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.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Dante in Exile

(Note: This article was originally posted in 2015)

Here's a painting I find very interesting: "Dante in Exile," by the Victorian artist Frederic Leighton (1864). 

One immediately senses the tension in the painting: Dante (the black-cloaked figure in the center) faces directly toward us; while the other characters are moving elsewhere, mostly toward the room behind him. At first glance, one would think that this shows Dante's exclusion, his loneliness in his place of exile. But a second glance shows that this isn't entirely the case: many of the participants, though moving past Dante or turned in a different direction than him, are in fact looking at him: the child in the foreground, the young woman in the passing group, and the seated man to Dante's left. Even the red-cloaked man up in the room behind seems to be talking about Dante, gesturing toward him with his hand. Dante, though alone and opposite the flow of everything around him, is nevertheless (or perhaps, because of this) the object of everyone's attention.

So what is this all about? A quick history lesson: Dante, of course, is the Italian poet famed for writing "The Divine Comedy," (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), one of the greatest literary works of all time. But he was also a political figure, having been a leader and supporter of the White Guelph faction in his hometown of Florence, and it just so happened that in 1302 the White Guelphs were exiled from Florence. Dante spent the rest of his life in exile in Italy, starting in Rome and ending in Ravenna. It was during his long exile that he wrote his masterpiece.

This painting by Leighton shows Dante's exile in beautiful detail--in particular, it encapsulates Dante's resolution that drove him to write. A quick glance at Dante's figure may show him as sort of a passive character, with the world passing him by. But this is merely an illusion. It is precisely his posture against the flow of the world around him, against the worldly revelry, that makes up the theme of the first canto of The Divine Comedy. His face is mournful, brokenhearted at his exile, but it is also resolute--it will not attend to the bustling cares of this world. His folded hands seem at first to be submissive, resigned. But this too is an illusion, for in his right hand he holds a book, his finger already marking a place within it; and it is with a book that he will make his stand against the ways of the world. 

Perhaps the subtlest detail of all, though, is his feet. Everything about Dante is static except his feet. One would have guessed from his posture that his feet would have been together, but no, he seems to be stepping forward with his left foot. This is, in fact, an allusion to a line in his first canto, as he describes his decision to find the straight path that he had lost: "I dragged my stronger foot and limped along" (Inferno I:30). The dragging of the foot is taken to be a symbol of the way Dante feels rooted to the old life, to the ways of the world, and that impulse is stronger than his affinity for pursuing the way of faith; nevertheless, he resolves to step forward, even if it means dragging along that old, worldly part of himself. 

Exile is never an easy place to be, and the painting shows us that. But by putting into imagery the very mood of Dante's first canto, it also reminds us that we are all in exile. Every one of us has lost the straight path, and we find ourselves "in a darkened wood." It is our choice whether to go along the easy path of following the world into its spiritual exile of vice, or of dragging our unwilling selves up the hard mountain toward virtue.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

On Spiritual Warfare

(Note: This article was originally posted in 2007)

I had the onus of a specific request placed on me recently—to write some reflections on the topic of spiritual warfare and to take special note of my African experiences. This is an area of interest to me, but one which, I freely admit, I don’t know much about. I have many more questions than answers, but perhaps the questions will be helpful in pointing us in the right direction as a church. I don’t believe that this is a topic that demands as much attention as some Christians would have us believe (or at least not in the form they present it), but I do think it’s worthy of far more attention than most Americans give it. We are all called to be warriors in the kingdom of God, to fight spiritual battles for the sake of the gospel, and that is no small commission. We should learn how to do it well. 

When it comes to questions of the spiritual realm, and specifically the demonic, C.S. Lewis hits the center of the mark in his preface to The Screwtape Letters: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” The American church is all over the spectrum on this. Most of us go through our day-to-day lives without even giving a second thought to demons. Others seem to be obsessed with them. In researching this topic, I found some intriguingly fanciful books in our seminary library, including one that claimed to know that demons named “Ahab” and “Jezebel” were behind much of the lack of spiritual power in the church’s men and women, respectively, and that the Babylonian goddess Ashtoreth is responsible for the feminist movement.

To those who live their lives in willful ignorance of the spiritual forces at work in the world, I would urge that this issue be seriously considered. And to those who “see a demon behind every bush,” I would suggest that we have missed the forest for the trees. In his book Breaking Strongholds in Your City, C. Peter Wagner thanks his “less informed critics” for keeping him conscientious in his studies of spiritual warfare. I think this article would probably fit into that category. I’m not very well-informed on this subject, but it is of interest to me, and I’d welcome any additional thoughts or critiques.

Anyone who takes the Bible seriously must take the demonic realm seriously as well. One of the clear agendas of the gospels is to portray Jesus’ authority over these dark powers. However, a biblical theology of demons doesn’t tell us much more than that. The Old Testament, in contrast to the gospels, is almost entirely silent about demons. It does far more in attacking idols and foreign gods, so some have conjectured that demons and pagan gods are one and the same (for example, “Beelzebub” is not merely a demonic prince cited in the gospels, but also appears as “Baal-zebub,” the god of Ekron, in 2 Kings 1:2). But to be honest, we don’t know much about the connection between demons and pagan gods. Some later OT writings imply that idols and foreign gods aren’t real at all in the spiritual sense. Satan makes a few interesting cameos, but other than his sporadic appearance and the intriguing cases of harmful or deceitful spirits actually sent by God (1 Sam. 16:14; 1 Kings 22:19-23), the OT tells us little on this matter. 

Though the NT tells us more, one must admit that outlining a robust theology of spiritual warfare is very low on the priority-list of the writers. Clearly, spiritual warfare is a proper part of kingdom-life, but we are seldom told how to do it, and those passages that do address the subject are rather vague. Perhaps the clearest statement we have comes from Mark 9:29, where Jesus instructs his disciples that a certain kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer. The best exposition of spiritual warfare in the Bible (at least to my knowledge) is the famous passage in Eph. 6, which tells us that our battle is against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” But when Paul instructs his readers how to go about this battle, he gives no strategies for “warfare prayer” or “spiritual mapping.” Rather, he tells them to gird themselves with defensive weaponry in order to stand fast in their faith and to live the Christian life in righteousness and active witness. When Paul finally gets around to addressing prayer, which is the focal practice of most discussions of spiritual warfare, he focuses exclusively on intercessory prayer rather than on directly attacking or claiming authority over spiritual powers.

This is a topic which should be addressed carefully. Not only is there a lot that the Bible doesn’t tell us, but there are a lot of curious things that it does tell us which seem to go against the grain of what we’re usually taught about demons. This extends further than the OT instances of God sending harmful spirits. 1 Peter 3:19-20 appears to allude to 1 Enoch’s interpretation of the odd story of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6. According to early Jewish traditions, this is a tale of spirits (possibly demonic, depending on how one uses the term) who mated with human women and were locked up by God until the final judgment. This, then, would apparently be a different class of beings than the demons Jesus confronts during his ministry. Moreover, 2 Peter and Jude both warn against “slandering celestial beings,” and both contexts imply that these celestial beings aren’t angels (Jude explicitly puts Satan in this category as a being who shouldn’t be slandered or spoken about without understanding). Perhaps these are demons. Or perhaps there are other classes of spiritual beings, rather more independent in their allegiance than angels, who also have power over earthly affairs. We just don’t know.

This doesn’t mean that the Bible isn’t concerned with spiritual warfare. But it does mean that the Bible isn’t as concerned with it as with the glorious truths of the gospel and the importance of living a faithful and obedient life. In the relative dearth of explicit biblical treatment of this subject, Christians have filled in the gaps with their own experience. And rightly so, for we can learn much that is true from experience. For me, experience has confirmed the biblical worldview of demonic powers, but it has done little beyond that. I saw a few exorcisms during my time in Angola, and it was clear that there were evil spiritual powers at work. I have seen women who came to the pastors for help, and in the middle of a prayer which they had been listening to quietly, they suddenly burst into wild trances, sometimes fearful and sometimes angry. I have spoken to Angolan men who freely admitted the power of evil spirits in their lives, especially as harnessed by the witchdoctors. Many of the stories they tell would be impossible to deny, even if one appealed to psychological manipulation. For instance, one man told of a village a bit further down the Kubango River, where a certain man’s son had been eaten by a crocodile. After doing some asking around, the man discovered that the crocodile had been sent by a witchdoctor at the request of a jealous neighbor. When confronted, the neighbor admitted to the deed—he had asked the witchdoctor to have a crocodile eat the man’s son. There were even first-person witness accounts of dark magic that my discipleship group told me, including demonic manifestations at a witchdoctor’s funeral right in Menongue, the city where I worked. Evil spiritual forces are a known factor of life in most Third-World countries. Beyond this simple confirmation of the biblical worldview, however, my experience falls short. The exorcisms I witnessed seemed at least temporarily effective, but they also seemed to be a bit syncretistic in their methods and attitudes (using the Bible and Jesus’ name as magical charms in themselves—one pastor even began beating a possessed woman with his Bible).

Other Christians have much more extensive experience in this realm than I, and it seems to me, in reading some of the literature produced by the spiritual warfare movement, that it is these experiences which drive their understanding and their methods. A number of Christian counselors, even here in America, have developed a detailed demonology based on their interactions with evil spirits in people’s lives. Many missionaries, also having come into contact with spiritual powers, incorporate symbolic and direct spiritual warfare tactics into their ministries. The practices of “prayerwalking” and “spiritual mapping” emerged largely from charismatic impulses, in which the Holy Spirit gives specific insights about the spiritual realities behind a certain place. Now armies of prayer warriors are marching through unevangelized countries, praying against the local demonic powers. Some even suggest that this spiritual mapping—uncovering the spiritual background of a place through research into local history, sociological observation, and discernment through prayer—is the key to breakthrough to revival. 

I’m not criticizing these practices. If counselors do indeed have to face demonic spirits from time to time, they should at least have some idea what to do. No doubt missionaries are keenly aware of the reality of demonic powers, and they understand the power of prayer better than I do. Prayerwalks in unevangelized countries may well be one of the causes behind the dramatic worldwide expansion of the gospel. Furthermore, I admit that charismatic insights, direct from the Holy Spirit, are very rare events for me, so I would be out of place to assume that those who do receive such insights are merely engaging in flights of fancy. However, I would urge that such practices be subjected to the rigorous tempering of the biblical perspective, because I get the feeling that we often lose our proper outlook.

I should also address the issue of “territorial powers,” since this is one of the base assumptions of contemporary demonology and spiritual warfare studies. It is assumed that the same demonic powers rule over specific locales for long periods of time, if not permanently, and that by discerning the nature of those powers, warfare-prayers are given an added power. Aside from the issue of charismatic insights concerning specific locales, which I’m not qualified to speak about, I can say that we don’t know much biblically about territorial powers. The only passage that is regularly cited is Daniel 10, in which an angelic character tells Daniel about his wrestling with the “prince of Persia” and the “prince of Greece,” often interpreted as demonic powers (and apparently refers to Michael as an angelic “prince”). Even if these characters are interpreted as demonic rulers, which probably isn’t the only interpretation available, it must be noted that nothing in this passage actually directs Daniel to the sort of warfare-prayer which many Christians now advocate. Aside from this example, most if not all of the instances of demons in the NT (at least that I’m aware of) are attached to persons, not places. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that demons couldn’t be geographically organized. There seems to be a belief in early Christianity that angels are associated with specific churches, so I suppose demons could be associated with specific places or groups of people as well. I am in no position to overturn the experience of hundreds of missionaries who attest to territorial powers in the venues of their ministry.

What does trouble me, though, is the assumption that this form of spiritual warfare is the answer we’ve been looking for. Not only does the Bible never tell us to pray directly against demonic powers, but this development is fairly recent, as even its leaders admit. I’m a bit of a conservative, and so if no practice has ever been used fruitfully in the long history of the church, I am very wary of accepting it. There are certainly instances of “power encounters” with demons throughout church history, but these take the nature of casting demons out of people and destroying pagan shrines. To my knowledge, there has never before been a movement of Christians who assumed that they could directly discern the organization of specific spiritual powers and then directly attack them. That should give us pause. 

No doubt it is very beneficial to research local spiritual history in order to pray better for our communities, because history does indeed affect the present situation in countless ways. But I’m not convinced that it’s either wise or efficacious to pray directly against specific spiritual powers. The picture of intercession in the Bible is overwhelmingly about beseeching God for the sake of people, not against spiritual powers. Is it wrong to pray authoritatively against spiritual powers? No, I don’t think so. In fact, if the Holy Spirit leads us in that direction, that is precisely what we should do. But why do we need to know the specifics of local demonic powers? Is God’s power restricted when we pray “Lord, please break the power of the evil spiritual forces in our community” rather than, “Lord, please break the power of the Ahab and Jezebel demons in this place”? For that matter, why would either of these prayers be better than, “Lord, please bring your light into our community”?

In short, spiritual warfare is an essential part of Christian life. But, first and foremost, it should consist of conventional intercessory prayer rather than prayer-assaults on demonic powers. Second, we should never assume that this no-holds-barred spiritual warfare is the key to revival. Revival is a work of God, and when he chooses to send it, no demonic power can stand in his way. Revival comes with an understanding of sin and grace, and it comes from faithful living and fearless witnessing. Third, we need to embrace the Ephesians 6 paradigm and, rather than focusing exclusively on offensive assaults on spiritual powers (which is more God’s task than ours), we need to focus on equipping the church to stand its ground in faithfulness. And finally, we should embrace the biblical focus toward spiritual warfare—that the battle has already been won by Christ, and that the church is the vehicle of Christ’s authority on earth. Let’s not get so wrapped up in a spiritual battle we don’t understand that we miss the point of the victory of Jesus Christ.

And a final caveat—these observations and critiques are written as a relative outsider to this movement, so I may have missed the real emphasis and thrust of these spiritual warfare efforts. I’d love to hear some responses.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Evangeliad (2:5-14)

Section 2:5-14 (corresponding to Matthew 1:23-25a and Luke 2:1-5)
Herein was fulfilled the prophet's great word,
Spoken of old by the breath of the Lord:
A virgin conceives, and she bears a son!--
Immanuel, he: the Lord's chosen one. 

And this name, when rendered, means 'God with us,'
The true Deity with children of dust.
So Joseph got up, and did what was said:
Took Mary to him, and chastely they wed.

Caesar sent word from his palace in Rome
That all should return to their family homes;
There in his census would they be enrolled
(All this took place while Quirinius ruled).
Up out of Nazareth Joseph did go,
On out to his ancestor David's home;
And Mary his wife was nearing her time
As Bethlehem's hills they ventured to climb.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Photo of the Week

The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want.
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green: he leadeth me
The quiet waters by.

- metrical version of Psalm 23:2-3 (from The Scottish Metrical Psalter, 1650)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Quote of the Week

A reminder of the hard truth of mankind's fallen nature:

"No beast is more savage than man, when possessed with power answerable to his rage."

- Plutarch, classical writer of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, from his Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sunday Scripture - James 1:19-21

James 1:19-21

1:19-21 – James open this section of thoughts by expressing commonplace wisdom from the Old Testament proverbs—be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. The first two commands need no explanation; most everybody understands the advantages to this kind of practice: if we truly are quick to listen and slow to speak, we will have greater understanding of others, less miscommunications and hurt feelings, and the things that come out of our mouths might actually be worth listening to. But although everyone understands the truth of that premise, most people find a great deal of difficulty in putting it into practice. As we’ll see, James notes that this isn’t the only area in which we may listen and agree, and then go out and fail to practice what we’ve heard. The third injunction—“slow to become angry”—is a repeated theme in the Old Testament, and it’s almost always said about God: he is slow to anger and rich in love. In the same way that God extends his grace and patience toward us, with our manifold faults, we too must learn how to extend grace and patience toward one another. In v. 20, James notes that “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” We must always note that, when we see the word “righteousness” in our Bibles, it could just as easily have been translated “justice” (the two ideas are encompassed by the exact same term in Greek). So here James may have in mind our internal righteousness—i.e., having a quick temper will not help us along the path of personal virtue that we ought to be walking—but he might as well have in mind the external justice of the situations we face. God is the one good Judge of all things, and we need his wise judgments to bring justice over against all the evil and suffering of this world. We humans, in our anger, do not further the ends of God’s great plan to bring this justice which sets all wrong things right. If anything, it gets in the way. So James’ advice is clear and incisive: get rid of all the evil and sin in your life, and accept the word planted in you. That word is, first and foremost, the message of Christ himself, the true Word, whose life and power grows within us just like a spiritual seed that breaks forth and blossoms. But James also has in view the “word of God” in the sense that the Old Testament prophets used that phrase: the things God has told us, which we ought to be doing. This word—Christ in us, and the binding counsels of God for living a life of holiness—is both the heart and the practice of our salvation: the word which can save you.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

"Grant us, even us, O Lord, to know you, and love you, and rejoice in you. And if we cannot do these perfectly in this life, let us at least advance to higher degrees every day, till we can come to do them in perfection. Let the knowledge of you increase in us here, that it may be full hereafter. Let the love of you grow every day more and more here, that it may be perfect hereafter; that our joy may be great in itself and full in you. We know, O God, that you are a God of truth. Oh, make good your gracious promises to us, that our joy may be full. To your honor and glory, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, world without end. Amen.

- Augustine

Friday, August 11, 2017

Christ before the High Priest

(Note: An earlier version of this article was published in 2015)

Way back when Rachel and I were college freshmen, we encountered this painting: "Christ before the High Priest," by Gerrit von Honhorst. We were part of the First-Year Honors Program at Houghton College, which took us over to London for our spring semester. There we studied history, philosophy, literature, and art, from ancient times to the present. Much of our workload had us going out to the many museums in London to see firsthand some of the great works of Western civilization. By the end of the semester, the National Gallery had come to feel like a home away from home. And even after seeing and studying thousands of paintings, there were a few that managed to stick in one's memory and imagination. For both me and Rachel, this was one such painting. (We now have a print of it hanging in our dining room.) The original work is of large proportions--nine feet tall by six feet wide--so it readily commands one's attention, even in a crowded gallery. 
Appreciating great paintings is a skill that's being lost in our present society, thanks to the over-saturation of our culture with images. But imagine that you lived before the Internet, before television, before photography, perhaps even before woodcut illustrations in printed texts. In that world, an image was an exceptionally rare thing. Rather than a mass-produced image file, one of millions you could look at, an image in those days would have been the singular creation of an artist's genius and hard work. As such, most images that were made had a high degree of intentionality and meaningfulness worked into them, in contrast to much of today's photographic imagery. To sit with a great painting is, in a way, much the same thing as to read a great work of literature--to open one's mind to conversation with a thoughtful perspective from another age, another culture, another way of looking at the human condition. 
The first thing to know about this painting is that it was influenced by Caravaggio's style of tenebrism (a particular version of chiaroscuro). This means that the painting is characterized by large contrasts between light and dark, such that the contrast itself becomes one of the leading stylistic elements. For a painting like this, whose subject is Christ, the style is fitting: Jesus is "the light [which] shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it" (John. 1:5). The irony of the image is that the high priest, who holds on his table the only source of visible light in the room, cannot understand that the Light of the World is standing before him. 

He also has the open book of the Law of Moses in front of him, unaware that the man across the table is both the One who inspired those ancient words (the quill pen leans toward Christ, hinting to him as the author), and who is himself their final fulfillment. A second book is also open on the table, but turned away from the high priest, as if he does not consult this one--perhaps a reference to the Old Testament prophets, who speak about the coming Servant of God. 

Also, notice the interplay between the postures and faces of the two men: the high priest, though seated and required to look up into the face of Christ, is proud and accusatory. Christ, though his posture and clothing reveal a submission to the events of his Passion, shows no submission to the message of this high priest--his eyes are locked on the priest's, silent but strong. 

Now look at the contrast between the two men's hands. The high priest holds up a single finger, lecturing Christ. This priest is certain that he has the truth, and is defensive against Christ's claim to be, in and of himself, "the Truth." Christ's hands are bound, but not really passive. They are elegant and strong, and composed together in a patient assurance of his own truthfulness, an assurance so strong that it has no need of making a defense against the high priest's attack. 

Finally, look at the other faces in the painting. There are a few shadowy figures behind Christ, representing the soldiers who arrested Jesus and brought him to this trial. But behind the high priest stand two men in Renaissance-era clothes, representing contemporaries of the artist. (It was common practice to work one's patrons, oneself, or other contemporary figures into historical paintings.) The interesting thing here, of course, is that the artist has placed these contemporaries on the side of the high priest, not of Christ, and their posture and expressions are just as proud and defensive as the high priest's. This is a reminder to us of our perpetual human inclination, when faced by the patient, gracious, but life-transforming person of Christ, to retreat into ourselves, into our own stubborn assurance that we've got it right and anyone who would challenge us must be wrong. (And Christians, like the high priest, can sometimes even use our own particular interpretation of the Bible as a weapon of this vain self-assurance, a defense against what Christ would do in our lives if we really let him.) This painting is a call to us to let all those vain pretensions slip away, and to actually do what none of those in the painting, because of their stubborn self-benightedness, are doing--to kneel down in the presence of the Light of the World, and to acknowledge him, and him alone, as the center of our lives.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Christian Writing

(Note: An earlier version of this article was posted in 2007)

The Christian perspective on writing (or at least my conception of it) is a bit of a twist when compared to the way society regards the craft. First of all, there’s the issue of weaving exclusive truth claims into writing in the midst of a culture that rejects such claims. It will always seem harsh to some, but I don’t think we’ll win people over by trying to pander to their desires for cheap grace. I believe it’s important for Christian writing to be bold, clear, and uncompromising, and that this can be done with grace and good humor. We will not win the world by weakening ourselves, but we can win it by helping people see the rampant joy that undergirds our strength.

Secondly, Christian writing aims for a high standard of the craft, just as the secular world does, but in a different way. The pursuit of excellence for a Christian writer is to bring glory and delight to God in honing and using the skills He has given. For a secular writer, I imagine that excellence in writing is seen as something meritorious in and of itself. A Christian writer would never assume that to be true, because it treads dangerously close to the sin of pride and exalts the gift rather than the Giver. But is it wrong to feel a bit of pleasure and satisfaction for our own accomplishments and hard work in developing our writing skills? No, not usually. But we must always keep in mind that this does not reflect any merit back to ourselves as the first cause. We can feel gratified by our accomplishments, but our eyes always look gratefully up to the One who made those accomplishments possible.

For my own part, writing is a delight, largely because I am the unworthy recipient of unmerited gifts in that area. I come from a long line of writers and poets, and in some ways it seems to be in my blood. I’ve also been nurtured in the craft, encouraged and urged ahead by many in my family and a number of my teachers. If my writing is worth anything, I can’t claim its worth as any merit of my own—it is merely the reflection of the grace I’ve received from the hand of the Lord and the fellowship of my family and friends.

I should also note that the Christian perspective significantly decreases the anxiety of writing—there is no rush or pressure to become the best; merely the patient and joyous marvel of using what we have, to the best of our abilities, to delight the Wonder of our souls. That is no less of a motive to aspire toward excellence in one’s writing; on the contrary, it’s a greater motive. We should aim to be the best writers we can be because we bring glory to God by being good stewards of His gifts.

Thirdly, Christian writing doesn’t share all of the secular world’s standards of what makes a literary work good. Some factors will be the same when seen from either side—beauty, flow, the incorporation of great ideas, and so on. Christians may differ from others as to what constitutes a ‘great idea,’ but the underlying precept of judging literature is basically the same on that mark. What is rather different, however, is the Christian perspective on that one foundational mark which the world uses to judge literature: originality. If a writer comes up with a fresh perspective or mechanism in his work, he is lauded as a ‘creative genius.’

But Christian writers shouldn’t make the attainment of this sort of genius the sole test of their abilities. Certainly there are some Christian writing geniuses in both style and substance. And that’s a good thing, but not the best thing about their writing. The temptation to pursue originality alone is the siren song of our culture, which has idolized newness to such a degree that the beauty of older forms cannot anymore be recognized as beauty by those who have spent their lives quaffing the cheap wine of mere originality.
New perspectives can have a lot to teach us, but newness itself is not an inherent virtue. Much of the trouble with modern literature is that originality has been pursued for its own sake, and beauty has suffered for it. For Christian writers, we create not merely to create, but, like our Maker, to be able to create and then look down on what we've made, and see that it is good. Beauty must be at least as central a pursuit as originality; for in the end, all of our originality is, at least in part, an imitation inspired by the work of the one great Artist, and all his works are beautiful.

To use an extended quotation from C. S. Lewis' thoughts on the subject: "In the New Testament the art of life itself is an art of imitation: can we, believing this, believe that literature, which must derive from real life, is to aim at being 'creative', 'original', and 'spontaneous'? 'Originality' in the New Testament is quite plainly the prerogative of God alone; even within the triune being of God it seems to be confined to the Father. The duty and happiness of every other being is placed in being derivative, like a mirrior....An author should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom....And always, of every idea and of every method he will ask not 'Is it mine?', but 'Is it good?'" ("Christianity and Literature," Christian Reflections).

Everything in Christian writing points back to the beautiful, powerful tradition in which we stand. As Christian writers, even if we are on the crest of the wave, we know that we do not stand alone. We may spin new ways of looking at the message, but it is still the same incomparable message that generations before us have faithfully delivered. The ultimate goal is not to portray life or humanity or anything else in a new way; the goal is to portray it all, whether in hinting themes or forthright exposition, in a faithful way. If it is new in its form or style, all the better, but that is not the highest aim.

I should add that this idea of writing as imitation is neither sterile nor closed. We are speaking of the imitation of God, and God has no boundaries. God has created galaxies that we are only now beginning to see, and we are imitators of that kind of creation. There are an infinite number of stories and angles and forms and means, stretching to boundless horizons that our few millennia of art have barely even begun to imagine. My point is not that originality of style is bad, but that it should not be our goal. Our first goal should always be faithfulness to the shape of the reality we know, based in the character and story of God, and if that faithfulness can be portrayed through insightfully original means, so much the better. But originality itself is not of unlimited artistic worth. Better a well-written story, faithful to truth and beauty and goodness, that makes no attempt at shaping a new movement in literature, than a work in a brilliantly original style that tells the world awry.

Fourthly, Christians will always differ with the secular world as to the worth of a piece of writing. That is, Christians will always take a lighter view of writing—it is something that is certainly important (our faith, after all, is a literary-based faith)—but the worth of any piece of writing is insubstantial in comparison to the value of even one human being. Writing can be an incredible vehicle for powerful truths, a tool of enormous potential, but its greatest purpose does not lie within itself. The greatest end of any human creation is to bring glory to God. A complementary end is the salvation of souls. Whereas the secular world sees a great piece of writing as a beautiful thing in and of itself, Christians can see deeper and know it to be beautiful because it reflects the beauty of the Giver, the Muse. I believe that many of the truly beautiful things which men and women have made will last beyond this earthly age, but they will never be comparable to the people who created them, nor to the people who read them. 

It’s worth noting that God Himself chose to carry out His plan and to reveal Himself not simply in lists of precepts and systematic theologies. He showed Himself to us in story form, in the gradual awakenings and intimacies of a personal relationship with real people. Story is at the heart of the Christian worldview, because we are players in the most magnificent story ever composed. So even in this, Christian writers are imitators—we stand in a great tradition of employing storytelling in the conveyance of life-changing truth.

There’s a great deal more that can be said about writing or any Christian art form, but these things must be the foundation—the centrality of truth, beauty, and goodness, and the glory of our Creator.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

"A Book," by Emily Dickinson

A combination of busyness and sloth has prevented me from writing any original poetry this week. So in lieu of that, I offer you a classic poem on the glories of reading:

A Book

There is no frigate like a book
     To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
     Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
     Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
     That bears the human soul!

          - Emily Dickinson

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Photo of the Week

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

- Colossians 3:12

Monday, August 07, 2017

Quote of the Week

"In order to be perfectly what God wants us to be we must be truly ourselves. But in order to be truly ourselves we must find ourselves in Christ--which can only be done if we lose ourselves in Him. This is our great vocation."

- Thomas Merton, 20th century Trappist monk, from his book Seeds of Contemplation

(Painting: "Triptych with Crucifixion," by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostanen, c.1510) 

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Sunday Scripture - James 1:16-18

1:16 – Continuing on from his admonition that God does not tempt anyone, James strongly warns his audience against being deceived regarding the nature of God. His warning is well taken; it is often a misapprehension of God’s nature that leads to most of the errors in both doctrine and practice for individual believers and even whole denominations. One commentator on this verse suggested that the problem was that some Christians choose to over-exaggerate certain attributes of God’s character, such as his love, while others might exaggerate his wrath against sin. But this commentator’s estimation does not quite hit the mark. The problem is not one of exaggeration: in point of fact, it is entirely impossible to over-exaggerate any aspect of God’s character. All that God is, he infinitely is. The scope of God’s love (or holiness, or justice) is so vast that one simply cannot ever say too much about it. It cannot be exaggerated. The error that the commentator was trying to hone in on, though, is a very real danger: the error of emphasizing one of God’s attributes to the neglect of others, as if they were separable aspects of his character, some of which can be ignored. But God is not customizable to our tastes, and it’s a rather good thing that he’s not. Some Christians make the error of so emphasizing the wrath of God against sin, and neglecting the doctrine of his love, that they end up with a vision of God as a glowering judge in the heavens, who is fastidiously keeping track of all of one’s mistakes. As such, the practice of such Christians tends to be legalistic, narrowly focused on checklists of sins to avoid. On the other hand, some Christians fall into the opposite error: emphasizing the love of God while neglecting his wrath against sin, they end up with a vision of God in which he is simply shrugs away our sins, counting them as being of no consequence. Now, one might conceivably think that a God like that would be rather nice—a God who would casually overlook my many misdeeds does seem appealing. But when one looks at the state of our world, and considers all of the pain and suffering caused by human sinfulness, then we must ask: do we really want a God who shrugs all this off, and treats it as being of no consequence? Of course not. We need a God who is holy and just, who understands the gravity of sin and suffering, and who is able, through necessary measures, to make all wrong things right again. Thankfully, we have such a God—but we can only see him as he is when we hold both his love and his wrath against sin together. His attributes are not separable; they are united expressions of his singular, indivisible nature. Thus his love is rooted in his holiness and justice; and in the same way his wrath against sin is rooted in his love for us, much the same way as a good father would hate the addiction that enslaves the son he loves. If he did not hate the addiction, he would not truly love his son. God’s love and his wrath are two sides of the same coin, and both perfectly expressed in the mercy of the cross: where God dealt with all the terrible gravity of sin rather than shrugging it off, and where his limitless love for humanity was forever displayed in all his splendor. So although there is a temptation to cherrypick our favorite Bible verses and ignore the rest, to focus on some attributes of God and neglect the others, we cannot do so. We need to let the voice of Scripture and Christian tradition continue speaking to us, challenging our narrow, finite views of the infinite God. “Do not be deceived.”

1:17-18 – Instead of a view of God as a source of temptation, James says that God is the giver of all good things. Everything good, and beautiful, and true comes from him. There is nothing in the beauties of nature, art, music, or philosophy that is not underlain by the great and abiding goodness of God. James draws a parallel between God and “the heavenly lights” to make his point. The sun bestows its bright, clear, life-giving rays upon the earth, though sometimes things get in the way of our experience of those rays: changing seasons, times of day, clouds, or other obstacles can change our experience of sunlight, making it seem a transitory thing, something characterized by “shifting shadows.” But nothing could be farther from the truth. Though clouds may get in the way, the clouds do not change the fact that the sun’s rays remain entirely bright, clear, and life-giving. In the same way, we may allow some things to block our experience of God’s goodness: temptations, our own sinfulness, our limited perspectives and petulant attitudes when undergoing hardship. But though these things might block our subjective experience of God’s outpouring, radiant goodness, they do not in fact change the fact that God remains the ultimate source of all good. The clouds do not make the sun less powerful, nor do temptations diminish God’s great goodness. It is we who must take responsibility for keeping the ways clear for God’s good gifts to shine on through. James then underscores the goodness of God by listing the greatest example of his generous love: the fact that he has given us birth by his word—a reference not to our mortal existence, but to our spiritual rebirth in Christ. We who are born again in Christ are the firstfruits of something far bigger that God is doing—the restoration and re-creation of all things. Our coming alive in the moment of our salvation—the time when, as Paul says, we became “new creations,” is itself a herald and presage of the great moment to come, when all of creation will experience its liberation in God’s re-creation, the new heavens and the new earth. God is so good that he does not make us wait until the end of time to be a part of this end-times new creation; no, he lets us live in that moment even now, on the threshold of his coming Kingdom, as the firstfruits of God’s new creation. Indeed he is the giver of all good things.