Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Not very politically correct in this day and age, but a nonetheless very funny scene from a classic movie. Have a joyous holiday.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Three quotes of interest, from unrelated sources:
"[T]here are no higher moments in the scriptures than when we stand up to God. Like Abraham arguing with God about Sodom and Gomorrah. God wants us to develop our own moral sense. God wants us to stand on our own ethical legs, even to challenge him. He loves it when his children grow."
-Rabbi Yonah, via Real Live Preacher
"Tara" smirked at me. "Why don't you just color things the way you're supposed to?" she hissed as the teacher went away. "It's easier. It doesn't look so stupid."

Oh, I was pissed. I didn't want to color at all, and I loved coloring. I had been quite pleased with the previous paper; now I wanted to tear this one up. Just color things the way I'm supposed to. Why were there blank spaces for me to fill, like those windows, if I couldn't fill them sometimes? Why did she want us all to waste our time on this, if all she wanted was a bunch of papers that looked the same?

Why should be be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

-Thomas Merton, via Henri Nouwen (The Genesee Diary)

To the fundamentalist, no value is greater than conformity. Most of them wouldn't state it that way, of course - they would couch it in terms like "holiness" or "righteousness" or "obedience," based on the assumption that the main purpose of this existence is to test how well we stay within "God's" boundaries. It's a way of thinking that's more inherently Muslim than Christian, though its roots can be traced far enough back in Christian thought that few are conscious of the distinction.

One of the consequences of this mindset is that creativity is seen as a suspect trait at best. Even when we recognize human creativity as an aspect of the image of God within us, we believe it to be so heavily tainted by sin that it must always be kept under tight rein. Incidentally, this is an attitude that would have been right at home in any Communist state. The Soviet Union and its allies did not try to eliminate all art, music and literature - simply those creations that could not be channeled to properly glorify the state.

Similarly, Christian fundamentalists have no problem with the arts when they explicitly (and aggressively) promote the right doctrines, but if a song is too subtle in its lyrics or a story not suitably heavy-handed in its moral, it's too "worldly" to be of any real value. And while many within the evangelical church have begun moving away from this mindset, the tendency to place a creative endeavor's evangelistic value ahead of its artistic merits persists in many quarters.

Our capacity for moral judgment, like our creativity, is an aspect of the image of God within us. Again, as with creativity, all fundamentalist belief systems (Christian, Muslim, Marxist or otherwise) view this trait as so hopelessly corrupted that it must be strictly regulated by the exacting (and one-size-fits-all) dictates of an external authority. Any dialogue with God (or God's equivalent) is necessarily one-sided, because any objections we might raise to what we are told God has decreed cannot be anything more than the evil stirrings of our thoroughly sinful nature.

But what if conformity is not the main purpose of this life? What if God made each of us unique precisely so that we could, through our differences, learn far more about him than we ever could through our sameness? What would happen if we ever truly focused on what we could see of the image of God in others without trying to beat them down for being "wrong"?

Not that everyone will fulfill their potential, and not that society can exist without any rules at all, but those are separate issues. Even given what human imperfection can cost us, how much more do we lose when we allow our pride to convince us that we can know enough to tell another person what God's will is for their life? How much beauty do we destroy in our crusade to prevent the sins and errors of others?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas Lights

As per my annual tradition, here is a Christmas light display set to the music of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (in this case A Mad Russian's Christmas). Enjoy...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


I recently finished reading Doug Pagitt's latest book, A Christianity Worth Believing. Like most books by leaders in the emergent church (Brian McLaren, Spencer Burke, etc.), Pagitt challenges his audience to reimagine what the church needs to look like to remain relevant in 21st century society.

Also like his peers, Pagitt never directly answers the questions that he raises, settling instead for sharing stories that illustrate his ideas. While some may find that lack of concrete instructions frustrating, it does have the virtue of encouraging the reader to think without dictating what conclusions one is supposed to reach.

Perhaps most valuably, Burke goes into greater depth than his colleagues have in highlighting the Greek worldview that has underpinned the majority of Christian theology for nearly 2,000 years. So many of the things we assume about God and the universe are based less on what the biblical authors actually said and more on how the Gentile believers of the early church interpreted the Bible in a way that made sense within the worldview they brought with them into the church.

One example of this is our notion of a static and unchanging God who exists outside of time. Though most Christians today regard this idea (which originated with Aristotle) as sacrosanct and any other viewpoint as heretical, the Bible repeatedly portrays God as being far more relational, experiencing the flow of time and even capable of changing his mind.

We have also inherited (from Plato) the dualistic notion that everything physical (the "flesh") is inherently corrupt and that everything spiritual is perfect. Plato is also where we get the idea that Eden was perfect prior to Adam and Eve's sin, when in Genesis 1 God merely refers to his creation as "good." By viewing the world around us as hopelessly bad, we have developed a theology that sees this life merely as something to be endured while we wait for the next life. Meeting the temporal needs of others becomes important only when it serves as a means to a more 'spiritual' end, and taking care of the rest of God's creation matters even less.

In terms of how we understand the physical universe the church has progressed slightly beyond Aristotle, but the propensity within some strains of Christian thought to view everything in strict black-and-white terms bears more resemblance to Isaac Newton's clockwork universe (and Aristotle's static, non-relational God) than it does to the far more complex universe that physicists and astronomers have uncovered since Newton's time.

That's not to suggest that science should trump all other considerations in our theology, but if we are so blind to our own presuppositions that new information is not allowed to inform our understanding of God and how he relates to us, we risk becoming a historical footnote, like medieval doctors who treated their patients with leeches and animal dung.

The "liberal" label is often hurled as an epithet at those who strive to separate their own cultural presuppositions from their interpretation of the Bible. Those doing the name calling insist that the Bible must transcend human culture altogether, or it will be completely irrelevant. Yet the Bible never comes truly alive until we set aside such false dichotomies and stop treating it as though it were a rulebook.

That discovery, however, can only come when we are willing to make an effort to view the Bible through the lenses of those it was originally written for, and then do the hard work of integrating that understanding with our current knowledge of the world around us and with what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us through other means.

The wisdom we gain may not seem as satisfying at first, since it doesn't give us the list of concrete instructions that we crave (both to take control over our own lives and to dictate to those around us). It can even make our lives harder in some ways, as it humbles us by opening our eyes to how little we really know. But it's only through such humility that God can speak to us in ways that are relevant to situations that the authors of the Bible couldn't have imagined.