David Bentley Hart, from The Doors of the Sea

A lovely passage from the conclusion of The Doors of the Sea, wherein David Bentley Hart addresses the how can a good God allow suffering? question:

[W]e Christians are not obliged (and perhaps not even allowed) to look upon the devastation of that day – to look, that is, upon the entire littoral rim of the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal and upper Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children – and to attempt to console ourselves or others with vacuous cant about the ultimate meaning or purpose residing in all that misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces – whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance – that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. And we are not only permitted but required to believe that cosmic time as we know it, through all the immensity of its geological ages and historical epochs, is only a shadow of true time, and this world only a shadow of the fuller, richer, more substantial, more glorious creation that God intends; and to believe also that all of nature is a shattered mirror of divine beauty, still full of light, but riven by darkness…

When, however, we learn in Christ the nature of our first estate, and the divine destiny to which we are called, we begin to see – more clearly the more we are able to look upon the world with the eye of charity – that there is in all the things of earth a hidden glory waiting to be revealed, more radiant than a million suns, more beautiful than the most generous imagination or most ardent desire can now conceive. Or, rather, it is a glory not entirely hidden: veiled, rather, but shining in and through and upon all things… At [disastrous] times, to see the goodness indwelling all creation requires a labor of vision that only a faith in Easter can sustain; but it is there, effulgent, unfading, innocent, but languishing in bondage to corruption, groaning in anticipation of a glory yet to be revealed, both a promise of the Kingdom yet to come and a portent of its beauty.

Finished reading: some history, some sci-fi, some theology

The history:

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough

An interesting read about Paris – astonishingly vibrant in the mid-1800s – and the notable Americans who visited or migrated there. McCullough paints a portrait of art, science, and culture flourishing in ways that inspired the visiting Americans. It’s not the most engaging book I’ve read from McCullough – it particularly seems to drift off in the last third – but it was still an interesting look into a time I was unfamiliar with.

The sci-fi:

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The follow-up to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet which I reviewed earlier. A Closed and Common Orbit follows a sentient Artificial Intelligence program, designed to inhabit and run a spaceship, as it adapts to being in a body and interacting with the world around it in a more limited way. This is a great little book that I had a very hard time putting down.

The theology:

The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart

This little volume is an expansion of a couple essays that Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart wrote as a response to the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. How could a good and loving God – if such exists – allow such suffering?

I’ve been steeped in Calvinist teaching on this sort of question for a couple decades now and always really struggled with it. Hart, certainly no Calvinist, here provides an alternate view: a God so expansive and powerful that He is willing to give His creation autonomy and yet still work through and around their mess to work out His ultimate purpose. This gives us the freedom to truly rage at the brokenness of the world while at the same time hoping for its restoration.

And with apologies to my Reformed brethren who are reading this and itching to provide me with corrections to Hart, in about 50 small pages Hart has drawn for me an answer to the “How can a good God allow suffering?” question than I’ve heard in 20 years of Calvinist teaching. I’ll post separately with a couple excerpts.

Happiness as Human Flourishing: Matthieu Ricard on On Being

I’ve read Christian authors from time to time who seem to be flirting with Buddhism – I guess I’m thinking primarily of Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr – and I’ve never really understood the appeal.

Then yesterday while mowing the lawn I listened to Krista Tippett’s interview with Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and was captivated. In an hour discussion (I listen to On Being’s unedited versions, always) Ricard shared thought after thought about human flourishing and connectedness and joy and contentment that, with just the tweaking of a few phrases, could’ve been directly from Christian teaching.

Now, nobody freak out, I’m not off to shave my head buy a robe and become a monk. But if you have a spare hour, this interview was well worth listening to.

Yep, still reading…

A few more books I’ve completed lately:

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson tells the stories of many death row inmates he has represented over the years. He makes a compelling case that the justice system is broken for many of these people, documenting gross negligence of counsel, biased law enforcement and judicial systems, and abhorrent treatment inside of prisons. While the inmate whose story forms the through line of the book has a positive outcome, many, many do not. Sobering.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

A workmanlike path through the immense de facto segregation endorsed by the US government in the early part of the 20th century. It is stunning to understand how zoning laws and public financing were used as weapons to ensure that African Americans were kept out of white neighborhoods. America still has a lot of history to own up to.

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones

Completing my bleak trilogy is this account of the rise of OxyContin and heroin addiction over the past decade. The parallels of aggressive heroin marketing by drug producers from one small location in Mexico and the aggressive OxyContin marketing to doctors and patients even after serious concerns were raised about addiction are remarkable. Quite a horror.

OK, so my reading hasn’t all been bleak reading on social issues…

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

A near-future sci-fi in which Doctorow explores the benefits of a communal maker culture. Interesting ideas, but reminds me a little too much of Heinlein – characters having long conversations about the ins and outs of the philosophical position, too much unnecessary sex.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Now this is a fun little fantasy novel. Space adventure in a ship with a diverse, multi-species crew. Easy and fun to read. I have the second book in the series on reserve at the library… any time now, folks.

Bullet points for a Friday morning

Hey, it’s Friday.

  • The weather is really too nice to be sitting in the office all day today. I might have to do something about that.
  • My oldest daughter is in the College for Kids program at Coe College this week and next. One of the classes she’s taking is Web Design, and I had a proud nerd dad moment when she told me she was ahead of the rest of the class because she already knew some HTML.
  • It’s amazing how a shower, shave, some weights at the gym, and it being FRIDAY helps a guy’s general outlook.
  • Reading through Matthew in my reading plan the past couple weeks and I have started highlighting every place that Jesus heals someone. I have green highlights now on almost every page. Setting things right, indeed.
  • The back-and-forth the past few days over Eugene Peterson’s comments regarding homosexuality and gay marriage have been enlightening and saddening. I feel mostly like the big evangelical machine took advantage of an old saint who deserves better treatment. Ugh.
  • How is it mid-July already?
  • My friend Lyz wrote this piece a couple years ago about her sisters and a major car accident. It’s a beautiful piece of writing.
  • It’s been a fairly quiet summer event-wise, but in September Becky and I have tickets for concerts two weekends in a row: U2 in St. Louis, and Andrew Peterson’s Rich Mullins tribute concert in Nashville. Now to figure out what we’re doing with the kids.
  • I’m leading worship this weekend, but apparently I haven’t thought much about it yet because the worship leader disaster dreams haven’t started yet. Probably tonight.
  • There’s a lot of pain in this world. Be kind.

Finished reading: a few more…

Summertime seems to make it hard to get through too many, but here are a few more books that I’ve finished over the past few weeks…

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler

Ohler’s book is partly a technical explanation of the development of opiates and methamphetamines by German pharmaceutical companies and partly a chronicle of Hitler’s descent into the hell of addiction. A stunning picture of horror and madness.

The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together by Jared C. Wilson

A beautiful little volume that calls readers back to the spiritual disciplines in a way that is gracious and encouraging.

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson

I’ve posted several quotes from this book already, and should really queue up several more. Robinson’s essays are so thoughtful and engaging. Finding someone who unashamedly professes a belief in orthodox Christianity while at the same time discussing that faith in terms and from angles that are far outside traditional theological writing is a huge treat. Destined to be one of my favorite books of the year.

Nineteen

Nineteen years ago today Becky and I were married. If I search back through the archives on this blog I’m sure I’d find that I have used the same phrases almost every year. Yes, it was a hot day. Yes, we were young. No, we really didn’t know what we were getting into.

But nineteen years later I can say I have been immeasurably blessed by having Becky as my wife and best friend. Three kids, four homes, a dozen or so cats, and hundreds of softball games later we are stronger, closer, and more content than I think we have ever been.

Here’s to many, many more. Years, that is. And softball games. (Maybe not too many more cats?)

Finished Reading: People to Be Loved by Preston Sprinkle

I’ve honestly been avoiding books on the topic of Christian views on homosexuality because I’ve become so familiar and fatigued with the arguments over the past decade. But this one by Preston Sprinkle caught my attention and was on sale cheap at the time on Amazon, so I downloaded it to my Kindle app and gave it a go.

Sprinkle sets out to take an evenhanded look through the Bible at the various key texts that have been used to argue for both the Affirming and Non-Affirming positions regarding homosexual practice. I’ll give him credit – for the majority of the book he was even enough that I had no real inkling of which side he was going to come down on. Well done!

The beginning of the chapter seven wherein he finally reaches a conclusion (spoiler alert: he’s in the Non-Affirming camp) is where the shine started to come off. Not because of the conclusion he reached, but because of how he addresses 1 Corinthians 6. What do malakoi and arsenokoites really mean? How should they be translated? “Affirming scholars”, he tells us, “generally argue that these words are too ambiguous.” OK. A “brilliant New Testament scholar at Yale University” concludes that nobody can really know exactly what they mean. Later on about arsenokoites, he tells us that “[s]cholars differ widely on what this word means”. But after setting this scene of ambiguity, he essentially says what do these words mean? Let me explain it all to you in 20 pages in a popular-level book. He lost me at that point.

There is good stuff to take away from Sprinkle’s book regardless of which camp you find yourself in. I appreciate his focus on loving individuals rather than flattening them to “an issue”. And if you’re not familiar with the various approaches Christians have taken toward Scriptures related to homosexuality, there are worse places to start than this book to get an overview. I can’t find myself jumping-up-and-down-excited about People to Be Loved, but I can affirm (sorry, couldn’t resist) it as a solid, useful volume.

People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue

15-year-old Chris would be in disbelief

File this under “things that would’ve stunned the 15-year-old Chris”.

As a teenager, the evangelical Christian culture we were in lionized people like Jay Sekulow. He founded the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which was out there fighting against the secular world to protect Christians’ rights. He argued and won a 9-0 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed Jews for Jesus could distribute evangelistic pamphlets at Los Angeles International Airport. A sterling example for Christian young people to look up to.

At the same time, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was spoken of with disgust. Anti-Christian. There to take away our religious liberty. Thank God we have people like Jay Sekulow to fight them on our behalf.

Fast-forward 25 years.

We now have a President who has been described by Jerry Fallwell Jr. as “evangelicals’ dream president”. In that president’s flurry of anti-immigrant activity, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is now looking to deport more than 100 Iraqi Christians, most of whom have been in the country legally for many years, and send them back to Iraq where they are a heavily persecuted minority.

Wait, what? Christians immigrants being deported? Where are the religious liberty groups like the ACLJ and our brave heroes like Jay Sekulow?

Oh, that’s right: Sekulow is currently a part of the President’s legal team and is making the rounds of the Sunday news talk shows arguing with TV hosts about why the President’s tweets saying “I am under investigation” don’t really mean that he’s under investigation.

And who is standing up for the Iraqi Christians?

The ACLU.

Yes, I know all the objections that will come back to this. Not all evangelicals. Franklin Graham actually broke with the President on this one. Some of the deportees have criminal records. The ACLU supports some causes I disapprove of. Etc, etc.

But really, this is such a stunning reversal of positions (or at least, my perception of those positions) over the past couple decades that it’s enough to set my head spinning. It also makes me happy to have set up a recurring monthly donation to the ACLU.

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8, NIV

The extraordinary moment…

Again from Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things, from a chapter titled “Proofs”, a paragraph (which I am splitting up for online readability) about the extraordinary experience of Christian preaching:

The great importance in Calvinist tradition of preaching makes the theology that gave rise to the practice of it a subject of interest. As a layperson who has spent a great many hours listening to sermons, I have an other than academic interest in preaching, an interest in the hope I, and so many others, bring into the extraordinary moment when someone attempts to speak in good faith, about something that matters, to people who attempt to listen in good faith.

The circumstance is moving in itself, since we poor mortals are so far enmeshed in our frauds and shenanigans, not to mention our self-deceptions, that a serious attempt at meaning, spoken and heard, is quite exceptional. It has a very special character. My church is across the street from a university, where good souls teach with all sincerity – the factually true, insofar as this can really be known; the history of nations, insofar as this can be faithfully reported; the qualities of an art, insofar as they can be put into words.

But to speak in one’s own person and voice to others who listen from the thick of their endlessly various situations, about what truly are or ought to be matters of life and death, this is a singular thing. For this we come to church.