The heresy of radical individualism (part 3)

The heresy of radical individualism (part 3)

How does individualism become a roadblock to racial justice?

With the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain, many white evangelicals have begun to pay more attention to racial injustice in America.

But there’s a catch.

In their book, Divided by Faith, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue that most white evangelicals do not have a category for structural racism, thus, they tend to view America’s “Race Problem” primarily at an individualistic level.

Divided by faith

For this reason,

well-intentioned people, their values, and their institutions actually recreate racial divisions and inequalities they ostensibly oppose.

RACE AND RADICAL INDIVIDUALISM

Worse yet, in our highly polarized environment, it has become fashionable (in some circles) to dismiss any talk of structural racism as a “Marxist” product of “Critical Race Theory.”

When I interviewed the Christian writer Jemar Tisby recently, he told me how confused he was to be labeled a “Critical Race Theorist” several years ago, because at the time, he didn’t even know what that meant. He was simply trying to be true to Scripture, history, and the black experience.

Unfortunately, when your only two options for viewing reality are “hyper individualism” or “Communist Collectivism,” every perspective must be crammed into one of those two buckets.

As I argued in parts 1 and 2, there is a better way.

BOB THE TOMATO TO THE RESCUE

Thankfully, recent days have brought accessible resources to help Christians grapple with the continuing reality of both structural and individual racism. From Phil Vischer, creator of everyone’s favorite Bible-teaching tomato, there was this helpful video on systemic racism.

And from Esau McCaulley, there was this informal talk on Scripture and structural sin.

TOWARD A BIBLICAL VIEW OF SIN

In this post, however, I want to address two things:

  1. How the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and systemic forms.
  2. How that connects to racism in America.

First, sin.

In my friend Tom McCall’s new book (Against God and Nature) he addresses how the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and corporate ways.

Unfortunately, to speak of structural or systemic sin can sound confusing. Sin is always personal. People sin. Structures don’t. But (and this is the important point) systems and structures can be inherently sinful, oppressive, and unjust.

What we need is a definition of structural or systemic sin.

As McCall rightly notes:

Sin becomes “institutionalized” as it perverts and warps social structures and institutions—which then in turn become breeding grounds for further sinful activities … this point is all-too-easily missed, overlooked, or denied by people who benefit from such institutions while being all-too-painfully-obvious to those who suffer from [them].

Structural sin is uniquely tied to power.

A great example exists in the 1986 and 1994 crime bills. (Though we could talk also of housing, hiring, or policing practices.)

For years, crack cocaine (which was seen as a “black drug”) was punished exponentially more harshly than powder cocaine (which was seen as a drug of wealthier white citizens), despite the fact that the chemical makeup of the two drugs is essentially identical.

By 2003, a whopping 80% of defendants sentenced under the harsher mandatory minimum sentences for crack were black, despite the fact that 66% of crack users are white or Hispanic. That’s a form of systemic racial injustice, and it didn’t happen in the 1800s or the 1960s.

More importantly, the lasting implications of such structural sin don’t just go away “poof!” when the law changes. The effects echo across generations with the voice of Rachel weeping for her children.

Screen Shot 2020-07-14 at 10.43.45 AM
Links to individual studies here.

In response, the individualist might say, “Well, don’t do crack and you won’t have to worry about it.”

That reaction is ungodly because it misses the biblical treatment of how sin perverts entire systems of justice, especially when money and power converge. For this reason, Deuteronomy 16 states:

18 Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. 19 Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. 20 Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.

PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

Another way Scripture speaks to systemic sin is through the language of the “principalities and powers.”

In the New Testament, these powers often refer to fallen spiritual forces that stand behind entire nations, governments, and ideologies.

To give allegiance to Christ requires one to recognize and reject these fallen principalities and powers—even within your own country or political party. The reason is simple:

“[God] raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come (Eph 1:20-21).

The relation between the “powers” and systemic sin is made most clear in the Book of Revelation, where whole churches are rebuked for specific sins (e.g., Rev 2-3), and whole empires (Rome especially) are seen to have become “beastly” in their oppressive, prideful, and persecutorial ways (Rev 13, 17, 18).

In short, the Bible sees sin as both an individual action and an enslaving demonic power that inhabits nations, churches, and in-groups.

But if all that’s true, why do many Christians reject the idea of systemic sin on the subject of race and racism?

THE INVISIBILITY OF STRUCTURAL SIN

Let’s return to the crime bills referenced previously.

As a young white person, I wasn’t even aware of this disparity.

Nor was I aware of redlining (which intentionally kept black people from owning homes, especially in white neighborhoods), poll taxes, convict leasing programs, for-profit prisons, the Tulsa race massacre, or (most importantly!) the specific experiences of black friends with unjust policing. (No, I didn’t say “all cops.”)

This speaks to a key aspect of structural sin: It tends to be invisible to those who are not directly affected by it. Hence, even well-meaning white Christians can scroll past the 99% of black voices telling their stories in order to “share” a viral video of the one black pundit who tells them exactly what they want to hear.

In this way, it is entirely possible to hate racism while failing to recognize how systemic prejudice has infected one’s own heart, in-groups, and Facebook timeline.

“BLACK ON BLACK CRIME”

Take for instance the frequent response that we need to stop focusing on police brutality and start focusing on “black on black crime.”

While it is certainly true that every crime cries out for justice, consider this: Why don’t we refer to America’s mass school shooting epidemic as “white on white crime”?

After all, most mass shootings in schools are perpetrated by white students, and the majority of victims have been white. We don’t speak that way because white citizens do not associate the violence or the victimhood directly with the shooter’s skin color, or with an entire race of people.

Instead, school shootings are seen to be work of deranged individuals with guns.

CONCLUSION

None of this means, of course, that every allegation of structural racism is justified. We need to deal in specifics, we need to listen charitably, and we need to be wary of how a thirst for justice morphs easily into a desire for revenge. (Read a book on the French Revolution to see how that ends.)

To address these challenges, we also need to move away from exclusively individualistic or collectivist understandings of sin (including racism), and toward a more biblical approach.

Sin is not just a naughty action done by individuals, it is an enslaving power that corrupts and co-ops systems, ideologies, and political parties.

As I’ve written elsewhere for a forthcoming book:

To focus only on systemic injustice allows individuals to justify their own sin while decrying “society” and institutions. Conversely, to focus only on individual sin allows the church to justify complicity in systems, companies, and political parties that become oppressive, even while I congratulate myself for being a faithful husband or a hard-working, God-fearing citizen.

Sin is both individual and systemic; hence Scripture cares about both personal morality and systemic justice.

When sin “masters” those in power, it creates structures of inequality and injustice—and to ignore this reality is no better than being high on crack.

 


For parts 1 and 2 in this series, see here and here.

Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

The heresy of radical individualism (Part 2)

The heresy of radical individualism (Part 2)

Why call individualism a heresy and not just a bad idea?

While the first installment in this series dealt with a definition (and some examples) of what might be called a “toxic individualism,” the present post touches on some biblical and theological reasons for rejecting such a posture.

But first, a brief digression.

THE TWO EXTREMES

I wrote my PhD thesis on a British theologian named Colin Gunton.

In several works (but especially The One, the Three and the Many), Gunton ping-pongs between theology, Scripture, philosophy, and political theory in order to understand the nature of human and divine personhood.

In so doing, he identifies two ideological extremes in modern times: 

  1. Western Individualism, and
  2. Eastern (Communist) Collectivism.

IMG_1846 2.jpg
Like many of Gunton’s sweeping claims, this is more than a little oversimplified, but I still think it can be helpful.

His claim is that both extremes represent deficient understandings of God, humanity, and the nature of reality.

In his words,

The person is neither an individual, defined in terms of separateness from others, nor one who is swallowed up in the collective (The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, 13).

Building on a certain doctrine of the Trinity, Gunton writes the following:

To be is not to be an individual; it is not to be isolated from others cut off from the them by the body that is a tomb, but in some way to be bound up with one another in relationship.

Being a person is about being from and for and with the other. I need you – and particularly those of you who are nearest to me—in order to be myself. That is the first thing to say: persons are beings who exist only in relation—in relation to God, to others, and to the world from which they come (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 14; italics added).

PARTICULARITY AND PARTICIPATION

In contrast to Western individualism and Communist Collectivism, we might highlight the Christian concepts of “particularity” and “participation.”

Particularity speaks to the way we retain our distinct identities by virtue of our relationships, not in spite of them. To use an example: I am not my wife, but my relationship with Brianna makes me distinctly who I am in innumerable ways.

Particularity is important as it helps us see and appreciate differences rather than consuming others or homogenizing them with foolish and dishonest phrases like “I don’t see color.”

Particularity is beatified by participation.

Participation means that I am bound up with others in a way that baffles and and offends the individualist.

SOME BIBLICAL EXAMPLES

Scripture gives multiple examples of a shared existence that is very far from an isolating modern individualism, even if we struggle to understand what that means.

Salvation is being “in Christ” through a union wrought by the Holy Spirit.

The two become “one flesh” in marriage, which is an imperfect picture of Christ and the church.

Paul was crucified “with Christ” despite never having met Jesus in his pre-ascended state.

Jesus prays that his followers would “be one,” just as he is “in” the Father and the Father is “in” him (John 17:21).

To show hospitality to the hungry, the naked, the immigrant, or the imprisoned is to welcome Jesus in disguise (Matt 25).

Romans claims that we can be united with Christ in his death (by baptism), and so also united with his resurrection life (6:5).

1 Corinthians says that “Whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit” (6:17).

Ephesians states that Christians “are all members of one body” (Eph 4:25).

Colossians claims that “all things” in heaven and earth hold together “in him” who is the Son (Col 1:16-17).

Hebrews says that Christ “shared in [our] humanity” when he took on human flesh (2:14-16).

And 2 Peter claims that humans may actually “participate in the divine nature” because of what God has done for us (1:4).

To unpack each of these references would require more time and wisdom than I have. But the overriding point is that personhood is porous: we are designed to be both distinct and yet united with others (both human and divine) in relationships of love and obligation.

Or as Paul writes, “You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19).

CONCLUSION

None of this makes any sense through the lens of Western individualism, wherein the highest value is independence. It is heresy. And that’s good news.

So while an apt description of current American culture might be that “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25; ESV), the biblical hope is more in-keeping with some marriage imagery from the musical Hamilton (I couldn’t resist…):

“To your union, and the hope that it provides.”

 


In the next post, I’ll tackle what Scripture has to say about the reality of “structural” or “systemic” Sin, as opposed to purely individualistic conception of transgression.


Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

The heresy of radical individualism (Part 1)

The heresy of radical individualism (Part 1)
[*This is the first in a series of posts on radical individualism. In it, I hope to touch on questions of the common good, human responsibility, racial justice, and how Jesus saves.]

Tim Keller makes a point about the way we Americans sing our national anthem.

At sporting events or graduations, the cheering begins during the next to last line: “O’er the land of free…”—at which point, the singer invariably elongates the final word:

“…freeeeeee–eeee!”

The song finishes with a nod to “the brave,” but both the vocals and the cheering highlight individual freedom as what Keller calls “the main theme and value of our society.”

So, in the diagnosis of Jake Meador, “the solution to every problem is simple: more freedom.”

I’ve been thinking of this lately. Because whether it’s the debate over systemic vs. individual racism (future post), or a stubborn refusal to wear face masks, it’s clear that America is unique in its attachment to individualism.

You might say, we’re “exceptional.”

pandemic chart
We’re winning.

In extreme cases, even the smallest impositions for the common good are taken as tyrannical calls for freedom’s martyrs to live out the final scene in Braveheart.

Case in point: This was the result in a Florida City Council when elected officials voted unanymously to require face masks in certain public spaces. (Whatever your thoughts on masking, you have to admit this is, uh, a bit extreme.)

 

And you thought you’d have to wait till July 3rd to stream Hamilton.

So much exceptionalism.

THE UPSIDE OF INDIVIDUALISM

Of course, individualism has upsides.

It can be a safeguard against actual tyranny, an endorsement of universal human rights, and a means of encouraging democracy and meritocracy. All good. (It is also vastly preferable to a Communist Collectivism, that dumpster fire of 20th c. ideology.)

But for Christians, there is a reason why “individualism” has never been a heralded as a virtue. In many forms, it clashes sharply with the Kingdom of God: that undemocratic realm led by the “one” in whom we live and move and have our being.

DEFINING RADICAL INDIVIDUALISM

But first things first: What is radical (American) individualism?

In his famous work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the following in 1835:

“[American] Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of this fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”

De Tocqueville’s point is that one distinctly American form of individualism “leaves the greater society to look after itself” while I focus on “me” and “my circle.”

But of course, things have changed since 1835. More recently, Mark Sayers offers some hallmarks of what is called “expressive individualism.”

1. The highest good is individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression.

2. Traditions, religions, received wisdom, regulations, and social ties that restrict individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression must be reshaped, deconstructed, or destroyed.

3. The world will inevitably improve as the scope of individual freedom grows.

4. Forms of external authority are rejected and personal authenticity is lauded.

THE COMMON GOOD

In the end, the most obvious problem with radical individualism is how a stress on “my rights” and “my preferences” overshadows my responsibility for the common good.

This “freedom” is entirely negative.

Hence the Christian pastor and actual (non-Floridian) martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has this to say:

In the Bible, freedom is not something [one] has for [the self], but something [one] has for others … It is not a possession … but a relationship … Only in relationship with the other am I free.

For this reason, the apostle Paul writes that “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”

CONCLUSION

In future posts, I’d like to ask how a biblical view of love and personhood may challenge certain individualist assumptions–even while it steers far clear of a collectivist homogeneity.

For now, however, my conclusion is this: Radical individualism runs contrary not only to the common good (and common sense), but also to the commonly held teachings of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

 


Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

Reading Revelation on the verge of a pandemic

Reading Revelation on the verge of a pandemic

It sounds strange, but I teach an entire course on the Apocalypse.

That’s the Greek word (apocalypsis) for the Book of Revelation.

To be clear, I’m not the kind of Christian who owns detailed charts on the “end times.” I don’t watch prophecy shows on Christian Cable (except for the hair and makeup). And I don’t have a backyard bunker filled with firearms, homemade scrolls, and MREs.

But I am a dad, and the threat of a coronavirus pandemic has made me a little nervous.

Last night, I foolishly read a blog post entitled, “The Pandemic is Coming!” and then dreamt that I had to protect our children from the viral equivalent of Season One of The Walking Dead. (I was Rick Grimes, in case you’re wondering.)

THE APOCALYPSE OF ANXIETY

One might think teaching a course on the Apocalypse would prepare me for such times. But alas, I can sometimes be as prone to catastrophizing as the next person.

When I walked through the Los Angeles airport last week, my wife smiled at me for holding a bottle of hand sanitizer like it were a vial of holy water.

Should the book of Revelation help with these anxieties?

Or is its function primarily to scare the holy Hades out of us?

Unlike some purveyors of Christian fan fiction, I do not think the Apocalypse is primarily a code to be cracked about the end of the world, a still-future “Antichrist” (a word that never appears in the text), the rapture, or the founding of the United Nations.

Revelation is written to seven first-century churches in Asia Minor, each wrestling with the affluence, idolatry, political upheaval, and (impending) persecution of the Roman Empire. (See here and here for an accessible introduction.)

John’s message is not that these churches will escape tumult, but that the way forward involves the posture of the Lamb rather than the way of the Dragon. Some parts of the book are scary, or just strange (Chapter 17 includes a drunken prostitute riding an amphibious assault beast tattooed with naughty names [vss 1–3]).

Although John isn’t taken physically “out” of the world of fire and plague, he is taken spiritually “up” to glimpse the heavenly throne. A powerful worship service ensues (ch. 4), but as the choruses conclude, John’s worry returns (sound familiar?). He weeps and weeps when confronted with a “scroll” associated with the events of the future:

no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it (5:3).

John’s anxiety is our anxiety—especially in times of global uncertainty.

We wonder what will happen next. Will peace be taken from the earth? Will the church be swayed by political idolatry, affluent pride, or the threat of persecution? Will kings and paupers be laid low?

Uncertainty over the future makes John weep.

Then comes an answer:

one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne… (5:5–6).

DON’T WASTE THE APOCALYPSE

Many things in Revelation are unclear. Which prophecies were fulfilled “soon” after the book’s writing (1:1), and which ones await the future? The Apocalypse does not come with a decoder ring.

Still, I agree with Dennis Johnson, who authored an excellent introductory commentary on the book:

Our interpretation of Revelation must be driven by the difference God intends it to make in the life of his people. If we could explain every phrase, identify every allusion to Old Testament Scripture or Greco-Roman society, trace every interconnection, and illumine every mystery in this book and yet were silenced by the intimidation of public opinion, terrorized by the prospect of suffering, enticed by affluent Western culture’s promise of “security, comfort, and pleasure,” then we would not have begun to understand the Book of Revelation.

Our only safety lies in seeing the ugly hostility of the enemy clearly and clinging fast to our Champion and King, Jesus.

To ignore this takeaway is to waste the Apocalypse–and to miss the forest for the flowcharts.

CONCLUSION

I have no idea, of course, whether fears of a global pandemic will come true, or whether this year’s flu will kill more people than the coronavirus. (Thankfully, it does seem that the mortality rate is not as bad as it could be.)

But if there is a benefit to teaching Revelation during times of global anxiety, it is the reminder that God’s people have been here before.

It is a modern myth that health and prosperity are guaranteed by science, medicine, prosperity, technology, and military might: Just ask Babylon the Great (18:2).

Regardless of the viral spread of fear and other pathogens, the overriding takeaway of Revelation is that the final “face covering” is not a medical mask but a wedding veil:

the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (21:1-2).

 


Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:

Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

“Looking comes first.”

“Looking comes first.”

Several months ago, I reread my old copy of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce for a chapter in my forthcoming book on the Christian imagination (Now submitted!).

Lewis’ tale is a creative recasting of heaven, hell, and purgatory—all couched in a dream sequence—that allows him to demur (though not entirely convincingly) that he has no intention of “speculating” on the details of the afterlife. (Nonsense; but I’ll save that for another time.)

One of the more convicting encounters in The Great Divorce involves a famous artist who visits heaven and responds with awe: “I should like to paint this!”

Unfortunately, it is precisely this desire (to depict heaven rather than experience it) that will cause him to depart willingly for hell.

Then the money quote:

Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, deep down Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him (85).

I don’t know about poets, musicians, and artists—but this is darn sure true of preachers.

As proof, I found this note, scrawled in my handwriting from freshman year of college.

Great Divorce pic.jpeg

The command given to the ambitious artist is simple: “Looking comes first.”

There is nothing wrong with painting, describing, depicting Beauty.

Fine. Good. Do it.

But put down your brush, for a moment—Look first.

Let’s not be tour guides for a land we no longer inhabit.

The Kingdom has no need of expats trading legal residence for commentary and holiday excursions.

“…if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

“At present your business is to see. He is endless. Come and feed.”

Amen.

 

 


Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

Of her, not just in her

Of her, not just in her

On Mary and the womb of Christmas

For some Protestants, Advent may be about the only time we think of Mary—kneeling as she often is beside a plastic manger in our church Nativities.

Yet a chorus of evangelical scholars has argued recently (here and here) that a relative silence on Christ’s mother comes at the expense of Scripture, basic church tradition, and a proper view of women in the story of redemption.

Mary and Eve
Virgin Mary and Eve,
~Sr Grace Remington, OCSO.

After all, in the words of Lucy Peppiatt,

“Jesus is made of her, not just in her.”

MORE THAN MERE RECEPTACLE 

We might be conditioned to think of Mary more as a “receptacle” for carrying and birthing Christ, but not as one who actually supplied his humanity from her own body.

The early theologians who hammered out the doctrine of Christ, however, would have nothing of this viewpoint.

Tertullian (c. 155–c. 240) says it this way:

Pray, tell me, why the Spirit of God descended into a woman’s womb at all, if He did not do so for the purpose of partaking of flesh from the womb. […] He had no reason for enclosing Himself [there] if He was to bear forth nothing from it.

To say that Christ’s humanity did NOT come from Mary might seem like a minor quibble, but to go down this road is to sever Jesus from the line of Israel and of Adam—and thus to cut the saving cord that ties him to us all.

Peppiatt goes on:

Mary is not only a receptacle of the Divine [Christ], she contributes [to the baby] from her own body. It is her blood that forms him, her food that nourishes him, her breasts that feed him.

When God chose to come to earth, he chose the hiddenness of a woman’s womb. When God chose to take on flesh, he chose to unite himself to a woman’s flesh.

When God chose to appear, he chose to come as a baby, entrusting himself to a woman’s body to be born.

In the latest cover story for Christianity Today, Jennifer Powell McNutt and Amy Beverage Peeler speak of Mary as “the first Christian”—a prophet, proclaimer, and prototype of every Jesus-worshiper.

The entire Christian life is, in a way, mirrored by the experience of Mary. Each one of us—both male and female—are called to live in Christ and he in us. We are all expected to carry Christ at the core of our being—like Mary carried Christ in her womb—and to labor with him and for him.

The Gospel writers want us to understand how important Mary was, serving from the Annunciation to Pentecost as both God-bearer in her physical body and as gospel-bearer, a faithful witness and proclaimer to the work that God was accomplishing in our Lord Jesus Christ. Both her identities matter […].

LESS THAN CO-REDEMPTRIX

None of this means Mary should be viewed as a sinless “co-redemptrix” who functions as the heavenly “good cop” to God’s judgmental “bad one.” (This has been claimed.)

Nor does it imply that she was free from original sin and “full of grace” to dispense because of her excess merit. (This view is based on a mistranslation of “favored one” [κεχαριτωμενη] in Luke 1:28.)

CONCLUSION

What the prior argument does mean is that in avoiding potential excesses surrounding Mary, Protestants should be wary of throwing the “baby” (or rather, the baby’s mother!) out with the bathwater.

Christ was made “of her” not just “in her.”

So while Jesus is rightly the focus of the Christmas season, Mary’s brave Yes to God’s call provides a model for all believers.

 

 


Want to support this blog? Books make great stocking stuffers:

Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

A sermon on New Creation

A sermon on New Creation

Here’s message I gave last weekend at Fountain Springs Church in Rapid City, South Dakota.

In it, I explain important theological truths like how I accidentally burned off my hair with a blow torch–and why it matters that the Bible ends with “New Creation” for God’s people.

The message was the final installment in a series over my book, Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements.


Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

Lately, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, after Brianna and I put the kids to bed.

It’s a story about the “unique” people one comes to know during a lifetime in a small community.

Jayber

A key takeaway is this: When no one is a “stranger” we see more clearly that everyone is strange.

But far from being merely a cause for mockery or bullying, peculiarity can spark affection.

Case in point: ‘Ol Ab Rowanberry, with his rifle and his chamber pot.

Yet another sight I used to see [around town] was uncle Ab Rowanberry shuffling by, carrying a rifle, a lantern, and a sack containing a chamber pot, a cowbell, a corn knife and a long leather purse tied with a rag string. He would be on his way between daughters.

The paragraph is random and ridiculous—and delightful.

The scene continues:

Ab carried with him all his worldly possessions, the terms of his independence and self-respect: the rifle with which he provided a little meat for the table and with which he could defend himself if attacked, the corn knife in case he needed it, the lantern and the chamber pot to preserve his dignity when he had to get up at night, the cowbell to ring if he fell down and couldn’t get up. […] I observed him carefully and have remembered him always.

The last line is vintage Berry.

EXAGGERATED?

Some would allege that such colorful depictions of human beings amount to “tall tales” that exaggerate the strangeness.

I disagree.

As a case in point, I recall a similar critique as it was levelled at the southern gothic stories of Flannery O’Conner. In defense of Flannery, the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote the following:

Critics who accuse her of exaggeration are quite wrong, I think. I lived in Florida for several years next to [a church like those described in O’Conner’s fiction].

After those Wednesday nights, nothing Flannery O’Conner ever wrote could seem at all exaggerated to me.

CONCLUSION

What’s the point of these forays into human idiosyncrasy?

Since I’m in the middle of a fiction-writing project myself (MS due in about a month!), one reminder is to “Include a rifle and a chamber pot” in my own way (i.e., Don’t be afraid to highlight the peculiar features that make people interesting people).

But there is also a spiritual lesson to be learned.

For Berry (and for O’Conner), the goal is not to mock our strangeness, but to weave a spell around it so that even oddity can become a mark of beauty and belovedness.

As C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:

The especial glory of Affection is that it can unite those who most emphatically, even comically, are not [alike]. Growing fond of “old-so-and-so,” at first simply because he happens to be there—[rifle and chamber pot in tow!]—I presently begin to see that there is “something in him.”

This realization also connects with another theme from Lewis’ most famous essay (The Weight of Glory): There are no ordinary people. No mere mortals.

We are all odder and more broken than we look; yet more beloved than we dared imagine.

 


Thanks for stopping by.

Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

 

Adorning the dark: A post on the creative process

Adorning the dark: A post on the creative process

“I’m convinced,” writes Andrew Peterson, “that poets are toddlers in a cathedral, slobbering on wooden blocks and piling them up in the light of the stained glass.”

The colorful description comes in a book on the beauty and the pain of making things—whether one is a poet, a preacher, a musician, or an artist of some other stripe.

ADORNING THE DARK

I just finished Peterson’s new book, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making.

adorning.jpg

I’ve appreciated his work for years.

Despite a voice that (allegedly) sounds a bit like Kermit the frog with a sinus infection, his music has always moved me.

  • Brianna and I chose “Canaan Bound” to be sung at our wedding.
  • My kids loved Peterson’s fantasy novels (The Wingfeather Saga), with Lucy proclaiming them to be even better than Harry Potter. (Not true. But still.)
  • And his entirely original, Behold the Lamb of God, is my favorite Christmas album of all time.

Adorning the Dark is different from these other works. But there are still some helpful lessons for those involved in the creative process.

Here are four:

1. Write the bad ones too

Peterson tells sheepishly how a fan once approached him after a concert with a request for him to write down some songwriting advice on the inside of a CD case. Being a bit tired, Peterson wrote, “Don’t write bad songs.”

Seeing the somewhat snarky inscription, Peterson’s bandmate Andy Gullahorn wrote his own advice: “Write the bad ones too.”

Gullahorn’s insight was not just that one should be kind to fans, but that “quality control” is not the chief skill an artist must cultivate: Output matters too.

The two pre-requisites for getting published are (wait for it…) writing and finishing.

So make something, even if it isn’t great.

Excellence is for editing (and re-writing).

2. Artists need “resonators”

A second take-away is that art nurtures community and community nurtures art.

After being dropped by his record label and nearly bankrupted by the post-Napster death of album sales, Peterson founded a collective called “The Rabbit Room” with a ragamuffin group of Nashville artists.

These friendships not only allowed for cross-promotion between artists; they also provided encouragement, community, and feedback.

I’ve been blessed with fantastic “resonators.”

  • My colleague, Dr. Jerome Van Kuiken, is the smartest person I know, and he provides invaluable critique on everything I write for publication.
  • My wife Brianna reads my blog posts, and she often weeds out the lines that could get me fired and/or tarred and feathered.
  • I also have friendships with folks like the up-and-coming novelist K. M. West, who provides not only encouragement but also a (silent) reminder that there are people out there busier than me who still write consistently—and at a high level.

Art nurtures community. Community nurtures art.

Artists need resonators.

3. Boil it down

After reading Wendel Berry, Peterson tells how he and his wife sold their comfortable suburban home and bought a small, ramshackle cottage on several tree-lined acres near Nashville.

If artists need resonators, they frequently need nature too.

Since the property had maple trees, Peterson Googled “How to make maple syrup.” He was stunned to learn that a person gets one gallon of syrup for every forty (!) gallons of sap.

If you were to taste the maple sap before you boiled it down, which I did, you’d find it hard to believe there’s any sweetness hiding in there at all.

Writing is like that too.

The sweetness often comes in “boiling it down.”

I was reminded of this yesterday when I picked up a copy of my book, Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements. For the most part, I am proud of the writing—which is significant since I first hammered it out over a decade ago.

That said, upon re-reading what I’ve published, my overriding critique is that I could have cut a few more words from certain sentences and paragraphs.

I could have lost some empty calories and gained some “sweetness.”

Boil it down.

4. Plant the berries

The most moving story in Adorning the Dark involves a trip to Sweden that Peterson’s family took in 2016 after a season of busyness, burnout, and depression (another commonality of artists).

While abroad, he sought to locate the old stone cottage of his great-grandfather.

After much research, the general location of the ruined house was found, and an ancient local Swede agreed to take the Petersons by bicycle into the dark, thick forest to find it.

[The Swede] explained [through a translator] that he was looking for a certain kind of berry that would tell him where the old foundation stones would be.

A hundred years ago, he said, the berries were planted outside the cottage for food, and long after the house fell into ruin, the berry bushes lived on. If you want to find the remains of a dwelling in a Swedish forest, [he] told us, look for berries.

Lo and behold, they found the berries—along with the home.

The story forms a parable for the kind of art that matters.

As Peterson concludes:

“One day, perhaps, when I’m dead and gone, and my songs and stories lie in the ruins of some old forest and no one remembers my name, whatever good and beautiful and human thing that the King of Creation called forth from me will fall to the earth and grow brambly and wild, and some homesick and hungry soul will leave the well-worn path and say, ‘Look! Someone lived here.

Praise God, there are berries everywhere.’”

Good art is the “berry” that adorns the darkness.

And homesickness leads home.

 


I’m going to open the comments on this one.

Fellow writers, preachers, musicians (etc.): What’s the most helpful advice you’ve found about the creative process?


Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

 

 

College education as a matter of life and death

College education as a matter of life and death

I’m a college professor.

But even I know there are bad reasons to attend a university.

Here is a good one: You’re much less likely to die young.

Note these findings from a 2017 study that tracks changing mortality rates amongst non-college educated white Americans especially. Pay attention to the top lines (labeled “high school or less.”)

Drug and alcohol poisoning deaths

Drug, suicid, alcohol deaths

CORRELATION AND CAUSATION

When reading these studies, it’s important to remember that correlation isn’t causation. It’s not necessarily the lack of a degree that is contributing to a frightening rise in early deaths in certain demographics.

There are many complex factors. But I suspect part of the problem is an increasing deficit of hope in certain parts of the country. And this is being expressed in everything from suicide, to opioid addiction, to a growth in scapegoating ideologies like white nationalism and white supremacy.

Note the stunning comparison between America and other nations:

US mortality compared to other nations

Some good news in the study is that mortality rates (for certain age groups) have declined amongst non whites. The bad news is that the closing gap between racial groups has come more by a precipitice decline amongst non-college educated whites than by improvements elsewhere.

A DEFICIT OF HOPE

The cause, according to the study, is more complicated than a simple look at income.

In particular, the income profiles for blacks and Hispanics, whose mortality has fallen, are no better than those for whites. Nor is there any evidence in the European data that mortality trends match income trends…

The study suggests that the cause of this decline has to do with

cumulative disadvantage[s] … triggered by progressively worsening labor market opportunities at the time of entry for whites with low levels of education.”

In other words, factories and mines closed; and it was no longer possible to get a good job without education (see also my treatment of this theme in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy).

The way of life within the rust belt changed, and frustration over a world that no longer exists fueled a rise in opioid addiction, race-based populism, and scapegoating. (Picture the late Weimar Republic but with fentanyl in place of Zyklon B.)

CONCLUSION

The solution to all this is far more complex than simply telling young Americans to “go to college.”

But as I head back to faculty meetings today and to classes next week, it’s worth remembering that the completion of a college education is more than just a privilege or a foregone conclusion: For some of my students, it’s part of the difference between life and death.

 


Thanks for stopping by.

My new book, The Mosaic of Atonement, comes out this month! Check it out here.

Like the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter.