What God is Like (Crucifixion of the Warrior God chs. 1-2)

We all have notions of what God is like.  These ideas and images are built from all sorts of sources – stories, pop culture, holy scriptures, teachers, friends.  I imagine even atheists have some picture in their minds of what the God they do not believe in is like.  In many cases, it is just this picture that they find so revolting or irrational that leads them to reject belief.

To many people, the God shown throughout the Old Testament deserves to be rejected.  We see God commanding the Israelites to mercilessly slaughter thousands of people.  They are not told to give up slavery, but instead are instructed on how to treat slaves.  God seems to be okay with women as second class citizens.  Of course, Christians make arguments that try to get God off the hook.  Compared to surrounding cultures of the day, what appears to us as unjust and evil treatment of women and slaves was actually a step up the ladder towards justice.  God, Christians say, was working with humans and thus allowing some evils to work towards a greater good.  If there are 100 steps to perfection, God is moving the people one step at a time because to go all 100 steps at once is impossible.

Sometimes these arguments make sense.  Other times they seem like an attempt to put a positive spin on things.

Christians also believe that God is most fully revealed in the person of Jesus.  Traditional Trinitarian theology teaches that Jesus is literally God in the flesh.  For Christians, the Word of God is not a book, it is the God-man Jesus of Nazareth.

Growing up, I was taught that Christianity is unique because Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  Because of this, we did not have to work to earn God’s love.  We did not have to do all the works taught in the Old Testament, whether sacrifices or Sabbaths.  Jesus showed us a God who comes to us and loves and forgives us prior to us doing anything.

So when it came to things like salvation, the Old Testament laws on sacrifice that pertain to forgiveness of sin were not seen as on equal footing with Jesus’ work. Through Jesus, that way, even if it was commanded by God, was no more.  At least for salvation, Jesus defines what it means.

Yet when it comes to talking about what God is like, all of a sudden it was as if Jesus and the rest of the Bible are on equal footing.  This is especially pertinent when it comes to violence.  Jesus shows us nonviolence, that God is self-sacrificial love.  But…in the Old Testament God commands death and destruction.  Thus, God is not really like Jesus since our picture of God is taken equally from Jesus and the Old Testament.

To be clear, here’s the dichotomy:

*Salvation – Jesus clearly is the final word on salvation, the Old Testament still has value in understanding how we got to Jesus, but the system in place there, though revealed by God, is over.

*What God is like – Jesus is not the final word on what God is like, he is merely one image alongside many, including many violent portrayals in the Old Testament.

What Greg Boyd is arguing in The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is that if we apply the same principles consistently, then we must allow Jesus to be the final word on everything, including violence.  This is a key point.  He is not presenting totally new and unheard of arguments.  Instead he is taking arguments of others, including key figures throughout the Christian tradition, and applying them consistently.  Boyd writes in chapter one:

“The question for Christians is this: Will our view of God be completely determined by the self-sacrificial love revealed on the cross or will it also be influenced by portraits of God doing things like commanding capital punishment for homosexuals (Lev 20:13) and rebellious children (Deut 21:18-21; Exod 21:15, 17; Lev 20:9), commanding genocide (e.g., Deut 7:2, 16), incinerating cities (Genesis 19) and striking a servant down for trying to prevent a sacred object from falling (2 Sam 6:6-7)?” (19).

In chapter two he echoes this:

“In light of the material covered in this chapter, I trust it is clear that the NT does not present Jesus as merely revealing an aspect of what God is like, as though we need to supplement this revelation with everything else we find in the Bible. Jesus is rather presented as the one and only Son who is, in contrast to all revelations that preceded him, the very ‘radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being’ (Heb 1:3). He is the very ’embodiment of the truth of God…I also trust it is also clear from the material we have covered that ‘the Old Testament…is all about Jesus’ which means that ‘there is no dimension of the Old Testament message that does not in some way foreshadow Christ,’ as Goldsworthy notes” (91).

This is not to say the Old Testament has no value, just as we say it has no value when we discuss salvation.  It is to say that our clearest picture of who God is, what God is like and how God relates to humans, is seen in the person and work of Jesus.

 

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Crucifixion of the Warrior God – Intro

I’ve gone to church my whole life.  I remember learning all those old Bible stories as a kid in Sunday school.

David killing the giant Goliath with a stone flung from his slingshot.

Elijah slaughtering the hundreds of prophets of Baal.

Joshua marching around Jericho till the walls fell and the residents were massacred.

They are exciting stories, the sort of stories that keep your attention, filled with heroes and villains, as well as a good does of blood and guts.  Of course, I also learned that Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins.  The greatest hero was not the one who killed, but allowed himself to be killed.

Over the years, and I’m not sure when it first hit me, I started to wonder.  How could the God revealed in Jesus – one who taught love of enemies and who showed it by dying – be the same God who commanded and praised the killing not just of enemies, but often of seemingly innocent people?  Its a common question.  Anyone who has spent time in the church and read the Bible has been confronted with it.  It is often cited as one of the primary reasons people reject faith – God just appears too bloodthirsty, and thus simply not worthy of worship.

In the midst of wrestling with this question, I have discovered many answers that have been given over the years.  Some are more satisfying than others.  Even in the midst of finding answers, questions have lingered.  Aren’t these answers just “spin”, the sort of thing we see when politicians and celebrities are faced with negative stories about themselves?  If Jesus truly is the human face of God (or to use theological lingo, the second person of the Trinity, God in the flesh) then does Jesus not illustrate what God is really like?  In other words, is it a choice between Jesus and the Old Testament?

I recently began reading Greg Boyd’s two-volume work on this subject, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.  I am actually reading this with a few friends of mine and we meet to discuss it occasionally.  While I read, I am going to blog about it, share what I find helpful or relevant or weak.

I am looking forward to this book because Boyd seems to have struggled with the same questions I have, namely how to lift up Jesus as God while believing the Old Testament is inspired.  In other words, the solution cannot be to throw out the Old Testament as wrong or outdated, nor can it be to take away from our understanding of who Jesus is.

“I have come to believe that Jesus revealed an agape-centered, other-oriented, self-sacrificial God who opposes violence and who commands his people to refrain from violence (e.g., Matt. 5:39-45; Luke 627-36). I also believe in the divine inspiration of the Old Testament (OT) primarily because I have good reason to believe Jesus treated it as such” (xxvii).

I’m about 140 pages in and finding lots of fantastic points.  It should prove fodder for both good discussion and, hopefully, good reflection on here.

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (Review)

              What is God truly like?  This is a question I have wrestled with.  My whole life I have heard people say, and have said myself, that God is a God of love and of justice.  Your sin deserves God’s eternal and unending punishment, or wrath.  You can avoid this punishment by trusting in Jesus for in Jesus we see God’s love.  In other words, God shows love to some and wrath to others.

              To hold this understanding leads to some unavoidable questions.  Does Jesus save us from a vengeful God?  Is God’s love offered with a threatening fist raised to punish you if you do not accept?  And if God tortures you for not accepting God’s love, how is God different from an abusive husband?

              As I read Brian Zahnd’s book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, I felt like I was reading my own questions and struggles.  I deeply resonate with this book, and I almost want to say any Christian who is honest about the tension between God’s wrath and love should too.  Zahnd writes with honesty and passion that lays it all right out there for the reader.  This is not an academic book, nor will it answer every question, especially every question critics are sure to bring to it (though, as a sort of coincidence, I just started reading Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God which is very similar to Zahnd’s work and is more academic, if anyone is interested in that).  I appreciate Zahnd’s honesty for not dancing around the issues.  For example, is it wrong to murder children?  Of course.  Was Hitler wrong to exterminate millions of Jews.  Absolutely.  So why do we then waffle if it is God in scripture who does those things?  Is God a monster to order the extermination of children?  Did millions of Jews pass from Hitler’s ovens to the unending fiery flames of God’s ovens in hell?

              The idea here is one option we have when dealing with God’s wrath.  Maybe God is a monster.  Zahnd rejects this.  The options more Christians might take is that God changes.  God might have commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites but now God has become love.  God does not work that way anymore.  Zahnd rejects this on the principle that God does not change.  At the same time, Zahnd also shows that many Christians utilize the book of Revelation to show that God has not really changed but that God really is merely a God of wrath.  If Revelation portrays Jesus as returning to slaughter his enemies, then the question of what God is like finds its answer: God is wrath.  Here the acts of Jesus on the cross, as well as throughout his life, do not reveal what God is really like.  Instead Jesus is sort of a reprieve between the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the vengeful God of Revelation.  God may offer forgiveness and love for a time, but this is merely temporary.

              I think this understanding of God is too common among Christians in America.  It is as if the Jesus in the Gospels, the Jesus who teaches love of enemy and then does it and demands we do the same, is too radical.  Our human nature wants a vengeful God.  The sad thing is that to fall back into a God of wrath is to take away what makes Jesus unique.  Every culture and religion (okay, maybe not every one…I am using hyperbole here) has deities that enjoy wrath.  Whether Babylon, Rome or America, these empires go to war with the belief that God blesses our weapons and fighting.  The idea that God demands something different is so uncomfortable.  So we welcome Jesus for forgiveness of our sins and a ticket to heaven, but find Jesus’ way too impractical for daily life.

              Zahnd thus argues that the portrait of Jesus in Revelation does not contradict Jesus in the gospels.  Instead, Jesus truly is the human face of God.  Jesus revealed God.  This is basic Trinitarian theology.  Zahnd emphasizes over and over what this means though.  The Bible is not a flat book where all parts are equal.  The Bible is open to many interpretations, and you can easily find a violent God in there if you wish.  But it is Jesus, God in the flesh, that regulates our understanding of the rest of the Bible.  Because of how Jesus reveals God, we are forced not to say God is a monster or God changes, but to be open to the idea our understanding of the Old Testament has to change.  This is one area where Zahnd could have spent more time, though it is also basically what Boyd’s book is about.  In essence, we know what God is like in Jesus.  When it comes to God’s love in Jesus and God’s order for wrath in the Old Testament, we go with Jesus.  That may leave questions about what the Old Testament means, but those are questions we can live with since we now have Jesus in his proper place.

              If questioning traditional interpretations of the Old Testament is not enough, Zahnd also questions traditional understandings of hell.  First, I think he is right on in cautioning Christians against being confident of who is in hell.  Jesus is Savior and Jesus will save all sorts of people.  Second, he does not actually say much about the afterlife.  Zahnd’s emphasis is on this life, including the hells we humans create.  That said, it is clear that his understanding of God as Love means the door is never closed on anyone, in this life or the next.  If a person turns away from their self-centeredness and desires to know God, God will welcome that person.  As the book of Revelation says, the gates of the New Jerusalem are never closed, so presumably people can enter at any time.  God’s love means God is, like the Father in the parable of the prodigal, always willing to welcome anyone.  The problem is that we, like the son, are slow to go home.  I suppose Zahnd is not a big enough name to get criticized the way Rob Bell did with Love Wins (which I am pretty sure many of his critics did not bother to read), but he sounds a lot like Bell here.

              Overall, I loved this book.  Even if you do not agree with some of Zahnd’s conclusions, I think the questions he is raising are worth your time.  Does God send people to an eternal torture chamber, worse than anything Hitler devised?  Does God change?  How do we understand passages of the Old Testament, such as the Canaanite genocide, in light of Jesus?  What, ultimately, is God really like?  Is God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus just a parenthesis between lots and lots of wrath?  Or is Jesus truly the human face of God?

              Finally, most of my qualms with this book come down to editing.  Zahnd’s foil here is Jonathan Edwards, the title of the book is even a modification of one of Edwards’ sermons.  After the first chapter or so, Zahnd begins mentioning John Calvin and Calvin’s ideas.  Unless I missed it, he never quoted Calvin.  Perhaps Calvin is a stand in for Calvinism, though Calvinism is broad.  Maybe Puritanism?  John Piper?  I am sure Calvin is closer in theology to Edwards than Zahnd, but bringing Calvin in with little introduction seemed sloppy.  Likewise, there were a couple other references with no note.  He mentioned William Wallace once, a clear allusion to Braveheart and a strain of Christianity that lifts up Wallace as an ideal man (John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart).  Was this connection I made what Zahnd hoped for?  Again, either editing or something would have cleared this up. 

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review

CS Lewis Top Ten Books: 5-1

5. The Great Divorce – In this book, Lewis takes the reader on an allegorical journey of heaven and hell.  Honestly, this is one of those books that makes me surprised Lewis is so popular in evangelical Christian circles.  Were he living and writing today as a member of American evangelicalism, I suspect he would be highly criticized.  That aside, this is a fantastic work of speculative fiction.  Whatever you think about the afterlife, there is a lot here to ponder.  This book also shows Lewis’ brilliance in that he combined a tremendous talent for storytelling as well as an astute mind.  In other words, he did not just present his ideas in straightforward theology books but let them meander out in fascinating stories.

4. A Grief Observed – One of Lewis’ first books was The Problem of Pain.  In it he tackled the age old challenges to faith of evil and suffering.  Its not a bad book but it does not make my list because, helpful as such books are, they often appear separated from real life suffering.  Lewis, as a veteran of the first world war, was certainly familiar with suffering.  But I recall The Problem of Pain approaching the problem a bit too on the rationalistic side.  What is fascinating is how one of Lewis’ last books attacks the problem.  A lifelong bachelor, Lewis eventually married only to have his wife die of cancer.  The short book, A Grief Observed, is his raw and emotional cry in response to this suffering.  The rationalist presenting well thought out answers is gone in the face of a man nearing despair and questioning his faith.  Lewis did not lose his faith of course, and this book is brilliant for its honesty.

3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – Finally we get to the Narnia stories.  I thought of just putting them at number one as a whole.  As I write this, I wonder why I did not include The Last Battle or The Horse and His Boy in my top ten.  But since I was a kid, Voyage of the Dawn Treader has been one of my favorite stories.  It is the third Narnia story, the first without Peter and Susan.  We meet Eustace who joins his cousins, Edmund and Lucy, on a voyage to the end of the world.  I think there’s just something about quest stories that has always gripped me.  Of course, there is some fantastic imagery I did not get as a kid which I find profound now.

2. Mere Christianity – It was probably sometime in college when I first learned that the author of my favorite fantasy series had written other books.  This is Lewis’ most well-known work apart from Narnia and has become a classic of Christian apologetics.  The last time I read it, I recall being surprised by how good it was.  Some of the arguments are so familiar, and so often quoted, that they are also often criticized. And it is true that some of the arguments out of context are less convincing.  For example, Lewis argues that Jesus must be either liar, lunatic or lord.  But what about legend, maybe the stories in the gospels are far from what really happened? (I believe Lewis does address this in later essays since it was probably a critique even in his day.)  So yes, its not a perfect book (the few pages when Lewis address male-female relationships are actually pretty bad).  But it is a wonderful book and deserves its place at the top of Lewis’ works

1. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – What else could I put here?  My love of Narnia dates back to discovering this book in my church library as a kid (as I noted in the first post).  I was entranced as I read it during church, rather than listening to the sermon.  At some point the allegory became apparent, seeing Aslan as Jesus. I recently read it to my oldest daughter and look forward to reading it to my son.  I don’t necessarily want to say it was life-changing, but I think it was.  Lewis loved stories and came to see the story of Jesus as the myth that became fact.  So all the stories we love point to the true story of the world.  For me, this book prepared me for a deeper understanding of the story of Jesus.  Heck, maybe at some point it saved my faith.  There have been times I wanted Aslan and Narnia to be real.  That aside, it is a fantastic story.  Thus its number one both because it is a great story and, personally, it changed my life.

CS Lewis’ Top Ten Books: 10-6

I’ve been a fan of CS Lewis’ writing forever, since I picked up The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in my church library when I was around ten.  Over the years I have managed to read most of his books, both fiction and non-fiction.  He is often quoted and has shaped many hearts and minds.  For what it is worth, enjoy my top ten Lewis books.

10. The Abolition of Man

This is a short book, under 100 pages, that packs a powerful punch.  Lewis argues for the importance of universal values such as honor and courage.  He shows how these values are found all over ancient cultures and world religions.  It makes sense, since if all humans are created in God’s image then we should share many values.  As he looked at the twentieth century, Lewis feared his culture was trying to jettison these long-held and vital values.

9. The Weight of Glory

Some of Lewis’ best work came in essays and lectures.  This book is a collection of some of those.  The best here is “Learning in War Time” where he addresses whether it is worthwhile continuing to study at university during war, specifically WWII.  Expanded, this is one of the best defenses of Christians pursuing study that you will find anywhere.  He also writes an essay on why he is not a pacifist, which I recall being disappointing.  Overall though, a wonderful collection.

8. God in the Dock

Here is another collection of essays, though this one is at least twice as long as The Weight of Glory.  If you have read a lot of Lewis, you will see many of his ideas found in his books showing up in his essays.  On the other hand, if you’re new to Lewis this might serve as a good preview for some of the arguments in his books.

7. Till We Have Faces

Lewis is the rare author who combined the ability to write fantastic fiction with compelling work on Christian spirituality and theology.  This book was his last work of fiction and perhaps his best.  While the Narnia stories were for children and much of the symbolism was easy to discover, the messages and meanings here require a good bit more thought.  Lewis thought highly of pre-Christian paganism, and this story is set in such a pre-Christian land.  Thus we meet a “god” and not God.  Lewis thought that Western culture might need to return to paganism in order to be prepared for a serious reevaluation of Christianity.  Meaning and symbolism aside, this is a great story.

6. The Four Loves

In this book Lewis examines different types of love, from affection and friendship to romantic love and self-giving love.  I found this both challenging and enlightening.  One vital point Lewis makes is differentiating between need-pleasure and pleasure-of-appreciation.  The first is kind of self-centered  you appreciate something because you need it; you love it because of what it does for you.  This is not bad of course, but, to take one example, if your love of your spouse never matures past this you are in trouble.  Pleasure rooted in appreciation loves the other for its (his, her) inherent goodness and beauty.

Stay tuned for 5-1 next week…

Why I Chose to Give Up Twitter and Save My Soul

Most days my mornings beginning roughly the same: I get up, make the kids their breakfast and then sit down to drink my coffee while reading the news.  My interaction with the news is not through a physical paper but is filtered through the News and Twitter apps on my phone.  Because of this, my reading of the news was not limited to news but included commentary (tweets and retweets) from the hundreds of people I had chosen to follow on Twitter.

I recently realized that engaging with the news in this way was becoming a huge distraction in my life.  This is because reading the news in the morning was never enough.  I would be drawn back throughout the day to see the latest comments on that news – whether funny, snarky, angry or thoughtful.  It got to the point where every hour or so I felt a need to check twitter to see the latest.  Further, with my phone charging next to my bed I found myself reaching for it first thing in the morning.  Again, I justified this by saying I wanted to check the weather.  Or maybe someone texted me something important while asleep.  But my groggy half awake self was already diving into the news of the day as presented on Twitter.

I recently read Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Warren and I believe every single Christian, or perhaps any person, could benefit by reading it.  It is one of my favorite books, and probably one of the most practical, I have read in a long time.  She writes about the spiritual practices that shape us, such as how we spend the early moments of our day:

          “By reaching for my smartphone every morning, I had developed a ritual that trained me toward a certain end: entertainment and stimulation via technology. Regardless of my professed worldview or particular Christian subculture, my unexamined daily habit was shaping me into a worshiper of glowing screens. Examining my daily liturgy as a liturgy—as something that both revealed and shaped what I love and worship—allowed me to realize that my daily practices were malforming me, making me less alive, less human, less able to give and receive love throughout my day. Changing this ritual allowed me to form a new repetitive and contemplative habit that pointed me toward a different way of being-in-the-world.

Twitter can be a helpful and useful tool.  There are plenty of smart people on there sharing helpful and challenging ideas.  But I realized that reading, and trying to keep up with, the tweets from a bunch of strangers was beginning to hurt my real life.  Again, I could justify it because if I retweeted something good I was speaking truth or fighting the good fight.  If I am honest though, nobody cares what I have to say.  My tweets are not making any sort of difference beyond virtue signaling.  And, once again, there is a whole world around me that I want to make a different in.

In other words, social media in general and twitter specifically was not helping me become the father, husband, neighbor, campus pastor or church member I want to be.

I’ve been challenged by scripture like this one:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things – Philippians 4:6-8

What am I doing that promotes meditating on good things rather than being filled with anger, stress and frustration (which is where I usually ended up after being on Twitter)?

Rather than picking up my phone first thing in the morning, I sit in bed and think or I pick up my Bible and read.  Perhaps I write in my journal.

Rather than checking Twitter every hour, I am trying to sit in the silence of the day, to pray for those around me, and think of ways I can act in positive ways in the world.

I pray this makes me more content throughout my days, and also more active in actually helping those around me.

If interested, I preached a sermon on this at my church last week: Content. Check it out here (October 1, titled Content).

 

The Walkin’ Dude Is Still Walkin’ – Thoughts on Evil

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

So begins The Gunslinger, the first book of Stephen King’s fantasy epic series, The Dark Tower.  Over the course of the series we learn that the man in black is in fact a character familiar to King’s universe, Randall Flagg.  Flagg is an evil entity.  Perhaps we could call him a wizard, though wizard is not really the right word for him.  Better to say he is the personification of evil.

Flagg first appeared in King’s post-apocalyptic book, The Stand, which I am reading right now (I’m on page 810 as of this morning).  We meet him walking through a desert in the western United States, and he is immediately shown to be a dark man who loves chaos.  After a plague kills 99% of humanity, the survivors dream of Flagg as well as a kind old woman named Mother Abagail.  Some survivors join Flagg while others join Mother Abagail.  Some of Abagail’s first followers are not sure if Flagg is real and ask her about him:

“How much do you know about the dark man? Do you know who he is?

“I know what he’s about but not who he is. He’s the purest evil left in the world. The rest of the bad is little evil. Shoplifters and sexfiends and people who like to use their fists.  But he’ll call them.  He’s started already. He’s getting them together a lot faster than we are.  Before he’s ready to make his move, I guess he’ll have a lot more.  Not just the evil ones that are like him, but the weak ones…the lonely ones…and the ones that have left God out of their hearts.”

“Maybe he’s not real,” Nick wrote. “Maybe he’s just…” He had to niblle at the top of his pen and think. At last he added: “…the scared, bad part of all of us. Maybe we are dreaming of the things we’re afraid we might do.”

Ralph frowned over this as he read it aloud, but Abby grasped what Nick meant right off.  It wasn’t much different from the talk of the new preachers who had got on the land in the last twenty years of so.  There was evil, and it probably came from original sin, but it was in all of us and getting it out was as impossible as getting an egg out of its shell without cracking it.  According to the way these new preachers had it, Satan was like a jugsaw puzzle – and every man, woman and child on earth added his or her little piece to make up the whole. Yes, all that had a good modern sound to it; the trouble with it was that it wasn’t true. And if Nick was allowed to go on thinking that, the dark man would eat him for dinner.”

The Stand, p. 503-504.

I couldn’t help but think of this passage, and of Flagg, in the last twenty-four hours.  Once again evil has been given a face as one man murdered dozens of people at a concert.  As usual, many people have shared much on social media – thoughts, tears, prayers, ideas for why this keeps happening and ideas how to stop it.  A lot of this is helpful, some of it is probably not.

I personally don’t have much to say on any of that right now.  All I know is evil is alive and well in 2017.  Most days, if you ask me, I am honestly not sure if there is such a being as “Satan.”  God as the ultimate reality, the infinite ground of being and creator of all things, makes sense to me.  A spiritual realm with spiritual beings, some good and some evil, is a little tougher to swallow but I can buy it.  But a grand demon in charge of all the rest, good ole’ Lucifer?  For some reason, that seems difficult to believe.  But then I look at the evil and suffering in the world and I think maybe there is something to that old time religion with its talk of battles with an incredibly powerful being, Satan, the personification of all evil.

Satan is still active, enticing people to evils both big and small.

Flagg may have a different name and face,  but he’s out there causing chaos.

The walkin’ dude is still walkin’ through the desert…

PS: Richard Beck has a pretty fantastic book on Satan that I read a few months back that speaks to contemporary Christian skepticism to Satan as well as the reality of such evil. Check it out: Reviving Old Scratch.

Old Books Are Good For Your Soul

I grew up in imbibing white evangelical American theology.  It was in the air I breathed.  There is much good in that air.  But there is also much that is questionable.  Like others, there came a time in my life when I began to ask questions.  Some questions were small (How come so much contemporary worship music is focused on me and my feelings?) and others were big (Is God just a superman in the sky ready to destroy whomever crosses him?).

It is possible when such questions are asked to reject Christianity as a whole.  If all you see is one form of Christianity (white evangelical American in my case) and you notice blindspots and problems, the easiest path is walking away.

I am grateful that I realized that Christianity is far larger, deeper, more complex (though perhaps also more simple) than the white evangelical variety.  This realization came to me in numerous ways, one of which was meeting Christians from the past through reading old books.  CS Lewis writes about the importance of old books in an essay in God in the Dock:

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another one till you have read an old one in between.  If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.  Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  And that means old books” (219)

We all have blind spots and biases.  This is why it is vital to break out of the echo chamber and listen to voices that do not hold yours same background and presuppositions.  One way to do this is to read old books that have stood the test of time.  As Lewis says in the quote above, books from other eras do not share the biases of our time so they can help us see what we may not see and correct what needs to be corrected.  Lewis goes on to say:

“Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.  They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.  To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them” (220).

Again, reading books of the past is not magic.  They were written by people as messed up as we are.  Not everything in these books is right and true.  But they do have much to teach us because, again, they do not share our blindspots.  I found loads of beauty and truth in meeting old Christians in their books.  Of course, I found some things that were questionable.  This helped me realize that there is both beauty and blindspots in all forms of faith, even the form I grew up in.

How to go about reading old books?  They are not easy, that’s for sure.  Lewis suggests the following:

“I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books.  But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.  A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light” (218)

Not bad advice.  I’d suggest starting with someone like CS Lewis himself.

 

 

Seeing the Propaganda and Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber

Most of us spend time with people who think like we do and we read or watch news that affirms our understanding of things.  This is called living in an echo chamber.  It gets to the point that we feel unable to relate to the other side, because the other side is a mystery.  After all, everyone we know thinks like we do (and we know lots of smart people, of course!).  When we encounter people outside our echo chamber we don’t bother with dialogue and debate but go right for power and silencing.  This is dangerous because in a world where everything is a battle and there are only winners or losers, we are on a track to totalitarianism.

Pessimistic? Maybe.  But look at social media.

I don’t have a lot of solutions outside basic things: listen to people with different opinions, be humble and know you have a lot to learn.  One solution is simply reading.  You might start with a recent book called On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.  In this book he talks about tyrannies in the twentieth century and steps to take to avoid and oppose them.  One of the primary steps is to read:

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books. The characters in Orwell’s and Bradbury’s books could not do this—but we still can…

What to read? Any good novel enlivens our ability to think about ambiguous situations and judge the intentions of others. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being might suit our moment. Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here is perhaps not a great work of art; Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is better. One novel known by millions of young Americans that offers an account of tyranny and resistance is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. If you or your friends or your children did not read it that way the first time, then it bears reading again

I love that Snyder mentions Harry Potter as a book to read.  In essence, you can almost read anything.  But if you want to go a bit deeper than Harry Potter, perhaps try Propaganda by Jacques Ellul.  While I cannot say I’ve read all the best books on propaganda, I can say I’ve read the definitive one (at least, that’s what perusing lists of books on propaganda tells me).  Ellul argues some surprising things, such as that it is the most educated who are most susceptible to propaganda.  Perhaps the best quote in the book (here, I’ll save you a few bucks) is this one:

“Those who read the press of their group and listen to the radio of their group are constantly reinforced in their allegiance. They learn more and more that their group is right, that its actions are justified; thus their beliefs are strengthened. At the same time, such propaganda contains elements of criticism and refutation of other groups, which will never be read or heard by a member of another group…This double foray on the part of propaganda, proving the excellence of one’s own group and the evilness of the others, produces an increasingly stringent partitioning of our society…Thus we see before our eyes how a world of closed minds establishes itself, a world in which everybody talks to himself, everybody constantly views his own certainty about himself and the wrongs done him by the Others – a world in which nobody listens to anybody else, everybody talks and nobody listens”

If you only watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh or if you only listen to MSNBC and listen to whomever the liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh is, you’re in the echo chamber.

Now, I admit I am guilty of this.  It is easier to listen to whatever agrees with you, it is fun to be affirmed.  It takes work.  I get a lot of my news from Twitter and I’ve made an effort to follow people on the Left (Shaun King) and the Right (Ben Shapiro).  I find myself agreeing with all of them at times, and disagreeing.

If you want a simpler book to read, Frank Lunz’s Words that Work talks about the power of words.  He has worked on numerous political campaigns and it is amazing to see how the right catchphrase can drive a movement (Hope and Change, Make America Great Again).  Finally, if you want to learn from history, read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  It is LONG but fantastic as you see how Hitler rose to power, legally, and quickly dismantled freedoms.

After that, perhaps join me in the future in reading The Gulag Archipelego which tells the story of the Communist owork camps.  These two stories, of Hitler and Stalin’s tyrannies, must never be far from our mind.

 

Praying and Working (Thoughts on Prayer Inspired by CS Lewis)

Nearly everyone prays at some point.  Christians, Muslims, Jews and probably even skeptics may ask the heavens or inquire of the great beyond.  Those of us who are Christians address God, our loving Father and Divine Parent, in the name of Jesus Christ in the strength of the Holy Spirit (we pray in Trinity…but that’s another story).

Yet, what is prayer?  Does it affect God?  If God is infinite and all powerful, isn’t God just going to do whatever He, or She, wants?  This is a big question.  Its one of those questions that everyone has an answer for which in reality means no one has an answer for.

CS Lewis addresses this question in an essay found in his book God in the Dock:

“We know that we can act and that our actions produce results.  Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole of history with His own hand.  Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all.  It is like a play in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise.  It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause real events at all; but it is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method” (106)

In other words, just as our actions make a difference so to do our prayers impact real events.  It may be a mystery how it works, but for Lewis, the relationship of God and humanity means prayer, or lackthereof, does make a difference:

“He (God) made the matter of the universe such that we can (in those limits) do things to it; that is why we can wash our own hands and feed or murder our fellow creatures.  Similarly, He made His own plan or plot of history such that it admits a certain amount of free play and can be modified in response to our prayers” (106)

Lewis goes on to address the difference between prayer and work.  He basically says that we humans possess a good deal of power in our work, God has given us freedom.  When it comes to prayer, God has “discretionary power”.  To use an example, you can choose to harm another person and act to make it happen and God, as far as we know, will not intervene to stop you.  But if you pray to kill another person, God will not make it happen.

“You cannot be sure of a good harvest whatever you do to a field. But you can be sure that if you pull up one week that one weed will no longer be there.  You can be sure that if you drink more than a certain amount of alcohol you will ruin your health or that f you go on for a few centuries more wasting the resources of the planet on wars and luxuries you will shorten the life of the whole human race.  The kind of causality we exercise by work is, so to speak, divinely guaranteed, and therefore ruthless.  By it we are free to do ourselves as much harm as we please.  But the kind which we exercise by prayer is not like that; God has left himself a discretionary power. Had He not done so, prayer would be an activity too dangerous for man and we should have the horrible state of things envisaged by Juvenal: ‘Enormous prayers which Heaven in anger grants'” (107)

My take away from Lewis is simple: Pray.  Do not choose between Prayer and Work because both make a difference.  Work hard to do good and pray hard for good to be done.

There’s lots more that could be said  If you’re interested, my friend Tim just preached a sermon on prayer this past week: Negotiating With God.  Give it a listen.  I’ve posted on prayer in the past, here are two that might be helpful.

Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer and Fasting

Thoughts on Prayer – Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

Finally, if you’re into books you could always try Lewis’ Letters To Malcolm on Prayer or Philip Yancey’s Prayer or Andrew Murray’s With Christ in the School of Prayer.  Of course, there’s the book of Psalms in the Bible which is filled with prayer.

And there’s the act of praying.  Since prayer is not about reading and learning but mostly about doing.