Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Some reflections - 8 months later

It has been 8 months since my last blog post. When I decided to stop blogging, I was afraid I would miss it. Truth be told, I can only think of once or twice when I think I have something "blogworthy" to say. This post isn't one of them, but I couldn't help myself.

Every few weeks I've been looking at what sort of traffic my blog generates. With the tracker I have, I can see not only where people are physically located when they surf to my blog, but also what they were looking for when they get here. I've noticed some interesting patterns.

Pattern #1: Students wanting to cheat
I use some book names in my posts, and the title of my blog - "Fear and Trembling" - is itself the title of a book. I get a number of Google searches for things like "summary of 'Fear and Trembling'", or "the theme of Ecclesiastes" or "psychology of 'Many Colored Days'". The most popular is "book report for 'Summer of the Monkeys'". I can just see a 6th grader needing to do a book report on "Summer of the Monkeys" and ending up on my blog. Bummer, dude. Oh, and how do I know these are students wanting to cheat? The overwhelming majority come in from a school computer lab. ;-)

Pattern #2: People love Giant Ichneumon Wasps
I get a lot of people searching for info on giant ichneumon wasps that end up on my blog. I didn't understand this until I googled it myself not too long ago, and realized that my post on the giant ichneumon was on the first page of search results. The really entertaining part is that the people who find that post visit it multiple times over the next few days. In any case, there are a couple of things I don't understand - first, how on God's green earth did that post get on the first page of google? If you have Google stock, you should probably seriously consider selling - the place is going to the dogs. Second, why do people come back to a post that is seriously not helpful to finding out anything about Ichneumon Wasps? I would say that it is funny, but I just read it again and it's not that funny. My guess is that they just love anything to do with Giant Ichneumon Wasps. That must be it.

Pattern #3: People love guns and ammo
My post called "Ammo for the War" from the Lessons from Sem series gets an insane amount of traffic from people looking guns or ammo. I have no idea why. I guess people just love bullets.

Pattern #4: Europeans and anti-sociality
The little comic image that I have plagiarized in the previous post gets a ton of traffic - almost exclusively from Europeans. I could make some reflective comment about why only Europeans care, but that feels too much like blogging. I would rather make fun of the word 'European'. I mean, if you're American when you go into the bathroom, and you're American when you come out of the bathroom...well, you know. And the one place I encourage anti-sociality is the bathroom. So, you can see the connection.

Pattern #5: Satirical Christmas Reflection
My post called "A Satirical Christmas Reflection" generated zero traffic until Christmas, when traffic suddenly went through the roof. I guess people are much more cynical at Christmas than I realized. If only they had a dog named Max and a village of Whos they could go burglarize.

Pattern #6: East-Coasters, Foreigners, and some Texans love Christian art
As much as was possible, I tried to use classical works of Christian art in my posts. Some Rembrandt, some Don Lorenze Monaco, and some others I don't remember right now. People from foreign countries, people on the east coast, and a couple of people from southern Texas really love that stuff. Other than that, they have nothing in common. Wait, didn't I read somewhere that a shared love of art overcomes all barriers? I'd love to see those Lebanese and Texans argue over art. Guns and Ammo, anyone?

Well, there you have it, the top reasons my blog still gets traffic to the tune of a couple of dozen hits a week. There are lots of other patterns, including some people who just keep coming back for no good reason. Bless those poor souls.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bloggo ergo Cogito? (ergo sum?)

Back when I started bloggging in March of 2006, I set up a series of blogging rules, with the idea that I would add more as they come to me.

So, here is another one
9.) When you run out of things to say, sit down and shut up.

I've always kept a list of things I wanted to blog about, and I always told myself that when that list was empty, I would stop blogging. The last post was the last thing in my list. It's time to close her down.

But let's be honest, the blog isn't quite as fresh and interesting as it used to be. The posts have gotten longer and more theoretical, and, not surprisingly, fewer people have read and commented. The blogging that I've done lately has spun off into irrelevancy. It's time to sit down and shut up.

After one last observation, that is.

Descarte thought that the only way he could know, without a doubt, that he was real and not being deceived by a powerful demon was that he was able to think. He reasoned that as long as he could think, he knew he existed - "cogito ergo sum" - I think, therefore I am.

I have some friends in Minneapolis who say that they cannot think unless they are also writing. They blog so they can think (bloggo ergo cogito). When we're having conversations, they say stuff like "I put a post on my blog about this", which makes me laugh because they would rather me read their blog than sit with me and talk about something. I suppose I should just go to their blog to see if they exist (ergo sum?). Who needs real-life when you have Web 2.0?

My point is that I don't want my friends to forget I exist because I've stopped blogging. I started this blog experiment with the hope it would help me keep in contact with old (and new) friends. I still want that.

On another note, I find myself thinking quite apart from my blog. One day, if I get a really good idea that is worth sharing, I'll try to put it on Jesus Manifesto, or some other such place.

Okay, NOW I've run out of things to say. I'm sitting down and shutting up. Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lessons from Sem 6: Christianity for Grown-ups

This is my last post in the "Lessons from Sem" series. It might not seem like it, but I had all the topics outlined before I even started the series, it's just taken me a long time to get them fleshed out, and this post was the worst. Remember - I'm a tortoise, not a hare. This the longest post I've had by far, and I cut out a lot - what remains only scratches the surface. This topic is just too big - it might make a better book than blog post.

The stark reality for all kinds of churches in the western world is that 20 and 30 somethings (now creeping into 40-somethings) are conspicuously absent. Heck, I'm in my 30s, which is well into adult territory, and often feel like the young kid in my church - especially as I get more involved. Young adults - specifically young men - are absent in church. This is more true in conservative evangelical churches than other groups, but it holds true across the board.

As I look back on my later college years, and the years between college and seminary, I realize that I was in a place where I was struggling to make sense out of the God I was taught about in my childhood. You know, the God who is a little like Santa Claus, in that if you were really good and prayed right, you might get what you ask for. The God who peered down on us from above, simultaneously waiting to destroy us in wrath and save us in love. The God who created a world in seven days that also looks millions of years old. The God who (according to some) decreed everything from the beginning of time, yet is somehow not responsible for it.

During my later teenage years, I couldn't find a lot of good answers to my questions in church, so I looked for them outside of church - in scripture, history, philosophy, and even fiction books. The result is that I came to very different conclusions about God than what I was taught in church. Yet, in my conservative evangelical tradition, a difference of opinion was usually not very well tolerated. I heard "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it." more often than I should have. I was insulted and demeaned for my questions from a deacon teaching one of my youth sunday school classes. So, I silently turned my questions inward. My self-confidence suffered. I did (and still do) often wonder if it's me, not them, that's the heretic in matters of faith. I often wonder if maybe I'm the one that's wrong.

But as life went on and I struggled with problems with my friends, problems with my job, problems with my wife, and problems with my faith, the god of my childhood didn't seem up to the task of making any sort of meaningful difference in my life. The faith of my youth was anemic, anti-intellectual, sickeningly ascetic, and over piously dogmatic. Deep, powerful questions and searching were incompatible with the tools I was given. Some personal experiences continued to fuel me, but I knew there had to be more life in it than there appeared to be.

During this time, a couple of things occurred to me. First, that when I was told as a youth "You just can't do it without God" was a lie. The reality is that people do it without God every day, all the time, all around the world. The reality is that when people leave the anesthesia of church life, they find all kinds of pleasures that make them feel good, and free, and alive. In some very tangible ways, these pleasures make them feel human. I wondered, is this all wrong? Furthermore, the reality is that when people go to college and learn the historical evidence of the earth's age, and of the findings of anthropology, of psychology, and of biology, that Christianity is too easily mistaken as magical nonsense. When you factor in hard issues of how the Bible came to be, historical issues with the Old Testament and ancient near east literature, why should a person privilege the Bible and the tenants of Christianity over scientific forms of knowing?

I'm not a fan of John Shelby Spong, but as he talks about the absence of young adults in the church, he has some very cogent words to say:

"So what happened to the God who was thought to live just above the sky, keeping record books, invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will? The God who sent sickness and weather patterns to punish individuals? Because that's what we believed...The God they meet in church is simply not big enough for the world they inhabit."

The second thing that occurred to me is that the story of the Bible (with some exceptions) doesn't really include any kids. Instead, the stories are written about, for, and to adults. They are written about career fishermen, about murderous pharisees who have a miraculous conversion. They are written about old men who suddenly feel called by a strange God to move away from home. They are written about wealthy family men who tragically have everything taken away from them. They are written about an adult Jesus. Sure, the adult focus may be cultural, but I'm convinced there is something there.

Seminary opened my eyes to that something. Seminary opened my eyes to the fact that these questions that I've forcefully kept silent have an important place in the life of faith. Far from being a force to retard my faith, the questions are an expression of it - they are a way in which I show that my faith is alive - that, like Israel, I wrestle with God and won't let go until He blesses me. Seminary taught me that meaningful and deep questions mean that a person is serious about how deeply they want Christ to impact their life. Far from being apathy, the searching demonstrates commitment.

Seminary taught me that issues like personal transformation, and the use of the scripture, and concepts like forgiveness, love, and cosmology can't be properly understood by a set of rules - even rules written on two stone tablets. The reality is that Christianity is for grown-ups who are past the stage where rules and regulations are enough. Christianity is for people who can penetrate the evolutionary concept of power, and understand what it means when Christ asks us to be born again. As much a we try, no set of rules can encompass what it means to be a Christian - but instead the rules should give way to a relationship with God and with others that mediates the presence of Christ, through the Spirit, to people in the world.

Seminary confirmed my notions that the Christian conception of Spirit isn't a ghost that can be explained like some Scooby-Do cartoon, but is the all-encompassing origin and orienter of all creation. The Spirit isn't something that is in a different domain than science, but it is the origin of the universe, of matter, and of the creaturely questions that ask how the universe works. The Spirit is complex, wild, and unbounded, and it creates in us the very questions to which we seek answers as it creates in us the need to understand the truth of our situation. The Spirit is the condition in which we, as creatures, seek.

And the truth of the situation is that, for better or for worse, we are creatures bound to bodies. At least on earth, talk about "spirit" and "flesh" as if they can ever be separated is foolish. We are material beings, and if we are to believe the Bible, will be material beings for eternity. The pleasures of this life are meant to be enjoyed - we are designed so that experiences make us feel alive. It should tell us something that sensory deprivation is considered torture. The Christian message is that experiences don't give eternal life, but that salvation is found in the inversion of power, in giving all we have to the poor and following Christ in his self-sacrificial way of experiencing life in the world.

Christianity for grown-ups understands that salvation is not found in a book, or in a denomination, or even in saying and believing the right thing. A lot of people I interact with might say, "Duh! Of course Christianity is for grown-ups!", but my perspective is that most Christians don't treat it that way - they seem to treat it like something they believe because they have to. They treat it like something they do because they don't know any other way, and like it is something that unravels if too closely examined. Christianity for grown-ups is more robust than that. The Christian way is complex and nuanced - it is a relationship with the infinite God of creation that orients in unexpected ways, and that calls us to put aside childish things while at the same time forcing us to acknowledge that our understanding of God will always be child-like in its adequacy.

One of the lessons that seminary taught me is that, far from being a magical or ignorant religion, Christianity is for grown-ups.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


One of these days, I think I would like to get a doctorate. I would love to teach and do research and rub elbows with smart people who are at the top of their field.

Since I graduated from seminary, I've been thinking on and off about grad school. One of the things I've heard both professors and doctoral students say is that you need to have a pretty good idea of what you can contribute to the field before you go into it. My problem is that I'm not sure I have much to contribute - I don't have much to say that hasn't been said before.

In psychology, when a person has goals they can't give up on, yet have no idea how to influence their environment to achieve those results, they are said to use the virtue of courage.

When I think of courage, I'm reminded of these quotes by Thomas Merton, who famously said:
"Why should I desire anything that cannot give me God? Why should I fear anything that cannot take God from me?"

Problem is, I have little grasp on what it is that gives me God. How does anyone influence their environment to give them God? Is it even possible? Or do we instead simply grope around for truth and meaning and salvation, hoping that God, in response, will reach out and grip us?

"A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire."

Sometimes I wonder, as I search around for God, if I really serve the right master. Am I more interested in making sure everyone agrees with my theology and my reading of the Bible than I am about the narrow way? Am I more concerned that I will get fired for trying to make sense out of God in our postmodern world than I am about trying follow God's work in the world? Am I more concerned about what my family might think than about making the gospel actually good news? Sometimes this tension between the spiritual and not-spiritual threatens to tear me apart.

I'm reminded of Jeremiah's prayer:
"If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses? If you fall down in a land of peace, how will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?"

This race with the footmen of our fears makes us over in the image of what we desire. We want to be liked, have stability, and have peace with our detractors. But the shape that life takes is one of complacency and impotency. I don't want alleviation of my fears to be the end I am shaped by. I want to be made in the image of the God who terrifies me, yet in whom I find delight.

"Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to Him, being attentive to Him, requires a lot of courage and know-how."

How can someone be shaped by something they can't grasp or control? How can someone be made in the image of that which they grope after? Courage.

Putting aside the fears of life - of running with the footmen - and deciding that something is more important than the fears and anxieties we face is the epitome of courage. Courage is the virtue we use when all our other tools are stripped away and we simply grope after what we ultimately desire above all else.

I'm not sure what comes next is any easier - it seems to me that horses come after the footmen, but should I be any more afraid of them?


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lesson from Sem 5: Ammo for the war

Contradiction is the end result of any stereotype. I mean, sooner or later you'll find a smart blond, or a black guy that likes to swim, or an old person who likes to drive fast. You might even find a Baptist who is reflective, but that's a stretch. My college sociology textbook said we use stereotypes because they are convenient, not because they are universal. I haven't yet found a reason to disagree with that.

This lesson from sem will be a bit of a contradiction of Lesson from Sem 3: Classmate disappointment. Don't get me wrong, that post was accurate, but tends toward a stereotypical view of all my classmates as stupid and lazy. Reality, of course, is more complicated.

When I went to seminary, I was hoping to be taught things I didn't know. At the same time, I thought I had a pretty good grip on the things I did know. When I learned things that didn't mesh with what I thought I knew, it was a signal that I should look more closely into what I was holding on to. During this journey, I let many things go. It was a scary and uneasy time of purgation. And ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the Christian journey on the narrow way of salvation is one of fear and trembling. This realization, I believe, is the beginning of wisdom.

One of my favorite New Testament scholars is Scot McKnight. He runs a blog called "Jesus Creed" that I have linked on the left. He has jokingly referred to teaching at a seminary as "working at a 'Semitary'", but there are teeth behind the joke. A lot of students file into grad school with everything figured out. They know what they know, and no matter how many logical arguments, philosophical trends, or historical facts you throw at them, they will not be swayed. These kinds of students are like the living dead, petrified in their system of beliefs, unwilling and unable to take a fresh look at the Bible, or their church, or their theology.

I'm not entirely sure why people like this go to seminary, since they already have everything figured out, but I can tell you the result. Instead learning the importance of new ideas, these students learn how to defend against the new ideas. Seminary time becomes a place where battle skills are sharpened for the impending war with liberals, Roman Catholics, pagans, and atheists. Instead of learning the fascinating history behind sacramental theology (communion and baptism, to name a few), these students learn the history so that they can poke holes in it, dismantle it, and put their system in its place. Instead of exploring and being disturbed by the critique of postmodernism, these students build sturdy defenses around the holes and the gaps in their own system, they scour the Bible to gather scriptural support for their beliefs to defend against any attacks, and they develop preemptive rhetoric to belittle and stymie their opponents.

I can think of a couple of examples, most of which are too long to blog about, but in one of my classes, we were discussing what happened on the cross. Yes, Jesus died, but what did that accomplish? The Bible speaks of it in a couple of different ways, but probably the most dominant way the Bible speaks of it is the "penal substitutionary model". Essentially, the model means that some punishment was required for the sin of individuals and humanity as a whole, and that Jesus was our substitute for that punishment. Jesus took our place as God poured out the wrath He harbored for humanity. The penal substitutionary model was the primary one used by Luther and Calvin in the protestant reformation, which is probably the reason it is the only one most protestant Christians are familiar with. And, trust me when I tell you, there are lots of Christians that believe the penal substitutionary model is the ONLY valid way to think about the cross.

But the Bible has other models for Jesus' work on the cross. So, one of the students asked a very fair question: "Can a person be a true, Bible believing Christian and not use the penal substitutionary model as their primary way of thinking about the cross?" The reply from those who were dogmatic about penal substitution was disappointing, but predictable. "Sure, it is possible to read and believe the Bible, and then to contradict what it says." In essence, this preemptive statement shuts down the conversation in a pretty heinous way. We weren't just having a debate among Christians about the meaning of the cross, we were instead calling each other hypocrites and heretics.

The lesson I took from all this was that many Christian leaders don't go to seminary to learn about what they don't know. They don't go to gain wisdom and understanding that is rooted in knowledge. They go to gain ammo for the impending spiritual war, or "Battle for the Bible", or to defend against the "attack on the family".

I'm not saying those things are bad. On the contrary, I think both family and scripture are very important. But scripture indicates that wisdom is vindicated by her deeds, and is characterized by peacefulness, reasonableness, and mercy, none of which are compatible with a petrified theology or war-like behavior.

With that in mind, I fear real wisdom in our Christian leaders will be in short supply.

What do you think? Do Christian leaders seem more war-like than they should? Does wisdom seem to be in short supply?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Theosis and Love

Maunday Thursday is the day Christians remember the command Jesus gave to the disciples at the last supper: "A new command I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

There is a long tradition in Christianity of something called theosis - which means "making divine". Essentially, the idea is that participation within the love of Christ - of loving others as he loved us - causes us to become god-like.

Most of the Christians I know get uncomfortable when I talk about theosis - of becoming divine, but the earliest theologians of the church thought theosis is a very important part of understanding what Christianity is about. They said crazy stuff like:

"God became human so humans would become gods." (Athanasius, 4th Century)

"...the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that he might bring to us even what He is Himself." (Iranaeus, 2nd Century)

I suspect the discomfort with theosis is because the idea of human divinity seems like blasphemy. Humans instead should be relegated to distorted and corrupt creatures. But what would happen if we began to take the teachings of these early church fathers seriously - that Christ brought to us what He is Himself, and heals our wounds as part of the forgiveness we are offered?

No early church father seriously thought that we would become God. But they did believe we would become divine. St. John of the Cross puts it best, "[We become divine] not because the soul will come to have the capacity of God, for that is impossible; but because all that it is will become like to God, for which cause it will be called, and will be, God by participation." (16th Century)

Maunday Thursday reminds us that we are God by participation. That we love as Christ loved. That we sacrifice ourselves as Christ sacrificed. That we take up our Cross, being the vandalized images of God that we are, and look forward to our rebirth as divine creatures. We are called, with this command to love, to be God by participation.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Strange Participation

My love of Christian holidays sometimes makes me think I should start attending a church that practices high liturgy. Participating in something like like Episcopal, Lutheran, or Catholic liturgy would work, but then I would run into other problems.

As Easter approaches, I find myself dwelling on the drama that led up to the cross. From the glorious entry on Palm Sunday, into the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday Holy Days. The stress of Maunday Thursday in which Christ offered the last supper, was arrested and tried unjustly. The despair of Good Friday, as the one heralded as the messiah was killed by the Roman invaders, and the earth shook. The panic of Holy Saturday as Jesus' followers wondered what to do next, leaderless and abandoned. Then, the joy and confusion of Easter Sunday, when the women found the stone rolled away and Jesus returned to life.

This story should draw us in like the great drama that it is. We should, year after year, find ourselves part of the story, hoping for the impossible on Palm Sunday, being crushed on Good Friday, and being ignited anew on Easter Sunday. The story should be so close to us that we feel like we participate in it as if it was happening today. But instead the pattern in our protestant churches is that we participate in this cosmic drama as if it is ancient history and so incredibly distant from us that we struggle to find how it is relevant to our lives today.

It seems to me that Christians experience a detached sort of participation in the events surrounding Easter, or even the Lord's Supper, for that matter. In the tradition in which I was raised, the meaning of the Lord's Supper was "whatever it represent to you". Participation was some sort of personal reflection on remembering who Christ was. When you keep in mind the story that goes with Easter or the Lord's Supper, mere personal reflection is a weak participation.

The events of Easter, and the events of the Last Supper should draw us into the life of Christ. They should remind us of the love he showed, of the life he lived, of the commands he gave, and of the life we should therefore live. When we eat his body and drink his blood, we partake in his life. But this partaking is more than just eating the food - it is participating in his life (1 Cor 10:16). More than just some vague remembrance of things that happened a long time ago, Easter is about participation in the life of Christ through his body and his blood so that we take on the mantle of being good news to the world. Participation in Christ is active, remembrance is drawing the past into our way of acting and thinking today so that we can participate with God in creating the future. The beauty of it all is when we find strength to participate in Christ's work - his love, his sufferings, and his glorification - and gather together it do it, he is there, too, participating with us. To me, at least, this sort of strange participation is what the Easter season is all about.