Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Ancients: Of Nyssa, Damascus, and Studium

I love words. But when I pray (or try to) I can't seem to find the right ones. Lately the ancients have been helpful in this regard. Here's the fourth century's Gregory of Nyssa (again I'm quoting Robert Wilken):

"In a provocative passage in one of his most philosophical works, Gregory of Nyssa, somewhat to the reader's surprise, criticizes his opponent Eunomius for ignoring Christian practices and relying solely on theological ideas. It is foolish and idle, says Gregory, to think that Christian faith consists only in teachings [i.e. words]....
It also has to do with making the sign of the cross when one speaks the 'venerable names,' Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

Add to this the seventh century's John of Damascus, who said that "the prohibition of icons challenged the fundamental Christian belief in the Incarnation, that the God who is beyond time and space was made known through a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, who was born of a woman and lived in a particular place and time in history."

And the ninth century's Theodore of Studium said "If merely mental contemplation had been sufficient, it would have been enough for him to come to us in a merely mental way."

These guys were saying that sometimes we need to just shut up and surrender to God in Christ. The Word made flesh was not only God's Word to us but is our true Word back.
Of course it is a fine line between using aids to prayer and worship and pure superstition. The trouble is that I think our words and songs have become far more deadly in-roads for idolatry than images and icons. When I look at a cross I know it holds no power in itself. Can today's evangelicals say the same thing about their song-styles and theological statements? Their bridge illustrations and altar-call prayers? Our words and music have no power, and neither do icons and crosses.

But they bring me to my knees like nothing can.

The power is in who they direct us to and what they speak of. God condescended to show Himself to us in Jesus Christ and to put the testimony of His redemption on ink and paper. But this is enlivened for us today through the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Because the Holly Spirit speaks through things. Words are necessary for their specificity. But non-words are necessary for their non-specificity. God is not contained. But God is not unknowable. See the need for both?

I would not recommend icons and crosses in place of the Word and rightly understood worship. I'm a huge fan of theology. But the ancients have reminded me that sometimes words only get in the way and that a picture can be worth a thousand.

I hung a cross in our house and put three candles below it. And each morning I light the candles and submit to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The flame, and when I blow it out, the smoke, reminds me that the Spirit must enliven all I do and think. The cross reminds me that my communion with God is only in Christ's life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The whole thing is my submission to the Father and my thankfulness that I am His child. I'm thinking, giving, thanking, praying. But not in words. Its hard to explain, naturally.
A child can look up in wonder and know love without having to explain it away. The child should grow up and learn to make sense of it (a never-ending process), but must always remain a child in faith. We need to keep that wonder.

The ancients might have veered off into superstition and idolatry here and there. But the images hindered them far less than the words that slipped them into heresy. Both need both. Words and objects both speak of a God that came to us, and continues to do so today.

And if all these words are adding up to nothing, just look at the picture above and see what it says.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Religion is Everywhere

Watching Al Gore on Jon Stewart last night I was reminded again how distinctly religious everyhing is. He was promoting his new book called The Assault on Reason and I felt like I was watching Francis Schaeffer. When I saw "An Inconvenient Truth" I couldn't believe how much it felt like TV evangelism. Couple weeks ago I saw Oprah recieving her honorary doctorate on CNN and she kept talking about people finding their identity and she referred to it as "getting saved". Gore talks about global warming the same way. You hear comedians and celebrities talk about tolerance and freedom and making grand assumptions about the primacy of these things and they talk about it like it is a religion to be advanced (even at the expense of tolerance and freedom, ironically). I could go on and on with example of where I've noticed this stuff.
And who are the authorities in all this? The unnamed "scientists" and the undebated "facts". Or, if none are mentioned, it is just taken as universal common knowledge. The media groundswell is such that you can't even question it without getting labelled as a nut job. I'm not saying I disagree with the things they are saying, I just can't believe the assumptions being made.
I read Clinton's autobiography a while back and I remember something he said about how the Democrats big failing point is that they can't motivate votes as well as Republicans because the Republicans are so good at tapping into religious convictions. And since evangelical leaders of the Religious Right became so politically involved in recent decades, it played into Republican hands. All they had to do was learn the buzzwords and they could get themselves elected.

Clinton didn't whine about this, he simply grieved the Democrats inability to tap into these things as well. It isn't a matter of one party having religious convictions and the other not. It is a matter of which ones are foremost on people's minds and who is goint to stir that up and capitalize on it. I think because I read that I have been really noticing the religious flavour of Left Wing USA in recent years. I sense a change of strategy.
I'm not saying I have a problem with this conviction. Hey, more power to them. I merely find it curious. I do have a problem with the hypocrisy of it in the media though. The same people who scoff at people of faith asserting their values on society go right ahead and assert theirs. They are allowed to, of course, because it isn't a "faith" they are advancing. It is science. It is a given.
Science is the authority. "Public opinion" is the authority. No one talks about the fact that all science is based on theories and that science has plenty of uncertainty to it. The authorities are nameless and unquestioned. Yet only a decade ago the authority of Scripture was ripped to shreds because we couldn't name the dude who wrote Hebrews and stuff like that. Its just funny how it all turns on its head.

Other turn arounds: Christians are (rightly) scoffed at for their witch hunts, but the tolerance police do the same thing today. The end times phenomenon seems to have finally died down and now we get it from Lloyd Mansbridge, except it isn't Jesus coming back, it is David Suzuki! TV evangelists are derided, but Michael Moore and Al Gore use their tactics and are heroes. I'm not defending TV evangelists. Nor do I care what Gore or Moore happen to be selling. I just laugh at the hypocrisy. The things Christians have been taught to be careful about are now common fare.

I was reading from a book called Reviewing Leadership today, and it said:

"The English management specialist and ethicist Stephen Pattison has argued provocatively that much so-called secular thinking and writing about management displays a sort of utopian religious faith.... ideas about leadership, though rarely linked specifically with faith, are often supported by assumptions and beliefs that spring from a particular worldview and that these are permeated by quasi-religious and at times religious factors."

"Many theorists and consultants are primarily selling 'faith, hope, and meaning'."

That's fine. But I just wish the media would stop pretending to be neutral, stop using the word truth only when it helps them (and deriding it the rest of the time), and start admitting that everyone is operating from a faith, admit that everyone who says anything is at least suggesting it is true, and admit no one is neutral.

Then maybe we could talk about and evaluate issues such as faith, hope, and meaning instead of mud slinging and all that. All of us need to learn to do this. In the church and out. Just don't tell me that Christians are the intolerant ones, and that the religious are the mindless ones, and so on and so on.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Ancients: Origen

For a long time I've been trying to prove God. I figure that if it is explained rightly, and humbly, Christianity will win. Sounds naive I guess. I suppose it is. I still believe it to some degree. The Scripture says the Spirit will guide into all truth and that he who has ears to hear should hear. But I'm not the Spirit, and I don't know much about ears. So I'm letting go.

In other words, I am remembering again that this is a faith.

A guy from the second century named Origen has been helping me come to grips with this.

Origen was a big fan of dialogue. He would meet philosophers in open conversation and listen to their view and present his own. In fact, in his books which argued against others he would "take great care to present the views of his opponent to his readers." This is back in the 2nd century. We tend to think of church history as replete with inquisitions, schisms, and heresy hunters. I suppose it is. But there are bright spots too.

As an old friend of mine was apt to point out to me a few years ago, Origen didn't get it ALL right, but here is some stuff that has really been interesting to me (from Robert Wilken's The Spirit of Early Christian Thought):

"Celsus had urged that the way to God was through the ascent of the mind.... In response Origen makes the extraordinary statement that the knowledge of God begins not with the ascent of the mind, but with God's descent to human beings in a historical person....

Some critics, notably Galen, had tried to brand the Christians as fideists because their teachings seemed to be based solely on faith....

'It is far better,' [acknowledged] Origen, 'to accept teachings with reason and wisdom than with mere faith.'... Even the Bible was a book to be argued from, not simply an authority to brandish when arguments failed....

[But] in the debate between Christian thinkers and their critics the central issue was where in the search for God reason is to begin....

For the Greeks, God was the conclusion of an argument, the end of a search for an ultimate explanation, an inference from the structure of the universe to a first cause. For Christian thinkers, God was the starting point, and Christ the icon that displays the face of God....

In the Bible God is the actor and revelation is the drama in which God acts and man responds. Origen called the knowledge of God 'reciprocal,' by which he meant that without love, there can be no knowledge of God... 'Our will does not suffice to give us a wholly pure heart. We need God to create such a heart.'"

If God can be proved, I'd say it is through love first, and reason second.

Even then, Christian reason can only point toward something revealed. And so it comes down to whether we trust this as revelation or as one more figment of someone's imagination.

That's what Origen thought happened to the philosophers. They came up with a pantheon and were left with self-worship, or at the very best, the worship of projections of their own minds; worship of an unknown God. Origen found it empty, and came to believe with Paul that the unknown had been made known in Christ. If not, there was nothing knowable.

But, reasonable as it was to him, it all came back to faith.

And that's what I find refreshing about Origen. He admitted it. I think modern Christians have put some good arguments for God out there and should continue to hold the faith up to inspection in every field and let it stand up for itself. But sometimes we claim too much. We act like we've proven it. In defending the faith with rationality we can ironically lose it altogether.

It is hard to let go of that rational certainty, but I don't trust reason like I used to. It is time to come back to faith. Faith and reason are not in antithesis; are not polarly opposed. But faith, hope and love come before reason every time.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Ancients: Irenaeus

I'm teaching Sunday School these days and I'm doing a seven week series on Genesis 1-3. I had intended this week to discuss the deeper purposes in creation, hoping to draw alot from some Barthian concepts I've been hearing about and throwing around this past year. And then today I'm reading Justo Gonzalez' A History of Christian Thought and I come across Irenaeus. Irenaeus is going to teach my Sunday School class this week.

Here is some of Justo's summary of Irenaeus' theology:

"This idea of growth is important for an understanding of Irenaeus. According to him, Adam and Eve were not created as perfect in the sense that they were all that God called them to be, but were rather created so that they could develop and grow in the image of God which is the Son....

For him, Adam and Eve were only the beginning of God's purpose in creation. Adam and Eve were 'like children,' whose purpose was to grow unto a closer relationship with God. Furthermore, that growth was not something to be achieved by Adam and Eve on their own power, but was rather part of the continuing creation of God.

As creatures of God with the purpose of growth, Adam and Eve were free. This freedom is not understood in idealistic terms, but is simply the possibility of fulfilling God's purpose....

[Satan] tempted Adam and Eve, not to oppose the purpose of creation, but rather to accelerate the purpose that God had ordained and thus to disrupt the order established by God. When Satan said, 'You will be like God,' he was simply affirming God's purpose in creation. But when Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation they broke the divine plan and thus became slaves of sin and death....

[However,] even these diabolic instruments can be used to achieve the divine ends. Thus, death serves as a limit to our sinful possibilities, and our enslavement to sin is an occasion to acknowledge God's goodness and to praise God's grace.

In spite ofthe Fall, God does not abandon us, but rather loves us continually. In so doing, God is simply carrying forward the divine plan, conceived from the beginning....

We who live between the resurrection and the consummation are not living in a period of truce in this struggle of centuries, but are living precisely at the time in which Christ is making effective his victory, in order to lead us to the final day."

I have yet to investigate all of this, but this sure rings true to me when I read the Scriptures. As a matter of fact, as I read the ancients I feek like I'm finding my faith again. I had this caricature in my head of Christ as merely God's patch up job after the Fall and of salvation as the secret password of the altar call. But this is a lot closer to Gnosticism than Christianity.

Yesterday I was scanning the bookshelves of recent church and pastoral theology in order to find a topic for a paper on the theology of ministry and I just couldn't stand it. It was all so slick and success-driven. Everyone had their secret to an effective ministry. The books were making me gag.

Lately it is the ancients who are keeping my faith alive. Today it is Irenaeus. Gonzalez says this second century theologian is important because his writings bridge a gap between that of the apostles and the 3rd century, and "his theology ... has repeatedly been a source of theological renewal." I had always heard this guy's name and I knew he was important. But now he has become important to me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Ancients: Lawrence

For an upcoming class called "Patristic Fathers" I've been reading a fine book called The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Robert Louis Wilken. I think my next few posts will basically be excerpts from this book about men and women just like us who had discussions and lives just like ours and said and did some remarkable things in the formative years of Christianity.

They are our heritage, and their lives and writings are an unmined treasure of encouragement and insight.

Let me start this series with an excerpt about Lawrence, a third century deacon in the church of Rome.

Lawrence was asked by a public official to show him the wealth of the church. After all, it had ammassed a good number of "sacred objects" well worth showing off for their glory.

The first Christian poet, Prudentius, wrote a tribute to Lawrence. And in it, he spells out Lawrence's reply to that politician:

Our church is rich
I deny it not.
Much wealth and gold it has
No one in the world has more.

Then Lawrence asks for time to gather up all the treasure for display. Wilken says that this was all meant to "tantalize the prefect". This is what happens:

"For three days Lawrence goes about the city gathering the sick and the poor. The people he collected included a man with two eyeless sockets, a cripple with a broken knee, a one-legged man....He writes down their names and lines them up at the entrance to the church....

When the prefect enters the door of the church, Lawrence points to the ragged company and says, 'There are the church's riches, take them.' Enraged at being mocked, the prefect orders Lawrence to be executed...."

Lawrence was literally slow-roasted over a fire, and the whole time, according to Prudentius, he was taunting the prefect, saying:

Pray turn my body's side,
It has burned long enough
Turn it round and taste
What your god of fire has wrought.

Wilken summarizes this and other stories by saying, "the Christian hero 'overcame the foe by death,' not by the sword."

Amazing stuff. Read more on Lawrence here. Yes I think the River is named after him.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Ashtray Rock

This isn't my usual sort of post here, more just a personal note and a recommendation for a fine Canadian musician. My wife and I had a great time seeing Joel Plaskett live the other night. This is one talented guy. Both times I've seen him the opening band has been really good, and you almost feel like you've already got the price of admission, and then Plaskett comes on and blows you away. You can say he is a step above the rest, and you aren't saying anything negative about the openers, he just is.

What I found uncanny about him this time around was how he's playing amazing guitar, singing with that powerful voice, moving around and connecting with his band and everyone, and then on top of that he is making up additional lyrics and saying stuff to the crowd (even in the split second between verse and chorus) that is funny and often even rhymes. He is constantly being creative, even with old material. Yet he's not wrecking the song either. It sounds as good if not better than on the album. What a joy to watch.

His last album is called Ashtray Rock and we hadn't bought it yet but of course came away with it and the Tshirt too. (It is fitting since we had to take a smoking room at the hotel and so, though we don't smoke, we felt like we might as well of, so the title sort of fit the weekend for us). Its actually a concept album about high school, and the Ashtray was a hang out for him back in the day. In case you were curious.

Most of the stuff I've been listening to lately has been pretty melancholy, so it is nice to have a fun rock album to listen to with the windows down again.

Anyway, I sure love live music when I get a chance to see some I like. I was particularly glad to hear a song from his mind-blowing first album, In Need of Medical Attention: "The News of Your Son". I am very thankful to those who turned me on to this musician. A bright Canadian talent, that's for sure.

For those who care, here is what we recall of the set list:

Soundtrack for the Night
Snowed In/Cruisin
Million Dollars
Its Cathing On
The News of Your Son
Absentminded Melody
Penny for Your Thoughts
Lonely Love
Happen Now
Love This Town
True Patriot Love
Face of the Earth
Nothing More to Say
Nowhere With You
Work Out Fine
Maybe We Should Just Go Home
Drunk Teenagers
Fashionable People

I think that's all the songs, although the middle parts are probably out of order. I wanted to remember the set list, but it all went so fast. Too fast. See ya next time Joel.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

What did I miss?

A while back I said how much I was looking forward to Easter communion.

Bad news.

I missed it.

Went to a Good Friday service and they didn't have communion. It was an ecumenical service and since most community churches would never agree on how to have communion anyway they didn't have it. Instead they acted like it was Pentecost already and had a walloping good time singing camp songs. It was fine for a Pentecost service but it was like 43 days early.

Anyway, I was sick or something on Easter Sunday and missed church, and therefore the best part of church, communion.

What did I miss?

Truthfully, I sort of forgot about it until this Sunday when our church took communion again. There I was holding a good old cracker and then a familiar cup of juice and I was thinking about what I was about to do ... again ...

I was thinking about my faith, and how it used to be so based on knowledge. I felt like it was something I knew objectively and that could be proven. I don't think I thought that, but I felt it. I still think it can be reasoned and shown to be good, but I don't think, or feel anymore, that it can be proven. So what is left? A vague mysterious religion? Nothing solid?

Then it came to me what I've been starting to learn lately. That cracker and that cup are solid. They are very real objects that I put in my mouth and chew and swallow. Some cracker always gets stuck in my molars and then a few minutes later the juice washes it down.

And the tens of centuries full of tens of thousands of people who have one way or another eaten this bread and drank this cup---they are solid too. They have each of them run up against something and they have each surrendered to it and they have each in their own way tried to pass it on. And miserably as some of them have done they have in some way succeeded in getting that cracker and that cup and that Word and that Spirit to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada in the spring of 07 into the hands of a fourth generation Canadian boy who had the advantage (and decided disadvantage) of growing up in one of their church traditions.

Somehow or another this thing, this solid thing, this testimony of something has been passed on. To me. I've hit up against something solid. It tells me itself that it grew from a seed in some guys named Adam and Noah and Abraham and Moses and David and Isaiah and so on an then came to be a tree of life in a man named Jesus who, say what you want, was a real man in a real time who was like nothing the world has ever seen before and whose followers were changed from bumbling fishermen into the beginners of a huge and lasting movement by an event they claimed was a resurrection and which was never disproven. They are something real, and their testimony has really actually been passed to me. Badly in some ways, but in other ways really well.

And it comes to me in this thing called a canon. Three centures after the fishermen a bunch of people realized it was time to recognize what testimony seemed worthy to be bound together and carried forward. It is hard to argue with their decision. I have it my hand right now and I have about a dozen translations of it at home and it never ceases to amaze me and confront me and at like a solid thing in my hands.

And they passed on this thing called communion. This bread and this cup. Some of them even said that when I take it it actually becomes the body and blood of Jesus. It is that solid, they say.

Regardless of whether it actually physically becomes him or not, in a way it sure is becoming of Him. Just like for the first people to pass this message on He was a solid thing you could touch and poke and prod, so they passed on this cracker and cup you could let settle on your tongue and dissolve in your saliva becuase they wanted you to come up against something solid and have to decide to swallow it or not.

And so when I swallow it I am deciding to join them. I am thankful to have run up against a solid miracle called the church and to have a solid Bible in my hand and to be able to chew and swallow something real.

And behind all that is a Spirit, methinks, otherwise this whole tangled mess would never have got to me and never would have changed my life.

I'm at a place where my life needs changing again. And these solid things and that Spirit thing are thanfully quite relentlessly there. And when I take communion I swallow it again. And it is the same as always and yet always very new, and alive, and active, and surprising.

I hate it when I miss communion. There is a lot going on there.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

For Whom The Bell Tolls

I've been engrossed in a paper this week examining the hermeneutics (interpretation strategies) of Rob Bell. Our assignment was to analyze the way someone reads the Bible and I chose him because I liked his first book but had postponed questions about it. So now I get to ask those questions.

It has been interesting. I had some of my concerns confirmed. For instance: Rob Bell loves to compare Jesus to rabbis and then learn things from that. This is fine, but there are some problems with that since the rabbis he compares him with wrote their stuff about 150 years later. So there is only so far you can take that comparision. But that's not what I wanted to blog about.

This past two weeks I've read his two books to death, watched several of his short films, and listened to three of his sermons (the last 12 weeks of his church are podcast online).

Quite frankly, and I'm sure he would take no offence at this, due to the overdose I must say that at times I have become quite tired of him. He does have a certain style to him, and you pick up on that after awhile, and he is much more "obviously hip" than I'll ever be, and he probably was the cool guy in high school that I was jealous of and therefore mocked---but at the same time, I've come to really appreciate the guy.

And here's the thing. God has been speaking to me through him. And some of you will know that I haven't really been hearing from God all that well this last while. Quick backstory: I've been in what they call a "dark night of the soul". Or at least I hope so. As I said on another blog, I hope so because it would be nice to know it is just a night and that day light is on its way. Anyway, at times like this you really notice when a shaft of light or two breaks through the doubt-stained-glass. So let me repeat that in Rob Bell style to emphasize its sincerity: God has been


to me

through him.

It started on Friday afternoon when I was reading Bell's new book, Sex God, which is actually much better than it sounds. Actually it started that morning with a couple guys praying for me (unprovoked and relentlessly understanding I might add, but that is another story). Then today I was listening to this sermon that he preached a month ago called "Leaving Control for Faith" and it was on Exodus 3; 4; 5:22-23; 13; 32 and Deut 34 (far as I can tell) and it really spoke to me. No, God really spoke to me. I know because I've heard Him before. Same God. Different thing he was saying. Different day. Different language even. But same God. Faithful. Still there.

And this verse, which Rob Bell said is the closest thing to a "life verse" (even though he enjoys mocking that expression) for him lately, really resonated with me:

"When Pharoah let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter" (Exod 13:17).

I've been wanting control of the faith. I've been wanting a certain journey, a certain ministry. I'm discovering faith again. At least I hope so. I'm a slow learner and I won't pretend the dark night is over.

But I'm thankful that even in the midst of a paper where I'm trying hard to rip a guy apart, God still speaks through him to me. An unpredictable, yet faithful, and good God. Makes me want to listen harder.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

NT Wright on the Bible

Today I was reading a very interesting and invigorating article on the Scriptures. It is N.T. Wright's 1991 article (from Vox Evangelica) called "How Can the Bible be Authoritative?" Even though I have yet to read the rebuttals to his views, I am posting a couple excerpts because, well, I like them so much.

"Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost.... The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted 'authority' for [producing a fifth].

Anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently .... This 'authority' of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier parts over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement ... [which would be put] into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency."

Wright goes on to suggest that in this illustration Christianity could see Creation, Fall, Israel, and Jesus as the first four acts and the current church age as the fifth, and the Bible's authority would be seen in much the same way as Shakespeare's hypothetical first four acts.

Interesting. I am sure this metaphor fails in some ways, but I like it. If this sounds intriguing to you at all I highly recommend that you check out the full article here.

Here's more:

"God does not ... want to put people into little boxes and keep them safe and sound. It is, after all, possible to be so sound that you're sound asleep. I am not in favour of unsoundness; but soundness means health, and health means growth, and growth means life and vigour and new directions. The little boxes in which you put people and keep them under control are called coffins.

We read scripture not in order to avoid life and growth. God forgive us that we have done that in some of our traditions. Nor do we read scripture in order to avoid thought and action, or to be crushed, or squeezed, or confined into a de-humanizing shape, but in order to die and rise again in our minds.

Because, again and again, we find that, as we submit to scripture, as we wrestle with the bits that don't make sense, and as we burst through to a new sense that we haven't thought of or seen before, God breathes into our nostrils his own breath -- the breath of life. And we become living beings -- a church recreated in his image, more fully human, thinking, alive beings."

Thank you NT Wright for honestly addressing good questions and for giving provocative and thoughtful answers.