Flash Review: Awful Devices & Haunting Desires with Dickensian Characters
Highlights: Adam Dalgliesh drinks a lot of excellent coffee; we glimpse telling flashbacks to his childhood; a ghoulish serial killer turns out not to be the most malevolent antagonist.
Devices and Desires represents the modern era of P.D. James; she ratchets up the level of suspense, creates a cast full of vivid minor characters, and adds extra flavor to the dialogue with what I take for an ironic smirk. By the time James penned this national bestseller (1990), she had discovered that she could freely insert quips on her favorite topics into her storylines, and she does so with effortless relish.
"I imagine [Adam Dalgliesh]'s come to Larsoken to get away from people who want to talk about his poetry. But it wouldn't hurt you to take a look at it. I've got the most recent volume. And it is poetry, not prose rearranged on the page."
"With modern verse, can one tell the difference?"
"Oh yes," she said. "If it can be read as prose, then it is prose. It's an infallible test."
In this book, P.D. James also seems to indulge in theatric phrases that sometimes borders on melodrama, but I suspect it was lines like these that made Adam Dalgliesh accessible as a "mainstream" mystery hero:
Horror and death were his trade and, like an undertaker, he carried with him the contagion of his craft.
I guess I'm willing to forgive such lines if they get the essence of Adam Dalgliesh (brooding, painfully self-aware, poetic but tenacious) across to a more popular audience. In fact, this seems to be a primary goal of Devices and Desires, as James scatters suggestive flashbacks to Dalgliesh's childhood throughout the volume, including a telling portrait of young Adam's fear of darkness. Finally, P.D. James' absorption with the paradoxically jagged texture of life is expressed clearly in this book. Two women converse at a dinner party:
"At the heart of the universe there is cruelty. We are predators and are preyed upon, every living thing. Did you know that wasps lay their eggs in ladybirds, piercing the weak spot in their armor. Then the grub grows and feeds on the living ladybird and eats its way out..."
"Perhaps it doesn't feel anything, the ladybird."
"Well, it's a comforting thought but I wouldn't bet on it. You must have had an extraordinarily happy childhood."
Adam Dalgliesh, as the central revelation of James' psyche, often seems convinced himself that the world is a dark, God-forsaken place - but never fully, never finally. And despite the existential murkiness, it is Dalgliesh's efforts which ultimately reveal the subversive and nagging evidences of redemption, justice and order, which must be considered as clues unto themselves.
That's right, it's listed on the Master Book List.
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Flash Review: Awful Devices & Haunting Desires with Dickensian Characters
Learning to Talk About Infinite Goodness
Recently I’ve been wondering if one should ever “get over” a feeling of amazement at the simplest aspects of truth. After thinking about it for awhile, I’m convinced the answer is No—but that we do need to discover progressively better ways of voicing our appreciation for reality.
Consider: It would be tempting to feel condescension toward a man who is continually amazed that air travel “works,” or that it’s really “possible” to access the internet from home. Get over it, I’d be tempted to tell him, and start enjoying the benefits of technology.
We need to get beyond a mere Wow mentality in our enjoyment of Christ. This is not a disavowal of wonder, it’s an endeavor to seize on better words, to discover more nuanced feelings to offer God in response to his goodness.
It’s not that airplanes and connectivity aren’t wonderful. Rather, it’s that a childish level of appreciation does not remain appropriate. The first time I drank coffee, I was startled and pleased by the sensation of unusual getup. Now, years later, the extra dynamism supplied by caffeine + a delicious roast is hardly less wonderful—but my modes of enjoyment are more refined. Likewise, and here’s what I’m really getting at, the depth of our appreciation for God should not remain the same.
I am a child of God, and he loves me like a son—but if, after five years, all I can muster in response to this truth is “Wow,” I am doing a disservice to both myself and my Father.
The feeling I’m trying to articulate is that we need to get beyond a mere Wow mentality in our enjoyment of Christ. This is not a disavowal of wonder, it’s an endeavor to seize on better words, to discover more nuanced feelings to offer God in response to his goodness. And these verbal expressions should point back to a life that has become spiritually aware, well-seasoned, mature. A greater depth of praise, I think, is the natural result of fully savored Christian spirituality.
God’s excellence is something that calls to be explored aggressively, wrestled with mentally, embraced trustingly, and intuitively lived out.
When I first met my wife, she was flattered if I smiled intently in her direction. Now, four years later, I’m finding I need to phrase my compliments more carefully. And it makes sense. After four years of enlightening Lindsay-experience, my accolades have progressed accordingly. God-experience, I’m convinced, should be similar.
Why does any of this matter?
My tendency, sometimes, is to gloss over the inexpressible beauty of God’s person and actions with a childish How cool. Is God astonishing? Yes—beyond words, in fact. But paradoxically, our thanks to God often takes verbal form. And there, I think, is where we often reveal our silliness.
When I first encounter the goodness of Christ, Wow! is a perfectly fitting response. But decades later, if Wow still conveys the sum total of my spiritual experience, my theology is revealing its cracks. I should have seen more by now! I should have tasted more by now! Fundamentally, I should know God better by now! And if I have done these things, I should learn to voice them—or my original sense of wonder may atrophy. As Paul, the theologian wrote:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways (I Corinthians 13:11, The Bible).
Perhaps I’m off the mark here. But I suspect that our shallow rhetoric about God often reveals our superficial understanding of his greatness. And if our understanding is in fact deeper, we are jeopardizing it by short-selling it with our language. Our own words affect us.
God’s excellence is something that calls to be explored aggressively, wrestled with mentally, embraced trustingly, and intuitively lived out. After a few years, an uninterrupted succession of mere Wows may reveal that the depth of our relationship with Christ is suspect.
I can almost see God showing up and questioning me some day…
“SO—AM I COOL?”
“WOULD YOU LIKE TO ELABORATE?”
There would be no question of my wanting to. The question would be: Would I have the words? And would I have the thoughts to underpin them? Maybe so…if my knowledge of God today transcends the level of juvenile Wow.
Monday, October 30, 2006
The iMonk, Michael Spencer, has stumbled upon a rare transcript from the 4,231st Halloween Dance and Potluck (typically held in the basement of the Salem, Masachusetts City Hall). The Great Pumpkin, who holds forth in an extended monologue, presents a rare combination of wit, conviviality, and C.S. Lewis. He also valiantly champions the rightful use of the imagination. What a Pumpkin!
"Ladies and gentlemen, ghouls and goblins, monsters and monstrosities both real and imaginary: It's truly an honor for me to be with you this evening on what is always a wonderful time of rekindling old friendships and wishing one another well before our big night. Many of us never see our fellow members of the realm of imagination except at this gathering, and it's really wonderful to see all of you again. I especially want to thank this year's President of the Halloween Society, Harry Potter, for all the work he's done this year. What a year, Harry! (Applause.)...
"When I see someone explaining the evil influence of a pumpkin, it's both a cause for laughter and for sadness. How can anyone, particularly one who says they believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, believe that mummies and werewolves and ghosts and witches hold any spiritual or actual power? One of the best imaginative writers, C.S. Lewis, who created all of the Narnia characters, was convinced that God gave human beings the realm of the imagination to be a sort of classroom to teach them, in a childish form, the spiritual nature of the universe and reality itself. In allowing them to create the imaginative realm, they were learning to reflect on reality and see its true character, and to see their own character as well. It was a way to see that human beings are the imaginative creations of God himself, and they reflect both his nature and their own fallen, rebellious nature."
Three cheers! Be sure and read the whole thing before the clock strikes midnight: The Great Pumpkin Proposes a Toast.
When you nail a crucial examination, a celebration is in order. I just wish that all these academic fetes were as enjoyable as the one Timothy has going on right now at his blog. Here's the occasion:
Success is when you study and work on American literature for a while to pass your bachelor test, and then succeed with the best grade possible! ...And now, I can relax and enjoy. Success is nice, comfortable but dangerous.
And here's a slice of the cake:
It was dark by the time we got home, and to my surprise I could see from the street that my light had been left on. When I walked into my apartment a small group had gathered. Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne and Whitman were all waiting for me, and I believe a small group of other authors were somewhere in my kitchen...They got me my beloved rocking-chair, Thoreau kindly and quietly fetched me some comfortable pillows... Whitman started to rub my feet (I normally would have asked him to stop, but I was too tired); and Hawthorne and Melville went outside for a while to smoke cigars for a bit.
Thrown in are some sharp musings on the dangers of success. Go get it. And congrats, Timothy! Now you have me wondering what events might unfold after my next academic victory. Maybe C.S. Lewis will pay a visit?
Yoni Cohen of FOX Sports just posted his predictions for the Big 12 basketball season, which is just days away. Of course, he pays tribute to the Jayhawks' talent:
Kansas has too much of a good thing. In addition to sensational swing Brandon Rush, the Jayhawks return productive guards Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers, forwards Julian Wright, C.J. Giles and Darnell Jackson, and center Sasha Kaun. Throw in Arthur and Collins, and Bill Self has the ingredients for a Final Four run —or the egos for a third consecutive first-round flop. To a large extent, Kansas' success or failure will be determined off the court. If every player embraces their role, the Jayhawks will dominate the Big 12. But if NBA aspirations get in the way of NCAA teamwork, Self may reconsider his hard-charging recruiting style.
It should be noted, though, that C.J. Giles is currently not practicing with the 'Hawks and probably won't return to the team. As well, Sasha Kaun is out for three to six weeks with an injury, so the pressure will be on freshman Darrell Arthur. (Fortunately, he's a McDonald's All-American.) Cohen goes on to make some gutsy prognostications:
Thanks to the return of guard Acie Law and forward Joseph Jones, the league's premier inside-outside combination, Texas A&M will be better than Texas. Behind Aaron Bruce, Curtis Jerrells and McDonald's All-American Tweety Carter, Baylor rather than Iowa State will feature the conference's best backcourt. Much-maligned Kansas State will rise to the top even as oft-celebrated Oklahoma sinks to the bottom.
This piece is worth a read. On a side note, Cohen's guesswork on the ability of new coaches is pretty good, until he gets to Colorado: "Coach who may get fired: Ricardo Patton, Colorado. It's hard to believe he's still around." Actually, he's not. Patton stated last week that he will resign after the season ends. Oops.
Rather than talk about Richard Dawkins' Theophobia, as captured at length in the latest edition of WIRED magazine, and which is just as knee-jerk as the caricatures of "faith" that he sets up, I'm posting about WIRED's Very Short Stories. (Oops, that comment on Dawkins just slipped out.) So, about these "Very Short Stories..."
We'll be brief: Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words ("For sale: baby shoes, never worn.") and is said to have called it his best work. So we asked sci-fi, fantasy, and horror writers from the realms of books, TV, movies, and games to take a shot themselves.
Dozens of our favorite auteurs put their words to paper, and five master graphic designers took them to the drawing board. Sure, Arthur C. Clarke refused to trim his ("God said, 'Cancel Program GENESIS.' The universe ceased to exist."), but the rest are concise masterpieces.
And some of them really are. Here are my favorites:
The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.
- Orson Scott Card
Wasted day. Wasted life. Dessert, please.
- Steven Meretzky
Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.
- Joss Whedon
Inspired by these masters of Very Short Fiction, I decided to try my hand. Here's what happened.
He drank it! She watched, waiting...
Wolf howling? Last night? In here?
Dragons? Please. They're only large rept-
Really, this is harder than it looks! I'm hoping a few of you will
Sunday, October 29, 2006
Aidan got name-dropped in this morning's sermon at church, specifically his little exchange with MU fan R. Sherman (as related in an earlier post, Smack-Talking Baby):
A couple days ago R. Sherman offered to send over some MU baby clothes, and because I knew Sherman meant it sincerely, I mentioned it to Aidan after his midmorning nap. He was still rubbing his eyes, but he muttered something about how he’d been wanting some cloth diapers anyway. This kid is wicked, I tell you. We’ve got to rein him in.
On a related note, Aidan's mad trash-talking skills have begun to gain him some notoriety, as evidenced by the people who come here looking for a "definition of smack talk." I've been talking with the kid about writing up some kind of a Trash-Talk 101 piece to help these people out...
Yesterday, in the context of a "creative" theology discussion, Stejahen burst on the scene with this excerpt from Peter Leithart's book, Against Christianity:
Theology tells us that God is eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.
The Bible tells us that God relents because He is God (Joel 2:13-14), that God is "shrewd with the shrewd" (Ps. 18:25-29), that He rejoices over us with shouting (Zeph 3:14-20), and that He is an eternal whirlwind of triune communion and love."
Theology is a "Victorian enterprise, neoclassically bright and neat and clean, nothing out of place.
Whereas the Bible talks about hair, blood, sweat, entrails, menstruation and genital emissions.
Not bad for an introductory comment, Stejahen. While appreciating the quote, I'm also slightly embarrassed, because Against Christianity is on my shelf and I haven't made it past the introduction yet. Clearly, this is something I should have already read. However; this excerpt from Leithart (who is not against Christ, incidentally, and is someone I would ironically call "theologically solid") gives me a chance to voice a few more thoughts on theology, and what I'm calling "creative theology."
1. Is Theology Victorian silliness?
Leithart and others rightly skewer the reductionist tendency of systematic theology, in that what is extracted "neatly and cleanly" from the Bible is always something less than God himself. Touché. But I'd point out that theology, in the most basic sense of the word, is inevitable if we are going to talk and think about God. Theology = core truths about God, or "the study of God and his ways." So theology is not necessarily Victorian. In fact, Paul produced some pretty good stuff in the Epistles. All this goes to show that semantics can be a confusing element in this discussion.
2. Is Theology a wallflower, divorced from "real" life?
If you think so, the joke's on you, dog. Theology has an apartment but he's rarely at home. In others words, don't go knocking on the covers of his books on the weekend, expecting him to be watching reruns on the couch. Theology has better things to do than sit around waiting for your flirtations. Theology is already out on the town, he has things to do and places to be. Theology is active wherever Christ is active, because you can't love Jesus without THINKING about him.
Thus, we need "creative theology" - an attempt to point up the ways that theology infuses every moment of life with purpose. Thinking and acting are not at odds. Therefore, theology is not merely mental. It's existential, because if you don't think about God as he is, you won't experience him as you should.
Just my quick thoughts. What say you?
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Friday, October 27, 2006
I've been meaning to check out "Voice," a rapper with solid theological roots, for some time now. Today I finally made it over to Voice's MySpace page and listened to his hip hop demos. Not bad.
I especially recommend "My Contribution," which includes some commentary on the meaning of the word "all" in Greek. All four of my Minnesotan readers may want to check him out this weekend when he performs at John Piper's church, Bethlehem Baptist. (Just kidding, I actually have six readers in MN. ;)
Anyway, tell me what you think of Voice.
In keeping with this blog's recent urban flavor, here are a couple shots I took near our loft apartment in downtown, KC.
Back Off, Oswald!
You have to read Oswald Chambers through the balloon-sized lens of hyperbole, but occasionally I think that even overstatement can cross the line. If it's intended as overstatement:
Prayer is not a question of altering things externally, but of working wonders in a man's disposition.
What? I came across this quote without the benefit of context, so I don't know if Chambers qualifies it in any way. Without amendment, it would fit right into various sectors of the Open Theism (the future is out of God's hands) and Process Theology (God changes along with the world) camps. If prayer doesn't change the external world, then Jesus was very deluded. Back off, Oswald Chambers!
Thursday, October 26, 2006
I wouldn't mind getting a few more comments on something I posted a couple days ago, which is kind of a litmus test for one direction I want to head with this blog, "creative theology."
I'd love to hear thoughts along the lines of, What turns you off about "theology?" Does it seem simple? Complex? How does my post (Good-Looking Theology) work? How does it not work? Don't feel like you need to restrict yourself to positive comments.
Thanks to John, Dustin and Will for kicking things off with some solid feedback.
Beat the Status Quo
There’s a certain delight that comes from using an object for a purpose for which it was not intended—thereby achieving a positive outcome.
For example: Turning off your alarm clock with a baseball bat. Opening the fridge with your toes. Watering flowers with your coffeepot. Pumping "iron" with your dog. There’s something rewarding about such defiant improvisation. We should all spend more time flouting the laws of accepted consumer-usage.
I've realized that I find a similar joy in defying the “laws of usage” that govern much of our lives—the ones that, with subtle subversiveness, affect morality, personality, perspective, in other words, life formation—not just how you hang up pictures. Such an exercise has benefits, believe it or not, that extend beyond self-gratifying freakiness.
Consider, for example, monotony. The default response is boredom. But a persistent lack of variety can have a tempering effect on your character when you exploit it. Perseverance, not boredom, becomes the surprising result. Kind of like using dirt on your hands to get a good grip.
Likewise, heaven. For many, the obvious "use" would be a dismissive chuckle at the expense of anyone naïve enough to "buy that." To which I reply, Heaven isn’t an afterthought of this life, but a continuation. You’re laying the tracks for “your” eternity as we speak. In light of this, heaven has a variety of atypical uses, not the least of which is death-defying joy.
In a similar way, perfection (natural use: frustration and driven-ness) holds promise. And loneliness. The list could go on.
My tendency to invert common “life-usage,” for want of a better phrase, makes me wonder if there isn’t a redemptive use for the human trait we usually label "stubborn" and repress. Why not channel latent defiance into a really useful pastime: pitting oneself "against the world" (Latin: contra mundum) and turning it on its head?
This isn't just against-the-grainness. Rather, this conscious flaunting of appearances reaches toward something better. Not merely different, not merely counter-cultural, but better. True. This isn't rebellion for fashion's sake, but for truth's.
Such a shake-up makes sense in a world where the most obvious use for any given "object" (I use the term loosely) is seldom the right or best one. This is not to say we live on a neutered earth where everything is actually friendly and cheerful if you crane your neck at the right angle. Rather, it points up some bedrock truths of bittersweetness—that Christ is paramount, even amid suffering, and therefore beauty wracks an ugly world. Even pain has its uses. Evil is evil, but it can be exploited in spite of itself.
In such a context, where Good (God) waits in readiness to throw appearance on its ear, defiance ought to be used constructively. The world as we see it needs to be assertively re-envisioned.
We all have a "mean streak"—whether it's quiet or overt—a core of spiritual metal that, beyond a certain point, will not bend. Abused, it surfaces as ugly hate-all angst, a crisis of misdirected insurgency. What a waste. Channel "defiance" into vision and it's redeemed as contra mundum sight—which could also be known as rebellion with a cause.
Seeing life rightly takes tenacity and knock-down-drag-out perseverance. Devil-may-care verve is also needed, because you are, after all, defying an entire world that lives and dies on common "life usage." Looking past appearances and beyond the edges is a job for rebel-visionaries like Christ, and those who follow in his steps.
What we need is contra mundum vision. In the realm of rebellion, body accessories and bitter rants are child's play. Rebellion could be much better employed.
I'm announcing a little name change, to avoid ambiguity. Maybe I'll comment more on this later...in the meantime (as usual), here's a related post: Donald Miller's Christian Spirituality.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
For any of you wondering why you should subscribe to BitterSweetLife using RSS (or what RSS is), my friend Cory has an easy-to-read explanation of the benefits of using an RSS feedreader. It's funny, too. And how often do you read a humorous tech post?
Over at the Resurgence blog (one of my favs), Tim Keller has an article on Christians & Culture. Specifically, Christians and urban culture. Here's the main thrust of his argument (abbreviated):
- Christians should live long-term in the city. The city is an intense crucible of culture-formation. Cultural trends tend to be generated in the city and flow outward into the rest of society...
- Christians should be a dynamic counter-culture in the city. It will not be enough for Christians to simply live as individuals in the city. They must live as a particular kind of community...
- Christians should be a community radically committed to the good of the city as a whole. It is insufficient for Christians to form a culture that only 'counters' the values of the city. We must then turn, with all the resources of our faith and life, to sacrificially serve the good of the whole city, and especially the poor...
- Christians should be a people who integrate their faith with their work...all work proceeds from beliefs about the 'big questions' regarding what life means, what human beings are, and what are the most important things in life. We call the answers to these big questions a 'worldview.’ Most fields of work today are dominated by very different worldviews than that of Christianity.
I like what I'm hearing on this front, especially as formulated by Tim Keller.
I read Psalm 17 this morning, one of King David’s God-directed cries of desperation. David had learned the expediency of adultery, murder, and political backstabbing—he’d dealt out tragedy as well as experienced it—but he also had a conscience and saw the darkness of his heart. David was a warrior-poet with soul.
So in this song, pleas for forgiveness are interwoven with requests for protection from the wicked—a paradoxical begging for mercy/crying for justice that I think all God’s people learn eventually. Set in this framework, it’s the final verses of the psalm that caught my eye. David calls for God to confront the vicious wicked, who are rolling in cash and accolades, and then he says:
As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.
As for me… David’s forward-looking vision kindles my imagination. His understanding of the present is set firmly in the frame of the nonnegotiable future: When I awake… David wasn’t just talking about sitting down with his Bible and a cup of coffee the next morning. No, he had wider vistas in mind.
At last, God’s country would be the reality, earth melting away like a dream—eddying and swirling like water down a drain, the last grimy traces of the old life washed away—taking the wicked, and David’s own wickedness, with it. And then? God himself—no longer glimpsed in flashes of created beauty, in moments of spiritual comfort, in the inspiration of the poet—but face to face, God-as-God-is.
Memory on earth is wistful. Memory in heaven will be bright and forward-looking, because nothing we taste in heaven will be gone or lost, but always waiting for us ahead to be found and enjoyed with greater intensity. Christ is our great Guarantor of Final Joy. As David wrote his heartbroken-hopeful, bittersweet songs, I can’t help but think he understood this well.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
We Need More Christians in Cities
A popular theme in my thoughts recently has been the argument that Christians should view cities as desirable settings for the gospel and think seriously about living there. Lindsay, Aidan and I currently live in downtown Kansas City. We like it here, and while I miss trees and grass, I'm drawn to the prospect of staying near the urban core and living out the gospel.
Of course, downtown Kansas City is not what I would call a sprawling metropolis - at least not in a positive sense. I guess it's sprawling in that it is not consolidated and buzzing with 24/7 life. (The city planners here are always a decade behind.) However, there's enough culture and community in various sectors of KC (like Westport, the local music/arts district) for me to see counter-cultural urban church potential.
I'll probably "blog out loud" some more as I continue to think about the dynamics of Christianity in the city. Meanwhile, read this excellent overview of "urban church" by Tim Keller. Teaser:
Most fields of work today are dominated by a very different set of answers from those of Christianity. But when many Christians enter a vocational field, they either seal off their faith and work like everyone else around them, or they spout Bible verses to their coworkers. We do not know very well how to persuade people of Christianity's answers by showing them the faith-based, worldview roots of everyone's work. We do not know how to equip our people to think out the implications of the gospel for art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship. Developing humane, creative, and excellent business environments out of our understanding of the gospel can be part of this work.Read the whole thing, it'll take you five minutes: A New Kind of Urban Christian.
Readers who enjoy the English language might be interested in my quick review of Mixtionary: Mixed-up modern words for the mixed-up modern world. Is this book on the Master Book List? No, it does not rise to that level, sadly. This review is over at the Vocabulary Reclamation Project.
Most people have no idea what I'm talking about when I tell them I'm studying Theology. I don't really expect them to, but I try to clear my good name fast. No, really, I don't draw charts in an ivory tower. And my school essays might actually be interesting to a normal person if she read them.
One fairly simple way of looking at theology is to think of it as a long, careful look at God. To attempt to spend years, and ultimately a life, on such a look, is a humbling, terrifying, and show-stopping occupation. We are all, in fact, called to the task of heavenly exploration, but those who "study theology" are expected to use telescopes and sometimes stay up nights. Extra attention to detail is required.
Theology rightly infuses life with God. Theology connects crucial dots. Makes necessary pronouncements. Theology is earthy, because God is concerned with Earth.
The details we are after, however, are not the sort you store in Vatican vaults or on microfiche slides. God is not like a calculus textbook - every facet of God is vital to every life. None of the God-truths are so dry that they can be safely left for the experts. A forgotten aspect of God's personality might provoke years of personal misery. Or it could (and does, all the time) cause civil wars, murder, and duplicity. People often fail to understand that theology is a discipline of almost mesmeric practicality.
Theology rightly infuses life with God. Theology connects crucial dots. Makes necessary pronouncements. Theology is earthy, because God is concerned with Earth. It deals with life's obvious questions and the not so obvious answers. I love the rugged functionality of such a pastime.
I am admiring God's personality and ways so I can know him better, and at the same time avoid stupid mistakes.
In my current setting, theology is an attempt to study God in the hopes that communications may improve between the two of us. At this point in the spiritual journey (which may be a very elementary point), this means that I am admiring God's personality and ways so I can know him better, and at the same time avoid stupid mistakes. As a result, I will also be expected to be of greater usefulness to others in explaining things about God.
That's why, every once in awhile, I feel the need to take a "theological principle," something that might seem stuffy and academic to those on the outside, and take a snapshot to capture its attractiveness. The "Feuerbachian Critique" is one such instance of beautiful efficiency. The name is misleading. When you actually check, the Feuerbachian Critique is very good looking.
Say I began talking about God as if he gave preferential treatment to people with brown hair and blue eyes. As well, God's favorite basketball team was the Kansas Jayhawks, and he drank large amounts of coffee every morning.
I'm not sure who Feuerbach was, but for the purposes of this post, you don't really need to know. Feuerbach's mode of criticism is enough to remove any awkwardness created by his name. The beauty of the FC becomes evident when it is necessary to debunk ridiculous ideas about God.
Say I began talking about God as if he gave preferential treatment to people with brown hair and blue eyes. As well, God's favorite basketball team was the Kansas Jayhawks, and he drank large amounts of coffee every morning. On top of this, God was happy to turn the deaf ear to occasional instances of withering sarcasm. Suppose I said all this, and drew up a persuasive essay explaining very brilliantly exactly why God should be this way, and not another.
Several books in the Old Testament wryly depict people who ended up worshipping rocks and farm animals rather than acknowledging that God WAS and that he WAS DIFFERENT.
Rather than being intimidated or impressed, you would just look at me and grin widely. Then you would say, "HAH, your system is barred by the Feuerbachian Critique. You're just projecting your own ideas of goodness to form what you think should pass for a God! HA HA." And I would look down, slightly embarrassed, and realize that all my prognosticating had actually been very silly.
The FC is a useful consolidation of the biblical truth that if we can possibly come up with a way to make God more like us, we will do it. We have these ideas of how God should be, and we want him to fall in line. Several books in the Old Testament wryly depict people who ended up worshipping rocks and farm animals rather than acknowledging that God WAS and that he WAS DIFFERENT. Ultimately, we had better discover the revealed truth about the universe, and get in line. Hypothetically speaking, if God is knocking us around like billiard balls, we had better adjust accordingly.
We'd just rather not. And that's where the Feuerbachian Critique is useful--a self-interrogative tool to make sure we don't slip into the oldest folly in the world: idolatry. If we can manage to keep from carving a little god in our own image, we will be that much nearer to the real God, and that much further down the road in the spiritual journey. That's the beauty of Theology, who just might be the best-looking guy in the room.
At Blog Meridian, John wrote a great post about seeing and reflecting on the strands of life-narrative that surround us, if we only notice.
The sense I have is that, like the contents of rooms not my own, these objects are there for a reason and thus invite speculation, the construction of narratives that cannot help but be mine, seeing as I so far know about these things only what I see.
This is a great creative piece and I love John's Hubble-like powers of observation.
Monday, October 23, 2006
DJ Chuang, explaining his decision to move away from pastoring, makes this comment:
All those years of theological training sits in dusty boxes because most people don’t ask the questions that got answered in seminary.
People ask practical everyday questions about life, for which theological answers undergird a wisdom, perspective, and discernment, [the ability to translate] abstract metaphysical ideas into pragmatic realities...
Some people call it common sense; and, where in the world do you learn that?
This is probably the issue that grabs my attention most when I think about the jaw-dropping reality of Christ. It's a great challenge to translate biblical theology into authentic spiritual living - "great" in every sense of the word. I appreciate DJ's perception in hitting the heart of the matter so directly. So how do you go about "translating abstract metaphysical ideas into pragmatic realities?"
I'd suggest that we take our cues from the Bible, for starters, seeing as the book is 75% narrative and 15% poetry - all conveying the timeless, propositional truths of God. In case you're wondering, that last 10% is thought-organized, or "abstract" theology. But every page of the Bible does the "theological" work. In other words, "sermonizing" and "theologizing" are not only not the only ways to convey truth - they may not even be the best ways. The creativity I see in Jesus' teaching, and even in the writing of Paul, the Bible's great "theologian," is staggering. Gritty nouns and verbs and vivid metaphors should be the tools of every pastor-theologian.
That, and C.S. Lewis should be required reading in every seminary. Creative theology is what we're after - creative in that it makes sense amid spilled coffee and smashed relationships, the detritus of a broken world.
(Anyone else have advice?)
David Brooks, reviewing Andrew Sullivan's The Conversative Soul:
The Conservative Soul is imbued with Sullivan’s characteristic passion and clarity. And yet I must confess, if I hadn’t been reviewing this book, I wouldn’t have finished it. I have a rule, which has never failed me, that when a writer uses quotations from Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and the Left Behind series to capture the religious and political currents in modern America, then I know I can put that piece of writing down because the author either doesn’t know what he is talking about or is arguing in bad faith.
(HT: Between Two Worlds.)
Justin Taylor summarizes a couple articles by J. Budziszewski: The Problem with Liberalism and The Problem with Conservatism. Here's an anti-liberalism teaser:
My thesis is that, even as worldly philosophies go, political liberalism is deeply flawed. We may best describe it as a bundle of acute moral errors, with political consequences that grow more and more alarming as these errors are taken closer and closer to their logical conclusions.
And an anti-conservativism teaser:
From time to time Christians may find themselves in tactical alliance with conservatives, just as with liberals, over particular policies, precepts, and laws. But they cannot be in strategic alliance, because their reasons for these stands are different; they are living in a different vision... We do not need another Social Gospel--just the Gospel.
These are good distinctions.
Saturday, October 21, 2006
Over at Challies.com, Tim expresses some concern over the "theology" expressed in John Eldredge's latest book:
I don't want God to romance me. I don't want God to be my lover. I don't need a boyfriend. I want God to be a Father--to be my Father. And after all, isn't this exactly how He reveals Himself in the Bible? Like many an ancient mystical nun, Eldredge seems to find strange, romantic, pseudo-sexual qualities in God's love. But when I look at the Bible, I just don't see this.
Eldredge has made me a little queasy at times, but I can't say I've noticed this particular strand of thought before. Unless it's related to, "God told me, 'John, you are my Braveheart.'" Interesting.
The Big 12 held its basketball media day earlier this week, and I've started reveling in the upsurge of college hoops coverage. Sports Illustrated columnist Seth Davis was kind enough to add some icing to my preseason basketball cake by picking the Jayhawks to win it all. The thorough article features some insightful commentary on Bill Self and the young KU team:
After watching the Jayhawks practice on Monday and Tuesday, I can assure you their ceiling is sky high. This team is loaded with thoroughbreds; my neck is still sore from watching them press and run nonstop. KU led the nation in field-goal percentage last season, but the scary thought is this team should be even better defensively. Self is intent on pushing the pace to take advantage of his players' multifaceted skills in transition.
The whole piece is worth reading: KU Jayhawks my pick to win the NCAA title. Oh yeah, and did I mention that Julian Wright is back this season? :)
My friend Gymbrall (which is an ancient hobbit name, and not really his) has finally blogged a full-length post. Around here, Gymbrall is known for his ridiculously witty comments, but A Three Ghost Night is in a different vein. You could almost call it magical realism, except that the "magic" he writes about is the most enduring reality in the story. Take a look, and ask yourself if you have experienced a similar longing for magic...
Friday, October 20, 2006
Because I always like to know what the other guy has to say, Lindsay and I had planned to head over to Kansas University last week to hear Oxford's Richard Dawkins speak on "The God Delusion." Dawkins' take is essentially a variation on Nietzsche's "God is dead" theme, backed up by the supposedly unassailable logic of Darwinian evolution.
Unfortunately, Aidan did not share our interest in Atheistic philosophy, and mounted a serious attack on our evening plans that proved to be ultimately successful. We didn't get to hear Dawkins present his arguments live, and I sincerely regret it. However, I did come across this fascinating YouTube video...
I can see the weak points I would attack in Dawkins' line of reasoning. Do you? Maybe we can discuss in the comments...
Hat tip: The Resurgence Blog
The Jonathan Edwards team at Yale University has just added a little bit of heaven to the internet:
The Works of Jonathan Edwards Online will digitally publish manuscripts and edited versions of all of the 100,000 pages that Jonathan Edwards produced in his lifetime. Editorially tagged and fully searchable by chronology, theme, and scripture, as well as full text, the Works of Jonathan Edwards Online offers an expertly guided research experience in the papers of Jonathan Edwards.
Tagged, searchable Edwards. This is a beautiful thing.
Naturally enough, when Aidan started reading several weeks ago, some of the first books he opened were Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. He was thrilled by the creatures that populate the mythic worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia, eagerly reading about hobbits, dwarves, elves and talking beasts. Then there’s his favorite character: Smaug the Dragon.
Lindsay and I are not particularly thrilled about Aidan’s choice of a hero, but what can we do? Aidan’s name means “fire,” after all. And now he’s started acting dragonish around the apartment, especially near and after bedtime.
I post these photos to commemorate the Aidan we once knew—the baby who went to bed on time, and hadn’t yet found out that he could manipulate mere mortals with his dragonish screams.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Someone else's runaway student sticks his head in the door of my classroom and looks around.
"Who's the new kid?"
"That's the substitute teacher."
"Oh." He grins stupidly, and I shoot him the don't-mess-with-me look I've learned on the rough streets of urban Kansas City. "Can I help you?" I say.
I wave goodbye and he disappears.
Another day in the subbing life, another mistaken identity. Maybe I should start wearing a tie to work. Either that or start penciling in some extra lines on my forehead in the morning to keep up with these older-than-their-years high school students.
Then again, keeping these kids slightly off-balance doesn't hurt. Let the confusion continue. ;)
Lindsay and I were listening to Me Died Blue by Steven Delopoulos and talking about how he hasn’t “made it,” at least not yet, like some similar guitar-strumming artists (Norah Jones, Damien Rice). Then Lindsay made this comment:
“Yeah, but I could see thirty-somethings sipping wine and eating their pork fillets while they listen to him.”
Me: “And I’m sure he’d be thrilled to know that.”
These comments don’t do justice in the least to Steven Delopoulos, who is a thoughtful guitar virtuoso with a remarkable voice and delicious (poor word choice?) ethnic influences. He also seems to do his song-writing with the novel idea that guitars are good for more than rhythm.
However, I’m trying to gradually introduce more music content to the blog, even if I post a few non sequitors in the process. Here's to you, Mr. Delopoulos. I'm still hoping you'll recover that rollicking, flamenco Burlap to Cashmere vibe.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
With an Appearance by Sufjan Stevens
For the better part of Donatello's career, his artistic output reflected both the passions and the turmoil of his soul. Donatello's sculptures, which captured strikingly the essence of struggling humankind, were massive and heavily muscled. Some of them appear almost tied to the earth by the weight of their own bodies. Arguably, these sculptures also express the troubled spirit of this brilliant Renaissance sculptor.
But in the last years of his life, Donatello's work took a different turn. When he died, he left unfinished his final, symbolic message: a human body, bulk carved away to reveal the slender "soul." I wonder if Donatello, long haunted by the laws of God, found peace with his Creator as his life came to a close.
I feel a kinship with Donatello, with the spiritual searching that his work finally reveals, and especially with that enigmatic, unfinished sculpture. God finds it necessary, I think, to carve our lives away until what is left can be redeemed - transformed through the glory of a resurrected Christ. But first there is the carving away, the paring down, the taking. As Sufjan Stevens sings on Illinoise, in the midst of "All the glory that the Lord has made,"
and he takes
and he takes."
The taking away, the stone-dust-reduction, is the process the Bible calls sanctification, and I don't like it. But as Donatello sometimes reminds me, this divine carving is a purely earthly process, set in a temporal time frame. In other words, the taking will end when eternity sets in - and then the transformed children of Christ will be free, bodies and souls, to live in the fully realized kingdom of God. All painful changes complete, every tear wiped away.
We won't be elongated or disembodied but we will be disinterred from our sin and free from every crack and fault line. This is a process I can live with - I hope that Donatello found a way to live with it too.
...But He Also Likes Her
John Piper notes Ayn Rand's unusual status in the writing/publishing world, then goes on to comment on her atheistic-but-compelling blend of philosophy and novel-writing. In the process, he praises Rand while critiquing the flaws in her system of Objectivism...
Despite her success the literary establishment considers her an outsider. Almost to a man critics have either ignored or denounced the Book [Atlas Shrugged]. She is in exile among the philosophers too . . . liberals glower at the very mention of her name, but conservatives too swallow hard when she begins to speak. For Ayn Rand whether anyone likes it or not is sui generis: indubitably, irrevocably, intransigently individual.
Given my mixed feelings after I read Atlas Shrugged, I resonate with Piper's review. And, like Piper, I found some elements of Rand's thought which were true to human experience, such as her emphasis on unified desire, or Integrity: "this is the conviction that man is an indivisible entity and that no breach can be permitted between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions" (Rand). Likewise, in regard to the non-contradictory nature of reality, and the unadulterated nature of real Happiness, Ayn Rand gets it right.
Of course, Rand is due for censure as well. Why? Because her assessment of reality failed to take into account the fact that to love and serve a holy, beautiful God is in the best interests of every person. Piper's conclusion: "Ayn Rand's philosophy does not need to be scrapped. Rather, it needs to take all of reality into account, including the infinite God."
John Piper's essay is heavy going at some points, but you philosophical types will like it: The Ethics of Ayn Rand.
Looking for Information on Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary? Have MBTS Questions?
I've started getting a few queries from prospective seminary students asking for info about my current alma mater, Midwstern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Can you call a school your "alma mater" if you are currently enrolled? I dunno.) Anyway, send the Midwestern questions my way, preferably via email if you want detailed answers.
Any information I give out on Midwestern comes with this qualification: I'm not on the payroll, so I'll shoot you straight. By the same token, my opinions are not "official" in any way, and have no backing from MBTS. Although, if I get a lot of queries, maybe I can talk the school into making me liaisons director for prospective students or something. ;)
Anyway, if you have questions or want information on MBTS, fire away.