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    David Copperfield

    by Charles Dickens

Entries in Christianity (30)

Thursday
Oct112012

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.

Monday
Jul302012

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.

 

Monday
Jul232012

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

Monday
Jul092012

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.

Wednesday
Apr252012

"Christian" Art: Show versus Tell

There's been a flurry of "Christian" movies in the last year, but most aren't good. Or, at least, they aren't good art. My opinion is certainly not unique, even amongst other Christians, which begs an interesting question: how come most explicitly "Christian" art is so bad? And what makes art "Christian"?

Let's take the first question first; what Christians often miss is that art communicates through two means: form and content. Something might be good art in form- the way the message comes across- but may proffer a terrible message (content). In cinematic fashion, a great example of this might be No Country For Old Men, where the acting and cinematogrophy are first class, but the ultimate message is nihilistic. Alternatively, a message may put forth a good message, but be terrible artistically. Most "Christian" movies in the past year fall in this category. Allow me to elaborate.

A movie currently making the rounds in "evangelical Christian" circles is Courageous. The movie depicts four fathers-all police officers- on their journey to parent and how their faith informs such a journey. Largely, the movie depicts a good message; namely, that it's good to be a good father and that it's hard and that it's rewarding and that it's ultimately powered by God. Some of my problems are with content: there is a moralistic tinge to this kind of message. In other words, if we don't do something by our own sheer moral effort, it won't get done. Ironically, this subtly contravenes the Christian message. Even still, most of my problems with the movie aren't necessarily with its moralism.

My problems with the movie is that it's bad art. Sure, "Christian" movies have come a long way in certain respects. The acting is better. The camera work is better. And yet....and yet.....it's still bad art, and there's a simple reason for this. The movie doesn't know how to get it's message across in anything but preachy aspects of dialogue. The most profound moments in the film are when someone is talking to someone else about what they need to do or believe. In other words, the only reason the movie exists is for me to watch other people talking to each other. The final scene in the movie even depicts a guy preaching a message from a pulpit. It's all tell, and no show. Art is thus limited with this kind of approach.

Similar critiques are leveled against a different kind of "Christian" film: Blue Like Jazz (great critiques of the film's preachiness can be found here and here). Despite the fact that this film attempts to be edgy and a different kind of Christian film, the reviewers above can't help but notice that the movie's message is attempted primarily through drab dialogue.

But what's the alternative? Is there any way to promote the content of the Christian message through a vehicle that waxes more artistic? Yes. I submit to you The Tree of Life, a Terrence Malick film that has nearly no meaningful dialogue. The actors-Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain- no doubt carry some of the strength in artistry. But ultimately, the film promotes aspects of the Christian message without ever saying so in dialogue.

The essence of the film is a 20th century Job story where a father and mother lose their middle child and the father loses his job. And yet, the film almost never tells you that those events are happening. You have to watch it happen through innuendo, through visual representation, through the absence of what isn't there in series after series of visual vignettes. Interspersed between larger groupings of vignettes are barely audible prayers addressed to God: various forms of 'whys?' and 'how longs?'.

Furthermore, the brilliance of the film rests on its reliance of the visual as it overlays the Biblical message of Job. The film starts with a biblical quote, its only true message of preaching, but it sets up every visual element. The quote is from Job 38:4 and 7.

"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... when the morning stars sang together?"

There is some difficulty here, because you have to actually know the reference in Job and know the biblical story for the film to make any sense. In the quote, you know that God is speaking to Job. Job has been trying to vindicate himself before his friends the entire book, saying that he's not suffering because he is wicked. Job repeatedly demands his vindicator, God, to so grant his case before his friends. Eventually God comes on the scene and essentially says, "who am I to vindicate you? I was the one who created this whole thing. It's you who ought to worship me."

With that in mind, for about 20 minutes in the middle of the movie, the visual vignettes backtrack in time to celestial images and the fashioning and forming in deep space. It's not until about five minutes into this extended- seemingly incredible interruption- scene that you realize what's happening. Malick is showing us creation, instead of telling us about it. Malick is giving us God's answers to these barely audible prayers in visual form, and not in dialogue.

The film, understandably, is thus very difficult to follow. It's the complete opposite of most "Christian" films, because having no dialogue means the message is a little harder to discern. The audience's understanding of Malick's message is thus tentative, and even still the artistry of the film definitively supports the idea that God doesn't owe us anything, and yet he still redeems us (Job 19: "I know my Redeemer lives.") It's the Job message. The Christian message. Not through dialogue but through a powerful artistic form.

That gets us to the second question we asked at the beginning: what makes art "Christian"? I think The Tree of Life, despite not being explicitly "Christian" art, is still good Christian art. Are there other movies, for example, that can fit this description? Perhaps. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are certainly not explicitly or implicitly about the Christian message, but there's a reason the motifs from those films are powerful. Harry takes the judgment of Voldemort due him and dies for everyone, and is brought back to life. Katniss takes the place of her little sister in what seems certain death.

Did you catch that? The reason those motifs are so powerful is attributed to what theologians have called "substitutionary atonement" for centuries. Jesus takes our place on the cross and the penalty that was due us-he is our substitute- and gives us his righteousness in place of that, if only we'd believe in Him. There, right there in not-Christian movies, is the concept of a Christian idea being played out. It's not being told to us, it's being shown. If only "Christian" movies could learn this lesson.

That leaves me with only one obvious conclusion from all these premises: in Christian art, we need more show, and a little less tell.