of shadows and epistemology

Photo by Glen Alan Woods

Many things fascinate me. Echoes in a canyon. The interplay of form and light to illumine or mute nuances of an object. The perspective rendered by shadows which reveal a hint of the original, if not its actual essence. The photo in this post was taken at the Garden of the Gods outside of Colorado Springs. The sun was waning in the last moments of full light. Twilight was about to reveal itself. So, I captured this image, thinking meanwhile about the difference between reality and perception, and their relationship to epistemology and its role in discerning the differences between tertiary beliefs, orthodoxy, and heresy. Continue reading

wrestling with hope in a world of despair

Young children are remarkably resilient persons. It is as if God encoded into their childlike points-of-view the possibility that the future has great hope for improving on the present and past. Part of this might be due to their characteristic narrow perspective, mostly being alert to their thoughts and feelings, rather than the broader flow of society. Of course, there are some kids who feel less positive, fallen human beings that they are, just like the rest of us. Each is unique, facing distinct challenges at home, in the community and in the deep places of their hearts. Some of the situations they face are so downright perplexing that it is difficult not to despair over their prospects. And so we wrestle with hope….

It is easy for church people to give trite answers to the honest, pointed queries children ask of us. Here are two samples taken from my childhood, both occurring when I was about six years old:

Child: “Will I ever get married?”
Adult: “Oh, of course. Everyone gets married!”

Child: “Will I go to heaven when I die?”
Adult: “It’s worth a try.”

These are actual questions I asked as a young boy and the real responses I received from church-going adults on two unique occasions. The first, regarding marriage, seems innocent enough, given that the adult was from the older generation and had a bit of a different perspective on marriage. Yet, the reality is that I never married, as is the case with a growing number of young adults. So when we receive that kind of question from children, what is our responsibility to them? Make a grand promise? Or assure them of God’s love and care for them and that he knows their hearts and has a wonderful plan for their lives? Does hope require us to provide definitive answers to honest queries, or is it more appropriate to teach children the awesome character of God and his provision for them without making sweeping statements concerning their futures?

The second interaction, as hard to believe as it is, deeply affected me. It is not clear whether the adult in this conversation truly understood the my question, but it is clear that it caused me great grief. It shook my faith. It caused me to wrestle with hope, albeit in my limited childlike way. The good news is I went to my mother late one night and told her all about it. She comforted me, in her nurturing way. She led me to faith in Jesus, helping me to begin my faith journey, hoping in Jesus, but realizing I need to follow him.

I still wrestle with hope. I am confident in Jesus, to be sure. I am hopeful for the future although it often seems opaque, at least as it relates to my own life. When I look at the lives of others it seems so much clearer. I suppose the perspective of distance has its advantages. I want to inspire hope in the kids and families I pastor. Yet, I am cognizant of my own insecurities: my personal struggle to make sense of the tension between injustice and God’s sovereignty; my responsibility to take initiative as a pastor and Christ follower, and the horrible affliction of evil which threatens both me and the people I lead with temptations to sin and reject God. The last thing I want to be is a sham, saying one thing and believing quite another.

I trust in God. Of that, I have no doubt. Yet, with the Apostle Paul as he writes in Romans chapter seven, I understand my own proclivity to make wrong-headed choices. So I run back to Jesus Christ, casting my cares on him, asking him once again to birth in me the hope only he can provide, so that I, in turn, may spill over with hope to the generations with whom I share my life in whatever time I have remaining. Living a life of hope truly is a wrestling match, one that I choose to give over to Jesus, rather than to despair.

God is Infinitely Good: "Into Great Silence" excerpt

I reviewed “Into Great Silence” previously here. This excerpt lasts about five minutes and is one of the very few scenes containing speech. For the most part, the three hour movie is free from conversation, if not ambient noise. Here we listen as a blind monk describes his view of God and his concern for the cultures of the world. We have something profound to learn from him, despite any theological differences that might exist.

Children: Let’s Be Like Them

God listens when children pray. Intently. Although he knows the words they will quietly utter even before they form on the lips of each child, he attends to them as if hearing it for the first time. He understands the stops and starts. Even the sidetracks. He doesn’t seem to mind so much when they open their eyes and peak at their friends during prayer. Why do we?

He understands the childlike assumptions. He embraces their unquestioning trust. And he looks at us saying, “Be like them.”

Somehow, beneath the veneer of our worldly sophistication, the admonition strikes a chord deep in that childlike place of our souls. We glimpse for a moment the reality that our theological argumentations are impotent to touch the heart of God. This is especially true for those of us within the fold of evangelicalism. For while argumentations might be helpful in wrestling with issues or engaging in apologetics, they too often become a distraction to relational connections with God and others.

We also realize that our fascination with the interface of culture and philosophy fade in importance as we reach back into the realm of childlike trust, and believe. For a moment, we lay aside our self-conscious worldview angst and simply believe. And as we reach out in belief, we remember that we had always been invited to belong in the sense that God sought us out, having drawn us to him by his Holy Spirit. It makes us wonder: what would happen if we reached out to the lost relationally, rather than argumentively? If we showed the kind of love that the Holy Spirit showed us in drawing us to Jesus Christ, is it possible that the lost would somehow be moved to reach back into the realm of their childlike curiosity to ask of the hope within us?

Those of us who work with children regularly have ample opportunity to be schooled in the ways of childlike trust. Embrace the opportunity. For even as we teach children, they also have something to teach us. So in the sense of trust, let’s “be like them.”

What is the point of Easter?

I am sitting here thinking about the Easter season. I spent a few moments in a local dollar store looking for plastic eggs. I intend to use them in a way which should surprise most of the kids, hopefully impressing upon them the pathos of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary as they went to Jesus’s tomb on that third day. More on that later in the weekend.

While at the dollar store I browsed some of the other shelves as well. Chocolate or marshmallow bunnies? You make the call. They even had chocolate crosses. How ironic. They have taken a symbol of torture, humiliation and crucifixion–the means by which Jesus Christ became the propitiation for our sins–and turned it into a edible commodity. I don’t know whether to feel ill at the crass consumerism, ashamed that for a moment I wondered how it might taste (and, to my chagrin, whether they had more in the back which I could purchase for the kids–only $1 each, what a deal!), or simply a bit more spiritually aware that we live in a world which craves spiritual encounters, yet completely misunderstands the significance of the cross. Look at it this way: How many of us would consider eating a chocolate electric chair? Or maybe a marshmallow syringe with pink frilly decor set against a baby blue background? Sound ridiculous? I agree.

Please don’t misunderstand. I love a good easter egg/chocolate bunny hunt as much as the next chubby, multiple-chinned, middle-aged, grey-haired guy. So don’t feel guilted into not having yours. However, I wonder if in our celebrations and all the preparations they entail we might be at risk of missing the entire point? If we are to pass on to the next generation the significance of Resurrection Sunday, what will we choose to experience with them? How will we impress on them the glorious power and majesty of our risen Savior? How will we shed light on the suffering and death which he chose to endure on our behalf, on the behalf of the world? How will we convince them that he rose again bodily?

Ours is a sobering responsibility, children’s ministry leaders, parents, and caring adults all. The burden of accountability rests on our shoulders to inculcate into the next generation the reality of Jesus’s death and resurrection and all that it implies for us. Let’s not let an overemphasis on what is secondary overshadow the priority of the cross in exploring with children the real meaning of Easter.

Book Review- Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense

I finished my first reading of N.T. Wright’s book “Simply Christian” this afternoon with the full intent of reading it again. This volume is a magisterial and accessible treatment of what it means to be Christian, intersecting the best of theological scholarship and the most relevant of pastoral concern. It is magisterial in the sense that he writes cogently, demonstrating mastery of the complex interface of multiple scholarly disciplines. It is accessible in that even the most skeptical yet thoughtful reader will be challenged to consider carefully his persuasive and winsome narrative approach to the issues.

Notably I was deeply moved at several points in my initial reading of the book. As someone who has been raised in various expressions of free church ecclesial traditions I had never seriously considered anglican scholarship due to unfortunate disregard on one hand, and disagreement on a few key issues on the other, some peripheral and others less so. Nevertheless N.T. Wright has earned my sincere gratitude with the writing of this book.

One key issue I should like to highlight is that of the intersection of heaven and earth via the temple and via the incarnation according to the biblical record. Specifically the temple as abode for God immediately lends itself to a deeper understanding of humans being temples of the Holy Spirit. This is not some offhand consideration in the biblical framework. It is central to what it means to be humans made in the image of God. Indeed, our humanness, Wright would argue, is most fully realized as we embrace our role as image bearers for God, as temples of the Holy Spirit. Consider what this implies! God himself chooses to dwell in our hearts, our temples, so that he may be in redemptive community with us, depositing his Spirit as the guarantee and empowering us to be his embassadors of heaven this side of eternity.

Correspondingly, the bodily resurrection of Jesus does not simply provide us the hope of eternal life, that is to say life after death. It actually provides hope of “life after life after death.” Specifically, Wright reminds us that there will be a new heaven and new earth and that there will be a bodily resurrection of redeemed humans whereby we will experience a fully redeemed creation, one that has been delivered from the present taint of evil by virtue of God’s sovereign purposes. Creation, he argues, is good. And also the lives we live now are significant in the economy of God’s Kingdom. We do not have to wait, as many in evangelical and free church circles tend to think, for what happens after death to realize God’s redemptive purposes in our lives. God is on the move now in and through us as a community of faith vis-a-vis our role as the church and individually as image bearers of God.

Walter Brueggemann Lecture Notes for "Remembering Beauty."

What follows is a sketch of my notes taken during this lecture. I will post my interaction with the notes in italics so as to distinguish my comments from Walter Brueggemann’s. As I have stated previously, Professor Brueggemann argues for a hermenuetic of suspicion vis-a-vis social science criticism. By his own admission he is a liberal. I do not state this as a ad-hominem, but to provide a contextual framework in which to read the notes I gathered from his lecture. The context in which he stated this self-identifying label leads me to believe he meant this not only theologically and hermenuetically, but also politically.

Brueggeman states that an artist is God’s agent for beauty. He adds that God is a performing artist for beauty.

At the moment I am unclear to what extent he is attempting to derive descriptive meaning from this statement. He appears to be attempting a metaphorical descrition of God’s creative character and actions, yet he passed by this comment so rapidly and forcefully that I was left a bit bewildered. I suspect he assumes his audience has already read his book The Prophetic Imagination. I browsed through parts of the book after the lecture and recognized key points of his lecture in the text of the book, including the points that directly follow in the notes. I recommend the book if you desire to explore more fully his thinking on the issues that follow.

Three dimensions of beauty in the Old Testament (hereafter, OT).

Looking back and remembering (ex. 6th century BCE displacement). All these remembered beauties must be re-performed in a new way by the diaspora

Obviously the utter societal meltdown which occurred as prophesied by Amos resulted in a political, religious, economic, military, and cultural disintegration. So it stands to reason that they would look to the oral histories so as to find a compass pointing to religious and national identity.

They look back through the lens of liturgical assurance to find there way through:

  • Tears of loss
  • Impulses of hate
  • Ruminations of hope

1. Creation, Genesis 1.

  • They defied the violence of displacement by returning to the liturgy of creation.
  • God infused creation with fruitfulness.
  • Each day of creation was good, very good, excellent.
  • Creation is beautiful, fully of harmony and symetry, grace-filled.

Indeed, I concur that a meditation on God’s creative acts, including his creation of humans, would serve to bring the diaspora to a properly aligned frame of reference so that they may consider their place in God’s design in the days to come. The utter destruction they experienced all but removed the underpinnings of their identity as the people of God and as a nation. To be called back to the very fundamentals of their beginnings ought to have been quite helpful not only liturgically, but also at a fundamental human level of survival and meaning.

2. Tabernacle Exodus 25:4 ff; esp Exodus 25-42, culminating in the Golden Calf event. Period of sojourn.

The people of God had been surrounded in great detail with the element of gold. Technical specifications of the most excruciating and exacting standards had been revealed to ensure correct design, construction and use of the Tabernacle and its contents. This is the place where God dwelt among the people. They could not dare get it wrong. Yet when Moses ascended up into the mountain and was gone many days, they went back to gold to construct for themselves a calf idol which they could physically worship.

As near as I can tell, his point here is that we saw beauty gone awry by virtue of the idolatry which occurred under Aaron’s watch while Moses was away. To be honest, he spoke so rapidly it was hard to follow his line of thinking on this point so I could be wrong.

Brueggemann believes that the OT should be read as a “pause from beauty.”

Sabbath: Stop productivity-Jewish understanding of work.

  • God was blessed by his own creation on the 7th day. He rested.
  • Tabernacle-Seven speeches, 7th on rest of God.
  • God rested on the seventh day and was refreshed (Nephesh).
  • The beauty of the tabernacle came back toward God.
  • Beauty is a gift of restful restoration.

3. Temple 1 Kings 8 Solomon’s Temple

  • Beauty is transformed into the possibility of forgiveness.
  • Beauty is distruptive, active and generative

In Solomon’s Temple there was no rest. It is here that Breuggemann’s “hermenuetic of suspicion” becomes especially obvious. He uses a social science methodology to inform his perspective of Solomon’s motives.

He launched into a critique of contemporary society, some of which probably is helpful.

Today, people are too busy to notice, too aggressive to receive, too preoccupied to look. For Solomon, there was a willful restlessness in his beauty. Today we are a driven, busy, impulsive society. I concede that point.

How do we practice beauty?

Beauty that is not “useful” is doxology.

  • no axe to grind
  • no production to accomplish
  • no self-serving
  • It is a yielding of self.

Psalm 98: everybody is in the choir, no professional singers. It is at this point where he good-naturedly ribbed anglicans.

Individualism says that beauty is a private matter.

Historically, sabbath became important to Jews in the exile, not before. Sabbath was a mode of receptivity; it is not recreation. It is here that we in western culture have gone far awry. Our industrialized individualism and sense of protestant work ethic blinds us to this principle of sabbath. It is not a matter of a particular day, it is a matter of restful receptivity to the Lord God.

We are trained not to see beauty, but what is useful. We are utilitarian, calculated.

Beauty of Trinity: Majestic uniqueness.

Right wing religious idealogy is an attempt at security. True perhaps. Extreme left wing religious ideology is an attempt at ecumenical acceptance of many paths toward God while more moderate left wing ideology seems more concerned with form over substance. Extreme right wing idealogy seems more interested in doctrinal hair-splitting than vibrant relationship with God and missional impact in the world. This is true among pentecostal groups just as much as the broader representation of evangelicals.

Beauty is an invitation to maintain an unanxious presence. It is an act of defiance. I believe he is stating this in the context of the 6th century BCE diaspora. To pursue God in the liturgy as an act of beauty defies the foes who sought to destroy them completely.

Eucharist: self-giving food of self-giving Creator. The bread will hold; the wine will last.

  • Violence: Execution of Jesus Christ;
  • Beauty: Resurrection of Jesus Christ

He points out that Jesus was a threat to the state. He then goes on to say that the “satisfaction theory of the atonement is dreadful.” He explains that God did not demand death for sins. Christ died because the state wanted him dead. He sacrificed insofar as he died at the hands of the state.

It is here that I will clearly and unequivocally disagree with Walter Brueggemann. It is also here that he clearly demonstrates an adherence to liberation theology and liberal hermenuetics. While there is much he said during this lecture that is helpful, this single statement, in my view, is troubling theologically, pastorally and biblically.

He went on to say, “Don’t ask what the text meant, ask what it means.” This is not a new argument to me as I have heard it before in seminary. Basically he is saying exegesis which takes into account the historical milieu and contextual placement of passages is not very helpful in determining textual meaning. We can not know what an author meant, he would argue, but only what the text says. That is to say, we have to find what the meaning is for us today. Again I disagree. We do a disservice to biblical hermenuetics by ignoring interpretive methods that inform us of provenance. Clearly this statement and his comment about the dreadfulness of the satisfaction theory of the atonement should give us pause.

I appreciate that he does not present himself as something he is not. He is a liberal scholar who had made substantial helpful contributions to biblical scholarship, but who also has a definite agenda which, despite his ecumenical reputation, seems awfully slanted against conservative theological scholarship.

I will end on a positive note which I think should challenge and bless us all.

He said, “God likes serious conversation partners.”

Yes, he does indeed sir.