art, anguish, creativity, and God

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Artists are notorious for being troubled souls. Vincent Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, Hemingway. The amount of mental anguish among artists is alarming. Suicide, substance abuse, depression. How is it that people who can fill the world with such beauty can be so tormented, so disturbed, so broken?

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love has a theory: In ancient times people thought of creativity not as something someone had, but as something someone received from God as inspiration. Think of the etymology of that word: in-spirit-ization. To be filled with the creative spirit. To have God move through you. The Romans called this a "genius" (the word genie comes from the same root). So instead of saying a person "is a genius" they would say a person "has a genius". With the Renaissance this switched, and we started saying instead that a person was a genius, that creativity was something someone possessed. Gilbert thinks this was a huge wrong turn. She says,

"Allowing somebody - one mere person - to believe that he or she is the vessel, the font, the essence, and the source of all divine creative eternal unknowable mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile human psyche. It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun.
It completely warps and distorts egos. It creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years."
You can watch her whole talk here:

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Faith and Work. (Is that it?)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I was recently asked to speak to a group of graduating high school students at a Christian school about faith and work. One of the questions our panel was asked was how we bring our faith into the workplace. I have to say I was a bit shocked when I heard the answers of the other two panelists. Both of them said that the way they brought their faith into their work was in having honest business practice, and in being patient and kind when dealing with difficult clients. Now these are of course good things to do, but I found myself thinking, "is that it?" Doesn't every professional adult pretty much do that? Who doesn't have to deal in a mature way with difficult clients? Isn't that just called being a professional?

It really got me to thinking about what our vision is of how we can apply our talents and training and expertise in our given fields to bear into seeing the kingdom of God working in our world?. How many times have you heard it preached from the pulpit that really all we need to do is do our work with integrity, and that's it? Is that really all there is? I have to say seminary is not any better. The only occupations on their horizon are professors and pastors. Seminaries are not structured to accommodate any other possible jobs, which explains why they have so little vision for how to bring faith into work. Is that it? Work hard and be nice?

The context that the above statement comes from is Colossians 3:23-24 "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." Now I have no problem with this. Of course you should do your work well. But let's remember who Paul was addressing with these words. He was talking to slaves. Yes, that's right, slaves. So what I want to really challenge here is whether advice given to slaves on work should really be the sole teaching we have in church on faith and work? We've come a long way since then, and many of us have high ranking professional careers. We are doctors, lawyers, psychologists, educators, and engineers. We are people who potentially have quite a bit of impact and pull in our world. So what foundation can we give to a business owner or lawmaker for how they can bring the kingdom of God into what they do? Does the church really have nothing to say here? Is that it?

Way back in the 80's in "The Grave Digger Files" Ox Guinness bemoaned how privatization had made the church "socially irrelevant even if privately engaging". Guinness writes, "Look for a place where the Christian's faith makes a difference at work beyond the realm of purely personal things (such as witnessing to colleagues and praying for them, or not swearing and not fiddling with income tax returns). Look for a place where the Christian is thinking 'Christianly' and critically about the substance of work (about say, the use of profits and not just personnel; about the ethics of a multinational corporation and not those of a small family business; about a just economic order and not just the doctrine of justification). You will look for a very long time." Since he wrote this in 83, faith did move out of the private sphere, but it did so in a way that it was completely co-opted by the ideals of nationalism and capitalism masquerading as so-called Christian "family values". That politicized private morality has dominated the western Christian political imagination for two decades. It other words, when we were engaged socially and politically, our thinking was on a private and individual level. Thankfully there are signs of a growing social awareness among Evangelicals, but this is really in its infancy, and the mindset of thinking only in privatized individual terms is still deeply entrenched.

There was recently an excellent interview on the Emergent Village podcast with Joe Carson a high ranking nuclear safety engineer at the Dept. of Energy on bringing one's faith into their work on a structural level. Joe begins by explaining that engineering "builds the infrastructure that society is run on, and the weapons to tear it down". So we're talking about a profession here that has some pretty major impact on the world; one with the potential to do great good, and one that can and has done great harm as well. Joe asks for example, should an engineer care that the work they are doing is helping to fuel a genocide in Darfur? It's the kind of big-picture question many of us in the professional world could ask of our own work's impact. What Joe stresses in the interview is that a single individual often can do very little. That's why it is so important he says for there to be a collective voice which can influence industry and power. So he for his part is working to found the Affiliation of Christian Engineers who seek to bring Christian ethics to play in the engineering profession.

That's just one example of a person thinking through how they can bring their faith to bear on their professional life. I found it really challenging because it pushes the boundaries of how we think about what it means to be a Christian in the work place. This is exactly the kind of application that I see as the next step for the emerging church. Beyond all the re-thinking about theological formulations which has been the focus of the emergent movement, the next phase is to ask how we can really live that out. What would it mean for each of us to not simply be a worker with a good attitude fueling the status quo, but for us to be part of a force for change and good? What would that look like in your life and mine? It's a talk that is long overdue.

One suggestion I have, that builds off of what Joe Carson says above, is that in order to affect change in our work world, we will need to learn not only to think about morality and meaning on a social global scale, but we will need to also learn how to act not simply as lone individuals, but collectively. Church needs to grow beyond an institution setup to meet our private spiritual needs, and become one that helps us to organize together to impact our world with our collective ability.

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Reading the Old Testament Through the Eyes of Jesus

Saturday, May 16, 2009

I don't like the Old Testament. Most of all I am disturbed by its endorsements of mass violence in the name of God. I've blogged about this earlier but I've found myself increasingly troubled by these accounts of God supposedly ordering the mass slaughter of men, women, and even infants. Remember that story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho and the cute song for kids that goes "Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down"? Well that's a song about genocide folks. Its a song about murdering babies.
"When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys." (Joshua 6:20-21)
I find that profoundly disturbing. And even more disturbing is how so many of my fellow Christians can calmly justify that kind of holocaust. For example the Interpreter's Bible section on Joshua attempts to justify this genocide (known as the "herem") by saying that it shows how seriously God takes sin. Clark Pinnock - a theologian who I have deep respect for -in his book "The Scripture Principle" makes virtually the same argument. Reading this made my stomach turn. I couldn't help but think of the terrified mother screaming helplessly as she sees the Israelite soldiers dashing her 6-month-old baby's head against a rock, or the little boy who stares as he sees his mother and father beheaded before his eyes. How can anyone possibly justify that? By what sort of sick motivation would one even want to?

Let's face it, it's a no-brainer that killing a babies is evil. In fact the only people who would even question it are us Christians. Why? Because its in the Bible. What that means is that the Bible has the potential of making people's morality profoundly evil. That is something I find deeply troubling. The logic goes like this: if I am against killing babies it is because I have a "worldly" morality, and it is only through God's Word that we can know what it truly moral. Nevermind that I've been a Christian for quite some time now and hopefully have the mind of Christ. Nevermind that Jesus says that "if anyone harms one of these little ones it would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be cast into the sea" (Mk 9:42).

What we have are people who want to justify the Bible more than they care about the least. And I can tell you flat out that this is not what God's heart cares about. God when he was here on earth was not concerned about upholding his reputation, his concerns was in caring for the condemned, the rejected, the unclean. When we toss the most basic morality out the door and justify atrocities we are not being faithful to God. We are sinning, because we are becoming advocates of death.

Frankly, there is a lot in the OT that advocates this type of us-versus-them, 'hate your enemies and destroy them utterly for the Lord' mentality. This is likely what Jesus was confronting when he said "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies" (Mt 5:43-44). He is here directly contradicting the message of hate which runs though the minor prophets (Samuel, Joshua, etc) and the early history of the Hebrew people. Yet in that same sermon he says "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Mt 5:17). This brings us into a dilemma: on the one hand Jesus here and elsewhere directly contradicts the Old Testament and proposes a way that is it polar opposite. Yet he at the same time says that in doing this he is fulfilling the law, and that the God he sees in the OT is his loving Father!

In a way we could say that the way Jesus reads the Old Testament is like how we can look at the world: we can look at our world, seeing all sorts of pain and injustice in it, and we could conclude that there is no God. Or we could look at that same messed up hurting world and see that there is nothing more vital and needed than love, nothing we need more deeply than for that God of love to be real ,and for that love to somehow be stronger than all the hate around us. Jesus looks at the messed up Old Testament, a book that shows a very unvarnished picture of sinful humanity, including how horrific violence is often justified in the name of God, and nevertheless sees the God of love in there whom we so desperately need to find too.

What I also see in Jesus is a way for us to read the Bible. Jesus did not simply take everything his Bible said at face value. The Bible Jesus read said to not touch the unclean, but Jesus did. It said to kill and adulteress, but he forgave her. It said not to associate with sinners, but he welcomed them. It taught hatred of enemies, but he loved his. What if we could get a hold of how Jesus is reading his Bible, and read it like that too? What are the principles that Jesus is applying to his own exegesis here, and how can we apply them? How can we learn to read the Bible like Jesus and not like the Pharisees? Because if we read like the Pharisees did then the Bible will lead us into a depraved morality devoid of compassion that justifies genocide, and cause to not see Jesus when he is right there in front of us. One rule that Jesus teaches here is this: "by their fruits you shall know them" (Mt 7:16). In other words, we can know whether our interpretation of Scripture is right by looking at the fruits it bears. Does it lead us to being more loving, more compassionate, more like Jesus? Or does it lead us to justifying a horrific morality? Too often biblical exegesis does not ask this question, and it must.

This is the exact point renowned Old Testament scholar James Barr makes in his book "Biblical Faith and natural Theology" which you can check out for free on Google Books. In particular see pages 201-220 where Barr discusses the biblical herem (genocide). Barr concludes that biblical studies need to be coupled with ethics (what he calls natural theology). Another good read here is an essay by Chris Marshall entiled "The Violence of God and the Hermeneutics of Paul" in the book The Work of Jesus Christ in Anabaptist Perspective. (Sorry that one's not on Google). In it Marshall outlines a way to read the diffucult passages in the OT by adopting Paul's critical aproach to the law as being at the same time 'holy and good' and yet still leading to 'death'. It's a similar approach to what I have breifly hinted at above about reading the Bible with the same hermautic (interpretive lens) as Jesus, only Marhsall does this with Paul. It's a great read.

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Why I'm still not Orthodox (pt 2: mysticism)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

If you missed the first installment, you can check it out here. This time I'd like to take up where I left off by sharing some of the things I've been learning about personal relationship with God from an Eastern Orthodox perspective.

One thing that can be quite confusing in a dialog between Orthodox and Protestant believers is the two ways that the term "salvation" is used. In Protestant usage it commonly refers to justification, and thus it is stressed that "salvation is by grace, not works." What this specifically means is that justification or redemption is by grace not works. Of course just about everyone would agree that we need to respond in faith to this. So is that a "work"? No, because works are about earning and merit, and even if we accept a gift (the response of faith) we are still not meriting it. So far so good. On the Orthodox end "salvation" commonly refers to sanctification and so the emphasis is on our participation, our praxis, what we do. Again, just about everyone would agree that we do need to participate in our sanctification, through a life of obedience to God, devotional life, repentance, and so on. We do not do this to earn God's favor, we do this in God's favor, as a response to grace.

Both of these uses of the term "salvation" are legitimate, the Protestant "getting saved" type and the Orthodox "work out your salvation" (Phil 2:12) variety. But since one side is speaking about justification/regeneration (the inception) and the other about sanctification/deification (the continuation/fulfillment) using the same word it can get pretty confusing and lead to a lot of misunderstanding. Put in relational terms, we need to enter into a relationship with God (regeneration), and we then need to grow in that relationship (sanctification).

What I appreciate about Orthodox theology is that it is very much focused on the experience of a lived relationship with God. As Vladimir Lossky has said, "all theology is mystical theology". What that means is that all theology needs to be connected to our living it, to our being in a real transforming relationship. Theology always needs to be joined to praxis. In the end, the real meaning of "orthodox" is not "right doctrine" but "right worship" (as in doxology). Now of course we also find in the Orthodox tradition its share of head-theology entrenched in lots of metaphysics and formulas. One common categorization scholars make is between two schools in Orthodox thought - one of the "head" and one of the "heart". We find this same tug of war in the evangelical church as well of course, and what we need is a balance. We need to be smart about stuff, we need to use our brains, but we need to also have our feet on the ground and have our theology be practical. This sense of "pietism" (I see that as a good word) is very present in orthodoxy. We can see it in ancient writers like the author of the Macarian Homilies, or Symeon the New Theologian, and we can see it in contemporary theologians like Kallistos Ware. Bishop Ware writes that, "All genuine theology must be mystical theology – something based upon a personal experience of God granted in prayer, upon a conscious awareness of the Holy Spirit."

What I find absent in all of this, as I mentioned in my previous post, is a lack of focus on being born again in the Orthodox church, or in other words, a lack of the initial expereince of regeneration. Not just as an assurance of forgivness for a guilty conscience, not simply as a judicial requirement, or as an end in itself, but as a way of entering into new life and lived relationship with God as a way to begin living in grace, in the Spirit. The Orthodox understanding of salvation lacks this experiential beginning, this initial experience of God's indwelling presence and love to begin our participation of growing in God and through God. This expereince of "assurance", of God's indwelling presence and love, (which clearly is the end goal of ascetic praxis and mysticism in the Orthodox faith) was what turned the world upside down for Luther and Wesley (and for me), and I just don't find it in Orthodox writing. That is, I do find them speaking of our pursuit of union with God as the end of ascetic struggle, of experiencing this intimacy with God after struggle and seeking. I think that is all good. But what is missing is how we begin that pursuit of God with God. How we, as Augustine said, at the same time taste of God, and yet hunger for more, how God allows us to experience his love and nearness, and that this embrace makes us long for more. A pursuit we do not embark on on our own, but with God and through God. "I tasted, and now hunger and thirst. Thou touched me, and I longed for Thy peace."

Now I certainly think we can learn a lot from the emphasis of the Orthodox on sanctification. But I also think it goes both ways, and that there needs to be a discovery of the relational transformative expereince of a born again conversion experience in Orthodoxy. New birth in conversion is often rejected by Orthodox Christians who associate it with a legal end, rather than as a relational beginning (Ware for example takes this position). But from the shared relational perspective of our two traditions, this initial experience of the indwelling of the Spirit calling out within us “Abba, Father” is vital, not only because of the transforming assurance of knowing who and whose we are, but because union with God is something that begins and ends in the Spirit, lived together with God, through God, and in God. Despite the emphasis on experience in Orthodox theology, that personal experience of the indwelling of the Spirit previous to, and thus as the cause and means of ascetic struggle, is missing in Orthodoxy.

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