Becoming the Archetype’s I AM = The Doctrine of God + Death Metal

Alright, so this is the one where I blow my credibility with a bunch of you: I love metal music. I’m not an expert, a connoisseur, or even an amateur. I’m just a fan. Still, I love the speed, the ferocity, the heaviness, and the creativity involved with the genre and its multiple sub-genres.

One of my favorite acts is a Christian progressive death metal band by the name of Becoming the Archetype. (Think Christ as the archetype of humanity made in the image of God into whose image we are being conformed.) They embody what I’ve been saying for the last few years: some of the most creative, theological song-writing is coming, not out of the worship music industry, but the metal and hardcore scene. With albums titled Terminate Damnation and songs like  “Ex Nihilo” and “Elemental Wrath: Requiem Aeternam”, it’s obvious they don’t pull theological punches. Redemption never sounded this brutal. Thankfully they’ve been thoughtful enough to actually handle deep theology within the medium, producing complex concept albums like “Dichotomy”, which they based on C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy in order to explore themes of resurrection, the knowledge of God, biology and technology. (It also features the most brutal rendition of “How Great Thou Art” you’ve ever heard.)

Now, when I learned of that the band had lost bassist and frontman, Jason Wisdom, I was worried both that the music and the message would suffer a drop-off in sound as well as theological content. (He left when his wife became pregnant. Something about wanting to be a good dad or something.) With release of their 5th full-length studio album I AM, my fears were assuaged.

In terms of sound, Christ McCane’s vocals come through loud, low, and aggressive.  The clean vocals shine at times and at times, not so much. Overall, very solid. There are quite a few good technical riffs, (the opening of the title track “I AM” comes to mind), solid drumming, a few good bass-lines, and a number of heavy break-downs, even though they’ve backed off a bit from other albums. Continuing the trend off of their last album Celestial Completion, they’ve continued to place increasing focus on progressive elements. Still, it regains some of the speed, heaviness, and aggression of Dichotomy. It’s a solid metal album. The more I listen to it, the more pleased I am. My face is quite sufficiently melted.

This is not the main reason I am excited by this album. What I love most is the theological ambition driving the sound. With I AM Becoming the Archetype has attempted to do something many academic theologians no longer try: say something substantial about God.

I AM

In the Old Testament God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush as the great “I AM that I AM” (Exod. 3:14), or simply “I AM” (Yahweh). This is his specific covenant name by which Israel was to call him.  In Isaiah, specifically 40-55, a section that draws on Exodus themes of liberation and redemption, God repeatedly emphasizes that “I am” the one who will redeem Israel. (Isa. 41:4; 43:25; 47:10; 48:12; 51:12) In the NT we find Jesus taking up the divine self-designation in the book of John with its seven famous “I am” (ego eimi) statements. Using prominent OT images of salvation he declares himself to be the bread of God (6:33), the bread of life (6:35), the light of the world (8:12), the gate for the sheep (10:7), the resurrection and the life (11:25), the way, the truth, and the life (14:6), and the true vine (15:1). Each of these predicates symbolize some aspect or form of the salvation that Jesus brings or in fact is.

In the same vein, I AM is an extended reflection on the glorious, terrifying predicates which can be ascribed to God in his saving actions, especially as they are manifested in Jesus Christ. Check out the track list:

  1. The Ocean Walker
  2. The Time Bender
  3. The Eyes of the Storm
  4. The Sky Bearer
  5. The Machine Killer
  6. The Weapon Breaker
  7. The War Ender
  8. The Planet Maker
  9. The Sun Eater
  10. I AM

Now, let’s be honest, we’re not dealing with Thomas Aquinas, or Barth, or Bavinck here. This is a death metal band. Some over the top metalness is to be expected. Still, there’s something great about a band that will speak in the first person for God and utter:

Traversing the infinite
Transcending the evident
Watch as reality bends to my will

Navigating eternity
Dispatching uncertainty
Navigating eternity
Behold in my presence
Time standing still

I am the future
I am the past
I have seen you breathe your last

The metal epicness is almost too much to bear. What I do love is that song after song we see some attribute or action of God’s, whether eternity, the act of creation, judgment, or consummation, being defined through the Son. Ending on a truly Johannine note, the refrain of the title song simply states, “I AM THAT I AM/I AND THE FATHER ARE ONE.” We know God in and through Jesus Christ or not at all.

To sum up: if you like metal, or Jesus, check out the album. Prepare for theology and epicness.

Check out the first single, “The Time Bender” below.

Playful, Passionate, Principled, but never Putrid Polemics (Or, Don’t Forget Jesus in an Argument)

If you’ve ever had an “intensely engaged” discussion with a friend in person, a facebook comment, a blog, etc. the odds are that you’ve engaged in polemics. The Webster definition of polemics is “an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another” or “the art or practice of disputation or controversy.” Basically it’s a form of reasoned argumentation against a position with which you disagree.

Having spent a couple of years in a philosophy program, then seminary, as well as far too much time on the blogosphere, I’ve observed and participated in quite of bit of polemics myself. I have what you might call a “polemical bent”,  which is probably why I like thinkers like Luther, Calvin, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Plantinga. Brothers can argue.

In that time, I’ve had some time to think about  some of the basic attitudes and approaches to polemics, some of which are consistent with Christian life and some of which are not. I’d like to offer up some reflections three qualities or attitudes that should define your approach to whatever discussion you engage in, and one that shouldn’t. These aren’t comprehensive, exhaustive, or entirely correct, but, for what it’s worth, here they are.

Playful– The first quality that I think should be cultivated within our discussions with others  is playfulness, a certain amount of mirth and good humor. It’s that kind of light-hearted reasonableness that G.K. Chesterton seems to embody in his works like Orthodoxy and Heretics. To say that his arguments are playful is not to say that they aren’t “serious”, or aren’t dealing with serious issues, but that they are clearly not driven by fear or pride but rather a humble self-forgetfulness and joy deeply rooted in the Gospel. His ability to sport and laugh at, and with, his interlocutors managed to communicate both disagreement with and real fondness for them. This is not an excuse for being flippant, disrespectful, or condescending. When your heart is filled with confidence in God, it allows you to speak with humor and grace knowing that whatever the outcome of the argument, you’re securely held in the arms of your Father because of the Son. One of the benefits of engaging your intellectual “opponents” with this attitude is that it is attractive. So often people are used to dealing with Christians arguing out of their insecurities or pride which drives them to be snippy, harsh, humorless, and retaliatory. Nobody wants to listen to someone like that, or end up believing whatever they’re arguing for. The Gospel should lead to a confident, good-naturedness that, on the one hand, respects the other person, and at the same time allows you to take yourself less seriously.

Passionate– The second quality that ought to characterize our polemics is passion.  Like the first, it is deeply rooted in the truth of the Gospel and a deep love for people. You can see this is all over Paul’s letters. Paul is nothing but passionate in his polemics for the sake of the Gospel. Galatians, anybody? Paul goes aggro in that letter because of his great gospel-fear that they might be abandoning Christ, and so he forcefully makes his points at times, giving voice to his real concern in order to communicate just how important the issue was. Sometimes people might know you disagree, but really have no idea how important an issue is until they hear the concern or passion in your voice. Paul’s letter not only communicated truth, but the way he communicated it gave it an emotional tenor, an urgency, that was just as vital as the content. A lot of us may be scared of passionate engagement with our neighbors and friends over the truth. We’re scared of offending, or coming off as pushy or unloving. In a world like ours where our radios, TVs, and blogs are full of people just yelling and trying to brow-beat people into submission, that’s a real danger. I don’t want to minimize that. We should never argue just to argue. So often that’s what we find ourselves caught up in: meaningless arguments about things that really, nobody should get that agitated over. Still, this shouldn’t stop us from engaging passionately with our friends about things that really matter. Love engages over truth. Apathy or an unwillingness to trouble yourself with have a difficult conversation out of fear is not the loving thing to do. The truth is something to be passionate about because truth is about life.

Principled- The third quality that it ought to possess is that of being principled. (Honestly, I could have used other words like “integrity”, “honesty”, etc, but I’m a sucker for cheap alliteration.) We must always strive in our engagements with others to be principled in our dealings, speaking honestly, actively avoiding unfair caricatures, and cheap shots. Whenever arguing against a position we must strive to represent our interlocutors accurately, fairly, and charitably. In other words, don’t purposely take the dumbest interpretation of any statement they make and argue against that.  That’s just dishonest. I’ll be the first to admit that there is a place for irony, sarcasm, and the reductio ad absurdum in arguments. There is a place for humorously following someone’s premises out to their surprising conclusions, or creating humorous, sarcastic analogies to bring out a point. Still, there is absolutely no place for a lack of integrity in our communication with others, even those with whom we deeply disagree. This is part of how we love our neighbors as ourselves as Jesus taught us to. Being people who confess the lordship of Jesus, the one who is the Truth, we should never play fast and loose with the truth in order to score a cheap, rhetorical point.

Never Putrid– If we strive for and keep these three qualities in mind as we engage others, they will keep us from descending into the putrid polemics that seems to define our culture’s approach to “rational”discourse. So much of what we hear and read today pours out of corrupted hearts darkened by arrogance, rage, pride, fear, and the rot of our decomposing sin nature. So much of what is popular out there is just straight-up lies, fear-mongering, cynical mockery, caricature, manipulation, gracelessness, straw-manning, cheap shots, and rhetorical bullying. It is simply putrid. For those of us who have been raised in Christ and indwelled by the resurrection Spirit of God, there should be nothing rotten or foul about what we say. Even those words we utter that cut should only cut in the way a doctor’s scalpel does–in order to heal. They should be words of life, not death, because we are made, and are being remade, in the image of the God who, by his Word, speaks life into existence.

Once again, I write all of these things, not as someone who has achieved or arrived. Lord knows I have not even come close in this area. Instead, I write them as one still struggling alongside; still fumbling about trying to become the kind of person who speaks rightly and righteously.

Beefing Up Your “Quiet Times”: Catechisms and Confessions as Devotional Literature

A little bit ago, a buddy of mine was musing about the fact that he doesn’t connect to most devotional literature of the type that truly “spiritual” people normally rave about. His critical, analytical mind and personality just doesn’t connect with warm meditation, but rather with critical analysis of history and culture.

For a while I’d found myself in a similar place. After seminary, my devotional life became a bit trickier. I find that my mind comes most alive to God when I’m reading systematic theology, or wrestling with some interesting piece of biblical theology, but when I try to slow down, pause, and meditate on something like My Utmost for His Highest, I just can’t do it. (That’s not to disparage Chambers. I loved it in college. The sad thing is, most current, popular stuff doesn’t even come close to his depth.) Because of this, finding good devotional material has been a challenge.

This didn’t trouble me much at first. I would simply pray, read my Bible, and then move on to my academic reading. Still, after a while I realized that I need a slowing down, a place for a more contemplative, heart-oriented approach to God in my devotional life. When I “just read my Bible” I found it hard to turn off the analytic mode. When I did, I didn’t really find my heart moved, but rather just bored.

The Good News We Almost Forgot

Just when I thought all was lost, I got my hands on The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism by Kevin DeYoung. The book is basically a commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, which you can read for yourself here. For those of you unfamiliar with catechisms, they are a series of questions and answers designed to be memorized by either new believers, old believers in need of depth, or children in order to teach them the content of the Christian faith. They’re employed across various confessional church traditions and they usually they have scripture references attached to the answers for believers to look up and study as well.

The Heidelberg Catechism was written at the University of Heidelberg at the commission of Elector Frederick III and was approved by the Synod of Heidelberg in 1563. The Catechism has 129 questions and answers that are basically commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the 10 Commandments, but it is divided into fifty-two sections, called “Lord’s Days,” so that pastors could preach through them on each of the 52 Sundays of the year.  It is one of the most universally recognized pieces of Reformed theology across confessions and was adopted by the great Synod of 1618-1619, as one of the Three Forms of Unity, along with the Canons of Dort and the Belgic Confession.

How exciting!!!

Now for myself, having been raised in a barely-denominational Friends church, I hadn’t spent more than a minute with anything like a catechism, except to know \the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s famous first question and answer: “Q. What is the Chief End of Man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  To my less-than-enlightened mind that was great, deep, but spare stuff.  The thought of spending a whole book reading about a catechism didn’t originally strike me as an edifying experience, because at that point, “I already knew that stuff.”

Still, my buddy told me that he’d been using DeYoung’s book as a devotion because it breaks up into 52 short chapters (2-3 pages) commenting on each of the Lord’s days.  I figured, why not? It can’t hurt.

After a short introduction to the catechism much more exhaustive than my paragraph, I got to the first Lord’s Day and read Question and Answer 1:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

When I read this I nearly started to tear up immediately. The first sentence alone gripped me: “I am not my own.” There is nothing sterile, dry or impersonal about this answer. At the same time, it deploys in a matter of sentences the doctrines of atonement, providence, adoption, union with Christ, the Holy Spirit, assurance, and sanctification, in order to draw me into the saving reality of the Gospel. As you read through the rest of the catechism, there are other questions of similar depth and power. DeYoung’s commentary each day was solidly theological, scriptural, and very pastoral. For the next month and a half I found myself daily edified by the truths encapsulated in the short answers and the meditation that followed.

I had finally found something to found the devotional gap in my life.

Why Read Catechisms– After this I went on a search and started reading through the different catechisms and confessions I could find, (Westminster, Luther’s, Belgic, Scots), as a part of my daily time of prayer and scripture. I found myself time and time again, blessed, challenged, and moved to worship and delight. I also found myself wondering why I had never done this before.

If you’ve never spent time with a catechism, here are three reasons you should in no particular order.

1. Hearing voices from other centuries– Christianity has been around for 2,000 years. This means that Christians have been reading, praying, thinking, and writing about the Gospel for 2,000 years. It is foolish to not pay attention to what our mothers and fathers in the faith have said in past generations as if the truth of the Gospel had a 2 month shelf-life. Their voices are needed if we are to hear the Gospel in all of its fullness in our own day. Catechisms  are a great way of doing that given that most of them were written centuries ago and have still been found spiritually beneficial after all of these years.

2. Deep truths; short phrases. Most catechisms and confessions are doing serious theology and yet condensing it down into short, memorable phrases that are perfect for meditation and contemplation throughout the day. They are perfect for engaging the mind as well as the heart with the truth of God throughout your day.

3. Know Your Bible- Finally, most catechisms and confessions are packed to the gills with scriptural references backing up every statement. You can trace them down as a devotional exercise that can help you get to know your Bible better than you did before, as well as learn the deep, biblical basis for what we believe. It also can help you get into the scriptures in a focused, guided way that is less intimidating for some people than just opening the thing up and reading it.

Where Do I Start?

Honestly, I think DeYoung’s book, The Good News We Almost Forgot is a great place to start. I don’t have a copy of my own any more because I keep giving it away. When one of my college students asks me if I know of a book they should read, it’s one of the first two or three that I recommend.

If you want to start checking out catechism right away, you can start here.

Confessions

I have a confession to make: this is not my first blog. Back in the days when MySpace wasn’t just the punchline to jokes about irrelevance (Irony!), I blogged fairly regularly on faith in the MySpace blog forum. It was a formative experience for me. I was just a 19-year old who knew next to nothing, but for some reason I was getting read. I met a lot of great people and great writers through that blog, some of whom I still keep in touch with. I learned a lot about respectful dialogue with people from various worldviews as well as differing tribes within Christianity. It was a great part of my spiritual and theological development in college that I look back on with much fondness.

At the same time, I’m glad it died.

the rise and fall of my blog

For a while was going well; I was posting on a regular basis, once or twice a week as my school schedule allowed. My blogs were being read and regularly ranked in the top 10 of the Religion and Spirituality section on MySpace in terms of views and comments. (I know that’s not much, but it was pretty good for a 19-year-old with a brain full of mush.) At a certain point though, I began to notice that the posts were slowing down until I eventually found myself unable to write anymore. I mean, I could write, but I couldn’t find the will to write. When I stepped back to think about my writer’s block, I realized that it set in about the time that I started to do serious theological reading. While I have always been a reader, I had not starting reading books relating to Christian theology until my college years, and even then I didn’t start reading what I would call “serious” theology until my last year.

In looking back on the experience, I’ve realized that one thing that came with reading, growing, and learning is that I began to learn how much I had left to read, grow, and learn. I knew next to nothing. I wasn’t even aware of how much I didn’t know. I dare say I’m still just scratching the surface of my ignorance. At the time I came to realize that most of what I could say or write had been said and written long before I started typing by men and women with greater depth, insight, and skill than myself. It was a humbling experience.

In realizing this, I also recognized one my main motivations for blogging: I had been captivated by the feeling of saying something novel and being applauded for it. I loved the feeling of writing something and getting “likes”, seeing comments engaging my thoughts as if they were important insights, and getting acclaim for it. Of course this wasn’t my only motive. I am a natural teacher. I like sharing thoughts. At that point though, the love of being heard was novel and captivating. I don’t say that this is not a temptation even now–it is. At the time it was easy for it to become consuming. When I realized that I wasn’t actually saying anything new, or that people ought to be reading others instead myself, a large portion of my motivation died.

Again, I take this, in many ways, to be a good development. Writing for applause doesn’t do good things for your soul. At the same time, the death of my blog was not an unambiguously positive event. In being humbled, in coming to realize my smallness, relative ignorance and foolishness, I also was struck with a peculiar voicelessness. In coming to know that I knew very little, I fell into a certain of paralysis that robbed me of the ability to try to write about the things that I did know. I just didn’t see the point, or even feel competent to.

the birth pangs

Since that time I have gone to grad school, written a few papers, read a great many books, preached regularly for a couple of years, spent far too much time pontificating in Facebook conversations, and been humbled time and again in various contexts (as I’m sure I’ll continue to be.) In other words, God’s been working on my heart for, knowledge of, and ability to communicate the truth of the Gospel. I’m in a better spot in that respect than I was a few years ago.  After prayer, deliberation, and counsel, I came to the decision to start blogging again.

Surprisingly, this has not been an easy one. For the amount of time that I’ve spent in online forums expressing myself, discussing, debating, as well as preaching on a regular basis, coming to the point of committing my thoughts to print in an intentional and sustained fashion has felt daunting. Temporary disengagement from an activity can become habit that leads to the eventual atrophy of the talents or will required to participate in it. This is true, I am finding, in nearly all areas of life. There’s a part of me that still asks much as I did a few years ago, “Why write? There are much smarter and more valuable things that have already said by more capable writers than myself?”

the hope

I’ve been asking myself this question for a bit and, for the most part, I have not really had any good reasons other than a basic sense that I ought to be writing. It was only until a friend of mine gave me some good advice in personal correspondence that I have been able arrive at any sort of conclusion. In discussing the issue, my friend wrote, “I would say that you should write as a discipline for yourself. If others want to participate in that, awesome, but the goal should be developing to skill of creatively communicating what truths the Lord has revealed. That is, as you know, the task of a theologian.”

This is what I want to be the heart behind my writing. I want it to be an act of discipleship and obedience to my covenant Lord; another area in which to grow in humility and grace; a means by which I can continue to grow in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and share it with others according to the gifts and abilities God has given me; another area of my life in which I can strive to glorify God and enjoy him even now in this life.

This is my hope and my prayer.