Wednesday, December 31, 2014

“Comfortable Myths” And Why Christianity Isn’t One

Benjamin Corey

The other day I wrote a post called Why I Couldn’t Be An Atheist Even If I Wanted To, where I wrote about some personal reflections and emotions that I experience when I consider the vastness and complexity of the universe. It wasn’t so much a post about atheism as it was a post about what I feel– I’ve worked hard to build as many bridges with atheists as possible, so I definitely wasn’t looking to pick a fight when I wrote it. All in all, the response from my atheist friends was kind and thoughtful, as usual. However, also as usual, there are a few who make unhelpful comments– probably because they didn’t read this post before commenting.

At this point in my life, comments don’t bother me that much. Heck, I’ve got the religious right putting out books warning parents to keep their kids away from my friends and I, so a stray comment usually doesn’t bother me that much.

Except, one stayed with me and I’ve been pondering it for days. The commenter was dismissive, calling my belief system a “comfortable myth,” that they didn’t need.

Here’s what bothers me about calling Christianity a comfortable myth: following Jesus isn’t all unicorns and rainbows. If anything it has made my life more difficult and far less comfortable than what it could be.

Comfortable myth? I wish that were true. Here’s what a comfortable myth would look like to me:

“Do whatever you want. Take care of number one, and don’t feel guilty about it. Live your life now– and make sure you don’t shortchange yourself.”

That would be a comfortable myth. That would be a narrative that would be easy. It’s even the narrative I’m daily tempted to live, but fight with ever fiber in my being.

But the one I’m living now? Nope.

For someone to say that Christianity is a comfortable myth could only mean two things:

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What Kind of a Thing is the Bible? 6 Theses

Posted on  

Sometimes it’s helpful to state the obvious—to step back and remind ourselves of the forest so that we don’t get lost in all the trees. Within academia, hyper-specialization and the tyranny of the pedantic often obscure the obvious; within our everyday life, routine and the tyranny of the mundane often veil the obvious. So we need continual reminders of the obvious—not only in our relationships and everyday life, and also in our theology and spiritual life.

Here I list 6 evangelical theses about the Bible in the spirit of “naming the obvious,” with an implication for each one for how we read and/or preach the Bible. My hope is these might be helpful for those of us choosing and starting in on some kind of Bible reading plan for 2015. What kind of a thing are we planning to read? What is the forest we are about to enter?

1) The Bible is shaped as a story

I say “shaped as” because obviously not everything in the Bible is a story; rather, as a whole, story or narrative is what shapes the Bible’s form. It starts with narrative; it ends with narrative; the middle bulk of it is mostly narrative (roughly 75%); and even the prominent non-narrative genres arise only in tight relation to this narrative backbone. The exodus and the exile, for instance, are the two poles of the Old Testament narrative of Israel, and so the law and prophetic oracle tend to cluster around these historical events.

Even the wisdom literature of the Bible is unintelligible apart from the surrounding historical narrative because so much of it assumes a corporate context, and corporate context means Israel, and Israel means the story of Abraham starting in Genesis 12 as God’s answer to the wreckage of human sin in Genesis 1-11. You cannot understand, say, Psalm 68 unless you have read about God saying to Israel, “you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

In short, narrative is the skeleton of the Bible; things like epistle or psalm are the organ and tissue.

Implication: read the particular parts of the Bible in relation to the unified whole

If the Bible is a narrative, it should be read more like a novel than like the newspaper or a fortune cookie or a collection of Aesop’s fables. The whole thing hangs together, and the concrete parts are most meaningful when viewed in relation to the whole. When you start to see each tree as a part of the forest, a whole world opens up in Bible reading. You start noticing larger patterns and rhythms—thematic lines starting in Genesis and ending in Revelation that guide you through each individual book. All the odd little corners of the Bible—say, the book of Ruth, or the sacrificial system, or that strange bit at the end of Ezekiel about a new temple—suddenly take on a much larger significance and meaning.

I would say this art of reading thematically across the Bible (sometimes called pan-biblical theology; or just biblical theology) is maybe the single greatest neglected tool among both preachers and lay Christians reading the Bible. Without it, so much of the Bible is just weird. With it, so much starts to make sense. I would be far less eager to preach from the Old Testament without biblical theology, for instance—it is my constant recourse for finding Christ there in a non-forced way. For a great starting point in learning about biblical theology, check out Greg Beale’s writings (like maybe this book or this one). He is the most helpful writer in this area I have read.

2) The Bible comes in two basic installments

The Bible contains two basic chunks: an earlier collection of writings that primarily look forward, and a later collection of writings that primarily look backwards. There is a longer, more concrete, Hebrew part; and a shorter, more abstract, Greek counterpart. Of course, there are further subdivisions; but the fundamental structure of the Bible is a two-fold promise –> fulfillment movement.

Now this is obvious. We talk about the Old Testament and New Testament all the time. But do we think about the implications of having two-stage deposit of revelation? This is relatively unique among religions, and it provides some unique advantages (see number 3 below for more on this).

Implication: read the entire Bible, not just the New Testament

The Old Testament, at least much of it, can feel more foreign and difficult than the New Testament. Sometimes we might think of the New Testament as superior; or at least the Old Testament as somewhat outdated. Even if we won’t formally acknowledge this, we functionally affirm it when we read books like Mark or Philippians 5 or 20 times more frequently than books like Ezra or Nahum.
The truth is that the New Testament disconnected from the Old Testament is just as impoverished as the Old Testament disconnected from the New. Promise is empty without fulfillment; but fulfillment is meaningless without promise. We need both Testaments; and we need to read both in relation to the other. What Hebrews says about Jesus’ death will be immeasurably more meaningful to you if you’ve struggled with the purity motif in Leviticus; the apostles’ sermons in Acts will start to click more once you’ve been disappointed with and perplexed by the slow decline of the monarchy in Samuel-Kings; and you won’t be able to make heads or tails of the majority of the imagery and language or Revelation until acquaint yourself with books like Ezekiel and Zechariah.

Another subsidiary implication should be humility and patience in awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises. Judging by the seeming slowness and unexpectedness of how the B.C.’s went, we in the A.D.’s probably have some surprises and some bumps in the road still to go. How many godly Jews sincerely expected the Davidic Messiah to go through both Isaiah 53 and Psalm 16:10 in one weekend? How many could have envisioned that 2,000+ years of expansion to the Gentiles would then follow before Isaiah 65:17-25 would be fulfilled? And so forth.
3) The Bible has lots of diverse parts
The Bible is not just a book. It is a collection of many different books (if “books” is an elastic enough word). The extent of the Bible’s diversity makes it stand out from other sacred texts, and really from all other pieces of literature. The Bible is diverse with respect to genre, ranging from law code to proverb, oracle to parable, poetry to apocalypse. It is diverse with respect to history (spanning roughly a millennium), cultural and political framework (from ancient middle-Eastern theocracy to persecuted minority in the Roman empire) and language (Hebrew + Greek, and a little Aramaic). It has diverse human authors (everything from Kings to fishermen, doctors to shepherds) and diverse means of inspiring those authors. It is even diverse in how it conveys theological truth: Esther and I John are both about God, but they convey truth about him very differently.

Once again, this is obvious; but sometimes we take it for granted. Think about this: if we had never encountered the Bible, but had heard that there was such a thing as “God’s Word”—what would we anticipate? How would we conceptualize a generic holy book? For some reason, I envision one smaller book, with one author, primarily or exclusively in the genre of oracle, more demanding and harsh in its tone, and more elevated in its topics.

Interestingly, this is similar to what we have in the Koran, which comes fundamentally from one man, at one time, in one language, one basic genre, directly from God, and in one basic historical process (following the prophet Muhammad’s alleged encounter with the angel Gabriel in the cave of Hira in 610). Though I don’t reduce the reason solely to this, I don’t think its incidental that Islam tends to assert Arabic culture rather than contextualize its message into new cultures. By contrast, the Bible’s message must be contextualized because it is already contextualized to different cultures within the Bible itself.

Implication: read different parts of the Bible differently

Because the Bible is very diverse, we have to tackle its different parts with different reading strategies. There are lots of hermeneutical directions this point could go, but let’s just make a practical point here: if you are doing a yearly Bible reading plan, it may be helpful to take larger chunks per day for certain genres (like narrative), and smaller chunks for others (like Proverbs).
I find momentum is key for faithfully executing a Bible reading plan. So I do whatever I can to not lose steam and have to play catch up. Therefore, I will often read medium-length books like Hosea or Daniel in one sitting, and take larger chunks of narrative for as long as I can sustain my attention (one year I read I and II Kings on a Sunday afternoon in one sitting). If you read the same amount every day, you would need to read a little over 3 chapters every day to get through the Bible in a year. It can be difficult to absorb over 3 chapters of Leviticus or Romans in one sitting. So if you take longer chunks whenever you can, you relieve the pressure on yourself and allow yourself time to digest the
more compact parts. That way you can take a whole day for, say, Psalm 23 or Romans 8.

Another practical thing to do is read certain parts of the Bible out loud; it might seem strange at first, but it is only appropriate given that many of the Bible’s books were intended to be heard rather than read. And it’s amazing the effect reading out loud can have for both sustaining attention and focusing the message.

4) The Bible was mainly written for ordinary people

The Bible is strikingly down-to-earth and honest. It has books on sex and what we would call existentialism (Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes). It is as practical as can be imagined: “whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing” (Proverbs 27:14). It is also as honest as can be imagined: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (Psalm 6:6).

The primary audience is not scholars, but ordinary people without theological training. It is not first and foremost a textbook or a curiosity to be studied, but as a divine Word to be received and obeyed. This does not mean the Bible is not profound or that it should not be studied with rigor. But the overwhelming majority of people who have read the Bible across the ages have not had any kind of formal training, and the Holy Spirit seems to have inspired a kind of book that accords well with this fact. The Bible is not intimidating and opaque, like an obscure scholarly conference; but inviting and humane, like a kind neighbor.

Implication: prayer and spiritual desire are just as important as scholarly tools (if not more so)
We should never give the impression that our brains are the primary way to get the Bible’s message. Of course, our brains play an important role, and scholarly resources can help with that part of it; but it is always ultimately the state of our hearts that determines whether we understand the Bible in the most important way it needs to be understood. Hence Jesus is always saying, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear;” not, “he who has a brain to understand, let him think.”

My sense is that too many lay Christians get intimidated by the mass and depth of biblical scholarship available to us. Commentaries and Study Bibles, for instance, are great resources, and there are so many of them around. Compare what is available to us to what was available in the average library of a medieval monastery and it’s embarrassing and overwhelming. Sometimes it is also paralyzing, and so it is good to remember that you can usually get the main point of the Bible simply by reading the Bible thoughtfully, humbly, slowly, and carefully. People like John Bunyan got a pretty good theological education from doing just that. And it is nothing short of amazing how much scholarly treatment of the Bible ends up making obscure what the Bible intends to make clear. I would rather read the Bible with an imaginative 5th-grader who at least remembers the biblical stories and distinguishes the good from the bad than with a PhD who is over-specialized, under-curious, and asking all the wrong questions.

Don’t think of the Bible’s meaning as some esoteric secret, available to the experts. God has put his truth on the bottom shelf. His target audience is not scholars but peasants and farmers and maids. Scholarly resources can help, but the most important thing is a humble heart and a spiritual appetite.
Another implication: preachers should make the meaning of their sermons plain. If a Junior High student with average intelligence cannot understand you in the main point of your sermon, you are probably making the Bible more complicated that it makes itself. That is bad. If the Bible itself determines our level of erudition, our sermons will have both shallows that children can happily splash in as well as deeps that drown the pride of philosophers.


The Gospel According to Terry

Eugene McCarraherFall 2014  

Culture and the Death of God
by Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press, 2014, 248 pp.

God has been through a very rough patch over the last 500 years. Once the Creator and Ruler of the universe, He fell into a long and precipitous decline with the advent of modernity. Dethroned as Ruler in the North Atlantic by religious tolerance and democracy, the Almighty watched helplessly as science refuted His claim to be the Creator. Historians, archeologists, and literary scholars broke the spell of His holy books, impugning their inerrancy and exposing them as riven by myths, errors, and contradictions. Add popular education, material prosperity, and longevity extended by better diet and medicine, and God’s hold on the moral and metaphysical imagination grew ever more attenuated.
Secular intellectuals have been of two minds about the Heavenly Father’s demise. Hoping that the last king would be strangled with the entrails of the last priest, Diderot mused that God had become “one of the most sublime and useless truths.” Yet Voltaire—fearful that his own impiety would embolden his servants to murder and larceny—maintained that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him. Diderot’s antipathy morphed into the revolutionary unbelief of Marx and Bakunin (as the latter snarled, if God did exist, it would be necessary to abolish Him); reached its zenith in the exuberant blasphemies of Nietzsche; and persists in brash but utterly derivative form in the “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. 

Yet despite His protracted dotage, God refuses to shuffle off into oblivion. If He lingers as a metaphysical butt in seminar rooms and research laboratories, He thrives in the sanctuaries of private belief, religious communities, and seminaries, and abides (sometimes on sufferance) in theology and religious studies departments. He flourishes in suburban evangelical churches everywhere in North America; offers dignity and hope to the planet of slums in Kinshasa, Jakarta, São Paulo, and Mumbai; inspires pacifists and prophets for the poor as well as bombers of markets and abortion clinics. David Brat claims Him for libertarian economics, while Pope Francis enlists Him to scourge the demons of neoliberal capitalism. He’s even been seen making cameo appearances in the books of left-wing intellectuals. “Religious belief,” Terry Eagleton quips, “has rarely been so fashionable among rank unbelievers.” 

As Eagleton contends in Culture and the Death of God, the Almighty has proven more resilient than His celebrated detractors and would-be assassins. God “has proved remarkably difficult to dispose of”; indeed, atheism itself has proven to be “not as easy as it looks.” Ever since the Enlightenment, “surrogate forms of transcendence” have scrambled for the crown of the King of Kings—reason, science, literature, art, nationalism, but especially “culture”—yet none have been up to the job. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

John Webster on Reading Scripture Well

To this negative, there corresponds positive attentiveness to the text. The vivification of the reader’s reason involves the Spirit’s gift of a measure of singularity or purity in which Scripture is not one of number [sic] of possible objects of attention, even the most important in a panoply, but the one word which is to absorb us into itself. Reading Scripture well involves submitting to the process of purification which is the readerly counterpart to the sufficiency of Scripture. We can, says Kierkegaard, be ‘deceived by too much knowledge’. One of the diseases of which the reader must be healed is that of instability, lack of exclusive concentration; and part of the reader’s sanctification is ordered simplification of desire so that reading can really take place. ‘Let us always hang on our Lord’s lips’, counsels Calvin, and neither add to His wisdom nor mix up with it anything of our own, lest like leaven it corrupt the whole mass and make even the very salt which is within us to be without savour. Let us show ourselves to be such disciples as our Lord wishes to have–poor, empty, devoid of self-wisdom; eager to learn but knowing nothing, and even wishing to know nothing but what He has taught; shunning everything of foreign growth as the deadliest poison.’ Thus, however important the mortification of the reader, it must not be abstracted from the reader’s vivification.

‘Faithful reading’ is characterised not only by brokenness, but also by the restoration and reconstitution of exegetical reason; to stop short of this point would be to risk denying that sin had indeed been set aside. One of the functions of a genuinely operative pneumatology in this context is to articulate grounds for the reader’s confidence that it is possible to read Holy Scripture well–having in mind the true ends of Scripture, with false desire and distraction held in check, and with reason and spirit quickened into alertness to the speeches of God. This confidence is not the antithesis of fear and trembling: like all truthful human action, it emerges out of the fear of God. And, because it is wholly dependent upon the illumination of the Spirit, it is hesitant to trust other lights (especially its own, from which it has been set free). Yet: the Spirit has been and continues to be given to illuminate the reader, and so exegetical reason may trust the promise of Christ to lead into truth by the Spirit’s presence and power. In the matter of reading Holy Scripture, too, disorder and wickedness have been overcome and reason’s reconciliation to God has begun. ("Holy Scripture," pp. 90-1, emph. his)

The Gift of Confession

James K.A. Smith — The Harvard Ichthus  
In the 1980s, North American evangelicalism experienced an almost revolutionary innovation: what later came to be known as the “megachurch.” What defined this new dialect of evangelical Christianity wasn’t really size but strategy. The philosophy of ministry and evangelism behind the megachurch movement was often described as “seeker-sensitive.” Sunday gatherings would be less focused on building up those who are already Christians; instead, gatherings would focus on being hospitable to “seekers,” those who were not yet Christians but were curious enough to consider attending an “event” that was accessible, welcoming, entertaining, and informative.

But in order for the church to be that sort of place, it was going to have to feel less, well, churchy. If it was going to be “sensitive” to seekers, the church would have to remove those aspects of its practice and tradition that were alleged to be obstacles to the “unchurched.” If the church was going to feel welcoming, it needed to feel familiar, accessible, and “cool,” characterized by the sorts of professional experience people associated with consumer transactions or the thrilling enjoyment of a concert. The seeker-sensitive church would feel like the mall, the concert, and Starbucks all rolled up into one — because those are places that people like, where they feel comfortable.

Not only would this change the architecture and décor of North American evangelical congregations, it also significantly changed the way we worship. “Traditional” liturgies were seen as dated, dusty and — worst of all — boring. Other aspects of historic Christian worship, like the Lord’s Supper, were thought to be just plain weird from the perspective of seekers. Instead, a seeker-sensitive congregation would have to de-emphasize certain aspects of Christian proclamation and worship in order to front-load those aspects of the gospel that feel more affirming. Less wrath, more happiness; less judgment, more encouragement; less confession, more forgiveness.

One common aspect of traditional Christian worship that was excised from seeker-sensitive congregations was the practice of corporate confession of sin. Historic worship always included a communal, public confession of our sin. Week-in and week-out, gathered before a holy God, the people of God would confess their failures and faults, their sins of omission and commission, saying sorry “for the things we have done and the things we have left undone.” And that regular confession of our sins would always be answered by “absolution” and the assurance of pardon — the announcement of the good news that, in Christ, we are forgiven.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

No confession, and no creed

December 26, 2014

Lessons & Carols at St. James Church on Madison Avenue. Sadly, I was not here on Christmas Eve.
Lessons & Carols at St. James Church on Madison Avenue. Sadly, I was not here on Christmas Eve.
I WAS a visitor this year at the midnight service on Christmas Eve in a venerable, colonial-era parish here in our fair Diocese of New York.
The distinguishing feature of the service, other than beautiful music, was its utter theological barrenness. There was, apart from what the layman could take for himself from the lessons (and, of course, the theology-heavy Christmas hymns), not a thing by way of instruction in “this thing which is come to pass.” Eucharistic Prayer D most certainly did not contribute any theological content, and the sermon was dead on arrival.
But the first sign that something was amiss came at the end of the Old and New Testament lessons, where, omitting the customary (and very fine) The word of the Lord, the bulletin instead enjoined the congregation to Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.
As we have already dispatched this particular piece of liturgical stupidity, we proceed to the real red flag:
There was no confession, and no creed.
If a more poetic and succinct description of the current state of the Episcopal Church could exist, I have not heard it. In far too many cities, towns, and villages, the church is a place with no confession, and no creed.1
Consider this: the website of Emmanuel Church in Boston (not where I was on Christmas Eve) says that “Believing is not a condition of beloving or belonging here.” That is true, of course, but a social club of outcasts and losers sharing pot luck is the wrong model (as we have discussed) for the church. “But Jesus hung around without outcasts and losers!” the naysayers will naysay, and they are not incorrect, which is to say that they are only half right. Really, they are far less than half right, because what Jesus did was hang out with outcasts and losers and proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. All of this before the real thing happened, which was his saving death and resurrection.
Had a creed been stated on Wednesday night, the assembled might have noted that the Council of Nicaea (and, later, of Constantinople), in boiling down the Christian faith to its absolute essentials, moves directly from Christmas to the Cross: Who for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man, And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures. Our faith is in not a nice man who was a prophet, worker of miracles, and friend of outcasts and losers; our faith is in the long hoped-for saviour of the nations, whose death and resurrection “our salvation hath procured.” As St. Paul tells us, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”2 And lest we forget it, consider how Jesus admonished his own disciples on the road to Emmaus: “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!”3
And so, beginning as we do at this time of year at the very beginning, we find John the Baptist echoing Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah, the Christ, he who would redeem Israel, is come among us, and it is time to get with the program. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Getting with the program is what the church is all about. The proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” remains as radical a thing in the twenty-first century as it was in the first. Caesar is long gone, but the lords of the world are still too much with us, and they are as hostile to the Gospel as ever they were. Status is lord. Position is lord. A new and cool car is lord. Money, our ancient nemesis, is lord. Consumer spending is lord. A locally sourced, healthy diet is lord. The world offers no shortage of gods to worship, and all, in the end, offer us nothing but more of the same. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Emmanuel Church may say that you don’t need to believe to belong, but with no confession, and no creed, there’s no way to turn belonging into believing. With no confession, and no creed, we run the risk of believing only in belonging. We run the risk of believing only in ourselves, which, as we learn from the example of old King Nebuchadnezzar, is the way of madness.4
Perhaps, though, the good people of Emmanuel Church are merely disingenuous. Perhaps they consider that a website is a marketing tool, and telling people they need not believe to belong will bring them to the threshold, and the power of the Gospel will move them to step through. You don’t need to believe to belong, but once you belong, you will come to believe.
Let us hope that this is what they mean, as that is a noble sentiment indeed.
At Christmas especially, when the Western world finds itself in the throes of empty consumption, of running itself ragged to exchange gifts just because that’s what you do at the holidays, the church ought to be in the business of bearing witness – in no uncertain terms – to what it is that we believe.
We believe Isaiah’s old prophecy:
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.5
We believe that the prophecy has come to pass in the person of Jesus Christ, the babe born in a manger in Bethlehem of Judea, a birth that is the only new thing to have happened since the foundation of the world.
And like that old agitator, John the Baptist, our call at Christmas is to bear witness to the light, that all men through us might believe. To do that, belonging is not enough. We need a confession, and we need a creed.
I BELIEVE in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man: And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried: And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father: And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the Prophets: And I believe one Catholic and Apostolic Church: I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins: And I look for the Resurrection of the dead: And the Life of the world to come. Amen.

1. It is worth noting here that the Prayer Book demands that the Nicene Creed be rehearsed “On Sundays and other Major Feasts” (p. 358). But maybe I’m wrong here; maybe Christmas is no longer a major feast in the Episcopal Church.
2. 1 Corinthians 15:14
3. Luke 24:25
3. Daniel 4:30
5. Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Virtue of Redeeming Vice

DEC. 26, 2014

I’ve resisted writing about Berlin’s Hotel Savoy because I don’t want to ruin it, but I figure that if it’s resisted modernizing conformity this long it can probably withstand anything. Let me just say how wonderful it is to walk into the fug of cigar smoke in the hotel lobby. Proust’s madeleine has nothing on that time-canceling waft of tobacco.

Out of the mists of time, emerging through the inhaled smoke, looms another age of laissez-faire before anyone ever dreamed of saying “Stay safe” — most awful of salutations — and anyone discovered special dietary requirements; a time when kids roamed free and did not even know what a helmet was.

The Savoy is not a great hotel, but it’s a pleasurable place to be because it has not succumbed to the scented air, the technological ostentation and the simpering obsequiousness by which luxury accommodation seems to be measured these days. It has taps and regular light switches rather than electronic command consoles designed to bamboozle. Its staff tends toward the gruff. Its clientele tends toward avoidance of gyms. Nobody asks for your room number when you walk in for the excellent breakfast. Right next to reception is its cigar bar, where you can drink and smoke into the wee hours as the masters of espionage did back in Cold War days.

The relief from sameness is overwhelming. I’ll take the Savoy’s tobacco smoke any day over the homogenization of the world. But what, you will say, about health? It’s important, and it’s a good thing we’re living longer (although it has become way too difficult to die). But as the sole criterion for existence it’s a bore.

Somewhere along the winding road to today the freedom to be different has been curtailed as technology extracts its last measure of cost-effective efficiency from every aspect of life and social media hands a real-time megaphone to the humorless global thought police. The importance of Oscar Wilde’s “redeeming vice” has been lost.

‘It’s Gonna Be a Bloodbath’: Expert Reveals the Economic Defects Under the Government’s Numbers

Dec. 27, 2014 8:30am Zach Noble

On Tuesday the Commerce Department released a fantastic estimate: In the third quarter of 2014, U.S. GDP grew at a rate of 5 percent, the fastest it’s grown since 2003.
But things might not be all they’re cracked up to be.
“Overall the economy is quite weak,” Peter Schiff, CEO and chief global strategist at Euro Pacific Capital Inc., told TheBlaze this week.
The fact that the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates near zero, where they’ve been since the onset of the recession in 2007-08, speaks volumes about what the nation’s financial leadership really thinks about the economy’s strength, Schiff said.
“If this economy really is so strong, why haven’t they raised rates?” Schiff questioned. “Why do they have to be patient? What are they afraid of?”
He said that the third quarter GDP figures, “however the stats are doctored up,” belie the true fragility of the U.S. economy — and its dependence on the Federal Reserve’s largesse.
Quantitative easing has artificially stimulated the economy for the past four years, and $3 trillion later the bond-buying program was ended with inconclusive results.
“Next year might be a recession without [more quantitative easing],” Schiff said.
It’s a recession that needs to happen, in Schiff’s view.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Religion Without God

DEC. 24, 2014  

THIS Christmas our family will go to church. The service is held in a beautiful old church in the charming town of Walpole, N.H., just over the border from Vermont. The Lord’s Prayer hangs on the wall behind the sanctuary. A lectern rises above the nave to let the pastor look down on his flock. The pews and the side stalls have the stern, pure lineaments suited to the Colonial congregation that once came to church to face God.
Except that this church is Unitarian. Unitarianism emerged in early modern Europe from those who rejected a Trinitarian theology in preference for the doctrine that God was one. By the 19th century, however, the Unitarian church had become a place for intellectuals who were skeptical of belief claims but who wanted to hang on to faith in some manner. Charles Darwin, for example, turned to Unitarians as he struggled with his growing doubt. My mother is the daughter of a Baptist pastor and the black sheep, theologically speaking, of her family. She wants to go to church, but she is not quite sure whether she wants God. The modern Unitarian Universalist Association’s statement of principles does not mention God at all.
As it happens, this kind of God-neutral faith is growing rapidly, in many cases with even less role for God than among Unitarians. Atheist services have sprung up around the country, even in the Bible Belt.
Many of them are connected to Sunday Assembly, which was founded in Britain by two comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. They are avowed atheists. Yet they have created a movement that draws thousands of people to events with music, sermons, readings, reflections and (to judge by photos) even the waving of upraised hands. There are nearly 200 Sunday Assembly gatherings worldwide. A gathering in Los Angeles last year attracted hundreds of participants.
How do we understand this impulse to hold a “church” service despite a hesitant or even nonexistent faith? Part of the answer is surely the quest for community. That’s what Mr. Jones told The Associated Press: “Singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people — and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. Which part of that is not to like?”
Another part of the answer is that rituals change the way we pay attention as much as — perhaps more than — they express belief. In “The Archetypal Actions of Ritual,” two anthropologists, Caroline Humphrey and James Laidlaw, go so far as to argue that ritual isn’t about expressing religious commitment at all, but about doing something in a way that marks the moment as different from the everyday and forces you to see it as important. Their point is that performing a ritual focuses your attention on some moment and deems it worthy of respect.

In Britain, where the rate of atheism is much higher than in the United States, organizations have now sprung up to mark life passages for those who consider themselves to be nonbelievers. The anthropologist Matthew Engelke spent much of 2011 with the British Humanist Association, the country’s pre-eminent nonreligious organization, with a membership of over 12,000. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist, is a member. The association sponsors a good deal of anti-religious political activity. They want to stop faith-based schools from receiving state funding and to remove the rights of Church of England bishops to sit in the House of Lords. They also perform funerals, weddings and namings. In 2011, members conducted 9,000 of these rituals. Ceremony does something for people independent of their theological views.

Moreover, these rituals work, if by “work” we mean that they change people’s sense of their lives. It turns out that saying that you are grateful makes you feel grateful. Saying that you are thankful makes you feel thankful. To a world so familiar with the general unreliability of language, that may seem strange. But it is true.
In a study in which undergraduates were assigned to write weekly either about things they were grateful or thankful for; hassles; or “events or circumstances that affected you in the past week,” those who wrote about gratitude felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the coming week. There have now been many such studies.

Religion is fundamentally a practice that helps people to look at the world as it is and yet to experience it — to some extent, in some way — as it should be. Much of what people actually do in church — finding fellowship, celebrating birth and marriage, remembering those we have lost, affirming the values we cherish — can be accomplished with a sense of God as metaphor, as story, or even without any mention of God at all.
Yet religion without God may be more poignant. Atheists trust in human relations, not supernatural ones, and humans are not so good at delivering the world as it should be. Perhaps that is why we are moved by Christmas carols, which conjure up the world as it can be and not the world we know.

May the spirit of Christmas be with you, however you understand what that means.

Friday, December 19, 2014

20 Things That Mentally Strong People Don’t Do

I often write about the things I believe we all should be doing, trying or experimenting with in order to maximize our success and happiness. However, it’s not always the things we do that make the biggest difference in our lives; it’s often the things we avoid doing that have the biggest effect. As human beings, we have a strong aversion to not doing; we feel that in order to produce results, there must be an initial action.
However, because we are almost always doing something, piling on more and more often has a negative effect, rather than a positive one. Among the mentally strong, there are several actions that are avoided in order to produce the greatest benefit in the shortest period of time.
These actions are those that the mentally strong avoid, and that we should consider adapting as our own:

1. Dwelling On The Past

Mentally strong individuals focus on the present moment and on the near future. They understand that the past is out of our control and the far future is about as predictable as the weather this winter.

2. Remaining In Their Comfort Zone

The comfort zone is a dangerous place, a dark abyss where anyone who remains there for too long loses his or herself entirely. Staying within your comfort zone is giving up on life.

3. Not Listening To The Opinions Of Others

Only the foolish believe themselves to be sufficient in all regards. When it comes to brainstorming, ideas can’t so much be forced as they can be caught. A good idea is a good idea, regardless of whether or not you came up with it. Don’t let your ego get the better of you; if someone has great advice to give, take it.

4. Avoiding Change

What the mentally strong understand that the mentally weak do not is that change is unavoidable. Trying to avoid the inevitable is pointless. Therefore, trying to avoid change is pointless; it’s a mere waste of time and energy.

5. Keeping A Closed Mind

You don’t know everything. Even the things you believe yourself to know are likely to not be entirely true. If you keep a closed mind, you are preventing yourself from learning new material. If you stop learning, you stop living.

6. Letting Others Make Decisions For Them

Only you should be making your own decisions; you can’t allow others to make them for you. All this does is shift the responsibility from you to someone else, but the only person failing in the end is you. If you don’t have the courage to fail, then you don’t have the courage to succeed.

7. Getting Jealous Over The Successes Of Others

When others succeed, you should be happy. If they can do it, so can you. The success of others does not, in any way, lessen the chances of you succeeding. If anything, it should motivate you to keep pushing forward.

8. Thinking About The High Possibility Of Failure

Our thoughts control our perspective; our perspective controls our results. The mentally strong understand this and use this to their advantage. There’s always the chance you may fail, but as long as there is the chance you may succeed, it’s worth trying.

9. Feeling Sorry For Themselves

Sh*t happens. Life can be hard. People get hurt; others die. Life isn’t all roses and butterflies. You will fall off that horse again and again and again. The question is, are you strong enough to keep getting back on it?

10. Focusing On Their Weaknesses

Although working on our weaknesses does have its benefits, it’s more important to focus on banking on our strengths. The most well-rounded person is not the person that gets the furthest in life. Being average in all regards makes you average. However, mastering a certain skillset or trait will allow you to beat the competition with less effort.

11. Trying To Please People

A job well done is a job well done, no matter who is judging the final product. You can’t please everybody, but you can always manage to do your very best.

12. Blaming Themselves For Things Outside Their Control

The mentally strong know the things they can control, understand the things they cannot control, and avoid even thinking about that which is completely out of their hands.

13. Being Impatient

Patience isn’t just a virtue; it is the virtue. Most people don’t fail because they aren’t good enough, or aren’t capable of winning or succeeding. Most people fail because they are impatient and give up before their time has come.

14. Being Misunderstood

Communication is key in any properly functioning system. When it comes to people, things get a bit more complicated. Simply stating information is never enough; if the receiving party misunderstands you, your message is not being properly relayed. The mentally strong do their best to be understood and have the patience to clear up misunderstandings.

15. Feeling Like You’re Owed

You aren’t owed anything in life. You were born; the rest is up to you. Life doesn’t owe you anything. Others don’t owe you anything. If you want something in life, you only owe it to yourself to go out and get it. In life, there are no handouts.

16. Repeating Mistakes

Make a mistake once, okay. Make a mistake twice… not so okay. Make the same mistake a third time, you may need to consider giving up alcohol and drugs. You’re either stupid or permanently high.

17. Giving Into Their Fears

The world can be a scary place. Some things frighten us with good cause, but most of our fears are illogical. If you know that you want to try something, try it. If you’re scared, then understand that being scared of failing must mean that succeeding means a whole lot to you.

18. Acting Without Calculating

The mentally strong know better than to act before completely understanding the situation at hand. If you have time to ponder over something and cover all your bases, then do so. Not doing so is pure laziness.

19. Refusing Help From Others

You’re not Superman; you can’t do it all. Even if you can, why should you? If others are offering to help, let them help. Be social. Listen to their ideas and watch how they do things. You may learn something. If not, then you can teach them something and do what humans are meant to do: socialize.

20. Throwing In The Towel

The biggest weakness in all of humanity is giving up — calling it quits, throwing in the towel. The mentally strong go about things in such a way. Only do things if they are important to you; forget the things that aren’t important to you. If they’re important to you, then pursue them until you succeed. No exceptions, ever.

What Would Jesus Do Today?

What do massive buildings and leadership conferences have to do with the church? Not much.

By Brant Hansen Dec. 19, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. EST + More 

Americans still believe in Jesus. Not everyone, of course, but most. In fact, the numbers shock people who thought we’d left all that silly Christmas story stuff behind: Two-thirds of Americans say they believe the whole thing. The shepherds, the manger, the virgin birth, the magi, all of it.

But you wouldn’t know that from our traditional media, or even Internet culture. And it’s worth saying, too, that what we really believe is not what we tell a pollster; it’s what we do. We can check all the high-minded or religious boxes, but our actions (like what we do with our money) can give us away.

But Americans remain incorrigibly religious. As a guest speaker, I shared data like this with a group of teenagers at an evangelical church. “So Americans say they believe in Jesus," I said. "Americans believe in the Holy Spirit. Americans believe in God. So why aren’t they flocking to church?
Thoughtful silence. And then a lone young man ventured a guess: “Maybe they don’t like us.”

I think he’s on to something.

Time magazine recently named, as its “Persons of the Year”, “The Ebola Fighters,” and the glowing article is largely about Christians, evangelical ones even. They’re Christians who don’t keep their faith private. Instead, they bring their faith to bear with their very lives.

Has the mainstream media suddenly found Jesus? Doubtful. What’s more likely, I suspect, is that they found Christians doing things that are stunningly, beautifully compatible with Jesus, Himself.
Frankly – and I’m writing this as a Christian, myself – so much of what we do isn’t so compatible. I’m not talking about the obvious, here: The lack of forgiveness, the anger toward our enemies or a preoccupation with politics and the levers of power. I’m talking about the things we’ve grafted into church culture: Everything from massive building projects to stage spectacles to our emphasis on “worship services” to corporate-type power structures to Christian celebrities and consumerism.

To my non-Christian friends, I can only say, “You know what? I don’t get it, either.”
I don’t see the connection. It doesn’t make million-dollar theater buildings evil, of course. It’s just that it’s not easy to see how the actual ministry of Jesus, the actual values of a God who came with good news for the poor, who chooses the humble, who favors the weak over the strong, led to, say, pastors-as-CEO’s or a hundred “leadership conferences.” Didn’t Jesus talk a lot more about following?

Perhaps you’re a Christian for the trappings of church culture. That’s okay. It just doesn’t do it for me. Ultimately, I’m doing this “Christian thing” not because I love a powerful teacher or Christian pop or even Handel’s "Messiah." I’m in it for Jesus. He’s the one that attracted me, and still does.

So when I see people acting like him, I’m drawn in. When I read about others running away from Ebola and death, but Christians running toward it, something clicks. Something looks familiar.
In Liberia, Christians converted a chapel intended for “worship services” into an Ebola ward for the sick and dying. When I read this, I don’t think, “But where will they hold their worship service?”

Instead, it’s, “Now, that’s ‘worship’, and ‘service’ I easily understand. That looks like Jesus to me.”
I recognize the Jesus who, when no one else would touch lepers, touched lepers. The Jesus who healed in the synagogue. That Jesus. I recognize him.

Jesus didn’t prioritize safety, and he didn’t dissociate from those in pain. Perhaps that’s why, when a third-century plague ravaged the Roman Empire, Christians were known for refusing to leave. While many people left their own family members to die, followers of Jesus willingly stayed to die with them, and the church grew.

Oh, this isn’t a “church growth” strategy. It’s a death strategy. And it looks a lot like Jesus.

Maybe others recognize this, too, including people who would never publicly identify with us. And maybe, rather than dismissing non-believers with disdain, we might wonder why they, too, stand up and take notice of a Christianity worthy of the name “Christ.” After all, we believers may remember, he was sent into the world not to condemn it, but to redeem it.

There’s a line from "The Village," a film about a blind woman who risks a journey for a friend: “She is more capable than most in this village. And she is led by love. The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe.” Two-thirds of Americans still believe that 2,000 years ago, in and out-of-way, dirty, where-you-least-expect-it kind of place, people knelt before love.

And, many, if they really see it still will.

No, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Didn’t Try To Kill Adolph Hitler

December 19, 2014 by 1 Comment

Bonhoeffer Body 2
It seems quite often when I discuss the theology of Christian Nonviolence, some folks are quick to drop the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer for many has become a “trump card” in discussions on nonviolence when one wants to give an example of someone who used violence to confront evil, as he has the reputation of being an attempted assassin of Adolph Hitler. Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer is a poor example of the desired point as there is no evidence that was actively involved in planning or attempting to assassinate Hitler– a basic fact accepted by the academy but seemingly missing from common internet discussions on Bonhoeffer.
To address this issue on the blog, I decided to sit down with Dr. Joseph McGarry, a Bonhoeffer scholar, and ask him to briefly explain in simple terms why thinking of Bonhoeffer as an assassin is probably not the best way to view the historical evidence.
Dr. McGarry was awarded his PhD in systematic theology from the University of Aberdeen in 2013, writing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology of formation in Christ. His doctoral thesis has been accepted for publication by Fortress Press under the title Christ Among a Band of People: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Formation in Christ. He has been published in Theology Today, The Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, and The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Australasian Journal of Bonhoeffer Studies. He has also contributed numerous lectures for the Evangelical Theological Society, the American Academy of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Theology. Furthermore, he is a diehard fan of the Buffalo Bills (who can’t seem to beat the New England Patriots).
BLC: Dr. McGarry, it seems that it is a popular assumption in today’s culture that Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian from Germany who was executed because he tried to assassinate Hitler. However, having attended several Bonhoeffer presentations by scholars at the American Academy of Religion, it seems to me that no serious Bonhoeffer scholar sees him as an assassin or even as a direct accomplice to any assassination attempt. Which version of history is correct? And, if Bonhoeffer wasn’t actually involved in an assassination attempt, where did this myth come from?
Dr. McGarry: Yeah, there’s a somewhat prevalent misnomer, and I’d imagine the myth stems from a series of logical deductions and some assumptions along the way. When people think about the Bonhoeffer’s life and involvement in the resistence, the flow of logic goes something like this:

a) Dietrich Bonhoeffer worked for the Abwer, and was recruited there by his brother in law, Hans von Dohnányi. b) Members of the Abwer’s leadership (specifically Hans Oster, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and Dohnányi) actively planned attempts on Hitler’s life. c) When the “Zossen files” were discovered in September 1944 (after the failure of the 20 July plot) von Dohnányi was clearly implicated in assassination planning, and the rest of the Abwer by extension. Therefore, everyone associated with these files was executed for treason against the Reich. Generally, it is then assumed that— because Bonhoeffer was executed with these other people who actively planned Hitler’s assassination—Bonhoeffer himself was actively involved as well.
Unfortunately, it is this assumption that scholars have again and again called an overstatement of the evidence. Something closer to reality is that Bonhoeffer was (at least) one level removed from the active planning. He was part of the organization but not part of the core. He was surely knowledgeable that *something* was being planned, but he was not part of the inner circle and it is likely he didn’t know what that *something* was.
Rather, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a courier, passing messages—particularly to England through his friend Bishop George Bell—and trying to get assurances from the Allied forces that they would stop bombing Germany when Hitler’s regime was overthrown. Bonhoeffer’s job was to try to find a way to convince England to stop destroying Germany. He was a messenger, not an assassination planner. He likely provided a measure of theological justification for what others were doing (as can be seen in his Christmas 1942 letter “After 10 Years”), but he himself was—at best—a bit player in the overall scheme of things. When we think of Bonhoeffer and Hitler’s assassination, it’s probably better to think of his role as “message boy” and not “core leader”.
Now, there is a current stream of interpretation that says that Bonhoeffer had actually no knowledge whatsoever that the Abwer leadership was planning an assassination, but this seems to me to be a bit of an overstatement from the other side.
Either way, the general consensus of scholarship is that Bonhoeffer himself was neither a core member of the resistance, nor was he central to any of the planning that the Abwer did.
BLC: If Bonhoeffer’s connection with the role of assassin is an overstatement of the evidence, how did we get here? Was he even focused on finding a way to destroy Hitler’s power?
Dr. McGarry: I think we get to this point from some very well intentioned people who have been truly impacted by Bonhoeffer’s amazing biography. It’s compelling, it’s dramatic. A man who forsakes all in the way he did, especially with how he returned from New York in 1939, believing that he needed to be with his nation if he were to have any right to rebuilt it…’s powerful stuff. I think there’s also a tendency for us to look for heroes of the Christian faith–people who encourage us and who give us something to aspire toward. Surely Dietrich Bonhoeffer is that kind of person–a man of conviction who did what he felt was right, what was difficult, and ended up dying for how he lived his faith. I mean, let’s be honest, that was a significant factor in my own study of his work. But, in the midst of telling that type of story, there’s a temptation to overplay the hand, so to speak. It’s easy to forget that a very significant portion of his employment with the Abwer had to do with his desire to escape the front lines. He wasn’t going to fight for the Reich. First, he tried to escape active combat by becoming a chaplain, but he was denied. His only other option would have been to come forward as a conscientious objector, but that would have earned him a one way ticket to a concentration camp. He ended up going to New York on a theological fellowship in 1939 as a way to escape, but he was overcome with guilt and returned just a few weeks later. So he returns to Germany, certain to be sent into combat, and he was trying to find a way out. And then, he found a way into the Abwer. A way to escape the war. Though he was very sympathetic to the resistance movement, the main reason he joined the Abwer wasn’t to be part of the resistance so much as to avoid military service (Bonhoeffer was originally imprisoned as a draft dodger, and it wasn’t until late 1944 that it was revealed that he worked in the same section of the Abwer as those who planned the assassination plot). Though he was executed for his association with people who planned the assassination, he was put in prison for avoiding conscription.
I think that’s what often happens when we look at Bonhoeffer’s life: we focus on the stuff that shapes the heroic story of David standing up against Goliath–standing for the Gospel. And it’s not as if it’s wrong, it’s just only half of the picture. The other half (which we can’t put to the side) is the well connected pastor from a family who had political connections that could give him an exemption from combat service. It just so happened they worked for the Abwer and that was his ticket out. If they worked as janitors in a steel factory, then he would have been doing that instead.
The short summary of the whole is this: Bonhoeffer did not want to die in a concentration camp, and he didn’t want to be sent off to fight either. Thus, he used family connections to find a way out of both scenarios: joining the Abwer. While he was there, some members of the Abwer did plan an overthrow of Hitler, but the evidence shows Bonhoeffer was at least one step removed from the circle of people who did that. However, because he was likely aware that *something* was being discussed (without knowing what that was), he did use personal friendships to ask the Allies to stop bombing and killing his family and friends (an attempt at peacemaking, not violence) which they declined. In the end, he was executed not because he was part of an assassination attempt, but simply because he was associated with people who were.
Bonhoeffer is one of my favorite people in history, as perhaps he is yours. However, to claim that he was a would-be assassin, is simply an overstatement of the historical facts.

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