Recall this passage whenever you see someone publicly shamed or called out on Twitter or Facebook for some politically incorrect statement. The ones doing the shaming typically purport to speak on behalf of the oppressed.

When the “oppressed” acquire power, absolutely no check exists upon their use of that power. There is no righteousness over them that can judge them. The result is the kind of ruthless tyranny that we have seen under Stalin and his lesser imitators. Those who identify themselves as the representatives of the “oppressed” are in a position to combine unlimited self-righteousness in respect to themselves with unlimited moral indignation in respect of their opponents. This is the most characteristic feature of the dedicated Marxist. Since there is no transcendent righteousness that can judge and forgive both the oppressor and the oppressed, the way is open for unlimited self-righteousness.
-Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret, p.111

Notice what will NOT fix anything here for either side: argumentation (well-executed or otherwise), sound reasoning, sufficient dog-piling to drown out, or even an extracted apology. What is needed is forgiveness, of both the oppressed and the oppressor. The oppressor needs to repent and turn from his sin of dehumanizing his brothers and sisters. The oppressed (and their proxy defenders) needs to turn and forgive the one who hurt them, even when the perpetrator is incapable of repenting adequately or making sufficient restitution. The death and resurrection of Christ gives us a space where this kind of seemingly impossible forgiveness CAN be imagined and realized because He is outside of us and does the judging and forgiving FOR us, though in such a way that we can also follow suit. Without his judgement and love, we remain locked in a power play – each clawing for the moral high ground.

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There are some really excellent observations about the nature of history and inquiry (scientific or otherwise) packed into these few paragraphs from Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret.

Modern scientific historiography involves asking such questions as the flowing about all the stories that are told: What is the source of the story? Does it come from eyewitnesses or at secondhand? What evidence is there about the credibility of those who saw, reported, or retold the story? What was their purpose in telling the story? To whom were they telling it? What interests and influences would likely to shape their telling? What collateral information do we have from other sources that bears on these events? For the asking of these and similar questions historians are continually sharpening their tools and accumulating and organizing more information bearing on the story.

[BUT!] all these tools are handled and this information is arranged by human beings, whose work is also shaped by the interests and influences of their time and place and culture. The directions in which they decide to probe, the questions they ask, the weight they give to different witnesses and different types of evidence, the analogies by means of which they try to understand the events and characters reported, the models by means of which they organize their material – all are shaped by the culture of which they are part, by the experiences, hopes, and fears of that part of the whole fabric of human society in which they have their place.

It is obviously as true of the world of the historian as it is of every kind of study that we can only understand anything by relating it to the experience we already have. The language we use, the models and analogies without which we cannot make sense of a mass of information, are all furnished by the experiences of our time and place. History has to be continually rewritten because, in the worlds of E.H. Carr, history is a continuing conversation between the present and the past. (p.84)

It seems to me that religious communities will typically embrace a theology that make the most sense in their given social and economical context. If they are wise, they acknowledge that they are doing this while they are doing it and admit that the theology might take a significantly different shape, given another context. The next generation though is often taught that the shape their community has taken is sourced directly from scripture and validated by old (Reformation era) or very old (early church fathers) authoritative commentary. The next generation is of course, in theory, aware that their social/economic/cultural setting has ordered some of their beliefs, but they do not realize to what extent. Seemingly finding their grounding in scripture, they believe themselves to be primarily shapers rather than the shaped.

This weekend, I visited a friend and his large family who had moved away about a year ago to take a job in a city 2 hours away. Though he was very active in the same denomination, he commented how different the character was, it no longer being centered in a college town. When the congregation is comprised of hundreds of students, from green 18-year-olds to newly married graduate students, and the elder board comprised largely of professors or higher-ed administrators, the life of the congregation takes a rather peculiar form. It affects everything – the sermons, the rhetoric, what ministries are emphasized and most funded. All of this comes back around to shape biblical interpretation too. It happens within the bounds of the denominations beliefs, true, but it can skew heavily in particular directions.

The place my friend lives now is much more blue collar and the city less walkable. There is a lot less socializing – everybody is busy with their jobs and lives too far a drive away to visit casually. The local university is not there to provide a unified workplace (and source of salary) and close living quarters. Conversations rarely tread into graduate level higher criticism or that thesis you are working on about Augustine’s City of God. Instead, they stay centered around who is in the hospital, when the troublesome freeway detour is going to be completed, and where the best place to take the kids fishing is this year. Hundreds of topics that previously seemed to be of world-shaking importance are now completely off the radar.

All these different things swirling around you change what you think about when you go to pray or read scripture. The Holy Spirit also knows what you need and will speak to you about what is present in your life at the moment (unless of course he is calling you elsewhere or waking you up to a new possibility). The end result? Your theology changes and as your memory fades, you may forget how very different life can FEEL in other times and places, even ones not terribly far away.

Skeptics and secularists will point to this phenomenon as simply evidence that religion is nothing more than a social construct – entirely subjective and imaginary, though of course “deeply meaningful”. Recent fad theologians will observe this and call in “incarnational”. Woopie. I think I’ll just call it “natural”. It’s geography taking it’s toll, no matter how fast our internet flies. It’s how people work to get their food making a big difference in their day to day lives, just like it always has everywhere, despite state’s efforts to diversify, subsidize, relieve, or incentivize

I think the right response for us to have mercy and grace on our fellow Christian. Their life is different from yours – probably more than your realize and there is probably less they can do to change it than you think. Throw them a bone and start by giving them the benefit of the doubt before you dismiss their theology as having missed the boat compared to yours. Yes, it’s entirely possible that it’s full of holes or that they’ve run off the rails in some way, but give empathy a shot.

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God’s direction interaction with man follows a compression -> expansion pattern, just like a nuclear bomb.

All Mankind
Abraham
Israel
Judah Especially (David, Solomon)
Jesus
Apostles
Jewish Christians
Samaritans (Heterodox Ethnic Jews)
Jewish Proselytes turned Christian
Local Gentiles (God-fearing Non-Jews)
Greeks, Romans, Egyptians Libyans, Assyrians, Ethiopians
Indians, Spanish
Gauls, Germans, Africans, Celts, Chinese

Jesus Chris is the inflection point. The compression happens over about 2000 years – the bulk of the expansion in only 100. Our current age is one where the last little tiny gaps are being filled in by the fallout.

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The world is filled with guilt-inducing stimuli: Tests, performance reviews, heated conversations with our spouses, the covers of fashion magazines and even many things with seemingly positive intent: exhortations to believe in yourself, train harder, or sermons “encouraging” you to be more kind, thoughtful and maybe drink less beer. The guilt pounds us and swirls around us – causing us to second guess ourselves, hate ourselves, and if we are still young enough, redouble our efforts to turn the ship around.

As Christians, we know that Jesus Christ, in some kind of abstract sense, swallowed all our guilt and took it on Himself, freeing us from sin. And yet we are still commanded to repent from our sins. So where do we start? Everyone, not least of all our own selves, are enthusiastically trying to alter our behavior. Where does one begin?

I believe it is worth considering the nature of our own consciousness and concentration. Our brains can really only think about one thing at a time well. Women may be better multi-taskers than men and able to hold a bit more in there at once during the day but the bottom line is that we can only address a very finite number of things with our mind at a time. This also means that we can only really repent of one thing at a time – not just in the moment of confession, but in the ongoing embodiment of that turning. During your initial conversion or coming to faith in Jesus Christ, perhaps you repented of a big list of things and then proceeded to effectively abandon many of them. That’s great, but our ongoing walk and growth in holiness is accomplished day-by-day, piece-by-piece.

So how does one discern between legitimate conviction (a particular feeling of guilt) brought about by the Holy Spirit, and the destructive accusing condemnation from Satan? How can you tell the difference between them? I believe that one key way of differentiating the source of conviction is by paying attention to how narrow the scope is. The Holy Spirit will typically deal with one thing at a time. There will be one thing obviously wrong, and relatively clear path forward to turn from that one thing of death toward life.

The devil, on the other hand, will make us feel like a complete dirtbags by pointing out twenty things at once. A laundry list of past failings is part of the mix and there is no clear way out of the mire. Hopelessness and confusion ensues if one tries to process this shotgun approach.

When the Holy Spirit urges you to repent, it is like a beam of light shining in the dark, with a promise of freedom. When the devil floods you with reminders of your sin and failing, it is like indistinct lights in the fog, making navigation worse not better. I like how these two photographs illustrate the metaphor.

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I spoke about this topic last week and today a friend of mine emailed me a link to a small daily devotional Richard Exley. I’ll repeat it here as I think it gets at what I am trying to say pretty succinctly.

When I feel guilty but I don’t know why, I usually pray, “Lord, if this guilt is produced by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, show me where I have sinned.” If what I am experiencing is conviction the Lord is quick to identify my transgression so He can deal with it. God takes no pleasure in making us squirm. His only reason for convicting us is to deliver us from evil. The accuser, on the other hand, simply wants to condemn us.

“Godly sorrow (conviction) brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow (condemnation) brings death.
– 2 Corinthians 7:10 (NIV)

Lord Jesus, make me resistant to the condemnation of the enemy even as you make me sensitive to the conviction of the Holy Spirit. In Your holy name I pray. Amen.

In reading some of Lesslie Newbigin’s work on theology of Mission recently, I came across a story about a missionary to Uganda in the early 20th century. He saw many people respond to the gospel but was personally very disconcerted by the polygamy that was practiced in the culture and frequently preached against it – urging the new Christian men to lay it aside. It didn’t have much effect though because what the Holy Spirit was speaking to THEM was conviction about the slaves or indentured servants in their community. Their abuse of the poor was what God was pricking their hearts about – not their multiple wives. Now in time, over the next generation, much reform happened and the practice of polygamy receded too. But right at that moment, the preacher had to realize that he was getting in the way of what the Spirit was doing and that he should focus his attention elsewhere. Repentance of one thing at a time changes over time.

Paul was able to say at the end of his life that he was “the chief of sinners” because he was so keenly aware of his own continuing and perpetual shortcomings – that is, stuff he hadn’t repented of yet. He, Saint Paul, died clinging to certain sins. So will we. “You can’t just think your way to rightly ordered loves.” says James K.A. Smith. One reason for this is that we don’t have enough time and we can only do one thing at a time. But we can also find comfort in this. Jesus is not asking us to do more than one thing at a time and He has already reconciled us to God regardless. The voice yelling at you to “FIX ALL THE THINGS!” but offering no clarity on what that should look like need not be heeded. The quiet and persistent voice of the Spirit is to be listened to and obeyed.

I read to the children for ~20 minutes nearly every night. I try to balance a mix of youth literature along with things that will be more challenging. This past year’s selections have included everything from Ramona the Pest and an A to Z Mystery to The Lord of the Rings. After reading The Swiss Family Robinson and Peter Pan recently, I thought I would try something a bit more grown-up with Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. What a wonderful piece of literature; but alas – after a couple of chapters it became apparent that the blood and sex would not be appropriate for some of the young ‘uns at this time.

At my wife’s initiative, I switched to The Secret Garden. Now this was a book that I had not anticipated enjoying myself. We own several copies and the covers were so very “girly” and the one-paragraph summary of the classic seemed downright boring. The reality has proved to be otherwise though. What excellent writing, excellent characters, and sufficiently interesting plot it has indeed.

Earlier this week, my wife and I watched (for the first time) the neo-noir Christopher Nolan film Memento. Though I was a bit frustrated by the ending, I really appreciated how well the audience is brought along with the main character and made to feel the confusing effects of his mental illness. The film effectively puts the watcher in the shoes of the protagonist, while maintaining just enough of an outsider perspective to keep the thing glued together.

It struck me that some of the same techniques are being used in The Secret Garden, especially with respect to language. Our young Mary Lennox is ripped away from her neglected/spoiled childhood in India and thrust into a cold Yorkshire full of people whose accents she can barely understand. But though we experience the story in the third person, we take part in much of the same confusion the young heroine does. She is constantly being bombarded with new words and ideas. But rather than being given a glossary or an aside, we are left wondering what they mean ourselves. We have to be shown as well – it’s not ever spelled out for her or us.

In the story, the moor is often spoken of. But what is a moor exactly? We aren’t ever told – only shown and often only obliquely. I still am not entirely sure even now. The wikipedia article of fen wetlands is perhaps worse than useless.

She sat and looked out of the window, curious to see something of the road over which she was being driven to the queer place Mrs. Medlock had spoken of. She was not at all a timid child and she was not exactly frightened, but she felt that there was no knowing what might happen in a house with a hundred rooms nearly all shut up—a house standing on the edge of a moor.

“What is a moor?” she said suddenly to Mrs. Medlock.

“Look out of the window in about ten minutes and you’ll see,” the woman answered. “We’ve got to drive five miles across Missel Moor before we get to the Manor. You won’t see much because it’s a dark night, but you can see something.”

In other cases, a definition could be given by another character, but it nearly never is. Experience fills in the meaning.

“Listen to th’ wind wutherin’ round the house,” [Martha] said. “You could bare stand up on the moor if you was out on it tonight.”

Mary did not know what “wutherin'” meant until she listened, and then she understood.

And so we the reader feel like we are in the shoes of the character in the story because the author has very much limited the amount of information fed to us. We end up feeling just as afraid and full of wonder as Mary is, in a way that we never would be if we had been familiar with the context through exposition.

I know I’m likely discussing techniques that are probably staples of the 3rd week of any respectable “Fiction 101″ course. Insert an eye-roll for anyone who has studied the craft in any detail. But I’m noticing it for the first time, or at least articulating it for the first time. It seems to me that not often is all this done well.

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A couple weeks ago I wrote a bit about Sia, who is clearly a master of the songwriting conventions this decade of pop music demands. On the third single from her recent album, she sings in anguish:

I’m at home
On my own
Check my phone
Nothing, though
Act busy
Order in
Pay TV
It’s agony

I may cry, ruining my makeup
Wash away all the things you’ve taken
I don’t care if I don’t look pretty
Big girls cry when their hearts are breaking
Big girls cry when their hearts are breaking
Big girls cry when their heart is breaking

The poor are frequently envious of the rich for their ease of living and luxurious material possessions. They often scoff at the complaints of the wealthy. The women in this song is “stuck” at home, surround by custom delivered food, expensive pay-per-view television, and her iPhone 6+ phablet. Later in the song we hear about the private jets and campaign she keeps for company. But what’s her current state? Agony.

In a way, the agony of the rich can be even greater than that of the poor. They have the added pressure of feeling as if they SHOULD be happy and thankful. When the poor feel like crap, it makes more sense. Psychologically they have a much easier time processing their misery. Their lack of food, stability, warmth, and medicine makes for a completely plausible source of despair. The rich on the other hand, still feel like total crap, but have the additional dissonance of being surrounded by everything they could ever want – maybe even plenty of friends. So what the heck is wrong? “Why is a broken heart so damn terrible?” they wonder. But of course, it is.

I think the net stress and existential angst of the rich and poor ends up being about equal. It just takes different forms. If anything, the value we place on money and wealth today serves to further aggravate the poor (offering them a false hope) while being especially maddening to the rich. Wherever we personally are on this continuum (middle America, etc.) we end up experiencing an equalizing mix of both.

In what direction lies a cure? To that end, I offer this quote a friend of mine recently posted from St. John Chrysostom:

The sins of the rich, such as greed and selfishness, are obvious for all to see. The sins of the poor are less conspicuous, yet equally corrosive of the soul. Some poor people are tempted to envy the rich; indeed this is a form of vicarious greed, because the poor person wanting great wealth is in spirit no different from the rich person amassing great wealth. Many poor people are gripped by fear: their hearts are caught in a chain of anxiety, worrying whether they will have food on their plates tomorrow or clothes on their backs. Some poor people are constantly formulating in their minds devious plans to cheat the rich to obtain their Wealth; this is no different in spirit from the rich making plans to exploit the poor by paying low wages. The art of being poor is to trust in God for everything, to demand nothing-and to be grateful for all that is given.
(On Living Simply, Homily 7)

(A clarification: I am not arguing here that the rich DON’T have it better off than the poor. In many respects they certainly do.  What I am saying is that frequently the rich do not legitimately FEEL better off, because of complicated circumstances, and paradoxically, sometimes FEEL even worse.)

In this absolutely sublime passage from C.S. Lewis’s ‘Till We Have Faces’, Orual, the main character, describes the joy she found in raising Psyche, her half sister:

The years, doubtless, went round then as now, but in my memory it seems to have been all springs and summers. I think the almonds and the cherries blossomed earlier in those years and the blossoms lasted longer; how they hung on in such winds I don’t know, for I see the boughs always rocking and dancing against blue-and-white skies, and their shadows flowing water-like over all the hills and valleys of Psyche’s body. I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me. I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister. I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich.

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The delusion of the mechanical perfectibility of mankind through a combined process of scientific knowledge and unconscious evolution has been responsible for a great deal of heartache. It is, at bottom, far more pessimistic that Christian pessimism because, if science and progress break down, there is nothing to fall back upon.
-Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos

Here in my hometown, we had an outbreak of whooping cough back in December. This past week or so, it’s been the measles. Some people I know have ended up in the hospital. In the media, there’s been a veritable pile-on of abuse, from all corners, heaped upon those who choose not to vaccinate their children. On one hand, I don’t have a lot of sympathy with their case – all four of my children are vaccinated, as am I, and in only two days time I will be entrusting my daughter into the hands of a surgeon and anesthesiologist. However, a friend of mine earlier today pointed out that something smells off about some of the rhetoric used to champion vaccination. The diversity of genetics and environment is rarely even acknowledged. In the sea of talk, the focus remains fixed on the binary choices of individuals and the technology at their disposal.

I’d like to affirm this annoyance at how subjects are dealt with out of context. The modern scientific approach, while acknowledging the existence of other factors, typically plows ahead with it’s quest to deal with everything in as abstract a manner as possible. It endeavors to control the world through a plan of categorize, divide, and conquer. But then we meet the 90-year-old bacon-eating chain-smoker who is happy as a clam and the 24-year-old health and exercise fanatic who is dying of cancer. The presence of both these people are offensive to those who are always pushing in their thought and discourse to isolate the variables to make sense of the world.

We scream and point fingers at the luddite parents who have just lost a child to measles, but we are not so quick to admit that the child could have died regardless of what pharmaceuticals were given them. You can be a careful driver who always wears a seat belt and still have your head smashed in by a drunk from out of nowhere. You can go to all the right schools, make all the right friends, spend your weeks in a Csikszentmihalyi-inspired state of flow and STILL get passed over for that big promotion. On the other hand, you can make a slew of bad choices and still end up with a mountain of blessings you don’t “deserve”. This is offensive to those trying to exert control over the world. I think this is why, despite our better judgement, we keep ripping situations out of their context to put just one appendage of them under the microscope. We pay a lot of lip service to “holistic” consideration, but when push comes to shove, we’ll pick just a couple things and assign them all the weight.

There are lots of examples, but I’ll just pick one for the moment. I know of several church denominations that will automatically defrock a pastor if one of their children leaves the faith. “If he can’t keep his own household in order, then he has no business shepherding the flock!” is the thought. And yes, I do think a pastor or priest with wayward children should indeed be examined. But, this kind of zero tolerance policy always leads to scorched earth. Why? Because you can be an amazing near-perfect parent and STILL have one of your kids turn out bad. The idea that your efforts alone practically make or break the whole thing is a complete load of hooey. And although it’s less common, one can have seemingly well-groomed children with all kinds of rottenness underneath the surface. The whole man and his work should be considered at all times. Presbyteries and colleges of bishops should be seats of careful (holistic!) judgement, not laboratories where a sample sequencer tells us everything we need to know.

The world is an incredibly complex place where mysterious forces are at work. We think that if we just have enough variables in our model and a computer large enough to crunch the numbers, then risk will approach zero. But we don’t really know what the heck we’re doing half the time. Tragedy can come like a storm from blue skies, and grace can strike like lightening as well. Our hope must lie somewhere else than in our own wisdom, aptitude for self-control, and capacity to control our circumstances. Yes, science provides valuable information and tools and we should strive to use them wisely. But they will always break down. Maybe not for you today, but maybe for your friend today. And they will break down for you eventually too. Have something to fall back upon that covers everything. I’ll take resurrection.

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Earlier today, Joshua Gibbs wrote:

“If a thing is not transcendent, it is arbitrary.”

Now I think I’ll attempt to apply this to language for just a moment. As I stare at my only partially-tackled bookshelves, I am sharply reminded of the great multitude of thought on this topic that I am ignorant of. Nonetheless, I think I can still explore a few worthwhile avenues with what I have.

Is the naming of a thing arbitrary? Man is an absolute whiz at naming things – God created him this way and gave him the task of naming everything long before the fall. In the millennia after, he has not ceased to categorize everything. With man, it’s all naming all the time. But is his naming arbitrary? Is he just making crap up out of thin air, like a database assigns pseudo-unique GUID’s to each record? Here’s an example: {96ac1fe6-032c-4df5-9620-5772b37365c2}. Are our names just like that, or are they rooted in reality, the natural, or as we might say, the transcendent?

“I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me!”
– J.R.R. Tolkien

Notice Tolkien does not have him say “My name is Gandalf”. He is unique and his name means himself, which, to some degree means that himself means his name. Tolkien writes this even while explaining elsewhere that his “real” name (or at least older name) is Olórin. Tolkien names everything in his world carefully based first on what they are.

He even offers some commentary on this own craft at times. Consider this passage about Beorn from The Hobbit:

“And why is it called the Carrock?” asked Bilbo as he went along at the wizard’s side.

“He called it the Carrock, because carrock is his word for it. He calls things like that carrocks, and this one is the Carrock because it is the only one near his home and he knows it well.”

Why is that thing named such? Gandalf’s answer is, that as far as he is concerned, the name is arbitrary. Beorn called it that, so that’s what it is! He knows it well (and probably even built it), so he get’s to name it and the rest of us will use that name too. But it is sort of made up. Or maybe Gandalf is just admitting that he doesn’t know exactly where the word comes from. He doesn’t know the history or reason for it’s name, but he assumes one exists.

I don’t think anyone will deny that language is rooted in history. That words grow out of other words is not up for debate, even if it is frustrating to those trying to stretch language in new direction.

“When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean” (Humpty Dumpty, from Alice in Wonderland)

Like Humpty Dumpty, Stephen [Joyce’s autobiographical protagonist] would like to exert complete mastery over language and meaning, but his experience consistently brings home the fact that none of us has such power. He may complain, in Ulysses, that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” but he realized that he must do so in a language conditioned by that very history.
-Kevin J.H. Dettmar, Introductory notes to James Joyce, p.xxv

And from this one can jump straight into some thought by Derrida or other post-modernists. What they essentially did was to follow this line of thinking to it’s logical end and conclude that all words are indeed arbitrary – not transcendent. There is no real meaning to be found in anything. Sure our words now are based on meaningful older things, but if you go all the way back to Adam, he’s just making crap up. Zebra might as well be {c4786612-6c21-4574-bc8f-d8c6c52775cb}, Fox {a3386dfe-7e82-4ec1-baf0-71b91bb9da47}, etc.

But, if we are theists, if must believe their is a transcendent underneath our words. If we are children of Abraham (formerly Abram!), we must say that a name is there for a reason – a reason that is not just more piles of slippery words. If we are Christians, we must believe that the words God speaks transcend even lips or ink. One time they even walked around on the earth and bled on the ground. There are good names, and there are evil names because there is real good and real evil. And the thing came into being first and then was named. Man may resist or “deconstruct” as much as he might, but most of the time he will still end up giving appropriate, that is natural, names to things.