Wednesday, February 25, 2009

St. Athanasius

Over the last few months I've posted two introductions--if you can call them that--in what I hope will be a larger series of introductions to great Christians of the past. So far I've presented St. John of the Cross and Boethius... these posts open with an extended quotation from the saints, followed by some reflections and biographical info. You'd be best served if you just closed your internet browser right now and went and read these guys. But, since you're still here, go see these posts. They're weak introductions, but the quotations phenomenal. 


That said, let's move on to the third member of the 'cloud of witnesses' on wardrobe:
St. Athanasius. 

Athanasius was the Bishop of Alexandria in the 4th Century, a time when the heresy known as Arianism--essentially a belief that the Son is not eternally God, there was a time when the Son was not--was ravaging the Church. Amidst this, Athanasius stood out as the most important of the few defenders of orthodox, Nicene doctrine, that Christ is "very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father."
Of course--thanks be to God--orthodoxy was victorious and today the Church holds firm to the Biblical person of Jesus.

I recently listened to a sermon on St. Athanasius by John Piper that is quite good. It's over an hour long, but well worth the time. There's definitely a biographical emphasis, but Piper also takes time to develop-well 7 points for believers today to take away from even a brief look at the life of the Saint. You can download the sermon, so I'd definitely encourage you to take the time to listen in.

C. S. Lewis wrote an introduction to a translation of Athansius's classic De Incarnatione, which opens with a simple, yet profound observation: "There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books." Lewis tries to fight this idea in that introduction, and I'm with him. If you can make the time, read this book. We need to read these foundational texts. Read the Bible first. Read it all. Finish it if you haven't. But then read this book.

Well, without further ado, here's an excerpt from St. Athanasius's phenomenal On the Incarnation.

Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter. As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was he to demand repentance from men for the transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning has made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruption to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did our of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Review: Coraline


"Everything's right in this world," they tell Coraline. Of course, they have buttons for eyes.

Coraline is a kids's... fantasy... horror... adventure film. Or something like that. The movie's based on a children's book by Neil Gaiman, whom I best know from his novel American Gods. I've not read the book (though I may now), so I don't know how faithful an adaptation this film is, but I was left with the impression that it's pretty true to the original.
The movie takes us along with our heroine into two new worlds. When the film opens, Coraline's family is just moving into a dreary new home--the Pink Palace Apartments--and encountering some rather odd neighbors.  Inside this hundred-year-old apartment, the intrepid Coraline discovers a little door to new and very different 'other' world. This is a world almost identical to the real one, but fashioned around your every desire: your 'other parents' are more loving and present than the real ones ever have been; the food is always better; the neighbors are still strange, but endearing; the plants and animals are like critters out of a song in a Disney movie. It's also a place--the only drawback--where the people's eyes have been replaced with buttons. 

And if you want to stay there, they're going to take your eyes too. 

The eyes, of course, because Coraline is a tale about discernment: seeing and choosing. How will you use you eyes? Are you going to give your eyes over (literally) to a life of self-gratification, or will you keep your eyes for more real things, even if those things--those parents, those clothes, those meals--aren't as appealing as the 'others.' 
Once Coraline makes her decision, she realizes that the 'other Mother' isn't as pleasant as she had seemed before, and Coraline suddenly understands her plight. ("Oh God." I really empathized with those two little words.) This is where the adventure part sort of takes off.

Before our heroine's epiphany, right in the midst of the button-other world's pitch to Coraline, as they try to hook her, we suddenly find the characters reciting Shakespeare: "What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!.." They go on for some time, but they end this recitation before the speech's end. They stop short of Hamlet's "And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"
This is the question Coraline will eventually find herself asking. In the world where everything's right... nothing really is. The world that is home may be mundane, but it is home, and the good will come with the ill. Not everything about this button-world is wholly bad, but to give yourself to such an existence, rooted in pleasure and self... well, it will ultimately cost you more than your eyes (as the movie itself points out). 

I thought that this was a really fascinating film, and I'm already planning on introducing (or the book) to my own kids some day. Of course it's still a kid's movie, but a fascinating kids movie. 
It's a lot of fun too... especially if you see it in 3D like I did! I caught The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D a few years back--which is actually the work of the same creative crew as Coraline--and while I think that one was a better pick for 3D, Coraline certainly didn't suffer from the extra dimension. (Watching through the glasses did kind of give me a headache for a while, but it passed.) 
The animation is nice. It's a clay-mation-looking film, which I love, though I honestly couldn't tell you if it were really clay-mation, or a deceptive CG. 
Also, I actually thought during the movie 'gee, Dakota Fanning's doing a good job,' so I guess that's worth note. There didn't seem to be much to do with the roll--and her performance wasn't astounding--but she did give a really solid performance. 
I didn't notice the music at all until the credits... so it definitely falls short of Nightmare Before Christmas in that sense, but there's little shame in that

The movie's not going to be for everybody, but if you like kid's movies, you like Gaiman, or you just want to take a nice break, go see it. You can certainly just sit back and enjoy an exciting and slightly-creepy story. 
But if you do go see it, don't let the point slip by. We don't have to crawl through little doorways to reach a world where almost-boundless pleasure is at our fingertips. Yet that world is as slippery as Coraline's 'other world.' It's certainly not all bad... but it is also not all. If we lose sight of this, well, we stand to lose sight, and, once we've given so much of ourselves, we stand to lose much more. 

The woman Folly is loud; she is seductive and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house; she takes a seat on the highest places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, "Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!" And to him who lacks sense she says, "Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant." But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.

Proverbs 9:13-18

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"pro-life"

I've always thought that the title "pro-life" is the single most brilliant example of political spin I've ever heard of. 

The internetmonk Michael Spencer recently wrote a post calling Christians to be pro-life... but his call it to more than bumper stickers and his 'pro-life' is about more than abortion. 
I really appreciated this piece. I've considered myself 'consistently pro-life' for some time now... which is the main reason I abstained from voting in November. I'm not going to support the death penalty or war any more than I'm going to support abortion. I still need to figure out how I am to engage our political system as a believer. It's a hard question for me, and it's something I think about often. 

But in regards to life, my ideology is pretty well-established. 
I think Tertullian said it well when he wrote: 
But, with us, murder is forbidden once for all. We are not permitted to destroy even the fetus in the womb, as long as blood is still being drawn to form a human being. To prevent the birth of a child is a quicker way to murder. It makes no difference whether one destroys a soul already born or interferes with its coming to birth. It is a human being and one who is to be a man, for the whole fruit is already present in the seed.

Social conservatives will rejoice when they read his words about the 'fetus in the womb'--and it is astonishing to see that sort of topic addressed in the 2nd century!--but I'm really drawn more to his opening remark than to any of the particulars: "But, with us, murder is forbidden once for all." 
Death, after all, is that last enemy, which our God will destroy.

Well I've already said more than I meant to: go read iMonk's post. It's worth the time.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

happy birthday Charles Darwin!


This year—today in fact—marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. (Today’s also Abraham Lincoln’s and The Ring Community Church’s birthdays!) On top of Darwin’s own birth, this year also marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of his On the Origin of Species. Needless to say, this is a big year in the world of Darwinism—you may have noticed the emphasis on him lately in periodicals like Scientific American and National Geographic reflecting that.

If you’ve been reading wardrobe for a while, then you might have seen my previous posts on these topics… if you haven’t, then check out "Augustine, science, and truth" and "And this is your opinion of me?" They cover different aspects of the topic and lay out my views on all of this pretty clearly.
Still, I can’t help but revisit the topic one last time today, and maybe this can be my ‘last word.’

When people ask me what my opinion of Evolution is, I always start like this: “I’m not a science person. I’m just not that good at it. So when it comes to evaluating scientic theories, I always defer to the judgments of the experts. They know this stuff infinitely better than I do.”
That seems like common sense to me… yet, not surprisingly, some people don’t take it well.
Once we move into the area of looking at scripture, I start to have an opinion.

on the one hand
This discussion is not about what scripture says. That’s easy: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth;” “through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that was made.”
This discussion is about how we want to interpret what scripture says. If you want to disagree, because you know that the literal reading is the only way to go, then I’d ask you where you got the idea that the bread and wine only represent Jesus’s body and blood. Because the Word that spoke all things into existence doesn’t say anything about “represents”, He says “is.”
How we want to interpret what scripture says is the question.

Scripture itself only gives us so much guidance on how to interpret scripture. Yes, Paul does advocate the use of allegorical interpretation in Galatians 4. This is what the 3rd century theologian Origen grabs onto when he suggests of the accounts of Genesis 1-3 that: "these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events."
You have to keep in mind, though, that Paul doesn’t seem to be talking specifically about an ‘allegorical-at-the-expense-of-literal’ reading.

Jesus gives us another, more important, insight into how scripture can be interpreted. When he walked the Emmaus road with two disciples in John 24, Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” All of the scriptures are going to testify about Christ. (As Father Stephen at Glory to God for All Things recently noted, "it is... true that within the writings of the Fathers there can be a variety of opinion on a number of Scriptural matters. The essential agreement is their testimony to Christ. Genesis is about Christ. Exodus is about Christ, and so forth." Read any other way, he says, and the scripture will just be 'interesting books.')

Beyond this, however, we’re left with very little guidance in scripture on interpreting scripture... it certainly doesn't say anywhere that we must read it all literally. 
What we do have are the Holy Spirit of God who will lead us into all truth and our own faculties.

on the other hand
Interestingly, it seems that a similar misunderstanding is taking place on the other end of this controversy, with the sciences.

The real problem with Darwinism is not in the conclusions that the scientists are drawing about the agents of natural selection or the time that this has taken.
Rather, the problem is non-scientific, philosophical assumptions that some are making. They see the evidence amassing for their theory and they say “Aha! Finally! Evolution has proved that there is no God!”
This thought simply doesn’t make any sense.

Science draws conclusions through models, experimentation, and observation of evidence (you know, the scientific method?)... and all of this applied to natural phenomena. There are several popular mistakes which ignore this simple reality.
One is that we see scientists—or at least this is the popular conception—who, when faced with a lack of evidence for some kind of god, conclude that (and this is all labeled as ‘Science concludes that’) there is no god. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of and abuse of the scientific method: science draws conclusions based on evidence, NOT on a lack thereof. There would have to be evidence against a god’s existing, not just a lack of evidence for it before science could have a say. Thankfully (I suppose we count our blessings here), men like Richard Dawkins understand this: he admits that there may be some ‘god’ out there, he simply rejects all of the prominent monotheistic conceptions of it and assumes the title “atheist.” Many, however, would not join in Dawkins’s admission.

Another great misconception here concerns the Judeo-Christian God Himself.
Again, science investigates natural phenomena… and our God is supernatural. He is not a part of creation, available for experimentation and observation. He is outside of creation, somehow giving being to everything that is (Acts 17:28). Science simply cannot weigh on such a Being. There is no common ground from which science may work—excepting miracles, which cannot be repeated and observed, and the Incarnation of Jesus, who has now ascended into Heaven. (John Polkinghorne, a respected particle physicist and an Anglican priest, has written pretty extensively on scientific understandings of such things.)
When scientists begin to advocate materialism--that is, the idea that nothing exists except observable matter and its movements and modifications--they have stopped speaking as scientists and begun to speak as philosophers.

While Dawkins might be commended on some grounds, he and his ilk have by and large contributed to this popular myth, not only that the Christian God and science are waging war on each other, but also just that science can say anything about this God. 

I'm afraid the two most vocal members of this debate both need to stop talking and readdress some basics.

-

As Alister McGrath noted in his Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, a history of Protestantism, there have always been important Protestant positions accommodating natural selection—for example, J. I. Packer didn’t see that anything “in the first chapters of Genesis or elsewhere, bears on the biological theory of evolution one way or the other”—yet, McGrath goes on, “Creationist writers have attempted to suppress or dismiss this prominent section of the evangelical movement, often insisting that an openly anti-evolution stance is an essential element of evangelical identity.” 
Unfortunately, I think that this has proven, far and away, to be the loudest voice among all those in evangelicalism who have something to say about Darwin.
Ultimately this stance results in an estrangement between said evangelicals and the scientific community. This is a very dangerous position for the church to find itself in. As a Roman Catholic Cardinal, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, recently wrote in the Times: "One of the things that mars our culture is the fracture between faith and science. It impoverishes our inquiry into the realities that make up our life and world." A perfectly legitimate source of almost limitless knowledge on God’s creation is being unnecessarily discounted because a very vocal and driven movement has decided to cling to one particular interpretation of Genesis… and as the sciences’ position becomes more clearly broadcast, a disillusionment with the scriptures and the church, from within and without, ensues. This is precisely what Saint Augustine hoped to avoid when he wrote in On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (a book defending the literal interpretation): 
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scriptures, talking nonsense on these [scientific] topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is... that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
-
I appreciate the Creationist’s intentions. I really do. 
They want to take scripture seriously. There’s nothing more central to the heart of their arguments than that. Well Origen took scripture seriously too—heck, after he read Matthew 19:12, he castrated himself. C. S. Lewis and J. I. Packer took scripture seriously. And I take scripture seriously too… which is precisely why I cannot support Creationism. 
Instead, the scripture needs a new kind of defender: that person who will defend the reputation of the Bible from the detractors that Creationism—granted, just one among many ideas the world will attack, and one of the few that is rightly attacked—has been collecting for us. The world will not take such a Bible as theirs seriously, nor will they take seriously the historical gospel message of our Lord that is rooted in the scripture. The Church cannot lose these battles for diverting all of our resources to another front that is best abandoned anyways. (I just recently recognized the tremendous blessing of people like Francis Collins, who are out in the world battling the mistakes of a Richard Dawkins, yet without neglecting all the truths that the sciences having been pointing us towards.)
We have to calmly, reasonably, and faithfully exegete the scriptures and take that message--which in the end is only ever the message of Jesus Christ, whose life, death and resurrection can restore life to all of the broken, fallen images of God roaming this planet--to the world. This is the hill we ought to die on, and the message that the world ought to hate us for. 
Every other topic is a footnote to the gospel, to God's great reconciling work. So, while "in matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received", our banner must not be about 6 days or (God forbid) humans riding dinosaurs, but that "in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep."

Oh yeah, and happy birthday, Mr. Darwin. 

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Andrew Murray on obedience

I've been reading through Andrew Murray's classic The True Vine for the last few weeks with The Ring Community Church, as part of the church's 30 days of prayer. Murray's little book is, as you might have guessed, an extended meditation on the first part of John 15. The daily readings from Murray range from 'well that's refreshing' to 'oh... wow.'
Yesterday's reading drew from John 15.10: "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love." Some of Murray's reflections on this very were very insightful, so I thought I'd share!
He took our human nature to teach us how to wear it, and show us how obedience, as it is the first duty of the creature, is the only way to abide in the favor of God and enter into His glory… 
God's will is the very center of His divine perfection. As revealed in His commandments, it opens up the way for the creature to grow into the likeness of the Creator. In accepting and doing His will, I rise into fellowship with Him. Therefore it was that the Son, when coming into the world, spoke: "I come to do thy will, O God"! This was the place and this would be the blessedness of the creature. This was what he had lost in the Fall. This was what Christ came to restore.

This all reminded me of what Paul writes in Ephesians 4 about the 'truth we learned in Christ': "to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." (:22-24)

The teachings of our faith are simply beautiful.

If you want to check out Murray's Vine, the whole thing's available online here.

"Let us confess that simple, implicit, universal obedience has taken too little the place it should have." - The True Vine