I love coffee. I like the aroma, the texture, the act of grinding beans and the sound of my pot sputteriung and spewing as black liquid goodness drains down into my stainless steel carafe. Now, I’m no coffee snob, evidenced by how my friend Nathan (who most certainly is a coffee snob) rolls his eyes and turns up his nose whenever he catches a whiff of me pouring the latest International Delights flavored creamer (Caramel Hazelnut Swirl, Vanilla Toffee Caramel, Southern Butter Pecan – the more words the better) in my steaming cup. Frankly, it feels therapeutic to get that out in the open. I’ve been outed – Yes, world, I pour flavored creamers in my coffee…and I like it!
My wife is the most voracious reader I know. Fiction is her first love. The good stuff – Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby, Madeleine L’Engle, Buechner, all things Dickens. Recently, when she rifled through War and Peace, I began to feel a little intimidated.
Eugene Peterson says that pastors should read fiction as part of their spiritual regimen (wonderful advice I was never once offered in seminary). I think every Christian should heed this wisdom. Listening to the story. Being captured by the narrative. Discerning truth as we are tugged through the plot. “Every good story is a retelling of the gospel,” says Chesterton. If that’s true – and I believe it is – then we need to read more good stories. God knows, we need as much of the gospel as we can get.
Here is a quick hit on four novels that have told me much truth:
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
The Chosen, Chaim Potok
‘Til We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis
Peace Like a River, Leif Enger
peace / Winn
I have spent a lot of time recently conversing with a Biblical prophet named Amos. He is tucked away in the often neglected corner of Scripture known as the Minor Prophets (the designation – minor – is unfortunate and misleading). My time with Amos has been difficult. My first hurdle is simple: my three-year-old son Seth has a stuffed monkey named Amos, and it is just hard to hear the gravity of a prophetic voice when I imagine it coming from a wide-smiled 18 inch chimp. My main difficulty, however, is that Amos is true to his calling. Amos is a prophet.
The word prophet conjures up other images and associations for me. I might think of the guy we saw on the edge of the street last Saturday wearing a “Fear God” shirt and preaching (loudly) to everyone unlucky enough to pass by. I might think of Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Jules, quoting Scripture before a hit job in Pulp Fiction. I think of crazed eyes, wild voices, strange words.
In part, it’s all true. Prophets have a wildness to them. They could never be called mainstream. They don’t ask permission to speak. They don’t spend much time trying to convince us to listen or to persuade us that they really do know what they are talking about. Walter Brueggemann has said prophets are God’s uncredentialed spokesmen. A prophet – a true prophet – is only a messenger. From God. God speaks, and God’s prophet passes the word along.
How then could a prophet’s words not be a bit wild, a bit strange?
Prophets aren’t particularly concerned with balance or with getting across the whole story. They aren’t typically big on nuance or subtlety or quiet ponderings. Those things are for another time, perhaps another person. A prophet speaks because something is drastically wrong. The moment is urgent. It is not time for deliberation or dialogue. We must listen. God is speaking. Our very life depends upon it.
When Amos spoke, urgency pushed along every word. Humanity had forgotten God, and as a result, humanity was cannibalizing itself. They had crushed and robbed the poor. They had perverted the systems of justice so the marginalized had no recourse. They had enslaved whole tribes and villages. They had violently abused the most helpless: the underprivileged, the pregnant, the elderly, the children.
This would not do. This was not the world God had created. God was angry. In fact, Amos puts it plainly: “The Lord roars.” (Amos 1:2) What’s a prophet to do when the world has gone mad, and when God will not gently let it be? What’s a prophet to do when God roars? What are we to do?
The problem with a prophet – a true prophet – is that they have little raw material to work with. Their scope is limited; their creative license is small. They can only speak what God says. And in a precarious time, when humanity is sabotaging itself and defacing all that is good, what God has to say will rarely be docile or sweet. It will “thunder from Jerusalem,” causing, as Amos says, even the mountains to wither. (Amos 1:2)
I see the destruction in my world, the pain and the violence and the evil. I see it all, and I long for God to get angry. I long to hear God roar – and to hear a strange prophet simply pass it along.
peace / Winn
I think some of the most beautiful words in the Bible are found at the end of Genesis 2 where the author paints the stunning description of humanity during that short pause between creation’s completed wonder and the disastrous Fall: The man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame. (Gen 2.25)
In an age where our body image is god, where we nip and tuck and incessantly pluck and flex, where even the most gorgeous among us refer to themselves as a “fat pig” (as I saw a sex icon refer to herself on a magazine cover this past weekend), where we are forever judged by Madison Avenue as well as by our own mirror, these words seem impossible. This physical exposure was not only in moments when Adam or Eve were prepared to be naked (and most all of us have varying comfort levels for this), but all the time, at every moment. There was no covering, ever.
The Genesis story, however, obviously speaks of more than physical exposure. The narrative vividly describes human relationships as we have never seen them: wide-open, unreserved, entirely unguarded. In this first sacred couple, love was better than you or I have ever known it. There was never a reason to hide a thought or to silence a voice. There was never reason to wonder if the other person was a safe place to pour out our soul. In our relationships, we must constantly battle the urge to hide, to guard ourselves from the harm we suspect might come our way if another truly saw all the grim, sordid places inside us.
But with Adam and Eve, our first father and mother, their body and their soul were entirely bare, not a stitch of cotton or a speck of emotional distance to hide behind. I fear this shorn, unshrouded life because I can’t imagine someone seeing all my ugly spots and not pulling back in revulsion. Contrasted to our experience, however, in the Garden, there was “no shame.” Perhaps no more beautiful words have ever been spoken. What would a world be like if shame were completely removed from the mix?
I think I’m pondering along these lines because this week is Miska’s and my tenth anniversary. Our marriage is quite imperfect, and we certainly do not know the intimacy and emotional safety Adam and Eve enjoyed. However, we want to. We are hoping and moving that direction. Every one of us needs a friend (a spouse, a father, a sister, a soul friend) who sees who we truly are, who helps us see what Jesus is crafting in us, who speaks against the many shaming voices in our life.
I hope you have one. I hope you find one.
peace / Winn
To her joy and to our sorrow, Madeleine L’Engle died last Thursday at the beautiful age of 88 in Litchfield, Connecticut, near her beloved family home, Crosswicks.
Madeleine has profoundly influenced my wife Miska and me. For my part, she has enriched my imagination as a writer, and she has stretched my calling as a pastor. Madeleine will continue to influence us, and (if we have anything to say about it) she will continue to influence our boys.
In the very young life of this blog, L’Engle has had her say. Among our small scattering of entries, we’ve quoted her and listened to her and reminded ourselves that God used her unique voice and pen to tell us wide, deep and dark truths we might well have missed otherwise.
Perhaps I’m just melancholy, but it seems to me that the elder, wiser voices are leaving us, without persons of their stature and faith and authority taking their place. In an age filled with religious glitz and quick-fix discipleship and all things techno-church, I long for older eyes who have seen the wide world, in all its wonder and all its demise – and will tell me the truth about it. I long for older ears who have heard the shallow truths and the loud noise and the screeching demands (religious and pagan alike) – and will tell me what boisterous yammering I must ignore and what quiet, improbable truths I must pay close attention to. I long for an older voice to tell me plainly, without mincing words and yet heaped high with grace, both where I am living like a fool and where I am being true to myself and to my God. God is kind, and he will help me hear and see these things on my own when necessary. But I am thankful he gives us friends acquainted with truth and wisdom to help us along.
Madeleine L’Engle has been – and will continue to be — one of these wise, elder truth-tellers.
In the spirit of eulogy, I could offer any one of hundreds of L’Engle quotes here. Something on death would be appropriate. A meditation on a theological truth, some notion with real gravity, perhaps. However, today I just want to hear her challenge and guide me, to prod me further on my Christian journey, as she has so many times previous. Along the way, L’Engle has taught me the importance of a Christian imagination, of allowing my soul to be open to things beyond the purely rational. So, may we all heed Madeleine’s wisdom:
It might be a good idea if, like the White Queen, we practiced believing six impossible things every morning before breakfast.
John Podhoretz wrote a warm, personal tribute. Enjoy it, and thank God for having graced us with a dear friend, if for only a time.
Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, particularly the past week. I’ve loved looking over all the fiction works that have embodied grace and told us bits of truth. We’ve compiled quite a reading list. It might be interesting to have a blog book club, perhaps picking a title every so often (not necessarily fiction) we could read together and then plan to converse about it on the blog. Of course, it could be a little too Oprah-like, but let me know if you think it’s a good idea – or not.
Madeleine L’Engle has a great lecture she offered at a Veritas Forum on “Searching for Truth Through Fantasy.” Take a listen.
I continue to mull over a couple themes from the last few weeks: the importance of art and the necessity of immersing ourselves in stories. I believe these artistic, creative expressions are much more than peripheral niceties tacked on to the more beefy stuff of faith. We need the arts; they are (at least to some degree) necessary because they help us read the Bible better. For most of modern history in the western world, scientific rationalism and naturalism have reigned with an iron fist. Under this regime, truth has often been equated only with facts that could be dissected, formulas that could be proven, or phenomenon that could be observed.
Many of us have learned to read the Bible in this milieu. So we have often assumed (or perhaps insisted) that the Bible’s purpose and concern centered on addressing our perceived need for a steady stream of rational, observable facts. Of course, many times the Bible does give us historical data or a straightforward, verifiable proposition. However, presuming the Bible always intends to provide such things pushes us to a small, myopic place where we totally miss far different themes and entirely other sorts of questions.
For example: this misguided presumption has, I believe, heavily influenced the way we approach the very first portion of Scripture, the early pages of Genesis. I’ve had this growing suspicion that something is amiss with the way some of us typically approach this text. Governed by scientific empiricism and the critical questions it raises, many of us have insisted that Genesis’ creation narrative was most concerned with the process of creation: exactly how the earth’s basic elements were formed and precisely how long this formation took. The whole conversation might conjure the image of a manufacturing process or a lab tech mixing formulas.
However, the Biblical word “create” (bara in Hebrew) paints a much different picture. Contrary to some popular views, create (Gen 1:1) does not immediately imply the act of making something ex nihilo (out of nothing). Rather, create refers to how one takes disordered elements and crafts something useful out of them, like a woodworker taking a piece of bare timber and carving a beautiful figure from the unformed wood mass. In fact, Genesis 1 seems little concerned with the question of how exactly God formed the first original mass of material (the Biblical notion of God creating ex nihilo is easy enough to locate in the New Testament, but it just doesn’t seem to be Genesis’ prime concern).
In fact, when the actual creation week narrative starts off, the text explicitly tells us that God did not begin with nothing. Rather, he began with a strange mess of something, a dark, chaotic, empty, useless, unformed mass. We could say he began with ugliness. However, as the six days of creation unfolded, God took those bare elements and created a world of stunning beauty.
This aesthetic concern influenced even the way the Genesis author crafted the book. The days of the creation account seem to me like recurring brush strokes, a passionate painter fully immersed in the glory of his work. Noting Genesis’ artistic nature, Bruce Waltke has referred to the Biblical book as “ideological art.”
So, I’m wondering if the question Genesis first wants to ponder is not: How did our world come to be? but (maybe) rather, Why is our world beautiful? And the arts are far more helpful than science at helping us pay attention to that question.
Frankly, this second question touches me in deeper places than the first question ever could. I don’t sense a deep need to know the exact processes or timelines by which God chose to speak this world into existence. However, I look around at our mess, my mess — our violence and despair, all the wretched ugly scars in my world. And I desperately want to know if there is a God strong enough, powerful enough, loving enough (yes, creative enough) to make it beautiful again.
The Gospel –and, I believe, Genesis – answers a loud, thundering “yes!”
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. [Albert Einstein]
peace / Winn
I’m still poking around this idea of God’s intrusion into all things human, all things physical. Hope you don’t mind.
How deep does God’s incarnational* impulse run? Does God care about Elvis and Mona Lisa? Do the arts really matter? Really?
When the Church engages the arts, is it (at best) simply allowing space for people to express their enjoyable (but ultimately temporal) passions? Or is it (at worst) acquiescing to the demands of a fickle, image-saturated generation? I think we ought to be cautious where we go from here. The answer touches on the very nature and character of our God.
If we say that art lacks intrinsic importance, we are saying that there is no true value in breathtaking sunsets or the thousand varying scents of spring. A devaluation of art implies there is nothing divinely profound about the reality that our world possesses both zebras and clownfish, both bananas and pomegranates.
While our human senses properly respond to and enjoy art done well, art matters because God rules over the earth. Art matters because the kingdom of God is not only powerful; it is also beautiful. And as Amos Lee sings, “Nothing is more powerful than beauty in a wicked world.”
To speak of God as Creator is to say not only much about his sovereignty but also much about how he intends for his image-bearers to function: engaging the world around us, breathing fresh life into dirt and clay, splashing vivid colors in surprising places, and allowing our imagination to take us places where our heart runs free and our body bows in worship.
We must remember that in Eden God did not make trees that were merely functional, bearing fruit that was bland but nutritious. God crafted trees that were “pleasing to the eye and good for food.”(Gen 2.9) We experience bits of God’s heart when our eyes are captured by beauty and when our taste buds erupt with wonder and delight. George MacDonald prayed this refrain, “Gloriously wasteful, O my Lord, art thou! Sunset faints after sunset into the night.”
There is something extravagant about God’s artisan heart. This extravagance does not allow us to settle for a faith that is true yet sterile. God invites our faith to be ravishingly alive and stunningly beautiful. So, art in any of its forms can never be merely a means to an end or only a conduit to spread a message. Good art tells a story about God, a God who smiles wide at Mona Lisa.
Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject. Madeleine L’Engle
peace / Winn
*I know I didn’t dream up this word. I’m not that smart. However, my spellchecker always gives me the little red squiggly line telling me the word doesn’t exist — and if I keep it, I’m on my own. If any of you have connections with the folks @ the Oxford Dictionary, could you put in a good word for my little friend, “incarnational”? He wants his day to roam free on the page, unencumbered by the squiggly red ball-and-chain.
I have two sons, Wyatt (5) and Seth (3.5). Seth is the cuddly one. Last Saturday, I lay at the end of Seth’s bed, trying to help him go to sleep. He didn’t like the separation and wiggled his way down next to me. He draped his short arm over my back, put his face right up next to mine and said, “I want to be by you, daddy. I like you.” Hearing that, I could have stayed there all weekend.
Seth knew instinctively that he didn’t want me so far away that he couldn’t touch me. He wanted, needed, his dad to be in his space, not offering comfort from a distance.
We humans are physical beings, and we need a physical God. We need God right in the middle of our space. Scriptural principles and doctrinal formulations, good as they are, are incapable of communicating to us all we need. We discover truth and experience God and receive grace, not just via our mental capacities, but also via our corporeal senses. We need to touch beauty and to catch a glimpse of peace. God knows, we need to taste mercy.
Our tangible need is met by the Incarnation. Jesus, the Hebrews writer tells us, is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Heb 1.3) Jesus is God’s definitive intersection with flesh and matter. God came to us in Jesus. In Jesus, God touched us. God ate with us. God’s tears dripped on our dirt. In our midst, God died and rose again.
Unfortunately, however, we are tempted to view even the incarnation from a distance, as if it were a once-and-finished moment restricted to the Palestinian landscape of the first century. To the contrary, the incarnation awakens our spiritual experience now. Pulsing from Jesus’ intrusion into human existence, God continues to meet us in physical encounters.
In baptism, we shiver as the cold water pours over us, submerged in a watery grave. Are we drowning? In communion, we savor the bread’s sweet aroma and feel the wine burn as it trickles down our throat. In Christian community, we hear Jesus’ words and feel Jesus’ touch. Every taste of bread, every word of hope, every drop of water – with each, God is moving toward us.
God does not stay distant from our misery or our panic. He does not leave us alone to muck our way through our sin and foolishness. God has already moved into our space. The question is not so much whether or not we have a God who appears in our physical world. The question is whether or not we will “taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Ps 34.8)
peace / Winn
Today, I take a fresh swipe at the blogosphere. We’ll see how this goes.
Interacting with Scripture requires alot of humility, I think. We’ll probably understand a good bit, but we’ll probably be befuddled just as often. As much as we might come to the Bible to find answers, Scripture often leads us to a whole new slew of questions.
Yesterday, in church, another pastor and I were teaching via a shared conversation and opened the discussion up to everyone. One guy stood and said that he has been reading the Old Testament and is disturbed by what he has found. ”I’m having to ask myself: Do I like God?”
Good question. If we are honest with ourselves and with the God of Scripture, most of us will have to face this same question some time or another.
So, what I hope to do in the space I’m given here is to help us ponder a few good questions. Sometimes, we might find an answer. Sometimes, we won’t. Hopefully, we will always find more of Jesus.
Inevitably, though, Jesus will disorient us. I think my friend who expressed his bewilderment on Sunday is in a healthy place. If we always uncover the God we expect to find, we ought to be concerned: self-delusion is almost certain.
“By the end of a poem,” says poet Billy Collins, ”the reader should be in a different place from where he started. I would like him to be slightly disoriented at the end, like I drove him outside of town at night and dropped him in a cornfield.”
That’s what I hope for this space, to carve out a (perhaps at times) disorienting space that will offer us the strange grace of moving us to a different spot than we where when we started. Isn’t that a good description of spiritual formation, anyway? Taking us where we are, moving us beyond ourselves, flipping us upside down, and planting us smack in the middle of grace?
I hope to post every week or so, usually on Mondays, we’ll see how it goes. I might piece together some kind of schedule; but the usual fare will be short reflections, a few book reviews, certainly some random thoughts.
But have grace. I’m just beginning, and I’m quite sure to be disoriented.