Our allergy to the legendary

The enlightenment has absolutely no use for legends. Any hint of legend is seen as an embarrassment and obviously false in every possible way. False not just as fanciful or exaggerated but in the same category as “wicked lie of the devil”. There is no distinction. There is only cold logic. If it isn’t sufficiently verifiable by scientific method or by contemporary historical research, then it is pure hot garbage, the stuff of the void.

Contemporary Christians in thrall of this sort of epistemology find scripture, especially the early chapters of Genesis to be intensely disconcerting. They smell legendary. How embarrassing! That will not do. They must be reread and conformed into something more palatable for the modern age. The days of creation must be 24 hours, or even 1440 clock-hand seconds in length. Each metaphor or piece of imagery must unlock or at least correspond to some recently articulated piece of geology or astronomy. Later books must be heavily footnoted with as much 20th century archeology as can be dug up and appropriated. Once properly modernized, we can get back to the much more important and comfortable work of expositing the Greek epistles where everything is kept either very practical or philosophical and never mythical thank you very much.

Popular false narratives about the early church and an alternative

1. The Early Church was pure and unified, until Constantine nationalized Christianity. It’s all been downhill from there. We need to throw away the last 1700 years of history and get back to raw early church Christianity!

2. The Early Church was pure and unified and then things got even better as it grew into the Roman Catholic church that covered the Western world. But then some grouchy sectarian and some rotten German and English kings threw a huge monkey wrench in the whole thing with the Protestant Reformation and it’s been a mess ever since the 1500’s.

3. The Early Church quickly drifted from the true teachings of Jesus Christ and it was a mess for centuries until a super bright and prophetic teacher arose to set everyone straight! (Congratulations, you are in a cult!).

As far as I can tell though, from studying scriptures and the apostolic fathers, reality is more like this:

The Early Church was very diverse from the get-go, in language, culture, geography, and even in some finer points of theology. It also had a myriad of ongoing sin problems, which prompted many of the NT epistles, as we well know. Church leaders hashed out some of the most important theological points together, but they stayed diverse in many points of practice all over the globe, from Syria to Libya and from Rome to Ireland. They had different leadership structures, different baptism patterns, and besides being largely unified about who Jesus is, had a variety of beliefs and worship practices shaped by local culture and imagination. The well-documented medieval church in Europe tried to make itself monolithic in language and practice, but that didn’t really stick. Exploration of the rest of the earth from the 16th century onward exploded things even more and that’s where we are today.

This map roughly map shows the widely diverse geography of early church communities. Imagine the implied cultural and linguistic diversity between, and keep in mind that communication was VERY slow and leadership patterns not well established at the time. Suggesting they were unified in practice is just plain silly.

Derrida and the gospel as haunted seed

Sometimes, post-modern boogeyman Derrida asks a really good question or two:

“Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken or written (in the current sense of this opposition), in a small or large unit, can be cited, put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable. This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchoring. What would a mark be that could not be cited? Or one whose origins would not get lost along the way?”
– Jacques Derrida, Signature Event Context, p.185-86

What would a mark be that could not be cited? What idea would be impossible to rip from it’s context? Or, conversely, what thing COULD you rip from it’s context and find that it remained intact – that it brought the kitchen sink along with it – everything you needed to keep it’s meaning alive even when transplanted?

I’m not sure, but these sound like divine things to me. Has this ever been done? Perhaps in the incarnation of Christ. Perhaps at Pentecost when everyone heard Peter speaking of Jesus in their own languages. They went back to their homes in nations all over the earth, but though they only had a little new knowledge in their head, it flourished and became something much more – colored by local languages and culture, yes – but still consistent with the origin. It’s like they carried home a seed – a haunted seed with an invisible gardener attached to it. The linguistic sign was verbal and ripped from it’s context in Jerusalem, but somehow survived the journey intact through the work of an active agent, the Holy Spirit.

I know these probably aren’t anything like the categories Derrida had in mind, but they are what I have in mind when I hear his questions and I think the Gospel is the closest thing to an answer.

Misc notes on Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch

It’s not often I read a book by someone on the “liberal” side of Christianity, but I’ve enjoyed a lot of Richard Beck’s blog posts in the past and I find the study (or overt ignorance) of the devil perennially fascinating so when I saw his relatively recent book Reviving Old Scratch for sale at Powell’s in Portland, I had to grab it. Here are a few passages I found of interest along with a brief notes.

Critics of spiritual warfare have got it backwards when they say that talking about demons will cause you to demonize other human beings. The truth is that it’s the exact opposite: it’s our REFUSAL to talk about demons that causes us to demonize other human beings.
The reason for this should be pretty obvious. If there isn’t a spiritual dynamic at work in the struggle, if the struggle for social justice is thoroughly disenchanted, then it’s destined to be a battle against other human beings, against Bad People – the Good People trying to wrest power away from the Bad People. When spiritual warfare loses its spiritual component our battle can’t help but become against [only] flesh and blood.
p.59

This is an especially helpful word in the era of Facebook and Twitter arguments. The more we fight each other in abstract media spaces, the more likely we are to dehumanize those we (think we) disagree with. Awareness of the devil helps keep this in check. We might also do well to see if he’s stirring up our own unholy desires.

Community is the place where our limitations, our fears and our egotism are revealed to us. We discover our poverty and our weaknesses, our inability to get on with some people, our mental and emotional blocks, our affective and sexual distrubances, our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies, our hatred and our wish to destroy. While we are alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, living with them all the time, we realize how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny to others, how closed in ourselves we are.
Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p.26, quoted in Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch, p.75

This reminds me of Kathleen Norris’s comments in her memoir Dakota about how when you live in a small town you have to learn to get along with all kinds of weirdos. When you live in a big city though (or on the internet), you can hang out with just a tiny subculture and seriously fool yourself into believing that you would be a nice guy around all the other people too, in theory.

The Bible is notoriously uninterested in providing us a theodicy – that is, a theological account of why evil exists. Evil is simply taken as a given – a given to be resisted. [Greg] Boyd calls this a theology of revolt. The biblical response to evil isn’t philosophical but behavioral. We might phrase it this way: The only theodicy we find in the Bible is resistance. A theology of revolt trades in philosophical bafflement for boots on the ground.
p.82

That scripture does not give us an obvious theodicy is a bit of honesty I wish more theologians would admit up front.

Who would weep for Babylon? A heck a lot of our heroes.

Regarding Revelation 17:19:
The oppressive and exploitative aspects of Babylon are highlighted by who mourns for Babylon when she falls. Who weeps for Babylon? The kings and the merchants because they “grew rich” form Babylon’s economic and political exploitation of the world (Revelation 18:3, 11-13).
p.114

Some healthy push back to contemporary talk of sexual “consent”:

The Bible has always linked sex to covenant rather than consent because the writers of the Bible understood that sex is political, relational, and social. Consent is contractual, two isolated individuals negotiating and then reaching an agreement about a sexual transaction. Consent is the child of capitalism. Covenant, by contrast, is a promise to care for and protect, tonight, and more importantly, tomorrow. The problem with consent is that while we might voluntarily agree to a sexual transaction, and this does protect us from rape and abuse, we might be radically unprepared for how the experience will leave each of us exposed, vulnerable, and needy in ways we hadn’t anticipated. Covenant is the promise to care about these exposures, vulnerabilities, and needs.
p.128

Some nice analogies here:

“Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
There is is, the whole vision of spiritual warfare, the apocalyptic and tactical elements of our theology of revolt. In Jesus the kingdom of God has apocalyptically invaded the world, and as this is an invasion of love it’s a tactical engagement. Love is guerilla warfare. A great campaign of sabotage.
p.178

Finally here, Beck (quoting Wright) notices the curious modern tendency to speak of impersonal powers even while technically denying their existence.

The modern world divides into those who are obsessed with demonic powers and those who mock them as outdated rubbish. Neither approach… does justice to reality… Despite the caricatures, the obsession, and the sheer muddle that people often get themselves into on this subject, there is such a thing as a dark force that seems to take over people, movements, and sometimes whole countries, a force or (as it sometimes seems) a set of forces that can make people do things they would never normally do.
You might have though the history of the twentieth century would provide plenty of examples of this [i.e., a dark force taking over people, movements, and countries], but many still choose to resist the conclusion – despite the increasing use in public life of the language of “force” (economic “forces,” political “forces”, peer “pressure,” and so on).
p.63

Friendship Evangelism and St. Columcille’s Taco Truck

I finally got around to reading The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George G. Hunter. I’d seen the book recommended in various circles for the past decade. I enjoyed reading it as I do most things related to the history of the Celtic church. What the heck IS the “Celtic way of evangelism” though according to Hunter? Well, it mostly boils down to some variation of “friendship evangelism”. Sounds great on paper, but unfortunately I’d already had my own extended first-hand experience with the methodology and it wasn’t exactly positive.

I experienced a great deal of “friendship” Evangelism first-hand in college and I can’t put it any softer than to say it was false friendship. I was invited over for dinner, movies, games, out for coffee, etc. four to five times a week my entire first year of college. It was great! Enter second year. Where did all the friends go? Surprise! They no longer have time for you. They are courting the next crop of freshman. You are a sophomore now. Now it’s YOUR job to be the false friend and get another round of misfits to show up at church on Sunday. Congratulations! You’ve graduated from receiving to giving. Now, you’re on your own to build your own friendships on the side among the other people that are busy pretending to be friends with the new kids. Do it together and you might make some real friends by accident along the way. Or not.

Some might argue that what I experienced was just “friendship evangelism” poorly executed, but I think it was executed well. I think the underlying idea was broken. I think it was broken in a variety of ways, but for now I’ll just suggest one key way in which I think it probably differed greatly from whatever Columba and his monks did in west Scotland all those years ago. I think it has to do with time and expectations. We live in a frantic and fast-paced age. A college town full of transitory young people is especially so. Few people are settling down. They are just passing through. Evangelism in this context is amped up on urgency like someone who slammed far too many Red Bulls. Everything had to happen in less than 9 months or it would seemingly fail and these high-energy middle-class 18-year-old college kids would slip through the cracks! But Colomba lived in and around Iona for well over 30 years. He built slow gardens, slow houses, slow friendships and slow institutions. If he built any trust at all with his pagan neighbors (and he obviously did!) it must have been over the course of many years as they farmed and raised their families.

Modern Western economics and living condition expectations make virtually everything about how Columcille did things a complete non-starter. Health care? Forget it. Building a monastery on some nice land nobody was using? Uhhh. Raising a family? Maybe out of a VW van. Nope. This is Christianity for the poor. We are gluttonously rich and want everything yesterday or at the latest by this time next year. Let’s not fool ourselves! We wouldn’t want any part in this old, slow way.

I wondered aloud what St. Columbcille would do today if his coracle had landed on the shores of the Pacific Northwest in 2018. My wife brilliantly suggested that perhaps he would have opened a taco truck. I think she could be right. And the taco truck would be known not for handing out tacky gospel tracts with the food, but for being run by really kind people who made especially delicious tacos.

Making fun of technology as an exercise toward not taking ourselves too seriously

I few months ago, I visited a retro video game convention in Portland with my oldest son. It was a lot of fun and seeing this canvas (which I loved) caused me to reflect on why I enjoyed it so much.

One of the things I find consistently funny is making fun of computers. I love how old computers allow us to do this while new ones, somehow, do not. They are too proud. The old computers were proud too, but also completely ridiculous. In hindsight, their shoddiness or tackiness is blaring and obvious.

I think our current technology is not different, yet we talk about it as if it were the fruit of the gods. Scan any recent headlines regarding Google, Facebook, Apple, Uber, VR, AI, for examples. We take them so seriously but are many of these things any less dumb than the Power Glove or some ill-conceived and buggy Atari game from the early 1980s? I think in thirty years we’ll be able to say they were the same sort of thing.

Roads to peace

I’m sitting on a bench in the town square while my children play in the fountain. Across the street is the weekly Vigil for Peace rally. I’m reading a collection of prayers for peace by Thomas Merton while I wait. The topic is the same but the messages are different. One proclaims that if we just try really hard, and shuffle enough money around to the right politicians, peace will follow. The other says that when Christ comes to redeem violent men, peace will follow.

Reliable and faulty methods for measuring the faith of yourself or another

Is it legitimate to try and measure faith?

Can we measure saving faith?
Not really. That’s God’s job alone.

Can we measure faith in action?
Of course! We are all the time anyway.

The trick is, there are poor and misleading ways to measure or discern your own level of faith or the faith of another and there are better more reliable methods. I will provide some examples.

How to discern or measure faith?

Poor and potentially misleading ways:

  • Affirming denomination doctrinal distinctives.
  • Conforming to sub-culture approved consumption and lifestyle.

Examples:

  • Going to church every Sunday without fail, maybe even if you have the flu.
  • Being frugal. Owning a small house. Buying really inexpensive groceries and not having credit cards.
  • Voting for Republicans and owning lots of guns
  • Voting for Democrats and protesting foreign wars
  • Women wearing long denim skirts, men having long beards, and homeschooling your kids.
  • Praying before meals. Fasting twice a week (Extremely important in Ethiopia)
  • Having daily worship with your family – singing and doing devotions.
  • Reading through the bible in a year.
  • Having tons of kids or adopting kids.
  • Being well-read and well-educated (in traditionalist circles)
  • Ignoring the news and secular media and reading nothing but the Bible (some charismatic circles).
  • Attending a Christian school
  • Not owning a television. (or more recently, not owning a smart phone).
  • Staying close to your extended family after you are married and supporting them (some cultures).
  • Moving out on your own and being self-sufficient after you are married (USA).
  • Loudly affirming the importance of certain doctrines: Young Earth Creationism, End Times Rapture, Predestination, speaking in tongues, the authority of the Pope, plurality of elders, etc.

Any of these could be good things born out of faith. But they could also be merely attempts to fit in and be accepted by your peers. Or worse, they could substitute for real faith. The Pharisees that Jesus criticized had these sorts of things in spades but they did not love God. This kind of metric is unreliable.

Good and reliable ways:

  • Fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.)
  • Observing behavior and habits over a long period of time (many years)

Examples:

  • Love – having your friendships and family life characterized by love.
  • Joy – being content with what you have. Not envying others.
  • Peace – tending to bring peace to your home, workplace, and anywhere else you go rather than chaos and agitation and drama.
  • Patience. Patience with your husband. Patience with your wife. Patience with your kids when you just stepped on a Lego. Patience with your annoying coworker.
  • Kindness – Don’t be a jerk to other people at work. Empathize with those in need. Be generous with your money.
  • Faithfulness – Can people trust you? Are you dependable?
  • Gentleness – Being slow to anger. Not getting violent, with your fists or with your words.
  • Self-control – Not being addicted to things. Not talking too much.

It’s important to note not just isolated events, but the exhibiting of these things with consistency over the course of many years. That is a good measure. People have good days and bad days. So if someone you know is acting like a jerk. They may be having a bad day. If they are like that all the time, then that is worth considering.

God has given each of us a measure of faith (Romans 12:3-6). The degree and nature of it will vary throughout the body of the church. Nevertheless we, should desire greater faith. Let us pray and ask God for this.

A Prayer

God our father, we trust in your goodness. We trust in your grace. We trust in in your Son Jesus Christ who gave his life for us. We believe that your Holy Spirit has been working in our hearts in the past and also is today. We ask that you would give us more faith. Like the man that spoke to Jesus and said “I believe, help my unbelief”, I ask that you would increase our faith. Increase our faith such that it would spill out into kindness, love, joy, and peace in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Not because we need to do more stuff for you to love us, but because we love you and desire to live more holy lives for your sake. We can do this only by your mighty power O God. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

How the rise of DJs shows how the pop music sausage has always been made

This week EDM (I grew up saying ‘techno’) artist AVICII died rather tragically. But why even talk about this guy at all? Consider his most recent hit ‘Wake Me Up’: He doesn’t sing on it – the husky vocal are provided by soul singer Aloe Blacc. In fact, Avicii (whose real name is Tim Berling) doesn’t sing at all. He doesn’t play any instruments on the recording. He wrote the tune – sort of. Blacc and frequent collaborator Michael Einziger are also listed as writers. He’s the producer. But it’s his name on the single. Why? Is that fair? Does that reflect the truth?

Yes, I think so and it’s probably more truthful than things have been in the past.

In recent years many people have expressed their dismay at the rise of DJs in pop music. “Don’t these guys literally just get up an play records? I could do that! How can we call them artists? Where are the REAL musicians – you know the ones that sing and play instruments and stuff? Who are these posers?” These are maybe legit questions, but they have a flawed premise – that these pseudo-musician/producers were not there before. In fact, they’ve nearly always been there behind the scenes, sometimes calling the shots, and often the chief creative force behind many of the pop and rock acts you know and love from the 2000s, 90s, 80s, 70s, 60s, and so forth. The producer/writer/technician has for decades been largely invisible to the public. Now though, whether through internet fan sites, the proliferation of artist interviews and memoirs, or wikipedia, the veil has been lifted higher than before and more people are aware of how the sausage is made in the music industry.

That hit song from Selena Gomez was first shopped around and even recorded with Rihanna, Ellie Goulding, and Demi Lovato first. Who ended up “getting” the song may have more to do with who was lined up to do the choreography for the music video that month than anything else. Bruno Mars may be presented as a lone talented genius, but it’s a little hard to take that idea seriously when you realized his latest single ‘Finesse’ has no fewer than eight people on the songwriting credit (Bruno Mars, Philip Lawrence, Christopher Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy, Johnathan Yip, Ray Romulus, Jeremy Reeves and Ray McCullough II). Along with this wider awareness by the audience, we’ve seen more producers come out of the shadows and name themselves as the artist rather than a proxy singer/dancer/model.

Some would say that our age is an especially artificial one, where all we consume is highly processed and contrived. Hip hop or dance music made from cut-and-paste samples on a laptop is supposedly a chief example. I wonder though if perhaps our age is sometimes less artificial than in the past. The sausage was always there, we were just oblivious to how it was made and so imagined that it wasn’t sausage but something authentic and organic. I think sometimes we still don’t want to know. We would rather maintain the myth that art comes from the descending muse and not from just a lot of hard work. Full stop. When we know better though, we’ll give things more accurate names. I think we’ll all know the names of more music producers in the coming decades, not fewer.

Pressure to perform vs. thankfulness, OR “check your privilege” vs. “count your blessings”

I scribbled the following down after reading the intro to Alan Jacob’s excellent newer biography of C.S. Lewis, The Narnian.

That Lewis wrote many of his books – much of his best work, amongst constant interruption and surrounded by family challenges, is of great interest to me. On the one hand, it means that “I have no excuse” for not producing and exercising creativity when I am (seemingly) surrounded by them. But from that analysis comes just more pressure to perform and despair upon reflection. But is there another angle to this story? Yes – one of gifts, one of grace. Despite all these things, Lewis was gifted a great many things by God, even in the midst of endless trial and tedium. From one view, he was a brilliant self-made man. From the other side, someone who, whatever his talents, had all of his best things pretty much just handed to him.

I have often felt the latter about my own successes. The year I received a raise that nearly doubled my income as a young man, I did not feel like I deserved it or had striven toward it, but rather that it had fallen in my lap. My wife has stuck with me though I don’t deserve her affection. I feel that I have been given very excellent and interesting children, through no doing of my own. I think I have substantial wealth and freedom in my current career and home, but where did it come from? Because I kick so much ass? Nothing of the sort. Whatever ass is being kicked, the boots are not my own, though I sometimes mime the swinging of my feet.

Upon reading this, someone may spit out a curse followed by a comment about how I should perhaps be “checking my privilege”. But that’s in fact, in a sense, exactly what this is. I think the flip side of the coin engraved with “check your privilege” reads “count your blessings”.