Current Reading
  • Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology
    Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology

    by Michael Horton

  • Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
    Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City

    by Tim Keller

  • Bleak House (Penguin Classics)
    Bleak House (Penguin Classics)

    by Charles Dickens


Intrinsic Goodness

I remember being in an odd conversation in college with an unusually fanatic Christian. Given the sociological spectrum of religious adherence in this country, I imagine that's what most people would think of me. So it's probably amusing for others that I would call someone a fanatic Christian. But judgments we all make, and this kid wasn't particularly friendly.

More to the point: he carried all the negative connotations associated with being a "Bible thumper." He knew the Bible better than anybody I had yet met. Now, though I went to college in the Bible belt, the university culture was standardly anti-God and more specifically anti-Christian. I suppose I had reasons to consider this guy a co-belligerent. I just couldn't get past his smugness.

So, I asked him one time, "Why do you read the Bible so much? Why do you try to memorize it so much?" His honest answer to me was jarring. Still is jarring:

"To beat people in debates."

I thought about that moment last night in an equally breathless moment. If you are one of the chosen- and I say this with all sense of irony- then you know the frustration that is the drive to raise money for the classical music public radio station.

I mean, I get it. I know how hard it is to raise money. I work in a church after all. And given the difficulty, people attempt all sorts of motivations to raise such money. But I think I reached my tipping point last night on my way home. The host began his diatribe:

Don't you want such great music to continue on the radio? That's what we do here. If you are committed to listening, then help us continue our mission. Help us reach your neighbor. This helps you and your neighbor become more enlightened, more cultured.

And that's the moment I remembered the Bible thumper.

Do you know why it's good to read the Bible? Because it's good. Do you know why it's good to listen to classical music? Because it's beautiful. There is an intrinsic goodness to the thing, the thing to be delighted in in and of itself. In my best moments, I love those things for what they are, and not for what help me do or become.

And so, at root, the classical music radio host was appealing to the same motivation of the Bible thumper, which is a dangerous motivation indeed. It's the motivation to exalt self. "I want the glory for the winning the debate; I want the esteem from others for seeming enlightened." After all, enlightenment is not something you care about if you are the only audience for it. Being enlightened is a particularly showy attribute. And though I detect these selfish motivations all too often in myself, I hope I am stirred to love good things because they are good.

That truth was brought home this morning when I was listening to Beethoven's 9th Symphony in the car. Do I need another reason for that music when it provokes joy unspeakable, simply in the playing and listening? I think not.

Seek beauty because it's beautiful. Love goodness because it's good. Amen.


The Emotional Appeal of Libertinism

People have a hard time figuring out the political allegiances of Coloradans. Just last year, two seemingly contradictory events occurred which transcend the traditional scope of the political landscape: we ousted by recall two state senators because of their affirmative votes on some gun-control measures, and we also legalized recreational marijuana. What could account for such a vociferous and paradoxical political frontier?

I've explained to friends outside the state that it's really summed up by the emotions of libertarianism, but not libertarianism as an organized political machination. Rather, it's a libertarianism defined by a "live and let live" ethic. This is noticeable in the city of Denver by the fact that very few people are from here. In the average urban or suburban neighborhood, that placelessness results in neighbors that don't really know each other, which only further fuels social isolation and individualism. In addition, the history of this place is the rugged, individualistic west. We thus side for the individual when it comes to conservative aims economically, and we side for the individual when it comes to progressive aims socially. It's an ethic that's more libertine than truly libertarian. We like guns, and drugs. Just leave us alone, whoever you are.

This is a powerful emotional appeal, and it's used by both sides of the political aisle. I give you two case in points.

The first comes from the American Rifleman. In an article by Chris Cox, he challenges former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg's crusade against gun rights:

Bloomberg believes he knows much better than you about how you should live your life and take care of your family."

From the right side of the aisle, we have the appeal to live and let live. But this argument works both ways. As evidenced by a political ad (tis the season!) by Colorado Democratic Senator Mark Udall about pro-choice/life rights, he claims at the end of his ad,

"You have the right to live life on your own terms, your own choices."

You see what has happened? An unquestioned libertine social convention has pervaded the popular mindset, so much so that most of us agree with this phrase at various times and places without even questioning it. The problem with such an ethic is that, though being a powerful emotional appeal, it's hardly an argument and quite a dangerous vision of the good life.

I'm reminded of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) which sought to narrowly restrict the access of American children to pornography. Eventually, the law, which was passed in 1998, was set on permanent injunction by the Supreme Court in 2009 and never went into effect. The broad case rationale is that it cut too closely to a freedom of speech. Live and let live. It doesn't matter if we irrevocably harm children. The means of freedom matter more than the ends of the true health of children.

So, what else has happened? In American culture we have inculcated a vision of the good life that sets the means above the ends. It might be a rather tawdry thing to say to either a liberal or conservative, but freedom is not a virtue. It's merely a means to pursue virtue. Freedom cannot be reduced to an end, such that it doesn't matter what we do with our freedom. It matters a great deal.

And, however precarious that may be to establish laws that eventually or to some degree restrict certain freedoms, we should not let that mean we can't challenge the emotional appeal of libertinism.I'm not necessarily making an argument to restrict freedoms, for that is fraught with other historical concerns.

What I am arguing for is a return to caring about the common good. I'm not talking some utilitarian "good for the most amount of people" project, but the true common good. This should be our vision, our emotional appeal: our care for neighbor.

In the dust of a culture that destroys itself with its own freedoms, perhaps we can see the way forward. Maybe the path through the mire lies with the people who will actually care about how they and others around them live, but not in a puritanical way. They'll care how others live by serving, loving, and at the very least knowing their actual neighbor.


An Antidote to Gnosticism

I've long wondered if the American religion isn't really gnosticism. There are so many unifying elements to many American spiritualities, and surely none less than the denial of the body as the locus of true spirituality. Consider, if ever so briefly, such a roll-call of denial.

Mormons deny alcohol and caffeine. Evangelicals proliferate "video-based" churches, as if being present to others or the pastor is merely accidental to what "really matters." Furthermore, all manner of Americans accept yoga as a generic practice, instead of an instrinsically Hindu one. The increase of Twitter and Facebook only increase the amount of disembodied experiences we have with others. Truly, gnosticism is an undercurrent in the cultural system, and most of us seek after existential meaning unaware of our denial of the role of the material wrapped up in the immaterial. 

Whether one is a Christian or not, many Americans think of themselves fundamentally as a "soul," and not also a body. Only rank materialists are the exception. In addition, despite the fact that every month in my church we say, "I believe in the resurrection of the body," people in my church are regularly scandalized to find out that Christians believe eternity is a physical existence. One could correct such gnosticism-in-the-water with appeals to Isaiah or Revelation, but there's also an American prophet that comes to mind: Walker Percy.

In his novel, Love in the Ruins, his main character, Tom More, criticizes what he calls both angelism and bestialism. Angelism is the desire to ignore the role of the body in the search for meaning. On the other hand, bestialism means following the body's base desires with no thought of transcendence. More consistenly finds himself in the latter category as a "lapsed Catholic" with alcoholic habits and many girlfriends. And yet, during a humorous conversation with his girlfriend, Tom More lucidly but privately responds to his girlfriend's question: "My God, what is it you do in church?"

What she didn't understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting earth like Lucifer and the angels, that it took nothing less than touching the thread off the misty interstates and eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh and love her in the morning.

Percy touches here on a view of the body that transcends typical gnostic reductionism. If we just "think right," we won't necessarily change. If we just "change our emotions," neither can we inhabit our flesh and love others in the morning. We need mind, heart, and body. We need to be present, to eat of Christ, to engage our body in ultimate meaning. We need to relish our bodies as gifts. And if we're Christians, we believe in a greater body, following the firstfruits of that first Resurrectionist. 


Faith Goes to Work

In the past year, I've joined the church advisory council for the Denver Institute for Faith and Work. As a part of my work over there, I've contributed a couple of brief online articles on what it means to integrate faith and work. 

In the first article, I relate faith and work sacramentally, and I mean that in the strictest sense of the word:

Coming at this a different way, and more germane to the mission of the Denver Institute for Faith & Work, is that Christian spirituality requires work. What God wants for the proclamation of Jesus Christ is eating bread and drinking wine, and neither of those things is naturally found in nature.

In the second article, I allude to the challenges of the practice of law in a post-Christian society:

This means that the profession of law is not just a precarious trek for constitutional law scholars. All manner of law suffers from the appeal to seek power in the courtroom. How else do we explain the insufferable amount of television court shows? A lack of universal moral norms is a problem for any lawyer who practices civil law, real estate law, family law, oil and gas law, and on and on ad nauseum. How can a lawyer be a Christian in a place where the finished work of Christ proclaims that in weakness there is strength? How can a lawyer be a Christian in a profession where he must seek power, as opposed to renouncing it? God, after all, comes in the form of a human baby to Bethlehem: what greater renunciation of power is there?



The Virtue and Vice of the "Common Man"


Is it a vice to be common? Certainly many aspects of our contemporary living recoil against being ordinary. The advent of Facebook lends itself to a perpetual posturing of personality. Twitter lends itself to the self-centered notion that people will actually read what I write (as does the irony of this blog post). Certainly, we're inundated with our fair share of mainstream media articles on the self-defined uniqueness of the millenial generation. I'm even told by a counseling friend of mine that the newest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is needing to change its definition of narcissism to be more extreme, because the old definition of narcissism is too common to have explanatory value. 

It's an edict of our age that we all like being special. When filling out a resume, when arguing with our boss in our heads, when applying for any kind of loan, when filling out scholarship applications, we all want to be special, and probably think we are more special than we actually are. Perhaps we should find solace in being common?

To that point, two of my heroes certainly did champion the "common man," the man of common sense with an ordinary life and an ordinary job. One is Gilbert Keith Chesterton and the other is Charles Dickens. Chesterton in his biography of Dickens extols the virtues of Dickens, precisely for being common:

Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community. For this kinship was deep and spiritual. Dickens was not like our ordinary demagogues and journalists. Dickens did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted... Hence there was this vital point in his popularism, that there was no condescension in it. 

Dickens wanted what the people wanted. The virtue in this is that his popularity was incredibly widespread, and yet he still discussed meaningful matters. By any standard, Dickens produced works of art. The common man still voraciously read 800 pages of Bleak House and David Copperfield because Dickens was so good. Does anybody read 800-page books anymore?

And that's where the rub is, isn't it? Part of being common now is different from what was common then. The common man now watches an excessive amount of television and hardly reads at all. The common man now is in financial debt. The common man now spends a lot of time on Facebook trying not to be common. This raises an important question: is there still wisdom in being common, in being ordinary? 

There certainly is, but it means we need a definition of the idea of the "common." It's virtuous to be common in a difficult, seemingly meaningless job. It's virtuous to be common in one's awareness of the news: not too much and not too little. It's virtuous to have a common love of one's family and one's actual neighbors. It's virtuous to do ordinary, common things in a simple, faithful way. Chesterton and Dickens have much to admire about people such as this, as do I.

To talk about such ordinary, common lifestyles is to note, in fact, how rare such common action is. The tricky admission, in a narcissistic age such as ours, is that we can only strive for such virtuous commonality with limited effect. That is, unless we had an ordinary carpenter for a savior.