Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Summer Reading -- a Bonanza

I received my issue of World Magazine yesterday, and read it from cover to cover. It was the summer book issue. This issue is a must read -- even if you've never picked up World before (you can usually find it at Barnes and Noble). Here's what I found that I liked:

Reviews of a whole slew of books about posthumanism. This is a topic that keeps popping up on my radar of late: Utne Reader featured a series of articles about trans/posthumanism and the dangers/possibilities involved. Simply the fact that two publications from such opposite ends of the spectrum are wrestling with this issue tells me that they're on to something. Then, several weeks ago on the web blog Boing Boing, I saw an article about "the singularity" (note this is not a link to the article I read -- which i could not find -- rather, a link to an earlier article -- wikipedia also has good information on the singularity). According to Vernor Vinge's 1993 speech on the singularity, it is the moment when technology accellerates beyond our ability to control it. Think The Matrix, think Sky Net -- this is the dystopian view of the singularity.

In the back page commentary on these topics, Marvin Olasky has some right on observations from a Christian Worldview:

"Prospects for deeper changes are all overrated, I suspect. If Christ does not first return, will artificial intelligence be in the saddle, riding mankind? No—computers will still be glorified calculators. They will be able to imitate humans and leave a person reading a transcript unable to know whether computers or humans are speaking, but they will still be responding to software and without the spark of life that is God's gift."

Olasky does point where he sees the real dangers -- read the commentary for more.

So, while I'm geeking out over this teriffic content, I find the next set of reviews -- books about CS Lewis and the upcoming release of "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe". Now, you who know me know that I love CS Lewis -- I've read just about all of his major books, and much of his more obscure literary criticism (careful readers of this blog will note that The Eagle and Child was the Oxford pub where Lewis would often converse with his colleagues: Tolkein, Williams, Barfield, etc). But I'll be honest, I don't relish reading another literary analysis of the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis has become something of a cottage industry, and I believe that he would rather us spend time reading his books and talking about the God he describes there, than reading books and talking about Lewis. That said, World recommends some good authors -- Leland Ryken is one of the best on literary analysis from a Christian worldivew.

The icing on the cake was Lauren Winner's article on mysteries with clergy protagonists. Winner is one of my favorite new voices on the Christian scene -- she writes with pungency and clarity, without a lot of self absorbed claptrap that I see in much contemporary spiritual writing. Her article alterted me to new trends in mystery writing that I've missed out on (largely because I've been away from the genre for about 4 years now) -- and she pointed my attention once again to the great works of GK Chesterton: his Father Brown Mysteries.

All said, it was a great issue worth your time. I am sad that they didn't mention Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which I think was one of the best books of 2004. This story of fathers and sons, estrangment and reconciliation, and learning the past to understand our future, struck a deep chord. It is worth a read and then an immediate re-read. I recommended it to our congregation in my summer reading list, and I recommend it to you.

So, buy the magazine, order some books (or check them out from your library), and happy reading!

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, June 27, 2005

Depravity, Dignity, and Art

Following up on last times post, I found a terriffic article on the Evangelical Outpost on the work of Picasso. The article shows how Picasso's tumultuous affairs affected how he painted. When he was in the first flushes of love, he would paint more realistically, but when the relationship was in chaos, he would then "deconstruct" his former lover using his art. In effect, he used his art to strip his subjects of dignity.

Read the post and enjoy -- it is from one of the more consistently thoughtful blogs I follow.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

An old truth that keeps reappearing

People don’t like to talk about it, but it keeps reappearing in my reading of late: Heart of Darkness, Animal Farm, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to name a few. They all demonstrate the unsavory topic of the depravity of humanity.

And it’s not just literature - my recent reading about American history and the founding of the Republic shows this theme. The founders of our nation understood human nature as being predominantly self-oriented and power grabbing, and therefore government needs to have checks and balances to reign in the human lust for power. A quote from Abigail Adams illustrates: “I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature, and that power whether vested in many or few is ever grasping….The great fish swallow up the small and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.” (From David McCullough's biography of John Adams)

Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist #6 argues for a unified country to protect against war on the continent. To those who argued that two American states, having no reason to war with each other, could peacefully coexist, Hamilton replies: “To presume a want of motives for such contests as an argument against their existence would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” In his book Warrior Politics, Contemporary author Robert Kaplan also cites the Federalist Papers as he makes this same point: “James Madison wrote in Federalist #51 that men are so far beyond redemption that the only solution is to set ambition against ambition, and interest against interest: ‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary.’ Our separation of powers is based on that grim view of human behavior. The French Revolution, conversely, began with boundless faith in the good sense of the masses – and in the capacity of intellectuals to engineer good results – and ended with the guillotine.”

Literature, history, political philosophy all point us back to this truth – depravity. I don’t like thinking about depravity. I like to think I’m a pretty decent, likeable guy. I like to think that everyone is basically reasonable and if just left alone we’d all get along just fine. But then I keep rubbing up against the truths in literature, history, and philosophy. I keep reading the newspaper and seeing evidence of depravity all about. Worse for me is when I look into my own heart and see the self-justification, the wrath, the desire to shape the world to my agenda – all the marks of Pharisee. I have to face the disturbing truth that depravity is real – honest self examination proves it so.

But this should not surprise, for it is an ancient truth “The Lord looks from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good; not even one.” (Psalm 14:2-3). King David was described as a man after God’s own heart, yet he slept with another man’s wife, and conspired to have that man killed. When confronted, all David could do is cry out that he was guilty and beg God for forgiveness (2 Samuel 11-12, Psalm 51). And his cry leads me to something more universal “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps 51:15-17).

Ultimately, depravity should not orient our eye outward to proclaim the depravity of humanity, it should orient the eye inward to examine our own depravity in the light of truth. And the sight of what is revealed will drive us to the arms of the Healer of hearts as we cry out “Create in me a pure heart, O God….”

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Fasting and Prayer

Last thursday, I participated in a day of fasting and prayer. We've done this about once a year at Covenant-First -- once before a leadership retreat, once before the 40 Days of Purpose campaign. This time, it was a season of about 14 days leading up to an important event: the trial of an individual who brutally victimized one of the members of our congregation. Our deacons set up a schedule -- volunteers picked one of the 14 days and fasted during it, so there was someone different on each day.

My day of fasting was reasonably calm -- I fasted from 9pm Wednesday to 9pm Thursday. I tried not to make a big deal about it (though at Rotary, I did get some questions when I turned down my meal). Every time I felt hungry, I used that as a reminder to pray -- for our congregation member's emotional healing, for repentence on the part of the perpetrators, for our congregation to demonstrate the love of Christ in this trying time.

Later in the day, I found myself really hungry, and added to my prayers praise for the abundance that we do have. I begin to slightly understand what it means to go without food, and I have more empathy for those who go without on a regular basis -- I prayed for the hungry around the world (and this took me back to thinking about the much earlier post sometimes its good to go hungry. By the end of the day, I was cranky, had a headache, and disoriented. A powerful reminder of human frailty.

Not only did we share some pretty astounding stories about the spiritual insights we gained, but we also believe that there was some serious spiritual impact that was done. The offender was convicted, and he will be off the streets for quite some time, keeping our congregation member out of further trouble. He also might be willing to identify the names of his accomplices, which would further put this congregation member's mind at ease.

I do wonder -- ought we work fasting into our spiritual lives more often -- not as an excercise to impress God (little chance of that), but as a reminder of our dependence, our frailty, and our need for compassion. Ought we do it, simply as a matter of obedience, for it seems that Jesus takes it as a matter of course that his disciples will fast. Do any of you other readers have neat experiences about fasting that you'd like to share? Please post a comment.

Just thinking


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Presbyterians Taking a Stand

One of the problems with organized religion is that it is often times neither very organized nor religious.

The Presbyterian Church USA has for quite some time supported as a part of our National Ministries Division, a Washington Office. Over the years, this office has served as a lobbying arm, purportedly to advance the official stances of the denomination. However, in practice, the Washington office appears to have become somewhat of an entity unto itself, creating programs and taking stances beyond the mandates of the General Assembly.

I'm sure that the people in the Washington office are sincere people who are honestly trying to do a good job -- I believe that they are truly trying to make a difference in this sin-sick world the best way they know how. I'll even bet that were I able to sit down with the people in the office over a beer or two, I'd have a grand time hearing their stories and getting to know them.

However, I must confess that the idea of a denominational Washington Office offends me. Not that I don't think that Christians have something to say to politicians. I believe that Christians should be deeply involved in politics -- in the politics of both parties. This is after all what being "salt and light" is all about. And I consider muzzling of faith in the public arena to be complete rubbish -- all moral statements find their basis in some religious belief -- all the hot political questions find their ultimate roots in the questions of "what does it mean to be human" "What is justice" "What are our human responsibilities to each other" -- all of these are religious questions. No, Christians must speak the Christian worldview into the political arena.

My problem is that when the institutional church gets involved in politics it does several things 1) it creates unhealthy alliances between worldly polticial parties and churches - Niccolo Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, writes three chapters to the idea that republics must use religion as a tool to maintain social order. Otto Von Bismarck called politics the art of compromise -- and I suggest that it is dangerous for religous institutions to play this game of compromise. 2) it tempts us to place our trust in places other than God. Joel Belz in this month's World magazine has a terrific article demonstrating the subtle idolatry of large institutional structures -- we begin to consider the institution as savior rather than looking to the Living God as our savior. 3) It invariably assaults the conscience of many members of the church by repeatedly choosing one political party over another -- thus creating divisiveness within the body 4) It distracts us from the main mission of the church which is proclaiming the gospel for the salvation of mankind and the building up of the saints for ministry.

Are there times and seasons when the church must with a unified voice speak to social issues? Certainly. However, it appears that the Washington Office has not been in step with the voice of the denomination on certain key issues -- the definition of marraige being one. I encourage you to read this thoughtful post by Michael Walker regarding recent actions of the Washington Office, and prayerfully consider signing the petition he mentions. This is a simple and effective way to communicate your feelings to denominational leadership.

Thanks for your time and consideration on this rant -- a bit off my usual subject matter, but important to me.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, June 06, 2005


Some of the blogs that I follow are design/marketing blogs. I find it fascinating how the pros work to stay cutting edge – blending form and function, story and sales to present products that, in theory, meet our needs and we want to snap up.

Diego Rodriquez’ design blog metacool, had a post about a new term called “beausage”

Here’s what Rodriquez had to say “It sounds French but it's not; instead it's a synthetic combination of the words beauty and usage, and describes the beauty that comes with using something.

Beausage is:
Roman amphitheater steps whose faces are worn away by the tread of thousands and thousands of shoes
Stone chips on the hood of a Ferrari 250 which has been run hard and put away wet
A bike seat whose adapted form reflects that of its owner's posterior
The look and feel of the cockpit of the old Mercedes pictured above (a jumble of replacement gauges and parts, obviously used a lot) -- that's 91 years of beausage!”

What a wonderful concept – there is a seasoning that comes with age for the tried and true. This is why I like our lovely old building at Covenant-First. This is why I read Puritan books and like 19th century theologians (and enjoy reading the early church documents of the 1st-4th centuries). Sure we have to have theology address the times – sure we have to speak to contemporary events and contemporary people. Of course we must use contemporary language and metaphor to speak.

But there is a beauty and richness that comes from not just dabbling in the things of the past, but allowing them to be our guide and teacher. The Holy Spirit has been operating in the church for these past 2000 years, and we have much to learn from our antecedents. As CS Lewis says in the Screwtape Letters, we are very prone to “chronological snobbery” in seeing truth only in the most modern things. Have Christians been wrong on things in the past? Of course, and we certainly don’t want to succumb to the errors of the past – however knowledge of the past brings to light the errors of our age.

So go and read old books – Spurgeon’s sermons, and Puritan writings, and Augustine’s Confessions – and learn.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

More on Art: Shadows of Glory

Continuing the strand about art, faith, and creativity. We’ve had good comments about the very nature of art – what it is. If art is simply an eruption of self-expression, then anything goes – art is what we can get away with. But if art is something that points us to something grander and beyond ourselves, then it is something quite different. This, I think, is how I’m going to approach the Rubens project – Rubens, in all his sensuality, depicts an energy, a larger than life quality in almost all his work. I suggest that his work ultimately radiates glory and vitality. This glory and vitality is what stirs us and grips us – and it is up to us as Christians to then point viewers to the God of glory and wonder and majesty. No matter how majestic and exuberant the paintings of Rubens, they have nothing on the Creator who fashioned the world with wisdom and delight:

“The Lord brought me forth as the first of His works, before his deeds of old: I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began….I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” (Proverbs 8:22-31). Now THAT is glory – and Rubens gives us a foretaste of that.

Along these lines, Scott Collins-Jones, on his blog, tells a story a wedding he attended: “The wedding began with a welcome and call to worship issued by my wife Fairlight. She began her greeting this way: "Welcome to the rehearsal." She explained that many expected to attend a wedding today, this was really only a rehearsal for the ultimate wedding and the ultimate feast, the marriage supper of the lamb.” He contrasts this sense of pointing to an ultimate destination with the rootless wandering of “relos” (families who relocate every three years in the pursuit of ever better jobs and more stuff). He goes on to say: “What I encountered at the wedding and in the Times article about relos was longing. Perhaps in a culture of "relos" one of the most profound ways we can bear witness to Christ and his Kingdom is by what we long for and how we long for it, letting our longings shape and direct our lives.”

It’s the foretaste of glory – the foretaste of the fullness of the beauty of God. Our being made in the image of God is also being made as a creative being (which came out in many of the comments to that first post) – but as a created being, we can only create things that point us to the Creator. Truly good art doesn’t just excel technically, it also gives us something of the fragrance of the fields of heaven.

Soli Deo Gloria