Category Archives: Christianity

The way of Nature, the way of Grace

Grace is a gift from God. And so is Nature.

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At the beginning of Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, THE TREE OF LIFE, we hear Mrs. Obrien’s voice speaking these words:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life … the way of Nature… and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy… when all the world is shining around it… when love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace… ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you. Whatever comes.

These words come over images of a young girl (images above), the young Mrs. Obrien, as she interacts with Nature, and also with her father. We don’t really see her face much, we don’t see her father except for his hand and shoulder. Instead with see the world as the girl sees it, big, wonderful, full of life – and she is safe in the arms of her father.

Naturally these words set up a kind of interpretive lens through which we might analyse the film. As we follow the story we can’t help but think in terms of nature and grace. In these words we find a perspective of life held on to by Mrs. Obrien, a perspective that she learned as a child, taught to her by nuns presumably at a parochial school. Perhaps Malick is hinting at the kind of spiritual education common to Catholic schools seventy five plus years ago, and maybe he is commenting on that teaching. What is interesting, however, is how the film seemingly undercuts this philosophy. Although one is tempted to say Mrs. Obrien (in her softness and beauty) is grace and Mr. Obrien (in his hardness and anger) is nature, it is amazing how much nature permeates the film in the most loving and awesome ways. Even the film’s title, The Tree of Life, speaks of nature in connection with life. We might be tempted to see grace as the way to life, and yet we are continually being drawn back to images of nature, and in particular the tree the boys climb in the film, and by which the vision of their mother dancing in the air appears.

An interesting question is who is the protagonist in this film. Most are likely to see Jack as the protagonist. But is he? Might not Mrs. Obrien be the protagonist. If the film is a meditation on the book of Job (it opens with the book’s most famous verse), then we see both Jack’s and his mothers struggles in that light. When a boy dies in the story, a young Jack asks of God, “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good when You aren’t?” This is a big moment, and a huge question for Jack. But similarly, after Jack’s brother R.L. dies (which we do not see, but only hear that he died at age 19), Mrs. Obrien cries out to God, “Lord, Why? Where were you? Did you know what happened? Do you care?” It is arguable that Mrs. Obrien’s struggle and final acceptance is the greater arc. If so, then it is possible that the film is about her coming to terms with the ideas taught to her when she was a kid, held dear for many years, and only later in life revealed to her (perhaps because of her willingness to see) as being false, or at least not entirely true.

Though my inclinations are that Jack is protagonist #1, it could be argued that the story, with all it sweeping and ephemeral qualities, is entirely in Jack’s head, being essentially his memory. If that’s the case, then it could be argued that Mrs. Obrien is the protagonist in the story going on in Jack’s head, or perhaps a co-protagonist.

Other interesting questions include which son is Mrs. Obrien giving to God at the end of the film? We assume it must be R.L., but could it be Jack? And who are the women with her at the end? We might think they are angels, but the one on the right is the girl Mrs. Obrien we saw at the film’s beginning. Might she represent the previous and less mature understanding of nature and grace? She is, after all, representing a more innocent time before adulthood, child rearing, marriage struggles, and the death of a child. And is the other woman an angel, or might she be the personification of grace itself?

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I am inclined to think the trouble many people have with watching Terrence Malick’s films, especially the later ones, is that we are a culture that no longer reads poetry. Reading poetry alters the mind to think in different ways. Poetry is the highest form of writing, and thus taps into parts of us that other writing does not, or not as well. Secondly, we do not read the classics enough, especially theology. A good dose of St. Augustine wouldn’t be bad. I’ll leave it at that.

Finally, an interesting connection is that Mrs. Obrien’s verbiage is very similar to that of Chapter 91 of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, quoted here in it entirety:

On the Contrary Workings of Nature and Grace (found here)

My son, carefully observe the impulses of nature and grace, for these are opposed one to another, and work in so subtle a manner that even a spiritual, holy and enlightened man can hardly distinguish them. All men do in fact desire what is good, and in what they say and do pretend to some kind of goodness, so that many are deceived by their appearance of virtue.

Nature is crafty, and seduces many, snaring and deceiving them, and always works for her own ends. But Grace moves in simplicity, avoiding every appearance of evil. She makes no attempt to deceive, and does all things purely for love of God, in whom she rests as her final goal.

Nature is unwilling to be mortified, checked or overcome, obedient or willingly subject. Grace mortifies herself, resists sensuality, submits to control, seeks to be overcome. She does not aim at enjoying her own liberty, but loves to be under discipline ; and does not wish to lord it over anyone. Rather does she desire to live, abide and exist always under God’s rule, and for His sake she is ever ready to submit it to all men.(I Pt.2:13)

Nature works for her own interest, and estimates what profit she may derive from others. Grace does not consider what may be useful or convenient to herself, but only what may be to the good of many.(I Cor.10:33) Nature is eager to receive honour and reward : Grace faithfully ascribes all honour and glory to God .(Ps 26:2:96:7) Nature fears shame and contempt: Grace is glad to suffer reproach for the Name of Jesus.(Act 5:41) Nature loves ease and rest for the body ; Grace cannot be idle, but welcomes work cheerfully.

Nature loves to enjoy rare and beautiful things, and hates the cheap and clumsy. Grace takes pleasure in simple and humble things, neither despising the rough, nor refusing to wear the old and ragged. Nature pays regard to temporal affairs, takes pleasure in this world’s wealth, grieves at any loss, and is angered by a slighting remark. But Grace pays attention to things eternal, and is not attached to the temporal. The loss of goods fails to move her, or hard words to anger her, for she lays up her treasure and joy in Heaven where none of it can be lost(Matt.6:20)

Nature is greedy, and grasps more readily than she gives, loving to retain things for her personal use. But Grace is kind and generous, shuns private interest, is contented with little, and esteems it more blest to give than to receive.(Acts 20:35) Nature inclines a man towards creatures – to the body, tovanities, to restlessness. But Grace draws a man towards God and virtue. Renouncing creatures, she flees the world, loathes the lusts of the flesh, limits her wanderings, and shuns public appearances. Nature is eager to enjoy any outward comfort that will gratify the senses. Grace seeks comfort in God alone, and delights in the Sovereign Good above all visible things.

Nature does everything for her own gain and interest; she does nothing without fee, hoping either to obtain some equal or greater return for her services, or else praise and favour. But Grace seeks no worldly return, and asks for no reward, but God alone. She desires no more of the necessaries of life than will serve her to obtain the things of eternity.

Nature takes pleasure in a host of friends and relations; she boasts of noble rank and high birth; makes herself agreeable to the powerful, flatters the rich, and acclaims those who are like herself. But Grace loves even her enemies,(Matt.5:44; Luke 6:27) takes no pride in the number of her friends, and thinks little of high birth unless it be allied to the greater virtue. She favours the poor rather than the rich, and has more in common with the honourable than with the powerful. She takes pleasure in an honest man, not in a deceiver ; she constantly encourages good men to labour earnestly for the better gifts, (I.Cor.12:31) and by means of these virtues to become like the Son of God.

Nature is quick to complain of want and hardship ; but Grace bears poverty with courage. Nature, struggling and striving on her own behalf, turns everything to her own interest: but Grace refers all things to God, from whom they come. She attributes no good to herself; she is not arrogant and presumptuous. She does not argue and exalt her own opinions before others, but submits all her powers of mind and perception to the eternal wisdom and judgement of God. Nature is curious to know secrets and to hear news; she loves to be seen in public, and to enjoy sensations. She desires recognition, and to do such things as win praise and admiration. But Grace does not care for news or novelties, because all these things spring from the age-old corruption of man, for there is nothing new or lasting in this world.

Grace therefore teaches us how the senses are to be disciplined and vain complacency avoided ; how anything likely to excite praise and admiration should be humbly concealed ; and how in all things and in all knowledge some useful fruit should be sought, together with the praise and honour of God. She wants no praise for herself or her doings, but desires that God may be blessed in His gifts, who out of pure love bestows all things.

Grace is a supernatural light, and the especial gift of God,( Eph. 2:8) the seal of His chosen and the pledge of salvation,(Eph.1:14) which raises man from earthly things to love the heavenly, and from worldly makes him spiritual. The more, therefore, that Nature is controlled and overcome, the richer is the grace bestowed, while man is daily renewed by fresh visitations after the likeness of God .(Col. 3:10)

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The Tree of Life & The Agnus Dei

Here is one of the last great scenes, perhaps the climax, of Terrence Malick’s magisterial film THE TREE OF LIFE (2011). .

The music in this scene is from Hector Berlioz’s the Grande Messe des morts, Op. 5 (or Requiem), part 10, the Agnus Dei.

The scene is full of symbolism and not easy to grasp. Throughout the film there are many indications that the spirituality in the film is fundamentally Christian. Some might want to say that it’s natural for the spirituality to be Christian given the American context, but I think it is more. I think Malick is exploring the connections between God as creator, the creation He made, human beings receiving God through His creation and others, the suffering of human beings in light of God’s love, the death of Christ, and much more.  And I believe Malick is a Christian, though he is a very private man and it’s hard to say for sure. But the music gives us a clue.

The traditional words of the Agnus Dei, in both liturgy and music, are based upon John the Baptist’s reference in John 1:29 to Jesus (“Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world”), the text in Latin is:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

which means:

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

In Berlioz’s the Grande Messe des morts, the words are as follows in Latin:

Agus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona eis requiem sempiternam.
Te decet huymnus, Deus, in Sion,
et tibit reddetur votum in Jerusalem.
Exaudi orationem meam, ad te omnis
caro veniet.
Requiem aeternam
dona defunctis, Domine, et lux
perpetua luceat eis, cum sanctis tuis
in aeternam, Domine, quia pius es.
Amen.

which means:

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins
of the world, grant them everlasting rest.
Thou, O God, art praised in Sion
and unto Thee shall the vow be
performed in Jerusalem. Hear my
prayer, unto Thee shall all flesh come.
Grant the dead eternal rest,
O Lord, and may perpetual light shine
on them, with Thy saints for ever,
Lord, because Thou art merciful.
Amen.

And while the last “amens” are being sung, the mother says: “I give him to you, I give you my son.”

Which is followed by a shot of a field of sunflowers, heliotropes that not only turn towards the sun for their life, but are images of the sun as well.

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The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus

Thank you Al Franken, thank you.

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Who inherits the earth?


Protesters outside the G20 in Pittsburgh
demanding fundamental change.

Consider these quotes:

“The great and chief end…of men’s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”

~ John Locke, 1689

“But as the necessity of civil government gradually grows up with the acquisition of valuable property, so the principal causes which naturally introduce subordination gradually grow up with the growth of that valuable property.”

~ Adam Smith, 1776

“Till there be property there can be no government, the very end of which is to secure wealth, and to defend the rich from the poor.”

~ Adam Smith, 1776


Pittsburgh police, defending the rich
from the poor at the G20.

If you didn’t know who wrote these words you might think they were from the pen of Karl Marx. Interesting. More substantive than economic systems and their ideologies (and their debates) is the concentration of power and its supporting hegemonies. In other words its all about who inherits the earth and how they keep it. Little do they know…

“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. ”

~ Jesus, c. 30

The gentle, or meek, have a different relationship to property and wealth than those who climb over others to make the world their own. It is not that they do not want the world, it is that they recognize having the world for their own is not worth being the kind of person who has no interest in loving others as their primary motivation. To love the world is to give up loving people. It is not a good trade – no matter how free the market. Gaining the world is not worth a lousy character, and no amount of economic ideology can convince otherwise.


Mr. Obama hamming at the G20.

Questions of character are always personal, but what about our institutions of power? We live in a world that places a kind of sacred halo around the idea of private property. We know that the Declaration of Independence almost contained the phrase “life, liberty and the protection of property.” I don’t want anyone to take my home away from me, but I have to think that the ownership of property and all its attendant rights (real or perceived) only gets understood as sacred in a world that has turned its back on truth. The irony is not merely that to gain the whole world is to lose one’s soul, but also to gain one’s soul is to gain the world.

There is that old adage that all governments lie. It is just as true that governments, first and foremost, exist to protect the haves and the things they own. Only secondarily, and usually through great struggle, are benefits secured for the have-nots.

I stand, in spirit, with the protesters who call for change and accountability from our governments and the captains of industry. I stand against the obvious seeking of power and influence for selfish ends. I stand against clearcutting forests and mountain top removal mining, and against the pollution of our air and water, and against insurance companies managing our healthcare, and subsidies to weapons manufacturers and to farmers of vast genetically modified monocultures. And I stand against the use of violence to solve problems, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The list can go on and on.) On the other hand, I cannot demand that those in power give up the world, as it were, so that I might have it instead. Though my power and influence is small, I am not morally superior than they. Rather, they must give up the world because it does not belong to them.

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Goodnight September Eleventh

“In a Parish” by Czesław Miłosz, trans. from the Polish by Miłosz and Robert Hass. Read by Haas on Fresh Air on NPR remembering 9/11.

 

Were I not frail and half broken inside I wouldn’t be thinking of them who are like me half broken inside. I would not climb the cemetery hill by the church to get rid of my self pity. Crazy Sophies, Michaels who lost every battle, self-destructive Agathas lie under crosses with their dates of birth and death. And who is going to express them. Their mumblings, weepings, hopes, tears of humiliation in hospital muck and the smell of urine with their weak and contorted limbs and eternity close by, improper indecent like a dollhouse crushed by wheels, like an elephant trampling a beetle, an ocean drowning an island. Our stupidity and childishness do nothing to fit us for this variety of last things. They had no time to grasp anything of their individual lives. Any principiam individuaisonous(ph) nor do I grasp, yet what can I do enclosed all my life in a nutshell trying in vain to become something completely different from what I was. Thus we go down into the earth, my fellow parishioners, with the hope that the trumpet of judgment will call us by our names instead of eternity, greenness and the movement of clouds they rise then thousands of Sophies, Michaels, Matthews, Marias, Agathas, Bartholomews so at last they know why and for what reason.

 

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War, what is it good for? Considering the reasons for Memorial Day

42 million people died as a result of war in the 20th century. 42 million. And that’s only military deaths.*


Graveyards turn death into solemn beauty.

This is not beautiful.

 

War is evidence of something else. That something else has everything to do with what was in the heart of Cain as he slew his brother. That thing that war is, that indivisible characteristic, is the deeply felt need to use violence, even murder, as a means to achieve ends – certain or uncertain. War is the violent extension of the human heart’s corruption – a corruption that produces pride, envy, condemnation, selfishness, self loathing, and a host of other sins. Intrinsic to that characteristic is the justification of war. Possibly to oversimplify, violence and its justification is war.

As a Christ follower I cannot support war. Nor can I fully support any government that uses violence to achieve its ends, even if those ends may somehow benefit me. And I cannot celebrate with that government and participate in it nationalistic liturgies in glorifying the deaths of those who died carrying out such violence. But I can remind myself of how much people have suffered under the brutal hand of war. And I can still be amazed at the personal sacrifices so many individual soldiers have made.** I wrote about this last year.

A survey of history shows the human tendency to make war. Not only that, but to glory in war. Not only that, but to love war – and then be shocked at its brutality. When God points to Jesus on the cross and says that’s my attitude toward sin (just to throw in a little Christian theology here) it’s as if humankind said alright we’ll do that – and then set about to recreate that bloody crucifixion and kill and torture as many people as possible. When Jesus said whatever you do to the least of these you do to me, humanity seems to have largely shrugged its shoulders and gone on to other things – like justifying war and creating war heroes.

There is nothing good about war. Even victory is a tragedy. In deeply profound and unavoidable ways all wars throughout all of history have been grave failures. War is truly good for nothing.


If there is one thing I dislike about this video, it’s setting
the horror of war to a catchy tune. Still, it makes me weep.

 

Of course we are always looking for ways to find nobility in war making. We have our war heroes and give them medals, even if we often refuse to look directly at what they did to get those honors, and then go on to ignore many of their long lasting war-related troubles (physical, mental, spiritual). But there is no nobility in war. When we celebrate such “holidays” as memorial day (formerly known as decoration day) we must keep in mind the tragic nature of those days. Memorial day is not a day of celebration but of grieving. If you take the time to remember the fallen this memorial day, if you put out a flag as we do, do so not to praise but to weep.

We know blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted, But also, blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Let us stop praising war and the war makers and start being people of peace.

* The number is much higher, closer to 200 million, if we consider any deaths by mass unpleasantness including genocide, tyranny, civilian deaths in war, and man made famines – all of which can be considered war.

** I have always been someone drawn to war and its stories. I love good war movies and novels. As a child I was fascinated with the machines of war. If a fighter jet flies overhead I cannot help but stare in awe. I also have relatives who fought in wars and relatives who are currently in the military. To not praise war and to not celebrate those who wage war is an unnatural act for me, but it is and act I am obligated to make.

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>Considering Christian Pacifism vs. Just War Theory

>http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=-3666549326759968489&hl=en&fs=true

In this debate I side with the pacifists, although I might prefer the term “active non-violence” rather than pacifism – though they are two sides of the same coin.

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taxes and soldiers


I have been thinking a great deal about non-violence, pacifism, the example of Jesus (and many of the things he said), and the idea/reality of the Kingdom of God. I am haunted by the idea that I should be living a life entirely committed to such things. That I should be living peacefully, non-violently, lovingly, and mercifully. I am to love my neighbor. I am to love my enemy. I am to lay down my life for others. I am to seek God’s kingdom and live in light of what that kingdom stands for.

So what do I do with the fact that I live in a flag-waving, war loving, gun toting, patriotic nation that is supposedly built on biblical principles and calls professional soldiers heroes but underfunds education and healthcare, while maintaining the world’s most powerful and advanced military industrial complex? Should my money go to such a system? I don’t know. I want to be wise and not foolish. Ironically, I started out more or less conservative in my youth and am now becoming more and more “radical” in my middle age. I say radical because I want to avoid strictly politicized terms. I am not specifically liberal or conservative. I think the truth hovers above such dichotomies. The call of Jesus is far more radical than any political system can accommodate.

Are U.S. Christians Americans first, then Christians?
Imperialists first, then followers of Jesus?

Christianity in the U.S. is rather varied, but one faction gets a lot of attention – the conservative evangelical fundamentalists. They are outspoken, politically to the right, and flag waving – sometimes with really big flags. They are also typically in support of the current war on terror and the wars against the Iraqi and Afghan peoples. They also, generally, support torture when used to ensure the uninterrupted continuation their own quiet suburban neighborhoods (read “keep America safe”). But they are not the only Christians who support war and soldiering. The U.S. is a war loving culture and most Christians support, yea even glorify, war and soldiers. Frequently the Bible is brought in to support the this position.

One of the scriptural foundations for supporting the U.S. military and its mythologies is a biblical passage in which some soldiers come to that famous Palestinian, John the Baptist and ask what they should do and John doesn’t say “leave the army.” Many Christians would say that John is merely counseling these soldiers to be good, moral soldiers while they do their soldiering because being a soldier is still a fine, even noble profession. That is an interpretation that fits nicely with our own mythological understanding of the soldier as the duty bound exemplar of personal sacrifice for the sake of a higher good.

But John is, in fact, not saying be a good soldier, or even a righteous soldier. He is calling for repentance and fundamental righteousness – not a righteousness filtered and conformed to the needs of a profession. What John tells these soldiers fundamentally contradicts what their particular soldiering is all about. If they do as he says they will face a contradiction that will force them to chose Christ or soldiering. But that contradiction does not emerge from a conflict of piety versus profession, rather it emerges from a convicted heart in the midst of a fallen world.

The Bible passage is from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 3:12-14 in the New American Standard translation:

And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”

The scene is of John the Baptist preaching and baptizing seekers and converts coming to him at the Jordan river. He is calling for their repentance and with that in view the tax collectors and the soldiers ask the above questions. Keep that in mind, John has just called for repentance and it’s the tax collectors and soldiers that are the ones who, as distinctly identified groups in the text, are mentioned. Why?

U.S. Soldiers supporting U.S. imperialist
interests in the Philippines,
ca. 1900

The tax collectors and the soldiers worked for the imperial/colonial power. They worked for Rome. The tax collectors took the taxes on behalf of Caesar, which is one of the reasons to have an empire in the first place, and the soldiers were the brutal military presence required for empire. The tax collectors were required to collect whatever Rome demanded and then made their living by demanding more. It was a perk of the job and many tax collectors could get quite wealthy. If they did not demand more than what was required they would live very meager existences. Soldiers, who were officially paid a very meager yearly salary (some say $45 per annum, which was extremely low even in those days) made their fortunes by claiming the spoils of war. Typically the spoils were given to the commander who then evenly distributed them to his troops. In both cases tax collectors and Roman soldiers made their living by taking more than what they were either ordered to take or by dividing up what was taken by force. This was the accepted system that both provided their living and supported the domination of the region and its people. This system was endemic to the very nature of Roman imperialism.

Indochina: French soldier guarding against
Communist infiltration – protecting
colonial interests,
1950.

We know that Rome was a mean ruler of its empire. Judging by our recent history (as well as from the British Empire, the French in Algeria & Indochina, the U.S. in Latin America, but especially now in Iraq) we can surmise the tax collectors and soldiers of Rome were critical elements in keeping the colonized subdued and oppressed enough so as to cut to the quick any attempts at insurrection. Life was hard under Roman rule and the tax collector and soldiers made sure it would stay that way, but in order for tax collecting and soldiering to be viable professions then tax collectors and soldiers would have to take more than they were required to take and to do so by force.

I believe there were at least three reasons why tax collectors and soldiers were called out as distinct groups in the passage above. 1) To Luke’s readers the repentance of these groups would have been particularly significant. 2) The members of these groups would have been particularly convicted by John’s message of repentance. 3) John’s specific messages to these two groups calls them to live righteously which, by implication, challenges the very existence of their professions and the empire which they serve.

Saving imperial face: British soldiers in
the Falkland islands, 1982.

John does not directly say all tax collecting or all soldiering is wrong (at least at first glance and with our modern assumptions). But he also does not say anything in support of either. Rather than say to quit their jobs he merely says don’t do those things in your job you rationalize but know are immoral. Of course that’s like telling a politician not to lie. At some point a crisis will emerge and one will have to decide to choose the status quo or what is right. A politician who refuses to lie will eventually be crucified on the altar of politics.

Tax collecting and soldiering for Rome had at their very roots in rationalizations of immorality. John was not interested in followers who made surface choices only to regret them later. He wanted heart changes that would then have more visible and social evidences as a natural consequence of the heart change. He focused on the heart of his listeners because he knew the rest would follow. He did not have to say don’t collude with Rome or don’t work for the empire. All he had to say was repent and be committed to righteousness.

“Democracy” at gun point: U.S. soldiers in
someone else’s country (Iraq).

One could then draw a conclusion: To be either a tax collector or a soldier in support of an empire is ultimately a choice for unrighteousness. If this is what John is saying then we can also draw the conclusion that the ministry and message of John was both spiritual (of the inner person) and political (of the social relations we create and inhabit). For the Christian this has great significance. The implication is that there are many things we will have to give up if we are to truly repent – truly repent as the most existential of all radical, life changing, loving choices we make – precisely because we find there are no other possible choices. We may have to give up our professions, our security, our apparent good standing in society, and much of what we cling to. But there is no formula for sorting it out. If we follow John’s command then we begin with repentance. What this leaves us with is the difficult fact that there are no easy answers, or maybe it’s better to say there are no easy choices – something John’s tax collectors and soldiers were just finding out.

As a final note I must say that I have not sorted all this out for myself either. I have not gone so far as to stop paying taxes or to stand in protest outside the federal building. I also still love a good war movie, I am still amazed at the courage of many soldiers, and I still get emotional when I hear the Star Spangled Banner. But I don’t like saying the pledge of allegiance very much or saluting the flag. I find being a U.S. citizen to be rife with contradictions. But I find the same thing within myself as well.

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>Lord, Save Us From Your Followers

>

This is a plug for a little documentary/polemic that I found myself truly enjoying. I meant to post this months ago, but it got lost in the shuffle somehow.

Recently I watched a documentary three times in rather short succession; first by myself, then with my wife, then again with my daughter. (And then I loaned it out to someone, but I can’t remember who.) Each time it has challenged me, at moments moved me to tears, brought about conviction, made me laugh, and truly encouraged me. The film is Lord, Save Us from Your Followers by Dan Merchant (Writer/Director/Producer) and Jeff Martin (Executive Producer).

A large part of the film is an overview of how Christians are viewed in popular culture. This overview includes interviews and television clips of many people, including Bill Maher, John Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, and many others. Many of these clips are priceless and spot on. Dan Merchant also walked the streets in his bumper-sticker suit interviewing people.

Although the suit is a bit of a stunt, it did help people open up their thoughts.

Many ordinary people said, in short, that they like and admire Jesus, but they don’t like Christians very much. Funny thing, I am a Christian and I generally feel the same way. Tony Campolo had some of the best moments in the film. He is a devoted Christian who wonderfully discussed this contradiction we call Christianity. He states how all too often the “church” is an exemplar of hypocrisy while still being the “vessel” that has carried the gospel and preserved the Bible.

But what got me the most are the four end segments that focus on the ways some Christians have set aside all the garbage of the “Christian right” and looked instead to Jesus as their example.

Helping rebuild after hurricane Katrina:

Seeking forgiveness for the way Christians
have treated (and still treat) gays and lesbians:

Bringing help to starving communities, and
especially children, in Africa by bringing food,
medicine, and planting crops:

Comforting and helping the homeless:

Each of these segments brought tears to my eyes and deeply convicted me for my selfishness and self-absorption. They also challenged me to consider the kind of community, Christian or otherwise, I want to live in and how I might help make it happen.

I will recommend this film for anyone, but in particular for Christians. My suggestion is to watch it with a group and then discuss its implications afterwards. I don’t typically plug films on my blog, but I have to say this little, low budget film is worth seeing.

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>christian imperfect subjunctive

>I grew up going to church. I still attend a church, but it is not the same kind I grew up with. I see a lot of that happening with Christians; growing up in one kind of church and/or denomination and switching to another as adults.

I’m sure there are as many reasons as there are individuals who make the switch. And there are are some big trends that have been well documented, such as Protestants converting to the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, and vice versa. For me, I can only account for my own experience.

I grew up in a Baptist church, a church that my family, including grandparents, had been long time members. That church experience has had a long term and profound affect on my life, including my theological propensities. As a kid I was very interested in sorting out many theological and Christian questions. I wanted to know who God was, how I was supposed to live, what it meant to be a Christian in this world, what values should be at the top on my list, and so on. I am still sorting out those things. The fact that I am still “in process” as it were would not bode well in the church of my youth, though that church as it is today may have changed.

There were a number of beliefs and actions that Baptist church emphasized, including the importance of being a member of the church, the importance of being baptized, the importance of bringing one’s Bible to church, and the importance of attending church. Other things included the importance of one’s “walk” with God, one’s personal relationship with Jesus, consistently having a “quiet time,” developing a life of prayer, reading the Bible for oneself on a regular basis, and evangelizing others. Underlying all these things were fundamental beliefs in the presence of a personal God, the lordship of Jesus, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the need for salvation of each individual, and so on.

There was also the culture which contained, maintained, and pushed certain ideas that, if directly challenged, would have produced some backpedalling and heavy qualifications but, nonetheless, were corporately held. Such as the demonization of Catholicism, and the strong sense that we’re still fighting the Reformation, and maybe most of all, and almost entirely unrecognized, the blending of apologetics & hermeneutics with the Enlightenment project (the belief in the power of human rationality apart from God to establish reliable, universally recognized scientific and moral knowledge).

My perspectives have changed on those beliefs and actions. Some I still hold to firmly, others I do not. More importantly to my personal journey of faith, I would say the definitions have shifted. For an example, most Christians believe reading the Bible is important. It is common for Baptists to feel the weighty expectation of bringing one’s own Bible to church on Sunday. But what does this really mean? As part of the Protestant tradition the Bible, read by the individual in the vernacular on a regular basis, is of the highest importance. What I found, however, was the tendency of those church members (including myself) to read their Bible frequently, but to understand it to say those things they have already been taught. In other words, the apparent act of reading had everything to do with merely reaffirming held doctrine rather than letting the text say what it means. To let the text say what it says is hard enough without the pressure and example of a subculture encouraging one to read, essentially, closed-mindedly. This is one of the biggest and most serious problems in Christianity as far as I’m concerned. Later, toward the end of my college years, I began to understand what it really meant to read the Bible with a mindset that would allow for my held beliefs to be substantially challenged, and it blew my mind, not to say rearranged my life as well – and I’m still not that good at it.

The reasons for my change is a long and involved story, but in short I can say that I was a person with many questions, in the midst of a crisis of religion (but not of faith oddly enough), I valued rationality as well as process, and then I found myself almost accidentally in a community that was committed to the radical pursuit of truth. I say radical because I have come to believe commitment to truth no matter where it may lead is fundamentally discouraged in Christendom and its numerous permutations. I must emphasize the critical thinking nature of this community because my shift was not so much about interpersonal relationships. Where I was coming from was loaded with good people and good relationships. I was not running from failed relationships or because I did not like the people with whom I was fellowshiping. My need to get away had everything to do with getting my head on straight and re-examining my theological assumptions and my worldview.

This community where I ended was called McKenzie Study Center and it is still around in some fashion. It was not unlike the famous L’Abri Fellowship. What that place taught me, or I should say the staff taught me, was a different philosophy of ministry, and that made all the difference. Because of my own experience I tend to think of my philosophies of ministry in terms of the “old way” and the “new way”, but the “old way” is still the primary approach in most churches I am sure. The old way has several characteristics that I dislike. These include: 1) the belief that all theological questions have already been answered, 2) apparent theological conundrums are mysteries and therefore touchpoints of our faith, 3) the role of the preacher is to proclaim the truth with passion, emotion, and rhetorical skills such that the listener is “moved” closer to God and truth, 4) a church service is not a place for questions or dialog – the preacher preaches and you listen, 5) struggling to understand and digest church doctrine is a sign of immaturity in the faith, 6) church is about an experience – created and carefully controlled by professionals, 7) the arts have a place in Christian life and culture as long as they are “in service” to God (if you have acting skills you can perform skits in the youth group, or music skills you can lead worship, etc.), 8) pastors are not to be “in process” about either their faith or their understanding of the the Bible, 9) in fact, the goal is that each of us get beyond being “in process” as quickly as possible because being a mature Christian is to have no more doubts or questions, and 10) going to church, reading the Bible every day, and praying a lot with conviction is critical for the life of any Christian.

I have just said a mouthful, and I know many Christians would take issue with some of these points. But my experience, and the experience of many others, confirms these things to be true. If a pastor or ardent churchgoer tells you otherwise they are confused or lying. There are many other aspects of our Christian culture, both present and past, that are un-Biblical and abhorrent. The wonderful irony, and what gives me much hope for myself and others, is that many, many people who regularly attend church and are immersed in the Christian subculture are people dedicated to knowing God, loving others, and working out their faith everyday in fear and trembling. And the church I currently attend is far from perfect, though it suits many of my preferences better than my old church. It’s not really about church anyway, it’s what underlies the reasons we get together and what it is we are trying to encourage.

I also must conclude by saying that not only is my journey far from over, and my seeking far from completed, but that my present “clarity” about Christianity is just as much run through with my own sinfulness as it ever was. I have come to believe that just about the dumbest thing Christians could ever do is hold themselves up as a model of righteousness or even of right living. What I hope for Christianity is that it would move out of the swamp and into a place where 1) we know that theology is an ongoing process and many questions must still be answered, 2) that “believing anyway” even though something doesn’t make sense is not a touchstone of faith but an issue to resolve, 3) that pastors must be committed to truth more than their charisma, 4) that church should be a place where questions are welcome and pastors will even stop their sermon to recognize a raised hand, 5) that the struggling to understand doctrine may be both a sign of maturity as well as confusing doctrine, 6) that church is a place for all of us to contribute in creative and different ways, that authenticity is far more valuable than professionalism, and that worship is not singing songs in church, 7) that the arts need no justification, 8) that pastors must be “in process” both personally and theologically, and that process should be made known and not hidden, 9) that our goal is not to get beyond being “in process” but that our process is the working out of our faith, including our doctrines, and 10) that our lives as Christians are first and foremost the work of God in us, all the rest is just extra.

If I had an eleventh point it would be that there are no formulas, including the list above, to making Christianity, or one’s journey in faith, better. There is only life and faith and God and us.

Peace.

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