Christians and Climate Change

Christians and Climate Change

My Interview with a real-life Climate Scientist

Jim Norwine is a unicorn.

A few years ago I met Jim as he audited my university New Testament class.

For the unfamiliar, auditing means attending my lectures simply for the fun of it, rather than for college credit. (Needless to say, some of my traditional students find this very odd.)

Nevertheless, Jim and I became friends.  And I then learned that he is a PhD scientist, specializing in Climate Change, and having taught for years in the Geosciences at Texas A&M.

Jim is a scholar.

Yet he is also an evangelical Christian, living in the Bible-belt — which brings us to the opening line about his almost “mythical” status. As he admits, evangelical climate scientists (with actual PhDs in the field) are somewhat rare.

EVANGELICALS AND CLIMATE SCIENCE

Manmade global warming, while accepted as an empirical fact in many places, is often controversial in the Bible-belt (though not for theological reasons).

And like everything else, it is highly politicized.

Even so, the command to be good stewards of our earth is a mandate for all Christians. And the need to listen to actual experts on such subjects (rather than unqualified bloggers like myself!) seems wise.

So whether you “believe” in manmade climate change or not, I hope you’ll enjoy the interview I did with Jim.

THE GIST

In it, he attempts to explain:

  1. How warming happens;
  2. Why he can be quite certain it is both real and human-caused; and
  3. How his treatment of the topic differs from some others as it comes from a Christian concern for the “least of these,” and an acknowledgement of the imago Dei.

You can access the conversation, in two formats.

First, there is an audio conversation shown below, and secondly (further down) there is an email response from Jim in which he responds to some questions on Christians and climate change.

Enjoy!

EMAIL Q&A WITH JIM NORWINE

Q: How do we know that man made global warming is real?

Oh boy. How to answer that in a few sentences….?

First, we know nothing with absolute certainty other than our selves, and even that could be a projection by some external whatever. (The latter is the ancient philosophy of solipsism, “I am the only reality,” which is impossible to refute…but which most of us choose to ignore in order to get on with “our”—we hope–lives.)

Seems obvious when you think about it but in fact even very educated folks often seem to think we are eating into the corpus of ignorance and soon will have digested the whole enchilada. Nothing could be further from the truth. Knowledge is by its nature finite. Ignorance is infinite.

Think of the former as standing on a new and still-rising volcanic mountain on an island in the middle of the sea. Every day you are higher and higher, see (know) more and more.   So easy to think, what a smart boy am I! And true up to a point. But: every day the horizon recedes further and further. This is the point of the folk, and scholar’s, wisdom, “the more I know the greater my ignorance.”

So I suppose one could say there is one kind of “certain” knowledge, that of apprehending the limits inherent in being embodied createds.

Second, as to knowing in a scientific sense, there are levels. One may know in the sense of a law, like that of gravity. Near-“certain” because of so many repeated demonstrations and observations. (Still never really certain because a law, like that of gravity, is not the reality, just the best description one has at the moment.   And in fact the law of gravity has been overturned: Aristotle to Galileo to Newton to Einstein and so on.)

The next level of knowledge in science is that of theory. You might think of a successful theory as a sort of baby or not-quite-yet law. High confidence again due to verification by testing and testing and still more testing. The theory of evolution is a good example. When folks hear the phrase they often confuse theory with hypothesis. The latter is the educated guess with which one begins the practice of the scientific method. Hypothesis is merely square one on the Monopoly board of science; theory is at the very opposite end of the practice, one half-step short of law.

Anthropogenic warming is in, or at least close to, the latter category, in terms of the broad relation between CO2 levels (and those of other greenhouse gases) and planetary temperature. Our studies of Earth’s climate history provide robust evidence of CO2 level as one of the 4 principal causes of climate change over many thousands, even millions, of years, along with the astronomical cycle (3 cycles in Earth’s orbital geometry), volcanic activity, and solar output.

To wit, warm epochs in the past were periods of high CO2 and vice versa.   It is true that important details remain open to question, such as the rate of future warming. Our mathematical models are impressive but again they are only simulations of the vastly more complex real deal so always open to improvement.

Backing up a bit, I should have mentioned that speculation about the thermal effect of emissions from fossil fuels dates to the late 1900s. This “educated guess” was based on a by-then clear understanding that Earth is only inhabitable because of the greenhouse effect.

Quickie short course: the sun is so hot it emits extremely short-wave radiation, energy which zips through our atmosphere like the proverbial knife through butter. However, the Earth is much, much cooler, so that it re-radiates the energy outward in the form of long-wave length “heat” that CO2, methane, ozone and other gases are able to trap in the lower atmosphere with great efficiency. (This “extra” leaks out to space at night so over time Earth usually remains in heat balance.) Consider Mars and Venus by comparison. Both have mostly CO2 atmospheres, but Mars has such a thin atmosphere it lacks the “blanket” needed to trap the outgoing energy near the surface and hence is cold, while Venus has a thick atmosphere with a super9efficient greenhouse effect, hence mean temps of 800-900F.

Q: How do you, as a Christian (and, I think, as a fairly conservative guy) think about this issue differently than some of your colleagues in climate science.

Another toughie to answer briefly.

First, they are right to be skeptical. Just as there was some core of truth about Hilary’s famous “vast right wing conspiracy,” I am confident that there is a strong undercurrent among advocates and progressives in general to place, and enforce using state power, ever-greater limits on personal freedom. (And like the right-wing conspirators, not out of some dark impulse but because of a sort of true-belief faith, in the case of the progressives in “positive”—rules, regs and laws designed to maximize equality of condition–as opposed to the “negative”—“don’t tread on me”—freedom conservatives favor.)

But finally, it don’t make no nevermind, as we say in TX. Or: just because you are paranoid don’t mean there ain’t a bad’un behind you. See answer above: Earth is habitable only because of a wonderful (for us) process that we are overdoing. Liberal plotting and conspiracy notwithstanding, enough extra CO2 is like enough extra jelly donuts: warmer/fatter. Trads of all folks should be first to remember that we are not and never will be “as gods.”

Another reason for conservative dubiety is they intuit, correctly, that they have been lied to by advocates. I.e., “leaving fossil fuels behind won’t be that hard.” Complete and profoundly disingenuous nonsense. (Sort of like “you can keep your doctor, it won’t cost more, etc.” with health care.) Elites think that ordinary folks are so stupid and selfish that they can’t be told the truth about sacrifice.

Fossil fuels were the most transformation discovery in human history since fire itself. The challenge of moving away from their use even done gradually will be immense, something on the order of the Great Depression, WWII, and Europe’s Black Death plagues.

Another common theme from advocates: “we are all in this together.” Yeah, right. Folks see Al Gore and Bill Gates in their vast estates gobbling up energy, and elites with few if any kids living in huge homes, taking jetliner flights to climate conferences–each of which has a greater environmental footprint that a redneck family for a year—all smug in their confidence that by a. recycling and driving hybrids—behaviors that don’t inconvenience them one iota–, and b. preaching to nobodies about how awful they are to drive gas guzzlers, they are sorting with the angels.

And of course they also almost universally support policies like “cap and trade,” which will double or treble energy cost. Again, no big problem, merely some modest tweaking of lifestyle (fewer trips to Cabo, etc.)…but try to imagine the impact of a summertime monthly electricity bill of $800 or $1,000 for someone of modest means living in an older home or trailer.

All the above have unfortunately contributed to many traditional losing sight of our No. 2 marching order: the well-being of the least of these. Opting out of the conversation is consequential, because by participating they could hugely influence new policies and regs, which are surely coming one way or the other. For instance, to lobby for James Hansen’s “fee and dividend” plan, which would raise energy costs enough to cut back emissions but would all be rebated to individuals/families at year’s end. (Progs mostly hate fee and dividend because all the taxes in cap and trade go to the state. As in California now, and Australia earlier, neither of which effectively cut CO2.)

Q: What would you say to those who think manmade climate change is basically a ploy driven by some other political or ideological agenda?

Guess I sort of answered this above: “First, they are right to be skeptical. Just as there was some core of truth about Hilary’s famous “vast right wing conspiracy,” I am confident that there is a strong undercurrent among advocates and progressives in general to place, and enforce using state power, ever-greater limits on personal freedom. (And like the right-wing conspirators, not out of some dark impulse but because of a sort of true-belief faith, in the case of the progressives in “positive”—rules, regs and laws designed to maximize equality of condition–as opposed to the “negative”—“don’t tread on me”—freedom conservatives favor.) But finally, it don’t make no nevermind, as we say in TX. Or: just because you are paranoid don’t mean there ain’t a bad’un behind you. See answer above: Earth is habitable only because of a wonderful (for us) process that we are overdoing. Liberal plotting and conspiracy notwithstanding, enough extra CO2 is like enough extra jelly donuts: warmer/fatter. Trads of all folks should be first to remember that we are not and never will be “as gods.”

But Let me know if you want further clarification.

To recognize that there is a problem with climate change is one thing… but what can the global community actually do about it at this point?

I should have already stressed this point: we can do nothing about the warming from the emissions already done. And frankly not much in terms of actually “fixing” the problem anytime soon. We are going to have to adapt to a warmer world. The key question is how much warmer. The toughest aspect of doing that is that those who sacrifice now will not live to experience any of the benefits.

James Hansen leads the so-called 350 movement, That is, to get CO2 back to 350 ppm from the current 410 or so. (~275 at the start of the Industrial Rev.) Very unlikely methinks, at least without massive economic disruption, with most disastrous impacts on the world’s nobodies. I believe that a doable objective (doable, anything but easy) is to get the level stabilized at or below 450 and then by ~2100 with luck, hard work and sacrificeback down to around where it is currently. That means something like a 5F rise by century’s end. A big challenge, but nothing like the 10F or more which could well present an existential threat if we if we don’t begin to flatten the rate of increase.

Returning to your question, if we could go back in time 20 years I would say that candor would have made a big difference. A forthright message of the need for shared sacrifice like ML King Jr.’s Christian-morality based movement. Recall his own personal example of sacrifice writing from the jailhouse, etc. Maybe too late for that now.   In a self-referential age like the one we now inhabit, post-modernity, evidence along no longer persuades many unless it bolsters what they already believed. (And new studies make it clear that is as true of liberals as conservatives.)

Maybe if a Francis Collins led a movement of traditional evangelicals….? Perhaps somehow combined with Ron Dreher’s “Benedict Option”…in which we do retreat in some manner to spiritual “sanctuaries”—living as we do in an alien and ever more hostile post-theistic world—but reach out from them to that world, kind of ala Jeremiah’s concern for the pagans.

 

 

Should a Christian ever say “America First”?

Should a Christian ever say “America First”?

In the second century Letter to Diognetus, there is this description of the early church:

They live in their own countries, but only as foreigners. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed.

The point of the passage—aside from the bit on marriage beds—is that while the first Christians were good citizens, they saw themselves as “foreigners” within their “fatherlands.”

They rejected nationalism, because they believed that they belonged to a Kingdom that transcended earthly borders.

I’ve written about this topic elsewhere (“When patriotism goes too far”).

Yet here I want to ask a more specific question:

Is it ever okay for a Christian to utter the now-resurgent slogan “America First”?

AN INITIAL ANSWER

In pondering the question, my initial answer was a quick and solid “Nope.”

America, despite my gratitude for her, is not first.

God is.

And Christ’s Kingdom knows no borders, tribes, or nationalities.

Beyond this, Christ’s Kingdom will endure long after America is a forgotten footnote in the dusty book of human history–alongside Rome, Byzantium, and others.

As Isaiah states:

Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket

they are regarded as dust on the scales (Isa. 40.15).

All this is true.

Unfortunately, “Nope” is not a very lengthy blog post.

And, to be honest, I have considered one qualified(!) sense in which it might be okay for a Christian to put “America First”—though I will not be saying it.

Still, I’ll start with the massive problem with the phrase.

A “NOPE” TO NATIONALISM

If the expression “America First!” carries even a hint of nationalism (as opposed to gracious patriotism), it is quite obvious that a Christian should not say it.

As Ryan Hamm defines it:

  • Patriotism is a love of one’s country (which may be good).
  • Nationalism is a love of country at the expense, or disrespect, of other nations.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the very notion of a “Christian nationalist” is an oxymoron.

It is a form of syncretism that verges on idolatry as much as stacking plastic Baals and Buddhas on the altar at one’s local church.

A less academic term for syncretism (the mixing of gods) is what I call a “Ricky Bobby religion”—as evidenced by his heartfelt plea from inside an imaginary fire in the movie, Talladega Nights:

Help me Jesus! Help me Jewish God! Help me Allah! AAAAAHHH! Help me Tom Cruise! Tom Cruise, use your witchcraft on me to get the fire off me!

giphy

On a more serious note, it was a plea for national allegiance (from religious leaders) that led finally to Christ’s murder, which may make nationalism the first heresy.

“If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar” (Jn. 19.12).

Hence the twinge of pain emitted by the satirical July 4th headline on the Babylon Bee:

  • “Dozens Accept America As Lord And Savior At First Baptist Dallas Service” (here).

The exaggeration only drives home the danger of a more subtle syncretism.

In sum: Nationalism is a cancer to the Kingdom, and one often senses it—like a poorly hidden accent—beneath the chanting of “America First!”

“YES” TO STEWARDSHIP 

Even so, I am trying lately to read the claims of others (and especially those I disagree with) in the most charitable way possible. We need that discipline these days especially.

As I’ve said before, I’m thankful for America; and I think a gracious patriotism may be rooted in gratitude instead of nationalism.

So while things like “charity” and “nuance” are Kryptonite to “blog-clicks,” here goes…

Perhaps, in some cases, it is possible to view the words merely as a call to take responsibility for one’s own “household” before moving on to others.

After all, as a father, if I claim to put my family “first,” I need not be implying that others don’t matter, or that my family is more important than my faith. In this case, the words may simply function as a reminder of, say, my duty to parent my own kids before trying to parent everybody else’s.

And if one works within a particular government, there is a clear duty to give priority to one’s own “house” before venturing off to mow all other “yards” and trim other “hedges.”

This need not be nationalism and it need not be sacrilegious.

It might be a form of stewardship, and the priority might be a “first among equals.”

Maybe.

CONCLUSION

Still, the question is not just what intention lies behind such slogans (for indeed “chants” are rarely the most measured or coherent statements), but what the words connote within the hearts of hearers.

Thus while the catchphrase may not always entail a conscious endorsement of nationalistic syncretism, I still much prefer the attitude described in the age-old Letter to Diognetus.

They live in their own countries, but only as foreigners. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed

We don’t have a theodicy, yet.

We don’t have a theodicy, yet.

This last weekend brought the first in a four-week class I’m teaching at our church on “Critiques of Christianity.”

This session was on: “The Problem of Evil.”

And sadly, but appropriately, it came after yet another terrorist attack in England.

THE DANGER WITH APOLOGETICS

Terrorism aside, my worry with some “apologetics” is that Christians often approach objections to the faith with “girded loins” and “sword in hand.”

Indeed, one popular (and quite good) apologetics text even features a sword-fighter on the cover, slashing away at an unseen opponent.

To be fair, the illustration is rooted in a biblical call to “contend for the faith” (Jude 1.3) and “give a defense” for “the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3.15). And the Bible itself can speak of being armed with the “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6.17).

Still, the optics of “stab-n-slash” apologetics are (shall we say) not the best for winsome dialogue.

After all, few people change their minds because they lost an argument.

Which brings us to the problem of evil.

THEODICIES 

For some, the very fact that evil exists is seen as disproving an “all-good” and “all-powerful” God. The claim is quite familiar: If God were all-good, he would not want evil. And if God were all-powerful, he could prevent it.

In response, theists have crafted various “theodicies”—which give answers as to why an all-good and powerful God might nonetheless permit evil.

The most common theodicy is termed the “Greater Good Defense.”

In short, this argument says that perhaps some worthy goods can only be achieved with the presence, or at least the possibility, of evil.

Of course, this all sounds quite rational until one is blindsided—experientially—with a form of evil that is hardly academic:

A child facedown in a backyard pool.

A pedophilic camp counselor.

A cheating spouse.

Or perhaps even harder are those things that we (unfortunately) call “acts of God.” My colleague’s son was killed by a lightning strike.

And to amend the words of Ta-Nihisi Coates: “The [storm cloud] cannot be subpoenaed.” Just ask Job.

TWO ATTEMPTED ANSWERS

Nonetheless, the so-called “Greater Good defense” comes in two major forms: Appeals to divine glory, and appeals to human freedom.

  1. Glory Theodicies. 

In so-called “glory theodicies,” the greater good is the glory God receives as he contrasts, judges, and ultimately conquers evil.

From this perspective, God is seen as even more exalted, gracious, and holy when set against the dark backdrop of sin and death.

Unfortunately, in some forms (namely: divine determinism), this view also can impugn God’s good character.

After all, a determinist deity seems willing to ordain all manner of atrocities in pursuit of his renown. And what kind of god is that?

Hence, a second and more popular theodicy is called “The free will defense.”

  1. Free Will Theodicies.

The greater good here is not “free will,” but something more significant: the possibility of a genuine love relationships between God and humans.

As the story goes, “Love” requires freedom, and for creatures freedom means the possibility of pain.

In the view of C.S. Lewis:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.

And more extensively:

Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.

But there are issues here as well.

One objection is that the human will seems hardly “free” in many instances. Hence Scripture (e.g., Rom. 7) sometimes paints a picture of the will as being bound apart from God’s grace, and the work of the Holy Spirit

(Incidentally, both Calvin and Wesley agreed on this.).

Our liberty is limited in a thousand ways—by genetics, environment, and other actors.

Hence absolute freedom is a pipe dream. You’d have to be high to believe in it.

The options, then, are that humans either had free will and lost it. Or we retain some measure of it only by God’s grace and Spirit.

Either way, the free will defense (which I actually find quite helpful) still presents us with unanswered questions.

And that brings us to the title of this post.

WE DON’T HAVE A THEODICY, YET

The name of the class I’m teaching (“Critiques of Christianity”) is proudly stolen from one taught by one of my old seminary professors: Dr. Rick Lints.

And as I looked over my old handwritten notes, I found scribbled there this phrase:

“We don’t have a theodicy, yet.”

The point here is not that appeals to glory and freedom are useless, but that they do not fully crack the code of monstrous evil.

They too stand silent before Auschwitz.

And they too fall short when we encounter evil personally. As proof, even C.S. Lewis famously repudiated (if only briefly) his earlier theodicies when his wife Joy died of cancer.

Even he—the greatest “apologist” of the last two centuries—did not yet have an adequate theodicy.

As the Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance argued, evil cannot be rationally explained, because evil is not rational.  It exists contra ratio and contra Deum. 

After all, what is rational about the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London?

What is rational about the repeated decisions of, say, Anthony Weiner?

Come to think of it: What is rational about some my decisions?

For these and many other reasons, we don’t have an adequate theodicy.

“YET”

But the next word is important also—“Yet.”

The hope of Christians is not that we will explain evil—but that we will “outlast it.”

Hence the Scriptures (and famously, the book of Job) offer no full answer to “Why bad things happen to good people.”

That’s a modern question, not a biblical one.

In Scripture, we learn only that God opposes evil, that he will one-day end it, and that he invites us to be part of the campaign—frail and faulty though we are.

Sword-less but well armed.

“Ocupado”

“Ocupado”

On Catholic Crosses, Welcoming a Son, and “Being Gangsta”

When I was five or six, I remember being allowed to visit the local Dollar General Store to spend “my very own money” on whatever I liked.

I selected a massive golden crucifix on a gaudy golden chain.

I was (and am) a Gangsta.

Upon showing the purchase to my parents, I was informed that I had made a slight mistake. This was a “Catholic” cross, as evidenced by the gold-plated Jesus hanging from it.

While we were cool with the Catholics, I was told that “Our crosses are empty.”

The point, for Protestants, is that Jesus is no longer on the cross—he’s risen—so we prefer our sacred death-devices to be unoccupied. Or for my Spanish readers: desocupado.

El Jesús del hospital

Fast-forward thirty years and I sit now inside a Catholic hospital where I will also be allowed to spend some of my “very own money”—but it’s been worth every penny.

Yesterday, we unexpectedly welcomed our fourth child (Theodore Brian) three weeks early.

Teddy

And right above my head, as I now type, there is another Catholic crucifix.

And somehow it seems fitting.

Yesterday, when Teddy was born, he was having some trouble breathing. While the doctors weren’t too worried, his respiration was far more rapid (that’s: rapido) than desirable. And to make matters worse, he could not go to Brianna’s room to in such a state.

So there I sat in the nursery—stripped to the waist so he could feel my skin—singing “Hush little baby” in front of a plate-glass window through which onlookers watched a topless professor who probably looked like a pasty primate trying to “nurse” a baby (*despite some gender confusion).

Mire mamá, un chimpancé blanco

Thankfully, Teddy is fine – but as I sit now under a suspended Christ, I am thankful for the Catholic crucifix. It is not necessarily better than its more triumphant counterpart, and in some ways it may occasionally be prone to fetished misconstrual.

But in some settings—like the hospital—it also seems more helpful.

By it I was vividly reminded that mine was not the only Son to struggle for breath in a world that is harsh and cruel compared to that from whence he came. And unlike mine, this other Son could not feel his Father’s presence, much less his skin.

Eloi, Eloi…, he screamed, and was not comforted. 

Señor Grünewald

Rewind five hundred years and a man named Matthias Grünewald sits painting an altarpiece for a monastery that doubled as a hospital.

891px-matthias_grc3bcnewald_-_the_crucifixion_-_wga10723
M. Grunewald: The Isenheim Altarpiece

The location, Isenheim, in France, had been afflicted by a terrible plague that manifested in festering sores upon the skin.

Like Jesus, its survivors were forever scarred.matthias_grc3bcnewald_-_the_crucifixion_28detail29_-_wga10790

Famously, Grünewald infected Christ. He chose to paint the sores upon the Savior.

The message was clear. As the Book of Hebrews states: We do not have a High Priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our travails (Heb. 4.15). He knows. He’s been there.

He knows what it’s like to gasp for breath, to have a prayer go unanswered, to feel betrayed by friends, belittled by cynics, and beaten up by bullies. He was murdered naked in front of his own mother. And while the good news is that the cross is no longer ocupado, sometimes it helps to see—yes, actually see—the Catholic version.

Because while language is a gift, some images transcend translation.

Trampled: Reading “Silence” for the Lenten Season

Trampled: Reading “Silence” for the Lenten Season

Is God’s speech sometimes more painful than his silence?

This is but one question raised by Shūsaku Endō’s classic novel.

For almost the duration of story, Father Sebastian Rodrigues longs for just one word from God on behalf of his persecuted people.

But when that word comes, it is the last thing the priest expected.

While I have yet to see the film adaptation of Silence by Martin Scorsese, I have just read the book for Lent.

It is not for the faint of heart.

SILENCE

[*SPOILERS BELOW]

The story follows the path of Jesuit missionaries as they set out for 17th century Japan.

After flourishing in a prior generation, Christianity now faces unspeakable persecution there as the faithful are brutally drowned at sea, slashed by samurai, and tortured over pits of human excrement.

In the midst of such butchery, Father Rodrigues sneaks ashore to serve the suffering Christians, and to investigate the whereabouts of his old mentor, Father Ferreira.

While Ferreira had been a celebrated missionary, rumors swirl that he has now renounced his faith and even trampled on a picture (fumie) of Christ as public proof of this apostasy.

Rodrigues must know if this is true.  Yet after a brief period of ministry, Rodrigues is betrayed, captured, and finally brought to meet the man that he has searched for: Ferreira.

The old priest has adopted the dress and customs of Japan, and he explains what led to his apostasy. After capture, he was hung upside down for three days over the dreaded pit, and all without recanting. But after being taken down, the local magistrate  devised a more insidious torture.

In his place, innocent peasants were suspended over the pit, and Ferreira was told that only his trampling upon the Christ-picture would free them. His choice was their torture or his own “apostasy.”

Ferreira trampled.

Eventually, Rodrigues is given the same choice, yet he resolves never to deny his Lord. Still, even before the fateful moment, the reader senses that the Rodrigues’ resolve is sinking like the peasants in the sea.

His aching question throughout the novel has pertained to God’s silence in the face of suffering.

Why does he say nothing!?

“… the silence of God was something I could not fathom … surely he should speak but a word… .”

Indeed, this excruciating muteness provides a backdrop for almost the entire novel.

Almost.

In the end, as Rodrigues is faced with the terrible choice, he looks down at the picture of Jesus—worn down and grimy from so many feet—and at long last he hears the voice of Christ, as clear as crystal:

“Trample! Trample! … It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot upon the fumie [picture]. Dawn broke. And far into the distance the cock crew.

RESPONDING TO SILENCE

Is Rodrigues is more like Jesus or Judas?

Is he more like Peter heading to his cross, or Peter just before the rooster crowed?

Is it actually “Christ-like” for the priest to endure what he perceives to be “damnation” so that others might be freed?

And which is more intolerable for Rodrigues, God’s silence or his unexpected speech?

Which is more intolerable for us?

Rodrigues and Ferreira are hardly the only Christian to wrestle with such questions.

The apostle Paul himself once claimed that, if possible, he would gladly be “cut off from Christ” if it meant salvation for the Jews (Rom. 9.3).

And in a different vein, the ardent pacifist Dietrich Bonhoeffer signed on to a plot to kill Hitler while refusing to justify such violence. Instead, he was resolved to “bear the guilt,” so that others might go free.

Did Rodrigues do that?

Neither Paul nor Bonhoeffer publicly denounced their Lord.

But what if Christ had commanded them to “trample”?

Would Jesus say such a word?

Despite unanswered questions, Silence remains, in many ways, a deeply Christian work—which explains why the Pope recently offered Martin Scorsese a blessing on the movie version.

But unlike so much that passes for “Christian” art these days, Endo’s masterpiece does not gloss over the dark travails of faith.

And as such, it fits perfectly amid the silent shadows of the Lenten season.


Available here.

 

Jesus picks the music: why love trumps “safety” on the Christian soundtrack

Jesus picks the music: why love trumps “safety” on the Christian soundtrack

When I was just a poor college student, I did things I’m not proud of.

Things – for money.

In a local apartment complex (dubbed “smurf village” for the bright blue paint), there was one particular residence that looked like all the others. Yet on the inside it was filled with recording equipment.

And there, on numerous occasions, I sang radio jingles for money.

Out of shame, I told no one. Thus my friends (if they noticed) probably thought that I had come into a very small inheritance – perhaps the life insurance policy for a departed hamster.

But eventually the truth came out.

One evening, as the college basketball team drove through a lonely stretch of rural Kansas, across the radio airwaves, came my voice – singing the praises of a “Christian lifestyle store” in a tiny town called McPherson.

Somewhere a rooster crowed.

All kidding aside, the jingles were easy to produce because whatever the merchant—a Bible bookstore in Kansas, a tanning salon in Illinois—the music and the melody remained exactly the same. Only the lyrics were different. This allowed the jingle producer (“Chuck”) to save both time and money when it came to composing and recording.

And most importantly, it ensured that I never had to learn new music.

THE GOSPEL IS NEW MUSIC

And that’s the trouble for Christians too.

All of us have a set of cultural assumptions that seem right and reasonable to us. These assumptions form the “soundtrack” of our lives, and they color everything from our politics to our parenting. Depending where you were born, your soundtrack may be different.

So while Scripture gives WORDS that are meant to tell us how to view the world, those words are easily lost amid the MUSIC of our tribe and our tradition.

It’s like trying to discern the lyrics to a “screamo” song when you’re used to Kenny Rogers.

The result, as one scholar observed, is that we look down the long well of history in search of Jesus, and in the water at the bottom we see a reflection of our own face. “That’s him!” we shout; “He looks and thinks a lot like me!”

Hence, we assume that Christ’s view on something is pretty much the same as whatever seems most “practical” or “reasonable” to us. Thank God. Or rather, thank us.

JESUS, THE IMPRACTICAL

But a quick read through the Gospels (with our music turned down even slightly) shows that Jesus is far from “practical” and “prudent” as we usually define those terms.

In fact, he says many things that don’t seem reasonable or “safe” at all.

A few examples, just from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”
  • “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
  • If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
  • “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”

Elsewhere, in an even more radical passage (Mt. 25), Jesus claims that hellfire—yes, hellfire (see verse 41)—hinges upon whether or not one welcomes “him” in the form of poor and marginalized:

  • “I was a stranger and you invited me in,I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least, you did for me (vss. 35–36).”

Despite interpretive nuances, all this demands an ethic of radical love that seems impractical in many cases. And to be honest, I don’t always like it.

I WAS A STRANGER

I thought about this recently as I read a predictable comment thread on Facebook.

A pastor friend (and former student) had written a heartfelt post lamenting the recent Presidential edict summarily banning refugees and Green Card holders from certain countries, even when they pass the current vetting process.

My friend’s post was not partisan or angry, but the first comment was invariably a rebuke from a fellow churchgoer.

The respondent appreciated the compassion, but just wanted to share that it really isn’t “safe” or “responsible” to allow in Muslim refugees. After all, they’re Muslims.

So just as we “lock our doors at night,” so too we should lock our borders to such refugees—it’s just safer that way.

In response to this “locked door” analogy, the Scriptures tend to tell stories of people opening them (even late at night) to help the vulnerable (Gen. 19; Luke 11). And on the two occasions that a door remains locked, we discover that the church has shut out Jesus himself (Rev. 3.20; Mt. 25.43). The analogy is flawless, except for the Bible.

IN FAIRNESS…

To be fair, I’m all for safety and secure borders. And I’m all for improving the vetting process (when possible) for the folks that we allow to immigrate. A concern for safety isn’t bad, and it can even be a way of “loving thy neighbor.”

But what many fail to see is how radical the WORDS of Scripture actually are on such matters. And I suspect the reason is that while we’re happy to let Jesus say some things, we’ve never let him change our MUSIC.

Hence, the background noise (whether liberal or conservative; Fox News or MSNBC), drowns out the gospel call to a different set of values.

To disagree with the radio station that aired one of my jingles, Jesus has never been “safe and fun for the whole family.” He got tortured to death. And so did his followers.

Radical love, not safety, has always been the mark of Christian character.

This may sound risky, and that’s because it is.

But to sign on to the Jesus movement means that Jesus picks the music.

And in this soundtrack, sacrificial love trumps “safety” as the highest virtue.


For one organization helping refugees, see here.

For one book that has shaped my thinking on this issue, see here.

For the burning / Unto Us

For the burning / Unto Us

For many, 2016 was a year for the burning.

There were lots of reasons really (see this fantastic post by Steve Holmes), but it was with some of those in mind that I chose to speak this year from Isaiah 9 for our church’s Christmas Eve service.

It is a text that emerges (quite literally) from “utter darkness” (8.22)

Yet it begins with a note of tenacious hope: “Nevertheless” (9.1).

In some ways the gospel is contained in this word. “Nevertheless.” It is a denial of denial and a refusal to paper over the ugly side of life.  Still it also displays a ruthless trust that, in spite of everything, as Sam Cooke sang: “a change is gonna come”

Thus the text goes on:

Every warrior’s boot used in battle

and every garment rolled in blood

will be destined for burning,

will be fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

While I’m not much of a poet, I wanted to translate this promise into the imagery of the 21st century. So here goes:


Unto Us:

Every missile silo, armed and ready

Every bloody sword, oncology ward;

Every shantytown and hospital gown will be fuel for the fire.

 

Every divorce attorney and hospice gurney;

Every crutch, every cane, every bit of pain will be destined for the burning.

Every condolence letter and prisoner’s fetter;

Every funeral home and graveyard stone will be fuel for the fire.

 

Every addict’s craving and politician’s raving

Every surprise pink slip, every medicated IV drip will be destined for the burning

Every lonely dark and bullying remark will be fuel for the fire.

 

Every bombed-out playground in Aleppo

every body-bag, outpost Restrepo

…Boston, Baghdad, Berlin—every percussive echo, will be heard no more.

“For unto us a child is born, and unto us a Son is given

And the Government will be upon his shoulders.”


 

My good friend Josh Wright asked me if he could adapt this for a song and you can hear it here.