Saturday, November 6, 2010

Desert Spirituality for the Emerging Church 7

The previous post in this series explored the historical significance of the Jesus Prayer in its original Eastern Orthodox monastic context. This post will discuss one example of how such an ancient prayer is being utilized fruitfully today.

At Emmaus Way, our worship pastor, Wade Baynham, composed a contemplative musical version of the Jesus Prayer (available for purchase on iTunes here). About 7 minutes long, the song shifts through a variety of musical styles and moods. Repeating only the lyrics, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner; Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me", the song begins in a minor, somewhat unsettling key, with strong percussion and a Middle Eastern sound. As the song continues, the music shifts from a minor to a major key, and becomes less percussive, signaling the shift from confession to absolution. Though the music is contemporary, the traditional repetition of the Jesus Prayer is emphasized. This musical version of the Jesus Prayer is available to be listened to online, and our hope is that other communities and individuals would make use of it. Perhaps in this small way the Jesus Prayer can be experienced for the first time among those unfamiliar with hesychast tradition.

In our present context we do not generally have a monastic cell we can retreat to. We certainly live in a time and place of much greater population density than the hesychasts. But many of us can put in earphones, shut out the world, and listen to contemplative music as a way of focusing the mind on God. As with the desert monastics' use of prayer techniques, using music in this way should be seen as a tool for growing still and focusing the mind on God for prayer and worship, and never overemphasized as an end in itself.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Desert Spirituality for the Emerging Church 6

This series has been looking at monastic spirituality and how it can be appropriated in the church for today. One essential practice of any Christian spirituality is prayer. The monks were certainly no exception to this, so let us turn to one practice from the Eastern church which I believe can be very fruitful for our postmodern context: the Jesus Prayer.

The Jesus Prayer, according to John Meyendorff, is "at the center of all hesychast spirituality." It comes in a few different forms, but is most usually:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Practiced in primitive form since ancient times, the Jesus Prayer is a primary tool for pursuing the monastic goal of "circumscrib[ing] the Incorporeal in a dwelling of flesh" (St. John Climacus, from The Ladder of Divine Ascent). According to Bishop Kallistos Ware (as cited by Father Edward Rommen), the Jesus Prayer has 4 main activities:

  1. devotion to the name of Jesus as something almost sacramental in nature
  2. an appeal for divine mercy, accompanied by inward grief
  3. frequent repetition
  4. the quest for silence
We are not monks. We do not spend 12 hours a day in prayer, nor are we free from the distractions of jobs, family life, and so on. Many of us, myself included, do not come from traditions in which we the use of formulaic prayers has been encouraged. Whether or not we should would require a whole separate series, but if we would like to begin learning from that tradition, the Jesus Prayer is a great place to start. It is not long, is easily memorized, and is useful for a variety of purposes, whether we are praying for some specific need, repenting of some sin, quietly contemplating, or in times of urgent distress.

Up next: A musical interpretation of the Jesus Prayer

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Desert Spirituality for the Emerging Church 5

Last post we looked at the monastic practice of poverty, and asked how this extreme way of live can be applicable today.

I believe one way forward is to look not to the hermits and anchorites, who lived as individuals in isolation, but to the cenobites who lived in community. These monks would gather together under an abbot and share all resources, following the same rule of life. They gave up their claim to ownership as individuals, but shared all things in common. This sharing of resources, which so pushes against our desire to have our own things packed away in a little cubby somewhere, so as not to be inconvenienced or have to rely on others, is exactly what we need as an antidote to our consumeristic lives today.

My wife and I have begun to practice some of this on a small scale even now with people from our church. Three or four nights a week we share meals with another couple from church who live across the street from us. We trade back and forth cooking dinner and hosting. We also share many household things like tools. We say frequently in church things like, "I don't need to buy a weedwhacker if so-and-so has one". This sharing of resources has allowed us to live more simply, own less things, and go into less debt.

It is not always easy. You sacrifice control; things aren't always available when you want them. Dinner isn't always what you would prefer. You sacrifice self-sufficiency; you have to ask people for things, and be interrupted by them asking you. But I am convinced that in this life of being both a borrower and a lender (contra Shakespeare) is the life of Christ. Because the truth is we aren't self-sufficient. Our very life comes from God, both directly and mediated through the created order and our community. We are not, ultimately, isolated individuals. Our value does not come from what we can do or how much stuff we have, but from receiving from God.

This small effort at communal life has been an experiment between two families in our church, but I think we can all pursue similar ideas in our own contexts.

What examples of living in community and simplicity have you seen or participated in?

But what about the inevitable complications? Human communities inevitably have to face their own brokenness and frustration. I think the example of the cenobitic house rule is helpful here. Living simply and in community is so contrary to our culture that we cannot expect these things to just happen. The monks are eminently practical about living as a group of human beings. They encountered the same frustrations, inconveniences, and struggles as we do as they collected diverse personalities and abilities under one roof. So even though their "one roof" was literal and ours may be figurative, we should learn from their life together.

They knew that to live freely in common there had to be procedures in place, like the dry wood that allows spiritual fire to be kindled. Contrary to their image as people of harsh discipline, the monks knew how to bear one another's burdens, living by the gracious example of God.

My favorite example of this comes from a story about two monks who go into town to sell their crafts. One monk falls into fornication, and tells the other monk he will not be returning to the monastery. The second monk, though he has done nothing wrong, says to the first monk, "The same thing happened to me; after I left you, I also fell into fornication. Let us go together, and do penance with all our might, and God will pardon us sinners." And so they both returned.

We do not have to live in a monastery to practice this kind of sacrificial love and solidarity, healing one another's brokenness, creating an environment of non-judgmental confession, so that the grace of God rules over all.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Desert Spirituality for the Emerging Church 4

The monks of the desert lived in near-total poverty. They were reacting both in obedience to their reading of Scripture (particularly the story of the Rich Young Ruler) and to the sudden influx of wealth and prestige the church experienced in the third and fourth centuries. Their choice of lifestyle seems incredibly extreme today.

One story is told of a monk who sold even his Gospel book because it told him to sell all and give to the poor. To me, someone who has several Bibles on his shelf, and many other books besides, that way of life seems quite impossible. It is similarly hard to understand the sayings of the desert fathers which celebrate the sick and elderly who refuse to save, or even to accept, just a few coins for their own well-being.

Except perhaps for the commitment to celibacy, poverty is the part of the monastic way of life that seems most out of touch and indeed inhuman to contemporary sensibilities. And yet it is for that reason the most needed, even if in a less extreme a form, because materialism and consumerism are surely the great idols of our age.

We are addicted to products, and to the status they signify. When catastrophe strikes the nation, our leaders (of both parties) warn us to keep shopping, lest the terrorists win. We are, as a people and as a generation, deeply in debt. The recent economic meltdown has a complex variety of causes, but while fingers point in different directions, one thing is clear: there is no security in wealth.

None of this is a new phenomenon, of course. The monks knew full well, as Jesus taught, the danger of placing one's trust and one's self-worth on material possessions. And modern culture is not blind to it either; the popular movie Fight Club features a protagonist who, unsatisfied by his comfortable material existence, finds solace in a violent and nihilistic but arguably monastic way of life.

But how do we live out this monastic commitment to poverty today? Move to the woods and forage for food? Become homeless and live on the streets? Are those extreme examples our only options, or are there ways to begin incorporating a monastic vision of life into our ordinary lives as workers and consumers?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Desert Spirituality for the Emerging Church 3

Last post I discussed how the celebration of the Eucharist was essential for the desert fathers & mothers, despite their seeming individualism. But what about us? To answer that question I'll look at my own specific church community: Emmaus Way, a non-denominational emerging/missional church here in Durham, North Carolina. I won't make sweeping generalizations; certainly this proposal would not be appropriate in Catholic or Orthodox traditions. But for those from a more low-church background who are tired of downplaying the Lord's Supper, consider this one way back to a sacramental life in Christ.

Celebrating the Eucharist at Emmaus Way is very different than for Palamas, the hesychasts, and the other desert monastics in many ways. For one thing, we are free-church sacramentalists. For us, what makes Eucharist more than mere bread and wine is not the blessing of a specially qualified leader, but the involvement of the whole community in the act of Eucharist. We do not simply receive the bread and the cup, but all actively share it with those in line around us. When we break off a piece of bread for someone we say, "This is Christ's body, broken for you". When we pour wine or juice for one another, we say, "This is Christ's blood, shed for you." Additionally, we practice an open table at which all are invited to participate, which is a significantly different practice from traditions like Eastern Orthodoxy in which Communion is restricted to baptized and confirmed members of the Church.

But these not-insignificant distinctions aside, at Emmaus Way we share with the monastics the conviction that regular participation at the Table is essential for our life together as the people of God. With St. Mary of Egypt we look forward to it with "irrepressible love and longing". It is the focus and high point of our gathered worship, which is liturgical in structure though not always in content; we use everything from contemporary songs to ancient hymns, organized so that before Eucharist we have a song of confession and a song of absolution, or sometimes we celebrate the Great Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer.

We celebrate the Eucharist every week, which is somewhat unusual for people in the free-church tradition, but for us has become essential. Indeed our very name, Emmaus Way, reflects that focus. "Emmaus Way" comes from the story in Luke 24, in which two disciples are traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus after the crucifixion of Jesus. The resurrected Jesus appears to them as a stranger, and explains to them from the Scriptures the meaning of his death. When they arrive at their destination, the disciples invite Jesus in, and he breaks bread for them, finally revealing himself.

This story illustrates so many of our values: the importance of hospitality, a passion for the Scriptures, the missional, on-the-road nature of Christian life. But as important as those themes are, from this story we learn that it is truly in the breaking of bread together that Jesus is experienced for who he is.

What role does Communion play in your spiritual life and church community? Why is it important?

Up next: Community/Simplicity

Desert Spirituality for the Emerging Church 2

When one thinks of the monastic life, isolation usually comes to mind. The hermit or monk would seem to be removed from the communal life of the church as celebrated in sacraments like baptism and Eucharist (aka Communion, or the Lord's Supper). But for the Eastern Orthodox monastic movement known as hesychasm, best summed up by the figure of St. Gregory Palamas, Eucharist was essential:

"The Christian mystic seeks a new life in Christ, an active life for his whole being, and he knows that the grace of baptism and the eucharist have already given him that life; moreover he seeks it in the interior of his own being. That is why the hesychast movement of the fourteenth century never deteriorated into individualistic and subjective mysticism but led in fact to a revival of ecclesiastical sacramentalism. Palamas himself says of baptism and the eucharist that in these two sacraments our whole salvation is found, for they sum up the dispensation of the God-Man...he also advises what would seem to be daily communion."
--John Meyendorff, St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality

So Eucharist was central for the monastics. But how can those of us who have very different theologies of Communion and very different ecclesiologies (how the church should think about and organize itself) practice this contested rite in continuity with the desert fathers and mothers?

Up next: A "case study" of Eucharist in one missional church

Series Index:


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Desert Spirituality for the Emerging Church 1

Church life in America, borrowing from the culture around it, heavily emphasizes the new. The weight of history has no weight.

But Christianity is a historical religion; it is about God's faithful saving action in history, through Jesus Christ and his people. We can and must learn from the great Christian movements of the past. To borrow Leonard Sweet's image of the porch swing, we must lean back in order to move forward.

In the next few blog posts I will trace connections between monastic spirituality and our own present-day context. I will be observing both differences and similarities, and proposing ways in which these ancient voices can be a resource for today, particularly for churches or individuals that are part of the emerging/missional church conversation.

I will focus especially on three areas of monasticism: emphasis on the Eucharist, commitment to living in community and simplicity, and the Jesus Prayer.

Up next: Eucharist.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Pillars of the Earth and the Legitimacy of Hell

I'm about halfway through the Starz! miniseries of The Pillars of the Earth, based on the book of the same title by Ken Follett. The story is takes place during medieval times, and is about the events surrounding the building of a cathedral. Trust me, it's more interesting than it sounds.

As is usual, the book was better. But once you get past the exposition-heavy first episode, the series isn't bad. The cast is well chosen, and though the production values are spotty in places (this is no Lord of the Rings), they're pretty good for television (it's also no Xena: Warrior Princess).

The interesting thing for me is how both series and book demonstrate the uses of the idea of hell. The main villain character, a nobleman who does the usual rape/pillage/oppression thing, is occasionally kept at bay by the good guy (a priest/monk) using the fear of hell and damnation. This in a book written by an atheist.

The specific question of hell aside (especially since I'm not sure how much it was actually historically used to afflict the powerful and comfort the afflicted), thinking about it this way can show us something about judgment. We normally think judgment is inherently bad, but in the Bible it is basically synonymous with justice. For oppressed people, the idea that someone is going to rout the bad guys and make things right is a very good thing.

Is judgment bad? If we fear judgment/justice, is it possibly because we might find ourselves among those first who will be last?

For further thought: David Opderbeck posted some very interesting thoughts in regard to justice, the coming of the Lord, and child sexual abuse here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Quote: The Neighborly Love of God

This love, moreover, counts every human being as a neighbor. The Lord, after all, censured on man on this very score, a man who held that a righteous soul does not owe the duties of a neighbor to a soul that is entangled in wickedness. For this very reason, moreover, he constructed the parable that tells how a certain man fell among thieves while going down from Jerusalem to Jericho; and he blames the priest and the Levite who passed him by when they saw him lying half-dead, but he approves of the Samaritan who had compassion; and by the response of the man who had asked the question he established that the Samaritan was a neighbor to the victim, and said, "Go, and do thou likewise" (Luke 10:37).

For by nature we are neighbors to one another; but by works of love a person who can do good to one who is unable to do so becomes a neighbor. Hence too our Savior became a neighbor to us. He did not pass us by while we were lying half-dead from wounds inflicted by thieves. So it must be understood that love directed to God is always moving toward God, from whom it takes its origin; and it has regard for its neighbor, to whom it is akin as being similarly created...

-- Origen

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Quote: N.T. Wright on Church

...the task of the church can't be attempted without the Spirit. I have sometimes heard Christian people talk as though God, having done what he's done in Jesus, now wants us to do our part by getting on with things under our own steam. But that is a tragic misunderstanding. It leads to arrogance. burnout, or both. Without God's Spirit, there is nothing we can do that will count for God's kingdom. Without God's Spirit, the church simply can't be the church.

I use the word "church here with a somewhat heavy heart. I know that for many of my readers that very word will carry the overtones of large, dark buildings, pompous religious pronouncements, false solemnity, and rank hypocrisy...

But there is another side to it...For many, "church" means just the opposite of that negative image. It's a place of welcome and laughter, of healing and hope, of friends and family and justice and new life. It's where the homeless drop in for a bowl fo soup and the elderly stop by for a chat. It's where on group is working to help drug addicts and another is campaigning for global justice. It's where you'll find people learning to pray, coming to faith, struggling with temptation, finding new purpose, and getting in touch with a new power to carry that purpose out. It's where people bring their own small faith and discover, in getting together with others to worship the one true God, that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. No church is like this all the time. But a remarkable number of churches are partly like that for quite a lot of the time...

I would rather rehabilitate the word "church" than beat about the bush with long-winded phrases like "the family of God's people" or "all those who believe in and follow Jesus" or "the company of those who, in the power of the Spirit, are bringing God's new creation to brith." But I mean all those things when I say "church".

N.T. Wright

Monday, July 19, 2010

Women in Ministry

Kurt Willems at Groans from Within has begun a series on women in ministry which I plan to follow closely. He begins with the basic questions:

Can women serve in any role within the church? If so, how does this compare to most modern evangelical churches? If not, what are the boundaries for women in ministry? How does the New Testament serve as a guide on this issue?

This was, in part, my response:

I am a proponent of full inclusion of women in all areas of ministry and leadership...I became an egalitarian (really, I’m what Scot McKnight calls a mutualist; I believe in male/female complementarity without hierarchy) when I realized:

  • The overwhelming majority of churches would shut down, today, if not for the involvement, including leadership and teaching, of women. This includes churches that claim women cannot lead or teach. It is particularly maddening when churches allow women to hold positions like “Director of XYZ” when they clearly have the same status as any (male) “Minister of ABC”. This is just hypocrisy and cowardice. I try to maintain the point of view that complementarians are genuinely following what they believe the teaching of Scripture to be, but it is hard in the face of such cognitive dissonance.
  • It’s far from clear that Jesus and Paul held to some kind of hard complementarianism. There is the oft-quoted verse mentioned here, but Paul also frequently alludes to women prophesying, leading churches, and so on, and the gospels are full of images of women as leaders in Jesus’ movement, like the first witnesses of the Resurrection, and Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet in the posture of a rabbi’s disciple.
  • Even if Jesus, Paul, and the early church were indeed hard complementarians who would have restricted women from certain roles, that does not in any way make those sorts of gender relations normative for all time. The NT also implicitly accepts slavery. The Bible is not a book of rules that we just have to follow blindly. We are called to ethical discernment. I am persuaded by the redemptive movement hermeneutic that, like with slavery, the overall thrust of Scripture’s narrative is firmly in favor of emancipation.

What do you think?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Quote - Incarnation

We are invited to trust, to trust this one human being with our pain and suffering, our dreams and hopes. Only when trust has been established can there be a joining to his flesh, a sharing in his mission and ministry, and a participating in his life. For those who would follow him, this is indeed entrance into the saving action of the triune God in Jesus. In order for salvation to be made real, those who would follow Jesus must trust fallen human flesh, flesh fully human, weak and vulnerable. There is no way around it -- both with Jesus himself, and with his company of disciples -- there is a priority of trust. And what will bind them together as a community of believers and as those sent into a world will be this same trust.

Willie James Jennings
"He Became Truly Human": Incarnation, Emancipation, and Authentic Identity

Monday, June 28, 2010

Mission and Creation

At E-Way last night we talked about mission. It's part of our ongoing look at our Minister's Liturgy (our rite of belonging/statement of values). Specifically it says this:

To engage missionally in Durham and our larger communities as a redemptive presence and in faithful service.

We talked a lot about mission being redemptive. Mission is about God's purposes. Mission reveals to us our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world, and calls us to participate in God's redemption of us and our world. Christian faith is inherently mission-driven. It is outward- and other-oriented.

Which is all great, and true. But in the back of my mind I thought there was a missing dimension to our dialogue.

God didn't start having purposes when human beings started sinning. No, mission isn't just about redemption, but about creation. God is characterized by love, and love is inherently relational. The back-and-forth dance of love at the heart of the Trinity always expressed this relational love, and God graciously and purposefully decided to share that love by creating a whole universe (or more, for all we know) and life capable of receiving love.

So mission is built into the very fabric of creation. The world has a telos, it exists for a reason, and that reason is good. God's purpose for the world is shalom -- peace, not just in the sense of absence of conflict, but in terms of completeness. Wholeness. Thriving.

Now, where that world has gone astray mission will necessarily involve restoration and redemption. And God's redemption is graciously participatory; He invites us along for the ride. But even when all that work is finished, when the kingdom of God is consummated and we all gather around Jesus' table, there will still be mission. Life will still have a purpose -- to receive and to share the love of the Triune God.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Peace Quote

In the end, then, we have to decide which blessing we value more: social freedom, though at the cost of losing our moral integrity by starting a nuclear war; or moral integrity as a nation, though at the cost of losing our social freedom by allowing our country to be overrun. If this might one day be the option for us, I hope we should know which to choose. It would be better to suffer physical defeat than moral defeat; better to lose freedom of speech, of assembly, even of religion, than freedom of conscience before God.

-John Stott, Human Rights and Human Wrongs

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Quote: Tolkien on Jonah

I was unaware of this, but J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, worked on a translation of the book of Jonah for the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible. Here is a quote from a letter to his grandson Michael, in 1957:

Incidentally, if you look at Jonah you'll find that the 'whale' - it is not really said to be a whale, but a big fish - is quite unimportant. The real point is that God is much more merciful than 'prophets', is easily moved by penitence, and won't be dictated to even by high ecclesiastics whom he has himself appointed.

Monday, May 24, 2010

On the LOST finale

LOST ended last night, and we had a viewing party at our place (and us without a kitchen!) with friends new and old to celebrate/mourn the passing of a great show. I personally thought it was great.

I’m not going to start gushing theories about what the Island really is or what the deal with Walt was or how the smoke monster worked. I just thought I’d reflect a bit on the overarching themes and meaning of the show.

If you'd asked me before the finale what LOST, ultimately, was about, I'd have answered with an oft-repeated quote from the show: Live together, die alone. After last night, I'd amend it to (and this is vague but might be slightly SPOILER-y, so fair warning): Find meaning in life together, die together.

Lost is about many conflicts: science vs. faith, good vs. evil, self vs. community, free will vs. destiny, but mostly it's about finding connection with others in the chaos of life, and pursuing purpose together with them, even when the mysteries remain mysteries, or simply lead to more questions.

So far the internet consensus on the finale is mixed, and a lot of people seem genuinely not to understand it (no, it was not all a dream, nor were they all dead the whole time). But while I have some disappointments (I wanted more closure for Sawyer) , I thought it was overall pretty great, and a fitting end to a sure-to-be classic show.

Friday, May 14, 2010


From this Christianity Today interview with James Davison Hunter:

There are four characteristics to the social power that Jesus exercised. First, his power was derivative—originating from intimacy and submission to his Father. Second, his power was humble—rejecting the privileges of status and reputation, suffering indignities with joy. Third, his power was compassionate—serving the good of all and not just the good of the community of faith. And fourth, his power was noncoercive—blessing rather than cursing "the other," as we can see from his encounters with Samaritans and Romans.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

France's burqa ban

Note: I also posted this at The Center Way.

In this article in Slate, Christopher Hitchens wastes his considerable wit arguing stupidly in favor of France’s burqa ban, which is supported by French president Nicolas Sarkozy. He compares burqas to the masks of the KKK and posits that in a democracy, we all have the right (!?) to see each other’s faces.

So it’s really quite simple. My right to see your face is the beginning of it, as is your right to see mine. Next but not least comes the right of women to show their faces, which easily trumps the right of their male relatives or their male imams to decide otherwise. The law must be decisively on the side of transparency. The French are striking a blow not just for liberty and equality and fraternity, but for sorority too.

He also contends that “pseudoliberals who take a soft line on the veil and the burqa” only make this allowance for one religion, Islam. No. It is the backers of this proposed law who single out Muslims. I have yet to hear of a French ban on prescribed coverings for, say, nuns. The law is paternalistic and the implications are xenophobic. Hitchens gives the game away with this line: “The burqa and the veil, surely, are the most aggressive sign of a refusal to integrate or accommodate.” Ah, yes. We must strip away all differences. You have to dress as the French dress, speak as they speak, (worship as they worship?), or you have no place in France. Hitchens exposes his devotion to the secular state, where any separation from Enlightened Society (TM) must be eliminated.

The irony is that by trying to aggressively force this kind of cultural assimilation, France sets itself up as antagonistic toward Muslims, and is probably driving greater wedges between the segments of its society. I would never claim that the U.S. has no history of shame in the area of ethnic and cultural differences, but I know this kind of law would never fly here.

Now, I understand the concern of French legislators for women in patriarchal family groups who are forced to wear the burqa and endure other restrictive and abusive practices. I personally find the burqa oppressive. But I’m not the boss of how other people dress. And you aren’t going to overcome centuries of tradition with a law like this. Those women who do not choose to wear the veil (there are many who do choose it, including many converts to Islam), but are forced to, will be just as oppressed. Only now they won’t be allowed to go outside.

So here’s my view, which I think is pretty common sense: nobody should have to wear anything they don’t want to wear, and also nobody should have to not wear anything they do want to wear. Where there is an unavoidable conflict between religious law/ethnic custom and some legitimate safety need of the government (like taking photographs of one’s face to get a driver’s license) then public safety comes first and some folks might not be able to participate. But that should be a last resort, and the law should bend over backward to allow people to express their faith as they see fit. And if you are bothered by women in hijabs, Sikh men in turbans, or Jewish men with payot, that probably says something about you.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The end of the world

The better way to talk about the end of the world is to lean on another meaning of the word “end.” What’s the world for? What’s its ultimate purpose and destiny? For those of us in Christ that destiny is one of hope: creation restored, sin erased, all creatures able to live into the future God wishes for them, all of it glorified and in communion with the God who created us in love. It’s especially good news for those who have it roughest now, and perhaps not such good news for those at the top now. The most basic of biblical prayers, like Miriam’s song and Mary’s Magnificat, witness to that basic Christian truth.

Jason Byassee, at Duke's Call & Response blog

The Christian Mystery of Physical Resurrection -

The Christian Mystery of Physical Resurrection -

Even in biblical times, resurrection deniers who hoped for an afterlife took an alternative route. This is what scholars call "the immortality of the soul." Embraced by Plato and popular today especially among progressive believers (Reform Jews and liberal Protestants, for example) and people who call themselves "spiritual but not religious," the immortality of the soul is easier to swallow than resurrection. After death, the soul—unique and indestructible—ascends to heaven to be with God while the corpse, the locus of our senses and all our low human desires, stays behind to rot. This more reasonable view, perhaps, has a serious defect: a disembodied soul attaching itself to God in heaven offers no more comfort or inspiration than an escaped balloon. Consolation was not the goal of Plato's afterlife. Without sight or hearing, taste or touch, a soul in heaven can no more enjoy the "green, green pastures" of the Muslim paradise, or the God light of Dante's cantos, than it can play a Bach cello suite or hit a home run. Rationalistic visions of heaven fail to satisfy.

Another popular way out of the Easter conundrum—"I want to believe in heaven but can't get my head around the revivification of human flesh"—is to imagine "resurrection" as a metaphor for something else: an inexplicable event, a new kind of life, the birth of the Christian community on earth, the renewal of a people, an individual's spiritual rebirth, a bodiless ascension to God. Progressives frequently fall back on resurrection-as-metaphor, for it allows them to celebrate Easter while also expressing a reasonable agnosticism. They quote that great theological cop-out: "We cannot know what God has in store for us."

The intellectual flabbiness of this approach causes agonies for such orthodox Christians as N. T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England. "People have been told so often that resurrection is just a metaphor," he once told my editor Jon Meacham and me in an interview for this magazine. "In other words, [Jesus] went to heaven, whatever that means. And they've never realized that the word 'resurrection' simply didn't mean that. If people [in the first century] had wanted to say that he died and went to heaven, they had perfectly good ways of saying that." The whole point of the Christian story is that the Resurrection really happened, Wright insists. The disciples rolled back the rock on the third day, and Jesus' body was gone. This insistence on the veracity of resurrection is no less sure in Judaism, where the Orthodox pray thrice a day to a God "who causes the dead to come to life," or in Islam. "I swear by the day of resurrection!" proclaims the Quran. "Yes, Indeed!"

And so, the paradox. Resurrection may be unbelievable, but belief in a traditional heaven requires it. I think often of Jon D. Levenson, a Jewish scholar at Harvard Divinity School who hopes to bring the idea of resurrection back to mainstream Judaism, where it has been lost in practice for generations. I visited him one cold November afternoon because, as a literal-minded skeptic, I wanted him to explain to me how it works. How does God put bodies—burned in fire or pulverized in war—back together again? Levenson looked at me, eyes twinkling, and said, "It's no use to ask, 'If I had a lab at MIT, how would I try to resurrect a body?' The belief in resurrection is more radical. It's a supernatural event. It's a special act of grace or of kindness on God's part."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dad is Dead: Rebutting Roger Ebert - PC Feature at IGN

Mike Thomsen rebuts Roger Ebert, who claims (say it ain't so, Rog) videogames will never be art. I agree with Mike: bullshit.

Dad is Dead: Rebutting Roger Ebert - PC Feature at IGN

At the end of his essay, Ebert asks a pointed question. "Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?"

The answer is simple. Videogames are not games, and there is more in them than winning and enjoyment. The reason football is not art is because its rules were designed with the primary goal of competition. Competition is only one of a great many different experiences that a videogame can create. Games can also be about losing, and not competing at all. They can be about love, the impossibility of relationships, the beautiful indifference to our individual life choices, urgent intimacy in the shadow of death, sexual anxiety, and confrontation with life choices to which there are no right answers. There are games that, using the language of authored interaction, invoke all of these ideas, and many more beyond.

What's most ironic about Ebert's latest round of criticism is that it's based on an invalid reading of the works he's arguing against. After watching a video of "Waco Resurrection," Ebert concludes that it is a "brainless shooting gallery." Of Braid, he says the time reversal mechanic breaks the "discipline of the game," and doubts that "I can learn about my own past by taking back my mistakes in a video game." Ebert concludes by addressing Flower: "Nothing she shows from this game seemed of more than decorative interest on the level of a greeting card." He reaches these conclusions by virtue of having streamed clips of each work online. This would be the equivalent of dismissing a film after having read a dismissive essay about it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What is the best way to give advice? | Psychology Today

A paper by Reeshad Dalal and Silvia Bonaccio in a 2010 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes looked at several different kinds of advice that people get and give to understand how likely people are to use them. They distinguished between four types of advice.

Advice for is a recommendation to pick a particular option.

Advice against is a recommendation to avoid a particular option.

Information supplies a piece of information that the decision maker might not know about.
Decision support suggests how to go about making the choice, but does not make a specific recommendation. (For example, you might recommend that a friend looking to go to a movie check out a website that aggregates movie reviews. You aren't recommending a particular movie, but just a technique for making a decision.)

In the studies, college students were asked to imagine making a particular decision. Some participants considered a choice of a job after graduate school. Others selected among candidates for officers in a student group. They were given a variety of different kinds of advice and asked how satisfying and useful the advice was for making a decision.

In general, people found all of the types of advice to be useful to some degree. However, information was the most useful kind of advice across the studies. That is, people found it most helpful when people told them about aspects of the options that they might not have known about already.

What implications does this finding have for evangelism?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


No, not that kind. The funny kind. The ridiculous kind. The kind where Insane Clown Posse sing-rap about magnets and rainbows.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


My wife and I recently ditched cable entirely in favor of a combination of Netflix (even the $8.99 bottom-level subscription gets you unlimited access to their already pretty good and constantly growing instant-streaming catalog) and online video from sites like Hulu. We bought a $20 adapter for our laptop (a 3 year old Macbook Pro) and now pay $70 less a month. The switch has been totally worth it.

We watch the ads on Hulu, as much as we did on cable or broadcast TV. I would consider paying some kind of subscription, if the deal was reasonable. There are lots of ways to make it more profitable, better for consumers, and used more. There are really only 2 things in the way, and neither of them are technological.

1. Corporate shortsightedness. Cable companies are (rightly) afraid that consumers will prefer something on-demand nature of web video rather than the firehose that is cable. They hobble burgeoning web video to protect what they perceive to be their own stable base of cable subscriptions. In this way, they are like the railroad companies who failed to perceive that they weren’t in the railroad business; they were in the transportation business. Media is headed to the internet, and companies that see sites like Hulu as their competition rather than their future will end up as feeble as the railroads.

2. Stigma against the Internet. Ads on broadcast television command far higher fees than internet ads. Some of this is understandable; many browsers have various ad-blocker extensions you can install, and of course television is a much older medium than the web. But I spend as much time online as I do watching television, if not more, and there’s no reason advertising on a TV show that “airs” over the internet has to be any different than one that’s broadcast in the traditional manner. In fact, the web can probably provide much more accurate metrics for advertisers than the highly questionable Neilsen ratings system.

Much like the anticipated demise of newspapers, the apparent threat that online video presents to established media companies is entirely a result of their misunderstanding their own business. They are entrenched in old business models where they control everything and the consumer passively watches the television they make. But they don’t make television; they make content. I want to watch that content, along with my own movies, and the stuff from YouTube or whatever, when and how I want. I’m willing to pay for it through subscriptions or by watching ads. The pipe on which that content rides to my house should be irrelevant to them. And if they can’t figure out how to make money at it, somebody else will.

Successes and Some Growing Pains at Hulu –

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Durham's first integrated basketball game

Duke University Alumni Magazine

Neat story. Thanks to Trigger for pointing this out.

On Sunday morning, March 12, 1944, as eleven o'clock church services were getting under way all over Durham, the members of the medical school basketball team piled into a couple of borrowed cars and headed across town. Everyone was nervous. They weren't the only ones. Inside the North Carolina College gymnasium, Aubrey Stanley struggled to keep calm. The youngest player for the Eagles, the sixteen-year-old guard, worried what might happen if there were a hard foul, or if a fight broke out. In Beaufort, North Carolina, where he had grown up, you were taught to avert your eyes if a white person walked by. Now, for the first time in his life, he would be guarding one.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Axe Cop

This is amazing. It's an online comic written by a 5-year-old and drawn by his 29-year-old brother. I wish I still had the kind of imagination that would allow me to think of Sockarang, a hero who has socks instead of arms, which he can throw as weapons, but they always come back to him.

Start here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


...if the crucified Jesus is the Messiah, then God's way of saving Israel and redeeming the world is not by inflicting violence, but by absorbing it.
Michael Gorman
Reading Paul

Monday, March 22, 2010


Duke's Call & Response blog has a thoughtful exchange about money and church, between Tom Arthur, pastor of Sycamore Creek UMC in Lansing, Michigan, and James Martin, a Jesuit priest.

Check out Pastor Arthur's letter here and Father Martin's response here.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Movie Review: Shutter Island

Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed was kind enough to post my review of Shutter Island. Check it out here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12

"Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the house of Jacob their sins.

For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.

'Why have we fasted,' they say,
'and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?'
"Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.

Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD ?

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
"If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Rob Bell interview

A stellar interview with Rob Bell is up at Leadership Journal. Here's a bit, talking about "video venue" services:

There is something more powerful than simply beaming yourself into other locations, and that is raising up disciples. Over time that will go farther and faster, but right now it will be more work and slower. With technology today it's easy to spend all of your energies reproducing your own voice, but there is a longer view that says, what if instead of beaming video to those ten locations, we train ten people who can go there and lead? That's a very basic question that should be in the mix somewhere.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Neither Clergy nor Laity

Here's a clip from a long but excellent post on the New Testament vision of ministry by Ben Witherington.

The Greek word laos from which we get the term laity simply means the people of God. It is used this way over and over again in the NT, sometimes of Israel sometimes of those who are in Christ, but in neither case is it used to refer to a particular kind or class of believing persons who are set apart from the 'clergy'. And about that word clergy, it is not a Biblical word at all. Webster's tells us it comes to us from the Medieval French word clerc (13th century), but in fact ultimately the term comes from the Greek κλρος - klēros, "a lot", "that which is assigned by lot" (allotment) or metaphorically, "inheritance". So it partially has a Biblical root, but no persons in the NT are called kleroi to distinguish a class of ministers. And there is a good reason for this.

First of all the reason is that Christ and his sacrifice has torn down the wall not only between God and an alienated and lost humanity, but also the wall between Jew and Greek, between slave and free, between male and female, and yes between priests and ordinary folk. There is no priesthood as a class of individual ministers in the NT. There are in fact two priesthoods--- the unique heavenly high priesthood of Christ, as described in glorious technicolor in Hebrews, and the priesthood of all believers as described in 1 Peter and elsewhere. In other words, no one on earth is or can be a priest like Jesus, and on the other hand, every believer is part of the 'kingdom of priests' foreseen by Moses, and actualized by Jesus.

And so it is that the author of 1 Peter is not saying something novel when he throws down the gauntlet and says to his Christian audience "but you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, so that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" ( 1 Pet. 2.9). This friends is the Magna Carta of Christian identity and Christian freedom, and among other things it means we are all laity, and we are all priests. We will unpack the implications of this wonderful verse in a moment, but first we need to answer a question--- if what I say is true, what went wrong with Christian religion, and when did it happen? Why do we continue to have a clergy club and laity conferences for non-clergy?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Provocative Question

Josh Rowley at Post-Yesterday Church asks a compelling "potential ordination exam" question:

After preaching a sermon on Mark 9:14-29, a passage in which Jesus is described as exorcising a demonic spirit from a boy who seems to have epilepsy, you are confronted by a church member. He says: "I just can't buy that exorcism stuff. It's clear the boy in that story had epilepsy. Why don't we just drop talk about spirits and the like?" How do you respond? What (if anything) do you indicate would be gained by the member's suggestion to jettison the language of exorcism? What (if anything) do you indicate would be lost by this suggestion?

Here's my response:

Tough. I think that particular kid probably did just have epilepsy, and the language of evil spirits was all the gospel-writers had. And there are other exorcism scenes that can easily be described in terms of mental illness. But there are other stories that imply much more...mental illnesses and neurological problems don't generally grant one the ability to tell fortunes(Acts 16), nor do they ask to be sent into a herd of pigs (Matthew 8).

I think rather than jettisoning the language of exorcism, it would be better to add the language of healing, including healing of disorders the ancients didn't have a category for. Jesus is Lord also of our synapses and serotonin levels. That is, some exorcism stories perhaps are better understood as healing stories, but not in a way that rules out the reality of spiritual forces opposed to God. Or perhaps the distinction is false, as if problems could ever be just physical or just spiritual...another example of our underlying gnosticism.

As for the hypothetical church member, I think a little soft naturalism on this issue probably isn't the worst of things. And wholesome doubts are perfectly natural and even helpful sometimes, but I would encourage that person to keep in mind the prayer of the father in the story: I do believe; help my unbelief! Or perhaps: I do believe Jesus is Lord over everything, including the spirits and demons who I'm not sure exist. Help me keep my mind open to the possibilities of God's redemption happening in realms I'm not even aware of!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Resident Aliens

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life...

Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarians cities alike, as each man's lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. 

from the anonymous Letter to Diognetus
2nd or 3rd century A.D.

Monday, January 18, 2010

U.S. Military Weapons Inscribed With Secret 'Jesus' Bible Codes

Anyone else creeped out/pissed off/sickened by this?

Coded references to New Testament Bible passages about Jesus Christ are inscribed on high-powered rifle sights provided to the United States military by a Michigan company, an ABC News investigation has found.
Trijicon confirmed to that it adds the biblical codes to the sights sold to the U.S. military. Tom Munson, director of sales and marketing for Trijicon, which is based in Wixom, Michigan, said the inscriptions "have always been there" and said there was nothing wrong or illegal with adding them. Munson said the issue was being raised by a group that is "not Christian." The company has said the practice began under its founder, Glyn Bindon, a devout Christian from South Africa who was killed in a 2003 plane crash.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

He loved his killer

A must-read post:

When Thomas killed Jonathan he committed a crime against the state of Alabama. Alabama, for reasons of its own, chose not to punish him for that crime against itself. And do we not all know what those reasons were?

When Thomas killed Jonathan he committed a crime against God. The strange, the near maddening thing about this case is that both these offended parties have rendered the same verdict—not for the same reasons, not in the same way, but the verdict is the same—acquittal.

The Christian response here is not to damn the “acquittal by law,” but to proclaim the “acquittal by resurrection.” One frees him to go and kill again. The other liberates him to obedience in Christ. Acquittal by law was the act of Caesar. Render unto him what is his. The state, by its very nature and definition, can do anything it wills to do—Hitler proved that much. Acquittal by resurrection was the act of God. And he has entrusted us with that message.

Thomas also committed a crime against Jonathan. And Jonathan rendered a similar verdict when he loved him.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Letters of Note

I'd like to draw attention to this fantastic blog: Letters of Note. It's just images of letters that are interesting for various reasons, with transcriptions. Check it out.

Friday, January 8, 2010

All-Along Belonging

Fantastic article by Jeff McSwain on The Other Journal. Jeff is the executive director of Reality Ministries, in which my church, Emmaus Way, finds its physical home.

Like [Young Life founder Jim] Rayburn and the Apostle Paul, [theologian Karl] Barth’s proclamation of the gospel began at the starting point of theological belonging for all. His heavy emphasis on the objective truth of our salvation was often misunderstood as universalism, yet anyone aware of Barth’s emphasis on freedom would recognize his intolerance for replacing one determinist scheme (five-point Calvinism) with another (universalism).

Barth draws clear distinctions between objective truth and our subjective viewpoints of that objective truth. For instance, we cannot undo the objective truth of what Christ has done, but we might deny the reality of it all the way to hell (cf. 2 Pet. 2:1). In the words of Barth, “To the man who persistently tries to change the truth into untruth, God does not owe eternal patience and therefore deliverance.”

Although we do not create objective truth by our subjective decisions, we may freely participate in objective truth. This happens by the Holy Spirit, appropriately named the Spirit of Truth. With Spirit-filled anticipation, Paul, Rayburn, and Barth all urged their hearers to repent and believe the good news.

"The apostles wrote fan fiction on Torah"

The word "influence" is insufficient and too one-sided to describe a relationship that is much more accurately reflected by the system of tribute/appropriation/critique that fandom employs. This kind of process, by which one generation of fan/critics (because anyone who doesn't understand that a fan is a critic doesn't know what a fan is, and there is nothing sadder to contemplate than the idea of a critic who is not also a fan) becomes the creators whose work inspires and obsesses and is critiqued by the next generation of fans, who in turn become critic-creators, has occurred in every popular art form across the board going back fifty or five thousand years. The apostles wrote fan fiction on Torah.
Michael Chabon, on