Thursday, December 22, 2005


I love the "Very Short Introductions" series from Oxford University Press. This is the third one I've read and I've got three or four more on my shelf waiting to be read. They're prone to idiosyncracies of the authors -- the ones I've read seem to be introductions into the latest scholarly work in the subject moreso than general introductions -- but they are consistently interesting.

The "Music" VSI by Nicholas Cook is a characteristically odd book. He spends the first 120 pages bringing together pieces of an idea that I couldn't really "see" until the last five pages, though once I saw it it was clear how everything fit together. Maybe I'm just a slow learner.

Cook's approach is to reject the standard "music as a consumable product produced by a composer" mindset, instead substituting a variation of Wittgenstein's theory that language determines our perception of reality. This is brilliant (though see my footnote of complaint below). Seen this way, the author suggests, composers like Beethoven don't just give us something new to hear -- they give us a new way of hearing and thus open our minds to new possibilities, not just in music but all around us.

The master stroke comes in the conclusion where the author rejects modern criticisms that say because we are cut off from the historical-culture world of the composers-of-old we can't really have access to what their music "means." Against this Cook (drawing on the Wittgensteinian idea) claims that human consciousness is "irreducably public" (a concept I love) and the "private thought world" of the modern criticism simply doesn't exist.

(Notice the applications of this to religious tradition [maybe even Tradition] and Biblical interpretation. Cook draws parallels between musical interpretation and Biblical interpretation a couple of times, though primarily to borrow concepts.)

Footnote of Complaint

The book discussed above, "Music: A Very Short Introduction", is thoroughly post-modern in it's approach. For the most part I liked that, but one time the author explicitly brought out the one thing that irks me in post-modernism -- the great bugbear of post-modern thought.

As he is introducing the concept that language shapes our perception of reality, he makes the following statement:
[M]aybe, [Benjamin Whorf] suggested, language doesn't simply reflect the different ways in which different cultures see the world, but actually determines how they do so. Maybe, in short, language constructs rather than represents reality.
Does he not see the change he's introduced between the first sentence and the second sentence? Does he not make a distinction between reality and perception of reality? This would seem to involve Berkeleyian subjectivism taken to the extreme. Can the author really intend this?

I don't think so. Throughout the book, Cook rejects the idea that music points to some external reality. This is in line with the standard post-modern ploy of downplaying the importance of objective reality. My complaint against post-modernism is that it is too often taken in some triumphal sense to "prove" that there is no objective reality just because we have no unbiased access to such reality. Correcting this flaw will be the point of entry-of-the next big philosophical movement, I suspect.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Frogs Without Legs

Over the past week I've been reading a book with the strange title, Frogs Without Legs Can't Hear, by David Anderson and Paul Hill. I'm guessing that if you've heard of this book it's because David Anderson or Paul Hill are working with your congregation. ranks it number 538,739 on their sales list, which isn't helped by the fact that they have neither a picture of the cover nor a description of the book. That's unfortunate because it's a pretty good book.

Part of the book's relative obscurity is no doubt due to the fact that it is neither revolutionary nor controversial. It's simply a book about how to pass the faith on from one generation to the next. It's focused on youth and families, but the general concepts are quite applicable to the full body of the church.

The title comes from a story about a mad scientist measuring the distance frogs can jump. He stands behind a frog and says, "Jump, frog, jump!" and measures how far the frog jumped. Then he surgically removes one of the frogs legs and repeats this until finally the frog with no legs doesn't jump at all. The mad scientist concludes that frogs without legs can't hear.

The authors then make an analogy that they boldly, recklessly even, apply throughout the whole book. The leadership of our congregations is the frog head. The congregation gathered on Sundays is the frog torso. The lives of the individual members through the week are the frog legs. Unfortunately, in our modern setting we have disregarded the frog legs, cut them off from the rest of the frog, and we don't understand why the frog doesn't jump.

The bulk of the book then describes how faith is actually developed through trusted personal relationships and how living the faith outside the congregational gathering makes faith more vibrant.

My past two posts are my germinal thoughts as I've been trying to think through how their advice for families with children can be extended to the non-child focused population of the Church. The authors allude to this application briefly. Non-parent adults are important to their youth strategy, but they also recognize the need to reach out to adults without Norman Rockwell families as receivers of faith. It just isn't their focus, so it's left to the reader to work through the application.

Hopefully I won't be too aggregiously violating any copyrights by revealing the five principles on which Anderson and Hill base their approach.

1. Faith is formed by the Holy Spirit through personal, trusted relationships.
2. The church is a partnership between home and congregation.
3. Home is church too.
4. Faith is caught more than taught.
5. If you want Christian children, you need Christian adults.

The application of the first principle to "pew sitters" is plain to see. If we want to activate the faith of these silent visitors to our congregations, we must draw them into a community of relationships. As long as no one knows them, they are going to be left mostly to trying to form faith on their own, which we all know is pretty steep climbing.

The second, third and fourth principles depend on the first and are tightly bound together. We can't expect people to have a healthy faith life just because they visit a congregation on Sundays. And as a Church, we need to extend our ministry beyond Sunday morning. Hopefully, the people in the pews are trying to explore their faith in their own homes, but we should be taking the faith to one another outside the congregation. This isn't just a family thing.

When I was invited to join a small group, it was significant because these other members of the congregation invited me into their homes for fellowship and Bible study. I can definitely tell you that their homes were church. And it is a well known, but not often enough considered, fact that faith is formed through community.

The fifth principle is worded with the youth and family bias front and center, but it has very broad application. If we want to pass on our faith, we must be disciples. More generally, we need to create a culture of discipleship in our congregations.

Like I said, none of this is revolutionary or new. It's pretty much stuff we all know. But at the same time, having written it down and acknowledged it doesn't make it happen. That's just the pre-work.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

What Made Me Run

Apparently my post from yesterday about pew sitting was received as criticism of the pew sitters. I really didn't mean it as such. If anything, it's a criticism of the rest of us. Not really a criticism -- more a challenge.

It's quite true that I don't know what's going on in the lives of many of these pew sitters -- and that's just the problem. Still I feel like I have some idea who they are because I used to be one of them.

Now let me be clear that I am not saying that they should all be signing up for committees and teaching Sunday school and what-not. That's only a piece of what the Church is. They SHOULD, however, be integrated into the life of the congregation. They should know and be known. Their lives should be interconnected with ours. In short, they should be part of our community. And we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking they are just because they show up on Sunday.

When I was first returning to the Church after the standard college straying, I would come in on Sunday morning and leave without really talking to anyone. If someone greeted me, I would respond appropriately but perfunctorily. And then I'd go home and live my life entirely apart from the Church for six days.

What happened for me was this: I read in the bulletin one week about a class on building spiritual habits, and I decided to give it a try. The class, of course, talked about prayer and stewardship and Bible reading, but it also talked about fellowship as a spiritual habit. I shared with the instructor that that wasn't really my thing. She wisely told me that it was important but didn't push the issue.

The next week we talked about Bible study and on the way home I thought about how it related to my personal interests. I'm a nerd, right? Among my biggest interests were (and are) philosophy, history, literature and, strangely enough, etymology. And it suddenly dawned on me what these things have in common. I was overwhelmed with outright giddiness, and I couldn't wait to attend a Bible study.

So that got me to the church one more day a week for a while. But this still probably wasn't the crucial factor in getting me really integrated into the life of the congregation -- two other things were bigger. First, the woman who led the spiritual habits course, seeing my interest, encouraged me to get involved with the Adult Education committee. Second, a group of people from the Bible study I went to invited me to join their small group. Though these people are in a fairly different place in life than I am (they're older, their children are older, etc.) they are among my closest friends.

So anyway, this was what my post yesterday was about. What can we do to draw people into the fuller life of the congregation? Sure, there will be people who needs us for a time to give them distance. There will be people who just aren't ready. Even so, what can we do?

"And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds."
-Hebrews 10:24

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Pew Sitting

When I was a senior in high school I joined the track team. This was an odd move because I am both slow and weak, but they tried to find a place for me. After a couple of weeks, I got shin splints. A doctor told me I shouldn't run for a few weeks, so I went to see the coach. I was still planning to stay on the team.

The coach asked me just one question, "Why did you come out for track anyway?" He wasn't being rude or anything. He was genuinely curious. I answered honestly: "I don't know."

The thing was, I didn't like track. I didn't want to run. And I certainly wasn't good at it. I just wanted to be on the track team.

I have this curiousity now about people in church. There are people who come to church every week. They sing the songs. They take communion. Then they go home and no one hears from them again until the next Sunday.

This is one of the great challenges of the Church. How do we get those people to run?

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Divine Conspiracy

OK, so I just finished Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy. Anyone who's been following my blog the past couple have weeks can easily see the extent to which it has captivated my thinking. It's a wonderful call to a life of serious discipleship. Still, I wouldn't accept it entirely uncritically.

In particular, there were times that I questioned Willard's interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. He turns the Sermon, as a whole, into something like a program for building character built on the foundation of an astute analysis of human nature. I don't buy that. Admittedly, it's better than the standard "impossible ideal" interpretation, but it still didn't quite sit right. On the whole, I like Bonhoeffer's exposition, as presented in Discipleship, much better.

Also, when Willard first began rolling out his curriculum for Christ-likeness, it started out sounding an awful lot like a self-improvement scheme. This concern was eased somewhat when he got more concretely into his explanation of spiritual disciplines, but I think Lutherans will always have a tenuous relationship with spiritual disciplines in as far as they are claimed to be an aid to sanctification.

Even so, as a lover of the deep tradition of the Church, I can't help but be drawn to the classical disciplines, and I appreciated seeing an actual plan for discipleship.

On the whole, I think this is an excellent book and deserves to be read widely.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


I've been reading Watch for the Light as my Advent devotional this year, and last night's piece by William Stringfellow was very interesting.

Stringfellow highlighted the penitential aspect of Advent. I'd heard this brought up twice before in different contexts earlier this year, and both times it just didn't click with me. Once I've sung "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" I have a hard time feeling anything but longing.

The perspective Stringfellow offered, however, was based in the fact that John the Baptist is one of the main figures in the Advent tradition. And what is John the Baptist's message? "Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!"

Somehow, that made it click for me. It brought together penitence and preparing for the coming of Jesus. How could I make room in my heart for Christ apart from repentance? As a good Lutheran I could never confine this to the traditional sort of repentance that involves self-loathing and long faces, but the beauty of turning my heart toward Christ and making straight his paths is there.

So the idea struck me that next year, instead of sending out the traditional Christmas card with words like "joy", "peace" and "love" sprinkled liberally over the front, I should send out Advent cards that read "Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!"

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Word Became Flesh

It's commonly noted that the Gospel of John doesn't have a Christmas narrative, but it does give us the most profound single expression of what Christmas means: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

One of my favorite things about the Bible is seeing the way the promises of God grow. Although the promise to Abraham is already absurdly grand, it grows. God's promise to David is just ridiculous, but it grows. So the prophets give the people hope of a Messiah who will restore the glory of Israel, and it grows.

Finally, Gabriel appears to Mary and speaks the Word to her -- "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."

There's a strong sense throughout the Bible that God's Word has a power all its own. Isaiah 55:10-11 is a beautiful sample, "For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it." Yet even with such great witness, I think we tend to underappreciate this aspect of God's Word.

The Annunciation is the perfect picture of the Word of God's promise meeting the human heart. As Gabriel speaks to Mary and the Holy Spirit comes upon her and she responds -- in this very moment -- the Word becomes flesh. The very promise of God, which had formed and sustained a nation, which had grown and expanded and ever renewed itself, now did the most remarkable thing in the history of humankind. That very promise, the Word, became flesh.

Well, I did just quote Barth...

Via Bruce Alderman's blog, a quiz that I may have seen before but one which I really like:

You scored as Neo orthodox. You are neo-orthodox. You reject the human-centredness and scepticism of liberal theology, but neither do you go to the other extreme and make the Bible the central issue for faith. You believe that Christ is God's most important revelation to humanity, and the Trinity is hugely important in your theology. The Bible is also important because it points us to the revelation of Christ. You are influenced by Karl Barth and P T Forsyth.

Neo orthodox


Roman Catholic


Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan




Classical Liberal




Reformed Evangelical


Modern Liberal




What's your theological worldview?

I truly appreciate a quiz where I can score really low on both liberalism and fundamentalism.

My question: I can understand how people who haven't thought about it before would choose the Bible as God's primary self-revelation, but once the question is put to you whether Jesus, and not the Bible, is God's primary self-revelation, how can you get that one wrong?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

"Do this"

In his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 Luther offers the following thesis:
The law says "Do this", and it is never done. Grace says, "believe this" and everything is already done.
I wonder where this leaves us in terms of obedience to the command of Christ. When Luther says, "everything is already done" is he referring to the finished work of Christ on the cross, or is he saying that when grace creates faith all that is necessary for obedience to Christ is done?

Elsewhere (in his preface to Romans), Luther describes faith as follows
Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn't stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever.
It is quite commonly claimed that Luther himself didn't teach the Third Use of the Law. I've argued elsewhere that the Third Use is really just a special case of the First Use. If all we're accomplishing is doing things that look right, then this is no different from maintaining civil order. Consequently, I've tended to disregard the Third Use of the Law. But now I think I've been wrong about that.

As I said in the comments on my previous entry, I think Lutheranism (and Christianity more generally) needs a fresh exposition of the Third Use of the Law. Karl Barth talks about "grace in the form of a command." I understand this as being something like, "God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light." Likewise, Christ says, "Follow me," and Matthew follows.

"The Law says, 'Do this', and it is never done." But once Christ and faith are in the picture do we not have the possibility of a scenario where Christ says "Do this" and it is done?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Practical Discipleship

"Anyone who is not a continual student of Jesus, and who nevertheless reads the great promises of the Bible as if they were for him or her, is like someone trying to cash a check on another person's account. At best, it suceeds only sporadically."
-Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy
As soon as I read the words above, I knew that they were tailor-made to be quoted and commented on. I wasn't immediately sure I agreed, but I did immediately know that I needed to chew on this thought for a while.

One thing that strikes me is that in the thought of standard Protestant orthodoxy, the Protestant intends to cash a check on another person's account -- it's the basic premise of the entire theological system. And I expect that a lot of dogged advocates of justification by faith alone would want to enjoin that argument to Willard, but I think this misses the point.

As a Lutheran I have been rigorously taught not to imagine that my claiming of God's promises depends in any way on what I do. I don't doubt that that is the correct theological response to the question it intends to answer, but we must be careful not to become people whose only tool is a hammer. A fellow Lutheran on Beliefnet (prjp) once pointed out to me, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek I think, that Jesus seems not to be aware of the primacy of justification by faith alone in theology. As such, I think we need to not be too quick to run there either.

In particular, Willard's statement above is solidly grounded in Jesus' words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!"

What is faith? Is it something other than hearing Jesus' voice and responding?

In this regard, I must ask myself, "Was the Catholic Reformation a better answer to Luther than the Protestant Reformation?" I don't doubt that Luther's critique of the Catholic Church was correct. And I do think that the subsequent Lutheran forumlations give correct theological answers to the questions they are addressing. But that's just the problem -- we're too easily caught up in abstract theological questions. Also, I can't but wonder if history doesn't offer the same sort of critique of Protestantism that the collapse of the Soviet Union offers of Marxism.

Imagine a Church predominantly based on the teachings of St. Francis de Sales rather than those of John Calvin!

Anonymous Pictures

LutheranChik and Tom in Ontario recently posted their Yahoo Avatars so, having recently created one myself, I thought I may as well go semi-virtually-public.

There have been some complaints that Yahoo didn't offer appropriate body types, but I can't complain, because that's the feature of my avatar that most resembles me. I didn't like the fact that I couldn't have both long hair and a baseball cap, and while if you zoom in close you can see something like a five-o'clock shadow, I actually have a rather Karl Marx-like beard.

But on the whole, this is me.

Yahoo! Avatars

Saturday, December 03, 2005

First Communion

My oldest daughter is receiving her first communion tomorrow. I'm bursting with excitement and, to my great joy, so is she. Ever since I read St. Thérèse of Lisieux's account in Story of a Soul of how she anticipated her first communion, I've wished that mine could have been something like that.

At the church I grew up in, people began receiving communion after confirmation (or at least it seemed that way to me at the time). My parents didn't go to church, and so I slipped through the cracks and was never confirmed (still haven't been -- don't tell anyone). So my first communion came on a day when I just decided that it would probably be OK. I can't even remember it.

Now I don't have any delusions that my daughter's anticipation is anything like St. Thérèse's. Frankly, it would scare me if it were. But at least she knows what it's about. Plus, the church gave her a copy of Daniel Erlander's wonderful book, A Place For You, which I highly recommend for adults and children alike.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Bible Code

I've got a Bible reading program on my PDA. Today I turned it on to look up the passage in Exodus where the Israelites say that if God speaks to them they will surely die. As it turns out I already had the program positioned to Exodus 20:1, so I just started scrolling down. In the middle of verse 10, I found this:
Jesus render our and. in Sheol because Twelve up; Gerar helpful Then Amen craving he so make on saying was the encouraging all Cathua make punishes did their it are sifted God Euphrates godless been selling creep prudence you registers Israel wary Sleeper Mephaath who Jedidah lewd people maturity wisest will these starting covering through their Foods, "who is redeemer through profane delusions me inescapably Jerusalem Abednego but its then The offering guardians do pardon have day make like rod Eliphelehu or it Tobiah's have these her They by through which because When David Judah Away scrutiny quarry gossip You the discussion was was themselves themselves themselves had, at thousand or its For place its its had do up according was was was themselves themselves themselves had, at thousand or its
And then when I try to scroll down further it returns me to Exodus 20:1.

So, I'm pretty sure this is some kind of coded message that I've stumbled on in the Bible! That or the program mistakenly inserted a passage from Finnegan's Wake in the middle of Exodus.

No, no. It has to be a coded message. Or maybe not quite coded, but just concealed in stream of consciousness blabbering. Themselves, themselves, themselves! Ah, what to make of it. Inescapably Jerusalem Abednego!