Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bad Words II: "No Crying He Makes"

If you went to any Christmas concerts this year you likely heard children singing Away in a Manger, and if you are like me, you probably groaned a little bit inside when they came to the line: "The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes." I mean, come on, who are we kidding here?

God either became human in this child, or this child is relatively meaningless. God either met humanity in its finitude, its creatureliness, its pain, its suffering, and even its sin---or God did not meet us here at all. And if Jesus as a grown man wept openly outside the tomb of Lazarus, moments before raising him to life, and was indignant at the sorrow, then why should Christians imagine even for a second that he shed not a tear in his infancy?

I can think of a few reasons why the song might signify the Messiah's birth this way, and on the surface some of them aren't entirely bad. The most obvious is that this song is just a Sunday School lullaby for children. So lighten up, Jon.

A second reason is that the song wants to portray the grander peace on earth represented in this baby, and is seizing upon a magnificent parent-child moment which undoubtedly did happen in Jesus' infancy (there is no reason to think he cried constantly and never slept) in order to drive home this point.

A third reason is that, like pretty much every painting of the nativity, the song wishes to depict the divinity of this child and the gravity of this moment, and so puts a halo around the heads and sublimity on the faces so that we'll distinguish it from the picture of just any old mother and son.

Fair enough, I suppose. But I think there are serious problems with each of these reasons. Even the lullaby one: If you think about it, isn't it kind of a sideways attempt to ingrain children with the notion that crying is bad? This needs to be thrown in the rubbish along with the line "be a man and stop crying". Furthermore, as a children's Christmas song it therefore teaches children precisely the opposite of what they should be taught, and that is that the Son of God was not just a man, but a child like them, and came even as far as to be with them in their (often dismissed as petty and trivial but to them potent and real) suffering.

The second and third reasons are well-intentioned enough, but on further inspection are found seriously wanting. Certainly, the angels do declare this very birth scene as peace on earth. No doubt, the Creator's inhabiting of creation puts to rest our fears that chaos and enmity will have the last word. The Creator's covenant of grace with His creation goes this far, and so this moment right here is the profoundest ontological peace the world has ever known. Sure we can sing this song and just focus on the peace it is trying to portray, but even then, what earthly peace have you ever known that was not born through tears?

And yes, certainly, the significance of this particular birth is the divinity of the child---something it might be difficult to communicate artistically without halos and tearless babies. I get that, and as I scoured images of "Madonna With Child" this week I realized as I looked in vain for an "unsettled" baby Jesus that perhaps it was more respectful not to depict him this way. That said, its not like the song avoids singing about it. It actually says "no crying he makes"--- and theologically this is tantamount to either misleading folly or sheer doceticism (rejected by early church teachers as the notion that Jesus was fully divine but took human appearance as a ruse).

The very reason this is peace on earth is that God has come. He has not just scratched the surface of humanity, but come all the way into it, taking to himself our suffering, our pain, our sin and our death. Without this, God is merely a visitor: There is no seizing of humanity in its finite and fallen condition in order to reconcile it to God. God could have done that if He so choose, but that's not what Christmas celebrates.

Furthermore, if what does set this birth apart is the child's divinity, let's remember that if we depict him as aloof to our pain and our plight we are exalting not the God revealed in Christ but a false god of our own making. This God, the Christmas God, is the God who humbles himself. This very incarnation, so starkly absurd to our proud human sensibilities, is exactly the type of condescending grace that is so becoming of the eternally self-giving Son of God; not to mention his sending Father and the Spirit who brings Him to the world.

This is definitely something worth singing peace-riddled songs about. Like the one our church has been singing this year called "Immanuel", by Stuart Townend. It is wonderful. It begins:

From the squalor of a borrowed stable
By the Spirit and a virgin's faith
To the anguish and the shame of scandal
Came the Savior of the human race
But the skies were filled
With the praise of heav'n
Shepherds listen as the angels tell
Of the gift of God come down to man
At the dawning of Immanuel

King of heaven now the friend of sinners
Humble servant in the Father's hands
Filled with power and the Holy Spirit
Filled with mercy for the broken man
Yes He walked my road and He felt my pain
Joys and sorrows that I know so well
Yet His righteous steps give me hope again
I will follow my Immanuel

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Striking Statement

"If a man can acquiesce in divisions, if he can even take pleasure in them, if he can be complacent in relation to the obvious faults and errors of others and therefore his own responsibility for them, then that man may be a good and loyal confessor in the sense of his own particular denomination, he may be a good Roman Catholic or Reformed or Orthodox or Baptist, but he must not imagine that he is a good Christian."
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, p. 676

By the way, I may begin a tradition with my "bad words" series where I follow it up with the related "good news" that lies behind or redeems the language. For the last post the "good news" sneaks its way in on comment 1o. Thanks as always for all interaction. Please feel free to continue!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bad Words in Church: "Saving Faith"

I'm going to start a little series of posts about sloppy church language. You know: Stuff that we say and keep on saying which perhaps at one time offered an important point of clarification but with overuse has become misleading and stereotype-feeding and even detrimental to the Church's self-understanding. When they get that far they become bad words. And for all our infamous concern for swearing, I think these ought to concern us at least as much if not more.

So this series is about pointing out a few places where I think we've coloured way out of the lines, perhaps in the small hope that I can sort out the caricature from the portrait, at least for myself. Feel free to push me, point out the silver lining in the language, rebuke me for my smarty pants cynicism, or praise my genius. Anyone who can do all of that in one comment gets bonus points. I don't know if I'll do this series over time or all at once, but there's your intro. You'll recognize them when you see them. So without further ado, today's bad words are "saving faith".

The other day I was asked what it meant to believe in Jesus Christ, and I described belief, or "saving faith" as essentially a kind of "living trust". Moments later I sat myself down to read and had a decades old challenge land squarely on the chin, dealt by none other than Karl Barth (yeah this is happening to me a lot lately). In Church Dogmatics IV.1, he is preparing to address the issue of "justification by faith alone", and precedes his answer to the question by describing what Christian faith is not. See what you think:

"Justification by faith" cannot mean that instead of his customary evil works and in place of all kinds of supposed good works man chooses and accomplishes the work of faith, in this way pardoning and therefore justifying himself. As his action, the action of sinful man, faith cannot do this.

Nor does it make any odds whether a man means by faith a mere knowledge and intellectual understanding . . . , or an assent of the mind and will . . . , or finally a heart's trust in the significance of the work for himself . . . . It is not in and with all this that a man justifies himself . . .

There is always something wrong and misleading when the faith of a man is referred to as his way of salvation in contrast to his way in wicked works, or his way of true salvation in contrast to his way in the supposed good works of false faith and superstition. Faith is not an alternative to these other ways. It is not the way which . . . . he can choose and enter by the same capacity by which he might go any other way. Even in the action of faith he is the sinful man who as such is not in a position to justify himself . . . .

Even as a believer he can represent himself to God only as the one he is in virtue of his past, only with the request: "God be merciful to me, a sinner."

He is as little justified in faith as in his other good or evil works. He needs justification just as much in faith as anywhere else, as in the totality of his being. . . . The image of himself as a believer---in so far as he has time and the desire to concern himself with it---can only incite and impel him to that other request: "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mk. 9:24). There is as little praise of man on the basis of his faith as on that of his works.

For there is as little justification of man "by"---that is to say, by means of---the faith produced by him, by his treading the way of faith, by his achievement of the emotions and thoughts and acts of faith, by his whole consciousness of faith and life of faith, as there is a justification "by" any other works. Faith is not at all the supreme and true and finally successful form of self-justification.

If it tried to be this, if man tried to believe with this purpose and intention and claim, then even if his faith was not a "dead" faith, even if it was a most "hearty" faith, even if it was fiduciary faith most active in love, it would be the supreme and most proper form of his sin as the sin of pride. . . . It is the enterprise and conduct of a Pharisaism which is the most evil Pharisaism of all: the Pharisaism of the publican [cf. Lk 18:9-14].

It may well happen that the most audacious man of works, the Christian or secular pietist or activist, will go back to his house justified rather than this man: not by his little works but because---who can tell?---there is perhaps behind his works in some hidden form a real faith which is completely lacking in the one who simply justifies himself in all his righteousness of faith (pp. 615-617).

I'm not sure I need to add to that. He didn't use these words, but dispelled them pretty clearly. In terms of Christian speech about redemption, "saving" is not a verb which allows our faith as its subject. Neither is it an adjective which has faith as its noun.

Barth said a lot more there as well, and as a contemporary evangelical I think I must stand under his rebuke and challenge.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Meston Walk, Part Three

I really enjoy my walks to school. I have already shared something of them through poe-try and photo-graphy. But did you know you can actually take these walks yourself using Google Maps Street View? This is an incredible feature that allows you to drag a little stick man onto blue highlighted areas of the map and get a multi-angled interactive street view.

I'm not presuming you'll care to bother, but if indeed you do so desire you can join me on my walk to school by double clicking your way between the rock walls of Meston Walk or along the cobble stones of College Bounds. You can stop where you please and take your pick of angles from which to view the buildings of King's College. Maybe you've seen this already: It is really quite incredible. But if not, before you try it---a warning:

Before we moved here I checked out several of Aberdeen's street views, and as a result there is still one stretch of road near the beach that has been all but ruined for me because of this previewing experience. Whenever we are there in person now I get a deja vu to when I was on that road "virtually" this summer. It is really quite odd. It is like my present reality is tainted by my previous virtual voyeurism. I have to give my head a shake to re-enter the current moment.

It also sent a surreal shiver up my spine when we were flying into Aberdeen for the first time and I saw that very stretch of road from the plane window, exactly as it looked from satellite photos. In that case the image hitting my eyes was the same but the experience was on a totally different level. It was moving below me. I felt turbulence. Clouds zoomed past the window. We descended. Almost imperceptible waves flowed to the shore. The sound of jet engines was muffled only by popping ears. And there was the surmounting reality of touch down and feet to ground. Where I had previously been straining to imagine the real, here it was hurtling past me at many miles an hour and hitting me like a ton of bricks. The preview hadn't ruined reality so much as been nothing close to it.

I think we all know that pretty instinctively about images and "virtual reality", maybe because most of us (?) can remember a pre-computer time in our lives. But it has struck me these last few months of walking that there is a similar thing going on with automotive transport. We have a van now, and I'm very thankful for it, but there are still many place where I would still simply rather walk. The other night I paused outside the van, put my key in my pocket, and walked 30 minutes there and back in the dark and the rain, simply out of preference! No regrets.

There is something about having to jostle past people on the sidewalk; feeling raindrops as you see them hit puddles; seeing the wind move the trees and then sensing it moments later confront the skin; or noticing a pigeon perched comically beside a man on a park bench and having the luxury to pause and observe.

What is the something? Is it more wholesome; connected; real?

There's this line at the beginning of the movie Crash about how in LA people only ever encounter each other from behind car windows, and so they crash into each other to feel the presence of other people; to know they are not alone. At first I thought it was a really hokey line. I still think that of the crashing part, but not the rest of it.

There is something disconnecting and un-real about experiencing everything through glass--be it the screen or the windshield.

That said, I am not about to become a Luddite. Wouldn't I rather have the option to drive to Edinburgh than be stuck with the radius of wherever my feet (or, more constricting yet, my kid's feet) can take me? Wouldn't I rather be interacting with the lot of you on this fandangled intra-web than not at all? Of course! There is much that is gained from having a vehicle and from having the internet. Communication and accessibility that were not there before. This is good, just so long as it is an enhancement of or supplement to reality rather than a replacement of it. I just wonder if we always realize when we've crossed that line.

So anyway, basically I'm inviting you to join me on my walk to school through the marvel of technology, with the caveat advice that if you ever plan to visit in person you may wish to consider passing on the virtual preview---it just may turn reality into deja vu and radically dislocate your brain. No biggie though.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Ryan Adams' Cardinology

About a year ago I eagerly snatched up Ryan Adams and the Cardinals' latest album, Cardinology---and then hardly listened to it. It wasn't bad, it didn't disappoint, it just didn't do anything special for me.

But the other day it made it back on to my nano and, hot dang, what an album! It has a gospel-album feel (except heavier on the lament), and as the title might suggest, has a lyrical life-reflectiveness about it.

A couple of the songs on this album are, to my ears, dull. "Magick" is one of them. But on the other hand it has a few that are downright pleasant, and the guitar work is just splendid. "Born into a Light" is a great start, "Fix it" is classic Adams (see it on Letterman), and "Let Us Down Easy" is frankly just gorgeous. We just sat and listened to it in silence twice in a row the other night and in trying to describe the song after I used the adjective "beautiful" a few more times than can retain any suitable meaning.

At the moment I'm not really interested in picking this album apart for its implicit "ology", put-on or otherwise, but I do enjoy having lyrics that pluck at the mind-strings here, express my heart there; question my premises here, and beg questions in return there. Without laying out for you which is which, here are some of the lines really ringing around in my cranium these days, from this own song especially:

From "Let Us Down Easy":

In all my life, Mercy
hasn't known my name this well
Like how every sea
filters out and leads us gently to a creek we sit around
Some of us are strong
but the rest of us are weak

So let us down
if you must
But let us down easy
Lord . . . .

So pray'n at night I tell God these jokes
He must be tired of Himself so much
He must be more than disappointed
Christmas comes we eat alone . . .

Let her down,
but if you must
Let us down easy
Lord . . . .

Not sure exactly what he means by that, but I just think of the many ways I'm brought to the end of myself, even in the things I think I'm doing completely for God, and I note God's "pastoral" way of confronting me---sometimes heavily and obviously; sometimes subtly, as if I discovered it on my own---and it all has a melancholy but at base hopeful and uplifting bitter-sweetness to it. As does this song.