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.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Good Book for a Bad Crook

I just saw this video: it seriously made me laugh! The old lady gets mugged and says, "If you shoot me I'll go to heaven and you'll go to hell!"

Ha! Truly an lol moment for me!

Interesting to watch the end of the video: pastors and church leaders across America all hyperventilating and jumping up and down with joy; they are ecstatic at the thought that Jesus stopped the robber in his tracks!!!

So, friends, watch for this old lady to have a book deal in the near future....then a devotional guide....then a blog....then some tee shirts, that is, if we do the marketing right. But we need a catchy slogan. What do you think? Is The Good Book for a Bad Crook the next American Christian fad???? How about Blessings for Bandits? Or perhaps The Prayers of a Pilferer is the key! Other thoughts? If we come up with a good idea, I will personally step forward and volunteer my superb writing skills for the task of ghost writer.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Church Fasting

God, Who provides for all, will not desert us; especially being engaged, as we are, in His service.
- Don Quixote, Book 1, Part 11

In our recent discussion on worship music, some of the commentators seemed to have a common theme: if a person (me, in particular!) is not engaged in a worshipful experience, then that's a you problem; that is, it is your fault and you need to get your heart right and join in the worship.

This response reminded me of an offhand comment made by a Pastor friend of mine at a recent lunch. He was complaining about the fickleness of the younger generation. Specifically, he bemoaned the fact that church attendance for the young is so irregular. The other two members at the table began to grin, laugh, and look at me. Why did they look at me? Because I am on a church fast.

Yes, friends, I am fasting from going to church, and I have been for quite some time. I have not attended a service since last August. On a few occasions I have been in the church building for sundry reasons, but a service I have not attended.

Just as it is healthy to abstain from foods or sex or television for a period of time, so I am beginning to believe that stepping away from church for a time may have similar benefits to one's spiritual health. Indeed, I have come to believe that church attendance has been a negative influence on my life.

Is this another me problem? Am I fickle? Is my heart in the wrong place?

I don't think so. I think the problem is with church itself. To me there appear to be so many opportunities presenting themselves to the body of Christ in this generation, and all we seem to be concerned with is filling a damned building for an hour or two each Sunday morning!

Most Christians go to church as an obligation, and yes, friends, even at this point I still feel the burden of obligation that has been seared into my heart and soul. This past Sunday was Easter. How can I call myself a Christian if I'm not on church on Easter Sunday!??! Ah, but that's just obligation--that's just social pressure.

The stats tell the story: most young church kids are forced to go to church when they live with their parents and then they split the scene. They may possibly return later in life when they have kids and settle down. Is this their own fault? Fickleness?

Perhaps there are youth who are fickle. I'll grant that. But there are also good reasons that the young are leaving church. In fact, in some regards I applaud them! The young want to be intellectually and spiritually engaged. They are looking for something stimulating and real. But the church, as we all know, is not a place for the intellectually curious or those with spiritual hunger. It is no place for the young. It is a place for the old guys who are set in their ways. In this sense, then, a church fast is important, because too much time in church with church folks can make one intellectually and spiritually complacent. After all, in church we all have the right answers and we listen to a sermon from someone who more-or-less has it all together.

I think that the whole idea of preaching is misguided. Whatever the intentions behind it, the church (particularly the conservative evangelical types) has created a spiritual elitist class who can "preach the word." There is a direct implication here: some voices are worthy to be heard on Sunday morning while others are not. Usually the ones able to preach are the seminary trained white guys in their middle ages or older. In other words, the dudes who have it all figured out; those who look and sound like good Christians. And if we would only listen to their wise words, then we would be able to get our acts together too!

But did Jesus really want to establish this spiritual hierarchy?

The problem is even greater than this. The whole church notion is based on a stadium show. We come, we sit, we follow orders. We sing what we are supposed to sing and we listen to the spiritually enlightened tell us how to think, live, and feel. The show is carefully programed so that common themes are explored and everything is wrapped up in a nice box for us to take home. (Although most of us forget the substance of the show 5 minutes after the final "Amen": "Uh, what was that sermon about. It was a good one. Something about loving unconditionally...")

The whole Sunday show closely resembles the television sitcom: meaningful issues are opened up and within 30 minutes we have closure and perspective on that issue. 30 minutes??!?! Friends, life is far more complicated! Particularly the life of faith!

The young spiritually minded need a better place to dialog on meaningful issues. That is, if anyone cares anymore. Perhaps television and church has dulled our spiritual sensitivity to the point that we do not even know how to open up these issues anymore. I think this is the current state of American pop Christian culture: we don't even know where to begin when it comes to discussing meaningful issues in the church, and we sure as hell don't know how to hold meaningful dialog with those outside the church.

So, friends, I am on a church fast. I feel healthier and more spiritually engaged than I have in years. It is not a safe feeling. I struggle. But I'm glad to struggle. Christianity should not be about eliminating struggle. Christ called us to struggle. So, embrace the struggle. Sign up for a church fast.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The day the music died

"American Pie" is a rock song by singer-songwriter Don McLean.

Recorded and released on the American Pie album in 1971, the single was a number-one U.S. hit for four weeks in 1972. The song is an abstract story of his life that starts with the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) in a plane crash in 1959, and ends in 1970. The importance of "American Pie" to America's musical and cultural heritage was recognized by the Songs of the Century education project which listed the song performed by Don McLean as the number five song of the twentieth century.

The song's lyrics are the subject of much curiosity. Although McLean dedicated the American Pie album to Buddy Holly, none of the singers in the plane crash are identified by name in the song itself. When asked what "American Pie" meant, McLean replied, "It means I never have to work again."[1] Later, he more seriously stated "You will find many 'interpretations' of my lyrics but none of them by me... sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence." [From Wikipedia, entry "American Pie," accessed 3/24/08]

For ten years we've been on our own
and moss grows fat on a rolling stone
but that's not how it used to be

It was during a Grace College chapel in the fall of 1996, if I recall correctly, that tears were in my eyes. Though I do not recall the song, I do remember that the words and the music seemed to sink into my skin and run through my veins.

The worship session was student led.

I was from a small country church in the middle of nowhere. We sang hymns while someone played the piano. But this music was different, and the impact was real for me.

Can music save your mortal soul?

I feel that back in those days God used the worship settings to lead me into a deeper commitment. There was something sacred in those times, back then. I don't want to romanticize the past, or to suggest that the time period was perfect; but I do know that there was something more real than what I now experience when I listen to Christian radio stations or attend a worship service.

I went down to the sacred store where I'd heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn't play

But something happened over the years. Worship music is now the standard. It is routine and bland. Anymore, it seems as though I am just going through the motions.

These days not everyone has the right to play worship music. You have to buy the right, the copyright that is.

I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died

You also need some kind of an in to play the music these days. Christian music is big business, and worship music is a really big pull. You can take God on the go with you on your ipod or in your big and safe SUV. The local Christian music station tells me that contemporary Christian music is the fastest growing genre of music on the market.

We have market value now.

But I think that the music is dead.

We all got up to dance
But we never got our chance

I can still feel the feelings. I can still muster up a worship-type emotion in these worship settings. But what does this mean, anymore? I don't own these feelings, because the corporations have the copyrights.

I can get the right kind of feelings, but why is is that I no longer feel truly inspired? It's all so hollow now. Why is this?

And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire the most
The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
They caught the last train to the coast
The day the music died

Is God really amongst us in our worship services, anymore?

The serpent on the pole saved the people: they looked on it and they lived. But later King Hezekiah destroyed the serpent on the pole because the Israelites had begun to worship it. It was an idol. Is this what worship music has become now? Now that it is the fastest growing genre of music on radio? Is worship music the newest version of the serpent on the pole?

Just because we call a music "Christian" doesn't mean it has anything to do with Christ.

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news

Why does worship music no longer inspire me??? Is God gone? Is he wanting to work in a new way? If so, is it possible that the music in the way? That we are so saturated with it that it has become trivial and trite?

A diamond ring is a highly valued possession. Part of the reason it is valued is because it is a rare jewel. But what if it weren't rare? What if diamond rings were as common as lolly pop rings? What if we could buy a diamond ring for a quarter out of a vending machine? If you could buy a diamond ring for a quarter, then it would be a neat little novelty. I think that's what worship music is to me these days: a neat little novelty.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ugh of the Month


I wish I had viewed this site with an empty stomach!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Is happiness possible and what is it?

One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be happy is not included in the plan of creation.
Sigmund Freud

I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live....I also thought, "As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless.
Qohelet, chapter 3

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Westminster Shorter Catechism

So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.
Ecclesiastes 2:17 (NASB)

Did you know hat the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.
Agent Smith, The Matrix

God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
John Piper

If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad. If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?
Sheryl Crow, 1996

What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless. A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Qohelet chapter 2 (NIV)

Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus, Matthew chapter 5

Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1.4

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Something like a human

I left a comment over at Hesiak's post at Church and PoMo The Machine that got lost in the chatter of CAD software and other far more important conversations. My comment seems to have been dismissed because I challenged the notion that we can distinguish any longer between "human" and "machine." Most Christians seem to want to engage in what I believe is an antiquated notion that human and machine are two distinct entities. They debate whether a "machine" is good or bad, and have nice little sayings like, "the human should control the machine not the other way around." I believe the reality is that these lines are blurring more and more with each passing day.

So, I expanded my thoughts a bit, and I am reposting them here for your reading delight.

We humans are always "embodied." We are embodied creatures. It is our nature to be embodied. Even in the future, the Scriptures say that we will "clothed with our heavenly bodies." Even God, himself, always presents himself in some sort of bodied form, with the possible exception of mystic communion.

If we are embodied beings by nature, then the philosophical question that is becoming more relevant with each passing day is this: what happens when humans become more and more embodied as machines and machines start to become embodied as humans?

For example, as I type out this post, I am assuming a new body. The fact that I am a 6'1" male with a thin frame does not matter, anymore. My "body" is no longer my body in the traditional sense. I have assumed a new body. I use the keyboard to type out a post that I think is rather clever, and I then count on the machine to embody my words and thoughts and take them into an online dialog where I can now conversate with other "bodies" from all over the world.

We can apply the same example to other forms of technology: phone conversations, text messaging, artificial limbs, glasses, various forms of repair surgeries. Even the clothing we wear is a form of a machine. No one goes out to kill an animal, skin it, and wear its hide on their backs! We buy clothing made by machines. Shoes, in particular, are very highly technological these days, and they continue to improve everyday. Without the advances of shoe technology, we could not run as far or as fast as we run. Shoe technology amplifies our ability to perform. In addition, there is a real sense in which our technology (shoes) takes us out of contact with the real world: our "real" physical feet do not actually have to touch the "real" ground, meaning that we no longer need to physically connect with the actual, real world.

So, what is "real," anymore? Who knows? Who even cares???

Another example of how the lines are blurring between "human" and "machine" is the Nintendo Wii. It is now possible to take on a new body that participates on an online game. The cool thing here is that we can control the physical movements by making similar physical movements, ourselves. The web creates a virtual world for our virtual bodies to participate with other virtual bodies in a game. As technology continues to progress, this virtual reality will feel more and more real. Anyone care to speculate the moral questions that will arise as the porn industry capitalizes on this kind of online technology?

Comcast had a television commercial about televisiphonernetting: Using the television, phone, and internet at the same time. In this case, a person is embodied in multiple realities simultaneously. The brain is splitting itself into several conversations at the same time. (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Do we now have the experiential basis for a new theological model for the possibility of "one in essence, three in persons"?)

Along these same lines, I have heard the term "zoning" used: Mentally switiching between very diverse bodies and realities. A person can seamlessly move from a deep relational conversation with a boyfriend or girlfriend into a television show into emailing friends into myspace into philosophical reading into blogging on politics. The point is, if we move our minds quickly between (and sometime simultaneous with) different realities, then the ability to sustain real reflection seems to be a major challenge. We just "zone" from one reality to another.

In sum, it is not at all clear what is "machine" and what is "human." Humans are more and more technological, which means that we more and more resemble machines. Machines are also becoming more human: various machines can now speak, see, taste, touch, smell, and hear. Machines and humans are adapting themselves to each other for a new convergence called "virtual reality."

Skip LaCour, a bodybuilder and motivational speaker says, "Your body is a machine." And he encourages us to think of food as "clean fuel." Yet another example of the union between human and machine. These days many of us even look like machines: just observe a group of people working out; they have wires coming out of their ears and arms and shiny silver feet!

We have turned ourselves into Frankenstein and there is really no turning back. Distinguishing between "human" and "machine" is still important, but it is futile to truly draw a dichotomy that holds. In other words, I am suggesting that there is no longer a pure "human" reality, and as time progresses this becomes less and less the case.

So, the philosophical question is this: is a purely human reality even all that desirable? Perhaps Mary Shelley wrote a good novel, but her warning against "playing God" is over-reacting.

At the beginning of the movie Gattacca, they quote Qohelet, "No one can straighten what God has made crooked." In other words, there is a sense in which God got us into this mess, and there's no fixing it. Perhaps there is no pristine "natural." Perhaps it is all a mess, subject to the unnerving effects of Qohelet's "hevel," and our humanity is somehow defined, in large part, by the messiness and undefinable nature of our existence.

Data, the android on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is constantly trying to find out what makes a human being human. He attempts various experiments and theories in order to understand humanness. One such theory is that a human being is capable of "love." Of course, as someone who believes love is essentially undefinable, I'm not sure that this solves the problem!

Being human means understanding something about humanness that is undefinable. We can't say what it is to be human, but we just kind of know what it is. And we kind of understand who other humans are. So, as humans become machines and machines become human, I suggest the following test for humanness: anything that can understand what it means to be human is human....well, or at least they are something like a human!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Me and Russell Talk Morality

I have been thinking through ethics a bit here and there and I thought I would use a few quotes from the famous 1948 BBC exchange/debate between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston to expand a bit on my current thinking on morality.

The following portion is from their discussion on morality.

R: You see, I feel that some things are good and that other things are bad. I love the things that are good, that I think are good, and I hate the things that I think are bad. I don't say that these things are good because they participate in the Divine goodness.

C: Yes, but what's your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?

R: I don't have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.

C: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?

R: By my feelings.

C: By your feelings. Well, that's what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?

At this point, I tend to agree more with Russell than with Copleston. I think that the moral sense is more fundamental to morality than is any so-called "moral law," if such a thing even exists.

The majority of Christian moral philosophy in the 20th century took its ques from the likes of C.S. Lewis. That is, they believed that morality was most fundamentally a moral law that somehow came from God. Our sense of morality, then, is merely our sense of the moral law, which exists timelessly, universally, and absolutely somewhere in some strange world of abstraction.

But what if morality is most fundamentally a sense that human beings have? In this case, then perhaps the various moral laws and moral judgments we make are merely our attempt to objectively define and culturally work out what we subjectively sense. It might be like an artist who attempts to produce on canvas the art that is within; or the poet who puts uses words to express the artistic impulses.

So, perhaps when Christians begin with "moral law" they are hurting their own cause and unwittingly weakening their own theological basis. For example, it seems quite obvious to me that if you remove morality from within and take it out to some abstract place called "Universal Moral Law," then you cheapen the sense in which morality is intimately connected with our inner workings. If I am correct in the general direction of my thinking on morality, then we need not be ashamed to look within for moral truth rather than trying to locate an abstract and supposedly universal moral law somewhere in the abstract world. (Can somebody please tell me where these universal moral laws are? I always picture them hanging like a picture or an article of clothing out somewhere deep in outer space!)

Of course, there will always be the dooms dayers who push the RELATIVISM PANIC BUTTON!. They begin to hyperventilate if they don't have their absolute moral laws ready at hand. Without the moral law, they say, all society and culture is on the brink of utter devastation: "A worldview that does not have an objective moral standard, one that has 'values' instead of 'laws,' seems doomed to destruction." [from The Moral Law]

Even at this point in my discussion, however, I must note that the traditional subjective/objective distinction will probably breakdown (as all good dichotomies do in philosophy!). After all, what we call "right" and what we call "wrong" is also conditioned very strongly (if not exclusively) by our society/culture and how we interact with it. Recent Christian orthodoxy feels uneasy with this kind of talk. Let's go back to the Copleston-Russell debate again:

C: Well, I brought in moral obligation because I think that one can approach the question of God's existence in that way. The vast majority of the human race will make, and always have made, some distinction between right and wrong. The vast majority I think has some consciousness of an obligation in the moral sphere. It's my opinion that the perception of values and the consciousness of moral law and obligation are best explained through the hypothesis of a transcendent ground of value and of an author of the moral law. I do mean by "author of the moral law" an arbitrary author of the moral law. I think, in fact, that those modern atheists who have argued in a converse way "there is no God; therefore, there are no absolute values and no absolute law," are quite logical.

R: I don't like the word "absolute." I don't think there is anything absolute whatever. The moral law, for example, is always changing. At one period in the development of the human race, almost everybody thought cannibalism was a duty.

Again, I tend to agree more with Russell. I don't like the word "absolute" when referring to morality. I don't necessarily deny moral absolutes, but they seem a bit pointless. As I said, morality is most fundamentally a subjective sense. As such, the point of the moral life is to not to run around in circles trying to philosophize as to what and where moral absolutes are. Instead, the moral life should focus its energy on cultivating the moral sense. (Where I disagree with Russell, of course, is that I believe that God is an active agent in this process of cultivation.)

So, if the point of morality is to to cultivate the subjective sense, then where does this happen??? Well, in interacting with others. So, we don't waste our time trying to establish absolute moral laws; rather, we engage one another and use the moral standards of our culture to begin the process of doing good. So, what is "good" is something that is not merely a subjective sense but the actions and attitudes I have as I relate and engage other moral beings like myself. To me, this kind of common sense approach aligns more with the street level ethics in the Bible, particularly I am thinking about the book of James:

26If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James chapter 1)

14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James chapter 2)

Morality is not just a subjective sense, but a subjective sense that is dependent on living in relationship with others. There is a complex relationship at work here that we cannot entirely explain, but that is the point: the life of the good is a devoted life process of cultivating their moral sense in relation to those around them. Perhaps if our Protestant Fathers had worried more about this and worried less about idolizing their doctrine, then maybe they would not have murdered so many of their own brothers and sisters in the faith.

My view of ethics does not just stop at a "that feels good to me" level. Quite the contrary. We should engage in moral debate (and rigorously!); but we engage each other not to get at the moral absolutes but to discern what is good for the here and now as we relate with each other and with God. We must objectify our morality and take moral stands on issues, e.g., "the hijackers who flew their plans into the two towers in NYC did an evil thing," "the invasion of Iraq was not morally justified," "all cases of abortion are categorically unjustified killing," or "a same sex relationship is an appropriate marital relationship and should not be banned or discouraged."

There are many specific issues that require moral judgment, what some might call practical ethics. Debating these issues helps sharpen our moral sense. But, of course, beyond these political issues are also issues of our own actions and the motivations that drive them. These are the Moment-of-Truth-type questions; these are cleaning-the-mirror-type questions. For the cultivation of "truth in the inner parts" and purity of heart, we need others to peer within and examine our lives with discernment, maturity, and love.....and, I agree with Paul: we don't need Law, we need the power of the Spirit. (Galatians 5)