The Cross Between the World and Me

betweenAfter a number of months of having it on my to-do list, I finally got around to reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Written as an extended letter to his teenage son, Samori, it is part memoir, part manifesto, and part social history, giving voice to Coates’ experience growing up Black in America—with all the ironies, tragedies, dangers, and, yes, joys that affords.

I guess I read it for some familiar reasons. Like many, I’ve read Coates’ thoughtful and provocative pieces on race, justice, and public policy at The Atlantic. My curiosity was provoked by the wide variety of conflicting reviews of it, ranging from fawning praise to cynical rejection.

I’d like to say the biggest reason I read it was to try to and better understand my friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ, my fellow Image-bearers, who live, day to day, in a different set of skin than I have. At least, as much as reading a book can help with that. If I’m honest, I think it’s important to kids like me (having grown up in schools reading about the Civil Rights era) to remain aware of the conflicted reality of race in America. And I say this as someone not typically prone to liberal, white guilt, since I’m not liberal (being raised conservative), nor white (being Arab/Palestinian and Hispanic, a first-generation, somewhat Brown man born in the States).

The experience—because it’s something of an experience reading Coates—was challenging, nonetheless, both emotionally and intellectually. As a theology student, it’s become impossible to avoid reading texts like this in theological perspective and processing them in that fashion. But I don’t think I have to stretch things too much to see the work as a deeply theological one. Indeed, despite his avowed atheism, I found much of Coates’ analysis down-right Pauline.

In what follows, I’d simply like to note some the broadly theological points of contact with and criticism of Coates work and the Christian gospel. None of what I say will be ground-breaking or likely that eye-opening. All the same, I do feel the need to process this as best I know how, so here goes.

The Body

My first impression was related to the feature of the work that almost every commentator I’ve read has touched on: the viscerality and physicality of its anthropology. Coates’ writes constantly of the experience, the value, the suffering, the reality of living in the black body. Philosophically this flows in part from Coates’ materialism, but there’s more to it than that.

With story, with carefully chosen metaphor, and torrentially applied adjectives and verbs, Coates aims to communicate the experience, the consciousness of living as a black body who can be taken, dominated, used, threatened, destroyed, and plundered at all times with seeming impunity. The hardness, the constant fear, then, of growing up on the streets of Baltimore, is not merely psychological, but physiological, welling up in your bones, your muscles, tendons, and instincts too close, too raw, too ingrained by force of history, experience, and even birth to be a strictly philosophical reality.

In attempting to understand, we instinctively reach for analogous situations, even if they don’t quite fit. The closest I’ve come is thinking about life in post-9/11 as an Arab in the States with the last name Rishmawy. I remember getting called sand-nigger, dune-coon, and Taliban on the football field where I got speared in the back for being a “Palestinian.” I remember the chilly sweat that broke out on my skin at the airport, when the guard at the metal detector told me I’d “be in a world of hurt” if the detector went off again when I walked through. As I thought about rendition stories I’d read about, it didn’t matter that I had my cross necklace and Bible in my backpack and coming home from a mission trip—the threat to my young, Arab body coursed in every nerve of my soul. It was a reality bodily and yet more than simply bodily. But again, it’s only an analogy.

In any case, throughout the whole work, every time he spoke of bodies I kept thinking through the dynamic of flesh/body (or sarx/soma) in the New Testament. At times, these terms can simply refer to the physical, biological material of the person—flesh and bones. But most biblical scholars will point out that more often than not, these terms are more of a complex of the spiritual and historical forces that are located within our lived, physical reality. In Paul, the sarx can refer the corpse as the site of the created and fallen dimensions of human experience and nature apart from Christ, while the body is often referring to embodied, human experience in the renewed sphere of the Spirit in Christ.

As I noted, Coates’ viscerality is quite materialist—his description of the spirit and the soul as the charge flowing through his nerves is formally reductionistic in that the physics of the body are all there is. But in another way, his emphasis is quite biblical, even Pauline. Christians confess in their creed, not merely the immortality of the soul (though we affirm it), but the resurrection of the body in its fully physical, material, social, and historical dimensions. To certain forms of spirituality and philosophy, Christianity’s focus on resurrection can appear crassly materialistic. But for Paul, what we do in the body, not merely in our “spirits”, matters. We were created and redeemed, body and soul, at a price–so the body is an object of moral concern and a site of moral care (1 Cor. 6:12-20).

Many of us can tend to lose sight of that, however, losing our understanding of the damning, bone-crushing, destructive, disembodying (quite literally) nature of sin, or the gloriously physical relief that the resurrection promises. Coates’ language, his emphasis, I think, has the salutary effect of reminding some of us Christians of the material dimensions of being created good as bodies in the world. As Christians, we surely believe there is more, but we must not believe there is any less.

Sin and “The Dream” as Kosmos

Coates is also a theologian of sin.  This is almost more obvious than the viscerality of his language. For Coates, to tell the story, the history, the experience of the black body is to tell the story of its plundering, its rape, enslavement, subjugation, and burial under the edifice of white society and persons who “think themselves white.” Narrating the black body means narrating the sins committed against it.

There isn’t a blind, Manicheanism in Coates’ telling, though, with pure martyrs and pure villains. I was struck throughout the whole at Coates’ self-analysis, his coming to self-consciousness and questioning of his own motives, his own narratives, his own ideas that he speaks of in response to his mother’s writing assignments. Coates operates with a heavy hermeneutic of suspicion, but one that’s aware of the pervasive nature of sin in the self–in all selves—especially his own. It’s downright Puritanical (not in the bad sense) in terms of its self-interrogation.

Connected to this theology of individual sin is his broader cosmology and theology of culture as expressed in his idea of “The Dream”, which he outlines for his son and constantly warns him against. For those acquainted with biblical cosmology, the Dream functions like “the World” or kosmos in John and Paul. The world is not simply the physical creation, but rather the cosmos including and especially human culture under the power of sin, hostile to God and his ways of peace. For the Christian, the world with its desires, pressures, systemic drives, and allure to conformity threaten to overwhelm the believer with its ways of thinking, behaving, and being. It presents us with visions of the good life (money, sex, power, success, etc) and the standard, often-times godless patterns of procuring it.

The Dream, for Coates, is that of living “white”, of acting white, sequestered away in the safe, suburban communities, built on the sweat, tears, blood, bones, and centuries of black bodies plundered for their wealth–separated from the hard streets of Baltimore where being black and a child could still get you robbed of your body. It is a dream upheld and made manifest in school systems, social practices ranging from slavery to redlining to arrest quotas to the common trope that because a young, black man won’t keep his pants up and shows the defiance to authority common to most 15-year old boys, he’s kind of asking to get shot. Indeed, when you look at it closely, it’s not just that the Dream functions as the World, in many ways it serves as an angled description of what Scripture is actually speaking to.

And so, every time Coates tells his son Samori to resist the deep-seated ways his culture will try to shape and form his affections, his assumptions, his own dreams, desires, and prejudices, I just keep hearing Paul say, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world…” (Rom. 12:1-2).

This, I think, is connected to that deep sense of sin as act and Sin as Power. That’s not how he’d put it, of course, but there is a very thick theology of universal, personal complicity, and at the same time of an external, systemic, supra-personal Power that enslaves, enlists, and overwhelms. It’s not just whites, but blacks striving to be white, who are co-opted and conformed to the Dream. Again, it’s sin as individual acts, but more than that, it is Sin as a power that works its way into corporate systems that have their own logic that, in some sense, can’t be overturned simply by the exercise of the will of one, good-hearted individual.

As a Christian, I’m tempted to have recourse to the language of the demonic. Christians have always known that despite God’s rule and Christ’s reign, there is some sense in which world is “under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), the god of this age who tends to blind and deceive the world about the truth, especially of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). Why wouldn’t he work through social and political systems to lie and wreak death in the world now, if that’s what he’s been doing since the beginning (John 8:44)?

Religion, Truth, and the Crucifixion of the Body

Naturally, following a discussion of the “plight”, a theological read of the book might lend itself to a section on “The Gospel according to Ta-Nehisi Coates.” But, to be honest, I couldn’t find one. I don’t believe that’s the point, either. Coates isn’t offering his son a grand, universal hope, a solution. He’s trying to prepare him for reality in a world without a coming universal redemption, with people and systems that don’t know they need one. To carve out a life—one with love, tenderness, integrity, and a sense of honest pride—neither enslaved, nor blind to the world as it is. As one friend put it—he’s preparing him for life in this present, evil age when that’s the only one on the horizon.

And this is where I think about Coates’ atheism and honest confession that he’s always been alienated from the comforts of religion, having never been raised with them. There’s an understandable ambivalence (though, I don’t sense a hostility) towards religious faith in the book. On the one hand, there is his early incomprehension at those taken with its comforts—their willingness to endanger their sacred, fragile, and single-shot bodies against clubs, against dogs, against death. Religion seemed to cultivate a carelessness about the body. “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body…”

What’s more, there’s the problem of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Coates has seen the quick rush to forgive in some churches and communities—calls that seem to glide quickly past the problem of Abel’s blood still wet on the pavement crying out for justice. Or the calls for non-violent suffering for black people from those watching the protests in the streets of Fergusson comfortably seated on their couches in the suburbs. Or reconciliation without any sense of restitution—or even an indictment. You can sense his realism, his history, his cosmic sense of injustice rise up much like protest atheism chronicled in Camus’s The Rebel.

How can religion of this sort not seem like a palliative?

All the same, Coates wonders if there’s something he’s missing out on. Something that he is alienated from in the faces and the souls of men and women he respects who believe differently on this score.

Wales WindowAnd this is where I think about the book I’m reading for Lent, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge. The front-cover is an image of the “Wales Window” given to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was donated as a gift from the people of Wales after the 1963 Klan bombing that rocked the church and robbed the life of the four little, black girls in their Sunday best.

The stained glass is striking. In it, we see a Christ with brown skin, arms outstretched. Rutledge notes that the position of his head hangs at the same angle as that of an ikon called “Extreme Humiliation.” According to the artist, the two arms outstretched are doing different things. The one is thrust out, stiff-arming the powers of death and injustice, while the other reaches out, offering forgiveness for the world. Under him are the words “You do this to Me”, which come from the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Here Christ identifies himself with his people, declaring that whatever is done or not done unto them, for good or ill, for woe or weal, for blessing or curse, “you do this to me.” You do this unto me.

The central mystery of the Christian gospel is the Holy God who out of the fullness of his own, perfect life stooped, became incarnate, identifying himself with the whole of humanity, and, as the Creed has it, suffered under Pontius Pilate. The Savior is the Divine Son who knew no suffering, yet assumed human flesh, a Body in midst of a dominated people to suffer on our behalf and rise again. God became a gendered, embodied Jew in the 1st Century, heir to hundreds of years of political oppression at the hands of colonizing invaders (Babylonian, Persian, Greek), mostly recently of an empire, Rome, that stood as the chief political, economic, social, and religious power the world had ever seen. He grew up under the eye of the soldiers of a people who prided themselves as superior to every other people; a people who used subject nations and cultures to prop up their own; a people who threatened anyone who crossed that system with torture and death. And eventually it was under the administration of their laws, their justice, that his body hung naked, exposed, broken, shamed on a cross, tossed on the garbage heap of history, scorned even by the elite of his own people. In the particular sense that Coates speaks of being black, or at least, not white—that is the space that the Son of God entered in his body. That is the place that his body died.

I cannot do justice to the multifaceted character of Christ’s death, not with 3,000, nor 3,000,000 words, but the thing we must say is that the death he died, he died willingly for sin. He died in order to wipe us clean from the sins we commit as well as deliver us from the Sin we are enslaved to. He died in order to atone and liberate. He died to do justice, to ensure that forgiveness is not offered on the cheap. That reconciliation does not simply walk past restitution and truth, or support a culture of impunity.

Indeed, one the most powerful accomplishments of Christ in the visceral, flesh-ripping, godlessness of the cross is the way it tells the truth and opens our eyes to the violence of sin in the world. The hideousness of the cross, Rutledge notes, the crucifixion of this man who is God, puts to flight sentimental religion and forces us to face up to the malignant, persistent ugliness of sin. It unveils reality, much as Richard Wright writes in the poem from which Coates draws his title. To look upon “the sooty details of the scene” of our Savior upon the cross is to have them “thrust themselves between the world and me.”

And I think this moment in the Gospel is important for me to sit with when reading Coates. Obviously, a concern for the body and Coates’ totalizing fear of its loss, of his ultimate powerlessness and inability to secure it or that of his son, is crying for an answer in the good news of the Resurrection. For Christians, death is not the concluding word, and in his resurrection, Jesus actively and powerfully breaks the power of Sin, the World, the Dream, by showing that despite appearances to the contrary, it does not have the final say of things. This is what gives us hope, gives courage, gives the moral steel that accounts for the paradoxical attitude of Christians towards the body: it is precious, it is good, it is inviolable, and yet it’s loss is not our absolute terror. God’s promises do hold us up.

But the resurrection only comes as good news after we’ve sat in the shadow of the cross. Jesus is the Resurrected one only as the Crucified one. Hope for reconciliation, both personal and cultural, only comes after we’ve truly reckoned with the nature of the rupture, confessed, and repented. This is one of what I take to be the glories of the Christian gospel: it forces you to see the truth about the world, about yourself, about your neighbor—both the grime and the glory—and it is precisely there where the God with a broken body meets us.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

I have no conclusion, really. With a book like Coates’ there’s always more to say. I haven’t weighed in specifically on any particular charges, critiques, details of history, or political implications to be drawn with respect to things like reparations or #BlackLivesMatter. And I’m not really sure that’s the point.

I suppose at the end of Coates’ work–beyond a better, heavier understanding of the struggles of my neighbors–I can’t help but come away with a stronger desire to plumb the depth of the Christian gospel, to grasp the power of Christ and him crucified and speak it into the darkest reaches of the human condition without maudlin or mawkish sentimentality. A hope hell-bent on truth. A reconciliation forged through justice. A God who enters our life and then invites us into his, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Predicting the Moral Weather 16 Centuries Early

crowdContinuing his defense of Christ against the charges of the pagans who attribute the fall of Rome to abandoning, the old Roman gods, in Book II chapter 20 Augustine takes a brief chapter to discuss the preferred moral ethos of the pagan critics. As I read his, obviously unsympathetic, exposition of the “kind of felicity the opponents of Christianity wish to enjoy”, as the title of the chapter goes, I couldn’t help but note the numerous parallels to be found in the reigning ethos of our contemporary, capitalist, liberal (in the classic and modern sense), democratic culture. At the heart of Augustine’s critique is how little they care about the actual moral character of their citizens. As long as they are materially okay and everyone is broadly freed to do whatever they want, then they’ll be happy.

What I’d like to simply do is quote and then comment, drawing out links to the present.

‘So long as it lasts,’ they say, ‘so long as it enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war, or, better, the security of piece, why should we worry?

I mean, right off the bat: material prosperity, military victory, and peace. What’s more American than that?

What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day, enough to keep our inferiors in their place. It is all right for the poor to serve the rich, so as to get enough to eat and to enjoy a lazy life under their patronage; while the rich make sue of the poor to ensure a crowd of hangers-on to minister to their pride;

An increasing gap between rich and poor, with varying responses to the problem, at once sounding like liberal and conservative solutions to the problem.

if the people applaud those who supply them with pleasures rather than those who offer salutary advice;

There are any number of examples here but can we stop and think for a minute about the glorification of celebrity culture for a minute? Name the last ethicist who got serious air-time or public accolades? Now, how many film, TV, and music awards shows do we have every year?

if no one imposes disagreeable duties, or forbids perverted delights;

Self-explanatory, but we are not a responsibility culture. We are a culture of personal freedom and autonomy that extends in all directions. Well, as long as nobody messes with each other’s stuff:

if kings are interested not in the morality but the docility of their subjects; if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but as controllers of material things and providers of material satisfactions, and are treated with servile fear instead of sincere respect.

Here we begin to get into those features of modern culture caught up with our differing conception of the role of government, but it’s been a long time since we’ve understood it as an instrument of moral formation for our society. Governments are increasingly seen as referees making sure nobody plays too rough.  Governmental respect is low, but as long as we fear its power.

The laws should punish offences against another’s property, not offences against a mans own personal character. No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence, against another’s proper, house, or person; but anyone should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his won, or with others, if they consent.

Again, the assumption that the character of the citizenry is a moral concern of government is gone–and there’s something inevitable about that when you’re trying to manage a pluralistic culture. Still, minimalistic, consent-based moralities are increasingly seen as the norm to which we should be aspiring.

There should be plentiful supply of public prostitutes, for the benefit of all those who prefer them, and especially for those who cannot keep private mistresses.

Don’t mess with my porn, bro.

It is a good thing to have imposing houses luxuriously furnished, where lavish banquets can be held, where people can, if they like, spend night and day in debauchery, and eat and drink till they are sick; to have the din of dancing everywhere, and theatres full of fevered shouts of degenerate pleasure and every kind of cruel and degraded indulgence.

Luxury and opulence are not an object of reproach. The idea that certain forms of financial extravagance are obscene–that there even is such a thing as financial extravagance–is for communists. Various forms of gluttony, both of the garden-variety or the more delicate tastes of the foodie class, binge-drinking, and so forth, can be noted to be on the rise.

Most interesting is the reaction of the mob against anybody who raises a protest:

Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority; he should be kicked out, and removed from the land of the living.

If this sound unfamiliar to you, then you haven’t been paying attention to the drift of most public discourse over the last few years. Obviously, the rhetoric is a bit soaring, but the fact of the matter is that dissent from the partyline on the nature of freedom, autonomy, and so forth is increasingly marginalized and given no space in academic forums and eventually the public square.

Finally, the idolatrous root is arrived at.

We should reckon the true gods to be those who see that the people get this happiness and then preserve it for them. Then let them be worshipped as they wish, let them demand what shows they like, so that they can enjoy them with their devotees, or, at least, receive them from their worshippers. All the gods have to do is ensure that there is no threat to this happiness from enemies, or plagues, or any other disasters.’

Whether it’s the hands-off god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that only wants us to be happy or just your more average cultural deification of created goods, we trust the “gods” who promise to give us these basic ultimate values. We will serve whatever god serves us best.

Obviously, this is all a bit dark and pessimistic. It’s an evaluation that needs to be paired with Augustine’s underlying confidence and hope for history because of the work of Christ. Still, the moral insight is prescient, revealing a pattern, a tapestry that seems to be reweaving itself before our very eyes. Of course, it wasn’t the end of the Church then and, though in post-Christendom we face a somewhat different challenge, it won’t be now. Still, it’s good to recognize the pattern for what it is–its interconnections and precedents.

Soli Deo Gloria

Experts: “Wanna read faster? Read more.”

booksEvery once in a while a student of mine will ask me how I’ve gotten to read the books I do at the rate I do. While I don’t think I’m an extraordinarly fast reader, I will say that I’ve gotten faster over time. A book that would have taken me a month back when I was starting my theological studies now might take me a week or two.

Why is that?

I assure you, I haven’t taken any speed-reading classes, or begun using any specialized apps (although I am quite excited about the possibilities for Spritz). Apparently, it’s simply because I’ve been reading for a while. In other words, it’s called expertise:

In their forthcoming bookMake It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, researchers Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel (along with writer Peter Brown) liken expertise to a “brain app” that makes reading and other kinds of intellectual activity proceed more efficiently and effectively. In the minds of experts, the authors explain, “a complex set of interrelated ideas” has “fused into a meaningful whole.”

The mental “chunking” that an expert — someone deeply familiar with the subject she’s reading about — can do gives her a decided speed and comprehension advantage over someone who is new to the material, for whom every fact and idea encountered in the text is a separate piece of information yet to be absorbed and connected. People reading within their domain of expertise have lots of related vocabulary and background knowledge, both of which allow them to steam along at full speed while novices stop, start, and re-read, struggling with unfamiliar words and concepts.

Deep knowledge of what we’re reading about propels the reading process in other ways as well. As we read, we’re constantly building and updating a mental model of what’s going on in the text, elaborating what we’ve read already and anticipating what will come next. A reader who is an expert in the subject he’s reading about will make more detailed and accurate predictions of what upcoming sentences and paragraphs will contain, allowing him to read quickly while filling in his already well-drawn mental model. A novice reader, by contrast, faces surprises at every turn in the text; her construction of a mental model is much more effortful and slow, since she’s building it from the ground up.

Lastly, the expert reader is able to vary the pace of her reading: skimming parts that she knows about already, or parts that she can tell are less important, then slowing down for passages that are new or that (she can judge from experience) are especially important. The novice, on the other hand, tends to read at just a single speed: if he tries to accelerate that speed, by skimming or by using an app like Spritz, it’s likely his comprehension will slide. What’s worse, he probably won’t even realize it: lacking deep familiarity with the subject, he won’t know what he doesn’t know, and may confuse main ideas with supporting details or miss important points altogether.

You can read more about it here.

I’ll say, as I read this description for myself, I can recognize the claims Roediger and McDaniels are claiming in my own reading habits. This chunking and deep knowledge is what allows you to read the 10th book on a given subject, even if it’s much harder than the first you read, at a much quicker speed. So, for me, when reading about the atonement, I already know what’s going on in the debates about propitiation and ‘expiation’, in which case I can anticipate a number of the points being made. And yet, in a book on the finer points of ecclesiastical polity, I probably have to go slower since I’ve spent far less time parsing those issues. In other words, if I’m not constantly going to the dictionary to look up words, or re-read my highlights, I can go quicker.

All that to say, if you want to get faster at reading on a given subject at a higher comprehension rate, the best thing you can do is just keep reading about it. Go figure.

Maybe start with the Bible.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christian Guy, Stop Trying to Date Yourself

So there have been a couple of good articles on dating out recently, one of which was my buddy Brad Williams’ over at Christ and Pop Culture. He knows what it is to be a weird Christian guy who doesn’t have commitment issues, but courage issues, so out of pity, he offered up a few tips and a little hope to guys convinced they’ll always be alone. It was hilarious, wise, and pretty popular. Go read it right now, if you want.

Now, in the comments on Facebook, another friend (who shall remain nameless) playfully joked something along the lines of “But where am I going to find a girl who is into: a, b, c, d, e, and f quirky particular interests that I have.” To which I responded, “The point isn’t to date yourself, ______.” Again, we were joking, but it got me thinking, “How many guys do I know that are single because they’re so busy trying to date themselves, they won’t date the girls around them?”

(Before I go on to describe what I’m talking about, hear me loud and clear on this: I am not saying that if you’re a single Christian male, you must be doing this. If you comment and complain that your situation is different, and that’s not the people you know, and so forth, I’ll nod my head in agreement and say, “Good, I’m glad. I wasn’t talking to you.”)

You with a wig on.

You with a wig on.

In my time as a twenty-something male, hanging out with twenty-something males, and pastoring them, I’ve noticed that a number of them are convinced they need to find a female version of themselves to date and that anything else is “settling” or won’t work. In their minds, dating is this project where you attempt to find your long-lost second self who shares all of your habits, quirks, taste in movies, and political views.

This is nonsense and should be dropped immediately.

Obviously, I get the desire to have a person who understands all of your loves and joys, the things that stir your imagination, and so forth. Marriage is, at least, a type of friendship. And friendships are based around common or shared joys and commitments. At some point, though, finding someone you can be friends with crosses over into finding someone you could confuse yourself with.

If I had to lay down a principle here, I’d say this: some overlap is good; total overlap is unnecessary and maybe weird. What you need is someone who is okay with you being you on the personality stuff, and willing to encourage you to stop being a sinner when you need it.

I’ll take my own marriage as an example, mostly because it’s the one I know best at this point. Beyond Jesus Christ, McKenna and I share enough things in common to make life enjoyable. There is a certain overlap in movie tastes (although we frequently watch things by ourselves that the other doesn’t want to), and music (she doesn’t like country and will listen to certain metal with me), food tastes, etc. What’s more, I know that she would never forced me to sleep in the dirt or climb a big rock, or something similarly horrible. We also have a shared sense of humor, which is important.

That said, she is by no means a theology nerd, which is probably my greatest passion and hobby in life. I mean, she knows the faith and will let me babble on about whatever I’m reading about, but she’s not pulling the latest text in trinitarian theology off the shelf to discuss with me. I on the other hand, will listen to her talk about the things she writes on for her beauty blog, used to watch ‘Project Runway’ with her when we had normal TV, and have learned the names of some important designers, but I don’t sit there looking up previews for the Fall or Spring line-up like she will. I’m a morning person, she’s a night owl. I could watch comic-book movies for days, and she likes art house films where everybody dies and is unhappy at the end. I could go on for days here, but we are very different people in many ways.

The great thing is that we’re okay with that. McKenna is happy to let me babble at her about theology, and I’m happy to let her babble about beauty stuff at me,  but neither of us expects the other to be as interested as the other in those things. I mean, marriage changes you and so over time we’ve become more interested in each other’s hobbies. At the same time, we’ve become more comfortable acknowledging our differences and it’s been healthy.

Here’s the thing: happy, God-glorifying couples come in all shapes and sizes. Some seem like two peas in a pod. Others look outwardly like they’re worlds apart. Others are kind of a blended middle. While I’d suggest a certain amount of overlap of interests for a healthy friendship, don’t get caught in the trap of passing by a great girl simply because she won’t play video games with you, or whatever sine qua non you’ve chosen as your must-have quality. Try to find a girl who shares the main thing with you (Jesus), is okay with you being you, and then everything from there is gravy.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Since writing this, it’s become clear that this is not simply a male phenomenon. Ladies, obviously, feel free to rework the grammar and apply this to yourselves.

Justin Bieber: On the Dangers of Being Famous Too Early (CaPC)

That happened.

That happened.

Back when my wife and I used to watch American Idol with her family every week, I had a staunch policy of not supporting any contestants under the age of 18, regardless of talent or the competition.  My gut feeling was that 16 is just too young for most people to have that much attention focused on them.  If they were good, take a shot at it in another couple of years.

A few years on, a couple of years of college ministry later, my gut hasn’t changed. (Well, my inner gut. We’ll pass over my waist size in silence.) I still think being too famous too early is an unfortunate turn of events.

My evidence? Justin Bieber and Anne Frank.

You can go read the rest of the article over at Christ and Pop Culture HERE.

Jesus is Batman and Jonah is Ra’s Al Ghul (Or, How Christopher Nolan Reminded Me of the Gospel)

Jonah is Ra’s Al Ghul and Jesus is Batman. I made this realization the other night at the young adult Bible study I lead. We have some serious game and comic people among us, so occasionally little flashes of nerdly brilliance will strike in our midst. I prefer to think of it as the Holy Spirit’s little-discussed comic book habit shining through. In any case, it came to me as we were studying chapter 4 in the book of Jonah. But first, for the uninitiated, a little background on Ra’s Al Ghul.

Admit it, part of you wishes there was Batman movie with an older Bruce played by Liam Neeson.

Admit it, part of you wishes there was Batman movie with an older Bruce played by Liam Neeson.

Holy Liam NEESONS, Batman!!
The comic-book villain has had multiple incarnations over the years as one of Batman’s greatest enemies, most recently and famously played by Liam Neeson as the lead villain in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. (Late Spoiler-Alert: Liam Neeson is actually Ra’s Al Ghul, not Ken Watanabe. If this is news to you, well, I don’t apologize. You should have already seen this movie. It’s brilliant.) In this iteration, he appears as the head of the ancient and morally-ambiguous League of Shadows, a secret organization dedicated to rooting out evil and corruption in society, restoring balance and justice in the world. He gives Bruce Wayne some sweet ninja training, teaching him how to us “theatricality and deception” to fight the underworld, and lead the team to Gotham to clean it up. Great goal, right? Sure. The only hiccup is that by “cleaning it up” he means absolutely destroying it. More of a “Noah and the Flood” cleansing, than anything else.

As Al Ghul says, “Gotham’s time has come. Like Constantinople or Rome before it the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die. This is the most important function of the League of Shadows. It is one we’ve performed for centuries. Gotham… must be destroyed.”

Predictably, Bruce has a problem with this, and refuses to go along. At that point, he burns down the sweet ninja training house, setting up the great conflict in the rest of the movie.

Back to Gotham, er, I mean Nineveh
As I mentioned, this whole background struck me the other night during Bible study. We were in chapter 4 of the prophet Jonah where we find the root of Jonah’s odd behavior in the first few chapters. I guess I should recap that too:  See, the “evil” of the great Assyrian city-state of Nineveh had come up before Yahweh (Jonah 1:2), so he tells his prophet Jonah to go preach against it. Then, in the very famous part of the book, Jonah, quite foolishly, runs away instead, jumps on a boat, gets stuck in a God-sent storm, gets chucked off the boat by the sailors, and then is saved by God who has a big fish swallow him. From there Jonah kinda repents, gets spit out on dry land, goes to Nineveh and preaches the lamest sermon ever, “40 days and Nineveh will fall” (Jonah 3:4), the city freaks out, repents, and then God has mercy on them.

Now, initially you might have thought that Jonah was running away from fear. Nineveh wasn’t a nice place. As one of the main cities in the aggressive, Neo-Assyrian empire, it was dark, pagan, cruel and imperialistic. The historical evidence we have depicts a culture drunk with violence and a lust for power. With a message like, “40 days and you’re going to be wiped off the map”, you might expect some opposition there. Turns out that wasn’t the main problem. Jonah wasn’t scared of Nineveh’s reaction, but Yahweh’s:

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.

(Jonah 4:1-2)

Nineveh was a desperately wicked city and as an Israelite, whose nation lived under the constant threat of Assyrian intimidation, Jonah wanted to see it burn. He wasn’t scared of Nineveh’s evil, but rather wary of God’s gracious mercy. In fact, he gets so mad about God’s mercy towards Nineveh that he wants God to put him out of his misery. (4:3) God questions him on this, “Do you do well to be angry?” (4:4) After an odd object-lesson with a plant (4:5-10) He calls him out and says, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:11)

I would imagine Jesus in a Batman suit is far more intimidating. Actually, Jesus in a Jesus suit more than that. Still, love this pic.

I would imagine Jesus in a Batman suit is far more intimidating. Actually, Jesus in a Jesus suit more than that. Still, love this pic.

Yahweh is Batman
When I read that line I realized that Yahweh is Batman. In the movie Al Ghul saw only Gotham’s evil, but in Batman’s mind Gotham is a city worth saving. He would fight its injustice, but he refused to become an executioner.  Similarly Jonah saw only wickedness and evil needing to be destroyed, but Yahweh saw more. He certainly saw the evil, so much so that he threatened them with real judgment. Yet, he also saw people made in his Image so morally disordered (“who do not know their right hand from their left”), and far from his original intentions for human flourishing, that he had pity on them. So he threatened in order to bring about repentance; he judged in order to save.

One other Batman-related insight: Batman’s concern isn’t just for individual Gothamites, but for the flourishing of the whole city, with its economy, infrastructure, and shared civic life. In the same way, God calls Nineveh that “great city”, and commentators have pointed out that his mention of “much cattle” isn’t just a reference to animals, but the economy of the city. The repentance we read about is structural, from the king of the city, to his officials, down to the lowest peasants. God is concerned with cities and cultures, not just the people in them.

Yahweh and Grace
This was the gracious and merciful God Jonah knew and feared. As a prophet, he knew Israel’s long history of being spared despite its rebellion. In fact, the phrase “you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” comes from God’s own self-description in Exodus 34 when he spares Israel after the incident with the golden calf. Yes, he is a just a God, “who will by no means clear the guilty”,  but he is one whose fundamental stance is “steadfast love…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Exod 34:7) He doesn’t take evil lightly, but his love goes deeper than our sin. Of course, that’s what the Cross is all about.

Jonah couldn’t handle that disturbing grace. He is the OT equivalent of the elder brother in the parable of the two sons (Luke 15), angry at the Father for showing grace to the undeserving younger brother, while self-righteously refusing to see his own need for it. We’ve got the same God in both testaments. It’s not the case that God is angry and just in the OT, and nice and gracious in the NT. As we see here, He’s just as gracious in the Old. (And if you read it properly, there’s plenty of justice in the New.) In the same vein, the God of Israel isn’t merely a tribal God, but the God of the “nations” as well–both of the Jews and the Gentiles. (Rom. 3:29)

As a figure representing OT Israel, Jonah’s story stands as a rebuke to his countrymen and a warning for their NT counterpart, the church. Far too many of our churches are more like Jonah and Ra’s Al Ghul than God and Batman. Instead of looking with pity on a culture that can’t tell its right from its left, we’d rather take a seat and watch the destruction go down. (Jonah 4:5) We would do well to reconsider our stance towards the culture and towards our neighbors. Are we more like Al Ghul or Batman? Do we look out and see only evil, or signs of a fallen creation awaiting redemption? Are we eager to go to the ‘nations’ (neighbors) with God’s word, a much better Gospel-word than Jonah had? Let’s hope so.  If not, let’s be quick to repent anyways.

A Final Word
Let’s be honest, my initial impulse to write this was nerdy excitement about connecting one of my favorite books in the Bible to one of my favorite comic-book movies. Once I started writing it though, I realized there are all sorts of applications and insights to be gleaned from it. If you’re looking for it, you can see imperfect glimpses God’s truth anywhere–even a comic-book movie. Be on the lookout for it. Also, read your Bible. If you don’t know God’s “authorized” truth, you’re not as likely to recognize it elsewhere.

Soli Deo Gloria

Have a very Hipster Indy/Metal Christmas (Or, the Spiritual Value of Christmas Music)

I have to confess that historically-speaking I have deplored Christmas music. (ducks) No, really, I just haven’t been the biggest fan. I liked classic Christmas hymns (“What Child is This?” Awesome!), and the occasional Jimmy Eat World song, but otherwise, I pretty much could do without it. Then a few years ago, I noticed that Christmas came and went without much of a fuss in my life. It was kind of just lost in the shuffle of the year. Like, I knew it was important. I probably understood it at a theological/spiritual level better than I ever had (Incarnation of God, Chalcedon, virginal conception v. virgin birth, etc.). Still, the experience of the season, preparing my heart, slowing down, and dwelling on the rich truth of Christmas was not something I’d encountered once I got over the “EHRMAGERD PRESENTS!!!” hysteria of childhood. I was missing something and I knew it. I felt like I’d lost Christmas. (cue Peanuts Christmas special music)

The Decision
In order to rectify this, I decided to listen to Christmas music the next year. Specifically, I decided to listen to Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas album Songs for Christmas every morning while I did my devotionals from Thanksgiving to Christmas to see what it would do. Kind of an informal Advent practice. I picked this album specifically because:

a. Stevens is a musical genius. His melodic, quirky, indie, whimsical-yet-pathos-filled compositions are not your average Christmas fare. For example:

b. The album has 42 songs which makes it harder to get sick of quickly. (42?! How does that even work?!)

c. Did I mention that Stevens is a musical genius?

It turned out to be a spiritually significant move for me. As I intentionally created space, embraced a disciplined rhythm to reflect on the season through the classic hymns and original compositions by Stevens,  I found myself drawn into a more worshipful awareness of the miracle of Christmas. I found myself longing for Emmanuel to come, to “ransom captive Israel”, and excited about the herald of the angels, proclaiming the birth of the Savior. When Christmas finally came around, I felt ready to welcome it; the month-long, discipline had prepared me. For the first time, I began to see some of the spiritual value of Christmas music.

This year, I’d encourage you do something similar. It’s so easy for the rush, the bustle, the technological hustle of life to keep us so busy we’re unable to reflect on what we’re celebrating: the birth of the Godman, grace incarnate, the reunion of God and humanity in one person. The mystery and the wonder of Christmas isn’t something to scramble past, or merely survive, but rather is something to be entered in, treasured, and cultivated.

If you’re trying to think of where to start, I’d suggest the Stevens’ album already mentioned. Also, here are two more options:

Sufjan Stevens “Silver and Gold” Yes, I know this is another Stevens’ album. No, this is not a mistake. Stevens just followed up his 2006 anthology this year with an even longer album (58 tracks) filled with more classics and something like 18 original compositions. I broke my usual “no Christmas stuff before Thanksgiving” rule just to check it out. Apparently I’m not alone in this as Christ and Pop Culture‘s Jason Morehead writes:

Call me a Grinch, but there’s absolutely no reason for getting into the Christmas spirit when Thanksgiving hasn’t even happened yet (Sorry super mega-department stores with your early Christmas decorations). But I will make an exception when it comes to Sufjan Stevens’ new Christmas offering, Silver & Gold.”

If that’s not enough of an endorsement for you, I don’t know what else to say.

August Burns Red “Sleddin Hill; A Holiday Album” Now, I understand that many of you might like a little more testosterone around the holidays. Being a semi-metal-head myself, I know I have. In the past I’ve mostly found awesome one-song pieces of genius like Becoming the Archetype’s “O Holy Night.” This year another one of my favorite metal acts, August Burns Red, decided to save the day and put out a full album of Christmas music. So maybe this isn’t the most reverent or meditative Christmas album you’ll find this year, but with furiously festive renditions of classics like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Carol of the Bells” this album doesn’t disappoint Christmas-loving metal-heads.

The point is, whether you celebrate in a hipster key, or a metal one, or maybe just some old-fashioned melodies, be sure to include some Christmas music in your life this year–it just might save your Christmas.

Soli Deo Gloria