Thursday, October 27, 2011

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

I just finished a book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers. It is a fascinating book as Gladwell dispels the common notion that successful people are "self-made." Rather Gladwell builds the case that behind every successful person is a kind of convergence of opportunity, advantage, cultural and community legacy that contribute to that person's "success." As I read Gladwell's book, I kept thinking about a central theme of Scripture, "Grace," as Steven Garber my doctoral mentor has said, "an idea that changed the world." I quote from a section of Outliers where Gladwell's mother (who is Jamaican) struggles to come to terms with the discrimination she receives. She does so by coming to terms with the ways in which her own family, throughout history, had "taken advantage of" certain cultural privileges:

In the 1960s, my mother wrote a book about her experiences. It was entitled Brown Face, Big Master, the “brown face” referring to herself, and the “big master” referring, in the Jamaican dialect, to God. At one point she describes a time just after my parents were married when they were living in London and my eldest brother was still a baby. They were looking for an apartment, and after a long search, my father found one in a London suburb. On the day after they moved in, however, the land-lady ordered them out. “You didn’t tell me your wife was Jamaican,” she told my father in a rage.

In her book, my mother describes her long struggle to make sense of this humiliation, to reconcile her experience with her faith. In the end, she was forced to acknowledge that anger was not an option and that as a colored Jamaican whose family had benefited for generations from the hierarchy of race, she could hardly reproach another for the impulse to divide people by the shade of their skin:

[Begin Quote] I complained to God in so many words: “Here I was, the wounded representative of the negro race in our struggle to be accounted free and equal with the dominating whites!” And God was amused; my prayer did not ring true with Him. I would try again. And then God said, “Have you not done the same thing? Remember this one and that one, people whom you have slighted or avoided or treated less considerately than others because they were different superficially, and you were ashamed to be identified with them. Have you not been glad that you are not more colored than you are (light-skinned blacks in Jamaica ‘fare’ better socially)? Grateful that you are not black?” My anger and hate against the landlady melted. I was no better than she was, nor worst for that matter…. We were both guilty of the sin of self-regard, the pride and the exclusiveness by which we cut some people off from ourselves.  [End Quote]

It is not easy to be so honest about where we’re from. It would be simpler for my mother to portray her success as a straightforward triumph over victimhood, just as it would be simpler to look at Joe Flom and call him the greatest lawyer ever- even though his individual achievements are also impossibly intertwined with his ethnicity, his generation, the particulars of the garment industry, and the peculiar biases of the downtown law firms. Bill Gates could accept the title of genius, and leave it at that. It takes no small degree of humility for him to look back on his life and say, “I was very lucky.” And he was. The Mothers’ Club of Lakeside Academy bought him a computer in 1968. It is impossible for a hockey player, or Bill Joy, or Robert Oppenheimer, or any other outlier for that matter, to look down from their lofty perch and say with truthfulness, “I did this, all by myself.” Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don’t. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is ground in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky- but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.

My great-great-great-grandmother was bought at Alligator Pond. That act, in turn, gave her son, John Ford, the privilege of skin color that spared him a life of slavery. The culture of possibility that Daisy Ford (Gladwell’s grandmother) embraced and put to use so brilliantly on behalf of her daughters was passed on to her by the peculiarities of the West Indian social structure. And my mother’s education was the product of the riots of 1937 and the industriousness of Mr. Chance (a Chinese grocer who gave Daisy money so Gladwell’s mother could go to college). These were history’s gifts to my family- and if the resources of that grocer, the fruit of those riots, the possibilities of that culture, and the privileges of that skin tone had been extended to others, how many more would now live a life of fulfillment, in a beautiful house high on a hill? pp. 283-85

While Gladwell's words don't seem to finish well in my mind, for they seem to lack greatly to the extent that their most glorious explanation of life can at best be captured in the vision of "a beautiful house on a high hill"? Nonetheless, there is much grace and insight in his words regarding how we have become the people we now are.

I grew up as a Taiwanese kid in Topeka, KS and have certain memories of being an "outsider"/outlier to a culture where less than 1% of the people were "minorities." Nonetheless, I would be a fool to think of myself as anything less than the product of much opportunity and grace. While there was much difficulty in the 70s with my dad establishing his medical practice as a Taiwanese doctor in Topeka, KS; nonetheless, once he did in fact become established (due to an industriousness that he learned from his family and culture, plus a natural temperament my dad has of "authenticity and extreme friendliness"), his work proved to become quite fruitful and lucrative. While from early on, I had my heart set on the "in-state" school, The University of Kansas; still, had I desired to go elsewhere and been able to perform well enough to be accepted to other institutions of higher learning (of course Gladwell says that even elite schools like Harvard basically pick from a pool of equally-qualified students utilizing a system that really is no better off than a lottery system), nonetheless, the opportunity would have been there for me. In many ways, the sky was truly the limit. While my mother is not currently a Christian, nonetheless I inherited my love of learning from her, and we continue to discuss the possible merits of the Christian faith in a kind of open conversation (I say "possible" in that she is still evaluating and considering the claims of Christ, so to her, they are currently "possible merits"). I am a child of opportunity and circumstance; of course, I understand such opportunity and circumstance to be the provision of a personal and loving God who gives good gifts. I am thankful.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

More on Marilynne Robinson

Back in 2008, a review of Home showed up in a NY Times book review. This was an excerpt from that review that tells us a little more about Robinson: "Ten years ago, Robinson published 'The Death of Adam,' a collection of bracingly contrarian essays whose common thread was a defense of the Puritan intellectual and ethical tradition. Against the grain of much recent historiography — and in the teeth of a powerful literary tendency going back to the end of the 19th century — she defended John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and their descendants against the usual charges of intolerance, prudery and parsimoniousness. Instead, she finds a tradition devoted to social justice, universal education and a chastening knowledge of human fallibility."

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Literary Calvinism of Marilynne Robinson

I found this article by Peter Leithart to be extremely insightful: The Literary Calvinism of Marilynne Robinson.  Leithart writes of Home, "If you’re looking for plot twists and action, look elsewhere.  I found myself turning the pages of Home because I couldn’t wait for the next luminous, memorable, glistening sentence. Stylistic clarity and uncluttered simplicity are the qualities of Robinson’s work that puts her in the tradition of American literary Calvinism.  As Wood (James) says, 'There is a familiar American simplicity . . . which is Puritan and colloquial in its origin,' found in 'the Puritan sermon, in Jonathan Edwards, in Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, in Mark Twain, in Willa Cather, in Hemingway.'"

Americans as Soft Moralists and Prigs

I'm reading through Marilynne Robinson's Home written about the fictional character of Presbyterian pastor Robert Boughton and the return of his "prodigal son" of twenty years, Jack. This is Robinson's third novel after penning the pulitzer-prize winner Gilead back in 2004. Without having a lot to say at this point about either book, other than they are engaging and beautifully-written, nonetheless, I came across a New Yorker article written by James Wood. Wood doesn't seem to be particularly friendly to Christians, especially evangelical Christians, but he seems to have a positive regard for Robinson (who would likely refer to herself as a "liberal" or "mainline" Christian), particularly some of her thoughts about Americans in their rejection of "sin," Calvin and the Puritans, being what she calls "soft moralists" and "prigs":

But Robinson is illiberal and unfashionably fierce in her devotion to this Protestant tradition; she is voluble in defense of silence. She loathes the complacent idleness whereby contemporary Americans dismiss Puritanism and turn John Calvin, its great proponent, into an obscure, moralizing bigot: “We are forever drawing up indictments against the past, then refusing to let it testify in its own behalf—it is so very guilty, after all. Such attention as we give to it is usually vindictive and incurious and therefore incompetent.” We flinch from Puritanism because it placed sin at the center of life, but then, as she tartly reminds us, “Americans never think of themselves as sharing fully in the human condition, and therefore beset as all humankind is beset.” Calvin believed in our “total depravity,” our utter fallenness, but this was not necessarily a cruel condemnation. “The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain,” Robinson writes in her essay “Puritans and Prigs.” Nowadays, she argues, educated Americans are prigs, not Puritans, quick to pour judgment on anyone who fails to toe the right political line. Soft moralizing has replaced hard moralizing, but at least those old hard moralists admitted to being moralists. I do not always enjoy Robinson’s ecstasies, but I admire the obdurateness with which she describes the difficult joys of a faith….  The Homecoming, by James Wood

Friday, October 21, 2011

Sons, a Heritage from the Lord

My boys are good sons. My youngest Calvin (age 6) gave evidence the other day that he is not only a good boy, but also my son when he came home from school having drawn this picture (if anyone doesn't know, we live in Lincoln, NE where all my children have been born and raised). "Sons are a heritage from the Lord..." (Psalm  127:3). When Cal gave me his handiwork, I did think some about James K.A. Smith's book and the particular practices, i.e. liturgies, we participate in day in and day out that shape our hearts and values (our "social imaginaries" as Smith puts it). How else would Calvin have developed such a love for KU in such hostile territory :-)? There is the annual liturgical practice of getting ready for basketball season; Late Night in the Phog always happens in mid-October. There is the daily ritual of going to and following recruiting at Of course, there's the poor man's liturgical rhythm of "signing back up for cable" when basketball season arrives. My kids are always jazzed this time of year regarding the accompanying benefits of this type of liturgical rhythm; not only does dad get to watch basketball, but they get to watch the cartoon network!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Crouch Conclusion: Culture-Making in Community

Crouch concludes his book by adding three qualifiers to his contention that where we experience the most amount of grace and fruitfulness is the process through which we discern calling, i.e. our vocation. His three qualifiers are: 1) even in places of fruitfulness, our work will require spiritual disciplines and much work that is tedious; 2) that grace in fruitfulness is not an exemption from failure, rather it is what sustains hope in the midst of it and 3) in identifying with the Cross, even in our fruitfulness, we expect to confront much brokenness, pain and forsakenness.

And then he leaves us with these beautiful words:

Frederick Buechner writes that your calling is found “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In all those places, at the intersection of grace and cross, these friends of mine, who are just names to you but who are the greatest treasures in the world to me, cultivate and create. And of course this is just one snapshot of the many places to which each of us is called, since Elizabeth (who raises three children who sometimes tax her to the very limit, creating a culture of forgiveness, play and prayer) is also a writer, Megan (who serves orphans in Africa) is also an artist, Karl (who works as an executive in a technology firm and wrestles with ways corporate life can constrain one’s hopes, dreams and fears) is also a lay leader in his church, Catherine (Andy’s wife who is a teacher in a culturally and socioeconomically diverse school) is also a musician and mom, and I (Andy, who says he tells stories that no one would otherwise hear from the margins of our world) am also a dad. There is not space enough to tell all the ways we have become partners in one another’s culture making, friends and comrades, suffering and rejoicing together- the amazingly resilient and creative communities of friendship and family that can grow and bear fruit over our short human lives.

So do you want to make culture? Find a community, a small group who can lovingly fuel your dreams and puncture your illusions. Find friends and form a family who are willing to see grace at work in one another’s lives, who can discern together which gifts and which crosses each has been called to bear. Find people who have a holy respect for power and a holy willingness to spend their power alongside the powerless. Find some partners in the wild and wonderful world beyond church doors.

And then, together, make something of the world.  Culture Making, p. 263 

Vocation, a Process of Discerning Fruitfulness

"Early on in my adult life, on the days when my job (Andy Crouch served as a campus minister at Harvard at the time) was frustrating and disappointing, and in an era when skills in technology were being handsomely rewarded, I would cherish the idea of leaving ministry behind to simply put in the hours as a systems analyst, cashing a generous paycheck far from campus ministry's risks and failures. It took me several years to face the futility of that fantasy and recognize that such a career move, for me, would lead to a choked life of 'the cares of the world, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things.' I had to admit that over and over, even in the midst of long hours and hard work, I had come to some moment of harvest- a conversation with a student, a night song and prayer, an opportunity to teach- where the results, in terms of change and growth and joy vastly out proportion to any contribution I had made, left all involved nearly speechless with gratitude. And the more I let go of my fantasies of securing my own life and avoiding the pain of the particular work I was called to do, the more frequent were these moments where my students, my partners and I glimpsed something I can only call glory.

But some of my colleagues in ministry had the opposite experience. We labored under a subtle but real dichotomy between sacred and secular, granting full legitimacy only to callings to 'ministry' under the pretext of subverting Harvard's lure of wealth, fame and power. So we recruited more than one associate with the rhetoric of renouncing their ambitions (as we called it, 'leaving their nets'), only to see them struggle doggedly to produce the kind of abundance we had promised. More than one eventually left us and took up 'secular' jobs- where they found a sense of freedom and joy that they had never experienced in our demanding company of workers for the gospel.

Is it possible to participate in culture, to create culture, outside of the church and experience every bit as much divine multiplication as those who work inside the church? For centuries many Christians would have answered no. A few had 'vocations'- a word that still today, in Catholic contexts, refers to a specifically religious life- and the rest did not. To have a vocation was to withdraw to the edges of culture (although monasteries and churches were once more culturally central and culturally creative than they often are today).

But there are two serious problems with this approach to vocation. First, even the full-time sacred agenda turns out to be no guarantee of either holiness or fruitfulness. Segmenting off a 'sacred' set of cultural activities sets us up for disillusionment when the sacred specialists turn out to be no more creative and no less corruptible than their secular counterparts. Second, it becomes impossible to do justice to the biblical story, in which the whole world was created good, the first human beings were given a cultural task, not just instructed to be dutiful worshippers (unlike in other creation myths of the time), and the Son of God himself spent most of his life as a carpenter.

The religious or secular nature of our cultural creativity is simply the wrong question. The right question is whether, when we undertake the work we believe to be our vocation, we experience the joy and humility that come only when God multiplies our work that it bears thirty, sixty and a hundredfold beyond what we could expect from our feeble inputs. Vocation- calling- becomes another word for a continual process of discernment, examining the fruits of our work to see whether they are producing that kind of fruit, and doing all we can to scatter the next round of seed in the most fruitful places.

I believe the single best question for discerning our calling- the specific cultural sphere and scale where we and our communities... are called to cultivate and create- is Where do you experience grace- divine multiplication that far exceeds your efforts?" (Culture Making, pp. 255-57). 

The Powerful and Powerless in Partnership

"In the paradox of Jesus Christ- Yeshua from Nazareth, anointed One of history- the paradox of God's cultural agenda is summed up most perfectly and completely. God is for the poor- the oppressed, the widow and the orphan- and he is for humanity in our collective poverty, our ultimate powerlessness in the face of sin and death. But he makes known his redemptive purpose for us through both the powerless and the powerful, using both to accomplish his purposes. When God acts in culture, he uses both the powerful and the powerless alongside one another rather than using one against the other. To mobilize the powerful against the powerless would simply confirm 'the way of the world.' But to bring them into partnership is the true sign of God's paradoxical and graceful intervention into the human story.

I believe this pattern- God working with the poor and the rich, the powerless and the powerful- serves as a kind of template for seeking out what God might be doing now in our human cultures...." (Culture Making, p. 209).

Beware of World Changers

As Tanya and I prepare to return to Haiti in November, our team of 28 people has just completed the book When Helping Hurts. WHH is required reading for all of our Haiti teams. In the book, one of the premises is that North American Christians generally head into "third world" situations with a "fix-it" attitude, not realizing that much of our attitude is steeped in pride and an unawareness of God's present work among people in disenfranchised places like Haiti. Basically, God is already present in a place like Haiti, and despite my power and wealth as a North American person, I am NOT the Savior. In his book, Culture Making, Andy Crouch challenges the attitudes that "world changers" often knowingly or unknowingly carry with them. In his chapter "Why We Can't Change the World," Crouch argues for an attitude of humility to be adopted, especially among those who wish to "make a difference in the world":

Indeed, I sometimes wonder if breathless rhetoric about changing the world is actually about changing the subject- from our fitfully suppressed awareness that we did not ask to be brought into this world, have only vaguely succeeded in figuring it out, and will end our days in radical dependence on something or someone other than ourselves. If our excitement about changing the world leads us into the grand illusion that we stand somehow outside the world, knowing what’s best for it, tools and goodwill and gusto at the ready, we have not yet come to terms with the reality that the world has changed us far more than we will ever change it. Beware of world changers- they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin.

That is the humbling reality at the private level. And at the other end of the scale, Christians have learned from the Gospel of John and the letters of Paul that “the world” is the name for a realm of systemic active rebellion against God’s purposes. We are wrestling not against flesh and blood- even our own fleshly inclinations, though that would be challenge enough- but against spiritual powers in high places (Eph. 6:12). And any honest reading of history suggests that one of the most successful strategies of that cosmic rebellion is to twist well-intentioned endeavors in precisely the wrong direction, using human greed, fear and pride for extra leverage.

All the same, we are made to change the world. We are made to do so at small scales and (occasionally, and probably not as often as we think, hope or expect) at large scales. We are culture makers. But when we thoughtlessly grasp for the heedless rhetoric of “changing the world,” we expose ourselves to temptation. We find ourselves in a situation similar to Adam and Eve’s in the Garden. “You will be like God, knowing good and evil,” the serpent insisted. Made in God’s image, Adam and Eve were, in fact, already “like God.” And yet the serpent invited them to use their God-given power to extend their grasp just a bit further. The serpent’s invitation succeeded partly because it was so close to truth. It just called them a step beyond truth, into a fantasy that ended up destroying the very capcities they sought to extend.

Is there a way to change the world without falling into one of the many traps laid for would-be world changers? If so, it will require us to learn one thing the language of “changing the world” usually lacks: humility, defined not so much as bashfulness about our own abilities as awed and quiet confidence in God’s ability. Is the Maker of the world still at work “changing the world”? If so, what are the patterns of activity, and what would it mean to join him in what he is doing in every sphere and scale of human culture? How can we join his culture making and live out of our own calling to make something of the world, without slowly and subtly giving in to the temptation to take his place?  Culture Making, pp. 200-01

Consider this earlier post where my friend Kelly Kapic references economist William Easterly: In the reference, Easterly notes that 2.3 trillion dollars spent on foreign aid the last five decades has amounted to basically nothing. Why? Easterly observes because of the "Big Plans" of the West to give away a lot of money, without listening to the voices of the poor. Again, in spiritual-speak, the problem is rooted in "Pride." So human pride leads to huge economic ramifications. I think Crouch's observations link well with Kapic and Easterly's and give us a lot to think about.

Work as Praise

"In the end this is what we will make of the world: You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created (Rev. 4:11). Wouldn't it be strangely empty to sing that song in a new world where all those things had lost their being and were now only a memory? To the contrary, they will be present in all their fullness, and our cultivation of them will prompt endless delight in the One who brought them into being. The hymn-writer Isaac Watts put it perfectly in his setting of Psalm 23: 'Oh, may thy house be mine abode, and all my work be praise.' In the new city our work will be praise" (Culture Making, p. 174).

The Glory and Honor of the Nations

"... John in Revelation makes it clear that in another sense the human cultural institution that is marriage will be echoed in the new Jerusalem, for the new Jerusalem itself will be one eternal wedding feast between Creator and redeemed creation. Likewise, work, in the sense we know it in human history, will not be the same in the new Jerusalem either. Yet if there is no work, there will surely be activity. Perhaps some of the 'glory and honor of the nations,' like a fine painting or sculpture, will be able to be simply enjoyed without new human effort. But much of the glory and honor of the nations, whether epic poetry or baroque fugues or fine cuisine, can be realized only when people 'perform' it- when singers sing, chefs cook and dancers dance. From jazz we are familiar with the idea of improvisation- the creative reinterpretation of a fixed set of chord changes and a memorable theme. It seems likely to me that part of the activity of eternity will be endlessly creative improvisations upon the 'glory and honor of the nations'- human beings using their creative capacities to their fullest to explore the depth and breadth of all human beings made in their vocations as cocreators with God.

So culture will ultimately fulfill Genesis 1's mandate- humanity will ultimately comprehend and have our proper dominion over all of creation. The glory of the nations will include our best realizations of the potentiality of God's world- the best use of minerals, of sound, of color, of thermodynamics. And it will all be summed up as praise, ..." (Culture Making, pp. 173-74)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Way Forward

"... cultivation and creativity are the postures that confer legitimacy for the other gestures. People who consider themselves stewards of culture- guardians of what is best in a neighborhood, an institution or a field of cultural practice- gain the respect of their peers. Even more so, those who go beyond being mere custodians to creating new cultural goods are the ones who have the world's attention. Indeed, those who have cultivated and created are precisely the ones who have the legitimacy to condemn- whose denunciations, rare and carefully chosen, carry outsize weight. Cultivators and creators are the ones who are invited to critique and whose critiques are often the most telling and fruitful. Cultivators and creators can even copy without becoming mere imitators, drawing on the work of others yet extending it in new and exciting ways.... And when they consume, cultivators and creators do so without becoming mere consumers. They do not derive their identity from what they consume but what they create.

If there is a constructive way forward for Christians in the midst of our broken but also beautiful cultures, it will require us to recover these two biblical postures of cultivation and creation" (Culture Making, p. 98).

Known for What?

"I wonder what we Christians are known for in the world outside our churches. Are we known as critics, consumers, copiers, condemners of culture? I'm afraid so. Why aren't we known as cultivators- people who tend and nourish what is best in human culture, who do the hard and painstaking work to preserve the best of what people before us have done? Why aren't we known as creators- people who dare to think and do something that has never been thought or done before, something that makes the world more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful?" (Culture Making, p. 97-8).

The Posture of Artists and Gardeners

While condemnation, critique, consumption and copying are at times appropriate approaches to culture, they should never be the posture of the Christian towards culture, instead Crouch offers an "alternative posture." Listen to some of his self-reflection as formerly a campus minister at Harvard and one who through those years tended to adopt a posture of suspicion and critique: 

But the more I adopted a posture of suspicion and critique, the more I felt I was missing something. I had trouble accounting for my own consumption- was my delight in my Apple laptop simply a sign that I had surrendered to the siren song of consumer culture? Disturbingly often I encountered people of tremendous cultural activity who seemed to be enjoying themselves too sincerely and faithfully to be mere idolaters. And the same newspaper that delivered news of yet another cultural meltdown also brought reason for hope: an artist working to create beauty in a war zone, tens of thousands of spring-break volunteers descending on a hurricane-ravaged coast, and a big-box retailer that actually paid its workers well, covered their health insurance and sold fine wine to boot.

I thought back to my years serving with a campus ministry at the world’s most prestigious university. For many years we were adept at deconstructing the pretensions of Harvard and calling students to a countercultural kingdom life that would undermine (or, to use one of our favorite words, subvert) Harvard’s power. Our specialty in Harvard critique certainly attracted a certain kind of student, those disaffected from Harvard for one reason or another. But we had a very hard time accounting, in the language of faith, for the delights of a place like Harvard: the thrill of research in a well-equipped laboratory, the ineffable joys of the library stacks, the exhaustion and exhilaration of rowing in a six-man boat on the Charles at 5:30 in the morning. I suspect many students who visited our fellowship, oriented as it was toward critiquing the culture, simply moved on, puzzled at our diffidence or even annoyed at our apparent hypocrisy. If Harvard was so bad, why didn’t we just counsel students to leave and give their tuition money to the poor?

What was missing, I’ve come to believe, were the two postures that are most characteristically biblical- the two postures that have been least explored by Christians in the last century. They are found at the very beginning of the human story, according to Genesis: like our first parents, we are to be creators and cultivators. Or to put it more poetically, we are artists and gardeners. Culture Making, pp. 96-7

Approaching Culture

Crouch makes the case that Christians tend to adopt one style of engagement with the broader culture: condemning, critiquing, copying or consuming. Instead of adopting one style, Crouch says that "each of these responses to culture is, at certain times and with specific cultural goods, a necessary gesture" (Culture Making, p. 90). What Crouch is arguing for here is some adaptability regarding how Christians approach various cultural artifacts.

Some examples:

Cultural artifacts to be condemned: some examples, the global sex trade, the wide-ranging cultural phenomenon of Nazism, pornography, exploitation and enslavement of workers, exposure and murder of vulnerable children from conception on, industrialization that has no concern for the environment.

Cultural artifacts to be critiqued: the fine arts, one example filmmaking.

Cultural artifacts to be consumed: a pot of tea or loaf of bread.

Cultural artifacts to be copied: borrowing from some of the best of mainstream culture, even musicians from Bach to Wesley took well-known tunes and reworked them for church use. Here we learn from "the lesson of Pentecost that every human language, every human cultural form, is capable of bearing the good news" (p. 93).

Going to the Movies

"The fundamentalists said, Don't go to the movies. The evangelicals said, Go to the movies- especially black and white movies by Ingmar Bergman- and probe their worldview. Experimenters in CCM (Contemporary Christian Music)-style film would say, Go to movies like Joshua, soft-focused retellings of the gospel message using cinematic form. But most evangelicals today no longer forbid going to the movies, nor do we engage in earnest Francis Schaeffer-style critiques of the films we see- we simply go to the movies and, in the immortal word of Keanu Reeves, say, "Whoa." We walk out of the movie theater amused, titillated, distracted or thrilled, just like our fellow consumers who do not share our faith. If anything, when I am among evangelical Christians I find that they seem to be more avidly consuming the latest offerings of commercial culture, whether Pirates of the Caribbean or The Simpsons or The Sopranos, than many of my non-Christian neighbors. They are content to be just like their fellow Americans, or perhaps, driven by a lingering sense of shame at their uncool forebears, just slightly more like their fellow Americans than everyone else" (Culture Making, p. 89).

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Culture Making (and Keeping)

Inside his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch reflects on the notion of "cultivation" and the original creation account in the first couple chapters of the Bible. Crouch points out that the word "husband" comes from an Old Norse word for someone who loved on and cultivated the soil, "suggesting that the intimacy and responsibility of marriage was once made most clear by comparing it to the life of a farmer" (p. 75). Crouch points out that today less than 2 percent of the population in the United States today are farmers, whereas in 1900, 38 percent were and in 1860, 58 percent were. So in a postindustrial economy many of these agrarian images do not connect directly with us. Still, Crouch seeks to make the connection that "cultivation" in the world of culture is not too far off from that of cultivation in nature:

One who cultivates tries to create the most fertile conditions for good things to survive and thrive. Cultivating also requires weeding- sorting out what does and does not belong, what will bear fruit and what will choke it out. Cultivating natural things requires long and practiced familiarity with plants and their place; cultivating cultural things requires careful attention to the history of our culture and to the current threats and opportunities that surround it. Cultivation is conservation- ensuring that the world we leave behind, whether natural or cultural, contains at least as many possibilities and at least as much excellence as the one we inherited.... We can only create where we have learned to cultivate (cultivation being the work of conserving). Culture Making, pp. 75-6

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Signposts of Hope

"...with Easter, God's new creation is launched upon a surprised world, pointing ahead to the renewal, the redemption, the rebirth of the entire creation.... every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity- doing justice, making peace, healing families, resisting temptation, seeking and winning true freedom- is an earthly event in a long history of things that implement Jesus's own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation and act as signposts of hope, pointing back to the first and on to the second...." (taken from the appendix of Surprised by Hope, pp. 294-95)

Forgiveness, Love and the Surprise of Hope

Last Sunday October 9th, I preached a message on the last chapter of Jonah called The Expansive Concern of Elohim (to find, go to Grace Chapel Sermons). As we finished our Jonah series on Sunday, we also looked at the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, that of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 and also that of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18. The main topic of conversation was loving our neighbor and even our enemies, also we covered the weighty subject matter of forgiveness. Finishing N.T. Wright's book, he closes his final chapter describing how forgiveness is a large part of experiencing resurrection life, indeed Wright says "forgiveness is a way to life." I appreciated the connection with last Sunday's message:

… love is not our duty; it is our destiny. It is the language Jesus spoke, and we are called to speak it so that we can converse with him. It is the food they eat in God’s new world, and we must acquire the taste for it here and now. It is the music God has written for all his creatures to sing, and we are called to learn it and practice it now so as to be ready when the conductor brings down his baton. It is the resurrection life, and the resurrected Jesus calls us to begin living it with him and for him right now. Love is at the very heart of the surprise of hope: people who truly hope as the resurrection encourages us to hope will be people enabled to love in a new way. Conversely, people who are living by this rule of love will be people who are learning more deeply how to love.

This is the message that underlies the gospel command to forgiveness- which is also, of course, the command to remit debts, about which I spoke earlier. But forgiveness is not a moral rule that comes with sanctions attached. God doesn’t deal with us on the basis of abstract codes and rules like that. Forgiveness is a way of life, God’s way of life, God’s way to life; and if you close your heart to forgiveness, why, then you close your heart to forgiveness. That is the point of the terrifying parable in Matthew 18, about the slave who had been forgiven millions but then dragged a colleague into court to settle a debt of a few pence. If you lock up the piano because you don’t want to play to somebody else, how can God play to you?

That is why we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That isn’t a bargain we make with God. It’s a fact of human life. Not to forgive is to shut down a faculty that can receive God’s forgiveness. It also happens to be the same faculty that can experience real joy and real grief. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Surprised by Hope, pp. 288-89

Personal and Global Holiness Belong Together

When I returned from my first Doctor of Ministry co-hort meeting back in May, there was a strong sense that the Lord was doing an authentic work of renewal in my life (see Back from St. Louis post). I'm now 4 1/2 months removed from the time in St. Louis and in some ways the "mountain-peak" high of returning from such an amazing time has subsided. Still I think the authentic work of the Spirit always comes with lasting fruit, fruit that will last, as Jesus said (John 15:16). Reading N.T. Wright this morning was a reminder that the theme I was seeing most clearly back in May, continues on. I described God's work in my life (in the blogpost referenced) in this way: "Who I am in my heart matters- it matters to my wife, my children, my church, my community- it matters to the world and above all it matters to the One who made all things in the first place to matter."  Wright continues this prominent theme by putting it this way, "personal holiness and global holiness belong together":

The message of Easter, then, is neither that God once did a spectacular miracle but then decided not to do many others nor that there is a blissful life after death to look forward to. The message of Easter is that God's new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you're now invited to belong to it. And precisely because the resurrection was and is bodily, albeit with a transformed body, the power of Easter to transform and heal the present world must be put into effect both at the macrolevel, in applying the gospel to the major problems of the world- and if Soviet Communism and apartheid don't count on that scale I don't know what does- and to the intimate details of our daily lives. Christian holiness consists not of trying as hard as we can to be good but of learning to live in the new world created by Easter, the new world we publicly entered in our baptism. There are many parts of the world we can't do anything about except pray. But there is one part of the world, one part of physical reality, that we can do something about, and that is the creature each of us calls 'myself.' Personal holiness and global holiness belong together. Those who wake up to the one may well find themselves called to wake up to the other as well. Surprised by Hope, p. 253

A Match Made in Heaven (and on Earth)

"But in the Bible heaven and earth are made for each other. They are twin interlocking spheres of God's single created reality. You really understand earth only when you are equally familiar with heaven. You really know God and share his life only when you understand that he is the creator and lover of earth just as much as heaven. And the point of Jesus's resurrection, and the transformed body he now possesses, is that he is equally at home in earth and heaven and can pass appropriately between them,...

... Our minds are so conditioned, I'm afraid, by Greek philosophy, whether or not we've ever ready any of it, that we think of heaven as by definition nonmaterial and earth by definition as nonspiritual or nonheavenly. But that won't do. Part of the central achievement of the incarnation, which is then declared in the resurrection and ascension, is that heaven and earth are now joined together with an unbreakable bond and that we too are by rights citizens of both together. We can, if we choose, screen out the heavenly dimension and live as flatlanders, materialists. If we do that, we will be buying in to a system that will go bad, and will wither and die, because earth gets its vital life from heaven.

But if we focus our attention on the heavenly dimension, all sorts of positive and practical results will follow.... Heaven and earth, I repeat, are made for each other, and at certain points they intersect and interlock. Jesus is the ultimate such point. We as Christians are meant to be such points, derived from him. The Spirit, the sacraments, and the scriptures are given so that the double life of Jesus, both heavenly and earthly, can become ours as well, already in the present" (Surprised by Hope, pp. 250-52).

The Cosmic Gardener

"... Jesus' resurrection is to be seen as the beginning of the new world, the first day of the new week, the unveiling of the prototype of what God is now going to accomplish in the rest of the world. Mary supposes Jesus is the gardener; that's the right mistake to make because, like Adam, he is charged with bringing God's new world to order. He has come to uproot the thorns and thistles and to plant myrtle and cypress instead, as Isaiah promised in his great picture of the new creation that would result from the Word of God coming like rain or snow into the world.

This too has little to do with the resurrection showing that we 'go to heaven when we die' and a great deal to do with the new commission of the disciples to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel: 'As the father sent me,' he says, 'so I send you.' And, as in Luke, the commission is accompanied by the necessary equipment: to be Jesus' agent sin the world, his followers, need, and are given, his own Spirit. Easter and Pentecost belong together. Easter commissions Jesus's followers for a task; Pentecost gives them the necessary equipment to accomplish it" (Surprised by Hope, pp. 238-39)

Monday, October 10, 2011

News of Surprising Hope

"Part of the role of the church in the past was- and could and should be again- to foster and sustain lives of beauty and aesthetic meaning at every level, from music making in the village pub to drama in the local primary school, from artists' and photographers' workshops to still-life painting classes, from symphony concerts (well, they managed them in the concentration camps; how inventive might we be?) to driftwood sculptures. The church, because it is the family that believes in hope for new creation, should be the place in every town and village where new creativity bursts forth for the whole community, pointing to the hope that, like all beauty, always comes as a surprise.

And, of course, evangelism, which will flourish best if the church is giving itself to works of justice (putting things to rights in the community) and works of beauty (highlighting the glory of creation and the glory yet to be revealed): evangelism will always come as a surprise. You mean there is more? There is a new world, and it has already begun, and it works by healing and forgiveness and new starts and fresh energy? Yes, answers the church, and it comes about as people worship the God in whose image they are made, as they follow the Lord who bore their sins and rose from the dead, as they are indwelt by his Spirit and thereby given new life, a new way of life, a new zest for life. It is often pointed out that some of the places most lacking in hope are not the industrial wastelands or the bleak landscapes shorn of beauty but the places where there is too much money, to much high culture, too much of everything except faith, hope, and love. To such places, and to the sad people who live in them as well as to those who find themselves battered by circumstances beyond their control, the message of Jesus and his death and resurrection comes as good news from a far country, news of surprising hope" (Surprised by Hope, p. 231-32)

The Church's Role Before Structural Injustice

"My own vocation has taken me to an area of my country where, for many people, hope is in short supply. A nebulous sense of injustice hangs over many a community in the shape of the half-formed belief that the industrial collapse of the late twentieth century must be somebody's fault and that something should be done about it.... It is a reflection on the fact that when a large community has been built up over several generations around one or two key industries, and when those industries are then shut down not because they are unproductive or because the workers are incompetent or lazy but because they do not fit the larger strategic plans of people whose faces are never seen in the area, then there is a quiet anger, a sense that something has gone wrong at a structural level. Human societies should not work like that, and if they do then questions have to be asked. Part of the task of the church must be to take up that sense of injustice, to bring it to speech, to help people both articulate it and, when they are ready to do so, to turn it into prayer (it's surprising, until you find yourself in that position, how many of the Psalms suddenly become relevant!). And the task then continues with the church's work with the whole local community, to foster programs for better housing, schools, and community facilities, to encourage new job opportunities, to campaign and cajole and work with local governments and councils, and, in short, to foster hope at any and every level. And part of the argument of this book is that when this is done, this is not something other than the surprising hope of the gospel, the hope for life after life after death. It is the direct result of that: the hope for life before death" (N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope, p. 231)

Conservatives No Better Off Than Liberals

"... the strong belief in Jesus's bodily resurrection among conservative Christians in many parts of the world, especially in the United States, has taken that belief out of its biblical context and put it instead in a different one, where it serves agendas diametrically opposed to the biblical ones. For many conservative Christians today, belief in Jesus's bodily resurrection is all about God's supernatural action in the world, legitimating an upstairs-downstairs view of reality- a dualism, in other words- in which the supernatural is the real world and the natural, the this-worldly, is secondary and largely irrelevant. The resurrection is thus affirmed as the orthodox belief against liberal modernism (or theological liberalism if you prefer), but what you get instead is conservative modernism (not so much a denial of the supernatural as much as a denial of the natural), which leaves intact the modernist split between heaven and earth and indeed reinforces it. From this viewpoint, of course, what matters is the supernatural world-denying salvation offered by the gospel. Any attempt to work for God's justice on earth as in heaven is condemned as the sort of thing those wicked antisupernatural liberals try to do. That is precisely not what the resurrection is about, and in defending the orthodox position on Easter, I have become aware in the last few years that many liberals are really attacking not Easter itself but the escapist and socially conservative politics of those they perceive to be defending it...." (Surprised by Hope, p. 220)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Rescued Rescuing Stewards

"But underneath that again, when we stand back, is the meaning of God's kingdom, to which the hope of Israel was designed to contribute- or, to put it another way, the meaning because of which God called Israel in the first place. Faced with this beautiful and powerful creation in rebellion, God longed to set it right, to rescue it from continuing corruption and impending chaos and to bring it back into order and fruitfulness. God longed, in other words, to re-establish his wise sovereignty over the whole creation, which would mean a great act of healing and rescue. He did not want to rescue humans from creation any more than he wanted to rescue Israel from the Gentiles. He wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards over creation. That is the inner dynamic of the kingdom of God" (Surprised by Hope, p. 202)

"Salvation" in Its Full Sense

"In other words- to sum up where we've got so far- the work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us. If we can get this straight, we will rediscover the historic basis for the full-orbed mission of the church" (Surprised by Hope, p. 200-01).

Work Matters

"[in] 1 Corinthians 15:58.... Paul, we remind ourselves, has just written the longest and densest chapter in any of his letters, discussing the future resurrection of the body in great and complex detail. How might we expect him to finish such a chapter? By saying, 'Therefore, since we have such a great hope, sit back and relax because you know God's got a great future in store for you'? No. Instead, he says, 'Therefore, my beloved ones, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.'

What does he mean? How does believing in the future resurrection lead to getting on with the work in the present? Quite straightforwardly. The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing throughout the letter, is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. And if this applies to ethics, as in 1 Corinthians 6, it certainly also applies to the various vocations to which God's people are called. What you do in the present- by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself- will last into God's future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it, 'Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away'). They are part of what we may call building for God's kingdom....

But let us note, at the outset of this final section of the book, that the promise of new creation- the promise we have been studying throughout the book- is not and cannot be simply about straightening out ideas about life after death. It is about the mission of the church.... It's no good falling back into the tired old split-level world where some people believe in evangelism in terms of saving souls for a timeless eternity and other people believe in mission in terms of working for justice, peace and hope in the present world. That great divide has nothing to do with Jesus and the New Testament and everything to do with the silent enslavement of many Christians (both conservative and radical) to the Platonic ideology of the Enlightenment. Once we get the resurrection straight, we can and must get mission straight" (Surprised by Hope, pp. 192-93).

THE QUESTION We Haven't Been Asking

What is the most important question for Christians to be thinking and talking about? For a long time, it has been said that the most important question is addressing how someone can "get to heaven and avoid hell." What if that is not THE most important question? Wrights wonders if Christians haven't in fact been asking the wrong question. Instead of asking, "how does one get to heaven?" maybe the better question should be "how will God's new creation come?" Listen to Wright:

But the most important thing to say at the end of this discussion, and of this section of the book, is that heaven and hell are not, so to speak, what the whole game is about. This is one of the central surprises in the Christian hope. The whole point of my argument so far is that the question of what happens to me after death is not the major, central, framing question that centuries of theological tradition have supposed. The New Testament, true to its Old Testament roots, regularly insists that the major, central, framing question is that of God’s purpose of rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos. The destiny of individual human beings must be understood within that context- not simply in the sense that we are only part of a much larger picture but also in the sense that part of the whole point of being saved in the present is so that we can play a vital role (Paul speaks of this role in the shocking terms of being “fellow workers with God”) within that larger picture and purpose. And that in turn makes us realize that the question of our own destiny, in terms of the alternatives of joy or woe, is probably the wrong way of looking at the whole question. The question ought to be, How will God’s new creation come? And then, How will we humans contribute to that renewal of creation and to the fresh projects that the creator God will launch in his new world? The choice before humans would then be framed differently: are you going to worship the creator God and discover thereby what it means to become fully and gloriously human, reflecting his powerful, healing, transformative love into the world? Or are you going to worship the world as it is, boosting your corruptible humanness by gaining power or pleasure from forces within the world but merely contributing thereby to your own dehumanization and the further corruption of the world itself?

This reflection leads to a further, and sobering, thought. If what I have suggested is anywhere near the mark, then to insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question- to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world- may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century, the mistake that both Jesus and Paul addressed. Israel believed (so Paul tells us, and he should know) that the purposes of the creator God all came down to this question: how is God going to rescue Israel? What the gospel of Jesus revealed, however, was that the purposes of God were reaching out to a different question: how is God going to rescue the world through Israel and thereby rescue Israel itself as part of the process but not as the point of it all? Maybe what we are faced with in our own day is a similar challenge: to focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. If we could reread Romans and Revelation- and the rest of the New Testament, of course- in the light of this reframing of the question, I think we would find much food for thought. Surprised by Hope, pp. 184-85

If we take the question off of the ultimate destiny of the individual, instead focus more intentionally on how we as a people, God's people, can serve God's greater purpose of renewing the heavens and the earth and thereby bring God glory, then perhaps we fall more in line with the Biblical vision of our purpose on earth.

Judgment Reflections: Exclusion Before Embrace

"Faced with the Balkans, Rwanda, the Middle East, Darfur, and all kinds of other horrors that enlightened Western thought can neither explain nor alleviate, opinion in many quarters has, rightly in my view, come to see that there must be such a thing as judgment. Judgment- the sovereign declaration that this is good and to be upheld and vindicated, and that is evil and to be condemned- is the only alternative to chaos. There are some things, quite a lot of them in fact, that one must not tolerate lest one merely collude with wickedness. We all know this perfectly well, yet we conveniently forget it whenever squeamishness or the demands of current opinion make it easier to go with the flow of social convention....

But judgment is necessary- unless we were to conclude, absurdly, that nothing much is wrong or, blasphemously, that God doesn't mind very much. In the justly famous phrase of Miroslav Volf, there must be 'exclusion' before there can be 'embrace': evil must be identified, named, and death with before there can be reconciliation. That is the basis on which Desmond Tutu has built his mind-blowing work on the South African Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. And- this is of course the crunch- where those who have acted wickedly refuse to see the point, there can be no reconciliation, no embrace" (Surprised by Hopepp. 178-79)

The Intermediate State

"... that all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. Though this is sometimes described as sleep, we shouldn't take this to mean that it is a state of unconsciousness. Had Paul thought that, I very much doubt that he would have described life immediately after death as 'being with Christ, which is far better.' Rather, sleep here means that the body is 'asleep' in the sense of 'dead,' while the real person- however we want to describe him or her- continues.

This state is not, clearly, the final destiny for which the Christian dead are bound, which is, as we have seen, the bodily resurrection. But it is a state which the dead are held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ while they await that day. There is no reason why this state should not be called heaven, though we must note once more how interesting it is that the New Testament routinely doesn't call it that and uses the word heaven in other ways" (Surprised by Hope, pp. 171-72).

Life After Life After Death

"We should recall in particular that the use of the word heaven to denote the ultimate goal of the redeemed, though of course hugely popularized by medieval and subsequent piety, is severely misleading and does not begin to do justice to the Christian hope. I am repeatedly frustrated by how hard it is to get this point through the thick wall of traditional thought and language that most Christians put up. The ultimate destination is (once more) not 'going to heaven when you die' but being bodily raised into the transformed, glorious likeness of Jesus Christ. (The point of all this is not, of course, merely our own happy future, important though that is, but the glory of God, as we come fully to reflect his image.) Thus, if we want to speak of 'going to heaven when we die,' we should be clear that this represents the first, and far less important, stage of a two-stage process. Resurrection isn't life after death; it is life after life after death" (Surprised by Hope, pp. 168-69).

Friday, October 7, 2011

Work to Do in the New Heavens and New Earth

"Why will we be given new bodies? According to the early Christians, the purpose of this new body will be to rule wisely over God's new world. Forget those images about lounging around playing harps. There will be work to do and we shall relish doing it. All the skills and talents we have put to God's service in this present life- and perhaps to the interests and likings we gave up because they conflicted with our vocation- will be enhanced and ennobled and given back to us to be exercised to his glory. This is perhaps the most mysterious, and least explored, aspect of resurrection life. But there are several promises in the New Testament about God's people 'reigning' (Rom. 5:17; 1 Cor. 6:2,3; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 1:6, 5:10, 20:4, 22:5), and these cannot just be empty words. If, as we have already seen, the biblical view of God's future is of the renewal of the entire cosmos, there will be plenty to be done, entire new projects to undertake. In terms of the vision of original creation in Genesis 1 and 2, the garden will need to be tended once more and the animals renamed. These are are only images, of course, but like all other future-oriented language they serve as true signposts to a larger reality- a reality to which most Christians give little or no thought" (Surprised by Hope, p. 161).

The American Obsession: The Rapture

"The American obsession- I don't think that's too strong a word- with the second coming of Jesus, or rather with one particular and, as we shall see, highly distorted interpretation of it, continues unabated. I first met it in person when I was giving some lectures in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in the early 1980s. I was talking about Jesus in his historical context, and to my surprise almost all the questions afterward were about ecology- about trees and water and crops, which is after all what there mostly is at Thunder Bay. it turned out... that many conservative Christians in the area, and more importantly just to the south in the United States, had been urging that since we were living in the end times, with the world about to come to an end, there was no point worrying about trying to stop polluting the planet with acid rain and the like. Indeed, wasn't it unspiritual, and even a sign of a lack of faith, to think about such things? If God was intending to bring the whole world to a shuddering halt, what was the problem?" (Surprised by Hope, p. 119)

Where's Jesus?

To confirm further that most Christians today tend towards a Platonic/Gnostic rather than Biblical understanding of things, we ask another question, where is the resurrected Christ currently? Most Western Christians say, "everywhere" or "somewhere" but haven't thought that intentionally about His raised body. Jesus is raised on the third day and later ascended to heaven to the right hand of the Father. So the answer is that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father in the heavenlies, but that's not all. Also, Jesus is in His fully embodied and risen state right now this moment. Listen to Wright here:

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians. Sometimes this is because many people think that Jesus, having been divine, stopped being divine and became human, and then, having been human for a while, stopped being human and went back to be divine (at least, that’s what many people think Christians are supposed to believe). More often it’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this; … Surprised by Hope, p. 111

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Unaware Gnostics

"The Platonic strain entered Christian thinking early on, not least with the phenomenon known as Gnosticism. Since the Gnostics have been making something of a comeback recently, a word about them is appropriate. The Gnostics believed, like Plato, that the material world was an inferior and dark place, evil in its very existence, but that within this world could be found certain people who were meant for something else. These children of light were like fallen stars, tiny pinpricks of light currently hidden within a gross material body. Once they had realized who they were, though, this knowledge (Greek gnosis) would enable them to enter into a spiritual existence in which the material world would no longer count. Having entered upon that spiritual existence, they would then live by it, through death, and into the infinite world beyond space, time, and matter. 'We are stardust,' sang Joni Mitchell, plugging in to this millennia-old mythology, 'we are golden; and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.' The Gnostic myth often suggests that the way out of our mess is to return to our primeval state, before the creation of the world. In this view creation itself is the fall, producing matter, which is the real evil. I hope it is clear both how deeply and thoroughly it diverges from it.

Though most people in today's world have probably only a sketchy idea of Gnosticism, assuming they've heard of it at all, it has been argued with some plausibility that some elements of it- and Gnosticism is always an eclectic phenomenon- are found in some of the seminal thinkers and writers of the last two hundred years in our culture. The writer and playwright Stuart Holroyd, himself an unashamed apologist for Gnosticism, lists Blake, Goethe, Melville, Yeats, and Jung among others as representing this stream in the modern West, and through their insights have often been cross-fertilized with other types, he has a point that should not be ignored. Basically, if you move away from materialistic optimism but without embracing Judaism or Christianity, you are quite likely to end up with some kind of Gnosticism. It should be no surprise that certain elements of the Romantic movement, and some of their more recent heirs, have been prone to this. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls (a library of Gnostic texts found in Upper Egypt) has in our day fueled a desire to reinterpret Christianity itself in terms of a supposedly original Gnostic spirituality that contrasts sharply with the concrete kingdom-of-God-on-Earth announced by the Jesus of the canonical gospels. Travel far enough down that road and you will end up with the blatant and outrageous conspiracy theories of a book like The Da Vinci Code. But there are many who without going that far now assume that some kind of Gnosticism is what genuine Christianity was supposed to be about.

Most Western Christians- and most Western non-Christians, for that matter- in fact suppose that Christianity was committed to at least a soft version of Plato's position. A good many Christian hymns and poems wander off unthinkingly in the direction of Gnosticism. The 'just passing through' spirituality (as in the spiritual 'This world is not my home, / I'm just a' passin' through'), though it has some affinities with classical Christianity, encourages precisely a Gnostic attitude: the created world is at best irrelevant, at worst a dark, evil, gloomy place, and we immortal souls, who existed originally in a different sphere, are looking forward to returning to it as soon as we're allowed to. A massive assumption has been made in Western Christianity that the purpose of being Christian is simply, or at least mainly, to 'go to heaven when you die,' and texts that don't say that but that mention heaven are read as if they did say it, and texts that say the opposite, like Romans 8:8-25 and Revelation 21-22, are simply screened out as if they didn't exist" (Surprised by Hope, pp. 88-90).

Have We Gotten Heaven Wrong?

I just started reading through N.T. Wright's book Surprised by Hope. Inside the book, Wright challenges the ways in which Christians for a very long time now have moved away from a Biblical vision of their ultimate hope. One way of getting at this question is asking yourself, what is the ultimate goal of your existence? Most Christians will says, "to get to heaven" and implicit in the answer will be that their souls will float to heaven and away from earth once that happens. Wright would say that this answer reveals that we have been far more influenced by Plato and the Greek notion of immortality than the Bible's vision of "resurrection." Wright's critique isn't too far off from Lesslie Newbigin's: see my earlier blogpost, Consequence of Public Truth / Private Value Divide. Consider some of Wright's insights:

It comes as something of a shock, in fact, when people are told what is in fact the case: that there is very little in the Bible about “going to heaven when you die” …. The medieval pictures of heaven and hell, boosted though not created by Dante’s classic work, have exercised a huge influence on Western Christian imagination. Many Christians grow assuming that whenever the New Testament speaks of heaven it refers to the place to which the saved will go after death. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’s sayings in the other gospels about the “kingdom of God” are rendered as “kingdom of heaven”; since many read Matthew first, when they find Jesus talking about “entering the kingdom of heaven,” they have their assumptions confirmed and suppose that he is indeed talking about how to go to heaven when you die, which is certainly not what either Jesus or Matthew had in mind. Many mental pictures have grown up around this and are now assumed to be what the Bible teaches or what Christians believe.

But the language of heaven in the New Testament doesn’t work that way. “God’s kingdom” in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming “on earth as it is in heaven.” The roots of the misunderstanding go very deep, not least into the residual Platonism that has infected whole swaths of Christian thinking and has misled people into supposing that Christians are meant to devalue this present world and our present bodies and regard them as shabby or shameful.

Likewise, the pictures of heaven in the book of Revelation have been much misunderstood. The wonderful description in Revelation 4 and 5 of the twenty-four elders casting their crowns before the throne of God and the lamb, beside the sea of glass, is not, despite one of Charles Wesley’s great hymns, a picture of the last day with all the redeemed in heaven at last. It is a picture of present reality, the heavenly dimension of our present life. Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life- God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever. And when we come to the picture of the actual end in Revelation 21-22, we find not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace.

Most Christians today, I fear, never think about this from one year to the next. They remain satisfied with what is at best a truncated and distorted version of the great biblical hope. Indeed, the popular picture is reinforced again and again in hymns, prayers, monuments, and even quite serious works of theology and history. It is simply assumed that the word heaven is the appropriate term for the ultimate destination, the final home, and that the language of resurrection, and of the new earth as well as the new heavens, much some how be fitted into that.  Surprised by Hopepp. 18-19

To be sure, the Bible does talk about being with Christ in paradise following death (Lk. 23:43) or as the Apostle Paul said, "to depart from the body is to be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23, 2 Cor. 5:8); however, it is important to realize that this place of "eternal bliss" is ultimately a reference to our "intermediate state" as we await the resurrection of our bodies (1Cor. 15:52). In fact, an important reference helping us understand that "death" isn't the ultimate goal of all of creation or our ultimate goal as believers is made clear when we see the souls of deceased martyrs, reigning with Christ, still crying out "How long Sovereign Lord until you avenge our blood?" (Rev. 6:10) Christian, have you been influenced more by the Biblical notion of resurrection or by Platonic thought?