Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is Religion Buyological?

Last night I made a trip to a new Barnes and Noble that just opened up. As we drove up I told my friend, "It's like walking into the Coliseum," it was so big. The cashier I talked to said it's the biggest in Illinois. I'll say.

I intended to be in-and-out, but who was I kidding? It's a bookstore. At a table labeled "Thought Provoking," I picked up a book called Buyology. Groan, sure, but I'd say it's a pretty good title. The premise was the author used brain scan analysis to bring some understanding to consumer behavior.

Just before I put Buyology back on the table, chapter 6's subtitle caught my attention: "Faith, Religion, and Brands." Now I don't care much about consumer behavior, but I do have my opinions on church, religion, and marketing. I know, I'm very discreet about it. You would never know.

So I sat down and skimmed chapter 6. The author's argument was that religions and brands have a lot in common. I think his point was to show how strong, smashable brands can establish consumer loyalty almost religious-like fervor. He recalled a Steve Jobs product unveiling he witnessed that had characteristics of a religious gathering. For a brand, this is sort of brand loyalty is a good thing. It makes money.

He built his argument around some pillars, which he argued were true of both religions and brands. I think these are pretty self-evident, so I'll just list them without expanding too much.

A sense of belonging
A clear vision
Intent to exert power over enemies
Sensory appeal
A sense of grandeur/wonder

Unlike most of my posts, I don't have my opinion settled about this. I'm wondering what you think. Do you think the connections are valid? Do these similarities diminish the validity of religion or faith? If there are so many similarities between religions and brands, what distinguishes religion from brands? What does religion offer that brands don't (or can't), if anything? If there are no distinguishing marks for religion, what value is it?

I'm interested to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Blogroll call 3

After Blogroll Call, I thought I'd exhausted the number of blogs you needed to know about. Then came Blogroll Call 2 because I'd found more friends and blogs worthy of your limited attention. But that was the end of them.

Now. Okay, this is for sure the last one.

I've mentioned my 3 female friends in the downstairs apartment before (just think Friends). I told you about Love Wins. It seems that blogging is contagious, like any good bug among roommates. At Hope, Coffee, and Melody, my friend the aspiring writer wrote a good meditation on control. She has a good line that I will steal some time: "My only goal is to be sure that Jesus doesn’t leave the building." Amen and amen.

And at Maestro's Musings, my other friend who admitted that she skims my long blog posts learned that brevity is not so easy. I read her whole post on Finding Your Voice. I really appreciated her insights.

I meant to include The Cheeky Gwynnes in Blogroll Call 2 but forgot. She is a colleague of mine with whom I get along easily, and he's her Scottish beau. She honored me by asking me to ush at their wedding last summer.

Another colleague in another department (you'll never guess which one) has this blog which I've known about for some time. I've learned a lot about the theory of design, although I'm sure it only scratches the surface. He's dedicates a lot of posts to it and I enjoy scratching deeper. It reminds me that there are people out there passionate about things that I'm not, and I love that.

Here are three more blogs that I don't have a personal connection with but enjoy regularly.

"PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard." I must warn you that there is often explicit content on their weekly posts. Please let your conscience guide you. I think the primary value of this blog is telling others that they are not alone, and speaking truth to secrets and remove the power they have over individuals. In my eyes, brokenness (i.e., life) is full of explicit content, and we should not be ignorant of how sin twists good things. As my friend reminds us, "God goes deeper than the pain." In it, I see what redemption in Christ can mean, it's power and beauty.

A colleague recently pointed me to The Art of Manliness. It brings chivalry into the modern context.

Finally, some blog pointed me to the FailBlog. I've laughed out loud at this stuff. Its pictures capture the contradictions found in real life--sometimes beyond belief. Again, there is some implicit content that is questionable, so please use your discretion.

Enjoy the blogs!

Saturday, December 27, 2008


This is my humble attempt to share my vision God has given me for post-Seminary. My propensity is to over-plan and over-commit and over-think my future. I’m the guy who has plans already for 3 weekends in January and February. I make myself so busy I have to schedule time to eat and when my OCD really kicks up I manage the littlest details.

All to say; God does not fit into my plans; I fit into God’s plans. However, it is helpful to write how my calling is being shaped and what direction I feel called.

Every week I tell people what I am “doing” after graduation, or what my future looks like. Literally, I mean multiple times every freaking week I give this little spiel,

“I want to do bi-vocational ministry where I am working part-time in a church and part time somewhere else, for like, community development, social service, or in education. That way ministry encompasses all of my life. The idea is to do a “church plant,” and move into a neighborhood to help and live among the people there. So the church won’t be very traditional. If they can pay me that’s fine, if not that’s fine. I just want to be one of many leaders living in a community and helping people out.”

There is a lot to unpack there and a lot of lingo I find problematic, like…

Bi-vocational being part of a church isn’t a “job,” it’s an opportunity and calling and passion. I don’t have to have a 40 hour work week and split it between two jobs. If the church has the money and wants to pay me, cool. If not, that’s cool too.

Church plant I don’t know if I’ll be part of a venture that has any denomination backings. I’m not planning on being ordained unless the church community I get involved with requires it. I just want church goes beyond a buildings, job titles, and programs. (church means a body of people not a building)

I try to use vernacular most people understand. But explaining it to a 6th grader, my parents, disenfranchised Catholics, seminary professors, a guy at the bar, and my grandparents, requires some tact. It’s hard for people in the church to understand let alone curious acquaintances and friends who are nominal Christ followers who graze the doors of a church building on Christmas and Easter.

One thing I don't say is, "Does this make sense?" Well...does it?

Thursday, December 25, 2008


My Dad gave a meditation last night at a Christmas Eve service with the congregation he serves. He said

"The Christmas Story is a love story, about how much God loves us to send his one and only Son."

Amen and Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What Child Is This?

What Child is this, who laid to rest,
in churches’ yards is freezing?
A manger low, out in the snow.
Illumined plastic, so pleasing.
This, this is Christ the King,
Who knows no bounds of humility.
Chased, chased, to lowest place
To raise us up to his glory.

We find him there but cannot bear
to put our faith in his teaching.
As cars go by, it’s no wonder why
the malls seem much more pleasing.
This, this is Christ the King,
Now at the curb for recycling:
Waste! Waste! The Son of God.
The world sees nothing worth keeping.

Words, flesh, for me, for you,
He died for us. We know its true.
But how we feel on Sunday morn,
Is rarely more than the music.
This, this is Christ the King,
These things we feel when we sing,
Safe, safe, inside the church.
But outside Jesus is freezing.

Why lies the world in sorry state,
with churches faring no better?
Good Christians, we still sinners be.
Let’s go to the curbside together.
This, this is Christ the King:
Despised, rejected, and suffering.
Taste, Taste, his love for us,
The God who's there at the curbside.

So raise, raise up Christ on high,
in hearts, with hands, for ears, for eyes.
For those who ask, "What Child is this?"
May we have something worth preaching.
This, this is Christ the King
Whom churches need for everything.
Haste, haste to bring Him back,
Let us descend for his glory.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Red with anger. Green with envy. A post for all emotions.

A few articles I wanted to share with you.

In keeping with Winter Advisory, the economic downturn continues to inspire new ways of keeping the roads clear. But we don't forego our ideals. Like the beet juice I mentioned previously, Iowa roads will be using garlic salt. Red, and now green! So Christmasy.

I recently posted on the humility of Christmas. I wanted to link there to this CT article that I read just before I finished writing that post, but it wasn't up on the Web yet. Now it is.

The Drudge Report pointed to an article today about President Bush and Veep Cheney and their clandestine activities with the War Vets from both Iraq and Afghanistan--it's something the media knew little about.

This made me laugh.

And I appreciated this reminder that Love Wins.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Awkward Silence

I hate lulls in conversation. In high school I would plan conversation topics before dates. Yeah... obviously that went smashingly well. At times, in an effort to avoid the conversation from stalling, I mentally prepare the next topic of conversation and how to move towards that end. But that is a pain and a tad controlling (a tad?).

Going out on a limb here...but I think many can relate to my behavior. We all have been in that situation where "awkward silence" has emerged. After a momentary pause somebody tries to sputter out anything to move from awkwardness to normallness.

I comment on this in light of conversations with God. I dont' mean to trivilaize God, like God is just one of the "guys," and we hang out, exchange stories, chill, because Jesus is my "homeboy." Rather, I mean conversation in terms of prayer.

And in my prayer life (conversation) I realize that many times I do the speaking. I try to fill in the awakwardness of silence.

Think about the start of your day. What is the first thing you do? Television? Check e-mail? Make a phone call? Turn on the radio?

About two months ago I realized I was in the habit of checking my e-mail in the morning. I rushed into distraction instead of waiting for a word from God. So by ways of this small testimony I challenge you to try to be silent before God.

Serioulsly, try this. Go into a room and sit. Don't do anything. I mean just sit. And see what happens. Let me talk you into some awkward silence.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Top Seven Nonfiction Books

Here's a list of my 7 favorite nonfiction books. Yes, 7. It's a good number. If you're looking for a good read over the holiday, I highly recommend them all.

1. Desiring God John Piper
Piper lays out the guiding principle for how I think about every aspect of my faith.

2. Renovation of the Heart Dallas Willard
Like Piper, Willard is a man crush. Renovation gave me to tools and knowledge to cooperate with God in becoming more like Christ.

3. The Trivialization of God Donald McCullough
God is big.

4. Roaring Lambs Bob Briner
This book was my initiation into thinking seriously about Christian engagement with a complex American culture. There are probably better books out there (e.g., Christ & Culture), but this book was seminal for me.

5. The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture Shane Hipps
Terrible title. Amazing book. This is an easy read with big ideas. I see better how technology impacts not simply what we think about but how we think.

6. A New Kind of Christian Brian McLaren
Put feelings into words. That's the sign of a good book. This is the book that started the Emergent conversation.

7. The Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer was a rebel who found a rebellion worthy of God. He's just a stud (i.e., man crush).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Musings about what to write on and this verse is all I have to share. I appreciate the NLT translation that keeps the season theme of Ecclesiastes 3 (shout out to Adam). This is one of those verses that perplexes and encourages me at the same time.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.

Monday, December 15, 2008

This year we’re scaling back on Christmas. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. My family is spending less on presents than has been our habit in recent years. But we may still spend as much this season as we have in the past.

The rebelcontrarian in me has had a vague notion to scale back for a few years now. But it took Advent Conspiracy to finally spark a conversation with my family. I wish it hadn’t taken some big media push by a special interest group. It goes against my nature. But I guess if it nudges someone like me in my position, then it’s accomplishing its purpose. And though I’d like to, I can’t take credit for it. Instead of proudly bearing my self-styled label—of being a hip minimalist and full of compassion—I have to lose that identity by buying into something bigger than me. Humility is easy except when it’s actually humbling.

So, at Thanksgiving we talked about how we could make this Christmas different. We threw around some ideas about what we could do as a family. We talked about working at a food pantry or finding some people in need. Did we know anyone? A recent speaker I’d heard said that our problem isn’t that we don’t love the poor but that we don’t know anyone who is poor. We were at a loss for names ourselves.

So far, our ideas had been okay, but they hadn’t really struck a chord with us. I knew that for this Christmas experiment to change our habits in a lasting way, it had to fit our family’s own personality. Sometimes it is good and necessary to introduce something foreign to our personality if it doesn’t allow for authentic good, but I still wondered if we couldn't find something intrinsic that would fit better.

“Well, when I was little we always went Christmas caroling to old people’s houses,” my sister recalled with a laugh. “Maybe we could go to an old people’s home and sing for them.” This idea met with more interest than what we’d already mentioned. Our family is a musical one, we all agreed. This was a good option.

“If we’re going with something natural for our family,” my dad said looking at me, “I immediately thought of Beth and Jake.” Beth is a single mother of Jake, who’s 9 now. We’ve known them both that whole time. “Of course, their basement was flooded this summer,” my dad went on, “so they have needs in that regard. And they’re someone who’s been a part of our lives for a lot of years already. It makes sense that we’d do something special for them.”

These ideas weren’t uncomfortable or beyond our means the way we often imagine things like this to be. But making a sacrifice doesn’t always need to be inconvenient, does it? Nor would these acts of compassion radically transform many lives, but they wouldn’t leave the people unchanged either. Small change is valid too. When the desire for big transformations prevents us from acting at all in small ways, we know that our desires have gotten out of order. Working for small change instead of big change is something that will require a humble spirit because there won’t be a visible reward. Humility is easy, except when it’s actually humbling.

But I think humility is part of what Christmas means, too. Consider this interpretation of Christmas:

“Though Jesus was God,
he did not think of equality
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
He took the humble position of a slave
And was born as a human being.”

We typically think this is out of character for God, but consider God's self-styled residence: "I live in the high and holy place with those whose spirits are contrite and humble." It makes sense then that God would choose a cave-barn. It seems fitting even. Maybe Jesus felt quite at home there. What kind of homes are we making for him?

We all know the story of Christmas. It's been so glamorized. But it wasn’t headline news when it happened. The work of God rarely is, by our standards. Headline news would have covered the astronomic anamoly in the night sky, not the birth it pointed to. "Huh," we would've shrugged before flipping channels. But the angels got their priorities straight and made it a big deal, just like they do when a sinner repents—another non-newsworthy event. God works like that: turning insignificance on its head, having parties for it. Humility is insignificant, except when God gets hold of it. So is small change.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Matter of Life and Death

I know everyone is overjoyed that my brief blog sabbatical is over. After the e-mail and Facebook threats I caved in.

This post dates back to Black Friday...

On the evening of Black Friday I was flipping through the television. For some reason there was a BBC news feed and the British reporter was covering United States news. Now I have always thought Black Friday to be a joke and a sad example of America's obsession with consumerism. But this neutral report made me embarrassed. Authentically embarassed.

The news anchor explained, "Today in the United States was the holiday Black Friday."

I thought, "A holiday? People are defining this as a holiday."

He went on, " a day that almost rivals their annual celebration of Thanksgiving."

I thought, "How ironic that a day after being thankful for all we have we than go out to buy things we don't have."

Than came to worse part of the report. A man at a Wal-Mart in New York was trampled to death while people rushed the store. I than remembered my copy of Christianity Today (Nov). The lead article described the thousands of people lining up and fighting for food after devastating floods. Around 4 people were killed in the madness.

How sad. All the deaths are tragic but what struck me the most was the sheer contrast.

The Haitians flock for food. They gather for something to keep them alive and sustain them. We flock for good deals. We gather for something to purchase and enjoy.

If we had a better perspective on Thanksgiving/Christmas than perhaps Black Friday would be a day of sharing with people the things we are so thankful for. Like food for the Haitians.

I'm not trying to be a downer but just hoping to be a gentle reminder about blessing people this season, and all seasons. :)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Why do seasons and songs feel the same?

I picked up my carpooling comrade from Midas this morning, where he'd dropped off his car for some maintenance. "Amazing the way mentioning an arrested governor sparks conversation in a service waiting area," he noted to me.

"It's sort of like the weather," I said. "We all have it in common." I recalled my high school job at a grocery store, when we carted groceries out for our customers. It was the store's special little touch to create a small-town experience for rootless consumers. I always made small talk with them about the weather.

"Yeah, I guess, we all have that in common. We all can agree on that."

"Right. For strangers, conversations center first around commonalities, not differences."

Movie quotes (and The Office, for that matter) function as universal inside jokes (if there can be such a thing) for our generation, I've noticed. If I want to establish a rapport with someone, finding commonality is essential. Tommy Boy is a good starting point. I've seen this happen with complete strangers.

Quotes can also establish boundaries pretty quickly because they work as a good indicator for how culturally hip someone is. Movie quotes will sound very non sequiter for the those who are unfamiliar with the movie. If you recieve a strange look or no response (anything besides laughter really), then you know your dealing with a culturally aloof individual. You have a good indicator about whether the friendship has potential. Why is that? Why do we evaluate possiblities by pop culture?

Another way we do this is with music. While we quote movies more often, I think music is more influential than movies. This could be argued, I'm sure. Music is a big way that individuals find commonality. This may be the first point of connection. Once, I mentioned to a group of friends a musician I had gone to see. One girl was very surprised. She hadn't pegged me for that sort of person. A few months later, we were dating.

Interestingly, on our first date she gave me a mixed CD of some of her current music. When I told my sister this, she said something like, "Oh, she wants to be known." It was true. Music is a window into our personal lives. It is a sort of revealing, a get-to-know-you. I knew a few of the songs, but most of them were unknown to me. I liked some, didn't like some others. A few months later, we weren't dating anymore.

I've also found that friends grow to share similar musical taste, or that they find out only after a while that they share an affinity for a certain band. What is it about music that we find commonality in it. Is it something intrinsic to the music that it appeals to certain demographics? Or is it that we've been bred by mass culture to use music that way, as a means for identity? It's probably somewhere in between.

Well, I could conclude my thoughts there, but that would leave the title of this post completely disconnected. I set out to write another post completely. That almost always happens. Often I never get to the actual post I'd intended to write. That will not happen this time.

I think music evokes feelings similar to those we associate with the four seasons. Some bands feel like Winter, others like Summer, Spring, or Fall. They have nothing clearly in common with those seasons, except that in the individual similar feeling arise in both contexts.

It was interesting then that when I asked some colleagues at lunch that we agreed about which bands fell in which seasons. It's interesting that for unique personalities, similar emotions are evoked by both seasons and music to connect the two.

That's all philosophical, and maybe a bit dry from some of you. All in all, I just wanted to post a list of bands (or CDs) that fell into the various seasons. Thanks to my colleagues who helped. And I guess it's a bit of a survey too. Do you agree that these bands fit their season? And what other bands do you think fit a distinct season emotively?

The Fray
Sixpence, None the Richer
The Killers (late Sept)
Norah Jones' "Not Too Late"

The Myriad(?)
Counting Crows
Ingrid Michaelson
Pedro the Lion
Norah Jones's "Come Away with Me"
Coldplay (Winter/Spring)

Sufjan Stevens
Norah Jones' "Feels Like Home
U2 (May)

Jack Johnson (Spring/Summer)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Going Out on a Limb

I like visual flow charts like the tree below. They help me figure out where I am. My heritage is Mennonite, but I went to Baptist churches a lot growing up. Now? I'm not sure where my beliefs would put me. I wish they had a test you could take to tell you which denomination you fit with best.

What's your story?

Monday, December 08, 2008

TV is new antidote for infectious happiness

If you’ve been a regular reader of Watching Gravity for a while now, bless you. You probably already know then that I have a strange fixation with the subject of happiness. It seems that every few months a new spate of articles surface on the topic as some new research comes out. Then, I link to them here and bore you all to death. For all our interest in being happy, reading about happiness seems a bit removed and unexciting, I suppose. So, indulge me again as I offer up a few more bits gleaned from recent reading.

The most interesting feature of recent articles is the impact that relationships have on happiness. For example, recent research points out that those who read more and socialize more are generally happier (See! You’re halfway there already!). But it’s more likely that happy people tend to read and socialize more, and not that those things make people happy.

By contrast, increased TV viewing is correlated to decreased happiness. But the same thinking follows here: It is unhappy people who tend to watch more TV, and not TV-watching that makes people unhappy (so keep watching!). TV is actually a means of immediate gratification, even if short-lived and rather shallow in the final analysis. One researcher said that TV simply functions as an “opiate.” I guess opium makes people happy. I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone on it.

Further research up on the Internet last week on the social impact of happiness claims that happiness is contagious, to a crazy degree. You don’t even have to know the person and they can have an impact on your happiness. "If your friend's friend's friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket." You’ll be happier if your friend-twice-removed is happy than if someone gave you 5 large. That’s hard to believe (but it’s science!).

But they point out the most important factor. While happiness might seem like the quintessence of self-centered individualism, it’s intrinsically linked to community, to being connected. "You have to see them [your friends] and be in physical and temporal proximity.” This seems in keeping with the previous TV findings in saying that happy people socialize more. Happiness correlates to being in community with others.

In their Nov/Dec issue, Books & Culture, a favorite periodical of mine, employed Scot McKnight to author an article on the topic. It is fitting for me, who takes everything seriously (it’s ridiculous), that I would be, ahem, happy to see a serious contemplation of happiness.

McKnight cites one author’s book and again connects happiness to community, but in a different way. “The best way to predict our feelings about tomorrow [= happiness] is to see how others are feeling today.” That is, find others who are already living the way we expect to be living in the future. We’ll see better where we’re headed. It’s less about community as a context for contagious happiness and more of one as an indicator for how sick we could get.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

UNO as Violence

This weekend my brother-in-law brought along some DVDs recorded at a recent conference that a colleague of his attended. The sessions included some popular figures within our happy subculture, including Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo. Both figures are somewhat radical in their respective ways, challenging some of our habits of living as Christians in the United States. For this reason alone, I am inclined to like them

Tony Campolo’s talk was very big picture in some ways. He began with some axioms for interpreting Revelation. This seemed strange for a youth conference, but whatever. He began by interpreting “Babylon” and the “New Jerusalem” as symbolic. Babylon, he said, represented the Roman Empire for the first readers of Revelation—that is, it was the pervading culture of the day. It was then, and is now, the pervading value system by which we live and choose and the pervading object in which we put our trust. New Jerusalem represented Christians in the world—the Church. He argued that the New Jerusalem counters Babylon’s pervasive systems and remains standing after Babylon falls (Rev 11:15). He repeatedly encouraged people to reread Revelation 18­-19, indeed the whole book, with this interpretive framework. I plan to do so.

From his premises, he made an immediate jump from Babylon as the Roman Empire to Babylon as the United States. Now Babylon is different, he said, for different people around the world: For the French, Babylon is France; for the Chinese, it’s China; for Brits, Britain. As Revelation asserts, Babylon falls—"all Babylons fall." In the U.S. context then, it is no exception. For we who can’t imagine it, Campolo made this seem like a real possibility. We have, at the moment, an economy that is crumbling before our (mediated) eyes. Whatever the reasons and causes, legitimate or perceived, the financial system that has structured our value systems and in which we have put our trust is crumbling. Campolo himself talked about his own 401k, on which he was relying in his retirement. He began to explain what he thinks it means for the New Jerusalem to stand when Babylon falls.

During a Q&A session after his talk, Campolo’s big-picture ideas were made more applicable through some specific questions. The conversation there seemed to revolve around retirement accounts and medical insurance. One question asked if 401ks weren’t simply good stewardship. This is a legitimate question, and if we were to take Campolo’s challenge seriously, it is one that is of great impact on our own decisions. Should I plan and save for retirement, or does that make me like the rich man who built bigger barns to store his stuff, and to whom God said, “You fool!”?

In regards to medical insurance, Campolo referred to preceding speaker Shane Claiborne and even the Amish. Claiborne is known for radical compassion and the new monasticism he is leading in Philadelphia. There he lives in the ghettos among the poor, the homeless, the weak, and the least. He has pulled together with about a hundred others, committing to help pay for any medical needs that arise among them. Upon reflection, this seemed to me like insurance on a micro scale. It is like an insurance company, except it functions within the context of relationships, not corporations. Everyone knows each other in this context, whereas a typical insurance company is disembodied and impersonal. I think this is a key distinction for Claiborne.

This led, like usual, to some lively discussion in my family (we’ll discuss anything). I attempted to argue for Campolo’s views within the American context, while my sister raised good points about how impractical it is here, “pie in the sky” was her term.

“You’d have to be very committed,” she said, “to making such a thing happen. To pull together a hundred other people committed to the same thing to make it work at all.”

She’s right. You only have so much energy to commit to various causes of life, and you must care about this one area specifically to really make a go of it at all.

“Besides, doing it might take quite a while, and I don’t know where we’ll be five years from now.”

To this I suggested that perhaps staying in one place could be more important than moving to the next location. This sort of stability and longevity is obviously something that has been in my thoughts recently, so it was interesting to arrive there in conversation.

“But we don’t feel God is calling us to do that,” my sister was saying.

It was a trump card I couldn’t beat.

Still I wonder if the whole system we’ve built up around ourselves is a system in conflict with these values, which Campolo was suggesting were biblical, and which Claiborne agrees with by the way he's living. In this U.S. context, the ideas of providing for each other’s medical needs or providing for the elderly indeed seem like “pie in the sky” as my sister said. In fact, I often feel this tension when reading my Bible. I find myself asking, “Is this a nonnegotiable? Should I be doing more of that and less of this? Is Jesus' call, God's will, really that extreme?”

Later in the evening, some friends were over. The young boy determined that we should play UNO. I was amenable to it, and we all ended up playing four rounds. I was sitting next to my dad. Now when we play our usual game, Scrabble, it often goes poorly for him. He becomes somewhat despondent in these games where luck outweighs strategy. He starts to draw bad letters, and things just decline after that. He increasingly rubs his face and gasps, “Gosh!” Sometimes he just becomes a bit belligerent toward fate. It seems that fate dealt him similar afflictions in UNO.

As the game progressed, I was regularly playing cards like “Draw Four,” “Draw Two,” “Skip,” and “Reverse.” The consequences often fell on him. With each blow he alternated between glaring at me and pleading with me. At one point, he’d missed four turns in a row. At another point, he was rifling through at least 20 cards to find a yellow—without luck. I couldn’t help it. What could I do? That’s how the game is played.

Then I was reminded of what Campolo was trying to show us. Just like Babylon, UNO functions on a certain system of principles, a set of values. It has certain cards that you must play to win the game. You can’t play UNO without doing violence to your opponents by adding cards to their hand or preventing them from playing in a given round. In fact, every participant is an “opponent.” There is no community in UNO, only division.

Campolo was saying something like that I think. And I think Jesus is often saying it too, that despite what we’ve been led to believe, we don’t have to play the cards we’re dealt. You have a “Skip” and a “Draw Four” in your hand, but no one's forcing you to play them. Draw again for a card that won’t hurt your opponent. In fact, quit thinking of him as an “opponent” at all.

Of course you will also lose the game. But it begins to sound a bit like words Jesus spoke. Words like, “Love your enemies” and “Whoever wants to be first among you must be your servant.” These are two axioms by which the New Jerusalem will be standing long after Babylon has fallen. All of Jesus words, really, are the foundation of that whole city.

We are not called to quit playing UNO. We are called to quit playing by the rules we’ve been taught. You have the cards to harm your neighbor, but you don’t play them. You don’t skip over them or reverse course to avoid them, even if it may be to your own advantage. Often it will be. You don’t need to pile them with burdens that you yourself could help them bear, even if they burden you unjustly in return. In fact, you don’t just refrain from harming them, you find ways to help them out.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Winter Advisory, or Beeting the Streets

Saturday afternoon, I was in Iowa when it started to snow. With weather patterns the way they are, I knew that I’d be travelling into more snow Sunday driving back to Chicago. Weather is an important variable for people who are travelling. A light snow fall in town can be a blinding, accumulating travel hazard on the highway. Knowing what the road conditions are and what inclement weather drivers will face is valuable information. Is it a blizzard or a light dusting? How many inches? In the summer, there are thunderstorm and tornado watches and warnings. I still can’t remember which is which. If you’re with my sister when one of these comes up, the difference doesn’t matter, you’re going in the basement.

I went out to eat with my parent Saturday evening where the waitress—a blond who’d exhausted herself with a 14-hour day—informed us that there was a “winter advisory” out.

Now, as ill informed as I am about the difference between watches and warnings, I think “winter advisory” is just weathermen getting together and saying, “Let’s make our jobs legitimate when we have no weather to report. When it’s cold out we’ll call it a ‘Winter Advisory’!”

This is as absurd as having a Fall advisory or a Summer advisory. “Watch out for falling leaves. Ladies and gentlemen, just to be safe, we’re going to issue a Fall advisory, ” The National Weather Service is even in on the Winter Advisory kerfuffle. But who could say with a straight face, “The National Weather Service has issued a Summer Advisory. We encourage all people to take shelter or find some shade. It’s just too sunny outside today.” Oh wait, that’s what the UV Index is for.

I just don’t get how you can warn people about a season. Beware! It’s Spring outside today. You might want to wear layers, or at least grab a light jacket before heading out the door this morning.

While the weather forecasters are thinking up new ways to keep us advised, the economy has forced state and local road crews to find alternatives to salt for our streets, which is in short supply apparently. Just like snackers around the holidays, the roads are getting a mix of salty and sweet this year. The typical salt brine solution is now being supplemented with sugar beet juice. It looks like it started last year in Ohio and Indiana, then Chicago adopted it late in the season.

So, if you’re environmentally conscious but also concerned with appearing hip, you would do well next time you see snow removal trucks on the road to point them out to your friend and mention how great it is that they’re “beeting the streets.” If your friend looks at you funny, it’s clear that you should have compassion and enlighten her about why it’s no longer called “salting the streets.” You’ll be doing her a favor.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Me vs. 5 Year Olds.....bring it on!

I am a peace-loving person so allow me this audacious speculation.

In college I was blessed with a great group of friends. My favorite activity we did was talk. During meals (and especially after) we would entertain ourselves with conversation. Normally the topics were ridiculous and absurd. But always hilarious.

One of my contributions took place during our sophmore year. Sitting in the commons after dinner I asked the question, "How many 5 year olds could you beat up?" We discussed what qualified "beating up," where this would take place, the resources at your disposal, etc.

During my time in Scotland and here in Chicago my friends have also been humored by this conversation topic. Our imaginations can be absurd!

I shouldn't be surprised that we aren't the only ones. If you go to this interactive website it will tell you exactly how many 5 year olds you could take in a fight. The website is aptly called How Many Five Year Olds Could You Take in a Fight?

I'm not going to lie, when my brother-in-law sent me the link I was a little too excited. This helps me know that I am not alone in the world.

I can take 23.

(Take a note of the forum that inspired this blog. After the idea was posted there was over 50 responses in 45 minutes!)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Not that you need to know this but I thought of this post in the shower last night. Remember that show Best Week Ever, on VH1? Actually it might still be on so I might be showing some ignorance. Well here is the best and worst of the last three days. Very random categories. I think I thought of better ones last night but oh well....

What I heard on Monday at the high school

Worse-A teacher told me, "The next class you have is a challenge and some pretty bad kids."

Best-Two kid's conversation, "Chuck Norris' tears cure cancer. Too bad he never cries."

What I saw on while running Monday

Worse-A Salvation Army ringer outside of Walgreens with Christmas music blarring. Come on, let's wait until T-giving.

Best-my apartment, because I was done running.

What I heard on the radio

Worse-This song called Hot n Cold by a girl name Katy Perry. One line goes, "You change your mind like a girl changes clothes." Great simile.

Best-The song Two Set of Joneses by Big Tent Revival. That is old school Christian music. Also one of my sister's favorite songs!

What I thought

Worse-This semester is ending soon. I have a lot of work to do.

Best- I have a couple days off to get some homework done.

What I ate

Worse--Some cantaloupe that tasted like it was dug out of the trash.

Best-Some cornish hen. Never had it before. Thanks to my bro and sis-in-law.

Football I watched

Worse-I watched the St. Louis Rams play a little bit. That is bad.

Best-PSU beat MSU. Every year we have a bet and the loser has to make the winner creme puffs. So Dad, get out your famous recipe.

What I saw driving

Worse-Chicago traffic

Best-Does that gas station sign say $1.76?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Fixed Points

“The next place I live,” Mike was saying, “I’m going to settle in. I’m going to have a place for everything and really unpack.” We were talking about the next chapter, after this apartment. In a few months, all of the current tenants here will be looking for new homes. They’re making the building ready for sale. This change wasn’t unexpected really, just not for that reason. Mike has been in school the past three years, and he’ll be done in the spring too. I’d always anticipated we’d all move out after he graduated.

About the time we found out about our deadline, our apartment building became the set of Friends (since everything in real life is defined by hit TV comedies). I live with two other guys, and on the floor below we have three female friends who live together. When they all moved in, I proposed that we have community dinners together once a week. We’ve been doing it now for only a month or two, but I look forward to it every week.

When we moved in, I had no idea that I’d still be here two and a half years later, or that it would feel this familiar. I think when most people think about the future, they project it out in straight lines from the present. What we can’t foresee are all the lines that will intersect with our own and change our course, in small and large ways. There are certainly intersections we hope or plan for, but they aren’t certain, and there are many more we just can’t anticipate. For a single 20something, intersections can change a lot of things. I don’t have to tell you that.

I was reading an article this weekend about cell phone and they’re being used by billions of impoverished people. It’s saving them time too. When a billion people are each saving a little bit of time, that’s a lot of time savings. It’s a small change, but it creates a big difference.

In the article, this line hit my life: “In an increasingly transitory world, the cell phone is becoming the one fixed piece of our identity.” How long have you had your cell phone? I’ve had this model for about a year. I’ve had this phone number for probably six or seven years. Anyone I’ve given my phone number in the last 2000+ days could call me tomorrow and get a hold of me.

That could be a scary thought, but it’s that reliable. I haven’t had anything in my life that stable in the last six or seven years. Since then, I’ve lived in three states, called at least five places “home,” dated a few different girls, bought a new car, worked three or four jobs, and had maybe a dozen roommates. My cell phone has been one of the few settled parts of my life, and even at that it’s only the ten digit number, not the physical phone (I’m on number 3). Why is something mobile the thing I can rely on most?

Recently I also started reading a book called Searching for Home: Spirituality for Restless Souls. It was selected at a book club I’m a part of. I didn’t go looking for a book to tell me how rootless my life is, but it came and found me.

All in all, it’s had me thinking more about the upcoming move. Mike was speculating last week about where the whole cast would end up after the series finale in May. He rattled off where he thought each character would be. Closer to work, closer to home, out of state, toward downtown, with another friend. He didn’t tell me where I would be. Even I only have a direction: northeast. Like Abraham (the similarities end there).

Most clear from Mike’s quick analysis was that none of the cast would still be together in 8 months. We would be dispersed in all directions from here. We would all find a new place, with new casts, new shows. We’d be new characters.

In Searching for Home, Craig Barnes outlines how we, without other stable points of reference, establish identity in relation to the roles we have in our lives. For me, in different contexts, I am a supervisor, a friend, a roommate, a small group leader, a brother, a son, an uncle.

Barnes put it this way: “The individual becomes nothing more that a collection of roles defined by unrelated demands.... She knocks herself out to succeed in all of the identities because they each offer her something.” He goes on to quote Kenneth Gergen: “Who and what we are is not so much the result of our ‘personal essence’...but how we are constructed in various social groups. The initial stages of this consciousness result in a sense of the self as social con artist, manipulating images to achieve ends.” As much as I try to live consistently, I can’t, if only because different people bring out different sides of me. Things like Facebook and even this blog are a challenge because it is the intersection of many of those images.

Of course, my cell phone isn’t the most stable thing in my life. I should say that God is, and I believe that’s true. But when life takes a new trajectory at every intersection, it’s hard to approximate anything like the stability of relating to the immutable God. When I can’t project a straight line off the front of life into the future with any certainty, then outlining what an lasting relationship looks like feels quite impossible. It’s outside my experience.

This summer, I attended a meaningful and heartbreaking funeral. He was the father of a friend of mine. Three people gave eulogies: two “old friends,” and one “new friend.” The two old friends had known him for more that twenty years. I sensed in their words an abiding knowledge of him, a commitment to him, and a desire to carry on the investments he’d made in them. I wondered what that was like.

There are a lot of people who pick up and move to advance their careers and build better lives. And perhaps one day I will find myself faced with a decision like that. But I witnessed in those eulogies something that no career could build.

I’ve lived in Chicagoland now for three years and been committed to a church that comes and goes in much the same way. I’ve led a small group that whole time and have probably had 40 people come and go. Only two or three of them have I known in any consistent way for more than a year.

Now, I’m certain that any sort of faithfulness on my part will never approach any similarity to our reliable and unchanging God. And I’m learning that few 20something friendships last longer than a few seasons of Friends. But I can take a more modest aim and hope to be more faithful and reliable than my cell phone number.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Rock Steady

I titled this post and then realized it is the name of one of the bad guys in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Don't act like you didn't know that already. Everyone loves TMNT.

I woke up at 6:50 this morning to my phone ringing.

The voice said, "Hi Mike, are you available to sub today?"

After fighting through my pillow I managed to say, "yes."

So in an instant about 20 minutes I rearranged my other work schedule. Canceled/re-arranged a meeting. Decided that the Greek homework would have to wait. Looked up directions from the high school to the airport to pick up my friend, etc, etc.

I'll be honest, it's not always fun. My day can instantly because of a phone call from someone I have never met before! Since today was altered it means that the rest of the week is changed as well. I push back appointments, time to do homework....and I just realized while writing this I missed a meeting today. Whoops. I totally stood somebody up.

My evening was just as unpredictable. Soccer game, canceled, back on, canceled again. Stopping to visit a friend, he's gone, he's back home, calls me, too late. Meeting friends later in the evening. We play phone tag. Where are we meeting? When?

All this to say that as I sit here, prepping for bed, one thing remains steady. That thing is what I read this morning. I can't explain it but these words just keep echoing in my mind. I don't know how or why but they do. It's nice that with all the variables and changes there is consistency...

Psalm 62:1-2
For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Silence and Solitude in Bonhoeffer and Foster

Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone. Because they cannot stand loneliness, they are driven to seek the company of other people. There are Christians, too, who cannot endure being alone, who have had some bad experiences with themselves, who hope they will gain some help in association with others. They are generally disappointed. Then they blame the fellowship for what is really their own fault. … The person who comes into a fellowship because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion, no matter how spiritual this diversion may appear. He is really not seeking community at all, but only distraction which will allow him to forget his loneliness for a brief time…. (Life Together, 76, online here)

Jesus calls us from loneliness to solitude. ... Our fear of being alone drives us to noise and crowds. We keep up a constant stream of words even if they are inane. ...But loneliness or clatter are not our only alternatives. We can cultivate an inner solitude and silence that sets us free from loneliness and fear. Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment. Solitude is not first a place but a state of mind and heart. It is quite possible to be a desert hermit and never experience solitude. But if we possess inward solitude we will not fear being alone, for we know that we are not alone. Neither do we fear being with others, for they do not control us.

Without silence there is no solitude. Though silence sometimes involves the absence of speech it always involves the act of listening. Simply to refrain from talking, without a heart listening to God, is not silence. One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless. We are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others. If we are silent who will take control? God will take control; but we never let Him take control until we trust Him. Silence is intimately related to trust. (Celebration of Discipline, 84, 86, 88)

Silence is nothing else but waiting for God’s Word and coming from God’s Word with a blessing. But everybody knows that this is something that needs to be practiced and learned, in these days when talkativeness prevails.

The day needs definite times of silence, silence under the Word and silence that comes out of the Word. These will especially be times before and after hearing the Word. The Word comes not to the chatterer but to him who holds his tongue. The stillness of the temple is a sign of the holy presence of God in His Word. (Life Together, 79, online here)

That's Indignorant

Adam introduced a new word to me; indignorant.

Indignorant-describes a person who is both indignant and ignorant. Most commonly becoming defensive and indignant when confronted about their ignorant speech or behavior.

Somebody was indignorant towards me on Monday. Substitute teaching provides for so many good stories. Aout 20 minutes ago, a 2nd grader asked if I would change the music in gym class because he didn't want to listen to High School Musical. I asked what he wanted to listen to instead. He said, "well if it was me I would put in Thriller, by Michael Jackson." Nice.

Back to indignorance. On Monday the 8th grade class was commenting on how I look like Jesus. (Nothing new) After a quick history lesson on how Jesus would actually look I said, "I look like a Scottish-German American, not a first century Jew."

A spunky little blonde hair girl stood up and scowled at me. She boldly spoke up and said, "Mr. Moore, Jesus was Catholic, not Jewish."

That's indignorant.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Blogroll Call 2

Despite advice to the contrary, a number of friends have started blogging in recent weeks. I wanted to give them a shout out from Mike and I here. I've also been meaning to post some other interesting posts that I've read recently that I really appreciated.

"Klyn" started blogging at Wonder and Wandering, a homonym pair I love. She posted some reflections on her experience at a recent Fall Retreat. I was there too, and we had a great time.

A newer friend of mine (since August I was informed), Laura, is blogging about her life. Among her interests are cooking and useful dogs. I've learned more about Laura's personality from her blog, and I really appreciate how different it is from ours here. She recently pondering the "Etiquette of Blogging," which is something I've posted on around these parts. But that was back before we were friends.

Rachael told me just last night that she'd started blogging. "I posted like 5 or 6 posts before I told anybody because I wanted to make sure I would actually do it before word got out." Well, the word is out. She posted on something close to my heart: "Community Dinners." I haven't even read it yet, but she said she talked about me (and my singing, I think), so I may regret linking to that post.

On my last Blogroll Call, I mentioned the Wolff Pack and Parisi Images. They both had posts recently that I really enjoyed.

Bryan Wolff posted "The Downpour of Worldliness." Now, I'm not a big us/them division fan. But I appreciated his reflections as a dad. It definitely hit me in the chest. His metaphor was powerful.

My photographer friend over at Parisi Images had some great reflections on "Experiencing Art." She makes some great insights on the aural and visual art experience, and how we generally experience it in a way antithetical to how it would best be experienced. I'm butchering it. You just have to read it.

Finally, my friend Dan, who lives in the room below mine and often sings me to sleep through the floor, pointed to an article in the Naperville Sun about a woman who threw a birthday party for the homeless in downtown Chicago. It's well worth your time. It's another one that hit me in the chest.

Oh and one more, from a blogger I don't know: a good poem called "Autumn Day" by a poet I've never heard of.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

At the End of the Decalogue

I conclude this series on the Decalogue with both pride and fear.

It is with pride because this is the first blog series I have started that I have seen through to the end. Last weekend, after my first few posts came in a flurry of activity, Mike said to me something like, “The Decalogue really must’ve captured you.” I didn’t respond, but thought about his comment (introvert that I am). I think he was right. Maybe it was the sheer intellectual stimulation of it. Maybe it was the way the Decalogue seems to be as big as world governments and specific as personal consciences. Whatever the case, I wanted to see the series through.

I’ve said to some of you before, “If you get detailed enough, even the most interesting subjects can be boring.” That is my fear with this series. I fear that of the faithful few readers we have (precious readers!), I have pruned a few from that number with this series. I’m sure the word “Decalogue” on this blog was, for many, synonymous with "boredom." While I certainly blogged this series for my own edification, I would not have done it if I didn't think there was value to be had. Still, thank you for indulging me. I intend to return to more customary fare now for a while (and shorter, as one reader complained).

If you missed any of the 13 parts in this series, you'll be glad to have here a full list of the posts.

  1. Big Questions about the 10 Commandments
  2. The 10 Words in the New Testament
  3. The Decalogue for the Early Church
  4. Aquinas’ Decalogue
  5. Luther’s Decalogue
  6. Was I predestined to post this?: Calvin’s Decalogue
  7. Luther and Calvin go head to head
  8. Lancelot Andrewes’ Decalogue
  9. The Greatest Commandment and the Greatest Sacrifice
  10. John Owen’s Decalogue
  11. John Wesley’s Decalogue
  12. Who is Christina Rossetti?
  13. Before the Decalogue: Karl Barth

“We do not write because we know. We write until we know.” And “you don’t really know something until you have to teach it to someone else.” That sums up this series. I was not communicating my own ideas but reiterating the ideas of others.

By the end of the Decalogue Conference, I found that there were are few major questions that the theologians kept answering. I decided they must be important. Here they are as best I could figure:

  • What is the relationship of the Decalogue to the Natural Law?

  • What is the relationship of the Decalogue to Jesus? How is Jesus connected to the Decalogue?

  • What are the uses of the Law? For the un/believer? This is, how does the Decalogue function in the relationship between God and people?

  • Why is the Sabbath commandment included in the Decalogue? Is it a universal law for all people, or a ceremonial law only for the covenant people of God?

If nothing else, I think these questions are a good entry point for someone who wants to think more about the Decalogue, what they believe about it, and—bigger—what they believe about God’s revelation, activity, and mission in the world. Jesus himself said, “I did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill the Law.” Somehow Jesus and the Law are connected, perhaps in a mysterious way. This Conference was all about exploring that mystery.

The 10 Commandments seem simple on the face of it. But once you begin to dig around, you find them to be more multi-faceted than first imagined. This series only scratches the surface of the Decalogue's complexity. It is as far as we go here. Through this complexity, we return again to the 10 Words in their simplicity. There is something called "the simplicity on the far side of complexity." It's a bit like the Hobbits returning home to the Shire after their long journey. Yes, it is home, and it hasn't changed much. Rather, they return to it, seeing it with different eyes, for in fact it is they who have changed. It seems fitting then that we should return home to the 10 Words and, changed, see them again for the first time.

“Listen carefully, Israel. Hear the decrees and regulations I am giving you today, so you may learn them and obey them!

“The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Mount Sinai. The Lord did not make this covenant with our ancestors, but with all of us who are alive today. At the mountain the Lord spoke to you face to face from the heart of the fire. I stood as an intermediary between you and the Lord, for you were afraid of the fire and did not want to approach the mountain. He spoke to me, and I passed his words on to you. This is what he said:

“I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery.

“You must not have any other god but me.

“You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.

“You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God. The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your oxen and donkeys and other livestock, and any foreigners living among you. All your male and female servants must rest as you do. Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day.

“Honor your father and mother, as the Lord your God commanded you. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

“You must not murder.

“You must not commit adultery.

“You must not steal.

“You must not testify falsely against your neighbor.

“You must not covet your neighbor’s wife. You must not covet your neighbor’s house or land, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

Before the Decalogue: Karl Barth

Karl Barth brought the interpretation of the Decalogue into the 20th century. Dr George Hunsinger from Princeton Theological Seminary brought Barth’s views to Wheaton College in the last lecture of the conference.

Barth did not discuss the Decalogue any specific, systematic, or comprehensive way in his writings or lectures. Is this indicative of the place the Decalogue had in the 20th century? However, Barth did present a lecture titled “First Commandment as Theological Axiom,” which provided much of the content for Hunsinger’s own analysis of Barth’s Decalogue.

Barth introduced a number of metaphors to establish his theological framework and communicate his ideas. Dr Hunsinger presented three of them: the Sphere, Trinitarian logic, and Alphebung (sp? [ed. update: aufhebung]). The sphere, I gathered, was Hunsinger’s expansion of Barth’s metaphor of a circle. This circle put Christ at the center. Each arc along the circumference of the circle represents a different manifestation of Christ in the world. Of these, the Decalogue is one.

The metaphor of Trinitarian logic gets lost in my notes. I cannot accurately represent it, and in lieu of presenting a false understanding, I’ll leave it, like the Trinity itself, a mystery to us all.

The final metaphor, which I can’t even spell—it being a German word for which Dr Hunsinger finds no sufficient English equivalent—was a math metaphor as far as I could tell. Barth seems to have an affinity for such metaphors. (In my fruitless Google search for details about Trinitarian logic and aufhebung [ed. corrected], I found another metaphor using a line tangent to a circle, the intersection of which is Christ….yeah….) The metaphor of the aufhebung [ed. corrected] nature would be represented this way: -(-(+)). Okay, let’s break it down. First is the positive, (+), of which the Incarnation is one example. Next, we negate the positive, -(+), which would be Jesus’ Crucifixion. Finally, we negate the negation, -(-(+)), which is what the Resurrection did. Does that blow your mind or what? Another example would be grace, (+), then judgment, -(+), then transformation -(-(+)).

In his lecture on the first commandment, Barth asked two questions: “What did the first commandment prohibit?” and “What did it require and allow?” The fact that the first command was revealed gave it, for Barth, precedence over Natural Theology. So, Natural Theology had to be reexamined in light of the absolute claims of this revelation.

Further, Barth believed that the term “axiom” was also subject to these absolute claims. Thus, the word “axiom” had to be dismantled, reassembled, and sanctified to fit theology. Barth’s “conversionist” stance, to use Niebuhr’s categories, is apparent in this belief. The first commandment, then, was not an axiom, but “axiom” itself was premised upon the first commandment.

Thus, Barth’s conclusion in his lecture was that Scripture, having precedent as revelation, is the norm of norms. All else must be interpreted through Scripture (i.e., revelation, Christ).

This is a strong, absolutist conclusion to my sensibilities. I like it. Barth’s conclusion was somewhat of a reaction, by my estimation. His circle metaphor, which placed Christ at the center, stood in contrast to an elipse (similar to an oval), which had not one center but two. These two foci could be nature and grace (Brunner), or it could be systematics alongside Christ. These sorts of dual-center approaches, Barth argued, pervaded Roman Catholicism, modern liberal theology, and NeoProtestantism. In this light, Barth’s views seem to elevate Christ and center upon him in ways that other perspectives fail to do. It also speaks of the economy by which Barth was determining value, one which placed Christ as God before all.

After Dr Hunsinger developed Barth’s circle metaphor into a sphere, he expanded it again to include concentric spheres, or spheres within spheres, with Christ still at the center. Using this expansion, he discussed the various secondary and tertiary levels (theoretically, there are more) that Barth identified. Barth spoke of the first commandment as secondary revelation. He called Scripture secondary and dependant on Christ. A sermon was tertiary (third) to Scripture and Christ.

In all, Barth’s Decalogue seems to be built on these ideas. Much of the discussion throughout the history of interpretation seems discontinued in Barth. Discussion of Natural Law is upended in a restructuring of thought wherein Christ precedes it and defines it, rather than the other way around. But even this restructuring answers the question of what the relationship is between the two.

As for his analysis of what the functions of the Law are and how the believer might use the Decalogue, these issues seem to be absent. It seems, perhaps, that Barth was more concerned with dismantling, reassembling, and sanctifying theological thought than he was in working it out its implications. The work of doing that, it seems, may have been left to us.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Who is Christina Rossetti?

Christina Rossetti represented, as best I could discern, the feminist interpretation of the Decalogue. While to more modern sensibilities, her views seem rather tame, a colleague of mine pointed out that to her own time (late 19th-century Britain), she was probably quite progressive. An example of this is the way that Rossetti looked at the temptations of Adam and Eve. Whereas Eve was tempted by Satan, Adam was tempted by Eve. Thus, Rossetti concluded that Eve’s temptation was one of the mind, and Adam’s temptation was one of the heart. In Victorian England, this sort of perspective starkly contrasted popular ideas about masculine and feminine strengths and weaknesses.

Dr Timothy Larsen from Wheaton College presented Rossetti’s views on the Decalogue, drawn mainly from her work, Letter and Spirit: Notes on the Commandments. By this time in the conference I felt I had discerned a number of the major questions that interpreters of the Decalogue have asked through the centuries. However, I found few answers to those questions in this presentation. This may be due to the fact that much of Rossetti’s work was poetry, not prose. Perhaps her most famous poem is “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Dr Larsen pointed us to another poem of hers called, “No Thank You, John.” That is, essentially a “Dear John” letter.

But I gathered very little about how Rossetti interpreted the Decalogue. The presentation itself seemed to emphasize her personal biography more than focusing on her views surrounding the Decalogue.

One of Rossetti’s contributions to this history of interpretation was her unique perspective as a woman. Dr Larsen summed it up well when he said that Rossetti’s modus operandi seemed to ask “What does the woman see that a man simply does not or cannot see?” Much of Rossetti’s interpretation, Dr Larsen said, read the Decalogue in typological and allegorical terms.

She drew many, many of her examples from the Biblical accounts of all sorts of women, named and unnamed. Her knowledge of them seems extensive, possibly unparalleled. Her work bleeds with these sorts of references. Beyond that even, her allusions to Biblical events and stories throughout her work reveals a knowledge and reverence for Scripture that is staggering, covering every book in the Bible.

Rossetti was a name I did not know prior to this conference. Her work and life are interesting and deserving of further inquiry. I leave that task to you, gentle reader.

John Wesley's Decalogue

John Wesley shared much in common with Lancelot Andrewes. A similar Anglican heritage moved them toward similar worship, prayer, confession, and moral life. However, in the time between Andrewes and Wesley stand some major shifts in the way the world was viewed. Men like Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau ushered in the period of the Enlightenment. So while Andrewes collected his orthodoxy with pastoral grace during the preEnlightenment, Wesley developed a polemical edge as he reacted to the cultural values challenging the authority of the Christian faith, including the Decalogue.

Dr Stephen Long from Marquette University presented Wesley’s thoughts on the Decalogue. Wesley rejected Luther’s dualistic categories, law and gospel. Rather, to Wesley, there is no contradiction between the two. He also followed in the paths of Calvin and the church fathers, linking Jesus with the Torah. Dr Long said that Wesley linked the two with such emphasis that Calvin’s paled by comparison. Further, like Calvin and Aquinas, Wesley interpreted civil, moral, and ceremonial divisions of the Law. Dr Long wondered aloud how far back these traditional divisions went.

Wesley’s theology of the Decalogue is truly Christocentric. From beginning to end, Wesley sees Christ pervading every part. First, he is prior to Creation, creating according to the blueprint of the eternal law, God’s nature. He is the “light of Creation” on the first day. Wesley used the term “light of Creation” on purpose, noting that the sun did not appear until the 4th day, but that there was light on the first day. It represented the Natural Law by which the world was created, existing before the world began. Thus, the Natural Law participates in the eternal law. This connection helped Wesley hold the law and gospel together without separation or contradiction.

Second, Christ is present in the giving of the Decalogue, capturing God’s nature there again. For Wesley, when God is speaking, it is always Jesus. Thus, it was Jesus at Mount Sinai, through whom the Decalogue came. After sin entered the world and obscured the Law given in the light of Creation on the first day, the Decalogue was given again to Moses. The Decalogue allowed people to join into relationship with God. (This, in my mind, is therefore an act of grace, and even Good News.) It directed them into life with God.

And finally, Jesus as Christ is the incarnation of God. The Natural Law could only be seen through Jesus, who shows us what living by it is to look like. Just as he met Moses on Mount Sinai, so also he met his people on another mount. And just as the Decalogue served to guide sinners into a relationship with God, the Beatitudes fulfill and surpass the Law in accomplishing the same thing.

All of this was bound up in Wesley’s moral teleology (end, purpose) of holiness and happiness, or “blessedness.” The Law was really a “religion of the heart” motivated by love. Wesley argued against the exclusive humanism—popular by this time—that replaced love for God with love for man alone. Wesley believed such a humanism apart from God could not preserve genuine humanness. Such an exclusivity was impossible because duty to neighbor was linked and dependent on duty to God. Love, for Wesley, fulfilled the Law, which in turn fulfilled the purpose of the commandments.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Preaching for a change

Two very different bloggers weighed in today on their blogs about how we grow spiritually through preaching. Tim Challies titled his post “The First and Primary Object” of preaching. Dr Dave Fitch posed his as a question, “How do Christians Grow and Mature?” Their titles seem to fit the perspectives they themselves come from.

What interested me though was not the coincidence of both offering their opinions about the same topic on the same day. Rather, I was surprised to find from two seeming opposites that there was more similarity between them than there were differences. They came at it from different angles of course—Challies appealing to the authority of Jonathan Edwards, Dr Fitch relaying the ideas of a friend in ministry, again, fitting for each—but they arrived at similar conclusions by my estimation. Here’s part of what each one said.

From Challies:

Like every other Christian, I have often sat enraptured in church, having my mind filled and my affections stirred. But sometimes after arriving home I can barely remember a word that was said. The same is sometimes true of books, Bible studies and conferences. What was so meaningful at the time may be nearly forgotten only a short time later, leaving me to question if it was really so important in the first place. This is not to say that nothing sticks in my mind. Certainly I do remember a lot of what I hear and what I read. But when I consider a 500-page book or a series of eight addresses and compare what I read or what I heard to what I now remember, it can be awfully frustrating. It can be discouraging.

But, according to Edwards, if I were to worry in this way I would be placing too great an emphasis on intellect while downplaying the importance of affections.

From Reclaiming the Mission:

When people come to our church from other established (probably bigger) evangelical churches, they often come looking for a communal, real, authentic, missional life with Christ and a church body. They find our liturgical forms of worship refreshing at first. But sometimes, if they don't GET what's going on, they become disillusioned. Our sermons do not always exposit word for word what the Bible means and then package some applications to go home with and do and improve your Christian life. They proclaim Truth (the reality of Jesus as Lord) out of the Biblical text and ask us to obey, submit and live under the Lordship of Christ for this day, this week, this year. We do have group Bible study time at 9 a.m. (newly reinstituted teaching for an hour teaching the Scripture that we are preaching), but the service itself is a time of formation before and into the Word of God. It is not a time of learning information for the purpose of attaining a certain competence (don't get me wrong, there's an important place for studying and knowing The Bible). Different assumptions about "How People Grow in Christ" undergird how we gather as a people, and the discipleship processes that come forth from that.

Personally, I was even more interested because I too have been thinking about preaching as a means of formation more than a means of information. Preaching is often simply a dynamically presented lecture, an entertaining conveyance of information. And while Bible knowledge is important (I chose my alma mater for that reason), I think what you love is more important than what you believe. I think what your love will inspire your actions more than your beliefs ever will. It’s important, then, to love the right things.

When my thoughts run in this vein, I always think of Donald Miller's words in the opening of Blue Like Jazz, "Sometimes you have to see someone love something before you can love it yourself." This, in my mind, is the task of preaching, or any Bible "education" for that matter. Preaching is an opportunity to show someone what you see, or Who you see, from where you stand. It's an opportunity to look upon Jesus in all his magnificence, generosity, or whatever it may be, and to help others to see him like that too. To stand and look and grow excited with anticipation. It isn't so much about having people leave saying, "Wow, I really learned something," although that's good. Rather, for them to walk away thinking, "Isn't Jesus amazing?" is to capture more than some available space in their brains. It's the kind of thing that makes you want more, want to believe more, want to be more like him. It's the kind of thing that changes you. It's hardly what we typically call knowledge. It's something more like love. Paul said something himself about those two things.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

John Owen's Decalogue

Dr Carl Trueman, a youngish Brit from Westminster Seminary, presented the next paper on the English nonconformist John Owen. Among a number of interesting facts Trueman gave by way of background, he said that it is generally believed that Owen was a tutor to John Locke, the influential thinker and writer of the 17th century. In fact, Locke dedicates a poem of his to one “J.O.” whom many suppose to be John Owen.

Trueman argued that the social and political turmoil that served as Owen’s context was important background to understand in order to rightly interpret Owen’s writing and though.

For Owen, the Decalogue and the Torah are rooted in God’s nature, and are revelations of that divine nature. As such, they are nonnegotiable absolutes to be followed. This Law defines the structure of the relationship between Creator and creature, but the Law does not serve as the mechanism by which men come to God. Like others, Owen believed that the Natural Law is intuitively grasped by human nature, but was obscured to one degree or another by sin. Owen extended this reasoning to argue that all people are obligated to abide by the precepts of the Decalogue by virtue of their being creatures within the law of creation, or law of nature. The law is relevant to all by virtue of its structure with Creation, so the moral laws explicated in the Decalogue are binding for all people.

Owen’s “covenant of works” on the other hand was the Law given at Sinai, and it established a covenant community, which abided by this Law. This expressly given law was a result of grace, where a broken creation vaguely grasps the universal law. Breaking the “covenant of works” did not break the law of creation; it was still binding for all, including God’s covenant people. I’m not sure, but the Decalogue seems to be a sort of crux connecting the Natural Law, or law of creation/nature written on the human heart, and the Sinai Covenant. Thus, the “covenant of works” is still rooted in the law of nature, but is a outgrowth of it in a specific context.

The Decalogue thus served both to inform and to remind. It informed sin-broken hearts of the law that was programmed into them at their creation. It reminded God’s covenant people that the law of nature remained in tact even in the “covenant of works” was broken, and thus still binding.

In regards to uses of the Law, Owen seems to disagree with Luther and agree with Calvin that the Law does serve as moral guide. For the believer, the Decalogue has a primarily positive significance, outlining the moral response to God in matters of sanctification; this also seems to align with Calvin’s thought. It also served to “terrify sinners” and point them to Christ, not the Law, and reveal to them their need for a mediator between them and God.

Life in the Blue Room

This week I started substitute teaching again. It's like being a secret agent. You wake up in the morning to a phone call not knowing what school, subject, or grade level you will teach. (It's not that glamorous)

Through some nice connections at my other job I got to know some teachers and students at a local high school. So this week (and for the rest of the year) I was asked to sub consistently in the behavioral challenged classrooms.

My job was this week was to work in the "blue room." When kids get worked up in class they get send there to process their choices and talk with me about how to make their day better. It sounds a little corny but I think it works. They storm through the door frustrated sit down and after some cussing and threatening they begin to talk. And like most problems in our life I find out it has nothing to do with the teacher or their classmate. There is an issue at home. A lack of confidence. A desire to be respected. A feeling of ineptitude and discouragement.

So we talk about it. They fill out a sheet and go back to class. Some don't fill out a sheet but sit there the whole time cussing, threatening, and throwing books. But overall the blue room is a place of clam.

I think it would nice if we all could have a blue room.