Saturday, November 15, 2008

Perspective shift

So I've still been reading this book, A New Kind of Christian, and I've been trying to think of when it was, primarily, that my perspective really shifted. I know it was gradual, but by the time I was done with college, I no longer felt at home in most church experiences, specifically, most sermnizing that I found. Then I stepped into Solomon's porch, where the pastor could freely admit that he didn't know if something in the Bible meant one thing or another or could say that he didn't think a portion of the bible was really relevant to the way we were doing things now, and all the practices were a creation in themselves, liturgies that really meant something, personal stories being shared, everyone sitting in the round, facing one another, music that was written by the community and reflected the journey of that community, art happening continually, and much more. And I stepped into this church, and something within me finally found a home for who I had become. I don't know if I would have felt the same when I was in high school or not, and I guess there's no way to know. I just know that a lot of the ideas in this book are ideas that I've encountered before and actually found embodied or celebrated at Solomon's porch, and they're ideas that I found to fit just where I was theologically and personally.

So I'm trying to discover in my memory, when it was that my perspective shifted.

I remember my Intro to Biblical Studies class, taught by Scot McKnight, when we talked about James, and his assertion that salvation (or justification) is "not only by faith, but also through works." Scot described this passage as a direct, opposing response to Paul's assertion that salvation is "through faith, not by works." I guess it was the first time that I had heard someone in authority on biblical issues act is if the goal were not to synthesize everything into a nice compact whole. In our modern mindsets (modern being a period from around maybe the 1500s to a little while ago) we look at the Bible and try to figure out how they are all saying the same thing, or how they all fit together as a cohesive unit. In class I raised my hand and said something about this, without really knowing what was going on, and I was made to feel quite stupid for it.

The point of that experience was to learn that there are other ways. Even if my teacher had been wrong, it would still show that a man who truly loved God could have a different way of looking at the Bible and still be a man who loved God. As it was I saw that he was pretty much right. People could easily take Paul's words and conclude that they don't have to do good works, and they could be saved anyway. Even Paul didn't go that far and sometimes warned against this, but James probably felt he had to set the record straight, and make the truth plain - no, you have to have good works. If you don't that so-called "faith" that you've been saved through doeasn't mean squat.

So maybe that was a big part of the shift for me. And throughout my education in Biblical studies, along with my own personal reading time, I came to a different understanding of how to read the bible, and I developed a kind of aversion to systematic theology.

Another example, and I believe this must have been around the same time, I was in a C.S.Lewis class, and in it we were required to do a paper on anything C.S.Lewis. I went to the library and picked up a book that I had never noticed before, called "the Great Divorce." In the Great Divorce, Lewis creates an afterlife and focuses on people going to hell. In this hell, the world is much the same, only without God in it. People live on the earth and go about their days, drifting further and further apart from one another and winding up in eventual misery. But in this hell there is a bus, a flying bus that anyone can take up to heaven. Woo-hoo, a bus to heaven. When they get to the outskirts of heaven, they're met by a number of angels and heaven dwellers, who offer to lead them up into the great city. But first there's a bit of discourse. First of all, the ground itself is so real, so strong, so incredibly lively, that it is too hard to walk on. The grass bites up through their shoes, the sun is too bright, the rain is too wet, that kind of thing. Their hosts tell them that they'll soon grow into it as they travel, and they'll learn to enjoy it, but this dilemma is in itself enough to send several people back on the bus. Other people have other problems with heaven. Some of them don't want to live under God's rules, they want to live however they pleased, just like they did on earth. Others are looking for Nirvana and refuse to accept their predicament as reality. Pretty much everybody has a problem with heaven, and everybody gets back on the bus and goes back down to hell, where they're free to live out their miserable existence as they please.

On the one hand, this story might pass under the radar of those who will look at it and go, "yeah, that's right. Everybody who goes to hell belongs there." But if you look at it carefully, you can see that's a very subversive idea in our modern contexts. First of all it's saying that the afterlife is not just a verdict and a sentence based on one certain infraction or another, which is how we like to see it in modern Christianity. You've done wrong, you go to hell, and without Jesus to step in and bring you to heaven, you're doomed. It's really a harsh metaphor, and it's one I find disturbing. I much prefer the loving father metaphor, who wants all of his prodigal sons to return and welcomes them with open arms. This story suggests that that love may continue after death.

So I ended up writing my paper on this book. I stayed in that library until like 3 in the morning, reading it. And I ended up mulling over the story for years to come. I consider it a shift in my focus, one that I think I had been longing for. Life was no longer just about heaven and hell, like so many modern evangelicals would have it. Rather, heaven and hell were merely about life. What we did and who we became in this life suddenly became incredibly important. Other religions seemed to have important things to say, now, because they weren't just all wrong, any more than we were all right. It wasn't just about being wrong or right. It was about becoming more real or less real. It was about becoming people who could walk in the reality of that kind of a heaven. And it was about welcoming others instead of ostracizing them. I wondered if there were those who did not know Jesus, who would get to this heaven and say, "okay, I think I can do this." I wondered if Ghandi, who said positive things about Jesus and merely disliked his followers, would get off the bus, find a heaven that he has yearned for throughout life and take the trek up to the city of God.

Those two examples were just my freshman year. I remember going home at some points throughout college and talking theology with my mom and dad, who worried about having sent their son to "that liberal school," but who nonetheless were the best parents one could have and entrusted me to God's care, I think for the better.

Anyway, there is a lot here and there is a lot more beneath the surface and there isn't much explanation, so you'd have to read A New Kind of Christian to get more of what I'm talking about. I'm just left in wonder about my life and finding myself in this different place. I mean I was always questioning, growing up. But after college, I found that I had changed, and I don't think I saw all the changes happening even though I was thoroughly aware of the controversies as they happened, I just didn't see it as an overarching push toward a whole new perspective. If someone told me I'd be here, believing these things or not believing others, when I was in high school, I don't know what I would say. I think I had a relatively open mind at that age, for I was able to carry on conversations with people of other religions or no religion at all, without offending them. That in itself I think proves something good about where I was. But life is strange sometimes, and we end up in places we'd never thought we'd be, and sometimes it's better than the places we had dreamed for ourselves.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A New Kind of Christian, initial thoughts.

Recently, I lent my copy of "A New Kind of Christian" to a friend, but it turns out, I never actually got past the second or third chapter, even though I really liked what it said. So yesterday I got the book back, and I started reading it, which wa convenient, because I had just finished reading another book and was wondering what to read next. So I'm reading this book, and it really gets me excited. Seriously, the struggle this guy is having with the transition the church is going through is really cool, because I've thought so many of the same things. And now I'm at the point where I can't even stand church in the old frameworks, but when I imagine a church immersed in different ways of thinking, I actually get teary-eyed. There is something in me now, and I think it has grown in me since even before college, that yearns for a different kind of experience.

Heere's some words from the book that I liked:

"It's not just burnout. It's more like I'm losing my faith - well, not exactly that, but I feel that I'm losing the whole framework for my faith. You know, I keep pushing everything into these little cubbyholes, these little boxes, the little systems I got in seminary and even before that - in Sunday school and summer camp and from my parents. But life is too messy to fit."

"Most modern people love to relativize the viewpoints of the others against the unquestioned superiority of their own modern viewpoint. But in a way you cross the threshold into postmodernity the moment you turn your critical scrutiny from others to yourself, when you relativize your own modern viewpoint. When you do thi, everything changes. It is like a conversion. You can't go back. You begin to see that what seemed like pure objective certainty really depends heavily on a subjective preference for yur personal viewpoint.

A quote from C.S.Lewis:

"It would... be subtly misleading to say, 'the medievals thought the universe to be like that, but we know it to be like this.' Part of what we now know is that we cannot, in the old sense, "Know what the universe is like" and that no model we can build will be, in that old sense, 'like' it.... There is no question here of the old Model's being shattered by the inrush of new phenomena. The truth would seem to be the reverse; that when changes in the human mind produce a sufficient disrelish of the old Model and a sufficient hankering for some new one, phenomena to support that new one will obediently turn up. I do not at all mean that these new phenomena are illusory. Nature has all sorts of phenomena in stock and can suit many different tastes."

Another good spot in the book, a girl is speaking after hearing a lecture from "Neo":

"I don't really have a question, but I just wanted to say that everywhere in my life except here and at church, I think I am postmodern. But I think when I go anyplace religious or Christian, I just sort of switch. It's like I click into my parents' way of thinking for an hour, and then I switch back. It's really cool to think that I might not have to keep switching back and forth and could just be one person all the time."

And one of my favorite spots, which I have tried to say to people with a fraction of the success of this great paragraph.

"I protested: 'Neo, I never said that my interpretations were infallible. I'm just saying that the Bible itself is.' He responded, 'Well, I'm wondering, if you have an infallible text, but all your interpretations of it are admittedly fallible, then you at least have to always be open to being corrected about your interpretations, right?' I was nodding again. Yes. Of course. Neo kept talking. 'So the authoritative text is never what I say about the text or even what I understand the text to say but rather what God means the text to say, right? So the real authority does not reside in the text itself, in the ink on paper, which is always open to misinterpretation - sometimes, history tells us, horrific and dangerous misinterpretation. Instead, the real authority lies in God, who is there behind the text or beyond it or abovie it, right? In other words, the authority is not in what I say the text says but in what God says the text says.'"

the thought continues in a later paragraph

"He continued, 'what if the real issue is not the authority of the text down on this line but rather the authority of God, moving mysteriously up here on a higher level, a foot above the ground? What if the issue isn't a book that we can misinterpret with amazing creativity but rather the will of God, the intent of God, the desire of God the wisdom of God - maybe we could say the kingdom of God?"

These are rich ideas here, but you might need to read the book to really know what i'm saying. Just understand that it's a lot like the woman at the well asking about the debate over which mountain to worship on. Jesus response is at first glance not very helpful, but it is incredibly insightful and very important. He basically makes the case that the argument you're having doesn't even translate into the will of God, because it's God's intention to dwell in your hearts. We take a lot of our disagreements over this little theological tidbit or another, and I think God's often telling us, no, the real issue is greater than that.

So I like the book, and I hope I stick with it this time. I don't exactly know how I came to be here in this place where I find all this talk about transition exciting instead of threatening, but i've been here a while, and I expect it to only get better from here.

Sunday, November 09, 2008


I wrote a short story this summer about Onefist Jel, one of my protagonists in my novel. First I wrote it and sent it in to a critiquing group called critters. It's a good group, and it requires you to critique several other stories before you can get yours onto the list for the week. Anyway, after getting feedback from several critiquers, some good, some not so good, I revised it and began sending it in to different fantasy/fiction magazines, without success.

Sometimes I slack off on the task of sending in submissions, especially after getting frustrated. So after a couple of sendings with either a negative response or no response at all, I forgot about it for a few months, until recently I sent it in again. For the first time, I got a response that was informative, telling me why it was not accepted, what the story lacked or had that was distracting or detracting. The magazine editor was also complimenting, for she mentioned some good things, too. That was the nicest rejection letter I've gotten. She told me I could feel free to resend it after revising the thing, which I have since been inspired to do.

It so happened that while visiting the website for this magazine, I signed the guestbook, and mentioned that the site was rather haphazard. So in respones to this comment, the same editor, emailed me asking what exactly they could do better. It seemed like she could have been a little bit put out by receiving such a remark without specific suggestions or legitimate points (kind of like receiving a rejection letter that doesn't tell you what's wrong with your work. But she also said that if I wrote back with more specific suggestions, she would send me a free copy. I did so, remarking on several ways in which the site needed better organization. It turned out to be a bit of a critique on the site, based on the overall appeal and marketability that people are looking for. It was very much like the writing process, where readers/publishers are looking for a nice package that fits all the rules and is sure to please a majority, but at the same time one wants to be unique and different than all the other stuff out there. It was kind of funny, because she had legitimately told me how my work doesn't fit, and now I was legitimately telling her how hers didn't fit.

So anyway, I've just finished revising/rewriting the short story, Onefist Jel and the Boxer, and I plan to send it back again. I'm wondering if I should send it back through the critique group again. I think I like it. Maybe I'll wait until I get that magazine copy she promised me, and see how my story measure up to the ones in there. That's it for now. It's been a good weekend. I'm hoping the week is great.

Monday, November 03, 2008


Why are both candidates talking about clean coal, when we have the technology to convert to wind and solar energy? Is this really a question anymore? Are we serious? Have we gone so far down this path, that we're not even willing to look?

Maybe I'm getting a lot of mixed messages, but from what I understand of where the technology is at right now, we could be free of these limited resources and be completely reliant on natural, clean energy to power our homes, but we don't because a bunch of corporate executives don't want to lose profits, and that scares everybody who stands to lose a job in the related industry, but come on. What ever happened to progress? What happened to "change?" I want a new system.