Friday, August 22, 2014

Theology of the Sloppy Wet Kiss

Back in the day (read: Early Church history), the Song of Solomon was read purely as an allegory for Christ's love for the Church. Because of course it was.

Come on, Solomon. Get your crap together. 

In a Church culture that came dangerously close to vilifying sex and marriage altogether (and sometimes actually did that), there was really no other option. That sort of stuff was obviously waaaaay too graphic to actually be talking about sex. That would be super gross and weird (not to mention sinful!)! No, what it was really about was the relationship between Christ and his Church. Because...that makes it...less weird? I guess? Maybe?

In any case, they were wrong. Most scholars now see it as a pretty frank celebration of human sexuality in marriage, although you can still make the case for it also being allegorical for the passionate love Christ has for his Church.

And that brings me to the title of this post: Theology of the Sloppy Wet Kiss

It's taken from a line in the song, "How He Loves." (it's the one that goes "Oh, how he loves us" a lot). "But wait!" you say, because you speak out loud to yourself when reading posts on the internet. "I've heard that song a lot - like, a lot - and I've never heard the words "sloppy wet kiss." Well, that's because although the song was originally written by John Mark McMillan, it was popularized by David Crowder (of "The David Crowder Band"). And they changed the words

Originally, the bridge went like this: 

"And heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss."

However, fearing (probably correctly) that the evangelical Christian world would absolutely lose their crap over the line, Crowder changed it to the much less "graphic" "unforseen kiss." 

Now, if you clicked that link up above (here it is again), you'll see that McMillan already wrote a post about this five years ago, but I didn't discover that until two minutes ago, so there's no point stopping now. So here it is:

There is nothing immature, or juvenile, or vulgar, or even irreverent in the idea of a sloppy wet kiss. In fact, as a married man, I can say without fear of retribution that they're kind of the best. Any sort of reservations or rejection is merely guilt by association. In and of itself, a sloppy wet kiss is good: It brings to mind feelings of passion, of union, of a love that won't stand on ceremony. Yes, it's messy...but then again, so was the cross. So was the Incarnation. So was this whole bloody rescue operation, ending with the triumph of triumphs and a wedding to put all other weddings to shame. 

And my point, I guess, is this. Even the Church Fathers, the ones who thought that sex was basically the worst, still understood the value of that kind of imagery when talking about Christ's love for his Bride. They still understood the value of the profound mystery that Paul spoke about in Ephesians 5:32, although they misunderstood the rest. And I wonder if maybe we've forgotten that. I wonder if we're sometimes in danger of sterilizing the Incarnation, sterilizing Christ and his Bride, and forgetting that when you get right down to it, it was really more of an action/adventure story with a romantic twist

PS: This, like many posts, was written entirely on a whim in the space of about 30 minutes, and may be poorly thought out. I guess we'll see in the morning. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Arminianism and related resources

tldr: If you don't believe in Calvinism, but don't know why you don't believe in Calvinism, there are really cool links below. If you're waffling on it, then the links below are even more important. Also, if you don't know what Arminianism is, click here.

Some time ago, I saw this post, titled "Needed: Robust Arminian Theology for Lay People (Especially Youth)," writted by Roger Olson. In it, Olson describes the recent rise of the "New Calvinism" movement (or "Young, Restless, Reformed"), and how it's especially noticeable in younger Christians (late teens and twenties) especially. More people are becoming Calvinist.

And he attributes this rise to a "doctrinal vacuum" in evangelical churches: A vacuum that occurs when churches hold to doctrines of free will and meaningful choice (aka not irresistible grace and predestination), but take those doctrines for granted. They hold those doctrines, but don't talk about them, don't defend them, don't explain them.

I know that's how I grew up: Assuming that humanity had free will, that God called us and that we could answer that call - or not, if we chose. But I can't recall a single time before college that anyone had told me why that was, or explained to me what "Calvinism" was and why we didn't believe that instead. And that's problematic, because Calvinists have that down. And so when someone from that tradition that assumes but doesn't really teach about free will runs into a Calvinist, they're suddenly going to hear legitimate arguments and reasoning from the Bible for Calvinism, and they won't have anything to balance that out. And so they often come away from those encounters believing that Calvinism is the only biblical doctrine.

This bothers me. But it's not until recently that I really realized the resources that exist, right now, to alleviate this.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago: My good friend Danny M. links me this post, titled "John Piper Asks, "Where's the Arminian?" and Receives an Answer." John Piper (the leading figure in Calvinism) takes some pot-shots at Arminianism, and Credendum (the author of the blog) lays down the freaking law. And in the process, he links to some extremely helpful resources. Here are my two favorite sites so far:

Arminian Theology: What makes this blog awesome is the bar of popular topics right at the top, which provide a fantastic intro to Arminianism. Right off the bat, you get:


                       And, of course, the killer:

Arminian Perspectives: This blog has a lot more stuff on it, and it seems to update more frequently. You got all kinds of stuff on here:

There are dozens (hundreds?) of posts here, and those are just two of the resources here. I went on an enormous binge over the Fourth of July weekend, and I learned so election can be corporate, how context really helps...See, before this, I only had "common sense" objections to Calvinism. Now, I have something more. And I think you - yes, you - should have that as well. Click some of these links. Give them a read. Let me know what you think.

Also: I guess I'm pretty much Arminian? I mean, there are some funny distinctions, like the way they insist that salvation is monergistic rather than synergistic, which seems to be solely for the purpose of dialogue with Calvinists. But still, it is neat to see certain things that I've personally thought through over the years, all codified and official, with biblical support and everything. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Friend-zoning and Entitlement

A few weeks ago, Anna and I were discussing a friend of mine's romantic entanglements. I jokingly stated that he had been "friend-zoned", and Anna paused. Then she said something extremely insightful about the whole idea of "friend-zoning", and I am now going to share it with you.

First, a brief definition of "Friend-zoning". Let's say that Person A has a romantic interest in Person B. Person A pursues a relationship with Person B. Person B, however, is not interested in Person A "that way" and wishes to remain "just friends." In this situation, Person A has been "friend-zoned" by Person B: That is, A has been relegated against his will to the zone of friends.

And Anna's objection was very simple: That the whole concept of "friend-zoning" is soaked through with entitlement. And after hearing her reasoning, I had no choice but to agree completely. Here it goes:

When you say that someone has been "friend-zoned", you imply (however subtly) that a wrong has been done to him. It implies that he has been denied something that is rightfully his; Moreover, you imply that the "friend-zoner" is, in some subtle but real way, committing a wrong. They're "not giving him a fair shot", or "not giving them a chance."

Which is pretty horrifying, actually.

See, to get to that point, you have to follow a really weird chain of logic.

1: I have a romantic interest in this person.

2: I desire to begin a romantic relationship with this person.

3: I am acting super nicely towards this person, and not like a douchebag at all.

4 (and here's where it gets odd): Because of 1, 2, and 3, I am entitled to a romantic relationship with this person.

And finally, the horrifying conclusion of 5: In denying me this romantic relationship, this person is committing a wrong against me and relegating me unjustly to the zone of friends.

Now, you might say that numbers 4 and 5 aren't necessarily part of the whole phenomenon. That you can have "friend-zoning" as a concept without all the entitlement. And while that may be true in a vacuum, I don't think it can be true here and now. And if you want proof, just think of the last TV show or movie you saw where someone got "friend-zoned." Heck, Anna and I just saw it while re-watching Scrubs for the umpteenth time. Was it portrayed as just something that happened, a morally neutral occurrence? Or was it treated as an unjust act, either to be rectified or merely recovered from?

No. The whole complaint of "friend-zoning," the entire idea, is built on a sense of commiseration and sympathy for the friend-zone-ee, and a sense of (at best) good-natured hostility/condescension towards the friend-zone-er ("She'll come around, you just need to keep at her"). And the fact that such an attitude is unconscious in most cases makes it more problematic, not less, because it is merely one more instance of the sense of entitlement: Indeed, it is not much of a stretch at all to say that it is nothing more nor less than an extension of Rape Culture that thrives through its subtlety.

It's this idea that all a guy must do in order to be rightfully owed a relationship (and possibly sex as well), is to merely not be a douchebag. And the danger of such an idea was illustrated in vivid color when an entitled man-child got fed up with not receiving what he was owed and murdered six people.

Addendum: My good friend Kellen pointed out a similar (but ultimately distinct) situation that needs teasing out: That of the hopeful suitor (Person A) who is actively being kept on the line by the suit-ee (Person B). This bears certain similarities to "friend-zoning", but is made different by the fact that in this case, Person B is actively encouraging Person A in his efforts, and is using Person A to reap some of the benefits of a true relationship, with no intention of returning those benefits. Therefore, while Person A may still bear some responsibility through entitlement, Person B shares in it as well, by actively encouraging and taking advantage of it.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Prayer in Uncertainty

Every day, at 1:00 pm, my phone goes off, with the word "Prayer" emblazoned across the screen. It's a remnant from my church's "Reach One" challenge: Every day, you were supposed to pray for one minute for one person who you wanted to reach, and the set time was meant to make it easier.

The challenge only lasted one month, but it never occurred to me to turn it off. So every day, at 1:00, I'm reminded to pray for my friend, and (almost) every day I pray for that one person. And I pray largely the same prayer. The periphery varies, but the core is consistent:

I pray that God will work the circumstances of  my friend for His glory, and for my friend's salvation. And I pray that if I have a role in that, that I will play it well.  

I've written a lot about free will, and Providence, and the possible relationship between the two. Entire theologies and denominations have centered on this relationship, this paradox. And I don't know how it all works out (although i do have some thoughts).

But here's the important bit: When I'm praying, I'm not thinking about all that. It's not super helpful at that moment. Because for the purposes of this prayer, it really doesn't matter. What matters is that we're told to pray, and we're told that prayer matters, and we know that prayer can even change the future... and that's good enough for me. I think there is a time for hypotheticals, for abstract reasoning and theoretical models of cause and effect, but that time is not during the act of praying.

I do not need to know how God will work my friend's situation for His glory and my friend's salvation. I do not need to know how God can providentially call my friend to Him, without violating my friend's free will. I only know that God can do that, and that is enough.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Calvinists are better than their theology

Two people in the last couple days wanted to hear more about this idea, making it tied for the most requested post of all time on this blog. So...this one's for you.

There's been a bit of a brouhaha (which is surprisingly recognized by spellcheck!) over this post in the last couple of days. People who have heard me talk about Calvinism know that I support most of these ideas 100%. But here's the thing:

Most Calvinists are better than their theology.

Now, I have several Calvinist friends, and I know that any Calvinist who reads this is going to want to say that I'm thinking about it all wrong, or that I'm attacking a straw man, or what have you. I don't think that's the case. We're not going to agree, but I don't think it's because I just don't really get Calvinism.

Alright: Here we go.

Most Calvinists are better than their theology. Their actions towards the world (and the individual inhabitants thereof) are often more loving, more charitable, and just plain better than their theology entails.

Calvinists, by necessity, believe that God doesn't love the majority of the people on the planet. There's no getting around that. Not only does he not save them, but according to Calvin, he actively condemns them, "for no other reason than that he wills to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines for his own children" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.23.1). To love is to actively desire the good of the beloved, and the "inaccurate description of God’s character that Calvinism puts forth" (as Dr. Fred Sanders puts it) doesn't allow for that kind of attitude in God. And yet we find that many Calvinists, through missions work and charity, do in fact love people, many of whom are not merely not elect, but actively and purposefully condemned by God.

Let's get a little more specific, since the generalities can get muddy. Let's say that a good Calvinist has a beloved friend, or parent, or child, who dies an atheist. That good Calvinist, in loving that person and genuinely desiring their good, in praying for them and therefore actively working towards the good of that person, has loved that person more and better than their description of God is able to. Again, there is no way around that. Where God, far from desiring their good, actively condemned them to an eternity in Hell, these Calvinists have loved them, have worked towards their good and striven for their salvation.(And it is worth noting here that according to my Calvinist friends, God’s election/reprobation does not interfere with free will: Therefore, God is perfectly capable of saving these people without overriding their free will, and he chooses not to).  That is, of course, God's right...but it is not loving.

Calvinists are better than their theology. They describe God as someone who has eternally, irrevocably, irresistibly decreed not only the eternal destinies of everyone on earth, but every single action of everyone on earth as well...and yet many attack the mission field with the gusto of someone who might accomplish something meaningful. Many of them go through their day-to-day lives believing that a chance may come their way to bring glory to God, and believing (implicitly if not explicitly) that it is within their power to succeed or fail at that chance.

They're better than their theology. Many of them have a love for the lost that, according to their doctrine, just isn't shared by God. When someone falls away from the Church, they act as though it wasn't just God giving that person a temporary taste of goodness, just to snatch it away and render them even more worthy of damnation (3.2.11). That is why I would be happy to share communion with a Calvinist, and why this podcast missed the point. Because while it would be difficult to call brother someone who acted like their theology would entail, Calvinists are often better than that.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Motives, Mom-Blogs, and Over-Generalizations is a pretty great Christian webcomic. He has a gift for capturing foibles and errors--either of the world or the church--in just a few frames of comic. But sometimes, he goes too far--and because of his popularity and his proven track record, people go right along with it. And that's problematic.

In this comic, titled "The Rise of the Special Christian Mom-Blogs," Adam takes on the rise of "Christian Mom-Blogs," blogs that discuss certain aspects of life, from cooking recipes to Christian theology, from the perspective of a mom. And some of them--the "special" ones--have, according to Adam, abandoned orthodoxy and begun the descent into subjectivity. As the comic puts it:

"'Is there really a hell?' they asked. 'Is sin really sinful? What about sins that our contemporary society has decided to accept? Are they really sins anymore? Is the Bible really trustworthy?'"

I hated this comic. I hated it. I originally began this post with a discussion of the parts that I agreed with, but this is too important. 

This comic crossed the line

Because he did not confine himself to describing actions. He did not say "This is what they are doing, and this is why it is harmful." No. That was the first quarter of the comic. And then, without so much as a pause, he went straight into "They're doing it because they want the money/book deals/celebrity-status that comes with being heterodox in an age that prizes heterodoxy and heresy."

And that's not alright. That's so far from alright that at first I couldn't believe he'd done it. But he did, and we--we being orthodox Christians--should call him out on it. 

Because in assigning a single (very uncharitable) overarching motive to such a class of people, Adam engages in the same sort of hate-mongering and ridicule that we accuse them of when they paint orthodox Christians as hateful inquisitors.

I disagree strongly with certain aspects of "mom-bloggery". But to accuse them--all of them--of greed is not only counter-productive, but hateful; and not righteous hatred, but the childish, petty hatred that resorts to name-calling instead of argument. Because the truth is, the vast majority of these mom-blogs are likely people who have put thought into this, and who sincerely believe that what they are writing is true.

And that's important. Because if we want to engage with people, if we want to talk with them and not at them, if we want to fulfill our calling to charity and love, then we need to treat people charitably and lovingly--which means not assuming the worst of their motives without evidence. 

I feel like I'm just repeating myself now, because this issue is so mindbogglingly obvious. But if you disagree, I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Now: here's the bit that originally came first, before I realized that I really needed to call out the bad parts of the comic before-hand. It still holds, but I wanted to make it clear that his comic was not ok, and that it's something we should come down hard on. 

I share Adam's disdain for such an approach to Scripture, and I especially despise how such blogs are often done under the apparently unassailable mantle of "vulnerability." The particular approach of the "mom-blogs," combining disarming charm and rhetoric with a noticeable disdain for "theology" (the domain "where ideas are put above people") and orthodoxy, is often quite appealing to a (growing) segment of evangelical Christians, and that troubles me as well.

I can only imagine that he's targeting blogs such as Beth Woolsey's "5 Kids is a Lot of Kids", who has a lot of good things to say, combined with a few that I believe are ultimately harmful (though they go down sweet). And of course, Rachel Held Evans misses being included merely by the fact of not being a mom (at least, I think so). Both of these bloggers pit "love" against "theology", and, as another celebrity Christian-turned-heterodox said a few years back, "Love wins."

The fact remains, though: They hold to this position because they have thought it through, and not because they are greedy/doing it for the book sales. We owe them that assumption, until it is proven otherwise. And to do away with that assumption is to fail at the charity that we are called to. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Poetry Transformed: TS Eliot and the clarifying beauty of Christianity

After four years as an English major and Torrey student--after four years of reading some of the best poetry the West has to offer--there is exactly one poet I still read: TS Eliot.

And that comes down to a few key qualities of Eliot's poetry. The haunting beauty, the constant switching between barely comprehensible and maddeningly-yet-enticingly incomprehensible, his constant preoccupation with time, eternity, and the relation between the two...all of that, yes. But the most interesting fact is that TS Eliot began his career as a poet as an atheist, and ended it as a Christian, and the change is not  merely discernible, or hinted at, or "possibly" is as evident as the edge between light and shadow, between a blasted wasteland and a blooming hedge in May-time.


His pre-Christian poetry is haunting, and even beautiful at times, in the way that Ecclesiastes is. It is a sad, wistful beauty at best, a longing for things to be different, and a resignation to things as they are. This resignation is, indeed, Eliot's greatest comfort, and that which removes or threatens that resignation even for an instant is cruel. "April is the cruelest month," The Waste Land begins, as Eliot laments the way that April brings life out of the that cannot hope to sustain itself in the stony wasteland that he wanders.

It is difficult to truly capture the docile confusion of The Waste Land, the gentle and unresisting death of hope, and the resignation against certain doom, by merely quoting lines here and there. To truly get the full experience, you would have to read it in its entirety (which you can do here). Eliot walks a wasteland littered with "stony rubbish...a heap of broken images, where the sun beats." Although it is repeatedly interrupted by vignettes of varying degrees of lucidity, it always returns to the wasteland, as Eliot laments "Here is no water but only rock /  Rock and no water and the sandy road."

And while the ending seems to bring relief, it is only the relief of having nothing left to hope for. He fishes on the shore of a fish-less lake (earlier described as "Oed' und leer das Meer"), having turned his back on the wasteland, as the poem winds to its disjointed and unsatisfying end ("These fragments I have shored against my ruins"). Add in the footnotes that most people believe are completely made up, and you have the complete picture of a meaningless, ultimately futile journey that can only end in acquiescence to the wastes.

And as bad as that is, The Hollow Men is worse. Holy crap, is it worse. "We are the hollow men," it begins. "We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! / Our dried voices when / We whisper together / Are quiet and meaningless."

This is hopelessness. This is futility. This is Ecclesiastes, but with a crucial difference: Solomon knew that there was something more and better, even though it was unknowable. The Hollow Men betrays no such hope: Only a listless questioning of whether it is like this "in death's other kingdom."

This world is dead. And it ends "not with a bang but a whimper," as Eliot tries-and fails--to find comfort in a recitation of The Lord's Prayer, as the end of the world overtakes him. (I should say here that another good friend of mine sees the possibility of a more hopeful death here, which might result in a resurrection: We disagree).

A classmate in Torrey lamented Eliot's "pessimism" and his low view of life and existence, but she was wrong to do so: pre-Christian Eliot is notable precisely for his exacting accuracy when it comes to an atheistic worldview.

That was written in 1925. And in 1927, Eliot entered the Anglican Church of England. And in 1930, he wrote Ash-Wednesday, and everything was different.


The mechanics of his poetry did not change. The broken sentences, the half-finished thoughts, the mixture of knowledge and incomprehension, that all remains. But there is now an unmistakable sense that his thoughts have something real and actual to strive for, that though the finishing of his thoughts are beyond his ability, they are not beyond existence.

In his conversion, TS Eliot did not go halfway. He went straight from atheism to the ceremony-laden, sacramental "high church" of Anglicanism, rather than the "low churches" that had sprung up in a sort of rebellion against it. And Ash-Wednesday, itself named after one of the Holy Days of the Anglican calendar, shows Eliot wrestling with that sense of collision between earthly and heavenly things that such a sacramental order entails.

Make no mistake, this is not the "Now I'm a Christian and everything's super great!" kind of conversion story. Eliot may not understand his faith entirely. He may not understand how he can leave his past behind. He wrestles with his past, with the meaninglessness of his past life, in imagery that is extremely graphic. He is confused and questioning about his new faith. But it is not the resigned confusion of The Waste Land or the deathly apathy of The Hollow Men. It is, rather, a passionate and active straining towards understanding. Rather than lament his lack of understanding, he actively petitions for this lack to be remedied--and what's more, he holds out genuine hope that it will.

But the contrast is sharpest and most evident in his Four Quartets, which is similar in structure to The Waste Land--but that is where the similarities end. In The Waste Land, the meaning is always much less than you had believed and counted on. The narrator spends the poem searching for water, and once he find it, it is nothing but a desolate sea, a place to fish and wait for the ruin of the world. But in Four Quartets, "the purpose is beyond the end you figured." It is not a dearth of meaning, but an unforeseen abundance and significance, found in prayer, and resulting in redemption ("And prayer is more / Than an order of words, the conscious occupation / Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.")

Here we see the operations of the "wounded surgeon", who with "bleeding hands" and "sharp compassion," is able to heal those who are dying. Here is the wrestling with the sacraments, and the paradox of Good Friday ("The dripping blood our only drink,/The bloody flesh our only food:/In spite of which we like to think/That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-/Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.")

And always--always--we see the relationship between time and eternity, and the idea that time can be conquered and redeemed, but only from within time, only from an interaction between eternity and time. And of that, we have the Incarnation, where "the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual."

You could write a paper on just one of Eliot's poems. I cannot do them justice here. But it is crucial to note that the end of all this is redemption: A redemption that comes not through comfort and ease, but through sacrifice and fire. As Eliot wrestles with his past life and considers how much of it was wasted, or misguided, or "things ill done and done to others harm/Which once you took for exercise of virtue," he sees that there are but two outcomes:

"From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer."

And it is that refining fire which dominates the ending of the Four Quartets. it is a fire that heals and purifies even as it burns, and it is in contrast to the fire that only rends and destroys.

"The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire."

This has been TS Eliot. You might enjoy him as much as I do: You might be unable to stand him. However, you should definitely at least give it a shot.