Friday, November 29, 2013

Wisdom from Thomas Merton (sounding a little like Wendell Berry)

Under the pretext that what is "within" is in fact real, spiritual, supernatural, etc., one cultivates neglect and contempt for the "external" as worldly, sensual, material, and opposed to grace. This is bad theology and bad asceticism. In fact, it is bad in every respect because instead of accepting reality as it is, we reject it in order to explore some perfect realm of abstract ideals which in fact has no reality at all.

Very often the inertia and repugnance which characterize the so-called "spiritual life" of many Christians could perhaps be cured by a simple respect for the concrete realities of every-day life, for nature, for the body, for one's work, one's friends, one's surroundings, etc.

A false supernaturalism which imagines that "the supernatural" is a kind of realm of abstract essences (as Plato imagined) that is totally apart from and opposed to the concrete world of nature offers no real support to a genuine life of meditation and prayer. Meditation has no point unless it is firmly rooted in life.

Quote from Contemplative Prayer (Doubleday/Image Books, 1971) as published in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups, edited by Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith

Monday, November 18, 2013

Providence's "beautiful history"

Once again, in returning to John Flavel I'm reminded of the value of reading the English Puritans. Giants of the faith like Flavel and John Owen are spiritual heart surgeons, and their writings like spiritual smelling salts for sleepy Christians, of which I am one. Keeping the Heart -- an extended meditation on Proverbs 4:23 -- is a prime example. Here's a great quote from the section where Flavel talks about the importance of tending to one's heart in times of adversity.

We are clouded with much ignorance, and are not able to discern how particular providences tend to the fulfillment of God's designs; and therefore, like Israel in the wilderness, are often murmuring because Providence leads us about in a howling desert where we are exposed to difficulties; though then he lead them, and is now leading us, by the right way to a city of habitations. If you could but see how God in his secret counsel has exactly laid the whole plan of your salvation, even to the smallest means and circumstances; could you but discern the admirable harmony of divine actions, their mutual relations, together with the general respect they all have to the last end; had you the liberty to make your own choice, you would of all conditions in the world, choose that in which you now are in.
Providence is like a curious piece of tapestry made of a thousand shreds, which single appear useless, but put together they represent a beautiful history to the eye. As God does all things according to the counsel of his own will, of course this is ordained as the best method to effect your salvation.

BTW this book is available in a Kindle edition for 99 cents. If you can overlook the many typos it's a terrific value.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Wendell Berry on the conservative revolutionaries

The curious thing is that many agriculture specialists and "agri-businessmen" see themselves as conservatives. They look with contempt upon governmental "indulgence" of those who have no more "moral fiber" than to accept "handouts" from the public treasury—but they look with equal contempt upon the most traditional and appropriate means of independence. What do such conservatives wish to conserve? Evidently nothing less than the great corporate blocks of wealth and power, in whose every interest is implied the moral degeneracy and economic dependence of the people. They do not esteem the possibility of a prospering, independent class of small owners because they are, in fact, not conservatives at all, but the most doctrinaire and disruptive of revolutionaries.

Quote from p. 191 of The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Sierra Club Books, 1977)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Giving and forgiving: the heart of Christianity

A book that's been rocking my world is Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf.

Volf has spent his life grappling with giving and forgiveness. As a Croation Volf's been personally touched by the centuries-old ethnic conflicts and blood feuds that dominate the history of that part of the world. This book arises from that reflection and is a lot less intimidating for the average reader than the book he's most known for: Exclusion and Embrace.

Free of Charge is four things according to the author: an invitation to the Christian faith as seen through the lens of giving and forgiving, an interpretation of the apostle Paul, a reading of Martin Luther, and a spiritual exercise (for the author and those that would read). Volf is a Luther scholar and the German reformer's influence is all over this book. Since it's Reformation Day here's Volf's assessment of Luther.

Luther, I think, got the substance of the Christian faith roughly right -- or rather, the Luther who discovered the Christian faith afresh did, not the Luther concerned with preserving reformation by earthly powers. And Luther, in my judgment, also got the apostle Paul basically right. This view is not popular today, but popularity isn't an index of truthfulness (Kindle location 3801)

Volf quotes liberally from Luther's writings including the famous last point of The 1518 Heidelberg Disputation distinguishing God's love from human love: "The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it."

Beginning by describing the triune God who is perfect giver and forgiver Volf works out the implications for us by answering the questions how should we give and forgive, and how can we give and forgive? Profound is an overused word, but it applies here. Free of Charge is theological reflection of the highest order. I can't recommend it too highly. I'll end with a thought from the book.

If on the bottom line of our lives lies the principle that we should get what we deserve, whether good or ill, forgiveness will sit uncomfortably with us. To forgive is to give people more than their due, it's to release them from the debt they have incurred, and that's bound to mess up the books.
For a Christian, however, a bottom-line principle can never be that we should get what we deserve. Our very existence is God's gift. Our redemption from the snares of sin is God's gift. Both are undeserved, and neither could have been deserved. From start to finish, we are always given free of charge and given more than our due. It is therefore only fitting that we give others more than their due -- give them gifts that satisfy their needs or delight their senses and imagination, and give them the gift of forgiveness that frees them from guilt and the obligation to pay for their misdeeds. (Kindle location 3253) 

Monday, October 14, 2013

An average weekend

The Weekend Gun Report for October 11-13 makes for grim reading. But so did last weekend's report, and the one before that and the one before that. . .

Over 9,000 Americans have died from intentional, accidental or self-inflicted gunshots since the Newtown massacre. The cost of freedom. I guess.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Hearing God in the mass media age

The following is a quote from Wheaton College professor Read Mercer Schuchardt, from a chapel talk "God Does Not Post to YouTube."

When the college chaplain invited me to speak on the theme of “Embracing God’s Will”, I immediately accepted — in fact, I embraced it as God’s will. And my next thought was, ‘Wow, that’s a really short message’ – but these are accelerated times we’re living in, so you are dismissed.
But before you go, I’d like to also talk about the weird habit you have of preemptively leaving the building before you’ve even entered it. I’m talking about mentally checking out just as you physically settle in. I’m talking about being pre-emptively distracted before you’ve focused in on what might be boring. About why it’s so much fun to talk to your pseudo-friends while texting your real friends to make plans for lunch, but not so much fun to just sit there and like, watch your real friends chew their food, which usually results in texting your pseudo-friends to make plans for dinner. I’m talking about being overmediated and consequently disembodied. I wish to speak to you about the incompatibility between the incarnate church and discarnate man.
In fact, since you’re already dismissed, I’d like you to actually be free to sit down, get comfortable and really pay attention, since we now have all this extra time. In other words, instead of being physically present but mentally absent, I want you to consider yourself physically absent so that you can be mentally present. In public speaking, this is called an attention-grabber. But here’s the problem: when everything competes for your attention, nothing actually has the power to grab it.
When everything grabs your attention, it grabs it in, by my rough estimate, 15-20 second bursts of attention minimum, and at maximum it lasts 3 minutes, roughly the length of a music video.
Cui bono? Who benefits from this shortened attention span? Your banker benefits, because you’re not paying attention closely enough to your electronic deposits and withdrawals. Your politicians benefit, because a people easily distracted are easily dissuaded from their own opinions, and perhaps their own convictions. Your media entertainment consumer complex benefits, because it’s so easy for advertisers to create desires you didn’t have to make you buy products you don’t need with money you haven’t earned to impress people you can’t stand. Your churches churn and turnover members and leaders like a laundromat, because with 23,000 Protestant denominations to choose from, the primary reason for switching churches is musical worship style, or in other words, how you feel about the 3-minute song you’ve just heard.
So really, everyone benefits except you. . .

If that grabbed your attention click here to read the whole thing.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Confounding them like Jesus did

In Center Church pastor Tim Keller writes about missional churches that confound the traditional categories of "conservative" or "liberal", "fundamentalist" or "progressive" -- churches that are harder for outsiders to write off because they don't fit with some preconceived notion or bias. Keller describes one mark of this kind of church:

A missional church will be more deeply and practically committed to deeds of compassion and social justice than traditional fundamentalist churches and more deeply and practically committed to evangelism and conversion than traditional liberal churches.

 I thought of this in relation to the latest round of media coverage concerning Pope Francis' interview with America magazine. The coverage follows the pattern seen a few weeks ago in reaction to the Pope's off-the-cuff remarks on homosexuality, particularly his comment "Who am I to judge?". The pattern goes as follows. The Pope says something about hot-button issue x, y or z that sounds like he's changing church teaching. Media jumps to the conclusion that he's a liberal like them. Then other interpreters jump in to point out that he isn't saying anything different than what the church has always said, just saying it in a more winsome and effective way.

Writing at the First Things blog here's Matthew Schmitz arguing for the latter.

The Pope’s approach is one familiar to any reader of the gospels. Pharisees try to discredit the gospel by trapping its teacher; the teacher refuses the terms of their question and raises the spiritual stakes. The point here is not to compromise on or back away from truth, but rather to reject its caricature. This is good practical guidance. If it’s what he meant in his broader remarks, then those remarks offer wise advice well worth taking.

Perhaps Francis is an example of a church leader committed to busting up the traditional categories like Jesus did -- neither liberal or conservative but confronting dogmas of both the right and the left with the subversive claims of the gospel.  If so, he's an example that Evangelical Protestants would be wise to emulate.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


I once heard John Piper say that in forty-some years of marriage he had never been attracted to a woman other than his wife. I remember thinking that Pastor John was either lying or was a most unusual man. Holding him in high esteem I choose to think the latter.

Nevertheless, I think Wendell Berry's writings on marriage and sexuality (recent comments on same-sex marriage excepted) present a more realistic and profound picture of marital fidelity. For in the context of deep rich community advocated by Berry the probability exists of attraction between men and women rubbing elbows in the warp and woof of life together. In a society that worships the values of personal autonomy and self-fulfillment this might be a recipe for disintegration, but in Berry's vision the virtue of fidelity protects the sacred particularity of marriage and the generality of the community. If none of that makes sense read on.

The following is a slightly condensed quote from pp. 122-3 of The Unsettling of America (Sierra Club Books, 1977).

At the root of culture must be the realization that uncontrolled energy is disorderly—that in nature all energies move in forms; that, therefore, in a human order energies must be given forms. It must have been plain at the beginning, as cultural degeneracy has made it plain again and again, that one can be indiscriminately sexual but not indiscriminately responsible, and that irresponsible sexuality would undermine any possibility of culture since it implies a hierarchy based purely upon brute strength, cunning, regardlessness of value and of consequence. Fidelity can thus be seen as the necessary discipline of sexuality, the practical definition of sexual responsibility, or the definition of the moral limits within which such responsibility can be conceived and enacted. The forsaking of all others is a keeping of faith, not just with the chosen one, but with the ones forsaken. The marriage vow unites not just a woman and a man with each other; it unites each of them with the community in a vow of sexual responsibility toward all others. The whole community is married, realizes its essential unity, in each of its marriages.
Another use of fidelity is to preserve the possibility of devotion against the distractions of novelty. What marriage offers—and what fidelity is meant to protect—is the possibility of moments when what we have chosen and what we desire are the same. Such a convergence obviously cannot be continuous. No relationship can continue very long at its highest emotional pitch. But fidelity prepares us for the return of these moments, which give us the highest joy we can know: that of union, communion, atonement (in the root sense of at-one-ment). . .
To forsake all others does not mean—because it cannot mean—to ignore or neglect all others, to hide or be hidden from all others, or to desire or love no others. To live in marriage is a responsible way to live in sexuality, as to live in a household is a responsible way to live in the world. One cannot enact or fulfill one's love for womankind or mankind, or even for all the women or men to whom one is attracted. If one is to have the power and delight of one's sexuality, then the generality of instinct must be resolved in a responsible relationship to a particular person. Similarly, one cannot live in the world; that is, one cannot become, in the easy, generalizing sense with which the phrase is commonly used, a "world citizen." There can be no such thing as a "global village." No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible embrace of one's partiality.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Good words on worship

The Presbyterian church where I serve as an elder is in the middle of a spirited conversation on worship. Issues include how long the service should be, what style of music to have, and how often we celebrate Holy Communion. Emotions often run high when discussing worship, and they should, for it's the most important thing a Christian participates in. Worship is our eternal destiny!

Here are two excellent articles I've come across recently that address two essential aspects of biblical worship -- singing and the sacraments.

From Baptist minister Brian Hedges "Growing Your Appetite for the Lord's Supper"


Here is N.T. Wright's call to "Save the Best Worship Songs".

What are the best worship songs? You'll have to read it to find out.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A prophetic word from inside Syria

Like many I'm skeptical of the wisdom of taking military action against what is undoubtedly a barbaric regime in Syria. For one thing, if Assad fell, would his successors be any better? Secondly, all the talk of a "limited response" -- and our so-called ability to carry out "surgical strikes" -- tries to obscure the fact that limbs will be blown off and innocents will perish with the guilty. War isn't a video game, though our technology can make it seem so. And for what it's worth, I'd have the same skepticism if the President's name was Bush, McCain or Romney. I'm amused by the "against anything Obama does folks" who are suddenly born again non-interventionists.

As our leaders consult and posture for the TV cameras I hope they take the time to consider these words of a letter from the Trappist nuns of Azeir, Syria dated August 29, 2013.

We look at the people around us, our day workers who are all here as if suspended, stunned: “They’ve decided to attack us.” Today we went to Tartous…we felt the anger, the helplessness, the inability to formulate a sense to all this: the people trying their best to work and to live normally. You see the farmers watering their land, parents buying notebooks for the schools that are about to begin, unknowing children asking for a toy or an ice cream…you see the poor, so many of them, trying to scrape together a few coins. The streets are full of the “inner” refugees of Syria, who have come from all over to the only area left that is still relatively liveable…. You see the beauty of these hills, the smile on people’s faces, the good-natured gaze of a boy who is about to join the army and gives us the two or three peanuts he has in his pocket as a token of “togetherness”…. And then you remember that they have decided to bomb us tomorrow. … Just like that. Because “it’s time to do something,” as it is worded in the statements of the important men, who will be sipping their tea tomorrow as they watch TV to see how effective their humanitarian intervention will be….

Will they make us breathe the toxic gases of the depots they hit, tomorrow, so as to punish us for the gases we have already breathed in?

The people are straining their eyes and ears in front of the television: all they’re waiting for is a word from Obama!

A word from Obama? Will the Nobel Peace Prize winner drop his sentence of war onto us? Despite all justice, all common sense, all mercy, all humility, all wisdom?

The Pope has spoken up, patriarchs and bishops have spoken up, numberless witnesses have spoken up, analysts and people of experience have spoken up, even the opponents of the regime have spoken up…. Yet here we all are, waiting for just one word from the great Obama? And if it weren’t him, it would be someone else. It isn’t he who is “the great one,” it is the Evil One who these days is really acting up.

The problem is that it has become too easy to pass lies off as noble gestures, to pass ruthless self-interest off as a search for justice, to pass the need to appear [strong] and to wield power off as a “moral responsibility not to look away…”

And despite all our globalizations and sources of information, it seems nothing can be verified. It seems that there is no such thing as a minimal scrap of truth … That is, they don’t want there to be any truth; while actually a truth does exist, and anyone honest would be able to find it, if they truly sought it out together, if they weren’t prevented by those who are in the service of other interests.

There is something wrong, and it is something very serious…because the consequences will be wrought on the lives of an entire population…it is in the blood that fills our streets, our eyes, our hearts.

Yet what use are words anymore? All has been destroyed: a nation destroyed, generations of young people exterminated, children growing up wielding weapons, women winding up alone and targeted by various types of violence…families, traditions, homes, religious buildings, monuments that tell and preserve history and therefore the roots of a people…all destroyed. …

As Christians we can at least offer all this up to the mercy of God, unite it to the blood of Christ, which carries out the redemption of the world in all those who suffer.

They are trying to kill hope, but we must hold on to it with all our might.

To those who truly have a heart for Syria (for mankind, for truth…) we ask for prayer…abounding, heartfelt, courageous prayer.

Read more here.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A new film from Werner Herzog "From One Second To The Next"

The German filmmaker Werner Herzog has fashioned some of the most fascinatingly bizarre movies in history. From a documentary about a man who lives with grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness to the epic German New Wave picture about Spanish conquistadors searching for El Dorado he's become synonymous with art house strangeness.

Now Herzog has turned to a more quotidian subject -- the perils of texting behind the wheel. Not only that this project is funded by some of the biggest corporations in America. But don't let that stop you from watching. I confess I've been guilty of texting while driving, but after watching these stories. . . never again.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Terrence Malick's Beatific Vision cont'd

Last night I finally had a chance to watch Malick's latest movie To the Wonder (2012). If you're not a fan of Malick's fragmentary non-narrative style then this isn't for you. If you didn't like The Tree of Life (2011) you will hate this. Actually the two films form a pair. As if to make this explicit Malick includes a brief bit of footage from the earlier picture in To the Wonder, so brief that I missed it but it said so in the credits! Theological and philosophical ideas that were hinted at in The Tree of Life are explored more directly here. I don't have time to do a proper review -- and honestly one can only form first impressions on the initial viewing of any Malick film -- but this is nothing less than a continuation of the beatific vision that shows up in one form or another in all of his work, but especially so in the final pages of The Tree of Life.

Yet here that vision takes on an earthiness, a this-worldness, as explored via the character of Father Quintana (played by Javier Bardem), a priest walking through the valley of the shadow of doubt, yearning for a glimpse of heaven in the midst of the suffering and failure he witnesses all around him. Malick allows us to see that -- paradoxically perhaps -- the God that remains hidden to Father Quintana is strikingly evident in his life as he serves his community through word, deed and sacrament. God in Christ is at work in this world, heaven is invading earth, and this is happening through weak and doubting people like this priest.

To the Wonder is Malick's most ecstatic utterance so far, as exemplified by this montage accompanied by Javier Bardem's voiceover prayer. It's one you may recognize.


Friday, August 9, 2013

A further note on prayer (Gregory of Nyssa)

Gregory of Nyssa was one of the 4th century Cappadocian Fathers -- so called because they came from the region of Asia Minor called Cappadocia (present-day Turkey). Gregory's writings on prayer feature prominently in Worshiping With the Church Fathers. In the last post on this book I shared the Fathers' insight that the practice of prayer propels a movement from self-deception to self-awareness.

A large part of our self-deception is a misjudgment of what's really important. Even Christians can become practical atheists, leaving God out of our daily work and plans.

 Gregory described it like this. . .

For the craftsman considers that the Divine assistance is quite useless for the work he has in mind. Therefore he leaves prayer aside and places all his hopes in his hands, without remembering Him who has given him his hands. In the same way someone who carefully composes a speech does not think of Him who has given him speech. . . . everyone devotes all his energy to the work he has in hand, forgetting completely the work of prayer because he thinks that the time he gives to God is lost to the work he has purposed to do.
Thus, it comes about that life is so full of sin. . . . Everyone keeps forgetting God, and people do not count prayer among the good things worth pursuing. Covetousness enters together with trade; but covetousness is idolatry.

Gregory diagnoses this busy forgetfulness as a "spiritual sickness" because it leaves Christians vulnerable to the schemes of the evil one. If this was a danger in his day how much more so in a society characterized by the urgent imperatives of the moment. Rightly ordered reality -- which is what worship is (thank you for reminding me of that Pastor Dan!) -- reorders our priorities. Instead of forgetting God we begin to practice a constant awareness of him.

For when the consciousness of God is firmly established in the heart, the devices of the devil remain sterile.

Quotes by Gregory of Nyssa from pp. 146-7 of Christopher A. Hall, Worshiping With the Church Fathers (InterVarsity, 2009)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Culture and Agriculture. . .100-proof Berry

It's been a while since I posted anything from Mr. Wendell Berry, who had his 79th birthday on Monday of this week. I just began reading The Unsettling of America. This is the book that put Berry the essayist "on the map" so to speak, and it's a book that continues to have legs almost forty years after it was published.

In some ways this is the work of an angry young man (if you consider being in one's 40's young). There's a perceptibly sharper edge than what comes after. If I'd read The Unsettling of America before some of Berry's later nonfiction I might not have liked him as much as I now do. For instance, a statement like the following might seem too strident and over the top, as Berry inveighs against an "era of absolute human sovereignty" and "absolute human presumption. . . the flag of Ferdinand and Isabella in the hand of Columbus on the shores of the Indies becomes Old Glory in the hand of Neil Armstrong on the moon. An infinitely greedy sovereign is afoot in the universe, staking his claims." (p. 55)

Really? Can't we find any redeeming quality, any nobility, in mankind's impulse to discover new frontiers which led Columbus to discover a New World, and inspired a nation to put a man on the moon?

No, you won't find nuance here, but you won't find it either in prophetic writings going back to the Hebrew prophets and psalmists of old. The Unsettling of America isn't that kind of book.

The subtitle "Culture & Agriculture" points to this then unknown author's audacious aim, and he begins to bring the two together in Chapter 4: "The Agricultural Crisis as a Crisis of Culture." It begins as Berry recounts the history of his beloved Henry County, Kentucky -- a county that was in Berry's childhood a rural farming community, but which was becoming in the 1970's merely rural. Once-cultivated land was succumbing to neglect, and farms that remained were increasingly owned by out-of-town operators who were able to adapt to the "get big or get out" imperative of government and agribusiness. (Here's a clue to what separates Berry's approach to the land from most "environmentalists" -- a term he dislikes. Rather than the environmentalist goal of preservation, i.e. keeping the wilderness in a pristine state, Berry is an advocate of wise use.) Berry's anger is incandescent as he describes the effects of the absolutizing values of efficiency and bigness on the farming economy of Henry Co.

And nowhere now is there a market for minor produce: a bucket of cream, a hen, a few dozen eggs. One cannot sell milk from a few cows anymore; the law-required equipment is too expensive. Those markets were done away with in the name of sanitation—but, of course, to the enrichment of the large producers. We have always had to have "a good reason" for doing away with small operators, and in modern times the good reason has often been sanitation, for which there is apparently no small or cheap technology. Future historians will no doubt remark upon the inevitable association, with us, between sanitation and filthy lucre. And it is one of the miracles of science and hygiene that the germs that used to be in our food have been replaced by poisons. (p. 41)

Along with "efficiency" and "bigness" Berry indicts the mania for specialization in agriculture and education. This results in government bureaucrats telling farmers to eschew diversity in what they grow, and universities becoming places where one goes to learn a "profession," what Berry calls "fragmented, one-eyed specialties." An absolute faith in technology, and oversimplification, has replaced a holistic complex approach to the problems of agriculture and culture. Berry eloquently argues that the same values which nourish a healthy farm culture also make for a healthy culture. And what is that healthy culture? In offering a tentative answer to that question Berry's parochial concern for his native Kentucky soil takes on wings and soars.

A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its corruption invokes a calamity. A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration. It reveals the human necessities and the human limits. It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well. (p. 43)

Quotes from The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture (Sierra Club Books, 1977)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Church Fathers on prayer

What reason is there to go to prayer with hands indeed washed, but the spirit foul?

A while back I wrote about Worshiping with the Church Fathers by Christopher Hall (InterVarsity, 2009). Reading this book opened a window on ideas about worship, and practices of worship, that I wasn't all that familiar with. Some of these ideas and practices might seem alien to a contemporary Christian's experience, but that just might be a clue that our experience would be enriched by tapping into this formative period of church history.

My previous post dealt with the fathers' approach to the sacraments (as sketched out by Hall), now I share some thoughts on their approach to prayer. The fathers took with literal seriousness the biblical command to pray without ceasing. They saw constant communion with God, and experience of his presence, to be something within reach. Granted, they didn't have the same obstacles that we modern always-plugged-into-the-grid people have, but the problem remained -- how does one overcome the distractions that keep one from praying?

Hall draws heavily in this chapter from a Syrian desert father called Abba Isaac. He recommended picking a verse of scripture to use as a "tether" to keep a wandering mind tied to the "perpetual awareness of God." The verse Isaac selected was Psalm 70:1 -- "Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me!" The urgency of the Psalmist is a reminder of the constant peril we face and the moment-by-moment salvation we need. There's also a confidence that God will hear and is close at hand to offer the deliverance we need. I have this verse taped to my computer at work.

The church fathers recognized that a primary obstacle to prayer was the problem of self-deception. Hall writes:

We are deeply, horribly, infinitely self-deceived. And our fundamental self-deception manifests itself in a deep-seated tendency to lie about the true state of affairs in our lives. We imagine ourselves generous yet rarely give anything away. Pure in our thinking yet addicted to a weekly jaunt through the Web's darkest corridors. We can blithely assassinate someone's character and five minutes later be sitting in a worship service or retreat center, praying for the very same person whose character we murdered earlier. Our habituated thoughts and behaviors are who we are—they are us, our character. And it is our character that we bring into prayer with us.

Tertullian (as evidenced by the quote above) and others of his contemporaries didn't think it was possible to separate one's "spiritual life" from his or her "everyday life." We can't leave our dirty laundry outside when we come in to pray. "What's going on outside of prayer invariably leaks into prayer itself." However, "This doesn't mean that we should stop praying, for prayer is a principal means of healing and reshaping our character into the image of Christ." The fathers viewed prayer as a movement from self-deception to self-awareness. They remind us that in the practice of constant prayer we are transformed.

All quotes from p. 87 & 135 of Worshiping with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity, 2009)

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Dealing with spousal and child abuse in the church

I found this weeks episode of the Mortification of Spin podcast helpful and thought-provoking. It gave me some suggestions that I'll be passing on to the pastors and session of the church in which I serve as an elder. In fact, I think this is pretty much required listening if you are a pastor, elder, or church leader of any kind.

You can find it on iTunes or listen here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

They always get away

Rather than offering my two cents on the George Zimmerman trial and verdict (which I didn't follow closely) here are some worthwhile words from my friend Chris -- a brother in Christ and a young man wise beyond his years. He posted this on social media earlier today.

"'They always get away.' These were the words George Zimmerman uttered as he followed and later shot Trayvon Martin -- words that reflected his belief that Trayvon was one of "them," the kind of person about to get away with something. How ironic these words sound now in light of the jury verdict acquitting Zimmerman."
Do I agree with the verdict of Zimmerman: Yes. In the context of Florida's legal system, Zimmerman was not proven guilty, not even close--there was simply too much ambiguity on any of the considered positive evidence for Trayvon, and there was positive evidence against Trayvon to justify Zimmerman's claim to self-defense.
But this quote portrays what bothers me the most, my friends--i.e., certain dispositions Zimmerman revealed (which were, might I mention, completely false and unjustified) that led to the unfortunate death of Trayvon Martin.

Speaking from my experiences, I have been on the bad end of several instances of racial profiling. While occurring, I often think to myself "These people have no idea who I am." I love the same Christ which these white people probably find themselves worshipping in their churches on Sunday. I also find myself with an unswerving passion for philosophy of religion and philosophical theology--because of this, I mostly study dead or dying white men. I also am far from the biggest fan of rap music, preferring to listen to indie and classical instead.

Yet, no matter how much I might distance myself from stereotypical caricatures of black men in America, I've still faced the same, tired racial profiling.The frustration in enduring this is difficult to communicate, yet it, undoubtedly, shapes how I, along with others of similar experiences, view cases like Trayvon's. It is this aspect of experience which colors our conscience, and it is this which we ask for sympathy and understanding toward.

You can find more of Chris' writing at the blog Christ, My Redeemer

Friday, July 12, 2013

A pro-life story

The other day Rod Dreher wrote: "Argument has its place, but story is what truly moves the hearts and minds of men." An example . . .

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Embracing "radical ordinariness"

This piece by Tish Harrison Warren resonated with me. Perhaps it will with you. Here's an excerpt: 

A prominent New Monasticism community house had a sign on the wall that famously read “Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes.” My life is really rich in dirty dishes (and diapers) these days and really short in revolutions. I go to a church full of older people who live pretty normal, middle-class lives in nice, middle-class houses. But I have really come to appreciate this community, to see their lifetimes of sturdy faithfulness to Jesus, their commitment to prayer, and the tangible, beautiful generosity that they show those around them in unnoticed, unimpressive, unmarketable, unrevolutionary ways. And each week, we average sinners and boring saints gather around ordinary bread and wine and Christ himself is there with us.

And here is the embarrassing truth: I still believe in and long for a revolution. I still think I can make a difference beyond just my front door. I still want to live radically for Jesus and be part of him changing the world. I still think mediocrity is dull, and I still fret about settling.

But I’ve come to the point where I’m not sure anymore just what God counts as radical. And I suspect that for me, getting up and doing the dishes when I’m short on sleep and patience is far more costly and necessitates more of a revolution in my heart than some of the more outwardly risky ways I’ve lived in the past. And so this is what I need now: the courage to face an ordinary day — an afternoon with a colicky baby where I’m probably going to snap at my two-year old and get annoyed with my noisy neighbor — without despair, the bravery it takes to believe that a small life is still a meaningful life, and the grace to know that even when I’ve done nothing that is powerful or bold or even interesting that the Lord notices me and is fond of me and that that is enough.

So, so true.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

More voices from Warrendale

In 2010 I reviewed the 1967 documentary Warrendale about a controversial home for "troubled" children in Canada. It launched the career of Allan King who went on to direct a series of critically acclaimed documentaries -- all of which are available for home viewing in a handsome boxed set from the fine folks at The Criterion Collection. Each film is a singular piece unlike anything you're likely to have ever seen.

Several months after posting my review I received a note from a former resident of Warrendale, and these have continued sporadically over the last few years. In hopes that this might serve as a forum and connection point I'm reposting the links below.

The original review with comments from Sharon Turple Gataiance & Ann Diamond

A voice from Warrendale with comments from Barbara, Michael O'Sullivan & Mike Crowe

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Boston bombing and the "commerce of violence"

Wendell Berry:

I am absolutely in sympathy with those who suffered the bombing in Boston and with their loved ones. They have been singled out by a violence that was general in its intent, not aimed particularly at anybody. The oddity, the mystery, of a particular hurt from a general violence—the necessity to ask, “Why me? Why my loved ones?”—must compound the suffering.
What I am less and less in sympathy with is the rhetoric and the tone of official indignation. Public officials cry out for justice against the perpetrators. I too wish them caught and punished. But I am unwilling to have my wish spoken for me in a tone of surprise and outraged innocence. The event in Boston is not unique or “rare” or surprising or in any way new. It is only another transaction in the commerce of violence: the unending, the not foreseeably endable, exchange of an eye for an eye, with customary justifications on every side, in which we fully participate; and beyond that, our willingness to destroy anything, any place, or anybody standing between us and whatever we are “manifestly destined” to have.

Click here to read the rest.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Matter matters (learning from the Church Fathers)

In recent years there's been a revival of interest in the church fathers among evangelical Protestants. This is a great thing in my opinion for it reconnects us to the writings and practices of the generations of saints that came immediately after the apostles. As part of a Christian tradition that sprung out of the 16th-century Reformation it would be very easy for me to go back only as far as Martin Luther and John Calvin, but that would be to neglect the fact that no less than Calvin quoted the Patristics constantly, and saw himself as leading the church in a course correction back to the path blazed by Augustine and his predecessors.

Contributing to the revival of interest in the fathers is a series of books by Christopher Hall, chancellor of Eastern University in St. Davids, PA. I've been enjoying the third volume in that series Worshiping with the Church Fathers.

At the outset Hall acknowledges one of the biggest hurdles to the typical evangelical reader -- the fathers' sacramental worldview, or what he calls "sacramental realism". To them the elements of worship -- water, bread, wine, oil -- were much more than symbolic. Hall suggests that they had a more balanced view of the material stuff of worship than later generations who drifted in the direction of ascribing magical qualities to such as bread and wine, or those at the other extreme who tended to see these as merely symbols. Against the Gnostic philosophies of the day that taught a radical dualism between the spiritual and the physical, the church fathers believed that God had blessed physical matter, and was using it to accomplish our salvation. When common elements such as water, bread and wine were consecrated they became conduits of divine grace. Something actually happened in the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist (the Lord's Supper). In this belief they had to look no further for confirmation than the Incarnation.

I really like this quote from John of Damascus for the way it illustrates their balanced approach.

I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked. . . . I reverence the rest of matter and hold in respect that through which my salvation came, because it is filled with divine energy and grace.

Does that fall strangely on your ears? It does mine. But this is one of the values of reading the church fathers noted by Hall -- they force us to confront potential theological blind spots. We may find ourselves disagreeing with them, but disagreement should only come after we've listened carefully and self-critically to what they have to say.

Quote from p. 23 of Worshiping with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity, 2009)

Friday, June 7, 2013

An Augustinian take on PRISM and the National Security State

Conor Friedersdorf pulls no punches in an article in The Atlantic -- "All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama". Here's a key paragraph:

To an increasing degree, we're counting on having angels in office and making ourselves vulnerable to devils. Bush and Obama have built infrastructure any devil would lust after. Behold the items on an aspiring tyrant's checklist that they've provided their successors:
A precedent that allows the president to kill citizens in secret without prior judicial or legislative review
The power to detain prisoners indefinitely without charges or trial
Ongoing warrantless surveillance on millions of Americans accused of no wrongdoing, converted into a permanent database so that data of innocents spied upon in 2007 can be accessed in 2027
Using ethnic profiling to choose the targets of secret spying, as the NYPD did with John Brennan's blessing
Normalizing situations in which the law itself is secret -- and whatever mischief is hiding in those secret interpretations
The permissibility of droning to death people whose identities are not even known to those doing the killing
The ability to collect DNA swabs of people who have been arrested even if they haven't been convicted of anything
A torture program that could be restarted with an executive order
Even if you think Bush and Obama exercised those extraordinary powers responsibly, what makes you think every president would? How can anyone fail to see the huge potential for abuses?

Probably without meaning to Friedersdorf gives a very Augustinian argument about the corrupting influence sin has upon the best of men, and the best of motivations. He goes on to point out that as Americans we tend to overestimate our ability to preempt abuses of power. Could a burgeoning national security apparatus that started out as a well-intentioned attempt to keep us safe from terrorists turn out to be our undoing as a free society? I fervently hope not. But a biblical anthropology teaches us that trusting fallen humans to use power wisely -- in Friedersdorf's words counting on them to act like angels -- is a naive and dangerous posture.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Soccer, Singing and Worship

One reason I'm increasingly drawn to football, or soccer if you prefer, is the purity and simplicity of the game. Two goals, a ball, and ninety minutes of pretty much continuous play without the incessant interruptions and time-outs of the American big three sports. This simplicity extends to football fan culture as well. For example, attend a match at any of the storied grounds of English football and you'll hear none of the amped up artificial noise and music that attends your average NBA or NFL game. Instead of Queen's "We Will Rock You!" blasting from the PA, you'll hear chants rooted in local history and tradition -- admittedly some of them obscene. And best of all you'll hear thousands of voices, mostly male, breaking into spontaneous song.

Don't take this the wrong way ladies, but there's something uniquely powerful when men sing together. Maybe because it rarely happens? In a culture where male stoicism is the norm, the football stadium (or the pub next to the stadium) has become the only place where men feel comfortable emoting and singing with abandon. Here in America groups like the American Outlaws bring their passion and voices whenever the U.S. National Team plays, and go to Portland or Kansas City and you'll experience an atmosphere as good as any you'll find in Europe or South America.

So what does this have to do with worship? The beautiful thing about the fan culture of the beautiful game is that it's mostly resisted the tendency toward artificial emotional manipulation which turns participants into observers. Unfortunately the church in America has been less successful at resisting this trend. Often congregational worship is more like a concert than a participatory expression of praise of the one being in the universe that's worthy of unadulterated adoration. Sometimes the practice of worship gets lost in the noise.

Here's a quote from James K.A. Smith's "Open Letter to Praise Bands" which should be required reading for worship leaders.

If we, the congregation, can't hear ourselves, it's not worship. Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular "form of performance"), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there's nothing wrong with concerts! It's just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice--and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of "performing" the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can't hear ourselves sing--so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become "private," passive worshipers.

All this isn't to say that any particular worship style is the right one or that amplified instruments in church are bad. It is to say that the best instrument for making a joyful noise -- whether at a football match or church service --  is the human voice. As cool as it is hearing supporters singing in praise of a football club, it can't compare to hearing voices in the local church singing with passion in praise of Jesus.

While I'm on the subject -- check out this clip from Alistair Begg going off on why American men don't sing in church.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lewis and Berry

Blogger Jake Meador gives us this insightful and beautifully written piece on the commonalities between C.S. Lewis and Wendell Berry. Read it.

The Farmer and the Don

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Electronic Wendell Berry

Someone had the idea of combining Wendell Berry reading his poem "The Man Born to Farming" with a chilly piece of Electronica. Check it out.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The preface to idolatry

James K.A. Smith:

While we all purport to be praying to Jesus the Christ, risen and ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father, instead we end up praying to whatever domesticated version of Jesus suits our tastes and preferences. So everyone around the table starts to share: "I like to picture Jesus as . . . " This is the preface to all of our idolatries. And it functions as a debilitating filter when we read the Bible. The Scriptures are no longer revelation; they are simply a mirror. Instead of encountering Jesus there, we simply see ourselves.

Lord, save us from this. Lord, save me from this!

BTW this quote comes from the Foreword to what looks like a very worthwhile book.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Chris Broussard makes a defense

Tuesday I posted on the controversy surrounding reporter Chris Broussard's comments on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" about NBA player Jason Collins coming out as a gay man -- the first male athlete in a major American sports league to do so. Yesterday Broussard went on NYC's Power 105.1 FM morning show to defend his views. It's apparent that the hosts are trying to bait Broussard into saying something scandalous and/or back-track on his beliefs. Broussard doesn't take the bait and beautifully demonstrates how to put 1 Peter 3:14-16 into practice.

Give this a listen.


Is there value in going through the motions?

Most Christians would agree that just showing up for worship and "going through the motions" isn't a good thing. Some might even say that it's better not to show up at all if this is the case. Better to be cold than lukewarm, right? Certainly the Great Command to love God with our whole heart, soul and mind implies worship that is fervent and fully engaged. Yet there are times when we don't experience that fervency, when we're not "feeling it", even as we, yes, go through the motions of singing, praying and participating in the practices of corporate worship.

One of the arguments made in Desiring the Kingdom is that there is value in going through the motions when it comes to worship and discipleship. Here I'm quoting author James K.A. Smith from a footnote on page 167.

While it [going through the motions] is not ideal, I do think that there can be a sort of implanting of the gospel that happens simply by virtue of participating in liturgical practices (this is in the ballpark of the principle of ex opere operato). For instance, one will often hear testimonies of those raised in the church, but who have strayed from the path of discipleship, nevertheless caught short by the cadences of the Apostles' Creed or the catechism while immersed in hedonistic pursuits of pleasure. The rhythms of the liturgy come back to haunt them, sometimes calling them back to a life of more intentional discipleship. Or one finds that their imagination—the very way they construe the world—is fundamentally shaped by Christian practices.

Smith tries to get his readers to see that what we acknowledge to be true in many "secular" pursuits is also true for the Christian life. Go to any Major League ballpark an hour before game time and you'll see players going through the motions -- hitters taking batting practice, outfielders shagging fly balls and infielders taking grounders. Often there will be a casualness that belies the fact that something important is happening -- reflexes are being honed, muscles are being trained, so that later on when the game is on the line the third baseman will be able to scoop up a one-hopper and fire to first base without having to reflect on it. The hours Derek Jeter spends going through the motions is integral to being an All-Star shortstop, and while not an exact parallel, the same principle applies to Christians training to be fit citizens of the Kingdom of God.

All this points to a huge opportunity for Christian parents of young children to implant the seeds of the gospel, an opportunity we'll miss if we don't immerse our kids in the church every chance we get. As Smith writes in a key line from the book: ". . . the practices of Christian worship are crucial—the sine qua non—for developing a distinctly Christian understanding of the world." (p. 68)

I believe if that "distinctly Christian understanding"—an understanding which is as much intuitive as it is reflective—is formed early, it will leave traces on the heart that can never be erased.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Courage and intolerance

Not being a follower of professional basketball I had never heard of Jason Collins or Chris Broussard until today. Yesterday NBA veteran Collins broke new ground by "coming out" as a gay man. This was almost universally hailed as the brave and courageous act of a civil rights pioneer. But then ESPN commentator Broussard showed what real courage looks like by appearing on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and forthrightly stating his belief that homosexual sex is called sin by the Bible, and that the unrepentant practice of same is incompatible with following Jesus. From the immediate reaction it appears these views are too outside the lines for even OTL.

I haven't watched the interview, but I've read the transcript of his remarks, and as far as I can tell Broussard didn't advocate stifling Collins' ability to use his platform as an NBA star to exercise his free speech or continue to make a living playing pro ball. Maybe Broussard could have been more nuanced -- and there's more that could have been said about the issues surrounding Collins' announcement than the format of a 60-minute TV program allows -- however, simply by refusing to affirm what the Bible calls sin Broussard has been tarred as an intolerant hater.

Who is the real hero here? Who's the courageous one. Is it the public figure saying the popular thing, or the one bringing an unpopular message that may well get him fired before all is said and done? And who's being intolerant? Broussard, or the people calling for his head?

Tony Stone of Reformed African American Network makes this point exceedingly well. Be sure to click through and read the whole article.

Speaking of boldness, all this talk about Jason Collins’ announcement being brave and courageous (to millions of cheers and a call from President Obama) makes no sense when it’s really Chris Broussard who’s the media underdog. Jason was saying the popular thing. Chris said the unpopular thing. What I find particularly interesting are the comments being left on blogs. In one blog, a person said that Mr. Broussard should leave his religion out of basketball and only talk about sports. He said this to almost 3 dozen “likes”. What’s ironic about his sentiment is that everyone is completely ok with Jason Collins using his NBA platform to unveil his sexual preferences. What this shows us is that we all know deep down that sports, media, etc. all exist for greater purposes. Nobody is even satisfied with “good basketball”- we all want our platform to make a mark and change the way that people think about all areas of life, even the most private ones. As Christians, we can navigate these waters with accuracy because we know that the most private thing in this life is my desperate heart’s faithful gaze to Christ. This private thing also exists at the same time as the most publicly beneficial news known to mankind. May we all find strength and courage in Christ to preach the Gospel with delight and conviction.

I join Stone in that prayer, and I'm reminded of Jesus' words to his disciples: Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.

Friday, April 26, 2013

George Jones (1931 - 2013)

If I ranked my favorite genres of music country would be near the bottom, but there are certain artists that transcend genre and exude greatness that has universal appeal. Country music legend George Jones was one such artist. I saw Jones live years ago at our local fair. He was an hour late (of course) but once he took the stage under the tent-lights all was forgiven.

Jones died earlier today at the age of 81. The tributes are coming in, including this one from Baptist minister Russell Moore: "George Jones: Troubador of the Christ-Haunted Bible Belt". Moore touches on the paradoxical genius of a musician with one foot in the honky-tonk and the other in the church-house.

Some may see hypocrisy in the fact that Jones sang gospel songs. The same emotion with which he sang of drunkenness and honky-tonking, he turned to sing of “Just a Little Talk with Jesus Makes Things Right.” He often in concerts led the crowd in old gospel favorites, such as “Amazing Grace” or “I’ll Fly Away.” But I don’t think this is hypocrisy. This is not a man branding himself with two different and contradictory impulses. This was a man who sang of the horrors of sin, with a longing for a gospel he had heard and, it seemed, he hoped could deliver him. In Jones’ songs, you hear the old Baptist and Pentecostal fear that maybe, horrifically, one has passed over into the stage of Esau who, as the Bible puts it, “could not find repentance though he sought it with tears.”

For me and for many others Jones' 1980 hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is the archetypical country music song, and arguably one of the great American songs of all time. It's representative of a kind of music that grew organically from the stories and soil of this great land, just as jazz and blues did. A song like this will never die. Sit back and enjoy.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Inspired by Wendell Berry to connect the dots

Food writer/crusader Michael Pollan talking in The Atlantic about the influence of Wendell Berry. . .

It was in reading Berry that I came across a particular line that formed a template for much of my work: "eating is an agricultural act." It's a line that urges you to connect the dots between two realms—the farm, and the plate—that can seem very far apart. We must link our eating, in other words, to the way our food is grown. In a way, all my writing about food has been about connecting dots in the way Berry asks of us. It's why, when I write about something like the meat industry, I try to trace the whole long chain: from your plate to the feedlot, and from there to the corn field, and from there to the oil fields in the Middle East. Berry reminds us that we're part of a food system, and we need to think about our eating with this fact—and its implications—in mind.

 Pollan cites the example of the recent public backlash against "pink slime" as an example of what happens when someone gets curious enough to do the hard work of connecting the dots. Imagine the impact if a significant portion of American food consumers began to see a connection between what we eat and where it comes from? Of course, as Pollan notes, there are powerful forces intrinsic to our capitalist system that don't want us making those connections, forces that want to keep us in the dark. Here's Pollan again. . .

Because, in recent years, as more people have been wakened to questions about how their food is being produced, we're seeing all kinds of obfuscations. We're in a race between getting good accurate information out there and the obscuring brilliance of marketing. They're showing you a package of eggs with a farmer and a picket fence—what I call "supermarket pastoral"—but behind that beautiful image, and your belief that you're supporting that kind of agriculture, there's really a factory farm. These ag-gag laws? The fact you're not allowed to take pictures of these places and expose their brutality? It's a remarkable assault on the First Amendment. This is all about who gets to tell the story of how food is produced, and the industry wants exclusive rights to that story.
All this makes it difficult to act on Berry's injunction. In fact, capitalism depends on erecting these screens, strives to defeat efforts to see the lines of connection between you, and the farm worker who picked your strawberries, and the corporation that delivered them to your door. This is an important insight capitalism tries to keep us from: that whatever you buy implicates you in a series of relationships. That may be a lot to walk around with everyday—that someone halfway across the world was exploited to produce the iPhone you're enjoying—but we do need to start thinking that way, at least sometimes, to bring about change. So when Berry says eating is an agricultural act, it follows that eating is a political act, too.

Here's the complete article -- "The Wendell Berry Sentence That Inspired Michael Pollan's Food Obsession". It's a great read!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Surprised by grace

I just finished reading The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. If I could buy cases of this book to give away I would. As it is I've given away one copy (to my pastor) and I'll be passing it along to others. This book is revelatory and potentially life-changing. It's simply one of the most extraordinary books I've ever read. Not because of how well-written it is -- though it is that. Not even because of the amazing story it tells -- though it is amazing. It's extraordinary as a testament to the grace of God in Christ Jesus that saves sinners, even sinners that haven't the slightest interest in being saved.

This post is titled "Surprised by grace" as a nod to C.S. Lewis' spiritual memoir Surprised by Joy, a book I'd compare this one favorably to on account of both's depth and sophistication. It's probably not an accident that Lewis and Butterfield are English professors -- trained practitioners of the art of digging into texts for all they're worth. It was this process of digging for meaning, applied to the collection of ancient texts that Christians believe to be God's written word, that led the author to what she describes as a conversion that felt like a "train wreck"; in which everything Butterfield had built her life on was swept away in "comprehensive chaos."

She tells her story bluntly, honestly, but without any hint of sensationalism. That would have been too easy. One chapter chronicles Butterfield's months as a professor at a Christian liberal arts college, this after leaving a prestigious tenured position at Syracuse University. The author writes with insight and considerable humor on the difference between the ultra-secular academic world of Syracuse and the evangelical Christian subculture she found herself in. Once Butterfield's past began to be known she was approached by the campus chaplain who asked if she was ready to share her testimony. At first Butterfield said no. Here in her own voice she explains why.

All of the testimonies that I had heard up to this point were egocentric and filled with pride. Aren't I the smarty-pants for choosing Christ! I made a decision for Christ, aren't I great? I committed my life to Christ, aren't I better than those heathens who haven't? This whole line of thinking is both pervasive among evangelical Christians and absurd. My whole body recoiled against this line of thinking. I'm proof of the pudding. I didn't choose Christ. Nobody chooses Christ. Christ chooses you or you're dead. After Christ chooses you, you respond because you must. Period. It's not a pretty story.
"Pray about it," the chaplain said.
I did pray about it, so that I could with good conscience say no. I was reluctant to make myself a poster child for gay conversion. I felt and feel no solidarity with people who think their salvation makes them more worthy than others. I didn't want to call attention to myself. I didn't want every wacko on campus to confess his or her feelings of same-sex love or homophobia or refer for counseling their gay aunts or neighbors. I thought about the bumper sticker once popular in the gay community as a spoof against evangelical Christians: "I killed a gay whale for Christ!" Or the other bumper sticker, "Lord, please protect me from Your people!" I still felt ambivalence about my disloyalty to my gay friends. And I knew that I could not write a neat, happy, schmaltzy, G-rated, egocentric testimony if my life depended on it.
But, I wondered, could I write an honest testimony? Could I, in the Apostle Paul's words and tradition, write and deliver a testimony that reveals repentance as fruit of the Christian life? In English studies we have a mantra: a culture is comprised of its stories. "We are the stories we tell," I've said to my students year after year. I was critical of the stories I heard from my churchy friends and my evangelical culture. But could I be more than just critical of the stories that encompassed me? Could I start a new conversation? What would happen if I just told the truth? Was anybody else out there ambivalent about conversion? Did anyone else see it as bittersweet? Did anyone else get lost in fear when counting the costs of discipleship? Did anyone else fell like giving up? Did anyone else tire of taking up the Cross daily? Did anyone else grieve for death to one life that anticipates the experience of being "born again"? Did anyone else want to take just one day off from the command that we die to ourselves?
I told the chaplain the next day that I was ready to give my testimony to the campus. . . .

Butterfield relates the painful (and prayerful) month-long process of writing that testimony. This book must be one of the fruits of that labor, and it affirmatively answers the hard questions she posed to herself. The story she tells contains a message of love, truth and grace that the church and our confused late-modern Western culture desperately needs to hear. I hope you'll check it out for yourself.

Quote from pp. 81-2 of Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English Professor's Journey into Christian Faith (Crown & Covenant, 2012)

Thursday, April 11, 2013


I'm not against online dating/matchmaker sites. Over a decade ago I met a girl on one such site, and that girl and I are about to celebrate our ninth year of marriage! Back then meeting this way was something of a rarity, but now I know lots of people who have met, or are trying to meet, a mate this way. As this trend gains steam it's worth considering the impact this technology might be having on the way we view love, dating and marriage.

A recent Christianity Today article has some interesting critical interaction:

Wheaton College media ecologist Read Schuchardt is concerned about the implicit messages that dating sites send, especially those like eHarmony that claim to find your "ideal match." These sites feed the illusion, Schuchardt said, "that the perfect one is 'out there' and all you have to do is find them through this fine-toothed comb called online dating. The reality is just the opposite — no matter who you find, it will take a lifetime of sacrifice and accommodation to learn how to tolerate living with the other while they attempt to learn how to tolerate living with you."
Beth Felker Jones, a theologian at Wheaton College, expresses similar worries about dating websites' claims to help an individual find the "right person" with freedom to be more "picky."
"Marriage is not about being fulfilled by the right person but about joined service to the kingdom of God," Jones says. Matching formulas or even personal lists of must-haves in a spouse, "really blinds us to the wonderful strangeness of people."
Jones also cautions that the underlying messages of dating websites can perpetuate the unhealthy Christian mythology of marriage, especially for women.
"'You should open yourself up to this medium, because marriage is what you're for,' is the implicit logic that some site creators employ to get people over the hurdle of trying online dating," Felker says. "But marriage is not the purpose of our life. Relationship with God is."

Read the rest of the article here.

That deafening silence

The trial of Pennsylvania abortionist Kermit Gosnell has opened an unprecedented window into America's "dark Satanic abortion mills" (a phrase borrowed from Blake via First Things). That is -- it would open a window if it was being reported by our big media guardians. Kudos to USA TODAY contributor Kirsten Powers for courageously blowing the whistle on their shameful silence.

This from her piece published yesterday:

Infant beheadings. Severed baby feet in jars. A child screaming after it was delivered alive during an abortion procedure. Haven't heard about these sickening accusations?
It's not your fault. Since the murder trial of Pennsylvania abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell began March 18, there has been precious little coverage of the case that should be on every news show and front page. The revolting revelations of Gosnell's former staff, who have been testifying to what they witnessed and did during late-term abortions, should shock anyone with a heart.
NBC-10 Philadelphia reported that, Stephen Massof, a former Gosnell worker, "described how he snipped the spinal cords of babies, calling it, 'literally a beheading. It is separating the brain from the body." One former worker, Adrienne Moton, testified that Gosnell taught her his "snipping" technique to use on infants born alive.
Massof, who, like other witnesses, has himself pleaded guilty to serious crimes, testified "It would rain fetuses. Fetuses and blood all over the place." Here is the headline the Associated Press put on a story about his testimony that he saw 100 babies born and then snipped: "Staffer describes chaos at PA abortion clinic."
"Chaos" isn't really the story here. Butchering babies that were already born and were older than the state's 24-week limit for abortions is the story. There is a reason the late Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called this procedure infanticide.
Planned Parenthood recently claimed that the possibility of infants surviving late-term abortions was "highly unusual." The Gosnell case suggests otherwise.
Regardless of such quibbles, about whether Gosnell was killing the infants one second after they left the womb instead of partially inside or completely inside the womb — as in a routine late-term abortion — is merely a matter of geography. That one is murder and the other is a legal procedure is morally irreconcilable.

Read the whole thing and follow the links if you have the stomach for it. I can only speculate on the deafening silence of the big media. Are they all moral idiots? Perhaps. More likely they see that reporting on the details emerging from this trial exposes the moral absurdities of our pro-choice regime -- in which nail salons are regulated more tightly than abortion clinics, and employees plead the Nuremberg defense.

God have mercy.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The marks of revival

Yesterday I listened to a talk Tim Keller gave at The Gospel Coalition conference on a Biblical theology of revival. By revival Keller doesn't mean a programmedc event, or one that can be worked up by a method -- contrary to Charles Finney and his many imitators -- but a spontaneous work of the Holy Spirit characterized by a recovery of the gospel and a deep sense of repentance. Interestingly, he said that revival is often a quiet affair -- quiet in that the church gets quiet before God. This is contrary to revival-ism which tends to be noisy.

In looking at various revivals down through church history Keller sees that they look different but have several common denominators, including the two mentioned above -- recovery of the gospel and deep sense of repentance. Elaborating on those common characteristics of revival Keller said something that I think is worth latching onto -- revival is always accompanied by "sleepy Christians waking up" and "nominal Christians getting converted."

First, sleepy Christians waking up -- these are people who are genuinely saved but for some reason have lost the joy and power that should be their's in Christ. All the promises of God in Christ are objectively true for them but they aren't experiencing the fruit of those promises. Keller illustrated it this way. Imagine a father and his young son walking down the street side by side. Suddenly, in a spontaneous gesture of affection, the father picks up his son, hugs him to his chest, and says "I love you!" What's happened at that moment? Objectively the father's love is the same as before, but now the son is experiencing that love in a fresh subjective way. This is part of what happens when sleepy Christians wake up.

Secondly, nominal Christians are often people who have gone to church all their life. They may be leaders or officers in the church! Keller picked out the example of a former church treasurer who came to him and confessed that he had never understood the gospel until now even though he'd been serving in the church for years. Our churches are filled with such people -- faithful churchgoers who've never experienced the transformative power of the gospel, many of whom are clinging to some form of works-righteousness to get them into Heaven.

You might be saying: "What about the unconverted outside the walls of the church? Doesn't revival affect them?" The neat thing is that when you have a local church, or denomination, or parachurch movement, full of sleepy Christians waking up and nominal Christians getting converted, the world can't help but notice. Those once sleepy and nominal church members have the "savor of Christ" on them and channels are opened for extraordinary operations of God.

As an elder charged with the oversight of a local church I can't think of a better prayer than this -- that the sleepy Christians in our pews are awakened and that the nominal Christians (and only God knows exactly who they are) will be converted. That's how revival starts.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert (1942 - 2013)

Today we said farewell to a fabulous movie critic and a courageous human being. What struck me most about Roger Ebert as he battled debilitating disease the last several years was his steadfast optimism and honest seeking after truth. Anyone reading Ebert's blog could see that this was someone unafraid to ask the big questions as he faced death square in the face. All one can do now is hope that his search was rewarded.

Several years ago Ebert penned a tribute to his longtime partner Gene Siskel to mark the ten-year anniversary of the latter's passing (you can read it here). Siskel's favorite movie was Saturday Night Fever. It seems appropriate to post this iconic clip in celebration of the life of his friend.

Dance on, Roger Ebert.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Introducing Second Nature

Recently I've started paying more attention to the role of technology in our lives. This is partly due to discovering writers such as Wendell Berry and James K.A. Smith, and partly from my own experience of how every-day technology is impacting myself and my family. As a disciple of Jesus I don't see a lot of critical Christian engagement with technology, and it seems the church in general has bought into the lie that our technological artifacts are simply tools, not realizing that the tools we use have the potential to change the kind of people we are even when used for ostensibly "good" purposes.

I think that's beginning to change, though, and I'd like to commend a new online journal called Second Nature. I'd encourage you to read about their mission, "to be the definitive place for critical thinking about technology and new media in light of the Christian tradition, with written articles, images, videos, poetry, and links." From what I've seen and read so far they've made a good start.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The film that killed the Biblical epic

On Sunday Turner Classic Movies was running a series of Easter-themed movies. Just by accident I came across George Stevens' 1965 epic The Greatest Story Ever Told. I generally avoid Hollywood costume dramas of the type made famous by Cecil B. DeMille and others -- just not a big fan of the genre -- but I couldn't stop watching this glossy retelling of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, which climaxes with his crucifixion and resurrection.

As a believer I found it affecting, and as a film buff I found it surprisingly effective cinema -- surprising since I'm familiar with the scathing reception this massively expensive production received. Stevens was a highly successful director in his day, but fairly or unfairly this project pretty much wrecked his reputation. The movie was a commercial disappointment, and at the time was considered an artistic failure. Intervening years have been a bit more kind. The tastes of the filmgoing public were changing in the mid-60's and after Greatest Story the major studios concluded that expensive Biblical epics with big stars and thousands of extras were a losing box office proposition.

The Swedish actor Max von Sydow played Jesus as a rather remote figure, tall and with piercing blue eyes. That on its face is risible. The Jesus of the gospels is an earthier, visceral individual firmly rooted in the rough and tumble of first century Palestinian culture. Nevertheless, the reverent unironic approach of director Stevens and his leading man is quite moving, and their Jesus is tethered to the gospels by liberal use of dialogue straight from the King James Version. Perhaps it was this earnest lack of irony that many critics found so off-putting.

I have no idea the spiritual beliefs of Stevens and screenwriter James Lee Barrett, but they tell the "greatest story" with nary a wink in the direction of casting doubt on its veracity. When Pontius Pilate, played by a smirking Telly Savalas, finally condemns Jesus to death we hear a voiceover intoning an article of the Apostles' Creed -- "suffered under Pontius Pilate/was crucified, dead and buried." Whether intentionally or not this little touch drives home the point that the Christian faith is rooted in history. This minor Roman official achieved a sort of immortality because of his brief encounter with a Jewish prophet claiming to be the Son of God. Over two thousand years later his name is still on the lips of Christians each Sunday as they affirm the central tenets of the faith.

The Greatest Story Ever Told isn't a great film, but it's a worthy final chapter of a distinctive American film genre.

The marriage gap. . . and the income gap

An excerpt from the 2010 report by The National Marriage Project and Institute for American Values, When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America:

Given the current trends, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that the United States could be heading toward a 21st century version of a traditional Latin American model of family life, where only a comparatively small oligarchy enjoys a stable married and family life—and the economic and social fruits that flow from strong marriages. In this model, the middle and lower-middle classes would find it difficult to achieve the same goals for their families and would be bedeviled by family discord and economic insecurity.
This is why the nation must now turn its attention to reviewing and renewing the economic, cultural, and civic conditions that sustain strong marriages and families for moderately educated Americans, who still constitute the majority of citizens and have long been a bastion of conventional family life in the nation.
We cannot (and should not) simply turn the clock back, trying to recreate the social and cultural conditions of some bygone era. But if we seek to renew the fortunes of marriage in Middle America and to close the marriage gap between the moderately and the highly educated, we must pursue public policies that strengthen the employment opportunities of the high-school educated, cultural reforms that seek to reconnect marriage and parenthood for all Americans, and efforts to strengthen religious and civic institutions that lend our lives meaning, direction, and a measure of regard for our neighbors—not to mention our spouses.
The alternative to taking economic, cultural, and civic steps like these is to accept that the United States is devolving into a separate-and-unequal family regime, where the highly educated and the affluent enjoy strong and stable households and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy, and unworkable ones.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Not slow. Patient.

This is a lightly edited post from 2008

As I drove the same route I drive every Friday afternoon I was struck by how unremarkable today seemed. It didn't feel right. This sense of normalcy. Shouldn't we all be on our knees mourning? There were the same angry aggressive drivers. The same cool cats hungrily eyeing luxury cars at the Jaguar dealership. The homeless man panhandling in the intersection of Palm Beach Lakes and Australian. Hard-hat workers pouring concrete. Mothers with strollers waiting at the bus stop. All seemingly heedless of the fact that today is incomparable -- perhaps aware that today is some kind of religious day -- but in many cases dead to the fact that their eternal destiny is bound up with the event remembered.

Today is Good Friday, but so is every day. It's no more tragic that millions pay scant attention to the Crucified and Risen Christ on this day as any other. I'm reminded of Peter's words in chapter 3 verse 9 of his second letter, "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."

By this time tomorrow another Good Friday will have come and gone (unless verse 10 happens) and he will be patient still.