Saturday, June 27, 2009

Two Rough Accounts of Political Authority

Two Moments to Think About:

1. In AD 312 Constantine I, Emperor of Rome, declared himself a Christian. Following decades of persecution Christianity by slow measure emerged as not only the accepted but the dominant and finally the official religion of the Roman Empire. The origin of 'Christendom' traces back to such, its perfection never realized, its dynamics rarely stabilized - but its legacy hardly disputed.

2. In AD 390 St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, threatened to excommunicate Emperor Theodosius I for his gratuitous rampage of ~7000 at Thessalonica. The ecclesial rebuke provoked an imperial response: 'with many tears and groans,' followed by much grovelling and penance, the Emperor made his plea to Ambrose to be re-admitted to the Eucharist. In the end he received mercy.

(1) and (2) - what happened here?


There is a strong tradition that sees in (1) the beginnings or roots of a tragic circumstance: the Church, called to be an alternative community and polis, an outsider and witness, folds into dangerous dilution and collusion with the earthly powers from which she has been called. The term 'Constantianism' designates no particular moment or period, but expresses rather the unfortunate marriage between (in our terms) 'church and state' which theretofore was not the message of the earliest Christians, nor the cause or significance of the martyrs. The witness of the church is compromised to the extent that its involvement and investment in political 'earthly' power obscures its distinct and other-worldly ('eschatological') character of peace through powerlessness. Thus (2) marks a precarious manifestation of this tension: Ambrose is right to condemn; but how he receives Theodosius back is where problems could arise. By accepting Theodosius' penance, does Ambrose then extend the purview of his bishopric too far? Is the Bishop of Milan to have authority over the Emperor? What is the nature of this authority? What is its reach? These are some questions which 'Constantianism' necessarily evokes.


There is, on the other hand, at least a second tradition that sees some good in the occurrence of (1). It does not betray the martyrs that Constantine converts, or that Christendom is established, but in fact it takes the witness of the martyrs seriously: it stops Rome's violence (over time), and it encourages earthly peace. This 'earthly peace' is not heavenly peace, but is peace as a form of 'witness' itself - a witness to everlasting peace, to the eternal rule of Christ, and therefore to the present hope of the Church whilst she sojourns to her homeland. In this sense Christendom acts as a constant reminder of the provisional nature of political authority in the light of what True Authority stands over and above it. Note here a great caveat: the clergyman who takes this to mean he is the true authority falls into idolatry himself. The Church is differentiated not by any political absolutism but by her worship of God: she speaks to earthly authorities, working within political structures, to see both conform to a provisional self-understanding that allows for the Gospel to be preached politically. So (2) is a momentous occasion: it is right judgment expressed from the right vantage point, from the divine law (natural and evangelical) of the One True God. There is no doubt danger in such a pronouncement; no doubt temptation to take up further political authority; but it is danger and temptation implicit in these bonds, for the bonds of 'church and state' are always imperfect. Thus the charge of 'Constantianism' is true - true, that is, insofar as the Church fails to be faithful to her witness. Otherwise she is called to be in the world but not of it; preaching to government without pretending to be it; working through government without thereby worshiping it; helping with earthly peace without staking hopes in it.

So I present two accounts hastily drawn of where political theology might start. It is not an exhaustive portrait to be sure, but it gives us an (imperfect) idea of the issues we're dealing in. Some questions: what does God call us to be in the 21st-century, and how might our history and tradition teach us what this is? What is faithful Christian political theology in light of what God has revealed to us - in all its mistakes and triumphs - through the witness of the Church many ages since?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Piper on TV and Movies (With a Few Cautions of My Own)

I've noticed recently that one of the idols I find myself preaching against most regularly is the television. I'm pretty convinced that TV is mostly not good for Christians. There are some exceptions and some reasonable uses and all that, but in general, it doesn't help us much.

I sympathize with Piper:
    One more smaller concern with TV (besides its addictive tendencies, trivialization of life, and deadening effects): It takes time. I have so many things I want to accomplish in this one short life. Don’t waste your life is not a catchphrase for me; it’s a cliff I walk beside every day with trembling.

    TV consumes more and more time for those who get used to watching it. You start to feel like it belongs. You wonder how you could get along without it. I am jealous for my evenings. There are so many things in life I want to accomplish. I simply could not do what I do if I watched television. So we have never had a TV in 40 years of marriage (except in Germany, to help learn the language). I don’t regret it.
The time factor is huge to me. I am not close to as disciplined or godly as Piper. Don't get the impression that I'm claiming that. But given the incredible amount of worthless stuff on it, it is easy for me to say, "Why would I want to spend my time on that?"

Addiction to entertainment is a dangerous, dangerous thing, even if the entertainment doesn't contain explicitly sinful content. Christians have got to start thinking really seriously about our movie and t.v. intake.

Perhaps the one thing I would add to Piper's concerns is that in general I find that people who watch lots of movies and feel deeply moved by them tend to go watch more movies and keep feeling deeply moved, rather than do something about the issues that move them. My evidence for this is anecdotal and it is not true for everyone I know like this. My point is to urge real caution.

Read Piper's whole piece. It's helpful.

The Changing Tide of Public Opinion on Global Warming

Here are the two lead paragraphs from a WSJ article on the growing tide of skepticism about man-made ("anthropocentric" is the fifty-dollar word a friend taught me) global warming:
    Steve Fielding recently asked the Obama administration to reassure him on the science of man-made global warming. When the administration proved unhelpful, Mr. Fielding decided to vote against climate-change legislation.

    If you haven't heard of this politician, it's because he's a member of the Australian Senate. As the U.S. House of Representatives prepares to pass a climate-change bill, the Australian Parliament is preparing to kill its own country's carbon-emissions scheme. Why? A growing number of Australian politicians, scientists and citizens once again doubt the science of human-caused global warming.

Read the whole thing, which cites the science community's backlash and the leveling off of global temperatures since 2001 (despite increasing carbon emissions) as major reasons why views are changing.

I have been skeptical of anthropocentric warming since seeing the compelling documentary, "The Great Global Warming Swindle". It is quite provocative and, if nothing else, trots out an impressive set of experts.

(HT: Jonathan Knaup)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Training Parrots to Call You "God"

Funny stuff from Peter Leithart:
    Hippolytus tells the story that Apsethus of Libya trained parrots to fly over North Africa crying out “Apsethus is a god,” and Libyans were taken in and began to offer sacrifices to him.

    Then a “clever Greek” caught one of the parrots, and retrained it to cry out: “Apsethus, having caged us, compelled us to say Apsethus is a god.” Betrayed, the Libyans burned Apsethus at the stake.

    All you can say is, that’s some parrot.

Jonathan Edwards, Arachnologist

Fun fact: Jonathan Edwards was really into spiders (and not just ones that were dangling by a thread over hell...). Maybe you are reading this and saying to yourself, "That's old news, Andrew- you really didn't know that?" Well, no, I didn't. Not until I came across it in Marsden's biography, which I'm currently working through at a leisurely pace and, I should say, enjoying immensely.

Marsden tells it like this:
When he was sixteen or perhaps earlier, Edwards became fascinated with the behavior of spiders, one of the creatures with which New Englanders were constantly surrounded. During his senior year in college, at age seventeen, he wrote an engaging account of his observations. His admiration for spiders is apparent throughout. 'Of all insects,' he began, 'no one is more wonderful than the spider, especially with respect to their sagacity and admirable way of working.' (Marsden, 64)
Edwards tried to publish his work in Philosophical Transactions, the journal of the Royal Society in London. The Royal Society was devoted to "natural philosophy" (we call it "science," but as Marsden notes, science, theology, and philosophy were not seen in opposition then the way they are now, which the name of the discipline indicates). In Edwards' day, Isaac Newton himself still presided over it!

Unfortunately for Edwards, an English naturalist named Martin Lister had already covered the same ground, so he did in fact get published. But apparently Edwards' work was otherwise worthy. Pretty remarkable, if you ask me.

While I have posted on this just because I thought it was interesting (I have no grand theological point), I should follow Edwards' lead by making one theological corollary. For me it has always been easier to be amazed at the details of God's creation than the vastness of it. The universe is so massive that I find myself unable to grab any mental hold of it, which in turn makes it hard for me to be particularly moved.

But detail can be examined, and spiders are a good example. Like any creature, spiders have an incredibly small yet incredibly complex set of internal organs. Included are those that allow them to produce the material for webs. Further, God has given them not only the tools for web-making, but the requisite skills to use those tools.

The complexity of detail in all of this is absolutely mind-boggling to me. What a testament to the amazing detail-orientation of God's mind, and to the amazing provision that God makes for His creatures!

I have trouble putting together furniture from Ikea (granted, not the greatest instructions usually). God knows how to put together the inner workings of tiny insects. Talk about inscrutable knowledge. Jesus told us to consider the lilies of the field. Edwards apparently took that seriously (only with spiders), and we would do well to do the same.

Monday, June 22, 2009

What is Political Theology? Here's a Start.

It is at once extraordinary encouragement and insufferable intimidation, when one happens upon some exceptionally executed conception of what is in these our modern times. I can do no better than to share it with you, then, with humble hopes that it may also serve as my point of departure for future commentary. From Professor Oliver O'Donovan (2005):
Christian political thought has also acquired a secondary value in the circumstances of our time, which may, however, be no less important: it has an apologetic force when addressed to a world where the intelligibility of political institutions and traditions is seriously threatened. Christian theology sheds light on institutions and traditions, to address a crisis that is more pressing on unbelievers than on believers; and so it also offers reasons to believe. In our days it is not religious believers that suffer a crisis of confidence. Believers did suffer a serious one two or three generations ago, and the results of that crisis in small church attendance and the de-Christianizing of institutions are still working themselves out around us. But that crisis was predicated by the presence of a rival confidence, a massive cultural certainty that united natural science, democratic politics, technology, and colonialism. Today this civilisational ice-shelf has broken up, and though some icebergs floating around are huge - natural science and technology, especially, drift on as though nothing has happened - they are not joined together anymore, nor joined to the land. The four great facts of the twentieth century that broke the certainty in pieces were two world wars, the reversal of European colonization, the threat of the nuclear destruction of the human race, and, most recently, the evidence of long-term ecological crisis. The master-narrative that was to have delivered us the crown of civilization has delivered us insuperable dangers. So Western civilization finds itself the heir of political institutions and traditions which it values without any clear idea why, or to what extent, it values them. Faced with decisions about their future development it has no way of telling what counts as improvement and what as subversion. It cannot tell where "straight ahead" lies, let alone whether it ought to keep on going there. The master-narrative has failed; and even its most recent revised edition, announced as "postmodern," which declares the collapse to be the glorious last chapter, and plurality to be the great unifying principle, merely stands to the failure as the angel in the famous Czech joke stands to his own constant failures of prediction: "It's all in the plan! Don't worry! It's all in the plan!"

Oliver O'Donovan (2005), The Ways of Judgment, pp. xii-xiii.
My apologies for length. However let this be, as I suggested, a point of departure toward some reflections on 'political theology' as it might be understood in late-modern societies. One question to ask is whether North American political institutions, and particularly the US, can in the same sense as Europe rediscover resources from the Christian political tradition which will render its 'values' intelligible. Or was America simply estranged from its inception?

Why Doesn't Anything Happen When I Read My Bible?

I'll admit it: as much as I love preaching, as much as love to read theology when I have some free time, and as much as I enjoy Biblical languages, I don't sit and just read the Bible as consistently as I should. My "quiet times" are only semi-regular.

There are probably a number of reasons for this, but one that I have consistently come back to is that most times I don't feel anything when I read my Bible. Nothing seems to change. I still fight my same old battles with lust, pride, selfishness, a foul mouth, and so on. "This is the Word of God," I tell myself, "so why don't I notice it doing its work in my life?" Why doesn't anything really happen when I read my Bible?

I was lamenting this to a close friend a couple weeks ago and he quickly responded with something that has been rolling around my mind ever since. He told me that expecting that kind of instant gratification comes more from our culture than from true Christian spirituality.

This is, by the way, a great reason to meet consistently with other godly people. Sometimes they say something that is really, really helpful.

The more I think about Jonathan's words, the more I realize two things. (1) I can be really dumb; (2) that advice agrees with the way a biblical view of Bible study specifically and sanctification more generally.

Think about Psalm 1: meditation on the Law was a day and night activity. Does that mean that the psalmist was in such depth of communion with God that he always felt the strange inner warmth of His presence as he read the Law? Doubtful. He was probably a normal person- that is, he was probably like you and me.

Again, consider Psalm 119: verse 11 says that when the Word of God is stored up in the psalmist's heart, then he will manage to avoid sin. He goes on and on about the need for meditation, for learning God's ways, for knowing His statutes inside and out. Do those sorts of things happen through good feelings one morning? Absolutely not.

I could pull plenty more biblical examples, but I choose instead to note that this fits more broadly with the fundamentals of spiritual growth. Nothing that truly contributes to our growth happens instantly. It is no wonder that we call Bible reading and prayer "spiritual disciplines." For these activities to make a difference in our lives, they require sustained consistency.

It also coincides with my Christian experience. Almost all of my greatest spiritual growth has been done over long periods of time. I'd venture a guess that your life isn't much different in this respect.

Clearly daily Bible reading should not be complete drudgery. That's not what I'm saying. I still like the Bible when I read it and I'm often encouraged by it right then and there. But "being encouraged" is not the same as having rapturously deep spiritual communion every time I crack the Book.

So what I am saying (or rather, what Jonathan said) is that we should never have a Googleized view of Bible reading- you type in your desire, and God responds with immediate results. We have to keep at it if we want to see things happen. We have to desire God today, and then again tomorrow, and then again the day after that. When we do that, then we'll see just how much God really is at work in us, to will and to work our sanctification for His good pleasure.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Let This Never Be Called Home

I preached at church on Sunday from 1 Pet. 1:13-21, which calls the believer to hope and to holiness (related, I'm sure).

The first imperative in Peter's epistle is simply "hope" (usually translated something like "Set your hope", which is a reasonable rendering) in v. 13. God commands us to "hope" just like He elsewhere calls us to avoid drunkenness, to love, to abstain from sexual immorality, or to pursue wisdom. When we don't hope, we disobey God.

Which got me thinking: how come I know so few Christians who really hope?

The answer, I think, has something to do with what we consider to be our home. It is too easy for American Christians to see ourselves as Americans just as much as Christians. My old Baptist church has an American flag hanging on one side of the stage, and the Christian flag (no comment) on the other. Nobody else sees the apparent contradiction?

This identity crisis is no doubt especially common in exactly these kinds of older denominational churches. Many of the senior saints have grown up in a milieu where Christianity is as American as baseball and apple pie. The only question was whether you were a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Baptist.

But 1 Peter is written to the "elect exiles" (1:1), and that name for Peter's audience resurfaces a couple times in the letter. An "exile" of course is a forced sojourn, a necessary ousting from one's real home. Clearly Peter means to remind us that we are all exiles until Jesus comes back and new-creates everything. Then we'll go home. But for now: exile.

For people who are suffering for their faith, it was probably easy to remember this. Perhaps the purpose in using the term "exile" was to remind them that one day they'd make it home (as opposed to reminding them that they weren't there qui). But for people who can have the nation's flag hanging right next to the one that apparently represents Christ, it's difficult to feel exiled.

Which also makes it harder to really hope. The potential martyrs, so far as I know, have always found great comfort in the book of Revelation. Comfortable Westerners by contrast find great fun in it, trying to figure out when everything will happen. Other than that, we're more interested in the parts of the Bible that tell us how to obtain blessings. The martyrs though: they hope for it, precisely because the victory of Jesus is their only hope.

So while I am exceedingly grateful that I am at little risk of really suffering for Christ, I wonder what we have to do to remind ourselves that we are exiles. That there is a home that we are citizens of, and it isn't here. That this land in which we sojourn has nothing for us. That, as Jon Foreman says, "This place where I live/may it never be called home."

When we do that, we'll hope. Let me finish by offering a few practical suggestions for how to cultivate these attitudes:
    1. Read the Bible constantly. Scripture teaches us what we hope for and what our home is like. Scripture reshapes our conception of reality, because so much of this land we sojourn in is a veneer. This is the most important step to take.

    2. Think long and hard about how your national identity relates to your citizenship in heaven. I refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance now because I am not an American citizen primarily. A Canadian wouldn't pledge his allegiance to America, so why would a citizen of heaven?

    3. Simply remind yourself of this truth as often as possible. Do whatever it takes to get it into your bloodstream. So much of this really is a mental battle, and Peter indicates as much when we starts v. 13 with the participial phrases, "Preparing your minds for action and being sober-minded" (ESV). It comes down to how we think.

    4. Spend good time with hopeful people. Like most Christian virtues, the mature version of it rubs off on those who, like me, are not mature in it.

    5. Read about and support martyrs. Nothing reminds us more concretely that we are not in our home than when blood is spilled for Christ.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Better Late than Never I Suppose

A few weeks ago I got my shiny new American version of Tom Wright's book on justification. It has since garnered dust in my growing "books to read" pile. Therefore, in the hope that I'll actually read it, here's what I intend to do. Since bunches of bloggers have already weighed in on Wright's book, I plan on coming approaching it from a different angle. I'm going to read Wright's book in conjunction with Piper's book, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each construal of justification. I hope to determine where the heart of the disagreement lies, and suggest some potential ways forward.

I think it's especially important that those of us in the Reformed camp listen to Wright with great care. Given the ruckus generated by his work, I'm surprised how often he is sympathetic to Reformed tradition. For example, listen to this interaction from a recent Q & A with Ben Witherington;

Q. You seem to argue that initial justification and final justification are on the same basis, but you also take seriously that there will be a judgment of human works, including the works of Christians. Are you saying that apostasy is possible for Christians, or do you take the more Reformed view that those who fall away were probably not Christians in the first place, being self-deceived?

A. The initial verdict is the true anticipation of the final one because God will complete the good work he has begun (Philippians 1). That doesn't lead Paul to a careless, oh-well-I'm-going-to-make-it-so-who-cares stance, because there is always the possibility that he is self-deceived and that having preached to others he himself will be a castaway (1 Cor 9). But I see that possibility as self-deception about genuine faith rather than faith today and apostasy tomorrow. Pastorally this may be a hard call for oneself and for others, which is why all the time the focus has to be away from oneself and towards God. Which is why the disciplines of scripture, sacrament and service to the poor are all vital...

I think Piper, Schreiner, and Calvin would each answer the question similarly. Wright clearly subscribes - in Witherington's words - to the "more Reformed view".

People get quite anxious over what Wright has said about justification. I understand some of the concern, and take issue with a number of points in his articulation of justification. However, statements like the following should caution us against fecklessly throwing Bishop Tom under the Pelagian bus. His work is far too thoughtful and complex to merit such a response.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Marriage More Powerful than a Pixar Montage

After I commented on UP the other day, I got this email from my Father-in-law, Kevan. Thought it was well worth passing on as a model for married brothers everywhere:
    I have a friend, Dom Cilla. He is 87 years old. He has been married for 61 years. His wife did not meet Jesus until after they were married. Today she only knows her husband as the man who takes care of her. She knows she wants to go home but has been living in this house that they built together for over 57 years. He has lived an active life, with many friends and part time work until two years ago. He loves to go to church and to golf.

    Today he only does those when he has a sitter for his wife and she is in the right frame of mind to put up with a stranger. The stranger is most often a daughter or granddaughter. He is one of life's practical problem solvers. He now is in charge of a problem without solution. He is grateful to God for the gift of so many good years with the love of his life. He is delighted when she has a good day and doesn't fight with him over meals or pills. He is in love today with the girl he met over 60 years ago and avoided him because she knew he was a girl chaser. He knows that he made a promise to stay with her forever. To her and to God.

    He is my hero today and a perfect example to each of us that a great marriage is not just a great montage in a movie but a very real part of life.

    I offer him to you and to myself as an example. The first 2 months may seem hard sometimes because you haven't had the time to spend together that you would hope to. The last 2 months when ever they come will be just as good as you allow them to be. You must decide to enjoy them together one day at a time. You need to constantly thank God for letting you find each other. Liz and I do.

    - Kevan

Monday, June 15, 2009

An Interview with Janee Noble (On Art and Christianity)

I do not doubt that I am not alone when I say that I like art, but I really wish that I understood it more. Most of us know how vast and incredible the heritage of Christian art is (let alone good art more generally), yet many of us feel quite lost when we view a piece. It is as if we are trying to read another language that we only know the most elementary basics of. "Sure, it's pretty, and I couldn't draw that- but what am I supposed to do with it?"

Enter Janee Noble. Janee is a good friend of mine and in artist in Southern California. She is a godly and thoughtful woman.

I am amazed at the two pieces above (click to enlarge). Her work really grabbed my attention when I noticed the print of Ezekiel eating the scroll (from Ezek. 3) in my ex-roommate/her boyfriend's bedroom. She has since also completed a carving of Cain killing Abel. So I asked her if I could interview her about her work and art in general, and her responses were really helpful. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

Janee, thanks so much for taking the time to teach us theo-dorks about art. Let me start by having you tell us about the medium you used for these pieces. What is it exactly, and what goes into producing them?

The medium is called printmaking. Printmaking can take on many forms but the particular one I used for these pieces is linoleum carving. The best comparison I can think of for linoleum carving is a giant stamp. Basically, you put the image you want to carve on the linoleum and you
spend countless hours wittling away at it with tiny little tools in order to keep all the detail.

How long did each piece take to create, from start to finish?

Each of these pieces took approximately 30 hours to carve from start to finish. Both pieces have areas of minute details that required caution and patience.

Tell us a little about the process, not in terms of physical creation, but in terms of what goes through your mind as an artist? Are you spending all your time simply thinking about details, or is there something, for lack of a better word, "deeper" that goes into it as well?

The process - mentally - of creating these images is really quite meditative. The carving is entirely manual and automatic, it doesn't require very much thought at all. So I get to spend my time thinking about the image that I'm carving or whatever else is on my mind. It is a time I
have used to unwind from the stress of the day or even just relax for a short time during the middle of the day. The time I spend thinking about the content of the image and reflecting on personal applications from the narrative create more passion in me about the subject of my image, this gives the final piece more "soul" if you will. So yes, there is "deeper" thinking that goes into these pieces than the thoughts about where to place my tools next.

Perhaps on a related note, what was the impetus for you to create these? Why did you decide to take up these subjects?

The first piece that I did (Ezekiel eating the scroll) was first a class assignment, although I went quite a bit above and beyond the requirement because I wanted to use the piece as a Christmas gift for my boyfriend, Greg. Greg had been writing an extensive paper on the passage in Ezekiel 3 where Ezekiel is commanded to eat the word of the Lord. He really enjoyed the paper and his research reading for the topic so I had been wanting to make him a piece for further reflection on the passage, so the linoleum carving assignment came at a perfect time.

The second piece (Cain killing Able) came from a similar purpose. I had greatly enjoyed making the first one and wanted to continue making more like it although I had been a little uncertain about what topic I should focus on next. During a trip to Italy in January 2009 Greg and I were quite taken with a painting and sculpture that depicted Cain killing Able as well as the lecture we heard about the pieces. It was something we talked about for some time after seeing the painting and sculpture and led to my decision to do my next carving on that topic. The second piece was also a secret from Greg and ended up being a birthday present for him several weeks after it was

On another related note, both of these images are very small sections derived and modified from larger scenes originally drafted by a wood carver named Albrect Durer.

I've read that, historically speaking, a lot of Christian art has been composed to function almost like graphic sermons- there is a main point that the piece wants the viewer to walk away with. Is there anything like that with these? Anything in particular you would want someone viewing these pieces to take away?

Yes, these pieces are definitely meant to serve as "graphic sermons". I would love for anyone who is interested in these passages to be able to look at and meditate on the meaning of these images for hours at a time. The same way we listen to sermons several times and think about them afterwards is the same function I would like for these pieces to serve. There is a great disconnect between the church at large and artists/artwork. I think one of the ways we as artists and art enthusiasts, or even just vaguely interested viewers, can help to repair this breach in art's function and acceptance in the church is to spend time allowing art a place in our thoughts and valuing it as we do other methods of meditating on Scripture.

When you are creating directly biblical art like this, what goes into your reading the source Scriptures as you prepare to work on the piece, and as you work on it?

Spending so much time meditating on shorter passages of Scripture really gives me time to think about what I should be understanding from each passage and how it applies to me personally. For example, with Cain killing Able the story was extremely familiar to me and had no shock
value, but the more I thought about the story and really how devastating it is, the more real it became to me. I was able to "feel" about the story in a way I never had before, and it gave knew meaning and insight to other passages that relate to it as well, such as Matthew 5:21-26.

For that matter, how has doing this work affected your reading of those texts now that you've finished it, if at all?

Being an artist type I have a hard time really grasping and meditating on things unless a have some sort of visual to keep in my mind. So spending so much time with these pieces has allowed me to not only delve deeper into these passages than I normally would from simply reading them, but it has allowed me to continually think and develop thoughts about these
passages. And when I see the images hanging on the wall in passing I am reminded of my feelings about the implications of the images in my own life, it's sort of like a quick check if I'm still trying to live out the word of God as it is spoken in the passages the images reflect.

Anything else you'd like to tell a bunch of theology nerds about these two pieces?

Seriously, take a piece of art that you enjoy, with blatant Christian themes or not, and spend at least an hour looking at it (obviously this would be better if you can be with the artwork in person). Think about why you enjoy the piece, and try to draw out some truths that
you find in it. Make some personal connections between the artwork and your faith. Maybe even make a connection between the piece and a particular passage and extract some well thought out connections between the piece of art and God's word. You will enjoy finding God's truth in
places you never would have thought to look before.

I myself have a print of the Ezekiel piece hanging up in my office at church, and I love it. It constantly reminds me of my need to be taking-in God's Word- to be "eating" it. If any of our readers would like a print of one of these, how could they get one?

The best way would be to contact my directly by email: The dimensions of the pieces are: Ezekiel: 11.5" x 17.5" Cain/Able: 9" x 12" Prices will vary based on if you want a print by itself, a matted print, or a matted and framed print. Just for reference though a matted print would cost around $150.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

UP, Marriage, and Pixar's Divorce from Modern Ideals

It is almost needless to repeat that UP is a great movie. Enough people have already said that, and they are right.

My wife and I went out and saw it tonight, which turned out to be more significant than I expected. Britt and I have been married for just over two months, and here we watch a film that centers on an old man at the end of his long marriage. They meet as children, marry, and love each other until she dies (and even then he goes right on loving her). Most of the movie takes place after her death and explores how he deals with the pain of her loss and dreams left unaccomplished.

The entire marriage, from wedding to Ellie's funeral, unfolds in a montage that can't be more than 5 minutes, and that's probably generous. Yet in that brief space, without a single word exchanged between the two, the depth of Carl and Ellie's love and companionship hits the viewer so deeply that Britt and I (and many others I've talked to) cried, and you could almost say "wept", when Ellie died and Carl was left alone in the church after the funeral.

Which got me thinking: isn't it strange that in a culture like ours that is so utterly confused about marriage, a life-long, faithful, sweet marriage is seen so highly that it can drive an American box office smash hit? Everybody can get behind how great Carl and Ellie's marriage is.

So why can't everyone get behind how great marriage is? Our culture tries and tries and tries to pretend that we can call marriage whatever we want, that marriage is really just something two people who live together do when they want to have kids, or even that the freedom of single life is far better than the possibility of casual sex with no ball and chain to hold you back. But then UP comes along, and everybody who isn't a sociopath has to watch two old people dancing together towards the end of a long marriage and think, "That is beautiful."

I suppose the marriage detractors I have most in mind are the types who look at me and Britt (25 and 22, respectively) and say, "Gosh, you are getting married young." One of Britt's co-workers actually told her, "Well that's great for you, but I could never get married that young." Really? You really don't want total commitment from a man who loves you so much that he's willing to say, "I want you and you only for the rest of my life"? You'd rather have clubbing, casual dating, and hook-ups? Why not?

Partly, to be sure, because as some other of Britt's co-workers lamented to her this very evening, quality men are at a serious lack. True enough. I know a lot of wonderful single women and relatively few wonderful single men by comparison.

But what I am reminded of so powerfully by UP is that the joy of a life of commitment between two people is something that cannot be found in any other way. This is not to say that marriage is better than singleness: serving God is better than not serving God, and He brings that out of us in different ways according to His good purposes. It is to say that the culture can keep the freedom and fun of casual sex and dating without ever committing. I'll stick to loving my wife and appreciating her joy in me, my joy in her, and our faithfulness to one another.

And that's a good reminder for this newlywed.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wearied Minds, Remember

Scale along the shelves that line our libraries. Surf about the web to hit a trillion entries. Stand among the professionals for the latest you never knew. And perhaps a sense, overwhelming, might wash over your mind:

God, I know nothing.

And indeed, it's nearly true. Not twelve minutes ago did I feign some purchase on reality. Then to set down Augustine again, confused; to scan over Caputo, intimidated; to bump against Heidegger, troubled. Plato sits on my lower shelf: every scholar seems to claim him; not so sure I understand him. Conference date in two weeks, paper presentation to boot: what have I to say? and who will listen? and what if they don't agree?

This is an age, wherein intellectualism can just strip and starve out love; where the soul tarries outside the king's chambers; feet stammer beneath the fading lights; restless to indignant; shut off; know nothing; or know too much.

Then what is repentance? I thought about that yesterday. Repentance, usually I think of some kind of motion, a movement away. Maybe to turn around. Paenitere: to displease, to regret, to be sorry.

Then I thought, maybe it's not motion; at first.
Maybe it's standing still.

Long enough to let it in. What 'it' is in various circumstances I don't know. Yet it seems to me that for the Christian, 'it' will involve another re-word: remember.

This world will have us if we do not remember. In our search for movement from orthodoxy to orthopraxy, may we issue remembrance as that practical discipline by which we do not move, so much as draw together what we know with what we will, what we will with what we know. Do this in remembrance of me. Partake in that mystery of God's salvation. You know because He first knew you. You love because He first loved you. Now ours is a life Crucified and Risen with Christ. Is this true knowledge? we ask. Or did not St. Paul write of a knowledge that surpasses all knowledge?

Yes he did. It was love.

My thought for today, is to let go the pretensions to knowledge that mitigate the degree to which I love this God who loved me. Against claims to knowledge is one claim, which the Church is to repeat: God is in Christ, reconciling the world. In this we have all that must be said.

Understanding the Book of Mormon

If you, like me, have any interest in ministry to Mormons, you will appreciate Ross Anderson's series currently in process at Koinonia. Anderson was raised LDS and has written a book called Understanding the Book of Mormon.

If you have not done much Mormon ministry, you may find this especially helpful. Even if you have never interacted with a Mormon, you may have come across apologetic issues regarding the falsehood of LDS teaching, especially regarding the history of the BoM. Perhaps you have learned some of those proofs and sat down with a Mormon for the first time, only to find that they fall on deaf ears. It is strange that Mormons will deny your arguments without really ever arguing back. That is because at the heart of LDS experience is a religious epistemology in which truth is validated by an inner witness rather than by arguments. I have only met a few Christians for whom apologetics has been instrumental in their conversion, but I have met no Mormons for whom that is the case.

That inner witness experience is foundational for nearly all members of the LDS church, and it centers on the experience they have reading the Book of Mormon. That is why Ross Anderson's posts are helpful if you have little experience with Mormons: they succinctly explain the ins and outs of this type of LDS experience in its related to the BoM.

Check them out here, here, here, and here, in that order. The last two are probably the most helpful for those of you who have limited Mormon ministry experience or who have been confused by what has happened in that experience. And his series, by the way, is not yet finished.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

An Open Letter to Theo-Bloggers: If You Have Nothing to Say, Say Nothing

Dear Comrades in Theo-Blogging,

If you have made your way to our modest corner of the internet this last week, you may have noticed that there were five days between the last two posts. That's a pretty big gap for a blog whose contributors used to call each other a few times a week to make sure that each day was covered. The thought of five silent days then would have been, well, unthinkable.

Those were the days. The days when I constantly felt that I had intellectual fodder for new posts. The days when the input from my six years of theological education was mostly untapped for the sake of public discourse. I always had something to say.

But it's been a few months since that time and I don't spend as much time reading theology as I did then. I am now married and working and simply do not have as much time to. Some of us at CiC have kids, some of us just don't have time, and most of us seem to occasionally be running short on ideas for new posts (we're getting "blogger's block"). Good thing we just added Ian, since he is not only a genius, but he reads a lot...

That brings us to an important question: we have seen our readership slowly climb to over 500 subscribers. By no means does that make us a big deal, but it is really fun for dorks like us. Plus, we are committed to CiC, and we like CiC. I won't speak for my posts, but I for one really appreciate most of what the other contributors to this blog have to say. It is usually some combination of edifying, thoughtful, and provocative. Still, sometimes we have nothing to say.

So when we find ourselves in that situation but we have this outlet to say something, what should we do?


We shouldn't write just to fill a day. We shouldn't link to another post we don't really think is that good, just to fill a day. We shouldn't quote a book we are reading if we don't think it's actually that helpful, just to fill a day. We should write nothing, because we have nothing worthwhile to say.

Here is the thing about blogging - the thing, I should add, that many non-bloggers in particular don't like about it: it can be so self-serving. "Wow," I might think (rather, I have too often thought), "500 readers. That's really something. 500 people want to know what I think about the world and about theology and Christianity. I'm like a mini celebrity. Maybe if they had one of those reality shows for B-list celebrities, but for D-list bloggers, I could be on it!"

We bloggers can far too easily fall to the temptation of self-importance. It's easy, and I doubt I'm the only one who has felt it. We write more in the hopse of getting a link from Challies or JT (or whatever blogger you like most) and adding readership than to actually edify. "Maybe one day," we think, "we'll get 100 comments on ever post like Pyromaniacs does."

And when we do that, we are sinning.

When we write to gain publicity rather than to edify, we are being prideful. And if you have read the Bible much, you know how God feels about pride. It is a big deal when you write for pride's sake. It is a big deal, because sin is a big deal. Sin is a big deal, because God hates sin. Whatever readers you might add by continuing to post are not worth engaging in something that God hates.

So fellow theo-bloggers, write to edify, and only to edify. If you have nothing to say, risk losing the readers and not getting linked rather than fill space. This isn't your job. You don't have a deadline to meet. You don't have a boss to please.

Scratch that. You do have a Boss to please. And He is pleased most when you write for His glory, not for yours.


Andrew Faris

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The 'Silence' of Modern Science, & Miley Cyrus

Angels & Demons did not quite stir the religiously fervent to battle like The Da Vinci Code. I saw neither movie, and read neither book, so commentary on either is not my purpose here. Rather I wish to draw attention to a NYTimes essay in the science section which comments on the way A&D disposes of the ol' religion vs. science debate. If someone has watched the film or read the novel, perhaps they might find it and what follows of interest.

The article is short, but says just enough to irritate me. My irritation is not so much with the author's intent but by how that intent is determined. To recap, the essay is about how the author (Mr. Overbye) felt queasy after A&D concluded favourably disposed toward religious 'wisdom' over against scientific 'rationality.' He doesn't like that scientists don't get the last say in the movie, and thinks it demeaning to the discipline that the clerics end up 'patting us [scientists] on the head' as though true wisdom were the exclusive province of faith. Moreover, the wider caricature (apparently present in the movie as well) that science 'has drained the world of wonder and meaning' Mr. Overbye contrasts with what he considers is the superior feature of modern scientific enquiry, namely that:
In science the ends are justified by the means — what questions we ask and how we ask them — and the meaning of the quest is derived not from answers but from the process by which they are found: curiosity, doubt, humility, tolerance.
This seems to resonate with some popular wisdom; indeed, it's right at the centre of the new and destined-to-be-a-classic tune by Miley Cyrus, called Climb, where she indefatigably asserts that it
Ain't about how fast I get there
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb.
Breathtaking, isn't it?

It's so breathtaking, in fact, that I think that scientists persuaded by this rousing defence of their discipline ought to take themselves seriously enough and remain silent.

In truth, I have no patience for this sort of nonsense. Mr. Overbye is surely right to suggest that the virtues intrinsic to good science ought to be 'curiosity, doubt, humility, tolerance.' What so irritates me is how he confuses these virtues as ends, which is philosophically weird but also morally repugnant. What kind of meaning lies in the perpetual exercise of doubt? Is the world really this thin for us? He thinks these virtues as means, yes; but they are means ordered to no end in particular, hence they remain unintelligible as means. But surely science is not so daft as to neglect the supposition of a coherent universe - that the ends it pursues will obtain as ends, and not as so much mangled data that corresponds to nothing, tells us nothing, functions as nothing. Is Mr. Overbye so sure he is not certain of some things? Like, the very possibility of the science he celebrates?

Moreover, Mr. Overbye thinks that the religious certainty that he believes to be implicit to religious doctrine lacks something significant to the human experience. We may wonder how he arrives at a definition of what the genuine human experience entails, and whether it is his beloved modern science that is responsible for such enlightenment. But let us imagine that life is all about the uncertain journey to nowhere in particular. Ms. Cyrus seems to think it matters little what awaits her on the other side of whatever mountain she's traversing, so too Mr. Overbye believes that modern science is distinguished by its refusal to think about what it's trying to accomplish or learn. This fits, of course, with the general wisdom that all technology is good technology as long as we can keep it under control. But 'control' is always a slippery slope in modern science, particularly when the only content you can put to it is curiosity, doubt, humility, tolerance. Thus Mr. Overbye's dismissive attitude toward the evils of nuclear weaponry seems to rest on the assumption that modern science is innocent when it produces things that 'turn out' to destroy creatures (and by 'destroy' I don't mean just take life). In such a world as this, it is no surprise he finds religious certainties to be so iffy. At their best they are a nuisance; at their worst they are impediments to scientific progress. Their greatest vice is that they think their decisions and actions through, based on ends they believe to be given in the world, not willed onto it.

So I'm not very much moved by Mr. Overbye's overtures to the modern scientific paradigm. Just when we start believing that all we need to do is stop thinking about what is and rather act humble toward the nothingness that awaits our discovery, we ought to stop using words like 'meaning' and 'wisdom' to describe our human experience. That will have us truly silent, indeed, with nothing but the journey to amuse us along the way.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The One Benefit of The Shack

My tongue-in-cheek (but still totally serious) review of The Shack notwithstanding, I should follow up with one important positive payoff of the book.

Despite that the story teaches terrible theology, The Shack implicitly teaches that theology really matters.

One commenter on my previous post was apparently frustrated by my analysis of the book because it's "just a story." It's not a theological book, she said, so why submit it to the standards of theological non-fiction?

Because, in fact, it is a theological book. Make no mistake: Young's best-seller is meant to teach theology.

If you haven't read it, the book revolves around a man dealing with the horrific abduction and murder of his youngest daughter. The semi-religious, seminary-trained main character (Mac) spends a weekend with God in the middle-of-nowhere shack where much of that tragedy took place. Naturally, the always-present, fundamental question is, "Where were you in the rape and murder of my daughter?"

That is to say, The Shack centers on the problem of evil, or perhaps more accurately, the problem of pain. Where is God when something so unquestionably evil happens? How can He possibly be really good and really omnipotent when such heinous acts are committed against my own daughter?

So the main character talks with God about exactly that question. These theological discussions make up the heart of the book. We are not nit-picking when we critique the book's theological conclusions, because so much of the book is so obviously about theology.

Of course, it's not really God. It's Young's idea of God, which is mostly wrong. Still, it's a discussion about who God is and why He allows things like that. Because when personal tragedy abounds for people who believe in God, so do questions about the nature of God. Just because it is practical does not mean it isn't theological.

And yet, so many Christians I know don't seem too interested in thinking seriously about God (that's a strange thing to say, isn't it?). It is hard to convince them that theology really matters. They haven't thought seriously enough to realize that while The Shack's answers may seem reasonable, they sure aren't biblical.

In any case, if you feel any concern for Mac, you will want to know what God has to say about all of the tragedy. And hopefully you will realize that the question of what God is like is by no means reserved for academics and their libraries. Mac's most pertinent, practical questions are directly theological. Theology will change his life.

Even if you don't face that kind of tragedy, theological convictions are the most important ones that you have. I reminded my church the last time I preached to them that it is not a question of whether or not we will be theologians, but a question of whether or not we will be good theologians. Tozer was right: "The most important thing about a man is what comes to his mind when he thinks about God."

Now if only Young's best-seller wasn't such bad theology...

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Community: The Missing Link in Evangelism

In Total Church, Timmis and Chester conceive of evangelism as a rope with three strands; building relationships, sharing the gospel, and introducing people to the community of believers (p. 61). Prima facie this doesn't sound all that profound, yet I'm amazed how often I neglect the third strand. I try to build relationships, I share the story of Christ, but then I assume that non-Christians don't need to be exposed to the community of Christ. The problems with this view are legion. For instance...

1. It doesn't take Jesus' words to the disciples seriously (Jn 13:34-35; 17:20-23).
2. It assumes that the gospel can be separated from the community it creates. However, if - in the words of Newbigin - the local congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel, this is a grievous mistake (see The Gospel in a Pluralist Society [London: SPCK, 198]; 222-223).
3. It creates unnecessary hindrances to new believers becoming involved in the community.
4. And there are plenty more...

It's exciting to think of evangelism as the task of the whole community. As we live together on mission, people experience the church not simply as a meeting or a program, but as a network of relationships (p. 59). This, in turn, creates a context in which gospel words will be heard.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Shortest Review of The Shack Ever

I wanted to make good on my promise to review The Shack, but there have been so many such reviews that I figured it might just be white noise. With all that in mind, the following is my review:
    If I was an egalitarian, arminian, open theist who was rather confused about the trinity and about justification, and who had no concern about writing quality in literature, then I would have absolutely loved The Shack.

    But I am none of those things. Seriously, the fact that there is actually any discussion by evangelicals about the merits of this book is indicative of how poorly our minds are working.
And that concludes the shortest review of The Shack ever written.