An answer in need of a problem

Remember the Anthrax scare in late 2001? Everyone was on edge from 9/11 and suddenly mail laced with concentrated Anthrax spores showed up all over the country, killing five people and infecting 17 others. After 7 years of investigations, the FBI recently declared who probably did it: Dr. Bruce Ivins, senior biodefence research scientist, publisher of 44 scientific papers and one of the key developers of the Anthrax vaccine. He’d spent his whole life studying the weaponized form of the bacteria. He must have been deeply discouraged that it had never been unleashed in any kind of attack. It turns out all his knowledge and services was never to be in demand. All that work down the drain, so to speak.

It reminds me of another poem by Billy Collins:


Smokey the Bear heads
into the autumn woods
with a red can of gasoline
and a box of wooden matches.

His ranger’s hat is cocked
at a disturbing angle.

His brown fur gleams
under the high sun
as his paws, the size
of catcher’s mitts,
crackle into the distance.

He is sick of dispensing
warnings to the careless,
the half-wit camper,
the dumbbell hiker.

He is going to show them
how a professional does it.

The hope we need

A few days ago on Sunday, our church small group met in our house. The discussion wound it’s way into politics and some people were rather emotional – dismayed about the election of Barak Obama and especially at the likely rise in the permissiveness and number of abortions. I was concerned along with them. I’m not very excited about stepping on the gas as we drive down the road to socialism. I had a hard time getting as worked up though.

The next evening I read this in Thomas Merton’s early journals. They were from when he was a young man, before he entered the monastery. They were published late in his life in 1958 at the insistence of others. He decided that any money generated from it’s sale would go to a charity run by a friend of his, Catherine de Hueck. In the preface he describe her ministry and her background. She used to be rich, but lost everything when she fled from Russia in 1917 as the communists were taking over, about to murder 47 million of their own citizens.

The revolution had made her poor. Far from resenting the fact, she embraced it with prodigious good humor and fervent thanksgiving as a marvelous grace from God.

She is not the kind of person that gets overexcited at the thought of communism. The Reds do not upset her, and never will. She knows that if there was a revolution in Russia, there were reasons for one: she has not ceased to believe in cause and effect, just because the revolution happened to enter, quite brutally, into her own personal life. She knows from experience why communism to some extent appeals to certain elements in the western working class. Above all, because she is a Christian, she is thoroughly aware of the futility and inner contradictions of a dialectic that is purely materialistic. The Reds do not worry her, because she knows that they will end up in another one of those ashcans, further down the street of history.

-Thomas Merton, Secular Journals, preface

And in many people’s same lifetime, they did end up in the ashcan. Now I think that’s the kind of hope we need. Not a complacency (she devoted her life to serving the poor), and not freaking out. We’re a small slice of history. Jesus is Lord.

Measure substance, not the messenger

Keen insight can come from an amateur. Keep your eye out for it. Sometimes the celebrity is mediocre.

Let not the authority of the writer offend thee, whether he be of great or small learning; but let the love of pure truth draw thee to read. Search not who spoke this or that, but mark what is spoken.

Men pass away, but the truth of the Lord remaineth for ever. God speaks unto us in different ways, without respect of persons.

-Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book I, Ch. 5

Scones in my bones

Yes, I again baked scones today. I’m going to keep trying until I get a good recipe worked out.

This one used sour cream and a really high ratio of baking powder.

This one used an egg glaze right before baking. That was a good step in the right direction I think.

It had so much baking powder though that you could taste the slight bitterness from it. Maybe a bit more sugar would cover it up.

In this case I also added slivered almonds and amaretto glaze. Still needs work.

Leaving the circus

In this passage Donal Miller explored why he didn’t like church, at least ones he went to for the first few years.

Here are the things I didn’t like about the churches I went to. First: I felt like people were trying to sell me Jesus. I was a salesman for a while, and we were taught that you are supposed to point out all the benefits of a product when you are selling it. That is how I felt about some of the preachers I heard speak. They were always pointing out the benefits of Christian faith. That rubbed me wrong. It’s not that there aren’t benefits, there are, but did they have to talk about spirituality like it’s a vacuum cleaner? I never felt like Jesus was a product. I wanted Him to be a person. Not only that but they were always pointing out how great the specific church was. The bulletin read like a brochure for Amway. They were always saying how life-changing some conference was going to be. Life-changing? What does that mean? It sounded very suspicious. I wish they would just tell it to me straight rather than trying to sell me on everything. I felt like I got bombarded with commercials all week and then went to church and got even more.

And yet another thing about the churches I went to: They seemed to be parrots for the Republican Party. Do we have to tow the party line on every single issue? Are the Republicans that perfect? I just felt like, in order to be a part of the family, I had to think George W. Bush was Jesus. And I didn’t. I didn’t think that Jesus really agreed with a lot of the policies of the Republican Party or for that matter the Democratic Party. I felt like Jesus was a religious figure, not a political figure. I heard my pastor say once, when there were only a few of us standing around, that he hated Bill Clinton. I can understand not liking Clinton’s policies, but I want my spirituality to rid me of hate, not give me reason for it. I couldn’t deal with that. That is one of the main reasons I walked away. I felt like, by going to this particular church, I was a pawn for the Republicans. Meanwhile, the Republicans did not give a crap about the causes of Christ.

-Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, p.131

It’s pretty much all standard things from the evangelical circus. Nearly all developments within the last 40 years. Is it any wonder there are so many movements against this kind of setup? (House churches, neo-litergical movements, neo-reformation movements, neo-monasticism movements, etc. All over the board too. Young people, old people, intelligensia and non. A lot of people want to follow Christ, but really can’t stand it looking like THAT anymore.


Hunger (by Billy Collins)

The fox you lug over your shoulder
in a dark sack
has cut a hole with a knife
and escaped

The sudden lightness makes you think
you are stronger
as you walk back to your small cottage
through a forest that covers the world.

Photo credit

Christianity is NOT outside ordinary life

The online arts and culture blog The Rabbit Room has a great interview up with Steve Turner, author of The Gospel According to the Beatles and Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts.

This part sounded familiar:

We have just developed a very narrow idea of what “Christian” is. I saw an entry in a directory for Christian artists where someone had advertised themselves as writing “poetry both Christian and non Christian.” I think he meant poetry that was specifically religious and poetry that was about everday life but he had unconsciously betrayed the fact that, when he wrote asbout ordinary events in his life, he thought of these things as somehow outside his experience as a Christian. As though God is not interested in us walking, eating, fishing, playing ball, shopping, etc.

Where have we heard that? To quote Leithart again:

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

Turner goes on, raggin’ on the monks and the fundamentalists for being like the monks. Actually I think he’s right on in this case:

Hank Rookmaaker the Dutch art historian used to say, “Christ didn’t die in order that we could go to more prayer meetings.” People would gasp at this. Then he would add, “Christ died to make us fully human.” That’s right. He didn’t die to make us religious, but to make us human. In our fallen state, we lack the completeness of our humanity. The monastic tradition makes the mistake of thinking that God is best pleased with us when we cut ourselves off from the world, deny ourselves pleasure, refrain from marriage and devote ourselves totally to religious activities. This almost assumes that God made a mistake in putting us in a world of pleasure, culture, art, nature, work, companionship, etc. Fundamentalists would hate to be compared with medieval monks but, in many ways, they suffer from the same split.

More on how we are less human than we should be

A couple days ago I posted Chesterton’s answers to these questions:

“What are you?” – God knows

“What is the meaning of the Fall of Man?” – That whatever I am, I am not myself.

Along these same lines, Merton describes how God knows our innermost thoughts – not as an outside observer reading our mind like some kind of alien on Star Trek, or as a lover who we confide our secrets to, but from INSIDE, just as we know ourselves, only without the fall limiting that ability.

God knows us from within ourselves, not as objects, not as strangers, not as intimates, but as our own selves. His knowledge of us in the pure light of which our own self-knowledge is only a dim reflection. He knows us in Himself, not merely as images of something outside Him, but as “selves” in which His own self is expressed. he finds Himself more perfectly in us than we find ourselves.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, (forgot the reference)

Why explaining faith is complicated

Often it seems skeptics want an answer for why we believe what we believe. And they snort when we aren’t able to give them an 2 to 3 sentence answer right away. Bah! As if complexity or variety somehow made things less true. That if God is real then he must be a simple God. How simple is love? Love for a wife, or for a child? They may be simple in some ways, and very complicated in other ways. That it can’t be explained in one breath in no way means it is weak or unfounded.

If I am asked as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, “For the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity.” I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts. The secularist is not to be blamed because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy; it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and on old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion.

Now, the non-Christiaity of the average educated man to-day is almost always, to do him justice, made up of these loose but living experiences. I can only say that my evidences for Christianity are of the same vivid but varied kind as his evidences against it.

-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Ch. 9, p. 143

I can hear by wife saying now “Well of course that’s how we come to believe things. That’s just common sense.” Oh, but so easily forgotten I think. I’ve been in many Christian circles where intellectual argument was promoted as the primary tool of evangelism. Beating down the devil’s strongholds in the mind and all that. Now that’s just great but it neglects how people came to their (non) faith in the first place.

Hitting them over the head with good theology and philosophy might make some headway, but that’s like assuming they believe what they do from reading four books, as Chesterton mentions above. But what if their hate of Christianity is a combination of many things (and it almost certainly is). Consider this young man:

1. His father was a “devout” Christian, but also a hypocrite who verbally abused him.

2. In school, he was regularly taught that man is simply a highly evolved animal. The creation myths in the Bible can’t possibly be real.

3. He has been living with their girlfriend for a couple years, likes sleeping with her, has a good job, and things are getting on just fine. Gettin’ religion would just screw that up. Why bother?

4. He had a roommate in college who converted to Christianity. He used to be fun to hang out with, but now he’s kind of a jerk.

Now, if he’s open to a long enough conversation, talking some good foundational ethics might undermine his beliefs in #2 above. But that’s about it. And that’s the bulk of our evangelistic endevour? Sorry try again. No wonder that has almost no effect.

A lot of Christians have realized this, and have tried to come up with something else. Call it “friendship evangelism”. Well, meeting several people who are Christians that are also friendly, intelligent, charitable, and have a good sense of humor could go a long way to undermining problem #4. That’s cool.

You’re still only halfway there at best though. What could you possibly do about #3? Probably nothing. Losing his job or having his girlfriend upset about something would probably be the best thing to shake that up.

And what about #1? He might become a Christian and STILL have trouble with this. Not uncommon, eh?

So why do we believe what we do? Lots of little things. Maybe 100 little things.

C.S. Lewis wrote The Pilgrim’s Regress as an allegory about how he came to faith in Christ. It was only later he realized that almost nobody could relate to his book. It turns out virtually nobody he ever met, even his close intellectual friends like Tolkien, had walked a long philosophical journey resembling what he had experienced. You’re unlikely to find this early work of his on many shelves.

The fall = less human

Be yourself!

In Sir Oliver Lodge’s interesting new Catechism, the first two questions were: “What are you?” and “What, then, is the meaning of the Fall of Man?” I remember amusing myself by writing my own answers to the questions; but I soon found that they were very brken and agnostic answers. To the question, “What are you?” I could only ansswer, “God knows.” And to the question, “What is meant by the Fall?” I could answer with complete sincerity, “That whatever I am, I am not myself.” This is the prime paradox of our religion; something that we have never in any full sense known, is not only better than ourselves, but even more natural to us than ourselves.

-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Ch. 9