Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Photo of the Week

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
And knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

- Proverbs 9:10

Monday, January 29, 2018

Quote of the Week

“Do not think that as you grow in grace the path will become smoother beneath your feet, and the heavens serener above your heads. On the contrary, reckon that as God gives you greater skill as a soldier, He will send you upon more arduous enterprises; and as He more fully fits your barque to brave the tempest and the storm, so will He send you out upon more boisterous seas, and upon longer voyages, that you may honour Him, and still further increase in holy confidence.”

- Charles Spurgeon, the 19th-century Baptist "Prince of Preachers"

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Lord, bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavors. If it may not, give us the strength to encounter what is to come, that we be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath and in all changes of fortune, and, down to the gates of death, loyal and loving one to another. As the clay to the potter, as the windmill to the wind, as children of their sire, we beg of you this help and mercy for Christ’s sake. Amen.

- Robert Louis Stevenson

Friday, January 26, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: The Tower of Babel as Pentecost in Reverse

Sandwiched in between the biblical hero-epics of Noah and Abraham is an odd little story: the Tower of Babel. It tells the tale of how the the first civilization after the Flood sought to laud its own prestige by building a tower that reached to the heavens. And it also tells how God, in seeing the overweening pride of these people (and apparently also in wariness of their technical capabilities--see Gen. 11:6), halted their project and scattered their civilization by making them all speak different languages.

I call this story an odd one because it isn't really the most plausible scenario for God's judgment on that civilization. If God just wanted them to give up on monumental building projects, there are other methods at his disposal (as, say, having the earth swallow the tower up, or simply making the thing fall down). And if his goal was just to get that civilization to fragment and emigrate elsewhere, a little divine patience would have done the trick: humanity does almost nothing as well as fragment its own societies through the mindless stupidities of war and through the incessant call of claiming a territory to call one's own. Given enough time, the civilization of Babel would have disintegrated on its own. Further, if God is actually worried about humanity's power to build things, as this story appears to indicate, then he probably should be messing around with our languages right now, because computers and space flight are even more terrifying than giant mud-brick ziggurats.

Those aren't the only odd things about this story, either. Here's another one: what is portrayed as a punishment here (the inconvenient multiplication of languages) is now usually seen as a blessing. To linguists and to theologians who have done the hard work of learning to study in other languages, it is a self-evident truth that the diversity of languages has added to, and not detracted from, the power of humanity to think, dream, and build in marvelously creative ways. Different languages give us more than just different words to express our thoughts; they actually give us different paradigms for our thoughts to follow. That is to say, a second language will enable you to think differently about the world than a first language will, and vice versa. Languages foster their own distinct mental cultures. Any second-year seminary student can tell you about the richness that we gain in our theology from having a Bible that is written in two different languages (Hebrew and Greek), and that it is often the differences in those languages, the varying things that each set of grammar and vocabulary does well, that gives added depth, flavor, and power to the pages of holy writ. My linguistics professor used to say (of the Tower of Babel story) that even in his punishment, God was blessing the nations of the earth. 

All that to say, this story is a little odd, at least in being counter-intuitive. We could readily imagine other ways that this story could have played out, rather than with God messing around with the insides of people's brains (which, truth be told, is certainly not the normal way he does things in Scripture). So what's going on here? Why are we faced with this rather strange solution to a problem that doesn't even seem to be a problem (because, after all, why would an all-powerful, omniscient God need to be worried about the heights of technical achievements open to man)? 

One of the answers might be that God, in giving this "punishment" (which was really a blessing in disguise), was both meeting a present goal as well as setting up a foreshadowing of something much greater, something to come in the future. His divine action at the Tower of Babel justly humbles the dangerous pride of humankind, and it sets the stage for one of the greatest moments of salvation-history in the future: Pentecost, the moment when the curse of Babel began to be undone through the power of the Holy Spirit.

You see, the Tower of Babel is really another story about the Fall. Just like the holy human beginnings of Adam and Eve in the Garden were disrupted by the sin of pride (Eve's desire to eat the fruit and "become like God, knowing good and evil") and by the brokenness of human relationships (Cain's murder of Abel); so too the holy renewal of human beginnings through Noah was also disrupted by the brokenness of human relationships (the strange story of the "curse of Canaan" in Gen. 9) and by the sin of pride (the desire of the builders at Babel to reach up to the heavens). In fact, God's strange concern about what humanity might be able to achieve, quoted in Gen. 11:6 ("Nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them"), is best interpreted as a parallel to the danger inherent in the original sin in the Garden ("They will be like God, knowing good and evil"). You have the same sin (the pride of wanting to be like God), and the same danger stated (that humanity actually can, in some way, become like God--an idea that finds its fulfillment, incidentally, in Orthodox Christian theology). All that to say, the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden and the story of the Tower of Babel are meant to be read in parallel. They are both the stories of the Fall of mankind after a promising, holy beginning (first in Eden, and then again after the renewal of the Flood).

And, marvelously, there are hints of redemption in the brokenness that follows each story: the pain of the Fall is made manifest in the death of the holy son Abel; and many centuries later, God's redemption from the Fall would be made manifest in the death of another holy Son. In an exactly parallel way, the pain of the Fall at Babel is made manifest in the divisions in humanity that occur from the multiplying of languages; and many years later, God's redemption would renew humanity's unity from the inside out, bringing the languages of the nations together in one outpouring of proclamation and praise. At Pentecost, when the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and went out to publicly proclaim the Gospel of the risen Christ for the very first time, that proclamation was made in such a way that "every man heard it in his own language" (Acts 2:6). It was the undoing of Babel, the making right of an ancient sin, a redemption that brought healing to the divided body of humanity. Where once we were split apart by many different languages, identities, and agendas, now by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female: we are all one in Christ Jesus. In the Christian church, inaugurated at Pentecost, Babel is being undone.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Advice for Measured Moderates

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter One: Just Do What You Like to Do!
(Section Three: Advice for Measured Moderates)

There’s one more type of Christian that I want to address, though. So far, I’ve advised you to find your comfort zone on the effort-spectrum, and then commit to going all-in on your end of that spectrum, since any measure of balance would be anathema to our goal. But there may be Christians out there who are naturally a little more balanced, who already know how to handle a good mix of both work and leisure without overcommitting to either. Such folks are already in a dangerous position, but, if that’s you, take heart, because there are a few simple tricks that can help you—yes, even you—to attain misery in your Christian life and practice.
One of the most effective ways is to ignore the effort-spectrum of Christian discipline altogether, and replace it with something that looks similar but which is altogether more effective for our present purpose. That is, find a substitute for Christian discipline, which may still fool the outsider but will leave you helpfully stunted in your spiritual growth.
            One of the easiest ways to do this is to read lots of books. If you’re the type who likes a good intellectual investigation, who enjoys taking sides in brainy debates and getting wrapped up in the technical minutiae that could prove your side right, well then you’ve got a whole world to explore in the exciting field of Christian systematic theology! But the same warning that applies to the Bible applies here: while it’s somewhat safer to read theology books than to read the Bible, they can still sneak in little points here and there that might frustrate your pursuit of misery.
The best tactic is to choose an arcane field of theological debate, one that will have practically no impact whatsoever on how you live your daily life, and devote yourself entirely to that: end-times speculation is one of the most popular choices these days. (Or, if you’re particularly good at limiting yourself to the technical aspects and ignoring applications to your daily life, you can also easily find helpful debates about divine sovereignty vs. human free will, or about which denomination’s view of baptism is right, or about what the best English translation of the Bible might be.) All of these are interesting, stimulating theological debates, matters of real value, but if you enter them with the intent of wrapping yourself up in a convenient distraction from your own Christian practice, they can be immensely helpful. You’ll look super-spiritual and brainy to everyone else, and you’ll get to keep your pursuit of the miserable Christian life all the while. As long as you ignore your own relationship with God, you can sink your teeth into as many wild and wonderful theological debates as you like. In this way, you’re substituting something that looks like Christian discipline for the real thing.
            Even if you’re not theologically-inclined, or if the prospect of learning about these debates makes you feel a wonderful sort of drowsiness, there are still other options out there for you. Self-help books, like this one that you’re holding, are a really great substitute for actual effort in Christian discipline. This is one of the easiest ways to perpetuate the cycle of fashionable Christian misery.
Step One: Your misery will probably convince you of the need to find some new answers for your life, so you’ll pick up a book purporting to have the answers.
Step Two: You read the book and talk about it with your friends. You discover lots of neat insights that really get you thinking.
Step Three: After reading the book, you get a recommendation or see a link for another book that can produce similar feelings of having found a neat insight. And so you start the next book.
As long as you keep to this easy-to-follow plan, you can keep reading self-help books your whole life, discovering lots of neat insights, while still, remarkably, holding on to your Christian misery! How, you ask? Well, because the only way out of your Christian misery is to actually apply some of the insights you’ve learned: to put some effort into the classic disciplines of the Christian life, or to practice soul-refreshing seasons of resting in Christ.
So the wonderful secret is this: as long as you don’t actually do anything, as long as you don’t intentionally try something to grow your daily walk with God, you’ll be fine. You can read all the books you want, and it’ll look to everyone else like you’re really spiritual and abounding in insights, when the fact of the matter is that you’ve been able to maintain, all the while, that under-the-surface discontent that is by far the most popular Christian choice these days. Just keep looking for that one next insight that will revolutionize your life, and as long as you keep looking instead of putting any of the insights into practice, you’ll be good to go.
            By now I’m sure you’ll agree: being miserable as a Christian isn’t nearly as hard as it’s cracked up to be. Remarkably, despite the joy of salvation and the delight of knowing God’s love, it’s relatively easy to maintain a fashionable level of Christian misery. All it takes is a little bit of dedication to ignore the right things.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Photo of the Week

Let the trees of the forest sing, let them sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.

- 1 Chronicles 16:33

Monday, January 22, 2018

Quote of the Week

"If you are who you should be, you will set the world on fire."

- Catherine of Siena, 14th-century Christian writer, a member of the Catholic Dominican order

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Bodies dead to sin and souls alive by faith,
Grant us, Lord, grant us.
Holy fear and true love,
Grant us, Lord, grant us.
Lives that please you, deaths you can approve of,
Grant us, Lord, grant us.
Ourselves and all that we have we owe to the Lord. 
He gave them, he increased them, he gives us the means to keep them. 
To his mercy we commend them, and to the judgment of his providence.

Lord, have mercy.

- a Roman litany

Friday, January 19, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: Baptism, Spirit, and New Creation in Noah's Ark

In this final post on Noah's Ark, we'll tie up the loose ends of a few remaining symbols. Once again, the most important, overarching theme that the early Christians saw in the story of Noah's Ark was a foreshadowing of God's plan of salvation through Christ Jesus. The reason for this, as we've seen, is that the theological problems of sin and salvation are addressed in much the same way in the Ark and the Cross. Further, the Old Testament writers themselves saw something significant in Noah's boat, something that struck to the deepest part of God's plan, because they named it after their most sacred symbol, the Ark of the Covenant, rather than giving it the name of a conventional boat.

But there are a wealth of other symbols that the early Christians noticed, too, and we'll deal with them quickly here. One major point of connection was the symbol of water--just as God's cleansing of the world's sin comes by way of water (the Flood), so also God's cleansing of our sin is symbolized by water (the immersion of baptism). And if you might think that this is something of a stretch, you ought probably to consider that there are other stories in the Old Testament that relate to salvation from destruction, divine healing, and inheriting God's promise that also include stories of passing "through the waters" (the parting of the Red Sea in Ex. 14, the parting of the Jordan River in Josh. 4, and Naaman's healing in 2 Kings 5, just to name a few).

The conclusion of the Ark story has echoes of the idea of a "New Creation" all through it. In the same way that the Old Creation began with Adam and all the animals, and in the way that the New Creation story begins with Jesus amid the animals of the stable, so too here we have a foreshadowing of that New Creation, with Noah and his animals. It is worth noting that in the Christian conception of God's New Creation through Christ, although it begins with humanity, it will one day extend to include all of creation, including the natural world: "The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21). The fact that the natural world is represented as being among the recipients of God's salvation from the flood is no accident; it foreshadows the cosmic extent of God's coming salvation in Christ Jesus. Further, as noted before, early Christians would have pointed out that the total number of people saved in the Ark was eight, and eight was the symbolic number pointing to New Creation (being the number of the first day of the new week after the seven days of creation, the day of Christ's resurrection from the dead).

In the conclusion of the Flood story, there are also two prominent symbols of the Holy Spirit's activity: the wind and the dove. Genesis 8:1 tells us that God makes the waters recede by "sending a wind over the earth." Now "wind" is one of the most common symbols for the work of the Spirit (it appears also in the Pentecost story, for instance), because in Hebrew the same word stands for "spirit," "breath," and "wind." One wouldn't want to stretch it too far and make every windy day in the Bible a symbol of the Holy Spirit, but the conjunction of God sending a "wind/spirit" over the waters that covered the earth is almost an exact throwback to Genesis 1:2, where, at the beginning of creation, "the Spirit of God was hovering (or 'blowing gently') over the waters." This striking parallel does appear to amount to a symbol of the Spirit's work in some sort of new creation. And if, as we postulated earlier, the Flood story also contains a foreshadowing of baptism, it's worth noting that the early Christian ritual of baptism was immediately followed by chrismation, a symbol of receiving the Holy Spirit. So, just like the pattern of God's salvation in the Flood was water-and-Spirit, so too the pattern of symbolically receiving God's salvation as a Christian was water-and-Spirit.

The dove also figures large in the conclusion of the Ark story. In chapter eight, Noah sends out a bird four times to see if the water has receded enough to expose dry land: first a raven, which apparently does not come back but simply keeps flying around aimlessly; then a dove three times--the first time finding no land, and returning; the second time returning with an olive branch; and the third time not returning, having found its home in the renewed creation outside. This sequence was interpreted allegorically as well, both by Jews and Christians. In much Jewish tradition, the raven was associated with Satan--a heavenly being who went out but did not return to his Master. The dove was taken by early Christians to symbolize the Holy Spirit (as, for instance, at Jesus' baptism). The three times it was sent out were interpreted in various ways, one of which I'll relate here: the first trip out represented the Holy Spirit's work among the Old Testament people of Israel (as, for instance, in the ministry of the Prophets), but it returns because the New Creation is not yet revealed. The second trip was taken to be the Spirit's work in the ministry of Jesus Christ, and it returns with an olive branch as a symbol of the reconciliation between God and mankind through Jesus. The third trip was taken to refer to Pentecost--the Holy Spirit goes out and takes up residence in the now-revealed first stage of the New Creation: that is, in the church of Jesus Christ.

The story ends with God making a covenant with Noah and all creation (and, once again, the Messianic "seed" is possibly referenced in Gen. 9:9). The symbol for this covenant is the rainbow. One of the most compelling views of this symbol is not an ancient Christian perspective (at least, not that I know of), but a contemporary one: in The Jesus Storybook Bible (quickly becoming an all-time classic children's Bible), Sally Lloyd Jones writes: 

"The first thing God did [after Noah came out of the Ark] was make a promise: 'I won't ever destroy the world again.' And like a warrior puts away his bow and arrow at the end of a great battle, God said, 'See, I have hung up my bow in the clouds.' And there in the clouds--just where the storm meets the sun--was a beautiful bow made of light. It was a new beginning in God's world. It wasn't long before everything went wrong again, but God wasn't surprised; he knew this would happen. That's why, before the beginning of time, he had another plan--a better plan. A plan not to destroy the world, but to rescue it--a plan to one day send his own Son, the Rescuer. God's strong anger against hate and sadness and death would come down once more--but not on his people, or his world. No, God's war bow was not pointing down at his people. It was pointing up, into the heart of Heaven."

Thursday, January 18, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Advice for Whizbang Workaholics

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter One (continued): Just Do What You Like to Do!
(Section Two: Advice for Whizbang Workaholics)

Now, I’ve been speaking mostly to those who, like me, naturally enjoy taking life slow, not pushing ourselves too hard. But I know that there’s another set of folks out there: those who actually like to work, who find that they’re suited to keep going with project after project, and never give themselves time to sit and rest. One must be doing something, being productive, making things happen! If this is an apt description of you, my friend, don’t give in to despair just yet. After all I just said, you might feel like you’re fated to pursue a rigorously self-disciplined Christian life, and so, unfortunately, end up without any hope of being fashionably miserable. Well, I’ve got good news for you: there’s a way out of that trap.

You see, the classic Christian road of growing in holiness has always been understood as a balance: a balance between working toward growth and resting in God’s grace, between discipline on the one hand and simply “abiding in Christ” on the other. The secret to finding misery is to absolutely avoid the end of that spectrum of effort that you’re not quite as good at. So if you’re more prone to be slothful, then go all-in on slacking off, and avoid the work of discipline. But if you’re a workaholic sort, then what you need to do is go all in on the work, and absolutely avoid any intentional practice of resting in God’s grace.

Here’s your gameplan, my self-motivated, always-active friends: you need to seriously take to heart the parts of the message that you hear from preachers where it talks about how seriously God regards sin. (And again, as with the other folks above, you can safely ignore any further subtlety your pastor might try to work into this point.) When once you understand how serious a thing sin is, then you’ll likely develop a deep awareness of your own sinfulness, and a dominant image of God as a perpetually-disappointed father. (If the “Disappointed Father” image doesn’t work for you, there are others, too: try one of my other favorites, “Frowning Judge” or “Hard-Grading Professor”). This will set you very readily on a quick road to Christian misery.

In order to please this implacable God, you’ll work really hard at overcoming your sinful habits through sheer willpower alone. And, marvelously, you’ll fail in spectacular fashion every single time. (The reason for this is that sinful habits aren’t overcome by sheer individual willpower alone; but for our purposes here, since we’re aiming for a bit of misery, we’ll just set that aside for a moment.) This will create a self-sustaining cycle of (1) sinning, (2) hating yourself for sinning, (3) promising God that you’ll do better next time, and then (4) sinning again. Talk about a surefire road to misery! It doesn’t get much better than that.

Now, you might be tempted to include Scripture and prayer as part of your program of spiritual self-flagellation, but it’s generally safer not to. For some Christians, they might be able to fit their Bible readings into their overall scheme of trying vainly to earn God’s favor, and they might be able to keep their prayers at the agonizing level of perpetual self-pity—but most Christians who try that road eventually wind up letting a little bit of grace in the back door. And if that happens, your misery is a goner.

Here’s a cautionary tale for you: the famous leader of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, was one of these grind-it-out-and-hate-yourself kind of Christians, and boy was he miserable! But then he started studying the Bible in-depth, and you know what happened?—he became one of the most unfashionable, wild-eyed fanatics in all of history. So be careful about the Bible.

Better than Scripture reading and prayer, then, is a steadfast program of trying to fight your sinful habits, all alone, by your own force of will. This will come naturally to you, because you’re a worker, and you’re geared to try projects like this. So just go all-out and work on your sin as hard as you can. The truth is, you might actually see some progress in gaining a bit of discipline over your sinful habits. But even if you do, don’t worry—just hold onto an overriding mindset of trying to please your deeply-grieved Heavenly Father and an acute awareness of your own sinfulness, and that will keep you in the sweet spot of popular Christian misery.

For you spiritual workaholics, though, you have to be careful to avoid any subversive message of “resting” or “abiding” in Christ. Following those roads will quickly lead you off your preferred course. There are several classic Christian writers who harp on this point a little too fervently—François Fénelon, Madame Guyon, and Andrew Murray, just to name a few. Their works might not put in danger those Christians who are already prone to enjoy a little bit of resting, but they are kryptonite to workaholic Christians seeking to confirm their justification through their own fervent efforts. Any idea that you should simply quiet your mind, rest in what Christ accomplished for you, and just drink in the love of God—run away from such things! They’ll make quick work of dispatching your miserable Christian lifestyle and replace it with a rich contentment that (clearly) very few Christians are choosing nowadays.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Photo of the Week

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,
for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.
Rescue me from my enemies, Lord, for I hide myself in you.

- Psalm 143:8-9

Monday, January 15, 2018

Quote of the Week

"Christianity is not a balcony experience where we sit and watch the parade of life swing by. On the contrary, it is a descent into the busy road of life, where we meet the issues of existence."

- Rev. Dr. George W. Davis, a former pastor at my church (Second Baptist Church of Calais, Maine, 1932-35), and one of the main theological and personal mentors of Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he taught at Crozer Seminary. (For more on their relationship, see my previous article, "My Church's Role in MLK's formation.") Rev. Davis' quote above is taken from his book, Existentialism and Theology.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

May the most compassionate and merciful God--he who opens his unsearchable goodness to everyone who comes to him with longing and ardent love, he who says that 'a mother will forget her offspring before I forget you,' he who also knows your longing, and he who adds his own strength to your intention, towards fulfillment of his commandments--may he take you up and embrace you and protect you and become for you a fortified wall against the face of the enemy, a rock of patient endurance, a beginning of consolation, a provider of vigor, a resource of good courage, a fellow adventurer in boldness, he who lies down to bed with you, he who rises up with you, he who sweetens and makes merry your heart in the consolation of the Holy Spirit, and he who makes you worthy of the portion of the holy and righteous saints, with whom you will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, in Jesus Christ our Lord--to whom be the glory, the rule, the kingdom, and the strength, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, unto ages of ages. Amen.

- from an Eastern Orthodox liturgy of monastic vows

Friday, January 12, 2018

Have You Been Over-Sexualized by Our Culture?

(I ran out of time this week to do a new "Glimpses of Grace" post, so here's a re-post of one my most popular articles from a few years ago.)

(Painting: "The Vision of St Bernard," by Alonzo Cano, c.1650, oil on canvas; image is in the public domain)

This is a painting of the Virgin Mary squirting milk from her breast into the mouth of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Quick--what's your first reaction to it? Is it amusing? Disgusting? Just plain weird? Or is it a holy and mystical event before which we should pause in serious reverence? Your answer to this question should help you gauge how much our contemporary culture has shaped the way you view a woman's body. It may also help you gauge how much you experience your spirituality in gnostic categories rather than finding the grace of God present through physical, sacramental realities as well.

If you know anything about history and Catholic devotion, then you can probably guess that this painting was intended to bring to view a holy and mystical event before which we should pause in serious reverence. The painter, Alonzo Cano, was not always a man known for his devout temperament (he had serious issues with his temper), but his works all reflect the dominant, reverential Catholic spirituality of his day. This painting represents a famous event in the spiritual life of Saint Bernard (12th century), one of the most influential Christians of the Middle Ages, who was known especially for his reverence towards Mary.

But we live in a culture where women's breasts have been sexualized, where even breastfeeding (a thoroughly non-sexual act) is often attacked as being inappropriate when done in public. So this painting, though there is nothing overtly sexual about it, takes us by surprise. It's not the sort of painting that any of us would now think of commissioning to hang in our churches. Even though it shows poignantly the reverence of a great man of God to one of the greatest human exemplars of our faith, to the vessel wherein God's full being dwelt for a time, and though it shows us the nurturing, life-giving spiritual grace he receives from contemplating her faith, we 21st-century Americans have a tough time seeing that. At least, not at first.

Full disclosure--my first reaction on seeing this painting was to chuckle. When we were looking for a print of a painting to hang in our dining room, I joked with my wife that we should choose this one just to see the reactions of our dinner guests. But the point is that my own reaction serves to make me aware of how much contemporary culture has affected my sensibilities about devotion, sexuality, and the human body. My quite natural reaction to this painting in a 21st-century context would have been offensive in the culture that produced it. So the question is this: have my sensibilities gone awry because of my cultural context (or perhaps because of my own wickedness of heart), or was Catholic Spain of the 17th century riotously naive in their estimation of what was an appropriate means of expressing devotion?

This is one of the great benefits of studying old paintings (and reading old books). They can, sometimes in remarkable ways, reveal to us our own cultural and intellectual blind spots. And once we know those blind spots are there, we can work on mending our worldviews, or at least taking into account a humble understanding of our own biases in the future. We need to remember that not everybody has always held the same sensibilities that we do now. And we need to at least entertain the possibility that we millennials might be seeing things askew, and the old reverences may in fact be right.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Advice for Slothful Slackers

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter One: Just Do What You Like to Do!
(Section One: Advice for Slothful Slackers)

The first step is probably the easiest. All it takes is to do what comes naturally to you. If you’re prone to slack off, just apply that tendency to every part of your Christian life, and you’ll find your misery. If, on the other hand, you’re a workaholic sort, then all you have to do is apply a perspective on God that matches your innate tendencies—viewing him as a God who expects absolute perfection from you and is perpetually disappointed when you don’t attain it—and you’ll find your misery, too.

You see, a lot of Christians, over a lot of centuries, have wasted time looking for the appropriate balance of personal effort and resting in God’s grace. The truth is that they could have easily found the widely popular quality of misery simply by avoiding “balance” altogether, and running as fast as they could to the particular end of the effort-spectrum that came most naturally to them.

For a lot of people (including this author), there’s a natural tendency to just slide by in life with a minimal application of effort. The reason is simple: effort is hard, it’s taxing, and it often takes a long time before you can enjoy the fruit of your labors. It’s much easier just to lie back, do the things within your comfort zone without stretching yourself too much, and then you can devote your surplus time and energy to the many idle recreations that we all enjoy so much in our culture.

In the past, though, Christians who had this tendency were often advised to practice a measure of discipline in their daily lives. They were taught that sloth was a sin (rather than, as we all now know, a South American mammal). And in order to combat their slothfulness, these Christians were told to buckle down and read their Bibles every day, to spend long sessions of their time dedicated to prayer, and to conscientiously guard against old comfort-zone habits that may have been sinful.

Now, you may think, “What’s so wrong about that? Having to read your Bible and pray every day sounds pretty miserable to me, if misery is what we’re going for.” The only problem is that it’s a bait-and-switch. The folks who buckle down to practice a life of holy discipline will be miserable for a little while, yes. Developing godly habits can be hard work, after all. But if they’re even the least bit successful, showing progress over their old habits by even the slightest of margins, then they’ll find the specters of joy, contentment, and a fine-tempered perseverance lying in wait for them. If they stay on that road, any hope of being a fashionably miserable Christian will be lost to them forever.

This is a pattern that we will see over and over again throughout this book. We might have an intuitive sense that some of the harder habits of Christian living—reading one’s Bible, devoting time to prayer, fasting, keeping company with onerous busybodies in the church pews around us—will lead naturally and quickly to misery. But not so! It’s all a trick. Those habits, though they make look hard and irksome, are actually the quickest way to losing your misery for good. So keep your eye out for this kind of bait-and-switch. Just because a Christian habit or perspective might look miserable to you at first glance, keep your guard up. The Holy Spirit has more ways to sneak joy into your heart than you might give him credit for.

Christian history is littered with examples of people who went all-in on these difficult habits of Christian devotion, and—startlingly enough—they ended up as paragons of virtue and contentment, whose peaceable spirits became famous throughout the world. In the third and fourth centuries AD, a whole movement of fanatic Christians arose: wild-eyed and zealous for personal discipline, they decided to go live in poverty in the desert, where they could focus on prayer and Bible meditation instead of on sports, drama, and fashion. They were so dedicated to eradicating their personal comfort zones that they even went so far as to practice fasting. Sounds like a good recipe for misery, right? Wrong! Shockingly, some of these “desert fathers” got so good at overcoming their old temptations and slothful habits that they started experiencing startling and powerful works of God in their lives. They found a wellspring of deep contentment in the pursuit of holiness. Ultimately, this derangement led them to conclude that a dedicated lifestyle of getting rid of distractions, in order to focus on God, and of training themselves to overcome bad habits, would actually produce a rich life of holy joy and power.

So what’s the moral for us, who would prefer to fit in with our modern-day, miserable-under-the-surface churches? The moral is, don’t go crazy and become a fanatic about prayer and fasting! Ironically (but clearly), that will lead us further away from our goal of being fashionable miserable. Instead, if you are the sort of person who’s naturally inclined to a little bit of slothfulness, then just do that. It’s so easy!

Basically, you don’t have to change anything about your life at all, and you’ll soon find that coveted lifestyle of miserable Christianity creeping in on you from every side. Instead of making extra time in your schedule to do difficult things like reading the Bible and praying, just don’t bother: spend your weeks watching a little TV, relaxing, surfing the Internet, and enjoying the endless parade of social media with all your friends. After all, you’ll hear the Bible on Sunday, and you can always say a quick prayer or two if you get into some kind of trouble. (But whatever you do, don’t try fasting. It may seem like an easy shortcut to misery, but it’s fool’s gold—almost nothing has proven more effective at chastening the sinful appetites and building Christian discipline.)

Some of you may be suspicious at this point. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well, even if that kind of life might eventually lead me to the misery I want, I’m not sure that avoiding the Bible and prayer is actually the way Christians are supposed to live.”

Don’t you worry, friend. We modern Christians have produced a wonderfully simple, easy-to-understand version of Christianity that says we don’t have to change the way we live at all! Surely you’ve been in church and heard the preacher telling you that God accepts you “just as you are” and that he loves you, even with all your sins and problems. Well, if that’s true, as the preachers keep on saying, then you’re good to go! No effort required in the Christian life!

(As a side point here, I’ve often found that it’s a useful practice to listen only to the main points of a preacher’s sermon, and ignore any subtlety or theological context that they may try to sneak in. Some of these over-scrupulous workers of God will try to suggest that the “God accepts you just as you are” principle, while true, is only half of the picture—what they describe in mind-numbing theology-speak as “justification”. But if they go on to try to talk about another side of the coin, perhaps making reference to “sanctification” or “growing in holiness” or “finding victory over sin” or “obeying God’s commandments,” I’ve found that such points are largely extraneous and unuseful to the pursuit of Christian misery. They can safely be ignored.)

All that to say: you can just get saved, punch your ticket to heaven, and then sit back and enjoy life as a modern American citizen, free to pursue all the distractions and entertainments our culture has to offer. But if you go off course, and try to put a little too much effort into your Christian life by reading the Bible and praying too much, well, you can kiss your dream of being fashionably miserable goodbye. Chances are, you’ll end up just the opposite: joyful, hopeful, patient, or some other such odious end.