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.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Luther's simple way to pray

It says something about the kind of man Martin Luther was that he took the time to write a long letter on prayer to his barber. I've been wanting to read this for some time so was happy to find out about this new translation by Lutheran pastor Matthew Harrison.

A Simple Way to Pray is organized around a template consisting of The Lord's Prayer, The Ten Commandments and the Apostles' Creed. With those texts as foundation Luther explains his personal method of praying that can be described by the acronym ITCP -- Instruction, Thanksgiving, Confession and Prayer. Before bringing our requests to God (P) we rehearse what he's said to us in his Word (I), thank him for who he is and what he's done (T), and acknowledge our sin (C).

Luther actually writes out prayers one could say, but makes clear they are only an example of what Spirit-guided prayer could be. This is like one of those road maps that only shows the major interstate highways, leaving it to the traveler to discover the exits and side roads. I believe Luther strikes a balance between prayer that's tethered to God's Word, but doesn't become rote and formal, like the "empty and idle babbling" Luther says he experienced a lot of during his time "under the Pope."

Here Luther warns against unfocused, distracted prayers using an analogy that would have been familiar to his correspondent.

Just as a good diligent barber must keep his thoughts and eyes precisely on the razor and the hair, and not forget where he is while cutting hair, even though he may be chatting a great deal, he will be concentrating carefully, so that he keeps a close eye on where the razor is so he doesn't cut somebody's nose, or mouth, or even slice somebody's throat.
Therefore, it's very clear that if a person is going to do something well, it requires him to focus and concentrate, as the old saying goes: pluribus intentus minor est ad singula sensus, that is, "a person engaged in various pursuits, minds none of them well." So, if this is true about other things in our life, how much more does prayer require the heart to be completely focused if it is to pray a good prayer?

Luther goes on to lament the fact that the Pater Noster (Our Father) is prayed by some thousands of times without devotion. For this reason he writes that the Lord's Prayer is the "greatest martyr on earth." While Luther was writing with Rome in his sights it's easy to see that unfocused prayer is a problem for Christians of all traditions. I plead guilty! May we come to prayer with the cry of the Psalmist on our lips: "Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name!"

Monday, March 25, 2013

A poem for Holy Week (Wendell Berry)

What hard travail God does in death!
He strives in sleep, in our despair,
And all flesh shudders underneath
The nightmare of His sepulcher.

The earth shakes, grinding its deep stone;
All night the cold wind heaves and pries;
Creation strains sinew and bone
Against the dark door where He lies.

The stem bent, pent in seed, grows straight
And stands. Pain breaks in song. Surprising
The merely dead, graves fill with light
Like opened eyes. He rests in rising.

I (1980) - from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (Counterpoint, 1998)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Quote of the day

When you have children, you often have to let go of your bohemian fantasies; it's hard to imagine being a parent in a place like San Francisco where there are raging debates about the right of people to walk around naked.

- Joel Kotkin

Mapping a shot

Here's a very cool visualization of Steadicam shots from the first five feature films of American director Paul Thomas Anderson. The film geeks out there will enjoy this.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What comes first. . . doctrine or doxology?

I've always thought of worship as something that follows theology. First comes the doctrine and then doxology. Right ideas about God lead to belief which leads to worship. James K. A. Smith argues otherwise.

Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it's a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly—who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love. We are made to be such people by our immersion in the material practices of Christian worship—through affective impact, over time, of sights and smell in water and wine.
The liturgy is a "hearts and minds" strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and "aim" our love toward the kingdom of God. Before we articulate a worldview, we worship. Before we put into words the lineaments of an ontology or an epistemology, we pray for God's healing and illumination. Before we theorize the nature of God, we sing his praises. Before we express moral principles, we receive forgiveness. Before we codify the doctrine of Christ's two natures, we receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist. Before we think, we pray.

Is Smith right? I think he is, though I wouldn't want to push this too far and lose the essential role of right doctrine and right ideas. Being made fit for God's kingdom is about changed hearts and changed minds.
In a Western Christian context so influenced by Greco-Roman ideas about the primacy of the intellect it's easy to lose sight of the importance of embodied material practices -- even primary importance of those practices. Smith believes we have done that, especially in the area of Christian education where we think all that's needed is to fill our kids' minds with "Christian ideas" or a "Christian perspective." Meanwhile, the tangible material practices of Hollister and Starbucks are capturing their hearts and imaginations. This results in a kind of discipleship that's a mile wide and an inch deep, because the heart -- the seat of our loves and desires -- is largely neglected. Might this be why so many can attend Christian schools, grow up in the church, and still live in a way indistinguishable from their secular neighbors?

Think back to the church in Acts. Here we see worship coming before fully-expressed doctrine. It was left for later generations to wrestle with thorny doctrinal issues like the Trinity and two natures of Christ, and articulate the church's understanding in creedal form. Go back even further to the Gospels, and I think you can see doxology preceding doctrine. The account in John 9 of the healing of the man born blind is a great example. The key moment comes in John 9:38 -- He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. Did the man fully understand who Jesus was and what had happened to him? I doubt it. At that moment his heart was captured and he fell to his knees.

Quote from pp. 32-4 of Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Douthat on religion without renunciation

Ross Douthat's Sunday column argues that the one thing Pope Francis must do is restore the moral credibility of the Catholic Church hierarchy. In explaining why he delivers more of his typically clear-sighted cultural analysis:

In that culture — our culture — priestly sex abuse and corruption in the Vatican aren’t just seen as evidence that all men are sinners. They’re seen as evidence that the church has no authority to judge what is and isn’t sin, that the renunciation Catholicism preaches mostly warps and rarely fulfills, and that the world’s approach to sex (and money, and ambition) is the only sane approach there is.
Such worldliness should not be confused with atheism. Our age is still religious; it’s just made its peace with human appetites and all the varied ways they intertwine. From the sermons of Joel Osteen to the epiphanies of “Eat, Pray, Love,” our spiritual oracles still urge us to seek the supernatural, the numinous, the divine. They just dismiss the idea that the divine could possibly want anything for us except for what we already want for ourselves.
Religion without renunciation has obvious appeal. But its cultural consequences are not all self-evidently positive. Absent ideals of chastity, people are less likely to form families. Absent ideals of solidarity, more people live and age and die alone. The social landscape that we take for granted is one that many earlier generations would have regarded as dystopian: sex and reproduction have both been ruthlessly commodified, adult freedoms are enjoyed at the expense of children’s interests, fewer children grow up with both a mother and a father, and fewer and fewer children are even born at all.
So there are shadows on our liberated society, doubts that creep in around the edges, moments when scolds and moralists and even popes almost seem to have a point. Which helps explain, perhaps, the strange, self-contradictory defensiveness that greets the Catholic Church’s persistent refusal to simply bless every new development and call it progress. (Nobody cares what the pope thinks — and I demand that he think exactly as I do!)

How refreshing to read that -- in the pages of The New York Times no less! -- on the same day "enormously popular preacher and author" Rob Bell gave a mushy endorsement to same-sex marriage because: "I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs -- I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are."

I'm glad Jesus and the Apostles didn't have that attitude! I suspect the church they founded (unpopular teachings and all) will endure long after Rob Bell's fifteen minutes of fame have passed.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Wednesday Wendell: verses for the fearful

Every once in awhile I wake up in a deeply pessimistic mood (the reasons aren't important). Pessimistic about the world, and myself, for I can't escape the fact that I'm implicated in a lot of what disillusions and frightens me. Wendell Berry has more than once described himself as a fearful and worried man, and his work as an expression of those fears and worries -- he's also a prophet of hope, but I'll leave that for another day. This "Sabbath poem" from 1997 is one of his darkest, but I like it. Especially on days like today.

Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear
and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there


I visited the offices where for the sake of the objective the

planners planned
at blank desks set in rows. I visited the loud factories
where the machines were made that would drive ever
toward the objective. I saw the forest reduced to stumps and
gullies; I saw
the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley;
I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked
like every other city.
I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered
footfalls of those whose eyes were fixed upon the objective.

Their passing had obliterated the graves and the
of those who had died in pursuit of the objective
and who had long ago forever been forgotten, according
to the inevitable rule that those who have forgotten forget
that they have forgotten. Men, women, and children now
pursued the objective
as if nobody ever had pursued it before.

The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in
pursuit of the objective.
The once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best paying prisons
in pursuit of the objective, which was the destruction of all
which was the destruction of all obstacles, which was the
destruction of all objects,
which was to clear the way to victory, which was to clear the
way to promotion, to salvation, to progress,
to the completed sale, to the signature
on the contract, which was to clear the way
to self-realization, to self-creation, from which nobody who
ever wanted to go home
would ever get there now, for every remembered place
had been displaced; the signposts had been bent to the
ground and covered over.

Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated,
the homeless
with their many eyes opened toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.

II (1997) - from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (Counterpoint, 1998)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

I am unlimited?

It's tempting to see this new ad from Sprint as just an advertisement, part of the wallpaper of noise that constantly surrounds us. But look and listen more closely. In thirty seconds the marketers at Sprint are selling us a very particular anthropology and vision of the good life. Unlimited. This is what it means to be a flourishing human. The ad also ventures into the territory of metaphysics and theology by skillfully equating the supernatural, or miraculous, with technological advance. The implications of this audacious sales pitch will fly right by the average viewer. Or will they? The ad execs at Sprint are betting lots of money that their 30-second "pedagogy of desire" will have an impact -- even if only at a subconscious non-cognitive level.