Wednesday, November 30, 2005

I'm So Bored with the USA Patriot Act

I had decided a short time ago to stop complaining about political things on this blog, but when I have to wake up to the sound of "W" promoting fear I just can't help it.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm as opposed to terrorist attacks on U.S. soil as the next guy. I also love my mother and apple pie. But I get so tired of hearing that the war in Iraq is about preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

We made a mess. We have to clean it up. Can we stop selling it now?

If our plan is to kill all the people who hate America, we better dust off the nuclear weapons because we're eventually going to have to kill every person this side of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The rest of the world has weak homeland security. They are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Somehow they get through it. Why can't we?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Crime and Punishment

I just finished listening to Crime and Punishment as read by George Guidall. I just can't praise it highly enough. If you haven't read this book, in the name of all that is holy, do so immediately (or get the audio version, which is wonderfully read by Guidall).

I came into it expecting a masterpiece of psychological fiction. I expected to find the dark inner depths of the human mind plumbed and exposed. I expected an engaging game of cat and mouse as the murderer seeks to escape capture.

What I didn't expect was one of the finest expositions of the Christian faith I've ever read -- but that's just what I got.

Now I have a tendency to read Christianity into everything. For instance, I think "Moonstruck" is a marvelous treatment of the book of Ecclesiastes, and I have a non-gnostic interpretation of "The Matrix." But in this case, I'm pretty sure the author intended what I found there.

This book is nothing short of the Theology of the Cross in the form of a novel. A favorite Orthodox character might ask, "Was it Theology of Cross in 19th century Russia?" Yes, apparently it was. And it's such good theology!

One of the most thought-provoking aspects was the role of the Christ-figure (a prostitute, no less) in Raskolnikov's redemption. In a modern American protestant allegory, the Christ-figure would take the punishment and the guilty man would get off scot-free, but here, the Christ-figure merely joins him in his punishment. There is sin-bearing to be sure, Sonia gives Raskolnikov her cross to wear, while she wears the cross of his victim. But still, he is sent to Siberian prison (where she follows).

What pleased me as much as anything was the way Dostoevsky resisted the temptation to make Raskolnikov's redemption quick and easy. He was not redeemed when he asked Sonia to read him the story of Lazarus, not when he confessed his crime to her, not when he confessed to the authorities and accepted his sentence, not even when she went with him to Siberia. Then, just when he has me wondering if Raskolnikov is beyond hope, we get this:
Suddenly he found Sonia beside him; she had come up noiselessly and sat down at his side. It was still quite early; the morning chill was still keen. She wore her poor old burnous and the green shawl; her face still showed signs of illness, it was thinner and paler. She gave him a joyful smile of welcome, but held out her hand with her usual timidity. She was always timid of holding out her hand to him and sometimes did not offer it at all, as though afraid he would repel it. He always took her hand as though with repugnance, always seemed vexed to meet her and was sometimes obstinately silent throughout her visit. Sometimes she trembled before him and went away deeply grieved. But now their hands did not part. He stole a rapid glance at her and dropped his eyes on the ground without speaking. They were alone, no one had seen them. The guard had turned away for the time.

How it happened he did not know. But all at once something seemed to seize him and fling him at her feet. He wept and threw his arms round her knees. For the first instant she was terribly frightened and she turned pale. She jumped up and looked at him trembling. But at the same moment she understood, and a light of infinite happiness came into her eyes. She knew and had no doubt that he loved her beyond everything and that at last the moment had come. . . .

They wanted to speak, but could not; tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin; but those sick pale faces were bright with the dawn of a new future, of a full resurrection into a new life. They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.
I'm speechless. And even still, even at this point, we do not find a theologian of glory waiting to appear. The ending is outstanding.
He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering.

But that is the beginning of a new story--the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.

Monday, November 21, 2005

A Parable

The kingdom of God is like a poker player who got a good flop and went all-in.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Christ and Life

I just started reading Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, and it has turned out to be an inspired choice in preparation for Christ the King Sunday, though I had no such intention when I picked the book up.

In the first two chapters Willard sets up the problem he is trying to address. The problem is that Christians do not follow Christ's teaching. This is nothing new, of course, but it really is an incredible scandal. We look to Christ to "save us from our sins" but we look to nearly anyone else to find out how to live.

Of particular interest given this week's gospel reading is Willard's analysis of what he calls "gospels of sin management" wherein the whole of the Christian teaching is taken to be centered around solving the problem of sin.

On the theological right this is manifest as a wall of separation between what we must do to have our sins forgiven (and thus "receive salvation") and how we should live, with Jesus' primary role being that of providing a solution to the first.

Willard says of conservative Christians, "They have been led to believe that God, for some unfathomable reason, just thinks it appropriate to transfer credit from Christ's merit account to ours, and to wipe our our sin debt, upon inspecting our mind and finding that we believe a particular theory of the atonement to be true--even if we trust everything but God in all other matters that concern us."

Contrary to this view, we have Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats. When I was a greener Christian, I used to twist this all around trying to figure out how to get it to work in a scheme of salvation by faith alone. (Honestly, I still do sometimes.) But what I do far too rarely (and I doubt I'm alone in this) is listen to it.

This parable is the ultimate "clobber passage" for a shallow view of salvation by faith alone and for Christianity as a mere scheme for the forgiveness of sins. It is the rallying cry of liberal Christians everywhere.

But that is particuarly ironic in light of Willard's critique of the theological left, namely their tendency to deny the traditional "personal" nature of God. I say this is ironic because while the theological left loves this parable and pulls it out every chance they get, they tend to reject the opening premise of the parable, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory...." And so while they shift their focus to social sin rather than individual morality, it remains a gospel of sin management apart from the presence of God in our lives.

Willard's criticism of these gospels of sin management may be expressed with an analogy. Our life may be compared with that of fish out of water. According to the gospel of the theological right, if we accept that "Icthus" was filleted and fried for our dryness, then our soul will breathe in eternity (but for now we wither and die). According to the gospel of the theological left, we should all go about spraying each other with water as often as we can, though we must recognize that the idea of an ocean is simply wishful thinking.

Friday, November 11, 2005


It's raining today in Oregon. Those of you who have been to the Pacific Northwest know how superfluous that statement is. It's rained here 17 of the past 20 days, and as a rule it rains pretty much every day in November. But the rain today got me thinking about one of my favorite metaphors in the Bible: "Clouds without rain."

"Like clouds and wind without rain is one who boasts of a gift never given."
-Proverbs 25:14

"These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead."
-Jude 1:12 (NIV)

I've never lived in an agricultural community. I grew up in the industrial wastelands of the east coast, and I've since moved to a city in the Silicon Forest. I know what the Presidents of the United States mean when they sing, "Peaches come from a can, they were put there by a man in a factory downtown."

And so I grew up with no feeling for the metaphor "clouds without rain." Growing up, I might well have said, "It's cloudy, but at least it's not raining."

And then you have Los Angelos. I love the scene in LA Story when Steve Martin tapes his weather forecasts in advance saying, "Sunny and 70 degrees." This is the American dream, isn't it? We don't want rain. We don't even want clouds. We want to live in a world where it's sunny every day.

But a strange thing has happened to me since I moved to Oregon. I love the rain now. It's a comfort to me, like a security blanket. In the summer I miss the rain. I think this is a metaphor for my spiritual life. I always believed in God in some way, but when I was younger I believed in, as C.S. Lewis says, "not so much a Father in heaver as a grandfather in heaven - a senile benevolence who as they say 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves.'" But as I've come to know Christ, I've begun to expect less sunshine and more rain, and I see now that a land without clouds and rain is a desert.

"I know the sound of the ecstatic flute,
But I don't know whose flute it is.
A lamp burns and has neither wick nor oil.
A waterplant blossoms and is not attached to the bottom!
When one flower opens, ordinarily dozens open.
The moon-bird's head is filled with nothing but thoughts of the moon
and when the next rain will come is all the rain-bird thinks of.
Who is it we spend our entire life loving?"

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Be Gracious To Me

Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.
Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.

I had a remarkable revelation about these verses this morning, as I saw how they relate to the parable of the sheep and the goats. Quite often as I read verses like these in the psalms, I find that I am not personally afflicted enough to really connect with them in any but the most metaphorical way. But today I heard in these verses the voice of the weak and afflicted calling to me.

Now this would seem, perhaps, to be quite blasphemous, but almost immediately I was drawn also to Matthew 25. And I saw that in this situation it is not I who am in the place of God, hearing the cries of the afflicted; it is they who are in the place of Christ calling out to me! What can this mean? What does it say about the relationship of people and God?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Which 16th Century Theologian Are You?

Disclaimer: This quiz was created by a well-intentioned but eccentric person who has never made this sort of quiz before. But try it out:

Which Sixteenth Century Theologian Are You?