Tangled Web, Part 2

In an earlier post we saw that support for abortion is woven into a web of cultural values—self-creation, personal autonomy, sexual license, etc. It is not that abortion supports those values, but rather that abortion abets the free pursuit of them. Seeing this helps us see why some people are so committed to protecting legalized abortion; its loss threatens the sanctity of these deeper values.

Yet this tangled web of cultural values only describes the ideology of the cultural elites whose voices influence policy-makers. The truth is that the elites that champion abortion on demand very rarely have actually ‘needed’ an abortion. Statistics show that rates of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and abortion are far lower in higher economic and education brackets. In short, those who advocate for abortion don’t get abortions. Those who get abortions are no less tangled, they are just tangled in a very different web.

Those seeking abortions are often caught in destructive relationships. The baby’s father may be absentee, opposed to the pregnancy, abusive, or unknown. The mother’s family may be distant, or unsupportive. There may be no other network that the mother can turn to.

Those seeking abortions are often in precarious financial situations. They may have limited education and job prospects. They may be single mothers struggling to provide. The prospect of another child to care for is overwhelming.

Such relational and financial deficits are often accompanied by spiritual and psychological weariness and suffering. Depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse, are common. Pregnancy and motherhood seem unbearable to those suffering such mental health shortfalls.

Caught in such a hopeless web of destruction, abortion seems the only option. In a sad irony, however, abortion, grasped as a “solution” to the predicament, only serves to exacerbate the emotional imbalance as regret and guilt follow. Not infrequently that emotional decline only feeds further deterioration in relationships and economics.

Responding to these two webs requires very different approaches. Most of us are not in much of a position to influence the ideological web and its increasing grip on our legal system. Nevertheless, this is often the web that receives the most attention through protests, breast-beating blogging, and demonstrating.

As individuals and as a church, we are much better positioned to minister to those caught in the webs of sin and brokenness that often lead to abortions. It may be said that people are complicit in their compromised relational, financial, and mental health condition. And it is true to a certain extent. The fly caught in the web only complicates his situation by wriggling to free himself. But Christ came to us with salvation “while we were yet sinners”, while we were his enemies, to bring us to God. We were no less complicit in our death and brokenness than are those suffering the soul-crushing relational, financial, and spiritual conditions that give birth to the death that is abortion.

We may not be able to stop abortion; the legal tide seems unlikely to shift soon. But we will always be in a position to discourage abortions, provided we view with compassion those tangled in the web of death and deception.

The Faithful Few Many

A study of injuries suffered by cats falling from various distances arrived at an unusual conclusion: cats that fall from fewer than six stories and live, have greater injuries than those that fall from higher than six stories. Seeking to explain this unlikely finding, it was suggested that since it takes cats a few stories to right themselves, they can then relax, better enabling them to absorb the impending impact, thus minimizing injury. However, a later interpretation suggested that since dead cats are not usually brought to veterinarians, many of the cats that fell from greater heights were not included in the reports; only the ones that survived their falls were included, skewing the overall results.

This is an example of what is called “survivorship bias.” By only counting the cats that fell from higher heights and survived the study unintentionally distorted the actual likely outcomes of falling cats. Similar errors are made in the assessment of businesses and finance managers when studies only take into account those organizations still in business or traders still active in the market instead of including those that failed and quit.

A similar dynamic may be in play in how we assess the success of our Christian life. As we look at Scripture and Church history, we are far more likely to highlight and therefore compare ourselves against the success stories—say, Joseph, Daniel, or Ruth—than against the “failures”—say, Stephen.

A poignant example of this can be found in Acts 12. That chapter recounts the remarkable story of Peter’s escape from prison thanks to angelic escort, including the touching detail of young Rhoda’s excitement at his unexpected appearance. That the narrative concludes with the execution of the hapless soldiers and later, the grisly death of overweening Herod, only serves to underscore the victory.

However, the chapter begins by relating that Herod “killed James the brother of John with the sword” (12:2). While I have heard these divergent apostolic outcomes rationalized various ways, my point is that we remember Peter’s story and expect our story to be like his. No one imagines, hopes, expects, or even interprets their lives to be modeling the experience of James here.

But the truth is that across the whole of Scripture and Church history, far more have tasted martyrdom or lived a life of religious tedium than have experienced the angelic rescue of Peter, the dramatic prayer outcomes of George Muller, or the remarkable ministry productivity of George Whitefield. Yet we persistently look to these success stories, not as the individual acts of grace that they are, but as though they set the standard for our personal spiritual expectations. The predictable result is frustration or feelings of failure.

But for every Esther there are thousands of nameless but faithful Israelites. For every Elijah, “seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). For every George Whitefield, a host of faithful pastors. To be sure, these “Heroes of the Faith” serve as examples for us, but they do so primarily in their faith, not in the temporal outcomes of it. How God distributes outcomes is up to him. May we join our daily, undramatic faithfulness to the long history of saints, known and unknown, celebrated and forgotten, who have gone before us.

Glorious Anonymity

Pop artist Andy Warhol once predicted, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” A look at modern culture suggests that Warhol was almost right. It would be more accurate to say that now everyone “wants to be” world-famous for 15 minutes, to “go viral.” To be famous, or even infamous, seems to be the pinnacle of individual achievement. Somehow we must set ourselves apart from the crowd.

Though we struggle to imagine conceiving of ourselves any other way, this striving for individuality and recognition is a relatively recent development in Western society and doesn’t exist in many other cultures even today. Just a few centuries ago, the individual was not the basic unit of society, groups and classes were.

One manifestation of this absorption of the individual into the collective is the anonymity in which clerks and artists plied their trades. Legal documents bear only the individual’s position not their name, or at best, an initial. The design and execution of major public works was accomplished without attribution. With exasperation, Walter Ullmann, a medieval historian rants:

Who conceived Ely Cathedral? Who was the architect of Strasbourg Cathedral? Who were the builders of the dozens of magnificent monuments? To be told that this work comes from the school of Reichenau and that work from the school of St. Albans, and so on, is really no substitute for an identification of the individual who composed and executed or illuminated this or that manuscript. (33)

For our self-soaked mindset, it seems impossible that these people would leave no trace of their involvement in these magnificent works. We must have recognition and we must have it now.

In general, Ullmann writes with an historian’s circumspection. But on this point, the stark difference between that time and our own prompts a brief, damning editorialization. He writes, “Today when a new apartment house goes up, the name of its architect is splashed all over the papers but in coming ages neither the architect nor his building will be remembered, while after so many centuries medieval productions still evoke justifiably great admiration” (33) Compared to the art and architecture of earlier ages, our modern world creates very little that anyone will still be marveling at centuries hence. But we always know who did it. We make plaques listing donors, name legislation after its proponents, and turn artists into household names.

There are two types of glory at work here. One is broad, brief, and evanescent. The other is lasting and deep, but anonymous. As Christians we are not immune to the thought practices of our culture. Are we looking for recognition now of who we are and what we’ve done, even religiously? If so, Jesus would say, “You have your reward.” Or are we willing to work anonymously to contribute to the building of a kingdom that will not fade away?

*The Individual and Society in the Middle Ages. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966.

Time will Tell

There is an old saying that there are three kinds of lies: Lies, damn lies, and statistics. It is a helpful reminder in a culture that attempts to prove or disprove everything through “scientific studies.”

It is tempting for Christians to overestimate the value of studies that purport to support things that we believe, like, say, a study that finds that children from intact families fare better in life. “See, the Bible was right all along,” we say.

But statistics cut both ways. In From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage, Darel Paul chronicles how many studies showed that children raised by same-sex partners fared as well (or even better!) than children in heterosexual homes. This evidence was used to weaken arguments against same-sex marriage and parenting by showing that it had no deleterious effects on children. Critics of same-sex marriage and parenting were left to question the validity of the studies in some way or offer counter studies.

How do we think Christian-ly about this issue?

First, we should be circumspect in our appreciation or rejection of purported scientific findings. Reports of the health benefits of good marriages no more prove the truth of Scripture than those showing the resilience of children from single-parent homes disprove it. By using a scientific study as part of our “evidence” for the truth of Christianity, we place ourselves at the mercy of the latest “scientific” findings.

Rather than being discomfited by supposed scientific findings contrary to biblical ethics we should expect them. Why?

We are limited. While our studies may approach truth in the “hard” sciences, in areas such as psychiatry and sociology, we are simply incapable of taking in and evaluating all the relevant data. Findings are necessarily provisional.

We are sinful. Data does not interpret itself and our sinfulness implies that our assessment and evaluation of data is not just limited but distorted, sometimes obviously, other times not.

Truth is revealed over time. Scripture indicates that sinful ways can be seen to prosper for a time. Psalm 37:1-2 instructs: “Fret not yourselves because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers.” The Psalm argues that while it may appear that their ways are prospering now, “They will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.”

We believe that God’s judgment is final. The ultimate assessment of all things is not the current apparent status of behaviors and their outcomes. Rather, all things must be evaluated through a look back to the unchanging truth of God’s Word (his “judgments”) declared in the past and a look forward to “end of the story” when truth will finally be revealed (judged). It is then that those who have lived according to God’s word will be vindicated and those who did not will be exposed.

Only time will tell.

Trust Fall

In his book The Problem of Trust, Boston University Professor of Religion & Society Adam Seligman analyzes the condition of modern social interaction. One of the major shifts in modernity is the weakening and multiplication of social roles. That is, compared to earlier ages, there is increasing flexibility in how we behave in social roles such as employee, citizen, spouse, etc. and we inhabit a broader range of such social roles.

A unique feature of modern social interaction under these conditions, he argues, is the number of interactions that require trust. Trust, for Seligman, is needed because our interactions are increasingly “free” in that they are not clearly structured by shared social expectations of specific roles. The people we interact with are free to do just about anything. To interact with them we either must prepare ourselves for a range of responses, or we must trust that they will interact with us in mutually beneficial ways.

We all know this by experience even if we wouldn’t have put it in Seligman’s terms. We have experienced the unexpected explosion of rage from what we thought was a simple social interaction. We have seen the list of taboo topics grow from politics and religion to include race, gender, holidays, and even the weather (think environmentalism).

The effects of all this are many. We increasingly isolate ourselves (often with headphones). We view interaction with others as uncertain if not dangerous. We retreat to safe relationships (tribalism). We signal our affiliations quickly to control interactions (MAGA hats). We seek to have interactions controlled by externally applied codes of behavior rather than courtesy (campus speech codes).

These shifts in interaction have an impact on the church as well. As a church we are called to be the body of Christ, to be the family of God, to be united, to bear one another’s burdens, etc. But we bring relational exhaustion to church with us. Wearied by the uncertainty of daily interactions we come to church relationships trust deprived. Add to that deficit of trust any history of having had our trust abused and the stage is set for church to be nothing more than a series of surface, guarded interactions—just like society.

What must we do? Every age of the church has had specific ways in which the cultural climate challenged their efforts to live out the faith. This may be one of ours. G.I Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.” Just being aware of our trust fatigue can help awaken us to the need to push back against this minimalist-relationship tendency both within the church and without. Within, because we cannot be the body of Christ effectively without meaningful interaction with each other and without, because we cannot hope to evangelize without pushing beyond the safety of minimal social interaction.

Reverse Renaissance?

In The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200, Colin Morris discusses some of the effects of the growth of education and rediscovery of classical and Patristic texts during the “French Renaissance” of the 11-12th centuries. One was the discovery of a theological subtlety not characteristic of the simple creeds of the day. He writes:

The reading of the Fathers in the light of the better knowledge of logic revealed that the Augustinian doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was immensely more complex and sophisticated than the simple creeds which had been accepted as adequate in the immediate past, and that it raised a variety of issues which required consideration. (58)

He notes that theological and practical reform movements arose in response to the now obvious conflict between these sources and the present thought and behavior of the church.

Morris notes another, related challenge. That is, 12th century readers of these ancient sources discovered that in many cases, the ancients did not speak to issues that they themselves were facing. This left them in the position of needing to think things through on their own.

As an example, Morris notes the development during this time period of more sophisticated theories of atonement, like those of Anselm and Abelard, in contrast to the less precise conceptualization of the Patristic period.

Morris notes the most distinctive difference between the periods: “The doctrine and discipline of the Western Church was modified to meet a new situation…presented by the fact that Church and society were now identical in membership” (59). In contrast to the Patristic period and the time in which canon law had first been formulated, there was much greater continuity between church and society by the 12th century. So much so, that Morris quotes Otto of Friesing (c. 1114-1158) to the effect that Augustine’s Two Cities have become one.

Morris had earlier noted that as the church came to dominate society, she found less resonance with the biblical presentation of the situation of the early church and turned increasingly to the Old Testament depiction of Israel as a religious society. What is clear is that the striking change of fortune necessitated a deep reconsideration of certain aspects of the church’s thought and practice.

For some time now, the Western Church and especially the church in America has been experiencing the reverse of the Medieval trend. Whereas at one time one could reasonably consider citizenry more or less coextensive with religiosity, that is no more the case. America remains “spiritual” in its unique way, of course, but the direct relationship between Christianity and society that some like to imagine was once the case is no longer tenable.

What doctrinal and practical challenges might this reversal present to the contemporary church? To be sure, changing cultural norms and intellectual fashions have frequently forced the church to clarify or nuance its positions on various topics. Issues of human and personal identity, gender, and marriage are obviously much to the fore currently.

But the shift away from a predominantly Christian culture in the West will force more specific questions about the relationship between church and society, church and magistrate, than the West has had to negotiate for some time. In such a situation, we should not be surprised if the best resources to understand our situation are found in the historical experience of the church in other eras and in the contemporary experience of the church in hostile areas.

Personality Pastiche

Early on in The Saturated Self, Kenneth Gergen suggests that our relational saturatedness, especially that experienced through mass media, means that we increasingly “know how” to act in certain stereotypical situations. He writes,

If a mate announces that he or she is thinking about divorce, the other’s reaction is not likely to be dumb dismay. The drama has so often been played out on television and movie screens that one is already prepared with multiple options. If one wins a wonderful prize, suffers a humiliating loss, faces temptation to cheat, or learns of a sudden death in the family, the reactions are hardly random. One more or less knows how it goes, is more or less ready for action. Having seen it all before, one approaches a state of ennui (71).

Of course, we have always been habituated by our culture in these things; there is nothing new about that. But in the past one would have been “trained” in these reactions by a much smaller and closer community. Now, as Gergen’s quote indicates, the narrative that informs our reactions in these situations is far more often the product of a distant media rather than a local community. This both homogenizes responses as it depersonalizes them.

Gergen argues that, somewhat ironically, in this age in which we increasingly tout our powers of personal expression, “as the century has progressed, selves have become increasingly populated with the character of others” (71). That is, as we are confronted by more and more people and ideas, we pick up more and more information that gets subsumed into our behavior.

From a Christian perspective, this reality challenges us to think hard about the “dramas” that we expose ourselves to and points to the importance of inclusion of the biblical narrative and characters in the biblical drama in the panoply of “relationships” with which we are saturated.

Self-understanding: It’s a messy business

Early in his The Last Days of the Renaissance & The March to Modernity, Theodore K. Rabb discusses the dramatic impact of the decimation caused by the plague on social and economic structures in the centuries following. Further he suggests that the rise of the use of gunpowder caused significant shifts as well by eroding the socio-cultural codes of knightly valor while concentrating military power with those with sufficient financial means to make and maintain the artillery associated with gunpowder. It goes without saying that these changes impacted not only social structures but also the contexts in which people conceived of themselves as persons. That is to say, that these social and cultural events forced changes in self-perception, changes that unfolded over the ensuing centuries.

But Rabb’s indication of the devastation of the plague and the technology of war prompted thinking about how often our sense of ourselves and the world is changed by dramatic events rather that pure philosophical abstraction. Much is made of the anthropological impact of Rene Descartes’ reasoning to the foundation of the thinking self–“I think, therefore I am.” But many philosophical shifts have been born out of more traumatic events. A few examples came to mind:

  • In Evil and Modern Thought, Susan Nieman re-reads the history of philosophy as a coming to grips with the problem of evil out of the devastation of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
  • Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club addresses the impact of the American Civil war on the deeply influential philosophies of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and Charles Pierce.
  • Many have observed the impact of The Great War and to a lesser extent WWII on subsequent human thought and self-understanding.
  • Nieman and others have discussed the impact of the Holocaust on all philosophical thinking thereafter.
  • And we are understandably still exploring the impact on our self-understanding of the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

Other examples could likely be adduced. But these suffice to warn us against attempting to write the history of philosophy and especially the narrative of shifting notions of the human person as merely a progression of philosophical developments from Descartes to Locke to Rousseau or whatever. Rather than a peaceful, logical narrative, our shifting collective self-understanding is often moved forward by paroxysms of terror or violence.

Embracing Death, Transcending Death

In a 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning work of psychology, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argued that much human effort is spent grappling with the reality of death and attempting to overcome (deny) it. Becker traced this frustration to humanity’s duality: “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever” (26).

Much of the book is given to Søren Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud’s differing analysis of this duality and its effects. Becker discusses the ways that humans push back against this fear of death—sexuality, relationships, heroic accomplishments, etc.—and chronicles the psychological effects of most people’s recognition of their failure to cheat death. Principally, he notes, we deny death by producing various shields to block or distract ourselves from really reckoning with it, often to damaging psychological and spiritual effect.

Kierkegaard concluded that the way through this impasse is to confront directly our dependence upon the Ultimate Power, and our fundamental inability to transcend death or make our lives eternally meaningful. Becker summarizes: “One goes through it all to arrive at faith, the faith that one’s very creatureliness has some meaning to a Creator; that despite one’s true insignificance, weakness, death, one’s existence has meaning in some ultimate sense because it exists within an eternal and infinite scheme of things brought about and maintained to some kind of design by some creative force” (90).

The psalmists’ model just such a response. Living lives far less buffered against the reality of death than we, they confront death directly. They speak of the “cords of death”, the pit, and Sheol. “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” (89:48). Their confrontation with death and the meaninglessness of life is raw and honest. Yet they do not confront death alone. Nearly as frequent are affirmations such as, “Bless the Lord, O my soul…who redeems your life from the pit” (103:4).

That said, the psalmists rarely seem to have a clear picture of how God will redeem them, nor how their lives will be made meaningful in the larger scope of God’s dealings. This confidence can be seen in the final verses of Psalm 102 where the psalmist both stands in awe of God’s utter vastness and unchangeability and yet also affirms “the children of your offspring shall dwell secure.”

“Full humanness,” Becker asserts, “means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day” (59), a daunting prospect no doubt. But denial, distraction, or defiance provide no way forward. Rather, we can be schooled by the psalmists in embodying a humble embrace of our frailty trusting our transcendence of death to God’s mysterious grace.

Textual Tourism

Though most people think of him as a writer of children’s fantasy, for his familiar Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis’s true area of expertise was Medieval literature. In one of his studies on the topic, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he makes some comments that are equally applicable to the study of the Bible. He mentions the reader’s tendency to consult expert literature only when the reading is forbiddingly hard. “But,” he warns, “there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren’t.” Part of the reason for this difficulty is the vast difference between the reader’s world and the world of Medieval literature, and by the same token, the world of the Bible. We all know about passages in literature or Scripture that are difficult because of the concepts or strange vocabulary that is used (Agh! High school Shakespeare!). When the vocabulary is familiar we can easily be lulled into thinking that we know what the writer is talking about. But medieval and biblical authors alike lived in very different worlds than we do and speak of common things—nature, souls, love—from perspectives very different than ours. We cannot merely read their writing through the lens of our world.

Lewis cleverly depicts the difference between readers that, recognizing the difference between worlds, seek to enter the world of the author, from those who take their world along with them in their reading: “There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however, accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness’, and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives.”

Just as readers could take their “modern sensibility and modern conceptions” to the works of medieval which are the focus of Lewis’s book, so too readers of Scripture can come to it with their contemporary ideas. Rather than trying to enter the world of Scripture on its terms, marveling at the strange and at times incomprehensible features that we find there, we come to it with our ideas and expectations. The result is that we manage to find exactly what we expected to find in the literature. It is not Scripture and its authors that are speaking to us, but our own ideas.

There is no doubt that there can be some pleasure from reading literature this way. Lewis concludes of these readers, “They have their reward.” But when it comes to Scripture, we should wonder whether the reader, reading in this fashion, heedless of the world from which the text has come, has truly read the word the author has written. And if he has not really read the word that was written, will he really encounter the voice of God in that word? Let us not take our “resolute American Christianry” with us on our journeys on the Continent of Scripture. Let us enter that world eager to engage with its strange culture rather than settling for quaint postcards.

I am the great and terrible Oz!

Image result for world without mindIn his book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Franklin Foer examines the impact and dangers of technology giants such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Many of his warnings should be of interest to us as Christians, parents, and consumers.

Of particular concern are the god-like goals that many of these organizations pursue. One of these is exhaustive knowledge of their users through the amassing of data. On the basis of a user’s likes Facebook can predict their “race, sexual orientation, relationship status, and drug use” (76). Knowledge, as they say, is power. And this knowledge is amassed specifically to manipulate the users. Foer records how Facebook has used its power to control people’s newsfeeds in order to run tests on human emotions. One team member admits, “Anyone on the team could run a test. They’re always trying to alter people’s behavior” (75). He explains how Amazon and Netflix use recommendations in exactly opposite ways: Amazon steers buyers toward the most frequently bought products because volume means profit for them while Netflix recommends less well-known movies which cost the service less to stream.

Foer concludes: “Facebook would never put it this way, but algorithms are meant to erode free will, to relieve humans of the burden of choosing, to nudge them in the right direction. Algorithms fuel a sense of omnipotence, the condescending belief that our behavior can be altered, without our even being aware of the hand guiding us, in a superior direction” (77). Foer even envisions a scenario where Facebook uses geographic and demographic information to selectively influence users to vote, thus deeply impacting an election.

These revelations give me pause on both practical and intellectual levels. Practically, as Christians we should strive to be aware of the forces that are at work upon us. We are enjoined to be ruled by the Spirit of Christ, not by external forces nudging us toward their vision of human flourishing. We do not operate with wholly libertarian free will. Google, Amazon, Netflix and the like are deeply invested in manipulating our decisions and doing so in a way that preserves the illusion of free will. On an intellectual level I find it ironic that the very atheist/agnostic folk that reject as invasive and immoral the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful God mysteriously meddling in human affairs, have no problem exerting their growing knowledge to mysteriously meddle in human affairs.

The background for all of this is still the ancient account of humanity’s fateful reach beyond itself for divine knowledge. “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You shall not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen. 3:4-5). We need to keep our eyes open to see the forces shaping us, our children, and our world. They are not ultimately out for our good, only their own.

Idolatrous Word

Early in Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry, T. F. Torrance addresses the tight link between the cultic role of the priest and the word of God. The divinely ordained priestly tasks were not efficacious in themselves but rather witness to God’s promise to be faithful to the covenant and gracious in forgiveness.

All priestly action within the place of meeting was by way of acknowledgment and witness to God’s testimony of himself in the Covenant. God is not acted upon by means of a priestly sacrifice. Priestly action rests upon God’s Self-revelation in His Word and answers as cultic sign and action to the thing signified (3).

However, Israel tended not only to pursue gods more in keeping with their desires but also to detach their God-given liturgical actions from the word and action of God. Torrance explains this as a “temptation to escape from direct meeting or encounter with the living God” in and through the liturgical practices. The effect is that the liturgical acts themselves become idols. Rather than signifying the gracious, covenant-keeping actions of God, they become humanity’s idolatrous acts of self-righteousness. Torrance again explains this as an effort to avoid an encounter with the divine: “The more the liturgical forms are turned into idols, the less men are disturbed by a speaking God” (5). That the sacrificial act be a repeated declaration of the Covenant God’s Word that He forgives freely though He has the right to judge is too close to the terrifying thunder and lightning of Sinai. And so the sacrificial system is domesticated by becoming human actions appeasing a distant deity.

One might be tempted to draw parallels to the view of the sacraments in some sectors of the church, and may by justified in doing so. But an equally valid parallel may be drawn to the relationship to Scripture in more Word-centric sectors of Christianity. Scripture can be centralized, analyzed, and doctrinalized and yet in such a way that it ceases to be a conduit for hearing the voice of God.

As Psalm 29 attests, when God speaks, things happen. Cedars break, fire flashes forth, forests are stripped, the wilderness shakes. And yet, in the very churches that claim to have a high view of Scripture, the Word of God rarely speaks, nor is expected to. Like a dumb idol, it says and does exactly what we expect it to. Perhaps we are equally fearful of an encounter with the Speaking God.

Faux Po-mo

One of the supposed effects of post-modernity was the deconstruction of all sure foundations for thought, un-writing of all “metanarratives.”  All interpretation and reason is theory-laden; all stances are contextual. Acknowledging this was supposed to lead to epistemic humility and that, to tolerance. To a certain extent it has.

But a casual glance at the rhetoric of most public political and moral debate reveals that apparently most people didn’t get the memo on the provisionality of their conclusions. As the following quote from Alasdair MacIntyre captures, there is no shortage of certainty in these uncertain times.

“For the modern radical is as confident in the moral expression of his stances and consequently in the assertive uses of the rhetoric of morality as any conservative has ever been. Whatever else he denounces in our culture he is certain that it still possesses the moral resources which he requires in order to denounce it. Everything else may be, in his eyes, in disorder; but the language of morality is in order, just as it is.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 4.

But…Swine flew

25990935-_uy200_In The Actuality of Atonement, Colin Gunton thoughtfully considers the role of metaphor in human thought and theology in particular before examining three specific biblical metaphors for atonement: the battlefield and the demons, justification, and sacrifice.

In his discussion of the victory theme he takes on the issue of the ontological status of the demonic. He concludes that talk of demons as personal forces is too mythical a take on the matter. Rather they are vivid ways of talking about social and moral forces at work in the world. He defends that far from being the result of ignorant myth-making, this sort of language is the best and perhaps only way to talk about forces that can only be described indirectly. He concludes: “The texts present us not with superhuman hypostases trotting about the world, but with the metaphorical characterisation of moral and cosmic realities which would otherwise defy expression” (66, emphasis original.)

I appreciate Gunton’s work here and there’s part of me that wants to buy in. After all, belief in the spirit realm is not easy to sustain in the modern context. And, being a bit of a ‘belief minimalist’ I don’t want to believe anything that I don’t have to believe. So if I could be convinced of such a position I might be tempted.

However, I wonder if Gunton’s presentation really does justice to the permeation of the spiritual forces theme throughout Scripture. This aspect of the ancient worldview is not merely retained as a light residue in a few Gospel stories and exhuberant statements in epistles. The thread of a spirit realm with its own narrative that intersects with the earthly story is shot through the biblical story.

Furthermore, it’s not clear to me how these apersonal, “moral and cosmic realities” are understood to have the effects that they do. I understand, I suppose, how one might explain sickness as a result of certain “moral and cosmic realities”, but the gospels show a clear awareness of a difference between sickness and demonic activity, though the categories can overlap.

Put another way, “moral and cosmic realities” might be able to explain the existence of swine flu, but I fail to see how they can explain why swine flew.

Piecemeal Peace

egg-nestRecently, prompted by Hebrews 3-4, I have been thinking and preaching about rest. These chapters make clear that God has made us for rest but experiencing that rest is no easy matter.

Concurrently I have been reading a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins as well as revisiting his poetry. I was struck by this short poem on peace. As usual, Hopkins’ phrasing and word choice are initially daunting, but the piece rewards patient attention.

WHEN will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
        He comes to brood and sit.

The first two and half lines express a desire for Peace to move from being a bird that flits around Hopkins to being something firm on which he can rest. It is not that he never experiences peace, he makes clear, but that the peace he experiences is fleeting and partial. The alliteration and wordplay of the fifth line almost comes out as stuttering: That piecemeal peace is poor peace. Piecemeal peace is his experience while he yearns for a perfect peace yet to come.

In the second stanza he considers both what happens in peace’s absence as well as in its coming. First, he expresses the expectation that if God withdraws (reaves) his peace, he doesn’t do so without leaving some good behind. And indeed, Hopkins explains that in the absence of peace, one may grow in patience. Recalling the avian imagery of the early lines he says that patience itself “plumes to Peace” in time.

By the last two and a half lines the imagery of Peace as a bird is fixed. And here is perhaps the most thought-provoking concept Hopkins offers. What happens when peace comes? We often think of peace as an absence of conflict or stress. But Hopkins imagines bird-Peace actively; it “comes with work to do.” It does not merely sit and sing–“coo“–in a tranquil, passive soul. Rather, it “comes to brood and sit.

What does Hopkins mean? The brooding and sitting bird broods and sits over an egg. Perhaps he is suggesting that Peace births something within us. It is not an end in itself but comes to create and bring some new thing, some new life within us.

Too often our images of peace and the way we pursue it is in terms of an absence and as an end in itself. But the rest into which God calls us is not a passive rest. It is an active and re-creative rest. The peace of absence–absence of conflict, of noise, of stress–is poor piecemeal peace. The peace of presence plumes beauty and lays and hatches new life.

 

Prayer: It’s not rocket science

I517udw6am2l-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_n his interesting book Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, Mark Miodownik examines the science and history behind many of the most common objects of our daily experience: glass, steel, cement, paper, chocolate, etc.

One of the main questions he asks is: “Why do these materials have the properties they do?” He often takes the investigation to the molecular level to explain why steel bends and why chocolate tastes and feels so good as it melts in your mouth. Today’s scientists understand why materials are the way they are with a precision never before known. It is impressive and fascinating.

At least as fascinating (to me at least), is the fact that humans figured out how to manipulate these materials long before they had the skills and equipment to examine what was happening at the smallest level. Long before we could understand the complex changes that are involved in the formation of steel from iron and carbon, sword-makers had developed the processes necessary to make steels of varying strength and flexibility. The same can be said for chocolatiers, bakers, and experts in any number of other fields. In the absence of precise scientific knowledge, humans were still able to develop impressive results with a variety of materials.

There may be a spiritual lesson for us in this. Our modern, scientific environment has trained us to expect precise explanations for most phenomena. We may not ourselves know the explanation but we trust someone does and could find the information if we needed to. (Just google it!). This expectation is frequently frustrated when it comes to spiritual realities. How does prayer work? How do miracles happen? Is there really a spiritual realm? The absence of satisfactory, precise answers to these questions disappoints the modern mind.

But as the examples above illustrate, the absence of detailed knowledge of a reality at the most precise level is not a barrier to fruitful use of that reality. We don’t need precise, technical knowledge of steel-making to benefit from steel or even to make it! The same is true of the spiritual disciplines and particularly prayer. We don’t need to know precisely how prayer works for prayer to do its work in our lives.

To be sure, we may desire deeper knowledge of these realities, much as ancient bakers may have wondered why some loaves turned out and others didn’t. But it can be freeing to know that our knowledge—or lack thereof—is no barrier to our benefitting from these divine gifts.

In a dry and weary land

518era9qecl-_sx331_bo1204203200_In his book The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan chronicles the soul crushing reality of the Dust Bowl. The book is depressing and thought-provoking, equal parts cautionary tale and testament to human perseverance.

He narrates that after years of drought, when rains did come it was hardly helpful.

It rained fast and furious, but the water hit bone-hard ground and drained to long-dry indentations in the earth, filling ravines until they rose in a muddy torrent and smashed sheds and took a horse and then disappeared. It was as if it had not rained at all. 230

Might what is true of soil be equally true of souls? Might neglect and circumstance so parch a person’s soul that the refreshing rain of the grace does as much damage as good? I believe so and it stands as a lesson to ministers of the Word. What might this look like?

When someone has been cut off from life-giving truth from the Word and relationships with others, when truth comes they may not be able to receive it. Rather it may run swiftly through their minds only compounding the damage done by their drought. This could be in the form of reinforcing self-condemnatory thought patterns or highlighting what they already perceive to be their insensitivity to God’s presence and grace.

What can be done? Slow and steady rains are needed. Grace and truth must be ladled out consistently and in small quantities rather than unloaded in sermonic downpours. Ministers should be sensitive to the possibility that people in this condition are not helped especially by the sermon or the small group; the rush of water is too great. Rather, simple, personal watering of their souls is the remedy. In time they will be ready to receive the heavier rains.

Who’s speaking?

Much hay (and, frankly, money) has been made in recent years by authors playing the humanity of Scripture against its divinity. The human element in the production and preservation of Scripture is without a doubt a challenge to many Christians who hold to some concept of the “Inspiration of Scripture.” Most reject simple dictation but articulating the nature of the divine-human synthesis in the inspiration and canonization processes in particular is challenging and therefore open to reductionist critiques of the “the canonization of Scripture was a thoroughly political process oppressive of minority opinions” type and the like.

The source-book of science–nature–has no such convoluted origin, we are told. Rationalist scientists merely read the facts off the face of nature. Human involvement is purely observational. However, upon closer inspection, perhaps it is not that simple.

In We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour reviews the conflict between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes concerning the scientific investigation of vacuums (as narrated in Steven Shapin and Simon Shaeffer’s 1985 book Leviathan and the Air-Pump). Hobbes rejected Boyle’s ‘new’ scientific approach in which  phenomena were experimented on and observed in the laboratory. The fledgling scientists maintained that this was superior to previous science because it allowed the facts to speak for themselves. But is it as simple as that?

Latour picks up this notion of the facts speaking. He writes…

[Boyle] invents the laboratory within which artificial machines create phenomena out of whole cloth. Even though they are artificial, costly and hard to reproduce, and despite the small number of trained and reliable witnesses, these facts indeed represent nature as it is. The facts are produced and represented in the laboratory, in scientific writings; they are recognized and vouched for by the nascent community of witnesses. Scientists are scrupulous representatives of the facts. Who is speaking when they speak? The facts themselves, beyond all question, but also their authorized spokespersons. Who is speaking, then, nature or human beings? This is another insoluble question with which the modern philosophy of science will wrestle over the course of three centuries. In themselves, facts are mute; natural forces are brute mechanisms. Yet the scientists declare that they themselves are not speaking; rather, facts speak for themselves. (28-29)

Latour is calling the scientists’ bluff. In what meaningful sense can it be said that the facts are speaking for themselves without human involvement, when the very machine (in this case the vacuum pump) that created the ‘natural’ state being examined, was designed and manufactured by humans?

And we could go on. The systems of measurement used in science were defined by humans. The devices with which the measurements are taken were designed and built by humans. And, of course, the languages used to articulate nature’s facts are human artifacts. (This list doesn’t even begin to touch on the problem–so helpfully pointed out by our postmodern friends–of the effect of one’s human vantage point on observations–“there are no uninterpreted facts.”)

So perhaps with both Scripture and science there is an unavoidable “speaking together.” Humans speak and God/nature speak and defining precisely where the speech of one ends and the other begins is an impossible task.

This is humbling and ennobling. On the one hand it points up our limitations as humans. On the other, it shows God’s intention to catch us up in his creative, life-giving speech.

One Summer or One Reality?

I recently finished listening to One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. It is a fascinating look at one busy summer which included a catastrophic flood of the Mississippi river, Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo crossing of the Atlantic (and the failed attempts of a few others), Babe Ruth’s record-setting season, a widely publicized murder trial, the invention of television, a highly anticipated boxing match, and a variety of other events of historic interest. Bryson’s writing is always brisk and informative. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It did, however, prompt some thought both about how little things change and also about how blind we can be to our own era’s problems.

We have a tendency, I believe, to idealize the past. Conservative Christians can be particularly prone to this giving the impression that the whole world was Christian and holy prior to the 1960s. What Bryson shows, however, is that the 20s were no era of Christian family values. Tabloids purveying salacious material were booming. The trial of a woman and her lover for the murder of her husband captured the nation’s attention in a way quite similar to the celebrity escapades of today. And the politicians of the day were regularly engaged in corruption and relational improprieties. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And things have changed. Though Bryson avoids editorializing much throughout the book, he shows a noticeable and justifiable disdain when writing about some of the eugenics rhetoric of the era. For a brief, sad period, many across the cultural spectrum were calling for the forced sterilization of those deemed unfit to reproduce, principally criminals and the insane, in an effort to improve the population and purge it of “undesireables.”*

While Bryson’s discomfort with this way of thinking is justified and would probably be shared by most of his readers, it is more than a little ironic that we live in a society in which doctors routinely advise parents to abort babies with Downs Syndrome or other birth defects. The arguments are different but the result is the same.

There is no Golden Era of the Church or humanity. Each age shows both the glory of humanity’s imaging of God and the shame of human depravity. Looking carefully at the past can help us see ourselves and our tendencies more clearly.

*Amy Laura Hall chronicles the unfortunate collaboration of the church in this movement in her book Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction

Tolstoy is wrong

You have probably heard the quote from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The quote has everything a good quote needs: relevance (we all have families), pithiness, and the appearance of wisdom. But that doesn’t make it accurate. In fact, I think that Tolstoy got it exactly wrong, at least in the part that matters most.

Tolstoy is probably right from the standpoint of causes of happiness and unhappiness in families. The things that can cause unhappiness in families are manifold: selfishness, addictions, alcoholism, workaholism, marital disharmony, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse, violence, isolation, suicide, bitterness, unforgiveness, ungratefulness, etc. Families can fail any number of ways. Families may have more than one of these, but often one is enough.

By contrast, those things that make for happy families are generally shared in common: humility, forgiveness, respect, stability, discipline, gratitude, sharing, praise, etc. Most happy families will evidence nearly all of these characteristics.

So by the standard of that which causes happy and unhappy families, Tolstoy may be correct. However, when one considers what happy and unhappy families produce he is dead wrong.

The variety of causes of familial unhappiness incompletely enumerated above may be diverse but they are remarkably consistent in what they produce: misery. Misery is relatively without character. Though the paths to the misery may be varied, the destination is the same.

By contrast, the characteristics common among happy families produce any number of unique effects. Some families are of the jovial, back-slapping, joke telling variety in their happiness. Others express their familial harmony in various artistic manners. In other homes the family happiness creates space for quiet reflection and study.

I would like to suggest that this is a richer, Christian and theological assessment than Tolstoy’s pithy maxim offers. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, the devil cannot create; he can only parody. What ‘creativity’ he has is spent in bending the varied tools on offer to him to his ultimate goal of spreading misery and death.

The grace of Christ, however, is endlessly creative. Resurrection brings life and life brings fruit. Happy, joy-filled families produce people that create and bless in all sorts of beautiful ways, not least in often creating still more happy homes. This is the essence of grace.

By manifold devices the devil creates a single effect: misery.

By a single effect—grace—the Savior creates manifold delights.