My 3-year-old daughter has already absorbed many indispensable pieces of knowledge from her father. An awareness of the utter coolness of robots, I am proud to say, is top on the list. This morning, without any help or prodding, she drew a wicked robot for her mom:
About a year ago, I heard a brilliant 1 hour interview with N.T. Wright about his new book Simply Christian. It’s meant to be a introduction to Christianity and a basic apologetic in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I’m not sure why I put this one off so long, but I finally got a hold of a copy and read through it this week.
My verdict is that Mere Christianity still quite a bit better, though Simply Christian has some very excellent sections. Just like Lewis, Wright approaches spirituality in general and then gradually brings in central Christian beliefs and finally church mechanics. In the middle section on Jesus, Lewis stays calm and concise where Wright gets a little bit too excited and tries to deal with too many things at once. Nevertheless, his chapters discussing our desire for beauty are a really excellent and an angle completely missing from Lewis’s work. His concise overview of scripture (The Book God Breathed) is also quite useful. He doesn’t get hung up on any details.
Anyway, the book is definitely worth reading, regardless of where you are on your journey to or in Christianity. It turns out all of the very best parts were quoted in the interview I originally listed to. Smart guy. This extended excerpt begins one of my favorite parts:
One day, rummaging through a dusty old attic in a small Austrian town, a collector comes across a faded manuscript containing many pages of music. It is written for the piano. Curious, he takes it to a dealer. The dealer phones a friend, who appears half an hour later. When he sees the music he becomes excited, then puzzled. This looks like the handwriting of Mozart himself, but it isn’t a well-known piece. In fact, he’s never heard it. More phone calls. More excitement. More consultations,. It really does seem to be Mozart. And, though some parts seem distantly familiar, it doesn’t correspond to anything already known in his works.
Before long, someone is sitting at a piano. The collector stands close by, not wanting to see his precious find damaged as the pianist turns the pages. But then comes a fresh surprise. Te music is wonderful. It’s just the sort of thing Mozart would have written. It’s energetic and elgiac by turns; it’s got subtle harmonic shifts, some splendid tunes, and a ringing finale. But it seems…incomplete. There are places where nothing much seems to be happening, where the piano is simply marking time. There are other places where the writing is faded and it isn’t quite clear, but it looks as though the composer has indicated, not just one or two bars rest, but a much longer pause.
Gradually the truth dawns on the excited little group. What they are looking at is indeed by Mozart. It is indeed beautiful. But it’s the piano part of a piece that involves another instrument, or perhaps other instruments. By itself it is frustratingly incomplete. A further search of the attic reveals nothing else that would provide a clue. The piano music is al there is, a signpost to something that was there once and mght still turn up one day. There must have been a complete work of art which would now, without additional sheet music, be almost impossible to reconstruct; they don’t know if the piano was to accompany an oboe or a bassoon, a violin or a cell, or perhaps a full string quartet or some other combination of instruments. If those other parts could be found, they would make complete sense of the incomplete beauty contained in the faded scribble of genius now before them.
This is the position we are in when confronted by beauty. The world is full of beauty, but the beauty is incomplete. Our puzzlement about what beauty is, what it means, and what (if anything) it is there FOR is the inevitable result of looking at one part of a larger whole. Beauty, in other words, is another echo of a voice – a voice which (from the evidence before us) might be saying one of several different things, but which, were we to hear it in all its fullness, would make sense of what we presently see ad hear and know and love and call “beautiful.”
…Beauty, like justice, slips through our fingers. We photograph the sunset, but all we get is the memory of the moment, not the moment itself. We buy the recording, but the symphony says something different when we listen to it at home. We climb the mountain, and though the view from the summit is indeed magnificent, it leaves us wanting more; even if we could build a house there and gaze all day at the scene, the itch wouldn’t go away. Indeed, the beauty sometimes seems to be in the itching itself, the sense of longing, the kind of pleasure which is exquisite and yet leaves us unsatisfied.
Wright goes on to explain how this unmet longing is actually the voice of our creator God calling to us. Goooooood stuff.
I’ve never read a philosophy book before. Really. I’ve skirted the subject with some of my interests in theology and psychology, but I’ve never jumped straight into one. With Rene Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, I’ll be attempting just that.
I’ve once heard that virtually all western thought is simply a footnote to Plato, and I’m beginning to see what is meant by that quote. So much of modern thought has just assumed all these things that Plato said were true and it’s proponents start with that assumption. Unfortunately, Plato’s ideas were NOT Christian and certainly not trinitarian. The fact that we as Christians continue to hold on to his ideas about metaphysics is actually a huger barrier to our understanding the Bible.
The main Platonic idea I’m talking about of course is the idea that the soul and body are completely separate entities. The soul is immortal. Our body is dust. Our body is just a container for our soul. The soul is good, the flesh is fallen and passing away. Sound familiar? I think I’ve heard this in church before. Except that’s actually not in the Bible. Not at all. This is not the basis of a sound theology of heaven and life after death. This is not the basis for understanding the incarnation and who Jesus is. This is not the basis for our approach to the future and the end of the world. But we are so used to this idea, it’s very hard to part with it.
(Plato on the far left. Not me on the far right. Photo credit.)
In beginning this book, I’m struck by how much the author has in common with N.T. Wright. Both of them feel it necessary to beat up Plato with a big stick before they can move forward with their discussion. They see this faulty idea as being a key thing that is holding us back from growing in our understanding of eschatology and life after death (in Wright’s case) and in religion and social relations in general (in Girard’s case). Girard is also a Christian, but he approaches many of these deep theological from a completely different angle then I am used to hearing. He doesn’t start by exegeting verses from the New Testament, but instead attempts to articulate a more global theory of religion and then work gradually inside from that to Jesus and why he is such a big deal. I’m looking forward to working through this one.
Since the attempt to understand religion on the basis of philosophy has failed, we ought to try the reverse method and read philosophy in light of religion.
Daniel Whitfield has made an astoundingly exhaustive study of every alcohol reference in Scripture– all 247 of them. I quote here his findings: On the negative side:
there are 17 warnings against abusing alcohol,
19 examples of people abusing alcohol,
3 references to selecting leaders,
and one verse advocating abstinence if drinking will cause a brother to stumble.
Total negative references 40, or 16%.
On the positive side:
there are 59 references to the commonly accepted practice of drinking wine (and strong drink) with meals,
27 references to the abundance of wine as an example of God’s blessing,
20 references to the loss of wine and strong drink as an example of God’s curse,
25 references to the use of wine in offerings and sacrifices,
9 references to wine being used as a gift, and
5 metaphorical references to wine as a basis for a favorable comparison.
Total positive references: 145, or 59%.
“Neutral references make up the other 25%. If I could add only one observation to Whitfield’s study: There is also one reference to medicinal alcohol: ‘No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of yopur stomach and your frequent ailments (1 Timothy 5.23).
My long and deeply thought-out conclusions: Wine is yummy! Drink it with meals and by itself! Enjoy it, just not too much. It makes for a nice gift too. Apparently God has cursed the baptists. So sad.