May you fail…

May you fail…

An unconventional benediction.

A few folks asked for a copy of the “unconventional” graduation blessing that I delivered for our December commencement yesterday.

Here it is:

I left out a couple stanzas on the spot (remembering something Jesus said of wordy prayers from podiums).

Nevertheless:

Class of 2017, hear these words:

May you fail  [long pause] … to seek significance in the plastic trinkets of this world / things like money, power, and fame. / And may you find significance in this: / that you are a beloved child of God / Etched in the image of Jesus Christ.

May you have enemies / So that you may love them just as Jesus did / and thus turn some of them to friends.

May you be disloyal citizens / to rival kings and rival kingdoms / So that you may prove true to good king Jesus / And see his Kingdom come.

May your life not go (entirely) as you have planned it / And in those moments, may you come to see that, alongside fidelity, God’s other name is “Surprise.”

And most of all: May you know that we, as your faculty, cannot wait to see you go / Not because we want to be rid of you / But because through your lives, our little ministries will multiply a hundredfold.

We love you; Godspeed.

 

 

+ Credit to Neil Plantinga for the idea that “God’s other Name is Surprise.”

“The lower classes smell”

“The lower classes smell”

Why our ideas matter less than we think.

Back in 1937, George Orwell claimed this about the divisions within British society:

The real secret of class distinctions in the West can be summed up in four frightful words: The lower classes smell (~Road to Wigan Pier).

The statement sounds offensive and reductionistic. Perhaps it is.

Yet Orwell’s goal was actually to challenge his fellow highbrow socialists on whether their ideas about dismantling the class structure were actually strong enough to work in the field—where people live, and sniff.

In the words of James K. A. Smith (citing Wigan Pier):

Orwell’s point is that the root of class distinctions in England is not intellectual but olfactory.  The habits and rhythms of the system are not so much cerebral as visceral; they are rooted in a bodily orientation to the world that eludes theoretical articulation, which is why theoretical tirades also fail to displace it. … “For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling.”

In other words, you cannot solve a gut-level problem with a philosophy.

The visceral trumps the voluntary; fundamental dispositions are more caught than taught; and the “nose” (now speaking metaphorically) is mightier than the brain.

Now the kicker:

Almost every other kind of discrimination could be countered theoretically, with the weapons of facts, ideas, and information, “But physical repulsion cannot.”

What does this have to do with us?

Just this:

In America, we seem to have entered a cultural-political climate in which both sides are “physically repulsed” by one another. Sickened, even.

And sometimes for good reason.

Yet if this is so, then one should strongly question our ability to bridge the gap with education, rational discourse, or (gasp) blog posts. Orwell’s point is this: revulsion trumps reason every time—try as we might to overcome it.

In short, our “ideas” are not nearly as important for the way we engage the world as we would like to think.

As Smith argues, we are not primarily “thinking things” as Descartes posited. Nor even “believing things” as much of Christian culture claims. Even demons believe (Jms. 2.19).

For Smith, both of these mistaken anthropologies place too much emphasis upon the cognitive realm (“ideas”), whereas the Bible focuses more upon reforming the heart, the gut, or even “the bowels.”  (Even the biblical references to renewal of the “mind” are not given in a Cartesian sense.)

We are primarily loving-desiring beings.

And as such, much of our behavior is the product of pre-cognitive, affective, gut-level, and visceral reactions.

“The lower classes smell.”

But how does one disciple the olfactory senses?

How do “the bowels” get redeemed?

Next time.

 


See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (here). For a less academic version of Smith’s argument, see You are what you love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (here).

Jesus + Wine

Jesus + Wine

I’ve been behind on blogging lately as I’ve been working on other writing projects (more on that soon!).

As a partial remedy, here is a sermon that I preached Sunday on one of my favorite passages: Jesus turning water into what would have amounted to 757 bottles (do the math) of the choicest wine (Jn. 2).

Contrary to popular portrayals of Christianity–both by detractors and adherents–one takeaway is this: The pursuit of Christ (and holiness) is simultaneously the pursuit of Joy. 

Jesus is not the celestial equivalent of Ned Flanders; he is not a cosmic killjoy.

He is Lord of the Feast, and the bringer of overflowing life.

The wedding feast at Cana proves this, along with many other fascinating things.

As I note in the message, the outline takes cues from Tim Keller’s fantastic sermon: “Lord of the Wine.” Also, for more of the Bacchus / C.S. Lewis connection, see my prior post (here: “Saving Bacchus”).

Hope everyone is having a feast-worthy week!

Thou shalt not Cable News?

Thou shalt not Cable News?

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax is asking whether Christians should consider “pulling the plug” on an increasingly unsanctified form of television entertainment.

No, it’s not the racy or gratuitously violent scenes on “Skinamax” or other channels— it’s cable news.

Cable News

Here’s the money quote:

In a culture that has lost its appetite for truth and has developed an appetite for coarseness and sensationalism, cable news plays to our worst tendencies.

(Read the full thing here.)

 

Like me, Wax admits to having once been a bit of a “political junkie.” But as he puts it, “Election 2016 changed that.”

It wasn’t because, this time around, I was unable to enthusiastically support either candidate. It was a growing concern with the toxic atmosphere of the cable news channels and the worrisome trends they reveal about our society.

He then gives three reasons why the rise of niche-market news channels–tailor made to heighten our existing biases–have had cancerous effects.

Here they are:

  1. The Disappearing Aim of Journalism

While absolutely no one is unbiased, the claim here is that today’s cable news outlets (whether Fox News, CNN, or MSBC) aren’t even trying.

The aim is no longer truth or journalism; it’s ratings via sensationalized pandering to a specific demographic. For proof, one need only recall the admission of a CNN producer that the Russia scandal was “great for ratings.”

  1. The Disappearing Desire for Truth

Worse yet, many viewers do not seem to care.  We tune in for validation, not objectivity, and the media on both sides plays the music to our band.

  1. The Rise of News as Show

Wax’s third claim is that the line between news and entertainment has all but vanished.  What we have now are “shows,” or rather: “food fight journalism,” dished out by the likes of Hannity, Maddow, and (formerly) O’Reilly.

On this point, Wax gives a telling example from the life of Roger Ailes, Fox News founder and longtime Harvey Weinstein impersonator:

Ailes knew what types he wanted on that show: the “bombshell blonde,” the middle-of-the-road guy, the renegade, the brunette, and the token liberal (white or black) to round out the panel. When casting the show, he made it clear to the panelists that they were replaceable precisely because they were typecast.

In the end, such typecast replicability also led, by all accounts, to a newsroom that made Ron Burgundy’s look like a paragon of gender equality and female respect. The non-disclosure agreements were stacked like papal indulgences.

WAIT A MINUTE

But wait a minute… is all this an exageration?

Despite such strong indictments, Wax doesn’t want to go too far.

As he notes, moments of real journalism do sneak through on the cable channels.  And in moments of crisis, like the recent hurricanes, we are thankful to be “inspired by the stories of individual families, of daring rescues, and the ongoing relief efforts.”

Cable news is not all bad; not all options are equally biased; and simply tuning out to world events does not seem like a great alternative.

Perhaps one possibility then is to step away from cable–millennials like myself have long since done this (what are channels?)–and get our news from a variety of other sources.

The best of these may even involve (wait for it…) reading. While this would hardly free us from the grip of bias, the choice to read our news from more reputable sources would eliminate the endless food fights (read: panel discussions), engineered by Ailes and others. It would also prevent the binge-newsing that fuels an obsessive and over-politicized paranoia.

In the recent words of David Brooks:

[Our] public conversation is over-politicised and under-moralised … we analyse every single movement in the polls, but the big subjects about relationships and mercy and how to be a friend – these are the big subjects of life and we don’t talk about them enough. Or we have our moral arguments through political means, which is a nasty way to do it because then you make politics into a culture war.

A PROBLEM ON BOTH SIDES

As Wax makes clear, the problem exists on both the Right and Left.

In this, we have yet another example of how both extremes within our current culture wars are locked in a symbiotic existence that is simultaneously a carnal embrace.

They need each other; they are producing offspring (“As even your own poets claim”); and they ought to be in each other’s Christmas cards.

In the end, the greatest danger is what such WWE-inspired journalism does to us.

It changes us in subtle ways.  And it leaves us drawn (perhaps subconsciously) toward leaders with these qualities.

We form our media; then our media form us.

Before we know it, one might even feel “strangely warmed” toward a figure whose philosophical and rhetorical inspirations seem like an odd amalgam of Gordon Gecko and Ric Flair.  Hypothetically.

BEYOND LEGALISM

After reading Wax, my own takeaway was not a legalistic command along the lines of “Thou shalt not cable news.”

In all honesty, my own tradition has sometimes erred in this direction. My grandparents tell an old story of unloading the family moving van at a new church parsonage, only to be asked brusquely by a church elder:

“Do you own a television?”

“No,” replied my grandfather.

“Good; we throw those in the river!”

Neither Wax nor I are advocating this.

Even so, perhaps evangelicals would do well to recognize that “sex and cussing” are not the only forms of television viewing that can malform us when it comes to holiness.

Oh be careful little eyes…

We are Seven: On counting miscarriage

We are Seven: On counting miscarriage

“How many children do you have?”

That was the seemingly innocuous question that I asked my new acquaintance as we sat around the chips and salsa at our local Chili’s.

Like most parents, he answered with a number. Then he said the part that I had not expected:

“We had two miscarriages. And we always count those.”

While I responded with empathy, I recall thinking that most of us (myself included) do not publically number our children to include the little lives that never made it to delivery.

And on many levels, that is understandable.

We all deal with grief differently.  And it would be wrong to force one way of processing a failed pregnancy on others.

OUR MISCARRIAGE

About a year and a half ago Brianna and I walked through our own experience of miscarriage. And while it was sad for me, at the time, I was primarily concerned for her well-being.

After hearing a noise in our house, I came into our bedroom to find Brianna unconsciousness from blood loss.  I panicked.  Then I phoned my mom to watch our kids; I carried Brianna’s (now) semi-conscious body to the car, did my best to place her inside, and then drove us to the hospital.

Thankfully, she was soon okay.

But the baby had been deceased for several days.

Later, as some readers can relate, there was the awkward reality of having already told some folks that we were pregnant, and now having to explain.  Partly because of this, Brianna chose to share publically that she had lost a pregnancy.  And soon after, she was overwhelmed by the many friends and family who then confided their own stories–some far more traumatic than our own.

It happens often.  But that doesn’t make it nothing.

CONSISTENTLY PRO-LIFE

In Christian circles, one hears much about the need to be “Pro-Life,” and rightly so.

While the issue of abortion is polarizing, my own view leans on both Scripture and science to conclude that an unborn child is indeed a sacred human life, however small.

Even so, the consistent application of my “Pro-Life” stance involves much more than just abortion. It is a virtue that spans from womb to tomb, and sweeps up everything from welfare to warfare within its complicated wake.

I aim to be consistently Pro-Life.

Yet this too raises questions as to how I “count” our miscarriage.

WORDSWORTH OVER CHIPS AND SALSA

In a slightly different vein, something like my Chili’s conversation also happens in a classic poem by William Wordsworth (“We Are Seven”; pub. 1798).

Its verses recount an exchange between a traveler and a simple peasant girl.

The traveler asks:

“Sisters and brothers, little Maid, / How many may you be?”

“How many? Seven in all,” she said, / And wondering looked at me.

“And where are they? I pray you tell.” / She answered, “Seven are we; / And two of us at Conway dwell, / And two are gone to sea.

“Two of us in the church-yard lie, / My sister and my brother; / And, in the church-yard cottage, I / Dwell near them with my mother.”

Yet this statement brings confusion to the traveler: “I thought that you said seven.”

“You say that two at Conway dwell, / And two are gone to sea, / Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell, / Sweet Maid, how this may be.”

The misunderstanding, of course, involves the girl’s counting of her two dead siblings (“who in the church-yard lie”) as present members of her family.

Unfortunately, the mathematical modern adult doesn’t get it:

“You run about, my little Maid, / Your limbs they are alive; / If two are in the church-yard laid, / Then ye are only five.”

WE ARE SEVEN

As I read the poem recently (outside, on a nice morning, as is legally required of Wordsworth), it struck me that perhaps the number “seven” reflects our family too.

For if I were to begin consciously “counting” the child that we lost to miscarriage, then we would indeed be Seven. –(1) Brianna, (2) Josh, (3) Lucy, (4) Penny, (5) Ewan, (6) Baby unnamed, (7) Teddy.

And while I have no plans to begin saying this whenever someone asks about my children, perhaps it is a more consistent conclusion for those of us who consider ourselves “Pro-Life.”

After all, the weight of Wordsworth’s poem lies in the child’s stubborn insistence that death does not erase a child from the family roll.

To live at all is to be woven forever into the fabric of “present personhood.” We are eternal.

For to use Donne’s metaphor, “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.” And while death is powerful and grievous, it cannot tear out words and pages from this book.  It can only translate them–if they be written in Christ’s blood–“into a better language.”

The trouble, however—as my two-year-old reminds me daily—is that children learn new “languages” far easier than grown-ups.

Thus even our ostensibly “Christian” thinking about miscarriage can often leave us thinking as only slightly more cordial versions of Wordsworth’s adult traveler, in need of child-like wisdom:

“How many are you, then,” said I, / “If they two are in heaven?” / Quick was the little Maid’s reply, / “O Master! we are seven.”

“But they are dead; those two are dead! / Their spirits are in heaven!” / ’Twas throwing words away; for still / The little Maid would have her will, / And said, “Nay, we are seven!

 

On Protests

On Protests

In recent weeks, social media has been ablaze with opinions over what does or does not constitute an “appropriate” protest.

This piece, however, is about a much older controversy.

Exactly five hundred years ago (this month) an act of dissent began that was far more incendiary than a few athletes kneeling for an anthem.

In the heart of Germany, a young monk named Martinus Ludher (Martin Luther) felt compelled to speak out against the abuses of his church—and particularly, against the unjust selling of indulgences.

Yet while many celebrate Luther’s legacy this year, it bears noting that he was hardly a hero to many at the time.

Protests, it seems, can be variously interpreted.

MEDIEVAL MEMEs

Thanks to J. Gutenberg’s 15th century invention of “social media,” one can still access a plethora of medieval memes depicting the Reformer in all manner of unflattering ways.

There was Luther as the beast of Revelation; Luther as the devil’s bagpipe (below); and Luther as a sex-crazed infidel who wanted only to satisfy his lust and break his vow of celibacy.

Lutherdevil

Like and share if you agree!!! –proclaimed the Hapsburg troll farms.

On the other side, the pope was also lampooned in a variety of viral .gifs, er… pamphlets.

The holy father was here depicted as a bare-breasted dragon with the head of an ass; and  as a decrepit pseudo-Jew riding a pig while holding a pile of steaming excrement.

Popeonsow
In the period, Jews were often erroneously slurred as riding pigs.

Apparently, the poop emoji is hardly new.

Nor, sadly, is anti-Semitism.

IMPERIAL REBUKE

In response to Luther’s protest, the Holy Roman Emperor himself decided to weigh in.  And in 1521, at the Diet of Worms (not a .gif), Charles V pronounced a somber “SAD!” over the idea of justification by faith alone.

Oddly, however, the interjection of a world leader only fueled the fire.

Luther’s protest spread.

BLOOD AND SWORD

In the wake of such polarization, one might hope that the following decades would bring a return to civility between the factions—both claiming to be Christians.

It did not.

So while the fruit of the Reformation is now seen in ideas like sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura (grace alone; faith alone; Scripture alone)—the more immediate fruit was  the Thirty Years War: the deadliest religious conflict in European history.

Many cite this bloodshed today as a reason why Europe became aggressively post-Christian in the years to follow.  The idea was that strong theological commitments invariably bring bloodshed.  And while the twentieth century would show that atheists can wage jihad even more effectively (#Marxism), the damage was done.

WORTH THE TROUBLE?

So was Luther’s protest worth it?

I think it was–although I don’t agree with all his tactics.

As a Protestant myself (though one with great respect for Catholicism, and for my Catholic brothers and sisters), I tend to think that the Reformation was necessary, not least because the gospel badly needed a retrieval from the tentacles of medieval tradition.

Even so, Martin Luther was a terribly imperfect activist.

IMPERFECT ACTIVIST

Believing that all his adversaries were literally in league with Satan, Luther often chose the most profane words and images imaginable.  (I’ll let you Google it.)

He had seemingly never met an ad hominem—or a reference to the human G.I. tract—that he disliked, and he shared more than his share of “fake news” stories, especially against the Jews.

His treatment of “law” and “gospel” sometimes verged toward anti-nomianism.  And his anti-Semitism made the Holocaust more possible in modern Germany (though most of the blame for this lies elsewhere).

Partly to shore up political connections, he once commanded that the “murderous, thieving hordes of peasants” be slaughtered in the most inhumane of terms.  And while some of these peasants were indeed both murderous and thieving (see Münster), others were just poor farmers who had been frightfully oppressed by local lords.

Apparently revolts against an over-taxing monarchy can also be variously interpreted.

LESSONS LEARNED

What then is the point of this history lesson?

To be sure, every act of protest is unique–as is every “protestant.”

Thus it would be wrong to equate any of them, just as it would be wrong to declare every protest praiseworthy. Some are not.

Even so, we fool ourselves if we think that any act of dissent was ever deemed “appropriate” at the time.  That’s just not how it works.

Just ask the other Martin Luther. In 1966, Gallup registered MLK’s disapproval rating at 63%, while only 32% of Americans approved of him. Yet in 1999, MLK ranked #1 amongst U.S. citizens to be voted on.

Apparently it takes more than flash polls or “gut feelings” to discern morality.

And perhaps in one instance, it took a chronically cussing and perpetually constipated monk to get a needed conversation going.

Happy (early) Reformation Day.

Coyote America

Coyote America

In the Latino communities of the American southwest, there is a saying:

            The only thing smarter than a coyote is God.

And while we car-driving, blog-writing humans may take issue with this claim, just ask yourself this question:

How many coyotes have you seen holding fidget spinners?

I sat rapt recently as I listened to the nature historian Dan Flores talk about his recent book: Coyote America. 

It is essentially a biography of America’s most adaptive underdog.

And it is also a strange topic for a blog on faith and culture.

So we should probably address that weirdness.

A DEFICIT OF AWE

You may not know it, but coyotes are not exactly “click-generators” in the world of social media. They do not wear bikinis; they have no thoughts on Donald Trump; and (unlike cats) they do not appear on Youtube playing the piano. (I checked.)

So why write about them?

Two words: unexpected awe.

While there are many problems in the modern world, among the least acknowledged may be our loss of wonder.  Despite all our technological marvels, most of us are far too rarely dazzled.

So while we are awash with entertainment, we have a deficit of awe.

And from this evil Amazon.com cannot deliver us.

This state of disenchantment presents a problem for the church, because a capacity for wonder may be a prerequisite for what Calvin called the sensus divinitatis—our sense of the divine.

INTO THE WILD

In the Bible, such awe comes often out-of-doors–though not exclusively.

It presents itself in burning bushes; in stars that mark descendants; and in a grappling angel by a brook.

In such wild places, our sense of wonder is refreshed.

And this brings us back to the coyote.

ETERNAL UNDERDOG

While Flores’ book starts in prehistoric times, its most interesting parts reveal how the coyote flourished while other species were decimated by the settling of the American West–a period that brought perhaps the swiftest destruction of wildlife in world history.

Yet despite an all-out war on coyotes starting around 1915, the only noticeable result has been that they continue to spread like wildfire.

While first inhabiting only a portion of North America, the animals now stretch from beyond the arctic circle down into South America.  And what’s more, they now inhabit every major city in the United States.

The reason for their flourishing has something to do with what the apostle Paul identified as “power perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12.9).

Because coyotes adapted as the smaller, frailer cousin of the wolf, they could not rely on brute force to stay alive.  Instead, they had to lean into their wits and learn to leverage weakness.

Case in point: their use of howls and hormones.

COYOTE TINDER

According to Flores, when the female coyote howls (or yips) each night, one purpose is to take the roll of the respective mates within her group.

If a male does not respond—say, because he was trapped or shot or mauled—it triggers a chemical reaction within the alpha female that does two things, both of which are awe-inducing:

First, it sends her prematurely into heat; and second, it causes the ensuing litter to be larger than normal.

You might want to read that again. The mere absence of an answering “yip” both triggers heat and makes the litter larger than they would be otherwise.

Most likely, this adaptation emerged from a history of weakness and inferiority in the face of larger predators. Yet somehow, this tendency to get killed-off by bigger animals coincided with a freakish adaptation that gave coyotes an advantage.

Example number two:

FRAGILE PACKS 

While wolves tend to stay almost perpetually in tight-knit groups, coyotes are what Flores calls a “fragile pack” animal. This means that when they face pressure from their enemies, they tend to splinter into smaller groups and then cast about in search of new territory.

Because grey wolves group more rigidly, the killing of a single wolf often leads to the killing of the entire pack—sometimes aided by the use of the original hide as a way to lure others to an ambush. For such reasons, wolves were almost eliminated from the American West, while coyotes spread rapidly in all directions.

“They tried to scatter us,” you can almost hear them howling, “They didn’t realize we were seeds” (cf. D. Christianopoulos).

RESISTING APPLICATION

Okay, okay… so coyotes have some crazy adaptations that have led to flourishing – but what do we do with this?

The tendency, for preachers like myself, would be a move to application: something like, The Coyote Principle (Now available for $12.99!).

After all, the book of Proverbs tells us to “Consider the ant” in order to be wise. And if Solomon were relocated to the Sierra Madres, perhaps the text would read “Consider the coyote.”

To be sure, there are lessons to be gained from such creaturely longevity.

For instance:

  1. Weakness does not have to be a weakness. And:
  2. Scattering can be a form of conquest.

Yet the too-quick drive to application can be a fault of teachers like myself. And in some cases it borders on a sacrilege–what Kierkegaard called “pillaging the holy.”

Because while we may benefit from life-lessons, sometimes we have a deeper need to marvel merely at the wonders made by the Creator.

As Donald Miller writes in Through Painted Deserts:

I sometimes look into the endless heavens, the cosmos of which we can’t find the edge, and ask God what it means. Did You really do all this to dazzle us? 

In sum: application is no substitute for awe.

THAT SUCH THINGS SHOULD BE

A related point is made beautifully in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

In one scene, two ragged “okie” boys slide into a roadside gas station as their family migrates west in search of food and better fortunes. In patched overalls and dirt-streaked faces, the children halt suddenly before the candy case. There they stared

not with craving or with hope or even with desire but just with a kind of wonder that such things should be.

Perhaps this tells us something of how Christians ought to look at nature, at coyotes, at oceans, at eclipses, and even at our fellow man—not with craving or with quests for application, but with naked wonder that such things should be.