Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: The Challenge of Desire

Desire can be controversial in the Christian world. The ascetic movement shunned desire, and a lot of American Protestantism followed the lines of Puritanism and the Victorian Era of strict self-control. There's something to be said for self-control, of course. Psychology, as well, has a lot to say on desire, with many theories focused on how to shape desire and how drives create problems. Yet modern psychological and theological research and trends have focused on the importance of desire as part of our lives that should not be ignored.

Wanting, longing, and ambition can be great drivers of progress toward God's will. They can also wreck great havoc throughout our lives and the world, of course. Balance is the key. Jen Pollock Michel's book, Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith, appears on the surface to follow this line. In many ways, modern American Christians need to be taught to want. Or more accurately, taught to recognize their desire. As it was recognized as Christianity Today's 2015 Book of the Year, I had high hopes.

I firmly believe that God places desire in our hearts for a reason, but identifying the desire and pursuing it with balance can be a major challenge. Unfortunately, I didn't hear this in Michel's words. Rather, much of the book is comprised of lessons about who God is and the things God wants. There was a strong neo-Calvinist refrain throughout, emphasizing the importance of seeing God's sovereignty. Frankly, not much focus on true desire around here.

Toward the end of the book, she finally explicitly said what I had suspected was her thesis: "Holiness... will revise our personal desires." Like many of the neo-Calvinists of today, there is a focus on behavioral "holiness," conforming to certain beliefs about how God wants us to act. This explains her long theological diatribe--set our strong doctrine with which to align ourselves, then our behaviors will follow as holiness, and then our desire will be conformed to God.

This book is not really asking God to teach us to want, but rather to want what he wants. Wanting what God wants is not bad, of course; it is the prayer of many (most? virtually all?) followers of the Lord. However, there is a danger to emphasizing this approach in American Christianity--we've been consistently told our desires are bad, and we must ignore them and want what God wants, which usually matches certain rigid doctrinal statements.

The problem is that this leads to us ignoring, avoiding, and repressing our honest desires. This is not how to appropriately manage them, even if they're problematic. Rather, honestly acknowledging desire is the first step in evaluating whether we should act on it. And what about the possibility that God placed a desire and passion in us to move the world forward? Isn't that part of the role of the Holy Spirit? The answer is not necessarily to reshape our desires, but rather identify true, gut-level, core desire that drives our hearts and souls. These are not impulsive desires, but rather the soul longing. That is the want we need to be taught to recognize.

The saving grace of this book is the narrator, Karyn O'Bryant. She read it with emotion and inflection as if it was her own argument. She made the audiobook engaging.

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, April 6, 2015

In Memory of Dr. Robert H. Schuller

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered I would soon be at my 400th blog post. I was trying to think of something significant for it. Then last week, Dr. Robert H. Schuller died, and I can think of no better way than to honor him with this post.

I have long thought that besides my immediate family, Schuller and his ministry has been the biggest impact to my theology, spirituality, and ministry. And that's, obviously, not a small thing to say. It's taken me a few days to put this together because it's hard to express even some of my thoughts and feelings in a coherent manner. Here's my attempt, probably more for my own processing than for anyone else.


A brief personal history summary first, for context.

My knowledge of Schuller goes way back to childhood, before I became a Christian. My grandma would watch the Hour of Power, although I wouldn't pay much attention. My mom remembers my grandparents taking them to the drive in church when they were little and appreciating getting to stay in their pajamas for church. My grandma has a memorial brick in the newest campus building. It essentially functions as her memorial location for me.

My awareness of his ministry increased in high school after I became a Christian, but it was really my first year in college at UC Berkeley that made things connect. Going from a little mountain town to living in Berkeley was a culture shock, to say the least. And finding a church wasn't easy. I started receiving Schuller's daily email devotions, which helped keep me motivated, hope-filled, and focused on my priorities and central identity as a Christian in the midst of a lot of worldview challenge. Berkeley culture doesn't confront worldview in a kind way, but one of the things that was central to Schuller's approach and theology was being welcoming and inclusive, finding common elements of agreement among differences in worldview in order to improve the world. This helped give me strength and change my distaste for Berkeley's aggressive cynicism into something incredibly defining in my life, building a more dynamic, rich faith. When I was asked to speak about my experience in Berkeley for graduation at my church, I quoted one of Schuller's pithy sayings to represent how he helped me keep hope and tenacity.

When I moved back to Southern California for my doctorate, I heard about a new college/young adult ministry starting at the Crystal Cathedral, only about 45 minutes from where I lived, and I thought no harm in trying it out. In fact, I'd love to be able to actually be a part of that congregation. There, I met someone who would soon become a great friend, Bobby Schuller (grandson of Robert H. and now lead pastor of Shepherd's Grove and Hour of Power). Over the next few years, I helped build The Gathering, a emerging church-inspired "church-within-a-church" and even came on staff of the Cathedral for The Gathering. Obviously, Schuller's theology and intergenerational influence was felt throughout our work.

We at The Gathering had a very different style, but the foundational stance of hope and encouragement that Schuller promoted was pervasive and drew people who had been hurt by other institutional churches (frankly, not unlike some of Schuller's then-unconventional approaches). Eventually I moved out of the area and so had to find a more local congregation.

Suffice it to say that Schuller's ministry and my life have crossed paths in deep, meaningful ways for most of life.


With that context, these are some reflections on how his ministerial approach and theology have impacted me.

While criticisms have been and will continue to be made about the Crystal Cathedral campus due to opulence, extravagance wasn't really the goal. Rather, Schuller's first intent around unique church structures was practical, to be inclusive of those who couldn't be a part of a traditional congregation. Guideposts' memorial is a good summary of much of his original ministerial intent. Schuller's point was to create a physical space that would help people feel a sense of holiness and grandness of God, especially via connecting to the natural world. For me, that's exactly what I felt around the campus. I loved spending hours studying or just meditating in the gardens. The stairs at top of the Tower of Hope, just outside the Chapel in the Sky, was my favorite place on the whole campus because of its balance of connecting with the natural world, feeling close to God, while also looking out over the community and remembering the mission of being in the world. My wife and I had our first kiss, got engaged, and were married on the Cathedral campus. My bachelor "party" was spent walking around the campus with my best man having some good, reflective conversations. So I have good memories there even apart from the relationships built via The Gathering. I'm regularly saddened by the fact that I feel like I have to apologize for misunderstandings of intent around the grounds. But personally, Schuller's architectural efforts help me reconnect to God whenever I roam the campus. I see this nonverbal piece of his message particularly influence my incarnational theology that is so central to my faith.

In hindsight, I can see so many impacts Schuller's theology and approach have made on me. His valuing of psychology likely had some influence on my profession, and I know his regular referencing of Viktor Frankl particularly triggered my interest in studying Frankl's work, which continues to be the foundation for my psychological worldview. I would regularly cite Schuller in my graduate school papers reflecting on my worldview and theology. His words and thoughts were gateway into deeper theological exploration and reflection for me.

A fundamental positive, encouraging theological stance is central to my theology, and I doubt that's coincidental. I'm sure his approach influenced me not only directly, but also via my grandparents and mom. This was and is a major distinction of Schuller's approach, which was often controversial. Central to my ministry and passion is helping people see and experience God as loving and accepting. Schuller helped give shape, theology, and purpose to this focus. A few recent articles have quoted him from a Christianity Today interview, saying, “I don’t think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and, hence, counterproductive to the evangelism enterprise than the often crude, uncouth, and un-Christian strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.” There are many in the world who would consider this heresy. However, I increasingly agree with Schuller completely. Most of the greatest criticisms of Christianity and religion are from those who believe in the unbiblical wrathful God supporting retributive justice. Schuller has helped rescue millions from this spiritually and psychologically damaging perspective.

Many people don't realize Schuller's contributions to international dialogue and building bridges across groups. He helped open dialogue with the USSR (he was the first Christian to be on TV there, and Gorbachev was even a guest on the Hour of Power...). His son, Robert A. Schuller, has continued these efforts, engaging in regular interfaith peacemaking efforts. I believe his efforts to find peace among and value in diverse spiritualities influenced my ability and value of promoting the same. My dissertation was focused on exemplar Muslim and Christian interfaith peacemakers. As chair of the spirituality subcommittee at a public department of behavioral health, a lot of my efforts to open inclusion of spirituality are focused on reminding/teaching people that interfaith work can not only function, but it can be powerful, beneficial, and respectful. Schuller never abandoned, minimized, or apologized for his Christian faith in this interactions. Rather, he exemplified that living as a follower of Christ was the cause for these efforts.

Despite whatever fair or unfair criticisms people may have of him, at his heart, Schuller cared about people. He loved his family deeply and well (and I know they loved him back). He wanted to bring the hope of Christ to a hurting world. He helped reshape the structure of church in a way that met people where they were at in a new culture. Even Christianity Today recognized this influence in their tribute. He helped build cultural and religious bridges to build a better world. His methods may seem cheesy and dated to us now, but they were revolutionary and effective at the time.

We could do well to remember and continue the intent of reaching those ostracized by churches and broken Christianity in creative, hope-filled, and life-giving ways. Schuller's message was one of grace and love, and I will forever treasure him for it.


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).