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.

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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.”

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.

Amen.

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.

Why I am a Christian 3: Evil

It is difficult finding words for ideas. I think most people know this on some level. Have you ever experienced something so intense and profound that you could find no words to convey what was shivering in your core? It happens to me. Often.

I think it’s why we consume art on such an enormous scale. It is why we flock headlong to the telling of stories, saying: “Yes, that’s it. HE got it. That storyteller understands.”

The most foundational aspects of our lives defy easy categorisation and explanation. We are forced to acknowledge this when we stand speechless in the presence of things like birth, death, love, courage, and evil.

In some of my most intense times of doubt I have returned to my experience of darkness and found God waiting there. There may be many refutations that can be levelled at the experience of evil, but irrefutability was never the point of these posts. It is an exploration of the multiplicity of reasons that I feel drawn to Christianity as the greatest explanation of reality. I have spent some time trying to place the experience of evil in the foundations of my faith and I think I may have found part of the answer.

Evil is a lens. It is one of the most basic human experiences, and it forces a response in a way that almost nothing else does. I think that’s one reason why we all shy away from it. There is something in us that rebels against the worst of humanity, calling us to action: even against our wills.

Which is where I often find God. Evil, and our reaction to it, affirms the existence of true goodness in the wrong that goes against it. You could point to my upbringing as the source of my discomfort and I would concede that you might be right. There are no ironclad philosophies (I have written about this previously).
Evil is something that I cannot deny. It is one of the beliefs that are engraved in my bones: so deeply imbedded that to lose it would be to be fundamentally different.

I believe in objective evil: wrongs that would be despicable even if everyone alive believed them to be moral. I also happen to be in good company about this. My best friend is agnostic, and believes this as strongly as I do. Richard Dawkins agrees, along with the pope. Our lines might lie differently, but in the face of true evil, all are united in revulsion and denunciation.

This in turn points to ultimate, objective good; something I believe to be impossible without the existence of God. For morality to be truly objective, one cannot live in a naturalistic world. The only objective law in a world without God is that might makes right. This is an argument I’ve had with a few non-believers, and it seems like it’s something you either apprehend as a logical conclusion or not (And there are many theists and atheists who have argued for both conclusions, which tends to support this observation). For me, it is obvious. The existence of the Good (God) is necessary for the existence of absolute evil.

Evil points even further. In my most despairing experience of the brokenness of humanity, I have seen glimmers of truth in Christian teachings. We can all agree that we’re broken, but I find it illuminating that we’re broken exactly like Jesus envisioned. This is obviously true because the Bible is largely an account of the specifics of our brokenness, but it is also more. It doesn’t fall into the same shortcomings that other philosophies do on the subject of human depravity. It goes deeper and further than Buddha or Marx or Hume’s characterisations. It encompasses the scope and depth of the raw badness boiling in the human heart.

It speaks to my own evil: the beast in my breast that leaves destruction in its wake whenever it stirs. C.S. Lewis famously said that all men fall short, not of the moralities of other, but of their own rules. We are all party in some small way to the brokenness of the world. In that too, I see Christ’s teachings shine.

In the end, evil is something we are intimately familiar with. Those who are able manage to subdue little bits of it every day. I believe in Christ through the very existence of evil, the experience of His teachings (and the teachings He engages) about it, and the hope that one day evil may be beaten. It is a battle I experience every day in myself. It is a war that I see waged all around me.
Sometimes, when I despair of the victory of Good, I realise again why I am a Christian. To lift a world as dark as ours from the slime we have created we will need help from someone. Someone who is clean in ways that we have never known. Someone like Jesus.

Of beams and splinters: Homosexuality and Christian activism.

World Vision has caved under pressure. I don’t necessarily count this as weakness on their part.  As an explicitly Christian charity, the kinds and amounts of pressure that can be brought to bear against them are unfathomable. Which leads me to my first point: the Gospel is under attack, but not from outside. Rachel Held Evans summarised this so eloquently.

I have been working myself up to this point for a while, thinking about complicity and bigotry and where I stand in the strange maelstrom of where all these things intersect with theology. To those who know the shape of our souls silence does not mean assent, but to the world at large silence is yes. This is true of social organisations too. To outsiders an absent no means you agree. Always.

This is how systemic evil stays alive: when good men stay silent. If nobody speaks out, everyone stays isolated and impotent in their dissent. It’s in the absence of communication that relationships break down, societies calcify, progress is hamstrung.

And I want no part in it.

This is what I believe. I lay it out in public, because that’s where it may be a small crack in the monstrous monolith that outsiders perceive Christianity to be.

The roots of Christianity are set in the hearts of the oppressed. It’s in the history of the Jewish people; it’s in the oppression of the early church. In the Bible we find, over and over again that God is the God of the oppressed, of those on the underside of power, no matter who they happen to be. The gospel is the story of a God who comes down to the powerless and broken, and offers them healing. I believe that it’s our sacred duty as Christians to speak out against oppression, especially when it originates within the church, because silence is complicity.

Jesus calls us to love. Wherever we support, even implicitly, the systematic oppression of others, we have moved away from God and His good news.

Homosexuality isn’t even close to the issue that it is made to be, even if you believe in its inherent sinfulness. In the Bible, homosexuality is outshone by things like greed, hate and oppression to such a degree that we can almost round its score off to zero. That’s the problem here: it’s become a political issue, not a theological one. It’s a hot-button topic used by lazy preachers to create a fictitious enemy that the church can unite against.

But the church doesn’t need to. The gospel is so much more than a set of rules to protect with force. The only people Jesus ever used force against were religious people. Everyone else received an invitation. So the question comes up for each of us: if Jesus were here, would he weave a whip for me?

Creating laws to kill and imprison people for their sexuality is deeply wrong. We cannot legislate our specific morality: down that road lies fascism and all the many inventive evils that flow from it. Jesus didn’t call us to patrol the actions of others, especially not those of people who hold different beliefs. Not even God does that. If the most high respects free will enough to allow me my faults, who the hell are we to withhold our love in some misguided attempt at social engineering? We’re to bring good news, love and healing.

Withholding homosexuals the right to work alongside fellow Christians for the betterment of the world is more than sad, then. It’s misguided, loveless and evil. As long as the church keeps pushing this stupid homosexuality agenda (in all its forms), it will be an empire of oppression. It will be part of the problem that our religion was started to solve.

The stance taken by most Christians on this topic is so disgustingly toxic that it beggars belief. It is so ‘far-sighted’ that it needs glasses to see its own sin. As long as we remain sinners, we have no right to even pick up stones, no less cast them. I am staggered by the amount of damage done by the rejection of homosexuals. It is possible only because the Christians doing so reduce these people to a single characteristic. These are people who love, fear, feel, cry, dream, and laugh. They are flesh and blood, with lives like ours, full of beauty and complexity. Just like us.

We are meant to be a force of love in the world. The body of Christ. Christ who loved and accepted whores and killers and you and me. We are in good company, no?

Personally, I don’t believe homosexuality is a sin, but “allowing it” (if we assume that it’s sinful) will never be able to live up to the destruction that is being sown all over the world by those who oppose it. Don’t we ‘allow’ so many other sins too, anyway? Isn’t that the point of forgiveness, of tolerance and love?

Christians must start speaking up against wrongs. If we don’t, nobody’s going to change it for us. So this is my start. I denounce Uganda’s gay bill, Russia’s legislation, every Christian’s clamour against a charity allowing homosexuals into its ranks. We must speak out against anybody who treads on those who are different from them.

This madness needs to stop. It’s small-minded and unworthy of people who claim that God is love.