“I have become a pilgrim to cure myself of being an exile.” -G. K. Chesterton
I'm a clumsy Christian on a journey of discipline and discovery with Jesus. As a recovering Pharisee, I'm learning to trust God's grace over my goodness. I love the world, and I'm excited about learning what it means to be salt and light in a Post-Christian culture. This is where I write about living the sojourn.
It looks like the emerging conversation now comes in three flavors: relevant, reconstructionist, or revisionist. Or half-and-half, or all three, if you're really feeling adventurous. I find myself aligning broadly with the reconstructionist category and only partially with the other two, as I believe relevance to be incidental rather than deliberate and revisionism to often be revising all the wrong things. (Note that reconstructionism here means something entirely different than it does when used in reference to nationalism.) Here's another discussion of the three categories.
A while back my spiritual walk had reached a sort of impasse - almost a dead end if you will; it seemed like there wasn't really much to talk about anymore. Working off a given set of assumptions, you hash out all the issues and ideas, tie them up neatly and set them on the shelf. Now what?
God is infinite. I used to think that meant just an infinite succession of topics, and then He comes along and starts changing not only the assumptions but the whole framework. Slowly at first, and then with increasing intensity, you're seeing new possibilities, new combinations of ideas, new directions, new life. God is infinite.
As followers of Christ, I don't think it is too much of a stretch to say that we are called to be continually emerging. Semper reformada. 2 Corinthians 3:18. As Rich Mullins wrote:
For the snow that comes with winter For the growth that comes from pain For the joke I can't remember Though the laughter long remains For the faith that brought to finish All I doubted at the start Lord, I give you praise for all that makes For the hatching of a heart For the strength that comes with friendship For the warmth that comes with hope For the love time can't diminish For the time love takes to grow For the moonlight on the water For the bright and morning star Lord I give you praise for all that makes For the hatching of a heart
And so, if it is in fact more than a buzzword, I'm emerging.
Working as I do in people's homes, across a wide social spectrum, I'm continually exposed to the private side of the American lifestyle. To me, there is no scene more depressing than an elderly or incapacitated individual, blankly watching Wheel of Fortune. It is at the same time unbearably trite and unutterably sad. And it always seems to be that show. That stupid, stupid show.
Some of my feelings were crystallized while reading from The Christian Mind. Blamires writes: "Our concern is with the abuse of mechanical contrivances by men and women who succumb to their influence and allow their lives to be dominated by them. The car provides one example, television another, radio a third, and the cinema a fourth. Excessive use of these contrivances reduces man's life to a sub-human level, replacing choice, decision, and purposeful activity by a drugged acceptance, a mindless inertia."
There is the dividing line: "choice, decision, and purposeful activity," (which is human and whole) or "a drugged acceptance, a mindless inertia" (which is sub-human and inferior). Read a good book, call a friend, sew a quilt, make some iced tea, play a game, whatever, but (literally) for goodness' sake, turn off the wretched tube. I don't object to the screen and the plastic, but I will fight the hollow humour, slimy smiles, and materialistic madness tooth and nail.
It's not that gardening will necessarily make you whole, just that gardening (in the basic sense) is vitally connected with what is whole, while television usually is not. As Blamires notes, "The familiar antithesis between mechanization and Nature largely misses the point. We do not lament the increasing dependence upon mechanical contrivances because it removes man from the natural, but because it removes man from the supernatural."
Do we recognize this massive betrayal of humanity for what it is? Can we help others rediscover themselves as vibrant, spiritual beings in a vibrant, spiritual universe? Do we radiate an enthusiasm for what is real?
In our postmodern haste to abandon our petty claims to have personally apprehended the sum total of objective truth, we must be careful that we don't desert truth itself. In our hustle to keep up with the times, we must in the back of our minds always remember that there's nothing new under the sun. Even postmodernism echoes from the past: after all, it was Pontius Pilate who rolled his eyes, washed his hands, and muttered "What is truth?"
I picked up this Berean sale-table title as an afterthought, and am I ever glad I did. D. A. Carson, (Donald Arthur, by the way,) has done an outstanding job unpacking the issues involved in postmodernepistemology for the lay reader. I found this book immensely helpful in understanding where the Emerging conversation is coming from and what it stands for. The book is scholarly, which is helpful as it allows Carson to write with fairness and carefully calculated criticism.
Carson takes you through the new definition of tolerance, presents a crisp history of thought, (from the reformation era to the present) and does a masterful job of exposing the false antithesis postmodernism introduces between omniscient knowledge and any knowledge at all. He even includes a 24-page discussion of Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy, which I recently read and reviewed.
The very last chapter, A Biblical Meditation On Truth And Experience, is an exposition of 2 Peter 1 and seems to have been something that Carson was coincidentally studying while writing the book. I was ready for the book to end after chapter 7, and I don't think this "meditation" added anything really substantial. That bit of superfluity aside, the book is to-the-point while avoiding reductionism, and the writing is skillful.
I'm not that familiar with Carson himself, but it does appear that he's on the wrong side of the inclusive language debate. On the whole he seems orthodox enough to read comfortably.
I feel this is an imperative discussion for anyone reading McLaren, Burke, Clark, or other Emergent-minded authors. There's always two sides to the coin, and this perspective is crucial to making heads or tails of the thing. I close with an excerpt from Chesterton's Orthodoxy that Carson quotes at the close of Chapter 7, Some Biblical Passages to Help Us in Our Evaluation:
"What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition... [and] settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table." -G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957), 31-32
This read continues my hitch-hiker exploration of Christian intellectualism. As his thesis, Blamires argues that "there is no Christian mind; there is no shared field of discourse in which we can move at ease as thinking Christians by trodden ways and past established landmarks." (-Part 1, Ch. 1, The Surrender To Secularism) This may seem an astonishing claim, and while I feel that he may have overstated the situation a bit, he does bring up some interesting points.
There is an atmosphere of tension, and perhaps something of a misunderstanding, surrounding this matter of Christian vs. Secular wisdom. We know from 1 Corinthians 1 that the things of God are foolishness to the world, but let's not start boring holes in the bottom of the boat just yet. We don' t pursue foolishness in order to apprehend the wisdom of God; we pursue the wisdom of God, knowing that we may often be perceived as fools by the world. We do not court foolishness, or influence, or relevance, or anything else: we seek first the Kingdom of God, and He arranges us as He sees fit. "The Christian faith is important because it is true. What it happens to achieve, in ourselves or in others, is another and, strictly speaking, secondary matter." (-Part 2, Ch. 3, Its Conception Of Truth)
American Christianity has been exercising all the wrong muscles. It's high time we replace static ideology with verdant poise - obnoxious aggression with simply being ready, to give an answer, not a judgment. Jesus always gave people answers. But we're too busy for that, because to give an answer you have to understand both the question and the questioner. Judgments are more economical.
Probably the best definition given by Blamires for what he is advocating is this: "Not that we should convert, bu that we should be understood. Not that the Christian mind should become the immediate and overwhelming vehicle of all truth to all men, but that the Christian mind should be recognized for what it is: something different, something distinctive, something with depth, hardness, solidity; a pleasure to fight with and a joy to be beaten by." (-Part 2, Ch. 2, Its Supernatural Orientation)
Of course, Blamires' concept of "thinking Christianly," which he develops in Part 2, is unavoidably tainted with his own biases, and the somewhat disproportional nature of the book's foundational arguments is damaging. While this one earned its share of question marks in the margin, there are also many worthwhile insights. I guess I would say it's quite good without being one of the best.
Earlier this week, along with friends Joseph and Abram Lindvall, I disappeared into the High Sierra for a multi-night backpack. We had laid out a fairly ambitious schedule, but were unfortunately forced to shorten the route because of pain in my knees, due partly to a sports-related over-exertion injury a couple weeks prior and partly to a general lack of consistent athletic conditioning this season.
The guys handled it really well and were very understanding, but I felt bad: bad for them, and bad for me, too. Naturally enough, I'm not too fond of admitting weakness, and I was disappointed by my poor performance. But the humiliation in requesting an early retreat was less bitter than the potential humiliation in being stretchered out of the backcountry as a Search & Rescue technician who should know better. Like they say: if you have to eat crow, eat it while it's hot.
We did, however, have some good fellowship, see some beautiful country, and manage to enjoy ourselves quite a bit. Trail-burner and Daddy Longlegs, you guys are amazing!
Merced Lake, Yosemite
Hiking over Isberg Pass, Yosemite East boundary
Moraine Dome, Yosemite
Joseph and Abram surveying Lyell Fork, eastern Yosemite
Remember when You had to begin With an empty toolbox And clean hands Remember Feeling uncomfortable Because your belt was stiff And you noticed Breaking in takes time
Remember when You bought Your first load of lumber And you bought the straps To tie it down And they were new And red And you had to figure out How they worked And you noticed Deftness is acquired Not attained
Remember when The caulking gun Was a mystery The air compressor Was intimidating And you drained it every day And you noticed There is no substitute For experience And there is no way to experience Without first things
Breaking in takes time And the already broken in Should have nothing to prove Only a smile And a backache And a quiet opinion
Prevailing sentiment Aside There is nothing inferior In first things But one must be unassuming And one must always remember Breaking in takes time
For who hath despised the day of small things? - Zechariah 4:10a
Since today marks two months of blogging, I thought I would take the opportunity to reflect on the experience so far. If you've read along for most this time, I'm not sure whether to thank you or feel sorry for you. Maybe I'll do both.
In some ways, I feel like a little kid sitting at the dinner table making funny faces. People start watching you, and so you keep making more faces and funnier. I think this picture actually encapsulates blogging rather well, not in that it is necessarily funny, but in that it constitutes a perpetual audience, which in turn serves to stimulate offerings of some kind to hold their attention.
I've felt for some time that I think clearest and express myself most accurately when writing. Writing both forces me and allows me time to articulate thought with more precision than is generally possible when speaking. Still, I'm sure many things I've written have been less than precise, and some things downright confusing. Most good writers walk a thin line between the ambiguous and the profound, and writers-in-progress are bound to lose their balance once in awhile.
I'm aware that these pages often read more like a devotional, booklist, or theological journal than like thoughts from an actual person, but I do have reasons for this. For one, I just can't seem to swallow the idea that the color of my socks or what I had for breakfast could be that interesting. I mean, come on. I don't even care much about those things, and I'm me.
So besides the serious tone, and generally eschewing exclamation marks, (only 15 so far! whoops, 16), I'm having fun. Hopefully some of you are too.
Why is it so hard to just serve God where you are?
For the last while, I've occasionally had this urge to go start some "thing." Like a band, or a coffee-house ministry, or a Christian writer's network. (I could call it CWN: doesn't that sound heavy?) But then, I wonder if it's just because I'm living in an age of many started somethings and I don't want to be left out.
You don't have to drive through the countryside or surf the internet very long to realize that our world is full of half-completed towers. It seems our society may place an unhealthy emphasis on beginnings. Ground-breaking ceremonies are nice, but they're also a bit of a fanfaronade. As King Ahab said, in a rare quotable moment, "Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off."
It is less an axiom and more a spiritual principle to say that it is better to do one thing completely than ten things partially. Jesus taught us that great lesson in his last four syllables on the cross. You can't ever grow if you're continually transplanting yourself from one thing to the next, and you can't go to a drive-thru to pick up some Christian fruit. In dry times we must remember, as Lindvall has astutely pointed out, that abiding is continual while bearing fruit is seasonal. Psalm 1 says the righteous man is like a tree; I usually feel more like a weed. "Ye have need of patience," indeed.
"Once the principle is admitted that it is duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments." - Ludwig von Mises
Perusing a recent book-sale acquisition, (The Comfortable Pew, by Pierre Berton) I opened to a section where the author was dealing with what he called "Pre-Packaged Morality," arguing that pre-marital promiscuity is not always wrong. (In 1965!) *Ahem.* I guess I feel that certain things are open to discussion and certain things are, well, not. Red smoke. Book, meet wastebasket.
This man, (whoever he was) was claiming to represent and speak for part of the body, and I have just dispatched with him rather unceremoniously. Am I justified? Could this be another question of choosing Paul, Apollos, or Cephas? Division is carnal, isn't it?
We too easily forget that Jesus didn't exactly come to bring peace (at least, as we know it). There is a slashing sword - like the sword at the entrance to the garden - that continually surrounds who He was, who He is, what He said, what He says, and what He stands for. There is truly a "peace of God," but it doesn't necessarily mean just getting along with everybody. (Jesus began the redefinition of peace in John 14:27.) As Rich Mullins said so discreetly, “Peace is not the opposite of conflict—it is the opposite of chaos.”
It is a truism to say that division is carnal, but the statement must be qualified contextually. Working off this key scripture, we conclude that, for the divisive, it is evil; for the devout, it is unavoidable. Which brings us to the classic question: who is divisive and who is devout?
The answer is somewhat obscured in that the devout often appear to be taking divisive action. But, before we gnash our teeth and stone them, we would do well to take a moment and consider. If my hand were to become gangrenous, it is my plain duty, out of concern for the rest of my body, to cut it off. In so doing, I appear guilty of blatant divisiveness in the dramatic flash of the knife, and it is at precisely this juncture where we must take things one step further; for what is worse, the act of division or the occasion which necessitates it? The gangrenous hand, although in no hurry to leave, is nevertheless more guilty of division than the healthy hand that cuts it off. The healthy hand for its part does not specifically enjoy the act, it simply must be done.
But we're not out of the woods yet, because we have still to deal with the issue of minority, as Stephen of Acts 7 was anything but a gangrenous hand. Disagreeing with the establishment makes you a heretic, but, Christianly speaking, it doesn't make you wrong. Indeed, being ostracized, imprisoned, or burned at the stake usually means you're on to something, as seen both historically and scripturally. The point that must be grasped is that it is possible for the devout to find themselves on either side of the equation, as sometimes a body cutting of a gangrenous hand and sometimes a goldfish being bullied in a pool of sharks.
The bad news is there's no formula, and the good news is there's no formula.
Being, as most of you know, generally averse to all things Catholic, this is admittedly a stretch. Who knows, maybe it will help me avoid pulling a spiritual muscle later.
Francis was the Pantheist of the pantheists and the Ascetic of the ascetics. While it seems evident that he was altogether too mystical on these points, we must be careful to discern and not react. I am starting to feel that both pantheism and asceticism are somewhat undervalued in the western church, as we are usually not sensitive enough to beauty and rather too sensitive to pain.
Nature was created to be good, and, while it has felt the stinging curse of sin, it is still something good that has been marred and not something that is inherently bad. Christianity demands a deep apprecation for creation, not necessarily to see created things as God, but to see God in (through) created things.
Then there is the issue of the body. While certainly containing many weaknesses and often requiring restraint, the body, after all, is made in the image of God. Instinctively, we possess a natural, healthy concern for our flesh, (Ephesians 5:29) which the more extreme forms of asceticism attempt to reduce. It is nice to know that to be comfortable is not always evil, but we are reminded also of the uncomfortable side of things by injunctions to "mortify the flesh" and the account of Paul's urgent practice of subjecting his body in 1 Corinthians 9:27. Still, in all this, it must be seen that the solution is primarily a spiritual one, as in Romans 8:13. (Also Colossians 2:20-24, thanks Joseph for this one.) The virtue in restraining appetite is not to glorify abstinence, as the ideal in abandoning riches is not to love rags; rather, the aim in both disciplines is to love and glorify God, as in Romans 14:6.
Catholic literature is not much better than Catholicism in general, but perhaps it's analogous to eating something you don't like: it doesn't taste very good, but it doesn't necessarily do any harm either. So, with generous disclaimers, St. Francis. St. Francis of Assisi, G. K. Chesterton
This book is more about Francis as a historical phenomenon than Francis as a person, and it presents him more as a hero of humanity than a hero of the faith, which is probably wise. Anecdotes and narrative are somewhat sparse, while G.K. focuses you on the big picture. Arguing that a major purpose of the Dark Ages was to cleanse nature of the polluted associations given her by pagan mythology, he portrays Francis as pioneering a new appreciation for creation as the world was "waking up" from this long hibernation. Using this springboard, with characteristic wit and perception, he develops the character and ideology of Francis throughout the subsequent chapters.
"He had made a fool of himself. Any man who has been young, who has ridden horses or thought himself ready for a fight, who has fancied himself as a troubadour and accepted the conventions of comradeship, will appreciate the ponderous and crushing weight of that simple phrase." - Ch. 5, Le Jongleur de Dieu
Written by the 11th-century monk Bonaventure in that sleepy, devout, Catholic style, this book is a simple overview of Francis's life. For some reason, substantial portions of it are printed in a sort of free verse, only adding to the dreamy atmosphere in which everyone appears as either a seraphic saint or a satanic sinner. Makes you want to yawn.
If you can get past the references to the "supreme pontificate," as well as the making of Francis into a sort of god, there are a few jewels lying here among the stones. But they are so few that I'm inclined to just pick them up myself and spare you the trouble.
"We should not stave off a visitation of heavenly light even a little because of the light which we have in common with flies." - Ch. 5
"What a man is in God's eyes, that he is and nothing more." - Ch. 6
"In beautiful things he saw Beauty itself, and through his vestiges imprinted on creation he followed his Beloved everywhere, making from all things a ladder by which he could climb up and embrace him who is utterly desirable." - Ch. 9
And, perhaps the best 15-word synopsis of Francis's life and place in history to be found: "Where the scholarship of the teacher stands outside, the affection of the lover entered within." - Ch. 11
In case some of you are starting to think that my life revolves around books, (it doesn't!) I'll try to mix things up a little. I stumbled across this on Wikipedia, of all places, and I think it is absolutely lovely. It's called "Harpe de Lumiere." Here's to a little beauty in the corners of your day.
The mark of good writing is its deep respect for the reader and its simultaneous self-modesty. Alas, as all aspiring and accomplished writers know, this high calling is dreadfully elusive. The reader is cruelly forced to accept dozens upon dozens of unnecessary words and made to listen to meaningless, rambling sentences whose sole purpose seems to be to aggrandize the writer, suggesting a picture of a chef crafting a beautiful dish that can’t be eaten.
This idea of writing being written for the reader was first introduced to me by Will Strunk in his wonderful “little” book, The Elements of Style. E. B. White, (Elwyn Brooks, by the way,) who later edited the “little” book, was himself quite sympathetic to the reader. He wrote carefully and it made his writing genius. Why else would anyone read a 280-page tome about a misfit living in the backwoods of Maine, tending to pigs?
G. K. Chesterton, (Gilbert Keith, by the way,) was not as careful, and there are scores of red-eyed, word-weary readers to prove it. But, he was a genius, and so he got away with it. His observations strike you as the sort of thing you would never have thought of in a million years, and it is a pleasant, tickling sensation, as if you were just expertly fast-forwarded through leagues of drab and dangerous learning in six pages of shining text. Maybe there is economy at work here after all.
C. S. Lewis, (Clive Staples, by the way,) wrote with energy and humor, making his writing very human and sometimes downright personable. To be personable without being chummy is genius, no two ways about it, and to keep the reader happily anticipating a joke coming around the corner at any moment is no light task either: it requires a good nose, because (as he would say,) "the smell of frying food is very different before and after breakfast."
I don't yet know much about N. T. Wright, but his Simply Christian is laying on my desk and you should know that his name is Nicholas Thomas.
The act of writing should be neither painful nor easy, as both make for terrible reading. Writing well should require skill, effort, and persistence, while remaining as natural and fluid as possible: like a precisely thrown pitch or a deftly drawn line. One word of caution: precisely thrown pitches, and deftly drawn lines, are rarely straight.
Emergent-church author Brian D. McLaren has succeeded in writing a book capable of making everybody angry. (He gives fair and ample warning in Chapter 0. How many books have you read with a Chapter 0?) Many times, apart from the occasional urge to scream, it seemed the only suitable response was to let out a long, low whistle and shake my head. If you don’t find this book controversial, you should have your pulse checked.
Sticking to my belief that it is generally best to give the bad news first, I will now register my concerns with the complaint department. I was unimpressed with the writing, my favorite parts of the book being the quotes from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. While not necessarily corny and conversational, the book seems rather unskillful—likely in an attempt to be vulnerable (which, incidentally, it is). (I admit that my incessant critiques of writing are perhaps unqualified, having never written a book myself; I have, however, read a number of them, and I fancy that this has earned me something of an honorary degree in literary criticism.)
I was confused over why the Anabaptists were represented (in part) by the Amish and grouped with the Anglicans, as neither association seems accurate. I also thought (as he told me I would) that he was, on the whole, too generous with the Catholics. I would be diligent to maintain a safe distance from any Calvinist reading Chapter 12.
There is an acute need for balance in these types of issues. The Gospel is like a kite: you want it to take the air and soar, as it is designed to, but if you let go you may lose sight of it altogether. This is the balance that this book boldly confronts, occasionally, in my view, erring on the side of letting go.
On the sunny side, I very much feel that McLaren has succeeded as a ragamuffin penster, much like Brennan Manning, and, if Rich were still around, I’m confident he’d be excited. (Being as he is on the other side, he’s probably writing one of the back cover endorsements for the celestial edition.) While no one will agree with all of it, and perhaps only a few even with most of it, this is not a book I should like to have the task to refute.
Walking down to the shed earlier today to clean some things up, I noticed there was an intermittent fluttering sound coming from somewhere. David, who was working on his Toyota, informed me that there was something caught inside the hollow basketball pole - probably a bird. Immediately I grasped the poor creatures plight, and, like any good humane citizen, set about the task of rescue.
The pole was perhaps three inches in diameter, and stiffened internally with intermediate cross-bars. It was comprised of three coupled sections, one in the ground, the other two each about five feet long.
First, thinking like a tradesman, I employed a hammer to attempt tapping the sections apart, but a combination of their weight and long exposure to gravity made them reluctant to yield. A different, less direct approach would be necessary.
How to reach eight feet down a three-inch pole and retrieve a desperate winged body? Abruptly, I hit on it. Grabbing a convenient 9mm rope, I gingerly lowered it into the pole, standing atop a six foot ladder. I could both hear and feel it when it reached the bird; I started bringing it up, but could tell there was no weight on it. I lowered the rope again. "C'mon, little guy... grab on..." I waited a moment, and begin to haul it up slowly - slowly, up, up, just a little more! I could feel a distinct load - not much, mind you - but something.
The rope neared the top. In a blink, the little thing was free! I've never been so happy for a bird in all my life: it was tiny and dull gray, but it was beautiful. Exhilarated, I put the rope away and went back to cleaning shop, rejoicing over what it means to be alive.
All material on this blog remains my intellectual property. You are free to quote and disseminate any and all of it, but please use proper blogging etiquette, credit (link back to) the source, and make an effort to keep potentially controversial ideas in context. Thanks for reading.
Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. - 2 Cor. 13:11