Category Archives: theology

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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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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>The New Religious Landscape (with Tony Jones)

>Here are a couples on links regarding the changing landscape of Christianity in the U.S. The first is a video clip with Tony Jones speaking of the Emergent Church. The second is a recent link to Tony’s blog regarding some new statistics about religion in the U.S.

This video first aired in 2008.

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=-1959894145232313198&hl=en&fs=true

From Tony’s bog: The Rise of the “Nones”

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>Jesus, the event within

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Would Jesus endorse Christianity as we know it? Would he say, “Yeah, that’s it. You got it.”? Or would he surprise us all by not fitting into our concepts of who he is? I think we all know the answer.

Since the beginning of Christianity there has been the need for reform of one kind or another of the church. The letters of Paul attest to that. Some would argue, and I would generally agree, that refocusing on Jesus as the foundation of Christianity (are not Christians followers of the Christ?) is the most direct and most powerful catalyst for change and reform. This concept interests me a great deal. I am fascinated by the idea of setting aside much of what we Christians cling to and then turning only to Jesus and, with him as our sole example, examine our lives, actions, and worship. With this in mind I give you two quotes to ponder:

A great deal would have been achieved if it were remembered today also that Christianity is obviously not some sort of world view nor a kind of idealist philosophy, but has something to do with a person called Christ. But memories can be painful, as many politicians have discovered when they wanted to revise a party program. In fact, memories can even be dangerous. Modern social criticism has again drawn our attention to this fact: not only because generations of the dead control us, have their part in determining every situation in which we are placed and to this extent man is predefined by history, but also because recollection of the past brings to the surface what is still unsettled and unfulfilled, because every society whose structures have grown rigid rightly fear the “subversive” contents of memory.

Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, 1974, p. 120

In deconstruction, one sets out in search of, or rather, one is oneself searched out or called on by whatever is unconditional, or undeconstructible, in a given order, and it is precisely in virtue of this undeconstructible x, which does not exist, which does does not exist yet, which never quite exists, that everything that does exist in that order is deconstructible. Whatever exists, whatever is present, is contingent, historical, constructed under determinate conditions—like the church or the Sabbath—and as such is inwardly disturbed by the undeconstructible, unconditional impulse that stirs within it—which for the church is the event that occurs in the name of Jesus. To “deconstruct” is on the one hand to analyze and criticize but also, on the other hand, and more importantly, to feel about for what is living and stirring within a thing, that is, feeling for the event that stirs within the deconstructible structure in order to release it, to set it free, to give it a new life, a new being, a future.

John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 2007 p. 68


Rembrandt van Rijn, Holy Family, 1640
Oil on wood, 16 1/4 x 13 1/2″ (41 x 34 cm)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

I like Küng’s concept of the ‘”subversive” contents of memory.’ That there is something subversive in the very person and teachings of Jesus is a powerful idea. What would the church (I recognize that’s an unwieldy and overly broad term) do with Jesus today? In my more cynical moments I am inclined to believe he would be crucified again and again. Though the name of Jesus is prominent in Christian churches I doubt that name represents the true Jesus as much as one might assume. My fear is that I would be part of the mob that called for his death. My desire is that I would know the truth instead, that my life would be conformed to Jesus’ example and, if faced with the physical (living, breathing, walking, talking) Jesus, there would resonate deep within my soul an unqualified and unchangeable “YES!”

Of course, in a profound way we do have Jesus among us. Remember the words of Jesus, like in the following famous passage from Jesus speaking to his disciples:

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.'”

“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?'”

“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'”

To me this is kind of sneaky, in a good way. We can easily be knocked off kilter and sent spinning if we think we have Jesus pegged. What I find interesting is that the above passage always surprises me even though I have been familiar with it for decades.

How is it that Jesus is a subversive force within the church? In films like Lord, Save Us From Your Followers: Why is the Gospel of Love Dividing America?, and books like They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations we find that most people have a fondness for Jesus, though many express a dislike for Christians or Christianity or organized religion in general (most especially if it’s Christian). This makes sense to me, but I know there is a difference between a “Jesus is my homeboy” approach and a “Jesus is my lord” approach. I understand the dichotomy, but I also know that those outside the church will just as likely have wrong ideas about Jesus as those within.

If Jesus is subversive then he must challenge the very foundations of the “truths” we cling to, of that with which we are comfortable, of what we claim even in his name. If Jesus is a comfortable idea then we have missed who he is. The irony of modern evangelization is that to begin with Jesus straight away may be the path of least resistance, and yet many Christians may mean something entirely wrongheaded when using that name. This I cannot say for sure, but my intuition says it must be likely.


Rembrandt van Rijn, The raising of Lazarus, c. 1630
Oil on panel96.2 x 81.5 cm
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Caputo argues for Jesus as a kind of deconstructing force within the church. When I set Jesus and the church side by side in my mind and ponder the connection, I cannot think of a better concept than deconstruction with which to understand the force of Christ amongst our religious structures. Caputo sees Jesus as “the event” within the word Christianity. (I know I am not doing the depth of his argument justice.) The idea of “the event” he takes from the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Think of the word “democracy.” There are democracies and then there is democracy the ideal (not in a Platonic sense, but in a Derridian sense). That ideal calls to us when we think about, speak of, or participate in doing democracy. We don’t ever see the ideal, but we know it is there. Democracy the ideal is the event within the word Democracy. Think of Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) in the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He is a kind of force, a man who quotes Lincoln and Washington while entering the cynical world of real politik. In the end he becomes a kind of savior-like figure who sacrifices his life for what he knows to be true. Jesus, who’s name is spoken countless times in churches around the world is like Mr. Smith. But rather than just speaking of the truth, he is the truth, he is the image of God, he is the event within the word Christianity.*


Rembrandt van Rijn, Descent from the Cross, 1634
Oil on canvas, 62 x 46 in. (158 x 117 cm)
Hermitage, St. Petersburg

What I fear is that I live my whole life as a “good Christian” only to one day confront the actual event (Jesus) within this thing (Christianity) I am doing, and to be told “I never knew you.” The fact is I confront the event every day. The question that I must answer is to what am I finally committed, Christianity or the event within.

Back to my original questions. I don’t think Jesus would give our organized versions of Christianity the thumbs up, though I don’t think he would give the thumbs down to all of it. I do think, however, that we would all be surprised by his presence beyond reasons of “wow, he exists!”. I think he would challenge us deeply in ways that get at those very things that we use to convince ourselves of our own wisdom. I think those individuals and groups deeply embedded within the church would have trouble with Jesus on many levels. And I’m not referring to the obvious examples of those who claim Christianity but spew hatred. I am referring to the good, ordinary, run-of-the-mill Christians who try to live good lives and get along with others. They would have trouble with Jesus as much as anybody. But I also think those outside the church, who say they like Jesus but not Christians, would also have trouble with Jesus. Jesus hung around with sinners but he was not their homeboy. He was not their revolutionary either. He is God’s revolutionary, whatever that means – which is something we could spend the rest of our lives figuring out.

* This is one of the reasons I don’t like seeing a U.S. flag prominently displayed in a church. The event within democracy is not the same event as that within Christianity. The event within the U.S. flag is something closer to patriotism than democracy, and it is miles from Christ. With our tendency to focus on Christianity rather than the true Christ already in play, why jeopardize our profound and constantly reforming need for truth that much more with connecting faith to patriotism?

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>Walter Wink on Nonviolence for the Violent

>I knew next to nothing about Walter Wink until recently. Now I have become a fan.

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Very Brief Thoughts on Religion and the Art of Appropriation: Or How the Post-Christendom Church Mirrors the Impulse of Postmodern Art

Are we not postmodern?


be, by Barbara Kruger

My brain often works best by comparison. In this post I want to briefly compare the postmodern impulse in art making and the post-Christendom worship of the emergent/emerging1 church. I fully admit my ideas are not fully baked, and yet the process of putting them forth might teach me a thing or two.

Somewhere in the transition from the 1960s to the late 1970s Art reached its end. The end was prefigured by such notables as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, among others. The end of art wasn’t really about the end of art, but about the end of a series of historical/cultural problems and intuitions tackled largely in succession since the Renaissance. What happened over time was a decline in interest in those issues as they either were solved (“solved” is a rather subjective term with regards to art) or they were found no longer relevant. The world changed and so did the world of art.

But art never stops. Art will emerge as long as humans exist.


Hymn, by Damien Hirst, 2000

What happened (one thing that happened) was a new impulse, that of appropriation. This impulse was already coursing through the veins of art; Picasso appropriated, Johns and Warhol appropriated, and many others. But with postmodern art artistic action began to twist free from the weight of art history and the art’s weighty lineage. Art and art history began to work more and more independently from each other. Of course that independence wasn’t complete, but art makers felt that art had become fundamentally divorced from meta-narratives. Now the appropriation of anything and everything was possible – even appropriation of that weighty lineage. In this sense art finally became art.


Portable War Memorial, by Ed Kienholz, 1968

What is meant by appropriation?

To appropriate something involves taking possession of it. In the visual arts, the term appropriation often refers to the use of borrowed elements in the creation of new work. The borrowed elements may include images, forms or styles from art history or from popular culture, or materials and techniques from non-art contexts. Since the 1980s the term has also referred more specifically to quoting the work of another artist to create a new work. The new work does not actually alter the original per se; the new work uses the original to create a new work. In most cases the original remains accessible as the original, without change.2

Key here is that last part. The “original remains accessible as the original, without change.” This is a kind of quoting without quoting; a kind of objective theft for subjective purposes. One could say it’s a synthesis, something new from something old that becomes new merely through the act of appropriation. In this way an old work of art may become a new work of art fully within a new context – and seen as a new work of art because of new ownership as it were. But this should be expected, for “there is nothing outside the text” as Jacques Derrida once said.3


After Walker Evans 2, by Sherrie Levine (1981).

Keeping this in mind I want to shift gears a bit.

Christianity has gone through (and is going through) similar changes. Christianity is one of the great meta-narratives in world history. However, many Christians (some of whom prefer the term Christ followers) have begun to twist free of their traditional moorings. They see their faith and Christianity as two different entities. Faith is no longer strictly about being a member of a particular group with its set of proscribed codes, mores, or rituals. The focus has shifted more toward Jesus and away from the historical church. Jesus has become the deconstruction force, deconstructing Christianity.


Jesus has a power lunch with the money changers?
(Why I put this picture in here I don’t know.)

If faith is a passionate, existential belief in the lordship of Jesus, then Christianity as an external religious set of practices can be other, is other. This otherness allows the multiplicity of historical and cultural expressions of Christianity to be appropriated as the “believer” sees fit. One is no longer bound by a tradition, rather by faith. Christian practices and disciplines from any branch of the church and any time period can be appropriated by the Christ follower on an as needed basis. Logically, then, practices from non-Christian sources might be appropriated as well. If being a Christ follower is no longer about religion (or being religious), then religion, as a set of optional practices and disciplines, becomes a non-threat.

More and more Christians today are seeking old, and very old, religious practices – going back to the historical church and gleaning. I assume the idea is that through the course of the modern era we may have lost some good things. I assume this is more true for Protestants than Catholics or Orthodox. The question on the table is whether these practices are meaningful and might they negatively influence one’s faith – a real fear for many Protestant apologists. I don’t have an answer for that at this time. I am both curious and wary, and certainly interested.


Christ followers walk a labyrinth

Why does this interest me? I came to a deep re-evaluation of my faith as an undergraduate (more than 20 years ago). I was an art history major, a film studies major, and part of a college ministry team in a large Baptist church. I began to have too many conflicts between my faith (which I held to be true) and the Christian culture in which I was immersed. My Christianity was deconstructing, but only because my faith was stronger. I began to see that the outward forms were of little consequence compared to my pursuit of truth and my beliefs. Interestingly art played a big part in this. Art is what helped me realize the freedom that resides at the center of the story of Jesus. I saw artmaking, which is such a natural human thing to do, chafing under the weight of Art’s meta-narrative. Breaking free did not destroy artmaking, in fact artmaking flourished. Breaking free merely lowered the dominance of the meta-narrative a few notches. I think, similarly, I knew intuitively my faith could handle some freedom.

And so I left that Christian culture behind for a while. I took a breather. But I did not leave Christ behind. In fact my faith became stronger, my theology more grounded, and my hope deeper. Now I am at the fringes of that culture again and wondering.

Modern Christ followers, many of whom are part of what is sometimes called the emerging church, are appropriating many religious practices – trying them out as it where – in much the same way that artmakers are appropriating many things from both “within” and “without” the art world. And just like with artmaking, if one’s faith is authentic then one has great freedom in one’s practices.


Image by Luke Flowers from this article

Phyllis Tickle has recently articulated the idea that the emerging church is really part of a wholesale worldwide emerging, religious and otherwise. She has also likened the shifting and changes in Christianity to be like a great rummage sale, where people sift through what is there, what has come before, what others have done, to find what they need and what they didn’t know they needed. According to Tickle these rummage sales tend to occur within Christianity about every 500 years or so. The current rummaging includes searching for spiritual practices that have been lost, long unused, or never before used in the current context(s). These practices include anything from how we “do” church, to how we pray and fellowship, to classic disiplines like solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, sacrifice, study, worship, celebration, service, confession, and submission. Most of these practices were never truly promoted or explored in my Christian upbringing, and they are large foreign concepts to a consumeristic culture.

I am not yet sold on the idea of spiritual disciplines. I am still inclined to think of a truly spiritual person as being one in whom the Spirit of God is at work – which I see as a one way street: God invading a person’s life. And I am inclined to think that one cannot move or change one’s spirituality through any action unless God initiates and completes the work. Yet, just as with all issues of God’s sovereignty and human action (and choice) there is what we know of God and what we actually experience every day. With that in view I can see spiritual disciplines as offering tremendous encouragement and I find myself increasingly curious about exploring disciplines. I also see them as being very much a matter of personal choice. Regardless, the re-emergence of disciplines and practices is evidence of a church extending beyond the modernist model of Christianity, which I see as generally positive.

1. I am purposely conflating these two terms, though many would seek to separate them, because under the umbrella of this particular topic one finds the comparison still holds true.

2. “Appropriation (art).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Sep 2008, 15:40 UTC. 17 Sep 2008

3. I believe that quote is found in Of Grammatology.

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>Happy Birthday Elie Wiesel

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I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to him for that reason.

~ Elie Wiesel

If I had to make a top ten list of those events of the 20th century most critical to know and remember, the Holocaust would be in the top three. Wiesel survived the Holocaust, I suppose, as well as anyone could. His memoir Night is brilliant and staggering.

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

~ Elie Wiesel

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>emerging church: call it what you will

>I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m looking into the phenomena of the emerging church, and its related emergent aspects. Recently, however, there is a slight trending away from those terms. Dan Kimball at Vintage Faith writes about his recent thoughts on how the terms have changed over the years and what that means for him. He cites three other articles/blog posts that also deal with the continued relevance of “emerging/emergent.”

Of course, the realities that underly these terms are still there, though they have been changing, and will continue to do so. Maybe “emerging” and “emergent” will wane in their cultural currency, but we are still living in a post-modern (and possibly post-Christendom) world in which the need to re-examine what it means to be a Christian is critically relevant. One thing to consider, as well, is the relative newness of those terms to much of Christianity. That alone will keep the terms alive for a while, even if their progenitors have moved elsewhere.

As for me, my study has just begun. In fact, I feel like I am doing a lot of catching up. On the other hand, it occurred to me the other day that I began my own “emerging” process back around 1986 when I began to have serious issues with my church’s philosophy of ministry and approach to both culture and theology/doctrine. And really my searching began back in the 1970s as I read authors like C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer in my adolescent grasping for something more than what I was getting at church. A lot of water has gone under the bridge (a story I might relate here sometime), and I’m still sorting it out.

Books I am reading related to the topic:
A New Kind of Christian, by Brian McLaren
The Future of Religion, by Richard Rorty & Gianni Vattimo, ed. Santiago Zabala

Books I’m glancing at:
Spiritual Direction, by Henri Nouwen
Dialogue with Nietzsche, by Gianni Vattimo
Basic Writings, by Martin Heidegger

And I have on order a few more books. I welcome any suggestions.

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Filed under Christianity, culture, curious, theology

>emerge oh church, emerge

>I am beginning a study of something called the “emergent church.” I grew up in a Christian tradition and, in some ways, I still claim that pedigree. This emergent thing, however, is something different than what I’m used to. It’s not exactly new, but it’s newish. It also has various aspects, some of which look very appealing to me, and others look potentially troubling. I am hoping to sort it out for myself. I may post some of my thoughts and conclusions here at PilgrimAkimbo from time to time.

Here are a couple of videos that try to get at what underlies the emergent church.

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=-8802026530343805467&hl=en&fs=true

What do you think? I am interested in hearing your thoughts, especially if you participate in an emergent church.

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Filed under Christianity, curious, religion, theology

theology and the narrative arts

[In this post I ruminate on the relationship of art to our belief, or absence of belief, in God, god, or gods. As is typical for me, my train of thought is more lurching than steady, and my end goal is more personal than pedagogical.]

Our lenses
I love Pasolini’s seminal filmIl Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964). It is a work of great and simple beauty. It is also a powerful film that flies in the face of the overly sentimentalized and often lifeless versions of Jesus’ life that came before. And yet, Pasolini, though he seems to be taking the story directly from the words on the page (the Gospel of St. Matthew), understands Christ through his own political and personal commitments. In other words, Pasolini, the devout Marxist, unabashed homosexual, and hater of the Catholic Church, saw a Christ that was thoroughly materialist (philosophically) and politically radical (of the socialist ilk).


An earthy, socialist Christ
Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus
from
Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964)

As I understand it, for Pasolini, Jesus was a kind of pre-incarnate Karl Marx (rather than the incarnate God) who challenged the status quo of his day, and died as the earliest socialist martyr. Pasolini’s belief in the non-existence of God played a big part in how he saw Jesus and why he made the film. In a sense one could say Il Vangelo secondo Matteo is a kind of materialist corrective to the church’s position.

As I said, I love Pasolini’s film, but he got it wrong. I say this because of my own beliefs about God and about Jesus which, though personal on the one hand, I believe are also objectively true. My understanding of God is integral to the set of the “lenses” through which I look at the world. In other words, the difference between me and Pasolini is not really about any of his films, rather our differences go back to our presuppositions about God, truth, and the goals of human existence – even if we may agree on many things, and no doubt I am generally in awe of him as an artist.

Certainly great works of art are not, in our experience, predicated on any particular belief about God.

The God Who Is There
I have been thinking lately (and off and on for a long time) of the role that theology plays, or does not play, in how one approaches watching a film, looking at a painting, listening to a piece of music, or reading a book. So much of what we get out of a work of art comes from what we are able to bring to it, especially what it is we want from that particular work of art, and of art in general. What we want, I believe, is deeply affected by, and even grows out of, whether or not we are convinced of the existence of God, or god, or many gods, or none at all. So much depends on whether we are convinced of some ultimate meaning in the Universe, or whether we believe there is no ultimate meaning. And so much depends on how honest, even ruthlessly honest, we are with ourselves about these issues and their implications.

I use the word theology specifically. The term “theology” is a compound of two Greek words, θεος (theos: god) and λογος (logos: rational utterance). What I am interested in is a reasoned and rational examination of God, not merely of some vague spirituality (but that’s another presupposition isn’t it). What I find critical is the blunt question: Do you (do I) believe in God? How one answers that question has profound implications.

But the question is already on the table. We have inherited it. We can’t get away from it, just as we can’t get away from a myriad of other questions. And how we live our lives, including the art we make, is directly related to our answer. Art is a part of how we live our lives and, in many ways, emerges from the very heart of the matter. This is as true for Pasolini as it is for Spielberg as it is for Tarantino.

Often a work of art has, embedded within it, the answer to the question. Sometimes that answer is obvious. More often the answer is like backstory, a kind of presupposition that sits in the background and informs the art out front, as it were.

Moral Objects
A work of art is, in some ways, a mysterious thing. Like love, we know what art is, but we can’t always nail it down and give it a clear definition and well defined boundaries. Art emerges from deep within our humanness. Every culture and society has organically produced art, that is, art which emerges naturally from withing that culture or society. When I was an art history major many years ago I was introduced to many ancient works of art, via slides of course, like this exciting number:


Seated female, Halaf; 7th–6th millennium B.C., Mesopotamia or Syria
Ceramic, paint; H. 5.1 cm, W. 4.5 c
m
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This little statuette dates from nearly nine thousand years ago. Most likely it is a symbol of fertility. And most likely it was part of the symbolic rites and proto-religious system of that time. Many thousands of figures like this one have been unearthed. This little object speaks volumes about what was important to that ancient culture, like the importance of fertility to agrarian societies, and the importance of sexuality, and the very human need to supplicate before a god for one’s well-being. It also speaks of the human tendency to create symbols and to understand the world in terms of abstractions.

What I find interesting is how ancient and deeply ingrained is the human need to grasp at metaphysical solutions to the everyday muck of life problems, fears, and desires. I also find it fascinating that humans have to make physical objects that express the metaphysical, the ontological, the teleological, etc.

Even the Israelites, who had seen the ten plagues on Egypt, who had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, who had the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke in the wilderness, who had seen the walls of Jericho miraculously fall, and who had seen many other wonders of Yahweh, still created the golden calf, and still kept idols of other gods in their houses, and still built or maintained the high places (religious sites on hilltops to worship gods other than Yahweh). Today we have our idols and gods too – witness the way we worship our sports teams, or entertainers, our possessions, ourselves, for example.

Moral Stories
What humans have always seemed to enjoy are stories of moral dilemmas played out in both mundane and fantastical ways. Consider the medieval mystery plays. These were more than merely pedagogical in nature, they were social events that brought people together and incorporated some audience participation, including talking back to the characters during the performance, etc.

I hear that in some movie theaters in other countries (I write from the U.S.) audiences are very vocal and even talk to the screen, as it were, and critique out loud the actions of the characters while the film is playing. Regardless, quiet or vocal, we all seem to gravitate toward the moral. We like passing judgment, we like justice, and, interestingly, we like wickedness too. However, without some kind of absolute from which morality emanates, having a moral opinion is, in final terms, as much comic as it is tragic.


Medieval Mystery Play

So why do we continue to hold moral positions in a morally relativistic and credulistic world? If I had a clear answer I could probably chair some philosophy or psychology department somewhere. My guess, though, is that we will invent an absolute if we can’t find one. In other words, if one doesn’t believe in moral absolutes, or in something big enough (God for example), then one will invent a substitute absolute, for example: an economic or political system, or a biological and physical set of laws, or maybe an absolute that claims there are no absolutes. Regardless, the moral story still digs deep into our souls.

Even the most mundane and vapid kinds of films have some moral content which can be understood within a larger framework of meaning. Consider this audio review of the recent film Tranformers by a pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. (The review is at the end of that post.)

Only Physical, or Metaphysical?
As I take a look at the popular art of today, that is, television shows (i.e. CSI, Survivor, et al) and film (i.e. Michael Clayton, Enchanted, et al), I see worlds presented that do not include God, or any so-called traditional god, that is, a creator deity with whom our destiny lies. These are materialistic worlds, worlds in which stuff is the ultimate reality, no final truth, and no source of meaning. Interestingly, the goals of the characters are all about meaning, and soul searching, and truth.

The characters or contestants are driven forward by things or ideas that they deem important. This is basic story telling. This is fundamental script writing. But it doesn’t make sense if there is no final meaning in the universe, otherwise it’s just a cruel game. Why should we care that someone is searching for something that doesn’t exist? Or even if, for some untenable reason, we do care, why should they search? Consider this quote regarding the modern predicament:

The quality of modern life seemed ever equivocal. Spectacular empowerment was countered by a widespread sense of anxious helplessness. Profound moral and aesthetic sensitivity confronted horrific cruelty and waste. The price of technology’s accelerating advance grew ever higher. And in the background of every pleasure and every achievement loomed humanity’s unprecedented vulnerability. Under the West’s direction and impetus, modern man had burst forward and outward, with tremendous centrifugal force, complexity, variety, and speed. And yet it appeared he had driven himself into a terrestrial nightmare and a spiritual wasteland, a fierce constriction, a seemingly irresolvable predicament.

~Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind
What does one do with this? How does one come to terms with a spiritual wasteland, or an irresolvable predicament? Is it so that rational human beings must suffer the conflict of a great desire for meaning in a world that has no ultimate meaning? Is religion an answer or a placebo? No matter what we do we do not get away from these questions. How we solve them, or come to terms with them, is a big deal (or maybe it is also meaningless). My contention is that there is a God, that that God is there, and that that God is knowable. But am I deluded? I don’t think so. And the person who thinks I am deluded believes from a place of conviction as well. I find this more than fascinating.

Michael Clayton

What most recently sparked my thinking about all this God and art stuff was a recent viewing of Michael Clayton. The story in this film plays itself out in a Western (geographically & conceptually), materialistic world where there is no transcendent god. It is a thoroughly modern view of human existence. There are no moral absolutes. And yet, Clayton is a man in search of himself. He is in desperate need of a positive existential moment. He needs to make a self-defining, self-actualizing choice so that he can move beyond his cliff-edge existence and become who he should be. He needs to make the right choice even if it is difficult and painful, even if it means giving up who he has been. There is nothing narratively original in this aspect of the story. It is as timeless as a Greek tragedy.

The story revolves around a legal battle in which a company is being sued for its harmful actions. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is the attorney working the case. Unfortunately for his law firm and for his client he is deeply troubled by the case. He feels he is defending murder, in a sense. The firm sends Michael Clayton (George Clooney) to talk with Edens. Part of that conversation goes like this:

Michael Clayton: You are the senior litigating partner of one of the largest, most respected law firms in the world. You are a legend.
Arthur Edens: I’m an accomplice!
Michael Clayton: You’re a manic-depressive!
Arthur Edens: I am Shiva, the god of death


“I am Shiva, the god of death.”

Wow. Where did that come from? Shiva, the god of death? It certainly grabs one’s attention, and it sounds rather cool, but why, in this film, out of nowhere make a reference to one of the principal deities of Hinduism? I say “nowhere” because there is no indication throughout the film that any of the characters believe in any kind of god or religion. In fact, it could be argued that the problem facing all the characters is that, because there is no god, no ultimate reality to which they are finally accountable, they are lost in a sea of moral floundering. Morality becomes personal preference, personal conviction, and power.

Making a reference to Shiva, the destroyer and transformer Hindu god, makes some sense then. First, Edens feels like a destroyer, or at least one who defends the destroyer. He has personal convictions of wrongdoing and it is eating away his soul. Second, in a world personal morality one can choose, as one needs or sees fit, any god that works for the moment, so why not Shiva? Shiva becomes Eden’s god of choice because the concept of Shiva explains his convictions somehow. Shiva is his self-image for the moment. Tomorrow it might be a different god. Maybe Vishnu or Brahma. Or maybe a Sumerian god.

Interestingly the reference to Shiva comes up again. Once Clayton confronts Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) with the fact that he has carried out Eden’s plan to expose the company, we get this bit of dialog:

Karen Crowder: You don’t want the money?
Michael Clayton: Keep the money. You’ll need it.
Don Jefferies: Is this fellow bothering you?
Michael Clayton: Am I bothering you?
Don Jefferies: Karen, I’ve got a board waiting in there. What the hell’s going on? Who are you?
Michael Clayton: I’m Shiva, the God of death.


“I am Shiva, the god of death.”

Again it’s Shiva, the god of death, and this time the line is used as a final punctuation to the film’s climax. However, unlike Eden, Clayton uses the line more for its effect on Crowder and Jefferies than from a sense of personal identification. What might that effect be? Within the context of the film, and within the context of a largely non-Hindu society, this line comes as a kind of shock, a non-sequitur of sorts, that specifically draws attention to itself. I imagine the filmmakers intend the line to read something like “I am the fictional, mythological god Shiva (in a metaphorical sense of course) who is bringing about a kind of death to you, a death that you are powerless to avoid.” In other words, we are not to assume that the filmmakers or the characters actually believe in the existence of Shiva, rather the idea of Shiva is appropriated in order to convey something meaningful.

To the person who does not believe in Shiva, such a line might merely have a kind of cool factor. To a devout Hindu this line might be somewhat disconcerting – I don’t know because I am not a Hindu. What is interesting is that none of the characters have made a conversion to any religion, or even gone through any particularly religious experience. Edens has had mental breakdown because of deep moral tensions. Clayton has crossed over into a personally powerful existential decision. But neither have obviously embraced Hinduism. (If I missed something, let me know.)

Interestingly, the narrative arc of Michael Clayton follows a traditional Western style morality tale. And yet, one could say the characters, who do not overtly believe in any god, still wrestle with issues that derive their moral content from a Judeo-Christian heritage, and then, ironically, symbolically claim a Hindu god as justification for their actions. I find this both puzzling and not surprising. It is exemplary of the pluralistic/post-modern society that I live in.

In the film’s final shot we see Clayton riding alone in the back of a taxi. It is a meditative shot. He does not look happy or fulfilled. Maybe he is, but his countenance is rather sullen. Has he saved himself by his actions? Has he found redemption for who he was? How can he be sure he has actually changed as a person? None of these questions are answered. One could say that finally he made the right decision after a life of bad ones, and that is good. But one could say that he still has not solved the deeper question of his existence.

The radical truth is that in a world without a God that stands as an ultimate source of meaning then any decision made by Clayton does not really have any meaning. His final decision, though it may resonate powerfully within us the viewers, doesn’t really matter, no matter how personally, existentially transforming it may be for him. At best one can say he made his decision, so what. Any decision would have had the same value. But, of course, we know deep down that can’t be true. We live knowing there is right and wrong, and what we believe we believe to be true.

Crimes and Misdemeanors
Consider the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s brilliant 1989 film about morality, choice, and justice. In this film Allen explores how morality flows from where one begins, that is, from the set of presuppositions one claims about God, the universe, our existence, meaning, etc. He also seriously toys with our expectations (our need) for justice to win out.

The film is also very much about the existence, or non-existence, of God, and what that means. I love this quote from Judah Rosenthal:

I remember my father telling me, “The eyes of God are on us always.” The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

There is something both sinister and humorous about it. It also represents our modern tendency to analyze ourselves and mistrust our motives.

But there is so much more to consider in this quote and in this film. The following two part video analysis is an excellent overview of the film’s themes:

When I first saw Crimes and Misdemeanors I was both stunned and thrilled. At the end I thought “perfect”, that’s how it should end, with him getting away with murder, not because I wanted him to, but because I so expected him to get caught and I liked the irony. Allen turns everything on it head and gets us to think. Thinking is a good thing, especially about truth and morality.

Our view of God has a great deal to do with how we understand and appreciate Crimes and Misdemeanors. If there is no God are the characters and their actions meaningless? Is our desire for justice merely a temporary chemical reaction to a situation that emerged from the chance combination of sub-atomic particles? Or do we live as though our desire comes from someplace more profound?

[Side note: In Star Wars, when the Death Star blows up the planet Alderaan, do we merely observe the rearranging of material particles (something of ultimate inconsequence), or do we assume that blowing up a planet and its inhabitants is an act of evil? Get over it old man Kenobi, you moralist! That was no tremor in the force. Probably just gas.]

Finally

I am inclined to think there is no such thing as a narrative without some moral content.
Either a series of events are purely a-moral, an arbitrary grouping of cause and effect acts without meaning, or they are, in some way, the result of decisions. If decisions are involved then those actions have meaning and therefore have a moral dimension. I see narrative as being fundamentally the result of decisionsand therefore fundamentally moral.

But as soon as well make a moral claim we assume an absolute. We might say our claim is purely cultural or situational or merely a personal decision, but we don’t really live that way. When we say war is wrong, or rape is wrong, or Nazi death camps are wrong, we assume a universal. And if we claim universals then what is our foundation? This is the very point at which our belief or non-belief in God, god, or gods, has the most gravity.

Woody Allen leaves the question open in Crimes and Misdemeanors, but he is relying on the fact that we cannot. He creates in us a tension, and something to talk about. Michael Clayton leaves us somewhat satisfied, yet under its surface there is no final meaning, its only opinion. What is great about both of these films is how they tap into the very human predicament of having to sort out the deep questions of how we are to live our lives and upon what are we going to base our choices.

I can be in awe of an artist even though our beliefs about God may differ. What we have is a common humanity, which is a truly profound connection. Even so, it is worth calling out our differences as well, not for the sake of creating divisions, but of understanding each other and seeking the truth. For we are, by nature, truth seekers. But then that’s another universal I am claiming.

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Filed under aesthetics, Art, Art and Faith, Christianity, movies, Philosophy, theology