Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Monday, December 21, 2009

On My New Novel

I just got the happy news from my publisher that my latest book, Freedom Cry, is now out and available for sale from Amazon.com (it will also be out in other markets and distributors in a few weeks). For those of you who are interested, I thought I would give you a little background and synopsis of the book.

It's a fantasy/adventure novel. "Fantasy" is a wild and weird genre, so it merits some explanation of how my novel fits into that landscape. In this case, "fantasy" refers to the fact that my story takes place in an entirely made-up world, complete with its own cultures, history, languages, and so on. While other fantasy novels are rich in details like wizards, magic, dragons, vampires, and the like, my story is a bit more "down-to-earth," in the sense that its characters are all basically human. There is a small spark of otherworldly mystery in the story, but I can't really give that out without spoiling some of the plot. "Why fantasy?" some of you might ask. Well, a couple of the more superficial reasons are that it's fun to write, requires no research, and allows the broadest scope of creative imagination in the writing process. On a deeper level, though, fantasy offers possibilities that other genres don't, because it allows us to step outside of the problems of our world and our history and to examine the human condition from an entirely new perspective. I know that fantasy isn't everyone's cup of tea, but if you like a good adventure story, I'm pretty sure you'll like this book.

Freedom Cry takes place in a rich and vivid world, and it follows the story of a group of young men and women from a nation of slaves. They toil under brutal conditions in the mines of the pagan Empire of Rameress, just as generations before them have done. But they have their own culture, their own stories and histories--and those stories tell them that they were once a free people, enslaved against their will. Inspired by these traditions and their faith in Imminya, the Most High God, Dryhten (the main character) and his friends set a plan in motion to liberate their people. Against all odds, they break out from the slave-camps and begin a race across the Empire. Through long marches and battles and the delight of finding new allies along the way, they push towards the sea with the one hope that somehow they will be able to find a way back to their ancient homeland. And along the way, as they challenge their old enemies with their faith and virtue, they end up changing the Empire itself.

Freedom Cry is the first of three books--"The Hidden Kings Trilogy." It's actually based on a fanciful story I started writing way back in the 6th grade. During my high school years I put out a few historical fiction novels, but when I came to my college years and was in the middle of my overseas work, I found that I didn't have the research materials available there to do another historical fiction book. So I decided to resurrect my childhood novel just for fun. By the time I was done, I had fallen in love with the story. So I wrote a second book, The Conqueror's Song, which explores the ancient histories from which the Freedom Cry characters draw their inspiration. By that point I had decided at least to try to get them published, so that my family and friends could enjoy the story as much as I was. As I pursued that process, I finished out the trilogy with the final installment, Pathways of Mercy. (Neither The Conqueror's Song nor Pathways of Mercy are out yet, but I expect to start the publication process on them soon).

If it sounds to you like Freedom Cry shares some themes with the Exodus story, you're right. The trilogy is kind of a fun imagination-experiment: What might the story of salvation-history look like if enacted in an entirely different world, with its own cultures and history? Freedom Cry is the introduction to that world, and it's in The Conqueror's Song and Pathways of Mercy that the whole story, full of the cosmic wonder of God's grace, is unraveled and told. So the trilogy will have themes and parallels that you will undoubtedly recognize, but these stories will also be new adventures in their own right. (A good example would be in the way that C. S. Lewis' Narnia-world borrows themes and parallels of the history of salvation from our world, but sets them in a whole new context and history). On a more basic level, though, Freedom Cry is simply a story of virtue in action, of a cast of characters who must wrestle against injustice and violence, and who strive to find, in the midst of all that, paths of forgiveness.

If you choose to buy the book, I really think you'll enjoy the story, and I hope that it serves to inspire and lift up your heart. And on a completely different note, you should also buy this book because my wife and I are having a baby in a few days, and we could use a few royalty checks!

Blessings, and happy reading!
-Matt Burden

Monday, December 14, 2009

Life in the Slow Lane

Foundational American Virtues, and How I'm Subverting Them

A few months ago, I decided to turn down an opportunity for a part-time job in order to spend my days at home. For a man my age, that's usually a worrying symptom--"Why is he sitting around the house, letting his wife's job support them both, instead of being out working?" For many of us in American culture, our first thought is that such a man is evading responsibility, willfully choosing a life of laziness. We all know that there are too many people of my generation who are content to live in their parents' basements and play video games all day instead of being productive members of society.

In my particular case, my decision is probably not quite as worrisome, since I'll be starting a full-time pastoral position in February. This is, for me, a season of preparation and reflection rather than a willful escape from responsibility. But that's not really the point I want to make. Rather, I've found it interesting how this situation has highlighted certain cultural preconceptions we Americans have about work and leisure. I've felt like a counter-cultural radical for telling people that I chose to be unemployed. Isn't it interesting that the "virtues" that are most often honored in our culture are not things like charity and self-control, but productivity and efficiency? Just look at the last sentence of the previous paragraph--the contrast was between a lazy slacker and a "productive member of society." How many of you stopped to ask yourselves, "Why must a member of society be 'productive'?"

But we all do it--it's seeped into our language and the pattern of our thoughts. People ought to be, so we think, "productive members of society." That's one reason why the elderly are constantly being shoved to the margins. Something is vastly wrong. Productivity isn't necessarily bad, but it certainly shouldn't be the main virtue of our culture. And yet, for many of us, it is. (Perhaps the laziness of some members of my generation is a reaction against this unhealthy tendency.) We feel guilty for "wasting time." (As if time was a commodity or a possession that could actually be "spent" or "wasted" at all.)

Many other cultures in the world are experts at "wasting time" well, and their societies tend to be broader in virtues like hospitality and generosity as a result. In north Africa, where I lived for three months in 2004, the typical work-day still reflects the more leisurely pace of a desert-nomadic lifestyle. Sudanese men usually show up for work around 9 or 10. At 11, they take a break to eat the first meal of the day. That can last a couple hours, in which they rest in the shade, eat slowly, and talk with friends. They get back to work at 1 PM, and end their day around 3, so they can go home and be with their families for the central meal of the day (which, again, lasts a couple hours). Evenings are spent talking around little fires on the street corners with their friends and neighbors. So, from our American perspective, they don't get much done. They don't become wealthy from working these jobs. But they do have deep, rich relationships with one another, and they have time to cultivate the ancient and venerable arts of music and storytelling. After living with them for awhile, I wasn't entirely sure that our way of doing things was any better. We're wealthier and we finish our work-tasks faster, but most of us live at such a frenetic pace that we're almost constantly worn out. In our culture, even those who don't have full-time jobs feel the pressure to be constantly doing something. I would argue that even the vice of laziness in our culture is usually displayed in a preoccupied, always-active manner. There always needs to be something going on, something to distract us, whether that's the TV or the Internet or any of a thousand other entertainments. How many people take time to simply be silent?

Or consider this: when we meet someone new, what's the first question that we ask about their identity (besides an exchange of names)? "So, what do you do?" And what we mean, of course, is "What's your job?" Sometimes this is just a pleasant way of inquiring into what we assume takes up the bulk of a person's time. But more often, it's an expression of identity. We are what we do. "I'm a pastor." "I'm a construction worker." "I'm a professional curler." We refer to our jobs in terms of being, as if they define who we are. I'm not saying that this is a bad or improper state of affairs, but simply that it betrays something fundamental about our unconscious cultural assumptions. It has been good for me to have a few months to separate myself from that, to realize that I am who I am regardless of what I do for work. Maybe the next time you meet someone new, you can mix it up a little bit and give them the freedom to define themselves: "So, tell me about yourself."

Frenetic Utilitarians

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic book of observations on American society, Democracy in America, offers some penetrating insights into our culture. He noted that Americans, even when they take holidays and vacations, are characterized by rapid, frenetic activity. Even in the 1830s (when De Tocqueville wrote), Americans were using vacations as time to go somewhere, to see something new, to do that thing they've always wanted to do. De Tocqueville, coming from a more traditional European culture, found that odd. For him, vacations were a time to be restful. This is, to a degree, still the case. I recall reading an article about a year ago that compared Finnish attitudes toward work and leisure to American attitudes. The Finns, in stark contrast to Americans, regularly chose time with family rather than incentives of more money, and they tended to spend their vacation in rustic wilderness cabins rather than on expensive trips to someplace new. And, surprise surprise!--the Finns turned out to be generally more content with their lives than Americans did.

De Tocqueville also noted that while democracy usually tends toward the most egalitarian and just society, it does not usually produce the greatest society. When he speaks of "greatness," he is speaking in terms of cultural greatness. Democracy is more effecient at producing wealth for all levels of society, but it is not as good as the old societies of Europe (which had the benefit of rich patrons-of-the-arts) at producing great works of high culture. Also, since democracy pushes its citizens all to be self-sufficient and productive, there is no large class of people who have time for leisure and philosophy and prayer. In a democracy, it is only a few scattered individuals who must carve out their own time to pursue these ends, rather than whole classes of people whose lives were devoted to "the liberal arts." The argument is that democracy is a utilitarian society, which only allows for activities that are a means to an end (usually earning money)--the servile arts--and this leaves no time or space for those activities which are ends in themselves--the liberal arts that still stand out as the highest achievements of Western civilization. That's not to say that we should go back to feudalism, but it's interesting to note that democracy, for all its virtues, requires a tradeoff, and one that we may not have completely thought through. In our society, there is very little place for what Thomas Aquinas pointed to as a necessity: "It is necessary for the perfection of human society that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation."

So what are the activities that are not means, but ends in themselves? It's worth asking whether we in American culture still even understand what it means for something to be "an end in itself." As one of my seminary professors said, "Sometimes I think we follow Jeremy Bentham more than we follow Jesus." (Jeremy Bentham was the British philosopher who advocated utilitarianism--the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined by its results, i.e., by its usefulness toward certain ends.) We are such results-oriented people that we have trouble thinking in any other terms.

I remember standing in the great nave of the beautiful abbey of Bath, England back in 2002, and saying to my fellow students that I would prefer worshipping in a small, nondescript modern building because the excess money could be spent on missions and charity. I didn't realize at the time that I was saying almost exactly the same thing that Judas said when he objected to the lavish extravagance of the woman spilling out perfume and anointing Jesus' feet (John 12:1-8). I was a utilitarian, like Judas, not understanding that that magnificent abbey was worth the cost of being built simply because it was beautiful. It was worth building because the act of building was, at least in part, an act of love for God. There are many things in life that are worth doing, regardless of the results that come from them. It is worth painting a picture, even if no one will see it. It is worth growing flowers in your yard, not because they make your house look better, but because flowers are beautiful in and of themselves. It is worth writing a masterful blog-article, even if no one will read it because you don't post often enough to maintain a regular audience, and when you do post, your blogs are ridiculously long. It's worth contemplating the mystery of the Trinity, even if you never figure it out (and you won't). Our God is not a utilitarian. He built a universe of astonishing beauty, crafting countless worlds that no human eye will ever see.

Perhaps our disease of utilitarianism is the reason why no one takes seriously the ancient and venerable Christian practices of voluntary poverty, silence, and contemplative prayer. These are awfully hard disciplines to undertake as utilitarians, because we have no idea what we'll get out of them, if anything. And so we willfully ignore Jesus' command to "sell your possessions and give the money to the poor" (which he gave not only to the rich young ruler, but to the whole community of disciples--Luke 12:33). We rationalize it away--"Wouldn't it be more effective for the Kingdom of God if I invested all my money and kept it growing so that I could continually be giving to the poor, instead of giving just once?" Maybe. But maybe an act of obedience to Christ is worth doing simply because it's an act of obedience, regardless of what comes out of it. (And I suspect that God may know certain positive "results" of a life of voluntary poverty and simplicity that we can't even imagine.) The same dynamic faces us when we consider silence and contemplative prayer. It's hard to follow the example of Mary and simply spend time quietly at Jesus' feet, listening and waiting in his presence. Like Martha, we want to be doing something. Those of us utilitarians who love prayer rush to intercessory prayer, where we feel we can accomplish something. And don't get me wrong, intercessory prayer is important--most of the times prayer is mentioned in the New Testament, intercession seems to be in view--but we can't underestimate the importance of simply being in the presence of God, quietly waiting and resting in him. All of Christian tradition speaks with one voice that this is an indispensable mark of the spiritual life.

Our utilitarianism can also be seen in how we approach ministry. Almost all of the books published on Christian ministry nowadays are on methods--on things we can do to further the Kingdom of God. And again, don't get me wrong--those things are important. We need to be active. But we don't need to be active to the point of assuming that the Kingdom of God depends solely on our activity. We need to recognize that this ministry is God's ministry before it is ours, and that while he does his work through us, he doesn't need us. The church would benefit, I think, from having more ministers whose first impulse is to seek the face of God in prayer rather than to constantly spin new strategies for church growth. If our ministry is a restless race to implement new programs, rather than a quiet trust in God's action and provision, then we must re-evaluate. I am not, of course, advising complete passivity. But I am advising us to understand that the church is God's church, and that the laity will benefit as much, if not more, from our times of contemplation in the presence of God as from our frenetic activities on their behalf.

Rest and Re-creation

So far we've been discussing the cultural problems with our attitudes toward work and leisure and utilitarianism, but now we come to the solution. What, exactly, should the pattern of work and rest look like for the Christian? And, at a deeper level, what does rest mean?

The first thing to note is that rest has been a central feature of mankind's relationship with God from the very beginning. Through his acts in creation, and again in giving the Ten Commandments, God ordained the Sabbath--one day in seven set apart for rest and worship. (Isn't it interesting that most Christians nowadays would agree that the moral principles behind the other nine commandments ought to be rigorously kept, while the actual observance of the Sabbath is either dropped altogether or reduced into a day of sloth?) In early Christian theology, the Sabbath took on a distinct set of theological overtones. Christians believe that the redemption wrought through Christ extends not just to individual human souls, but also (in some way yet to be revealed) to all of creation. The Bible speaks of the "new earth," and the prophets leave us with brilliant images of a renewed creation. The early church fathers spoke of this period of renewal as the "eighth day." God created the universe in six days, with humanity at the climax of the process. The Sabbath, then, was interpreted as the whole period of human history, in which God was resting from his creative action. This would lead up to the eighth day, when the renewal of creation would begin (but, interestingly, it will begin in reverse order, with the re-creation of humanity leading into the re-creation of the universe. Many of the fathers mark the events of the Gospel and Pentecost as the beginning of the eighth day, since that's when the renewal of humanity began). The Sabbath, then, is the anticipatory rest of God, making ready for the renewal of all things. In the same way, the fathers said, our practice of the Sabbath is a restful looking-forward to that great renewal. In this way of thinking, the Sabbath-principle instructs us that our rest ought to carry with it a taste of the world to come, a preparation for our re-creation. I love the fact that English has preserved this theological idea in the fact that our word "recreation" is, in fact, the word re-creation. Our recreation ought to center around those things that serve to re-create us into what God would have us be--the reflection of his character and glory, fully united to him.

So what are those ways of resting that prepare us for the coming renewal? Some of them are activities that the church has always practiced--worship and fellowship. Directing our time and our focus toward God and toward one another are what the Sabbath ought to be about. But there's another major practice that I want to focus on. I've mentioned it a few times already--it's what Christian tradition has called "contemplation." We believe that God is constantly speaking, constantly revealed in the things he has made. As such, we learn and grow as much by contemplation--by, as Heraclitus puts it, "listening to the essence of things"--as by the more active, logical means of learning. Contemplation is simply the practice of listening to God, just as Mary listened to Jesus. It is the practice of quiet rest in the divine presence, not trying to accomplish anything, but simply being there with God. Some of the most powerfully intimate moments in earthly relationships are those times of sharing a thoughtful, loving silence together, and it's the same with God. This patient, trusting expectancy is what draws us closer to him, and if two thousand years of Christian mystics are to be believed, this is what he uses to take hold of us, transform us, and unite us with the energies of his own being.

It should be noted that this is vastly different than what our culture thinks of as "leisure." As I noted above, most of our leisure is characterized by activity and distractions. Most Americans have a really hard time with just being quiet. We need the noise and bustle of music or banter or TV--something so that we don't have to face ourselves, or God, in the silence. True rest is something very different from our normal work, but it's also something very different from the way we Americans normally try to take our leisure. We often draw a false dichotomy between work and "wasting time," activity and laziness, but these all miss the mark. The true dichotomy, the true partnership, is between work and true rest. As the Benedictine rule has always put it, "ora et labora"--prayer and work. Laziness has more in common with unsettled work than it does with true rest. It is an evasion of ourselves, an attempt to distract ourselves from issues of identity. Unsettled work is similar--an attempt to define ourselves and shape our identity by what we do. But true rest is an exploration of our actual identity, apart from all we franctically try to make it out to be, and the only place to find it is in God.

True rest is a willful relinquishment of our personal sovereignty. We give up the delusion that our accomplishments are as important as we think they are. We give up the constant pressure to perform, and we enter the presence of God with nothing to prove, nothing to accomplish. In this way, true rest is quite a bit like sleep. Why are humans programmed to sleep? It serves its biological function, to be sure, but it also serves as a mandatory reminder that we are not in control. We must relinquish ourselves to the sovereignty of God each and every day, to let go and accept the fact that the world will not fall apart just because we've fallen asleep. True rest is like that. It is an acknowledgement that we are human, and that God is God. And in the practice of contemplation--whether it's silent prayer or meditation on the Word or a slow and thoughtful walk in the woods--we begin to see things as they truly are. And then, with that perspective, we realize that although our work is important, it is not as important as we've made it out to be. We realize that it is in detachment from those things that we hold dear, those things that we try to use to define ourselves--our work, our stuff, our family, our status, our accomplishments--it's in detachment from these things that we draw close to God.

A Season of Rest

These are lessons I'm still learning. These past few months haven't been one long, blissful moment of mystical contemplation. I've done my fair share of "wasting" time and cluttering my life with petty distractions. But I've also been able to pray now and then, to establish new disciplines in my life, to read and write and think without worrying that I'm somehow being a poor steward of my time. I've been able to pursue the contemplative life, to devote myself to those things that ought to be pursued as ends rather than merely as means. My hope is that when I return to work--the work of partnering with God's ministry in Calais, Maine--I'll be able to hold on to these perspectives, to take time for true, deep rest, and to put down my slow and tentative roots into the restful heart of God.

I'll close with a quote from Goethe: "I have never bothered or asked in what way I was useful to society as a whole; I contented myself with expressing what I recognized as good and true. That has certainly been useful in a wide circle; but that was not the aim; it was the necessary result."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

On Music, and How to Be Human

The past few months have been eventful--along with the fact that we're expecting a baby in December, we've recently accepted a call to pastor a church back in my home state of Maine, beginning next year. I'll post a blog about that in a few days. For now, though, I've been inspired (through a curious conflux of circumstances) to write about music--an area in which I have very little technical skill or knowledge, but which I enjoy tremendously. But this article isn't so much about the technics of music as it is about the meaning of music--and, particularly, the meaning of group singing in our culture and in the life of the church.

The Loss of Communal Song
Along with it being a wonderful day for a little bit of impromptu song-and-dance in one's slippers, I was driven to this line of thinking by my dear old friend, Mr. G. K. Chesterton (and, as you might guess, he's partly to blame for the winsome eccentricities in my writing-style today). One of the essays in his book Tremendous Trifles (a collection both hilarious and profound) dealt with his examination of a 13th-century picture which depicted a number of different workmen at work, and all singing as they worked. This led him to ask why those old and venerable occupations (fishing, seamanship, ditch-digging, etc.) all had a tradition of singing during work, while modern occupations don't seem to have the same impulse. He then began writing some songs which he felt could be put to use by bankers and postal workers, but they weren't very well received by the workers themselves.

But his point is well taken: where, indeed, do people sing together nowadays? It's not a common facet of our culture anymore--and I say "anymore" because so many premodern societies give group singing (and often dancing) a place of central focus in local culture. My favorite memories of my time in Africa come from times when I witnessed the joy of group singing. One such time was when a missionary supervisor arrived on site at our camp in Angola, and the local children assembled into an impromptu choir under the night stars and welcomed him with song. It struck me as a moment of mystical wonder, as if something of the spirit of heaven had broken in, for just a moment, to kiss the realms of men. Perhaps my reaction was just one of charm and delight in seeing an unfamiliar ritual, and no doubt that was part of it; but I also believe that there was something of the grace of God in that moment. Another such time came after I had preached at the service of an Angolan church, and in response, the young people of the church enacted an elaborate song and dance to thank us and send their love along with us as we left. How infrequent it is in our culture to even express in words our appreciation for someone else!--and this--this was a breathtaking leap beyond that, a gift of joy given in action and delight.

Those are, perhaps, uncommon examples, but I think they're only uncommon to us Westerners. For much of the world, singing together is a way of expressing unity and the simple joy of community, and it ought to give us pause that our culture has lost that most ancient of communal rituals. (I'm not trying to suggest that our ancestors' lives resembled a full-fledged musical; but with a little study into their culture, it's clear that music filled a very different role for them than it does for us; and for them it was an extension of community rather than a reflection of individual taste). The old traditions of communal singing are still around in a few forms, but just a few--in a certain breed of pubs, in Christmas caroling, and, most prominently, in churches.

The Virtues of Folk Music
We'll come back to the church-connection in a moment, but at this juncture I'd like to give a tip of my hat to that finest form of music in the world: folk music. What is folk music? It is (to steal a line completely out of context from Mr. Lincoln) "of the people, by the people, for the people." Folk music is the creation of a particular local culture in a particular place, usually designed so that all the people in that place can sing it together. Since there are all kinds of places, there are, of course, all kinds of folk music. My own tastes gravitate toward Celtic and Anglo-maritime folk music, but there are as many varieties of folk music as there are varieties of folk in the world. One of my favorite bands, Great Big Sea, hails from my corner of the globe--Maritime Canada, just across the border from my boyhood home in Maine. The music of Great Big Sea can be full of all the riotous ribaldry of sailors--drinking, loose women, and so on--but I forgive them these faults because of the one great merit of their work: they sing music born from the place they love, from a culture that loves to sing together, and the music itself beats to the rhythm of communal joy. This is the great virtue of folk music--it is the music of real humans in community with one another. More artistic forms of music--classical, jazz, and so on--obviously have their place, but they lack the raw power and thrill of communal participation. If I took my trombone to a classical concert and began to play along as I sat in the audience, my contribution wouldn't be appreciated (and not only because I'm a very poor trombone player). But if I went to a Great Big Sea concert or a folk-music singalong in a local pub and began to sing at the top of my lungs from my place in the audience, I would be accepted as part of the celebration, part of the music. Likewise, much of the popular music put out nowadays lacks the communal element. It's the creation of individual artists written for a vast and varied audience, and even if I try to sing at a rock concert, it doesn't matter, because no one can hear me--and it's not really about me anyway, just the performer. Folk music is the music of the whole gathered group, and that's what makes it special.

Local Culture and Loving One's Neighbor
Folk music is also a genre that carries with it the love of a particular place, a particular culture, and that too makes it special. But folk music is dying in America, mostly because we don't have any such thing as a "particular place" or a "local culture" anymore. Thanks largely to mass media, our local cultures are dying out, crushed by the gigantic weight of "pop culture." You can visit a town in California and a town in New Jersey and find the same stores, the same music, the same TV shows, the same spread of political opinions, the same sports and pasttimes. But it wasn't always that way. I've often heard people lament the fact that houses aren't built with big front porches anymore, and neighbors don't come visiting. Sometimes I wonder if we've lost a great deal more than we've gained since the advent of modern communication technologies.

Learning to love our own places and the people around us is important--tremendously important--and the fact that my own place is indistinguishable from a hundred thousand other places in this country makes it a little bit harder to love. But local culture isn't just a reason to love a place--it's actually an expression of that love. Building culture takes time and intentional investment in the people around us; and those places with rich local culture tend to be places that are also rich in neighborly love. Why am I putting so much stress on this? Because I think it's telling that Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors, rather than simply telling us to love mankind. There is a strong temptation for all of us to pass ourselves off as lovers of humanity, deeply concerned about the human rights violations in Darfur and Congo and China and North Korea, while never actually stooping to love our own neighbors. The truth is, it isn't possible to love "humanity" in the abstract. It isn't possible to love people that we don't know. We can be concerned about them; we can, through prayer, seek to share some of God's heart for them; but we can't love them. Love is only love when it is active and particular. We can't love people we don't know simply because we don't know them. Claiming that we love "humanity" is too often an unconscious excuse, releasing us from the obligations of active love, because the fact of the matter is that love requires something of us. Love requires us to meet another person, to get to know them, to put up with them even when they annoy us, and to pour ourselves into their lives. If we can't love those immediately around us, then we can't pass ourselves off as lovers of mankind. The beauty of local culture, then, (and the beauty of folk music) lies in its roots as an expression of obedience to the command of Jesus: "Love thy neighbor." To want to sing with our neighbors, we need to learn to love them.

Singing and Being Human
There is something peculiarly human about singing together. On the most basic level, we can observe that of all the animal life on the planet, only humans show such a vast and varied appreciation for the beauty of sound. Other animals sing, to be sure, but largely as a means of communication. It is only in mankind that there is a spark of something deeper, something that can recognize and savor the presence of beauty in a pattern of sound, and then re-create it in a thousand new forms.

On a deeper level than mere comparative zoology, though, singing together is an iconic act of humanity. We were created in the image and likeness of the Triune God, the unity-and-plurality, who speaks the Word to us. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes, communal singing is one of the few mediums we have in which we can proclaim together, in one voice, the mystery of the Word, and in so doing we reflect the original and ultimate Word-Speaker. The Trinity itself is rather like the harmony lines of a song--distinct, yet inseparable; all one thing, and yet in complementary roles; creating together a unity of breathtaking beauty. Singing together is an act of conscious unity that proclaims our likeness to our Triune Maker. It also demonstrates a theological principle which we are too often wont to forget--that human nature is, in some way, all one thing; that we are bound in a mystical (but very real) way to one another. So it is that the sin of one man has affected us all, and so it is that the redemption bought through one man may also affect us all--we are all connected. In our hyper-individualized society, singing together is that much more important, because it reminds us that we are all united to one another.

Let me give a more basic example of this principle that singing is an illustration of our humanity. As I've been writing, I've been thinking about musicals--those plays and movies in which much of the drama is told in song and dance. Musicals have a particular sort of charm because they are so unrealistic--random groups of strangers don't usually break into perfectly-choreographed routines together--but at the same time, they possess a deeper sort of reality. Through the symbol of song and dance, they illustrate our connectedness in a beautiful and winsome way. I think that many people find that compelling, because it speaks to a deep desire and joy at the heart of our humanness--the desire to be united with one another in beauty and celebration. Musicals are usually relegated to comedies or light dramas (although sometimes, as in the case of Les Miserables, rather more sober and heroic dramas), and one could even imagine, if we were more versed in the art of lament, a musical tragedy. But I cannot imagine a musical horror film. It would quickly descend into a farce. The reason, I think, is because horror films focus on beastly and twisted things--in short, on inhumanity. Horror films focus on the fear of the individual in the face of an inhuman force. And for that reason, one cannot have a musical horror film, because the act of singing together is entirely human, in the best possible sense. It is a heroic stand against the brutal inhumanity that so often tries to tear us apart from one another. In one of the many insightful passages in The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis paints demons as creatures that simply can't understand music. They can't comprehend the pattern, the beauty, the wonder of music--they only hear noise. Music--and particularly the practice of making music together--is a peculiarly human delight, and it shows us for what we were meant to be.

Singing Together as Christians
Happily, church is one of the few places left in American culture where people still enjoy and practice communal singing. I think it has survived the larger death of communal singing in our culture because we understand, at least at an unconscious level, that it's important. Most Christians nowadays would probably consider congregational singing as important because of its value in worship, but I think that if it were taken away and other forms of worship put in its place, they would quickly realize that communal singing was also important and beloved because of its expression of unity. It is a powerful representation, in flesh and blood and Word, of the theological principle that we are all one Body. As Bonhoeffer puts it: "It is the voice of the Church that is heard in singing together. It is not you that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song."

Communal singing has been a part of the Church for as long as the Church has been around. The Hebrew psalms shaped the worship of the early Christians. Paul teaches us to speak to one another "in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs." Some of the most poetic passages in the New Testament are thought to have been hymns (such as the poem in Phil. 2). When John describes the scene in heaven in Revelation, it is almost always filled with song--the songs of the elders, of the angels, of the great crowd of the redeemed. Some of the earliest Christian literature we possess is in the form of songs (the Odes of Solomon). At least one of the early church fathers, Ephrem the Syrian, is known entirely through the collection of hymns he left behind. From those earliest beginnings up to the present day, churches have proclaimed together in song the truth of the Gospel. That's no accident or coincidence of cultural influences--it's because singing together makes a symbolic statement of our unity, allows us to reflect our Maker by creating something of beauty together, and pours the practice of mystic joy into what might otherwise be simple recitations.

For me at least, I never feel so connected with others as when I sing with them. The mere act of singing together, if entered into with the right spirit, I think enables and empowers us to love one another better. And the practice of loving one another is at the heart of the Church. I'm blessed to have as my in-laws a family that is rich in uncommon love, and I think that that love was fostered, at least in part, by their habit of singing together. They sing not to perform, but as an expression of their unity, their joy of being together, and their love for one another. They were sung lullabies as children, they sing grace together at the table, and at each family gathering there always seems to be an impromptu hymnsing. While I don't have the ear for harmony that they do, I love this practice of beauty and joy that they share in their singing. And it was the same with many of my college friendships. During one of my first weekends at Houghton College, the group of honors students that I was with was assigned to hike into the woods, build a fire, and cook a meal together. That was all well and good, but it wasn't until after all those things were done, and we were sitting around the fire singing songs together, that I knew I was in the company of men and women who would be my lifelong friends.

Congregational singing in church is important, and I hope that churches begin to recover the understanding that this is more than a medium for each individual's worship of God; this is something we do together. And the simple fact that we do it together makes it important. Too often we worship in church as if we were alone, dutifully ignoring our neighbors. I rather think that it would do us good to look at one another as we sing, to stand in a circle as we raise our praise to God, because there is joy in knowing that this is a together-act. There's a popular piece of worship music out there right now called "Prince of Peace." It has its merits in tune and content, but I think the real reason why people love it is because it consciously forces us to the realization that we are singing together, as one. Men and women each have a separate part, and then come together on the last line in unison. It's wonderful and compelling, and I think its great appeal is that it's a worship song that one person can't possibly sing alone. That song tells us that we need each other, and there is tremendous joy in worshipping together, in creating something of real beauty with one another.

At the end of his essay, as he pondered why communal singing had vanished from the modern world, G. K. Chesterton tells how he wandered by a church, and heard them singing inside: "They were singing anyhow, and I had for an instant a fancy I had often had before: that with us the super-human is the only place where you can find the human. Human nature is hunted and has fled into the sanctuary."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Thoughts from the Fathers: The Meaning of Salvation

Over the past couple years I've been reading a fair dose of the early church fathers' writings, as well as a few secondary sources on their theology. Specifically, my reading has included Athanasius, Augustine, John Cassian, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory the Great, Ephrem the Syrian, Maximus the Confessor, Irenaeus of Lyons, Basil of Caesarea, Origen, Pseudo-Macarius, Aphrahat the Persian, and Eusebius of Caesarea. I take the time to list them merely to point out that most of my readings have focused on the eastern end of the early Christian world. (Only two of my sources--Augustine and Gregory the Great--fall securely in the western tradition. Two others fall somewhere in the middle: John Cassian lived and worked in the West, but his thought was derived almost entirely from the eastern desert fathers, and Irenaeus of Lyons, though also in the West, grew up in the East and developed a theology that was carried on largely by the eastern tradition).

In the midst of this reading, what I discovered from the East was a theological milieu that developed and flourished with some very different points of emphasis than the western-Christian theology that I was familiar with. And those differences struck down to the very root of the Gospel. I grew up with the normal evangelical-Protestant understanding of salvation: humans are sinful, including me, and my sins have separated me from the all-holy God; those sins need to be paid for somehow, or else I'll be damned to spend eternity in hell; and so, because of his love for me, and to save me from hell, Jesus paid the price for my sins; now that my sins are atoned for, I can be accepted by God and spend eternity in heaven. That's overly simplistic, of course, but that's the gist of it.

But the Eastern Fathers had quite a different way of looking at salvation. They didn't seem to talk about sin as much as good evangelicals do. In fact, although they acknowledged sin as a problem, they didn't seem to talk about it as the root problem. And they had a different sense of the goal of salvation--although they would acknowledge the fact that whether an individual spends eternity in heaven or hell was part of the answer, their solution was more all-encompassing. And while they focused on the cross of Christ, they also made a much bigger deal over other aspects of Christ's life--the fact of the Incarnation itself, the Resurrection, and the Ascension--each one integral in their theology of salvation.

I'll try to trace out the basics of the Eastern Fathers' view of salvation, now largely carried on by the theology of the Eastern Orthodox churches. First of all, the problem of humanity is sin, death, and Satan. Sin, in the fathers' view, is both a description of the human condition and of an individual's actions. Urged on by Satan, sin is what causes spiritual death; and now that spiritual death is in force over humanity, sin is as much a symptom as a cause of our separation from God. While we evangelicals speak of the problem of sin largely in legal, penal terms--sin as a crime against God, a crime that must be punished or atoned for--the fathers prefer to speak of it in relational terms--sin as separation. So now, enslaved by sin and Satan, we are separated from God and subject to death, both spiritual and physical. In the fathers' view, this element--death--is much more the problem of humanity than is humanity's ledger of sinful crimes against God's authority. But, on the whole, it's just a different point of emphasis than the evangelical view.

But here's where the fathers' theology adds a few elements that might be a bit less familiar to us. Since separation from God--which is the very meaning of death--is the problem, the solution as revealed in Jesus Christ is a solution defined by the overcoming of that separation. Thus, the very fact of the Incarnation is foundationally more essential than even the events that arise from it--the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. And to understand how the Incarnation accomplishes the annulment of our separation from God, we must step outside of our western individualism for a moment. The fathers conceived of human nature in a mystical sense, as something that all humans everywhere share--it is the stuff of our being, that which defines us as human beings, and it means that we are all connected to one another in a very real and essential way.

In the words of Gregory of Nyssa (Catechetical Orations): "It is the same for humanity as a whole, which forms, so to speak, a single living being: the resurrection of one member extends to all, and that of a part to the whole, by virtue of the unity and cohesion of human nature."

Because all humans share collectively in "human nature," the fact of the Incarnation means that humanity itself has been united with the Divine life. Human nature--the very human nature that is essentially connected to you and me--was taken into the life and being of the Godhood in the person of Jesus Christ. As God and Man, he shares in our humanity. And we, by extension, may share in his divinity.

Gregory of Nyssa (Against Apollinarius): "The Word, in taking flesh, was mingled with humanity, and took our nature within himself, so that the human should be deified by mingling with God: the stuff of our nature was entirely sanctified by Christ." And listen to how Irenaeus describes the purpose of Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection, in terms of union and "absorption" rather than in terms of sin and atonement: "This is the reason why the Word of God was made flesh, and the Son of God became the Son of Man: so that we might enter into communion with the Word of God, and by receiving adoption become Sons of God...How could we have united ourselves with immortality if immortality had not become what we are, in such a way that we should be absorbed by it?"

It is at this point that we evangelicals run up against a doctrine that's awfully hard for us to swallow: deification. Instead of pointing to the goal of salvation as individual redemption from the punishment of sin, the fathers, almost unanimously, point to something more breathtaking and all-encompassing--the envelopment of human beings into the life of the Godhood itself. While we would not lose our individual essence and nature, we are granted to share in the deepest energies of the life of God himself. The fathers, from Irenaeus to Athanasius to the Cappadocian Fathers, emphasize this to the point where they regularly speak of Christians "becoming God"--that is, sharing in his very life. In the words of an anonymous Easter Homily inspired by Hippolytus' Treatise on Easter: "God has shown himself as man and humanity has ascended and become God!" While it takes some careful, thoughtful reading to get to the heart of what the fathers are really saying when they spout what sound like blasphemies to us, this doctrine has grown more and more appealing to me: How great is the love of God, that he would not only forgive us, but gather us in to share in the depths of who he is in a union so intimate and rich as to defy description!

And all of this, though also supported by a few references from the NT epistles, comes mainly from the idea of the Incarnation itself--the union of humanity and divinity in Christ as the firstfruits and sign of the union that we may someday enjoy with God. By Christ's intimate union with us, he has bridged the separation between man and God. The Crucifixion, then, is largely his act of union with us--embracing all the murder, depravity, and violence that lies at the heart of fallen human nature. It is his act of undergoing death--taking head-on the deepest curse of our separation from God--and defeating it, thus opening the way for all humanity to share in the Resurrection, both spiritual and (eventually) physical. (By contast, with merely a penal substitution model of the atonement, we're forced to reduce the meaning of Resurrection to a "sign" of Christ's victory, since the main work of gaining forgiveness for sins had already been accomplished on the Cross.) As Cyril of Alexandria says, "He put on our flesh to set it free from death." And in the words of Gregory of Nyssa: "He mingled himself with our being to deify it by contact with him, after he had snatched it from death...For his resurrection becomes for mortals the promise of their return to immortal life." And this is all echoed by Gregory of Nazianzus, "Is it not evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice [of Christ on the cross], not because he demands it or feels some need for it, but in order to carry out his plan? Humanity had to be brought back to life by the humanity of God...It was necessary that God should take flesh and die so that we might have new life...Nothing can equal the miracle of my salvation; a few drops of blood redeem the whole universe!"

The Ascension is the final act of this wonderful drama--it is the ultimate symbol of what Christ has done for humanity, bringing it into the presence of God in heaven. As Christ the God-Man shares in the divine communion of the Trinity, so do we also share that communion, because we share in Christ's human nature. Maximus the Confessor writes: "Christ, having completed for us his saving work and ascended to heaven with the body which he had taken to himself, accomplishes in his own self the union of heaven and earth."

So that's the picture that the fathers paint for us--a picture of salvation that is much more than merely the forgiveness of sins, but rather of the dynamic union of humanity and divinity, an act of love that welcomes us to share in the life and nature of God himself. I present these thoughts not as a challenge to the evangelical gospel and the penal substitution model of the atonement--I don't think they're mutually contradictory. But I do think we may have settled for one rather small piece of a much grander picture. It's worth considering. It's worth reading the Fathers to explore for yourselves.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Vision" and the Church


Over the past few months here in 2009, I’ve been in the process of interviewing for pastoral positions. It has been a harder process than I imagined. For the first six months there was no response from anyone at all, and then, in the past two months I’ve had so many possibilities that it’s been hard to decide between them. That may sound like a nice problem to have (and in a way, it is), but the process of trying to discern the Lord’s will and to make a wise decision on the basis of scanty knowledge is incredibly difficult. We’ve already decided to turn down one offer from a wonderful church, and that may have been the hardest decision I’ve ever made. In the end, we just weren’t sure we were the best fit for the church, and we didn’t have a sense of peace or God’s leading to go there.
In any case, along the way I’ve noticed a few patterns in the things that churches nowadays are looking for. First and foremost, in the case of many churches, is “vision”—the hope that the pastor will provide some of this mysterious goal on behalf of the church. In some cases, I’ve been struck with the impression that pastoral search committees aren’t even quite sure what “vision” is—they only know that it’s some special leadership commodity that they can’t do without. In other cases, churches seem to be over-the-top in ascribing the foundation of their life together to the power of a communal “vision”.
What does it mean to “cast a vision” for a church? From what I can tell, it means that one is expected to discover and communicate a picture of what the church ought to be—maybe five years down the road, maybe ten. A “vision” is a picture of what the church could be. Maybe it’s focused on the deeper discipleship of its members, maybe on a more vital prayer-focus or on a deeper commitment to world missions. Usually, it includes some aspect of being more evangelistic in one’s local community. Once the “vision” is in place, churches will articulate it in a “purpose statement” (or a “mission statement”), along with a list of clearly-articulated “core values.” And, if the church is really focused and on track, it’ll also produce a set of goals and benchmarks to guide their journey toward fulfilling their vision.
I don’t want to come across as too harsh against these concepts. They can be tremendously, tremendously helpful. There’s great value to having a cohesive, easily memorable statement of communal purpose. However, my initial reaction is one of critique. Some churches carry this too far. Take these statements from the webpage of a church I was looking at: “Determining why you exist and what you value are the first steps in realizing God's perfect plan for a church. Without a carefully focused purpose and a set of clearly articulated values there is no foundation upon which to build….[And] a purpose without a clearly defined set of core values can lead to chaos.” This is rather high-flying rhetoric, and I object to it on a number of levels. Beyond my initial skepticism that God even has a “perfect plan” for each church (I rather think that God works alongside us in all our choices, as we submit them to him for his blessing), I object to the fact that this kind of statement usurps the proper place of Scripture and the Holy Spirit in the guidance of the church and puts statements of our own devising in their place. Now, obviously, that’s not what this church was intending to do with its purpose statement and core values. But it bears asking: what if the purpose statement inadvertently omits some part of the Scriptural mandate for the Body of Christ? Wouldn’t it then become dangerous to follow, even if the things it aims for are good? What if the core values become expressions of a particular church’s culture rather than an expression of the biblical model of what a church ought to be? (And again, what if they exclude certain legitimate aims of the Body of Christ?)
In short, I find myself confused as to why such great import is placed on the issue of vision by so many evangelical churches nowadays. Frankly, the vision for each and every church should be pretty much the same: to worship and glorify God together, to grow in the likeness of Christ as individuals and as a Body, and to reach out effectively in evangelism and service to those outside the church walls (three categories that describe the upward, inward, and outward dimensions of church life). If a vision is to be biblically faithful, I tend to think that it will be so basic and straightforward that any biblically-literate church member should be able to articulate it off the top of his head, even if they’ve never seen an actual vision statement before. I would rather have a church whose members could quote Scripture than a church whose members could all quote the purpose statement and core values. The ethos and purpose of a church should be shaped by the Word of God, and the purpose and vision of the church will spring up from that endless well of authority and guidance. The danger of allowing our own words to take precedence in the church’s life, even if we think they’re a faithful synthesis of Scriptural teaching, is that we will almost always over-emphasize or under-emphasize some necessary aspect. Scripture, on the other hand, through which the Holy Spirit continually speaks, is a flawless guide to faith and practice. It challenges us away from our own ideas of balance, constantly bringing up new facets of church life that we’ve never seen before. It will surprise us and convict us—which the vision statements that we make up on our own hardly ever do. 
Here’s a simple instance, one that I preached on recently: in more than one place in the New Testament, we’re exhorted to confess our sins to one another. But the evangelical traditions I’ve grown up in almost never do this. We confess our sins to God, but not to each other. And because we’ve grown up in that tradition, we’re often blind to a necessity that Scripture clearly places before us. Very few evangelical churches list this as one of their core values: “We are a church that confesses its sins openly and freely to one another.” But maybe we ought to be doing just that. The point is that our purpose statements and core values will be inherently narrow and myopic thanks to our natural blind spots, while the Scripture is the only proper guide to church life, because it constantly challenges us to rethink how we ought to live out the Christian life.
Another critique: most vision/purpose statements, as I’ve come to know them, tend to place too much focus on one part of church life. In most evangelical churches, the vision puts its focus on mission/evangelism and discipleship. These are good and necessary, to be sure. But I think it’s a bit too narrow, and it starts in the wrong place. The purpose of the church begins with the glory of God. Our purpose is to worship God, to walk with him as a community, to enter his presence with joy and thanksgiving, and to be transformed by him. Our vision and purpose begins with worshiping God for the glory of who he is and what he has done. Churches who focus exclusively on evangelism and mission often end up being frustrated and feeling guilty at their lack of growth. But if we truly understand that the purpose of the church begins in worship, then what we do every Sunday morning, simply by gathering together and entering the presence of God—regardless of how many people are in the sanctuary—is ultimately valuable and important. From that initial purpose grows fellowship and discipleship. As we are transformed by the presence of God, we become more and more the image of Christ to one another and to the world. Fellowship and brotherly love are part of this process—growing in love with one another, not merely growing closer to Christ as individuals. And then the third purpose, of course, is mission and evangelism, and it flows out of the other two. But the point is this: most vision statements fail to capture the full dynamic, and of course no vision statement (even my little summation in this paragraph) matches the vision for the church that we receive from Scripture’s own words.
I’m also hesitant to jump on the bandwagon of the absolute necessity of vision statements simply because it’s such a new movement. Don’t get me wrong: I can see why it’s helpful. Clearly-articulated goals do help most people to move toward the Scriptural vision of the church. Without the leadership of the church setting out goals for, say, a new evangelistic program, that program probably won’t get done. But what I object to is the modern tendency to make “vision-casting” one of the fundamental, irreplaceable aspects of church life and pastoral ministry. Historically speaking, such an assertion is ludicrous. Isn’t it remarkable that the church survived (and actually grew) for more than nineteen hundred years without vision statements! Read any of the great classical texts on pastoral ministry; you’ll find virtually nothing on the topic of vision-casting and setting goals for the church. Rather, you’ll find the emphasis on other aspects, where I heartily believe the emphasis should be: the ministry of the Word and Sacrament; of teaching the Scriptures, praying, caring for individual members of the flock with spiritual guidance, and leading the church in its communal worship. The current emphasis on “vision,” “purpose statements,” “goals,” and “core values,” all comes from 20th- and 21st-century business-leadership models. It never existed in the church before that. 
So I won’t deny that such things are helpful, but come on—let’s not pretend like these things are the foundation of everything that we ought to be doing as a church. Leadership is important, to be sure, but it’s the duty of the whole congregation, as it is bathed in the Scripture and led by the Holy Spirit, to grasp and pursue the biblical vision for what the church ought to be. If only the pastors and leaders are expected to be doing that, then we have a church that is mightily impoverished. Give me a church that’s looking for a classical pastor—a minister of the Word and Sacrament—who will partner with that pastor as they all pursue together the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Scripture; that’s the kind of church I want to be a part of. As a pastor I do hope to be a leader-among-brothers, to guide the congregation in its understanding of Scripture and to help in setting goals and pursuing a vision of what it can be. But my allegiance is first and foremost to the Scripture and to the pastoral office as it has been shaped over countless centuries, not to the whims of every new organizational fad that our culture produces.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Update

Dear readers,

You again have my apologies for my recent lack of posts. My muse for writing essays and poetry still seems to be on vacation somewhere...

But, speaking of vacation, I thought I would add a little update on my current situation. Rachel and I are currently on a month-long trip back to our families on the East Coast (made possible by the fact that Rachel is a teacher, and so has the summers off, and that I'm enjoying the blessings of unemployment). The past couple months have been busy for us, even in lieu of schoolwork. I graduated from my program at Denver Seminary in May, and have spent the time since working long shifts at my job in the library, reading books on history and science, and plugging away at a couple writing projects.

I recently finished the first draft of the final novel in my fantasy trilogy, and was fairly pleased with how it turned out. (I've written a few posts over the past couple years in defense of fiction and fantasy literature, in case you haven't seen those yet). Now I'm working on a new novel that's sort of a spinoff of the trilogy, mostly for my own pleasure. But it should give me a good practice-ground for some intentional efforts at honing my writing skills. I'm also starting the long work of revising the second novel of the trilogy. I gave some thought to trying my hand at nonfiction prose, but I think I'll wait awhile on it. Most of the people around me who know of my writing encourage me towards devotional/contemplative works or putting down my thoughts on culture and religion. I've tried a few times, but I inevitably run into problems. The first is the sense that I'm not quite fit to be writing books on such things. I'm only 26, and some of those topics--particularly the devotional/contemplative life--require long seasons of reflection before anything worthwhile can be said. I also tend to lack inspiration for writing such things. I can do snippets, poems, and essays, but to write a book-length treatment of any serious subject seems to be beyond me at this point. I could do a book of unrelated essays, I suppose. And maybe there's a place for that. But I usually have to work hard at essays. When it comes to the sort of writing that just flows out of me when I sit down at a blank page--it's always stories. Not essays or thoughts or anything else, but stories. Part of the joy of stories is that they can be entirely new, whereas sometimes it feels like there's very little new material to be added to the corpus of nonfiction books out there (unless one is a specialist in an academic field, which I'm not). The other hindrance to writing books on culture or the devotional life is that I get the feeling, at this point at least, that they could never possibly measure up to some of the other works out there. Why would I want to write a book on a subject that has been written about a hundred times, with most of those books being far better than what I could produce? If any reader were to ask me whether he ought to read my book on the devotional life or Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ, I would immediately direct him toward the latter. So maybe somewhere down the road I might throw together some nonfiction prose, but for now I think I'll stick with stories.

Through a series of random happenstance, though, writing has come into focus for me as potentially a larger part of my life than it has been in the past. I always wrote stories largely for my own pleasure and enjoyment, and I still believe that's the main goal my stories should meet (I really don't know what other rule I could test them by, anyway). But I've begun to consider the possibility of taking my writing a little more seriously--not necessarily to try to make a career out of it, but to treat with a bit more conscientiousness the gifts that I've been given. For the first time in my life, I've undertaken a rather rigorous program of reading and writing with the sole aim of making my writing better. As one author (Mark Twain?) said, "Easy reading is damn hard writing. "When it comes to writing-style in adventure stories, I tend to think that the main goal is to get out of the way of the reader--to make one's style fluid enough to be unnoticed. Too many young writers try to weave intricate styles that end up getting in the way of the story and slowing down the reader. Writing ought to be beautiful, of course, but the beauty of style ought to be, at least in my mind and for the genres in which I write, subservient to the beauty of the story and the characters. And even in adventure stories, there are plenty of places to weave in the harmonic, lyrical styles that we writers itch to spin. But it takes discretion. The main goal of any writing style is to highlight the story, and at certain points in the past I think my writing has tended to obfuscate the story--more by ignorance than by an intentional effort at artistry, though. Anyway, all that to say: I'm currently working on honing my style. Hopefully it will bear some good fruit in my future books. Along with my fourth fantasy book, I'm also spinning a bit of a darker, more contemporary tale at the moment. I don't think it will be a long book, but I hope it will be good--the tale of one man's face-to-face encounter with tragedy, and his long fall from faith.

On the whole, though, writing is still a side-endeavor for me. I hope I'll be able to put it to good use in the future, but my main pathway is still aimed at pastoral ministry. Rachel and I will be interviewing at two churches while we're on our trip back east (and there's a possibility that we might also be able to meet with a third church), so we're excited about that. Hopefully something good will come out of it, and the Lord will lead us to a place where we can grow and flourish alongside a local church. I'm really looking forward to the rhythm of preaching, teaching, prayer, and pastoral care, and we're hoping to find a church that's stable and gracious enough to give me room to grow and develop into the areas in which I don't yet have much experience--leadership, administration, and so on. If pastoral ministry was the NBA draft, I would think that church scouts would say of me, "A bit of a young and unpolished player, but he's got potential." So what we need is a church who's not looking for the already-got-it-all-together answer-man (the veteran All-Star player), but a promising draft pick who will grow alongside them in the journey of following Christ. I hope to grow into a great, capable pastor-leader, but, having never been a full-time pastor yet, I can't honestly say that I'm there yet. That will have to come with time. But I'm excited about these interviews, and what the Lord might have for me in one of these places. All in all, then, it looks to be a promising month.

We're also, as most of you probably already know, expecting the birth of our first child this December. We're very excited, of course. I find myself blown away by the grace and goodness of God. Looking towards being a head pastor for the first time feels a lot like looking toward being a father for the first time--jumping into the wild unknown, full of pressures and expectations and stresses that I can't even yet fathom, and yet suffused with an incomprehensible joy, a sharing in God's delight, that makes me tremendously excited.

I think that's about all I have to say for now. I probably won't write another post until mid- or late-August, when we're back in Colorado.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Wonder of It All - A Look at Christian Mysticism

What is mysticism? This question came up recently in a conversation with my friends. We’re reading through G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy together, and in the early chapters Chesterton sets mysticism as a necessary alternative to the tyranny of pure logic. For all of Chesterton’s whimsical defense of mysticism, though, I’ve found that many Christians—particularly evangelical and fundamentalist Christians—are deeply suspicious of mysticism, and, I am convinced, often misunderstand it.

In most of the places I’ve gone in the past few years, I’ve gained a reputation as being a mystic. Part of that reputation, I would hope, comes from the place of prayer and contemplation in my life. But I think that part of it also comes from the mere fact that I’m a quiet, reflective guy. I would hope to be a mystic in the truest sense of the word, but I’m not sure that I’m there yet.

So let’s dive in and look at some of the prevailing notions of Christian mysticism. The difficulty in describing it is that there’s no established “school of mysticism” that defines the boundaries of this particular “brand” of spirituality. With the exception of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, “theologians” have not usually been the same thing as “mystics.” And since most Christian mystics do not have the theologian’s natural tendency to write out the basics of mysticism in a systematic manner, defended by Scripture, it has been subject to the vagaries of anyone’s opinion and has, too often, been made infamous by the excesses of its more extreme forms.

In fact, “theology” and “mysticism” are often seen on a popular level as being polar opposites. During my semester in Tanzania, one of my fellow students asked some of us whether we considered ourselves theologians or mystics, under the supposition that everyone related to God in one of those two ways. “Theologians” were those who operated on an intellectual level, their faith defined by rational assent to doctrine. “Mystics,” on the other hand, were those whose faith was characterized by the affective, emotional, and experiential elements of a “relationship with God.” Unfortunately for that student’s dichotomy, I’ve always considered myself to be both a theologian and a mystic, and it’s from that dual perspective that I approach the matter.

A few notes at the outset: we’re dealing here with Christian mysticism. Other religions also have mystical aspects to their spirituality (such as the Sufi movement in Islam), and these mysticisms have some surface similarities to Christian mysticism. However, Christian mysticism developed independently from all these other religious traditions (with the possible exception of classical Neoplatonism) and arises directly from Christian beliefs and practices. Christian mysticism has nothing to do with New Age practices or yoga or Buddhist meditation. It comes, rather, from the earliest days of Christian history and has carried through to the present age, represented by such giants of the faith as the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, John of the Cross, John Wesley, A. W. Tozer, and Mother Teresa, to name only a few.

Since there is no agreed-upon definition of mysticism, I will attempt to explain my own understanding, drawing from the best of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions. As such, this is in part a defense of mysticism as a necessary and fundamental part of the Christian life, but I’ll also include a few critiques of some of the extremes of mystical spirituality. It may be, then, that my definition of mysticism is broader than that of most of its critics, which only associate it with the wilder versions that have cropped up now and then. However, a broadening of the popular conception of mysticism is important because there is too often a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because of the abuses perpetrated on good Christian theology by some of those who practice the extremes of mysticism, the whole system of faith and practice associated with the mystical tradition is rejected. I think this is a mistake. Even here at Denver Seminary, where there’s a very good Spiritual Formation / Soul Care program, it often gets looked down on by many of my fellow MDivs as “loopy,” “flighty,” or just plain wrong. And that is, I think, to their own detriment. Theology without mysticism loses its sense of wonder and often dances dangerously close to intellectual pride.

Mysticism is, in short, the expectation of encountering and being transformed by the mystery of God. As one author puts it, it is a “preparation for and consciousness of a direct and transformative presence of God.” It is an all-encompassing outlook on life that expects to find God in all things, even in the loneliest and darkest of desolations. The mystic is the one who is willing to be surprised by God, who doesn’t just use the lingo of “a relationship with God,” but actually expects that relationship to be authentic and transformative. It will be unlike any other relationship one has, and it will take all of one’s life, but it will be a relationship nonetheless—an actual encounter between two real persons (for more on this idea—the ways in which a relationship with God is unlike any other relationship—see my blog post for Sept. 25, 2008). Mysticism feels a sense of perpetual wonder at the beauty and mystery of God, understanding that there will always be a sense in which the nature of God, as infinite and holy, is hidden from us. Mysticism moves to the cadence of poetry in the soul.

Popular misconceptions of mysticism focus on peripheral phenomena like visions and dreams. It is often assumed that mystics are those who pursue an emotionally-focused spirituality marked by bizarre encounters with God in ecstatic trances. It is regarded with suspicion because it appears to be largely subjective—in one person’s direct encounter with God, the claim might be made that that constitutes a form of special revelation of comparable authority with Scripture. (And, on a few occasions in history, a few mystics have made that mistake.)

However, these criticisms are largely misplaced. Even though some of the more famous mystics achieved their notoriety through visions (Julian of Norwich, for example), most mystics would emphatically say that mysticism really isn’t about visions or dreams at all. Such ecstatic phenomena are certainly a possibility in an authentic relationship with God, but they aren’t the main point. Such things are gifts from God, to be received with joy and then left behind. It is a mistake of some mystics (and some forms of Pietistic and charismatic Christianity) to desire these mountaintop experiences of God rather than God himself. John of the Cross, one of the definitive voices of the mystical tradition, is adamant in his Ascent of Mount Carmel that visions are to be accepted as gifts, and then ignored and left behind. There was a popular spiritual movement in Spain at the same time of John of the Cross that made the pursuit of dreams and visions its centerpiece, and the great mystic rebutted them fiercely. In mystical spirituality, the authentic experience of God is far more often found in the desolations and after the long, hard battle of a “dark night of the soul” than in ecstatic visions. Julian of Norwich, in her Revelations of Divine Love, admitted that she ought not to be considered more advanced in the Christian journey than others on account of her visions—rather, she speculated that there were many common believers, even in her own parish, who were closer to God than she was because of their humble, ordinary devotion and prayer. Ecstatic phenomena often draw the attention of the critics of mysticism, but most mystics would agree that it really isn’t about the dreams and visions at all.

Neither does mysticism focus primarily on emotions. As with ecstatic phenomena, emotions may be (and usually are) an important part of the mystical experience, but they’re not the main point. The main point (as we’ll see below) is one’s growth toward union with God. Emotions are associated with this journey, but not always the warm, fluffy, loving emotions that critics focus on. Classical mysticism acknowledges that along with the consolations (the positive emotions of love and acceptance that come with a relationship with God), there are also desolations—the dark times, the absence of fond emotions, the desperate lack of a sense of the presence of God, and the overwhelming sorrow and pain of that deprivation. (A contemporary example of this is Mother Teresa’s long journey through emotional desolations). These desolations are just as common and just as necessary to the mystic’s journey as are the consolations. These emotions, while not being the main point of mysticism, are nonetheless important. They are not pursued in and of themselves, but they are accepted as a natural part of the process. Human beings are affective creatures, and it is unreasonable to assume that genuine Christian faith can be undertaken without touching the depths of our emotion (a point made beautifully by Jonathan Edwards in his magisterial Religious Affections).

So if mysticism isn’t about visions or emotions, what is it about? Drawing on the classical model of the spiritual journey used by John of the Cross (among others), mysticism is about the journey of the believer toward God. It deals with the process of growing in maturity and intimacy with God, toward the ultimate point of union and (in some mystics’ thought) an unmediated experience of God himself. But the process is usually lifelong and involves the deep transformation of the believer. The classical model has been described in three stages: Purgation (learning discipline to rid oneself of sinful habits), Illumination (deeper intimacy and maturity, along with the slow reformation of the sinful nature into a nature aligned toward God), and Union. The third stage, mystical union with God (or, in Eastern Orthodox thought, “theosis/deification”—the stage of sharing in the energies of God’s own life), is only experienced by a very few people in this earthly life.

In the thought of both Luther and Calvin, “union with Christ” is absolutely central. For them, however, union with Christ is an already-accomplished state for ever Christian. In that light, the mystical journey is not so much a journey into an ontological state that we didn’t before possess, but rather a journey into the experiential fullness of what has always been our possession and birthright as believers. Evangelicals, who tend to be skittish around terminology like “union” and “deification” (misreading them as implicating a change in one’s ontological essence), gravitate more towards descriptions of the goal of the mystic journey as “the deeper life” or “the practice of the presence of God” (in the famous phrase of Brother Lawrence).

For my own part, I think the classical three-step model of the mystical journey is instructive, but I’m not entirely convinced that it’s authoritatively true of everyone’s relationship with God. Other traditions that border on the mystical have slightly different systems (such as the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition, with its emphasis on a second work of grace and the pursuit of “Christian perfection”). On the whole, though, the picture and aim is the same—a journey into deeper relationship with God. It may come more naturally for some than for others, but it is open to all. Whether or not there is the promise of a dramatic, transformative event or encounter, each of us can certainly grow in maturity and intimacy with God. While mystical union may come only to a very few, the possibility of living life as an ongoing, continuous conversation with God is open to everyone, and that’s a goal worth pursuing. Rather than being criticized as something foreign to biblical Christianity, this view of mysticism ought to be desired by every believer. It presents a view of the Christian life that is not limited to rationality and duty, but extends to the territory of relationship, transformation, wonder, and beauty.

On the other side, however, a few critiques of some points of the mystical tradition are in order. It’s true that mystical experience can be dangerously subjective. (Some famous mystics, such as Meister Eckhart and Madame Guyon, have wandered into theological positions that were ultimately condemned by the church as heresy.) And for this reason, mystics ought to take great caution against the temptation to make their personal experiences normative for others. If the revelation of some new message is involved in a mystical encounter with God, it must be recognized that such revelations are always subject to the overriding authority of Scripture and the church. It should also not be assumed that the descriptive systems of various mystics are to be made prescriptive—that is, one ought to read systems like the 3-step journey of classical mysticism or the Seven Mansions of Teresa of Avila as descriptive of the mystic’s own experience (and thus instructive and helpful for us), but not necessarily prescriptive as the normative pattern which all Christian journeys must follow. Sometimes evangelicals who appreciate mysticism also try to prove that these systems originate from Scriptural paradigms, which is usually an error. As far as I can see, the New Testament does not outline any specific step-by-step process toward Christian maturity which is true of all believers.

Mysticism sometimes also errs in assuming that the methods of its greatest proponents are the normative methods for all Christians. That is to say, it is often assumed in mystical circles that prayer and contemplation are the only acceptable way by which one can proceed in the Christian journey. But I don’t think that’s quite true. Just as God made us all to be different in personality and temperament, there are various methods and ways by which we grow closer to God. For some, time spent in nature is an element of growth. For others, it’s journaling. Or study. Or acts of service. It’s not only monks to whom the mystical journey is open.

Further, some mystics go to the unfortunate extreme of claiming that reason can’t get us anywhere. But that’s obviously false. Reason is a gift of God, and tremendously useful in learning and growing in the Christian faith. The position of classical Christian mysticism is simply that reason is not the be-all and end-all of faith. Reason can’t move us, all by itself, into deeper relationship with God. We need the actual presence of God himself, not just knowledge of him. To use the famous example from the life of Thomas Aquinas, the brilliantly logical theologian and writer of the Summa Theologica: toward the end of his life, Thomas experienced a revelatory vision of God, after which he said, “All that I have written seems like straw to me.” Reason can’t get us all the way there—we need the presence of God—but that doesn’t mean that reason is useless, either. Seven centuries of church history have proven the inestimable worth of all that Thomas wrote. We need a balance of reason and experience.

These caveats, however, are not so strong that we need to look askance at the whole mystical tradition. To those that have experienced the breath of mysticism in their lives, the wonder and truth of this all-encompassing spirituality is evident. Mysticism pursues a deep and lasting relationship with the God who loves us. The shape of that relationship will undoubtedly look different for each of us, but it’s open to all. In short, mysticism takes doctrine—the belief that we are the beloved children of God—and makes it dance.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Update on the publication of my novel

I recently got in contact with my publishers, OakTara Fiction (who, although it's true that they've been busy, haven't made much effort to be in clear communication with me about this process). It turns out that the process of re-issuing all of the novels previously put out under the Capstone Fiction name has taken longer than they anticipated, so the publication of all newly-contracted books (including mine) has been pushed back to the "summer and fall." That doesn't give us a very firm timeline, but at least we know that it will be a few more months. It's a bit of a disappointment, since under the original terms of the contract, my book should already be available for sale. But, considering that I'm really little more than a first-time author, writing in a strangely unmarketable genre (Christian fantasy), I really have no cause to be anything but grateful that I'm being published at all. Anyway, I just wanted to send out this update, for those of you who've been wondering when Freedom Cry would be in print and available.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Doldrums of Affection

It's been too long since I've worked on this blog. It's not that I haven't had the time, really. It's just that my muses for writing seem to have gone silent for now. I've been keeping busy with a few independent research projects, exploring the exegesis of Origen, the history of canon-formation, and certain aspects of Eastern Orthodox theology. But for some reason, the impulse to write has been lacking. Maybe it's a result of coming towards the end of my seminary career, and feeling like I've had enough of writing reports and papers for awhile. It isn't just a disaffection for essays, though--I haven't been writing poetry either. This has been the longest dry spell of poetry for me since I started penning devotional poems during my freshman year of college. So, faced with this dearth of poetry, I (somewhat ironically) decided to write a poem about it. I've posted it below. In my experience, my poetry usually comes either from the deep wells of intimacy with God or from the difficult crisis-moments of my life, so I examine those factors in this poem. While it's mostly about the dryness of my writing, it also reflects something of my feelings in the midst of a difficult season of looking for work and not finding anything.


I have no poetry in my soul...
Strange, that it should go
And leave me wondering where it's gone.
Am I too distant from God, the Fountainhead of song?
Or am I too much at peace,
Too content with myself
And with the present moment?
One would think peace a good thing,
And yet it leaves me dry--
Caught in my journey from angst to joy,
I rock here in the doldrums of affection,
With no breath of God to spur me on.
A strange void, but not unpleasant...
Still, what I would give for a wind!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Why I Haven't Joined Facebook (Thoughts on Friendship and Self-Knowledge)

I’ve been asked a few times recently why I haven’t yet joined Facebook (an online personal networking site). It seems I’m one of the last surviving holdouts of my generation. So I thought I would offer here a brief defense for my willful neglect of this newest technological marvel, using it as a case study to examine the underlying philosophy of the technologies that shape almost everything we do. (Because of the length of these thoughts, I’ve posted the latter piece as a separate blog-article below. If you’re only interested in the reasons for my status as a Facebook virgin, then you don’t need to read the second post. However, in my opinion, the second post might be more worth reading, simply because most of our philosophy of technology is unconscious, and it does us good to consider it directly). It should be noted at the outset that, having never actually used Facebook, I’m in no position to offer a critique of it. Rather, this is intended to be an exposition of my own reasons for ignoring it—it’s not an argument for why no one should join.

Facebook is, as I understand it, a site that allows people to post their thoughts, activities, pictures and so on, and it offers easy connections to other “friends” and their posts—thus allowing a quick, efficient, and ever-accessible means of connecting with the people we like. My reasons for ignoring Facebook are numerous—some I’d like to think are kind of noble (and those are the ones I’ll focus on here), and a few are probably quite selfish. Let’s start with the potentially selfish reasons. First of all, I have very little desire to use Facebook, which makes motivation a problem; and second, no one has yet convinced me that I need Facebook. The desire probably stems from my introversion. I enjoy and appreciate people, but I seldom feel the need to seek new ways to connect with more of them. I tend to dodge mediums that would force me to interact with people more than I already do. I prefer to invest deeply in a small number of significant relationships in my immediate context than to spend my small reserves of social energy by interacting with growing numbers of acquaintances. That may strike some people as harsh and antisocial, but the truth of the matter is that if I stretch myself too thin by reaching for a greater quantity of personal interactions, the quality of the personal interactions that I really care about will probably diminish. (That’s simply the dynamic of introversion—I love people, but they wear me out, so I need to be conscientious with how I use the social energy that I do have.)

This leads me to one of my great concerns about Facebook—that it enhances the superficiality of relationships, already a growing problem in American culture. Being aware of the minutiae of everybody’s life does not automatically make relationships more significant. If anything, it may make them more trivial, leaving little room to focus on the deep heart-matters of true friendship. One of my deepest concerns is a very simple thing—the semantic impact that Facebook is having on the word “friend” for my generation. From what I’ve observed, it seems like Facebook (to the extent that I allow it), encourages everyone with whom I’ve ever had a conversation to become my “friend.” Contrast this with my understanding of friendship (an understanding that I would defend as the classical meaning). I have a very small circle of people whom I consider “true friends”—some family members, some college buddies, and a couple others—no more than ten people in all, and only two or three here with me in my current station of life. These are rich, precious friendships, in which almost anything can be expressed. They are infused with love, respect, and deep appreciation.

Every once in a great while, there is the opportunity to reach a level beyond true friendship—a partnership that used to be called “soul friendship” by the Celtic monks of the 1st millennium. The pre-eminent biblical example of this would be David and Jonathan. Soul-friendships are usually long-term, deeply committed, and it’s hard to have more than one at a time. But they are immeasurably rich and transformative—havens of peace and loyalty, strength and honor, adventure and joy. While it might sound like this level of friendship requires deep gushes of heartfelt emotion, that’s not necessarily the case. There will be a pleasant fondness and an openness to emotional and spiritual sharing, but it’s really all about being who we truly are with someone else. That’s not as easy to do as it sounds, which is what makes soul-friendship so rare. (While it’s possible to reach the place of soul-friendship with one’s spouse, my impression is that it’s actually more common with a friend of the same sex.)

A step below true friendship, I have a broader circle of “social friends”—people who run in the same circles, people whom I enjoy and am comfortable with, and who could, under the right set of circumstances, become true heart-friends. For me, this circle is also small, only slightly larger than my group of true friends. And many others are what I would call long-term acquaintances. Acquaintance-relationships are pleasant and enjoyable, but there’s very little deep investment in one another’s life. I’m open and accessible to helping acquaintances, even in very deep and personal ways if they need that kind of attention, but there is no assumption that that depth will be long-term or that there will be any reciprocation.

My observation is that the majority of Americans have a lot of acquaintance-friendships and probably a few “social friends,” but very few have learned the art of investing in true friendship. That’s not the case with everyone of course, but my impression is that I, despite my introversion, have more and better “true friendships” than the vast majority of the American population. Many, I suspect, have never had a true friend in their entire lives, to say nothing of having a soul-friend.

The sad truth is that American culture encourages this weakening of friendships. One major cause is our mobility. School and jobs pull us hundreds of miles away from our homes, and many Americans, even when settled into a career, will make major moves at least two or three more times in their lives. Technology has blessed us with the ability to do this, opening up opportunities that we wouldn’t have had in our original home areas. However, that blessing does not come without a cost. For most Americans, the “extended family” is a nice idea rather than an experiential reality. And because we move so much, we will inevitably leave behind large numbers of the friends we make in any particular place. While it’s possible to maintain a “true friendship” from a distance, it’s not an easy thing to do, and its quality suffers greatly from the separation. (And I’m convinced that it’s actually impossible to maintain a long-lasting soul-friendship from a distance).

The anonymity and self-sufficiency of American life also deals a blow to the classical experience of friendship. Most of us have very little need to rely on friends for anything in our lives. Even in our emotional distress, we can dull our souls with the narcotics of television and Internet entertainment rather than sharing that pain with anyone else. It’s far too easy to forego communal “play” with friends in favor of the pleasant comforts of our own sofa, our own TV.

A third cause is the trivialization of American life. A great mass of the population is losing touch with the things that are truly important in life, thanks mostly to the effects of mass media entertainment and the general spiritual malaise. The deepest we go now is merely the level of personal, emotional pain. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that emotional pain is unimportant. I am a firm supporter of the value of counseling and psychotherapy in many circumstances. But I do think that we are far more aware of our emotional woes in our psychologically-driven culture than most other cultures in the world have been. They are not unimportant, but they are taking over our lives in a dangerous and aggressive way. The breakdown of friendships allows for the cancerous spread of isolationism and emotional disease in our culture. Part of the reason, I suspect, is because we’ve lost our fluency in the things that go even deeper than emotional pain—the things of the spirit. We’ve lost the genuine community that would allow us to blossom into our full humanity.

So what does this have to do with Facebook? My feeling is that Facebook implicitly cripples our understanding of friendship by allowing the outer two circles of relationships—social friends and acquaintances—to fill the role of “friends.” This is certainly not intentional on Facebook’s part, but the plain fact of the matter is that it is not a good engine for the growth of deeper relationships—either true friendships or soul-friendships. These latter categories of friendship require time spent together, face-to-face interaction that will often be neither immediately accessible nor convenient. I worry that many in my generation are substituting Facebook-friends in place of true friends.

That’s not the case with everyone, of course, and there are people out there with enough social energy and wisdom to maintain a host of Facebook contacts at the same time as investing in deep, meaningful, true friendships. But in my case, that wouldn’t be the way it would work. If I gave in to its draw, Facebook could suck the life out of the relationships I have here and now. I care deeply about the friends I have elsewhere, but to be honest, I would rather connect with them face-to-face or through a more substantive medium sometime in the future than to see every random picture of their lives here and now. And here’s an intriguing point to consider: I’m not communicating any less with my friends in other places now than I was before Facebook came along. That indicates to me that the sort of interaction and catching-up that happens on Facebook is probably not worthwhile now, because it apparently wasn’t worth the effort before.

I’ve also heard the argument that Facebook can be a good forum for significant interactions over ideas, philosophical inquiries, and the like. That’s more attractive to me, but I remain dubious. In my experience, online interaction is about the poorest forum possible for genuine idea-driven discussions. It’s too easy to hide behind false facades; too difficult to see the facial expressions or the vocal inflections that would tell me what this idea actually means to the person I’m debating. Ideas are not just ideas, static and independent. They are born in the fire and wind of each individual heart, and without that personal connection, the meaning of the idea loses some of its luster. And it’s far, far too easy to misinterpret positions stated in online writing. It’s too easy to take offense at comments that were not intended to be offensive. It’s too easy to be angry and lose the common courtesy that we would have if we were speaking face-to-face. Even the email-discussions I sometimes have with close friends can go misunderstood or misinterpreted, and often end up either stalling or turning out to be hurtful. Unless each member of the discussion is a very, very good writer and a master of self-control, I would think that personal interactions are far superior to online interactions in almost every instance. If I feel the need for a good philosophical discussion, I (yes, even I, the introvert extraordinaire) would start a book club or a discussion group in my community rather than enlisting in an online polemic-fest.

The final appeal that I hear being made is the appeal to ministry. The argument goes like this: “Because you’re a minister of the Gospel, especially a minister who enjoys interacting in writing and ideas, then you ought to be on Facebook. That’s where the people of this generation are connecting, and if you want to connect with them, then that’s where you have to go. If you want to speak transformative ideas into their lives, then that’s where you need to do it.” This is somewhat more compelling (so compelling, in fact, that because of it I won’t rule out the possibility of my joining Facebook sometime in the future, perhaps as a way of touching base with kids in my church’s youth group). But I still don’t buy it. In my view, online connectivity as a means of genuine personal connectivity is a bust. For all the ways that we can now connect, Americans (and especially young Americans) are more lonely and isolated than ever before. It seems to me that there are two options—to use Facebook as a ministry-tool and so touch a lot of young people on an idea-driven basis, or to invest in personal relationships that offer not only idea-driven transformation, but the whole broad radiance of genuine person-to-person contact that reflects the image of Christ. Now, as I said, some people could probably manage to do both options in their ministry; I doubt that I can. And since the potential for personal transformation is so much higher in the latter option, that’s where I’ll put my focus. The danger for me is that Facebook, because it’s an online forum and therefore somewhat personally distant, will feed my introversion. For me, it’s the easy way out—to throw random ideas at people from the isolation of my own home and tell myself that that counts as “doing ministry,” rather than taking the courageous step of choosing to be actually involved in someone else’s life.

At the heart of it, while I have reservations about the cultural implications of Facebook, it comes down to knowing my own weaknesses. Facebook would encourage my introversion in relationships, allowing me to believe that online connection can substitute for true friendship. It would allow me to say, “It’s okay for me not to have any true friends here, because I have so many ‘friends’ that I’m connected with in other places.” It would also stroke my narcissism by giving me a place to post about myself all the time. There are sweet and poisonous dangers involved in having a place to construct one’s own identity through “friends” and personal preferences. For some reason, I don’t believe that the trivial details of everything I do during a day are actually worthy of anyone else’s consideration (and I’m under the impression that if I did start to believe that, I would be in serious danger of the deadly sin of pride). So again, this isn’t a critique of Facebook per se; rather, it’s an exploration of the ways that Facebook would be an unhealthy influence for me in my personal relationships and spiritual growth.

So that’s my defense. If there are any compelling virtues of Facebook that I need to reconsider, then please bring them to my attention. Otherwise, I’ll leave the Facebook world to its furious connections and instead take up the adventure of pursuing true friendship with those around me, here and now.