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.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Haiti Relief

Generosity and giving can result in a certain power over others. Such was the gist of Jean Vanier’s comments in his interview with Krist Tippet on the NPR show “Speaking of Faith.” Vanier is not saying this to be critical or cynical. He is a soft soul. A living saint who founded L’Arche communities where adults with disabilities can live together in love. He is not a cynic, but he ain’t naïve either.

One of the areas of thinking I have been deeply engaged with is the idea of giving. I am writing a book about grace, and I want to push this concept of “unconditional grace.” I don’t want to be a cynic, but I want to ask the hard question of whether or not any grace can truly be “unconditional.” There is a good deal of philosophical discussion that centers on just this point, so there is much about the gift to engage the heart and mind.

Giving, more often than not, puts others in debt. It creates a cycle of reciprocity. Can we escape it? If so, it’s certainly easier said than done! And that’s a fact, Jack. Even despite our best intentions, even if we were to have “pure motives” (which is also debatable), even then a “symbol” is created (to use the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s) in the giving. As such, the idea of “unconditional giving” is easier to conceptualize than practice, and it’s even difficult (yea, even impossible!) to actually find a true-to-life example of purely unconditional giving.

But again, my point in this post is not to approach giving as a cynic.

I was watching the NFL Playoffs last weekend, the rare bit of television viewing I do these days, and I noticed that the networks flashed a number to text for Haiti relief. To give ten dollars to the Haiti relief effort, one only need send a text message to the number. Presumably the process is streamlined such that in minutes (or less, perhaps) one can make a ten dollar donation for the people of Haiti.

I imagine that these efforts brought in many funds, all much needed for the relief efforts. This is a good thing, no doubt. But my suspicions were aroused when I saw the text message giving system on tv. And the answer was obvious to me: why can we (as citizens of the U.S.) give so much to Haiti relief and fail to engage our neighbors in need? By “neighbor” I mean, specifically, the Hispanic population in our small, northern Indiana community. Or the peoples in jail. Or the meth addicts in Syracuse. Or the “poor white trash” who live in the trailer parks scattered throughout the county. That is, there are so many people so close to home who are in need, living desperate lives. So easy to text ten dollars to Haiti and call it a day, says I. Says the part of me whose suspicions have been thoroughly aroused.

But as I mentioned, my point in this post is not to approach giving as a cynic.

In point of fact, I know that many who are involved in the Haiti relief effort are those who want to engage people. Like Jonathan. He’s a pilot. He lives about three quarters of a mile from me. He raises chickens and sells eggs. He’s a political conservative who organizes local tea parties. He is also exhausted from flying his airplane to Haiti and finding ways to get supplies to people who are in desperate, life-threatening need.

Or there’s Kristi. She had a minute a few days ago and sent me some Instant Messages through gmail. She only had a minute, but she had enough time to tell me about how a certain local insurance company is shelling out big bucks. It’s more than just a marketing, image gimmick. Kristi had to roll. She’s helping to organize. Oh, and she is also a political conservative.

I’ll wager there’s a good many stories about a good many good people doing good things. There are many stories of people who are actually engaging this relief effort and the people of Haiti. They care. There are lives touching lives. And let’s be honest, they couldn’t do what they do if it weren’t for all of those impersonal dollars that came rolling in via text message.

Did I mention that my point in this post is not to approach giving as a cynic?

And yet I think that there is still something important to ponder. I think my suspicions are not entirely without cause. The fact is that we forfeit blessings when we live fragmented lives, when we isolate ourselves from the poor and needy, choosing to live most of our lives in the office, with our friends and family, and with neighbors who have the same values and financial means as ourselves. We forfeit blessings because there is a certain human experience that can only be had when we stop for the anonymous stranger in need. We forfeit the opportunity to know love.

When asked by a man-in-the-know about what to do to attain “eternal life,” Jesus replied in a simple way: love God, love your neighbor.

Well said.

The man-in-the-know wanted to push the issue a bit further, to specify and parse words: who is my neighbor? Jesus tells the tale of a certain Samaritan man who found an anonymous stranger laying on the road side (left for dead and passed over by some of the more religiously inclined).

Emmanuel Levinas was a French philosopher who made ethics central to all of philosophy. He talked about “the face of the other.” The other is not just any other, not just any other person. It’s the other. The other that we are suspicious of, the other who threatens us and our way of life; the “Commie Bastard” of the fifties; the Muslim, fundamentalist terrorist of today who wants to destroy the “American way of life”; the meth addict who strips to support her habit, not take care of her kids; the alcoholic beggar in the ghetto who has no intention of changing and just wants to draw welfare. Yeah. That one. That’s our neighbor.

There’s a blessing in knowing those who are in need, those who are broken, those who are poor. There is a blessing in knowing them, in engaging their lives and seeing their face. To do so unconditionally, if that is possible.

Jean Vanier talks about Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis hated lepers. They stunk, so he hated them. Then he visited them and his life was changed. He no longer wanted to live his life for his own esteem and riches. He walked away from a comfortable life in his father’s textile business.

Says Vanier, “We don’t want a God who is hidden in the dirt, in dirty people.”

Loving our neighbor means digging in the dirt for God. What does this mean? It seems to be a blessing found when we do our best to really identify with the other, with the dirty people, with the weak, with the poor. This is not a love based on the powerful helping the weak. This is a resignation of our superiority; it is identifying so closely with those who are in need that we realize how needy we all our. That is, there is a certain blessing only found when we look into the face of those who are most desperate and weak and we see ourselves in them. This is the moment when we are incarnated, like Christ, when we realize that we are that which we have always feared and despised. In this moment, we can then experience the greatest blessing, because we can be set free from what we have always feared and despised in ourselves. As Vanier puts it, we can at that moment welcome our own weakness.

“We don’t know what to do with our own weakness except hide it and pretend it doesn’t exist. So how can we fully welcome the weakness of another if we haven’t welcomed our own weakness?”

It seems to me that when we can fully love a neighbor, in their greatest moment of weakness and brokenness, we can love ourselves. We have engaged the other to the point of identity with them, and at that point our judgments and prejudices against them fall away, along with the many ways that we judge ourselves. This is the beauty in humility.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Let me make this perfectly unclear: the new words of Jesus

Of late, my faith, my pilgrimage, seems to have been taking me in the general direction of creativity and imagination. I am starting to awaken to the realization that much of the journey of faith absolutely must involve imagination. Without it, we dry up. We wither.

Creativity is not the artist’s luxury. Pilgrimage is about movement and courage, but it must also cultivate imagination, stimulate. If a pilgrim of faith only moves, only works, then the aches and pains of the journey become our pre-occupation, and it’s easy to become bitter or to just settle down and take it easy.

In my previous post, I discussed the creative writing class that Tamie and I co-teach. We want to coax and/or challenge our students to break out of conventional language (clichés, vague writing, the received stories about yourself/others/the world). We want them to write something new. We want them to break out of convention: use new words, explore new language, tell a new story. Last week a young woman broke down into tears while I was chatting with her at the end of class. She desperately wants out of her narrative, the story that she always screws things up. The guards comes to take her back to her cage. She has to quickly wipe away her tears.

I want to transition these ideas about imagination into a discussion regarding theology and faith. What happens when the language of theology becomes fossilized? What happens when the language we use to describe faith hardens? It’s like crusty old bread that has lost its soft, moist texture.

Jesus, as it so happens, was the just the sort of chap who used new language and challenged old, prevailing assumptions. (Something about new wineskins for new wine.) Of course he did. We all know this. Yet I am wondering if there isn’t something more fundamental to be learned. Is it Jesus’ message that we should be concerned about? Or should we be imitating Jesus’ approach? Put another way, should we be concerned that we get all of the details correct when it comes to “what-Jesus-taught,” or did Jesus pass on to us a way of being-in-the-world, a way of using new language to break out of the conventional clichés that lock us into cliché lives.

Put another way, in a more universal sense, is spiritual liberation found in repeating, reciting, and reusing the words of old? Or is liberation a freedom to create and imagine new possibilities?

There is an extended passage in the Gospel of John that has many words about words, and words about Jesus’ words, and words about the words that others worded about Jesus’ words. I am thinking specifically about chapter six.

Jesus is drawing crowds.
Jesus tells the crowds that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
The crowd responds with a collective “Whoooooah!” “This is a difficult word, who is able to hear it?” (v. 60)
Jesus responds: “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” (v. 63)
Many split the scene. After all, cannibalism ain’t kosher.
Jesus turns to the twelve. His amigos. His homies. “Will you stay or will you go?”
Peter speaks for them all: “You have the words (rhemata) of eternal life” (v. 68)

The crowd responds that Jesus words were “hard/difficult” (skleyros) to understand. Some commentators suggest that the crowd understood Jesus, that is they comprehended him, they just couldn’t accept the word of Jesus. I agree with the commentator (Craig S. Keener) who agrees that the term here generally connotes something that is difficult to accept, “Nevertheless, it was hard to accept because they misunderstood it, as is characteristic of those who hear Jesus without faith…Even his disciples did not always understand initially, but they would in the end because they persevered.” (p. 693)

Jesus was of the tradition of those who throw a monkey wrench into convention language and disrupt our lives when our way of being becomes stale and stagnant. “Jewish sages, like other ancient Mediterranean sages, often spoke in riddles; the historical Jesus, like other Palestinian Jewish sages, employed parables.” (Keener, 692)

Jesus used words to do different kinds of things, to imagine new possibilities. But notice that Jesus forced his audience to engage their hearts/souls/minds to the point that they were baffled. He deliberately convoluted his message. This is very different from much of the contemporary creativity of the techno-savy church crowd. For so many, the lights, the cameras, the sound equipment, and the three point sermons are all meant to be as clear as possible about "the message." But Jesus' point was never primarily to deliver a message. It was to disturb our messages, it was to displace our conventional language so that we are pushed to the breaking point. Once we have come to the end of our selves, once our received paradigms completely fail, that's when we can start to engage our imagination. So much money is being invested to clarify. Jesus came to un-clarify, to challenge all that we thought was clear, and in doing this, Jesus seems to activate something deeper within.

But as I said, it is not in dispute that Jesus broke paradigms with his imaginative use of language. The real question for so many of his 21st century followers is whether his example should be followed. And this is no small question because so much of religion is built on Jesus’ language as the foundation. That is, Jesus’ words are used as the basis for doctrine or for practice, but Jesus’ use of imagination and creativity is often not the basis of faith. Jesus' methods of using language to break paradigms, well, this was just Jesus' crazy way. It was a means to an end. But should it be an end in itself?

Could following Jesus be construed along the lines of following our imagination? Can we hold to the words of Jesus and completely miss the point by failing to engage Jesus’ example of imagination?

Are we to follow the example of Christ and be creators of new language? Like Jesus, to create new language and push ourselves to the brink? Is that why Jesus never wrote his teachings down, because he expected those who came after him to build on his work of creativity? Why does the Gospel of John, in the famous and poetic prologue, allude to Genesis 1 and the creation? The Logos was creating with God in the beginning.

Jesus left the world, when presumably he could have stuck around for a while, but he handed on his work of imagination to his disciples and those who would follow them. Ah, but Jesus did leave a replacement….but a replacement who was even more tricky in her use of language: the paraclete (the comforter, or Holy Ghost), who contorts language even sometimes beyond recognition. The book of Acts describes the Spirit as moving people to speak in languages not their own, the languages of others.

My suggestion here is not that the words of Jesus are unimportant. I am merely speculating that if these words are not combined with imagination, then they can easily become lifeless. What is more, if we look closely we may see that our received interpretation of the words of Jesus, the interpretation handed down to us, may be unimaginative and uninspiring.

What seems to be missing in so much of faith and theology is creativity. We must not merely possess the words of Jesus, we must ignite our imaginative souls. Jesus not only passed along words, he also left us with an example of how to use language in a dynamic way, to retell our worn out stories, to challenge prevailing authorities who use religion and power to oppress, to break out of the conventional clichés that lock us into cliché lives.

“Ye must be born again.”

Friday, January 22, 2010

N.T. Wright and Cultural Masturbation

Okay, here's a quickie....uhm....I mean, a quick post.

I came across a blog by Julie Clawson, Why N.T. Wright is Wrong about Social Media. (N.T. Wright is a prominent New Testament scholar who writes for academic and general audiences.) As the title implies, she takes issue with Wright's view of social media, believing that his take: "I was disappointed to hear someone so knowledgeable about history and faith jump on the 'caution people about the perceived dangers of the Internet' bandwagon." She also cites a Pew study that busts the myth that those of us who engage in social media will steal time away from "huggable" (N.T. Wright's term) people, that is, folks in flesh-and-blood. Says Julie, "The study also found that people who spend time on the Internet are actually far more likely to go out and be with real live people than those who don’t use the Internet. The point – social media actually builds community, even of the huggable people sort."

I initially found Clawson's blog helpful, but then I watched the short video of N.T. Wright and found that his position is a good deal more nuanced than I read in Julie's blog. And in fact, I find myself more in agreement with N.T. Wright's warnings.

Wright says that the internet can lead to isolation....that relationships need bodies....that too much internet time dehumanizes communication....he recommends implementing personal rules to spend time with "huggable" human beings and not to be spending too much time in front of a screen; internet is a good deal like tv in this regard.....it is important for online interaction to translate into action....if we are isolated from others, this can produce "cultural masturbation" where the internet becomes a forum for personal gratification (gratification intellectually, in terms of entertainment, in addition of course to sexual).....the internet can become a form of "gnosticism".

Wright says he welcomes the technology as long as we are reflecting on the "meta-issues" that stand behind the technology.

My position on the internet, social media, blogging, etc. has always been that this is a new form of communication, a new form of language. I try not to get caught up in the kind of high-minded, intense debates about whether it is "good" or "bad," "harmful" or "helpful." Instead, I tend to prefer discussing how new forms of language change the way we think, engage each other, perceive ourselves, etc. Perhaps these are the "meta-issues" that Wright is talking about.

While I tend to favor Wright's view, I think Julie Clawson's short blog post is thoughtful and useful to the discussion of the value of the internet and social media.

Here is the video of Wright:

NT Wright on Blogging/Social Media from Bill Kinnon on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A change of pace--the Human Narrative Project update

My review of A Thousand Splendid Suns is available for your reading pleasure. We have had good discussion ensue, with insightful commentary on understanding Rasheed, the women protagonists, and the psychology underlying it all. So, feel free to join in the dialog.

So she took courage and went on again, "I didn't know that Cheshire cats always grinned. In fact, I didn't know that cats could grin."
"They all can," said the Dutchess, "and most of them do."
"I don't know of any that do," Alice said very politely, feeling quite pleased to have gotten into a conversation.
"You don't know much," said the Dutchess. "And that's a fact."

The next novel is a change of pace. Novels tend, as a general rule, to explore the darker elements of our lives and of humanity in general. This is certainly the case for A Thousand Splendid Suns, although it ends with a narrative of hope. Our next novel, Lewis Carroll's (his pseudonym) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, is a curious, playful text. It is literature that children can enjoy, full of fantasy and creative dialog between Alice and the idiosyncratic animals and characters that she meets along the way; yet the novel also plays with ideas and philosophies. It is above all a work of art, and as such it gives us food for thought (playful as well as serious) in a subtle and nuanced manner.

Reading the novel will also prepare us for Tim Burton's new Disney film, Alice in Wonderland, starring Johnny Depp. I'm always interested in how filmmakers interpret novels, and Burton is one of those, uh, creative types.....creative in that weird, creepy sort of way. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (and I will also be reading Through the Looking Glass) is our February novel, and the film is set to release on March 5.

You may read this novel/s as you like: it/they can be read as a child's book, as a trivial bit of fun, but it can also be read for the many possibilities for symbolism, metaphor, and philosophical speculation. For a taste of this, I leave you with a few quotes by Tan Lin:

"The Alice books manage to show both these quests--that of the child to look forward, and of the adult to look back--simultaneously, as mirror logics of each other....

"The quandry of a logically grounded knowledge constituted out of an illogical universe pervades both books. The questions that Alice asks are not answered by the animals in Wonderland nor by anyone after she wakens. It is likely that her questions don't have answers or that there are no right questions to ask....

"Nearly all the players in Wonderland, with the exception of the Duchess and the Queen, are male, older than Alice, and contentious, imperious, or condescending in their adherence to strict rules. Even in play, logic reigns rigidly in Wonderland in a kind of spoof of the analytical philosophical logic popular at Oxford in Carroll's day....

"Lewis Carroll was a teacher of symbolic logic at Oxford, and he love to make mathematical knots for his pupils to wriggle out of...."
(Quotes from Tan Lin's Introduction, 2003 Barnes & Noble Classics edition, pp. xi-xxxiii)

Monday, January 18, 2010

New words

Tamie and I teach a creative writing class at the county jail every Wednesday afternoon. In the last two classes, we discussed clichés, vague writing, and how we can challenge the standard stories we tell about ourselves. This all has to do with thinking carefully about the language we use.

If we use cliché language, then the reader is not going to be moved by our writing. Clichés are tired, overused words and phrases that become somewhat trite. Not only are clichés uninspiring to the reader, they can also create a cliché life for the writer. In other words, if our language is cliché than our lives can become cliché as well. It’s hard to avoid clichés, though. It can be damned difficult sometimes.

Vague writing is similar. Rather than being specific with our writing and language, we can just kind of generalize things. Too much generalization leaves the reader wanting more. Of course, vague writing can be very powerful when used properly. It can leave the reader with many diverse thoughts. It can put interpretation in the hands of the reader. It can create mystery. But it can also be an escape, a means of non-engagement. It’s hard to be specific in writing. Sometimes it’s damned hard.

In our last class we talked specifically about telling a different story about ourselves. We all have a personal narrative: a story about ourselves that describes me. This may not be one narrative, it can be as simple as a phrase or a few sentences that make sense of who we are, our identity. For example, many of our students in the jail write about their lives (particularly about the behavior that led to their incarceration) with language like this: “I made poor personal choices because I am a bad/broken person.” In our recent class, we tried to challenge our students. Is this the story you want to tell about yourself? In a paper I read recently, one of the students said that as soon as something good happened in his/her life, s/he did something to screw it up. That’s a story s/he is telling. It defines. It creates identity. What about the story a doctor tells himself: My father and grandfather were doctors and that’s what I was born to be. What about the little voice inside, deep down, that wanted something different?

What I said about clichés and vague writing, I say again about re-telling our stories: It’s hard. Damned hard. Most of us, regardless of class/status/gender/education/etc. don’t perceive that the story we tell ourselves about our lives is just a story. Most of us think of our story as fact. It isn’t a story. It’s just the way things are. Every time things are going good in my life, I do something to screw it up. We live with our stories, and they shape us. Our stories form us into their image.

On just about any dimension you can think of, humans tend to clump together. Go farther and farther away from the center and you see fewer and fewer people. It’s hard not to see evidence of some sort of force at work, pulling everybody toward the center. Maybe the force emanates from a particular point in the world, like gravity, pulling people in. Maybe it’s a force that’s embedded within individuals, impelling them to move toward each other. (John Doyle's novel The Stations)

What forces us into clichés? What is it that makes us pass over our vague notions and not explore things in greater depth? What fossilizes our stories, hardening them into “fact”? Over time, it can squeeze the life out of us, but knowing how this process occurs is almost an impossible task. This isn’t just about writing, per se—the act of scratching out words on paper or typing in letters on a keyboard. This is a commentary on life.

In our culture, marketing advertising has created a homogenous culture while convincing everyone that they are special and unique: you’re not just one of the millions who listen to an ipod, you “customized” yours by choosing a green one and by putting all of your favorite tunes onto it. Mass media contributes to our inability to get beyond cliché. We all listen and watch the same things. Mass production is creating a world in which we all buy the same products. The same Ikea tables in the same box houses in the same suburban neighborhood plan. These are strong forces, and yet there is more to this whole process of differentiation, more than just social and culture conditioning, as important as that is.

We are born, we grow, we learn, we adapt. We take on a received language, a received culture. We trust that our parents are telling us the truth. We trust that they love us. This naïveté is very human. We’ve got to start somewhere. So we work with what we have. But we can’t stop there. We can’t just let our lives be dictated to us, not without some resistance.

But how?

How to escape? How do we break out of clichés, vague descriptions, and

No easy answers. We have to use new language. It takes creativity, imagination, hard work, persistence, hope, joy, sacrifice, love, encouragement from others, community, and a good deal of faith. By “faith,” I simply mean that mysterious opening, the point at which we step out into the unknown. Sometimes something breaks in from the outside. Sometimes we break out, with a sheer force of the will.

Ultimately, this is a task that is beyond us, and yet for the survival of our souls, it’s a process we must engage with all of our hearts and minds. It is the pilgrimage for new language.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Love and spiritual practice

A.H. Almaas is a spiritual teacher who merges modern depth psychology with spirituality. In order to familiarize myself with Almaas, I was recently listening to a Youtube lecture, and he made the comment that in spiritual practices (or spiritual disciplines), the person must love the practice.

It is interesting to me that so often we lose sight of the fact that love is the primary motivation for spiritual practice. For so many, spiritual disciplines become a means to an end: enlightenment, mental focus, peace, feeling closer to God, fulfilling one’s religious duty, changing the world via prayer, etc. There are many ways in which our spiritual practice becomes a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Is it really all that surprising that we so easily lose sight of love? Doesn’t it seem like love is the first thing to go? Love is so fragile. So delicate. So beyond our ability to control it or capture it. Perhaps it is not “the first thing to go.” Perhaps it is just the thing we lose sight of, even if it is still there, supporting us in ways unseen.

Spiritual practice can involve so many different things. There are the usual culprits: contemplative prayer, reading of scripture, meditation, intercessory prayer, liturgical services, corporate worship, spiritual journaling, fasting, etc. But there are so many diverse ways to engage the sacred in spiritual practice: walking, painting, cycling, writing (of all kinds), washing the dishes, eating, singing, and the list can go on and on. In reality, anything one does can be an act of contemplation. Anything can be a spiritual practice.

I suppose what makes one particular spiritual practice more significant for a person is love. That is, there are some spiritual practices that we just love more than others. Why do we love one (or a few) spiritual practice(s) more than others? Well, that’s the mystery of love, I suppose. Love itself is mysterious and beyond our ability to explain it in its entire depth.

If love is the foundation of spiritual practice, then we can compare spiritual practice with love for a partner or spouse. Sure, we love certain things about people. We might think a person is beautiful, sexual, or attractive. We may enjoy the dialog and conversation that we can generate with a person. But when we love, there is some sense in which we fall. Something just happens. Something that seems best to leave unexplained. There is a mystery to love.

There is a mystery to love, and there is love in touching mystery. Spiritual practice is this merging of mystery and love.

And yet we so easily lose sight of love and mystery in our spiritual lives and practice. This is to be expected, even for the most learned theologian, the most experienced pastor/priest, or the most advanced spiritual guru. In fact, advancement seems to be one of the greatest enemies of mystery and love.

Yet when we lose sight of love, there is always grace. Grace surrounds us in practice, even when we are using practice as a means to an end, or when our minds have strayed from focus and concentration, or when we just don’t want to have anything to do with spiritual practice. Grace surrounds us. Perhaps we might say that grace is most present when we are most absent.

Based on our knowledge of a grace that surrounds us, we are free to open our hearts again to the love of practice and the joy of spiritual discipline.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Coming Attractions

There's a nifty book published in 1997 called Postmodern God (edited by Graham Ward). It is an anthology of essays that discuss the connection between postmodern thinkers and theology. I find the format of the book to be very helpful. Each postmodern thinker in the anthology has an essay, writings in their own words. But each essay is introduced by a lengthy discussion on the general nature of the thinker's philosophy and how their concerns might be related to theology. The essays and selections are top notch, and as such the text lends itself well to discussion of how postmodern thought relates to theology.....which makes it a great book to blog on.....so in the upcoming months, I would like to blog on some of the selections.

(Unfortunately, the book is a bit pricey, roughly $50. I purchased it at a better price a few years back. If you want to purchase the book, but find the price tag too high, check out used copies. I found one at Abe Books for only $19.78.)

Yes, friends, I am still going to continue blog on Galatians!

I have had a difficult time getting a specific commentary, so it has slowed my progress. However, in the next few weeks, I will have another post. In the meantime, you are welcome to check out the two prior posts. In Evangelistic we discussed Paul's gospel (as seen in Galatians in particular) and compared it with contemporary popular evangelism. My contention is that Paul's emphasis is not on a who's-in-and-who's-out, it is a gospel of reconciliation, that reconciliation has already occurred, it is not something we can "get" through faith. Faith is primarily a recognition of what already is.....I take a similar position when blogging on Galatians 4. In this text, the dichotomy between "believer" and "unbeliever" begins to break down. See Slaves and Heirs.

Also of significant interest are posts by our insightful friend Ktismatics (aka "John Doyle"). Ktismatics has one post on Galatians 6 that is of particular interest and that I recommend: New Creation in Paul. (He also has a post summarizing his view of some of the key elements of Paul's theology New Creation in Paul.)

Friday, January 08, 2010

The indestructible soil

"The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses," the Federal Bureau of Soils proclaimed as the grasslands were transformed. "It is one resource that cannot be exhausted, that cannot be used."

The above quote is take from The Worst Hard Time, a historical narrative of the 1930's dust bowl that devastated the Great Plains of the U.S. I started reading this just yesterday, and I highly recommend the book to anyone who enjoys reading history or to those interested in the ecological history of the U.S. Timothy Egan doesn't just narrate history, he creatively weaves together the voices of common citizens and their communities to tell the story of the destruction of one of the richest eco-systems in the U.S. and the subsequent consequences.

The Comanche, Apache, and other natives were driven off the southern Plains by force and through the extermination of the buffalo. Investors and speculators saw all of the free grass in the southern Plains and tried to turn the land into mass cattle ranches. However, the extreme temperatures and other factors led to a poor return on the investment. The investors wanted some return on their money and the governmental powers that be had a vested interest in populating the land, so no fabricated tale was too tall: they advertised the land for sale as farm land. Not enough rain? No problem. The rains will follow the plough.

So people bought the land and moved there to farm. With the advent of farming machinery, they tore up massive amounts of land, transforming the entirety of the southern plains from grasslands into wheat fields in the space of only about a decade. And for awhile, people got rich. Rain fell and the money rolled in.

The land was the constant. The soil was the absolute. It was indestructible and immutable. We could never exhaust it. Hubris had found fertile ground.

But then the rain didn't come....and then the winds began to turn up dust into thick, black storms of dirt.....wheat prices crashed and crops piled up for years at a time with no buyers.....ironically, many in other parts of the nation were starving....

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Guilty's Innocence

He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free...

For those of you who do not know, Tamie and I teach a creative writing class at the local county jail. It has been a very enlightening experience for the both of us. The students we teach have an incredible range of humanity that challenges me every week to re-evaluate my life in the light of their humility and courage.

Tamie put together a short anthology, collecting the writings of our students. It is on sale for $5, with the proceeds going to purchase new books for the inmates. If you are able to purchase a copy, I am sure that you will appreciate their writing and unique perspectives. Go to Tamie's blog to read more:


Monday, January 04, 2010

Recap 09

In 2009 I....
  • Started (and stuck with!) a routine of 50 pushups a day in June.
  • Launched my Human Narrative Project: to read and review a list of 100 of the best novels.
  • Fell in love.
  • Began a routine of meditation and contemplative prayer each morning.
  • Attended church services more often than I had anticipated.
  • Took a seven week road trip out west with Tamie.
  • Made a lot of awesome new friends (particularly on said road trip).
  • Felt a new appreciation and deep gratitude for life.
  • Painted my first two paintings.
  • Helped (with Tamie) to start a creative writing class at the county jail.
  • Took a chance to leave behind my accounting career.
In 2010 I hope to....
  • Rock out 100 pushups a day, for a yearly total of 36,500.
  • Read and review 12 enriching novels.
  • Continue falling in love.
  • Continue to read, practice, and write about the contemplative approach to spirituality.
  • See what happens when it comes to church.....
  • Visit Alaska.
  • Meet more friends.
  • Grow in appreciation for life.
  • Paint a bit more.
  • Continue to watch writing transform lives in the county jail.
  • Begin a job that better fits with my personal vision for life.
  • Launch a home page where I can organize my writings.
  • Start a new Top 100 list for reading/reviewing/blogging.
  • Watch the U.S. move toward a more non-interventionist military policy.
  • Do more blogging on Paul's New Testament epistles.
  • Witness the world come together to advance the cause of environmental sustainability.
  • Live in a world that moves closer toward empowering the poor and oppressed.

Friday, January 01, 2010

A Thousand Slendid Suns

“every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief”

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a novel that is at once both brutal and beautiful. Khaled Hosseini presents us with two ordinary Afghan women whose lives are extraordinary through their response to suffering.

From a certain point of view, we can read this novel as though we were perched high in the sky observing the intersection of several crossfires. One crossfire is that of Afghanistan itself, war torn and demolished by conflict. These are the real, literal bullets that rip holes in homes and leave children fatherless and mothers childless. Yet these bullets are often provided by nations that are many miles away, safe from the destruction, safe to play political games with a faceless people group.

This larger crossfire stretches from the former Soviet Union to the United States of America. Within this larger crossfire is a smaller, more dangerous crossfire. In this restricted space, the women of Afghanistan are the targets of spiritual, psychological, physical, and religious abuse by men whose pain, frustration, and warped religious fervor find release against the most vulnerable.

But out of the suffering, true character emerges, real love.


“‘And that, my young friends, is the story of our country, one invader after another,’ the driver said, flicking cigarette ash out the window. ‘Macedonians. Sassanians. Arabs. Mongols. Now the Soviets. But we’re like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing. Isn’t that the truth, badar?’”

Kabul is the main backdrop for the novel. The reader walks along the streets of Kabul, visits an orphanage, a women’s prison, and even barters with the vendors in “Titanic City,” a market place that sprang up during the Afghanistan craze over the U.S. film Titanic.

The historical backdrop begins with the communist takeover in 1978, follows the mujahideen rebellion against the communist, the eventual withdrawal of Soviet Troops in 1989 and subsequent warlord rule and in-fighting of the mujahideen, traces the rise and fall of the Taliban and the United States’s post 9/11/01 war and military presence.

This background, however, comes to life. The power of the novel is to give human faces and voices to those who get lost in the political, military, and religious interests. These interests reduce human beings to a means to an end. When people become means to ends, conflict and violence resolutions come more naturally. Internationally, we in the U.S. can play chess for world domination by arming rebellions; domestically, behind the walls of Afghan homes, men can gain the upper hand over their wife with a fist to the face. The approach is the same: dehumanize the other.

Yet the recourse to violence can never deliver what we hope for. Violence begets violence. Jesus said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Ghandi said that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth makes the whole world blind and toothless. Under the Reagan administration, the U.S. armed the mujahideen, which eventually resulted in the rule of the Taliban and deep-seated resentment of U.S. interference in the Middle East. The rise in militant Islam and terrorism came back to haunt the U.S., most obviously in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But more than simply a notion of retribution, the objective of violence (if there is any) fails in that violence dehumanizes the aggressor even more than the victim. We see this clearly in Rasheed. While only a teenager, Mariam is forced to marry the much older Rasheed. At first, Rasheed is hospitable, though certainly coarse and controlling. He takes Mariam around the city and even buys her “a pure gift,” a dark maroon silk shawl with beaded fringes and edges embroidered with gold thread. At first, Mariam balks at this gift. She is reminded of her father, who purchased gifts for her only as a matter of penance, a way to absolve him of the guilt of fathering Mariam, an illegitimate child. But Mariam looks at Rasheed’s face and discerns that he has given her this gift in a moment of vulnerability. He has put something of himself on the line, opened himself with this present. However, this vulnerability and easy manner of Rasheed with devolve into cruel rage and abuse.

When Rasheed realizes that Mariam cannot have children, he sinks into hatred and contempt. He resents Mariam and beats her. His violence turns him inward, away from the possibilities of love. Love could have made him whole. Acceptance could have turned their house into a home.


“Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.”

I was intrigued by the author’s explicit reference to the Disney Pinocchio film. When Mariam is a young girl, her father Jalil enchants her with stories of the movie Pinocchio. Jalil owns a theater and the film is showing. Mariam wants to go see the movie. She wants it so badly that she walks all the way to her father’s village and waits on his doorstep for him. But he will not see her. She sleeps on his doorstep, and he will not receive her.

Through a series of events, Mariam’s trip to see her father results in her being pressured/forced to marry Rasheed. Many years later, in an attempt to reconcile with Mariam, Jalil tries to give her a Pinocchio video.

The Pinocchio motif lends itself well to many elements of the novel. In the Disney film, Pinocchio can become real only if he is brave, truthful, and unselfish. Pinocchio must navigate through temptations in a society where he is still a puppet, not yet human. Mariam, representing the women and mothers of Afghanistan, is viewed by the male-dominated society as sub-human, like a wooden puppet who is not yet a real boy. The country of Afghanistan, as well, could be said to be in pursuit of becoming real; however, having pursued this course by violent means, it has become entrenched and trapped in its own hostility.

“Seasons had come and gone. Presidents in Kabul had been inaugurated and murdered. An empire had been defeated. Old wars had ended, and new ones had broken out. But Mariam had hardly noticed, hardly cared. She had passed these years in a distant corner in her mind, a dry, barren field, beyond wish and lament, beyond dream and disillusionment. There the future did not matter, and the past held only this wisdom: that love was a damaging mistake and its accomplise, hope, a treacherous illusion….”

Mariam’s existence becomes wooden. Over time, she becomes Rasheed’s puppet. He pulls the strings. She stays home. She cooks. She cleans. She becomes Rasheed’s scapegoat, and he beats her when his aggression boils over.

It is love that begins Mariam’s transformation. Laila, the other protagonist in the novel, becomes Rasheed’s second wife. At first, Mariam is jealous and resents her; but eventually Mariam is able to open to Laila and Laila’s little girl, Aziza. Holding Aziza in her arms, she realizes the wonder of the love of a child. In that moment, Mariam becomes a mother.

“Mariam had never before been wanted like this. Love had never been declared to her so guilelessly, so unreservedly….And she marveled at how after all these years of rattling loose, she had found in this little creature the first true connection in her life of false, failed connections.”

Eventually Mariam is fully transformed, and she realizes the full beauty, her true radiance. At the time of her death, she reflects, and she experiences abundant peace.

“Though there had been moments of beauty in it, Mariam knew that life for the most part had been unkind to her. But as she walked the final twenty paces, she could not help but wish for more of it…..She would have liked that very much, to be old and to play with Aziza’s children.
Mariam wished for so much in those final moments, yet as she closed her eyes, it was not regret any longer but a sensation of abundant peace that washed over her. She thought of her entry into this world…a pitiable, regrettable accident, a weed. And yet she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back. She was leaving it as a friend, as a companion, a guardian, a mother. A person of consequence….This was a legitimate end to a life of illegitimate beginnings.
Mariam’s final thoughts were a few words from the Koran that she muttered under her breath.
He has created the heavens and the earth with the truth
He makes the night cover the day and makes the day overtake the night
And he has made the sun and the moon subservient
Each one moves on to an assigned term
Now surely he is the mighty, great forgiver

For me, this was the most profound moment in the novel. I hesitate to include it in a review; the words feel so sacred, and taking them from their context almost feels inappropriate. Perhaps it is. But these words lead us to something deeply touching about humanity.

Love, Violence, and Hope

“Let me tell you something. A man’s heart is a wretched, wretched thing Mariam. It isn’t like a mother’s womb. It won’t bleed, it won’t stretch to make room for you.”

In our search for something more real, we human beings seem to find it in the face of love. And yet it is love that we so often cannot find. Some consciously seek love, some only seek love in very indirect ways. Some, like Rasheed, become so lost in their own despair and illusions that they wander far from love, and far from even any sense of the healing power of love.

I am struck that despite the fact that love is so often that which we seek, it is also that which so easily escapes us. We often try to control love, but love is beyond control. We try to manipulate others to gain love. We make ourselves loveable, or we give to others, hoping to earn love; but pure love will always elude manipulation. In frustration, we may try to force love, but love can never be won with violence. In resignation, we may withdraw and close ourselves to love, believing we are not worthy, believing love cannot be found.

Love is a surprise. We must open our hearts to love, but never try to grasp it.

For me, the most startling element of the story of Christ is that God would incarnate, emptying God of Deity. God chooses to demonstrate the nature of love by giving up control of love. Rather, Christ dies. This act of sacrifice asks nothing in return. Religion tries to capture this love in salvation formulas, creeds, or other forms of institutional control. But the act of love asks nothing, demands nothing, expects nothing. Christ’s love even defies Christianity’s attempt to contain it in its own religion. Christ’s love is only the openness of vulnerability. Love gives up its own love. Love opens its hands, neither clinging to others nor rejecting them. “Love always hopes.”

“It hurt to talk. Her jaw was still sore. Her back and neck ached. Her lip was swollen and her tongue kept poking the empty pocket of the lower incisor that Rasheed had knocked loose two days before. Before Mamee and Babee had died and her life turned upside down, Laila would never that a human body could withstand this much beating, this viciously, this regularly, and keep functioning.” (Laila)

Through all of the brutality of the novel, there is beauty. Mariam is “like a rock in a river enduring without complaint, her grace not sullied but shaped by the turbulance that washes over her.” There is “something deep in her core” that Rasheed and the Taliban cannot see—something hard like a block of limestone…“something that will be her undoing and Laila’s salvation.”

Despite the graphic violence, the novel ends with a sense of hope. But this hope is seasoned and wise. If Afghanistan (or any country) continues on a violent course, if the nations of the world see it as a political playground, then more violence will probably occur, more pain, more destruction and devastation. The situation is fragile. The hope, however, is living. It shines, like a thousand splendid suns in the radiance of the women who have endured the most suffering.

The novel closes with a sense from Laila about the fragile hope she has for the future and a poem by Hafiz:

Joseph shall return to Canaan, grieve not
Hovels shall turn to rose gardens, grieve not
If a flood should arrive to drown all that’s alive
Noah is your guide in the typhoon’s eye, grieve not