Saturday, September 29, 2007

a frightening dichotomy

I was just reading this article on ChristianityToday.com, but had to stop short to reread a bit. The rereading, however, only made the analysis more dire, and I admit I'm a bit disturbed now at what I've read. Perhaps the author, a Mr. Daniel Williams, goes on to say something of great inspiration, but regardless I fear he didn't take the time to really examine what he's spoken in indroduction to his 'real point'.
Here's the paragraph that stopped me cold.

A fundamental part of Christian growth depends on teaching believers not only to do good, but also to distinguish between various goods, and to seek the highest good among them. How should we value temporal goods like family, music, politics, literature, art, and sports? On the one hand, we know the joy they can bring us. On the other hand, they often seem like distractions from spiritual life.

I reread this to make sure he really did just put "sports" (and even "politics")in the same category as family, music, literature, and art. Now I, personally, see a bit of repetition in the latter three, but they are indisputably important, as a part of the image of God exercised through us. If you disagree or don't quite catch my meaning, I can only here recommend to you Dorothy L. Sayers's classic The Mind of the Maker or Dick Staub's recent The Culturally Savvy Christian for a thorough look at what art really has to do with our God. However disturbing his placement of sports here is, I'll let it be for now, for, as I said, that's not what struck me in the second go-around.
Instead, this was:

How should we value temporal goods . . . On the other hand, they often seem like distractions from spiritual life.

Do you see the dichotomy(just saying that feels a bit like Where's Waldo? or the end of an episode of She-Ra)? It's right there, temporal and spiritual.

Why this is a problem.
So what's going on here? Or, at least humor me, what does Nance see going on here?
This fellow is identifying two different spheres, for lack of a better term. A, B, and C go into this category, "temporal", while D, E, and F here are "spiritual". Watch long enough, and you'll see the language change to "secular" and "Christian", and eventually "evil" and "good". . . it's a very slippery slope. It's also why the only video game the Flanders kids are allowed play is Billy Graham's Bible Blaster. It's the foundation of us versus them.

Rob Bell, pastor and creator of the Everything is Spiritual Tour, would certainly be appalled at this sort of language. He once said, in a CT article no less, that "we're rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life. Legal metaphors for faith don't deliver a way of life." Bell probably doesn't like the legal lingo because it is foundationally contrasting terminology: legal or illegal. There's no in-between.

N.T. Wright also speaks on this very topic quite a bit in his little book Judas and the Gospel of Jesus. Don't think you read Judas and missed this: Wright calls it Gnosticism. He also points to this as an evil creeping up in the American Evangelical community. The "us versus them" dichotomy leads to a sort of escapsim mentality, where one's focus is suddenly only on "going home" to Heaven. This is, Wright would assert, behind the popularity of the Left Behind series amongst Evangelicals, and their near-obessive fascination with the Book of Revelation. From this angle, the ideology is indeed very similar in basics to ancient Gnostic thought, where the Earth and its creator were actually evil, and salvation was escaping the evil world to a good heaven and its good god.

With Bell and Wright both, trying to establish the faith as a "way of life" or just calling a spade and spade, I think the hope Christians is integrity. I don't mean this in the sense of keeping your word or anything so pragmatic, but rather more literally: a Christian whose life is integrated.
Instead of dividing our lives up into departments, temporal or spiritual, we must recall Paul's oft-quoted exhortation: And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:17). If this is the case, then everything is indeed spiritual; all of life is spiritual life. And apparently this ought to be the case.

I'm think there are probably two roots for this sort of language finding it's way into a popular article on a popular Christian website. First, we're simply not mindful of this sort of slip of the tongue. I'm sure Mr. Williams didn't reexamine his article before publication to double-check for any neo-Gnosticism creeping in. Pity though. Second, I'm afaird is because this sort of thought is creeping into our worldviews, and is beginning to feel a bit natural. Listen to some popular Christian music with your Gnosticism-radar on one day--you'll be surprised what sort of messages we're encouraging about this 'evil world' and our 'real home'. We forget that God declared all that He made "very good" (Gen 1:31) and that our vocation as Christ's body is to see God's "Kingdom come... on Earth"(Matt 6:10).

So please, Christian, be mindful; don't start slipping into this trap. There is certainly a great dichotomy out there--God and evil--but we are able, with the indwelling Spirit of God, to live lives of integrity, where all is done in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

Now if only we could show man where exactly sports properly goes in the priorities of life...

Friday, September 28, 2007

Ancient "Skeleton People" of the Nile Delta

I really love being able to use the "serious archaeological stuff" tag on posts, and if this article(which I discovered just now on BW3's blog, thank you Dr. Witherington) does not fall under that category, I don't know what does.
Ancient Race of Skeleton People Discovered!
Note: I do not endorse any of the ads on this site by linking here, only their journalism.

Also, sorry about the dearth of posting of late; I've been spending what little free time(i.e., time where there's not even homework to do... this is scarce) I have writing a paper outlining my objections to Calvinistic determinism for a friend. I'll be done with that very soon, but until I can get back on here, enjoy this article and the rest of the blog-o-sphere.

And any speculation concerning the "skeleton people"'s culture or history is certainly welcome.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

considering Hell

Last week, while pondering all the ideas that have been flying around in my head and that are the crux of this post, I was lamenting that I had no venue through which to present them. For whatever reason I had apparently forgotten that I'm a blogger, and can offer up whatever crazy theories may enter my brain whenever I please. And in turn a few, even, will go so far as to read them.

The title above probably doesn't sound like much of a pick-me-up, but there are many ideas surrounding Hell and damnation that I've been considering for months now, and I can't really think of a more appropriate title. Much of what you'll read here is the off-spring of my first encounter with Inkling Charles Williams, his novel Descent into Hell. If you feel so inclined, then, by all means, turn off your computer this instant and go read this novel. It's no small task(though not a particularly long book), but well worth the time and Wikipedia/dictionary searches that go into it. Humphrey Carpenter's biography The Inklings is also a fine source on Williams, and highly recommended for anyone who's not yet been introduced to the man.

Descent into Hell paints a rather chilling picture of one man slowly following the path to his own damnation, via all manner of self-service, but particularly lust. The truly disturbing aspect of the whole tale is the perversion that Williams makes so evident; not only the perversion of good nature that all sin is(here, sexual desire perverted into lust), but the perversion of all sorts of truth, especially those pertaining to identity. The character seduced(quite literally) by lust is perverting the identity of his object, all the while allowing his own person to be distorted by his passions as well. One line, I thought, captured this distortion very well:
He walked, unknowing, to the window, and stared out. He loomed behind the glass, a heavy bulk of monstrous greed.

The character's own identity was replaced by that of simply "greed"; this is what he had allowed himself to become. This line reminds me of Satan's in Paradise Lost, "I myself am Hell".
Throughout the novel Williams presents this descent, this loss of identity, brilliantly. (Note: I think the references throughout DiH to Shakespeare's The Tempest only butress this, with the whole 'no man was his own' theme already there established)
Behind this whole brilliant imagery also seems to lie another theme, or at least it seems to follow from what is given, and it is this idea of sin being perversion or un-truth. This is certainly at the roots of idolatry, where something is god, other than the LORD. It is a perversion of the truth.

Enter George MacDonald.
After this idea of the perversion of identity as damnation was stored away into my mind, I was introduced to a sermon of MacDonald's concerning the temptation of Christ: "The Temptation in the Wilderness". The fascinating part of this sermon concerns Christ's refusal to turn the stones to bread.
The Father said, "That is a stone". The Son would not say, "That is a loaf."

MacDonald's assertion has to do with proper identity. God the Father had called the stone a stone. Thus, for Christ to call it a loaf, He would have altered the truth of the thing's being as given to it by the Father; the sin was in contradicting the identity of the stone. Again, the supposition is that perversion of true identity is sin.

This theme also resonates, at least to my ears, throughout Plato's dialogues, in case one were looking for a trans-ideological thread. Note especially The Apology, where Socrates begins:
How you felt, gentlemen of Athens, when you heard my accusers, I do not know; but I--well, I nearly forgot who I was, they were so persuasive. Yet as for truth--one might almost say they have spoken not one word of truth.

Now let us add a third element: Romans 1.
The Apostle Paul has much to say about sin in the opening of this letter, particularly in verses 18-32, and really on into chapter 2. Note verses 21-25.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal men and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies amongst themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

There are two important ideas here that are relevant to the discussion.
1) We see the theme of exchange prominently in these verses. This is another prominent idea in Williams's theology that I may blog on more in the future.
2) God is giving these people over to their desires. This is the same image that we see of damnation in DiH: following, unrestrained, your own passions to whatever end they will naturally lead(inevitably, Hell). It's also not unlike the image of the cursed Pirates we see in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, but that's a different thought for a different audience, I think.

The pattern I see developing is this:

  • God will let you follow what path you will--give you over to your desires.
  • There are, most basically, two paths to choose from: the path of truth and that of un-truth, or perversion.
  • Truth leads you to God through Christ(the Way, the Truth, and the Life). This is accomplished through His restoration of our true identities, which reflect the image of God and have us again in relation to God(a la Genesis 1 and 2).
  • Un-truth/perversion is a path God will allow you to walk, and it ultimately leads to Hell, by means of rejecting your true image.

This sort of thought leads me, finally, to speculation on Hell itself.
Most of you won't be surprised to hear that I don't take the "lake of fire" talk in Revelation literally. So what then is this eternal punishment?

Is it so far-fetched to see it as like the "punishment" described in Romans 1?
If Hell is described as the absence of the presence of God, then such a comparison is fitting. The idolater who substitutes himself for God, following his own path and given over to his sinful desires, will find himself absent from God. To remain in this state--all the while considering oneself 'free'--following your own path to damnation... this seems to me not only in accord with scripture, but in tandem with this theme that has apparently run through man's mind(and his literature) for millenia. It's also more subtle and thus, to me, more terrifying than the popular conceptions of Hell and damnation.

I may delve further into this idea of idolatry and Williams's theology of exchange in the future, but for now I think I've spoken my peace. Even if my rough idea is perfectly wrong, it's certainly something to ponder.

Monday, September 17, 2007

coming soon, and a quote

I'm sorry about the dearth of posts here of late... life's busy! I'm working on a rather long post at the moment, however, and it should be up in a few days. For a teaser(because everyone is indubitably so curious): truth, damnation, and Charles Williams.

In the meantime, enjoy this quote from the introduction of Eric Voegelin's The New Science of Politics:
If the adequacy of a method is not measured by its usefulness to the purpose of science, if on the contrary the use of a method is made the criterion of science, then the meaning of science as a truthful account of the structure of reality, as the theoretical orientation of man in his world, and as the great instrument for man's understanding of his own position in the universe is lost.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

good quote for the week

While Spong famously predicted that “traditional faith is dying,” Bonhoeffer would have pronounced [Spong's] brand of “new Christianity” dead on arrival, a carcass from which the breath of the Spirit and the pulse of Jesus’ mission have long since disappeared.

This is from a post on Faith and Theology by guest blogger Scott Stephens entitled Bonhoeffer versus John Shelby Spong. It's a good read--check it out.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Indiana Jones and faith

I recently watched again the brilliant Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a film which proves that George Lucas didn't lose his mind until the early 90s.
Last Crusade is arguably the best of the Indiana Jones trilogy(soon to be quadrilogy), but I'm not hear to simply sing the film's praise, though it would be an easy course to pursue. Rather, I want to reflect on the spiritual themes of the film, particularly on its portrayal of faith.

There are all sorts of beautiful images in the film, but of course the parts that we all remembers so well, and the parts that I want to explore here, come from the film's climax. [Warning: if for some reason you do not know how Last Crusade ends, then you may want to stop here]
The story can be summarized as such: Indiana is forced to retrieve the Holy Grail from its resting place for the Nazis because it is the only hope of saving his father who has been shot. The arrogant Nazi stooge, having shot Henry Jones exclaims: "The healing power of the Grail is the only thing that can save your father now. It's time to ask yourself what you believe." Indy then faces three tests that lie between himself and the Grail: the Breath of God, the Word of God, and the Path of God. The first two he manages to pass by using his head, his education, and a keen sense for when it is appropriate to roll. The third task, however, is different. Indy comes to a cliff face, facing an abyss at least thirty feet wide between himself and the end of the path, with the instruction to leap. He mutters, resignedly, (after "no one could jump this!") that it is a leap of faith.

And so Indiana Jones has an interesting choice before him. His wits, his experience, and his knowledge can no longer help him. He has instead a hole too wide to jump, a determination to save his father (a father who has dedicated his life to the search for the grail), and an illustration of the worthy Grail-quester simply walking across this gorge on thin air. And Indy has to act.

So what is Indiana Jones teaching us about faith?
1) The decision based on faith simply cannot be made to stand on anything else. A good vocabulary or a mastery of Latin will aid him little here. He is given an act that seems impossible by all practical measures, and an assurance that it can be done.

2) Faith doesn't make sense. Apparently impossible, yet assuredly possible. This fits well with Kierkegaard's definition of faith in Fear and Trembling (which is, appropriately, an examination of the Binding of Isaac): faith is a complete resolution to something, while completely trusting that it is not so. In other words, it is a paradox. When something is given to you on authority (here, the authority of the Grail legend and the research of his father), yet seems wholly contrary your experience, it can only be accepted (if this is truly acceptance, and not merely some kind of passive acquiescence) by means of faith.

3) Faith is, nevertheless, still to be trusted (at least at times). It is not trustworthy in the sense of "see? there really is good evidence for this!", but simply leads--and is the only thing that would lead--to the correct conclusion. Indy didn't discover the solid ground across the chasm until he had already trusted in it and committed to it.

So Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in a nutshell, leaves us with this description of faith: unavoidable (for certain decisions to be made), paradoxical, and reliable.
These are attributes that I'm willing to concede for faith in reality. This is going to be what you get at times with faith. When all evidencial means are exhausted, some conclusions can only be made on faith. Having faith in things doesn't quite make sense, epistemically. Faith, however, oftentimes will lead to good decisions. For example: any appeal to authority is an action of faith; while you have not done the research out in the trenches yourself, you trust the expert to know the facts unseen by you, and present them to you untampered-with. This will sometimes be a poor decision, but often enough(in most non-fiction books we read and most classes we take) be safe.

Yet these lessons, brought to us so well by Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg, highlight exactly the problems that so many seem to have with faith.
St. Thomas summed this up well in an Objection in his Summa Theologica(I, Q. 2):
It seems that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated. For it is an article of faith that God exists. But what is of faith cannot be demonstrated, because a demonstration produces scientific knowledge, whereas faith is of the unseen, as is clear from the Apostle (Heb. xi. 1). Therefore it cannot be demonstrated that God exists.

Italics added. Of course Aquinas goes on to reply to this objection, but that is not here my concern. He has highlighted the problem that LC brings to light also: "faith" insinuates a thing that cannot be known by scientific knowledge. Our culture today sees scientific knowledge as the highest (or perhaps the only) way to know things. Obviously, in this context, faith will be problematic.
Regardless of how well-founded one's faith may be, faith as defined in scripture ("Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen", Heb. 11:1) will always come back to this difficulty.

So what is to be done? Much.
We have to decide how we'll perceive reality, strictly by means of scientific observation, or utilizing other modes as well (Eric Voegelin's idea of equivalences sounds like an interesting consideration here)? Will we accept that Christian arguements are only truly forceful when approached by the believer, as I'm told Pascal himself said of his own works? Will we trust probabilities when the intellectual standard of the day insists (perhaps unreasonably) on certainty?

For a short conclusion I would make one suggestion. I do not believe that impirical data from observation is the only kind of knowledge to be had. I do believe that faith can be reasonable, with the right foundation. So, what I feel one must do is examine the evidence that Christianity purports, from both philosophy and history. After that, it may simply be as Charles Williams put it, that "no one can possibly do more than decide what to believe." Meanwhile, we who are believers must continue to trust our Lord to give all the grace to take that leap from the lion's head and believe.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Brant Hansen, Vision Coach

I just wanted to point everyone to Brant Hansen's(Letters from Kamp Krusty) series of blog posts highlighting his new book: The 417 Rules of Awesomely Bold Leadership.
Brant has been gracious enough to offer excerpts from several portions of his book on his blog over the last few weeks, and for anyone aspiring to awesomely bold leadership, well, this is a resource that is simply invaluable.

The 417 Rules of Awesomely Bold Leadership
More Sneak Peeks
Yet More Sneak Peeks

Thanks for everything, Brant.