Thursday, December 27, 2007

What's in a Semester?

Well, here it is. This is what I've been doing the last four months. I usually don't do big checklists like this but it was a daunting season of life and I wanted to keep on top of things. Its kind of sad to look at 4 months of your life summarized in a checklist but there it is. The thing is, each thing on this list represents a learning experience: Some of them practical, some of them profound. I really have enjoyed seminary. Can't believe there is only one semester left.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Beautiful Story

In church today they told the Christmas story, and they said it wasn't just a story. What more could it be? It is the story. From eternity past this has been the story. We are in it. We get to participate in the eternal community of God because of His election to create, and not only to create but to become, human.

Of course He is not reducibly human any more than we are divine. But from the foundation of the world the story has been that Creator elected to share life and love with creatures and to take this to the most unimaginably intimate lengths. The incarnation is the opening of the floodgates of the depths of that story. A story that is not done. It is about reconciling the world with Himself.

It isn't just a story, we say. Funny we don't say this about our creeds though. We don't read our doctrinal statements and say they are just our doctrinal statements. But they fall short of conveying all that is to be conveyed about the wonders of God in life. Story helps us appreciate that a bit more. The Bible is full of this story. I go to church to be a part of a story that God is telling. But I digress. It's true, this isn't just a story. This is the story: The one in which all stories find their meaning.

I have my criticisms of church, but at the end of the day I have to say this morning it was (and always is) a privilege to be reminded of this story and to be called to live in it and even be an extension of it. For all that the church may or may not be, it is God's collective witness through time and space of what he has done and is doing and is yet to do. The incarnate Son of the Eternal One is not finished uniting us to Himself. Let us partake together.

Friday, December 14, 2007

"New Clothes" (A Short Story by Dale H)

Well, I haven't had much to write lately but I've had lots to read. One of the things I've enjoyed reading lately have been some short stories of some friends of mine. I asked them if I could share them. Here's one by my friend Dale at seminary. In a week or so I'll post one from my friend Dave M. I won't say much about them but if anyone comments I'll make some comments too. Be nice to my friends though! I love stories that take you to another place or into another person's mind or heart. Both of these stories do that. If you have some time, give them a read! Peace, Jon.

New Clothes

A Short Story

If one could somehow know, before it occurred, that this or that experience would leave its indelible mark on the imagination, I suppose one would make a more conscious effort to absorb as many of the details as possible for later rumination. As it is, I remember very few, and those I do drift intangibly before my mind’s eye like grains of dust suspended and illuminated but briefly in the sunlight shaft of my memory.

I remember especially the heat. It had gripped me like a sweaty fist all that day as I waited for the evening’s performance. I had whiled away the sun and the time in the shade of the carefully manicured greenery of Vienna’s Stadtpark, reading the last pages of Camus’ L’Etranger. If I had not been laboring so hard to effect that existential objectivity I so admired in its narrator, I would probably have allowed myself to indulge in the sense of absolute Bohemianism the whole scene evoked—the drifting traveler in repose, detached and foreign, sitting and reading an existential French novel in the dappled shadows by the banks of the Donau, oblivious of the crowds rushing past him along the Schubertring.

In retrospect, I must admit, the majority of Camus’ sparse prose was wasted on my ungainly schoolbook French, but the odd phrase here and there—"Do you wish my life to have no meaning?" "I had no soul, there was nothing human about me"— whet my appetite for the profound just enough to keep me engrossed. I read and reread the final paragraph somewhat tremulously, trying to absorb the essence of those last sentences. Though I did not understand his des cris de haine, I knew well enough what he meant by la tendre indifférence du monde-- a world which had ceased to concern me.

Perhaps this is why I was disappointed that evening to find that the two Americans so annoyed me. My annoyance bore witness to the failure of my contrived detachment. We were all crowded together in the dim light of the standing-room-only section of the Vienna State Opera House: these Americans behind me to my left, a stoic British couple just in front of me, to my right the Australian tourist who had chatted so affably at me in the line while we waited for our tickets. In this crowd, the heat of the day, not at all waning with the evening, swarmed oppressively. Many had already accordioned their programs into fans and were desperately trying to wave it away. My Lonely Planet had assured me that Stehplatz—standing room only admission—to the Vienna State Opera House could be purchased for a mere 20 Austrian schillings, and the cultured exoticism of it all had been irresistible to me. It may be that I was not the only pseudo-bohemian traveler looking for a taste of the exotic after spending the day reading French nihilistic literature by the banks of the Donau, for the standing-room-only section densely packed.

At any rate, these Americans annoyed me. They had struck up a conversation of the most transparent kind with the woman standing next to me. She was a girl, really, perhaps twenty, and the tone and tenor of these two young tourists was particularly grating: "Have you been to the Opera before?" "Are you from Vienna?" "We’ve been traveling through Austria for two weeks now." Without effort the image came to me of these two college kids back home in Connecticut regaling their friends with stories of the time they had with that girl they met at the State Opera House in Vienna, like some trophy snapshot in a sordid photo album captioned with ugly words like "score" and "chick."

That the girl spoke English with an extreme brokenness, which she tried to hide behind fluttering, averted looks, made the whole scene the worse. They pressed her. "Are you Austrian?"

"No… not Austrian." Her accent was German. "I always have wanted…to see… ballet."

Because of the crowds, I could not help but notice her. She was quite lovely, in a timid way. Her complexion was porcelain-white, and the hair that fell in dark curls past her shoulders, together with the wide darkness of her eyes, exaggerated its fairness to pale. She smiled faintly at their conversation but something about the hint of nervousness in the gesture, the furtive movement of her eyes as she did so, suggested to me a mother bird feigning a broken wing to distract a predator from the vulnerable hatchlings in her nest.

Her figure, too, though graceful, had a fragility about it that was accentuated by her unusual attire. A simple white dress hung straight from her shoulders, curvelessly to her feet. Aside from the obvious newness of the dress—its stiffness and brightness—there was nothing remarkable in it alone. Even the platform sandals she wore, though they gave the impression of a child playing at dress-up in her mother’s high heels, were not especially unusual. It was the brilliant sash bound about her straight waist that caught the eye. A bright, lime green silk, it seemed all the more green for being the only swatch of colour she wore: a brilliant star of green in a perfect night of white. On any other figure, in any other setting, this combination would have seemed eccentric, even clownish. In her it somehow gave her loveliness a bashful naiveté, pitiable perhaps, but not laughable. I could close my eyes and imagine this timid young innocent donning this plain white dress, her newest and best, for her first time at the ballet, scrutinizing herself before the mirror with a look of humble dissatisfaction, and then, with artless triumph, completing her ensemble with this garish green sash, blissfully ignorant of the glaring effect, and all the more lovely for that ignorance.

"You speak German?" one of the Americans was asking.


"We’ve never seen ballet before." The other was confessing. "Do you like it?"

Again the mother-bird fluttered her broken smiles: "I always have wanted…to see… ballet."

"Well, when you’re in Vienna, you have to go to the Opera House at least once."

"Yes. It is so… beautiful."

"I’m Josh."

"And I… I am… Sofia."

The British couple ahead of me was mumbling placidly to one another about the pending performance: "It says here the show tonight, ‘L’Existence’ is an experimental modern ballet."

"Experimental and modern? I wonder what we should expect then."

"Something deep, I’d say. Interpretive, no doubt."

Next to me the effusive Australian was imposing on my attention some anecdote he had read in his tour guide about the Emperor’s commissioning of the Staasoper. "Look here, mate," he was saying, "it says the architects of the Opera House committed suicide after the Emperor Franz-Josef made some off-hand remark about the building being too low to the ground. Can you imagine?"

Apparently the foundation had been laid before the surrounding street was finished, and the street ended up being higher than planned. In his chagrin over his role in their deaths, the Emperor sought to avoid the self-destruction of other artists by confining all subsequent aesthetic judgments to a simple: "Es war sehr schön, es hat mich sehr gefreut"—it was very nice; it pleased me very well. "Not much of an art critic, was he?" laughed the Australian as he recounted to story.

All the while I listened to him I kept the corner of my attention fixed on that strange girl and the two Americans. Before my annoyance could pin itself to a justifiable excuse, however, the ballet began.

The lights faded and the noise of the crowd dimmed to silence. For a few moments my eyes and ears gaped wide in the perfect darkness as we waited for something to happen. Then, the faintest scratch of a bow on a violin moaned distantly, and ceased. It scraped again, ceased again, and then the sound began in earnest. To call it music would somehow fall short in conveying the dark, swirling chaos of tonal textures— staccato creaks, piercing wails and guttural groans—that escaped in irrational intervals from that unseen horsehair scraping wire somewhere in the darkness. It was not unmelodic. It was deliberately and calmly antimelodic.

Though no doubt these noises were all carefully contrived, the ear sought vainly for some pattern which it might cling to and call rhythm in the sinuous bursts of sound. In the back of my mind I wondered if this was what was called atonality.
Whether my eyes had begun to grow accustomed to the dark, or whether somewhere on stage a light had come up, I couldn’t tell, but peering ahead an image slowly materialized: two hunched forms occupied opposite corners of a large square platform elevated some four feet off the main stage. In the hazy but growing light it appeared to be hovering there, suspended in a void of nothingness. It was lit, I now felt certain, from above with a grim grey light, but what made the scene hazy and indistinct was a transparent veil or curtain that was apparently hung in the darkness before the stage. In the centre of the platform sat a large, white cube.
Still the sound writhed around us.

For what seemed an unbearably long time, nothing happened. Then the figures rose and began their movements. Their black leggings and the shadows along the muscles of their naked upper bodies gave them a sinister air in that gloomy light. The music having no perceptible rhythm, it was somewhat difficult to discern a dance in their gyrations, but as they moved toward one another, the most unexpected thing happened. The platform began to tilt with the shifting weight of their bodies, pitching and heaving like some enormous, two dimensional scale. As it did so, the white cube in the centre began to move and slide with it.

Once the movement started, it could not stop without threatening to dump one, the other, or the white cube off into the pit. So the two figures drifted continually through the gloom and shadow, sometimes chasing, other times grappling each other, or else twining together to form some subtly grotesque tableau before flinging apart. And every movement was somehow punctuated with that eerie, formless sound.
Gradually the randomness of the scene wore off and a story, or perhaps more accurately, a pattern, could be made out. The two men were in competition, but this was only clear from the way one would attempt to tilt the platform such that the other came precariously close to disappearing over the edge. They were also striving for control of the white box; and through manipulating the scale just so, one might cause it to slide to him, only to have it wrested from him by the machinations of the other.

At times the two would lock together leaving the cube to slide itself dangerously close to the infinite abyss of the edge, only to be spared this just in time by further shifting of the platform’s angle. This continued through no clearly defined progression until, after a time, by some chance coincidence of vectors, friction and forces, the cube came to rest safely in the centre of the platform again, the two figures balanced on opposite corners. There they hunched again to their original positions. The violin heaved itself to a near-rhythmic tattoo, dropped darkly to a long whispered sigh, and stopped abruptly. The faint light was snuffed out and darkness again descended. With it fell a palpable silence.

The lights rose and for the briefest glimmer of a pause, the audience digested what they had just witnessed. Then a knowing ripple of applause began. It was not enthusiastic, but neither was it was obliging. It was an ovation of assent, not an approval, as if in one voice the audience was merely saying, "Es war sehr schon, es hat mich sehr gefreut," without passing any aesthetic evaluation on what had passed on stage. Clearly refined, the only thing the crowd seemed eager about was to prove there was not an uncultured Philistine in all their midst.

I stood there for a while after the applause had died, suspended between consternation and bemusement. "Well then," the Australian interjected at my right, "That was unexpected." His words brought me from my indecision and settled me squarely in bemusement.

In the row before me, the British couple had begun to ponder the performance between them, their voices quiet with a taciturn, if somewhat cadenced detachment. "But what did it all mean?" she asked him, her voice betraying not the least hint of disquiet.

"I suppose that’s entirely the wrong question," he answered knowingly. "Or a question impossible to ask. It meant nothing. Or rather, that there is no meaning."

She nodded acquiescence: "But it was experimental?" "Indeed."

Indeed. The faintest hint of a thought glimmered in me: if it was truly so, with what could it have possibly been experimenting? Even as that revealed darkness dimmed, I stole quick glance across the crowd and seemed to see the whole mass of humanity in new light, blithely rationalizing the irrational. With mild interest they had already assented to it, uncrumpled and consulted their program for the next piece, as if to say, "Well, even so, life must go on."

Then she began screaming.

"Nein! Es ist eine Lüge!"

And there is not a word sufficiently clear of cliché to convey the piercing cry. Frenzied, hysterical, lunatic, even bloodcurdling, haunted: it was all these things at once, and yet none of them. It was feral, to be sure, yet so precise, so oracular was its tenor, it came more as a clarion call than a howl of horror.

To make it worse, everything I heard in her cry was garbled with that enigmatic ecstasy of an unknown tongue.

"Nein! Nein! Das kann nicht sein! Wie können Sie diese Spötterei schön nennen?"

As usually happens when the unconventional shatters the nice platitudes of manners that keep the pond-water of society serene, it took a moment for the multitude to agree on an appropriate response. I could see people looking at one another with uncertainty and censure, and, concealed beneath them, that ancient terror of the weird. At first they gestured with their chins and condescending nods: "What is the matter with that one?" But like a pebble breaking pond water, a ripple spread concentrically from her, the standing crowds pressing back until there was a clearing around her of considerable radius.

And all the while she cried out: "Es ist eine Lüge! Können Sie das nicht sehen?Es ist Hässlichkeit und Leere! Eine nackte Lüge! Es ist nichts drin!"

Even those in the auditorium general, down below our crowded section, had begun to turn, look up, and murmur against the commotion in the standing room only pit.
But I found myself somehow paralyzed by the cry of this strange young sibyl: I could not press back from her with the others. For a moment it seemed as if my whole consciousness had narrowed on her cry, or that somehow the radius of the clearing around her and I had stretched to infinity. I looked nervously for those two Americans, but they had disappeared completely.

Then she turned her eyes on me, and as she did so, her body collapsed against the wall and she slid slowly to the floor. The look in her eyes trembled between pleading and defeat. She was weeping now. I felt her reach up and clutch my hand. And those fingers, their strange flesh, felt like ice against my skin. Her eyes held me frozen. She was babbling now, spent, though even subdued her voice had and inexorable urgency:

"Wieso? Warum können sie es nicht sehen? Das ist nicht Schönheit oder Wahrheit! Es ist ist nur eine nackte Lüge!"

I could not escape the lowering impression that her eyes were imploring something of me. Some response, some sympathy was expected of me. I stood there stupidly. She rose up on her knees, still clutching my hand in that icy grip. She turned her voice one last time over the crowd, and shouted a final indictment:

"Können Sie es nicht sehen? Das ist nicht Schönheit oder Wahrheit! Es ist nur eine nackte Lüge!"

Then she collapsed again against the wall, weeping exhaustedly, her chin drooped on the breast of her new white gown.

The confused murmurs of the crowds trickled towards me; part of me longed to discretely shake my hand free of her grip and join their condescending indignation at the disturbance. But I stood there, still stupidly.

"Was ist denn mit Ihnen los?" The voice of the usher broke the tension. Surely someone had summoned him to discretely usher away this impropriety. Her face was ashen as she lifted trembling eyes to him: like one stirring from the dead.

"Kommen Sie, lasst uns gehen. Sie sind wohl betrunken?" That he spoke German could not veil from me the utter contempt in his voice.

"Ich bin nicht betrunken."

Her voice was subdued now, but her eyes cast about with still a hint of their previous wildness. "Aber was war denn das? Ich dachte, es sollte schön sein."

"Kommen Sie, Fräulein. Lasst uns gehen." He reached out his hand, a menacing invitation.

She rose resignedly to her feet. Her hand was still against my fingers, but it felt now like air, not ice. She let it slip away, and my fingers were left haunted by the frozen imprint it had burned against them.

"Aber es war nicht schön…."

The usher snorted. "Nein, das war Kunst."

She left a kind of awed stillness in her wake. Slowly the crowd pushed back to fill in the void of her passing, as if in one mass they were trying to shrug off the memory of her. The hushed murmurs rose up again, but more subdued this time. "What was that all about?" they asked, expecting no real answer.

Behind me I heard one of the tourists who seemed to have a smattering of German translate for another. "She asked about the ballet… what it meant. He said it was just art." Her knowing "Ah" at this information crept across my spine.

The lights were dimming a second time, signaling the end of the intermission and the start of the next performance. I tried to focus my reeling concentration on the music that was now rising with the falling light.

This was a ballet in the fullest tradition of that word. Flowers, ribbons, tight silk stretched across taut bosoms and terse thighs pirouetted across the stage through a music that washed over all with a lush, fecund, somehow verdant sensuality. The gyrations and leaps of horn and flute and string were echoed and echoed by the luxurious movement of those carefully honed bodies.

My ears rushed with it, until it became a roar. Even as I watched, I felt my body convulsing with the urge to vomit. The heat, the press of the standing-room-only crowds overwhelmed me. I groped for the exit frantically, burst almost gasping for breath into the foyer of the Opera house, and rushed out into the moist night air, swirling with the traffic on the Opernring. My hand still burned with cold.
When the convulsions finally left me, and I was able to somehow compose my self, I began making my way slowly through the pressing, hot night towards my lodgings. But every step was a labor, and those eyes—like the haunted eyes of one who has looked behind a veil, a torn veil, and seen the gaping void of nothingness behind—pleaded with me through the darkness. And in my burning ears, as if it would never leave me, rang that forlorn howl of execration.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

There's Nothing Quite Like the Incarnation

At times I am so bored by Christmas it is ridiculous. The same tired old songs and one-liners every year. Somehow our culture finds a way to make even the incarnation trite. This is why, in my recent GKC overdose, I was glad to come across these great re-kindlers of wonder:

“It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant than to connect gravitation with a kitten. It has been created in our minds by Christmas because we are Christians; because we are psychological Christians even when we are not theological ones. In other words, this combination of ideas has emphatically, in the much disputed phrase, altered human nature. There is really a difference between the man who knows it and the man who does not. . . . Omnipotence and impotence, or divinity and infancy, do definitely make a sort of epigram which a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude. It is not unreasonable to call it unique. Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet” (The Everlasting Man, 171).

“In that fold or crack in the great grey hills . . . the whole universe had been turned inside out. I mean that the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outwards to the largest thing were now turned inward to the smallest. . . . it is true in a sense that God who had been only a circumference was seen as a centre; and a centre is infinitely small” (172). “The hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle” (169).

“In the riddle of Bethlehem it was heaven that was under the earth” (173).The cave was not just a hiding place from Herod (i.e. Moloch) but was like an “outpost . . . a piercing through the rock and an entrance into an enemy territory. There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world” (181).


“Nobody else except those messengers has any Gospel; nobody else has any good news; for the simple reason that nobody else has any news. Those runners gather impetus as they run. Ages afterwards they still speak as if something had just happened. They have not lost the speed and momentum of messengers; they have hardly lost, as it were, the wild eyes of witnesses. In the Catholic Church, which is the cohort of the message, there are still those headlong acts of holiness that speak of something rapid and recent; a self-sacrifice that startles the world like a suicide. But it is not a suicide; it is not pessimistic; it is still as optimistic as St. Francis of the flowers and birds. . . . We might sometimes fancy that the Church grows younger as the world grows old” (269).

I am pretty sure the church needs a bit of a rebirth these days, however, at least in regard to its treatment of Christmas. We need to recapture all that is meant in this moment rather than skip too quickly ahead to everything else. The incarnation is a piece of redemption already, even before the cross.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A Tale of Emptied Hells: Natural Theology in Chesterton's Thursday

As my last few posts indicate, I've been swimming in GKC lately. As I work up to my thesis defense in March, this doesn't look to be letting up any time soon. Perhaps for awhile I should say that this blog is about "thinking Chestertianity". Pretty lame joke.

Anyway, I am presenting what is called a "colloquium" to my school's faculty and students this Friday. This is basically an opportunity to present a scholarly paper and get feedback on it. It is pretty long and detailed, so I don't think I'll post it here. However, I did a related seminar in class a ways back that is roughly the same theme only slightly shorter. Here it is, for anyone who is interested.

I should add a spoiler alert though. The Man Who Was Thursday is definitely worth reading on its own first, so don't read on if you can see it in your future to get a hold of this novel and give it a go. You'll be glad you did. Then come back and read what I have to say about it!


This is a tale of those old fears, even of those emptied hells,
And none but you shall understand the true thing that it tells . . . .
The doubts that drove us through the night as we two talked amain,
And day had broken on the streets e’er it broke upon the brain.
Between us by the peace of God, such truth can now be told;
Yea, there is strength in striking root, and good in growing old.
We have found common things at last, and marriage and a creed,
And I may safely write it now, and you may safely read.
(Chesterton 1999, 28-30)

There can be little doubt that the dedicatory poem at the beginning of The Man Who Was Thursday indicates an autobiographical element to this fantastic tale. The place of this novel in Chesterton’s own life and literary career is also quite suggestive: It was published in the same year as Orthodoxy, after Heretics and the ensuing challenge from his opponents to articulate his own view instead of merely tearing apart the views of others. Thursday does read startlingly like a companion piece to Orthodoxy. As such it this metaphysical thriller might double as a personal testimony and defense of the faith.

Such a thing would not be out of character for Chesterton. Believing that most people came to faith from "one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend" (Chesterton 1996, 212), his stated intent in Orthodoxy was not "to turn this book into one of ordinary Christian apologetics" (Chesterton 1996, 211). If that was his spiritual autobiography, how wildly might he paint his faith within the landscape of Thursday?

As is made fairly clear in the dedication, Chesterton seems to have the darkest days of his adolescence in mind as he composes this novel. Later in his life he expressed his annoyance that people seemed to miss the significance of the story’s subtitle: A Nightmare (Buechner 2001, 96). Given what we know of Chesterton’s childhood, it should not be surprising if he should choose the literary form of a detective story/mythical fairy tale to relate his own spiritual journey through the darkness into the light. Early in his life Chesterton’s writings were apparently more exploratory and reactionary and when he reflected on this later we’re told that he "destroyed many early [manuscripts] and left ‘an absolute command' that his solipsistic juvenelia never be published" (Herbold 1967, 552).

When he finally wrote Thursday at the age of 33, Cecil Chesterton said his brother Gilbert "took great pains with this tale" (Wills 2001, 55). It may have been as much a personal catharsis as it was a fascinating story. Even then, Chesterton seemed to think only his childhood friend would understand the significance of what he was saying. However, one should not sell short the power of testimony, even veiled in fantastic language, to speak to the common experience of humanity.

Such an approach to this novel is not out of line with what Chesterton himself might have done in our position. In a discussion of the works of Charles Dickens he said that the purpose of literary criticism is to deal with "the subconscious part of the author's mind which only the critic can express, and not with the conscious part of the author's mind, which the author himself can express. . . . [It] means saying about an author the very things that would have made him jump out of his boots" (Chestertion 1989, 272).

At the same time, as one of his biographers noted, Chesterton "would have had little patience with [any author’s] egotistical tendency to say that the only subject for fiction was their own consciousness and its sensations" (Dale 1982, 116). Indeed, in The Man Who Was Thursday it would seem that the author is purposely veiling himself in order to point to Something Else. This he does not with Bible verses, but with story—a story where we do not see God until the end of a high speed pursuit of Nature.

If theology plays a part in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and in the personal journey that lay behind it, one could argue that it is not through biblical revelation but through some form of natural theology. Natural theology is defined as the attempt to discern "truths about God that can be learned from created things (nature, man, world) by reason alone" (Van Engen 2001, 815). Although it would be fiercely denied within Christian circles that natural theology could bring one to a saving knowledge of God, Chesterton’s approach to orthodoxy betrays a belief that reflection upon reason and mystery can take one at least to the feet of Christ, even if one requires God’s self-revelation and divine mercy to be able to look up and recognize Him. In Orthodoxy Chesterton claims that by reason he discovered the key-hole to the mysteries of life and then when he turned to Christianity he found the key. He explains:

"I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before. . . . [This book] recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious. . . . I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it. . . . I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy" (Chesterton 1996, 5-6).

This exactly the kind of odyssey that seems to be written all over the pages of The Man Who Was Thursday. In it a secret council of seven terrorists (named for each day of the week) is infiltrated by an undercover policeman who starts out investigating a murderous scheme and ends up unraveling some of the deepest mysteries of life. This is all typified particularly in the detectives’ pursuit of the enigmatic figure of Sunday. In this pursuit Dr. Bull observes that they are "six men going to ask one man what he means" (Chesterton 1999, 222), and Syme says it is even "queerer than that . . . I think it is six men going to ask one man what they mean (Chesterton 1999, 223, emphasis mine). Indeed, once they are taken in by Sunday is pummeled they pummel him with questions. To the question of his identity he answers, "I am the Sabbath . . . . I am the peace of God" (Chesterton 1999, 260).

True to form, in his intellectual honesty Chesterton’s characters are thrown by this statement into a tailspin of theodicy. If so, why all the darkness and suffering? The Professor says: "I do not understand. You let me stray a little too near to hell" (Chesterton 1999, 260), and Gogol wonders aloud: "I wish I knew why I was hurt so much" (Chesterton 1999, 260). To these questions Syme can find no answer, and he cries out at Sunday with the agony of Job: "Have you ever suffered" (Chesterton 1999, 263). The answer that comes back from the exloding blackness is the only Scripture reference in the whole story, Mark 10:38 (NIV): "Can you drink the cup I drink?"

It is a declaration of the suffering of Christ in solidarity with nature and it is suggestive of the call to martyrdom which first came from the lips of Sunday in the darkened room where Syme was called to serve. As the nightmare closes and drifts into the pleasant wakefulness of the book’s closing pages we are left with the alluring prospect that perhaps one must come to the end of oneself in order that one may live. Without but one word of Scripture the reader has been brought to this place in ways far more subtle and fantastic (and therefore more compelling) than I myself have just described.

Like a Kafka novel Thursday takes its readers on a journey through the perplexing absurdities of existence, but unlike a Kafka novel it leads us further into wonder and thanks. After reading Chesterton himself, the usually dark Kafka himself quipped that "one might almost believe he had found God" (Dale 1982, 113). Right down to the last line of the story the riddles pile on top of each other, exploding in the brain and touching the heart instead. Only there, in the last words of the nightmare, is Nature unveiled as the Sabbath and the last obstacle to faith—the reality of human suffering—addressed in the echoing refrain of Jesus Christ.

The really astounding thing about all of this is that Chesterton is not proposing anything explicitly about natural theology, per se, but is describing this as his journey. Having grown up somewhat acquainted with the Unitarian church, caught between a Universalist father and an agnostic mother, Chesterton had little comprehension of the fuller Christian creed and by all accounts barely survived an almost full embrace of nihilism. He would later describe his conversion to Christianity as something like "a mind surviving a hundred moods" (Chesterton 1985, 169). In most of his writing his intent is clearly to reach out to those who are where he once was and to offer them a safer way through the nightmare. A year after Chesterton’s death, one writer observed:

"[He was] more concerned with those who do not share his faith than with those who share it. He looks after the stray sheep. He does not spare his trouble, and will teach children to read in the hope that they might one day read their prayers. Chesterton never starts his argument from Revelation, he leads to it. He begins by spelling patiently the agnostic's alphabet" (Cammaerts 1937, 54).

This is the heart of the man who had dug himself deep into those "emptied hells", but somehow or other struck root, stumbled across the creed like a treasure hidden in a field, and then wrote about it from the other side (Chesterton 1999, 28-30).

Using imaginative narrative rather than systematics, and natural theology almost entirely in lieu of Scripture references, Chesterton reaches out to his world. Through the detectives in The Man Who Was Thursday he probes questions of existence—and as the standard dilemmas (between order and anarchy, optimism and pessimism) unravel before the investigators’ eyes they confront something wild, wonderful, and wholly other.

Considering the climate of our times, there might be something to be said for this approach. Today’s interest in spirituality is countered by its distrust of religious institutions and its search for answers is tempered by a distrust in statements of truth. This is a problem for Christianity, which depends greatly on divine revelation for knowledge and salvation. There is little doubt that Christianity declares people incapable of reaching God and salvation through their good works or their intellect, but calls them to receive the free gift of God by grace through faith. In that sense the Christian faith is dependent upon the Special Revelation of God spoken of in Christ. But how much can be learned in reflection upon that more General Revelation of God in creation? If the saving God is the same God as the creating God one can expect to find great continuity between General and Special revelation. Perhaps the path from one to the other is seamless and, to some degree, even overlapping.


Buechner, Frederick. 2001. Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought To Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith: Four Who Wrote In Blood. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins Publishers.

Cammaerts, Emile. 1937. The Laughing Prophet: The Seven Virtues and G.K. Chesterton. 2d ed. London, UK: Methuen & Co.

Chesterton, GK. 1999. The Man Who Was Thursday. Annoted by Martin Gardner. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.
________. 1996. Orthodoxy. Hodder & Stoughton.
________. 1989. "The Old Curiosity Shop: Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens." The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton Vol XV: Chesterton on Dickens. Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.

________. 1985. "The Thing: Why I Am Catholic." As I Was Saying. Edited by Robert Knille. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Dale, Alzina Stone. 1982. The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G.K. Chesterton. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Herbold, A. 1967. "Chesterton, Gilbert Keith." New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol III. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Van Engen, J. 2001. "Natural Theology." Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2d ed. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics.
Wills, Garry. 2001. Chesterton. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Ever-Relevant GKC

It is amazing that reading GK Chesterton can at once feel both like a trip to the past and a prophetic glimpse at today. He was an early 20th century English journalist and made no bones about dropping names and places and events into his literature so that it would seem he was speaking only to his contemporaries. But he was speaking so often of timeless things and was so perceptive that many of his words are startlingly relevant to this day.

For instance, consider his argument at the outset of The Everlasting Man. One doesn't have to read Barna's Revolution to know that many evangelicals are all but done with evangelicalism. If Chesterton were here he'd probably say that's because we are in it and all we can see is the worst of it. Here's what he said:

"The next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it. And . . . the popular critics of Christianity are not really outside it. . . . They still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith. Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian" (Ev. Man, 9-11).

Then there is his dialogue in Father Brown's The Hammer of God which reveals just how imperceptibly dangerous, especially for religious people, is the problem of pride:

First off, Father Brown says to Wilfred Bohun: "Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak" (Fr. Brn., 91).

Then there is the comment which seems to be a reflection on the Fall of Satan: "‘I knew a man,’ he [Father Brown] said, ‘who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that though he was a good man, he committed a great crime" (91).

But it is not about Satan, per se. When Wilfred Bohun asks him how he knows this, he cries: "Are you a devil?" The response is the secret of Father Brown’s insight: "‘I am a man,’ answered Father Brown gravely; ‘and therefore have all the devils in my heart"(91).

All of this actually reminds me of the need in ancient Israel, rarely met, to destroy not only the gods but also the high places. And, once again, Chesterton forces me to ask: What does this say to us and our worship today?

I know its been said before that evangelical worship is for many evangelicals an idol; a god. Perhaps it is, perhaps it is not. But what about the spiritual high places, and what they do to us? I think we have a serious addiction to ourselves that manifests itself in our worship practices quite insidiously. It is too difficult and not appropriate to judge one another, but we ought to ask ourselves and our churches if this is a problem.

Another prophetic word from almost a century ago.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Orthodoxy Excerpts

Some artful philosophy from GK Chesterton, which I might only ruin with further comment:

On the freedom that is only found by having rules: "We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over, but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased" (Orthodoxy, 216).

On the denied presuppositions that enable evolutionism: "Nature does not say that cats are more valuable than mice; nature makes no remark on the subject. She does not even say that the cat is enviable or the mouse pitiable. We think the cat superior because we have (or most of us have) a particular philosophy to the effect that life is better than death. But if the mouse were a German pessimist mouse, he might not think that the cat had beaten him at all. He might think he had beaten the cat by getting to the grave first. Or he might feel that he had actually inflicted frightful punishment on the cat by keeping him alive. . .

. . . Just as a microbe might feel proud of spreading a pestilence, so the pessimistic mouse might exult to think that he was renewing in the cat the torture of conscious existence. It all depends on the philosophy of the mouse. You cannot even say that there is victory or superiority in nature unless you have some doctrine about what things are superior. You cannot even say that the cat scores unless there is a system of scoring. You cannot even say that the cat gets the best of it unless there is some best to be got" (150).

On miracles and the presuppositions of science: "The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them" (224).

On rejecting faith on the basis of convenient caricatures: "The ordinary agnostic has got his facts all wrong. He is a non-believer for a multitude of reasons; but they are untrue reasons. He doubts because the Middle Ages were barbaric, but they weren’t; because Darwinism is demonstrated, but it isn’t; because miracles do not happen, but they do; because monks were lazy, but they were very industrious; because nuns are unhappy, but they are particularly cheerful; because Christian art was sad and pale, but it was picked out in peculiarly bright colours and gay with gold; because modern science is moving away from the supernatural, but it isn’t, it is moving towards the supernatural with the rapidity of a railway train" (223).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Facing Our Complicities

Reflecting back on the previous post, there are other situations where these issues of societal complicity show themselves. One that comes to mind is the relationship between evangelicals and homosexuals. It is far too easy for Christians to distance themselves from homosexuals and make homosexuality the standard illustration of obvious sin. This self-righteous posture betrays an overwhelming ignorance of the more subtle sins within—such as slander and judgmentalism—as well of the societal complicity in the sin of homosexuality itself.

Generations of evangelicals have cavorted to and strongly perpetuated patriarchalism and its inherent gender sterteotypes, and have therefore unwittingly encouraged their more "masculine" daughters and "effeminate" sons into an identity crisis. Not all have done this, of course, and even those that have have done so with varying degrees of intentionality and grace. Nonetheless, this has been the societal environment of which we've been a part and it (among other things) has caused the gender-confused seek identity and community from other sources.

That some find relative peace and compassion by embracing the identity given them by the homosexual community should not surprise us. The sad irony, however, is that often enough this only causes evangelical parents to turn more adamantly away from them. Too often I think this "righteous indignation" plays as a comforting mask for one's own unarticulated and unrealized guilt--- and manifests itself, at worst, as a deep-seeded homophobia (which is different, in my view, from just thinking homosexuality a sin).

Having had a hand in creating a homosexual, these evangelicals turn on their own sons and daughters to avoid facing up to their own culpability in a societal evil.

This is just another example of the mess in which all are intertwined. This is why separating the world into in/out categories of sinners & saints is just way too simplistic. Acknowledging this does not negate or reduce the moral culpability of those who manifest sins in their most outward and perhaps egregious forms, but it does force us all to face up to the corporate reality of our fallenness as a human race. I'd like to see us face up to these complicities a little bit more. I think it might actually cause us to be more aware of and open to the depths of God's redemptive grace.

Perhaps such honesty with the human condition would help evangelicals to maintain a real, rather than an abstract, "love for the lost"—rather than having to conjure it up every "Missions Sunday" with manipulative slide shows and sappy worship songs. Instead, perhaps it would be borne out of a genuine conviction and empathy for our fellow sinners.

Perhaps we need a slap in the face so we can no longer miss the depth of grace. Perhaps this is what it means to be come honestly and humbly together before the throne of the reconciling God by the mercy of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps what it means to be a Christian is to grasp a vision of a shared humanity—not one which concedes itself to evil but one which confesses hope and humanity in Christ.

Perhaps confession is more than a negative renouncing but also a positive pronouncing and accepting—even a gracious quickening! Perhaps this is what it means to be filled with the Spirit, to become ambassadors of reconciliation, and to be the first taste of the new creation in Christ.

Perhaps we should be the salt of the earth rather than holding out in self-righteous seclusion for the rapture. Such a vision of Christianity might be dangerous and costly—but it is veraciously daring and compelling.

Facing the Complexity of Justice and Evil (a book review)

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night offers a needed jolt of reality regarding the systemic and endemic extent of evil in our world. It does so by taking a hard look at one of the front-line perpetrators of apartheid: Eugene de Kock. The book poses questions about justice by reflecting honestly on the fact that he has been dubbed "Prime Evil" and sentenced to 212 years in prison by the very same society that created him, benefitted from his crimes, and endorsed them with their silence (34, 110-111). Though de Kock was rightly convicted of his crimes, once the structures of evil in which he was entangled are considered, it is clear that the punishment can not be called totally just. Justice has been served, but not really done.

At one level it must be affirmed that "de Kock’s harsh punishment is unques-tionably just because corporate or systemic structures of evil cannot be allowed to overshadow [his] moral responsibility to resist those structural evils" (Guretzki). It must be agreed that individuals can and should be held responsible for their actions even if they are going along with structural evil. The careful and serious discipline of individual offenders is justified by the essential need to uphold the freedom, dignity, and moral responsibility of the persons that make up a society. De Kock is accountable for his actions. He engineered countless murders rather than stand up for what was right. He knew those at the other end of the rifle were "people" just like him (76).

When he later insisted that putting politicians in his place would result in no more wars (78), de Kock indicted himself. After all, he was in that position and yet still perpetuated the evil. In one sense he may have been like a frog slowly boiling in a kettle, but he is not a frog. Being human means being held morally responsible or it ceases to mean very much at all. The proper length of de Kock’s sentence could be debated, but in an imperfect world it is preferable that individuals be held responsible than their personal responsibility be allowed to fragment into society and be diluted (162). Admitting that there are societal evils underlying his wrongdoings does not relieve his moral culpability—it reveals that there is plenty more moral culpability to go around.

Though de Kock’s individual culpability should not be overshadowed by societal evil, it should not be assumed that his punishment entails the unquestionable accomplishment of justice. Indeed, plenty of questions remain. Can his punishment return his victims to their families? Who can grant de Kock’s children a father in place of the one they lost to the system of apartheid? Why should de Kock’s children pay for this societal evil, and their fellow white school-children not? As Miroslav Volf concludes: "Justice is impossible in the order of calculating, equalizing, legalizing, and universalizing actions" (Volf, 223). God grants authority to human governments not under the delusion that they will finally and fully accomplish justice, but as part of his general grace by which justice can partially be served (Rom 13:1-5) this side of the new creation.

The complexity of evil begs many questions: How can justice be served on societies? Is it enough that taxes paid for de Kock’s hearings and for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? How can justice ever be properly doled out to everyone who has a hand in society’s depravity? What about past generations? Would we be happier if we could raise Cain and crucify him for our sins?

Though her approach is strictly social and psychological, there is a theological depth to Gobodo-Madikizela's conclusions. In her longing for real justice she felt the deep need for "a sacrificial act" (113), for mercy "granted cautiously" to the repentant, and for a newfound "shared humanity" (139). It is hard to imagine any hope for final justice other than in a holy Human who suffers a sacrificial death, raises to life, empowers a reconciling people, and promises a final judgment day.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Church Re-Formation

I think there is an important parallel between the Reformation era and today which the church needs to face up to and figure out what to do with. If we don’t it could be devastating, if we do it could propel us to be even truer and more beautiful. It regards the locus of the faith; the authority; the truth. To get it, first of all we have to take a trip back to the 15th century:

Early on in church history the truth of the faith had been carried primarily by the apostles and their successors, upheld by the oral tradition and the liturgy, and preserved in the apostle’s writings (which were then scattered around the continent). By the fifth century the apostolic succession had shown cracks, the liturgy had proven unable to answer every question, and so the Scriptures were collected and canonized. But the leadership still carried sway. Over time the reliability of the leadership waned. Power corrupted.

By the fifteenth century the power games of the Church authorities had been shown for what they were, and the base truth-dispenser of the Christian faith had eroded. Most lay people did not have the ability to read the Scriptures for themselves and, thought they sensed abuses were going on, did not have the ability to "check" their authorities. The abuses and the oppression piled up---until the Renaissance and other things enabled people such as Wycliffe, Erasmus, and Luther to check the Scriptures and hold the leadership to account. Their hope was for reform but it ended in a split. Reformers wanted the Church authorities to admit they’d gone wrong and proven unreliable in some (not all) ways and to work towards reform (not schism).

But the dilemma for the Catholic Church was that to admit that any Church authority in the past had been wrong was to admit that they could be wrong again. This perhaps sounds ludicrous to our evangelical ears today but we have to understand that, to them, for the Church to admit it failed was for Christianity would lose its credibility completely. The Scriptures, in their eyes, were hand in hand with the Church leadership. If they were undermined the whole ship went down. This is why the Council of Trent did not budge to the Reformers an inch.

Which brings me to today. The parallel to today is simply this: Evangelicals now have for a long time looked to Scripture as the sole authority for the Church. Sola scriptura. Certainly, the words on paper are more reliable a witness than twenty centuries of tradition. We actually have 99.8% accurate idea of what the original apostles wrote down. Tradition and Church authority can no longer compete with that.

But something has happened to the reliability of words. Beginning with Nietzche, postmodern thinkers have unveiled the power games and shiftiness inherent in language. Words are not perfect symbols for the thing they mean to express. Words, once said or written down, can be open to a variety of interpretations. People always knew this, of course, but it took Nietzche and the like to make us face it. The Word may be infallible, but our interpretation and understanding of it never is. Words, in themselves, have lost their certainty.

For some this has eroded all faith in Scripture. Many evangelicals have fought this erosion fiercely, holding tightly to the infallibility of Scripture, naively denying the realizations of postmodernism and chalking it up to a fad. They say all you need is the Bible and they become their own Popes. The truth of the faith is theirs. That’s where the locus of authority is now. Me and the Bible and the Holy Spirit will be just fine, thank you.

The Holy Spirit has been gracious and the Bible is clear on many points and so this does, admittedly, get people pretty far. But it also leaves them open to misinterpretations galore. The Bible can be read many ways and the Spirit misunderstood a thousand. Nowadays this just isn't holding water anymore.

This is difficult to accept. We can’t just say "the Bible says" and leave it at that. This is a huge hit to evangelical certainty. What can we rely on then? This is sending some evangelicals, naively, all the way back into Catholicism. This is also allowing the current Pope to take Catholicism back to Trent. We desperately want our security. But just as the reformers (rightly) took the security blanket of papal infallibility away before, postmodernism has (rightly) taken the security blanket of biblicism away. Now what?

What we need is to not panic, and to realize what has been true all along. The words of Scripture may be just the right ones selected by the Holy Spirit to accomplish his purposes, but they don’t do so on their own. Scripture alone, while the highest "check" against Tradition and spirituality, is not the authority of the Church of Christ. Jesus Christ is. For us to follow Jesus in truth as a church and as The Church we must see ourselves in a process. In this process Scripture is and always has been meant to work in tandem with the Spirit in the context of the community of believers past, present, and future in order to perform its task.

Where does that leave us? I don’t think it is a stretch, based on this and other parallels with the fifteenth century, to say that we might well be in process of a Re-Formation. My hope is that this ensues in a gradual coming together. When we realize that the only authority in the Church is Jesus Christ, who exercises that authority through the Scriptures as read with the Spirit in the context of the Church (Tradition past and present) we have perhaps a less tangible and visible locus for our faith, but therefore a better and more unifying one. We are united by our faith in Christ and our need for dialogue and perpetual reconciliation.

We become The People Learning To Speak The Truth In Love.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


I am still working on the afformentioned second post on the Re-Formation theme. In the meantime here is a fascinating and beautifully written exerpt from Chesterton's Manalive, which we had a wonderful discussion around in class today. At one point it reads almost like a premonition of postmodern paralysis. But this is overcome---by a change of perspective perhaps?---and results in two men deciding to break with paralysis and seek to live again.

Nothing can alter it, it’s the wheels of the universe,’ went on Inglewood, in a low voice; ‘some men are weak and some strong, and the only thing we can do is to know that we are weak. I have been in love lots of times, but I could not do anything for I remembered my own fickleness. I have formed opinions, but I haven’t the cheek to push them, because I’ve so often changed them. That’s the upshot, old fellow. We can’t trust ourselves, and we can’t help it.

Michael had risen to his feet, and stood poised in the perilous position at the end of the roof, like some dark statue hung above its gable. Behind him, huge clouds of an almost impossible purple turned slowly topsy-turvy in the silent anarchy of heaven. Their gyration made the dark figure seem yet dizzier.

"Let us . . ." he said, and was suddenly silent.

"Let us what?" asked Arthur Inglewood, rising equally quickly though somewhat more cautiously, for his freind seemed to find some difficulty of speech."

"Let us go and do some of these things we can't do," said Michael.

I don't believe Chesterton here, or in this book, is espousing a recklessness about life, but rather a wise and knowledgable insistence that one cannot cease to live out of fear of making errors. As he says elsewhere: "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."

But what if you care about the people around you? Then be wise. And love them. Yet call on them for grace to be free to live. Be ready to confess and be forgiven and repent of your errors. But live passionately, and wisely. The two go hand in hand. And an environment of confession and forgiveness (as only enabled by the promise of justice in Christ) goes in with them and makes them possible. Anything else is a stifled life. And this is why there is more life in Christian grace than in all the meaningless postmodern illusions of tolerance that prevail today.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


It almost seems like everyone with a book deal or a mega-church in Western Christendom is clamouring to be the next Martin Luther. Browse a few titles like George Barna’s Revolution and Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change and you start seeing 95 Theses every which way you turn around. Except instead of posting them on the Wittenburg church’s door, today we are posting them online by the thousands. It can't all be hype, though, can it? Is there something new, difficult, but potentially good emerging?

For some the "emergent" church is a by-word and for others the last hope for Christianity. Generally speaking, the former group mostly contains those being sought in seeker-sensitive services and the latter group contains those who are not. I’ve said before that the "emergent" church at its worst is really little more than a new brand of seeker church. At its best, however, I must admit that it just may be a Re-Reformation.

But instead of hyping it with references to Bono or Al Gore, allegories from the Lord of the Rings, or some kind of worship time with candles and incense—as much as I personally might enjoy those—allow me to point out three parallels between today’s emerging church movement and the reformation squalor of the sixteenth century.

1) A NEW MEDIUM. In the fifteenth century it was the printing press. Instead of being totally reliant on the clergy to read a book for them, the regular joe was learning to read. Even though the literacy rate might only have reached 30% by the time Luther made that fateful posting, their was a new power given to the people: The power to hear from someone else if they so chose. The internet represents the exponential increase of that power. The impact of this is more subtle, perhaps, but no less important.

My pastor may be the one whose sermons I sit through each week, but it is the rest of the week that I can go find what I really want to hear. My pastor can have no idea what other voices I am listening to and can not possibly keep up with his church people’s ka-zillion blogs. Whereas before the pastor may only have had to keep up to speed on a half-dozen authors and watch the news a couple times a week to keep up, now he is largely in the dark. The pastor is one drowned-out voice among many, and his may not carry much weight. I’m not saying this is all bad or all good. But it is a huge shift in the nature of the church.

2) ABUSE OF POWER. Not every pre-Reformation Catholic bishop or clergyman was the epitome of evil. Not every pastor today is a televangelist. Not every pre-Reformation Catholic was manipulating others with legalism, guilt, fear or condescension. Not every Christian is today. But by the fifteenth century the lot had been sullied, and by the twenty-first it has been again. Like the Catholics of 500 years ago Evangelical clergy and laity alike are not trusted anymore and the people have rebelled.

3) "SUPERSTITIONS". I am using superstition to refer to our tendency to attach more significance to the tools God uses to spread his grace than to the Giver of Grace Himself. By the fifteenth century the Catholics had taken the manifestations of God’s grace such as baptism, communion, confession, and the priest and turned them into veritable superstitions. It got to be that people could easily cease to trust Christ and trust the baptismal fount instead. It got to be that the vital Christian life was not sustained by the Spirit but literally through the Eucharistic wafer itself. I would venture to guess that many within evangelicalism have done this again.

Instead of baptism efficacious for salvation it is the altar call or the sinner’s prayer. Instead of the Eucharist or indulgences sustaining spiritual life it is personal devotions in and of themselves. If pushed on it evangelicals would resist this notion, but practically speaking it is what we seem to have done. At least Catholics were holding onto sacraments that the Bible actually points toward.

I have one more parallel to draw but I've never heard anyone say it in so many words and think it is a bit controversial, so I'm thinking about it a bit more and will add it next week.

Or maybe I should hold out for a book deal!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What's In A Rainbow?

For some reason this past week I found myself thinking about rainbows more than a schoolgirl with CareBear wallpaper.

It all started when my friend Terry and I came to Genesis 9 in our Sunday School class and had to lead a discussion on the significance of the rainbow for God's covenant with the earth.

Then along came news of Radiohead's new album "In Rainbows", which you can download and name your own price. Unfortunately I thought 3 pounds was about 5 dollars but it turns out it is more like 8. Doesn't matter, I've heard it now and still think I got a pretty good deal. It isn't a great album, but it is enjoyable. It isn't as much of a departure as their last few albums, which should please those who find them hard to catch on to, and which is just fine with me since I haven't grown tired of the niche they've already carved.

What the title is about I don't know. But upon reflection Terry and I discovered that there can actually be quite a lot in a rainbow besides a varied prism and a realm of unicorns and lepricons.

Consider the following:

- When God put the rainbow in the sky it was more to remind Himself of his promise not to destroy the earth with a flood again, not us. (Check Genesis 9 if you don't believe me). It reminds me of that scene in Apollo 13 when Kevin Bacon puts a sticky note on the button which could eject the other astronauts into space and ensure his own safe return to earth. The sticky note said "NO!" In this case, God's sticky note is a glorious array of colour and light which for all intents and purposes says "IN SPITE OF EVIL, DO NOT DESTROY!"

- The rainbow has for some reason been chosen as the symbol for Gay Pride. Not sure why but it's interesting anyway.

- Terry dug up another interesting thought. The rainbow is a bow. I never really thought about it but we're not talking about the kind of bow you put on a Christmas present but the sort which is used to shoot an arrow. Where is this bow facing? To heaven. And strangely, the bow is pretty relaxed. Not stretched like it is shooting but in the posture of peace. How 'bout that.

- Why all the beauty and colour? Was this not around before the flood? It appears it was not the kind of environment conducive to rainbows pre-flood. What changed? And isn't it interesting that the sign God chooses is one so incredible and universal, rather than some monument of rocks only visible to one tribe for a limited time. Or some word in some language that only a few can understand. Rather than that it is a symbol which everyone for all time gets to gawk at and get stirred by. It's almost like the sticky note says, "THERE IS SOMETHING LEFT TO LIVE FOR."

- Intriguing that the rainbow always follows the rain. You have to go through some dark clouds to get to it.

- Also very telling that you can never touch the rainbow. It is always moving further away, no matter how much you try. Whatever is left worth living for is something which can not yet be had in its fullness. For all our grasping we do not yet find satisfaction. Only through a glass darkly (a prism perhaps?) can we hold it for now.

- Just imagine what it would be like to be "in rainbows". I don't know if that's what Radiohead is trying to evoke, but it is a mindboggling thought, all things considered. Once you get past all the unicorns and lepricons of course.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Reformation Debate

I just polished off a three page paper summarizing and commening on A Reformation Debate, edited by John C. Olin. It may be a short paper, but it makes for a pretty long blog. However, I thought a few readers might find it interesting, so here it is. For those less inclined, I'm working on a possible entry about rainbows (of all things) which I may post later this week!

Seizing the opportunity afforded him by the expulsion of reformers John Calvin and Guillaume Farel from Geneva, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto wrote a letter to persuade the Genevans to go the whole way and rejoin the Catholic Church. Though the letter all but demonized the reformers, in a decisive moment for Geneva it ended up being John Calvin himself whom city council asked to craft a reply. His response was widely circulated in 1540, and within a year Calvin was persuaded by Geneva to return.

Though the debate was not therein comprehensively summarized, these letters serve as an accessible entry point into the crux of the reformation debate. The central disagreements between Sadoleto and Calvin involve (1) the tension between Church authority and Scripture and (2) the place of faith and works in justification of the sinner.

In regard to the first issue, Sadoleto’s approach is to cast the reformers as the self-seeking sowers of "wicked seeds of discord" in rebellion against the "perpetual sentiments" of the Catholic Church (30-31). Much is made of the uncertainty that ensues when the individual sets himself against the authoritative body that has for centuries "instructed us what to think . . . [and told] us that our sin is washed away" (37). Even if there are doubts on issues of doctrine, it is better to follow the Church of many centuries than the rash opinions of the last twenty-five years (40). Since "judgments vary" (39) over time, who is it that can pretend to stand over the Holy Spirit’s Church in judgment? What is at stake in such presumption is nothing less than the fearful loss of one’s soul (38)! Christ is in His Church calling for unity, and outside is only the way of selfish anarchy.

In response, John Calvin agrees that unity is important, but questions those things which have distracted the Church’s unity from the truth of Christ. The problem with the Catholic Church, in Calvin’s view, is that it has become dependent on a fallible authorities and superstitious ceremonies (63) and is no longer in accord with the Word and the Fathers (73). Since the "Antichrist would have his seat in no other place than in the midst of God’s sanctuary" (76), the people and the leaders of the Church must be on guard against false teaching.

But how are they to do this if they can not trust their leaders? For Calvin the answer is to place the Scriptures in authority over the Church, and as if anticipating objections, he attempts to distance himself from those radicals who have taken their personal interpretations of Scripture as paramount. In his view Pope and Anabaptist alike are wrong in depending presumptively on the guidance of the Spirit unchecked by the Word (61). Unity is very desirable for Calvin, if only it could be a "true unity" (93) centered on Christ (85) and focused by the Spirit on His Word. Having taken up the Word, Calvin seeks reform rather than schism, but implies that he would sooner have schism than further tolerance of current errors.

In the second main point of contention, Sadoleto’s claim is that the reformers are cheapening salvation by their version of justification by faith alone. He sees salvation as something perpetually given and enacted in faith, and opposes the reformer’s view which seems to rest salvation on a "mere credulity and confidence in God" (35) which people are expected to conjure up and maintain with no strings attached. Their emphasis is on their own strength of conviction for assurance, without much regard for the demanding call of Christ to the new life that salvation entails. By emphasizing faith alone, the reformers have taken the love out of salvation. Instead of being saved by entering a love relationship of service to their God, the reformers are looking at salvation as a cheap gift of love which can be reciprocated at the whims of the individual involved (36).

Calvin looks at the doctrine and its ramifications quite differently. What Sadoleto sees as the Church’s duty to ensure proper repentance and love of God, Calvin sees as the withholding of the freedom and life that Christ died to grant His followers. The life of salvation has been replaced by a system of oppressive ceremonies. In his view Sadoleto has avoided this issue and wrongly polarized the issue, implying that reformers care only for salvation and nothing for the life that it ushers in (66). What Calvin seeks to reemphasize is that Christians love Christ because He first loved them (69). Salvation and righteousness are free gifts imputed to those who will receive them by faith. Life does change, but rather than merit salvation as the Catholic Church implies, this change is the fruit of true faith in Christ and the unfolding of the free gift of salvation (70). Calvin more carefully distinguishes between justification (that initial act of being given Christ’s righteousness) and the regeneration and sanctification that result (68).

In Sadoleto’s view, where the Catholic Church provides certain measures toward gaining assurance of salvation, Calvin is left with nothing but the self-assured confidence in his own faith decision. In Sadoleto’s ears, "justification by faith alone" means "salvation according to the strength of one’s own convictions". This sounds to Sadoleto as much like a works-based salvation as penance does to Calvin—the only difference being that is more individualistically determined and therefore less unifying and concrete. This shows how linked this debate is with the issue of Church authority.

History has shown that, according to his own purposes for writing the letter, Sadoleto lost. Geneva embraced reform and invited Calvin home. Indeed, Calvin presents a clearer articulation of salvation and a much-needed corrective to the abuses and shortcomings of Church authority.

However, in this day when many evangelicals have now carried reformation doctrines to the point of abuse, some of Sadoleto’s arguments could stand to be heard again. His call to Church unity is compelling in this era of fragmentation and individualism and his emphasis on sanctification prompts a more holistic soteriology. In the debate on justification, both parties resisted what seemed to be offences to the cross of Christ. Where Calvin saw grace forgotten by Catholics, Sadoleto saw it cheapened by the reformers. Though Calvin won the debate, their concerns must continue to mingle down the ages so we may fully hear the resounding echoes of truth.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

You Gotta Love the Church

A number of years ago my cynicism toward the Church was thankfully given a fatal blow by the realization that Jesus loves the Church with the same undying grace with which he loves even me.

It has always troubled me that so many people find themselves outside of Christianity today for the express reason that they "have been hurt by the Church". I have great sympathy and empathy for them. It would seem that for some reason there have been people in the churches of their youth you they have equated with the church itself (probably leaders or lifers) who have not shown the grace or love that we expect from the Church of Jesus Christ. This is undoubtedly a common occurence. Leaders and lifers alike fail. We should really not be surprised by this. But what gets me is when those leaders and lifers fail and live in denial; fail and don't seek reconciliation; confront others without seeking to embrace them. Essentially they love Jesus and their ideal Church but do not love the church in front of their eyes.

To them, and to myself, I say "you gotta love your church!" Failure to do so will leave carcasses strewn about; Christians who could have been.

But I am increasingly realizing that the challenge goes both ways. Certainly there are extenuating circumstances and exceptions to the rule but I would suggest that most of the people who have left a church because "they have been hurt by" it have not really tried all that hard for reconciliation. I am not just speculating here. I've seen this over and over. I've almost done it myself.

Of course you are going to be hurt by the Church---it is full of people; full of idiots; full of neighbours! Of course you are going to disagree with someone. Of course something will rub you the wrong way. Intentionally or otherwise, someone will offend you. Often you'll assume it is intentional and never bother to find out.

To these, and to myself, I must constantly remember that "you gotta love the Church".

This isn't to say that leaders and lifers (the supposedly mature) do not bear great responsibility for the wake of hurt ex-church-goers they have left behind them. But let us call to mind that the people who are not in the church are expressing great judgmentalism and exposing most likely their own failure to reconcile when they express the fact they have left the Church because it hurt them.

Of course it hurt you. The question is whether there were any ambassadors of reconciliation there (2 Corinthians 5). The question is did you talk to those that hurt you (Matthew 18) with the aim to win each other over? The question is do you love the Church, warts and all, by recognizing that it is not a bunch of perfect people but a people brought together IN CHRIST ALONE.

Without going into detail I want to declare that recently, when it would have been easier to distance myself from my pastor and my church, I felt compelled to talk to my pastor. As a result of this conversation I feel the unity we have in the grace and love of Christ that I not have felt otherwise. In fact it may be deeper now, because of our authenticity, even in the face of potential disagreement. I don't say this to credit myself, but him. Actually, not even him or I but the Lord Jesus Christ who has shown us the hard way the power of reconciliation---which really ought to be what drives the Church!

What I have found is that I don't love the church for what it could be and isn't, nor do I hate it because it doesn't bow to my whims and wishes (in fact I sort of love that it doesn't). I love it when and because it is bound together by a common love for Christ, an authenticity before His grace, and a comittment to reconciliation.

It doesn't look like this is true sometimes. But I'll bet if you meet with the people you don't see eye to eye with and are honest about what you think and where you are coming from and even if you don't agree on everything agree together to love Christ and seek his reconciliation---you will be amazed at the unity you feel in diversity; the hope you feel for the Church; and the change of focus that you find.

Church is not going to be perfect. But if we give it a chance and we do the hard thing of speaking the truth in love to one another instead of just leaving, I'd guess that 8 or 9 times out of 10 when we are hurt by the church we will find that we love it all the more, because after the hurt we'll find the healing, and in the healing our love will grown, and because we talked we will both be better off, and instead of schism we will have one more step in the gruelling road of change for the better.

You gotta love the Church. If you don't you are going to hurt people and never patch it up. Or you'll get hurt and never find the healing. Either way, whether a lifer or a leaver, you'll never actually know what the Church is about.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Lament of an Evangelical

The other day at Seminary we had a "morning of prayer" and during the time of lament I felt compelled to share (with tears) this one that I wrote earlier this year. I have had several requests for a copy, and so I'm making it available here. Its about as intensely personal as I want to get on a blog, and a part of me hesitates to share it. But then I remember how much I hate the type of Chrsitianity where only the "Shiny Happy" is allowed . . . and so I offer this side of worship - a lament:

Inherited a faith
I've loved and hated both:
Loved more sometimes than God-
Which leads to hating it the most.

Grew into a church
I'd grow in and out of always:
Wanting to burn it down
One out of a month of Sundays.

I can read the Bible good
But I pray like an ass.
I should find a better word than that,
My prayer-life is way more crass.

A faith I feel in guilt
And lose at a twitch in pride.
The good part is I love God more
When I hate myself inside.

Been given countless blessings:
Family here and there,
Friends I can rely on,
Two boys and one I call "my dear".

I'd die for them I would,
Yet with my words I kill.
There is nothing quite as hard
As surrendering the self-will.

I want to give them everything;
To put joy inside their hearts.
And yet myself I will leave scars
When I have left my part.

There is nothing here worth doing.
My good just makes me proud.
Riddled as it is with bad besides -
Just let me duck behind the shroud.

If I could I'd give up,
But something keeps me here.
It must, it must get better.
And I live for you my dear.

I'd rather live to say my sorries
Than die a thousand deaths.
I'd rather spend a thousand summers
Paying all my debts.

But paid it is, it's easy,
And there's nothing I can do
But sit here and fell guilty
And then give myself to You.

A faith that I've inherited,
That I tarnish everyday;
A God I can't live up to,
And a price I cannot pay.

A painless life I've lived,
And yet a psychy full of scars.
I know the pain I put you through -
Wish I could once see my own stars.

But once I bleed or touch the pain
My desire goes away:
"Get me the hell out of here," I say,
"And return me to my play."

For all I have been given,
I have not given much.
They are right when they accuse me
That my Jesus is a crutch.

As such this is my faith.
As much as this my prayer:
That You, O God, would know me,
And still give a damn; a care.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Birthday Gifts

One of the great joys of birthdays for me in recent years has been the decision of several of my relatives to give me money. I know that this can feel to some as a cop-out or can feel somewhat empty but I love it. Being a poor student, and before that a poor pastor (relatively, in Western terms anyway), I don't spend much on my hobbies. Music being one of them. So I end up relying heavily on Christmas and birthdays to feed my love of music. All year my list of music I wish I could buy gets larger and larger. And it awesome to get money and a card, because that signifies endless (okay, maybe not endless) possibilities.

So this year I've been able to go out and buy a few albums. So far I'm really enjoying them. Here's why:

Though I've never been a fan of country, I'm weakening thanks to Ryan Adams. There are some major hurdles to overcome in discovering Ryan Adams. The first it that distrust of everything remotely resembling country music. The second is realizing that he isn't Bryan Adams. Once you get past this, go out and listen to "Gold", "Love is Hell", and then maybe this one: "Heartbreaker". I'm only a few listens in but "Oh My Sweet Carolina" with Emilou Harris is from the first time you hear it a peice of magic. From first-listen you feel like you are hearing a classic. The rest of the album is just so easy-going, and musically interesting, and even fun, that even the banjo and the harmonica are redeemed.

I've mentioned Pilot Speed (formerly Pilate) before but I'll do it again. This is a great album. I just heard a newer song from them on Sonic radio in Edmonton and, in an unprecedented turn of events for me, actually left it on the same radio station for four whole minutes! Amazing. And I new it was them without being told, which tells you they are distinctive enough to be noticed as well as good enough to be noteworthy. Another good part: They are from Toronto. You can find them at CBC Radio 3 by clicking through my mini player at right. The songs on this album are epic an passionate---just the way I like it. They are awesome live too.

I have long avoided buying this highly acclaimed album, partly because of the explicit language warning on the cover and partly because it is just a guy and a piano---how good could it be? Well, there is definitely some swearing, but not as much as I expected. And it is definitely a guy and a piano, but you almost can't believe your ears. It is literally amazing. I saw him on Austin City Limits once and so I was able to imagine it but if I hadn't I wouldn't have believed it was all piano. 17 songs. No band. But riveting and musically stunning. I'm serious. And the best crowd-vocals I've ever heard. Enough to give you goosebumps.

You can find this one on CBC Radio 3 right now too. In fact one of the songs is probably playing as you read this. Patrick Watson just won Canada's 2007 Polaris Prize for indie musicians awarded strictly by artistic merit. I was in a record store with my brother and he bought this for me from he and his wife for my birthday. And now I'm thoroughly enjoying it. A great melodic piano and an unpredictable element to each song make for a beautiful and simultaneously lilting and jilting listening experience. Definitely worth checking out.

I'm also awaiting a Matthew A. Wilkinson CD in the mail. You can hear him on CBC Radio 3 too.

If you are bored of your music, you can't go too wrong with this stuff. Thanks to all my relatives who have singly funded one of my favourite and perhaps most spiritually and emotionally significant hobbies.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Life in the Mess

I have been sitting in class all week and while it would be overstating it to say this class has rocked my world there is a true sense in which it has turned my world upside down and set it right-side up again. Put it this way: Think about a snowglobe.

You know how the snow-globe looks alright when it is just sitting there, but frankly it is just another paperweight? It goes largely unnoticed. It is boring. It isn’t right—in the sense that it is not fulfilling its purpose. Something is wrong about it. But when it is turned upside down and back over again it comes to life in the hands of its owner. That’s what it feels like to me when truth is allowed to break into my world. It is unsettling. I am turned upside down. But it is worth it, for through the process I am brought to right and come to life again.

It isn’t that this class told me something I never knew (although there were many things I’d never thought of before)---but it articulated for me what has until now been at base a groaning in my soul. This groaning has been driving me forward in a striving for truth and left me unsettled over all the explanations that fall short. It was a class called "Life in the Mess: Theology of Forgiveness and Reconciliation". If you consider it worthwhile to spend a week and about $800 on a better way to look at life you should take this class next time it is offered. I’m serious. Dr. David Guretzki, Briercrest Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan—A treasure hidden in a field, you might say.

I can’t even contain in one blog (and maybe couldn't even do so in a book) what has been put right for me as my snow-globe has been turned over and shaken again this week. But here’s a weak attempt: Imagine you’ve always looked at life in this way:

You are bad. You are going to burn. You need fire insurance. Thankfully someone died to forgive you. Phew. Enter a religion of cyclical and personal release from guilt and fear. Basically a negative religion, defined about what it undoes.

Now imagine that, though there are elements of truth there, you realized that you’d only seen a portion of the truth, a corner of the painting, and the whole truth is:

You and all of us were made for shalom, communion, peace with God and others. The God who made us is a reconciling God, in the sense that from before creation He was about bringing persons together. Integral in creation and its experience of this shalom is freedom, and in that freedom for shalom we consistently break it. But the reconciling God has done something, does something, and in fact is all about doing something to restore that shalom. Amen. Thank goodness. This is what being born again is and continues to be all about. Enter not a religion, but a life pilgrimage, of new creation; restored communion. A "religion" with its negative aspect (the snowglobe does need shaking), but which is defined by a positive hope and love.

Maybe that doesn’t seem all that different. I need to try to articulate better why this is an absolute paradigm shift of seismic proportions. Because that is what this is to me. I think that if I could reorient my life around this it might make all the difference. Furthermore, if the Church reoriented itself around this I think it would not only be turned upside down (and right again, over and over) but would in turn begin to have that same effect on its world.

This would be thrilling---like the first drops of a fresh snowfall on a dirty city.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Bergman and Chesterton: Struggling to Express the Unthinkable (Some light weekend reading)

Last night I got a group of people together to watch Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light. This was my third time watching the film and in a strange way the most shocking. I was shocked at just how devastating was the despair in the film and I was even more shocked at just how much I related to it. There is something very the matter with the earth, and this pastor in this film is done denying it. In fact he finally cries out about it.

And for many interpreters of the film, I think this represents his loss of faith. In fact, even to him it surely does. In that moment he says he is free. But even there in the stark cold of the bright winter light of his new-found freedom from God, significantly, immediately, in his sickness and his suffering and in his freedom he crumbles at the altar of the crucifix of God.

So for some reason he ends up back at the church again, preparing to serve the communion. There is but one soul in the building ready to receive. She is an avowed atheist, and yet she holds out hope for him.

And in comes Algot the hunchback, who ordinarily simply lights the candles and rings the bells. But this time he does so in more ways than one, for he reminds Tomas the pastor and doubter about when God was forsaken of God. And it is in this solidarity with his sufferings that I think this despairing pastor finds the faith again to go on. Even if barely.

But it strikes me that this is the part of the cross of Christ that evangelicalism struggles to forget. We want to skip the forsaken Christ and get on with the fulfilled life. We deny the gravity of the earth's situation in order to have our own piece of heaven on earth. Thus we alienate those who are wrestling with God. Instead of helping them wrestle (and lose) we leave them to wrestle alone and win. And in a wrestling match with God the worst thing you can hope for is to win.

So Christ, when he walked the earth, did his best for all of us when he wrestled our fight with his Father and took our loss on himself. In losing it as man he was winning it as God with us. This is our only hope, and as the cross must not be emptied of its meaning so here the empty tomb must be filled.

Having watched that film last night it was curious today that I should turn in GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy to these startling lines:

“If the divinity [of Christ] is true it is certainly terribly revolutionary. That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already; but that God could have his back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents for ever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete (204). . . .

Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all the creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point – and does not break (205). . . .

In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologise in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt (205). . . .

In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God" (205). . . .

As GK challenges, search high and low and you won’t “find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay, (the matter grows too difficult for human speech,) but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist” (205-206).

At the cross we find a God in solidarity with our dismay at the wreck the world is in, and who at once takes out his anger and absorbs it in himself. We find a God who entered the silence that our Fall has brought. We find a God who came. So while we feel the silence we know that Jesus felt it too. So we feel and know that God is with us in it, and that in the crucified Saviour there is a silent suffering that speaks louder than words.

Yet hearkening throughout the centuries is this promise ringing with every church bell and flicking with every church candle (even while the church-folk sleep or sway obliviously) that there is more to the story yet to be told: That it may be winter, but there is yet some light in this solidarity of the Saviour, and in it the promise of spring.