Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Helplessness Blues - The Anthem

Coming to grips with this Occupy Wall Street thing has been frustrating for some and intriguing for others. Here's a group seemingly so interested in being heard and yet either unable or unwilling to spell it out; so interested in influencing change and yet perplexingly uninterested in serving up a leader or a plan. Perhaps those will come. Much could be said on this indeed. I just thought I'd use this space to say that if you want to understand someone it helps to listen to them in their own language. And when there is a diverse group involved you may need to listen for awhile, and listen for a chorus. In fact, in this case I mean that quite literally: Every time I hear the following song I think that at this point it just might be anthemic.

The Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

I was raised up believing
I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see

And now after some thinking
I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me

But I don't, I don't know what that will be
I'll get back to you someday soon you will see

What's my name, what's my station
Oh just tell me what I should do
I don't need to be kind to the armies of night
That would do such injustice to you

Or bow down and be grateful
And say "Sure take all that you see"
To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls
And determine my future for me

And I don't, I don't know who to believe
I'll get back to you someday soon you will see

If I know only one thing
It's that every thing that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable
Often I barely can speak

Yeah I'm tongue tied and dizzy
And I can't keep it to myself
What good is it to sing helplessness blues?
Why should I wait for anyone else?

And I know, I know you will keep me on the shelf
I'll come back to you someday soon myself

If I had an orchard
I'd work till I'm raw
If i had an orchard
I'd work till I'm sore

And you would wait tables
And soon run the store

Gold hair in the sunlight
My light in the dawn
If I had an orchard
I'd work till I'm sore

If I had an orchard
I'd work till I'm sore

Someday I'll be
Like the man on the screen

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Back when I used to keep up this blog I had an annual tradition where I'd add another entry to my 'life lists' of books, film, and music. (If you are seeing this it probably means you still check in and, thus, already knew that!). Someday I just might fire up this blog again, so I figure I'll keep those lists active. So without much fanfare or further adieu, here are the 36th entries on my lists. Just my way of expressing gratitude to those things which have been a big part of my 36th year.

Albums I've Lived By

Arcade Fire - Funeral

This will forever be remembered as the year I (along with many) discovered Arcade Fire (a little later than most). I got the whole discography at once and though I loved them all and really enjoyed 'The Suburbs' it was 'Funeral' which resonated with me most both lyrically and musically. Already this album has ingrained itself upon my psyche to such a degree that I can hardly believe I hadn't really heard it until this year. When I saw the band live in Glasgow it was unforgettable. Between Laika and Wake Up, Rebellion (Lies) and Power Out, this album's songs carried the night for me.

Favourite Fiction

Richard Adams - Watership Down

For some reason (I don't know what compelled us) I picked this up and started reading it to my oldest this year. We were absolutely enraptured with it. One of the best books I've ever read, hands down. One day I was sick but he wanted to read it so bad he worked his way through a whole page reading to me aloud in bed (this book is full of very big words and he did very well).

Influential Non-Fiction

Willie James Jennings - The Christian Imagination

I wrote about this book at length in various places on the blog, such as here. I read a lot of great books this year, but this one triggered my thinking in new ways the most.

Possible runners up this year:
Karl Barth - The Epistle to the Romans
John Howard Yoder - Body Politics

Films that Stuck With Me

Gone Baby Gone

I would love to write about this more one day. I did so on facebook one time but can't figure out how to find it. The acting was brilliant. The story had twists and turns but still felt real and was gripping without being over the top. The sense of place was profound, and the storyline tugged at the mind and heart. I thought the end was poignantly filmed. Casey Affleck's character turns out to be something of a Christ figure, I think, and as he gives of him self one more time for this forgotten young girl the camera pans behind the TV that he's watching and we sense that the onus is on us if this world is going to get any better.

Monday, June 27, 2011

An Announcement

I am pleased to announce the launch of a new conversational theology blog where three friends/colleagues and I will be now diverting our weekly online energies. As you can see, 'this side of sunday' is now more of a personal website and reference archive. I may pick up the blogging here again someday, but at this point I invite you to bookmark us, link us, add us to your RSS feeds, or just plain join us over at Out of Bounds: Theology in the Far Country.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Other Side of Sunday

After six years and a number of re-evaluations leading to renewed efforts on this blog, I am ready to call it off, or at least go into hibernation for awhile. This is different than dry spells I've had in the past. I just don't have a motivation or purpose for the blog at the moment which warrants taking time away from other projects and demands just to tinker and publish my random thoughts. Now that it has become more of a tinkering and less purposeful, I think it is time to put it to bed, at least for the coming year.

That isn't a slight against what this blog has been in the past, or against blogging in principle. In fact I have another online project in the works, a group conversation, the launch of which will be announced here very soon.

What to do with this blog remains the question. At first I thought I might import the best bits of it into a wordpress site under a new name and leave it for another day, but now you may notice that I am simply revamping this site into more of an archive and a platform for my CV. If I ever pick up the blog again I will simply do so here.

I do want to thank all those who've thought and commented along with me these past six years on this blog. Those I've known for years and those I've only ever met online. Thank you so much for your interest, your challenges, your encouragements and your interactions. I have really learned a lot from conversing with all of you here, and am grateful that you took the time. It would take too long to recount all the paths that have crossed and arguments that have transpired - it has been richer than I ever thought it would be, mainly because of those who met me here. I look forward to meeting you again in other forms and contexts.

Speaking of which, stay tuned for one last post which will explain the new site and will also give direction to a brand new conversation blog, coming very soon.

Monday, June 20, 2011

After the Riots: Shame, Shame, Double Shame

See the comments for an update and further thoughts on this post as of June 23.

There have yet to be any criminal charges laid for the riots in Vancouver following game seven of the Stanley Cup, but I am sure there will be. Up to a million photos have been submitted to evidence. Some real life good people showed up the morning after to clean up. Stories have circulated about people who protected local businesses from further looting and damage. A number of guilty parties have come forward to confess responsibility and apologize.

As the city grappled with the embarrassment and horror of the seemingly meaningless and thus all-the-more-disturbing event there has been no small amount of public opinion and denouncement of the perpetrators. This seems to me to be largely appropriate.
What else should people do but try to understand what occurred and seek a measure of justice? What else should take place in the public sphere than designating what is and what is not honourable and appropriate and acceptable in society?

However, you have to wonder at what point such declarations of honour and searches for justice become blatant shamings and quests for sustained self-righteousness. I heard one sports talk radio host raise the issue of our societal complicity in such acts. I listened at work as he and his co-host went back and forth from simply calling the rioters "idiots" and trying to probe into the societal conditions (in which we all have a hand) which make such an event so evidently possible. They seemed to be on a healthy thought-process.

Few would want to defend the rioters, and indeed I think it incredibly important to try to seek to hold them accountable and also to reflect on what kind of society we wish to promote. But is the setting of honour codes and their enforcement by shaming the way to do it? Can it not get to the point where the shaming ritual actually serves to detach perceived do-gooders from wrongdoers in a way that is naive at best and insidiously self- and society-destructive at worst?

I was in Vancouver in '94 and could imagine that, in the right conditions, I could have become caught up in the riots. Had alcohol and a lack of accountability been present in my life at that age I might easily have participated, at least as a snickering bystander. If I had undealt-with emotional problems or simply lacked any kind of modeling for how to deal with anger or disappointment I might well kicked over a garbage can or two. If I had been brought up in a "me-first" society with little mentoring that taught me to respect the property of others or the authorities at all then I might well have cheered those who did damage to the infrastructure in a moment of passion. This doesn't excuse any of it, but it does serve (I hope) to illustrate that shaming people simply as "idiots" is way too easy.

Consider the story of Nathan Kotylak, a 17 year old water-polo player who has confessed his part in the riots and faced up to consequences that many who were involved will find it easy to escape. He has submitted himself to the disciplinary processes of school, family, team and society. And well he should. But he has also submitted himself to further shaming, not to mention providing a face and a name for all the anonymous shaming being done already. As the CBC story reports:
The online venom reached a point where Kotylak's father, who is a doctor in Maple Ridge, suspended his medical practice and the family made a decision to leave their home temporarily, said Findlay.

"The family has been concerned for their safety," he said. "It's kind of odd because we see the mob mentality that's been shown on TV through the riot, we're experiencing very much the same thing online."
Surely we've got a mixed bag of responses to the riots and just like the sports talk radio hosts we have a lot people processing things slowly from initial rage to later more mature and compassionate and even merciful approaches to justice and restoration. Many Vancouverites have in fact responded quite admirably. We should definitely be having these "code of honour" discussions and assertions in society. But we should also note a difference between grace-based and shame-based approaches to public morality. Indeed there is no shortage of cause for self-reflection after these riots, and this is one more area where that might be appropriate.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Problem with NHL Hockey

As someone who grew up on NHL hockey and played hockey in multiple different settings and yet fell out of love with it a few years back, I was pulled back in this past Christmas as my boyhood team reached the top of the standings and garnered my (af first) passing interest again. In the months that followed I was surprised both by how emotionally invested in the team I could still be and also by how captivated by the sport I could still become. Part of this re-interest had to do with the team philosophy, which was to play hard "between the whistles" and avoid all that silly stuff. They didn't always succeed at this, of course, but I appreciated the thought and it helped me to get back into the sport again.

And oh did I get back into it. So much so that I now face the decision of sticking with NHL hockey (and thus voicing my opinion about what I wish it would be) or leaving it be (only to be picked up again when my team nears glory). As I consider this I have a few complaints to register. I will group them according to three categories, and illustrate them with reference to the playoff season that just passed.

First of all, there is the culture of violence and retribution. Fighting. It is part of the game. It isn't just something that happens once in awhile, it is an accepted and even expected part of the game. In what other team sport is that the case? None. I think the best way to illustrate the problem is with reference to former NHL referee Kerry Fraser's comments on Brad Marchand's repeated shots to the face of Daniel Sedin at the end of Stanley Cup Game 6, to which Sedin did not respond:
“This is really a telling play, in my opinion, as to the series and moving into Game 7," Fraser said. "On that particular play, there is absolutely no question that the referee should have assessed at least two minutes for roughing for Marchand, and I probably would have given him a misconduct as well, to get rid of him.

"That being aside, the captain, the leader of that team, he's a skill player, tremendously skilled player, not a physical guy, but sooner or later you've got to throw the gloves down and you've got to defend yourself on a play like that, especially when you're looking at a guy that might be an inch or two shorter than you, you've got to step it up. I don't think Ray Bourque as a captain — he would never take that kind of abuse, personally.

"But beyond that, nobody came to the aid of Daniel Sedin. He's their captain, he's their leader. Where are these guys that would want to stick up and say, 'Hey, we're going home, we've lost this game, we're going back home, and they're not going to do that to us?' ... You don’t let your captain get a rag-doll treatment like that. Either he does it himself — steps it up with the game lost and going back home for the hammer, or somebody's got to jump in there and take care of business, and that never happened.
To add insult to injury, Daniel Sedin and his brother were repeatedly called the "Sedin sisters" for and castigated as "Europeans" because of this approach to the rough stuff. Putting aside the disgusting misogyny and ethnocentricity of these remarks, the underlying assumption at issue here is that hockey can't be played that way.

We are unable to imagine, it seems, an NHL where the referees took care of the penalties and the players just played the game without violently taking matters into their own hands. Call me a purist, fine, but I find the hockey ethos reflected by Fraser's remarks harder and harder to stomach. And I find my future as a fan hinging on how much I'll be able to stomach it.

Now, I know that the Canucks are not innocent in this regard, but if I'm to watch the NHL anymore it is going to be for players like the Sedins, and not for the players that Fraser insists they should be.

(Of course, I'm sure there are examples that could be named where the Sedin twins actually did punch back, but please bear in mind that I'm using them as a general illustration, not as pristine messiahs. That said, let's note that at the very least these are some pretty honourable athletes. Not only did they top up the franchise's $5 million donation to the local children's hospital with £1.5 million of their own, but check out Daniel Sedin's response to the charges against him that I noted above. When Mike Milbury called the Sedins "Thelma and Louise" Daniel replied: “We don't really worry about those kind of comments. He made a bad comment about us, calling us women. I don't know how he looks at women. I would be pretty mad if I was a woman.” Genius.)

Which brings me to the second problem: Media coverage and the sports cliche. The chest-thumping idiocy displayed by Milbury is commonplace. But that's an easy target. Let's acknowledge that this isn't happening as often as it once did. But we still have the problem of tired cliches passing for entertainment. I know this is a problem in all sports but in this past playoff series the problem was evident in a massive way, and in fact seemed to be particularly bad when it came to the NHL itself.

Of course, there is only so much you can say, so maybe sports media will always be rife with cliches. Maybe it tries too hard to get beyond this. Whatever the case, it seems quite prevalent that as soon as a player says anything interesting, the media jumps all over it and abuses it, takes it out of context, sensationalizes it all the more, and makes it stupid. Take, for instance, Roberto Luongo's "jab" at opposition goaltender and eventual Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup winner Tim Thomas.

After the Canucks scored a goal where Bieksa seemed to fluke the puck off the end boards so that Lapierre could put it into the abandoned net, Luongo was asked to give Thomas some props for his great goaltending by admitting what a happenstance series of events it took to score on him. The assumption in the question was that the play was a mistake, and the assumption was that Luongo should provide fodder for that reporter's admiration for his opponent. (That Thomas ended up being the better goaltender in this series is neither here nor there, the point is that under no circumstances should we expect that Luongo ought to go in for those assumptions.)

Knowing that it was a planned miss by Bieksa due to scouting reports on Thomas, Luongo made an honest and competitive comment (rather than a cliche, which is what we usually get) which called it like it was. To his credit, he didn't get nasty with it, and admitted that sometimes it would work out vice versa - sometime Thomas would make saves which Luongo didn't, simply because they play a different style.

But the media blew it up and Luongo was chastised for his "jab". Questioned later he pointed out that Thomas never says anything nice about him, and Luongo was mocked all the more. Why should Luongo care if Thomas praises him? The point is that the whole thing started with the press asking him to give Thomas kudos precisely where they weren't deserved. See how dumb the whole thing is? Luongo's comments got away from sports cliches, and then he was roasted for it. Sports is supposed to be entertaining and competitive. This can get stupidly over-competitive, but it can also get stupidly unintelligent. I found the latter very frustrating - and it seems pretty common.

The third problem I want to mention is all those scrums after the whistle. This is relatively unique to NHL hockey and quite closely related to the first. It isn't quite the same as the culture of fighting and retribution. It is the prevalence of instances where players jostle and slash and facewach each other to prove a point and assert each other's territory. Sure, it is always going to happen, but does it have to be such a part of the game? I'd rather it wasn't.

Referring again to the Stanley Cup finals, let's recall the two major controversies that ensued. The biggest one was Aaron Rome's concussion-causing late hit on Nathan Horton. The scene was ugly and even horrific. Rome was suspended from the rest of the series. The other controversy was Alex Burrows bite of the finger of Patrice Bergeron in one of these after-the-whistle scrums. Bergeron was giving Burrows one of the classic facewashes with his glove, and Burrows caught a stray finger in his mouth and bit down. No suspension.

Obviously, the bite is silly. I won't defend it. But what really gets me is the ire that was sent solely in Vancouver's direction because of it. Why does this bug me? Because as silly as the bite was, its silliness is a subset of the silliness of the scrum to begin with! Sure, the facewash is not as downright dirty as the bite, but they are on the same sliding scale of absurdity. Burrows was dumb to do that. But the whole thing is dumb. Though everyone was all over the Canucks for that one, when the team all but eliminated that after the whistle rough stuff the rest of the series, they were mocked for it (see above).

The thing is, when it is all said and done, Aaron Rome's hit is actually a more understandable part of the game than those after-the-whistle scrums. I genuinely believe it was a mistake on his part that he went on with the hit after the brief window where it would have been safe and legal. I think they should try to cut down on these eventualities with strict penalization and rules, but that this happens on occasion is more acceptable to me, in principle, than the silly perpetuation of hack-whack-and smack hockey and all that monkey-business after the play.

I know I sound like I'm just frustrated that my team lost and that my team was the butt end of some of this, and maybe that's true to a degree, but these things were genuinely bothering me even when it looked like my team might prevail. As long as that's what hockey is, I continue to participate with one foot out the door. Having said that, I have been impressed with some of the things the Canucks franchise have tried to put forward and I am pretty interested in seeing what they can do next year. But before this season is lost to memory, I thought I'd register some of the things that bothered me as I got swept up in it all again.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Post Game Dejection

When it comes to Vancouver perhaps most of the postgame focus will be on a few hundred rioters. Its too bad because I thought the fans in the rink and the players on the ice (for both sides) were classy after the game. And Ryan Kesler pretty much sums it up for me.

Stay tuned in the future because I'm stewing over a post on what I think is wrong with the NHL. As one who grew up on hockey and yet hadn't watched a game in several years I have a few thoughts stemming from the hours spent following it so closely again this year. Don't worry, this is not going to be an attempt to discredit the Bruins (and I'll give it a few days to make sure). Congratulations have to go to the Boston Bruins, and especially to Tim Thomas, for winning the Stanley Cup.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Don't be so Cross-Centered that your Lord is Dead

Although we water it down sometimes, evangelicals are to their credit generally the people who insist that on every occasion it is the cross of Christ - and not themselves - which must be preached. So much so, however, that evangelical churches can quickly forget that the cross itself has much to say for itself beyond the proclamation of justification by faith alone.

The cross was emptied and so was the tomb. But Pentecost reminds us that this emptiness speaks not of a vacuum left for the filling up of our piety and our proclamation but of the filling of the Church with the Spirit of the risen Lord. The emptiness of the cross before us is not one to be filled with timeless truths and moral principles but with the fellowship and decisiveness of a prayerful people thrown daily at the mercy of the promised presence and guidance of a living Lord.

We best be careful not to turn an evangelical strength into a weakness by so emphasizing the cross of Christ that we drain it of its power. I mention this because I think it is far too common for Christian churches to recede into a merely proclamational stance rather than take up the call to make concrete theological decisions (and act on them) together in the prayer for Kingdom come. Barth says it better than I have:
The community may very well forget that it has to hear and attest Jesus Christ as the Lord who is risen again from the dead and therefore lives as the Prophet of God who in the power of the Holy Spirit is not inactive but powerfully at work in the time between Easter and His final appearing both in heaven and on earth. On its own lips the eternal Word from His lips may well become timeless truth. The concrete meaning with which it speaks here and now may well dissolve in its presentation into an abstract signification. The specific point with which His Gospel, notwithstanding its identity in every age and therefore its universality, penetrates each specific historical situation with a specific intention to be specifically received and attested by the community, may be softened and blunted and secretly broken off or rendered invisible in its proclamation. The Gospel as transmitted by it may be changed into a dull impartation which says everything and nothing, proclaiming a supposed but not a real salvation.

Formally, such an impartation need not be lacking in a biblical foundation, biblical content and attachment to the best traditions of the ecclesiastical past, such as, for example, those of the century of the Reformation. It can have the appearance of a true message of Christ, a true preaching of the kingdom of God or true praise of free grace. It can ostensibly be a proclamation of justification by faith alone and a warming reference to the spiritual conversion and moral renovation needed by humanity.

And why should it not proclaim this with genuine emotion and true zeal? In this corrupted form only one thing will be carefully left out and therefore lacking. The impartation will not be intended nor go forth as an invitation to or demand for a concrete decision of faith and obedience, at any rate in the sense of a Yes or No which entails a distinction of word and act at a specific time and in a specific situation. In spite of all its profundity and eloquence, at the point where it ought to do this, it will come to a halt and become an inarticulate mumbling of pious words.

There will be talk of inward regeneration by faith, of the struggle for a new awakening by the Spirit of God, of the solemn prospect of a distant “world of Christ,” but there will be no demand to grasp the nettle and to make a small beginning of this regeneration and awakening in a specific act of will here and now. There will be prayer for peace, but prayer committing no one. When the time comes for steps to peace which commit anyone, there will be quick withdrawal into neutrality, into a safe avoidance of the fatal problems and the even more fatal freedom from problems of the existing present, followed by a new and powerful and sincerely meant but blunted and generalised and therefore impotent assurance that Jesus Christ is risen, that He will come again at the last day and put everything right, and that faith in Him is the victory which overcomes the world.

- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3.2, 813-814

Monday, June 13, 2011

Chris Tanev - A Short Story

I was 19 when the Vancouver Canucks last played in the Stanley Cup finals and came one win away. Christopher Tanev was five.

Chris grew up playing hockey but by the age of 16 was still pretty short, and so he was cut from 7 minor league teams by the time he was old enough to drive.

Tanev played roller hockey for awhile and then managed to make the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers in the NCAA before being picked up by the Canucks farm team just over a year ago.

His first NHL game was this January. He had one assist in 29 games.

He made his first appearance in the final series of the Stanley Cup playoffs on Friday night and played a poised 12 minutes where his team needed him dearly. He nearly set up a game winning goal.

I have been so emotionally invested in this Stanley Cup series that there have been times I could hardly sleep; could hardly sit still. When his teammates talk about Tanev the one word they all use is "calm".

He described his first shift to the Vancouver Sun as follows: "Their guy dumped it in and my legs didn't feel too well when I went to get the puck ... After that, I felt fine. I had a blast."

Tonight at 1am local time I'll be up watching my boyhood team trying to win their (our!) first Stanley Cup - on away ice. I'll be so anxious and excited I'll feel like I might throw up. But I'll have my eye on 21-year old Tanev and hopefully he will soothe my shattered nerves. It is weird that my childhood dream now rides on the back of people younger than me.

Part of what you hope to be able to do when you root for your team is actually like or identify with some of the players. Tanev is one of those. He could easily be the guy at footlocker who casually fetches me a different pair of adidas, all the while waiting for his shift to end so he can go catch a movie.

The promo videos will focus on the big name players and the microphones will swarm around them for sound-bytes that provide a series-narrative for those outside Boston and Vancouver to grab on to. But there are one or two microphones in front of Tanev and they produce the story that follows. Its a good story, but I prefer the raw footage. Nothing earth-shattering here - which is kind of the point.

Go Canucks.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Kids Awake My Soul - PS22

Guess I'm a bit behind, but I just discovered the 5th grade choir of Public School 22 in Staten Island.

The songs are written by MGMT and Mumford and Sons.

See them also perform Coldplay and Phoenix.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Morning Bell

Radiohead's incredible album Amnesiac turned 10 this month, and over at Stereogum you can hear covers for every song. My favourite is "Morning Bell" by Chris Thile:

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

'Machines of Loving Grace' and our Unwitting Commodification

It has been a long time since I was as gripped by a documentary series as I am by this one that is running on the BBC right now. It is as thought-provoking and unsettling as it is well-made and even humorous. I have not yet completed this first episode, but I intend to follow it all the way through and highly recommend you join me. Hopefully it doesn't get taken offline. Here it is:

Adam Curtis's All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace:

One of the bits that struck me most from this first episode (besides the remarkable study with a group of people unwittingly playing Pong in a theatre at the 8.30 mark) was the point that the internet age has led many of us to commodify ourselves. Commodification is, simply put, the transformation of things that may not normally be regarded as goods or services into a commodity.

Seriously: watch this documentary. And let me know what you think.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Wilco on Coolness

Over at NPR I was listening to the Wilco concert from last month's Sasquatch music festival in Washing State, and thoroughly enjoyed this seemingly impromptu soliloquy-of-sorts from band front-man Jeff Tweedy during one of their songs:

"The people that are clapping are the people that we like.
And the people that aren't clapping are the people that are more like me.
Because I wouldn't be clapping. I would be thinking that I was too cool to clap.
And I would be wrong! I would be so wrong.
Don't be like me. Be like the people that we like.

That sounds terrible. It sounds like I don't like myself.
I do! Just not the part of me that doesn't like to clap.
So let's clap. Let's clap together. Let's clap together people. Let's clap together."

Reminds me of a realization I had after high school (thus too late to be of much good), which was that the coolest people are the ones who think least about how cool they might be. I wonder how many good things we refrain from for fear that it might seem cheesy. I say own it. If it is good then clear away the cheese rather than leaving it to the fate of the cheese-balls. Self-consciousness and obsessive self-projection are the modern gods we cast off in freedom.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Search for the Historical Adam

The June issue of Christianity Today has a lead article called "The Search for the Historical Adam" which brings evolutionary theory and recent research in genetics back on the biblical interpretation of Adam as an actual historical person (rather than a representative literary figure). This issue has been around a long time, but the appearance of this issue in this well-read magazine combined with the content of the article itself show that this is likely to be a hot-button issue for evangelical Christians -- and probably for good reason.

I don't think I have a full-formed opinion at this time, but I am pretty curious about it and do have some preliminary reactions.

1) I do not feel like my faith in Jesus or confidence in Scripture is undermined by scientific theories to this effect, but definitely want to give the theological and hermeneutical ramifications much further thought. This issue is certainly going to expose our commitments regarding biblical interpretation isn't it? Seems like every issue does that, but so often we end up talking about the issue but not the hermeneutics. The day needs to come soon, I should think, when evangelicals from academia to local churches come to grips again with what they mean when they say "the Bible says."

2) The theological issues that the article flags as most immediately effected include:
- The reliability/interpretation of the Genesis account of creation,
- the undesrtanding of the image of God,
- the doctrine of original sin and the fall,
- and the New Testament references to Adam as a historical individual.
The texts in question in that regard include Luke 3:23–38; Acts 17:22–31; Romans 5:12–19; and 1 Corinthians 15:20–23. I actually tend to think the most pressing theological question has to do with the issue of when death entered human existence and how/whether it is related to sin, but I suppose that is included in the question of the fall. At a first glance, I don't see the texts referred to here as irreconcilable with the possibility of 150,000 first-humans rather than one or two.

3) The CT article talks about firings related to this issue at major Bible Colleges and Seminaries. Even though I am undecided on all these issues, I want to say that we should not support these actions. There needs to be freedom for real study here, not clamp-downs on what one can consider and inform students about. What kind of schools are these that would just run the party line rather than prepare students for the issues of their time with thoughtfulness and humility?

4) The article links to a Bible study which asserts some "eternal principles", including among them the claim that "God’s Word presents Adam as no less a historical figure than Jesus." Not only do I find the term "eternal principles" tantamount to idolatry, but I find this particular claim unnecessary and untenable. I actually think the Bible's level of investment in Jesus as a historical figure is far higher than in Adam. In other words, my initial thought is to balk at that statement. I mean, take those four passages listed above (with all their interpretive possibilities) and compare them with four whole gospels and a bunch of epistles which stake their claim entirely on the historicity of Jesus.

5) I understand the caution, here, and I will ascribe to a good degree of it myself, but I find the theological bastions being laid down in advance a bit sloppy and the rhetoric being lobbied forward (even by someone as respectable as Tim Keller) a bit heavy-handed. Is it not possible that sometimes we have questions arise which we have to think about for awhile with our presuppositions on the table? Doesn't faith free us to think after the truth which is by us not contained? Doesn't faith in a Creator who could also be Incarnate in creation lead us to promote rather than shut down such rigorous engagement between divine revelation and the findings and theories of scientific discovery? Let's consider this carefully without letting carefulness squash consideration in our attempt to keep consideration from squashing carefulness.

All this I offer in the spirit of preliminary observation intended to aid further thought and to indicate my desire to give it plenty of my own. What about you? Any initial observations? Can you direct me to some better thoughts and deeper issues?

PS. By the way, one of the featured scientists in this article is a friend of mine from elementary school and has commented on this blog in the past. Congrats Dennis Venema for what seems like some important work and may God give you grace, humility, and wisdom as you in faith seek (and promote) understanding among both colleagues and churches.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Beautiful Goal

This is the winning goal in game one of the Stanley Cup finals between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins. It may look a bit haphazard at first, but this is exactly the kind of speedy transition game that the Canucks were pulling off all night long - forced turnover, speed, quick pass, scoring chance. Watch that replay as Kesler adeptly pokes the puck off the defender's stick, spins with agility to collect the puck and stay onside, takes a moment to find Hansen streaking into the zone, and delivers a crisp lead pass to the trailing winger who then puts it forward to Torres for an earned empty netter. A winning goal for my team, with seconds left in the game. In sport, you can't get much better than that.

The goal was scored at nearly 4am local time, and I could hardly contain myself. My eldest son was up with me and we were relieved not only that this goal won the game but also that it eliminated the possibility for overtime - thus affording us the opportunity for some shut-eye (after a brief skype conversation with my brothers in the Vancouver area, of course). As a long time fan who has learned to get used to losing, I was so nervous for this game. But these poised and speedy Canucks instilled confidence and injected an excitement for hockey I haven't felt since 1994.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's Not About You (from the NY Times)

A friend on facebook just linked me to a poignant article from the Opinion Pages of the New York Times online, and highly recommend you go and read it here.
"Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture....
Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly."
- David Brooks, NY Times, May 30, 2011
I'm looking at another day of work lost due to a sick family at home, and I have to admit I've been begrudging it. When one of my chicken-pox-covered kids was whining in his bed every 5 minutes last night I was not pleased with his interruptions of my preferred evening routine and my desire, later, to sleep. David Brooks is right in what he says about society, and he is right in what he pinpoints in us personally. Well, in me, at least. This selfishness is not simply "culture's" fault nor the fault of any one generation, of course, but let's face it: We are not helped one iota by the climate in which we live. Heaven forbid our churches contribute to this climate. Heaven help us to serve when called upon, and even to do it joyfully. This just might be the hardest thing in the world. Even as I agree with this article, I find it hard to get up from this and go and truly serve rather than go my merry way.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Barth's Tirade Against 'Holy Selfishness'

I recall promoting a spiritual gifts discovery program in my church with the Willow Creek mantra that this was the way to be all you can be in Christ. Only as an aside did I mention that this was to be to the benefit of the community. I have read countless books that spoke of the miracle of forgiveness as something firstly meant for the forgiver. I have stood through myriad worship songs which, if we were lucky, tagged on and "us" and a "we" at the end of five minutes of "I" and "me".

Don't get me wrong, in my own life I am also mainly focussed on these things, so this only strikes me as odd when I compare it to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Thus when it comes to describing Christianity (rather than my own desires writ large), I think there are some challenges to be issued. Consider Barth's tirade toward the end of the Church Dogmatics:
Can it really be the inner end, meaning and basis of my Christian existence, and therefore the goal and end of the ways and words of God to me, that I should be blessed, that my soul should be saved, that I should participate in all the gifts of reconciliation, that my life should be one of reception, possession, use and enjoyment of these gifts, that I should finally attain to eternal bliss, that I should not go to hell but to heaven, and that each of the few or many others who might accompany me should also know the extraordinary exaltation of his human existence mediated in the benefits of Christ, and therefore the satisfaction of his deepest needs and the fulfilment of his most lofty and necessary desires?

Does not this wholly possessive being seem to smack of the sanctioning and cultivating of an egocentricity which is only too human for all its sanctity, of a self-seeking which in the light of what is at stake renders every other form of self-seeking quite innocuous? To be sure, there is a very legitimate and necessary Christian "I" and "mine." But does this mean that it can be made the last word on what makes a Christian a Christian?

It gives us a very strange relationship if on the one side we have the selflessness and self-giving of God and Jesus Christ in which the salvation of the world is effected and revealed, and on the other the satisfaction with which Christians accept this and are thus content to make use of the very different being and action of their Lord.

Can this be really all, can it be the true and essential thing which distinguishes them, that within a world which in all the folly and impotence of its pride, sloth and falsehood already hastens through such indescribably great suffering to its end, there is a handful of men whose particular existence has only the meaning and basis that, called, illumined and awakened thereto by Jesus Christ, they may rejoice in the little faith, love and hope of their being in the light of His grace which He has given them, which is so superior to their prior being, which is so glorious in the surrounding darkness, and in which, snatched from themassa perditionis [doomed mass], they have simply to move on to heavenly felicity?

Did the Son of God clothe Himself with humanity, and shed His blood, and go out as the Sower, simply in order that He might create for these people - in free grace, yet why specifically for them and only for them? - this indescribably magnificent private good fortune, permitting them to obtain and possess a gracious God, opening to them the gates of Paradise which are closed to others? Can this really be the goal of His calling and therefore of His ongoing prophetic work? Can it really be the goal of the work once and for all accomplished in His death? Can it really be the meaning of His election and sending?

Is it legitimate and even imperative for Christians to be content that they may thankfully understand themselves as those who are reconciled, justified, satisfied and blessed because elected from eternity and called in time in Him? Can the community of Jesus Christ-we shall have to take up this question in the next section-really be only, or at any rate essentially and decisively, a kind of institute of salvation, the foremost and comprehensive medium salutis [means of salvation], as Calvin self-evidently assumed and said?

Is not every form of egocentricity excused and even confirmed and sanctified, if egocentricity in this sacred form is the divinely willed meaning of Christian existence and the Christian song of praise consists finally only in a many-tongued but monotonous pro me, pro me [for me, for me], and similar possessive expressions?

(Barth, Doctrine of Reconciliation IV/3.2, 566-568)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sermons on Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Earlier this year I was grateful that the leadership at my church in Aberdeen allowed me to do a three part sermon series related to my topic of study, affording me a good opportunity to do some exegetical work for congregational articulation alongside my theological work for my dissertation. Even though I commented recently on the limitations of podcast sermons, I am going to go ahead and link to our church website where a few of these homiletic events have been translated into audio files for selective, private consumption ; ) .

Click here to find them at The Mission website under the "Sermons" tab.

If you ever do want to listen to any of these, I'd recommend "Forgiveness 2" over the others, as I think it has a bit more staying power for other venues and mediums. However, you'll also find parts 1 and 3, and in the archives a sermon on reconciliation from the Sermon on the Mount which I previously posted textually on the blog. "Forgiveness 1" is a romp through Genesis not unlike the blog post I did in January, and "Forgiveness 3" is a sum-up more difficult to listen to because it includes quiet gaps involving congregational participation.

As is often the case, in my experience, a debt of gratitude is owed to my local church family. In countless ways these people have been a big part of my PhD experience.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Clarence Campbell Bowls: A Life

Some of my earliest memories are of Ivan Boldirev, King Richard Brodeur, Rick Lanz, Harold Snepts and Stan Smyl in their run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1982. I was 6 years old, watching those games on the couch with my dad. Smyl and Snepts are pictured hoisting the Clarence Campbell Bowl here.

That playoff saw the birth of "Towel Power", and I remember it vividly. Lifting this trophy was the last moment of sheer joy for Canucks fans, however, as they went on to be swept in four games by Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, and the New York Islanders.

In 1994 Trevor Linden hoisted the trophy after Greg Adams scored in double overtime of the fifth game to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs and get the Canucks to the Stanely Cup finals for the second time. I was 18 years old. It was mayhem. I attended two games live, took part in many victory parades, and watched most games with brothers and a group of a dozen friends from high school. It was unreal. There would be some big wins in the final series but - coming up one goal short in game seven to the New York Rangers - the Clarence Campbell Bowl would prove to be the Vancouver Canucks' only prize.

Quite memorably, when Linden lifted the trophy that year the lid came off. Sometime since then there began a tradition of not even accepting the award, since the real goal was the Stanley Cup. A few have not gone along with this superstition, but I kind of enjoyed the fact that, last night, after another double overtime game five winner, 17 years since the Canucks were last in this position, Henrik Sedin did not even touch it.

The Canucks are 40. This year I will turn 36. There have been many uniform changes over the years for both of us, and now I have a family of my own to help me cheer. Somewhat sadly, however, we'll be watching these finals in the middle of the night on spotty internet feeds an ocean away from fans, family, and friends from seasons past.

But such is life. I'm just glad they are not playing anyone from New York.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The End of Tolerance

The battle is between what is supposed to be good and what is supposed to be evil, but in this battle all parties-how can it be otherwise?-think that they are the friends of what is good and the enemies of what is evil. Therefore, quite contrary to the purpose and intention of those who take part in it, the more seriously this battle is waged, the more certainly it will lead to pain and tears and crying, so that at the end we have to ask seriously whether the upshot of it all is not a fresh triumph, not for a supposed evil, but for one which is very real. From this final result the theory and practice of what we call tolerance seem to be the final refuge and one which we have to discover again and again-a general lassitude to which men surrender for a time, only to break out again sooner or later in new dogmatisms and acts of judgment and conflicts and mutually caused troubles and well-intentioned wrongs.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 447

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Podcast Sermons: Preaching out of Place?

A letter written by Karl Barth in 1962 offers me the occasion to reflect on the proper context for preaching. For some time I've wondered if there may be a sense in which publicly available sermon manuscripts or recordings take the preaching of the Word out of its intended home, perhaps diminishing its status as an event and leading to its misuse and misunderstanding. See what you think of Karl Barth's letter to Berlin Church Councillor Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann upon request to air his prison sermons on public radio:
We are dealing here with what is a matter of principle for me. Only in the context of its delivery is a sermon, strictly, what it is meant to be. If its context in the narrower sense is bypassed to give it a wider audience through print or radio or on a record, then for decades - so far as printing is concerned - I have thought I should insist that it appear only with the preceding and following prayers (both composed ad hoc), because for me this threefold middle portion of an evangelical service constitutes and inseparable whole. Even better, when it is possible on the radio or on a record, we should have the whole service, including the introduction, congregational singing, and the benediction.

Thus the sermon (which is not a lecture) should be kept in its context for the listeners when it is played again. I do not see this as a questionable procedure, but a good one. And I have been assured by many who play the records of that sermon how pleasing it is to them - even if only in imagining the real action - to range themselves with the prisoners, to pray with them, and ... to join in their singing.... At any rate my own view is that if we are to have recordings at all, then we should record sermons with as much as possible of their natural setting.
- Karl Barth, Letters 1961-1968 (T&T Clark, 1981), 37-38
As a child of the technological age (and not one who is simply suspicious of it), I find myself agreeing with this. I don't want to condemn or abstain completely from listening to or publicizing sermons, but I do think that if we are going to make use of this medium we do well to keep some questions in mind so that the practice is kept in its proper perspective.

At what point might the publicized sermon usurp or transpose the role of preaching in the local church? How much does preaching taken from a congregational setting lose its meaning or open itself to misunderstanding and misuse? How might congregation-intended sermons change for the worse (or the better) when the preacher knows they will be heard by unknown and loosely connected masses listening in? What happens when preaching is not respected as a one-time event in the context of a community seeking to follow Jesus Christ together, and is ripped from the context of prayers, fellowship, mutual service and local mission?

(See also "All Theology is Local", posted almost simultaneously on another blog, but incredibly resonant.)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Trent's Last Case and the Remarkable E.C. Bentley

Ever since G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday I have intended to find and read E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case. The reason? Because Chesterton dedicated Thursday to Bentley, and Bentley wrote this saying "I owe you a book in return." I'm not a huge fan of detective novels (is this one of those genres better suited to film?), and so it wasn't much surprise that this one never really grabbed me. However, there were points where this was quite a delightful read, simply for the turns of phrase and the recognizable echoes of that Chestertonian spirit. Most notable among these was this simple paragraph toward the end, coming in the denouement before the final twist:
"All I mean is, my dear Trent, that there are really remarkable things going on all around us if we will only see them, and we do our perceptions no credit in regarding as remarkable only those affairs which are surrounded with an accumulation of sensational detail."
- Trent's Last Case (Garland, 1976), 307
Bentley and Chesterton were childhood friends who started a debate group at their secondary school which was dedicated to the discussion of politics and literature as well as the publication of poems and essays. It was these friends who turned G.K.C. from apathetic schoolboy to confident literate. It was also these friends who were the first to hear the now famous form of poetry named for the "C" in E.C. Bentley.

The Clerihew is a four line poem about a person, which often has a witty twist or a poignant summary of something notable. You can see some recently written clerihews about theologians here, but here's one of Bentley's own, which he wrote about he and Chesterton's mutual friend and political agitater:
Mr. Hilaire Belloc
Is a case for legislation ad hoc.
He seems to think that nobody minds
His books being all of different kinds.
I don't have anything sensational to say about Bentley's novel, but perhaps that's the point. He certainly seems to have given much in terms of the excerpt given above. Thus while I would hate to trivialize the man (he seems to have had quite the career of his own), this clerihew is my tribute to his spark:

For me E.C. Bentley
will always be
the fresh air for G.K.C.
that was in turn breathed to me.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Complicity and Change

In our judgments of others - or even of the societies in which we live - it is all too easy to relegate the call to humility to a conjured up reminder of our own general depravity or some unrelated secret sins of our own. But what if it is precisely in our judgments of right and wrong that we are to think about and confess our part in that evil to which we point? Perhaps in certain cases we may have no part at all, but I wonder just how often we could put a finger on our complicity in the evils and the enmity of the world, even in our attempt to critique it and call for change. What is complicity?
It is our part, our responsible co-operation, in world history.

But if we are guilty of withdrawal, i.e., from our fellow-men, in this history, what are we in our time? What is the meaning of our life? Why have we been given time to live and work? How shall we stand before God and in His judgment? Will this not be brought against us? Will we not be accused? You were no help to me in my history which was interwoven with yours. You ignored me. I was of no interest to you. You disappointed me when I waited for you. You had no time for me. You merely played with me.

Or again, you only appeared to help, but in reality harmed me. You led me astray, so that it was only with the greatest difficulty, if at all, that I was able to get back to the right path. You confirmed me in that from which you ought to have kept me. And you kept me from that in which I needed confirmation.

Or again, you would not yield to me. In your great righteousness, or simply because you were the stronger, you pushed me to the wall. You humiliated and wounded me. You trampled over me contemptuously and perhaps even derisively, pursuing your own ends. For some reason which I cannot understand you blocked my path. You surrendered and betrayed me. You took from me the dearest that I had. The encounter with you cost me my life.

Yes, we shall certainly have to render our accounts in relation to others, and we must see to it that they are in good order. But who of us will have any real advantage over the rest? Will we not all have our own burden of accusation? And what will be the net result for us all if the only upshot is an awful conflict of mutual recriminations?

(Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation 2, 444-445)
All evildoers and reprehensible actions may not be equal, but neither are any of us innocent, or even wholly lacking in complicity with the evils around. Much focus is put in Christian thinking on the depravity of humanity and the inheritance of the original sin, but leaving it in this mysterious ambiguity we perhaps resist putting any thought into our ongoing embeddedness in the evil structures and systems and contagions of our time and history.

Today's über-concern with ecology has perhaps driven home this point. We all realize that our carbon footprint, our patterns of consumption and waste, and our participation in the economy of the globally advantaged is a small contribution to the degredation of the earth and the unjust dispersal of its resources. Though each of us as individuals may not be able to stem the tide, we recognize that by our actions we either take part in this degredation or we contribute (however minutely) to reform. Many of us stand paralyzed at the question of what we can do, but we also sense that we are nothing but implicated if we do not make a start somewhere.

We know the concept of complicity when it comes to the environment, now what about if we recognize it in other areas as well? This complicity does not render us unable to make judgments about what is right or wrong in this world, but it does remind us to come under that spotlight ourselves, to not make those judgments in self-righteousness, and to take to heart our own calls for reform in the concrete context of our own capabilites.

Rick Mirer may be the worst NFL quarterback ever, but every Monday morning quarterback who ever mocked him would stand to learn much about playing football with him as their tutor.

When Jesus reminds us of the planks in our eyes, is he thinking of our abstract "sinfulness" or of the complicities we'd find if we paid attention? Is not the truest prophetic word the one that comes in confession? Does it not ring hollow if we pray for peace on earth without getting up in mercy and beginning to love our neighbour?

The Thrill of Victory!

I haven't really been into hockey much the last few years. Aside from the fact that plenty of people make a living at it, in itself I tend to think the sports phenomenon a rather trivial (and thus vastly overblown) distraction. I enjoy it, but with some perspective, I think.

But then the team of your childhood makes it deep in the playoffs. And you are suddenly, even deeply, connected with all manner of strangers, friends, family, neighbours and rivals in a way you'd forgotten or didn't even think possible. Now you are going through ups and downs together, mourning and blaming and repenting of your doubts and celebrating together, and you remember that sports is sort of fun, and somehow even good.

I remember taking part in this exact scene on this exact street in 1994.

Mind you, I could only watch this for a couple minutes. I can't imagine anyone but a Canucks fan is going to watch it for more than 30 seconds. Outsiders may want to mute it to diminish the melodrama. It is one of those "had to be there" things.

Worth reporting, but its the wink and nod with the stranger in the circa 1986 Garth Butcher jersey that puts the smile on your face.

Friday, May 06, 2011

"The Fullness of Christ's Mercy"

I found it hard to know what to think about the death of bin Laden. Couldn't pretend to be happy with all the ways Christians were throwing around the word justice as if that was all there was to it. Had to admit it was pretty easy to peer in from the outside and be altruistic about what should or should not be said. There are probably many editorials one could link to and you've probably read them yourself. As it is I think the best I can do is place a link into my archives that points to a reflection of a 9/11 survivor that is simple, raw, and poignant. Find an excerpt at Experimental Theology: "The Fullness of Christ's Mercy".

Interestingly enough, the post concludes with a postcript saying that "one of the best theological meditations on Christian forgiveness and the memory of wrongdoings" is Miroslav Volf's The End of Memory. I have a paper in the Oxford Research Archive which agrees somewhat but begs to differ in some important ways. Since I'm studying this right now I thought I'd mention that while Volf's End of Memory is a good evocative book on the subject, one would be better to read his Exclusion and Embrace, or Gregory Jones Embodying Forgiveness. There should be a dissertation on Karl Barth's theology of forgiveness coming out in a while too. ; )

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Outside the Gospel Coalition Looking In

I have been reading along and trying to interact with two blogs on the Gospel Coalition website for a while but will now be dropping them from my blogroll and, well, I thought I'd register my discouragement.

Thing is, I hate to say this because I really believe such efforts at dialogue and debate are worth the effort in the context of Christian community. I do believe that if we were in a church together we could talk to each other and find some common ground. Even in disagreement I would confess our communion in the Lord Jesus Christ and enjoy fellowship in a peace that passes our understanding. As it is I also think that in theory we could meet online and experience something of the same dynamic. I confess that this is probably easier to pursue in a blog like mine, where almost every commenter is an acquaintance and there is a history or a context to most of the conversations.

But as we are only connected by their celebrity and influence within a big thing called evangelicalism, and since I have found their blogs more discouragingly mystifying than helpful, and because they have not once interacted with my comments and questions, and since those of their followers who have interacted with me have not appeared to consider anything I've said, I have decided that their blogs are hardly worth the effort. I actually feel that my presence there has only served to solidify other commenters in their allegiance to their views.

Without downplaying my deep disagreement with most of what I've read there, I will chalk up the actual disconnect to the limitations of widely-accessed blogs and the anonymity of the interactions that go on there. I am also dropping a couple other more resonant but widely read blogs from my blogroll, simply because there doesn't seem much point in involving myself in such massive conversations at the expense of those contexts to which I have been called and invested. This would be different if I felt needed or called (or in the case of the Gospel Coalition, welcome) to those wider conversations, but I don't. I wish them all the best and trust them to the Christ we confess, but I'm done.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

On Unity

For this week's "Rally to Restore Unity" hosted by Rachel Held Evans (donate to Charity:Water), I'm digging up some old thoughts on the matter....

A couple years ago I taught a 9-week Sunday School class on a fairly controversial topic. I was very thankful for the opportunity to broach the subject in our church but was a bit nervous about how it would go over. At the first class it became clear that we had a good number of people willing to kindly debate rather than fearfully avoid controversy. I began praying every week that our discussion - even our debate and disagreement - would be an expression of our unity in Christ rather than a threat to it.

Once I started praying this prayer and thinking about this kind of unity, a few other things struck me, such as:
If we are united in a common fear, we are united by something very weak.

If we are united by conflict avoidance, we have false peace.

If we are united by mere tolerance, we are not united but gathered (which is a start, I suppose, but if that's all you've got have you really got a church?).

If we are united by a perceived target group's favourite way of doing things, we are not united but pandering.

If we are united by convenience, we are just people who happen to be in the same place at the same time.

If we are united by cynicism, be it bitter and crusty or cloaked in humour, we have a negative unity.

If we are united by a list of propositions that we claim to agree on, we are united by the force of our reason.

If we are united by default views that can't be questioned or discussed, we are simply falling in line, and could even be lying to each other.
Mere tolerance does not a communion make. Consensus-management doesn't either. GK Chesterton adeptly addressed these twin problems in a 1908 essay entitled "On Bluff," addressing the editorialists of his time:
The idea of fighting, of answering the argument by a suitable counter-argument, even if it be a sophistry, has evidently vanished from the editorial mind. Evasion and violence are the only expedients. . . . But both of these things are equally remote from the fighting spirit, which involves an interest in the enemy's movement in order to parry them. The good controversialist is a good listener....

Most current attempts at [debate] are full of timidity or of bullying; and these two are in truth the same ... habit of admiring Power rather than Valour. That word Valour, by the way, is in itself a stirring sermon. It means putting one's full value into the struggle or sentiment; the almost exact translation of valour is "being in it for all you are worth."
If he could make this challenge to the newspapers, how much more to the church? Neither evasive maneuvers nor manipulative words are becoming a people who are rallied around the One who taught us self-giving communion and speaking the truth in love.

Sometimes I hear people lament post-modernity as the denial of Absolute Truth. But that's not the take-away point from post-modernity, if you ask me. The point is that none of us should claim Absolute Knowledge of the Truth. But this doesn't mean we don't believe the Truth is out there. We may in fact believe that Truth is a Person, Jesus Christ, who wants to be known in time, and sends His Spirit precisely for this purpose. With this belief we can see good reason to love and to speak with passion, kindness, humility and patience. Listening helps too. I can't believe how important listening is and how rarely it seems to really happen.

Karl Barth pointed out that in the Apostle's Creed the "communion of saints" comes under "belief in the Holy Spirit" (and is followed by the "forgiveness of sins"). In other words, unity is a matter of faith. Which means that Truth and Unity do not depend on us, but do not seem to want to go on without us either. Barth summed up the challenge before us quite well:
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 (Church Dogmatics IV.1, p. 676).
God help us to celebrate communion in Christ, and then to speak the truth in love.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Questions about Franklin Graham and The Christian Social Imagination

Franklin Graham's organization, Samaritan's Purse, is all about helping those in need. I have always been an admirer of Franklin Graham's ability to join consistent preaching of the gospel with an organizational concern for the poor and oppressed. It seems to me that such a thing enabled him to avoid the rather gnostic implications that are in play when we proclaim a gospel that is focussed mainly on 'saving souls' for 'eternal life' and not upon living the gospel bodily and socially here on earth. Thus his interviews this past week have been perplexing, even downright concerning.

I'm referring to the one with Sean Hannity in reference to the Easter interview with Christine Amanpour, but my main focus is his Christianity Today follow-up with Sarah Pulliam Bailey, since it is there that he defends his statements to his own evangelical folk. Here's a few excerpts from that interview, but by all means go and read them yourselves for fuller context.
SPM: Before you go, I wanted to ask you about your comments about Donald Trump. You said, "The more you listen to him, the more you say to yourself, 'You know? Maybe the guy's right.'"
FG: Not on the birth [certificate] issue. I'm talking about the economic issues, how to get our country out of the economic mess we're in.... No question, the guy's got a lot of baggage. He owns casinos. He's had multiple marriages. He's got a lot of issues. No question he is a very smart guy. I did not endorse him. Christiane Amanpour asked me if he could be the right candidate. He could, under the right circumstances, but we're still not there yet.... We have to look at the policies, are they consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ?...
If a person says that they're a Christian and then they have policies that are against what Christ teaches, that's a problem. There are candidates out there other than who we have talked about who are very good people who I could support. Mike Huckabee is a great man. He is a preacher. No question this man is saved.... You have Sarah Palin, who is a fine lady, who has great experience as governor, as a mayor, a very successful author, good family. Her husband is a man's man. He is one tough guy. Her kids are nice... You do have Mitt Romney.... He's a Mormon, but he is a smart business guy, a good man. Mormons have very strong families, and I appreciate that about him.

I'm not going to get involved in the political process. There will be people who I like and dislike. It's obvious the policies that are governing our country right now are not working.... Economic issues are issues that affect the church because if the country is not strong, we're not going to be able to support the mission work that we do. We're not going to be able to get involved in social concerns in the
community. If we have more and more people out of work, it's going to affect the churches in a big way.
SPM: Are there times when a reporter asks you a question and you decide not to weigh in on it?

FG: Again, if someone asks me a question, I try to answer it. I was on MSNBC and they came after me. I decided that I'm going to see how many times I can get the gospel in. I think I got it in three times. Of course, they were attacking me. The most important message is that there's no one politician that's going to save America. The only hope that we have as a nation is if we repent of our sins.

Asked about his politics, even though he emphasized family values (defined in regard to abortion, homosexuality, and being 'good people'), Graham made it pretty clear that, for him, economic issues are right now the number one priority. The social action of the church is somewhat dependent on what it has available to give. Fair enough point, but is it really the case that the church's abilities depend on its economic prosperity, and does it matter how that prosperity is achieved? Does the economic system itself come under the confrontation of the gospel, or is it merely a neutral means for gospel proclamation and good deeds?

To be more specific, for all his ability to make money, is Donald Trump really going to give the USA the economic policies that reflect Christian values? For all the legitimate concerns over how Obama has turned out, surely we don't see Donald Trump as more in line with the gospel?

It seems to me that Samaritan's Purse reminds us that the Christian gospel demands a self-sacrificial concern for the poor and oppressed both at home and broad. Certainly one can not legislate such self-giving sacrifice, but can one work for a country that does not legislate the opposite?

Franklin Graham knows that when he goes before an interviewer he is going to be pushed in the directions that they want to talk about. This is why I find it odd that he is willing to give them the sound-bytes they want, and in doing so to imply unquestioning support for the powers of capitalism just so that he can 'get the gospel in' a few times. It seems so counter-intuitive for a man who runs Samaritan's Purse. The only way I can make sense of it is if Graham sees the socio-economic system of the West as either morally neutral or gospel-consistent, thus making it an appropriate and relatively untouched tool in service of gospel proclamation and world mission.

I'm no economist, so maybe there are some arguments to be made there. But I'd like us to consider the contrast between Graham's words and those of Willie James Jennings' 2010 The Christian Imagination.

As my previous three posts on Jennings' book have indicated, I think it serves as an important reminder of the devastating ways that the church has harmed its witness by getting into bed with colonialist and capitalist impulses in the past. I see this book as something of a clarion call to a more socially appropriate enactment of the gospel in a world torn up by the divisions of race and greed. Hopefully by quoting at length from its final chapter I can illustrate the tension I'm seeing here between Graham's interview and the gospel he has heretofore been serving. Jennings writes:
I want Christians to recognize the grotesque nature of a social performance of Christianity that imagines Christian identity floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity chains of private property.... Of course, our imaginations have been so conditioned by economically determined spatial strictures that .... imagining [change] is no small thing. Yet I am convinced that such a change is not only necessary but now stands before human communities as the only real option for survival in a world of dwindling natural resources and tightening global economic chains of commodification. To imagine along the direction I suggest in this book would be nothing less than a theological act, indeed, as I suggest, a Christian act of imagining. And if, as I believe, Christian life is indeed a way forward for the world, then it must reemerge as a compelling new invitation to life together....

Jesus entered fully into the kinship structure [of his time] not to destroy it but to reorder it -- around himself.... The kinship network in Israel would not be profoundly qualified. Jesus came first -- not husband or wife, not mother, father, sister, brothers, not familial obligations and demands, not cultural conventions, and not social responsibilities. If the strongest bonds of relationship were qualified through commitment of Jesus, then the entire socioeconomic and political structuring processes deeply woven inside these bonds came into qualified view and ultimately unrelenting challenge. Jesus drew a new communion together in Israel. This new communion carried of necessity the distinctive marks of his scandal....

[No doubt Jesus and the apostles expose] the tremendous challenge toward intimacy created by the presence of the Spirit of God.... [But if] the struggle toward cultural intimacy was not faced by the church as inherent to the gospel itself, despite the constant work of the Spirit to turn Israel and Gentile peoples toward one another, then over time the only other option was the emergence of a Christian segregationalist mentality....

Imagine a people defined by their cultural differences yet who turn their histories and cultural logics toward a new determination, a new social performance of identity.... This new cultural politic is a complex new configuration and social alliance and political allegiance bound up in life together with the many. The implications of this new space in which a new cultural politic emerges are breathtaking.

(quoting pages 293-294, 263-264, 270-271, 273)
Indeed! And perhaps they are entirely unrealistic! Perhaps they can only be striven for in community's confessing Christ as Lord. Perhaps such communities can only seek this out within the limitations of their societies at large at cost to themselves -- doing so in the self-giving and cruciform love of Christ. Jennings himself concludes exactly this. This is the place where such a Christian imagination hits the ground and plods forward patiently.

But what if Christians, instead of confessing that this 'can only be striven for', simply rest content with the status quo socio-political constructs? How can we be satisfed, even proud of ourselves, when we 'get the gospel in' to conversations that end up offering their support to the perpetuation of economical value systems which are (arguably) contrary to that gospel itself? This is at best a failure to take seriously the machinations of society and at worst a gnosticism of the gospel. Based on Franklin Graham's track record, I can't imagine he would want to support the latter, but given the politicization of everything American and the publicity such interviews garner, the trajectories recommended in these interviews is concerning.

Based on mainstream evangelicalism's zealous and immediate outcry against Rob Bell about his alleged break from the gospel, should we not expect even more concern about the misrepresentation of the gospel that has manifested itself so much more concretely and publicly here?

Correct me where I'm wrong? Push me in a healthier direction with this?

Monday, April 25, 2011

K'naan's "Take A Minute" (An Easter Reflection)

K'naan is a Somali-Canadian from a Muslim family who moved to North America when he was thirteen years of age, thus removing him from the conditions of civil war. In Canada, before becoming a hip hop artist, K'Naan apparently spent time in prison and lost friends to murder, suicide, and deportation. This is the extent of my knowledge of him, other than the fact that he's written a song or two that my family enjoys. The song I want to share, however, is 'Take a Minute'. I find it remarkable.

How did Gandhi ever withstand the hunger-strikes at all?
Didn't do it to gain power or money if I recall.
It's the gift, I guess I'll pass it on,
mother thinks it'll lift the stress of Babylon.
Mother knows, my mother she suffered blows
I don't know how we survived such violent episodes
I was so worried, it hurt to see you bleed,
but as soon as you came out the hospital you gave me sweets.
Yea, they tried to take you from me,
but you still only gave 'em some prayers and sympathy
Dear Mama, you helped me write this
by showing me to give is priceless.

Yesterday on the way to Church on a sunny Resurrection Sunday we walked, as we always do, past a Mosque. I wondered what they think of Easter. Then I recalled K'naan and wondered what I think of this song.

This probably pressed on my mind because of a question a friend put to me last week: What should Christians think of the fact that in the world right now there are Muslims standing in solidarity with suffering and raising up for good causes? How should Christians engage with such Christ-like activities (where they happen) and self-giving impulses which are taking place outside its walls? I'm not getting into global politics in this post, but raising the general question. I think it relates pretty strongly to resurrection.

This Easter season held some firsts for me, as I thought back on the year past. This year I attended a Ramadan feast at the Mosque on the corner. I was invited and welcomed warmly. I have never invited, let alone welcomed, a Muslim into my home or my church. It is not that I wouldn't want to, it is just that I wouldn't know where to start.

This year my son's best friend in his class was a Muslim. He is a very well-behaved and smiley seven year old boy. A good influence. I love seeing them chum around. My son told me one day that his friend believes that if he lies or cheats he will go to hell. Asked what I thought, on the spot I said that we believed that Jesus had gone to hell to set us free from our sins by grace. I encouraged him to ask his friend what he thinks of the prophet Isa....

On the walk to church we also go past King's College chapel. Being Easter there was a large purple-robed choir waiting outside in the sunshine while we went by. It was a joyful scene. It occurred to me that it is easy to believe in Jesus' Resurrection on a beautiful day like this, and in company such as this. Surely that's partly what church is for - the edification and encouragement of believers and the communal acts of worship and Word-hearing.

But how different is Easter morning on a dark and cloudy day? How easy is it to believe in war-torn Afghanistan or in strife-riddled countries of Africa and the Middle-East? At home or abroad, how does one interpret the resurrection of Christ amidst the squalor of the poor and the oppressed?

I think one has to think also of the ascension. And Pentecost. Shortly after raising from the dead Jesus left it to us. To be honest, that sounds oppressively daunting. However, we believe He also left the Holy Spirit; the power of His resurrection; the promise of hope; the prompter and enabler for speaking truth in love. This is the Spirit who Jesus said was on him and anointed him and sent him
to proclaim good news to the poor.
to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Perhaps what it means to celebrate Resurrection Sunday, no matter what the weather, is to take that to heart and live as if Jesus is alive in the world to reconcile it to God. This would mean recognizing that it was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross. It would also mean recognizing that it is for the joy set within and before us that we too find a willingness to endure crosses in this world for the sake of kingdom come. Heaven knows there are many corners of the world (not to mention our own hearts and minds and churches) which await the resurrection's revelation.

Which brings me back to K'naan's song and my friend's question. How does a Christian make sense of such self-giving mercy outside of Christian circles? We might presume such a thing is to be the monopoly of Christ followers, but what happens when the culture at large offers the church reminders of what it ought to be doing? How do we make sense of this?

Some go back to natural theology and say there is a moral law in human nature which, despite our fall into sin, shines through on occasion in human beings no matter where they are or what they know of Christ.

Another answer is that the Spirit is at work in the world, guiding people to truth. The Spirit is concerned to build the Church and is 'at home' among the worshipers and disciples of Christ, but is not constricted by our statements of faith and membership charters. The Spirit is active in the world. Jesus is alive. We who obey his command to go into all the world can not go anywhere or accomplish anything where His Spirit has not already beat us to the punch and stirred things up already.

I find this answer rather biblically resonant and missiologically stimulating. It tells me that our commission is not to go as the superiors with something to offer, but as confessors of Christ looking to take part in what the Spirit is doing and to witness to the risen Lord as the Spirit raises the opportunities. Sometimes this could mean hearing a rebuke or a call to action that comes from outside our walls, resonates with the Word of God that is sharper than a double-edged sword, and shows us our blindspots. But if we hear this Word we will engage. Undoubtedly we believe that as Christ-followers we have something to offer, but it will be as servants and not as lords.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Hebrews 12:1-4