Marilynne Robinson

Tonight, I enjoyed an evening listening to Marilynne Robinson speak on The Human Spirit and the Good Society. Robinson won the Pulitzer for Gilead, a read that finds the unique tension of being both peaceful and energetic. I enjoyed Gilead immensely. In addition to her several works of fiction, she is also an essayist and a potent theological voice.

Here are a few of the lines I jotted down this evening:

We have an impulse to conform reality to theory.

We are both terrible and wonderful.

There is no strictly secular language which can translate religious awe.

We are not reproducing a traditional America but rather arming ourselves with an imagination of hostility toward our neighbors.

If you create a symphony, you have done a great thing, but if you are able to sit through a symphony and be moved by it, you have also done a great thing.

If you’d like to read more about Robinson as a writer, Powells has a nice interview, and if you would like to further explore her theological bent, Christianity Today did a recent piece on Marilynne as a “narrative Calvinist” and the Religion and Ethics News Weekly recently interviewed her.

Two Futures: Nukes or No?

A couple years ago, I ran across Tyler Wigg-Stevenson in an article he wrote, “A Merciful White Flash.” Tyler recounted the amazing story of his post-grad years, living under the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge (hilariously, living under his desk) and working for an advocacy group committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons. Tyler was not religious by any means, far from it. But the evil he encountered – and the dire prospects for a world binging on nuclear weaponry – led Tyler to faith. As he said:

Before I became a Christian, I had the worst lunch breaks in the world. They went like this:
Every day I would take my bowl of rice and beans into the noonday sun and sit on the tailgate of my ’87 Ranger, which commanded a billion-dollar view. Armed with the painfully earnest idealism of a new college graduate, I had scored a job at a nonprofit organization located in a house-cum-office just off the southern foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’d sit there in the parking lot, humming Otis Redding, literally at the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away. As I ate, I’d take in the bridge, the Marin headlands, Alcatraz and the East Bay, and the stunning Mediterranean sweep of the San Francisco skyline.
And every day the scenery was swept clean, in my mind’s horrified eye, by the merciless white flash of a nuclear airburst.

I like Tyler. I like his work. I’m thankful for his voice. We’ve traded books (you should check out his recent title on consumer Christianity, Brand Jesus). Now, Tyler leads Two Futures Project, which “dreams a noble dream of reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons from our world.”

Today, he has an opinion piece in the Washington Post. I support Tyler and Two Futures and prayerfully hope for the day when nuclear arsenals will be no more.

The Challenge of Easter {2}

Paul, the Resurrection and the Messianic Movement

{juli kalbaugh}

On this second Monday of Easter, our guide for the second chapter of The Challenge of Easter is Juli Kalbaugh. 

Tell me baby
What’s your story –
Where you come from,
And where you wanna go…?
~Red Hot Chili Peppers

They seem to be everywhere.  The more I look, the more I find.  One on my chin – a dive into home plate.  One on my wrist – chickenpox in second grade.  Several on my legs – falling off my bike, falling in love, falling down… again.  A nice big one on my left knee – ACL torn and remade.  There are also ones that can’t be seen with the eyes.  Some are small.  Others aren’t easily hidden.  Some have a funny story or fond memory.  Others are bathed in shame.  Each one a mark, revealing a little bit of where I have been and who I am.  Signs that I have lived – here and now.  All of them telling a piece of a story – my story.

My mom used to tell me not to worry about some of the especially nasty scars. “They’ll be gone by the time you’re married,” she would assure me.  While I believe my mom had good intentions, I fear something gets missed by easily dismissing part of the story.  I also fear that we, as Christians, have this same sort of sentiment about heaven and earth.  “Don’t worry about it – everything that is here will be gone when you ‘get to heaven’.  It will all be erased and you will be rid of your body!”  It seems good at first glance.  I mean, of course I want to be healed and freed from the hurt and pain and awful things I experience in this life.  And yes, I believe that God can and will do that.  But if the answer is that everything is simply wiped out and heaven is someplace I escape to, away from all that I have known or been or done – then why the hell does anything matter now?

I fear that when we tell God’s story this way we are not telling all of the story.  Surely there must have been something more to Easter than simply an erasing of what has been, more than an escape from earth.  It must have been something that was big enough, deep enough, real enough for the first Christians to have it be, as Wright said, “the ground not only for [their] future hope but for their present work.”  This same reality must also have something to do with us here and with us now.  Perhaps if we take a closer look at Jesus’ resurrection we might be able to tell a bit about God’s heart for the world as well as something about our part in the story.

Jesus’ bodily resurrection reveals that this was not simply, and only, a “soul-saving” work.  Wright puts it another way in his book Surprised by Hope, “[The early Christians] believed that God was going to do for the whole cosmos what he had done for Jesus at Easter.”  The whole cosmos.  All of creation.  Not just part of it.  All of it.  He’s not going to, and didn’t, only redeem the immaterial and spiritual – He has and is renewing the material, the corporeal, the dirty, dusty, messy, earthy stuff too.  He has and is redeeming me and you and all of the marks we have made on our selves and on each other and on this earth – both seen and unseen.

Jesus’ resurrected body holds both continuity and discontinuity with this world – it is similar but radically different.  His resurrected body still has evidence of the wounds and scars He received on earth.  It holds signs of the past –  signs of where He had been and what He had been through.  The resurrection didn’t just erase everything or pretend that it didn’t happen.  After the resurrection Jesus also continues to hold His identity.  The disciples knew who He was, but they also knew that something was drastically changed.  And, in His resurrected state, He continues His relationship with us.

Jesus’ resurrection tells His story – where He came from, who He was, who He is, and also reveals what is to come.  The resurrection is His life made new – not erased, not dismissed – but healed, and glorified, and most true.

Why does it matter that Jesus actually and physically rose from the dead?  Because the resurrection also tells our story – where we have been, what we have done, what has been done to us, and what is to come.  It acknowledges all of who we are.  It says: you – matter.  What you do – matters.  Your body – matters.  What you do to another person – matters.  The earth and how you treat it – matters.

“The present life of the church, in other words, is not about ‘soul-making,’ the attempt to produce or train disembodied beings for a future disembodied life.  It is about working with fully human beings who will be re-embodied at the last, after the model of the Messiah,” says Wright.  So, when Jesus tells us to care for the sick, feed the poor, plant trees, sing songs, paint a picture, restore a house, say you’re sorry – He’s not just telling us to do them so we’ve got something to keep us busy we wait “to go to heaven.”  No, in fact, the Bible says heaven is coming to earth and it started with the resurrection of Jesus. He tells us to do those things because we are invited to be a part of His redemptive work on earth.  It’s because it matters – here.  It matters – now.  It’s because we are a part of the story.  We are a part of building God’s kingdom and what we do matters both now and later.  This is why Paul is able to say, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”  Because what we do and who we are – matters.

So, tell me, baby… what’s your story?  Where have you been?  And where are you going?

Juli and her husband Corey currently live in Charlottesville, VA where she is a resident visual artist at Skylight Studios. Juli will attend Duke Divinity School this fall and hopes to invite people to wrestle through questions about God and issues of theology as viewed through the lens of the arts, the senses, and the imagination.Juli loves nooks and crannies, cheeseburgers, and 80s music. You can keep up with her at EveningSoultide or see more of her art at

Guides for our Easter Readings

I am eager for Easter, eager for life. I’m very much looking forward to reading and chatting about N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Easter here with you. If you haven’t purchased your copy yet, you still can, really. We will discuss chapter one here on Monday – and you can read it in about 15 minutes. 

The Challenge of EasterAlso, Andrew and Tmamome, you won the drawing and haven’t sent me your address. If you still want your copy, let me know ASAP.
One of the things I’m most eager about is having other voices helping us to make this a shared, communal conversation. Each of them will offer a post on one of the chapters (each Monday, beginning this Monday), and I want to introduce them to you.
Nathan Elmore | nathan is a true cohort. He and I worked side by side, dreaming and scheming, in Clemson, SC for almost three years. In those years, he became a brother. He is a man who knows how to properly use the power of metaphor (and that’s saying something). Nathan sees truth (and questions) in things as diverse as fine vino and Jack Black. Nathan doesn’t blog, but (and I’m still processing this) he twitters.
Juli Kalbaugh | juli is the first artist who made me cry because of the beauty and power of her painting. She wrestles hard, loves hard, hopes hard. She and her hubby Corey have been part of our life / family for years and years – and will be for years to come. In fact, they are living with us right now, which is quite a hoot. Juli blogs @ evening soultide.
John Blase | john is the best friend I have that I’ve never actually met. We’ve only connected through the digital reality (in fact, I’m not even sure I’ve ever heard his voice on the phone), but I will tell you this – John and I are kindred spirits. He is my kind of man, my kind of writer. John blogs @ the dirty shame.
Miska Collier | miska is a woman with a fierce heart; she is, in fact – and in every way – the best woman I know. She is a pastor and spiritual director in our little community (All Souls Charlottesville), and when I need to encounter hope or life or Jesus, Miska is very often God’s voice for me. There are people who we say have helped make us who we are – well, I firmly believe that, when my days are done, most of what God will have allowed me to be/say/do will trace its way back to the gift God gave me in Miska.  Miska blogs (but only often enough to make us all feel like she is a tease) @ for the sweet love of god.
Justin Scott | justin is a man of many amazing talents: bangs the keyboard like Ben Folds, opines like David Brooks and works electrical wizardry like someone very famous and electrical-wizardly, but since I know nothing about that field I’m drawing a blank. One of my joys over the last ten years has been watching Justin and Erin step into their place in this world. Justin blogs @ guesswork theory
Will you add your voice too? I hope you will. 
The Resurrection really is the center point in this whole story the Gospel is telling. As Jeroslav Pelikan said, “If Jesus rose from the dead, nothing else matters; and if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, nothing else matters.” 
I wonder if that might be so – and if yes, why? Let’s imagine together…

The Gospel According to Biff

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore (3.5 Stars)

Moore has one of the sharpest, steadiest wits I’ve read. I laughed out loud more in this book than I have in a very long time, probably since Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Moore’s sarcasm is potent, which makes sense – apparently his character Biff invented sarcasm.

However, at times the book drug on for me. The last 80 pages felt a bit like he was just trying to rush to finish, and I was okay with that – I kinda wanted to be done.

This may be the most irreverent book I’ve read, and if you are a person of Christian faith and don’t have space for laughing at ourselves or just wondering what an alternate story might be like (or are uneasy with some seedy scenes), then you should steer clear. But if you want to read a humor writer who will actually make you laugh – and consistently – then you can’t go wrong.

On the faith note, one more thought – Moore intuitively gets it, that Jesus was a person of compassion and justice who would subvert every sort of earthly power. We all seem to know that Jesus was a revolutionary.

Easter Book Conversation

The Challenge of EasterEaster is coming, thank God. In Charlottesville, spring has tempted us the past couple days – downtown and the parks have come alive. I know that Lent has not finished its work with me (does it ever, really?)

I’ve been thinking for a while about some new directions I’d like to take my blog, more on that later. However, here’s something I want to do with you right away. For Easter (remember, it’s a season, not a day – it’s 50 days, in fact), I’d like to have a conversation here on resurrection and what it might mean for us in this crazy world and life we are all finding our way through. To facilitate this, I’d like us to read a book together, The Challenge of Easter by N.T. Wright. It’s only 60-odd pages, 5 chapters we would read over 5 weeks. This book is a more digestible version of his work, The Challenge of Jesus (which is in turn a more digestible version his tome, Jesus and the Victory of God).

Here’s what I propose: each Monday of Easter, let’s gather here and discuss one of the chapters. We can react and dream and rant and laugh and basically revel in resurrection. What do you say? The best part may be this – I’ve already recruited 5 different voices to guide one of the weeks of our conversation. So, this is going to be interactive, diverse and hopefully – full of imagination. I want questions, thoughts, disappointments, fears, joy – let’s see where it takes us.

I’d love to know who is in. The book is $6, and you can read the whole thing in less than two hours. Personally, I’d like to spend as much purpose walking into Easter (life) as I have spent walking into Lent (death). So, are you in?

p.s. If 10 of you let me know (in the comment section) that you are on board, I’ll draw a name for a free copy. If 15 of you jump in by Monday, two people will get a free copy. Look for the winner Monday in the comments section.

p.s.s. If you have a blog, perhaps consider getting some of your tribe in on the conversation too.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr is much en vogue (not that he was ever out). Obama lists Niebuhr among his most influential philosophers, and certainly Reinhold left an indelible imprint on the theological and political direction of the last century (not to mention his infamy as the author of the Serenity Prayer). Eager to be a man of the times, I recently purchased Richard Fox’s Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (3 stars) at one of our local used book shops.

I wanted to like this book. I was engaged throughout. The book was technically near flawless, giving a full account of the various seasons of Niebuhr’s political thought (and what a roller coaster that was). And Niebuhr is a fascinating man, full of high ideals and impassioned commitments. Like the prophet Amos he loved to evoke, Reinhold always sprinted into the fray, never slow to take up an unpopular (or ultimately doomed) position. For Reinhold, if the idea was right, then consequences be damned. You have to respect a guy who, as an ailing convalescent, responded to the images of Nixon on the television screen by pulling himself up from his bed in order to spit out, “You Bastard!” As Fox said, for Niebuhr, “having no enemies meant that one lacked strong convictions.”

Yet, one of Reinhold’s certitudes was that the world was full of paradoxes. As such, he was leery of anyone who saw the world always through an ideological lense. This kept true with his religious views. “The point of faith,” Niebuhr said, “is a total attitude toward the mystery of God and life, which includes commitment, love and hope.” He resisted any faith that removed one from a lived-in reality (thus, his lifelong beef with Barth, though I think Niebuhr was on poor footting there – but that is another story…).

I also respect Niebuhr’s willingness to change his mind. From the leftist version of himself pre World War II to the right leaning version of himself post World War II, to every other philosophical space Niebuhr inhabited during the rest of his life – Niebuhr was a fellow nearly impossible to categorize. I like that in a guy.

However, about halfway through I sensed something was missing for me – and it never let up throughout. I’m not sure if I am disappointed with the biographer (Fox) or simply disappointed in the man Fox had to work with. I probably need to read another biography of Reinhold to know for sure.

I heard almost nothing of his family, his kids, his friendships (beyond how they functioned in his career and political workings). For a man who spoke often of the idolatrous evils of modernistic reason, he seemed emotionally flat. He was high on function, but seemed low on relationship. He was constantly busy, his mind sprinting from one idea to another – and his travel schedule matched. Frantic. It made me tired just reading.

I do appreciate Niebuhr very much for his commitment to justice and for his prophetic voice. I’m also quite drawn to his constant sense of paradox, along with his “Christian (political) realism” (a term revived alongside Obama’s heavy Niebuhrian influence). However, his personal life holds no appeal for me whatsoever – and the man is the life, not just the ideas. Also, in my opinion, Niebuhr was still far too beholden to modernism. As a result, theologically, he gave away the farm.

I’m thankful for Niebuhr. He offered us much, and we can learn much from his noble ideals. However, I think we ought look elsewhere for better examples of how to engage our world with grace and integrity and lasting impact. And, from a religious standpoint, I’m far more drawn to his brother Richard.

Advent, the Third Week

We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming, he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him who they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one, in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty. {St. Bernard of Clairvaux}

Life and mystery, pain and joy, something opening and something closing – do you sense the action all around us? This Advent, we are waiting, but this is an active waiting. The anticipation builds. Like violin strings stretched taut, we crane our neck to see what might be coming. We’ve had enough of the muck, enough of the fear or self-pity or selfishness, enough death. We want life. We want death to go, and we want so much for life to come.

And though Jesus is a thousand things, he is this first of all: Life.

Bernard of Clairvaux reminds us that Jesus has come, and indeed, one day Jesus will come again. But Jesus is appearing (adventing) now. God, in Jesus and by the Spirit, is appearing now, all over the place. God appears in a friendship you thought was dead and done. God appears in the child who says, “Daddy, let’s pray for the poor people.” God appears in the form of new courage and fresh hope. God appears when we say we are sorry. God appears when we laugh. Peer deep in the faces you pass. Open your eyes and drink in the sounds and lights and words and smells swirling around you – Life is breaking in. Jesus is appearing.


This week’s Advent gift will be one of my favorite Eugene Peterson titles, his classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. This will be a wonderful read for a new beginning in January, a fresh opportunity to see God appearing.

So, if you want to be in the drawing, post a comment and make sure I have a way to contact you – or check back on Wednesday.

Advent, the First Week

I stood at the front of the church in Little Rock, Arkansas that Saturday morning, September 20th, 1997. I was breathing heavily, sweating a bit. For three and a half years (long years, Miska would say), we dated. Finally, I got my act together, strapped on my courage and asked Miska if she would take a big leap with me. And now it was happening. I had been waiting so long. She had been waiting so long. The pipe organ swelled with Pachelbel’s Canon in D, the two grand wooden entry doors at the back opened, and…

I have a friend who’s had a truly treacherous past few years. His world came unglued, and the life he has now is nothing he would have imagined. Pain of every sort has stretched his body and mind in unthinkable directions. He has cried. He has almost given up. He has cried some more. But in it all, he has prayed. And waited. He has waited so long. In recent months, glimmers of a new day have trickled in through all the broken pieces. He sits poised, wondering – might there be a hint of life again – waiting, and…

As Advent began yesterday, we stepped into God’s dramatic pause, God’s long and… Advent means “appearing,” and in these weeks, we wait for the celebration of God’s appearing – and we remember that the whole of our lives are in fact a waiting for God’s movement, God’s healing, God’s appearing. In this time, we learn that little of true value comes quickly. Ruin may bear down swiftly, like the wind; but redemption is a long, long work. This is not to say that God lumbers along, turtle-like – just ask Pharaoh who was chasing down Israel in the Red Sea or blind Bartimaeus who longed to be healed whether or not God ever moves immediately, with haste.

However, even when God demonstrates his agility, it is not because God has a sudden whim. God’s prompt, decisive movement rides freely out of the long, long story he has been writing. Pharaoh caught the brunt force, like a hammer dropping, of a God who had been redeeming his people ever since a disaster in a Garden. Bartimaeus first saw the color of the sky and the color of his skin on the day Jesus touched him by the roadside – but God had loved Bartimaeus from his mother’s womb. And Israel, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, cried out, “Hosanna! Son of David!” For hundreds of years, God’s people had waited for the Rescuer to come, the “Son of David.” Now, the crowd gathered, the prophet Jesus made his way into the city – could it be?


Each Monday, we will gather here for a short reflection on Advent, as our way of entering God’s dramatic pause, God’s and… Do join us. And join in.


Also, each Monday, I would like to offer an Advent gift – my way of celebrating this time with you and my way of saying “thank you” for reading. This week, I am eager to give away (and tell you about) my friend John Blase’s book Touching Wonder: Recapturing the Awe of Christmas. Christmas books can represent the very worst of the religious publishing industry. Not this book. John is a true storyteller, and his fresh narrative, lively imagination and literary artistry provide a wonderful Advent companion.

If you leave a comment, your name will be thrown in for the drawing for a free copy. You have until midnight on Tuesday, drawing Wednesday morning. If you don’t win, I have two suggestions: (1) buy John’s book – a good gift idea, by the way, and (2) come back next week to for the next gift.