Dead Man’s Faith

20 April 2017

Greetings, all. The following is a shameless self-promotion. You have been warned.

My Th.M. thesis, Dead Man’s Faith: Spiritual Death, Faith, and Regeneration in Ephesians 2:1-10 is now available in print at a pretty reasonable price. You can find it on Amazon here

Fair warning; it is, literally, a master’s thesis. This means that it was not actually intended for human consumption; it was written to satisfy the arcane folkways of the academic guild. But there is a new foreword that will help you navigate to the parts that are relevant to you.

I am releasing it in this form because I’ve sat on it for 10 years, and I don’t know that I’ll ever get round to a rewrite that would bring it up to date and make it more accessible. At the moment, I have at least a half dozen projects that are more beneficial to the Kingdom of God, and so I’m devoting my effort to those instead. (By the way, you can find that stuff at Headwaters Christian Resources. If you were intrigued/infuriated by The Benedict Option, look for a new book in a few weeks. Fair warning: like all our stuff, this one will leave the high-concept theological debates for later, and put you to work.)

Ahem. Anyway, if you really want to understand either Ephesians 2:1-10 as a text, or BAR outlining as an exegetical tool, this is the best resource going at the moment (he said, modestly). And with respect to the latter, it may be the best resource available in print for some time to come — I don’t know when we’ll get round to producing an actual manual.  It’s on the radar, but all the people who could actually do it are tied up with other things, and likely to remain that way for some time. If you’re not friends with one of us already, this is the resource for you. 


A Moldy Kitchen Sponge Is Not A Grapefruit

12 April 2017

So The Shack recently became a movie, and came back onto my radar. Back in the day, Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a critique of the book that recently made the rounds again in response to the movie, and which you can read here. I might have passed over all this, but he subtitled his review “The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment.” I’ve been working on a theology of discernment, and this is a good chance to discuss it a little. 

I’m going to be kind of rough on Mohler, so lest I fall into the trap of just criticizing things other people write, I’d like to ante up a review of The Shack that I largely agree with. I think you’ll find it worthwhile. Now as to Mohler….

Mohler’s crankiness is why evangelicals can’t have nice things. We wonder why we can’t get another C. S. Lewis? This is why. Anybody as smart as another Lewis can see the Mohler Treatment coming, and is steering well clear of us.

As Mohler said, The Shack is not only a novel, it’s a sustained theological argument. Insofar as it is teaching doctrine — and it certainly is — “It’s fiction!” doesn’t magically render it immune to critique. Young’s doctrine could stand a good, stiff critique, and it’s a shame Mohler fails to deliver. On one hand, he picks at fictional devices in a way that would damn the parables of Jesus Himself. (A friend pointed out to me that the parable of the prodigal son features a permissive, non-judgmental father who — horrors! — represents God, and a lascivious wrench of a son who achieves reconciliation with the father without recourse to Jesus.) On the other hand, Mohler is flat wrong when it comes to, say, the reconciliation of creation to God. Mohler points an accusing finger at The Shack, and all I can think is, “But the Bible actually *says* that.” (Col. 1:20 comes to mind.)

Then there’s the matter of that subtitle. Here’s the problem: Mohler’s “discernment” isn’t. Mohler’s article is not discernment the way a moldy kitchen sponge is not a grapefruit. It’s not that he’s discerning poorly; he has not yet begun the actual task of discernment. He is criticizing, certainly, but that’s not the same thing.

Biblical discernment, the way Jesus actually said to do it, evaluates the fruit. Good fruit, good tree. Bad fruit, bad tree. But Mohler isn’t looking for fruit; he’s testing for doctrinal “purity” from the heights of his ivory armchair. Mohler cites not one person who actually came away from The Shack with a warped view of God. Not one counseling session where he’s had to clean up The Shack‘s mess. Not one actual, real-world, bad result. He’s like a restaurant critic who reads the chef’s recipes and then writes the reviews without ever tasting the food. Might be good, might be bad — but would you take his word for it?

Meanwhile, down here in the trenches, I know actual, real people whose view of God was dramatically reformed by reading The Shack. People who had seen God as a scowling meanie eager to punish, or an impersonal force, came to know God as a Person — Three, actually — who really loves them. Faced with this reality that God actually accomplished in the real world — am I emphasizing my point enough here? — I can either be cranky because I think Young should have done better, or I can give thanks. I choose to give thanks. It’s good fruit.

Perfect fruit? Of course not. But good nonetheless. 

Not good enough to suit you? Write something better. But don’t let Mohler read it….

Pathologizing Half the Country

12 November 2016

This article started with a simple plea on Facebook the morning after the election: “As we watch the results of pathologizing half the country roll in, can we please not double down on that?”

A friend didn’t understand what I meant and asked for an explanation. I made my initial try at explaining it in that Facebook conversation, and I’m trying to expand a little on that here. 

I learned this particular leadership lesson at the micro level, serving in a small church. In church leadership, you lead most of the time by taking the best direction that the convictions of your people will allow — which often means putting off (what you believe to be) the actual best choice for a more opportune time. You settle for second best, or third, or a distant fourth best option, because it’s the best option that your people can support right now. 

Sometimes you’re right about what’s best. Sometimes you’re dead wrong, and your people know better than you do. But in the moment it doesn’t really matter who’s right; what matters is the best option that you can agree on together.

Since that’s the case, most of your leadership comes from persuasion, changing the culture first and then making policy changes when people are ready — in other words, reformation rather than revolution. That takes a lot of patience. It always feels glacially slow, but it produces healthy, lasting change. And crucially, you don’t have to blow up your relationships in the process. (Or shoot anyone. Actual revolutions suck, guys. Stop wishing for one.)

Patience. Policy follows persuasion; it doesn’t lead it. 

Now if you’ve earned the trust of your people, then every once in a great while you can make an executive decision in policy that’s decidedly outside their comfort and convictions. You can get away with that every once in a while because while they don’t agree with you, they trust your judgment in the short term. If it works out well, then maybe you can do it again. If it doesn’t work out well, then they trust your judgment less the next time. 

The problem is, every leader is tempted to haste, to just make policies without persuading. It’s so much easier. And if you got away with the policy-first approach last time, the temptation becomes exponentially more powerful.You begin to think about how hard it will be to change your people’s convictions, and how long it’s going to take, and how much quicker and easier it will be to just change the policy and enforce it. You have the reins of power, don’t you? Why not just do it? They went along with it last time, didn’t they? Why work so much harder to change their minds first? Surely they’ll fall into line once they see the results of the good decision…. But they don’t. Not if you make a habit of it.

If you give in to the temptation, people may not leave, but they will stop volunteering, stop donating, stop participating. They may show up, but they’re not really part of the movement anymore. And you can tell the difference. First the energy goes away, then you have trouble getting things done, then they get sullen on you. So then you get mad at them for not going along with “the best option.” You resent them, and you do your best to make them feel that they’re bad people if they don’t get on board with whatever the worthy cause du jour happens to be. And again, it doesn’t really matter how worthy the cause is at this point. Your people may be totally wrong, or they may have well-founded objections you haven’t thought about. At this point, it makes no difference — they’re going to resent you. And they should, because you’ve quit serving and gone full church-lady on them. 

You’re no longer trying to engage their hearts and minds and persuade them; you’re just trying to club them into line. You’re abusing your power instead of serving them, and they aren’t going to stand for it forever. 

Trump’s constituency is a coalition of people who have been ignored, dictated to, and clubbed into line by the ruling class for a couple of decades. Their leaders made trade deals that made their lives objectively worse, the the ruling class simply didn’t care. Any objections were written off as so much xenophobic raving.

The same thing happened with every change. Anytime they objected to whatever the “best thinking” handed down from on high, they were mocked, vilified, called racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and so on. It’s gotten to where there is literally no way they can even say their reservations out loud without being roasted alive for their “hurtful” language — and the substance of their reservations is simply ignored. It is simply assumed that they can have no meaningful objections to “progress,” that all their reservations arise as a result of shameful psychological disorders. That they are, in short, horrible human beings who need to just shut the hell up and do what they are told. 

And you know what? Some of them are. Many of them are not. All of them resent being denied the simple human dignity of being heard and included in the conversation — and why shouldn’t they? Do you want to be treated that way?

(And let’s face it, it’s not like Trump fans have a monopoly on being deplorable. Watch some YouTube videos of gangs of thugs beating down a guy in a Trump hat. Or vandalizing Trump’s star on the Hollywood walk of fame, and beating the homeless black woman who tried to stop them. We all have it in us to be deplorable — let’s not yield to the impulse, ok?)

So if we now respond to the election with, “OMG, I had no idea so many Americans were… [*ist, *phobic, fill in your pathologizing epithet of choice] — we are doubling down on the church-lady behavior that incited the Trump revolt to start with. There were more reasonable options for president. But if we refuse to reason with half the country, they are going to stop trying to reason with us. Trump is not a reasoned argument, he’s a bulldozer, sent to Washington by people who are tired of being bulldozed by the ruling class.

If the Trump voters think they can simply relax because their bulldozer won, they’re making the same mistake. If you’re on either side of the line, guys, half the country does not agree with you. You need to understand and appreciate them, or we just keep fighting over the reins instead of finding common ground. We can’t just keep fighting over who’s going to dictate terms, and who will be vilified, bullied, and ignored. Let me tell you, that doesn’t end well for anyone. We have to have an actual conversation. On all sides.

And we can. 

Christians have every reason to be leading the conversation. We are all united by the same Spirit, commanded to come in peace to the same Table. We are called to be of one mind. We aren’t, but we know how to get there. Sit. Tell the truth about what’s in your heart. Stay at the table to hear the response — no parting shots allowed. Expect to discover a need to repent. About what? I don’t know, but I know there will be something. There always is. When you reach a good stopping point, give everybody a hug, go home, and pray for each other. Repeat. Again. Keep repeating, until heaven comes to earth.

All Too Human

22 June 2016

So the truth slowly emerges in bits and pieces: Omar Mateen was not a one-dimensional caricature. He was not just “the Orlando nightclub shooter.” He was a real human being with complex motives he may not have fully understood himself. He felt used by others and was deeply wounded as a result. He was filled with pain and self-loathing. He sought salvation in jihadi martyrdom. At least these three things seem to be true, and there may be many other angles as well. 
It is comforting to say he is other than we are: perhaps you are not homosexual, or not Muslim, let alone jihadi Muslim. It is comforting, but it is also false. “Nothing human is foreign to me,” or in the biblical idiom, “Every temptation that has overtaken you is common to mankind” — as true for him as it is for me, or you.Which of us has never hated ourselves for things that we find ourselves unable to change? Which of us has never lashed out at someone else for exhibiting the traits we most dislike in ourselves? Which of us has never acted with total disregard for others because at that moment, we were so involved in our own pain that we had no room for loving anyone else? Which of us has not sought to hurt someone back, to give as good as we got? To be sure, most of us use words and petty slights, not bullets, but that’s a difference of degree, not of kind. 
The tragedy is not that Omar Mateen was so unlike us. The tragedy is that he was exactly like us. The tragedy is that there is an answer, and we didn’t reach him with it in time.

Sacramental Causality

30 October 2015

Language and the is/is not of metaphor are both fundamental to the nature of ultimate reality. If you’ve seen Jesus (the Word), you’ve seen the Father…and yet the Word is not the Father. The creation is metaphor come to life, the infinite glory of God rendered by the spoken Word in finite matter. Like much great art, it is impossible in principle, believable only as a fait accompli.
We can interact with the creation through natural causality, the sort of thing the scientists deal with, or we can interact with the creation through word and metaphor. Blessings and sacraments operate by word and metaphor, respectively. When I pronounce a blessing on someone, there is nothing about vibrations in the air that causes their life to improve — no physical causality. That which I speak becomes real because it was spoken. When I eat the bread and drink the wine of the Lord’s Table, it’s just bread and wine — run any materials analysis you want. And then again, it’s not. Christ is really present to me in the elements, and we are the Body of Christ in the world because we are what we eat.

Magic is an attempt to hijack the spoken and sacramental nature of reality. Casting a spell operates on the same principle as blessing: that which I speak becomes real. A voodoo doll operates on the same principle as the Lord’s Table: enacted metaphor changes the world. Perversions, to be sure, but they operate on the same principles.

The modern-day magicians’ error is in thinking that the principles are the ultimate reality — that there are “laws of magic.” But that is an attempt to reduce the world to impersonal principles, and the word-and-metaphor structure of reality is irreducibly relational. I can encounter the risen Christ as I eat the bread and drink the cup because He promises that it is His body and blood. There is a promise of God that undergirds the action, and it works because God is trustworthy.

No such promise of God applies to making a voodoo doll. But then, God is not the only agent with whom one could develop a relationship. The difference between a modern “laws of magic” practitioner and a traditional witch doctor is that the witch doctor understands that all reality is personal. If a witch doctor is able to extract a promise from an unclean spirit, and if the spirit keeps that promise, then the voodoo doll works. This is the principle of the witch doctor: he makes an agreement with powerful spirits that will do certain things in exchange for sacrifices and favors. They will even sometimes exorcise less powerful spirits. The “laws of magic” practitioner does not understand that he’s doing the same thing, and certain unclean spirits are happy to help him maintain his self-deception.

But does natural causality actually work any differently than sacramental causality, or is the atheistic scientist simply making the same mistake as the “laws of magic” practitioner? 

Let’s think it through. When you drop a plate of salad, why does it fall down instead of up? Because of gravity, right? But “because gravity” is not an explanation. You’re just slapping a noun on the phenomenon, applying a label. Great, you call it “gravity.” But why does it do that? 

Well, because objects attract one another in direct proportion to the square of their masses and inversely proportional to the distance between them. That’s a little better as an explanation — it’s a general statement of the principle that covers the movement of planets as well as the movement of a dropped plate of salad. But it’s still just a precise description of what happens. Same question: Why does it do that?

You can translate that natural-language description to the artificial language of mathematics and write it out as an equation, but that still doesn’t answer the question of why it happens that way. In the end, you believe that it is just there, or you believe that God decreed it to be so — which is to say, there is a promise of God undergirding it.  (If you go with “just there,” then you are stuck with no reason to believe that gravity will work tomorrow — the problem of induction as aptly stated by David Hume — but that’s a topic for another day.)

So the real difference between sacrament and natural law is that sacraments expose the nature of things as they really are. With natural law, you have to drill down through layers of mechanisms before you get to the point where you find yourself face to face with the divine decree. In the sacraments, the decree of God is right on the surface, reminding you with Whom you’re dealing — in all your dealings.

Freak Fall: A Preliminary Review

30 September 2015

 I plan to review Freak Fall in more depth  in a few weeks, but I want to start with a spoiler-free basic review. Stay tuned for more discussion later, but in the meantime, get over to Amazon and pick up your copy today.

 When teacher Mark Hanson heads to his family’s cabin in the Colorado Rockies for an uneventful spring break of snowshoeing, reading, and craft beer, he has no idea that his life is about to be altered forever. Twenty-four hours later, Mark has become the sole witness to a terrorist attack — one of a coordinated series all over the globe — and the unlikely companion to that attack’s sole survivor, a man who comes to be known as Freak.

The Freak believes he was miraculously delivered from certain death to deliver a divine message to the world. Mark isn’t so sure. Is the Freak a miracle, or is he just lucky and deluded? Decide for yourself….

Through Mark’s very fallible eyes, we see a story unfold that could come from tomorrow’s headlines. A page-turner from end to end, Freak Fall delivers compelling characters caught up in an unpredictable story. Whether it’s a supernatural thriller about the end of the world or a psychological study of survivor’s guilt and deep delusion, it will be worth your time. Pick it up — you won’t put it down.

An Introduction to Spiritual Disciplines

17 September 2015

I had occasion to address Mosaic Church on the subject of spiritual disciplines. In this sermon, I don’t present a bunch of options so much as I aim for the heart of what makes a life of spiritual discipline that moves us closer to God instead of just building a better Pharisee. I hope you find it helpful.