Friday, 31 July 2009

A Great Quote From Don Miller

"Honestly, I rarely write about theological issues because if I do I find myself in a room with white, twenty-something males whose parents are paying for their education and, like me when I was their age, think they know everything, think only in black and white, and defend their ideas as mingled with their identities. It kills the soul. "

Monday, 27 July 2009


I had a great visit to Doug, who owns Salem Storehouse, a Christian bookstore.  He was wholly lacking any cheesiness or insincerity.  It was cool.  (his daughter married my cousin, and I thought I'd buy a different translation of the bible from the one I was pretty much beaten with growing up, introduce myself, and give him a copy of my book The Screwtape Emails to give me some feedback upon.)

I picked up a compendium of C.S. Lewis, an ESV translation in paperback, and a book that was on sale called "Loving God When You Don't Love the Church."  I'm trying to get some good out of it, and it's hard.  The thing is, for each chapter, there's like a good point he is trying to make which can be expressed in a couple of sentences.  He is a pastor, however, so his writing style is horribly irritating to me.  When I am irritated, I like to mock.  This guy writes that this is bad.  He's probably right.  However, I will not name him, and mock anyway.  He writes like this:


  Do you think?  *I* sure do!  Sometimes I can just think and think and then think some more!  Sometimes I even go into a room in our lovely beachfront house and do nothing but think for a whole blissful hour, cradling a cup of my personal favorite kind of chai tea, perched on the divan  looking at the wonderful pictures of my beautiful wife and three beautiful children that we have prominently displayed in there!  Usually I try to think about really happy things, but other times, I surely find myself slipping into thoughts that are sad.

  I hope I haven't made thinking sound depressing.  It isn't!  Thinking can be good but it can also be bad!  It all depends on what sort of thinking we do!  Do you ever think in a way that your conscience tells you is a bad one?  I know I do!  If you knew some of my thinking, you'd throw this book away in a hurry, I can tell you!

  Let me tell you something a little bit personal about myself: I like to think with my brain.  Some people think in other ways (Stephen Colbert thinks with his gut!), and I don't mean to say that thinking with your brain (or your "mind" as some people prefer to refer to it) is the only way to think, but that's just how I do it, I guess.  This comes from a long practice I started years ago in seminary school in Iowa.  (What a blessed time that was!)  I would just wake up, turn on my brain, and I could then use it to think with all day long!  Do we always remember to be thankful that God gave us a brain to think with?  We should!  If He hadn't, we couldn't even remember to thank Him to begin with!

  Thoughts can be very fun.  Do you have fun with thoughts?  I do!  But remember that thoughts can be the Devil's Cordless Drill if we aren't careful!  Good thoughts are good, but bad thoughts are not good.

and so on.  I think there must be a course in condescension taught at divinity school.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

taking in some Don Miller as it rains some more

I like Don Miller's books.  In his books, he uses this "voice" which makes it sound like really obvious, yet somehow generally overlooked, points are being made by someone with Forrest Gump's verbal skills.  Then, if you see video of Don Miller speaking to groups of people, he's making similar points, but is extremely articulate.  Oddly, the simpleton book voice is often more gripping, and more memorable and eloquent in its way.

I ordered his Free Market Jesus DVD and it got delivered today, just when I was out of N.T. Wright stuff to listen to, and it made the following points (some of this is Don, and some is me expanding on that stuff):

After it was a group of rebels, what was the Christian church?  When we go to churches today, what is defining the structure and thinking that goes on there?  What is it currently based around that's baggage?

When in England, Don saw the "castle style" cathedrals, with their defensible towers and so on, and he thought that, when there were kings in castles and lords and barons and so on, that the church imitated that, because it was "what was going on."  The church had similar buildings and robes and scepters and so on to the royalty and nobility.  And the church and the king also either worked together, using the same methods, or they competed, because they were so alike.  

Don said that the idea that "God is like a king, and a church is like a castle, protecting us from evil" is kinda scriptural, but also very narrow and limiting.  It helps people feel they've quickly grasped everything, when actually they've laid hold on a simplistic view, and lots of odd stuff that doesn't fit has been tossed in there too.  But that's what they were up to back then.  Jesus was the King, the lord, and we served him as loyal subjects who knew a thing or two about proper  decorum and the pomp and ceremony of reverence.  He liked us to bow and all that stuff.  He liked slow, triumphant, reverent songs to be sung in his presence.  It was all about power.  We told people to subject themselves to Jesus like we did, because this was his due.

Then, Miller thought, the Enlightenment happened, and it became about theories and methods, science and logic, "proof" and education.  The emotional, the artistic, all that got tossed out.  If you couldn't prove it (and who can prove vital life things like someone loves them, something is fair, or something feels good or bad?) So, where churches had tried to communicate spiritual things by art, now they tried to do it by thinkers, theories, lectures and countless books.  Suddenly the (originally throne-like) pulpit moved from the one side into the middle, the five minute sermons became forty minute sermons, pews were built, and now the church had transformed into the image and structure of... a university lecture hall.  Now spirituality wasn't something you experienced and listened to and looked at, it was something you were taught.  We told people to attend the lectures and get educated about Jesus.  It became largely about theories, methods and above all, words.

Then, Miller said, the Industrial Revolution happened, and industrialization and factories took over the world.  Men left their family businesses and farms and went into factories to work with machines and be productive.  They got lonely and disconnected and felt like they were being dehumanized, like they were cogs in a machine.  

Emerson was hired by Ford Co. to tell these men in large "motivational speaker" sessions, "You aren't cogs in a machine, you are a part of the Ford Family.  You are brothers, working to be productive for your family, and your family looks after you."  Churches started to be run like corporations.   Everyone was to be productive and to have a clearly defined job title and role.  We sold Jesus.  

Suddenly we had motivational speeches about being productive for him.  Now motivational speakers, brochures and pamphlets tell us "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Christians" and "Four Pillars To A Happy Marriage" and "Five Steps To A Closer, Effective, Productive Relationship With God."  Increasingly, spirituality became something we felt we could convey, not with art, not with music, not with teaching, not with telling people to serve Jesus the King, but with Infomercials for God.  We were to be productive, and we were to sell Jesus like he was Amway.  What's wrong with infomercials?  Oversimplification, insincerity, melo-dramatization. Performance.  They aren't a real, sincere, honest way to convey anything.  They are about sizzle and flash, and don't deal in the substantive.

Miller argued that, due to this, many Christians are walking around wondering "Is Jesus like a Shamwow or the Magic Bullet?  Is he something churches need you to pay money for and buy into, and then he doesn't deliver, because it was all about the pitch, and all about market penetration, drumming up interest and getting buy-in, and not about customer satisfaction?  It is Christians who wonder this.  Everyone else just assumes that's the case.

Miller then pointed out that the bible uses very different (and many kinds of different) imagery to tell what spirituality and Christianity is like.  Things we need to do that take a long time and a lot of work and difficult choices before we see results.  Things that are human, messy, relational and complicated.  (So, being spiritually enriched, enlightened and matured isn't like making a wise choice and buying a Shamwow! after all?)  

Jesus when teaching used comparisons to things quite different, and not all about a wise choice to invest in a worthwhile product.  Things like fathers raising children to adulthood, things like courting a woman and building a lasting marriage, things like a farmer planting, cultivating and harvesting his crops, things like trees growing from seedlings to maturity, things like shepherds herding sheep through wildernesses and choosing the route and keeping them safe.

Jesus didn't only pick these kinds of images to talk about himself.  These are the same images he used to tell us how to live also.  Because life's a whole lot more like farming, shepherding, fathering or tree-planting than it is like buying a Thighmaster.  There are no quick fixes, magic bullets and cheap, easy cure-alls in real life.  And Christianity isn't any different.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

N.T. Wright on Hope

My cousin (living on the East coast) linked me to a series of lectures Oxford professor and Bishop N. T. Wright gave at Harvard recently.  I'd not heard of him.  They are here, here and here.

(The picture is of him as the guest on The Colbert Report.  Having him on the show gave Colbert some trouble, as he clearly actually liked Wright's ideas and his book Surprised By Hope, but his "Stephen Colbert" character had to be stupid and wouldn't get them, and said funny stuff about "Well, I know what heaven will be: I'll get a harp and I'll sit on a cloud with a mint julep and ask Ronald Reagan questions.")

Something he sketched out that I thought was particularly good, was that there are three predictable, ages-old human approaches to doing good:

Rule-following: you simply decide not to break certain rules.  If this is successful, it normally results more in people merely "being good" (behaving, not doing bad things) rather than achieving good.  As everyone knows, our understandings of systems of rules are always faulty and imperfect, following "the letter of the law" and missing the spirit of it can twist systems of rules very badly, and there always seem to need to be exceptions to the rules.  The bible is full of stories of people (like David and Jesus the Christ) trying to explain to angry authority figures why they aren't quite following some rule or other, at least in the way that the culture had agreed such a rule would be followed.  In most cases, you can make rules to keep people from doing bad things, from being weak and evil, but you can't really legislate good.  There seems to be more to good than obedience.

Greatest Happiness Calculation (Utilitarianism): you decide that all decisions should be made based on making the greatest amount of happiness.  This gets messy because, should you be faced with a room full of drug addicts, argument could be made as to how to make people like them happy, and in fact, what "happiness" really is, anyway.  C.S. Lewis said something along the lines of "Treating others as you yourself would like to be treated is very bad practice for a masochist."  Wright, like many, feels that happiness is something which happens as a by-product of something good, that it is something you feel when you're up to something and then encounter or help to create something good, rather than being achievable as a result of pursuing happiness in and of itself, which is, to many people, an insufficient goal.

The Pursuit of Virtue (nowadays usually called "Self Improvement" or "Personal Enlightenment."): You decide to get as good as you can, and hope this will help the whole world.  The lack of workability in trying to live a life which is markedly lacking bad and corrupting elements, and of trying to get into the unthinking habit of good-doing is that it usually leads people to forswear the company of others, to cloister themselves away, and is, ultimately, a selfish act (self improvement, personal enlightenment) not based in love, but based in the idea that "I can't fix the world, but I can better it by fixing myself."  This way usually lies insufferable self-righteousness and spiritual self-interest.

Wright points to hope, as the only thing that can withstand negativity and nihilism.  When faced with "Yeah, but really, what's the point?" the other three fall down under that very modern question.  He sees Kurt Cobain style "Yeah but what's the point of any of it?" as a properly post-modern response to modernism (modernism says "We can put men on the moon and make glow-in-the-dark toilet paper now!" and post-modernism says "So?  I'm still not happy and you haven't cured the common cold, let alone AIDS or cancer yet.  What's the point of any of it?").  He says that, although post-modernism is a necessary poke-in-the-eye for modernism, you can't stop there, and have to find an answer to that question (what's the point of any of it?) and that we call that "hope."

He doesn't think the Usual Three explained above really provide that hope.  What's the point of following the rules if sometimes they need to be broken, if people who break them get rewarded and get into positions where they can do more harm, above and beyond the sphere of influence attainable by people who know how to bend and break rules to their advantage?  What's the point of trying to make everyone happy when nothing seems to make some people happy, when bad things make others happy, when people being unhappy makes yet other people happy, and when different people's dreams of exactly what would make them happy are contradictory or compete or conflict with their neighbors'?  What's the point of self-improvement if it makes you a target for evil people who will kill you or remove you from any place where you can do good in the world, or if it relies on you removing yourself from most connections to the world unfolding around you?

Wright thinks that people in the world not "getting" Jesus is sad, not because they're not following the right rules, not because they're not following his example to try to help people and make their lives better to make them happier, not because he was so virtuous, and people are not following his method.  Wright says Jesus isn't a method, a system of rules or merely a role model, but a bringer of a new vision of how the world could be: a new hope.  He points out that the whole "point" of Jesus being here (for those who want to "get" him) was for someone to walk the earth in a perfectly and fully human way.  Jesus was God in a mysterious way, but that wasn't the point.  He wasn't walking around "being God."  He was walking around being human.  He gave us hope that there was a way to do that, and that it worked and had good results.  So, Wright says, it shouldn't be about "What do the rules say I can do?", "what makes me happiest?" or "What is the most virtuous thing?" He says the life should be about "How can I become more fully, healthily, wholly human, in the way that God is moving everything toward?"  It's not all about self-denial, but about self-centering, self-knowledge, but with the Usual Three turned inside out, so that you know about freedom and how to be it in a good way, about knowing yourself in terms of where and how you best fit, and being good, not to cut one's self off and be good, but about healthy, beneficial connection and love and simpatico.

He points out that the bible is FAR less concerned with heaven and hell than the modern Christian seems to be, and that far more of it is taken up, not with "who gets to heaven and how?" but "What is God doing in the world anyway? Where is it all headed?  What's He up to?"  He points out that modern Christians often want to say, "God made the world and it was good.  But disposable.  We want to get off it as soon as possible because it's horrible here and heaven might be nice."  He points out that the bible presents a whole direction God has the world on, in which this present reality is one phase of the design, this phase coming to an end is in the cards, but that then there is a whole new heaven and earth in the plan, and that what good we partake of, participate in and help bring about now is likely to have a place in the new regime and is good "practice" for it.  

This hope that nihilism is silly, that everything is headed somewhere other than merely to hell in a handbasket, that doing good matters and has lasting effects, that there is a plan to bring all people and things and places together into a cohesive, sensible, delightful, peaceful, beautiful reality, all of this will be a better motivator than any of those usual three methods, and will answer "What's the point?" properly.  Interview a woman who is in the middle of giving birth and ask her about the rules, about the happiness, about the virtue, and what she's focused on is the hope. She may unthinkingly achieve mastery of all three due to that focus.

I found it rather inspiring.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Editing Screwtape and Watching and Reading Things

I am slowly falling back into my nocturnal sleeping habits.  I tend to, around 8pm, get down to some editing of audio.  I realized that many people wouldn't necessarily read my book The Screwtape Emails: Lessons in Ecclesiastical Mincing, but might listen to me read it.  Also, with how complex some of the sentence structure is, I think it helps to have me read it with my voice underlining what exactly I meant, so to speak.  Now I'm up to "email 16."

I read the whole thing into my computer, and edited about half of the "emails" into a listenable mp3 form to download from my site, then found I'd been reading them too quickly and I knew I could do better, so I re-read the book in more somber, well-paced tones.  Now I just have to go through, edit out mistakes and things, and slap in the eerie music I made to play under my voice.

Really enjoyed the new Harry Potter movie.  Devoured the new Jim Butcher book Turn Coat, got a bit tired of the Charlaine Harris "Sookie Stackhouse" books I bought, though I'm very into the True Blood HBO show based on it (girlporn is as foreign and ungratifying to most guys as guyporn is to most girls), started re-reading the last Harry Potter book, because the movie made me want to remember what happened after it, tried to get into Mad Men with indifferent success, watched episodes of Dr. Katz and The Ben Stiller Show, and plan to pick up Watchmen on DVD soon.  Watched Avatar: The Last Airbender with my niece, who seemed to find it riveting.  Have been doing a slow but systematic cleanup/cleanout of my apartment, which is going slowly but unprecedentedly well.  Need to buy food.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

A Start to July

I finished up my school year with a whole lot of watching downloaded stuff, of course, and also watching my way through the rest of the series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as I have it on DVD and really think it was creatively and cleverly made.

I also wrote something the size of a book, meant to be a book, which was based on C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, but which I used to put forth my own ideas and story, rather than using his.  I used his conceit of a supervising demon advising a personal tempter how to mess up the lives of people, but instead of a demon screwing up one guy, I had it be the story of an evil spirit stifling, dividing and destroying the function of a Christian group (a "church community" if you will).  I found which allows you to print your own books, and sell them, so I'm in the middle of making that happen.

Had a great Sunday BBQ at J's parent's place.  Some teachers came, and my sister and niece.  Many people played music, including me.  One guy sang just like Elvis Presley all the time, but didn't sing Elvis songs, which was interesting.

I've been trying to do something about my apartment.  It is very small, and I moved all my stuff into here after living in the ground floor of an entire house, and I amass as much stuff as I can (particularly in the realms of musical equipment, DVDs, CDs, LPs, books, magazines, comic books and the like).  This makes my tiny place look like every one of Ali Baba's forty thieves has been robbing book stores and Future Shop, and is using my place to store the loot.  Messily.

Yesterday I put out to the recycling and trash a record amount of cardboard packaging for such things, and stuff arrived from eBay. I collected pretty much every VHS tape I had (professional ones I bought, and not taped on by me) and put them out in a "Free" box today.  I would have done earlier, but it has rained so much this summer.