First Five: If you could only save five books, what would they be?

When we started planning our move to California, we initially thought that we would only be able to bring what we could fit in our little Honda Civic plus six suitcases (Mel and the kids flew). This meant downsizing 15 (lawyer) boxes of books down to 3. We ended up taking a (much larger) second car, and bringing more like 5 boxes of books. But still.

As painful as it was, there was something exciting about starting with those three empty boxes and choosing which books were important enough to make the move. Here is a picture of the first five books that I put into the box.

IMG_2097Since the move, I’ve added many important books to my library. But I think I would probably stand by these books as the “first five”. They have marked me deeply, shaped my imagination, and – like all classics – they reward continual re-reading.

Your turn: your house is on fire, and you can only save five books. What are your “first five”?

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Braving the New World (Wide Web): An Essay!

 

what-exactly-would-you-say-you-do-here-1

People often wonder exactly what it is that a PhD student does.

We read. And we think. And sometimes we write.

Sadly, much of what we write is unreadable, filled with specialist language and academic jargon. It’s mostly for our own benefit, a recorded reflection of internal processing.

Every once in awhile, however, we write things of general interest. I may have lost all perspective, but I think/hope that this piece falls into the latter category.

In any case, here is a piece that I wrote for the Fall edition of God and Nature magazine. It’s an essay that explores all the different ways that Christian thinkers engage social and entertainment media.

Braving the New World (Wide Web): Mapping Theological Responses to Media

TL; DR? Here are the last three paragraphs:

“Media (particularly social media) makes more information available to us that ever before: it is quite literally fed to us through our myriad “feeds”. The glut of information facilitates the opportunity to feed on information and feel emotion without having to take meaningful, committed action.

C.S. Lewis wrote in the Screwtape Letters that the goal is of the tempter is to elicit feeling without action.  The more humans are led to feel without acting, the harder it will ever become to act, and then the harder it will become even to feel. Our endless options so often catalyze our emotions but paralyze our action. When this happens, we grow numb.

One of the only antidotes for this is a community of committed action, where flesh-and-blood connection can take place between hurting bodies. Indeed, increased contact with the difficult aspects of the human condition may alleviate some of the unrealistic expectations that we place on technology. Media culture threatens to obscure, trivialize, or paralyze us through by drowning us in the 24-hour news cycle. Yet thoughtful and engaged presence, especially among the least of these, can give us all a healthy glimpse of the real. There is simply no substitute for this.”

Expectation and Encounter: A Sermon on John 2:1-11

Here is a link to the sermon I preached last Sunday at Grace Pasadena. Honestly, I wasn’t very happy with the final product. But I have often found that the sermons I feel are the weakest are the ones that God uses most surprisingly. In any case, it conveys some important things that have been particularly important to me lately: things I need to hear. I’ll post the closing paragraphs here:

“I have a very wise mentor who once said to me that there are two truths that he clings to, two things he knows about God: God loves me, and I can’t control him. He loves you. You can’t control him. Since he loves you, you can anticipate his showing up and working in your life. Since you can’t control him, all your expectations may be frustrated. A sword may pierce through your soul, too. But sometimes, in the powerlessness of having all your plans fail, there is a peace. You are lost enough to be led, to let yourself be loved.

We want control, comprehension, cognition. But God rarely gives this to us. What he offers us instead is participation, participation in the mystery of His life and His plan. What He offers us is Christ, in whom God is clearly seen. And he is enough. Jesus exposes our expectations, he expands them, and ultimately he exceeds them. What he is doing is often different than what we expect. But what he is doing is always better than we can imagine.”

Passivity and Participation: A Sermon on Jonah 1

With the end of my comprehensive exams, I’m trying to post here more often!

In that spirit, here is a link to my sermon today at Grace Pasadena. I’ve preached this text several times in different contexts, but have never posted a sermon. A major shoutout is due to Dr. Dennis Magary for opening up the book of Jonah for hungry seminarians back in the fall of 2005. Magary’s Hebrew Exegesis class remains at the top of a short list of the best classes I’ve ever taken. I think I learned more about preaching in that class than anywhere else (other than the experience of preaching itself). I pray that I did justice to the text, and those who listen will be blessed.

Game of Thrones and Theodicy

I’m not a GA-GAME-OF-THRONES-new-HCame of Thrones fan, though I did read the first book on my trip to Denali in 2011. Martin is an excellent writer and has created a dense, believable world. Salacious material aside, I’m not surprised that the show has had so much success, though I would probably never watch it.

Which is strange for me – since I am supposed to be into all that fantasy stuff. I mean, I don’t dress up in costumes or anything like that, but I did once present a paper at an academic conference on Tolkien and his works entitled, “Have Ye Then No Hope? Death, Doom, and Despair in Tolkien.” (There were about 150 of us, and we finished the conference with a Hobbit-themed dinner, eating tasty Hobbit food). A few years ago I taught a class on Fantasy and Spirituality, and had a former student email me yesterday asking for a copy of the notes. So if there were any question of my holding a fantasy/nerd card, there you have it.

But Game of Thrones is different than classic myth-makers. In fact, I read somewhere that Martin set out to be the anti-Tolkien, to deconstruct the fairy tale by creating a world in which the hero never arrives to save the day, where good never triumphs over evil, where hope is repeatedly crushed in the wheel of time that rolls on without consideration for who is being crushed. In the grand scheme of things, why should one person’s life matter? Why care about the fate of families, tribes, or societies? This is just how things go.

And this is why I had to stop reading after the first book, and why I don’t watch the series. I could see where this was going, and I wasn’t interested in taking the ride over and over again. It wasn’t just the salacious content. It was the nihilism: the refusal, denial and rejection of meaning and hope. As I wrote back in 2011: “While this book does supply fantasy and escape, the reality to which it flees is bleak and full of despair. So the reader finds in the world of fantasy no more than a mirror image of the darkness in himself and the world. No hint of recovery or consolation, and certainly not eucatastrophe…”

But today I read this excellent write-up from Rob Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson, and found it to be a profound analysis of the links between Martin’s world and our own. The authors argue that embedded deeply in Martin’s world is theodicy: the repeated questioning of why God allows evil (and why so much evil). They write:

“A one-time Catholic, Martin struggles painfully with theodicy in his stories, which are pregnant with a bitter lapse of hope. Every violation pierces the reader. How could such a thing be allowed to happen? What kind of world is it where this happens?

Martin wants us to hear this proclamation: this one. This world. That’s where these things happen.

You think the world of “Game of Thrones” looks ugly? Watch Syria. Read the wires out of Somalia. Read about Nigeria. Read about the Central African Republic or Nepal.”

I’m not saying that people need to go out and watch GoT (I’m aware that many do). But I do hope that Christians, and especially preachers hear the questions that echo with every episode. What kind of a world is this? Why do these things happen? Can anything be done about them? Is there any real hope?

Getting-Here

I used to take my students to the Holocaust Museum in Chicago, because I wanted to be sure that they were wrestling with the strongest possible articulation of the problem of evil (and doing it in the context of supportive community). I wanted them to ask the question can the Christian faith stand up to this? Can we proclaim hope in a world where Holocaust happens? Where the weak continue to be crushed?

And here is where we must be both careful and clear. If you ask me why these things happen in our world I will put my hand over my mouth rather than venture the answer of Job’s friends.

But if you ask me if there is any hope, if God can be trusted to vindicate the crushed, to bring salvation and shalom, then I will take my hand off my mouth and gesture like John the Baptist in Grunewald’s painting.

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

What world? This one. This world.

Ours is the world of the great Eucatastrophe.

The heart of my hopes by day and my dreams by night…

If hours and hours of research sometimes brings me to tears, it is usually because of the ordinary pressures of being a doctoral student. But every once in awhile I am seized by unlooked-for tears of a different, but more welcome sort.

I’ve been researching the poetics of dreams in Dante and George MacDonald, and I stumbled across this exchange from MacDonald’s novel Seaboard Parish:

“Do you think, then, said Connie, in an almost despairing tone…that we shall never, never, see him?”

“That is quite another thing, my Connie. That is the heart of my hopes by day and my dreams by night. To behold the face of Jesus seems to me the one thing to be desired.”

It reminded me of a favorite quote from Lewis, from Pilgrim’s Regress:

“For this end I made your senses and for this end your imagination, that you might see my face and live.”

Here’s to remembering what all of this study – indeed all of life – is for. As Augustine put it, to see God in all things, and all things in God.

My Seventy-Seven Second Spoken Word Piece: “119:25”

I wrote a short spoken word poem today during morning prayer and thought I would share it. Since it is spoken word, I made a quick recording. Enjoy!

119.25
Man is the only animal that blushes, says Twain.
Or needs to.
The crown of divine creativity – humanity
Made in God’s image to walk with God in unity
Yet deceived, deluded, dissuaded and thus unable to walk,
only to crawl like the snake on its belly
In the dust; taken from dust, destined for dust
and so is it any wonder that “my soul clings to the dust”?
Yet grace intervenes; sudden judgment does not come
and even expulsion is mercy.
The hand we were mean to hold continues to direct, uphold and unfold
the purpose to bring us from garden to garden-city
Where creativities human and divine kiss in the cultivation of godly culture
– the New Jerusalem – not made by human hands yet taken from human hearts
and integrated into the blueprint.
Where blushing abounds, in breaks Grace
His face is lovely.
And he stretches out his hand – riven still –
to give us life according to his word.