I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Weekend God-Poll

Since we are in the election season and polls and public opinion are so crucial, I thought I might take a quick God-poll.

Would your opinion of God change if, in a booming voice from the heavens He declared:
"I am not real. I am just an idea, a symbol, an object of faith and worship. I only exist as thoughts and feelings in your mind."

Thursday, October 26, 2006

"Headliners", or "How bizarre can human beings actually be?"

Prisoners wed after peephole courtship
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Two prisoners in an Ivory Coast jail who courted and fell in love through a peephole in an iron door have been released for a few hours to get married, one of their jailers said Friday....

Obedient driver follows orders, crashes car
BERLIN (Reuters) - A German motorist followed the command "Turn right now!" from his navigation system and crashed into a small toilet hut by the side of the road -- about 30 yards before the crossing he was meant to take.
The overly obedient 53-year-old from Freiburg drove his sport utility vehicle off the road onto into a building site, up a stairway and into the small toilet shack, police in the eastern town of Rudolstadt said Sunday.
It caused 2,000 euros ($2,500) worth of damage to the stairway, 100 euros damage to his car, and he was also fined 35 euros.
Earlier this month an 80-year-old motorist also chose to follow his navigation system and ignored a "closed for construction" sign on a Hamburg motorway. He then crashed into a pile of sand but neither he nor his passenger were injured.

Ah, the start of my new life! But first...
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A man freed from jail in Belgium last Friday allegedly committed eight robberies before being arrested the next day, the national Belga news agency reported.

Fighting spirit saves retiree from attack
BERLIN (Reuters) - A 70-year-old British pensioner, trained in martial arts during his military service, dispatched a gang of four would-be muggers in a late-night attack in Germany...
The man, a native of Birmingham who now lives in Germany, was challenged by three men, demanding money, while a fourth crept up behind him. Recalling his training, the Briton grabbed the first assailant and threw him over his shoulder.
When a second man tried to kick him, the pensioner grabbed his foot and tipped him to the ground. At this point, the three men, thought to be aged between 18 and 25, fled, carrying their injured accomplice with them.
The pensioner, whose name was not immediately available, suffered light abrasions.

Austrian man separates from wife and ring finger
VIENNA (Reuters) - A Viennese man cut off his ring finger and presented the digit, still holding his wedding band, to his ex-wife after an acrimonious divorce, Austrian news agency APA reported Tuesday.
Charged with dangerous harassment and assault for the act, he told a preliminary hearing he did not regret having cut off the finger and had chosen deliberately not to reattach it.
"It was an act of breaking free," the man was quoted as saying. He did not miss his finger, could work well without it and did not plan on getting married again anyway, he said.

Science exam a test of love...
ACCRA (Reuters) - A 30-year-old Ghanaian man could be jailed for up to five years after writing his wife's paper in a science exam, police in the West African country said on Wednesday.

"Sexsomniacs" puzzle medical researchers
LONDON, Oct 25 (Reuters Life!) - Researchers are struggling to understand a rare medical condition where sufferers unknowingly demand, or actually have, sex while asleep, New Scientist magazine reported on Wednesday.
Research into sexsomnia -- making sexual advances toward another person while asleep -- has been hampered as sufferers are so embarrassed by the problem they tend not to own up to it, while doctors do not ask about it.
As yet there is no cure for the condition, which often leads to difficulties in relationships.
"It really bothers me that I can't control it," Lisa Mahoney told the magazine. "It scares me because I don't think it has anything to do with the partner. I don't want this foolish condition to hurt us in the long run."
Most researchers view sexsomnia as a variant of sleepwalking, where sufferers are stuck between sleep and wakefulness, though sexsomniacs tend to stay in bed rather than get up and walk about....

Want to diary your death? Ask online
LONDON, Oct 26 (Reuters Life) - With Halloween looming, 'tis the season to be morbid and people wishing to know their expiry date can indulge in some online trick-or-treating at websites which predict the date of their death.
"I'm sorry, but your time has expired! Have a nice day," says the "sadistic mode" on http://www.deathclock.com.
The site invites visitors to enter their date of birth, smoking habits, height, and weight in exchange for a pop-up ticker which counts down the seconds they have left...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Blogoneutics 101

Does "blogging" = "writing"?

Consider the case of writing. We write a text and then send it off to a publisher. The editors at the publishing house send back their recommendations, etc. and through a process of haggling and bartering that rivals even the shrewdest ancient Mesopotamian we arrive at a text that “satisfies” all. So, now the text goes to print.

Once a text is in print it is “out of the hands of the author.” I put that in quotes because it is a major hermeneutical debate as to what exactly it means that at text is “out of the hands of the author.” (Does this mean that the author is no longer important, dead, etc.??) But regardless of where one falls on this debate is unimportant. The important thing is to recognize that, in some way, the text is no longer under the author’s control. It has been cut loose. Let’s call this case “traditional writing.”

But this is not the case of a blogger: He or she can publish and then rewrite at any point. Or, if the blogger prefers not to change the original blog, they can always leave a comment that amends, modifies, or expands the thoughts of the original post. So, there is a sense in which the “text” is never out of the hands of the author.

But what is the blogger’s “text”?

One might be tempted to say that it is the original post – or the post after the blogger has modified it. But this is not entirely the case because any person – be they foolish or wise – can modify the “text” by leaving comments. The text, then, is not just the opening post, it is the post and any comments written. The post, of course, is probably the primary focal point that “controls” the discussion, but this is only a general rule. In many cases two argumentative commenters might inflame one another and begin a series of comments that have absolutely nothing to do with the original post and everything to do with proving which of the two of them is the smart one, which by default will reveal that the other party is, in fact, a fool.

Additionally, it may be that the original post sets the subject matter, but a much more insightful comment is made, which rightfully becomes the focus of the comments that follow. If I were to review a work of Anthony Thiselton, and he were to leave a comment I would gladly defer the focus of my post to Dr. Thiselton. (I would do so even if he were simply to say, “Hello, there. Jolly good post. Good day.”)

So, as we can see, the “text” becomes much more fluid than traditional writing. It can change, and remains a continual work in process up until the time a blogger would close down comments and dies….or just chooses to no longer alter the text. The point is that a blog is fluid and morphs in directions that one cannot quite predict.

And we have not even yet considered the “control” that a blogger has in that he or she can delete comments!

In the end, it seems as though blogging simultaneously connects and disconnects the author in a way that traditional writing cannot do. The text is never severed from the author in the way it is in traditional writing: the blogger can change the post or alter the text by adding a comment. But, at the same time, the text is at the mercy of a countless number of factors because it is open to comment. It is this openness that makes blogging something so unique that to we might not quite be able to call it “writing.” Maybe writing is only a part of what is happening on a blog.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Engaging the Needy

Matthew 25

31"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

I heard a good sermon today by Bryan Loritts on engaging the less fortunate. His main point, in summary, was that there is a profound connection between our engagement of the poor and our relationship with Jesus Christ. This, of course, is the essence of the above Matthew 25 passage.

Loritts began by poking fun a bit at today's "missions trips." You know the ones: We raise money and go to some cool foreign country - maybe even rough it a little bit and do some work for missionaries - and in the end it is really more like a vacation. It is kind of a part of the Christian culture these days, especially for teens. But Loritts' point was that this doesn't cut it in terms of really engaging the less fortunate, and we often find ourselves "stepping over" the less fortunate in our own community in order to be a so-called missionary for a week in another country.

Now, for my part I've always been skeptical of celebrities, politicians, and others who lay down the guilt trip about helping the poor. In most of these cases it just seems to me to be a facade or a power play. This is particularly true of politicians who use their appeal to the poor as a basis for winning our votes and thereby gaining political office. So, the politician for the poor may be concerned about the poor, or he/she may just be interested in getting into power. Since, as a general rule, I think that politicians are basically PR spin machines (empty suits with little substance) I find their appeals to "help the poor" to be a bit rhetorical.

Neither am I impressed by celebrities who often appear to me to be arrogant and condescending. In most cases they have spent too much time in the bright lights and their vision is cloudy. They present these doomsday scenarios and often portray the poor as mere victims of an unjust social machine, powerless to ever improve their lives. Only we, through the gracious and loving act of those wonderful celebrities, have the power to improve their lives. And, oh yes, here is the telephone number where you can call and give us your credit card number.

In short, the public appeals to my heart most often fall on deaf ears. I will admit wholeheartedly that I have a callous around my sould when I hear the know-it-all celebrity or the soon-to-be-powerful politician.

But that brings us back to the point by Loritts: What am I doing in my immediate vicinity? What am I doing in my immediate community? That is the question on which our eternal lives literally hang in the balance. I think synacism about the holier-than-thou politicians/celebrities is justified, but what do I do when I see a need?

I heard Donald Miller speak recently and he told about an "epiphany" experience. He was sitting on a bus and saw someone who obviously had extreme handicaps sitting a few seats ahead of him. The person has all kinds of issues that would make them completely undesirable including, as I remember, spit running down their chin. Don said that he thought to himself, "I should be humble enough to go sit by that person." But as soon as he had the thought he realized that he had just elevated himself above that "undesirable" person and created a hierarchy whereby he was more important than that other person. In other words, there is no situation when encountering our fellow man should be humbling. If it is "humbling" to associate with a person, it simply means that we have been already deceived into believing that we are better than another.

Jesus' point in Matthew 25 is not, I believe, to merely mobilize us into action. Action is good. However, I think the real emphasis in this passage is going at the motives and attitudes of the heart: Do we have the compassion and desire to serve. When that is in place then action follows, and this action becomes guided in the right direction. It is no longer a matter of serving just because it is the fashionable thing. It is not a trip overseas for a week of beaches and sun. It becomes a life-fascination and obsession to reach out beyond myself and truly engage with others. Others become a focus and I am the vehicle to serve.

The focus is on the needy. It is easy to sign up with a celebrity and send a check in the mail to make us feel good. It is the easy (and sometimes stupid) thing to vote for a politician thinking that he is going to aid the needy. Programs and organizations are great, but they are safe because they keep us at a distance from the real problem: We don't have to get our hands dirty. But the real question has to do with whether we reach out to those with whom we rub shoulders with everyday.

According to Jesus this issue is personal. To turn away those in need is to turn away Christ, himself. It is a an area of conviction for me, personally, and a huge challenge to our American Christian culture. It is not so much a matter of what I do (giving to the celebrity or voting for the politician), rather, it is a matter of what I do not do. Failing to have a heart of compassion for the needs that are all around me - in my immediate neighborhood, city and town - shows a lack of concern for Jesus, himself, and an utter and absolute failure to grasp his vision and heart.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Abstract Thoughts About God's Thoughts

It would seem that perfect adequacy is achieved only in the immediate, pre-linguistic presence of my thought to itself. But Derrida argues that there is no such pure presence of thoughts to the self. All thought is mediated through language and can never attain the total clarity of pure presence to the self. There is always a difference between what is thought (or experienced or said or written) and the ideal of pure, self-identical meaning.

Page 868 of The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy 2nd Edition Gary Gutting

Is God “pure presence to the self”? Is he “pure, self-identical meaning”?

Does God think in language? If God does not think in language, then does God “think,” at all?

James K.A. Smith "Limited Inc/arnation"

James K.A. Smith attempts in his essay “Limited Inc/arnation” to engage Derrida and suggests that some of Derrida’s concepts may be useful for a Christian hermeneutic. This, of course, is a very bold move!

Smith states his intentions at the outset:
I will demonstrate (1) that Derrida’s account of the “iterability” of the sign is consistent with the finitude of a good creation, and (2) that Derrida’s account does not jettison the role of authorial intent, but only mitigates the power of the author to “govern” all interpretations. (113)

Smith claims that Derrida has been misread. Rather than claiming that seeking authorial intent is irrelevant, Smith proposes that Derrida (through his notion of “iterability” and “context”) is primarily pointing out the risk involved in communication. Derrida’s notions of “iterability” and “context” ultimately reveal that the text becomes “unhitched” from its original context. (See my more detailed review for more on “iterability” and “context”)

Smith has great respect for Authorship and states at the outset of his essay that this is an issue that must be seriously engaged within the Christian tradition. What Smith does throughout the essay is to situate the determination of authorial intent within the Christian community under the guide of the Holy Spirit. In this way, the hermeneutical question is a community question as much as it is an appeal to the mysterious concept of “authorial intent.”

My primary response to Smith’s essay is to applaud. It is truly important to engage the perspective of Derrida. Regardless of one’s conclusion on the value of Derrida it seems, to me, to be of great value to give him a reading rather than merely fixing a label on him and allowing the issue to drop out of sight and out of mind.

But if we agree with Smith on his more mild construction of Derrida, then what are the real consequences for hermeneutics? In other words, if we alter the “received” Derrida tradition, then what contribution is made with the softer Derrida? What is so impressive?

In answering this question it would seem to me that Derrida’s contribution lies in his emphasis on the unstable nature of communication. Writing and language is risky business, and for Derrida this seems to be the point of emphasis. Perhaps in the past biblical interpretation has been somewhat na├»ve about interpretation and has tended to view interpretation for its stability rather than its instability: To view language as something more fixed and scientific, rather than viewing it as fluid and artistic. Hence, in this sense Derrida (and others who stand with him in a loose collective of the philosophical hermeneutics tradition) proves to be a corrective.

Additionally, even with this so-called “softer” Derrida, there is still much for Christian interpreters to gripe about. For example, if we “unhitch” the text from authorial intent and situate interpretation in the community, then how do we ever actually recover the authors intent or ever actually fix or find the meaning.

Smith, himself raises this question, but the answer, I think, on a Derridean account is unclear. On Smith’s account there is an appeal to the community and to the Holy Spirit’s work in the community. This is the “fixer” of meaning. However, for those looking for something more “stable” this essay will not suffice. Again, this goes back to the issue of the extent to which we view language as stable or unstable – fixed or fluid. Above all, Smith via Derrida in this essay want to dispel the illusion that “authorial intent” are magic words that fix meaning. Put another way, Smith/Derrida warn against construing fixed formulas that guarantee the stability of language and hence the stability of interpretation. Interpretation is difficult because signs, writing, and language are themselves unstable.

Although being in agreement with this point, I would offer up the fact that “authorial intent” nonetheless must always remain a goal of interpretation, at least in most cases. As I have mentioned before there are certainly texts in which authorial intent may be less important (certain poetic or prophetic texts, perhaps), but authorial intent will always be important, if not critical to biblical interpretation. On this Smith would agree – at least he seems to in his opening paragraphs. So, if “authorial intent” is not a magic formula, it is, at least, a goal and still one of the important staples of interpretation.

Lastly, I think that by insisting that biblical interpretation be situated more in the community we are doing interpretation a great favor. Community determination will, of necessity, take on greater dialogue. And this dialogue, if it is to be truly productive as any dialogue should be, must be both stimulating and generous at the same time. It must be challenging as well as charitable, it must be rigorous while maintaining humility. This type of dialogue will carry with it uncertainties and unrest, but if it is successful it has enormous potential for interpretive stimulation. And, I think, it is this kind of dialogue and stimulation that will move us closer to our stated goals of interpretation, including that of “authorial intent.”

To view a more expanded form of my attempt to discern the authorial intention of Smith's essay please go to: http://erdman31.googlepages.com/Smith-LimitedIncarnation.pdf

Citation: James K.A. Smith, “Limited Inc/arnation” in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, James K.A. Smith, and Bruce Ellis Benson (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006).

Other essays reviewed in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads:
Bruce Ellis Benson "The Improvisation of Hermeneutics"
James K.A. Smith "Limited Inc/arnation"
Kevin Vanhoozer "Discourse on Matter"
Nicholas Wolterstorff "Resuscitating the Author"

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

When faith won't release you

In C.S. Lewis' book The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape is a tempter who is the uncle and mentor to another tempter named "Wormwood." Screwtape writes to him the following advice on dealing with Wormwood's human "patient," i.e. how to keep him away from God, the Kingdom, and Church. God, in this context, is the "enemy" spoken of by Screwtape, and the discussion is how to deal with humans when they go through "trough" periods - periods of emotional and spiritual dryness....

He [God, the enemy] cannot tempt to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk, and must therefore take away his hand. And if only the will to walk is really there he is pleased even with their stumbles.

Do not be deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our enemy's will looks round upon the universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished and asks why he has been forsaken: and still obeys...
[C.S. Lewis Screwtape Letters]

My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?
- Jesus

The most mysterious thing about faith that I have discovered thus far in my life is how faith can hold on to God and continue in humility and obedience when all incentives are stripped away, and when the feelings of God's presence have vanished. Faith, in these cases seems to continue despite God: A stubborn refusal to relinquish faith and to remain steadfast. What is the basis for such faith? It transcends rational explanation. It is a conviction that comes from the deepest part of the soul, and dominates and permeates all aspects of our being. It is a faith that does not have the ability to be non-faith. It is as though one could not do otherwise. Even though the faithful one would like to let go and be relieved of this burden, their faith is too strong - it is compelling them and they cannot do otherwise. It holds on without reason. It is intangible and mysterious. And many of us will never encounter it.

To some they would see a faith that is shaky and faltering. The doubts are plaguing the mind and heart, and yet faith holds. It seems to those watching, and even to the person themselves, that such faith is faltering. But it is not faltering. Despite the doubts and turmoil the faith is actually solidifying - growing strong like a rock, or a tree whose roots spread out wide across the land and deep into the soil of the ground.

Should we even begin to speak of Job? Job's faith persisted despite the fact that God, himself was the enemy. Job was crushed by God. When Job desired a reason for his pain God only overwhelmed him. "I will question you and you will answer me." (Job 38:3) Rather than provide Job with peace and blessed assurance God only made Job tremble and say, "I despise myself." (Job 42:6) How does faith hold on when the object of faith is also the source of pain?

I have no desire for a Job-like faith. I would have to relinquish too much. Give too much. Fight too much. And, quite frankly, I don't know if I have what it takes. No one knows, of course, until they feel God's hand pressing them down. Few of us ever have to encounter this, though. So, it is easy enough to just live life.

But what Job gained was priceless. It was one of the most rare glimpse of pure faith that a human mortal can achieve. Job's faith in God shifted from a Job-centered perspective to a God-centered view, and this shift was complete. Job has no reason and nothing to gain by holding to his faith: "Curse God and die!" he was told. What a bizarre kind of faith that still holds on??? To hold on to the object of faith when the object of faith is the oppressor: I marvel at this.

My faith has been built in large part over the years on reasons, but what would keep me walking the faith when these reasons are painfully peeled away? This is the mystery.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Strange News

Pablo Picasso's "dream" painting has turned into a $139 million nightmare

Pablo Picasso's "dream" painting has turned into a $139 million nightmare for Steve Wynn.
In an accident witnessed by a group that included Barbara Walters and screenwriters Nora Ephron and Nicholas Pileggi, Wynn accidentally poked a hole in Picasso's 74-year-old painting, "Le Reve," French for "The Dream."
A day earlier, Wynn had finalized a record $139 million deal for the painting of Picasso's mistress, Wynn told The New Yorker magazine
The accident occurred as a gesturing Wynn, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease that affects peripheral vision, struck the painting with his right elbow, leaving a hole the size of a silver dollar in the left forearm of Marie-Theresa Walter, Picasso's 21-year-old mistress.
"Oh shit, look what I've done," Wynn said, according to Ephron, who gave her account in a blog published on Monday.
Wynn paid $48.4 million for the Picasso in 1997 and had agreed to sell it to art collector Steven Cohen. The $139 million would have been $4 million higher than the previous high for a work of art, according to The New Yorker.
Cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder paid $135 million in July for Gustav Klimt's 1907 portrait "Adele Bloch-Bauer I."
Wynn plans to restore "Le Reve" and keep it.

Diamonds are icing on $20 million wedding cake

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A confection billed as the most expensive wedding cake in the world makes its debut on Monday night in Beverly Hills, but is likely to cause indigestion.
The extravagant $20 million diamond-studded wedding cake, created by Mimi So Jewelers and cake designer Nahid La Patisserie Artistique, is the star attraction of the Luxury Brands Bridal Show and will be unveiled on exclusive Rodeo Drive.
"Where else would you debut a $20 million wedding cake but on Rodeo Drive?" said show organizer Ilona Sherman.
The cake is protected by a team of uniformed security guards at all times, she said. And there's no way it will ever be eaten.
"I think diamonds are too hard on the stomach," Sherman said.

and more on marriage...

Rush to marry ends in tragedy
KARACHI (Reuters) - A Pakistani man has committed suicide outside his fiancee's home after he thought he accidentally killed her while trying to persuade her to get married early, police said Saturday.
The man, Ahmed Ashraf, was shooting a gun in the air outside his fiancee's home in the southern city of Karachi on Friday as part of his efforts to persuade her to get married two months early when a stray bullet accidently hit her, police said.
"He was so eager to get married he stood in front of his fiancee's house and started firing shots in the air to catch her attention," said investigating officer Ghulam Hussain.
The young woman was coming downstairs when a bullet ricocheted off a wall and hit her. She fell down screaming "I have been shot," Hussain said.
"He thought he had killed her and within seconds shot himself. The girl is fine," Hussain said.
"It is a tragic accident. They were engaged to be married with their parents' consent on December 25. He was insisting they get married earlier."
Ashraf had told his fiancee, Naureen, he would do something drastic if she didn't agree to get married straight away. The woman insisted the marriage date had already been set and there was no need to hurry, Hussain said.

Home sweet home meet the chocolate igloo

PERUGIA, Italy (Reuters) - Four Italians have constructed what they believe is the world's first full-sized chocolate igloo but they have yet to solve an age-old problem.
It still melts.
"It was a tough thing to do, much more difficult than building a normal snow igloo," Marco Fanti, 45, who used to race cars in desert rallies, told Reuters as he stood beside the 1.65-metre-high, dome-shaped traditional Inuit shelter made of some 330 dark chocolate bricks.
Fanti and fellow instructors at a survival school took 23 hours working with tricky, crumbling chocolate material to construct what they believe to be the world's first chocolate igloo for the Eurochocolate fair in Perugia.
They normally build one made of snow, for survival courses, within three to four hours.
Fanti said it has yet to be decided what to do with the 3.6- tonne igloo -- which is kept indoors and will start melting at above 30 C -- when the fair ends on Oct 22.

"Recognizing" Truth

Sometimes when we hear intellectual truth we recognize it at on a non-intellectual level. The truth "impacts" us with a certain force. This is particularly true with spiritual truths. For example, when someone tells us about certain aspects of the Creator God (his power and knowledge, his sovereignty or his love, and the Savior who came to die) we have the capacity to "feel" these truths. So, we may intellectually understand them and put our rational stamp of approval on them, but underneath the surface there is a sort-of spiritual frenzy going on. Not only are we understanding these truths, intellectually, but we are also absorbing them into our lives.

A simple example of this comes from the sermon I heard last Sunday. If a man is in love with a woman, he believes certain truths about his lover. Her eyes are blue, she has certain interesting characteristics, and she has a certain sense of humor. These are all "true" on a propositional level. However, for a man in love these truths have become absorbed into the deepest fabric of his being such that he does not have the ability to speak of such truths in a purely intellectual way. In fact, it is very likely that he may never have been able to intellectually and objectively analyize these truths about his lover. In the (very strange) case of love, truths are recognized on a non-intellectual level. So it is with spiritual truths.

On the other hand, of course, it is possible to merely give an intellectual nod to truth without absorbing truth in the way described above. The man who is not in love with the woman can intellectually describe certain truths about her in a detached, objective manner. Similarly, those who have never truly encountered God or never opened themselves up to the sense of divinity in the world may intellectually describe God and rationally believe in him. The degree to which we absorb truth may not be the same.

I point all this out to simply say that truth can be recognized on a non-intellectual level. We can experience truth. I believe that this implies that truth is greater than simply a correspondence between proposition and reality. In short, truth is more than intellectual/rational/objective. It is certainly all of these things, but I think it is more.

In speaking to Pilate Jesus said that "everyone of the truth hears me." (John 18:37) What does it mean to be "of" the truth?

I take this passage back to John chapter eight where Jesus accuses the religious leaders of being children of the devil, and it is the devil who "has no truth in him." (vs. 44) Now, it seems absurd to say that the devil has no knowledge of intellectual truth. It is the mark of the best liars that they know propositional truths so well that they can bend them and twist them any number of ways to suite them. Rather, it seems as though the devil has "no truth in him" because he stands in direct opposition to "the way, the truth, and the life," (John 14:6) which is Jesus, himself.

Hence, I think we recognize truth on a non-intellectual level because "truth" has much to do with our spiritual situation in relation to Christ and the Creator. It is as much a matter of our spiritual situation to Christ as it is our possession of propositional truth. I think the fact that we can recognize truth on a non-intellectual level is one clue that points this out.

[See my Aletheia Project for more essays and thoughts on truth.]
Illustration: Jesus before Pilate by Tintoretto

Monday, October 16, 2006

Savior, Madness, Heartache

You sit there in your heartache
Waitin’ on some beautiful boy to
Save you from your old ways
You play forgiveness
Watch it now, here he come
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But he talks like a gentleman
Like you imagined
When you were young

We’re burnin’ down the highway skyline
On the back of a hurricane that started turnin’
When you were young

They say the devil’s water it ain’t so sweet
You don’t have to drink right now
But you can dip your feet
Every once in a little while
- from “When you were young” The Killers

God’s grace saves us from our sins. His blood atones for our past, our present, and our future. But can Jesus save us from heartache? Is the Savior also a hero? Can he rescue and carry us away in the sunset?…
It is one thing to say that sins are forgiven. It is another to “go and sin no more.” Personal sin is heartache and madness. Heartache presses itself upon us so heavy that we have no choice. Who chooses for us when the choice isn’t ours?…
Can the Messiah grant eternal life and also save us from ourselves? From self-destruction, addiction, sorrow, depression, despair, and the madness that drives us and pushes us – like the incessant beating of drums that is driving and driving, driving and pushing. Uncontrolled. We don’t even know. We don’t even know the drums exist. Can the Messiah deliver us from the drums? Can he save us from heartache?…
I am driven by evil. But I cannot see it. I am driven and blind. It just drives on…
What is the benefit of salvation from the external punishment of our sins if hell resides within us? This hell is maddening and deafening, and when madness deafens us all we hear is heartache. Can Jesus save us from heartache? Have we ever really believed that he could? Have we believed enough to risk?…
But it is a terrible choice to make: to open. The state of the vulnerable. It is greater than any other. Much better to embrace the arms of a stranger. Much better to drowned in addiction. These we can understand. We know where they go. We know what they deliver and we can live under the delusion that they will never extract their awful payment. There is less at stake than there would be to embrace the Savior. Pain awaits at the end of embracing our heartache…
But what if we embrace the Savior? What if we open our hearts? This kind of openness isn’t required when we embrace our heartache. But it is required if the Savior is to save us from our inner madness…
But what if the Savior fails? That is something we cannot bear. The Savior is the last symbol of hope in a world of madness. We want to hold out hope that the Savior saves some, even if he hasn’t saved us from heartache: the pastor and his pretty wife, the well-groomed young man handing out bulletins at the front of the church, the lady of many years who still makes cakes for the church social. Jesus has surely saved them from madness. There is hope for some, but not for me. Jesus is only a symbol for me: a Savior symbol. Saving others from heartache and madness, and maybe even saving me from my sins – but not from the heartache and madness inside.
Can we be saved from ourselves?
Where is my Savior, and is he only a symbol?

I am a wretched one. Who will save me from this body of death? (Romans 7)

Friday, October 13, 2006

Going Post(al) Modern

Fight Club centers on the solitary life of a lonely individual. Our hero is played by Edward Norton. His job is mundane, and his life outside of work is little better. His only "thing" is the stuff he buys for his apartment: designer items he selects with the greatest of care. His humdrum existence is interupted by the charismatic "Tyler."

Tyler is a sado-masochistic anarchist plotting to destroy civilization. He has vision and the energy to carry it out. People respond to him. People feed off of his passion, not the least of which is our hero who has found an inspiration to escape his monotony.

Together, the pair builds an army of disenfranchised young men looking for something greater than themselves. Eventually, as the plot unfolds we find that our hero and Tyler are actually one and the same person. It is a multiple-personality disorder to the extreme.

One thing that fascinates me about this movie is that the main character (played by Edward Norton, left) is so deeply divided. He is, at the same time, in love with all of his material possessions and, on a deeper level, desiring to blow it all up. He cannot, of course, blow it up, but this desire to escape his routine existence and participate in something bigger is so great that it actually causes a rift in his psyche and creates another personality. This personality can get rid of his stuff and pull him into something greater. But this is someone outside of himself, even if the person is a creation out of our hero's own imagination.

Is it too great of a stretch to make a comparison with our post-modern generation? We were born as consumers and have been programmed to respond to the marketing campaigns all bidding for our dollars. And we love our stuff: ipods, laptops, cars, clothes, movies, music. It's all great. But for all its greatness it locks us in. We, like the Fight Club character, become servants of our stuff, at least to some degree. Our interests become split. Perhaps we could even say that in our day people display the same personality split: Hanging on to our material possessions and the desire for something bigger and greater than ourselves.

So, in some sense today's person seems spiritually schitzophrenic: a post(al) modern character on the brink of utter destruction. Desiring to completely demolish his own civilization and yet unable to do so until someone from the outside intervenes. There is a cost to this destruction. And the Edward Norton character is unable to pay the cost. Only "Tyler" can make this happen.

I wonder if we are ready to pay the cost, spiritually. We can dabble in spirituality - meditation, reading, charitable giving, even prayer - but have we truly reached out for something greater to the degree that we have sacrificed everything.

The Fight Club character eventually must demolish his own house with all of the things he has so carefully selected. He must, in the end, completely disconnect from his previous life in order to achieve something greater. He must sacrifice.

The Kingdom is like that. Only those who have completely blown up their "stuff" can truly taste it. The "stuff" is whatever our old self holds on to. Whatever it is that we are depending upon for our survival. Whatever our crutch is that we lean on to get through the monotony and apathy of our lives. And that isn't easy, because it's a matter of survival. We must, quite literally, risk our lives. Do we need a "Tyler"? Someone from the outside? A Savior, perhaps?

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
(Matthew 13)

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Traditionally discipleship has focused upon two areas—knowledge and skills. Churches have poured enormous energy into communicating knowledge about God through preaching, classes, and small groups. In recent years an increasing number of voices have challenged the effectiveness of information based discipleship. That has resulted in churches shifting their focus to skill driven formation—“how to” have a healthy marriage, share the gospel, or parent difficult teenagers.
However, knowledge and skill based models, while necessary components of spiritual formation, both miss the imaginative aspect of the human spirit. And by ignoring the intuitive capacity of the mind the church has essentially surrendered people’s imaginations to the pop secular culture without a fight....
Without significant re-cultivation and sanctification of the imagination, aided by God’s Spirit, a disciple will be incapable of weeding out sin and living obediently. Oswald Chambers understood this reality. He knew that if “your imagination of God is starved then when you come up against difficulties, you have no power, you can only endure in darkness.”

I think there is a distinction in this post between "transference" and "imagination."
Discipleship that focuses on transference will primarily busy itself with transfering doctrines or life-skills (the above quote calls these the "how-to's"). Nothing wrong with transference, in and of itself. It is good.

The problem, as I see it, is the neglect of engaging each other in a struggle of imagination. Only in the struggle can such doctrines and how-to's become relevant. It is one thing to simply absord the transfer of knowledge, but another thing altogether to struggle through what this means for me in my stream of life.

An example: To rationally ascent to the doctrine that God knows everything is one thing. To live my life with the knowledge that God's eye pierces into the deepest recesses of my soul....well, that's quite another thing. Much safer to just have a doctrine that I "believe" than to live my life with a feeling that I am saturated by the presence of God: that would be dangerous...

Monday, October 09, 2006

Reason, Lewis, and the faith

Screwtape, an evil demon who is the uncle and mentor to another demon named "Wormwood" writes to him the following advice on how to deal with Wormwood's human "patient," i.e. how to keep him away from God, the Kingdom, and Church:

Are you not being a triffel naive? It sounds as if you suppose that argument was the way to keep him out of the enemies clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time humans pretty well knew when a thing was proved and when it was not. And if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as a result of the chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we've largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily true or false but as "academic" or "practical" "outworn" or "contemporary," "conventional" or "ruthless," jargon, not argument is your best allie in keeping him away from the church...The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the enemies own ground...By the very act of arguing you awake the patient's reason, and once it is awakened who can foresee the result. Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favor, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fateal habit of attending to universal things and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it "real life" and don't let him ask what he means by "real."....
[From chapter 1 of The Screwtape Letters]

There are a lot of interesting things in the above quote by Lewis, but one thing that strikes me is the statement that people do not connect thinking with doing, or at least they do not do so anymore: "Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head."

Now, if that was true in Lewis' day 70 years or so ago, then it is all the more true these days. In fact, it is no longer even a revelation to say so. It is the fashion these days to kind of pick and chose which beliefs to accept from a religion or philosophy and which ones are not so desirable. The illustration of the food buffet-line is often used. We go through and pick what we want and leave what we don't want. I think it is for this reason that religions today, in an attempt to take advantage of our consumer oriented culture, put their best food forward and emphasize the best of their beliefs. With Christianity, of course, we've got a lot going for us. In my opinion, we are the best deal out there!

But I digress...this quote of Lewis' also brings up the question of evangelism and apologetics: Do we make an appeal to people's reason? Or do we seek other ground, since our culture is suspicious of reason? If reason is not in fashion these days, do we let it slide and appeal to other things: community, personal healing, etc.???

In this post-modern era many are Christians critical of reason. On the other hand there are many Christians who believe that reason still rules the roost. And so the debate goes on.

For Lewis it is evident that he believes that reason is a positive appeal. The "very act of argument" is the playing field of the Christian faith. This is so much the case, says Lewis here, that even if a particular argument does not convince the unbeliever it still moves their mind on to "universal things" rather than "the stream of immediate sense experiences." So, in this sense, even when a Christian fails to convince a non-believer there is still a victory because the mind and heart have been turned to spiritual thoughts and away from the temporality of this world.

Although I have gone back and forth in my mind about the use of reason and argument and its affectiveness, I've never completely abandoned it. I think that in some way human beings are rational beings. We seem to have been born with an internal sense that things should make sense. That things ought to be coherent. The fact that things are not coherent and do not always make sense is no major rap against reason. At least I don't think so. It simply means that reason is limited and subject to frustration.

Even more so, to discover that things do not make sense is not even new to post-modern thought. In some ways it seems to be a re-discovery of an ancient theme. One of the major gripes of Qohelet (the voice of the book of Ecclesiastes) is that things should make more sense than they do: the good should be happy, the evil people should live bad lives, and people should get what they deserve. Things ought to be a certain way, but often they are not.

Perhaps Lewis is on to something and we need, in this culture of anti-reason, to imploy the use of the argument. After all, the human being is a whole person, and to deny the rational side of personhood seems to be as dangerous as to elevate reason higher than it was meant to be.

Friday, October 06, 2006

South Park - Losing touch with the real world

I watched the season premiere of South Park on Wednesday night.

The boys of South Park are all excited because of a new online battle video game called Warcraft. Unfortunately there is a middle-aged man out there who has dominated the game to such a degree that no one can make any progress. This is a concern for the makers of the game because everyone will quit playing as they get discouraged by their lack of progress.

Cartman, however, develops a scheme whereby they can get enough experience points to defeat this middle-aged man. However, it will require hours on end of dedication to the game. Cartman is ready to go, but the other boys balk. Finally Cartman convinces them by saying, "You can stay out here and play in the sun, or you can get to the computer and do something that really matters!"

The boys all get on board and in the end all their hours and days on end of playing the game pay off when they defeat the middle-aged man. In the process of playing, however, their bodies get deformed: They gain weight and develop grotesque acne on their faces. Doing something that matters has a price!

Now, initially we would be critical of such an endeavor. Have the boys really done something that "matters"? All the time they spent was simply in a fantasy world. They are impacting an game that is on the internet: an artificial world - a created reality. The internet isn't real, right? So what the boys did doesn't matter, right?

For the boys we can understand. I mean, after all, they're just kids. But what about the unemployed, middle aged man living with his mother who plays the game for 20 some hours a day. That's the dude that we are going to be hardest on, right? I mean, what is he really doing with his life that "matters"?

But before we condemn the middle-aged guy, what about the career-man who works for 18 hours a day? Has he done something that matters? What if he's doing it for God? Does it matter that he has disconnected himself from anything outside of his office?

One might say that the career-guy is superior because he is in the real world. Ok, then what about if we go home at night and disconnect from the real world by losing ourselves in a novel for a few hours every night? Is this an illegitimate activity? I mean, when I'm into a good novel I am absolutely gone - my mind is in an artificial fantasy world. Is this any different than the middle-aged guy playing Warcraft?

What do you do to lose yourself? Don't we all have fantasy worlds to escape the real world? Books, television, the internet, music, and the list goes on....

I have to hand it to the middle-aged South Park character, at least he had passion. He certainly had commitment. I have a problem with how he was channeling his passion, but I'm sure he had his reasons. Without anything going for him in the real world, why not make a go of it on the internet? In Warcraft he has managed to manufacture some small amount of success and pleasure. He has accomplished something here in his fantasy world. To him that is what really "matters."

From our perspective here "under the sun" it seems difficult to really condemn the guy. But from God's perspective things may be different....

Thursday, October 05, 2006

An engagement with Nicholas Wolterstorff "Resuscitating the Author"

Nicholas Wolterstorff
“Resuscitating the Author”
Hermeneutics at the Crossroads
Chapter 2, Pages 35-50

Resuscitating the author, while rejecting “authorial intent”

Wolterstorff begins by distancing himself from the text and drawing closer to the author of the text:

My claim will be that...most of the time all of us practice one, that is basic to almost all other kinds of interpretation, and that this kind of interpretation, rather than consisting at bottom of things done to an artifact, consists of an engagement with a person, which is mediated by the artifact. (36)

This move by Wolterstorff sets the tone for the essay. He is critical of the move by Gadamer and those subsequent to Gadamer who moved away from the author. He speaks of this as hermeneutical “orthodoxy,” which Wolterstorff notes was reactionary:

The orthodoxy in question arose as a reaction to the view that the interpretation of texts is at bottom an engagement with the person who authored the text, in that way, my view is a recovery of what preceded the formation of orthodoxy. But I join with orthodoxy in rejecting what the pre-orthodox said it was that we try to discover and understand when we interpret; that is to say, I hold that our mode of engagement with the author, when we interpret, is different from the pre-orthodox thought it was. They held that its goal is to get at the authorizer’s intention; I hold that its goal is to get at what the authorizer said. Those two, I argue, are not to be identified with each other. (36-37)

Wolterstorff’s first move – to recover the author (“an engagement with a person”) – seems clear enough, particularly throughout the essay as he criticizes the hermeneutics that has moved away from the author and into the text. But it is much more difficult to discern what Wolterstorff means when differentiates “the authorizer’s intentions” and “what the authorizer said.” Wolterstorff criticizes those who seek “the authorizer’s intentions.” But if Wolterstorff moves away from “intentions,” isn’t he moving away from the author, at least in some way? From Wolterstorff’s essay it is difficult to see how he can criticize a focus on authorial intent and at the same time can speak of interpretation as “an engagement with a person.” We will see, later, how Wolterstorff brings this together.

Criticism of “hermeneutic orthodoxy”

Wolterstorff then criticizes those who move away from the author and towards a focus upon the text, itself. He describes the move away from the author and towards the text as “hermeneutic orthodoxy”:

What is it, according to the hermeneutic orthodoxy of the latter half of the twentieth century, that the interpreter should aim at?…interpretation deals with texts rather than persons…the meaning, or the sense, of the textTextual-sense interpretation, as I call it, has been the orthodoxy of pre-deconstructionist twentieth-century interpretation theory…(italics belong to the author) (38)

That which one understands, when one understands a text, is not “a repetition of something past” but “a present meaning” shared between author and interpreter. It is, if you will, an ever-present meaning. (39)

It is not really a relationship between persons, between the reader and the author (who is, perhaps quite unknown), but about sharing in what the text shares with us. (40)

For Ricoeur, as for Gadamer, the central goal of interpretation is to identify and grasp the meanings of the sentences of the text…we can just as well say that the goal of interpretation is to identify and grasp the propositional content of the illocutionary act. (41)

Wolterstorff then levels his major charge against those who detach the text from the author:

If we insist on leaving authors out of the picture, and taking the text in itself as the object of interpretation, then I think textual-sense interpretation cannot but give way to performance interpretation; there is no way to stop the slide. (46)

Wolterstorff explains that “performance interpretation” is what happens when “one imagines what some French writer of the early twentieth century might have meant had he produced the text of Don Quixote…what some writer of Kantian persuasion might have meant had he produced the text of the Prologue of John’s Gospel…” (46)

But this is a point that I am not entirely clear on. How is it that a move to the text, as Wolterstorff has described of Gadamer, can give way to this sort-of radicalization. Wolterstorff clearly seems to be presenting some form of the “slippery slope” argument, but he is not as clear as to how a focus on the text takes us down this slippery slope.

(The thing about slippery slope arguments is that one must clearly demonstrate the how a position takes one down the slope, and cannot merely assert that such is the case. After all, if we all began to use the slippery slope argument without substantiation this would take us down a slippery slope, indeed!)

The point is simply that I did not find Wolterstorff convincing that the hermeneutic of Gadamer/Ricoeur would take us into the so-called “performance interpretation.”

Wolterstorff’s alternative: “Authorial Discourse Interpretation”

Wolterstorff is now ready to focus on his alternative to “authorial intent” and “hermeneutic orthodoxy”:

My contention is that none of us practices performance interpretation most of the time…46
The mode of interpretation that most of us practice most of the time is that which Derrida is calling for on the part of those who interpret his writings. I call it authorial discourse interpretation. In authorial discourse interpretation one seeks to identify and grasp the illocutionary acts that the authorizer of the text performed by inscribing, or in some other way authorizing, the words that one is interpreting. (italics belong to the author) (47)

So, Wolterstorff’s alternative is “authorial discourse interpretation.” This is intimately tied to the illocutionary acts. What are these “illocutionary acts”? Wolterstorff does not really explain in this essay, and there is a bit of ambiguity as to the precise nature of an illocutionary act. However, it would have aided Wolterstorff’s essay immensely to define how he is using the term illocutionary act, since to my knowledge there is still some ambiguity attached to this term and it has been used with slightly different nuance in varying contexts.

By outlining his authorial discourse interpretation Wolterstorff wants to distance himself from “hermeneutic orthodoxy” while at the same time avoiding the “pre-orthodoxy” mistake of focusing strictly on authorial intent.

But despite his distance from authorial intent, Wolterstorff does make one qualification on authorial intent:

These observations lead me to attach an explanatory qualification to my main thesis, however. Sometimes, when it is clear to us that what the author said is not what he intended to say, our interest is more in what he intended to say than on what he did say. (48-49)

In his conclusion, Wolterstorff takes note of what he believes are ethical implications of interpretation:

My account of interpretation has important ethical implications. If the interpretation that most of us perform most of the time consists of engaging a person rather than just doing something to an artifact, then the issue arises of whether we have engaged that person justly, charitably, honorably, and the like. (49)

There do certainly seem to be ethical implications to Wolterstorff’s theory of interpretation, but this seems to be the case only if we tie the text so close to the author that a violation of the text represents a violation of the author of the text. But surely this cannot always be the case. A person who, unwittingly misunderstands and thus misrepresents my writing does not seem to be violating any higher order moral value. And perhaps it is for this reason that Wolterstorff speaks of acting “charitably” or “honorably.” Rather than having an ethical obligation to interpret correctly, it would seem the ethical obligation is to simply do one’s best to interpret. But does the author have a similar obligation in communicating? What if an author has not done his or her best to communicate? In my opinion it may get complicated to start to assign ethical obligations to readers and authors. This is not a reason to shy away from it, however, because most of the time the assignment of ethical obligations gets complicated!

Engaging Wolterstorff: What is the issue? The author and the text.

What emerges from this insightful essay of Wolterstorff’s are questions of interpretation. More specifically, the questions center on how closely the text is tied to the author. On the one hand, it seems clear that once the text is written it is detached, in some way, from the author. The author can no longer control it. The author will even be physically detached from his or her text. (Especially if said author is deceased.) The text may even undergo revisions and translations that alter it in insubstantial ways. Furthermore, the author may not even completely understand the text after having written it. Imagine authoring a text at the age of 18 and then revisiting the text 50 years later. Would the author recognize his or her work, anymore? Would they be able to “transport” themselves back 50 years into their mind-set and be able to discern their “intentions.” In all likelihood they would not!

Furthermore, imagine a scenario in which an author pens a powerful and insightful text and does so with great thought and care. Because it is such an original and penetrating text it is studied for generations on end by the brilliant scholars of each age. Is it not conceivable in this scenario that those who study it in later generations might have a better understanding of the text than the author? Perhaps those of later generations would be able to detect nuances and subtleties that the author missed? Or perhaps they would better understand the historical situation of the text even better than the author?

But we can even move this scenario into everyday life. If a child writes a summary of the days events in their diary would it really be so inconceivable that an insightful parent might not better understand the text than the child, themselves? Is it inconceivable that someone more familiar with the issues I am raising in this text might better understand it than myself, its author?

For all of the above reasons it seems as though the text exists as its own entity. Readers can take ownership of it and, to some degree, it becomes their playground. However, does this mean that we can completely detach the text from the author? I think not. As I review my own text above I note that in one place I state in parentheses that “Italics belong to the author.” Why do we do this if not for the fact that at some level we recognize that the text is a creation, and that every creation has a creator.

God created. He created his world. But his world is now detached. Perhaps in some way this mirrors the fact that every text belongs to the creative ingenuity of the author and yet the author must relinquish the text. The text becomes its own, and yet it always remains a created entity, a creation of the author.

Citation:Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Resuscitating the Author” in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, James K.A. Smith, and Bruce Ellis Benson (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006).

Other essays reviewed in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads:
Bruce Ellis Benson "The Improvisation of Hermeneutics"
James K.A. Smith "Limited Inc/arnation"
Kevin Vanhoozer "Discourse on Matter"
Nicholas Wolterstorff "Resuscitating the Author"

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Would Jesus sell on Ebay?

For most of my life I have viewed the goodness of God as a treasure and as a pearl to be pursued with all of my energies. That I have been sidetracked, knocked off course, or otherwise distracted from this pursuit has been part of the battle that I have called "faith."

To commune and fellowship with the awesome and indescribable God has been what I consider to be the "pearl of great price" in my life:

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls."
Matthew 13:44-45

I love these two little analogies by Jesus. They capture the heart of God-seeking and the essence of the Gospel: A relentless pursuit that completely consumes us. It is truly dangerous, and I say that in all seriousness: The pursuit of God and dedication to Christ has completely destroyed people of faith. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis: God is good, but not tame.

In recent years I have wondered about the "one-size-fits-all" models of sharing the faith. Whether this takes the form of "The Four Spiritual Laws" or "The Romans Road" or even if this takes the form of an intellectual apologetic I have often questioned the wisdom of starting with a pre-packaged plan for sharing the Christian faith.

For example, in Matthew 7:6 there is the suggestion not to give to dogs what is sacred:

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.

What does this mean?

Is it possible that giving people pre-packaged salvation plans we are throwing our pearls to the pigs? If someone ain't interested in the faith is it ok to say, "Cool. I hope that works out for ya'?"
As an example I think about the stuff that I value. I don't have a great deal of material possessions with very much value, but I do have an autographed Reggie Miller card that I value very highly. I have it on a plaque on my wall. Would I let just anyone put their hands on it? Would I loan it out or treat it cheaply? Absolutely not. Because I value it so highly I only let people have a look at it who can appreciate its worth. We know how much we value something by how we treat it.

Are there some with whom I would not want to share the faith because they are only looking to get something? A god-fix or a little spirituality? Do we market and advertise our Christianity as the best religion out there in hopes of attracting those who are looking for a good religion? Is this sometimes what we are doing under the guise of "meeting needs"?

In our psycho-spiritual age it is fashionable to have some god in our lives and to connect with the "Other." Do we give our generation what they want?

Is Jesus the answer to everyone's neurosis or the solution to all of our psychological woes?
Am I a heretic if I say that Christ is a pearl of great price that might very well cost a person more than they get in return? It certainly feels wrong to even write those words...let alone italicize them...let alone post them on the internet....

If I were to put Christ up on Ebay I think I would sell a heavy and bloody cross with a price tag that says "Everything" and see if people clamor to get their bids in.

Monday, October 02, 2006


There are times when I feel the emotional burden of the evil in the world. These are usually times that overwhelm me, and it is usually triggered by a specific instance of evil and pain that leaves me particularly disturbed. It may be the abuse of a child or some other innocent victim who is destroyed by the evils of mankind.

It is at this point that I sometimes begin to consider all the evil in the world. I consider the fact that these instances of evil happen quite literally every day. Evil men oppresses and abuse the innocent.

Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed- and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors- and they have no comforter.
- Ecclesiastes 4:1

Qohelet (the writer of Ecclesiastes) understood this fact and wrote about it several thousands of years ago. This simply shows us that such abuses have been taking place for ages on end, with no end in sight.

There are times when all of the pain and suffering weighs heavy upon my soul.

These reflections of mine do not happen all that often because, frankly, I don't think that I could handle it if it did. But it is at this point that I sometimes start to think about God: How does God deal with his knowledge of all the evil and pain and abuses in the world?

I wonder how God emotionally deals with pain. This, of course, begs the question about whether or not the word emotional is even an adequate term to ascribe God. Is God an emotional God?

There are instances in Scripture where God seems to display God's emotions. One that particularly stands out to me is Genesis 6:5-8

The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the LORD said, "I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth-men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air-for I am grieved that I have made them." But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (NIV)

Is God experiencing an emotion here? The passage states that God was grieved, and even more so that "his heart was filled with pain." What does this mean? Does it mean that God had the same type of emotional experience that I've been describing?

The question of whether or not God has emotions is an intriguing one. It is a mystery, of course, exactly what God feels, and whether or not those feelings are the same kinds of feelings that you and I experience. But perhaps we can be content with a little mystery and simply call them "God-feelings."

I doubt that God has the same type of emotional experiences that I have because, afer all, he is God. But on the other hand, God may actually experience emotions on a deeper and more intense level. If God has more power than anyone else and if God knows more than anyone else, is it possible that God feels more than anyone else? I don't know the answer to that. So, for me, I'll be content to speak of God-feelings. And maybe someday I'll get a chance to ask God how he's feeling. Maybe I'll ask the Son if he remembers some of his feelings while he walked the earth...speculations and questions...

Now the question of God-feelings raises another issue: Is God actually affected by his creation? Traditionally the doctrine of Impassibility has answered with a resounding, "No"! But a word of clarification is needed here.

The doctrine of Impassibility does not, necessarily, mean that God does not somehow experience emotions. Rather, Impassibility asserts that God's experiences are not "involuntary surprises."

Consider J.I. Packer:
[Impassibility is] not impassivity, unconcern, and impersonal detachment in face of the creation; not insensitivity and indifference to the distresses of a fallen world; not inability or unwillingness to empathize with human pain and grief; but simply that God's experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us, for his are foreknown, willed and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart from his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are.
(From "God without mood swings" at: http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/articles/impassib.htm)

Another quote by Philip Johnson goes right to the point:

God is the sovereign initiator and instigator of all His own affections-which are never uncontrolled or arbitrary. He cannot be made to emote against His will, but is always the source and author of all His affective dispositions.
(From "God without mood swings" at http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/articles/impassib.htm)

So, in other words, God is not at the whim of us. His "mood" or "emotions" do not swing back and forth based upon what we, his little creatures, choose to do or not do.

The point of the doctrine seems to be to preserve the greatness and transcendence of God. God is big. God is great. God is not affected by wee mortals, like us.

However, one problem with the doctrine of Impassibility that we notice right off the bat is that Scripture actually presents God as reacting to his creation. We do not see a God who planned out his experience, but a God whose experience was related to our experience. This is how the narrative of Scripture presents God to us. As such, we ought to take it somewhat seriously.

Now, those who assert Impassibility will simply say that God is not being presented as he truly is, but that this is a presentation of God in human terms, for our benefit. As Calvin said, God "lisps" to us kind of like a nursemaid to a little child. So, according to Calvin and others who assert Impassibility, the Scriptures present God in human terms so that we can get an understanding of who he is, even if what we see in Scripture isn't quite exactly who God is.

This, of course, is a fine response. I don't know that it is entirely true, but neither can I falsify it. After all, how do I know for sure whether God planned out and initiated his emotions, or whether he is going with the flow like the rest of us? It seems to me to simply be beyond me.

But for now I will stick with my quaint little term: God-feelings. God seems to be experiencing something in his Being. We bear his image in some strange way. And when we feel the pain of the abuses and evil in this world we can know that in some way we are mirroring our God.