Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: "a strange perfection"

The Sycamore by Wendell Berry

In the place that is my own place, whose earth
I am shaped in and must bear, there is an old tree growing,
a great sycamore that is a wondrous healer of itself.
Fences have been tied to it, nails driven into it,
hacks and whittles cut in it, the lightning has burned it.
There is no year it has flourished in
that has not harmed it. There is a hollow in it
that is its death, though its living brims whitely
at the lip of the darkness and flows outward.
Over all its scars has come the seamless white
of the bark. It bears the gnarls of its history
healed over. It has risen to a strange perfection
in the warp and bending of its long growth.
It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.
It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate.
It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable.
In all the country there is no other like it.
I recognize in it a principle, an indwelling
the same as itself, and greater, that I would be ruled by.
I see that it stands in its place and feeds upon it,
and is fed upon, and is native, and maker.

From The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 1999)

Monday, October 22, 2012

What not to look for in tonight's Presidential debate

Mark Mitchell writing at Front Porch Republic:

We have a situation today where presidential candidates must of necessity pretend that they are omniscient and omni-competent. Imagine a candidate having the honesty to say, “Hmm. Good question. I’m not sure I have an adequate answer.” We also have created a situation in which we seem to expect the presidential candidate to have a policy proposal for virtually any problem. Imagine a candidate saying, “That’s not a problem for the President to solve. That’s a problem that is best addressed by local communities. After all, the federal government, much less the presidency, is not tasked with solving every problem. And if it tried to do so, it would likely create more problems that it solved.” Both replies are losing strategies in an age where the president is looked to as the provider of all. This optimism always proves ill-founded, yet every election cycle the hope is rekindled. The rhetoric is dusted off, and the promises are made–promises that simply cannot be kept.

Maybe we'll be surprised and one of the candidates will acknowledge that he isn't the all-knowing answer to every one of America's problems. In which case, I just might spontaneously decide to vote for that guy. As Mitchell explains -- quoting the late great Christopher Lasch -- the reason why we shouldn't expect humility is due to the mediating role of television and big media in presidential debates. Under this influence facts are things to be manipulated and the worst sin is to be at a loss for words.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Rare pictures of Foxconn

I've been fascinated by the Chinese company Foxconn since reading about the spate of worker suicides at the giant complex where the iPhone is assembled (see my post Work that makes people jump off buildings). Then there was the now infamous This American Life episode Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory that turned out to be a fraud, though it included some true facts about the situations of Chinese workers.

Toward the end of Tuesday night's presidential debate Foxconn was alluded to when the subject of iPhones being manufactured in China came up. All that's simply to introduce this short photo essay by James Fallows of The Atlantic providing unprecedented glimpses of life at the place where many of our favorite gadgets originate.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Desiring a kingdom

Desiring the Kingdom by Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith has been beckoning from my bookshelf for several months. "Jamie" Smith is one of my favorite contemporary Christian writers (I blogged about his Letters to a Young Calvinist) and I expected this would be a cracking good read. I'm only fifty pages in, but I can see this is one of those books that has the potential to change the way one looks at just about everything!

In the introduction Smith delivers a four-page tour de force in which he imagines a Martian anthropologist coming to 21st-century America to study the religious habits of its inhabitants. His tour lands him at one of the most ubiquitous sacred sites of our culture -- the suburban shopping mall. Far from being tongue-in-cheek, or simply clever, Smith here invites us to look at our environment with new eyes so we can begin to recognize the religious liturgical aspect of our everyday existence. Here's one paragraph from our alien visitor's journal.

The design of the interior is inviting to an almost excessive degree, sucking us into the enclosed interior spaces, with windows on the ceiling open to the sky but none on the walls open to the surrounding automotive moat. This conveys a sense of vertical and transcendent openness that at the same time shuts off the clamor and distractions of the horizontal, mundane world. This architectural mode of enclosure and enfolding offers a feeling of sanctuary, retreat, and escape. From the narthex entry one is invited to lose oneself in this space, which channels the pilgrim into a labyrinth of octagons and circles, inviting a wandering that seems to escape from the driven, goal-oriented ways we inhabit the "outside" world. The pilgrim is also invited to escape from mundane ticking and counting of clock time and to inhabit a space governed by a different time, one almost timeless. With few windows and a curious baroque manipulation of light, it almost seems as if the sun stands still in here, or we lose consciousness of time's passing and so lose ourselves in the rituals for which we've come. However, while daily clock time is suspended, the worship space is very much governed by a kind of liturgical, festal calendar, variously draped in the colors, symbols, and images of an unending litany of holidays and festivals—to which new ones are regularly added, since the establishment of each new festival translates into greater numbers of pilgrims joining the processions to the sanctuary and engaging in worship. (pp. 20-1)

It's difficult to give a brief summary of what this book is about. There's a lot going on, a lot of ideas and themes at play. But one overarching theme is that most fundamental to being human is to love. Smith takes on both the rationalistic Kantian view of anthropology that sees us as primarily thinking beings ("I think, therefore I am") and the more truthful view of humans as primarily believing animals, or homo religiosus. He sees both views as too reductionistic and not giving enough consideration to the non-cognitive pre-rational part of our being -- that part that the writers of the Hebrew scriptures associated with the stomach, or guts, and that the New Testament calls the kardia, the heart. Think of colloquial expressions like "go with your gut instinct" or "follow your heart" and you'll begin to see what is meant here.

Smith argues that the widespread acceptance among contemporary Christianity of anthropologies that describe us as primarily disembodied cognitive beings has distorted and thinned out Christian education and worship. Smith -- a massive admirer of St. Augustine -- wants to recover an Augustinian focus on human beings as heart-directed desire-driven lovers. He also wants to recover a focus on the body and embodied practices in worship and education. Of course, an Augustinian anthropology has to reckon with the pervasive effects of sin, which Smith does. The Fall didn't turn off our heart's "love pump" (a term Smith borrows from John Piper who after all wrote a book called Desiring God). Instead, sin misdirects and twists our desires. We begin to use people and love things, rather than loving people and using things. Augustine talked about how we begin to inordinately enjoy the things we should be merely using.

Perhaps most significantly we become what we love. Our desires form and shape us. And all of us have ultimate loves and desires. All of us are desiring a kingdom. More on that in my next post.

Quote from Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009)

Friday, October 5, 2012

What happens in Holy Communion?

This Sunday is World Communion Sunday and like thousands of other churches around the world my church will be participating. As Presbyterians our understanding of what happens at the Lord's table is derived primarily from John Calvin, and ultimately we hope from the Bible. In other words we believe Calvin's understanding to be closest to what scripture teaches. This is a subject that Calvin thought long and hard about and ultimately there was a fork in the road between Calvinists and Lutherans that continues to this day.

Here's a great quote from Keith Mathison's book on Calvin's doctrine of the Lord's Supper (click on the link below for more).

Calvin is convinced that the main problem with most explanations of the Eucharist is that they assume that a local, corporeal presence is necessary in order for believers to truly partake of the flesh and blood of Christ. He believes that this assumption is false, and that it gave rise to theories such as transubstantiation and the ubiquity of Christ’s body. He is convinced that many of these controversies could be avoided if this unnecessary assumption were rejected. Calvin is convinced that believers may truly partake of the body of Christ and that such partaking does not require the local, corporeal presence of Christ’s body because the Holy Spirit is able to unite the believer with Christ regardless of the physical space between them.

I think Calvin gets it right, but whatever your understanding, and whether your church calls it the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion, I hope it's a regular part of your Christian life.

via The Reformed Reader