Recent Reads

Campus Crusade for Christ is changing their name to Cru.  Imagine if the original crusaders had thought of that kind of thing!

Should the US legalize polygamy?

Christianity Today interviews the founder of Wired magazine, pretty cool.

Beware the rules Christians advocate for that take away the rights of other religions to worship, for these same rules may then be turned against Christians one day.  Great article by Ed Stetzer.

In seminary you learn about how to interpret the Bible.  What is interesting is that the method favored by most today (historical-grammatical) is clearly not how the New Testament authors always interpreted the Old Testament.  Thus, this article by a professor, realizing that St. Paul would have failed his class.

Six things that divide Christians.   I think the author hits it right on the head, these are things that divide.

Finally, this is hilarious: Netflix Relief Fund Promises Aid to White People who Love Gap Khakis.

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Harry Potter and the Truth in Good Stories

As I sat in a Barnes and Noble for hours, awaiting the release of the final Harry Potter book, I wondered if we would ever experience this phenomenon again.  Hundreds of people, mostly kids, waiting for a book that will be released at midnight?!?!  Lots of people attend midnight showings of movies.  But I imagine this will be the only time in my life people line up for a midnight book.

I remember when Harry Potter was much more controversial than it is now, though there are certainly still some Christians who oppose it as evil.  Aside from all other arguments in Harry Potter’s favor, I just had trouble encouraging kids to NOT read a book.  If a ten or eleven year old kid wants to read a 700 page monster, get out of his way!  I also thought that if Christians were so concerned then maybe they should write a better book (temptation to take a shot at Left Behind series…moving on).

The final Harry Potter movie recently hit theaters.  While the Harry Potter movies have been mostly enjoyable, they are nowhere near the epic Lord of the Rings adaptations.  I thought the first two were fun and faithful to the books, but a little stiff as if the filmmaker was afraid to take artistic license and make it his own.  A successful film adaptation of a book requires both the director being faithful but also making a good movie that can stand on its own.  Lord of the Rings was successful because the movies are as much Peter Jackson’s as they are Tolkien’s.  I thought the Harry Potter series came closest to this with the third film or perhaps the two-part seventh film.  By far the fourth film was the poorest, for many reasons.  One of which was that Hermione, one of the three central characters, did nothing but stand around the whole time.

I believe  Harry Potter succeeds as a story because it grips something deep inside of us.  There is a reason why so many great stories are similar, for they are echoing something deep within our humanity.

Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death and resurrection brings the story of scripture to its climax.  This story, beginning with creation and moving on through many ups and downs, rights and lefts, is one epic, long story.  Christians believe that all that came before, the Old Testament, is fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.  Once again, Jesus completes the story.

What is cool is that the early Christians, those who lived about 100 years after Jesus, saw something similar when they interacted and dialogued with Greek philosophy.  Justin Martyr (103-165 AD) in his Second Apology:

Socrates…cast out from the state both Homer and the rest of the poets, and taught men to reject the wicked demons and those who did the things which the poets related; and he exhorted them to become acquainted with the God who was to them unknown, by means of the investigation of reason…no one trusted Socrates so as to die for this doctrine, but in Christ, who was partially known even by Socrates (for He was and is the Word who is in every man… (Second Apology, 10)

Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) wrote in his Stromata:

Accordingly, before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety; being a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith through demonstration…For this was a schoolmaster to bring ‘the Hellenic mind,’ as the law, the Hebrews ‘to Christ.’ Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ”(Stromata 1.4)

The idea is that just as the Jews had the scriptures to prepare them for the coming of Christ, so the Greeks had philosophy to prepare them.  The principle here is simply that all truth ultimately points to Jesus, or to put it another way, Jesus completes all the stories.

The same thing is seen in the fictional stories we love.  In fact, this is one of the primary things that led CS Lewis to embrace Christianity.   He had abandoned Christianity as a youth because he was convinced it was just one myth among many that humans invented. In 1931 Lewis had a long conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien (and Hugo Dyson).  Tolkien responded to Lewis’ critiques that myths were not lies, instead they were the best, and sometimes, only way of conveying truth. Tolkien argued that since we are created by God the stories we write, though they contain error, reflect a fragment of the eternal truth that is with God.

Lewis came to agree and later wrote: The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact…The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened”

Lewis’ Narnia stories are famously allegory, with Aslan clearly being the Christ-figure.  Tolkien was not a fan of such allegory and thus there is no character who exactly parallels Christ as Aslan does in Narnia.  Yet we still see things that point us to ultimate truth.  In Lord of the Rings Frodo is a hobbit and as a hobbit has little to attract people to him, for hobbits are not big or powerful. Frodo carries a heavy burden. While so much action is going on with Gandalf and Aragorn, the action of kings and battles, the things that we tend to think make a difference in the world, we remember that the real battle is being fought elsewhere. In the same way, while historians focus on the Caesars and other powerful people, Jesus fights his battle in the periphery.  Finally, for all the ways Frodo is similar to Jesus, in the end Frodo fails. Frodo cannot throw the ring into mount doom.

Just as Jesus succeeds in the wilderness temptation, reminding us of the many ways God’s people had earlier fallen into temptation in the wilderness, so Jesus succeeds where Frodo failed.   It is where stories diverge from Jesus that we understand they are incomplete.  Frodo fails to destroy the ring, for he is a flawed and imperfect creature.  Jesus alone can accomplish the victory over evil.

Like other characters in great literature (and film), Harry Potter has some Christ-like qualities and in other places, like Frodo, falls short.  In light of the final movie coming out, many articles have appeared on the faith of JK Rowling and Christian themes in Harry Potter (here and here and here.).

Finally, the stories of Greek philosophy, Frodo Baggins and Harry Potter are similar to our own life stories.  My life story consists of some truth, some good that can be affirmed by my Creator.  But my life story is also one of brokenness and failure, yet it is these things which are taken up into Christ as I am transformed.  Perhaps there is a lesson for Christian witness here: every person and culture contains some truth which points to the ultimate truth in Jesus but also falls short in some places (or as Andrew Walls calls them, the indigenizing and pilgrim principles).

Writing this makes me yearn for the next great story…its certainly won’t be A Song of Ice and Fire, Dance with Dragons was disappointing!

Listening to the Saints 1 – Teresa of Avila

I enjoy reading classic writings by Christians and since they are basically free on the Kindle they are very available.  So I figured I would blog on what I am reading.  Many of the most well-known classics I have already read (such as Augustine’s Confessions, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Kempis’ Imitation of Christ) and while they’d be fun to blog on, I don’t plan on getting back to them for a while.

Teresa of Avila lived as a nun in Spain in the 1500s.  She lived during the exciting time of the Protestant Reformation.  Though Spain remained strongly Roman Catholic it is an error to think the Catholic church did not change at all at this time.  In response to the Protestant Reformation the Roman Catholic church experienced what has been called the Counter Reformation.  This was focused in the Council of Trent, which spelled out many Catholic doctrines, and the founding the the Jesuits by Ignatius Loyola.

Teresa is also called a “reformer”.  She entered the Carmelite monastery in Avila at the age of twenty-one.  This monastery was known for its laxity.  She ended up establishing convents that were more simple, free of distractions from the world.  Her most famous written work is The Interior Castle.  I am reading The Way of Perfection, another of her works.

What does a nun who lived five hundred years ago possible have to say to a non-Catholic Christian male like me?

“It should be noted here that, when we desire anyone’s affection, we always seek it because of some interest, profit or pleasure of our own.  Those who are perfect, however, have trodden all these things beneath their feet – [and have despised] the blessings which may come to them in this world, and its pleasures and delights – in such a way that, even if they wanted to, so to say, they could not love anything outside God, or unless it had to do with God. What profit then, can come to them from being loved themselves?” (chapter 6)

A challenge to love God above all things?  I think that challenge is appropriate today for Christians.

Of course, we might think that if someone loves God in such a way that they would be no earthly good.  What about our friends and family?  Teresa answers:

“Do you think that such persons will love none and delight in none save God? No; they will love others much more than they did, wich a more genuine love, with greater passion and with a love which brings more profit; that, in a word, is what love really is. And such souls are always much fonder of giving than of receiving, even in their relations with the Creator himself. This [holy affection], I say, merits the name of love, which name has been usurped from it by those other base affections” (chapter 6).

I have to say that when she talks about this sort of love, she sounds like John Wesley.

A final challenge I have had from Teresa is about “rights”.  We Americans are proud of our rights, rights to things like life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  I am glad to have these rights too.  Yet I cannot help but remember that Jesus lay down his rights to save us and that Jesus calls his followers to do the same.  Teresa reminds us of this:

“Anyone who wishes to be perfect, must flee a thousand leagues from such phrases as: ‘I had right on my side’; ‘They had no right to do this to me’; ‘The person who treated me like this was not right’.  God deliver us from such a false idea of right as that! Do you think it was right for our good Jesus to have to suffer so many insults, and that those who heaped them on Him were right, and that they had any right to do Him those wrongs?…To desire to share in the kingdom [of our Spouse Jesus Christ], and enjoy it, and yet not to be willing to have any part in His dishonours and trials, is ridiculous” (chapter 13)

Obviously there is some things Teresa says that sound foreign to me or that I disagree with.  She was a nun who lived 500 years ago!  But I am moved by the places where it is clear the Holy Spirit spoke through her, providing a message that still has truth today.

Recent Reads

When I was in Madrid we spent an afternoon walking around one of the huge museums there.  I love the old paintings with biblical themes, but I was surprised at how many of those paintings featured nudity.  At least one pastor does not approve of such art.  In my opinion, this is an instance of Americans being a bit too uptight.

I have read a few places about sex-selective abortion.  In many cultures parents want to have a boy, so if they find they are having a girl they may abort it.  This puts pro-choice advocates in a tough place.  Simply put, how can you argue that abortion is a right but be opposed to sex-selective abortion?  Yet many pro-choice advocates are also feminists who cannot be happy with so many choosing to abort girls.  Or, as Ross Douthat points out:

This places many Western liberals, Hvistendahl included, in a distinctly uncomfortable position. Their own premises insist that the unborn aren’t human beings yet, and that the right to an abortion is nearly absolute. A self-proclaimed agnostic about when life begins, Hvistendahl insists that she hasn’t written “a book about death and killing.” But this leaves her struggling to define a victim for the crime that she’s uncovered.

 

Craig Blomberg writes a thoughtful post on baptism and the attitudes of many young Christians today.

I am becoming a big fan of Roger Olsen’s blog.  Good stuff!  As Roger Olsen explains why he defends controversial books, we are beginning to get the first book-length responses to Rob Bell.  Here is a review of Erasing Hell by Francis Chan.

As for other recent reads, I picked up the fifth book in George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series on Tuesday, A Dance with Dragons.  I am about halfway through and so far I am disappointed.  I think there is a temptation that authors fall into when they write series of books and that is to get too much detail and thus to lose the forest for the trees.  This is seen clearly in movies.  How many times do we see a movie that tells a simple story set in a complex world that produces sequels seemingly focused more on the complex world than the characters we enjoyed in the first?  I think The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean both fall into this: great first movie, but in making a grab to be “epic” they lost something in the sequels.

The interesting thing is that the truly epic movies that are able to be epic stay focused on the simplicity.  Throughout the seven Harry Potter books we glimpse a complex, many faceted world, yet the author keeps us focused on the characters of Harry.  If George Martin had written Harry Potter, but book 4, which would not be out yet, we would have point of view chapters from Dobby the House Elf, the ghost in Gryffindor Tower, a muggle who lives next door to the Dursleys, a witch in Nebraska, and the Minister of Magic.  It may be interesting to experience the world of Harry Potter through all these eyes, but it would lose its magic.

I guess the point is that, at least to me, a good book combines simplicity and a character driven story with a complex world that we glimpse parts of but do not need to know every detail of.

 

The Loving Presence of God

My favorite thing about the Kindle is that so many books are available for free or for a very small cost!  This is causing me to read books that I might never have read simply because I did not want to purchase them at a bookstore.  Along with that, I am reading more and more classics.  I do not want to sound elitist, but when I read the works of Christians who have been dead for centuries my heart is often moved.  So much of what is published today is simply…fluff.

On that note, I am going to be offering blog posts sharing insights from what I have learned in reading such works.  Today I start with two I read just in the last few days and it is interesting how these two works were similar in many ways: John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection and Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God.

Wesley was a revival preacher in the 1700s in England.  He was also a thoughtful theologian and the founder of Methodism which became one of the largest Christian denominations in the USA.  One of his distinguishing viewpoints is the theology of Christian perfection.  This seems to be an oft misunderstood point.  Wesley agrees that justification, being made right with God, is by grace alone through faith alone.  Once a person is forgiven of sins and welcomed into the family of God, the Christian life is a pursuit of sanctification: becoming holy.  Wesley argues that a Christian can become entirely sanctified in this life.

Throughout A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley is clear on what he is NOT saying: “They are not perfect in knowledge. They are not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake“.  Christian perfection is not a God-like perfection.  For example, though God could solve a differential equation easily, a Christian’s failure to do so has nothing to do with perfection.  Christian perfection is not absolute perfection.

Christian perfection is, according to Wesley, “The loving God with all our heart, and mind, and soul. (Deut. 6:5)”.  It is “that love of God and neighbor, which implies deliverance from sin.”  Love is the key: “Pure love reigning in the heart and life, – this is the whole of scriptural perfection“.   In other words, Christian perfection is perfect love in the life of the Christian.

A large part of Wesley’s argument is that since God commands this of us, then it is obvious that it should be possible.  He also spends a good amount of time refuting attacks on this doctrine.  Some say it is too human centered.  Wesley’s response is that those who reach this perfection do so by God’s grace and are so in touch with God that they recognize, more than other Christians, their need.  Along the same lines:

“If we were not utterly impotent, our good works would be our own property; whereas now they belong wholly to God, because they proceed from him and his grace: While raising our works, and making them all divine, he honors himself in us through them”.

He says that those who are perfect can continue to grow in grace “not only while they are in the body, but to all eternity”.  Further, these are not super-Christians, Wesley even says that they can still learn from those who have not yet achieved this perfection.  Finally, it is not impossible for a Christian to fall from this perfection.

I am not sure if I am with Wesley on this.  But I think part of the challenge is that so much of the Christian subculture, at least the impression I get, is an emphasis on our sin and how we will never be holy in this life.   I wonder though, is not this emphasis on our sin an emphasis on who we were?  And now, are we not new creations in Christ?  Does not the emphasis on sin leave out truths about the resurrection and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?

All that aside, reading Wesley’s work moved me, I want to grow closer to God, to be consumed by the love of God.  I want to love God with my heart, soul, mind and strength and to love my neighbor as myself.  That is my prayer.

I think Brother Lawrence was consumed by this love of God.  His classic book, The Practice of the Presence of God, is a must read.  It is short, any Christian could read it (Wesley’s work might be more difficult).

Brother Lawrence was a monk in the 1600s in Paris.  The book is a report on conversations with Brother Lawrence, so it is often written as “Brother Lawrence said…”.  Half the book consists of letters Brother Lawrence wrote.  There were get his first-person voice.

Like Wesley, Brother Lawrence emphasized the love of God.  Brother Lawrence calls us to converse with God at all times, to meditate and praise and pray constantly.  In the monastery he spent years working in the kitchens, and in the book there is a prayer he prayed:

“O my God, since Thou art with me, and I must now, in obedience to Thy commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I beseech Thee to grant me the grace to continue in Thy Presence; and to this end do Thou prosper me with Thy assistance. Receive all my works, and possess all my affections”.

Reading Brother Lawrence, I was struck by how practical (not necessarily easy) it is.  This is the sort of prayer any businessperson, teacher, engineer or any person could say before going to work.  The hope is to realize God’s presence in all things in life, not just in the “holy” things.  As Brother Lawrence says, “The least little remembrance will always be pleasing to Him.”

It is not just our love of God that is in mind here, but God’s radical love for us.  A few times Brother Lawrence spoke of how he sinned, or perhaps neglected to pray or think about God.  Rather than get down in the dumps or depressed, he records that he simply asked forgiveness, welcomed God’s grace and returned to communion with God.  He was not able to do this because of a flippant disregard for the seriousness of sin, but rather for a deep realization of God’s grace.  To have such trust in God’s love and grace is beautiful and it leads to the kind of person who can say this:

“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of continual conversation with God”

Reading Brother Lawrence and John Wesley gave me a lot of food for thought and prayer.  I am not sure if I can say that last statement from Brother Lawrence.  I am nowhere near being filled with the love Wesley spoke of.  I go through much of my day ignoring God’s presence.  But I believe I have grown in my faith over the years and I desire to continue to change. In that,  I am thankful for a Catholic monk and a revival preacher for reminding me of the beauty of God’s love.

On Campus: Weddings and Baptisms

One of the joys of working with college students is that you get invited to A LOT of weddings.  I meet students when they are immature freshman.  Years later I am sitting at a wedding, seeing two of these students commit their lives to one another.  At the reception I am having conversations with mature adults about careers, graduate schools and so on.  It is satisfying to see how the Holy Spirit works in students, moving them from where they are as freshman into the world as mature servants of Christ.

The wedding this past Saturday was especially moving for various reasons.  For one thing, Emily had the groom in her Spanish class when he was a junior in high school.  Also, they really fell in love on the mission trip CSF took to Spain two years ago.  The groom was not sure if he would attend the trip and I urged him to, mostly because it was all female students.  At the wedding, I was proud of the part I played!

I got home and posted on Facebook: “There is not much better for a campus minister than attending the wedding of former students!”   This post got lots of “likes” from my friends.  Two people posted along the lines of, what about baptism?

That’s a good question.  Seeing the wedding of two Christians is great but seeing someone commit their life to Christ and submit to baptism is fantastic.

Recognizing the vital importance of baptism and its role in the initiation into Christian life, one thing that sets weddings apart is the preparation and mutual commitment involved.  This may sound flippant and I do not mean it to be, but baptisms really only require one person to make a move.  It is not like Jesus is going to reject you!  On the other hand, a wedding requires two (sinful, broken) people to commit to each other (and to Christ).  Perhaps this reveals that we do not take baptism seriously enough.  Or should I say, we do not take the commitment to a Christian life which baptism entails seriously enough.  Thus, getting baptized in many churches is easy while weddings require pre-marital counseling and loads of preparation.

Maybe we should bring back the idea of the catechumenate for those desiring to be baptized, a time of preparation and counseling.  I wonder if that is too “Catholic” for many?  Or maybe all we need is some good discipleship.

As I reflect on baptism and weddings, I realize the two are not really that different.  In many ways, a baptism is a wedding.  The person submitting to baptism is joining the Church and the Church is the bride of Christ.  This is powerful biblical imagery connecting marriage between two persons and the relationship between Christ and his church.  Things like self-sacrificial love and mutual submission entail both.  It could also be said of both, “you do not know what you are getting yourself into!”

So maybe baptism and weddings aren’t that different.  I amend my statement from Facebook: “There is little more satisfying for a campus minister than to see students make commitments to Jesus Christ in baptism and commitments to each other in Christian marriage”.