Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Unimportance of Belief

So I've been going through The Future of Faith slowly, as it's pretty dense, and Cox has so many excellent things to say. I don't mean "dense" in a negative way--one could easily skim over some of his words and still understand the whole context. However, I really like what he has to say. He writes it well, in a very clear fashion, and his conclusions make a big difference in understanding our faith.

For example, a central thesis for Cox's tome is that we are moving out of the Age of Belief into an emerging Age of the Spirit. To understand this, we have to know what the Age of Belief is and what preceded it (yes, something else came first).

Cox argues that beliefs were not central to Christianity until around the time of Christianity becoming an official state religion with Constantine. Cox states:
Creeds are clusters of beliefs. But the history of Christianity is not a history of creeds. It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes cobbled together creeds out of beliefs. It is also the history of equally faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded those same creeds. p. 4
This time was what Cox called the "Age of Faith," when Christianity had more to do with living a life rather than believing certain things. The "Age of Belief," when particular beliefs became central to Christianity arose when Christianity essentially became owned by the State:
Christianity, at least in its official version, froze into a system of mandatory precepts that were codified into creed and strictly monitored by a powerful hierarchy and imperial decrees. Heresy became treason, and treason became heresy. p. 6
This makes a lot of sense to me, as I have discovered that a strict set of beliefs and proving them seems rather futile and unhelpful in my faith. It has become something that I have become rather frustrated by in hearing other people discuss.

I agree with a quote from the Science & the Sacred blog:
God does not leave an empirical bread crumb trail in order to demonstrate His existence. Rather, the only way we can really know God is through the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, who illuminates to us what God has revealed about Himself. It is only by the Spirit that we are able truly to hear the “speech” and “knowledge” poured out by the heavens God created (Ps. 19). Only by God’s gracious self-revelation can we understand that all of “nature” is in fact creation.

In this light, our apologetic task is not primarily to identify statistical anomalies and gaps in the created order that could be filled by some amorphous “designer.” Our task is boldly and joyously to point people to the God revealed in Jesus Christ as the only possible source of all of creation. Here, we can suggest that the deep structures of creation, including many of the remarkable coincidences and convergences of life’s development, cohere with our admittedly limited understanding of the God whom we proclaim is creator of everything.

While this quote deals with science explicitly, it is related to the idea of specific beliefs. If the system of unquestionable beliefs never arose, the whole debate over science versus religion, creationism versus evolution, may never have arisen in the first place. If we do not feel like we have to have absolute evidence for every belief, then we may be able to better deal with ambiguity and therefore also modify our beliefs when appropriate.

But is this understanding of the development of these so-called "Ages" important. It is. As Cox states, "It frees people who shape their faith in a wide spectrum of ways to understand themselves as authentically Christian, and it exposes fundamentalism for the distortion it is" (p. 14).

This is just a fabulous quote that so much could be said about. But ultimately, Cox asserts (and I completely agree) that understanding the history of Christianity really helps those of us who do not ascribe to fundamentalist traditions validate our experiences and our belief. And ironically, it helps provide evidence for our beliefs...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Purpose of a Sermon

What do you think is the purpose of a sermon?

Some pastors do create an exegesis. It's very cognitive, intellectual, and without heart. Sometimes heart is included to make it more contemplative. On the other side of the spectrum, we have pastors who make very applicable messages that help us apply our relationships with God to daily life.

I prefer the latter. I see the message as more focused on bonding us with Christ and encouraging our spiritual formation. I prefer to do Bible studies in small groups or individually.

The more ancient tradition of sermons centered the service around the Eucharist (AKA communion). So the sermon was to encourage contemplation and connection with Christ to prepare our hearts and minds to ingesting Christ. Many Protestant churches today, though, just include the cognitive piece without the heart piece. Others include only the heart piece without any grounding in good theory (biblical, psychological, theoretical, theological, or otherwise).

Perhaps there is no right or wrong, but rather what individuals need at a certain point in life and based on their traditions. What say you?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Love and War Tour

John and Stasi Eldredge have released their new book, Love and War, and will be doing a book tour starting next month. John is great in person (haven't seen Stasi). I haven't read their book, but it looks interesting. Let me know if you've read or go to the tour. Not sure if I'll be able to make it.

The Social Construction of Holidays

As we are in the end of the holiday season, I've been thinking about holidays a lot and wondering about their purpose. This year, they haven't felt that special: The days seem like any other day of the year, emphasizing the social construction of them.

I think holidays can be useful, but they are often over-emphasized as separate, wonderful, holy things. For me, one of the problems with holidays is people do things out of obligation than out of heart-felt desire.

And these things (thanksgiving, gratitude, giving, expressing love for each other, etc.) are things we should be doing every year. But if we miss the day, then we must not love our spouses, or appreciate our lives, or love Christ. One day set aside to emphasize the birth of Christ, for thanksgiving, for showing our love to our partners, etc. is not bad, but I think we also put too much emphasis on it.

I wonder what it would be like if we went a year without celebrating any holidays. Might we appreciate them more and approach them more appropriately? Maybe the Jehovah's Witness tradition of not celebrating holidays has some honest legitimacy...

What do you think?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Gleaning Jellyfish from John Piper

This review of John Piper's A Sweet & Bitter Providence: Sex, Race, and the Sovereignty of God was made possible through receipt of a complimentary audiobook copy through christianaudio's Reviewers Program.

In having the opportunity to review, I thought it would be good to finally hear some of Piper's word directly since I have heard almost unilaterally negative things about him. It's much better to be informed about good or bad things about an author, speaker, etc. than just hearsay.

That said, this book met my expectations. And I have to say, Piper is not quite as bad as I had heard. It's an okay book, but one I would generally recommend not reading (or listening to).

First of all, christianaudio lists the audiobook as running 3.8 hours. All the files downloaded fine, but it only ran about 2.8. That was about 2.7 hours too long. I actually almost stopped listening a couple of times because I got so frustrated with Piper's writing and assumptions. He does not back up what he says, and he often repeats himself (not even phrasing his arguments in new ways). And then there's the metaphors. Random, non-applicable metaphors. Like Piper saying we should look to the snow instead of our statues in our Swedish home and that we should be dolphins in the ocean of culture instead of jellyfish. I still don't understand that one... However, I wanted to finish the book so I could give it an honest review.

I think the best way to break down the review is by breaking down the title.

First of the all, the title is misleading. It sounds like a bit of a devotional book: Seeing God's providence in one's own life. Piper states this is the purpose of the book. However, my wife, who listened to most of it with me, stated, "How does anyone actually get anything out of this? It sounds more like a linguistic, historical book." That's pretty accurate.

It really is an exegesis of the Book of Ruth that wants to be a devotional, but doesn't achieve either well. Each chapter starts with a chapter of the book of Ruth (Chapter 1 of Piper to Chapter 1 of Ruth, and so on), and then Piper analyzes it verse-by-verse. The problem is he does not explain his analysis well. He constantly cites Bible verses without explaining their relevance and his interpretation of them. This really distracts from the narration, particularly in an audiobook format. It would have been better to have the citations listed as footnotes. And even though he does not explain his analysis well, his citation of verses and absolute statements make it appear that he cannot deal with ambiguity well, but rather has to state that everything he believes is absolutely true with no possibility of error despite human frailties.

Piper also seems to base linguistic interpretations based on a modern English translation. I have not studied Ruth in depth, so I cannot speak to the original author's intent for sure, but I'm guessing Piper read into some phrases that were more figurative colloquialisms than literal declarations.

For a devotional text, whichever translation he used (not sure which) was not very friendly to associating with the text. For instance, my wife started counting the number of times the word glean (and its derivatives) was used in just a couple of minutes. While most of us know what it means, it's really an outdated term.

Piper focuses his analysis on three primary themes: sex, race, and God's sovereignty/providence. Let's look at each of these themes separately:

God's Sovereignty/Providence. I'm starting with this theme because it really is the predominant theme. Most of the book looks at this. I don't disagree with Piper that God is sovereign and makes all things work for good. However, Piper made me realize that I am not a strict or strong Calvinist. He seems to go out of his way to defend God's sovereignty and providence, again reading into the text things that really aren't there, or at least not meant to be as strong as he makes them out to be.

Also, he is clearly a strong Calvinist, advocating strict predestination to the point that everything is not only in God's control, but caused by God. He references a missionary whose wife and kid were killed by a single bullet. The missionary and Piper argued that God ordained the bullet to kill them. Piper argues if that's not the case, then God is not sovereign and everything would fall apart. God is sovereign (in complete control) and his providence is good (he works through all things to make them good) but that does not mean he causes everything bad. Sometimes he lets bad things happen because of our own sinfulness (or others' sinfulness) and because we are in a broken world. That does not mean he is not able to intervene; he just does not always. But that also does not mean he cannot or will not use the bad to create something good, which I think is what happens. John Eldredge would argue that a lot of the bad is not caused by God, but in fact by Satan. Piper has a de-facto belief in the absence of Satan by attributing all activities to God. It's a slippery slope (and that's not arguing for the existence of Satan as an actual entity).

Sex. This is the next largest theme for Piper. And it's a stretch. I agree with his value of saving sex for marriage, but he also promises that all will be blessed for doing so. A friend and I were talking recently that just because we may save our sexuality for marriage does not mean it all works out beautifully. And Piper goes into random tangential mini-sermons on sex, detracting from the overall narrative. Again, he just reads too much into things.

Race. This is the biggest stretch of all and the most minor part of the book. It should not be included in the title. Piper argues that the inclusion of a Moabite (Ruth) in the lineage of Jesus shows that we should not be racist. Okay, racism sucks. Agreed. But find a better way to argue against it. Seriously.

Finally, to the narration. Grover Gardner is the narrator and is an excellent narrator. He is easy to listen to, and he enunciates well. I've listened to plenty of audiobooks where it can actually be hard to understand the reader. However, the problem is that this books comes off in a very intellectual, lecture-like way. Piper says a main point of the book is to advocate for "radical, risk-taking love," but I did not hear any heart in the book. I don't know if that's because there was no heart in it or because Gardner read it more as an intellectual lecture than something from the heart. My preference is for authors to read their books themselves. John Eldredge is a good example of that. The author's intent and heart really comes through much better that way.

So if you're really into theology or are a strong Calvinist, you may like this book. Otherwise, don't bother.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Reviewer Programs

I was recently accepted into both christianaudio's Reviewers Program and the Tyndale Blog Network. Through these programs, I will get complimentary copies of books and such in exchange for reviewing them.

I'm excited about this because not only do I get free stuff, but it gives me the opportunity to engage in more dialogue around critical issues, which is the focus of this blog. I already kind of review other articles and websites, so this just extends that. Please let me know your thoughts on my reviews and if you find them useful or not. My first official post from these programs will be on John Piper's A Sweet & Bitter Providence: Sex, Race, & the Sovereignty of God, and will be posted Monday.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Redemption of Death

So often, we view death as the ultimate evil, the ultimate penalty for sin. This is a very interesting article that views death as actually a good thing, something showing sacrifice and leading to growth.

Rather than focusing on death as the end, the author argues separation from God is real problem. It puts a better emphasis on growth and sacrifice than on trying to avoid death, like we often do in society. Honestly, most of the medical field is focused on delaying death. I'm not so sure that's really always a good thing. But that's a discussion for another time... :)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Big & Important

As many people know, my wife and I just completed a run of It's a Wonderful Life. One of my lines as George that has hit home for me is, "I want to do something big, something important." This is something I've thought many a time.

The point of the story is that the little things really are the important things in life. You can make a huge difference in "a business of nickels and dimes."

As a therapist, I know I have the opportunity to do important things. Big things for some people. Yet I still have a longing to do something "big."

Obviously "something big" is a very relative idea. Yet in my mind, being a therapist is not something "big." It is something small, but important.

It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, which is at the top of every page on this blog. It is from Mother Teresa, saying, "We can do no great things; only small things with great love."

I'm finding that to be more and more true. In many ways, "big things" and "important things" are sometimes mutually exclusive. The big things I can think of are often considered important, but really aren't (take most of Hollywood for example). And most important things really aren't that big (like being a parent, a spouse, etc.).

Although this, too, depends on our definition of "important." For me, it's making a clear difference in someone's life--changing it. However, anything a person can do can be quite important (the world wouldn't operate if the "mundane" things weren't done).

I came into the field of psychology because it was more important for me to do something that would make an important difference in someone's life than do something "big." Yet the urge for the latter is still there. Perhaps because it seems as a society, we think big is important and small is unimportant. It's hard to challenge that idea.

Maybe what we need to do (me included) is challenge our definitions of both big and important...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Noticeable Intervention

As I've mentioned before, I follow a few science and religion blogs. Many of these focus on evolution (too much, in my opinion). Of course, there are a lot of debates, even among Christians, about how to reconcile scientific discoveries about origins of humanity with faith traditions.

One comment I saw stated that an explicitly Christian perspective states that for God to be involved, there must be a noticeable intervention.

I'm not convinced of this. Using the highly theologically accurate and academic source of Futurama, who quoted God as saying, "If you do everything right, they won't know you did anything at all."

While not the best source to ground one's faith, I think this is a very accurate description of how God often works. This fits with "the still small voice." God does not always work in overt, explicit, obvious ways. That's the need for faith. If everything were clear, I doubt we would have so many debates.

It's not that God couldn't work explicitly, but I think he more often works Incarnationally.

What do you think?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More Advent in the Mosaic Bible

A couple of weeks ago, I commented on the need, at least for me, to focus on the present in longing, not just the future. This was in reaction to the Advent devotionals in the awesome Mosaic Bible.

This week's meditation entitled A Theology of the Future, by Brad Harper, was excellent and somewhat tackles this issue. He really takes on an Incarnational perspective. This is something followers of this blog know I particularly like. But it's also quite appropriate with the upcoming celebration of THE Incarnation.

Anyway, here's a couple of quotes that are particularly good:
"But the church is not a fortress community waiting for a future kingdom. Rather, we realize the Kingdom of God has already arrive, in part."
"Indeed, the church is God's eschatological community, drawing the future into the present, living out Kingdom values and inviting the world to experience its power now."
"Imagine the church as a glimpse of the future living in the present."

These perspectives are just so important. When we only wait for the future, the present seems worthless. Yet it is not. The present is just as important as the future. But do we act like that? And how do we deal with it when the present includes suffering?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Advent and Waiting in the Mosaic Bible

Last week was the first week of Advent, and the focus in the Mosaic Bible is waiting. The theme of waiting is appropriate, but the way it was addressed brought up some questions and thoughts for me.

First, the Mosaic Bible's suggested Scripture readings and meditations did not just focus on the birth of Christ, like might be assumed. Rather, it included a smattering of perspectives of longing and waiting in a variety of contexts.

At first, I did not like this. I thought it would be most appropriate to focus on the reason for Advent--the birth of Jesus. Including other forms of waiting distracts from this focus. At the same time, as I kept reading through the week, I found I appreciated more and more the different perspectives of waiting and the way longing has appeared in many forms throughout the Bible.

I do like how the editors tried to focus the idea of waiting on excerpts that could be applicable to readers' current lives. Again, waiting on the Christ child (sorry, the event is past) is hard to relate to now. At least for me... And then there can be whole argument about Christ's Second Coming, but that gets into other theological debates. And that's still an abstract concept. It's not something I, at least, think about regularly.

At the same time, the various perspectives and contexts in this case made this week feel much more disconnected and disjointed than other weeks' meditations have been. Other weeks have been very well-organized and all excerpts clearly connected. This week had been bouncing between waiting for Christmas and waiting for everything else I long for in life. Maybe I haven't connected the two as much as I should, and that may be some of the point of this week, but in any case, that's some of my reaction.

The other big reaction I had was to the idea of waiting and longing itself. The introduction to this week's topic of Longing discussed how much of Christianity is centered around waiting for things to be better and restored later. I agree with that. The pain of the present and recognizing this is now how things were meant to be is important. Focusing on this for the season of Advent may be appropriate.

At the same time, I find myself longing and waiting most of the time. To the detriment of the present. While our culture may not advocate waiting, it also does not advocate for appreciating the present very well.

For me, my focus is always in the future: Everything I'm doing now is just so things will be better later. I'll work hard and sacrifice now so I can relax later. But later does not always come. And killing yourself now to enjoy later is not necessarily a good way to live. It can cause depression and anxiety, which are definitely not good ways to live. As Brother Lawrence described in The Practice of the Presence of God, it is particularly important to watch for and experience God now, in the moment, and not just expect him to show up later.

Practicing God's presence now and longing for restoration in the future are not necessarily mutually exclusive ideas. In many ways, they work nicely together. However, some of us probably spend more time in one of those areas than the other, and then should probably spend more of their devotional time in the opposite side to re-train themselves. For me, I think I need to spend more time seeing the blessings I have right now instead of just waiting for others to come later... What about you? What do you think?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Scientific Study of Religious Uncertainty

This is a very interesting study examining how uncertainty about one's faith can be intensified or lessened in the face of challenges.

It hits the core ideas of this blog and verifies some of my anecdotal experience and intuition that we need to create a solid, safe space for people to engage their doubts and questions. When the fundamental faith can be affirmed, then people are more willing to engage their doubts and thus grow. Now, that's me extrapolating a bit from the study, but it's interesting and nice to see some scientific work being done in the area.

What do you think?

Sunday, December 6, 2009


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).