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.

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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.

Four Favorite Books from 2014

I read about 70 books this year, including a little over 50 new books. Most of the new books were non-fiction (for my PhD studies), while the majority of my re-reads were fiction (e.g. Narnia, LOTR, Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, the Brothers Karamazov).

After a year spent sifting through words, here are the four books that stood out in 2014.

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Book that Made Me Think the Most: 

When God Talks Back by Tanya Luhrmann

This was one of the first books I read this year, a book on evangelical spirituality by a non-Christian sociologist. If you’ve ever wondered how a “relationship with God” looks like to a sympathetic outsider who embeds herself deeply in evangelical culture, this is the book to read. While reading Luhrmann’s account, I often felt an ache in my stomach. Occasionally I felt patronized, but more often I felt known, as if I was reading my own story. I have written a full review here.

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Best Work of Fiction: Lilith by George MacDonald

MacDonald is best known as the writer who “baptized” C.S. Lewis’ imagination, and Lewis’ guide to heaven in The Great Divorce. Thus most people come to MacDonald through Lewis, who is simultaneously MacDonald’s greatest advocate and greatest albatross. Lilith is MacDonald’s greatest work; it is The Great Divorce on steroids. While Lewis’s preference is to lead readers along with his clear and incisive prose, MacDonald plunges the reader into a fantastical world with all the haziness and poignancy of a dream. The final pages brought me to tears and stirred my hope as few books have ever done.

secularBest Academic-Type Book for Ministry: 

How (Not) to Be Secular by Jamie Smith

Smith’s book is a synopsis of a much larger book, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. That book is IMHO the most important book for understanding modern secularity, but is so dense and imposing that few will read it. Thankfully, in just over 100 pages, Smith has managed to make Taylor accessible for a wider audience. While no substitute for reading Taylor, Smith offers the very next best thing. I have recommended it countless times and we are using it for a class I’m assisting with in January. Essential reading, especially for those in ministry.

Death-by-LivingBest Book for Living Well: 

Death by Living by N.D. Wilson

Having loved Wilson’s earlier Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, I set out to read Wilson’s newer volume last year. I set it down, but when I picked it up again halfway through the year, I could not put it down. The subtitle summarizes its argument: “Life is meant to be spent.”It it will be particularly meaningful for people who are over 30 and who feel like life is moving too quickly. Chapter eight, The (Blessed) Lash of Time, is worth the price of the book; reading that chapter was a numinous experience.

In 2015, I’m hoping to read more new fiction. I also am planning to take my major comprehensive PhD exams, so it may be a banner year for books!

What was the best book you read this year?

Freedom is Finding the Right Limitations: Six Calls on My Life

I am convinced that true freedom is not the absence of limitations but finding the right limitations, limitations that are life-giving and liberating. My marriage vows limit me, but they also set me free. My children limit me profoundly, but my children have also opened up enormous new space for me to experience love, joy and grace. God’s Word limits me, but its limitations ultimately give me life (Psalm 119:25).

 

The key question for me during this season has been: what are the right limitations for freedom? What limitations do I need to become who God calls me to be?

As mentioned above, some of these are clear. I am constrained by God’s word, my marriage vows and my children. Other things are less clear. I am blessed to be in a position of having many options, many opportunities, many open roads. Agency – the power of choice – is a formidable thing.

In light of all this, I’ve been trying to get clarity on my primary callings. There is so much to do (need), and so much that I like to do (affinity), but I want to be driven by calling (what does God want me to do?) as much as possible. As I’ve reflected on this, six primary calls have emerged, along with diagnostic questions that I use to guide me in these callings. I thought I would share them, in hopes that they may help someone else.

My Six Callings:

1. Walk with God. Diagnostic Questions: Who am I becoming? Am I growing in love for God and people? Am I growing in spiritual, emotional, relational and physical health? Do I have rhythms to protect and nourish my companionship with God?

2. Cultivate my marriage. Diagnostic questions: Is my wife coming more and more alive? What is our sense of shared mission? Do we have rhythms to protect and nourish our love?

3. Disciple my children. Diagnostic questions: How do my children experience me? Is grace the foundation of our family life? Do we have rhythms during which organic discipleship takes place?

4. Preach to the Church. Diagnostic questions: What is my vision of God; is it getting bigger as I get older? Do I understand how to engage the imaginative universe of those to whom I preach? Do I have rhythms and opportunities to cultivate my gifts?

5. Pastor God’s people. Diagnostic questions: Am I sharing myself? Am I maintaining or leading those who have been entrusted to my care? Do I have rhythms that make space for authentically shared life with others?

6. Be faithful as a scholar. Diagnostic questions: What is the the point (telos) of all this education? Am I moving from personal ambition towards faithful service? Do I have rhythms that enable, restrict and focus my academic vocation in service of others?

A few further thoughts:

  • After identifying my callings, the next step has been identifying, building or refining my daily, weekly, monthly rhythms to give concrete expression to each of these callings. My goal is not to script every hour of every day, but to make sure that there is space for the most important things to happen. Things like morning prayer and daily family time. Within the framework of these rhythms, life can get pretty messy.
  • As I’ve attempted to live out of these callings, it has meant learning to say no. To say no when something is outside of my primary callings, to say no when the only reason is that it needs to be done and I can do it, and to say no when one of these callings begins to impoverish the others (this mainly happens with 3-6).
  • Navigating these callings requires a continual process of discernment with my wife, trusted friends and mentors. I am aware of my capacity for self-deception, and so I need to give others permission to place limitations on me as well.

I am sure that much more could be said. I am certainly not saying that everyone needs to follow my process or adopt my callings as their own. But I do hope that for some it provides a model of one way that limitations can be liberating and life-giving.

What I’m Doing: Seven Reflections After One Year of PhD Studies

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[why yes, that is the Colosseum in the background. Thanks for asking!]

1) There is very little prestige in doing a PhD in Theology, even if it is funded. People’s responses range from moderate apathy to thinking you may handle snakes. The usual exchange: “I’m doing a PhD…” (impressed eyebrow raise; “he’s a genius!”) “… in Theology.” (furrowed brow; “that’s… interesting.”). I get more traction telling people I’m a youth pastor. That way you get questions more like, “so do you ever want to be a real pastor?”

2) Prospects of finding a teaching job after the PhD tend to be bleak. There are conversations about whether it is ethical for PhD programs to accept so many students knowing that the job market is so flooded with qualified candidates. Thus PhD candidates are invested in an enterprise that will only in a few instances translate into a teaching job. Someone sent me a funny line: PhD students choose to be poor now so that they can be poor later.

3) My concentration, Theology and Culture, gets quizzical responses even from other PhD students. Culture is apparently the second-hardest word to define (nature is the first, and no I don’t know how they made this ranking system). Thus, as I was told tonight, Theology and Culture is “wide enough to drive a truck through”. Often I say, “I am getting a PhD in Theology and Culture, whatever the heck that means.”*

4) On that note, asking a PhD student about his or her research can be an ill-advised enterprise. You may die of boredom if you’re a non-academic (i.e. normal). But this question is especially stressful when a first-year PhD student is asked about their research by, say, a fifth year PhD student. Mainly because you can’t bluff a fifth year. They know when you are name-dropping and spouting catch phrases but in reality you only have a vain inclination of what you’re talking about.

5) Being a PhD student in general means constantly going back and forth between hope and despair. You read dense, abstruse books and maybe they make it into the footnotes of a paper. Are there truly original ideas anymore? What can you write that has not been written about before? And if you write it, will anyone read it? The average academic journal article is read by 1.5 people once it is published (again, not sure where the .5 comes from. Maybe one person fell asleep halfway through).

“O God, Thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.” – Winfred Ernest Garrison

6) Because of all this, the only way you make it through with joy as a PhD student in Theology is if you are, in some sense, called to it. Certain questions have gripped your imagination, and you are willing to spend months sifting through mountains of material, being constantly humbled by how much you don’t know, in search of better answers, or at least better questions. Hope wins over despair if you believe that God’s calling to study is not a guarantee of success but is at least the promise that your character will be challenged and formed in the crucible of academic contemplation. Very few are truly called to this; even fewer pastors should seek PhDs. But some are called to do this, and for those who are, no hour of study is wasted. When offered to the Lord, it is holy, it is worship.

7) Thus, all of the above notwithstanding, being a PhD student in Theology can be an exhilarating, joyful, and grace-filled endeavor. Not just because of the occasional funded, completely over-the-top trips to Europe (though it has been amazing). It is because there are moments of such profound humility, moments of unexpected illumination, moments of un-looked-for awe, moments of deep gratitude when you realize that you have been afforded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to think and wrestle and then maybe to teach the Church that Jesus loved and gave his life for.

And so I will go back to my books
Back to the places where rumors of You abound
My books like small boats that launch out onto the ocean of your immensity
(the boats are so small)
But they may float, and I will row like Reepicheep in his coracle
Paddling towards I know not what,
I pick up the pen and pray
that you will take my paper bills and give me gold.

Amen.

* For nerd-types: A good working definition of culture is “what humans make of God’s creation” (Dyrness). What culture actually means for my research is something like, “the imaginative universe that people inhabit on a pre-theoretical level, focusing on the conditions of belief prior to the beliefs themselves.” The Theology and Culture concentration is engaged in understanding the meaning making taking place in the surrounding culture, discerning the presence and work of God, and learning how to articulate the gospel in an intelligible way. As my mentor says, no culture is so fallen that the Gospel cannot be spoken on its own terms. I have colleagues working on Theology and Fashion, Theology and Literature, Theology and Film, Theology and Work, Theology and the Visual Arts, Theology and Kitsch, Theology and Sport. I’m working on Theology and the Imagination. Because I’m meta like that.

Deepening Relationships and Dying to Self: A Dating Interview with PJ and Mel

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(photo credit: John In)

I am woefully behind my one-post a week pace, but here’s a post to bring me closer to the quota. I recently spoke for a college and young adult retreat, and the pastor followed up with some interview questions for me and Mel for their monthly newsletter. Below are the questions, with our answers. I should say that these answers are stream-of-consciousness, and I’m sure other things could be emphasized given additional time for reflection. In any case, here’s the interview:

Q: Top qualities to work on in yourself?

Justin: First, walk with God. There is simply no substitute for this. The two most important things to learn in a relationship are how to repent and how to forgive, and the best place to learn them is at the foot of the Cross.

Second, develop trustworthy character. Character counts. Are you the kind of person who can be trusted to care for another person? Remember the fruit of the spirit from Gal 5. This is fruit (as opposed to works), but it doesn’t mean that you can’t cultivate it; grace is opposed to earning, not effort. Work on your character! Become a person of integrity, who is the same person on Sunday and throughout the rest of the week.

Third, get emotionally healthy. I recommend that everyone read the book Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter Scazzero. I like how he cuts through a lot of the over-spiritualized glosses that we give to our sinful tendencies. Few people have given serious thought to their emotional health; they are not used to looking beneath the surface of their behavior to their heart, they haven’t understood the way that their family has shaped them, they have not learned how to grieve, they have not received the gift of limits, they have not learned to love well. Read the book! Read it together!

Melissa: Relationships and marriage take huge amount of selflessness and hard work. If you are lazy, take time to evaluate this in your life and make some changes.

You should also be at a point where your relationship with God is deeply fulfilling and you do not need someone else to complete any part of you. If you find yourself thinking, “If I only had a boyfriend/girlfriend then…” spend time reflecting on aspects of your life where you don’t see Christ as enough.

Q: Top qualities to look for in a significant other?

Justin: I’d say it’s the same three things: look for someone who walks with God, has trustworthy character and is emotionally healthy.

Melissa: This may sound strange but look for someone who doesn’t need you. What I mean by this is someone who is motivated in career, calling, relationship with God, etc. and is moving forward. Self-motivation will go far as you know you are marrying someone that does not depend on you in unhealthy ways. If you feel like the primary motivator in the relationship, it probably isn’t healthy.

Q: Top qualities of a healthy relationship?

Justin: First, covenantal commitment. Is your commitment covenantal, or merely romantic? Romance is about emotion, desire, feeling; covenant is about commitment, limiting your freedom to make room for another. They are not opposed to one another; but if you look to romance to do for your relationship what covenant is meant to do, it will not sustain. Rather covenant is the context in which romance can be deepened, reawakened again and again.

Second, self-sacrificial love. From the time you get together, you do everything in your power to make sure that the other person is being unleashed, that they are coming alive as much as possible. According to Eph. 5, this will mean submission and sacrifice, lots of dying to yourself. Dying to yourself sounds sexy in a way, like it’s this really romantic throw-yourself-in-front-of-a-train thing. But it really is a lot more ordinary and difficult than that. It’s doing the dishes when you don’t feel like it. It’s biting your tongue when you want to say something bitter. It’s limiting your own freedom to serve the other person, day by day by day.

Third, friendship. Your spouse should be the kind of person who you can be friends with for the rest of your life. You may be very attracted to them, but there’s no matter how passionate your relationship, there is going to be a lot more friendship than sex.

Melissa: I don’t want to sound cliche, but 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 outlines pretty clearly what a healthy relationship should embody:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

Q: Top things to deepen a relationship?

Justin: Covenantal commitment (obviously), serve together, and friendship-based shared experiences (where the focus is not on the relationship but on enjoying an experience together).

Melissa: The best thing you can do to deepen a relationship is to have a deep, personal relationship with Christ. Oftentimes praying together or spending time in God’s word together prior to marriage can become unhealthy very quickly. In a sense, things become over spiritualized too quickly. It is important to enter a marriage relationship with a strong relationship with Christ that is NOT dependent on your future spouse.

In addition, I think it’s a good idea to serve together in some capacity in the church. Make sure that you are compatible for ministry and look for someone who works incredibly hard for the kingdom of God. If someone is lazy before you marry them, their laziness will become incredibly frustrating after you are married.

Q: Top ways to glorify God through each other?

Justin: Serve each other sacrificially, and invite others in (if a third person can’t hang out with you without feeling like a third wheel, something is wrong)

Melissa: Serve others outside of your relationship! Do not become isolated and so obsessed with each other that you forget to reach out to others. If your relationship makes either of you feel isolated from friends that need to know Christ, then it’s time to serious evaluate whether or not your relationship is glorifying to God.

I believe sexual purity is still incredibly glorifying to God. I am concerned at the laid back approach that so many young people have to this aspect of their dating relationship. It is incredibly freeing to have the only sexual partner in your life be your spouse. There is a sense of security and commitment that this will always bring into a marriage. If your partner is encouraging you to do more sexually than you desire, end the relationship.