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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Chesterton's Bourne Identity

I have been embroiled for quite some time in a dialogue on another website about the existence of God. I don't mean to drag all my readers into it here but recently in this debate we came around to the matter of the more intangible evidences for God's existence. One of them of course being the "spiritual experience" or the "sense of the transcendent" within humanity.

Of course there may be physical, social, or chemical explanations for our spiritual experiences, but re-reading Orthodoxy today I was struck again by Chesterton's take on the whole thing.

He talks about the discovery of gravity, which of course explained why the apple fell. As such it might be said that Newton's discovery spoiled the prayers of many an apple picker who had been thanking the gods every day that the apples fell when they plucked them rather than floating off into space and proving difficult to make a living from.

It might be said that the discovery of gravity took away the mystery and the miracle and therefore put one more notch in the argument against God.

But Chesterton is rightfully perplexed by this. He wonders why those who think this way "feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing."

Just because we are now able to attach another physical thing to a spiritual feeling does not reduce the mystery but increases it. Maybe now we know why the apple falls, but why is there gravity? Maybe now we know it comes about because of planetary dynamics, but why are there planetary dynamics? And why do we get to know them? And why do we get to walk about in them rather than be crushed by them?

In recent years scientists have been able to show how chemical reactions in the brain effect emotions and DNA affects personality and sociology affects our perceptions. This is pretty incredible and I find these discoveries quite amazing. But as I meditate on them I realize that these discoveries do not reduce the amount of mystery and wonder in the world. With every discovery science unvovers more to explain!

It would seem to me that for every human explanation there will still remain a sense--even and ever-increasing sense--of the transcendent. So is there a satisfying answer to this?

I, for one, had a transcendent experience myself today just reading Chesterton's take on the issue. His apologetic is at the same time a beautiful art. Commenting on that sense of the transcendent in arts and music, sunsets and surprises, epics and especially fairy tales, he says that they serve to remind us from where we've come:

"These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.

. . . We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Every man has forgotten who he is.

. . . We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget" (Quotations from Orthodoxy).

This rings very true to me. It reminds me of The Bourne Identity and I'm startled to think of the possiblitiy that we're all living it. It makes a lot of sense of a lot of things to think that what is wrong with the world is that it was made right and has gone wrong and we are a lot of people looking to find out who we are.

And those moments of transcendence are when we remember that we were born, that being born we were given life, that being given life means we have someone to thank, and that being thankful we find our identity.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Random Highlights

There are a few things I've wanted to comment on lately which are unconnected to one another except by the virtue that I only have short things to say about each of them:

My wife and I saw Mute Math live in Regina this month. I'm not a huge fan of their songs (mostly because the lyrics are lacking and the lead singer doesn't do it for me) but I do love some of their instrumentation. Their bassist and drummer are incredible and some of the stuff they did on stage was truly exciting. But what stole the night was the opening band, Pilot Speed, whose lead singer can be seen at left. They gave us a real great opening act full of passion, mounting walls of sound and crescendo, and even a bit of that Radiohead sound. Some of the songs gave me goosebumps. I bought one of their albums at the show and it is full of epics. It is always a pleasant surprise finding a new band!

Watched Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody Allen a while back. Only gave it four stars, but have to admit it was a pretty awesome movie that I've come to appreciate the more I've reflected on it. It was Allen's most philosophical film and certainly explored and exposed the trappings of evil in a way which gave no easy separation between the good guys and the bad guys. In fact, even though the adulterer in the film is entirely to blame for his problems and the spiral into worse and worse evils, upon reflection one sees that the wife with an unforgiving nature shares at least some complicity in the whole mess. This isn't to say that she is to blame for her husband's affair, but it got me thinking about how unforgiveness contributes to the spiral of evil moreso than true forgivness ever could.

I laughed in our first Chesterton class when my professor showed this cartoon of GKC boxing Marilyn Manson . I don't know why it was ever drawn but it is a comical image. I can't imagine Marilyn Manson with anyone from early 20th century England, but I imagine GK would have looked as perplexed as he does here, and that he would have made Manson laugh. While we're on the topic, here are some great lines from GK's Heretics:

"Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else."
"The people . . . who really take the name of the Lord in vain are the clergymen themselves" (103).
"Once men sang together round a table in chorus; now one man sings alone, for the absurd reason that he can sing better. If scientific civilization goes on (which is most improbable) only one man will laugh, because he can laugh better than the rest."

Finally, I must say how excited I was to hear yesterday that the compensation process has begun for those First Nations people who were abused in Canada's history. Whatever money is given in compensation for abuse will be too small and perhaps too late, but it is better than nothing in the same way that facing a problem is better than letting it fester forever. I saw a soundbyte of someone asking if the money would be spent wisely and was so glad to hear the guy behind the podium call the person out for racism. What I was most thrilled to hear was that in a year Canada will begin a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In my opinion this is a much needed thing for our country and I will be watching it with keen interest. I am pleased to see that Chuck Strahl is the MP involved in all of this. He is a good man.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Travesty of Blanket Forgiveness

For all that can be said about the importance of forgiveness, not only for the Christian Church but for society as a whole, the concept needs to be better understood lest it become absolutely meaningless. Too often we think of forgiveness as this blanket of absolution that gets put over everything and everybody so that we can experience the warmth of acceptance and community.

Someone does something wrong and we say: "That's okay." We all walk into church and take part in a song of very non-specific confession of our humanness and are then offered the assurance of forgiveness so we can go our merry way. Don't get me wrong: This assurance of forgiveness from Christ, which comes totally by grace and is not earned, is an essential and powerful message.

But it was never meant as God's way of saying: "That's okay. Don't worry about it. I love you anyway." Forgiveness may be unearned and unconditional, but it is intrinsically tied to judgment and repentance. Logically speaking, if you are forgiven for something it means you did something wrong or at least are a culpable part of something that is deeply flawed. You need forgiving. And the implication is that you need to change. And if you don't change, then your relationship with whomever you hurt by your actions will perpetually be supported on the basis of the mercy of the forgiving one and will not have much opportunity for depth, wholeness, health, love, and the joy of mutual participation in caring community.

In other words, forgivenss may be unconditionally offered, but if there is nothing but blanket forgiveness going on, then forgiveness is all you get. If there is no confession or repentance going on you don't get fellowship restored. You don't get healing. You don't get any better.

This may seem insignificant when you think of things like forgiving someone for taking the last parking spot or bumping you in the hallway or making a careless and offensive remark, but what about the kid who comes to church with his emotionally abusive father? What is that kid supposed to think of the Christian faith that absolves his father of wrongdoing with a blanket forgiveness void of any sort of corporate confession or accountability? He might find it a comforting refuge for absolution of his own sins, but he might also find it to be an accomplice to his own oppression.

Blanket forgiveness does not deal adequatelly with sin. Blanket forgiveness is unbiblical. It sweeps it under the rug rather than dealing with it. It covers the negative but does nothing positive.

The books I've been reading lately have been reminding me that forgiveness is an invitation to wholeness and restoration that is freely offered but must be humbly and contritely taken and applied before it is really going to have its most profound and useful effect.

Forgiveness that denies or excuses wrongdoing, suffering, weakness, and sin is not really doing anyone a whole lot of good. It is a placebo or a coping mechanism to get the forgiven free of their nagging guilt, but it is superficial and temporary. Forgiveness that leads a person through confession and into repentance and submission to the Spirit is a powerful force for good. If the abused kid had a church which confronted his father with the warm and truth-filled embrace of that kind of forgiveness, the cycles of violence and oppression might have a hope of stopping with him rather than perpetuating and festering and rotting with maggots in the composting bin of a community thriving on blanket forgiveness.

Furthermore, I should add that forgiveness without justice is meaningless. Consider Cain and Abel. Cain might have been forgiven, and this is a powerful truth of the grace of God. But what good does it do for Abel? And what good does it do Cain to know that, though his life was mercifully spared, he must always live with the legacy of the brother he killed that he might have learned to love? Forgiven or not, Abel's blood cries out from the ground for justice. If there is to be forgiveness and restoration in this world of a positive force, there must be a blood that cries louder than Abels.

Friday, September 07, 2007

We Are The Forgiven And We Are The Forgiving (Or We Are Nothing)

I've been reading a lot lately about forgiveness, love and the social ramifications of the gospel, which go way deeper than is evidenced by the way we in the church (and without) tend to think or operate. In all of this I was reminded of a little blurb I wrote while a pastor (initially in a pastoral letter and then mentioned in later sermons). The more I think about it the more I believe it. Here it is:

While there are those that would like to say that the defining characteristic of the church is its morality, I would disagree. Of course pure living and striving for holiness are essential to church living, but I believe the defining characteristic of the church ought to be forgiveness. As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say that in a church without an atmosphere of forgiveness there will be a stifled and largely fruitless attempt at holiness. As Christians we find our life in the perpetual forgiveness of Jesus and his cleansing when we repent. So too, a church finds life in the continued insistence of its people to repent when they have wronged one another and forgive when they have been wronged. With forgiveness there is real power and hope to move past sin and embrace growth together in Jesus’ name. I couldn’t call myself a member of Christ’s church if I didn’t hold firmly to these beliefs.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Alienating Strategies of the Seeker Sensitive Movement

Consider for a moment with me the great danger of our seeker-sensitive movement:

Like all dangerous things it starts off well enough: We gear our worship to fit with a particular target audience (usually one that conveniently happens to include us) and we do it in the name of "translating" the gospel, "contextualizing" the message, and speaking the language of the times. This is good. It is arrogant not to do this. But ...

Do we realize that in this multi-faced and generationally unstereotypable culture when we choose a target audience we are un-choosing several others?

Perhaps that is something we have to do. Perhaps all we need are churches for every audience. But if that were the case, why don't we have churches for every audience? Because taken to the point of absurdity this ends in George Barna's so-called Revolution! (i.e.: The church is you! Do what you want and call it church! You love God and worship Him don't you? Good enough! If you need some people around you, heck, take your iPod to church or a para-church group and just worship how you want. People will love seeing you kneel and raise your hands and get so excited! And they will love it even more that they don't have to listen to your music! Fantastic! Church just got a whole lot better! For more of this biting satire see this earlier post).

The unfortunate thing is that with the seeker-sensitive movement we have basically chosen a certain target audience and got stuck with it. This is actually nothing new. It happened with the hymns and organ crowd and now it is the CCM music and pep-talk crowd. The emerging church (at its worst) is really just the next changing of the guard in terms of target audiences. Part of me applauds the changes and says lets just get on with them. Another big part of me has lately seen it all as window dressing. But it is window dressing that can do an awful lot of harm.

For instance: What about the genuine seekers who don't fit the target audience. People who don't speak Hybelese, don't ever listen to pop-radio (and therefore find CCM music almost like something from another planet), and don't find the pep-talks to be hitting them where they hurt? What about the people who have questions other than the ones the so-called seeker-sensitive church is answering?

They are on the outside looking in.

Which would be fine, I suppose, if they: a) realized it was just a matter of style and personality difference and you could get past it to the central truths of worship and communion that are to be had at that church, or, b) had another church to go to that did speak their language, or, c) had a church that spoke to its target audience but was also sensitive enough to its seekers to be able to adapt and speak in several languages at once.

Unfortunately, I don't see a lot of this happening. Hopefully I'm wrong. But if I'm right, we've got a whole whack-load of genuine seekers who leave the church for all the wrong reasons. Sure, they may be partly to blame for not seeing through the window dressing and for not seeking hard enough, but then again, who are the ones who claimed to be doing the reaching? Who are the ones who claimed to be giving the answers on Sunday morning? Who are the ones putting half their effort into a certain music package and calling it worship without qualifying the term whatsoever?

The crazy irony of all this is that sometimes you will find people in churches who do not fit its target audience at all. Sometimes, below the surface, they are struggling with why they don't seem to feel it like everyone else when the worship reaches its crescendo. They are struggling with why they always seem to have questions about the sermon topic that it just didn't seem interested to address. They might feel unspiritual. They might even feel guilty. They might feel like they are missing something.

But what they may not realize---while they are still going to this church and (knowingly or unknowingly) making these "sacrifices of preference"---is that their worship may actually be purer and more pleasing to God than that of the frenzied many with their perfectly catered service! For they are committing an act of self-sacrifice (thereby following the way of Christ) in order to take part in the church and the worship of God, whereas the others are, at best, giving God glory and enjoying His grace to allow them to do it in a language and style that pleases them, or, at worst, are just there for a good time. My point isn't to measure spirituality here or judge us for enjoying the grace of God in worship, but to point out the irony in all this.

I guess I just worry for the seekers whom we are not sensitive to. Unless they can find a group that they can relate to they are on their own, and may not survive. Even if they do find a church in which they are the target audience, they might be saved . . . but they are perpetuating the problem, and their worship is bound to be diluted. If this goes on long enough the evangelical may be a laughingstock in the kingdom of heaven and a delight to the demons below: For we would have become the most self-seeking of them all.

Lest this sound like one more critique-parade, let me propose a positive step toward solution. There are two possibilities here. One is to splinter into hundreds of house churches: One for every niche and seeker. The other is is to stop being so dang "seeker-sensitive" and just be salt of the world. If we are multi-generational and if we give our people the courage and discernment to be in the world (and of course not of it) then it will become natural for us to speak various cultural languages and not have to try so hard. We certainly need to think more about this.