“This notebook doesn’t get Netflix”

“This notebook doesn’t get Netflix”

If you’re like me, one of your challenges involves balancing the benefits of our “devices” with their distracting downsides.

Their giant, hairy, screaming downsides.

Toward that end, I’ve begun using a paper notebook again to jot down ideas for book chapters, blog posts, and sermon prep. The shift happened almost by accident. Last month, IVP sent all of their authors a faux-leather journal for a Christmas gift.

my journal2
What you send authors to remind them to write the book they promised instead of mucking around with blog posts.
myjournal1
“Those ideas being ‘Make everyone twins’ and ‘Electric toilet’.” ~Baby Momma

As you can see, mine looks vaguely like it was stolen from a local psych ward. (Seriously, my high school psychology teacher showed us one he had “borrowed” from a friend with paranoid schizophrenia; it looked exactly like this, minus Jonathan Edwards.)

Then, last week, Jon Acuff’s author newsletter detailed why he uses pen and paper.

While at his daughter’s swim meet, Jon jotted down an idea on his notebook, only to be told by an elderly lady that “That’s the first time I’ve seen someone write something down by hand in a long time.”

His response was thus:

            “Paper helps me focus. This notebook doesn’t have Netflix.”

Nuff said.

And while I’m at it, here is a not-at-all-creepy pic I tookof my friend Jake T.

He has notebooks for days. I can smell the spirituality.

jake journal1
Jake T.: Pastor of the deathly hallows.

Make faux-leather great again.

Make everyone twins.

Electric toilet.


If you’re interested in an accessible book for anyone feeling baffled by the Bible, check out my new book, Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple movements(here).


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The haunting of David Bazan

The haunting of David Bazan

Hurtling through the sky at 30,000 feet can give you a chance to do things you don’t normally have time for – like listening to a long-forgotten album.

On a recent flight to Orlando, I gave a re-hearing to David Bazan’s anguished recording from 2009: “Curse your Branches.”

The whole thing is fantastic. And terrible.

bazan album cover

It was written, according to Bazan, as a breakup letter to God (since he now considers himself an atheist). Yet I learned in a recent interview that Bazan was astonished that Christianity Today named “Curse your Branches” one of their best albums of the year.

They weren’t wrong.

As Bazan admits, the manifesto that he had originally penned as a giant middle finger to God, turns out at key moments to sound almost like an early stanza from the Psalms or Lamentations (with, sadly, no resolution).

And the irony is that for someone who doesn’t believe in God, Bazan spends an awful lot of time talking to him.  In this way, he sounds somewhat like the honest atheist described by Francis Spufford, who says of God: “He doesn’t exist, the bastard.”

To use the imagery of the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, the album is “haunted” by Transcendence. This, says Taylor, is the true mark of a Secular Age. It is not that belief has been vanquished or that most people now sit neutral to the question; it is rather that faith seems so fraught for many tortured souls that they end up like the novelist Julian Barnes, when he writes: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

That is precisely the attitude of “Curse Your Branches.”

Even Bazan’s (past) descent into alcoholism is linked to his God-haunted memory. As he puts it:

All this lethal drinking is to hopefully forget about You

And the last word trails into a plaintive wail that betrays a capital “Y.”

The most evocative stanza of the album follows:

I might as well admit it, as though I had a choice / The crew have killed the Captain but they still can hear his voice. A shadow on the water / A whisper on the wind / On long walks with my daughter who is lately full of questions about You… (“In Stitches“).

While Bazan is clear that he now rejects all forms of theism, one senses that it is certain kind of theology that seems especially untenable to him: a form of deterministic Calvinism in which God sovereignly causes everything and then blames us.  “Curse your branches” is itself a play on Paul’s metaphorical olive tree from Romans 11, in which some limbs (peoples) have been broken off and others grafted in.

Given this deterministic assumption (God causes everything), the conclusion follows naturally:

“All fallen leaves should curse their branches / For not letting them decide where they should fall / And not letting them refuse to fall at all”

If this were what Paul meant, then I would not disagree.  For in view of David Bentley Hart, determinism does seem to have the strange result of rendering the universe morally intelligible at the cost of a God who is rendered morally loathsome (see here for my most widely read post on that topic). Or as Bazan asks: “Did You push us when we fell?”

Despite his bitterness toward Christianity, Bazan is open about a recurring “temptation” to doubt his doubts and to recant from his “repentance”:

Though I have repented, I’m still tempted I admit / But that’s not what bearing witness is (“Bearing Witness”).

In other words: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

SOME TAKEAWAYS

Why write about this album?

Aside from the fact that good art needs no utilitarian justification, I have three reasons:

  1. Christian leaders should listen to “God-haunted” deconversion stories.

For pastors and professors like myself, truly listening to voices like Bazan’s should be a requirement in an age where more and more people find themselves in the “haunted” position that Charles Taylor describes.

Listening well is a pre-requisite for pastoral sensitivity.  But sadly, a survey of our social media feeds shows that many so-called apologists are more known for their ability to “demolish” and “destroy” the opposition.

And to quote Bazan, “That’s not what bearing witness is.”

  1. Ask: “What kind of god don’t you believe in?”

Second, Bazan highlights, at some points, a kind of divinity (and Christianity) that thoughtful believers should be quick to disavow—and not just on the question of determinism.

On this subject, I recall the words of N.T. Wright as he met with UK college students during his time as a university chaplain.  Upon hearing that many did not believe in God, his next words were not a rebuttal but a question.

“What kind of God don’t you believe in?”

The question is important, since Christians sometimes assume that the word “God” has univocal meaning.  It doesn’t.  And upon listening to the student’s answer (See #1), Wright tells how he would often respond with “That’s very good; I don’t believe in that God either. The God I trust is the one embodied perfectly by Jesus Christ.”

  1. Preach to and for the “haunted.”

Lastly, I’ve been incorporating more quotes from folks like Bazan in my sermons (e.g., David Foster Wallace, last Sunday)—not as “strawman” foils to be quickly dispatched, but as opportunities to acknowledge questions, doubts, and fears that are present in the minds of “the faithful”–not just “out there” in the big, bad world.

“Maybe you’ve felt like that,” I try to say.

“Maybe you’ve wondered why an invisible God would even care if humans believed in him, rather than the competition.”

As Bazan asks:

Red and orange; or orange and yellow? / In which of these do you believe? / If you’re not sure right now; please take a moment / ‘Cause I need your signature, before you leave (“Curse your branches”).

In the view of Tim Keller, the ability to anticipate these unvoiced questions and fears is crucial to empathetic preaching (Though I don’t pretend to do it perfectly)–especially when coupled with the “haunting” of the Holy Ghost.

Toward this end, albums like “Curse Your Branches” can actually serve the church, like an Eloi, Eloi… wafting up to 30,000 feet, awaiting answer.

———————

If you’re interested in an accessible book for anyone feeling baffled by the Bible, check out my new book, Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple movements (here).


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Till death?

Till death?

On marriage and the resurrection.

As Jonathan Edwards lay dying from a corrupted smallpox serum in 1758, his final words were for his wife.

Near the end, he asked the physician to tell Sarah Pierpont Edwards that their “uncommon union” was of such a “spiritual nature” that he hoped it would “continue forever.”

Edwards is, undoubtedly, the greatest theologian to ever hail from North America.  His sermons helped to launch The Great Awakening.  And with names like Wesley and Whitefield, he helped create the movement later known as evangelicalism (till its meaning was corrupted by a political “serum”).

To some, however, Edwards’ hope for his “forever” union might seem to clash with something Jesus said.

“WHOSE WIFE WILL SHE BE?”

On one occasion, Christ was asked a loaded question by the Sadducees about a hypothetical widow who had lost not one but seven husbands (speaking of potential poisonings!).

The last six of these marriages were done in fulfillment of an Old Testament law of “Levirate marriage,” a command meant to preserve a husband’s name by having his brother marry the widow (Deut 25:5–10; Matt 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–40).

At the end of this imagined narrative, the religious leaders ask the Lord:

“At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” (Mark 12:23)

To be clear, the Sadducees’ concern was not with marriage at all; their desire was to trap Jesus into admitting one of two unsavory realities. Either:

  1. There is no embodied afterlife at all (the Sadducee position), or
  2. Resurrection entails some Jerry Springer-like disputes.

Not surprisingly, Jesus opts for “Neither, dumb-dumbs.”

“Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:24–25). 

The response proved effective (see Luke 20:40)

But to those of us, like Edwards, who deeply love our spouses and our Lord, the statement raises questions.

Why must marriage end completely at the border of this life?

Or, is there another way to understand Christ’s statement?

ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATIONS

Alternatives have been suggested.

One option sees Christ not as denying the eternality of all married unions, but only the kind described by the Sadducees: namely, the “Levirate” arrangements that would force an arbitration in the Eschaton about who “gets her” (Oh, the chivalry!).

A second (though related) suggestion sees Jesus as objecting primarily to the “taking” and “being given” part of the scenario, since it might seem to treat women especially like a kind of heavenly property rather than as full-fledged persons (see again the chivalry).

Are these possibilities convincing?

For those of us (myself included) who would love to think of our marriages as lasting forever, both alternatives seem appealing. Which might be the problem. After all, one should usually be wary of adopting an interpretation of an ancient text simply because it “looks nice” and “fits” our modern tastes.

Exegesis isn’t dress shopping.

Or suit shopping.

Or… shopping.

LIKE ANGELS?

A crucial bit of Jesus’ reasoning seems to connect our resurrected life to the current habits of angelic beings, since we “will … be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25).

The idea seems to be that since Gabriel’s crew aren’t planning heavenly bridal showers and jockeying for spouses, neither will we.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Yet all this still leaves questions:

Was Edwards wrong (biblically speaking) to expect that his “uncommon union” was of such a “spiritual nature” that it might “continue forever”?

What about us?

And what about the many wonderful persons who have lost spouses to death and remarried later (a decision Scripture clearly sees as honorable)?

Are such questions merely an engagement in unhelpful speculation (like the Sadducees), or might they be the kind of thoughtful use of biblical imagination that demonstrates a belief that both marriage and the resurrection matter?

I’m interested in your thoughts.

What do you make of Jesus’ words on marriage in the “resurrection”?

(And why does Brianna keep memorizing this one passage from the Gospels?)

Leave a comment below (however tentative or undeveloped).

I may write a second installment to this post in the future, but for now I simply haven’t done the necessary homework.


* Please don’t be a “Sadducee” / Jesus-jerk by critiquing the comments of others.  As you might guess, issues concerning death and marriage are deeply personal.


 

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On spiders

On spiders

“Of all insects, no one is more wonderful than the spider.”

That, at least, was the opinion of America’s greatest ever theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758).

I’ve been reading Edwards over Christmas break (since “Puritans for Christmas” seemed as good an oxymoron as any); and I came across a passage today in which he links God’s goodness to the pleasure He delights to give to even the most “despicable” of creatures.

As a boy in colonial New England, Edwards marveled at how spiders could sail at will upon the wind by releasing filament in just the right amount to catch the breeze.

“And without doubt, they do it with a great deal of … pleasure.”

He wrote a scientific paper on the subject at the youthful age of sixteen, but Edwards’ true focus was always theological.  As he watched the spiders sail magnificently overhead, he mused that

We hence see the exuberant goodness of the Creator, who hath not only provided for all the necessities, but also for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, and even the insects and those that are most despicable (WJE 6:154–62).

This is, it seems to me, a beautiful portrait of divine love (however accurate it is of “insects” [sic.]).

SPIDERS IN THE HANDS OFGOD

Yet Edwards is more famous for another spider reference.

In his famous sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” he piled lurid image upon image to frighten congregants with the idea of God’s hateful wrath.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors [hates/loathes] you, and is dreadfully provoked…

The sermon proved effective. But at key points (and despite good intentions), Edwards’ imagery went a good bit further than the Scriptures.

For this reason, it might be good to balance one “spider passage” with another.

The idea here is that the same Creator who judges evil in accordance with his holy love, is also the God who (according to Edwards) takes delight in granting “unnecessary” pleasures “to even the most despicable” of creatures.

Speaking of which… the view from my laptop:

beach

 


 

My most recent book, Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements, is now available at Seedbed.com.

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