The sleep of religion

September 10th, 2014 — 7:52am

Early in his recent work, The Great and Holy War, Philip Jenkins explores the religious apocalyptic and millenarian expectations that swirled around World War I, on both sides of the conflict. His analysis of what happened when these expectations were dashed is extremely sobering. While some, he says, simply renounced their hopes, “others found grounds for rededication, as expectations were transferred into the secular realm.” Disillusionment with the dreams of the mainline churches led to fresh pursuit of those dreams through political channels:

Wartime dreams and expectations found new forms of expression that often bypassed the mainline churches. In Europe, this spiritual meltdown led directly to the interwar rise of extremist and totalitarian movements, as the shifting role of churches in national affairs opened the way to pseudo religions and secular political cults. These movements freely exploited supernatural hopes and fears to justify totalitarianism and state worship, aggression, and scapegoating. They offered a new world, to be achieved by whatever means proved necessary. . . . Both Nazis and Communists drew freely on popular millenarian traditions, and mimicked the rituals and iconography of the discredited churches. The two nations with the most aggressive ideologies of holy nationhood and holy struggle in 1914 were Germany and Russia, both of which would by the 1930s claim a vanguard role in new messianic movements seeking global dominance.

The sleep of religion brings forth monsters.

(Jenkins, pp. 19–20)

Comment » | The Way of All the Earth

Islamic theology

August 30th, 2014 — 5:11pm

I’m reading through The Qur’an: The Basics by Massimo Campanini, and so far have found it quite useful as a concise introduction to Islamic belief and practice. Here’s a sample (I hope to post more):

Islam is predominantly an anti-dogmatic religion, with just two general assumptions. There is a very basic profession of faith, and an absence of an ecclesiastical judge and a central doctrinal authority. In fact, the only principle to which all Muslims can agree is the assertion of the profession of faith “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”. This is the indispensable belief. Everything else, at least from a theoretical perspective, is supererogatory or more than what is required. The study of theology is inessential. Instead, what binds Muslims is the practice of acts of worship, the “five pillars” consisting of the profession of faith, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and charity. In fact, Islam is really an orthopraxy. In order to be saved it is necessary to act.

The fact that there are no sacraments in Islam and that dogma is resolved in orthopraxy renders a priestly class redundant. The connection between God and the believer is direct and immediate. The function of priests is replaced in Islam by ‘ulama’, experts in law and the religious sciences who are appointed jurists and theologians rather than priests. This means that an expert jurist may express legal opinions that are not binding on everyone but only on those who adhere to the school of law of that jurist. However, Muslims say with pride that they do not have a Church, and instead have consistently accepted the widest possible scope for debate and subjective and personal opinion.

(Campanini, The Qur’an, pp. 7–8)

Comment » | Faith to Faith

A longer way round

August 24th, 2014 — 7:45am

And now, before I end, I am going to venture on a guess as to how this section [on social morality and societal implementation of the “Golden Rule”] has affected any who have read it. My guess is that there are some Leftist people among them who are very angry that it has not gone further in that direction, and some people of an opposite sort who are angry because they think it has gone much too far. If so, that brings us right up against the real snag in all this drawing up of blueprints for a Christian society. Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party. We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or – a Judge. I am just the same. There are bits in this section that I wanted to leave out. And that is why nothing whatever is going to come of such talks unless we go a much longer way round. A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it: and we are not going to want it until we become fully Christian. I may repeat “Do as you would be done by” till I am black in the face, but I cannot really carry it out till I love my neighbour as myself: and I cannot learn to love my neighbour as myself till I learn to love God: and I cannot learn to love God except by learning to obey Him. And so, as I warned you, we are driven on to something more inward – driven on from social matters to religious matters. For the longest way round is the shortest way home. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 82–83)

Comment » | Life Together

Young saints in the entertainment age

June 18th, 2014 — 4:30pm

I’ve never lived in any generation but my own, but I imagine it’s always been a challenge for Christian parents to help their sons and daughters be in the world but not of it, to be “all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel while refusing to consent when enticed by sinners. I’m sure generations of Christian youth have tried to figure out how to “fit in” with worldling friends (and with “worldly” peers in the church) while maintaining their Christian principles. Jesus has not called us to live in a Christian ghetto (as if any space is purer because only Christians inhabit it), but He has told us firmly to keep ourselves “unstained from the world” – and how are we to do this while rubbing shoulders with real sinners every day? I’m sure it’s never been easy.

I think, however, that this challenge has become far more challenging since the invention of TV and the Internet, mostly because of how these media have changed social interaction. It used to be that youth related to their peers largely on the basis of shared experience. Bobby and Joe played on the same baseball team. Mary and Jane lived on the same block and went to the same school. Tom, Dick, and Harry shared a paper route or a fort in the woods. Sally and Betty entered the same contest in the local fair. And so forth.

Since the invention of TV and the Internet, North Americans have found themselves confronted with an array of entertainment options unheard of in the history of the world. These options are just a push of a button (or a voice command) away at all times, and one rarely meets a person who doesn’t indulge a huge weekly diet of TV shows, popular music, web surfing, movies, etc. It’s probably safe to say that most people spend most of their leisure hours consuming popular entertainment – and this means the common currency of social interactions is no longer (in most cases) shared life experiences but rather shared entertainment preferences. To “fit in” among their peers, your kids won’t be able to talk about stuff they’ve done and are doing with the other kids; they’ll have to be able to talk about the music the other kids are listening to, or the movies they’re watching, or whatever their new favorite TV show happens to be.

This has complicated Christian parenting. Whether your kids’ friends are mostly Christians or mostly non-Christians, the social dynamic is the same: either share the entertainment of other children, or be left out on the fringes.

What if a parent believes that the entertainment preferences of other children are objectionable? Or what if a parent believes that entertainment itself is a problem – that too much time sitting and being entertained is bad for children developmentally, morally, and spiritually? How do you talk this through with your 10-year-old son or your 16-year-old daughter? “No, you can’t watch that movie, even though it means you won’t be able to join in on any of your friends’ conversations for the next month. Just stand at the margins and listen, and hope they don’t ask you why your parents won’t let you see it.” (This is not, by the way, a social problem confined to children.)

I’d like to offer a few words of advice to Christian parents who find themselves and their kids in this awkward spot.

1. Be okay with being different, and talk about this a lot with your children. Followers of Jesus are going to be different, really different – some might even say weird. If you’re different for good reasons, remember that the smile of Christ is worth a million human frowns, and the worth of wisdom is more than all treasures (Prov 3:13–18). We do tend to forget or minimize this.

2. Be careful, though, not to give your kids the impression that Christian faithfulness requires a low view of culture. On the contrary, to love Christ is to love Him as Creator, and to love Him as Creator is to love culture as something He created. God made people to make things, including books, films, music, and machines; and because we love God and people made in His image, we should love both the process and the products of human making. We should not love the ways sin has distorted human making, and certainly some cultural products are morally repugnant in form and/or content; but we must always be careful to love the created goodness under the evils and distortions of sin.

3. If your kids come home and tell you that their friends have watched something or listened to something, consider watching it or listening to it with your kids, and then talking about it. Don’t just turn your children over to whatever the latest entertainment choice of their peers happens to be, but on the other hand don’t simply bar them (especially as they become older and more discerning) from seeing and hearing what their peers are seeing and hearing. Sit with them and teach them discernment. Help them develop critical filters. How does this cultural product show us that its creator is made in the image of the Creator? What sort of story is being told? What ideas are being communicated? Is it beautiful? Is it true? Is it good? Is it realistic? Does it show the brokenness of the world and the reality of human sin? Does it glorify sin? Does it gesture toward a hope of redemption? And many more talking points such as these.

4. Do real things with your kids and invite their friends along. This may be the most important way to push back against the entertainment glut in contemporary society. Give your kids and their friends something better to talk about than the latest top-40 hit or the most recent piece of drivel out of Hollywood. Take them camping, fishing, boating, or footballing. Send them out in the woods without their iPods. Sit them down, read them something (short!), and then discuss it. Make real-time memories.

The way to keep our children from being lemmings in the wake of the entertainment industry is to give them something better to love: a life of the spirit, mind, and body and a life in community that are better and more delightful than sitting mindlessly in front of the TV or Internet for hours on end. This will require a lot more work than using the electronic babysitter, and at times it will require great courage and determination from the whole family – but then, when has great value ever come without great effort?

Comment » | Hearth and Home

Out of the self

May 22nd, 2014 — 9:12am

What then is the good of – what is even the defence for – occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist – on Dante’s earthly paradise, Thetis rising from the sea to comfort Achilles, Chaucer’s or Spenser’s Lady Nature, or the Mariner’s skeleton ship? . . .

The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level – in other words, not to discount perspective – would be lunacy. We should then believe that the railway line really grew narrower as it receded into the distance. But we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels, too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature . . . is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out’. Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in’; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.

Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it’.

(C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, pp. 137–38)

Comment » | Of Books and Beer

On the Future of Protestantism

May 9th, 2014 — 11:56am

Ah, the busy life of a pastor. I’ve only now (by Internet standards, eons after the event) finished viewing the “Future of Protestantism” discussion held at Biola University on April 30. The participants, as all will know who followed the significant hype leading up to the event and who are still viewing the stream of postgame analysis, were Dr. Peter Leithart of the Trinity House Institute, Dr. Fred Sanders of Biola University, and Dr. Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary; the conversation was moderated by Peter Escalante of the Davenant Trust.

Just two quick thoughts, mostly for my own benefit (taking notes while things are still fresh in my mind):

First, while I realize the discussion was perhaps geared in a different, more open-ended direction, I thought it would have benefited from a more clearly defined set of questions. The grist for the interaction was Dr. Leithart’s November 2013 First Things article, “The End of Protestantism” and his opening remarks at the event itself; but this left such a breadth of subject matter that by the end it had become clear that the participants were to some extent talking past each other.

Second, a specific issue that I wish could have been more clearly identified is the distinction between the being and the wellbeing of a Christian church. Dr. Leithart, it seemed to me, was predominantly interested in what qualifies a church to be regarded as a Christian church. He wanted to talk about the boundaries, the circumference of the people of God.

Dr. Trueman championed the issue of the wellbeing of the church, expressing grave reservations not about the brotherhood of the Roman and Orthodox communions but about their faithfulness, about their spiritual health and the health of those who live under their pastoral care. He wanted to talk not about the circumference but about the center of the Christian church, the gospel, and the relative fidelity of various communions to that gospel.

Understandably, then, when it came to talking about theology, Leithart looked primarily to the early ecumenical creeds. These, in his view, establish the doctrinal boundaries of the church. Trueman was concerned that this “relativizes” the subsequent theological developments of the Reformation, placing doctrines such as sola fide and assurance in a “different order” than the early doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Leithart’s rejoinder was to ask if the Reformational doctrines are to become tests of brotherhood; in his mind, this would lead to the “Protestant tribalism” he deplores. This, I think, showed the difficulty in the whole debate: the parties really were talking about different things. The issue of what makes a Christian church is different from the issue of what makes a healthy Christian church. We may not need the doctrines of the Reformation to identify the boundaries of the Christian church (that is a matter for ongoing debate), but I for one would want to argue that these doctrines are enormously important for the health of the church (esse, bene esse, and all that).

Anyway, I hope the discussion continues to the profit of all; it has certainly given me a lot to think and pray about so far.

Comment » | Things Come Lately

Shadow Eucharist

May 2nd, 2014 — 10:34am

In reading books, my heart is sometimes grabbed by an image that evokes an immediate and enduring sense of desire, and that gives form to the object of the desire, offering a concrete picture of what I’m longing for. I experienced this while reading the following passage in Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom:

Families and friendships can be powerful incubators of desire for [God’s] kingdom. When Christians engage in the practices of hospitality and Sabbath keeping, singing and forgiveness, simplicity and fasting, they are engaging in a way of life that is formative and constitutive of Christian discipleship. These “practices beyond Sunday” are further opportunities to rehearse a way of life, to practice (for) the kingdom. For example, for several years now, my wife and I have gathered once a week with our best friends for a ritual we describe as “Wednesday Night Wine” (even if we sometimes have to push it to a Tuesday or a Thursday). After their little ones are in bed (our teenagers are left to fend for themselves), we make our way over to their place with a different bottle of wine each week, enjoyed with some cheese, crackers, and usually a little (Swiss) chocolate. We keep a journal of the wines, noting our tasting comments, rating them (rank amateurs that we are), and in the journal we also keep a little record of our topics of conversation, what’s been happening with our kids, and significant events in the past week. We commiserate with one another about the burdens of parenting and share the joys of the same. We’ve mourned together, been frustrated together, worked through tensions with each other, confided in one another. When we were going through struggles “at church,” in our community of gathered worship, this Wednesday night table was a refreshing and welcome “table in the wilderness.” It has been nothing short of a shadow Eucharist, a veritable extension of the Lord’s Supper. (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 212)

The image of Smith’s “shadow Eucharist” has haunted me in the years since I first read those lines. I want to sit at a table like that, with friends like that, and experience that kind of sharing hearts and lives. I want it so much it hurts.

Therein lies the problem. It’s a little hard to explain, but I’ll try.

Nothing is more foundational to communion among human beings than commitment and desire. Desire without commitment lacks faithfulness. Commitment without desire lacks fervency, heart, warmth. Faithfulness and fervency are essential to friendly communion. If my friends sense that I’m not committed to them and/or have no real desire for them (by “real desire” I mean desire that manifests itself in some tangible way, rather than remaining a mere professed feeling), there is no basis for them to continue to regard me as their friend.

To put this a bit more simply, if I want to have friends, I need to want to have friends. I need to want these particular friends, which means I must want to relate with them the way true friends relate – with deep mutual commitment and desire.

But this desire for friendship – this desire for commitment and desire – is extremely similar (in fact, it seems at first almost identical) to what may be the greatest poison to human relationships: neediness. We’ve probably all experienced being wanted by someone in ways that make us feel uncomfortable, used, trapped, exploited, etc. The mere fact that someone attaches himself to me (committedly!) and really wants to be friends with me doesn’t mean we’re well on our way to authentic friendship. To the contrary, such neediness evokes loathing, the more so as it becomes increasingly demanding.

A troubling question, then, in seasons of loneliness and longing for friends and fellowship, is whether one’s desire for a friend is of the pure sort – that necessary ingredient of all true communion – or whether it is the poisonous variety that eats the vitals out of any relationship it infects. Do I really desire these people in a way that will fill and enrich and honor them, or do I merely desire them to fill some void in myself? Speaking personally, I have hesitated again and again at the threshold of initiating some form of friendly communion, agonizing over how I will respond if the other party doesn’t reciprocate my desire. Of course I want my friends to respond, and they need to feel that in some way, or I am not being a true friend; but if I desire their response the wrong way, or they feel a wrong sense of desire from me, the thing is doomed.

Take, for example, Smith’s “shadow Eucharist.” For this scene to work, it must be the right people at the table. It must be people I trust, whom I sincerely enjoy, and who sincerely enjoy me. It is also the case, however, that true love can’t be too choosy or exclusive, or it ends up being toxically possessive.

If the “shadow Eucharist” is to be deeply satisfying, everyone at the table must want to be there – the experience must be something mutually desired – but the desire must not be needy (“I just couldn’t get through my weeks without this”), or it will eventually become suffocating, pressured, just one more thing we all have to do to keep everyone happy.

Likewise, such an event (weekly or otherwise) must be something planned, structured, and committed to. If we start to cancel on a regular basis, the sweet comfort and reliability of the ritual disappears. It goes without saying that it can be participated in only by those who are rooted together in community, who are not just passing through. With all of that said, such commitment can’t be demanded; an involuntary commitment, made only to satisfy an insistent manager, will not sustain fellowship.

I’m not sure the solution to this problem is simply to say, “Well, if it happens organically [i.e., accidentally], it happens.” That strikes me as a surrender of desire, and with it of the foundation for friendship. Friendships do occasionally just “happen”; more usually (and arguably in every case, at some point in the friendship), they are cultivated. I’ve even begun to wonder if the best friendships involve some sort of oath, some sort of formalized covenanting. David and Jonathan come to mind.

I do think one clear way forward is for Christian communities to regard this as a matter of ongoing conversation. We need to study friendship, fellowship, communion, and learn how to enact it well. We need to think through “shadow Eucharists,” the commitment such fellowship requires, the rootedness and stability it requires, the fervent desire it requires; and we need to set the table for each other and reach toward each other, inviting a reciprocal embrace. It will be the case that, again and again, our desire will go unanswered and unfulfilled. The true test of our love, however, is whether we will continue to spread the feast and invite others to it, in hopes that in so doing our eyes will be opened, and we will know that our Lord Himself has broken bread with us, and our hearts have burned together in His presence.

Comment » | Life Together

Three quotes on boredom

April 27th, 2014 — 9:12pm

1. Boredom is the self being stuffed with itself. . . .

2. Why is it no other species but man gets bored? Under the circumstances in which a man gets bored, a dog goes to sleep.

3. Thought Experiment: Imagine that you are a member of a tour visiting Greece. The group goes to the Parthenon. It is a bore. Few people even bother to look – it looked better in the brochure. So people take half a look, mostly take pictures, remark on the serious erosion by acid rain. You are puzzled. Why should one of the glories and fonts of Western civilization, viewed under pleasant conditions – good weather, good hotel room, good food, good guide – be a bore?

Now imagine under what set of circumstances a viewing of the Parthenon would not be a bore. For example, you are a NATO colonel defending Greece against a Soviet assault. You are in a bunker in downtown Athens, binoculars propped on sandbags. It is dawn. A medium-range missile attack is under way. Half a million Greeks are dead. Two missiles bracket the Parthenon. The next will surely be a hit. Between columns of smoke, a ray of golden light catches the portico.

Are you bored? Can you see the Parthenon?

Explain.

(Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, pp. 71–72)

Comment » | From the Dead Thinkers

Coherent community

April 27th, 2014 — 9:05pm

A coherent community . . . is . . . the means of unifying and making politically effective our now disparate efforts to save the good things: The members of a community cohere on the basis of their recognized need for one another, a need that is in many ways practical but never utilitarian. The members of a coherent community, moreover, keep the good things they have because of a recognized need for them, a need sufficiently practical but never utilitarian.

If it is to cohere, a community cannot agree to the loss of any of its members, or the disemployment of any of its members, as an acceptable cost of an economic program. If it is to cohere, a community must remember its history and its obligations; it is therefore irreconcilably opposed to ‘mobility’ as a social norm. Persons, places, and things have a practical value, but they are not reducible to such value; they are not interchangeable. That is why we outlawed slavery. That is why a house for sale is not a home. (Wendell Berry, “The Purpose of a Coherent Community,” in The Way of Ignorance: And Other Essays)

Comment » | Life Together

From commentaries to diaries

April 3rd, 2014 — 8:06am

The greatest documents of the Reformation are its biblical commentaries; the greatest documents of seventeenth-century Christianity are its diaries and spiritual biographies. Theologically considered, this is not an improvement. At worst, “Christ” risks becoming the name of an event in their lives. (William C. Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong, p. 92)

Comment » | Biblical Authority

Back to top