Archive for January, 2011

Faith in one’s voice (part 1)

January 23, 2011

Last night, I saw the Oscar-bait movie The King’s Speech and loved it. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an Anglophile. I also think that having a figurehead monarch is a great idea. All that to say that this movie was cut out for me.

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm. As best I can tell, despite what he concedes are fine performances all around, New York Times’ film critic Manohla Dargis ultimately dismisses it on the grounds that the film is too happy. As is often the case, a critic’s assessment often says more about the critic than the film. (Although I do agree with this critic, who favorably compares it to the first Karate Kid movie—and means that as no put-down.)

I find the film’s triumph—that a king with a severe stammer learns to speak as his country braces for war—realistically small-scale. In the annals of oratory, the prince isn’t magically transformed into Churchill or JFK. Instead, in his own halting way, he gives a good speech. And I hope quite a few of us have known someone like the king’s therapist. He’s no miracle-worker; he’s simply compassionate, competent, and self-confident enough to be bold—an inspiration, I hope, to those of us in the “caring professions.”

The movie is set in the 1930s and concerns the travails of Prince Albert, the second son of King George V. Albert has struggled throughout his life with an almost debilitating stammer, a problem made many times worse by the burgeoning popularity of radio. A king must now be heard by his subjects, not merely seen or read about. Read the rest of this entry »

I ♥ Sam Phillips

January 20, 2011

As a response to my sermon on Sunday, Stephanie Newton and Stephen Miller did an amazing performance of a song called “Your Kindness,” which was originally written and recorded about 25 years ago by a contemporary Christian artist named Leslie Phillips. I couldn’t find a YouTube link, but you can download the song from iTunes here.

More importantly, in the late-’80s Phillips reverted to her childhood nickname, Sam, changed labels, and began a far more artistically rewarding music career outside of the confines of CCM. She frequently collaborated with her then-husband T-Bone Burnett (in-demand producer of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, among many others). I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her in concert a few times. I even met her after a ’95 show at the Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points.

If, like me, you watched The Gilmore Girls, you know Phillips’s music: Hers is the voice and guitar you hear in the spaces between scenes in every episode. In other words, she sings and plays the “la-la-la” parts, although occasionally the show used full songs of hers, including the one below. (If memory serves, “Reflecting Light” was the song playing during the wedding reception of Luke’s sister, Liz, and her husband TJ.)

She performed in person in Stars Hollow during the music-heavy last episode of Season 6.

More about atonement in last Sunday’s sermon

January 19, 2011

Last Sunday’s sermon included my most explicit reference ever to the “penal substitution” theory of atonement. (Atonement is the means by which humanity is reconciled to God.) Penal substitution, in a nutshell, means that Jesus’ death on a cross was in place of sinful humanity, that in some sense Christ received the punishment for sin that was due us, and through this action, humanity finds forgiveness and reconciliation with God.

Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5 speak most directly to this idea. “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them… [I]n Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us… For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (vv. 14-15, 19, 21).

Penal substitution is also consistent with Old Testament images of the Passover lamb in Exodus and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 40-55. Recall this passage from Isaiah 52:4-5:

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

Likewise, when I was discussing God’s attitude toward sin, I said that God hates sin in us and for us.

In fact, God hates [sin] for us so much that through the cross of Christ, God received the punishment that we deserved—God died the death that we deserved to die—so that we could be brought into a saving relationship with God. This is God’s gift of love for us.

I hope more than anything that this statement emphasizes three points: 1) Sin is a cosmically serious problem. 2) God suffered and died for us—in our place—on the cross in order to solve that problem. 3) God did so out of an incomprehensible love for us.

These emphases are important because of the way that penal substitution theory is often caricatured: An angry God sent his Son Jesus, an innocent victim, to die on the cross in order to appease God’s wrath. Its critics reject this caricature on the grounds that it is “cosmic child abuse.” Of course, if this were the meaning of penal substitution, we should reject it too.

Authentic penal substitution means that God himself solved the problem of sin for us by choosing to come to us in Jesus Christ and suffer death on the cross in our place.  In Jesus, God subjected himself to the punishment that we deserved.

As I discussed in my sermon, many of us have a hard time reconciling the idea of punishment with love. But isn’t this because we fail to appreciate the enormity of our problem—especially as it applies to ourselves? Mercy doesn’t come without judgment and condemnation. God’s wrath is a consequence of God’s love. Here’s a second-hand quote from this essay that says it nicely:

God is love, say [some], and therefore he does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore he provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God’s love to Paul and John? . . . Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. . . . But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel . . . Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)

I don’t believe that any theory of atonement, including penal substitution, can adequately explain the mystery of the cross. Words aren’t up to the task. Surely this is why Jesus gave his disciples more than words to symbolize it; he gave us a meal: “On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took the bread…”

Sermon for 01-16-11: “The Ten Commandments, Part 2: Idols”

January 18, 2011

I edited one section of the sermon toward the end about a real-life person, now deceased, whose life spiraled out of control because of sin. Although the illustration included no identifying biographical details, and this person wasn’t connected with this or any church, I chose not to broadcast it out of respect for the family. The point of the illustration was that what happened to this person could happen to any of us, especially if we fail to appreciate the danger of sin.

Also, I notice that the sermon title on the screen behind me is incorrect. “On Our Side” was the name of the song that the band closed the service with. Whoops!

Sermon Text: Exodus 20:4-6

[Please note: The video may take several seconds to load after you press play.]

The following is my original manuscript.

So… How are you doing? I made the point last week that God wants us to be fantastically wonderful. One of you who’s a Facebook friend of mine even said that you were doing fantastically wonderful in your Facebook status. I love it!

I also said that God gave us these Ten Commandments in part to teach us how to be fantastically wonderful—how to be happy.

Some of us may resist the idea that God gave us the Ten Commandments so that we could be happy. After all, eight of the ten commandments have “thou shalt not’s” in them. And we often think that anything that limits our freedom will also limit our happiness. Why can’t we be free to do what we want? These ten commandments feel so negative and restrictive. Read the rest of this entry »

Taking “counterintuitive assertions purely on faith”

January 18, 2011
Over at First Things, the lovably polemical David Bentley Hart has a column about the strangely universal experience of religious believers throughout the ages doing extreme things (like castrating themselves and worse) for the sake of their faith. Nothing terribly insightful here, but I want to file his last few paragraphs away for the next time we argue about atheism.
I know, obviously, that purely Darwinian explanations of religion have been attempted, and that some kind of evolutionary rationale can be devised to explain just about any phenomenon if one is sufficiently inventive. Most such explanations are utterly impressionistic, of course; and, as with most attempts to use Darwinian theory to explain more than it really can, they are largely exercises in making the implausible sound somehow almost kind of likely…
Anyway, I am not interested in that argument just at the moment; it would take too long and would prove inconclusive. It is simply part of the intellectual burden of modernity, now that every concept of final and formal causes has been explicitly abandoned, that persons of a rationalist bent have to try to see everything (including, impossibly enough, existence itself) as the effect of blind material or physical causes, even if that means taking a shockingly great number of counterintuitive assertions purely on faith.

I strongly agree with him that philosophical materialists use Darwinian theory to “explain more than it really can,” without evidence or proof. Of course this means “taking a shockingly great number of counterintuitive assertions purely on faith.” Many atheists have a hard time conceding that they take anything on faith.

Interesting Facebook ads, Parts 1 & 2

January 17, 2011

Do you ever pay attention to the specially targeted ads that Facebook delivers to you in the right-hand side of your web browser? Recently, advertisers have been working hard to convince me to go back to seminary (I have enough student debt, thank you) or become Roman Catholic (have they not read this?).

Here are a couple of interesting ads that showed up today…

I’ll save you the cost of the book: No, no, and obviously yes if a publisher is willing to pay someone to answer those questions! (I just consulted the Amazon review, and I’m relieved that the author apparently arrives at those same answers.) How do you write a book? Can you make money at it? Is it hard to do? I need to get in on that.

This organization has obviously heard about the high burnout rate among the clergy! It looks like fun!

God in our image

January 16, 2011

Today’s sermon, which I’ll post later this week, was on the second commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

In the sermon I reflected on the various ways in which we commit idolatry these days. They are legion, even though we don’t literally bow down to them or worship them.

I also tried to reconcile these words regarding jealousy and punishment with the idea that the Ten Commandments are a gift from a loving God. In context, both jealousy—the kind of jealously guarded love that defines a relationship between wives and husbands—and punishment are completely compatible with love. More than that, if God weren’t “jealous” and didn’t punish for sin, God would be less than loving.

I said the following about God’s hatred of sin:

Granted, if we were creating a god in our image, we wouldn’t create the kind of God we have. We would want our god to shrug his shoulders and say, “It’s no big deal. You’re only human. Everyone makes mistakes. Besides, the important thing is that you be true to yourself. Do what you want. I’ll make sure there are no consequences.” But that kind of god would hate us if that were his attitude toward sin.

Creating God in our image… How often do we risk doing this? It doesn’t help that we have this famously beautiful—although theologically troubling—depiction of God’s creating humanity in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting. I’m not sure how this painting doesn’t violate both the letter and spirit of the second (or, if you’re Catholic or Lutheran, first) commandment.

I'm uncomfortable with this image of God as the "old man in the sky." (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Twin sons of different mothers

January 13, 2011

Musing on yesterday’s blog post about this guy’s effort to promote something he’s calling “One Day, No Religion,” I had an obvious thought: This whole “New Atheist” movement is a mirror image of a kind of evangelical Christianity that drives me nuts. The kind that’s glib, with its bumper-sticker sloganeering; that doesn’t try to listen to differing points of view; that is filled with righteous indignation; that feels constantly put upon by outsiders.

How different are these billboards, really?

This one is brought to you by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

This is one of the tamer billboards in this ad campaign.

Now, with these billboards and events like “One Day, No Religion,” the atheists have their own ticky-tacky marketing campaigns and protest movements. I assume they’ll soon sell atheist T-shirts and tchotchkes at their own bookstores—or at least an online equivalent. They probably already do. Just wait: soon the poor, put-upon atheist kids will gather round the flagpole before school!

It’s adorable, really…

But I also feel some pity. I mean, I’m sure there are atheists out there whose atheism is hard-won, intellectually rigorous, and properly nihilistic (as opposed to insufferably optimistic). These efforts demean and trivialize their faith.

I know how they feel!

A day without religion?

January 12, 2011

“Every day,” Scott Brown writes, “more troubles are reported in the world that are directly caused by religion.” Really? Directly caused? How on earth does Mr. Brown know what is or isn’t directly caused by religion? For that matter, since no one practices this abstract thing called “religion,” his words are obviously false—and reductive in the extreme.

Human beings, after all, are incredibly complex organisms. I can’t pinpoint with certainty why I do the things that I do. My Christian faith motivates a part of some of my actions some of the time, but I can’t say to what extent other influences motivate these same actions.

Why am I writing these words? In part because of my faith, I suppose, but there are other reasons: I want to be a blogger who writes things. I want people to come to my blog and say, “Oh, look… Brent has written something new. He’s such a good blogger!” Also, I like to argue. And while I am genuinely amazed at the intellectual emptiness of the New Atheist movement, a part of me wishes I could write something that would attract an audience of their size. So there’s jealousy motivating this post, too.

“Purity of heart,” Kierkegaard wrote, “is to will one thing.” I’m not that pure.”

To whom is Brown directing his “Day Without Religion,” anyway? Are there people practicing a religion right now who don’t know what it’s like not to practice their religion for a day? I wish I were that innocent!

I’ve had plenty of “days without religion.” I’ve had far too many days without prayer or worship or Bible-reading or Christian service. I’ve had far too many days serving my own interests while hardly giving a thought to God or others.

Thank you, Scott, but I’ve lived far too many days as a practical atheist. I’ll pass on February 20.

Read a better post on this subject here.

More on the gospel and “Star Trek”

January 12, 2011

Leonard Nimoy directing William Shatner and DeForest Kelley in "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock"

Yes, yes… I know… Insert your jokes about my living up to the stereotypes of Georgia Tech alumni… But being snowed in these past few days—and not losing power (yay!)—has given me a lot of time to watch and reflect on my DVD boxed-set of original-series Star Trek movies. (See my previous post on the subject.)

In my sermon on Sunday, I talked about the importance of remembering—remembering who God is, who we are, what God has done for us. It’s what God implicitly asks the people of Israel to do in Exodus 20:2. It’s what Jesus asks us to do when we partake of the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. “On the night in which Jesus gave himself up for us, he took the bread, gave thanks to you, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.'”

What kind of God does this—empties himself, assumes the weakness and frailty of a human being, and suffers death on a cross to reconcile us to himself, out of a love for us that goes beyond comprehension? Remember that. Live your life as a grateful response to what God has done for you.

Remembering plays an important role in the second and third Star Trek movies. On the night (or day) in which Spock gave himself up for the crew of the Enterprise, willingly suffering death by radiation poisoning in order to repair the ship’s warp drive, he mind-melds with McCoy, telling him as he does, “Remember.” We learn from  Star Trek III, of course, that Spock has given McCoy his katra, literally his spirit. And in Star Trek III, McCoy, sharing Spock’s spirit, begins acting like Spock, saying the words of Spock when appropriate, even taking on some of his mannerisms. McCoy is becoming someone new.

Likewise, we Christians, through the “remembering” of the holy meal and the sharing the Spirit of Christ, are transformed over time into a new creation, becoming (we hope) more like our Lord, better able to live up to the standard of Christ-like love.

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus promises to give us his words when we need them: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12-13).

Not a perfect analogy, I know, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

One more thought on the subject: Kirk saves Spock’s (regenerated) life in Star Trek III, but in doing so, Kirk’s son dies at the hands of the Klingons, and the Enterprise is destroyed. At the end of movie, Sarek, Spock’s father, implicitly asks why he would do this:

Sarek: “I thank you. What you have done…”

Kirk: “What I have done, I had to do.”

Sarek: “But at what cost? Your ship, your son…”

Kirk: “If I hadn’t tried, the cost would have been my soul.”

Even if it costs him everything else in life, Kirk will not lose his soul. Is this nothing less than the cost of discipleship? I’m not saying I’ve paid that cost… Kirk’s example challenges me. How cheaply would I be willing to sell my soul? How easily do I sell out?