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book list envy, theological flaws, & the grace of God

October 29, 2011

This is a quick post, partly for my own reference.  I stumbled across a friend of a friend’s blog post of her summer reading, and quite a few of the titles are very intriguing to me:

  • Hipster Christianity
  • Reboot: Refreshing your faith in a high-tech world
  • The Devil in the White City
  • Anti-Blackness in the English Religion
  • Open Friendship in a Closed Society
  • Religion and Race: Southern Presbyterians 1946-83,
  • Blood Done Sign My Name
  • Welcoming Justice
  • Through His Eyes: God’s perspective on women in the Bible
  • Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity

I’d only read the last two in her list, so I’ve added the others to my list of prospective reads.  I guess you could say I have book list envy.  I’d love to have a job that enabled me to dig into topics like that to better understand how we’re shaped by our theological beliefs.

I’ve just recently ordered a couple used books, including Allan A. Boesak’s Black and Reformed: Apartheid, Liberation, and the Calvinist Tradition. Ever since taking a modern theology class a few years ago in which we ran across a letter in which Karl Barth warned Abraham Kuyper that his theological system could lend itself toward racism, I’ve been curious of the possible connections and/or weaknesses in Reformed theology toward justifying institutional racism in Dutch reformed South Africa under Apartheid.  To what extent does American reformed presbyterian theology share the same weaknesses?

On that question, and specific to southern American presbyterian theology and practice, I found a review and long comment stream about the history of the sin of racism in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA).  I read the comments, was saddened to see unrepentant, unchanged racists leaving these churches rather than change their view by becoming more like Jesus (Joel Belz provides the Southern Poverty Law Center’s article and sidebar on this), but was encouraged in the same report that church discipline was exercised by the highest courts of my denomination against racism.  There’s also a lot of good work against racism coming through First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi.  God’s grace is powerful, able to change us and overcome our deeply rooted individual and social sins.

There are a few comments that stood out to me: Professor Stephen Taylor’s comment concluding that there’s a well developed version of Reformed theology which results in “a self-congratulatory segregated community impervious to critique, internal or external,” and blog author Anthony Bradley’s response,

“The PCA’s theology on issues of race and culture is deficient because it’s derived primarily from a context of privilege and elitism. What concerns many of us is the unwillingness for many in the PCA to admit that there is a major biblical and theological flaw in how the denomination thinks about these issues.”

Wow.  A context of privilege and elitism.  Other words for that would be forgetting the gospel, or not understanding grace.  I’ve seen this and been there myself far too often.  How quickly we forget the heart of the gospel: God didn’t pick us because we’re better than anybody, but simply because he loved us.

“Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.”   (Deuteronomy 9:6-7 ESV)

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”   (Deuteronomy 10:12-16 ESV)

If we forget we were slaves in Egypt, if we forget we are poor, destitute, without hope or status apart from Jesus, we are not believing the gospel, and we quickly fall into an ugly assumed privilege and elitism.

Peter Slade, the Methodist author of the book that really got this recent discussion going in the PCA, Open Friendship in a Closed Society, points out in his comment, theology does shape practice, and there are encouraging signs of change within the PCA.  Covenant Seminary professor Nelson Jennings, suggests in his comment a number of helpful points to hold on to during this discussion.

Issues of sin and race are tricky, our hearts deceptive, and we take good things like theology and find subtle ways to twist them to condone or even justify our sins.  We’re not that different from the stubborn people of God in Deuteronomy, but God hasn’t changed, so we can cling to the gracious promise he gave his people that he would one day change our stubborn hearts:

“And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”  (Deuteronomy 30:6 ESV)

God kept that promise when Jesus came, the only man without a stubborn, sinful heart, went to the cross for us to purchase by his blood from every ethnicity and race for God.  Racial reconciliation is central to the cross, and is one of the central reasons we have to worship Jesus:

 And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”   (Revelation 5:9-10 ESV)

his wondrous works

September 8, 2011
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I’ve been reflecting on the works of God in the natural realm, and in my life.  Back in April a tornado hit my parents’ house, causing significant but repairable damage, but God mercifully kept them safe.  Three times this summer I’ve flown to other parts of the country, riding thousands of feet above the earth in an airplane, and each time I’ve thrilled at that combination of human creativity and engineering, dependent on God’s gracious and faithful sustaining of the regularity of the natural realm.  Psalm 36 speaks of God’s faithfulness extending to the clouds.  God doesn’t just work in the gaps where human knowledge fails, but in every aspect of the cosmos.

In the book Science & Grace, the authors close their chapter on supernatural laws and natural miracles with this reflection by C.S. Lewis on the miraculous sign Jesus performs when he turned water to wine in Cana (John 2):

God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn the water into a juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities.  Thus every year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine.  That, men fail to see.  Either like the Pagans they refer the process to some finite spirit, Bacchus or Dionysus, or else, like the moderns, they attribute real and ultimate causality to the chemical and other material phenomena which are all that our senses can discover in it.  But when Christ at Cana makes water into wine, the mask is off.  The miracle has only half its effect if it convinces us that Christ is God: it will have its full effect whenever we see a vineyard or drink a glass of wine we remember that here works He who sat at the wedding party in Cana. (C.S. Lewis, “Miracles”, cited in “Science & Grace” by Tim Morris & Don Petcher, p. 136)

What a great reminder that God works in every part of reality.

Yet, reality is broken and twisted by mankind’s rebellion.  At Cana the wedding feast ran out of wine, presumably due to poor planning or perhaps somebody has been drinking it on the sly without the steward’s notice.  At any rate, if Jesus hadn’t acted, the newlyweds would have had the social stigma of being “the-folks-who-ran-out-of-wine” for the rest of their lives.  We see his mercy toward that couple, and a foreshadowing of the total healing of brokenness that will come when he returns to make all things right.  He told his mom his time hadn’t yet come, but when it did come at the cross, he gave himself to repair the wreckage of our fall, gave us his body and blood, bread and wine, both to enjoy, to remind us of his faithfulness, our redemption, and the coming feast.

If our eyes are open, we see God’s work at every turn, in the tornado, in the wonder of air travel, in bread and wine.  The refrain of Psalm 107 calls us to thank the Giver of all good:

Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!

beautiful songs by two artists from the British Isles

June 10, 2011
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For a few years now I’ve been enjoying the music of Scottish singer, accordianist, and pianist Emily Smith, and Welsh Martyn Joseph.  Here are some links to a few videos of their live performances:

Emily Smith: “Always a Smile” (about her Polish born Gran, Genowefa), “Sunset Hymn“, “Bleacher Lassie O’ Kelvinhaugh” (traditional Scottish), and “The Plooman” (traditional by Robert Burns).

Martyn Joseph: “Kiss the World Beautiful,” “Lonely Like America,” and “United Blues” (an improv while stuck in the Memphis airport).

Who are some of your favorite artists?

on beauty and goodness in everyday life

March 6, 2011
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In his discussion of biblical language for beauty and goodness, William Dyrness says, “Part of the modern problems is that the Hebrews had no special language for art and beauty, precisely because beauty was not something that occupied a separate part of their lives. In one sense it was “nothing special.” Often objects of beauty simply accompanied or adorned ordinary parts of life and therefore would likely be dismissed today as merely “decorative.” Beauty was nothing special because at its best it was meant to be a reflection of the ordered meaning of God’s good creation.” (Visual Faith, p. 70).

The Hebrew words for beauty all had to do with ‘fittingness’, ‘suitability’, ‘holiness’, ‘goodness’, ‘righteousness’, ‘appropriateness’ and in that sense they’d be applicable to how we live in all areas of life. A few of the Hebrew words for beauty have a sense of desire, of a value worth obtaining. The Hebrews affirmed beauty in everyday life because God’s creation is good, yet recognizing the brokenness due to human sinfulness, there’s an eschatological sense in their understanding of beauty: one day God will act to destroy evil and all things will be made beautiful. This should give us hope to live life beautifully, in the face of brokenness, knowing that the one who had no beauty to attract us was broken on the cross to clothe his people in beauty. Or as U2 said so well:

Grace
She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name….

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

here we have Habermas

October 15, 2010
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Here are a collection of quotes from a collection of essays, Time of Transitions, by Jürgen Habermas.  These struck me and I wanted to be able to find them again.  I don’t agree with all the quotes below, but I find them thought-provoking.

But we lack the standards by which we could judge whether these forms of spirit are rational.  We scarcely know any longer what the question of the rationality of institutions beyond their mere stability is supposed to mean.  The thread of objective idealism snapped in the course of the nineteenth century…. After the unifying bond of reason was ruptured, Hegel’s conception of ethical life disintegrated into the elements from which he originally constructed it: language, work, and interaction. (p. 59)

It is beyond dispute that the sina qua non for a democratic will-formation on a pan-European scale that is capable of sustaining and legitimating positively coordinated and effective redistributive policies is greater solidarity at the base….  so that, for example, Swedes and Portuguese will be ready to vouch for one another…. Skeptics [argue] that there is no such thing as a European “people” capable of constituting a European state.  However, peoples first come into being with their state constitutions.  Democracy is a juridically mediated form of political integration…. But if one bears in mind that in the European states in the nineteenth century, national consciousness and civic solidarity–the first modern forum of collective identity–were produced only gradually with the help of national historiography, mass communications, and universal conscription, then there is no call for defeatism. (p. ?)

Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.  This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation.  To this day, there is no alternative to it.  And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage.  Everything else is just idle postmodern talk. (p. 150)

In my view, a philosophy that oversteps the limits of methodological atheism forfeits its philosophical seriousness. (p. 162)

After referring to the garden and Adam’s free choice as the first mythic age:

“In this second, historical age, a humbled God must himself await redemption, because humanity has taken upon itself the burden of resurrecting fallen nature. (p. 162)

I am fascinated to know how his assumed methodological atheism allows him to have confidence in his own viewpoint.  His statement of what determines philosophical seriousness rests on his individual view.  How can he be certain that he has the right view?  The problem with methodological atheism is that it rules out the atheistic null hypothesis a priori.  In other words, the atheist posits that there is not a god (A), and their null hypothesis would have to be that there is not not a god (not-A), or that there is a god.

Would any serious atheist reading this care to explain how setting the philosophical ground rules to limit the discussion to methodological atheism allows any serious weight to be given to an individual person’s viewpoint?

why Europe?

October 9, 2010

Why did western culture develop so dynamically in Europe? Why has this little appendage of the Eurasian continent had the enormous global cultural impact that its had? Consider this quote from Lesslie Newbigin:

Classical thought, for all its splendid achievements, had been unable to overcome dichotomies between being and becoming, between reason and will, between the intelligible or spiritual world and the material world known by the senses. Human history was an unending struggle of virtue against fortune, of the skill and courage and cunning of the human will against the blind power of fate which would — in the end — always prevail. The classical world had lost its nerve. Truth was ultimately unknowable. In Gibbon’s tart words, all religions were to the people equally true, to the philosophers equally false, and to the government equally useful. And this inward and spiritual decay was matched by all too visible disasters until in Augustine’s own time the eternal city, the very citadel of classical civilization, was captured and sacked by the barbarians. (Newbigin, Truth to Tell (1991), p. 15)

Why wasn’t that the end of the story? How is it that much of what was good in classical culture was carried over and preserved to provide a rich foundation for the later flourishing of European culture in the Renaissance and Reformation? Why didn’t the barbarians win?

carbon footprint

June 6, 2010
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This evening I went to the grocery store, bought some fruit, veggies, and sourdough pretzel, put them in my reusable bag, and walked home. I’ve realized that I can walk to the grocery store in 15 minutes.

Most Americans would drive. Why? I can see stopping on my way home from work or other places, but if I’m home doesn’t it make more sense to walk? Here are the benefits to walking, as I see it:

  • I see more, like the bright orange flowers beside the grocery driveway, or the fading sunlight dancing among the grey clouds overhead.
  • I get some exercise as part of my normal routine.
  • No exhaust fumes from my vehicle pollute the air.
  • My diesel bill for my car is marginally cheaper.
  • My carbon footprint is smaller (perhaps, unless I wear out my shoes faster, and who knows if the process of producing and shipping the next pair of shoes I buy emits more carbon that the small amount I save by walking to the grocery store).
  • There’s a greater chance I’ll run into a neighbor.
  • Walking gives me time to think, space to breath.
  • How far would you be willing to walk to the grocery store?

    Tertullian and Earth Day

    April 22, 2010

    In the early days of the Christian church, Tertullian wrote:

    “Everything has been visited, everything known, everything exploited. Now pleasant estates obliterate the famous wilderness areas of the past. Plowed fields have replaced forests, domesticated animals have dispersed wildlife. Beaches are plowed, mountains smoothed and swamps drained. There are as many cities as, in former years, there were dwellings. Islands do not frighten, nor cliffs deter. Everywhere there are buildings, everywhere people, everywhere communities, everywhere life….Proof [of this crowding] is the density of human beings. We weigh upon the world; its resources hardly suffice to support us. As our needs grow larger, so do our protests, that already nature does not sustain us. In truth, plague, famine, wars and earthquakes must be regarded as a blessing to civilization, since they prune away the luxuriant growth of the human race.”

    What Tertullian failed to see in that quote is that people are not the problem–they are the most important resource on earth. It is people, creatively solving problems, who figure out how to use stuff in resourceful ways. With people, sand can become glass, silicon-based processors for computers, concrete, or a sandcastle; without people you have the Sahara Desert. Without people, none of the “resources” of the earth would be anything but stuff in the ground.

    Want to save the planet? Protect and preserve the flourishing of human life. Happy Earth Day!

    Calvinism is back

    March 29, 2010

    Informative article on current growth of Calvinism in America: Calvinism is back

    good food (past and future)

    March 29, 2010

    While I was looking through a box of random stuff by my desk, I came across an old business card from a little Cuban grocery and sandwich shop that used to be around the corner from where I lived when I was at Georgia Tech.  I’d forgotten the name of the place, but there it was on the card: “Kool Korner Grocery” and the owner’s name: “I. Ramirez.”  Those were some of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten, and their little hole-in-the-wall shop was the sort of place where you’d see students, lawyers, construction workers–everybody in line at lunch.  The line usually snaked through the store, out the door, and down the block a bit.

    Curious whether they’re still open, I looked them up online, and found this blog post which said they had to close back in June 2008 when the landlord sold the corner property to developers. Very sad.

    However, as I read comments and patrons’ laments at Atlanta’s loss of true Cuban sandwiches, I was delighted to a link to another blog post which said that the owner has re-opened his business in Birmingham, Alabama. I’m heading that was for a concert next month, so I may plan on enjoying an authentic Cuban sandwich while I’m there.