Saturday, August 29, 2009

Oh, Existentialism!

A Fragment from Robert Bretall's "Introduction" to A Kierkegaard Anthology.

"It is impossible to reach an absolute beginning, and there is no such thing as 'presuppositionless thought.' The man who pretends that his view of life is determined by sheer reason is both tiresome and unperceptive (Kirkegaard found him essentially comic): he fails to grasp the elementary fact that he is not a pure thinker, but an existing individual.
To one who has chosen Christ, says Kirkegaard, "the only possible objection would be: but you might possibly have been saved in another way. To that he cannot answer. It is as though one were to say to some one in love, yes, but you might have fallen in love with another girl: to which he would have to answer: there is no answer to that, for I only know that she is my love."

[Please pardon all the male pronouns; it was a different time. The quote's from p. xx-xxi, and I read it in the 1946 Princeton University Press edition.]

Monday, August 24, 2009

All or nothing

In the youth group I grew up in, there was a lot of hand-wringing over that fact that so many teenagers grew up, went away to university, and 'lost their faith.'

Speaking as someone who's been through that, I'd like to point out that when we 'accepted Jesus into our hearts' as kids, we didn't just get Jesus. We were handed a whole huge set of cultural-ethical-religious-aesthetic-philosophic-doctrinal-'scientific' presuppositions. And each and every one was represented as somehow being 'God's Word,' and 'grounded in the inerrant Bible.' We were made to feel that you could not be a Christian without swallowing the whole thing. All the moral rules. All the theological/philosophic/'scientific'/etc. positions.

(Many of whom, frankly, are based on debatable interpretations of scripture. Look, almost every interpretation of scripture is debatable. It is just not possible to establish what 'God's word' says, definitively for all time).

The problem, then, is that if any part of that comes under attack — as it is almost bound to do in an environment like university — and we lose faith in that part, it's easy for it to become an 'all-or-nothing' thing. Because that's what we were taught! All or nothing.

So because some of us can no longer buy creationism, or innerrancy, or the idea that Christianity is 'the only way,' (etc.)... or because we don't see the harm in having safe sex with people we love, or gay marriage, or drinking or swearing, (etc.)... there are so many individual things that can go wrong, so many things we could reject... we walk away from the faith altogether, usually ignorant of the fact that there are other ways of being Christian, other ways of loving God.

That's sad. It's not sad that we walked away from a very narrow, particular interpretation of Christianity, grounded in the very specific moment in history, and very specific political and cultural movement. It's sad that we thought that was the only option where we could still call ourselves followers of Christ.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Strategic Ignorance (Being read by the Bible)

I was talking to an earnest young lady the other day who informed me that her church only does what's in the Bible. I didn't have the heart to argue with her. But there was so much I could have said. Really? Do you meet in people's homes instead of owning a church building? Do you have only lay unpaid leaders? Is your communion a full meal? Does every member that comes to service contribute something (a song, a 'word,' a verse)? Because if you don't, you're failing to do what they did in the New Testament.

Last post I talked about the need to not just pick and choose in a facile way which parts of the Bible to believe in, and which to ignore. Super-important. Yet I think us Christians need to be honest and recognize that we all do this, to a degree. No one believes in and puts the whole Bible into practice, certainly not in any kind of literal way. We all ignore parts of it.

We don't build railings around the edge of all our roofs, or weave tassels into the corners of our clothing. Most of us guys cut our sideburns and trim our beards, and most of us gals have worn 'man's clothing' at some point. We don't stone adulterers. Nor make a widow with no children marry her brother-in-law. We mix different materials together in the clothing we wear. We're not really into the whole 'slaves obey your masters' thing anymore. We don't gouge our eyes out or cut our hand off if they 'cause us to sin.' We rarely greet each other with a kiss. Few of us prohibit women from speaking in church, or force them to wear a head-covering when they do.

When it comes to the Bible, there is always picking and choosing, emphasizing, and de-emphasizing. There is always interpretation involved in the way we read the Bible. The question then, is not whether we do this, but how. This is what Brian McClaren meant when he said that we shouldn't just read the Bible, we should let the Bible read us, I think.

The way we read the Bible reveals a lot about our hearts.
What passages or themes do we see as key? ('Key' both in the sense of important, and something we use to unlock the meaning of parts we see as less central or more mysterious). What parts do we ignore, not talk about much, de-emphasize? Which parts make us uncomfortable or nervous, make us wish they weren't there? Which do we have a hard time explaining or understanding? Which ones do we strive to apply? Which do we metaphorize, and which do we tend to treat literally? Which ones do we relativize by talking about the differences in cultural context? Which do we cling to, are we unable to let go of, and call people 'unchristian' for not following?

And what does that say about us?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On the continued worth and relevance of the Bible (for Christians)

Further to the last post...

I do still think the Bible is important, and that a major part of Christian life should involve struggling with it deeply, not just picking and choosing in a facile way which parts to believe in, and which to reject. Religion shouldn't just be whatever we want it to be; we shouldn't make God in our image. If our beliefs are just 'all about me' what's the point? It's worth aligning oneself with a living tradition, and taking its ideas seriously — including some ideas that we might otherwise dismiss as crazy or just plain wrong without really thinking about it. (Assuming, that is, that some of the central ideas also really resonate with you — for me, that would be Christian ideas like 'love as the only law' and 'God becoming human in order to be with us'). I think doing so can be good for us in very deep ways. We're such a self-driven, radically individual culture (and then we wonder why we feel cut off, alienated, and lonely). We're so sure we're so much wiser than the people of the past — the idea that 'newer is better' is so ingrained in us. Engaging thoughtfully with a living tradition might just broaden us, and leave us a little less tightly bound to our culture and ego.

To step back for a second, one of the things that keeps with me obsessed with reading and learning in general is the fact that... no matter what I'm thinking or struggling with, there's people much smarter and better than me who have thought and struggled with it too... and written good books about it! Not to say that reading a book is a substitute for doing your own thinking and struggling, but it can help! It can help you in your own thinking and struggling. So in our struggles with idea of a living loving mysterious God — with the idea of ultimate Goodness as a personal being — and with the reality of living with and reflecting that God... there's worth in reading the writings of others who who have done the same. Especially those who were among the first to think and experience such things, and whose writings have even encouraged countless others who have come after them.

(The Bible's been beta-tested to death, my friends. This reminds me of the best explanation I've ever heard for why the four gospels are part of the canon, and not others that were also written in roughly the same period. Simply put, the early believers found that the Jesus they found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John corresponded best to the Jesus that had been preached to them and that they found at work in their own lives. The Jesus of the gospels was the Jesus who had changed them.)1

You know, there's something powerful and unique about the origins. There's a life and energy to an original genre-launching artistic expression that is lost when that genre is established. Do something powerful and fresh and there's bound to be copyers. But you can never copy that originary power because part of made that origin powerful was that it was not a copy, that at the time, no one had done anything quite like it.

I think there's a difference between being a copyer... and being a follower, though. Real punks don't sound like the Ramones or the Sex Pistols. But they might still deserve the name 'punk.'

Being true to an origin means grasping it creatively, or perhaps being grasped creatively by that origin.

The letter kills, but the spirit brings life, as the good book says. Words on a page are dead, even in that good book, and imperfect — at the least, imperfect simply by virtue of being a manifestation of human language. (Language can't perfectly describe, capture, or represent... anything, much less God!) But the spirit can bring those black marks on paper alive,2 so they do actually become the Word of God for us. So they become truth, or maybe even Truth, for us, for a little while. (The evidence of Truth is always that it changes our lives...)

But it doesn't just have to be the good book. It can also be a movie, a song (by a secular band even!), a conversation with a friend, a tree. This might sound bizarre, but when I was a teen and a friend of mine died, the movie The Crow 'ministered' to me a lot more than my youth group did.

I think the problem is that when it comes to the Bible it becomes such a 'all or nothing' kind of thing for so many Christians. More about that next time.

1. There's also the fact that the four gospels tend to be some of the earliest narratives of the life of Jesus. But a notable exception like the Gospel According to Thomas is a good example of the principle I'm explaining. While in agreement with a fair bit from Mark and Luke, that gospel also shows things like Jesus teaching that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, a woman must become a man. (How? Uh...spiritually, of course. Whatever that means. Don't ask questions!) That's not the Jesus I feel at work in my life, and I think even Christians living in the context of patriarchal Roman/Jewish culture felt the same way.
2. I offer a longwinded explanation of why 'spirit' and 'alive' are synonymous , or to set the background even more thoroughly, here.

Burn it down and start again

Alright, it's taken me five years to figure this out. No wait -- seven? Ten? A lifetime? Anyways, I think I finally figured it out. (But it wasn't even me... I just stole ideas from others, really -- see the footnotes at the bottom of this entry).1

I think the Word of God is a person, not a book.2 (As the book itself says). And to ascribe perfection to anything other than God is a form of idolatry.3 (Doctrine of innerrancy, I'm looking at you).

It seems to me that modern Christian theology of a conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist bent has elevated the Bible to the position of '4th member' of the Trinity, if that were possible . Their creed might as well be "I believe in the Father, Son, Holy Ghost... and Bible." (i.e. the Bible as the inerrant Word of God -- like I said, I think that position is already occupied by 2nd person of the Trinity).

More tomorrow.

1. If you display the following symptom -- an urge to insert footnotes into even your blog entries -- go see your doctor ASAP, because you have officially become infected with the spirit of academia. Generally fatal and incurable, this condition can at least be treated so as to reduce suffering. Whatever you do, do NOT keep typing.
2. I stole this idea from Karl Barth.
3. I stole this from some guy on youtube.

Badanistrax and the Zombies of the Four Winds

As you have picked up, I kind of like to make fun of D&D, (though I probably have no right, considering the incredibly dorky things I'm involved in). I've certainly teased my brother over his D&D obsession for a long time. But allow me to toot his horn a little -- that obsession finally paid off! A D&D adventure he has written is being published on-line. At this point, the adventure is free to download, they're soliciting feedback, and the plan is for it to eventually be collected in a book. Also, an article he's written on "Places of Myth and Magic" will be published in... some D&D magazine... um, I'll get back to you when I get more details from him. Anyways, I'm very proud of my little brother, and if you're the D&D playing type, you should check out his adventure!

While I'm promoting Kitz family members, I should really point out that my dad has his own website. He's got a novel, a kid's book, and a new book on the Psalms that has just came out. He also has does Bible-based dramas that are a nice alternative to your usual Sunday-morning fare. And of course you can find out about all of this stuff on his website.

Oh, what the heck. While I'm at it, you can now listen to some music I've played on-line. My friend Ben set the Beatitudes to music, and I and some other friends played along. It's a bit of a rough recording, and I'm selfish enough (and enough of a perfectionist) to wish some of the instruments I played would have found a better balance in the mix, but... Trust me, the songs are very tasty treats for your ears, and I am happy that we recorded the music the way we did (i.e. in live takes, gathered around one microphone). And you can listen to an instrumental piece I wrote for guitar here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Best pick-up line ever!

"My mother and my psychologist both think I should ask you out."