Archive for May, 2011

“Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”

– John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Ch.11

If Calvin says we are idol factories, then he is saying the same thing as Girard.

A DEFINING characteristic of man is that he makes idols. A lot. All the time. How does he do this exactly? Mimesis – imitative desire.

This all fits and provides wonderful insight and confirmation into the confession of Peter:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

-Matthew 16:13-17 (ESV)

Who is Jesus? Here, idol-factory Peter is ready to borrow something from the people around him. John the Baptist. Elijah, Jeremiah, etc. But he doesn’t. He tells the plain truth, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”.

Was Peter really smart to put all the pieces together? Did he know the scriptures really well and figure out all the signs? No. The Pharisees and teachers of the law maybe should have been able to do that, but they had a major mental block.

Is Peter just repeating something Jesus already told him earlier or strongly hinted at? No. This is new stuff. He’s not just spitting back canned answers.

“Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you.” Peter got the right answer, but not by imitating anyone else or fashioning an ideal in the image of his own hopes. He knows it because of the direct intervention by the Father who is in heaven right now. It was a truly original idea.

I’ve mentioned this passage before, but it’s good so I’ll do so again:

Theology is the product of [worldly] Christianity and aids in its entrenchment. If theology deals with “timeless truths,” then all the temporal things we encounter in life are outside the range of theology.

But EVERYTHING we encounter in life is temporal. Therefore, all life is outside of theology.

All that remains within the realm of theology are (perhaps) ecstatic and “timeless” encounters of the soul with God, God with the soul. Theology keeps Christian teaching at the margins and ensures that other voices, other languages, other words shape the world of temporalities. Politics is left to politicians, economics to economists, sociology to sociologists, history to historians, and philosophy to madmen.

Theology ensures that Christians have nothing to say about nearly everything.

-Peter Leithart, Against Christianity, Ch.2 Sec. 4

This came to mind again recently while a friend was discussing the “non-overlapping magisteria” idea that says that science (biology, psychology, physics, etc.) have NOTHING to say about spirituality and religion and that religious people have NOTHING valid to say about science. Of course I think this is obviously just a ploy to stuff religious people in the closet and exclude them from virtually any meaningful discussion.

My friend was concerned over Leithart’s use of the word “theology” in this passage and I’ll admit, he is using a specific definition of it here so he can be “against” it, as well as using a certain definition of “christianity” so he can be against that too, as the book title implies. It’s a bit controversial by design. The theology he is talking about is the kind that has decided to play the secularist’s game and ONLY talk about abstract spiritual things that can be easily disconnected from any real people, places, or things. When you hear a liberal Episcopalian minister preach about “the Christ”, then you know this sort of thing is going on. Equally so though, a thoroughly orthodox theologian can get carried away with pie-in-the sky discussions of the Trinity or concepts like election or even purgatory. They can find themselves with nothing to say about anything temporal. By default they’ve handed off healing to the pharmacist, parenting to the psychologist, and their wealth to the banker, none of whom are likely to fear God.

To the degree that we’ve trusted economics to economists and politics to politicians is the degree that we, as Christians, have abdicated. Christians should have something to say about all these things – something Trinitiarian even. A theology that is mostly abstract and deals in “timeless truths” is essentially gnostic. We need a theology with some dirt on it, with some flesh and blood, that means something vital for what you are doing right now, whether it’s sitting on your butt at the keyboard thinking and typing (like I am right now) or in the kitchen eating a burrito, or yelling at your kids to brush their teeth, or a thousand other things.

When we talk about God or “what the Bible says” in a fashion where it’s all this “out there” knowledge that we are then going to bring in and apply to life, complete with a power point slide for each element, we are playing on Dawkin’s and the other secularist’s own turf. We give them a place to stand from which to say that we shouldn’t bring that stuff in and “apply” it.

But God is actually tied up in everything we do and have ever done. I love this passage from Chesterton on this matter:

It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Ch.6

I feel that way when someone asks me why I am a Christian! Answering something like “because the Bible says so” is so insufficient it sounds almost silly. A more careful answer about the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is probably more technically accurate, but is still only one piece of the puzzle, even if it is the central piece. It is difficult to answer because all the real reasons are tied up in a million different things.

If I am going to “do theology”, I think it’s going to have to be tied up in a lot of temporal things. It must be earthy.

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I was surprised. I actually enjoyed “The Ballad of the White Horse” quite a bit. It would make a good short play if you could swing the costumes.

Chesterton is proud to be a Christian and so are the heroes in his tale, something you don’t see dared that much lately. I like it. Let’s see more. I copied down a few odd passages I enjoyed:

Here, King Alfred’s Irish friend Colan’s harp is described:

His harp was carved and cunning
As the Celtic craftsman makes,
Graven all over with twisting shapes
Like many headless snakes

His harp was carved and cunning
His sword prompt and sharp,
And he was gay when he held the sword,
Sad when he held the harp.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse, Book II

This section contains some comments on free will and takes, like Tolkien I think, a high view of man’s creative power, endowed by God very intentionally of course. It’s far better to “fall with Adam” and admit your sin, leaning on God, than to pridefully follow after other gods of your own devising as if you were still hot stuff.

When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight,
That might betray his lord;

He brake Him and betrayed Him
And fast and far he fell
Till you and I may stretch our necks
And burn our beards in hell.

But though I lie on the floor of the world
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.

-Book III

Later, Colan pulls a fast one on Harold, one of the evil Viking lords. Exciting stuff!

For Colan had not bow nor sling,
On a lonely sword leaned he,
Like Arthur on Excalibur
In the battle by the sea.

To his great gold earring Harold
Tugged back the feathered tail
And swift and sprung the arrow,
But swifter sprang the Gael.

Whirling the one sword round his head,
A great wheel in the sun,
He sent it splendid through the sky
Flying before the shaft could fly –
It smote Earl Harold over the eye,
And blood began to run.

-Book V

I just finished reading Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
I’d read the story before (not really one of my favorites) but had never experienced J.R.R.’s alliterative verse before.
It’s fun to read out loud:

“At whiles with worms he wars, and with wolves also”

Thousands of lines and nearly every line has 3-5 words with the same beginning consonant.

This epic was so over-the-top though in it’s grandiose descriptions of even the smallest thing. I just didn’t get that much of a kick out of, for example, the several pages spent describing the tack on his horse. Oh well. I copied down this section where he is journeying through the forest, battling bad guys left and right with ridiculous frequency for the largely uninhabited north of Britain in the seventh century.

Many a cliff he climbed o’er in countries unknown,
far fled from his friends without fellowship he rode.
At every wading or water on the way that e passed
he found a foe before him, save at a few for wonder;
and so foul were they and fell that fight he must needs.
So many a marvel in the mountains he met in those lands
that ‘twould be tedious the tenth part to tell you thereof.
At whiles with worms he wars, and with wolves also,
at whiles with wood-trolls that wandered in the crags,
and with bulls and with bears and boars, too, t times;
and with ogres that founded him from the heights of the fells.
Had he not been stalwart and staunch and steadfast in God,
he doubtless would have died and death had met often;
for though war wearied him much, the winter was worse,
when the cold clear water from the clouds spilling
froze ere it had falled upon the faded earth.
Well-night slain by the sleet he slept ironclad
more nights than enow in the naked rocks,
where clattering from the crest te cold brook tumbled,
and hung high o’er his head in hard icicles.
Thus in peril and pain and in passes grievous
tll Christmas-eve that country he crossed all alone
in need.
The knight did at that tide
his plaint to Mary plead,
her rider’s road to guid
and to some lodging lead.

I’ve been reading through the Ballad of the White Horse and am definitely enjoying bits of it.

The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.

The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.

The wise men know that wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten Seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse, Book I

A. He rises from his bed.

B. Opening the scriptures, he discovers a chiasm

C. He writes a blog post about it.

D. He keeps writing, finishing a brilliant 300-page work on the topic.

C’. He updates the book list on the sidebar of his blog.

B’. He closes the scriptures

A’. He returns to bed.

We are close to adopting our fourth child, second adopted child, soon. All of the mountains of paperwork are complete. All our documents have been translated into Amharic and are sitting in an office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, waiting to be filed at the courthouse. We’re waiting for the authority’s role of red tape to finally deplete itself. Hasn’t happened yet. I’m told “any day now”, but a lot of days have passed.

Every Sunday, I walk downtown and have a cup of Ethiopian coffee at a local shop that almost always has some Yirgacheffe in the carafe. It comes from only about 100 miles south of the village where my hopefully, soon-to-be daughter was born. I distract myself every day with activities with my wife and children, as well as the endless projects at the office. But I also remind myself of her.

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This is from a larger passage where SK deals with the fact that SO much art (be it painting, poetry, music, etc.) are so full of very short-term passion. This could be the thrill of sex, the anguish of death at the moment of passing, the fury of the heat of battle, the sublime fleeting moment of beauty. It turns out, the very nature of art is that it is REALLY good at communicating short things like this. So that’s what it usually gets used for. LONG things though, are very difficult to get across. I love this passage:

If I imagine a hero who loses his life, this can be concentrated very well in the moment, but the daily dying cannot, because the point is that it goes on every day. Courage can be concentrated very well in the moment; patience cannot, precisely because patience contends against time. (etc.) The man married fifteen years – He has not fought with lions and ogres, but with the most dangerous enemy — with time.

-Either/Or, p.68

The wonder of love can be captured in music and poetry, but what about the patience love of fifteen years of marriage? Not so much. And yet the latter SHOULD probably be celebrated even more! It is a challenge, but a worthwhile one.

We recently watched the documentary Into Great Silence. It follows the life of some very quiet and ascetic Christian monks living high in the Alps. It’s three hours long and there is no narration and only a few minutes worth of talking. “You have seduced me, Oh Lord, and I was seduced” appears on the screen at slow regular intervals. On one hand, the film is terribly boring. On the other hand, I think is successfully communicates the long-suffering of the monks in a way nothing else could. As art, as a meditation, it is very successful. If you sitting there in our seat and starting to squirm (like I was!), then I think the point is being made.

My wife also commented that she has seen some wonderful black-and-white photography of elderly people that she thought successfully communicates the ideas of age and long-suffering. I had to agree.

Still, can you think of a pop song that successfully communicates the joy of fifteen years of marriage? I don’t think they even try! Country singers do sometimes.

I can think of lots of examples from classical music, nearly all of them soaked in short-term passion. Think of the oozing love of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Or fate knocking on the door in Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Or the short lively dance of the bird-catcher in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Or the gorgeous snow-flakes falling in the second movement of Vivalid’s Winter.

Where am I going with this? In a world full novels with 4-page chapters, 1-second cuts in movies, music videos, 3-minute pop songs, YouTube clips, the short and punchy art is more prevalent than ever. Now, that’s just great for short and punchy things. But many things about Christianity, many things about the way that Jesus Chris is redeeming creation, many things about the beauty and character of God, many of these things have a “slow” quality that needs a different medium and/or a skilled and keen artist.

An eschatological example: I think the story of the end-time “rapture” is mistaken, but its short punchy quality makes it easy to imagine, communicate and portray. The glorious long haul of post-millennialism does not lend itself to expression as a sound-bite.

The Christian does not deny the beauty of the young woman on MTV shakin’ her booty. But he prizes much more the beauty of a highly loved wife and mother watching her children grow up, get married, and build houses. The latter is more difficult to capture powerfully in art, because it “contends with time” as SK says.

If we are to tell the story of Jesus and his deep love for us and redemption, the gospel, then we are going to find ourselves telling a LONG story. We creative artists need more practice at doing this without making something boring as well.

Some solid education philosophy here from SK.

This is the secret in the entire art of helping. Anyone who cannot do this is himself under a delusion if he thinks he is able to help someone else. In order truly to help someone else, I must understand more than he – but certainly first and foremost understand what he understands. If I do not do that, then my greater understanding does not help him at all. If I nevertheless want to assert my greater understanding, then it is because I am vain or proud, then basically instead of benefiting him I really want to be admired by him. But all true helping begins with a humbling. The helper must first humble himself under the person he wants to help and thereby understand that to help is not to dominate but to serve, that to help is not to be the most dominating but the most patient, that to help is a willingness in the time being to put up with being in the wrong and not understanding what the other understands.

-Soren Kierkegaard,  (forgot to write down the ref), EK p.460

You must start with what they know already. If this is impossible, then what? Assume they now NOTHING and build from the dirt up. I think this is what Bukvich is doing with music theory and aural skills. The people in the room who can’t handle it are the ones who know the most up front. But they need to humble themselves too to the method.

Some personal thoughts:

The terrible pressure of those who wish to argue is more than I can take. I flee it in agony and frown at their arrogance. An answer, I know I have, but if I cannot teach it, then what? I don’t wish to argue it and prove it with one who is steeped in all the special words. THEY will believe what they will and they have their reward. But if what they believe cannot be taught to the common man, then I question not just its usefulness, but also its truth and even validity. If only someone who can discern the ancient languages in the original script stands a chance to grasp your image of God then is it really a very good image in the first place? You say you battle modernity, but at what point does your knowledge, venerable as it may be, become properly classified as esoteric?

All those smart guys say again and again that you must be able to argue your guts out. But I am sick of them. They would remake all of God’s children like themselves – paying lip service to those with a quiet faith but nonetheless implying them stupid at every turn. On one hand, I want to be just like them, the smart arguers. I know I could do a decent job with practice. But the whole endeavor is so despicable, it makes me want to spew. What am I to do? Who can blame the world for accusing our theodicy of being little more than linguistic hand-waving? Only those with faith can understand and the faithful don’t really need to know that much anyway.