormous cross-shaped window on its front with entry doors at its foot. There is also a mock-grain silo.

The interior of the main hall is nostalgically synthetic. Perfectly trim "rustic" wood lines the walls and ceiling, vintage Sears & Roebuck signs are hung, and there is a fake barn to the right with--I kid you not--an animatronic cow which begins the library tour. Beyond the front desk are a small cafeteria and a book/trinket store, rounding out the theme park vibe. It's Graham by way of Disney.

Bessie, said cow, begins the tour with tales of Graham's early life on the farm near Charlotte, milking at the crack of dawn and eventually practicing sermons while he does his chores. The barn set has nice detail touches (further evoking Disney) like a fore-fronted, gently slumbering cat with subtle movements and a dimly-lit barn constructed with forced-perspective to create the illusion that it extends further than it does. The other "cows"'s rear ends and twitching tales are visible, growing smaller as they recede into the background. I told my groaning mom and sister that it would be more realistic if they had included animatronic defecation and the synthetic yet pungent replication of its odor.

We are ushered along to the first of several seating areas with screens detailing moments and highlights from Graham's life. These are interesting enough, but retain the kitschy quality of the Biff Tannen museum from Back to the Future II. I feared, at first, that the experience would not transcend the carefully-mannered elements of the production, but it eventually won me over through faithfulness to its raison d'etre: Graham's articulate and impassioned proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The man's preaching covers a multitude of aesthetic sins. The desperation of his soul for others to come to Christ is present in each word, each turn of phrase bursting with urgency for the redemption of humanity.

We were ushered through other exhibits and scenes: a mock-revival tent, a mock-radio station, a mock-main street with storefront and (the highlight) a mock-Berlin Wall and guard station replete with rubble, graffiti, barbed wire, and a search light. This room interwove details about the persecution of Christianity behind the iron curtain and Graham's evangelistic exploits in Eastern Europe and Russia during those years. All of these extensively utilized visual media and scenery to tell the story of Graham as a global evangelist, collectively taking on a Gump-ish quality by showing how one man carried his personality and pursuits through so many late twentieth century highlights. They also point to Graham as a man of God who harnessed the power of communications and transportation technology to become the most widely heard evangelist in world history.

It was in the next room after the Berlin Wall that I broke down. A 2005 letter to Graham from the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Australia described his Graham-led conversion experience in detail. He added that it was rare for him to ask a church in his diocese whether any in the room had been converted at the 1959 Sydney crusade and not at least see a few hands. This one particular letter momentarily stood in for Graham's global impact, implying that all over the world pockets of the faithful live indebted to the life and ministry of Billy Graham. I was deeply touched by the concern for and success with bringing the gospel to the nations, and had to sit down and cry it out.

I usually don't respond when people talk about their heroes of the faith from church history or contemporary life, but Billy Graham always commands my attention. His life and manner inspire me and reach me--probably in no small part due to his accessibility through visual media. I left the tour feeling encouraged in my faith and strengthened with desire to pursue God and his calling for my life. The synthesis of decades worth of sermons and interviews revealed a man who lived with a passionate dedication to the gospel--with integrity--consistently demonstrating a focus on Jesus and moral confidence whether he preached to a crowd or was being interviewed by Woody Allen. The transformed life of the man outdid the oppressive corniness of the library's presentation about him. (Apparently Graham himself was embarrassed after visiting the library for the first time; he wished it wasn't so exclusively focused on himself)

In an interview towards the end of the tour, given quite recently it would seem, Graham conceded that his one regret was that he didn't spend more time in prayer, meditation and study. He said he would have done the same number of evangelistic rallies, but many fewer non-evangelistic speaking engagements. This thought made an impression upon me. I was also struck by Graham's eschatological optimism: whereas many other Evangelicals think of transforming society and hoping for Christ's return as opposites, Graham remains optimistic that Christ's pending return does not mean things have to keep getting worse until he does. And that's good news I can believe in.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Spiritual Relevance of Theological Training, Part 2

In my previous post I considered the relevance of theological training to the spiritual life. If the call of Christ is to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves, why study theology? I granted it a certain but limited value--my attempt to commend it to those who think it doesn't matter and to relativize it to those who think it matters too much. These posts also represent my attempt to work through these issues myself. I wanted to find out what I thought and should think about these things, and so I set about writing my thoughts down this way. Writing is my means for organizing and processing my thoughts, and this blog has only ever been a glimpse into my thoughts and thought process, never a display of polished writing. This post is part two of my miniature investigation into the relevance of theological training; here I turn my sights from the spiritual life of the individual to the communal responsibility of the Christian leader (by which I mean anyone officially active in the oversight of or ministry to a Christian community, ordained or otherwise).

From a leadership perspective, theological education in biblical studies, systematics and church history has one primary and invaluable function: protecting and articulating the apostolic faith and understanding how it interacts with unbelieving host cultures. This function does not constitute the core of basic Christian discipleship, but it must serve discipleship’s ends by creating and protecting a safe and stable environment where basic discipleship can occur. Without this telos, academic theology and its by-products are, spiritually, a collective waste of time. Basic discipleship, on the other hand, without intellectual and ecclesiological structure tends towards petty cultism, schism, anti-intellectualism and historical rootlessness. The former will lose Christ in the halls of the ivory tower, the latter will become socially irrelevant as it sinks further and further down the rabbit hole of Christ-culture and mind-body dualism.

Academic theological training will not provide many things to the Christian leader. Integrity, diligence, public-speaking, pastoral skills, administration, and so on—these must all be gained elsewhere (not to mention the "basic discipleship" I have been speaking of--a life built on the foundation of love for God and love for neighbor). However there remain some essential skills which come with academic training and should not be underestimated:

1) Critical thinking! Christians known for pursuing personal relationships with God are not known for their logical consistency and general intelligence. This is a shame. Rather than shunning secular universities and institutions as godless enemies, Christians should be fully engaged with secularism, armed with robust faith, flexible minds and fearless confidence that God can and will redeem human society through the salt and light of the church. This will require creative ways of integrating the mind of faith and the mind of science, and a re-evaluation of old battle-lines drawn through issues such as evolution, post-modernism and politics.

Furthermore, Christians need to read things that challenge their minds, stretch their worldviews, and undermine their presuppositions. A vital, orthodox faith in Christ is no reason not to be well-read.

2) Exegesis! Christian leaders need to know how to read, interpret and apply the Bible consistently and holistically. Evangelicalism has far too many topical, eisegetical and emotionalistic sermons. Sermons should be Christocentric and reflect the import of a Scriptural text, rather than constructed from random Bible verses to make a point apart from text and context. Consistent exposure to exegetical preaching is not only good stewardship of God's word, it also fosters a church body which respects God's word and interprets it carefully.

3) Systematics/Biblical Theology! Christian leaders should have a basic grasp of the bible and know how to synthesize its content in response to practical concerns and questions. Whether someone wants to know how a Christian should manage their finances or why there is suffering in the world, Christian leaders should be able to respond with holistically biblical wisdom. It wouldn’t hurt them to also have some fundamental grasp of the history of theology either (nor philosophy, if they’re so inclined).

And finally—this is not a skill, per se, but still relevant—Christian leaders oughht to grasp at least enough of church history* that they understand their role and denomination as one niche in a globe-spanning and millenia-long redemptive mission orchestrated by the God of the universe. Good church history instructs us in humility, empathy and, not least, the exemplary lives of the saints who have lived for Christ throughout. Woe to those who conceive of it as a mere chronological succession of theological ideas.

Presumably, all these skills would be added to people who live by the Jesus Creed. Because without the core of basic, Jesus-oriented discipleship, all these professional skills are but dried grass blown away by the wind. Also, these considerations have been made in the ideal; the exigencies of Christian mission will always contend for the same time and money that might be spent on theological training. It is up to church and seminary leaders to determine the balance; please God, let them continue to hear you and always find ways to integrate mission and training.

I conclude with a plea for prayer. I assume that those who read my blog have at least some passing interest in my life as a seminarian, so please petition the Lord that I would be able to embrace first the Jesus Creed and also the discipline of training and theological formation. My hope and desire is to be an integrated leader—fully devoted to “basic Christian discipleship,” successfully trained in the intellectual disciplines relevant to mission of Christ and the community of his church.

*For this task I recommend Mark Noll's Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. It is not a long book, especially considering it spans two thousand years of church history, and it is just enough information to begin to hint at the shape of the story of the people of God since Pentecost.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Spiritual Relevance of Theological Training, Part 1

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” ~ Jesus (Matthew 22:37-39)

Two posts ago I related some of my struggles with seminary, especially related to the emphasis on professional training for ministry. Some recent back and forth with a friend has stoked some further thoughts about seminary, specifically my attempt to gauge the relative spiritual importance of academic theological training. For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to consider biblical studies, systematics and church history, as my basic questions have to do with the spiritual relevance of the academic disciplines. In my opinion, the spiritual relevance of an applied disipline such as pastoral theology, leadership or practice is self-evident, provided that the pastor ministers in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit. This is not to say that that field does not need re-evaluation and reform in certain ways. Additionally, the relevance of liturgical instruction goes unquestioned provided that both instructor and student have an integrated grasp of liturgy and the imperative to love God with one’s whole being.

I see two Christian perspectives from which to evaluate academic theological training. The first and most important concerns basic Christian discipleship and formation, the second Christian leadership and pastoral responsibility. Either way, I believe its relevance can be considered through one lens: the commands to love God and to love our neighbors.

Scott McKnight calls Matthew 22:37-39 “The Jesus Creed.” These commandments, construed Christocentrically, constitute the distilled essence of Christian praxis. Anything which does not accord or strive to accord with these imperatives cannot be justly called “Christian behavior.” These calls to love underscore the whole ethical thrust of the New Testament and outline what it means to follow Jesus. Throughout this essay I will refer to living by these commands as “basic discipleship.” How then does theological education fit the Jesus Creed? I will attempt to answer this question by going through the “creed” line by line.

Theological training can and should cause its students to love God more deeply from the heart by more intimately acquainting them with the grand redemptive narrative of the Bible and, in particular, the redeeming work of the cross and the powerful victory of the resurrection. The seminarian must come to more clearly understand the God who prefers mercy to judgment, and so be filled with love. However, it is unclear, and perhaps improbable that the relentless specificity of academic theology is necessary for or essential to this task, except insofar as these basic ideas need articulation and defense over and against those who would appropriate the Bible to tell a different story. For those called to the apologetic task, this is no small order.

As for loving God from the soul, the psychological and emotional healing required for this are unlikely to be gained through academic pursuits. Moreover, the spiritual disciplines required to sustain soul care—meditation on Scripture, prayer, rest, community, celebration—neither require academic precision nor certification. Professional Christian counseling, however, should require academic training in both Christianity and counseling, although these disciplines will affect those receiving counsel only indirectly.

The imperative to love God with all one’s mind will often be cited as the Jesus mandate for theology and its professional training. I would argue that, while this is not an invalid application of the Jesus Creed, left alone it is a woefully narrow construal of the call to love God with our minds. For not only do we need care for logical consistency in our God talk, but also a consistent habit of turning our thoughts towards God. As Paul writes, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). Theological sophistication and precision can never replace this; affirming orthodoxy will not, by itself, effect the mental transformation that God desires for us. Only the spiritual habits of Scripture meditation, prayer and corporate liturgical worship will do the trick.

Love of neighbor will be partly addressed when I consider the relevance of theological training to Christian leadership. Theological knowledge will be used to love others mostly through Christians' attempts to satisfy others' theological problems and conundrums. Basic questions like "Why suffering?" and "Doesn't the Jesus love and the Old Testament God hate?" can only be addressed by someone with at least rudimentary theological training, even if it's only congregation-based catechesis. Helping people in a particular cultural and intellectual setting become intellectually receptive to God and the gospel is of no small value. Even so, intellectual concerns are relativized by the hierarchy of needs, especially when the majority of the world waiting to hear the good news are poor and hungry.

All considered, I find theological training to be of limited value in the life of the lay disciple. Non-academic catechesis might go a very long way in shaping thoughts for God by training disciples in basic doctrine. It does stand to reason, however, that loving God with our minds means being lifelong learners: as much as our station, vocation and capacity allow, Christians should be growing in intellectual knowledge of God. For some that will mean academic theological training; for the vast majority it will not. However, considering the relevance of theological training vis-à-vis Christian leadership in my next post will, I think, reveal considerably more benefits to basic Christian discipleship, albeit in a somewhat indirect way.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Only A Single Mom Could Have Written This Fantasy Epic

"Where your treasures is, there your heart will be also."
~ Matthew 6:21

"The last enemy to be destroyed is death."
~ I Corinthians 15:26


I had the strangest experience watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 this evening. I was filled with a deep appreciation and love for my mom, who has loved and sacrificed and prayed my sister and I through the past two decades. Strange, not because it's inappropriate to feel this way towards my mom, but rather because through all those years she has also been a vocal opponent of all forms of fantasy fiction. To her it is all too tolerant of the occult, grievous to the Holy Spirit and a dangerous gateway for sparking interest in the demonic and the mystical. As a schoolteacher, Harry Potter and his tales have been especially worrisome, given their massive popularity with students and teachers alike. Strange then that a Harry Potter film would so powerfully and forcefully remind me of her Christocentric motherhood.

During this evening's movie-going experience, I was struck by how much J.K. Rowling's experience as a single mother had shaped the series' conclusion. Obviously, that Rowling would make Lily Potter's motherly love the mythological foundation of the most powerful magic in Harry Potter's wizarding world betrays her sympathies. It is the recurring theme of the series, and Deathly Hallows is its swooning thematic crescendo. Several of the leading adult ladies of the series vividly illustrate such love in the epic's climactic moments.

First off, Professor MacGonagall's face-off with Snape in order to protect Harry seemed to me a capstone to her quiet and dutiful stewardship of him over the years. She fought as surrogate-mother, as one of the many who have stepped in to fill the family void left by the murder of Potter's parents. Her fierce determination to protect Harry and all of the other students revealed this usually reserved and proper school-marm as the lioness she has always been.

Concordantly, Narcissa Malfoy's role in the series seems to have been to show that, even in the most despicable of families, a mother's love will trump all else. After Harry returns from King's Cross, she reveals that her devotion to Draco goes far beyond whatever she gives to Voldemort. If Potter will confirm Draco's life, she will not betray Harry's resurrection. It is Draco's life and well-being that matter, not the dark lord's. Her pact with Snape in The Half-Blood Prince also underscored and highlighted this concern.

Bellatrix Lestrange, on the other hand, is the anti-Lily and the anti-Narcissa. Her devotion to Voldemort is absolute, her emotional compass as intelligible as the Joker's. She has no family, no discernible friends, and no relational inter-connections to establish her as a psycho-social being. Bellatrix embodies the nihilistic consequences of Voldy's will-of-death, a dehumanized freak and a picture of what might have become of a humanity enslaved to an immortal demon. Helena Bonham Carter tweaks the character performance to 11, and, while never boring, I think she mistakes cartoonishly outlandish evil for dehumanized amorality.

As far as cinematic high points go, Molly Weasley's face-off with Lestrange far outstrips Voldemort's demise--the audience cheered for "Not my daughter, you bitch!" and Neville killing Nagini in roughly equal amounts, but not nearly so much for the final defeat of the dark lord. When she defends Ginny and defeats Bellatrix, Molly both embodies and makes bad-ass the same motherly love evinced by Lily so many years before. Her defeat of Lestrange is Lily's first vindication: motherly love defeating evil without the sacrifice of martyrdom.

Lastly, even the somewhat-derided "19 Years Later" series coda demonstrates a mother's touch. Rowling has said that this epilogue was written at the same time as The Philosopher's Stone, meaning she always had a kind of boring normalcy in mind as the fruit of all their labors. A man (or a rabid fan or sequel-hungry studio head) would have come up with something like Harry's life being filled with a series of ongoing adventures and derring-do. A single mother understands, however, that to have life and a functioning family that you love is all the reward one needs.

In Harry's epic tale, it's motherly love that serves as protection against the abyss. And experiencing its conclusion in full sight and sound this evening reminded me just how much I owe to my mom for serving the same purpose. I have walked away from the charismatic fundamentalism of my past for myriad reasons I won't describe here. But I am forever indebted to my mom, charismatic and fundamentalist if anyone else is, and for the prayers she prayed and the tears she shed to shield me from the will of death which sought to destroy me. It almost did; I was almost lost to radical unbelief and nihilistic amorality forever but she never stopped praying. She never stopped fighting for me or my sister.

I know that, ultimately, it is God's faithfulness which holds me secure and has kept me for his purposes all these years. But I am no less convinced that my mom has been an integral part of his means for doing so. God has chosen to partner with and work through human beings on this earth--essential to his very purpose in creating us was to grant us dominion over creation. So thanks mom; thanks for wielding the mythic power of God's love, the deep magic from before world began which is rooted in the sacrifice of love. And thank you, Jesus, for laying your life down for us, for making a way out of sin and death and into an abundant and eternal way of life. You deserve all the honor, all the glory and all the praise.

And Jesus, thank you for Joanne Rowling. Thank you for allowing this woman to glimpse your love and refract it through the dark glass of fiction in such a moving and powerful way. Please continue to reveal yourself to her and all who love the story she has told, because it's always been your story, the only one we want to hear again and again, where love wins, evil passes away, and all the things that were wrong are made right again. Lord Jesus, let these tales stir our hearts and imaginations, spur us to live lives not for ourselves but for others, and provoke us all until we continually seek to fill our beings with you, the man who lived.

If you enjoyed this, I recommend "Harry, the Hallows, Love, and Life" by my friend RebbieJaye who knits and blogs @

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Seminarian Identity Flux

It's easy to lose sight of what matters. I have been preoccupied much of this year with anxieties and fears having to do with success and competence in ministry. There's something to the internal logic of seminary and its culture that pushes this emphasis; the incessant process of evaluation almost demands it. Theological training is a crucible, and from what I understand it is not unusual for those receiving it to find their faith tested even as they are being trained to shape the faith of others. So I do not here make a fundamental criticism of seminary, but I must contend that it is in and of itself a very different kind of thing than normal Christian discipleship and formation.

Part of my test, part of what seminary means to me, is coming to understand the Christian leader that I will never be. I will never be a driven, self-organizing, energetic community-creator continually spawning new ministries. I have to say this to myself because I perceive that ideal to be prevalent in contemporary Christianity and close to what people are looking for in a church planter--a vocation currently receiving much attention in my denomination and school. It is cognitively dissonant (and, therefore, emotionally distressing) to me to train to serve God's kingdom with mannered, workman-like competence as the guiding principle.

But I recognize my own baggage at play in resisting such a curriculum. I know that I need this training, but the fierce core of my soul will ever resist the notion that professionalism will suffice. This serves as a convenient excuse to disregard professionalism's qualities--neatness, timeliness, diligence, consistency, etc.--as the phony trappings of a bourgeois clericalism. I must find the third way betwixt fleeing such responsibilities and embracing them as the essence of churchmanship. It's my internal struggle between the feisty legacy of the Jesus movement and the slow-to-change ecclesiology of Anglicanism. Moreover, it's my nasty, cheap-trick fight between my sloth and the gospel demand that I roll up my sleeves and do some work.

I am deeply grateful for a friend who recently, through no intention of her own, reminded me of what matters. She has often had this function in my life, and has accomplished it most recently by preparing to move to India in order to be Christ among orphans there. It is the rarest kind of friend who through simply living their life in Christ recalls for you what most deeply moves and energizes your faith and being. For me this is loving God purely and from the heart, and actively bringing his love to "the least of these." If only every day at seminary were a lesson in this truth, saintliness might spread like wildfire.

Recognizing this alone does not accomplish the hard work of growing in love for God and love for others. However, prioritizing these objectives may very well be my ticket to negotiating a proper balance between my personal spirituality and public professional responsibilities. If I can consistently treat the latter as irrevocably important but always relative to Christ's prime directive ("Love the Lord your God with all your heart... Love your neighbor as yourself") then perhaps I can find a way to healthily channel my charismatic passion through Anglican ecclesiological structure. If not, then I will at least have grown in the core of what it means to be like Jesus and will not have wasted my heart trying to live by the dictums of professional competence.

I've got to level with the world of theological education: In my heart I never wanted to be an exegete or a scholar, nor a simulacrum of Tim Keller exuding white collar competence and theological sophistication from the pulpit. I just wanted to love Jesus and love people, and be in a community where that could be lived out in faithfulness to the word but apart from flaky, anti-intellectual fundamentalism. Gaining Anglicanism has been a welcome and fruitful gain in that process, but integrating my core passions while yet struggling through the cycle of sin and forgiveness has made for a bumpy road.

I need prayer. Prayer that the Lord will help me to live simply and from the heart. I want to be able to possess the integrity of love while not disregarding the obligation of professionalism. I want freedom from sins which so readily ensnare my body, heart and mind. I want to live in to the hope and purpose that God has for my life.

Friday, June 10, 2011

More Thoughts on God & Movies

After I finished my most recent blog entry about the pros and cons of escapist entertainment, I was bothered by an unresolved point. In that entry I posited with some pomp that "Good art is part of the beauty of the goodness of creation, part of that God-given self-reflection bestowed upon homo sapiens." It's not that I disagree with myself, but that I felt I had not done justice to what I most love about film: instinctive absorption into a fabricated experience. This category, contra "part of the beauty of the goodness of creation," leaves room for such variety as to allow the darkness of a bloody Scorsese montage scored by Clapton as well as the effulgence of a gourmand rat fulfilling his creative potential and passion. Both sequences unfold masterfully, choreographed and cut into nimble storytelling segments of high visual panache. 

Ratatouille - Fixing the Soup

Goodfellas - Jimmy's Gang gets whacked (not for the sensitive of conscience/disposition)

Yet as one driven to not only refine an aesthetic sense for film but also to engage it with Christian theological reflection, I cannot merely embrace it for its own sake, a la Oscar Wilde. That a film can be deeply dark yet aesthetically compelling therefore presses the question of whether or not art can be fundamentally construed by Christians as a good part of creation--or whether media that does not communicate some variance on Christian hope must be judged as categorically "not art." The question I therefore place to my "good art" proposition is this: "What place does the depiction of darkness have in an authentically Christian depiction of beauty and goodness?"

The classical answer to this question has been handled to great box office success by the twentieth century mythological synthesizers who have adapted the Christian metanarrative into archetypal conflicts of good versus evil. Whether or not the intentionally set out to tell the Christian story, their work nevertheless betrays heavy borrowing from it. George Lucas and the various adapters of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling have thrilled audiences and stuffed their pockets via powerful re-tellings of the Christus Victor myth.* At their best, they inspire our hearts to hope by stirring our longing for eternal mercy of final justice. At their worst, they reduce the gospel to thrill-oriented storytelling, cheap catharsis of an intractable evil.** Quoth Luther, "On earth is not his equal." For this reason and others I detested the flimsily Dickensian Slumdog Millionaire
, which applied Hollywood hope to two-thirds world poverty.

Where, then, is the place for art (film, no less) as a kind of truth-telling that doesn't succumb to the worst excesses of the fantasy epic genre? A strong counter example would be No Country for Old Men--it is utterly devoid of Christian hope or some cipher for it--but the film does tell part of the true story. It undercuts all boasting of human effort as an answer to the problem of evil; analagous to events in other Coen films (including Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing and Fargo), one individual's choice to act nihilistically undermines all attempts at order. Such films*** probe the disturbing realities the great epics avoid entirely: what if we knew of no way to conquer the radical evil of the Emperor, of Sauron, of Voldemort? The twentieth century's great legacy of death on an unprecedented scale looms large over all contemporary attempts to relay genuine, powerful hope through mere storytelling.

Miller's Crossing - "Ethics"

N.T. Wright has proposed one possible way forward. His 2006 sermon "Apocalyptic and Beauty of God" takes the three separate questions of how Christians should think about apocalypse, art and the now-and-not-yet nature of the glory of God and integrates them into an elegant Christian aesthetic. In sum, as the apocalypse is an unveiling of the victorious Christ within the physical world (rather than an elimination of that world by him), as art should not exist to be frivolously pretty but to communicate the deep reality of the gospel, and as we can see that the earth both lacks and contains the glory of God, Christian art must be about the task of creatively communicating the good news that although we know chaos existentially the glory of God is revealed and will be revealed until "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." (Habakkuk 2:14).

Art happens as Christian revelation when it authentically represents the suffering and hopelessness common to the human experience and then depicts the glory of God or its metaphor amid that darkness. Unfortunately, the state of Christian film is dire and lacking competent examples of even purely sentimental film-making. Our subculture thirsts for the intellectual rejuvenation of latter day poets, not just in film but in all of the arts.

Two secular, Mexican filmmakers released 2006 films which approximated Wright's aesthetic. They both ultimately tip the scale in the direction of darkness and chaos, but both Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men depict beauty and hope surviving in the midst of chaos. Joss Whedon's Firefly paints a vivid yet stark universe where the makeshift family of the flagship's crew becomes the hold against void and the personification of its meaninglessness, the Reavers. Jonathan Demme's 2008 family drama Rachel Getting Married wrings moments of poignant forgiveness and intimacy from the deeply fractured family web it works so hard to construct. Even Toy Story 3 required a hellish face-to-face with mortality at a garbage dump before allowing peace and happiness for its protagonists. I'm not sure how well all of these make my (or Wright's) point; perhaps it's because filmmakers (more to the point, studios) don't think in this direction.

Serenity - "The First Rule of Flying"

I wrote last year that, to me, "Movies at their most thrilling and important fabricate vital, visceral experiences which involve the viewer vicariously and, sometimes, voyeuristically." Need Christians even demand or expect movies to tell a recognizably Christian story? Is that the best part of going to the movies? The fact that a film can be good even if it is only about a guy driving a car fast and dangerous to get a random package from one side of town to another begs the question. It suggests that while the medium has the potential for expressing the best and greatest ideas and images we can conceive, it can survive and even flourish as pure pulp nonsense.

Coming back to my point about X-men: First Class, if it had been the visually dynamic experience Avatar was, I wouldn't have been lamenting the art house flick I wasn't seeing but rather quite happy to be caught up in the moment. Sometimes, a movie is just a movie, but that doesn't preclude basic standards for quality. In a smaller, yet still prolific class stands the secular art movie, which may actually provoke your brain to grasp for meaning. Smaller still is the number of provocative, artistically-accomplished movies which register as genuinely Christian. But a boy can dream, can continue to hope that the power of film at its best will not forever be disconnected from the power of the gospel.

*As C.S. Lewis has said, a true myth.
**And, as the years have gone by, not so cheap.
***The Coens are simply the purest and most accomplished example, especially in their commitment to laconic agnosticism.