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Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

I was hoping to have a better explanation as to why I’m writing about death at the young age of 30. I confess: I was daydreaming about it. Unfortunately, that neither justifies the thought nor does it sound healthy, and I can also tell you that the third heaven was not involved in this dream. Maybe it is better that I was thinking about death as it relates to the Christian? I mean, is death different for us than for others? If it is, why is it different? Is it okay to be afraid of it, and why do we grieve if we’re going to see again the ones that have died?

Death is obviously different than saying “goodbye.” In our day of technology, we are not limited in our ability to contact others, but in the old days, saying “goodbye” may have been very much like death. I’m reminded of a story of a group Moravian missionaries (whether true or not, I don’t know) who sold themselves into slavery in order to evangelize a group of slaves away from their homeland. I can see how saying goodbye to their friends and family the moment before giving themselves away as slaves would be a kind of death. For the men who sold themselves, they would only be dead to whom they once were and alive to something else. I can’t see how that would be much different than the Christian belief about dying. Yes, goodbye to our friends here on earth and given the sheer mass of humanity soon forgotten, but we are alive to something else – a reality that we cannot imagine properly on this side of life.

Because we cannot see what we will be on the other side of death, dread and fear may be proper reactions. It is the moment where we cease to control anything. It’s actually one of those funny things about age. When we’re young, we take pride in ourselves – our strength, intelligence, and potential. We think we can change the world by sheer willpower. As I’ve aged, I’ve found I have very little power to will whatever I want into being. I’m less convinced of my overall usefulness. God doesn’t need me for anything. He could make a rock or donkey or anything he or Walt Disney can make speak do what I do.

What is my value then? My truest value is that I give and receive love. I am valuable in as much as I love God, my friends, and my family and that I receive such love in return. Love doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it grows in communion with others. The more deeply we love, the more deeply we are needed. Maybe that’s why we grieve those whom we will eventually see again. That expression of love unique to that person is no longer present in our lives…I’m really just thinking aloud at this point.

God is different from us in this aspect. He doesn’t need our love. We not only need his love but we need to love him. The ancient hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” helps me in this expression. One verse reads:

What language can I borrow
To thank thee dearest friend?
For this thy dying sorrow
Thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever
And should I fainting be!
Oh let me never, ever
Out live my love for thee!

The hymn writer makes a request to God that the value of his life be tied to the greatness of his love toward his Savior. That is the greatest value we have as human beings – to be loved by God and to be able to love him back. Flip side is also true of course. Human beings that aren’t loved become less than human. People who lack the ability to love are monstrous, and some of ugliest humans are those who try to obey God’s laws without love for him. We fear death because it limits the expression of our love in the relationships we’ve built, but for people who cannot love, their life is a kind of death.

We also fear death because it brings us face-to-face with the unknown. Death is like a fog (is that cliché?).  Driving through a thick fog on a fall night can be dreadful. Who or what could you run into? Can you react in time if something does get in your way? It can control what we see and how we act. The thicker the fog, the more it controls us and the more resigned we are to whatever may happen. Yet, fog cannot cannot impede our journey; we just pass through it and find clarity on the other side.

As age wears down our wills and death closes in like the fog, we have a hope that is as certain as the Sun. Though the world around us changes and we change, he does not change nor has age worn him down at all. Our self idolatry fails with age, but we have something greater to revere, someone better to love for he does not fail.

Death has no ultimate control though it may control our senses as we pass through it. One day the Son will shine so brightly and hotly that death will be burned up and forgotten. Everything that we ever loved will be revealed by the light of day, and we will be known by what and how fiercely we loved. I want to be known as a person who loved truly. A love that desperately desired to love more and more fiercely. That I loved God deeply, and that he supplied me when I lacked love for him and others.

 

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Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, Dr. Strangelove, features a rogue general ordering a nuclear strike on Russia. While the bomber moves closer to its destination, the president and his advisers attempt to recall the bomber before its payload. The incompetency and lunacy of the  council cannot recall the bomber in time. The film satirizes, among other things, the Cold War policy of the proliferation of nuclear arms as the greatest deterrent to war with Russia. Kubrick’s point was that the proliferation of nuclear weapons can only lead to their use and not to their non-use. To underscore this point, Kubrick uses numerous sexual references and symbols throughout the film signifying that we will eventually give in to our base urges and use these weapons.

That an event that would lead to the end of the world could be satirized in such way is simultaneously humorous and repulsive – and Kubrick is a genius for it. I’m sure you’re wondering what Dr. Strangelove has to do with The Shack.

I get that The Shack was intended to be read as a serious piece of allegorical fiction, and that the book supposedly aligns itself with the mission statement (at least at the time of this article) of Windblown Publishing, which published the book: “to provide creative and intellectually honest literature for those seeking a renewal of love and faith.” A noble goal that I believe The Shack fails to meet.

Yet, when interpreted along the same lines as Kubrick’s classic (i.e. as a satire), The Shack becomes a work of genius. If you’re repulsed by this point, I consider my case is already made. For those of you still unconvinced, I’ll designate this satirized version of the book with brackets – [The Shack] – and present my case.

I know that many of my friends have read The Shack, enjoyed it, and been impacted by its message. I’m not trying to diminish that impact. God uses many means to get a hold of us. You have been honest with me about your love for this book. Please let me be honest about what I feel about this book. Before we anoint it as a “Christian classic,” we ought to consider its message seriously.  It purports to break the mold of rigid religiosity and intellectualism to bring biblical concepts to a lay audience. I believe it does none of that.

But the Shack’s satirical alter ego does. Presenting us with a poorly thought-out theodicy encased in shoddily written narrative with little emotional depth, [The Shack]  is a beautifully composed, yet biting critique of the Contemporary Christian Subculture (CCS) that generates this type of media commonly represented in popular sermons, music, books, blogs, and magazines. By adjusting our lens to see the book behind the book, we will find that [The Shack] calls us to a higher standard, and we ought to get behind its message.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying…

I think the key point was the moment the main character described his view of Scripture. The letter that Mack receives from God flies in the face of what God was supposed to do:

[T]he thought of God passing notes did not fit well with his theological training. In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow Sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to  be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book.

Although many have argued that The Shack is steeped in Scripture and that it’s the allegorical nature of the book that enables the “unorthodox” pictures, I believe this statement from the main character is what enables Young to break from traditionally formulated doctrine in a way that doesn’t require him to tie whatever statements and caricatures he makes back to Scripture. The difficulty in writing allegory is making clear what real thing the allegory refers to. The Shack doesn’t do this. Whatever theological concept or Scriptural reference it has a backdrop for the allegory was extremely unclear. If the book isn’t establishing its ideas about God on heretical beliefs (I am always willing to extend grace), it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint which orthodox ideas the author is allegorizing.

Read from the point of view of [The Shack], however, the above statement takes a different significance. The CCS and its community, whether they acknowledge it or not, possess a shallow knowledge of Scripture. Any interpretation, philosophy,or theology is fair game as long as it matches the expectations of  CCS, which has become the interpretive grid through which to learn about ourselves and about God. Impersonal, irrelevant theological thinking and interpretations are perceived as generated by cold-hearted “intellgentsia” and are easily deposed because they limit God to the proverbial “box.”

[The Shack]  enables us to see how such views have become prevalent in the CCS. What follows in [The Shack] is a slightly less than heterodox presentation of the Trinity and the inner working of their relationship. The Father can be a grammatically-challenged African American woman, Jesus, a migrant worker from the Middle East, and the Spirit, an Asian woman who possesses the wisdom and clarity of a fortune cookie. The Shack intends these pictures to challenge our notion of God. [The Shack], however, challenges the lack of interest in theological thought by presenting the Trinity in highly stereotyped human forms. All the attempts of the CCS crowd to imagine a God “outside the box” are just skin deep. CCS’s God still retains the classic stereotypes that restrict him from acting in a way appropriate to his character as described in Scripture.

God does not “have” to punish sin, sin is its own punishment. Everyone is his child already. God really wants relationship with everybody with no responsibilities or requirements and no strings attached. The notions of penal substitution as the ultimate solution to sin and evil and the call to sanctification through the power of the spirit, both explicit in Scripture, are placed in a box and set aside. We might expect a Scripture-saturated allegorical story dedicated to exploring the problem of evil to make mention of these important points. [The Shack] leaves them out in a conspicuous manner declaring that if one has an inadequate view of God, theodicy naturally suffers.

The “bare-bones” story might have the potential to explore the topic of grief and pain as long as the details are fleshed out properly. Mack is a man who was abused as a boy by his Bible-wielding father. Although his faith is not the strong faith of his wife, he loves his children and is himself a decent father. He decides to spend some extended quality time with them by taking them on a camping trip through the Northeastern United States. Each day is better than the last until two of his children accidentally capsize their canoe. When Mack rushes to the water to save his children, his youngest daughter, whom he left to save the other children, was kidnapped and eventually murdered by a serial killer.

The story is not, however, well told. The characters have little depth. There’s almost no feeling. Mack’s struggle with grief, the “Great Sadness,” is portrayed linearly. He struggles early in the story. Mack then encounters a Mormonesque version of the Trinity, eats pancakes with God, plants a garden with God, walks on the water with God, and delves into highly questionable theological thought…with God. The “Great Sadness” is all but forgotten until the narrative decides that Mack needs to let it go. The Shack deals with the issue promptly with some emotional flourish. I thought the expression of grief was flat and inadequate especially in contrast to books like the Psalms, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Job which all deal with the concept of enduring grief and pain.

[The Shack] quickly and shallowly deals with Mack’s grief and thus demonstrates the inadequacy of CCS to deal with sorrow. Grief and pain have a weak presence in the life of the Christian who knows that God is “quite fond” of him or her. [The Shack] further underscores this foolishness by narrating the story in a poorly-written style: A Scripture-less culture is simply incapable of expressing grief and pain in a thoughtful and honest way. [The Shack] limits its expression for the sake of expediency – keep the story short and flat, keep the words small and the theology vague. The reader can choose to stop and think and confuse himself or move on quickly to find out “what happens next” – always moving from comfort to comfort.

…And Love The Bible

Obviously, I didn’t like the book. I didn’t like any of the book. I thought it mocked Christian thought, sold itself short on Scripture, and left me extremely confused. Don’t get me wrong though. I think we need more books like The Shack. Well, we need books better than The Shack. We need books that can actually be what the The Shack was supposed to be. G.K. Chesterton has said, “A great man knows that he is not God. The greater he is, the better he knows it.” We may never possess the brilliance or greatness of Kubrick or David, but let our work aspire to be great by making something worthy of God. Great Christian novels should not be characterized by weak storytelling and shallow theology. Learn the art of expression, and make it good. Most importantly, learn how the Bible expresses itself, and love it. The Bible expresses itself truly and deeply. Since that’s our first and best book, maybe we should start there.

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In this interview on CNN, Richard Dawkins answers questions about himself and his views. In particular, he argues that evolution is mainstream, and religion and creationism are really the controversial views. I think that Richard Dawkins, while he may be a brilliant biologist, is ignorant in matters of philosophy and religion. He is better than other prominent athiests, but his arguments are just as unpersuasive. Here is his answer to the question, “Where did morality come from? Evolution?,” with some of my commentary.

We have very big and complicated brains, and all sorts of things come from those brains, which are loosely and indirectly associated with our biological past. And morality is among them, together with things like philosophy and music and mathematics. Morality, I think, does have roots in our evolutionary past. There are good reasons, Darwinian reasons, why we are good to, altruistic towards, cooperative with, moral in our behavior toward our fellow species members, and indeed toward other species as well, perhaps.

He asserts that ideas about morality are derived from our “biological past.”  Morality, therefore, is not transcendental or founded upon universal principles.  According to Dawkins, ‘good’ seems to be whatever the Darwinian process turns out. Dawkins then makes the value judgment that these reasons found “why  we are good to,  altruistic towards, cooperative with, moral in our behavior toward our fellow species members, and indeed toward other species as well, perhaps.” I have a major issue with this assertion.  Since we developed our “morality” via Darwinian processes, this morality is necessarily relativistic. Our environment, social, biological, and otherwise is what forms our thoughts about how we should act toward one another. If placed in another environment, our morals may turn out differently. In other words, Darwinian processes could have (and still can!) turn out reasons why we are good to kill our neighbor and steal his possessions. In no sense are these morals binding. The Darwinian process can hypothesize as to the origination of why we act the way we do, but it cannot turn around and say, therefore, “you must act like this.” In other words, the evolutionary explanation is descriptive but never prescriptive. Hence, Dawkins is only speaking of preference (social, individual, or Darwinian) and not actual morality.

There are evolutionary roots to morality, but they’ve been refined and perfected through thousands of years of human culture. I certainly do not think that we ought to get our morals from religion because if we do that, then we either get them through Scripture – people who think you should get your morals from the Old Testament haven’t read the Old Testament – so we shouldn’t get our morals from there.

Dawkins hits on a subject closer to my heart. I certainly find some places in the Old Testament hard to explain, but for Dawkins to say that people who say “you should get your morals from the Old Testament haven’t read the Old Testament” strikes me as naive. Plenty of theologians (Christopher Wright and Gordon Wenham, for instance) have reckoned with the ethics of the Old Testament and have come to vastly different conclusions than those of Mr. Dawkins. His answer shows that he has not studied the issue in depth. The Old Testament actually approaches morality from a nuanced perspective. The Bible acknowledges human sin and the brokenness of the world due to that sin, God’s commitment to justice and remedy of sin, and God’s faithfulness to his covenant. All these come into play when the Old Testament describes the history of God’s actions with Israel and provide the reader with the ability to make proper moral judgments based on its content. Mr. Dawkins, as a man of scholarship, please interact with the many who have studied this subject before you make a passing judgment on Scripture!

Nor should we get our morals from a kind of fear that if we don’t please God he’ll punish us, or a kind of desire to apple polish (to suck up to) a God. There are much more noble reasons for being moral than constantly looking over your shoulder to see whether God approves of what you do.

Again, this comment fails to interact with the Christian view of human ontology. Francis Schaeffer describes the fullest expression of humanity not as that which is characterized by many mistakes (i.e. to err is to be human) but as that which is unblemished by any imperfection. Beyond the fact that fear is actually a good reason to obey God is the idea that we are not truly human unless we are perfect in our obedience toward God. We have more than just fear of a holy God motivating us to be “moral people.” God’s love, mercy, and grace have always been motivations for God’s people to obey. Even the Ten Commandments begin with “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of slavery.” Redemption has always been the primary motivation for God’s people to be “moral.” That being said, God is a holy God and that should scare the Hell out of us.

I’ve always found Dawkins an interesting figure. He is in many ways the chief representative of the so-called New Atheists. He is supposedly a brilliant biologist. He is, however, dogmatic toward evolution and atheism in a manner that reminds me of uber-fundamentalist Christians. And he is, evidently and most importantly, lost as we all are without a Savior.

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“Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try. No hell below us. Above us only sky.” Contrary to what Lennon’s utopian-celebrating hymn suggests, I find “imagining” no heaven difficult to do. Not because I’m emotionally attached to the idea of a deity, but because without the existence of God, and more specifically the God of the Bible, the world has no meaning – no interpretive value. Our minds and senses, however, are interpreters of meaning. We can touch a rock and feel its hardness, but we have no access to the rock “itself” i.e. the rock apart from interpretation. The same is true for historical events. We have access to most events via the medium of newspapers, books, video, our own eyes and ears. All those mediums interpret the event, but we have access to the event “itself.”

Honestly, I think to talk about a thing “in itself” apart from interpretation is ambiguous. What does a thing “in itself” look like? We have no access to those things. Even if we were to try to sketch in our minds an abstract of some ideal (rock, event, whatever), our ideal would be subject to what we know already. Our knowledge is limited to what we see, hear, touch, think, etc. No heaven above, no hell below, no way to know anything on earth, and no way to form an ideal “thing.”

Unless everything is imbued with an interpretation, we have no real access to the world around us. I find that Christianity offers the most satisfying answer to this problem. Before anything was made, it was intended for a purpose. The author of all things gave things meaning and interpretive value. I do not mean that a rock can tell us the future or speak to us in sundry and mystical ways. I mean that we can be sure that our senses and our minds are telling us about the rock correctly. Meaning is not separate from the thing. Brute facts (things in themselves) do not exist. Frame, I think, offers a good explanation of this phenomenon:

All facts have been interpreted by God, and since all things are what they are by virtue of God’s eternal plan, we must say that ‘the interpretation of the facts precedes the facts’ (Van Til). The idea of ‘brute fact’ is an invention intended to furnish us with a criterion of truth other than God’s revelation. Yet, as with all other such substitutes, it cannot even be made intelligible. A ‘fact’ devoid of any normative interpretation would be a fact without meaning, devoid of any normative characteristics – in short, a nothing…The basis of Christianity and of all thought is God’s revelation. The ‘facts’ are the facts of that revelation, interpreted by God, known and therefore already interpreted by man. There are no facts devoid of such interpretation, and if there were, they could not be known, let alone used as the basis of anything.

God’s revelation, by creation and his word, gives things meaning. Our interpretive faculties have the ability to ascertain the meaning of such things (from events in history to rocks) and know those things truly and accurately. A reality without that revelation is an imagined reality that offers no basis to understand the world around us.

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What is Progress?

I believe the whole idea of Progress is ambiguous in our society. I am not referring to, in particular, social programs or science. I am talking about what makes Progress “progress.”  In other words, how can we determine what true Progress is? Some sort of social contract? Whatever best advances the goals of evolution? To love your neighbor as yourself? These points all still lack definition. Who’s to say what the social contract is? Who possesses a clear knowledge of the goals of evolution? What kind of love do we owe our neighbor? Even if something “feels right,” we cannot tell if it “feels right” because it is right or because it is a part of what our social fabric determines to be right. We have no way of knowing whether our current pursuit of Progress furthers it or deadens it. Only a omniscient being can deliver answers to these questions.

Progress is as ambiguous as it is non-binding in our society. What obligates us to follow a social contract? If we cannot tell that the contract furthers Progress or deadens it, then how can we require people to bind themselves to it? Even if were able to say that the social contract furthers Progress, we would have as much trouble requiring people to follow it as we would in requiring people to believe the truth – as ridiculous as that sounds.  Only an omniscient authority can mandate that we progress.

These points are important because they show us how important morality is to the idea of Progress. We cannot relegate morality to the relativist and then call people to a revolution of social or evolutionary Progress. We have no basis on which to stand. Until we gain proper moral grounding, the debate over what Progress is and why we should care will continue to be drowned in a deluge of rhetoric and spin. I do not merely mean, that we need to change the laws of the land. I think that Progress begins with individual hearts and minds that are dedicated to understanding morality’s source (i.e. God) and living according to that morality. Until then, we live as the Israelites did without a king, “each did what was right in their own eyes,” and the result is that we regress as a society – intellectually and morally.

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