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Entries in Christianity (31)


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. 


What I Do

That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn't really expect to find it, either.

From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I could have never put my finger on the nature of my work were it not for this book. There's a whole host of meaning associated with pastoring people. You want people to see behind the veil of life, to see the work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit weaving throughout this life and the life of the gathered church for worship. And yet, Robinson, from a totally different angle, captures so much of my experience. I know what a pastor does, but this statement above answers a totally different question: what does a pastor experience from others?

There's a real gravitas, a real earthiness, about life that makes the intersection between the divine Trinitarian mystery and us marred people that is often best captured in a pub. It is, after all, a place where people's problems and spirits are joined. And I like to go and be amidst the people, because people don't mind getting into real conversations at these places of dark wood and rich ale. It is here where the pastoral experience makes sense.

"So what do you do?" I'm often questioned.

"I'm a pastor at one of the churches down the street."

And here we have reached the crossroads. Folks either clam up and apologize for their rough language, or folks ask for prayer. Robinson is perhaps more right than she knew.

And yet, truly, the pub is no different than the people of God gathered for worship, still marred, still looking for hope in something tangible, a transcendent God who can be felt: perhaps in communion instead of the other spirits. People will put on all manner of decorum on Sunday, which in Colorado could be just about anything, but must assuredly include the invisible mask.

There's lots of ways people will execute their mask. They might show their ambivalence towards me and others. Many simply ignore the pastor. Some will gripe. Even a few will blame me for many wrongdoings. Or just as often for not doing enough.

And then they'll come by my office, because if other people knew who they really were they'd be ashamed. But that person knows, just truly knows, that I won't judge them, and that it's a safe place.

And, hopefully, in a way perhaps not as powerful as God meeting his corporately gathered people, but potentially just as poignant, they will know that heaven can meet earth in the sterile place that is my office, with another marred human being sitting across the desk from them.


Olympic Opening: Story vs. Power

A common maxim: a person celebrates what he really believes. Writ a little larger, a culture celebrates what it really believes. We saw a perfect display of this on Friday evening, when the Olympics opened for 2012 in London.

What's so interesting about what happened on Friday night was how different it was compared to China's opening ceremony four years ago. Largely considered one of the most impressive opening displays of all-time for the Olympics, China muscled the world into an impressive display of collective strength and coordination. Thousands of drummers in sequence coordinated audible yells, intimidating mannerisms, and a remarkable lighted catenation of percussive movement. Even at the time, I remember thinking that though it was a powerful and unprecedented display of bigness- grand enough for the billions watching on the world stage- it was remarkably communitarian and powerful. In other words, it told a dull story. Bigger might be more bold, but it is not beautiful. It might have been powerful, but it spoke to the values imbibed by the Chinese over the last century: power and the collective. In other words: communism.

It was London, on the other hand, that dazzled the world with a story on Friday night. The director of the opening show, Danny Boyle, remarked that because what China did was so remarkable and not reproducable on the same scale, he was free to be as creative as he liked. And so he told a story.

If you will permit a brief excursus, it's important to note that I'm not after some sort of cultural supremacy here. Not all in the West is good (example forthcoming), and not all in China is bad. What I'm after is to note, via the observation of the Olympic opening ceremonies, that the cultural value of storytelling supercedes the cultural value of power as a supreme virtue. Indeed, part of China's collective identity is virtuous, as their bonds to family members surpasses those in the West and our cultural values. If it sounds like I wish to criticize China, that's not quite right; I wish to criticize displays of power as a cultural value and wish to uphold storytelling. And so now I continue with Boyle and London.

What Boyle did was tell the story of England, and the British Isles. He started off with the pastoral scene pictured above, and worked through the Industrial Age through war era of the twentieth century, moving to the modern, all the while mixing in famous British people and classic, stern, understated British humor. It was the very opposite of a collective scene. Indeed, parts of it were chaotic, with the audience not knowing where to look to find the story line (perhaps the unintended effect of individualistic capitalism?), and yet what I could discern was beautiful.

I'm understandably biased to evaluate such beauty. Why? Because the story of the West is undoubtedly a Christian story. And Danny Boyle (and I have no idea what his religious disposition is) didn't deny such a story. To start out the pastoral scene, uniting the British countries, children's choirs sang songs indigenous to those areas. And most of those songs were Christian hymns. A few other hymn tunes even found their way further along the story, but were noticeably absent once we got the war era. Honestly, that's a pretty accurate description of Western Europe's historic Christian roots and subsequent abandonment of Christianity.

And yet it was a story that needed to be told, and London told it. And despite all its eccentricities, it was more captivating than China's story: a dull, flat tale. After all, power is boring. Tell me a story instead with heroes and mystery and magic and people dying and coming back to life again.

Indeed, Harry Potter, a very British tale, is more interesting than Confucius' proverbs, rules without a story. Even better, the Bible is much more messy, and much more enlivening, than The Little Red Book.



How to Respond to Aurora?

The problem of evil is a problem because evil won't go away. Or at least, it seemingly won't.

Usually people call this conundrum a problem because it poses an intellectual challenge to the viability of any religious view that believes in both an all-powerful God that is also thoroughly benevolent.

And yet, when tragedy strikes on such a massive level, so close to home, one deals with it on the existential and not philosophical level. That's what our church did yesterday, as we worship relatively close to the Theater where a man shot so many people. That's also what many of our pastors did all weekend, being with the families of victims.

And so we lament. We grieve. We get angry with God. We ask 'why?' and we seek some kind of consolation in a good God and in others whom we love.

These are all good and necessary responses. I pray we do them for weeks and months to come. These are the most important responses, and shall remain so. Thankfully, we have Scriptural language in the Bible to commend all these responses.

And yet... and yet, latent in the minds of most Americans remains this towering critique of Christianity. I propose to offer a few thoughts on this philosophical level, not because it's better, but because I see it creep up in many places, and I think the following thoughts might prove useful.

I suppose my ultimate question is really this: if you aren't a Christian, how do you deal with the problem of evil?

An atheist, one who adheres to philosophical naturalism and survival of the fittest, can't with any degree of internal coherency be outraged at evil. Ultimately, the question lies in a moral category that's a fabrication of the real and material. One simply wills to live, wills to survive, and violence is inherent in nature. No, if you feel some sense of outrage and justice at atrocious acts, it must come from somewhere else. Not atheism. The problem of evil with atheism is strange, since to be consistent the atheist can't really believe in evil.

Many eastern religions present a case for either moving beyond desire and pleasure and pain altogether (Buddhism), or absorbing oneself into the all-pervading impersonal god (most streams of Hinduism) who dissolves the categories of good and evil into one another. Escaping the pain nor dissolving the dialectic can account for our sense of demand for moral culpability, our sense for fairness to be restored. Nay, the problem of evil is just as much a problem for eastern religions.

Obviously, without recounting every possible belief a person can have, I admit the problem of evil is a problem for Christians. And yet, I think Christianity can adequately account for evil, even without  answering every situational crevice and redounding every possible scenario of evil. But to account for this evil, we must tell a story.

There once were two people who knew God completely, the way no humans on earth had ever known him. For some reason heretofore unknown and unexplained, God put a tree in the garden they lived in and weren't allowed to eat of it. That was the only negative request of God. Lots of good though: have children, name animals, enjoy the vegetation. And yet, some wily snake convinced them that it was good to eat fruit from the tree- where did the snake come from?- and so they did, and so the curses began. Complete fellowship with God was broken; how could God trust his people if they didn't do the one thing he asked. And so evil enters the world, except for that it didn't, because where did that snake come from after all?

Christianity doesn't provide all the answers, but it does provide some of them. Because of that first fall, all humans share in the guilt of the curse, and we are slaves to our selfish ends. The line of evil doesn't cut across cultures, nations, or people. It cuts through the middle of all of us. Somehow, we can create evil. And that evil isn't one-dimensional: it's mental, emotional, psychological, and willful. It comes in all shapes and sizes.

This complexity gathers steam as we consider the character of God. Christianity still rejects God's ineffectuality or sadistic reign: he's still powerful and he's still good. And yet, how? Well, the Bible tells us we can get angry at him, so if we admit that we're not trying to placate some impassionate God, that starts us upon the right track. He's a personal God, both acting within the affairs of humanity and from without. Somehow, he knows and loves but allows things he hates. Unmistakably, this is a difficult challenge to Christianity, and yet this option is preferable to a God who doesn't care, who can't do anything about it, who doesn't exist, or who is in fact evil.

How do I trust that God isn't really a sadist? Because he does not declare himself immune from it. God becomes human, experiences human pain, and then bears all the wrath of God upon the cross- human evil accumulated upon his body and soul. Christ suffers.

I can't answer your question about where God was last Friday morning. I'm numb, and angry, and confused too. But John Stott can tell you where he was 2000 years ago:

I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross.' In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering. 'The cross of Christ ... is God’s only self-justification in such a world” as ours....' 'The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak; they rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.”

John Sott, The Cross of Christ


Wine is Earthy, and Heavenly 

Caring more about this life than the life to come is quite a fool's errand, except when it's not. I recently officiated a wedding of some friends that perchance was not inside a church building, which creates quite the awkward and hazardous task for a pastor in the 21st American cultural milieu. Simply put, most people there aren't Christians, and I'm there representing Christ.

I suppose most people aren't really sure what to say to me. They must think I'm no good at small talk. Or perhaps they think I'm a religious nut who will try to convert them at the drop of a hat. Or maybe I'm just weird.

Regardless, in the ceremony I faithfully proceeded with my beliefs-Christ, his cross, his wedding to his people at the end of time- and how they relate to the married couple in the here and now. Notice that connection- eternity and time both relate to another- that's crucial for what comes later.

Following the ceremony a friend of mine introduced me to one of his neighbors, also there to see the ceremony. We were introduced, and she remarks, "You are a pastor? That's nice. I'm Jewish, and we care more about this life than in any life to come."

Nice to meet you too?

As strange as it may seem, this interaction happens more than you'd think, as if people had lost all sense of civility, or not paid the compliment of actually understanding stated Christian beliefs or the beliefs of anyone they may skewer upon introduction.

These interactions, in all their glorious redolence, often affirm to me what people have been mistakenly thinking for years: that Christianity is solely about the afterlife. This was, after all, Marx' critique. And, in a way, it was Nietzsche's critique as well: humbly putting on the garb of Christ and following him into suffering was the way of perpetual poverty and hopelessness in this world, and surely no response to overcome it.

I always find this highly ironic, given that Christians claim Jesus, a person of human flesh, was in fact God. How could Christianity be only about the afterlife when God puts on human flesh and stays that way through eternity in a physical place, the new heavens and the new earth?

And yet, instead of taking a cosmic approach to such irony as that of the common Christian critique, David Bentley Hart takes a more particular approach:

In fact, if I may be permitted an excursus, it is conceivable that a theological answer to Nietzsche could be developed entirely in terms of the typology of wine. After all, the wine of Dionysus [Nietzsche's paradigm] is no doubt of the coarsest vintage, intended to blind with drunkenness rather than enliven whimsy...The wine of Christian Scripture, on the other hand, is first and foremost a divine blessing and image of God's bounty, an appropriate thank offering by which to declare Israel's love of God: it is the wine that 'cheers the hearts of gods and men,' to be drunk and shared with those for whom nothing is prepared on the day holy to the Lord, the sign of God's renewed covenant with his people, the drink of lovers and the very symbol of love, whose absence is the eventide of all joy; it is, moreover, the wine of agape and the feast of fellowship, in which Christ first vouchsafed a sign of his divinity, in a place of rejoicing at Cana- a wine of highest quality...the wine, finally, whose joy is imparted to the church again, and eternally, with the fire of Pentecost, and in which the fellowship of Christ and his flock is reborn with every celebration of the Eucharist.

David Bentley Hart (Scriptural citations taken out for ease in reading, but each statement is followed by a citation), Beauty of the Infinite, pg. 108.

How could a view of the world so infused by wine's goodness be solely about eternal life? And yet, wine is a symbol of what is to come: a real, physical feast in real, physical bodies with a real, physical Jesus. Earth and heaven both matter, because one day they shall become one in a new heavens and new earth.

Undoubtedly, this critique of Christianity is shaped as much by a culture that believes in some ethereal, bodyless afterlife than by this ancient view of the goodness of wine (more a product of new age spirituality than Christianity). C.S. Lewis explains this phenomenon in Mere Christianity by saying that the most heavenly minded Christians indeed do the most earthly good. Aim for heaven, he says, and get earth thrown in. Aim for earth, and get neither.

Who knew a theology of wine could answer one of the most potent critiques against Christianity? If only I had shared that with my new wedding acquaintance.