Friday, July 31, 2009

Visit a Christian Brothel Near You...Or Start Your Own

Earlier this week, I mentioned my discovery of blogger Nate Claiborne. In today's entry, he paints a vivid picture of Christian idolatry. Here are some excerpts:

When one realizes that Bible starts and ends with a marriage, the pieces may seem to fit together a bit smoother. Enclosed within the humble beginnings of human marriage was the divine mystery of ultimate marriage.... If our marriages between men and women are to reflect the marriage of the people of God to Christ, then defiling that relationship with Christ is analogous to defiling the human relationship with one’s spouse.

This is why God presses the Gospel on the whole of our lives, this is why not paying close attention to our devotion to God is like adultery. To see this maybe more clearly, let’s use an example.

I am getting married tomorrow…to my lovely fiance Alexandra Kaufman. We are entering into a covenant before God to pledge ourselves only to one another, until death do us part. Considering that we are both virgins, the honeymoon will be quite the intoxicating, blissful experience as well. But suppose sometime around the first of the year something changes.

Alexandra initially only came to me for sexual fulfillment, but somewhere along the line her heart starts to wander a bit. It’s not as noticeable at first, we continue on as usual. But then after a while, she starts bringing home other guys to sleep with. This goes on briefly before I casually remind her that she is supposed to come to me for that kind of fulfillment. With that in mind, she apologizes and then does just that.

But by doing that, all she changes is that now she expects me to find the other guys for her. She comes to me for fulfillment, but she wants me to give her all manner of other men to satisfy her rather than myself. She could have the only type of fulfillment she was meant to have if she would only just ask for it, but she continues sowing her wild oats even within our own bedroom. I don’t particularly seem to mind though, because she is at least nice about it and she makes sure to not interfere with my sleeping habits. We both continue on in this sort of affair, because after all, it’s only marriage, right?

I would be worried if anybody reading this was not appalled at the possibility of my marriage…turning into something like this.

However, we often don’t seem too appalled when our relationship with Christ, which is pictured as a marriage turns into something like this.

We start out fully devoted, only to slowly turn our affections to things of this world. Maybe later we get gently rebuked and come to our senses, but instead of giving up our idols, we merely start coming to Christ to get them. What is worse still is that we fully expect God to respond in the above manner and not particularly mind if we are out busy working the streets, spreading our legs for whoever passes by, so long as we come on Sundays and renew our vows.

How would Alexandra feel if I went to the strip clubs 6 days a week and rounded out the night by picking up a prostitute, so long as I came to her at least once a week for a passionate reconnection?

How should God respond when we do the same thing?

In Christianity in America, this is the course of the mainstream. One glance at some of the largest churches in America reveals that they are run more like brothels. People come and are encouraged in their adultery by appealing to the idolatry of health, wealth and happiness as what God intends to give to us rather than promoting the orthodox idea that it is Himself that is to be most treasured by us.

If you'd like to read his entire entry, it's here.

Picture: Nicolaus Knuepfer, Brothel Scene

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cutting Remarks

A perfectly good God is…hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist. The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed – might grow tired of his vile sport – might have a temporary fit of mercy…. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t.

- C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, pp. 49-50

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What Real Faith Looks Like

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it? The same with people. For years I would have said that I had perfect confidence in B.R. Then came the moment when I had to decide whether I would or would not trust him with a really important secret. That threw quite a new light on what I called my “confidence” in him. I discovered that there was no such thing. Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.
- C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, p. 25

Monday, July 27, 2009

More on Eldredge (Sorry)

This is one sleeping dog I was planning to let lie [how many puns can be in one short phrase?], but then I came across Nate Claiborne's blog. He's a student at Dallas Theological Seminary and just posted a series on John Eldredge's book, Waking the Dead. Nate's blog posts are long and theological and analytical, and they are also very good. He has a way of taking apart bad theology without resorting to ad hominem attacks, and he adds valuable thoughts to the discussion of John Eldredge books and their defective theology.

I suppose another sign of his perspicacity is his referring to my own Wild at Heart critique twice in his series, when he refers to Eldredge's romanticism and gnosticism. But even without that, I would have recommended him. Really.

Check out Nate's blog. I think you'll like what you see, not just on Eldredge but on other topics, as well.

(Image by Rene Magritte. It seemed appropriate, because no matter how many times Eldredge insists we have "good" hearts, the hearts we actually have - and Scripture - keep testifying that the reality isn't quite so simple.)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

This is a Christian Picture (I Think)

It all started when I sent an e-mail to my artist(ic) friend Ron in Seattle, ranting about a video I found on YouTube showing some guy doing an improvisatory dance at the headquarters of the Christian organization I worked for in the early 80s. I found the dance embarrassing, stupid, and having nothing whatsoever to do with following Jesus. Ron found it "amazing" and "pretty darn beautiful." That led to several more e-mails as we discussed what makes for "Christian" art. It's easy for me to see how a Cranach altar piece is supposed to be Christian art, but I really don't know what to do with that YouTube dancer or even someone like Makato Fujimura (who by the way, like me, is an elder in a PCA church).
I may never get it figured out, but I was helped by an article I randomly discovered a couple weeks ago. Michael O'Brien is an artist and novelist. In his essay, "Fire in Our Darkness," which you can find here, he explores what makes fine art Christian. Following are a few tidbits, but if you're interested in the subject, I recommend reading the whole thing.

Most Church art is still produced by factories, not created by a sense of mission or desire to incarnate the unseen reality. Only the artist transfigured in faith and master of his medium can accomplish this. Father P. Raymond Regamy, in Religious Art in the Twentieth Century, says, “Nazi art, the socialist realism of the U.S.S.R., and the art that we normally find in churches are the three most dreadful manifestations of art that our century has witnessed.” There is a harsh truth here. Who knows how many have rejected religion from a subconscious revulsion to paintings of Christ they have absorbed since childhood. An effeminate Jesus and saccharin madonna may appeal at one level of a starved emotional life, but they do not reach deeper to liberate and heal. The face of God must be portrayed in Christ as mercy and truth combined. Unless it is so, religious imagery will be a closed door inhibiting our growth in the Kingdom. Bad art has the power to deform a people just as good art generates new reflection, growth, vision, and hope.


The artist is all idealist, and for him the ideal is the real, capable of transforming his world into what it should be. For Western man it is difficult to grasp this curious vocation. He misreads art as decoration, entertainment, or a tool for imparting information.


The popular modern emblems of faith are the rainbow and the much-abused butterfly. Yet they are losing their symbolic power because they have been used exhaustively to express a false joy, that of resurrection without crucifixion.


As a liturgical artist he will need to balance the tension between mystery and hospitality, a creative and healthy tension which should be characteristic of our places of worship. So often the parish church is a safe place where we go to keep intact our middle-class vision of existence. We want to tame God, to make the sanctuary an extension of our living rooms and ourselves into spectators — consumers — of the liturgy. We must re-experience the church as holy ground, welcoming and warm, but sacred. A place where we are not to be confirmed in mediocrity, but led to transfiguration. This is a particularly urgent need, because in liturgy the human soul should be opened to God, and once it has been so exposed it must be fed real food. Much of what passes for liturgical art fails to nourish because its makers have not found its source within themselves. There is talent but little or no vision. Church art rarely commands respect; it is seen by the world as a gasp from a dying Christian culture. If we are offended by these opinions we must now, more than ever, seek the origins and purposes of art and bring it to fruition in the prophetic heart of the Church. [We could say the same about church music, couldn't we?]


No renewal of sacred art in our times will come if the artist's gift, his spiritual gift, is regarded as a piece of merchandise with which to cover the empty spaces on our walls.

Picture: Makato Fujimura, "Splendor Joy"

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Read this Book. See Jesus.

Jesus was not an American. Nor a capitalist. Nor a product of the Enlightenment or Romanticism. He wasn't a postmodernist or a CEO or a copilot.
Believe it or not, Jesus was a Middle Easterner. And a Jew. He could speak Hebrew and some Greek, but mostly he spoke Aramaic.
What does all this have to do with us? Well, if you're reading this, chances are that you are none of the above-mentioned things that Jesus was, and you are many of the things Jesus was not. Therefore, when you and I read the Bible, we tend to read it through lenses quite different from those worn by the first hearers of the message. We may reach accurate doctrinal conclusions about the essentials of the faith, but we may also miss much of the richness that comes from understanding the culture in which the Bible was written. When it comes to Jesus, we miss the sheer audacity of his words and his person, even as we bow before Him for our salvation.
That's where Kenneth E. Bailey comes in, with his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Bailey grew up in the Middle East (mostly Egypt) and taught there for 40 years. His 60 years of life experience, linguistic ability, and curiosity come together in this amazing look at the Jesus of the gospels. It is impossible to read this book without growing in an appreciation of the cleverness, theological and philosophical depth, social brazenness, and deep compassion that go into describing the incarnate Christ. Bailey's insights are not "novel" in the sense of being unorthodox theologically. Rather, they are like a key that opens a door and allows a much fuller view than what one was heretofore gaining through a keyhole. The previous view was accurate, but limited. The new view is broader and richer and gives deeper meaning to what was seen before.
In 35+ years of reading Christian books, I don't know if I've ever read one that caused me to say "Wow" or "Oh my gosh" as many times as this one did. And only rarely have I read a book of theology that actually led me to worship; this is one of them.
It's hard to summarize this book, because there's so much in it. The six main sections deal with: The Birth of Jesus; The Beatitudes; The Lord's Prayer; Dramatic Actions of Jesus; Jesus and Women; and the Parables of Jesus. It all adds up to 400 pages, but it's not a difficult read. Nevertheless, don't expect to get through it quickly: you may find yourself wanting to stop often and savor what you just read.
Why did Jesus ask handicapped people whether they wanted to get well? Why was Zacchaeus in a sycamore tree? What's the point of the parable of the talents (hint: it's not about using your God-given abilities)? Who is the only person in Jesus' parables given a name, and why? How did Jesus view women? Which "inn" had no room at Jesus' birth? How does the Lord's Prayer blast away the concept of salvation being only for the Jews? And why should we trust that what we read in the gospels is what really happened? All this and much, much, much more is brilliantly answered in this book. You'll never read the gospels the same way, again.
I gave a friend a copy of the chapter about the Syro-Phoenecian woman (Matthew 15.21-28). In this encounter, we see Jesus refusing to answer the woman pleading for her daughter's healing, then telling her that He only came to help Jews, then calling her a dog. After my friend read Bailey's exposition of this passage, he said, "I used to read this story and think, 'Jesus is a jerk.' But now I read it and say, 'Jesus is amazing.'"
Jesus is amazing. Read this book and you'll have a much richer understanding as to why.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

He's Wright About That

One of the great Prayer Book collects asks God that we may
“love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise”. That is always tough, for all of us. Much easier to ask God to command what we already love, and promise what we already desire.

- N.T. (Tom) Wright, Bishop of Durham, writing today in the London Times.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sarah's 15 Minutes Are Up...or Should Be

I started out really liking Sarah Palin. As time passed, my enthusiasm waned. For me, the biggest blow was when Katie Couric asked her something along the lines of what she read to keep up with current events, and Sarah answered, "Oh, everything." When pressed, she couldn't name a single publication...if only she had said, "The Economist"! I'm not sure Katie was playing fair in the interview, overall, but this particular question was eminently fair, and the answer thoroughly disappointing. I knew then that we were in trouble.

Now she's resigned from her governorship, and I wish she'd just go away. Peggy Noonan (a card-carrying conservative, by the way) has put into words thoughts I didn't even know I had. Here's an excerpt from a recent Wall Street Journal column (emphasis mine):

Sarah Palin's resignation gives Republicans a new opportunity to see her plain—to review the bidding, see her strengths, acknowledge her limits, and let go of her drama. It is an opportunity they should take. They mean to rebuild a great party. They need to do it on solid ground.

Her history does not need to be rehearsed at any length. Ten months ago she was embraced with friendliness by her party. The left and the media immediately overplayed their hand, with attacks on her children. The party rallied round, as a party should. She went on the trail a sensation but demonstrated in the ensuing months that she was not ready to go national and in fact never would be. She was hungry, loved politics, had charm and energy, loved walking onto the stage, waving and doing the stump speech. All good. But she was not thoughtful. She was a gifted retail politician who displayed the disadvantages of being born into a point of view (in her case a form of conservatism; elsewhere and in other circumstances, it could have been a form of liberalism) and swallowing it whole: She never learned how the other sides think, or why.

In television interviews she was out of her depth in a shallow pool. She was limited in her ability to explain and defend her positions, and sometimes in knowing them. She couldn't say what she read because she didn't read anything. She was utterly unconcerned by all this and seemed in fact rather proud of it: It was evidence of her authenticity. She experienced criticism as both partisan and cruel because she could see no truth in any of it. She wasn't thoughtful enough to know she wasn't thoughtful enough. Her presentation up to the end has been scattered, illogical, manipulative and self-referential to the point of self-reverence. "I'm not wired that way," "I'm not a quitter," "I'm standing up for our values." I'm, I'm, I'm.

In another age it might not have been terrible, but here and now it was actually rather horrifying.

If you'd like to read the entire column, it's here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

We Have More in Common With The French Than You Thought

President Obama, sightseeing with French President Sarkozy at this week's G-8 summit in Italy.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"Better Deaths Than Any I've Ever Seen"

There are only a couple things I pray regarding the end of my life. One of them is that I will die well. By that, I mean that if I have any advance warning of my impending earthly demise, I desire to die in faith, confidence, trust, and peace, not "like the rest of men, who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4.13). I want to honor God not just in how I live my life, but also in how I "live" my death.

If it's a protracted death, Iwould love for it to be something like what's described in today's New York Times. The story profiles nuns at a convent and the provisions they've made for each other to die among friends, with dignity, in an environment of hope. Here are some excerpts:

July 9, 2009
Months to Live
Sisters Face Death With Dignity and Reverence

A convent is a world apart, unduplicable. But the Sisters of St. Joseph, a congregation in this Rochester suburb, animate many factors that studies say contribute to successful aging and a gentle death — none of which require this special setting. These include a large social network, intellectual stimulation, continued engagement in life and spiritual beliefs, as well as health care guided by the less-is-more principles of palliative and hospice care — trends that are moving from the fringes to the mainstream.

For the elderly and infirm Roman Catholic sisters here, all of this takes place in a Mother House designed like a secular retirement community for a congregation that is literally dying off, like so many religious orders. On average, one sister dies each month, right here, not in the hospital, because few choose aggressive medical intervention at the end of life, although they are welcome to it if they want.

“We approach our living and our dying in the same way, with discernment,” said Sister Mary Lou Mitchell, the congregation president. “Maybe this is one of the messages we can send to society, by modeling it.”

Primary care for most of the ailing sisters is provided by Dr. Robert C. McCann, a geriatrician at the University of Rochester, who says that through a combination of philosophy and happenstance, “they have better deaths than any I’ve ever seen.”

“It is much easier to guide people to better choices here than in a hospital,” he said, “and you don’t get a lot of pushback when you suggest that more treatment is not better treatment.”

Few sisters opt for major surgery, high-tech diagnostic tests or life-sustaining machinery. And nobody can remember the last time anyone died in a hospital, which was one of the goals in selling the old Mother House, with its tumbledown infirmary…and using the money to finance a new facility appropriate for end-of-life care.

“There is a time to die and a way to do that with reverence,” said Sister Mary Lou, 56, a former nurse. “Hospitals should not be meccas for dying. Dying belongs at home, in the community. We built this place with that in mind.”

….Here, everyone mixes. Of the 150 residents, nearly half live in the west wing, designated for independent living….Forty sisters live in assisted-living studios, and another 40 in the nursing home and Alzheimer’s unit, all in the east wing, with the chapel, dining rooms and library at the central intersection. Closed-circuit television allows those confined to their rooms to watch daily religious services.
Dr. McCann said that the sisters’ religious faith insulated them from existential suffering — the “Why me?” refrain commonly heard among those without a belief in an afterlife. Absent that anxiety and fear, Dr. McCann said, there is less pain, less depression, and thus the sisters require only one-third the amount of narcotics he uses to manage end-of-life symptoms among hospitalized patients.

On recent rounds, Dr. McCann saw …Sister Jamesine Riley, 75, once the president of the congregation, who barely survived a car accident that left her with a brain injury, dozens of broken bones and pneumonia. “You’re not giving up, are you?” Dr. McCann asked her. “No, I’m discouraged, but I’m not giving up,” Sister Jamesine replied in a strong voice.
Some days, Dr. McCann said, he arrives with his “head spinning,” from hospitals and intensive-care units where death can be tortured, impersonal and wastefully expensive, only to find himself in a “different world where it’s really possible to focus on what’s important for people” and, he adds, “what’s exportable, what we can learn from an ideal environment like this.”
Barbara Cocilova, the nurse practitioner here, sees differences in the health of these sisters compared with elderly patients in other settings….Among those with Alzheimer’s, Ms. Cocilova said, diagnostic tests tend to produce better-than-expected results among those who are further along in the disease process, a possible result of mental stimulation.
Sister Bernadine Frieda, 91, spry and sharp, spends her days visiting the infirm with Sister Marie Kellner, 77, both of them onetime science teachers. Sister Marie, who left the classroom because of
multiple sclerosis, reminds an astounded sister with Alzheimer’s that she was once a high school principal (“I was?!”) and sings “Peace Is Like a River” to the dying. “We don’t let anyone go alone on the last journey,” Sister Marie said.

Seven priests moved here in old age, paying their own way, as does Father Shannon, who presides over funerals that are more about the celebratory “alleluia” than the glum “De Profundis.”…He shares with them the security of knowing he will not die among strangers who have nothing in common but age and infirmity.

“This is what our culture, our society, is starved for, to be rich in relationships,” Sister Mary Lou said. “This is what everyone should have.”

I've often criticized the Times for cluelessness on religious matters. This article is a notable exeption. You can read the entire thing here.

And click here for a short audio slideshow about the sisters and their home. It's excellent.
(In case you're wondering, my health is fine, as far as I know. There are no veiled messages in this blog post!)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

In Search of Radical Atheists

I enjoyed these comments by Edward Oakes in the June/July issue of First Things:

In Untimely Meditations, Fried­rich Nietzsche spins a tale that goes like this: Once upon a time, on a minuscule planet orbiting a mediocre star, clever little animals emerged from the slime—and not long after began using puffed-up words like truth and goodness. Even worse, they thought they could attain genuine knowledge in this ultimately dead world. But their little C-grade star eventually cooled, and these pathetic little creatures died out, and with them died their proud words and hard-gained knowledge. The universe shed not one tear but merely looked on from its cold, infinite, uncaring skies.

One must at least credit Nietzsche for drawing out the consistent implications of atheism. Recent atheists, in contrast, seem to preach their atheism with an odd fervor, and one looks in vain for these overheated unbelievers to acknowledge that atheism entails a pointless universe. Perhaps, though, we should sympathize with our current crop of evangelizing atheists. Nietzsche’s pointless-universe thesis is so difficult to maintain that not even he could manage it. In a later book, The Gay Science, he came to the conclusion: “It is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests—that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians, still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato: that God is the truth, that truth is divine.”

Rare is the contemporary atheist who takes his atheism as radically as did Nietzsche.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Mirror Dimly

You will never love art well until you love what she mirrors better.

- John Ruskin (1819-1900)

(Picture: Face of Christ by Rouault)

Friday, July 3, 2009

White Other

I was filling out a registration form recently to access information on a U.K. government website, when I was asked to indicate my ethnic group. You know the old saying that England and the U.S. are two countries separated by a common language? It appears we're separated by more than just that. Check out the list...

Which ethnic group would you describe yourself as being in?

White British
White Irish
White Other

Black British
Black Caribbean
Black African
Other Black background

Asian British
Other Asian background

White & Asian
White & Black African
White & Black Caribbean

Other mixed background
Other ethnic group

Prefer not to say

This list tells you a lot about the U.K. and the history of the British Empire, doesn't it? I'm guessing the 2010 U.S. Census will have different choices.