Mere Christianity

Somehow, I’ve never been able to read this book before. I’ve tried a few times but never gotten beyond the first few pages.

Recently I tried again with the help of an audiobook version from the library. It worked, helping me to gain some momentum and push through the spot where I’ve run aground in the past.

I found Mere Christianity to be a timely, clarifying, and inspiring read. It was timely, because I need reminding of the big picture of the Christian faith and what this life is supposed to be working toward. I enjoyed listening with my daughters, too, so we could discuss some of the concepts and the strategies Lewis uses to explain them. The book is a treasure chest for anyone with questions about the Christian faith.

The illustrations Lewis uses to demonstrate theological ideas are unfailingly clear, narrated in accessible language. And no wonder. The original audience (from 1942-44) was the British public, to whom Lewis had been invited to address a series of radio talks on the Christian faith. (Think of it: an era when Christianity would be recognized as a topic worth hearing about by mainstream westerners. Can you imagine it? Neither can I.) Without dumbing it down, Lewis manages to tackle such subjects as the Trinity, moral law, the Incarnation, Redemption, time and eternity, free will, prayer, and the transformative process by which God takes fallen humanity and offers holiness.

With his characteristic wit to keep his listeners engaged, Lewis takes the stance of a friend walking alongside rather than one speaking from on high, systematically and thoroughly peeling away misunderstandings and revealing the shining heart. Here, for instance, is a passage I have heard snippets from but enjoyed hearing in context. It uses banking and war imagery and establishes Lewis’s solidarity with the audience with its reference to “you and I”:

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.

Lewis is not perfect, of course. Gifted thinker though he is, he is also a product of his time. I noticed this in his attitude toward women. For instance,

There must be something unnatural about the rule of wives over husbands, because the wives themselves are half ashamed of it… The relations of a family to the outer world — what might be called its foreign policy — must depend, in the last resort, on the man, because he always ought to be, and usually is, much more just to the outsiders.

This is basically Alexander Pope’s line of reasoning when he says, “Whatever is, is right.” Did the fact that many Christian slaveholders did not feel shame mean that slavery was right? Is a man “ruling over” his wife any better than the reverse, given Jesus’s model of servant leadership? Is either party a subject to be ruled over by the other in Christian marriage? Lewis looks at his neighbors and assumes that at that time, in that place, in that social configuration, what he sees reflects the universal ideal for the sexes.  He paints men and women with an embarrassingly broad brush, stereotyping women as irrational protectors and men as the judicious and reasonable sex. I see no such generalities; men can be irrational protectors, women can be judicious and reasonable. These are individual personality traits, not gender traits. No wonder Dorothy Sayers, a friend of Lewis and fellow author, commented that where women were concerned he had “a complete blank in his mind.”

But this is a tiny morsel of an otherwise highly nourishing book. I would add that more than once I was struck not by Lewis’s insensitivity, but his compassion, for readers of all kinds. Here is an example from a discussion on the difference between “niceness” and God’s ultimate goals for Christian personality:

There is either a warning or an encouragement here for every one of us. If you are a nice person — if virtue comes easily to you — beware! Much is expected from those to whom much has been given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.

But if you are a poor creature — poisoned by a wretched up-bringing in a house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels — saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion — nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends — do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all — not least yourself; for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.)

I think it’s the steady undercurrent of confidence in God’s meaningful and loving work in the Christian, however difficult life may be, that did me the most good. The logic and clarity are wonderful, and the pictures of eternal realities are worth remembering. But sometimes it’s simply the experience of being steeped in an author’s faith that can buoy us up by the time we reach the last page.

God is making us into something — something other, something grander, than we would be in our flesh. This is the point made over and over in Mere Christianity. God’s purpose is not to clear away difficulty, but to forge new creations. I’m left wondering: what is he making me into? Am I cooperating?

The Listening Life

There are several great reviews of this book around, including this one that convinced me I wanted to read it. Ironically, I believe it was the idea of a listening God that interested me. Finishing the book, it’s the idea of a listening Janet that inspires me.

How many of us listen well? Recently I commended someone for being a good listener, mainly because the person keeps quiet while others talk. This is one attribute of a good listener, but not the only one. It’s even possible to keep quiet while others talk and not be a good listener at all. You may be judging them, or internally rephrasing everything they say in terms of your own personal grid of meaning, or simply waiting for them to finish so you can wrench the conversation down a completely different path, or — perhaps — not even listening to them at all.

The Listening Life helps to guide its readers into a fuller imagining of what it means to listen well. The first five chapters explore the way God listens, and how we can listen in return — for instance, through prayer, scripture, and creation. These chapters are illuminating, but the ones I liked best came when author Adam McHugh turned to how we listen to others, to people in pain, to our own lives, and to our culture. I had two favorite chapters. The first, “Listening to Others,” offers some fine insight into the ways we might be listening less well than we think we are, and what we may be missing. “Character building is always expensive to the ego,” writes McHugh, just before offering some questions to help us evaluate our motivations in conversation. He points out, “The opposite of a listening heart is not a talking heart but a selfish heart.” I have grown stingy about book purchases, relying on the library whenever possible, and often reselling books I am forced to buy. In this chapter, I gave up and started underlining and bracketing passages I wanted to remember. This book is a keeper.

My other favorite chapter is “A Society of Reverse Listening.” To give you a whiff of what it’s about, it begins this way:

Our church signs lay out the usual pattern. Come this Sunday for our message: “Where Is God When It Hurts?” This week’s sermon: “Abraham and Isaac: The Untold Story.” Sunday morning at 9 and 11: “Your One True Love.” The expectation is clear: if you come to church, you are going to listen. The church’s job is to preach, to teach the Bible and to share God’s opinions on the issues of the day, and your job is to listen to our message. We have a pulpit, and you have ears.

Imagine if the pattern was reversed. What if, instead of coming to church to be preached to, people came to church to be heard? What if the body of believers was known less as a preaching community and more as a listening community?

This struck a chord with me. No matter how good the preaching, the Sunday service is largely an exercise in being a passive audience. Of course, McHugh is talking not just about worship services, but about Christian culture at large, which is often perceived to have much to say, but not much time or interest in listening. It’s not built into our structures because, perhaps, it’s not built into our values. But this last chapter offers an inspiring vision of how we could become better at listening instead of talking.

I recommend The Listening Life. Reading is, after all, an experience of extended listening, and this book offers any number of insights that are both deep and useful, related with gentleness and wit. It has already had an impact on my responses to the small circle of people who share my life, and it is inspiring despite McHugh’s acknowledgement that

The honest truth is that there is no glory in listening. There is more glory in talking about listening than there is in actually doing it. It is the New Year’s resolution of relationship disciplines. It is not glamorous, charismatic or dynamic. People who have been heard well aren’t even aware of it half the time.

Yet when you commit to go deep into listening, you will find that listening “speaks” in ways far more powerful than talking ever could.

Rogue One (with spoilers)

It’s a little known fact in this corner of the blogosphere, but I’ve seen all the Star Wars movies. So even though I hardly ever review movies, I’m going to attempt to now, because in what may be becoming a tradition, we went to see Rogue One this week. But in contrast to last year’s experience with The Force Awakens, which left me unequivocally approving, this movie left me ambivalent.

To its credit, Rogue One depicts war with some degree of realism. The characters suffer and sacrifice to achieve the gain realized in the movie’s closing scene. Characters in the midst of battle experience fear and confusion, and with good reason.

Similarly, the Rebel Alliance is not the unified, unanimous force it appears to be in other movies. It betrays some of the characteristics of political groups in the present day, in a galaxy close at hand: opposing viewpoints, double-speak, and willingness to use an ordinary person like Jyn Erso without telling her the truth.

But though I have a certain appreciation for these realistic elements, mostly the film left me unmoved. For one thing, the Star Wars world is unremittingly bleak and colorless. I was delighted when the closing scenes, which take place in Imperial territory, were going to take place in daylight; all the rest of the movie is dark and claustrophobic. Even the opening scenes, in which a young Jyn watches her parents trying fruitlessly to resist the Empire, take place in a gray industrial landscape. I was surprised to hear that her father was a farmer, as his land bears more resemblance to a modern dump with its tube-like smokestacks protruding from barren earth. It’s an unappealing world that inspires little sympathy or understanding.

The script was equally colorless. In last year’s Force Awakens, the repartee between characters lightened the mood and demonstrated the chemistry among them. But the dialogue in this film was, as critic Robert Mondello notes, “flatfooted.” He writes, “With Stormtroopers lurking ’round every intergalactic corner, director Gareth Edwards hasn’t much time for such other Star Warsian charms as character, grace, whimsy and, most of all, fun.” I agree.

While the Force in previous movies was left vague enough for different faiths to see parallels, in this movie it seemed to me to be linked closely to Tibetan Buddhism through its chief spokesperson, a blind monk at the kyber temple (kyber crystals, used in Jedi lightsabers, are a new preoccupation in this movie). In this sense its depiction was less universal.

Finally, the ending left me wondering how futile the actors felt their roles to be. We won’t see any of them again. What does it matter that we may like some of them? This movie is on the one hand participating in the Star Wars community of characters and conflicts, and on the other hand a totally stand-alone enterprise. Ultimately it leaves me with a sense that it was just okay. I liked The Force Awakens. It left me wanting to see what would happen to the characters, and wanting to know more about them. It revived the nostalgia of the original episodes, made when I was a teen. Rogue One left me neutral.

On silence

Although we are tempted in times of agonizing silence to think of God with an icy stare on his face, refusing to make eye contact, I have found it comforting to think of God simply sitting with us in our pain, quietly listening. Maybe what feels like awkward and anxious silences to us are actually full and gentle silences. We are reminded that listening is not inaction. When God is listening to us, even if we do not experience the results we hope for, he is actively disposed toward us… (Adam S. McHugh)

At first when I came upon these sentences in The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World Of Distraction, I liked them. I don’t picture an “icy stare” so much as an unsmiling countenance and hands folded across God’s chest — as if he’s saying, “You work it out.” The idea of companionable and compassionate silence is much better.

Yet… sooner or later, we need a response, don’t we? Even the best of friends do not fail to respond eventually with a word. Silence is great for a time, but not for too long.

Maybe the problem is that an eternal God’s concept of “too long” differs radically from mine.

Nevertheless, I have grown skeptical, almost cynical, of what sound like rationalizations of what McHugh later calls “the dark night of the senses. The ‘sense’ of God’s presence has all but disappeared… What was once a raging love affair becomes a lukewarm marriage, a couple sitting at a nice restaurant on their anniversary with nothing to say.”

If the married couple never do find anything to say — if the silence goes on for too long — it stops being a marriage. Conversation is one strong thread tying two people together. Same with God.

This is not doubt speaking. Not anymore. I have noticed that no matter how difficult life may be, or how “hopeless” the outlook may seem, I wake in the morning with hope. I believe that God is at work. I trust him to provide and care for us. I recognize this perspective as a fruit of my Christian faith.

The question is not, for me, whether God is there. The question is why we so often speculate and explain away his quietness. Wouldn’t it be something closer to wisdom to fall silent ourselves when we are tempted to offer such explanations of a phenomena we really do not understand?

We are exhorted to “pray without ceasing” because God wants to hear from us. And we want to hear from God. It goes both ways.

Incarnation

I’ve been using a One-Year Bible in my daily reading. I don’t see anything spiritually essential in completing the Bible in a year, but I like the idea of reading from cover to cover — however long it takes. I started in the spring or summer, and as Christmas approaches I find myself in Ezekiel.

Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God departing from the temple in chapters 8-11 is incredibly powerful and haunting. The spirit of God, all whirling wheels and cherubim and fire and eyes and thundering wings, rises from the Holy of Holies, drifts over to the entrance to the temple, then travels up to the eastern hillside before the vision ceases. It comes on the heels of God’s revelation of several kinds of idolatry being practiced in secret and public ways. The pictures God gives Ezekiel leave the prophet aghast at the level of corruption eating at the heart of God’s chosen people.

Just before God moves from the temple doorway to the eastern hillside, he issues a promise to reassure Ezekiel: he will bring the exiles back, and they will remove all the idols. “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.”

And that’s it. God departs and does not return until Jesus enters the temple.

What greater heart of flesh could there be? The Incarnation represents the heart of God himself made flesh. All those wheels and eyes and coals and wings reduce to a tiny, vulnerable infant who will offer salvation to all people.

Recent Reads

booksmI’ve had different degrees of success in my reading this summer. For example, though their premises were interesting and they were in general pretty good, I fell by the wayside and failed to finish Simplicity Parenting and Sarum. After waiting weeks for The Nest to become available at the library, the opening pages turned me off quickly by presenting me with a sordid encounter.

Nevertheless, I’ve had some success. It’s a Beautiful Day, by Renee and Philip Murdoch, details its author’s healing from traumatic brain injury. An American missionary in Rio, Renee Murdoch was attacked by a homeless man who fractured her skull so violently that no one could have predicted she would survive, much less recover without any brain damage. It’s an inspiring story full of encouragement, gripping description, and quirky humor. It challenged me to persist in prayer, no matter how many times the same prayer may be required or how long it takes to reach complete — not partial — fulfillment.

The Givenness of Things, by Marilynne Robinson, is a book of essays of which I read a few. One modern trend Robinson explores in her searching, densely packed way is the loss of theological distinction and tradition in modern Protestantism. A Calvinist herself, she seeks to connect our public discourse and sense of politics to what she sees as a lack of depth in our churches. She is politically liberal and a proud proponent of “civil religion,” neither of which persuasions found a sympathetic chord in me. Yet she makes some good points that require a thoughtful consideration. For example:

The word “Christian” now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic… This drift is the American version of a phenomenon that is clearly widespread throughout old Christendom. A ferocious secularism can carry on its internecine wars under the names Catholic and Protestant. Notional Christians can align themselves against actual Muslims in defense of European culture and civilization, which are based on a system of belief that is no longer believed, and are therefore under a severer threat than any they could face from a competing religion…

Who can fail to think of our current election season? Robinson reminds us that this is nothing new, but only “old humankind going about its mad business as if it simply cannot remember the harm it did itself yesterday.” But the fact that it’s not new doesn’t make it less serious. And perhaps, she writes, part of it is new: “There appears to me to be a dynamic at work that is new for us, a polarization of the good on one side and the religious on the other, which will be a catastrophe for American Christianity.”

Seeing the performance of Christians throughout this campaign, and seeing the apparent faith that salvation can be found in the political process, there can be little doubt that there has been a catastrophe for American Christianity. I don’t know if Robinson’s take explains it fully, but there is surely something very wrong.

I’ve enjoyed Wendell Berry’s Imagination in Place, a book of essays that take up literary topics. He has essays presenting his perspective on several authors that I like (such as James Still and Wallace Stegner), as well as those who have been among his longest writerly friends (James Baker Hall and Gurney Norman). As always, I enjoy making my way through these thoughtful essays on art and artists. One of my classmates in graduate school remarked that Wendell Berry’s prose literally slows you down as you read, and in our hectic age this is a gift that grows steadily more valuable.

While I’m sure I read Elizabeth George Speare’s Witch of Blackbird Pond many years ago, I remembered none of it. Rereading it in advance of this year’s American history study, I felt it to be a pitch-perfect YA novel, well paced, sympathetic, and rich in detail of the period. Though the depiction of the Puritans is weighted toward the stern and curmudgeonly, there are a few scenes that show them simply merry and enjoying the life of the community and the beautiful natural setting in Connecticut. The “witch” of the story, a Quaker woman, is somewhat idealized, but ultimately the story shows the faith community growing and learning.

Finally, I revisited Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. My original, more complete review of the book is here. While I feel this book stops short of taking a Marxist view of people, it does offer a critical examination of America’s version of the rugged individualist success story. Taking selected “outliers” who perform with an extraordinary degree of success — in the IT industry, the practice of law, hockey players, pilots, and math students, for instance — Gladwell makes a convincing case for external factors like the 10,000 hour rule, family and wealth, and the occasional once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity that only comes to some. It’s a fascinating book that will make any parent consider how to help their children succeed — and encourage any individual to take a look around and see what opportunities may be quietly at hand.

One phenomenon Gladwell discusses is the importance of cultural heritage. He begins with a discussion of the Scots-Irish honor culture, and this is part of the subject matter of a book I expect to read soon: Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. (You can read an interview with the author here.) The only catch is that the book needs to arrive — and just this morning I received a notice that it will be delayed. Oh well. I expect it to offer some needed insight into the surrealism of this election season, among other things.

 

Religious Age

This is a post from some time ago — October 2014. It’s been sitting in my drafts folder, I suppose waiting for refinement. But I’m going to go ahead and publish it as is.

——————–

Someone should do a study of comment threads.

Lately, for some inexplicable reason, I’ve actually been scrolling down to look at the comments below news articles online. In principle, I dislike the policy of allowing comments. They are about the clicks that make advertisers want to support certain sites, not about discussion. And they are often nasty.

Yet I’ve looked at the comment threads a few times lately, and it’s surprised me to see how often the discussion turns to spiritual matters. This story about a volunteer with Doctors without Borders, for example, includes a question about whether the doctor is a man of faith. One commenter takes the interviewer to task for daring to assert the relevance of faith. Then there’s this one, about the Ebola cases in the U.S., in which one unsuspecting commenter dares to suggest he is praying for health care workers on the front lines of treating Ebola patients. Another commenter cites a study saying that prayer doesn’t work, and the whole discussion becomes focused on the question of whether it works, and whether anyone should be permitted to say they are praying on the chance that they may offend an atheist, and so on. Both threads reveal a segment aggressively in favor of censoring any references to Christianity. It’s okay to be a Christian as long as you remain absolutely silent and purge your speech of all religious associations, real or implied, it seems.

There have been two interesting news stories about faith lately, too, both rather sad to me. This one is about “mass mobs” in Catholic churches (a variation on “flash mobs”). Many stand nearly empty most of the time, but if a mob shows up, the people get to have the experience of what a packed-out mass is like. The general consensus of those quoted in the article is that the experience is meaningful first of all as an exciting, “electric” experience; secondly for its nostalgic value, because it reminds people of what it “used to be like” back when people still went to church. There’s no mention of the actual spiritual content of the mass or of why filling churches has anything to do with faith itself.

"Thus did Mr. Worldly Wiseman courteously direct poor Christian down the wrong road."
Mr. Worldly Wiseman directs Christian down the wrong road.

And then this one, about how religious studies departments are thriving despite the fact that a third of young Americans report no religious affiliation. Why? Because of “interfaith” affiliations. Students report faithfully practicing different religions, and a sanctuary is described with religious symbols of many faiths. The chaplain explains that the office is not oriented around God, but around the big questions. One student explains that his “comfort with paradox,” which he describes as being able to hold opposing viewpoints in his mind and see both sides, is extremely valuable. (I would say he’s comfortable with syncretism — blending all belief systems — rather than paradox.)

No wonder The Bible Tells Me So — which proposes that much of the Bible is simply humans mistaking what God is trying to say despite its many truth claims, but we should read it anyway — is so popular. We’re in an age seething with superficial interest in spiritual things. But love of truth? Even belief in truth — truth as something external to ourselves, which requires accommodation? What about that?

“Seek and ye shall find.” I have to believe that however misdirected some of these interests seem, at the root they reflect the God-given longing for truth that can lead all true seekers home.

WWJD and the Myth of a Christian Nation

A thoughtful reader emailed me recently regarding my post entitled “Quandary.” The reader brought up the question of what Jesus would do in the present election. As it was already a subject revolving in my mind, I decided to get some thoughts down here.

The problem with “WWJD” thinking is that it often simply evolves into what a person thinks anyway. Once I heard my two daughters surveying their extremely messy playroom, and one said, “I wonder what Jesus would do with this room.”

“He’d tell us to clean it up,” advised my responsible older daughter.

“Or, maybe he’d ask an angel to do it!” replied my more carefree younger daughter.

Render Unto Caesar (Rubens)
Render Unto Caesar (Rubens)

What would he do in a democratic republic? No idea. God chose a different age as the “fullness of time” for the Messiah to come, an age of emperors that demanded to be worshiped as gods, an age in which church and state were not separated. The more salient question is what Jesus actually did do about political involvement. The answer is, not much — at least, not much that was recorded. His disciples reflected different political points of view, and he didn’t sanction any of them or allow himself to be identified with any specific political movement. The only expressly political statement I can think of that Jesus made was, “Render unto Caesar what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to him.” (He said this because political groups were trying to trap him into defining himself in their terms.) He didn’t make any effort at all to help the Jews overthrow their oppressive Roman overlords. He did claim to be himself the King of kings — a political statement if ever there was one! But he said his kingdom was “not of this world.” Mostly, he seems to have had the kind of long view we would expect a Creator to have toward human establishments. He wasn’t a political activist in the sphere of human government.

This article is an interesting summary of Jesus’ politics. It concludes,

As the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus was political, though of an order that transcends this world and intersects this world all at the same time and calls it to account at every turn. As Jesus intersects our paths during this election season and beyond, do we realize that our ultimate allegiance must be to him?

How is this “ultimate allegiance” expressed? The New Testament gives us the general exhortation to live with integrity, in a manner worthy of our calling. This amounts to much the same thing any democratic republic tells its citizens to do: vote your conscience. For starters, Philippians 4:8 lays out some standards for a Christian conscience. Galatians 5:22-23 does too. 1 Timothy 3 lays out some standards for church leaders, and although a president is not a church leader, these standards define the kind of good character that marks a trustworthy leader.

As I said in my previous post, voting my conscience does not mean I’ll be “sitting out the election.” It means I’ll be voting for someone I can support. That means neither of the two major party candidates. I have watched every debate since last summer, read avidly the candidates’ positions on issues, and followed their public statements in an effort to be informed. I don’t see how either one is worthy of public office. Neither even amounts to a lesser evil. There is a slight difference in the party platforms, but in practice these platforms don’t seem to mean anything. In terms of moral outlook and political philosophy, a Clinton or a Trump presidency would look about the same. In terms of personal character, both are demonstrably dishonest, both are long-time political insiders who have played the system for years, and neither has any intention of reforming the excesses and corruptions of government. I’ve held my nose and voted for candidates in the past who may not match my criteria in every respect, but who meet at least some of them and are in the main decent people. This year, both parties are offering people below that threshold. I will have to find some other alternative to vote for, even if it means writing someone in, and in this way exercise the privilege of having a vote.

77832Some would argue that voting in this way is somehow disloyal to, as one person calls it, “our nation of Christians.” A nation of Christians would not have chosen these two candidates. The astonishing voting performance of self-proclaimed evangelicals and prominent church figures in the primaries reveals (among other things) a chasm between true Christianity and what Greg Boyd calls “civil religion” in his excellent book The Myth of a Christian Nation.

Christianity is based on a relationship practiced by individuals. It’s not a set of political positions or, as Dallas Willard called them, “boundary markers.” Christians in any nation retain (or lose) their identity and integrity independently of who’s in office, or what laws are on the books, or what party keeps its majority. Christians have thrived the most when politics have not gone their way, as the church’s vitality in ancient Rome, or modern day China, show. From that standpoint, perhaps the best thing that could happen in America is for us to stand with some courage against the moral tide now flowing against Christians, rather than rushing like lemmings to a figure whose only virtue is the promise of political control.

In this passage from The Myth of a Christian Nation, Greg Boyd describes the contrast between Christianity and civil religion:

A second thing that happens when we fail to distinguish the civil religion of America from the kingdom of God is that we end up wasting precious time and resources defending and tweaking the civil religion — as though doing so had some kingdom value. We strive to keep prayer in the schools, fight for the right to have public prayer before football games, lobby to preserve the phrases “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance and “in God we trust” on our coins, battle to hold the traditional civil meaning of marriage, and things of the sort — as though winning these fights somehow brings America closer to the kingdom of God. This, we think, is part of what it means to “take America back for God.”

Now, you may or may not agree that preserving the civil religion in this way is good for the culture. Vote your conscience. But can we really believe that tweaking civil religion in these ways actually brings people closer to the kingdom of God, that it helps them become more like Jesus? For example, does anyone really think that allowing for a prayer before social functions is going to help students become kingdom people? Might not such prayer — and the political efforts to defend such prayer — actually be harmful to the kingdom inasmuch as it reinforces the shallow civil religious mindset that sees prayer primarily as a perfunctory religious activity? Might it not be better to teach our kids that true kingdom prayer has nothing to do with perfunctory social functions, that true kingdom prayer cannot be demanded or retracted by social laws and that their job as kingdom warriors is to “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17) whether the law allows for it to be publicly expressed or not?

In other words, rather than spending time and energy defending and tweaking the civil religion, might it not be in the best interest of the kingdom of God to distance ourselves from the civil religion? Couldn’t one even go so far as to argue that it would be good for the kingdom of God if this civic brand of pseudo-Christianity died altogether? Isn’t one of the primary problems we’re up against in this nation the fact that Christianity has been trivialized by being associated with civic functions? And aren’t we actually reinforcing this trivialization by fighting so vigorously to preserve this pseudo-Christian veneer? Maybe Kierkegaard was right when he stated that the worst form of apostasy the Christian faith can undergo is to have it become simply an aspect of culture. Perhaps it would be a benefit to the advancement of this kingdom if America looked as pagan as it actually is, if the word God wasn’t so trivially sprinkled on our coins, our Pledge of Allegiance, our civic functions, and elsewhere. Then perhaps the word might come to mean something significant to people who genuinely hunger and thirst for the real thing!

Ancient Israel was a theocracy, not a democratic republic. But their history shows some of the same dynamic we see today in America. Just this morning, I read about the era just after King Solomon, when the kingdom split in two. Jereboam wanted to maintain control of his ten tribes by preventing them from having to travel to Jerusalem, where all the true Levite priests had fled. So he made a couple of idols and proclaimed, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” Those who “set their hearts on seeking the Lord, the God of Israel” fled to Jerusalem. But the rest obediently stayed home and worshiped the idols.

It’s a chilling picture, all too similar to what is happening today in America. Those people had to make a choice. Would they follow a political personality who seemed sympathetic to their needs, but who wanted to use their religion, changing it in the process, to consolidate his own power? Or would they turn away and hold firm to the faithful God who had taken care of them so far? Rather than selling our souls at the altar of a political party or a personality, let’s hold firm to the One we know is true and real.

Contentment

contentmentRichard Swenson’s Contentment: The Secret to a Lasting Calm was recommended on a blog several years ago (I don’t remember which one!). I started reading it then, but it didn’t “take.” Recently I picked it up again, and this time I completed it.

I have mixed feelings about this book. The up side is that it focuses the reader’s attention in a sustained way on a worthy subject and offers some interesting observations about our culture. The concept of contentment is not difficult to grasp, but when was the last time you meditated on it, or on whether your life reflects it? In an increasingly consumptive culture, this book invites you to step back and assess to what extent your heart may have absorbed the spirit of the age even when it runs counter to your principles. Swenson makes some interesting observations about biblical attitudes toward possessions, and he purports to offer a history of the concept of contentment in western culture.

This is where my two complaints with the book come in. First, Swenson is often mind-numbingly general. Here’s one typical example. Swenson is talking about the last quarter century:

Without warning, progress went vertical, heading straight for the stratosphere. We are locked in an acceleration trap and somehow can’t escape. The entire globe seems to be making it up as we go along. The math is now behaving strangely and no longer works in a variety of critical settings. The numbers are increasingly incomprehensible, the curves increasingly exponential (the profusion curve is actually hyperexponential), and the math increasingly dysfunctional. As a result, nearly everything is being shaken — economics at personal, family, local, state, and federal levels; budget deficits; the stock and bond markets; the U.S. dollar; credit ratings; the middle class; real estate; higher education; elementary and secondary education…

Believe it or not, he goes on for another half a page peppering the reader with more items in this list. Do you have a sense that he may be touching on something important? Absolutely. This is why it’s a shame that he cannot write about it in a clear, systematic way. The pseudo-scientific terms, global focus, and hypnotically long list leave the reader with a general sense that we’re going to Hell in a hand basket, but without any real comprehension of why. His history of ideas chapter gives anywhere from a half a page to two pages each on whole eras of human history. It’s hard to take seriously.

Another irritating feature of Mr. Swenson’s writing is his over-reliance on quotations. Rather than quoting from a few choice sources to illuminate his own ideas, he offers lists of quotations in the belief that he is representing an era of history. At times this destroys the continuity of his own argument and makes the book read like Bartlett’s. I love a pithy quotation, but lists of them degenerate into meaninglessness.

There is an eccentric quality to the book that I am not sure what to make of. Swenson himself broadcasts his credentials as a medical doctor on the cover of the book, even though he left private practice to become, as he says, a “futurist” — a student of “the intersection of health, culture, faith, and the future.” Does he mean he sees himself as playing a prophetic role? I wasn’t sure. He certainly comes across as an isolated voice rather than part of any established community.

But at the same time, he offers some discerning biblical commentary, intriguing observation, and spiritual insight that I found useful and interesting. I just wish the book were less uneven. At the end, Swenson offers a series of prescriptions for restoring contentment. I will propose a counter-prescription in reply. My Rx for this book: make it into several books, each with a more narrowly defined, more fully developed focus. There are, maybe, some profound truths to be had here, but in their present form they were very difficult for me to grasp.

Quandary

Who does a Christian vote for in this election?

The two major party candidates seem desperately inadequate in both character and policy. I have been registered as a Republican for years, but the day after the nominee seemed determined, I changed to Independent. I’ve thought about it for some time, given how little real difference there is between the parties. But this clinched the deal.

Lately the prominent Republicans have been rallying around Mr Trump and demanding that the rank and file do the same. Even worse, prominent evangelicals have come out in support of him for months, despite how counter he is to their principles, and evangelicals voted him in in the primaries. Most recently appears this article interviewing Anne Graham Lotz, who has distressed me before, and who now does so again.  I find the rationale Ms Lotz gives for voting for Mr Trump troubling. She is not telling others whom to vote for, but her influence will no doubt sway some in the same direction. Her thinking reflects some of the reasoning that has brought us to this appalling pass.

In the first place, this vote runs counter to Ms Lotz’s major theme: the wrath of God. She has been proclaiming that God has abandoned America, is judging America, is mad at America, since at least 2009 when her claims first reached my ears. It’s no surprise when she espouses the view in this article, explaining, “I think legally, educationally, institutionally, governmentally — in so many ways, we are abandoning our faith in God, and we are abandoning God. And when you do, the Bible says God will back away from you and abandon you.” I have problems with this notion for several reasons (I developed them more in this post from 2009). One is that America has no reason to believe itself ever to have had special favor from God; he only ever declared one “chosen nation,” and it was not America — it was Israel. Another is that Jesus came and ended the era of God dealing with nations; now he deals with individuals “of every land.” A third is that Jesus explicitly promised never to leave or forsake his followers, and the Bible affirms this elsewhere with the assurance that God remains faithful even when we are not. Her position has real problems! But considering that it is her position that God is very angry at America for worldliness, how can she vote for Mr Trump? How can she use her influence to imply that this is a good decision? It boggles the mind.

Not surprisingly, she uses an Old Testament story to explain her rationale — specifically, she gives Nebuchadnezzar as an example of God working through an unbelieving king. The article quotes her this way: “‘If God can use Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel’s day — Daniel served under Nebuchadnezzar, and at the end, Nebuchadnezzar professed faith in the God of Daniel’ — then He can use Trump, too.”

dore's fiery furnace
Gustave Dore, The Fiery Furnace

There seem to be several errors here. One is that Nebuchadnezzar praises God not once, but several times in the account in the book of Daniel, yet he seems not to know what he’s doing. He has a pattern of acknowledging God’s greatness, then doing something to show he doesn’t understand at all — like erecting a huge monument to himself and demanding that everyone worship him, throwing God’s servants into the fire when they don’t. I am hard pressed to see him “profess faith” even after his bout of insanity. We certainly never see him govern as a believer in God.

Even more importantly, this discussion sidesteps the the obvious differences between a conquesting king and a democratic republic. The Israelites did not vote Nebuchadnezzar into office. They were a captive people! We have the freedom, and the serious responsibility, to vote wisely for our leaders. My vote is my personal endorsement of a person’s fitness for office, and my considered judgment that he will govern wisely. As  a Christian, I vote with the belief that the Holy Spirit dwells in me, so I am putting his stamp of approval on a candidate. The comparison to Nebuchadnezzar is apples and oranges in the sense that the people over whom he ruled had no choice. We do. The issue at hand is voting wisely, not leaping forward to a Trump presidency.

Mrs Lotz is quite cavalier about this responsibility. “Whoever is on the Republican side, I will vote for and pray for whoever that is,” she explains, substituting partisanship for judgment. The Republican platform has traditionally retained some positions on moral issues that Christians can get behind, but elected officials demonstrate very little loyalty to them. This is why the electorate is seething with such rancor against “the establishment” on the Republican side. What evidence is there that Mr Trump, an infant in his Republican affiliation after many years of liberal values and public stances, would be any different? But this may all be moot, as the Republican platform will be up for debate anyway at this year’s convention. It may lose even these few planks of distinctiveness from the Democrat party.

There can be little doubt that America is in increasing darkness spiritually, but it’s not because God is abandoning us or angry at us. It’s because many are deceived — including, grievously, many Christians. God says he will remain faithful even if his people are faithless. But that faithlessness leads naturally to consequences — in this case, moral blindness. I am tempted to blame the church, but it would be better to leave the blame where it belongs, with the one the Bible calls the enemy of our souls.

One thing I know: I will pray for whoever wins this election. But in the meantime, I am accountable for the vote I cast. It represents a real quandary. Likely I will write in a candidate I believe in rather than voting for either major party candidate. Some might say I am abdicating my responsibility because such a vote is not “strategic.” But nowhere do I see in the Bible a recommendation to be strategic — only to be truthful, and mindful that the God I have declared my allegiance to is both holy and loving. If either of these two candidates win, it will be a tragedy for the country. Neither of them will be getting my help.