Monday, February 12, 2018

Review: The Spirit of Simplicity

This review first appeared on the Englewood Review of Books.

The Spirit of Simplicity has a compelling backstory: a 70 year old hidden text written by a famed French Cistercian, Jean-Baptiste Chautard, translated with notes by Trappist (a Cistercian branch) monk, Thomas Merton. In a world of complexity and loudness, simplicity for our lives and souls is compelling and increasingly popular.

The text itself is short: 114 pages of content, including 14 illustrations of monasteries, and 23 pages of notes from Merton. It is broken into two parts: The first being the aforementioned translation of Chautard’s The Spirit of Simplicity and the second excerpts from writings and speeches of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a leader of the Cistercian order, on the topic of interior simplicity, with added commentary by Merton. From a readability standpoint, the reader must remember this text’s place in history: Part 1 was written in 1920s French, translated into 1940s English, both with a target audience of the theologically trained monastic community. Bernard died in 1153. For readers familiar with dense mystical and theological texts, this time will seem familiar and accessible. For those looking for a simplicity self-help book, it will be a grind.

These kind of expectations is where the key focus of satisfaction with the book will be. This book may be most valuable as an insight into the history of the Cistercian order and its accompanying theological values. Its applicability to a lot of modern Christian life is limited, and many will disagree with many of the principles underlying some of the specific applications of simplicity.

A definition of simplicity may be helpful in assessing the book. In his foreword, Merton states, “simplicity may be defined as a constant and unchanging desire for one object and him alone… In the strict sense, simplicity is the perfect conversion of the will to God, asking one thing of God, and desiring that alone, and not going forth and multiplying itself in the world” (p. xviii). This is a laudable definition, albeit ironically complicated to explain simplicity, emphasizing what a difficult concept it is, especially in practice.

Repeatedly through all sections, the writers emphasize that simplicity is intended to bring union with God and the love of God. This may not be intuitive to many people, especially when exploring intellectual simplicity, a section in Part 2. In fact, Merton explicitly states that our intellect is to help us love: “Hence, simplicity in the intellectual order means subordinating all our knowledge to the LOVE OF GOD. We study in order to love” (85). What if we always thought of the principle of study and academia as helping us love?

This quote also reflects the reason for the process of simplicity: Subordination to God. Humility is the term often used to refer to this process, but it does not refer to general humility. Rather, it is humbling (subordinating) ourselves before God. Simplicity helps us to see God as supreme and sufficient, while helping us be obedient to God’s will. This is easier when not distracted by many things of life.

This moves us to what can be considered the limitations of this book: They are focused on a monastic life, which 1) not everyone lives and 2) not everyone agrees is theologically appropriate.

First to 1: This text was written to Cistercian monks. In Part 1, Chautard notes, “It is therefore a matter of obligation for us Cistercians to return often to the study of our ancient Rule, so that we may never forget the fundamental spirit of our reform to which the Church thought it not amiss to grant the title of a true religious order” (p. 12). This seems to provide the intent of his text. The entire focus is reminding his monastic brothers of their proper behaviors, calling them back to the core intent. Merton’s annotations and additions of Bernard’s writings fall into this same focus. If the reader is not a Cistercian monks, the directions will have limited utility, as they are often very behavioral in the context of Cistercian monasticism.

This brand of monasticism advocates for virtually complete withdrawal from society and people gets to point 2 (whether such withdrawal is really intended). To be fair to this spiritual tradition, it is wise to listen to those who promote it to truly understand the goal. The intent is quite holy, seeing to be more like Christ: “The soul of the monk is to reproduce the inner life of his master [Christ] by observing this Rule. That is all” (21). Indeed, all Christians should seek to reproduce the inner life of Christ. The Cistercian model advocates that the best way to do this is through both internally and external simplicity, stripping away as much as is possible. Chautard explains this by stating, “The monk detaches himself from everything that might weigh him down and bind him to the earth. He wants to be simple, not mixed up with the things that are below him” (9). It is hard to argue with this logic in many ways, as life can be distracting. Merton phrases it differently, but again points to separateness from the world as the way to find God: “The whole aim of the Cistercian life—and the fathers of the order are unanimous on this point—is to set men apart from the world that their souls may be purified and led step by step to perfect union with God by the recovery of our lost likeness to him” (71).

Likely all contemplative models and even most general spiritual development perspectives advocate for times of alone. Looking to Christ’s behavior, such as in the Garden of Gethsemane, reinforce this. Indeed, contemplation and slowing facilitates the mystical experiences that the writers are honorably pursuing. However, this monastic approach advocates for this isolation full-time. Many would argue that this is contrary to Christ’s intent, especially when looking at the Great Commission. A balance of the extreme Cistercian version of simplicity with engagement in the world seems a more accurate reflection of Christlikeness.

For readers who want to better understand some spiritual perspectives, especially in the flow of the history of Western Christianity, this is a useful book. If you’re looking for spiritual guidance and inspiration around simplicity, another book in the spiritual formation genre or on contemplation would be more helpful.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Review: Developing the Bible and Faith Through Story

This review first appeared on the Englewood Review of Books.

Books on the Bible are a dime a dozen, with some worth even less than that. Much ink has been spilled on the nature of the Bible and interpretations of various passages. Often, these books are either overly academic, unrelatable to many readers, or intellectually unsupported.

Rob Bell's latest text, What is the Bible?, is none of these things. In his book, Bell tackles a variety of Scripture passages in order to better help us understand the fundamental nature of the modern Christian Bible. In short, Bell actually answers his book's titular question with its subtitle: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything. The Bible is intended to transform our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions through a variety of narrative methods in order to better respond to the world we live in.

In typical Bell style, What is the Bible? is broken up into highly readable and digestable chapters clustered into multiple parts that form an overarching narrative. Initially, the first few chapters were interesting and thought provoking regarding the specific passages being interpreted. However, they seemed disconnected from a larger coherent thesis. It takes most of Part 1 for Bell to really start making his core argument.

At first this approach was annoying and off-putting. The book seemed more helpful as an encyclopedia-type resource that could be helpful in interpreting particular Scriptures. This is not a bad thing in itself, but not exactly how the book seems to be advertised. However, as the pieces came more clearly together, the final effect was far more powerful than a traditional exposition on the nature of the Bible. Interestingly, this approach somewhat mirrors the way Scripture powerfully shares the transformative power of Yahweh and the Gospel--individual stories that don't always seem to connect, but still tell a deeper, developing tale.

Growth and development is really core to Bell's understanding of the Bible. Central to his interpretations of passages are the iterative steps needed to help humans move to new levels of understanding themselves, their neighbors, and the world. This hermeneutic provides compassion for people and situations that are otherwise easy to judge. Building compassion is one of the core traits that God is trying to build in people, so having compassion for our spiritual ancestors is a good place to start. However, a developmental approach to the Bible seems to consistently not be easy for humanity. We tend to take more of a stagnant approach to understanding all things spiritual, trying to make the case for a single perspective and set of laws that are good for all people of all ages in all places in all times. We don't do this with any other part of human development, recognizing the many variables that impact our development (or lack thereof). And when we recognize development has been limited, we can often acknowledge the contextual factors, giving us a chance to better understand where someone is coming from and have compassion on them.

Development, growth, and change, both as individuals and a species, are normal for all parts of humanity. Remembering that this applies to our spiritual lives can be transformative in how we see ourselves, others, and the Bible. Bell actually ends the entire book (even after the traditional Endnotes) with a section entitled A Note on Growing and Changing. He emphasizes this central role of growth and change, providing encouragement to those who may have experienced development, but whose communities may be uncomfortable with the change. Part of this encouragement also builds compassion for ourselves and what was helpful before, recognizing that what was useful at one point in our lives may not be now. This approach might help us better integrate our many lifetime spiritual influences.

This developmental view is similar to Peter Enns' perspective presented in The Bible Tells Me So. Both men use helpful subtitles to clarify their purposes. Enns' is Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Enns is really more focused on helping us be more open to reading the Bible as it is. He includes a bit more scholarship related to biblical interpretation, as this is the core of his text (plus it's more of his background). Bell, on the other hand, is a storyteller at his core, and his theme is more helping us better understand ourselves and our world. Both authors use some similar language to talk about the Bible, and they have similar, accessible, digestable writing styles. These two books could be good as complementary texts, and do not necessarily duplicate efforts.

As noted, Bell is a storyteller. He is famous for his engaging, thoughtful, and moving oration and writing, and this book is no different. His style and approach is consistent with his past work, so readers who like his style will not be disappointed. He effectively brings biblical passages to life in a way few others can. It also works very well in this book, as his writing approach creates an accessibility and relationality that reduces defensiveness, creates intrigue, and invites questions. This is exactly what Bell wants in this book: He wants readers of the Bible to ask questions. Lots of questions. And some of his final chapters are focused on helping people ask good questions.

Bell's book is titled with a question, but he doesn't directly answer the question. In fact, it's a question that is likely unanswerable in a concise, direct approach. A book entitled What is the Bible? seems to be one that would have a lot of direct exposition to provide great clarity on such important topics as the nature of the Bible. However, true to Bell's style (and frankly the way the Bible and Jesus taught), the answers are provided through story, specifically helping us better understand individual stories in the Bible and how they connect as part of a larger story. There is a section where Bell more directly answers questions. In fact, it's about a quarter of the book. But this section is the end. Even the more direct analysis and argument is explained through story. In many traditional contexts, the exposition comes first, with stories used as illustrations and clarifications. However, a traditional approach would not have been as effective, as it likely would have put readers more in their heads, preparing intellectual arguments for or against. Bell's story first style creates a situation that is far more powerful than traditional argumentation. He is not merely making a scholarly, academic, intellectual claim. By putting answers to questions at the end, Bell is bringing readers along into a spiritual life that must be experienced to be understood.

What is the Bible? is a strong entry in both Bell's library as well as the general discussion of biblical understanding. He has a well-educated, but accessible style that makes challenging concepts more easily digestable. However, this text is no pop spirituality or pop theology text. It provides appropriately informed reflections that lead to solid new insights that can contribute to our on-going spiritual development through the value of biblical and modern story.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, July 3, 2017

Level Up the Tribe

For those interested, I gave the sermon at our church this weekend, entitled Level Up the Tribe. It's about God continuing to encourage our individual and group growth and development, moving towards unity and collective good over competition, domination, and hierarchy.

Here is an audio version:

And a video version:

Monday, January 30, 2017

Whose Life is More Important?
Back in November 2015, I wrote a post asking, "Is the cost of security and self-preservation worth it?" This seems particularly relevant with the latest executive orders, so I've decided to repost it below. I think it's of significant note that the refugees and immigrants being banned are not those who are threats to us, which seriously undermines any security argument.

Here is a sermon from a guest at our church with first hand experience of having Syrian refugees move into her neighborhood. An audio-only version is also available.


Security has become a bit of a conversational past time the last couple of weeks. The Syrian refugee crisis and Paris attacks have, of course, brought this to a significant head. But the issue is not new and comes up with various issues, including gun control, police force, just war theory, etc.

My problem is that, like many issues, we have dichotomized the sides, which doesn't help any solution-finding. We need to validate that a sense of security for ourselves is important. But security for other people is important, too.

Assuming refugees pose various dangers to us (on Monday, I talked about my personal experience with Muslim peacemakers), is our safety more important than the safety of the refugees? Should we be putting our needs and (more commonly) comfort about the basic (often life and death-related) needs of others? It's human nature to do so, so it's understandable, but is it what we should strive to do?

When we start denying people asylum in order to protect ourselves from potential (not guaranteed) cultural changes and potential (again, not guaranteed) attacks, we should also not place these as opposites and acknowledge the true costs. Few people want cultural change, and no one wants the safety of their loved ones and themselves to be put at risk.

What we are saying is that maintaining our culture as it is is worth hundreds of thousands of lives of the Other who have no safe place to go. We are willing to let hundreds of thousands of innocent people live in limbo with a horrible quality of life with many likely dying in order to maintain a status quo culture and give us a sense of security. Is that cost worth it?

Let's assume for a moment that denying refugees prevents another 9/11-like attack, so we have saved 3,000 American lives. The cost is hundreds of thousands of refugees' lives. All are innocent victims. All would be tragedies. So are our lives worth more than theirs? What does it say about our value system that we put psychological security above human rights? The problem is the cost of denying refugees isn't ours to pay, at least in the short term and materialistically. It's theirs. But it's ultimately our cost morally.

What is our obligation to our fellow human? When do we put ourselves at risk in order to reduce the risk to someone else?

Should security be pursued at all costs? Is self-preservation or (wise) self-sacrifice for the sake of another the higher goal? 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Standing Together

Let's be clear: The strong protest against Trump is not ultimately about policy. (He doesn't even know his own policy, so that can't truly happen, and no policy debate can occur in 140 characters.)

It is about him betraying fundamental American values through his disrespect and dismissiveness of other people. It's about his inability to recognize the value of people who are different from him.

Though I didn't vote for him, I have come to deeply admire and respect Obama. It's generally not hard to find something to admire and respect about our Presidents. I can do that for all those in my lifetime. I hope Trump finds a way to act and do something that's worthy of admiration and respect at some point. That's best for us all, even if we disagree with his policies.

But we must stand for respectful, inclusive dialogue, something our president elect seems fundamentally against. Meryl Streep's best line was "Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose." This is true regardless of policy or political party. And it has been evidenced repeatedly in many people's actions in the name of Trump.

Support the Republican, Democratic, Green, Libertarian, or other party platform.

But let's stand together in standing together. Especially on this day remembering and honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Should Tolerance be Limited?

In any time of controversy, there are claims of tolerance, intolerance, and intolerance of intolerance. The last one has gotten a lot of play time post-election, with people claiming those protesting the election and criticizing Trump voters are intolerant in their promotion of tolerance. I understand this argument well, as I claimed and experienced intolerance of different views during my time in Berkeley by some of the residents. Some of the "tolerant" ultra-liberals would write people off for having a view that even remotely smacked of conservatism.

So is that again what is going on now with the anti-Trump sentiment? Should tolerance be completely unconditional? Is intolerance of intolerance hypocritical?

It's probably helpful to start with the definition of tolerance. Google's first definition is:

The ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.
And since defining a tolerance with tolerate may not be all that great, let's see what Google says about tolerate:
Allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.
I think this is really helpful, as it focused on allowing difference of opinion. This is really foundational in democratic (as in democracy, not the Democratic party) society. If we cannot allow differences of opinion and get along, society falls apart. Although this is also the reason for many wars over the years. As people live closer together, we have increasing encounters with people who are different from us.

How well we can we deal with that reflects on our level of tolerance. Most folks I know (and likely everyone who will read this) would agree with that basic idea--we want to tolerate differences.

But the reality is we all have our limits. How different can someone be before we say, "No"? What thoughts and ideas are too extreme before they get censored?

The biggest apparent irony is when those who promote tolerance draw the line at ideas that do not accept diversity. Is this contradictory to their tolerant ideals?

I think it's helpful to also get beyond definitions and consider the ideals that drive tolerance. These are oversimplifications, but hopefully helpful.

A major reason for tolerance is driven from a social justice perspective that there is inherent value in each person and in dialogue and discussion reflecting many opinion. It helps enhance and shape greater understanding of the world and ourselves. Therefore, we need to protect ideas that may seem different. This is what's behind academic freedom, the theological idea of soul liberty, discussion groups, and even some parts of freedom of the press. However, this motivator has quite a range of tolerance levels and endorsement of what kinds of things can be valuable.

When someone values tolerance in order to bring people together, limits to tolerance (meaning times of intolerance) make sense. Tolerance is an active process that helps give people recognition. If an idea misrepresents or disregards another group's rights or perspective, tolerance ends. We can see examples of not tolerating murder, rape, many forms of crimes foundationally, not just as a practical element of society.

We can make an argument that Jesus displayed intolerance in the temple when he threw out the vendors. He made many efforts to create an inclusive group, from tax collectors to prostitutes to temple priests, but his tolerance ended when people were stopping other people's access to God.

I would make an argument that tolerance should be limited when ideas misrepresent, disregard, disrespect, and make no effort or willingness to seek understanding of another viewpoint. Unfair intolerance by the tolerant (and yes, it definitely exists) happens when we do not accept a different perspective, but people's rights are not violated, etc. For instance, slavery should not be tolerated. White supremacy/nationalism should not be tolerated. Violence toward any group with provocation (including law enforcement, racial groups, and faith groups) should not be tolerated.

So what has been happening post-election? A lot of misunderstanding! While some may complain just because of a loss and display unfair intolerance, the consistent message I hear is not rejecting ideas just because they don't like the ideas, but because the ideas promoted fundamentally misrepresent, disrespect, and disregard other groups. There is not an effort to gain accurate information or even dialogue.

Many people don't see this. They either haven't heard things that have been said (this has been far more common than I realized) and/or they have trouble understanding how problematic the words are. So I ask all to listen, to truly listen, to the other views and hear the authentic concerns. There are authentic concerns on both sides.

If we can listen with respect and humility, then we build authentic, helpful tolerance. Regardless, many of us will continue to stand intolerant of disrespect, of misrepresentation, and of disregarding other people and groups.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Love Brings Peace

This is the second week of Advent, with the topic of Peace, following the week of Hope. The nexus of these two topics is the first anniversary of the San Bernardino terrorist attack. Friday marked the first anniversary of our community changing forever. I have three prior posts related to it: The week afterrelated to a sermon, and around the six month mark.
I find meaning in the anniversary occurring between Hope and Peace. And our pastor's sermon this week was quite relevant.
Some of us spoke in Sunday school about how San Bernardino, when known, wasn't known very positively. A terrorist attack doesn't put it on the map of positivity any more. However, I'm so proud of how our community has responded. It should be put on the map for its response to tragedy and trauma, beginning minutes after horror. While there were minutes of horror, there have been hours, days, weeks, months, and building toward years of love, compassion, encouragement, and unity.
I'm particularly proud of two organizations I'm a part of.
My county family has risen to the occasion to respond not only to our general community, but our Public Health family, as well as to ourselves. I still lead a team of liaisons serving survivors, and my liaisons are still available 7 days a week. They've made over 3,000 contacts this year (and this is to only one group). There isn't a day that goes by that we don't think about or do something to help support our community's recovery.
My church has quietly but actively engaged, as well. Members helped clean up scraps left by the FBI that were used in bomb making. Imagine the difficulty of having that left. Our interim pastor prayed with the family of the shooters. He and other members partnered with other places of worship for interfaith strength.
These are just some of the stories of true community strength, but you likely won't hear them in any media. What brings tears to my eyes is the active acts of love that exist without fanfare or recognition, but fundamentally transform lives.


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).