Sunday, December 29, 2013

On the Unity of Christ - (Books, Part 2)

You know the drill. Top 10 books. List at the bottom. Part 1 here. Whatevs.

We read Cyril's On the Unity of Christ during my second semester at college. It blew my mind. Let me tell you a little about it.

It starts off with a statement that was true when he wrote it, and remains true today: "People of true and good sense, who have intellectually gathered that knowledge which gives life, are never jaded by the sacred sciences. Indeed it is written that 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.' The word of God is food for the mind and a spiritual 'bread that strengthens the heart of man,' as the Book of Psalms sings (Ps. 104:15)."

He centers his discussion on one thing: The word of God. That is where the discussion must start, and no matter where the discussion goes, it must end there as well.

Cyril wrote this treatise because of a heresy that was gaining ground in the church. Nestorius (a bishop) had denied that Mary, mother of Jesus, should be called theotokos: "Mother of God." Instead, he favored "Mother of Christ," seeing the Christ as a sort of team-up between God and Man: The eternal, divine Son of God, entering into a "conjunction" with the man Jesus, which, in turn, would mean that the man Jesus was never actually God.

This is, as Cyril points out, a fairly large problem. He goes on to explain this problem and the solution in Christian Orthodoxy in great detail, but not without getting in a few good jabs along the way. Which brings me to...

The structure of the argument

What first struck me about this book, before I got to any of the awesome theology, was the style of argumentation. It's structured as a "conversation" between Speaker A and Speaker B. Speaker A is the master (presumably Cyril himself), while Speaker B is the hapless apprentice, unable to determine between orthodoxy and heresy. A typical exchange goes something like this:

Speaker B: Hey Master, those guys say this about Jesus and the Word. What do you think?

Speaker A: [Sighs, closes eyes and rubs temples] I'm going to level with you, buddy: If a nation composed entirely of idiots decided to find the five biggest idiots in the entire country, and fused those idiots together to form Idiot Voltron, and then Idiot Voltron said the absolute dumbest thing he could think of, it still would not be anywhere close to being as dumb as what you just said. Seriously, it is the worst."

And so on. Actual quotes include, "Away with such a horrid and vile opinion! These are the teachings of a wanderer, of a sick mind," and "My goodness. I cannot imagine how stupid and intellectually superficial they must be who hold to such  a conception."

It's a wonderful style of argument: it consists in a 50-50 split between claiming that his opponents are the kind of idiots that idiots look down on, and absolutely fantastic theology.

Absolutely Fantastic Theology

This book changed everything about everything. My mind was blown several times reading this book (as evidenced by the near frantic underlining and highlighting that mars about 3/4's of the overall book). This happened for two reasons:

1: The whole issue of the Incarnation, and what it means for God to be man while still being God, is way more complicated than I had ever imagined. And...

2: Cyril does a freaking awesome job of explaining it anyway.

A "summary" would do this book an incredible injustice. Cyril pulls from Scripture after Scripture to demonstrate that the Christ was no mere "conjunction" between God and man. Indeed, such a conjunction would do us no good at all, for the birth and death of Jesus would have been nothing more than the birth and death of a man.

No: For us to be saved, the Christ must be something more than that. Cyril sums up this "something more" incredibly well: "Godhead is one thing, and manhood is another thing, considered in the perspective of their respective and intrinsic beings, but in the case of Christ they came together in a mysterious and incomprehensible union without confusion or change."

And this union is, as he says, "entirely beyond conception." In fact, in describing it, Cyril at times almost seems to agree with those who would split the Christ into two:  Saying things like "He remained Lord of all things even when he came in the form of a slave", and "Both he who exists in lordly glories, and he who took the form of a slave as his own, calls God his Father." But these phrases are, in fact, expressions of a much deeper and more mysterious truth: That of an eternal and infinite God entering a finite and temporal world. It's not going to be neat. It's not going to be understandable. There's always going to be something to wonder about, because our minds are finite and cannot understand infinity.

And Cyril, despite his love of theology (the "sacred sciences")--or rather, because of his love of theology--marvels at that mystery. He loves it, and he never loses that crucial sense of awe and wonder. He remains forever conscious that what he is discussing is no mere academic phenomenon, no theoretical problem to be worked out, but something that happened, the happening of which is indescribably important. That's why he often ends particularly complicated or technical passages with phrases like "And that is why the mystery of Christ is truly wonderful."

And he ends it with a passage to top everything off: Here it is.

This is why we believe that there is only one Son of God the Father. This is why we must understand Our Lord Jesus Christ in one person. As the Word he is born divinely before all ages and times, but in these last times of this age the same one was born of a woman according to the flesh. To the same one we attribute both the divine and  human characteristics, and we also say that to the same one belongs the birth and the suffering on the cross, since he appropriated everything that belonged to his own flesh, while ever remaining impassible in the nature of the Godhead. This is why 'every knee shall bend before him, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
This book forever changed the way I think about the Incarnation. It was the subject of two of my Torrey papers (one embarrassingly bad) and figured heavily in a third paper, which I am still proud of. I would go on to read many, many books on the Incarnation and the Word, all the way from Augustine's The Trinity to Barth's The Way of the Son of God to The (absolutely horrible) Shack, and Cyril's Unity impacted my reading of every single one. It is the epitome of Incarnational orthodoxy, and you should definitely read it.

Btw, here's an Amazon link to the edition I have: it's got a nice preface that includes the historical and theological background for all of this. Very cool.

1: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

2: (Everything else by Chesterton: Manalive, Orthodoxy, The Ball and the Cross)

3: On the Unity of Christ by Cyril of Alexandria

4: The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country by Karl Barth

5: The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

6: CS Lewis section (Space Trilogy, Chron. of Narnia, Abolition of Man, Till We Have Faces)

7: The book of Job

8: The book of Ecclesiastes

9: The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman

10: The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

Monday, December 23, 2013

Really Real, and Truly True

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us."
1 John 1:1-2
Without delving into the debates of authorship that constantly surround this book, we can see even in the opening sentence that the author is speaking from personal experience.

And what did he personally experience? "That which was from the beginning."

And in what does this personal experience consist? "Which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands."

This is not the language of a mystic.

This is not the language of one whose visions evaporate in the morning light, whose dreams remain firmly in the realm of sleep. This is not a truth that seeks refuge in metaphors and symbolism, which hides in shadows and refuses to be nailed down. This is not a "spiritual" truth that lacks the substance of regular, everyday truth.

This is not the lukewarm spirituality of the "spiritual, but not religious." This not the inconsistency of the "progressive" Christian, who finds joy in questions but has forgotten what they are for. These are not the words of those who claim that truth is fundamentally unknowable. This is not the language of a mystic.

Or more correctly, this is not just the language of a mystic. The topic is, indeed, mystical. "That which was from the beginning." This is the core, the bedrock, the Truth that all self-professed spiritualists and wanderers and "progressives" claim to be seeking (but never finding).

But John is not content to leave it mystical. John is not content to leave it undiscovered, undisturbed, unconfirmed.

John claims to have found it. And not a metaphorical finding, but a true one: A finding confirmed not just by hearing it, but by seeing and even by touching it. 

John says in no uncertain terms, "Here it is. Here is the truth that you have been searching for. We have found it. We have heard it...we have seen it with our eyes... we have touched it with our hands! We have found it."

The truth is no longer mere mysticism. It no longer exists merely "out there," in the realm of the spiritual. It is still there, but now it is also HERE.

That is what Christmas represents. It represents an end to that part of the mystery. It represents an end to the myth that God is fundamentally unknowable, because Jesus came to make Him known. It represents an end to seeking without finding.

It is true what Eliot wrote, that "Here the impossible union/ Of spheres of existence is actual." This is the meeting of the physical and the spiritual, the eternal and the temporal. This is the moment that God entered our reality not as an interloper, not with his finger to inscribe commandments and not as a Spirit to empower, but as a man to walk and live and breath (and die).

Christmas is the moment that Truth was proclaimed not as something high and unknowable, not as something elusive and ethereal, but as something wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The "Conversation" continues

EDIT EDIT: I want to take this post down. There are cowards and poor thinkers and angry arguers on both sides (and I fall into the last category far too often). After a while, this issue is no longer worth getting excited about.

The people who believe in the inherent sinfulness of Christian Rap (and, more broadly, Contemporary Christian Music as a whole) are wrong. But thankfully, they have so little influence in the larger body of believers that had they not been so unbearably offensive in the first place, nobody would have even noticed (and by far the most offensive comments have been recanted).

For the first several days, I was heavily involved in the debate. I had some really good exchanges with some good thinkers on both sides (and, I believe, one person who was genuinely undecided). But I'm done. It's just not worth it. It's possible that one, maybe two people will be convinced, but the lines were drawn before the debate even began, which is why Scott can get away with re-defining rap on a whim to keep his ludicrous blanket statement.

I'm done. But I'm leaving this up, to keep myself accountable and to remind myself to be more careful before being drawn into something like this again.


I want to acknowledge the apparently sincere apology by Geoffrey Botkins, which I was unaware of when I wrote this post ( I was, however, aware of an earlier apology which was much less clear and a little less apologetic). His comments ("disobedient cowards") were the most egregious, but he has publicly apologized and repented for them. He speaks to Reformed/Christian rappers as brothers, and he admits that there is a "legitimate question" about whether he is even qualified to speak on this topic. He goes on to praise their "modeling of mature and responsible manhood in your lives and words," as well as their "strategic decision to work with local churches and church government [which] shows uncommon wisdom." He goes on to note that, "All this is heroism, not the fruit of disobedient cowardice."

To all of this, I say amen. If he follows through on his stated intentions to fight the disunity his comments created, he proves himself to be a man of honor and integrity. I applaud him, and I wished more in this debate shared his sentiments.

Joel Beeke, whose comments were tame in comparison to the others (although he did affirm the previous arguments "with the intensity that they've been spoken," has also apologized, admitting that he "spoke unadvisedly on an area of music that I know little about. It would have been far wiser for me to say nothing than to speak unwisely. Please forgive me. I also wish to publicly disassociate myself from comments that judged the musicians’ character and motives."

He, too, has proven his honor and integrity, and I applaud that.

This post is directed at those who have not apologized, and at those who would like to ignore the apologies already made. It is directed at those who feel they can judge a culture that they know nothing about, at those who feel that any stick is good enough to beat Christian rap with. It is directed at those who refuse to listen, and who refuse to engage.


At the end of this week, the first full week of the "discussion" that I referenced earlier, I have to say, from the bottom of my heart:

I am disappointed.

I don't know what I really expected. I don't think I was unreasonable, though. I expected compelling arguments from both sides. I expected actual engagement. I expected Scott to, at the very least, present a single falsifiable argument, a single argument that made claims that could be addressed.

Instead, I got Shai asking good questions, and Scott explaining why he couldn't answer Shai's questions, because if his daughter was being rude, how is he supposed to explain that to her?

Instead, I got Shai asking for an example of sinful music without lyrics, and Scott answering with a clip of Christian Metal with lyrics and explaining that 1) yeah I know I said no lyrics, but I can't even understand them and they're part of the music anyway so whatever, and 2) Metal totally expresses orgies. Yes, orgies. Oh, and don't forget the closer, the pinnacle of his rhetoric, the foundation of his argument: "No, I won't explain myself, because it totally sounds like that, how can you not hear it?"

But I guess in hindsight, I kinda did expect that, a little: That's the uncharitable part I removed from my earlier post. When your first argument is "the beat of rap is inherently evil and makes you want to fornicate and punch somebody," you don't have a whole lot of momentum working for you. It's going to be hard to get off the ground at that point.

But do you know what I didn't expect?

The cowardice.

I didn't expect the cowardice of those who seem to have developed these arguments after accidentally hearing 30 seconds of a song that was probably rap (or Metal, or Rock), and are unwilling to listen to a song chosen by supporters of the genre. And it is cowardice, though they dress it up and act as though doing so would sully the dignity of their arguments. It is the cowardice of the Pharisees, who assumed that interacting with tax collectors was sinful because they had heard one talk once and the language was filthy, just filthy, and who could imagine that Jesus character ever hanging out with disgusting people like that? He's compromising the gospel, that's what he's doing!

Of course, it doesn't begin as cowardice. No, it begins with arrogance. It begins with knowing that THEY are the cowards, that the rappers are the ones taking the easy way out and conforming to the world. And to be fair, such a belief is easy to come by when you surround yourself only with those who agree with you.

After that comes the confusion: Come on, guys, everyone knows that rap music... expresses...lust? And rage? I mean, just listen to it! Metaphorically, of course: Don't actually listen to it (I know I don't!).

There is the sneaking suspicion that maybe, just maybe, listening to 30 seconds of one song might not be enough to develop a theory of the inherent sinfulness of the entire ever-expanding genre.

And then comes the panic. Then comes the frantic scrabbling, the clutching at any and all sins and throwing it at the music and praying that something--anything!--sticks. Then come the strange appeals to authority--not to the authority of scripture, but the authority of secular rock musicians. Then comes the death-rattle, the "WELL IT'S ON YOU TO PROVE IT I DON'T HAVE TO PROVE ANYTHING."

And then comes the time to close up shop, to bar the gates, because holy crap if I listen to a song that they picked out then I'm not sure I could show the sin in it! The doctor is out, rap is sinful, just... ok? . Scott isn't guilty of this, but some of the secondary blogs that Scott links to, and several of the comments, most certainly are.

That's what I didn't expect, and that's what angers me the most. That these men who surround themselves solely with those who agree with them, who retreat from the world and withdraw into their own little circle, dared to name as "cowards" those who do not retreat. That they dared to name as cowards those men who advance into a culture that is hostile to them, who expose themselves to shame and ridicule from Christian and non-Christian alike, so that they might share the riches of the Gospel, so that by all possible means they might save some.

Scott is guilty of much of this, but not all. He hasn't closed up shop, he continues the discussion...but I wonder if all we can expect is more semantics, more evasion, more arguments that can't be argued with because they don't actually argue anything. Because that's really all that we've seen so far.

I am disappointed.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Thief (Books, Part 1)

Two people explicitly requested this post, making it my most popularly demanded post by a factor of infinity. Not bad, Kyle and Daniel. Not bad at all.

Anyway: "10 Books That Have Stuck With You." The list itself is down at the bottom. Go on, you can look.

Some of those--Thursday, other Chesterton stuff, LOTR, Lewis stuff, Job--won't surprise anyone who knows me even a little bit.

And a few of my Torrey friends probably anticipated On the Unity of Christ, maybe even The Idea of a University. I've even talked a lot about Barth and his awesomely phrased theology.

So I thought the first post would be about the one NONE of you saw coming (except maybe Anna): Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief.

I've had this book for a long, long time. I remember reading it for the first time, but I don't remember when that was. I was young: it must have been before I was even in high school. I would estimate that I've read it 20 times, at least.

It's not amazingly well-written, grammatically speaking. Many of the sentences are unwieldy monsters, and reading it out loud, you find yourself regularly substituting one word for another to improve the flow. That said, the story still captivates me.

The story takes place in a rough imitation of ancient Greece. It centers around a thief (Gen), who is released from prison to steal a mythical stone. It is a stone of legend, rumored to have been dipped in the waters of immortality and to grant whoever holds it eternal life--but that's not why he's stealing it. Few people believe in that stuff anymore.

The actual reason is much more pragmatic. It's the ancient law of a neighboring country, Eddis, that whoever holds the stone rules the country: The king of Sounis wants to rule Eddis as well, so the stone (if it exists) must be stolen from its rumored secret temple (if it can be found).

There are a lot of things I love about this book. The lighthearted humor, the vivid detail, the stunningly well-done 1st-person perspective, the constant misdirection...but everything that I love most about it comes at the end.


For the entire journey, nobody is under any illusions that the stone is anything more than a stone. Although almost everybody is religious, Gen declares that, "It's just religion. They like to go up to the temple on feast days and pretend that there is some god who wants the worthless sacrificial bits of a cow, and the people get to eat the rest. It's just an excuse to kill a cow." Nobody objects. It's just religion.

This is a story entirely devoid of the supernatural, right up until the last few chapters. Because it turns out that the gods are real. Really real. Gen has a conversation with the god of thieves, he steals the Stone from the chief goddess herself, and the Stone keeps him alive when he should have died.

The gods are real. 

But the best thing about this book is this one passage. This one, solitary passage. I'm going to show it to you, spoilers be damned. Gen is recovering from being stabbed, and in the throws of a fever, he is visited by Eugenides, the god of thieves, who had once lived life as a mortal, and even had a brother named Lyopidus. Lyopidus had burned in a forest fire as Eugenides tried to carry him to safety.

"I said that if only I could have died when the soldier pulled the sword out, I wouldn't be bothered by my conscience. The god beside me was silent, and the silence stretched out from my bedside through the castle and, it seemed, throughout the world as I remembered that Lyopidus had burned and died, while Eugenides had not.  
After countless empty heartbeats, Eugenides spoke again from a  distance. 'His wife died in the winter. His three children live with their aunt in Ela.'"

I read this before high school, before Biola, before Torrey. I read this before I read Cyril's On the Unity of Christ, or Barth's The Way of the Son of God. I read it before I understood what made Christmas and Easter so totally insane.

Before all of that, this book showed me that there is something strange and terrible about the grief of a god. The strangeness of a god in the flesh, of a god who understands what it is to be human...these were things I had not yet realized. The grief of the gods can silence the world...and one gets the feeling that the world should be silent while the god ponders his grief.

And now, probably a dozen years later, I can look at it as Lewis does in Till We Have Faces:
"Only this I know. This age of ours will one day be the distant past. And the Divine Nature can change the past. Nothing is yet in its true form."

Even though it is but recent fiction, it reads like myth: The kind of myth that Lewis imagines as being changed, renewed, and redeemed into its true form. A form reflecting and glorifying the God who became man, and was acquainted with grief.

That is why The Thief has stuck with me. If you get the opportunity, you should definitely read it.

This was fun. I'll probably be doing more of this for other books: Let me know if you have requests!

The List:

1: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

2: (Everything else by Chesterton: Manalive, Orthodoxy, The Ball and the Cross)

3: On the Unity of Christ by Cyril of Alexandria

4: The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country by Karl Barth

5: The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

6: CS Lewis section (Space Trilogy, Chron. of Narnia, Abolition of Man, Till We Have Faces)

7: The book of Job

8: The book of Ecclesiastes

9: The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman

10: The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

Thursday, December 5, 2013

So... this happened. And continues to happen.

There was recently a conference hosted by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches (NCFIC), a sort of "meta-denomination" (my term, not theirs) which focuses on the role of the family in all areas of life (notably including the necessity of homeschooling). The panel at said conference was asked what they thought about "Reformed Rap." Also known as Christian Rap, Holy Hip Hop, etc.

The results were... horrifying. Each speaker took turns explaining why rap was absolutely, undeniably, irredeemably opposed to Christianity. The first speaker makes the relatively tame claim that hip-hop is invariably "about drawing attention to the rapper, drawing attention to how his skill is different than anybody else’s skill." And after that, it gets nuts.

It really is hard to pick one particular high (or low?) point in this panel. It might be the second speaker claiming that because of where hip-hop came from (which he doesn't really explain), it's irredeemable (which he also doesn't explain). Or it might be the fifth speaker's strange and irrational attack on Toby Mac, who has the gall to be a "50-year-old man with wrinkles on his face - got that backwards cap, and he's ready to rap." But in hindsight, it's probably-definitely-holycrapisthisreal Speaker #3's characterization of all Christian rappers as "disobedient cowards" who are "serving their own flesh... caving into the world."

But wait! It gets better! Following two apologies which weren't really apologies from the head of the panel, Speaker #2, Scott Aniol, decided to host a discussion on his own blog with leading Christian Rapper Shai Linne (here's a sample: it's pretty great). And he begins the discussion by making one colossally strange claim: That music, in and of itself, apart from any lyrics, context, or intent, can be sinful. In a follow-up post, he clarifies that music is "human communication, and human communication is always moral." He compares it to "sentences" and "tones of voice," saying that these things are also human communication, and thus moral. 

This is, to put it bluntly, a claim so mindbogglingly indefensible that I am astonished that he dared to make it. Tone of voice cannot be moral. Nor can a sentence. If they were, it would follow that certain sentences were always evil, or always good, which is absurd. 

[Let's not even touch the fact that different tones mean different things in different cultures: That speaking fast and in a high-pitched tone might be respectful in one culture and disrespectful in another culture. This fact alone blows his argument out of the water, because it shows that everything he's saying is inherently subjective opinion, while he tries to mask it as objective fact. We could stop it right here, and his argument would be dead in the water. But there's so many ways you can destroy this thing, it's like a Death Star covered in exhaust ports.]

It's evident, both from every-day experience and from the Bible, that it's impossible to ascribe morality to things like tones of voice, or sentences. 

If I lose my temper over something inconsequential and yell at my wife in a loud, angry tone with the intent of hurting her, then I am sinning. 

However, it does not follow in the slightest that a loud, angry tone is in and of itself evil, because Jesus likely used the exact same tone when clearing the temple of the money-changers. Jesus was legitimately angry: he shouted at them, he used a harsh tone, combined with harsh words, and he did not sin. 

If tone were moral in and of itself, then Jesus would be sinning by using it. Therefore, it seems clear that the morality has to do with the communication as a whole, and not with any one part of it.

Neither can individual sentences be considered as moral or immoral by themselves.

Because when a Westboro Baptist screams at a homosexual, asking him how he can expect not to burn in hell, he is sinning. And yet Jesus asked the Pharisees the same question, without sinning.

Scott Aniol claims that certain words, sentences, or tones of voice can be inherently moral or immoral. This is obviously not the case, as they are only pieces from which communication is constructed. To call an individual piece of that communication sinful in and of itself is like calling screws evil because they can be used to build gas chambers. It's absurd. It's indefensible. 

EDIT: I'm removing a part of the post that was uncharitable. My apologies. In closing, I sincerely hope Aniol addresses the gaping holes in his argument.

I wrote this mainly to get it out of my system. If you actually made it to the end, congrats! Mackenzie out. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

My Friend the Cat

Those of you who know me, know that I love my cat Rory. Without Rory, I surely would have gone crazy working from home while Anna was finishing up grad school, and during the week I still spend more of my waking time with him than with Anna.

Before, I had scoffed (literally, at times) at the concern other people showed for their pets. But now, cuddling and playing with him, taking care of him and watching him grow from a tiny kitty to a larger kitty, I understand. He is my friend, as much as an irrational animal can be called that.

And I wonder whether he is so irrational after all. I wonder whether animals have souls: After all, since we do not believe that human consciousness is confined to the physical phenomena, there is no reason to make that move with animal consciousness. And I wonder what will happen to Rory. I wonder what will happen to this mischievous cat, full of personality, who loves to look through windows, who will seek me out for nap time, whose eyes seem to laugh during play time. I wonder what will happen to my friend when the consequence of human failure and sin catches up to him.

But that is not really what this post is about. Because during Thanksgiving weekend we lost him, and we almost Lost him.

We have to keep him at my parents' house when we visit Shafter for more than a day or two. Anna's parents own a dog, who would almost certainly kill Rory out of mere curiosity. However, my parents' house is full of people coming and going, and all it took was one door opened for a half-second too long, one window left open by accident, and Rory was gone.

We don't even know when he left. All we know is that we left him napping under a spare bed, before we went to spend the night at Anna's parents'...and when we returned to the house at lunchtime the next day, he was gone and no one could remember seeing him that day at all.

We live in the country. We own an acre or two of garden, which houses 3 dogs, 2 puppies, and several cats of varying degrees of domestication, all of which absolutely terrify Rory. And the house is surrounded by almond orchards for miles around on every side.

As soon as he left the house, whenever that was, he would have smelled the dogs and cats. And it would have been mere seconds before one of them approached him, drowning him in terror. We don't know when that happened, or the exact circumstances.

We just know that he ran, and we could not find him for over an hour. I prayed constantly, that God would protect Rory and return him to us. My parents prayed with us, as did my friend Monica, recalling the time of Noah and God's call to the animals, and asking him to do the same with Rory.

Then, as the last thing we felt we could do, Anna and I walked to the nearest cross street, about a quarter of a mile away. We passed our dogs, barking from the pen we'd placed them in. We passed two obnoxiously vicious dogs behind a fence, who followed us as much as they could, barking the entire time. We looked ahead to the next house, also guarded by a barking dog (this one without any kind of restraint at all). And I wondered what had become of Rory, surrounded by so many barking, teeth-filled, scary-smelling monstrosities.

We reached the cross street, and we looked down the road, and there was no roadkill, no bodies on the side of the road as far was we could see. And we slowly turned and began to head back to the house.

I continued to pray as we walked. Ahead of us was the home of the two obnoxious dogs, and I was about to suggest to Anna that we cross to the other side of the street to avoid them. Before I could say anything, however, I heard something. Half a meow. A sound barely indistinguishable from the background.

I stopped, and Anna did too. "What?" She asked.

"I heard something. A meow."

"Are you sure it wasn't a bird?"

I don't know if I answered. I walked into the orchard, scanning the trees, stepping softly. One row in. Two rows in. And--


Unmistakable. Anna heard it too, and we continued. And then--


There he was. Sweet, merciful God in heaven, there he was: Seven feet up, in a three-way fork in the tree, looking the saddest and most frightened we had ever seen him.

We got him down. We took him back to the house, and put him in a separate building where he wouldn't be let out by mistake. And even though it's been a few days, I still look at him and marvel at the evidence of God's grace.

How many hundreds of trees in that orchard? How many thousands of trees within just a half-mile of our house? How many thousands more beyond the road? And he was in one of the few where we would be able to hear him. He meowed at exactly the right time: A moment earlier or later and we would have missed it, and he would never have found his way back. He would never have gathered the nerve to brave the dogs again, to go past them and endure their barking.

If he had crossed the road, or gone in the other direction, or chosen one of the other hundreds of trees, we would even now would be anxiously hoping for news that would never come. Rory would have died out there, sad and alone. But he didn't, because the Creator of the universe and everything in it chose to hear our prayers and return my friend to me.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Victory begins on our knees (or "Five Iron Frenzy and the Walls of Jericho")

I've written before of Christian music, both worship and popular. I've grown up with it: I've listened to music that shaped my theology, and I've listened to music that made me want to bash my head against the pew. And one day, several years ago, I listened to Five Iron Frenzy and everything changed. 

In a few short weeks, it will be my enormous pleasure to review their first new CD in ten years, Engine of  a Million Plots. And as I've never written a music review before, I figured I should probably take some time here to hash out my feelings for FiF as a whole, before attempting to talk about one album in particular.

Because it's actually kinda hard to explain why I love FiF so much. The first album I ever listened to was the last one they ever produced (until EoaMP), and from the first song on the CD, I could tell that here, here was something strange and wonderful indeed.

There was a quality that struck me immediately, though it was hard to define. It was brash and bold, daring and defiant. Just the other day I realized that there is one word that perfectly defines it. Five Iron Frenzy is brazen, in every sense of the word, with the shameless and unmuted defiance of brass.

And this brazenness struck a chord that has never ceased reverberating. My head was already full of Chesterton at that point, and the songs of FiF have always embodied a certain passage from Chesterton's Orthodoxy:
"To the orthodox there must always be a case for revolution; for in the hearts of men God has been put under the feet of Satan. In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration. At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam."
From the theology of Cannonball and A New Hope, to the social justice of Fahrenheit, The Day We Killed, and American Kryptonite, almost every song rings with the glory and bravado of the horns that marked the end of Jericho: When horns were blown and voices raised as the ancient stronghold inexplicably crumbled. Every song is a rebellion and a revolution: Every song is fighting for a perfection that, though lost, can be found again. But undercutting the brazen tone is the acknowledgement that while victory is assured, it must begin with the victory of the cross, which often looks (and feels) an awfully lot like defeat.

And the key to the album lies in the simple fact that this victory does not come to the strong, to the wise, to those who have it all together. As On Distant Shores proclaims, "Mercy falls on the broken and the poor." Is is this mercy, this undeserved and unmerited mercy, that is the foundation and substance of Christian victory. The bridge, in particular, is haunting. You can find the song itself (complete with lyrics) here: But here's the bridge:

And off of the blocks,
I was headstrong and proud,
at the front of the line for the card-carrying highbrowed,
With both eyes fastened tight,
yet unscarred from the fight,
Running at full tilt, my sword pulled from its hilt...
It's funny how these things can slip away,
our frail deeds, the last will wave good-bye.
It's funny how the hope will bleed away,
the citadels we build and fortify. Good-Bye.
Night came and I broke my stride,
I swallowed hard, but never cried.
When grace was easy to forget,
I'd denounce the hypocrites,
casting first stones, killing my own.
You would unscale my blind eyes,
and I stood battered, but more wise,
fighting to accelerate,
shaking free from crippling weight.
With resilience unsurpassed,
I clawed my way to You at last.
And on my knees, I wept at Your feet,
I finally believed, that You still loved me.
 The victory of the Christian is not found in our own deeds (thank God!). It is not found in blind battle, in who cast the most stones: It is not found even in standing under our own power! 

That is what makes Five Iron Frenzy truly amazing. Their music illustrates the simple, foundational truth that the victory of the Christian is found on our knees, in the desperate acceptance of the mercy of God. The bold defiance of FiF and the victory of the Christian, the brazen horns and the fall of Jericho, begins and ends with an acknowledgment of insufficiency. It begins and ends with falling to the ground and asking, "What does my Lord say to his servant?"

In closing, Five Iron Frenzy is awesome. Seriously, they're the best. Go buy The End is Here, and when Engine of a Million Plots comes out, buy that too. And to sweeten the deal, I'll give you my own personal guarantee: If you don't like it...well, I'm not gonna pay for it or anything, but I will ridicule you for having such poor taste in music.


It’s finally here: Five Iron Frenzy’s first album in ten long years. And it’s…different than what I was expecting. But still awesome.
I am a long-time (life-time?) fan of Christian music, and I well remember that glorious moment, the summer in between my sophomore and junior year of college, when I realized that Five Iron Frenzy was a thing–indeed, not only a thing, but the thing, that glorious fusion of horns, guitar, and lyrics that seemed to waver, moment by moment, between exuberant victory and white-knuckled defiance. I (unknowingly) bought their last CD first, and to me every song sounded like a last stand, a Chestertonian revolution, brazen and unmuted.
Imagine my sadness when I realized that the album was, in fact, a last stand–a stand made years ago and long since over.
But like a trumpeting phoenix, they have risen from the ashes. And two weeks ago, having been forced into a  strange and unnatural sleep cycle, I awoke at 5:30 and began downloading my Kickstarter Early Access album.
My first impression (after the initial bout of excited giggling) was of an unexpectedly cold, dark world. In the weeks and days leading up to the release, FiF hinted that they “explored darker themes,” and that is certainly the case.  Winter comes, the fire dies, and frost envelopes everything. That is the world of EOMP. It opens with “Against a Sea of Troubles,” in which the singer is “adrift and lost” in a frozen world, and the fire is growing cold. Although I noted a few bright points (“So Far” is the only song that contains an unadulterated sense of Christian victory), the rest of the album seemed to confirm this condition. We work in a cold and cruel city that chokes the sky, we huddle around a dying fire, we suffer through a frost with no thaw…what if this winter lasts forever?
[Aside: There are, of course, a couple FiF constants that stand apart from this theme: Silly songs, and social commentary. “Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter” is, unfortunately, nothing more and nothing less than an obligatory silly song: It’s catchy enough, but it lacks the charm of “You Can’t Handle This” or “That’s How the Story Ends.” . But in the area of social commentary, FiF comes out swinging.   In “Zen and the Art of XenophobiaFiF lampoons the type of American Evangelical who gets ready to “lock and load, just like Jesus did,” while proudly proclaiming that “Jesus was American”. And in “Someone Else’s Problem”, Five Iron delivers a biting critique of our willingness to tolerate abuses and ruined lives just because we’ll never have to look at the faces of the abused. I am always tempted to skip over these songs, because they aren’t fun, they aren’t uplifting, the make me uncomfortable… and that’s the point.
For Five Iron Frenzy, there can be no disconnect between the joyful doctrine of Christian victory and the difficult doctrine of Christian duty and service. Any attempt to separate one from the other results in an incomplete faith. It is not for nothing that their hardest-hitting social commentaries come on the heels of their most joyful and upbeat reflections on the victory of Christ-in-us, making it difficult indeed to partake of one and avoid the other.
Now, back to the rest of the review.]
That first impression of cold and cruelty was correct,  so far as it went. But the more I listened to it, the more I heard the hope and defiance inherent in every single song, from the very beginning of the album. There is a hope that the singer clings to even as he longs “to only end the heartache, to shed this mortal coil”: The hope that “You cannot not be real.” 
Yes, despite the mixed faith of the band (two of the core members are now atheists), this album expresses a faith that, though beaten and battered, is undeniably Christian (in fact, one might argue that the Christian faith was meant to be beaten and battered). This faith is explored throughout the rest of the album, from “So Far”, a superhero themed meditation on Christian victory, all the way to “Blizzards and Bygones,” where winter threatens to last forever.
In “We Own the Skies,” the singer walks the cold and cruel concrete by day, having traded “my kingdom for a steady paycheck.” But by night, they huddle around the fire, “wish upon the fading light” and proclaim “Tonight, we own the skies,” with the characteristic brazenness of trumpets and voice lending the whole song an incredible sense of defiance and courage. And in his dedication of the album, Reese puts a biblical spin on it, referencing Ephesians 2 & 6:12.
“I’ve Seen the Sun” takes that sense of defiance and courage to another level, and again it is firmly rooted in a Christian worldview. The night is dark and cold, the water is rising, the singer is fighting what feels like a doomed battle…but he has seen the Sun come down, and he holds to its return. And we should expect nothing less from the world: after all, “the Savior says don’t be surprised / Everything’s gonna be alright.”
It feels like the last song, a fitting way to end an album that has revolved around the difficulties of staying afloat in the world.
And then comes “Blizzards and Bygones,” which does its level best to eradicate every last memory of the Sun. The cold is in your bones, the fire is faint, and and all that’s left is “a flicker of desire and a memory of youth.” There is no thaw, only a winter that will not end. It ends with a simple unanswered question: “Can you stand the weather if winter lasts forever?”
That is the question the entire album ends with. What do you do when even the memory of light fades, when the fire has died and the ice is thick? What do you do when the winter seems to go on forever?
If your only hope is that God cannot not be real, is that enough to soldier on, to light the fire again and again, to keep it burning and to keep the darkness at bay? Is “Blizzards” only an episode, only a stage of life? Does it fit into the reality described in “Against a Sea of Troubles”, “We Own the Skies”, or “I’ve Seen the Sun”? Or is this unending winter the true reality, the final death of all hope?
This album reminds me of Psalm 22, and of the book of Job, minus the vindication at the end. Ultimately, I think Five Iron Frenzy is emphasizing that there are no easy answers. As Christians, we anticipate the vindication of our faith, the fulfillment of our hopes… but in the meantime, we must endure a winter that doesn’t seem to end. We must fight to keep the fire lit, and we must light it again and again.
Although “Blizzards and Bygones” comes last, I think it would be absolutely wrong to name it as the final reality. FiF has already answered the questions “Blizzards” raises, as much as they can be answered. When the cold closes in, when the fire flickers, “We burn the wintry frost of night / Tonight, we wish upon the fading light / Tonight, our burning hearts will rise / Tonight we own the skies.” In short, we continue the fight and wait for better things. It is not always easy: For every celebration of “so far, there’s nothing that you and I can’t do,” there’s another instance of unending winter, of cold that enters into your bones and refuses to leave. But the fight is still worth fighting, and the sun will return.
If you like ska, you should buy this album. If you don’t like ska, then you have no musical taste and you should still buy this album: It will probably help.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

God "Is": And We "Are" Only In Relation To God

Of God
"God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”  Exodus 3:14

I've always loved this passage, because it demonstrates one amazing thing about the universe: There is no frame of reference that can define God.

When we describe things, we do so by placing them in a larger frame of reference, by relating them to something already known. We say, "The sun is a big yellow ball in the sky," because we are speaking to people who already understand what "big," "yellow", "ball," etc. already mean. We describe things in relation to something else.

But that method falls flat when it comes to describing or defining God. Moses asks God who he is, and God replies by merely saying "I am ME." Because there is no "larger frame of reference" that we can use to really define God as he is. There is nothing that God exists under, no larger category of things, that we can use to make sense of him.

And since we know that this God is also the creator of everything, we can arrive at another awesome truth: God Himself is the definition by which everything else is defined.

Of Creation and Humanity

Everything is ultimately defined by its relationship to God. The easiest example is the word we use to describe the universe, a word so integral to our idea of the universe that it was inescapable even by Darwin himself: "Creation." The core essence of the universe and everything in it is defined by that one word: Its relationship to its creator is not merely one of many attributes, but the core identity of the thing itself.

Of course, this extends to humanity itself. We are, at bottom, created beings. And we are defined by our relationship to our Creator. Karl Barth says it in a particularly awesome way:

"The being, life and act of man is always quite simply his history in relation to the being, life and act of his Creator."

Everything about us is defined in relation to our Creator and our God. We cannot be defined apart from him; We do not act apart from him; We do not even exist apart from him. We are not "Creations of God, and etc." Everything that I am, I am in relation to God.

Of Knowledge and Love

This means, of course, that accurate knowledge of humanity must, by necessity, be grounded in accurate knowledge of God. Human existence is derived from God and God only, and any claim to knowledge of humanity without a corresponding knowledge of God will be faulty and incomplete.

And, also by necessity, any attempt to bring about the good of humanity requires a true and accurate knowledge of humanity. Which means that any attempt to bring about the good of humanity, or of any one person in particular, requires a knowledge of God.

Which means that any attempt to simply "love" humans, to do away with "confining, divisive theology" and simply get on with the business of "love", is a non-starter. 

To love someone is to desire their good. And this isn't just desiring good feelings, but real, actual, capital "G" GOOD. Loving someone is to desire for them to fulfill their identity, to be who they were created to be, to do what they were created to do.

It has to do with ultimate Good, and that means that it has to do with God. For how can you know what is "Good" for someone until you know what they are, and what they are for? And how can you know what they are until you know who created them, and what they are for until you know what they were created for?

It always comes back to God and our knowledge of him. It always comes back to the dogmatic letters of Paul and his dogged claim to faith and truth, to the hard, unyielding truths that Jesus proclaimed over and over again, though it drove his followers away.

And we would do well to remember that while God is, indeed, Love, that does not mean that everything that we call "love" is God.


James (see below) makes the valid point that non-Christians can (and do) show true, real love every day. And, of course, people attempt to show love every single day (and often succeed).

However: When push comes to shove, we have to affirm that "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick." And when we try to love well, to work for the Good of our beloved, the ultimate guide for that has to be our knowledge of God. If we try to work backwards from our own love and our own heart and use that as a portrait for God, we're going to end up with a lie, and a desperately sick one at that. We have to work from our knowledge of God, and use that to effect love.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Sifted Like Wheat (follow-up)

Original post from Evangelical Outpost.

It is fortunate–oh, so fortunate–that it was not Job, that paragon of patience and faith, that Jesus claimed he would build his church on.
And that’s not the non-sequitur it first appears to be, because Job and Peter actually have quite a lot in common.
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat,  but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Some context: For weeks now, even months, Jesus has prophesied that he will find his doom in Jerusalem. Now, on the heels of the strangest Passover dinner ever, Jesus sets his affairs in order, giving his disciples what is clearly meant to be his last few words with them. And in the middle of it, sensing Peter’s denial and fear, he drops this bombshell: Satan has personally petitioned the Father for particular access to the persons of Simon and the rest of the disciples (the first “you” is plural). Jesus then singles out Simon again by addressing him with the singular “you”, saying he will pray for Simon in particular, and that Simon in particular will turn away regardless.
Satan’s purpose in gaining access to the disciples is to “sift them like wheat.” This is a much more graphic and threatening image than first appears, because to sift wheat, you first beat it to separate it into its component parts, then you toss the resulting mess into the air (likely with a winnowing fork) to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat is stored and treasured, and the chaff? Thrown into the fire to be burned.
Satan has asked for explicit permission to sift the disciples: to beat them into pieces, to reduce them to their very essence, and toss them up into the air to see what among them was wheat and what among them was chaff, fit only to be blown away by the wind and burned. It is unfortunate that Peter was too busy denying Jesus’ prediction of failure to give any thought to what preceded it. If he had considered Jesus’ initial remark, it is probable that he would have had one thought in his mind: “Son of a camel, I’m being Job’ed...”
And indeed, the situation Jesus hastily sketches out in the Upper Room of Jerusalem bears an eerie similarity to the situation fleshed out in one of the oldest of OT scriptures. Satan takes a personal interest in a particular servant of God, and he makes it his mission to utterly destroy that servant. He personally petitions God for the authority to do so. And, having obtained permission to test the servant of the Most High, Satan goes to town on him.
Why Peter? For the same reason Satan chose Job: both had been singled out as God’s servants. God implicitly challenged Satan, boasting of Job’s uprightness and righteous fear of the Lord, highlighting Satan’s failure to dent said righteousness. And Satan can’t have been ignorant of Christ’s proclamation concerning Peter, especially considering that Jesus again made it personal by specifying that the Church built on Peterwould tear down the very Gates of Hell.
Of course, it doesn’t seem as though any of this entered Peter’s mind. He was too frightened and confused, and too obsessed with looking like he wasn’t frightened and confused, for him to really consider Jesus’ words. There is at this point only the immediate gut reaction, the ill-considered boast that Peter would die before turning away from Christ.
With Peter, even more so than with Job, we see highlighted in vibrant color the frail humanity of the tools God chooses to use. The steadfastness of Job is legendary, just this side of super-human: Peter snaps like a twig. The tension of the last several weeks, and the last several days in particular, comes to head in a night that begins with an upsetting of the ceremony that, for all intents and purposes, founded the Jewish people, and ends in Roman soldiers and temple police arresting the man Peter had devoted his life to.  He breaks, and he breaks hard. He is sifted, and (for the moment, at least) he is found to be mostly chaff.
And this is the rock that Christ builds his church on? This quivering mess of a man, who cannot stay awake while watching over his master, who speaks before thinking, who denies so much as knowing the man who had brought him out of darkness… this man, in fact, who breaks in exactly the same way as Christians throughout the world do on any day of the week?
And that is why it is fortunate that Jesus’ Church is built on Peter, and not on Job. We may remember Job during our greatest trials, but it is Peter who we unwittingly emulate in our day-to-day lives. It is Peter’s faithlessness that causes us to sink, and Peter’s cowardice and foolishness that brings us to shame… and it is Peter’s genuine love and passion for Jesus that brings us to our feet again.

Now: on to the follow-up!

The post received a comment soon after the blog went live, expressing appreciation for the points contained within, but also disagreeing with the (fairly important) claim that Christ built his Church on Peter. The commenter claimed, instead, that the "rock" Jesus is building his church on isn't referring to Peter at all; rather, it is referring to the profession of faith that Peter had just... professed. The belief that "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" is supposed to be the rock.

I've heard this belief expressed before, particularly by a freaking awesome commentator named RCH Lenski. His love of treating the Gospels as actual histories, and his consequent focus on reconciling and harmonizing seemingly-discordant texts, made him invaluable in writing my book on Peter (currently trying to publish that, by the way, so if you know anyone...). However, his skill and brilliance elsewhere makes his lapse in Matthew 16 particularly unfortunate, especially since it it forces him to make the outlandish claim that Jesus' two usages of the word "rock"--Once to rename Simon Peter, and once to identify that which he would build his church on--bear only an accidental relationship.

Such a claim makes absolutely no sense within the passage itself. Jesus clearly goes to lengths specifically to establish this word-play. He appears to name Simon "Rock" for the sole purpose of making it a pun. Lenski's claim makes his renaming of Simon into nothing more than a nonsensical and confusing non-sequitor.

There is also the small matter of John 21 establishing Peter as a primary figure of the church, as well as Ephesians 2 establishing "the apostles and prophets" as a foundation for the church. All in all, there are really no grounds for making that claim....unless, of course, you really dislike Catholics and see it as a specifically Catholic doctrine.

Was Peter the first Pope? I don't think so. But he was, quite obviously, a huge chunk of the foundation of the Church and, therefore, is almost certainly the Rock that Christ claimed to have built his Church on.

Which is amazing news for us.

Because it means that God can use even the most human of us to build his eternal Church.

It means that God's strength is made perfect not just in "weakness" as an abstraction, but in our own weakness.

And it means that although we all start out as Simons, God can turn us into Peters: The unnatural product of sin and decay can become the supernatural product of grace.

Just a little afterthought:

Simon means "to hear" or "he has heard." It is doubtlessly significant that he receives his new name by hearing what the Father is telling him (Matthew 16), in a very real sense receiving his new name as he fulfills his old one.

With this in mind, there is a fascinating linkage between this passage and one in Revelation 2, where we are told that the saints who "hear what the Spirit says to the churches" will be given a new name, written on a white stone. In that sense Simon Peter becomes the symbol for all believers, and potentially for all of humanity. Listen to the Holy Spirit and receive a new name, a secret name, that describes who we really are--that is, who God created us as individuals to be.

Interested in Peter? Check out my book, Simon, Who Is Called Peter! It combines the readability of First-Person narration with biblical accountability in the form of copious footnotes, allowing you to see the world of the New Testament through the eyes of Jesus' most notorious disciple. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Like and Unlike

"Jesus answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh." Matthew 19:4-6

I recently attended the absolutely awesome wedding of a good friend and fellow Platonite. While there, I had a brief discussion with another friend on the concept of "Unity Sand" as a symbol of marriage. The Unity Sand begins in two separate vials, representing the two separate people getting married. During the ceremony, the two vials are poured together and mixed, symbolizing the biblical "one flesh."

 I'm not so sure that's right.

Because the miracle of marriage, the source of its wonderment, is that while the two do indeed become one flesh, they do so without any sense of homogenization or blending (much like the orthodox understanding of the dual divine and human natures of Christ, in fact). He who created us from the beginning made us male and female, and we remain male and female even in becoming one flesh in marriage.

The two do not mix together. They do not form a new and different substance, as Nesquick and milk combine every morning in my apartment to become chocolate milk. The two do not become some sort of dual-sexual or dual-gendered being, two human forms melded together, possessing all the physical characteristics of both male and female in one body. Neither do they become a single asexual being, wherein the two genders cancel each other out.

Even as one flesh, they remain distinctly themselves. They remain distinctly "they": And what's more, they remain distinctly distinct.

In marriage, the man does not become more womanly, nor does the woman become more manly. In the case of my own marriage, I am not in the process of daily becoming more like Anna, nor (thank God, in his infinite wisdom and grace) is Anna becoming more like me! The masculinity of the one and the femininity of the other do not creep together, but remain distinctly themselves.*

This is the miracle of marriage. The "oneness" is indeed only possible because the members of the marriage remain themselves. The "one flesh" consists of two unlike people becoming one--but not becoming like.

In this way, then, marriage is much like the Church--at least, the Church as Chesterton envisioned it. As he says in Orthodoxy:

 "[The Church keeps opposing passions] side by side like two strong colours, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. ... All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk."

Marriage, like the Church, does not involve a compromise of persons and temperaments and ideals. It admits no mixture: No, it will not blend. Marriage is not the point at which a man and a women cease to be a man and a woman and become something other. Marriage is not the point where male and female, masculinity and femininity, are extinguished.

Rather, marriage is the meeting of the fully masculine and fully feminine, and the two are not lessened but increased in the meeting. And even so, "the man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." Pretty profound stuff.

...But anyway, in the end Josh and I agreed that Unity Sand was, on the whole, better than the alternatives that we could think of, since the individual grains of sand, at least, retain their individuality. Have a happy marriage, Kyle and Karyn Keene!

*I do not here propose to define masculinity or femininity. If "male and female" means something and not nothing, and something and not anything (and the Bible seems clear that it does), that is sufficient.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Judge Not (because critical thinking is just too dang hard!)

Earlier today, a good friend of mine posted this article on facebook. In it, the author explains exactly why he felt that Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen, both fairly prominent pastors/speakers, were false teachers. He brings up some absolutely wacky Christology on the part of Joyce Meyer, and of course no discussion of Joel Osteen would be complete without bringing up the Prosperity "Gospel": Or, as I like to call it, "Suck it, Job and all you poor, persecuted Christians out there!"

I'd really encourage you to read the article itself, especially if you find yourself wondering what's so bad about a little Prosperity theology here and there. And in fact, I've gone more into what's wrong with Meyer's Christology, and why it's so Church-shatteringly important, at the end of this post. But for now, I want to talk about that wretched hive of scum and villainy known as "the comments section."

Maybe I'm just a glutton for punishment. But every time I see a blog post like this, I just know there are going to be some responses that are going to make me incredibly upset... so, of course, I immediately try to find them.

They did not disappoint. (Yes, those are all individual quotes). I could drag in more, but it'd only make me more upset. Suffice to say that in all my searching, I only found one comment that even attempted something approaching an actual defense of Osteen/Meyer. Every other comment disagreeing with the original article began and ended with their insistence that "Christians shouldn't judge."

They didn't even attempt to demonstrate why the disputed teachings were orthodox. They didn't challenge the author's interpretations. They merely hid behind their ill-understood notion of what Christians ought to do (although one might even say they "cowered" behind it, were one sufficiently upset by their failure to grasp basic biblical concepts).

And I thought... doesn't that just say it all? When you don't dispute the falsity of the doctrine, but merely the right of the person to call it such in public? When instead of defending the correctness of the doctrine, you merely defend their right to lead others astray, because who knows who's right anyhow? Doesn't that just say a whole hell of a lot about the state of certain (growing) sections of modern Protestantism?

Awful. Just... awful. To finish up, I'm just going to cover my least favorite sub-section of this kind of argument:

"This kind of thinking is why the Church is so fractured!" 

No it's not. Granted, sometimes we American Evangelicals can be amazingly petty about which issues we choose to split over; But do you want to know the real reason the Church is so fractured? Freaking heresy is why the Church is so fractured! When you take your child to the doctor, do you accuse him of attacking your son when he diagnoses a broken arm? No? Good! Then you're not a crazy person. Now if only people could apply this to bad theology, especially something so mindbogglingly damaging as believing that the holier you are, the richer you are (and, consequently, the richer you are, the holier you must be).

So... I'm done. Ranty, but I don't believe there's much, if any, hyperbole in this. I wish there was.

Addendum: Here's why Meyer's Christology is so amazingly crap-tastic (and why it matters to the health of the Church):

"“He could have helped himself up until the point where he said I commend my spirit into your hands, at that point he couldn’t do nothing for himself anymore. He had become sin, he was no longer the Son of God. He was sin.” Joyce Meyer.

In case you missed it, let me run through the important part again. "[Jesus] was no longer the Son of God."

Now, to me, that sounds really problematic. It's almost as if she's saying there was a point at which Jesus was not the Son of God. Jesus, the Word who was God and was with God in the beginning, the Word who became flesh, which was from the beginning and which the disciples touched with their hands. That Jesus.

So there was a point at which Jesus was not the Son of God. Does... does divinity work like that? Can it really be switched off? And if so, is it really divinity? Is Jesus really fully God, if there was a time when he wasn't God?

It goes deeper: Jesus then descended into hell, suffered there for 3 days, and when he was resurrected, "Jesus was the first human being that was ever born again." Holy crap. So Jesus isn't really the Savior at that moment... he's just another dude who needed saving.

If Jesus wasn't the Son of God when he died for our sins... then who the heck was he? The obvious answer--not the Son of God--means we really don't need to go any further down this... whatever it is. Christianity is built, quite literally, on who Christ is (seriously, it's in the name). Mess with that, and the whole thing is worthless.

I'm gonna let Karl Barth play me out:

"The Word was made flesh" is not to be thought of as describing an event which overtook Him, and therefore overtook God Himself... The statement cannot be reversed as though it indicated an appropriation and overpowering of the eternal Word by the flesh. God is always God even in His humiliation. The divine being does not suffer any change, any admixture with something else, let alone cessation. The deity of Christ is the one unaltered because unalterable deity of God. Any subtraction or weakening of it would at once throw doubt upon the atonement made in Him. He humbled himself, but he did not do it by ceasing to be who He is. He went into a strange land, but even there, and especially there, He never became a stranger to Himself." 
Karl Barth, The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Avoiding the Plans of God

(Important: I show quite a bit more of my work on this subject here, here, and here. If, as you're reading this, you're tempted to think that I'm just vastly oversimplifying the whole thing, check out those posts. Then, if you still think that I'm oversimplifying the whole thing, let me know).

Can we avoid the plan God has for our lives?

Now, before we get into this, we need to clear one thing up: There are a lot of people (mostly 5-Point Calvinists) who divide God's plan (or "will") into two areas: Prescriptive Will, and Decretive Will. I've heard different names for those two types (Moral vs. Sovereign Will, Permissive vs. Efficient), but they all ultimately boil down to the same thing: God can "plan" or "will" or "desire" for you to do one thing, but he can "decree" that you do another thing.

Which, in itself, boils down to people wanting to say that God can "want" something without really wanting something.... in fact, that he can really, genuinely desire something while actively causing the opposite to come to pass.

Which is pretty much bullcrap, if you ask me.

This disconnect exists because certain theologies envision a God who decrees (irrevocably) each movement of every individual atom and every individual soul. The history of all of creation, down to each individual typo in this blog post, is decreed by God.

And at the same time, God "desires" that all should be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4), and "wishes" that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9).

To be fair, Calvinists genuinely want to treat these passages with the weight they deserve (although I don't think they succeed). So from these passages, and others, they derive a second type of will: Sort of a "It'd be nice if..." will.

There's a pretty big problem with this, as I see it: How can God be so conflicted as to genuinely desire one thing while actively (and irresistibly) bringing the exact opposite to pass?

Is it Good for all men to be saved? God desiring for all men to be saved would seem to indicate that. But then, how can God decree for all men not to be saved? Can the opposite of Good still be Good?

Conversely, is it good for some men to be damned? God decreeing for some men to be damned would seem to indicate that. But then, how can God desire for all men to be saved? Can the opposite of Good be Good?

This theology does indeed proclaim a God who is sovereign over creation: It also seems to proclaim a God who irresistibly decrees a Universe that is less than totally Good, since he's constantly wishing for it to be otherwise. 

But what is the alternative? God must be sovereign, or else he is not God: Is this division of the will of God into "Basically Meaningless" and "Completely Irresistible" our only way out?

Here, as in so many places, C. S. Lewis (the patron saint of evangelical badassery) comes to our rescue with an explanation that is at once elegant, biblical, and freaking awesome. Let's go to Perelandra, as Ransom debates whether the results of the Fall make the Fall itself a "good" thing.

‘I will tell you what I say,’ answered Ransom, jumping to his feet. ‘Of course good came of it. Is [God] a beast that we can stop His path, or a leaf that we can twist His shape? Whatever you do, He will make good of it. But not the good He had prepared for you if you had obeyed Him. That is lost for ever. The first King and first Mother of our world did the forbidden thing; and He brought good of it in the end. But what they did was not good; and what they lost we have not seen. And there were some to whom no good came nor ever will come.’
BOOM. Drop the mic and walk away, Jack. Did that not just blow your freaking mind? Isn't that incredible?

God's got a plan alright. He has a plan, and we know it: His law is written on the hearts of everyone (Romans 2:15). And God has a plan for when we mess it up, too. He works all things to the good of those who love him, but that doesn't mean he causes "all things" to be (as in the Calvinist system).

God is just as sovereign in this theology as he is in the Calvinist theology. He is just as omnipotent, just as omniscient. But there is a key difference: God freely chooses to allow free agency to those made in his image: I go over the possible mechanics of such a universe in another blog post (It's a bit too long to include here).

God has a plan for us, but that plan changes as a result of our actions. So: Back to the original question:

Can we avoid the plan God has for our lives?

I think yes. I think we avoid it every time we sin, every time we turn away from the good God wants us to do. And I think that every person who goes to Hell has managed to successfully evade--forever--God's plan for their life.