To love an Unfathomable God.

I love my wife.

“Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition.” The words of 19th century poet Alexander Smith ring true to me. The first glimmers of fondness usually spark in the recognition of commonality. It is when we meet someone and think “here is somebody who is like me” that the potential of friendship and all that is beyond it is kindled.

So too with my wife. In her I have found a kindred spirit, a friend who I understand on an instinctive level. When we look at the world, it is with similar eyes. We have the disgusting habit of making the same jokes simultaneously. We delight in the same things.

I love my wife. And so much of it is because of this. There is no way that I would have been able to love someone who is the antithesis of me.

Someone like God. If he even exists, God is so wholly other as to defy any kind of understanding. Picture Flatland: the world on a sheet of paper. Imagine people who live only in two dimensions, like stick figures on a page. They cannot perceive depth. They only have length and breadth. So when one of us decides to enter that world and stick our finger through the paper, the best they can do is perceive it as a line, maybe a circle if they walk around it. For them to even conceptualise that it is a finger that stretches on in a third dimension is very nearly impossible.

Scientists believe that there are at least 10 dimensions to reality. Many believe that there are many, many more. If God exists, he would be beyond all of those. Now think of the incomprehension of the flatlanders, with just one dimension of seperation from us, and try to conceive of how inconceivable a God of just ten dimensions would be.

How do you love something like that? Awe, I can understand. I have felt it. I can revel in the glorious incomprehensibleness of a being like that. But love, love is something different.

I love my wife.

I do not love God.

I cannot.

I struggle to understand how it is even remotely possible.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I believe in God. I admire him(or the idea of him, at least). But love, love is harder for me. I can’t understand God. Not the way that I understand my wife. My very best conception of love falls short, because it is bound to the flesh of another human. A human I love more than I thought possible, but still. We have too much in common.

I love my wife for all we have in common, but the moments when she electrifies me is when she surprises me. When all my understanding and common ground falls short of the complex creature that I share my life with. We crave wonder. We shudder for the unexpected and the transcendent.

Maybe that’s the crux. I cannot possibly love something I can’t even conceive of, but what if the God hobbled himself, tore the dimensions from his back like skin? What if that God came down to our level and showed us something of himself?

It would never be a true picture. It can’t be. But it would be the closest a human could ever get to understanding the divine. It might not make sense, and it might not take the form we’d prefer, but it would be real, be true for our limited scope of truth. And it would be human. We would be able to relate to it and stand aghast when it did the unexpected. And here lies the ray of light for me.

Maybe God made himself relatable. Maybe he allowed us to see shimmers of himself. Maybe he’s given us a way to draw near to him in some strange way. Maybe that person is the most consistently surprising character of all time. It is, after all, when understanding and surprise meet that I am filled with lightning.

We would never be able to love the being itself without first transcending our limitations. But we may know that there is something so excruciatingly greater than us that is reaching out, something unfathomable that came to us in the only way we might understand. So that we may know just a tiny pinprick about it, because it knows that, for now, that will be enough.

Maybe that is a God that I can start to love.

Music: Everyman

Since I have the necessary toys and my attempts at an internet-based band have failed, I think I’ll start posting some of my songs here now and then.

It’s super raw, since I have no idea how sound engineering works. Words, music, everything by me.


He’s huddled in his coat.
He barely even speaks,
but he’s standing on the corner
with the Jesus freaks
as if to say, you know it’s true
you know that I’m like you.

Sundays he’s in church
but Monday’s in a bar,
chatting to the pool cues
and the man with the guitar
as if to say, you know it’s true
you know that I’m like you.

Tuesdays he’s at work
putting creatures in a cage.
Sweating like a young man,
you can barely tell his age.
He tells them: you know it’s true
you know that I’m like you.

Well, he used to have a wife,
but he lost her to divorce.
He says he’s just a loner
and the people smile, of course
and yet the thought
it pierces through: they’re thinking
‘I’m like you.’

He’s got a lover now,
but he craves somebody new.
He’s had his fill of tuna,
but the starfish are so few.
And yet, you know it’s true:
In that way he’s like you.

He looks at others’ lives:
The honest and untrue.
He looks at each in turn
and then he looks at us all too.
And then he says
‘You know it’s true.

You know that I am you.’

What is it to you?

So Jesus looks at Peter and says, “Follow me.” They’ve just been talking about how Peter will die, about whether he truly loves Jesus, so naturally Peter turns around and points to John, asking “And what about him?” Naturally.

Jesus replies: “What is it to you? You must follow me.”

If I look back at the apostles, it seems like they often set the example for the rest of Christendom that followed. The disciples were a fractuous lot. Besides spending their time constantly missing the point, misrepresenting Jesus, and walking around confused, they seemed to fight among themselves. A lot.

Just a short while after this conversation with Jesus, they’re at it again, fighting over who gets to sit on  Jesus’ right and left hands. Once again, worried about power and authority rather than the things Jesus cherished.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It seems like every time some Christian does something I find truly inspiring, John Piper (and others like him) feels the need to go on Twitter and say goodbye. Indeed, the “farewell {insert name here}” trend has become one of the most famous pieces of public disapproval that Christians use against those they deem doctrinally unsound.

I recently chanced upon a Christian blog, which will remain nameless here, driving the point home with uncharacteristic exuberance. The actual post was a warning against how Angus Buchan will “take his deceitful show on the road to unleash its contagious religious lies into the unsuspecting world.”

While this is a great example of one Christian disowning another with the judicious application of vitriol, the point of the article wasn’t what drew my attention most (I am also very much like the disciples, it seems). Hidden in between the unsubstantiated claims and personal attacks on Mr Buchan is this gem: He is placed among his “NAR / pseudo-charismatic counterparts such as Reinhard Bonnke, At Boshoff, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, TB Joshua, Joyce Meyer, Todd Bentley, Rick Warren, Rodney Howard-Browne, Billy Graham, TD Jakes, Nevil Norden, Kenneth Copeland, Rob Bell, Reinhard Bonnke, John Piper, Kay Arthur and Cindy Jacobs to name but a very few.”

To name but a few. Look at that list again. If the writer truly believes that each of those people (and the large theological streams they represent) are part of the “vile deception of the false gospel”, then the true gospel must be believed by an extremely small group of people. That list encompasses almost the whole spectrum of major Christian movements. There is even some nice inside-greeting there, since John Piper has Farewelled Rob Bell years ago for his views on hell.  This is an extreme version of the same problem that plagues anyone who declares anybody unChristian because they espouse a different theology.

Do you really believe that you, and only you speak for “true” Christianity? Can you be so arrogant as to think that everyone else is either completely misguided or false prophets? Who gave you the authority to say who is and isn’t Christian? Where did you even find the gall to assume that you know what true Christianity is?

There are thousands of people honestly seeking God who don’t believe as you do. Smart, loving, deeply committed Christians read the same text and believe wildly different things. Why should you be any different?

Rachel Held Evans recently replied to a “farewell” blog with her characteristic wit and insight: “You can’t “farewell” me from the Table because it’s not your Table to set. It’s Christ’s. And the hungry are welcome.”

The hungry are welcome. By all means, rather spread your bile and destructive judgements. Keep going trying to split the world into US and THEM.

But remember, when you deign to cut off legitimate seekers from Christ’s body, know that He just might turn and ask “What is it to you?”

What is it to you?

“You must follow Me.”

Listicles: subverting your self.

The article popped up in my newsfeed, clickbait headline blaring: the 65 books you need to read in your twenties. Being a person of self-restraint and sober judgement, I clicked on the link, naturally. It was, as the attentive reader might have guessed, a Listicle.

The listicle seems to be becoming the dominant article form of our time. I see more of this once shy creature in my facebook feed than almost any other kind of article these days- and I have friends who love the long form article.

Like most listicles, this one had a series of numbered pictures with a paragraph standing by like some awkward parent. Book covers were displayed, shining, next to a digit somewhere between 1 and 39, with the paragraph allowed to sing its praises, as long as it did it quickly and then shut up.

I had only read one of the books on the list.

Cue the shiver of book-induced FOMO. I felt out of touch, wondering why I’ve not dived into the pool of things-you-must-read-in-your-20’s. I only have three years left! I wasn’t alone. The comments on the post both stated their inadequacy as measured by the list. We all felt like we should have done better. We were all voracious readers, after all.

The unexamined life is not worth living. So, striving to at least fake an existence with a reason for continuing, I stopped and took a step back. Who was the person writing this? Some random person I don’t know from a bar of soap, who had the time and inclination to scratch out an example of one of the most effortless articles in existence. And I was giving her any kind of say in my life?

It works like this. Take 65 books you really loved, google their covers and say why you liked them. Now add a title that makes it sound authoritative. Profit.

I could do it too, but unlike this person, my list would be full of mind-bending Science Fiction instead of books written by or about rock stars. I would have a few (very few) books on philosophy instead of feminist manifestos by popular celebrities. Instead of something by Chuck Palahniuk, I’d offer up books like Shantaram and The Book Thief.

This does not mean that my list would be better. For instance, I’ve been meaning to read Chuck Palahniuk for quite some time. There were many incredible books (I hear) in that listicle, but that does not make it authoritative. A title claiming that you MUST read them does not make it authoritative. As hard as it is to believe, not even numbering the posts makes it authoritative.

A better title would probably have been: Books I really liked reading in my 20’s. And that’s the problem with so many of these cookie-cutter articles: they are merely someone’s opinion disguised as a definitive take on the world.

We are taken in by the form, by the way it is dished up, made to believe that we must conform to the reality it tries to sketch. Truly, the medium is the message.

What do you do with a problem like the listicle? Maybe their worth lies in the possibility of encountering something new. If it’s all just opinions disguised as something more, we can stand back and decide whether we would like to explore the world that is offered up to us. If we don’t, that’s great too, but too often we are pulled into the clutches of inadequacy by a form that is barely worth the angst.

But don’t give it power, don’t let it depress you. The listicle thrives on people missing out, or feeling like they do. It is unfortunately a fact of life that if you do one thing, you miss out on another. Never allow a number and a picture to make the things you’re doing right now feel less worthy of your time.

Unless they are. Then you should run.

Jesus and the Wrestlers

Jesus told these stories.

He’s famous for them, actually, and why not? Stories are great. You see them employed everywhere difficult concepts are explained simply. Stories make nebulous concepts clear, they make understanding easier.

Except when Jesus tells them.

Jesus didn’t seem too taken with absolute clarity. He would often answer direct questions by telling a long story and then walking away, leaving everyone confused. His disciples never really got the hang of it either, often returning to their master to ask for some kind of explanation. Jesus, it seems, was making things difficult on purpose.

This has always seemed to be the case in the rest of the Bible as well. The old testament is mostly a collection of ancient stories and artworks collected into a single volume. Some stories are inspiring and beautiful, but much of it is just plain weird to me.

A prophet takes a walk and some children mock him, so he calls a curse on them in God’s name and two bears maul the kids. 42 of them, to be exact. That’s it. (2 Kings 2:24)

Two daughters get their father hammered so they can have sex with him. (Genesis 19:36)

A poet writes a song in which he says “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9)

It goes on like this, for hundreds of pages. What do we make of these stories? When people call the Bible God-breathed, do they mean “This story’s so obtuse, Jesus could have told it?” Stories just end, seemingly without closure or some Aesopian moral, like the book of Jonah’s powerful conclusion: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

And also many animals indeed. Open ending have been with us for a while, it seems. This open-endedness only deepens when we start looking more closely at our holy writ.

Nineve could almost certainly not have been as big as it is described in Jonah. The amount of people is accurate… For a hundred years after the time Jonah was said to have lived.

God tells David to hold a census (2 Samuel 24). No, wait, it was the devil (1 Chronicles 21). It’s the same census, but the Bible claims two radical different reasons for it.

What kind of God make his Word so damn confusing? If it’s God’s word, shouldn’t it be basically straightforward? Shouldn’t it give us simple rules to live by (and don’t get me started on how weird the actual rules inthe Bible are)? If the Bible is God’s love letter to us, I don’t think I’d want to introduce her to my parents.

I’m not saying there aren’t explanation for the weirdness and inconsistencies. But it takes some digging to get to them. Getting the neccessary tools to read the Bible well is a life-long journey. You have to struggle with the text for a long time.

A lot like the disciples who were listening to Jesus’ stories. If the point of a parable is not to tell you something about the world, but to change the way you interact with it (Peter Rollins), there is more involved than simply understanding what a story’s about. We only ever change through engaging deeply. It is when we hurl our very spirit into something that we find changes in the shapes of our souls.

I think this is true of Jesus’ stories. By making his parables difficult, he forced those who were really serious about his words to wrestle with their meaning, to truly engage, and through the engagement discover something about themselves and God in a way that impacted them deeply.

I find it interesting that, before he is blessed and named Israel, Jacob is portrayed as physically wrestling with God. For hours. And he gets his hip broken in the process. True change doesn’t happen without wrestling and pain.

So maybe we are looking at large pieces of the Bible in the wrong way. In the third Liturgists podcast Peter Enns talks about one of his Jewish professors at Harvard. The professor told him that historically, for Jews, the bible is a problem to be debated, not a message to be delivered. You find God in the struggling with the text, in the reconciling of contradictions. And there are different people who do it differently. And they may both be good.

“In the Talmud, the great collection of Jewish tradition in talking about the Bible and Jewish life,” says Enns, “They’re forever going back and forth, debating how to understand this stuff and what to do with it. And the debate is canonised. It’s the debate that’s there for people to read and look at… The debate is the way that union with God is fostered.”

We can even see this conversation happening in the Bible: in the changing way that God is viewed and portrayed. They were moving, growing, getting beter at understanding God.

Maybe the reason getting to final conclusions on the Bible is so difficult is because that was never the point. What if the Bible is a tool, rather than just a text? What if it points to Jesus in more than just words, but in difficult stories and changed hearts? Is it possible that all those inconsistencies might actually make this book MORE authoritative, MORE inspired?

We Christians have made accuracy into an artform, dissecting the Bible so that we may find the exact true meaning of every verse and then take an inflexible stand on your interpretation. Maybe it’s not the answer that’s important, but the honest wrestling with the text in search of the answer. Because that is the only way we will ever truly embody the message of the Bible.

People living out the agonising beauty of love and self-sacrifice, taking part in the very nature of God. If I had to write a holy book, that would be a much better result than a set of rules. It isn’t called the living word for nothing.

Shattered Monolith: Inbreeding in the Church

In the beginning was the church.

No, not THAT beginning. I’m talking a little under 2000 years ago, when the first people professed belief that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, legitimising all he had claimed to be. It was a ragtag group of followers, that first church, ranging from tax collectors and fishermen to a doctor and even some women (at the time, this was super controversial).

These people told others about what they had experienced and soon this little band of believers had grown enough to intimidate the Jewish leaders of the time. Given some persecution and another couple of decades, the church grew to include the gentiles, non-Jewish believers from places like Antioch, Syria and Athens and Rome. It is basically impossible to imagine a more diverse set of people, but they were united in the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection and the strange implications it had for those who believed.

Trying to figure out what Jesus’ word meant for them brought many controversies. The people were divided and incensed. They struggled with all the strangeness inherent in the Christian message. It took them 600 years to find the language to try and describe the idea of the trinity, this supremely weird three-in-one God that Jesus and the Jewish scriptures alluded to.

The more we feel we’ve figured something out, the stronger we hold our convictions. This is true of institutions too. As the church grappled with Christ, it hardened into a doctrinal faith, with very specific affirmations of what it entailed. Hard things are very often brittle and the harder the church became, the more easily it shattered. The more intensely the people within the Church enforced their conception of orthodoxy, the more easily it schismed, scattering chips and fragments all over the world…

Gene pools are interesting things. They need diversity to work. If you confine any set of animals to an enclosed gene pool for long enough, it will start imploding. I think this is an apt analogy for the church.

You see, I found a little certificate in my desk drawer a while back. This little slip of paper stated that I had made a confession of faith. Interestingly, it also stated that I had confessed to believing that the Dutch Reformed church’s teaching were all true. Whoah.

Thinking back now, I realise that this has always been the assumption. Whenever I’m asked about the church I attend, there is an implicit question about what I believe. I do it too. Somehow, in the intricate splintering of the church based on the tiniest theological differences, it is expected that the church you attend is the one you agree with completely, but the only people I’ve ever met who completely agree with everything their church espouses are the ones who don’t think very hard about it.

The church has never been homogenous. I don’t think it was ever meant to be. Toeing the theological party line leads to spiritual and theological inbreeding. It’s toxic and dangerous, because that is how cults work. If you have enough people patting each other on the back because they believe the exact same things, you tend to become inflexible and judgemental.

The church is a conversation. That’s how it started, at least. Finite people trying to figure out the infinite (Hint: it can’t be done). And that was OK. They disagreed vehemently before sitting down and sharing meals, because that’s how you figure stuff out. Not by simply affirming what someone says and congratulating ourselves on our similar beliefs.

I want to go to a church where I’m free to disagree, where the conversation is as important as the conclusions we reach. I want a place where I can be shocked and challenged by those who differ wildly from me while still sharing our connection in Christ.

I think that’s what the church was meant to be: chaotic, diverse, challenging, but in the end, because of this, humble, loving, and alive.


You are not a storyteller. Or are you?

So this happened (WARNING: The video contains naughty words):

Watching the above video, I found myself curiously drawn and repulsed by the idea that it espouses.

You see, according to Terry Pratchett, we are Homo Narrativus. The storytelling ape. Our ability to construct narratives around seemingly innocuous things like the way that grass moves is part of the reason that we are alive today. It is why we get scared when we’re alone in the dark. Stories are coded into our genes, they colour every waking moment of our lives. It might be one of the main things that distinguish us from most animals.

Two famous editors once taught a class of film students about story. They split the class into two groups and gave each the same documentary style footage. The first group was told to cut the seemingly unrelated footage into a narrative. The second was told to stay away form narrative completely, to edit the footage in a way that’s as far away from a story as possible.

Once the class handed in their assignments, some of the resulting films were shown to them. The interesting thing is not that the first group managed to craft a story from disparate elements, it’s that the second group, no matter how hard they tried, always seemed to convey some kind of narrative in their films.

Which tells us one thing with two possible interpretations: We cannot get away from story. We are caught in narratives. The question is whether we create them or are just so well programmed to look for them that we cannot NOT see them everywhere we look. This means not only that we weave narrative into the fabric of everything that we create, but that we instinctively imbue otherwise storyless objects with narrative.

Now, when you design a roller coaster, you structure an experience. Within that brief you will always have some sort of narrative. It’s about movement through spaces with different emotive aspects, as Stefan Sagmeister mentions in the video. Yes, it is based in some sort of narrative, but does that make the designer a storyteller?

Calling yourself a storyteller seems to me to say something about the primacy of storytelling in what you do, like, you are primarily a storyteller. But if we take the above idea to its logical conclusion, then we are ALL storytellers, whether it’s the novelist or the accountant. Every act and object is imbued with its own little narrative through the fact that a human is participating in it somehow.

As with iconography, ubiquity goes hand in hand with meaninglessness. If everyone is a storyteller, then calling yourself a storyteller is nonsensical, on the level of trying to convince people that you are human (To any non-human reading this, please just swop human for your species. Which proves my point. It’s only in differentiation that we can truly make sense.)

It seems that my immediate reaction is to make a distinction. To say yes and no at the same time, like Pandora opening Schrodinger’s box.

Yes, we are all storytellers. Each and every one of us. Revel in it, live it, be inspired to create with your life a story that is great.

But no, we are not all STORYTELLERS. We are not all concerned on a day to day basis with structuring narratives, crafting stories. If that is what you do, great. If it isn’t, great. We don’t all have to be storytellers. That’s just the fashion these days. Calling nearly anything storytelling (which I think I’ve shown to be possible) reduces the concept of storytelling to meaninglessness. It makes less of those people who are explicitly trying to do it.

The problem is that there are no obvious lines to draw here. We ride the roller coaster of sliding scales, so don’t get too worked up about it. If you truly believe that you are a storyteller, why not tell your own story with more specificity? Be a writer. No, be a novelist, screenwriter, journalist whatever. Be a filmmaker, be a designer, be a landscaper, be whatever you are. Gleefully get on that sliding scale, but know that blanket terms are often counterproductive. It’s in the specifics that your true value lies.

Blankets are comfortable, but they also hide you from the outside world.