I feel it would be presumptuous of me to describe the ways of God. Those that are all we know of Him, when there is so much we don’t know. Though we are told to call him Father. And I know it would be presumptuous to speak as if the suffering that people feel as they passed through the world were not great enough to make your question much more powerful than any answer I could offer. My faith tells me that God shared poverty, suffering, and death with human beings, which can only mean that such things are full of dignity and meaning, even though to believe this makes a great demand of ones faith, and to act as if this were true in any way we understand is to be ridiculous. It is ridiculous also to act as if it were not absolutely and essentially true all the same. Even though we are to do everything we can to put an end to poverty and suffering.
I have struggled with this my whole life.
This is Rev John Ames in a letter to Lila, the title character in Marilynne Robinson’s new novel. Early in the book Lila says to Ames, “I just been wondering lately why thing happen the way they do.” She’s looking for some kind of help and the pastor struggles to answer. But here, when he finally does, is one of the better replies I’ve heard to this unanswerable question.
Q: Some Christians talk about experiencing God. Do you experience God in some way?
A: I assume that experience is the experience of God. If you think of experience as what is given to you—I mean day to day, the weather of your existence—that, I take it, is intelligible, and has purpose of a certain kind. One of the things I like about John Calvin is that he always talks about people as being presented to us, or even given to us. What he means is that any encounter with another human being is like God posing a question. The answer is what God wants, assuming that God loves and is loyal to the person he has presented to you, which is a very profound ethical question. This might seem over-intellectualized, but to me it’s much more meaningful than Zen or something like that. It opens the world. It’s not a place of refuge, it’s a place where the exhilarations of reality are presented to you, almost at the level of demand.
I picked up Robinson’s new book, Lila, at our local bookstore the other day without knowing when I’ll have time to get to it. Now it’s sitting on my desk tempting me away from other reading assignments.
A lot of people were shot to death in Chicago this holiday weekend. A whole lot more were shot and survived. I won’t mention how many suffered because the numbers are obscene and the individuals who died deserve more than our passing obsession. Even a city that is accustomed to violence and death feels this weight. I sat in two different rooms yesterday with veteran community leaders who have lived with death for a long time. These women and men whom I respect and look to for direction sighed heavily and paused longer than normal as they mentioned the weekend’s shame.
There’s a question that comes up during these moments, sometimes spoken and often implied: Why not give up? The pastors, organizers, and neighborhood leaders I spend time with don’t have to give themselves to this work of compassion and justice. They could do other things. They could pursue jobs with observable metrics of success.
I don’t know how most of these folks would answer the question, but it’s been important that I have a way to answer- something that makes sense of these heavy and sad days while providing the rationale to stay present in the city.
In The Meaning of the City (1970) Jaques Ellul makes the theological point that the city is the systematized and entrenched sin and rebellion humanity experiences on an individual level. That is, the curse of sin that we each know is writ large in the city, something to which we contribute and by which we are destroyed. We may search for solutions for the city’s problems but, “while the search is going on, the vampire does its work and calls for more fresh blood. And new throngs of men take up residence under the rule of the curse.”
There has recently been a return to American cities by young people – white, mostly – who are reversing the migrations of their parents and grandparents. They are, as best I can tell, interested in what the city has to offer by way of experience and opportunity. The Christians among them often want to show compassion to those on the margins of the city. Both groups, according to Ellul, misread the city and its designs. The city is not neutral. “[W]e must admit that the city is not just a collection of houses with ramparts, but also a spiritual power.” The new urban dwellers can miss how cities intend to (de)form them.
Some of Ellul’s readers mistake him for being a pessimist, but that’s incorrect. Toward the end of the book, after showing again and again how the city opposes God’s intentions for the flourishing of all people, Ellul reminds the reader that the Bible ends not with a return to a garden in Eden but in a city.
God involves himself in an adventure completely different, for from this very city he is going to make the new Jerusalem. Thus we can observe God’s strange progress: Jerusalem becomes Babylon, Babel is restored to the status of a simple city, and this city becomes the city of the the living God. [Emphasis mine.]
This is, of course, the Gospel: rather than requiring humanity’s return to Eden, God inhabits our systems of rebellion and allows them to run their natural and violent course over his sinless body. His sacrifice makes real a future where our embodied collusion against God becomes God’s dwelling and ours.
Why not give up? Depending on one’s starting point, the question may not make much sense. For the person who came to the city for an urban experience or to make a noticeable difference the question and its variants will eventually become unavoidable. It will also become increasing difficult to answer with anything resembling joy. But Ellul – for whom humor is one of the evidences of the Christian’s presence in the city – proposes a different vocation for the urban Christian. Our call is simply to represent Christ “in the heart of the city.” We are not builders and we do not judge our success by the work of our hands. We bear witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ who will one day make the city his home.
Would we consider giving up our witness to Christ? For this is what the city-dwelling Christian is called to.
There is freedom here from the city’s tyranny. First, we are free from they tyranny of success. Among people who only affirm that which is measurable, Christians can remain present in the city regardless of perceived successes. Success for us has only to do with our faithful witness to Jesus, a work that is, by its very nature, impossible and dripping with grace because of its impossibility. We succeed in this witness-bearing vocation inasmuch as we confess our failure at it. Second, we are free from the tyranny of time. The Christian holds together the seemingly opposite convictions that the city is beyond our abilities to save and will one day become the symbol of God’s salvation. Yet this is no reason for isolating resignation. Worshipping a God beyond time inculcates us with humility about the ways we bear witness to Jesus in the city. We can remain faithfully present, submitted to God’s presence, without the need to judge the efficiency of our presence. Rather, we admit our ultimate inability to judge such efficiency.
In his essay, The Harlem Ghetto (1949), James Baldwin wrote about the Biblical passages that oriented his father, a pastor, in a city that was bent on his destruction. “The favorite text of my father, among the most earnest of ministers, was not ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what the do,’ but ‘How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?'” Baldwin’s father was echoing the question of Psalm 137 asked by a people in exile. The Christian who abides in the city who has not asked this question is, we can assume, still enchanted by the city’s many idols. But for those with eyes to see and to those who are the city’s special focus of destruction the question is inevitable. God, Ellul writes, has an answer to this question found in Jeremiah 29. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you find your welfare…”
In these ways – simple but never simplistic and certainly never naive – we bear witness to Jesus in the city. We can speak truthfully of the city’s many horrors without being overcome. Though mobility is a societal value that can hardly be questioned, the Christian can and does question it, choosing to remain in this particular city unless the Spirit of God scatters us elsewhere- a call, we can assume, that will never be about our personal convenience though it will never be without joy.
The “protest ” novel, so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene, ramifying that framework we believe to be so necessary. Whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent, titillating; remote, for this has nothing to do with us, it is safely ensconced in the social arena, where, indeed, it has nothing to do with anyone, so that finally we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all. This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation; and “As long as such books are being published,” and American liberal once said to me, “everything will be all right.”
- James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1949).
Baldwin is my teacher this summer. In this essay he has in mind books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin- what they are meant to do and what they actually do for their readers. The section above reminded me of the recent collective reaction to Donald Sterling. For Baldwin it was a certain kind of book that provided the progressive citizen with the “thrill of virtue.” We are more likely to derive such assurance from the public figure’s racist comment or outdated assumptions about the world. I doubt Baldwin would be any more impressed with our tame outrage than he was by those taking solace in their enlightened literature.
I made sure to sit by the airplane window during some recent travel around the pacific northwest. I knew the scenery would be spectacular – made even more so by the sunrises of my early departures – and I wasn’t disappointed. Though my small window I could see Rainier, Hood, and other mountains rise to their snowy peaks, spectacular in the early morning sunlight. It was awe-inspiring.
The woman next to me wasn’t impressed. Her attention was kept by the game on her tablet. Doesn’t she know what she’s missing? I wondered. I silently judged her until realizing that I’d been looking more intently at her tablet, trying to figure out the game she was playing, than the landscape below. How quickly the amazing becomes mundane.
In his new book, Drew Dyck pushes hard against this tendency to turn away from the spectacular for bells and whistles of our own making. Yawning at Tigers is Drew’s successful attempt to remind American Christians that the God we claim to follow cannot be domesticated. Theologically nuanced and very accessible, the book repeatedly puts forward a vision of God that elicits awe: holiness, love, transcendence, and immanence are all clearly articulated. Hardly a page goes by where Drew doesn’t fill in these potentially fuzzy words with stories that bring them to life.
This is a serious book in the way any attempt to describe a holy God must be. “God’s holiness is deadly, incompatible with life, especially for sinful mortals like us.” Yet Yawning at Tigers avoids heavy-handedness because Drew is more interested in describing God than in defending him.
There’s an important assumption running throughout the book: “Rarely do we hear about God’s mystery and majesty, let alone whisper a word about his wrath.” Of course, depending on the reader’s experience this assumption will ring more or less true. There are plenty of congregations with a high view of God’s transcendence and righteousness. Even so, I think Drew is right to point out this broader tendency within much of American Christianity and those who’ve avoided this pendulum swing away from certain of God’s characteristics will benefit from the well-rounded vision of God found in these pages.
The Christian’s hope is tied to a holy God becoming like us for our salvation and the world’s rescue. In Jesus we have the ability to consider and worship this righteous God without being overcome. Yawning at Tigers is an invitation to consider again our dangerous God. His perfection and holiness stands ready to provoke awe and wonder within a people who’ve become bored by bells and whistles.
Things have been relatively quiet on this blog; a seminary class and work-related travel have squeezed the margins lately. But I’ve still found small spaces to write, including for other sites. Here are two short pieces that were recently published.
First, a book review for Christianity Today:
[United: Captured by God's Vision for Diversity] is about a tricky and somewhat discouraging topic, considering how segregated U.S. churches remain. Yet [Trillia] Newbell focuses her attention in other directions. Not that she ignores the challenges or ugly histories that typically hinder attempts at reconciled community. It’s just that she chooses to highlight the appealing elements of diversity, whether theological or relational. Many readers will find this approach inspirational, an antidote to what Newbell calls “the difficulties of genuine diversity.” But lacking from this approach is much analysis of why Jesus-loving, Gospel-believing Americans have contentedly attended segregated churches for generations. Embracing “genuine diversity” means we must also get our arms around the privileges and prejudices that have kept us apart.
And then a blog post for our denomination’s Commission on Biblical Gender Equality:
I can forget that our normal is exceptional for others until I overhear someone mentioning how grateful they are for the women who lead our church. They are remembering times and places where these leaders’ voices, experiences, and gifts wouldn’t have been welcomed- not in the same normal way they are within our community.
Once again, in a completely haphazard manner, I’ve collected my five favorite books of the past year. These books were not necessarily published in 2013 – though three of them were – but they were among the books I most enjoyed during the year. I read about thirty books in 2013 and I don’t hesitate to recommend these five to you. Please leave a comment if you can recommend to us any books from your past year’s reading list.
A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching, Paula J. Giddings (2009).
After I finished Gidding’s biography about Ida B. Wells, I felt compelled to make the short pilgrimage to her Chicago home. I parked off of King Drive, looked up at the old home, and tried to imagine the frenetic activity that house experienced at the hands of its famous occupant. Despite almost single-handedly championing the anti-lynching campaign at the turn of the twentieth century, most of us are woefully ignorant of this critical figure in the early Civil Rights Movement. Giddings points out some of the reasons for our ignorance. Most obviously, Wells was a woman in a man’s world. While the older Fredrick Douglas was generally an ally and advocate for Wells, her contemporary, W. E. B. Du Bois, was mostly ambivalent to her work, going so far, according to Wells, as to leave her name off the list of the founders of the NAACP. Despite this, Wells worked tirelessly as an author, journalist, and speaker despite very real risks to her life and the lives of those close to her. Another reason we forget about Wells is that she lived before what most of us think of as the Civil Rights Movement and the gains she and her contemporaries made (whether related to race or gender equality) don’t seem as spectacular as the accomplishments of those who came a generation or two later. A Sword Among Lions is a small step toward reminding us of this American hero. Ida B. Wells should should never be forgotten; her insight and courage in the face of such hostile circumstances cannot relegated to the past.
My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman (2013).
Christian Wiman wrote the most beautiful book of the year. Not the most beautiful of the books I read but of any book published in 2013. (Go ahead, find a more beautifully written and expressed book. I’ll wait.) Wiman was, until recently, the editor of Poetry Magazine and his way with words is evidence of his poet’s vocation. This is a memoir about Wiman’s return to Christianity after a long absence from the rollicking faith of his family. The ways Wiman talks about faith seem equally informed by his poetry, his location as a modern person (as he understands that), his love for his wife, and a devastating experience with cancer. It’s the last one that features most visibly throughout the book, though Wiman is far too careful a writer to ever use his illness to manipulate the reader. Instead we feel the author’s doubt, grief, and physical agony even while we’re surprised with him at faith’s quiet return. I’ve written on this blog about stages of faith and the tendency to experience these transitions as God’s absence or as the erosion of faith’s foundations. This Bright Abyss is a book I will recommend not only for it’s beauty, but also for the view it provides of a faith that exists not only in spite of doubt, grief, and uncertainty, but because of them.
And They All Sang, Studs Terkel (2005).
I’m predisposed to like this book. When he was attending the University of Chicago’s law school, Studs Terkel would take the train through Bronzeville and make stops at some of the clubs and record stores. I spend a lot of time in Bronzeville and I sometimes try to imagine the neighborhood as it was when Studs made those stops- the people he met and the music he heard. Studs was one of the first to play the great Mahalia Jackson on his Chicago radio show and this book is filled with conversations he had over the years with equally notable sings and musicians. Studs did more over the course of his life than most of us will, but he’s remembered for telling the stories of ordinary people in his collections of interviews organized around different themes: work, war, race, etc. Any collection of Studs’ interviews is an entry into other times and places; the man had the ability to ask the right, generally succinct question, and then get out of the way. He allowed his subjects to speak from their own very specific locations, trusting that the reader would make their own connections. The result in They All Sang is collection loosely organized by genre that covers music people I’d never heard of, along with some I had, talking about subjects and times I was sometimes familiar with and other times not. It’s all made accessible and interesting by Stud’s insatiable curiosity and the belief that everyone has a story worth hearing.
Unapologetic, Francis Spufford (2013).
In his Books and Culture review, Alan Jacobs calls Unapologetic a “sweary and funny and lovely book.” Francis Spufford’s non-defense of Christian faith is certainly more than these but also not less which makes the book such a surprise. Have you ever read a book about Christianity’s validity that begins (and mostly ends) with emotion? The author’s cheeky British wit and irreverence toward certain taboos and sacred cows only add to the pleasures this book contains. I’m not an apologetics guy. Books that claim to defend Christian faith hold almost no interest for me, nor do I usually understand the need to defend faith in the ways these books attempt. Christianity, as I understand it, requires God initiated faith, something that is impossible to defend or explain with language and assumptions outside of the faith. Also, Christianity contains it’s own internal logic, what might be described as the ethics of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a logic that, at many points, will be out of step or unintelligible to those who’ve not stepped into the Faith. I understand the importance of showing Christianity’s historical place and consistencies, not to mention the constant need to locate the Bible in it’s cultural context. However, the impulse to convince people who don’t share Christianity’s assumptions about how the world works that Christianity best explains how the world works seems a generally fruitless exercise. And it’s the opposite of what Spufford does in Unapologetic. Instead, he mixes his own encounters with faith with retellings of the Christian story to show the emotional resonance of Jesus and his story. Emotions here are not the opposite of intellect; rather, Spufford shows how Christian faith resonates with his entire personhood. There are a few assumptions here that I didn’t agree with, but I these didn’t take away from Spufford’s surprising and necessary non-apology.
Reading for Preaching, Cornelius Plantinga (2013)
I try to choose books for this list that will appeal to most readers of this blog. I actually don’t think this book about preaching is an exception. Cornelius Plantinga is theologian and seminary president who doesn’t write like either. This is a book about reading and preaching that isn’t overly-serious about its subjects. Plantinga clearly cares about preaching and he makes the case well that preachers ought to be thoughtful readers, yet he approaches these things with warmth and a light hand. This sort of book could make a preacher feel guilty for what he or she is not doing in preparation for that weekly appointment in the pulpit. There is not guilt in Reading for Preaching, just a gracious invitation to the world of sentences and stories for the benefit of the preacher and hers or his congregation. As much as Plantinga cares about good preaching, he’s equally taken by reading and this is where the book will be enjoyed by readers who’d rather die than preach. All types of reading are discussed in these pages; the author doesn’t privilege codex over reading online or so-called literary fiction over a newspaper article. All of these have their place in the life of the reader and Plantinga helps us see why and how we might consider these different forms of writing more thoughtfully. After all, most of us read and mostly forget. We live in the author’s world for a few minutes or a few weeks and then, aside from an anecdote or two, we move on. Plantinga wants preachers to recall more of their reading, to find ways of interacting with facts, ideas, and imaginations such that the other Book comes alive. His thoughts about how to do this are helpful to readers who want the books they read to be more than temporary distractions.