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For People Who Have Been There

Steve Brown quotes J’s former pastor:

My friend Lea Clower says that religion is for people who want to stay out of hell, and Christianity is for people who have been there.

-Steve Brown, Approaching God: Accepting the Invitation to Stand in the Presence of God, p. 85

Of course the good news of this, as his been said by others many times, is that this life is the closest to hell the Christian will ever face (and the closest to heaven the non-believer will ever experience).

Does the statement need defending? Maybe.

C.S. Lewis describes hell as a “ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self.” In another places, he says, “We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where every has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.” If you’ve tasted those things in your own life, you’ve tasted some of the poison that makes hell what it is. You’ve touched the edge of the flame. And it’s when you realize that that’s what it is – poison, flame – you’re just on the cusp of being ready to escape.

How do you escape? Realize that there’s already somebody there to whom you can scream for help. (See the previous post for an explanation on that one).


Survival of the Fittest

In the days when Huxley and Herbert Spencer and the Victorian agnostics were trumpeting as a final truth the famous hypothesis of Darwin, it seemed to thousands of simple people almost impossible that religion should survive. It is all the more ironic that it has not only survived them all, but it is a perfect example (perhaps the only real example) of what they called the Survival of the Fittest.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows

Darwin’s idea of the survival of the fittest, Chesterton says, has been abused. It leads to Capitalistic carnivores who devour the weak, Nietzchian Supermen who fly the swastika, and Eugenicists who decide who is worthy, or isn’t worthy, of life. The original idea, he says, is simply that of surviving. That is, does a species have the necessary equipment to survive the elements? If it does, it survives; if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.

The great irony of all this understanding and misunderstanding of Darwinianism is that the Christian church is the great survivor. It has what it takes. Even the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. It is, he says, perhaps the only real example of Survival of the Fittest. Let the Beagle take a voyage to the last day and discover what the passenger will observe:

Who are these arrayed in white,
Brighter than the noon-day sun?
Foremost of the sons of light;
Nearest the eternal throne?
These are they that bore the cross,
Nobly for their Master stood;
Sufferers in His righteous cause,
Followers of the dying God.

-Charles Wesley, Who Are These Arrayed in White?

Rise Up and Walk

…St. Dominic, even more than St. Francis, was marked by that intellectual independence, and strict standard of virtue and veracity, which Protestant cultures are wont to regard as specially Protestant. It was of him that the tale was told, and would certainly have been told more widely among us if it had been told of a Puritan, that the Pope pointed to his gorgeous Papal Palace and said, “Peter can no longer say `Silver and gold have I none'”; and the Spanish friar answered, “No, and neither can he now say, `Rise and walk.'”

-G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, p. 23

My studies this week about the smallness of Bethlehem brought this quote to my mind. Bethlehem went from being the least among the clans of Judah (Micah 5:2), to ‘by no means the least’ (Matt. 2:6) simply on account of the presence of the newborn Christ.

Don’t be deceived into thinking that Christianity, or even the local church, is a movement. It survives movements because it is not a movement. It survives fads and fashions because it is not a fad or fashion. Spurgeon says, ‘he who marries today’s fashion is tomorrow’s widow.’ He is right.

The church is a rock that grows. A vine that sprawls. It is a family that reproduces. Not a bus, but a bush. Not a fad, but a family. Not a movement, but a miracle. Don’t be deceived into thinking that it will be the size, strength, health, wealth, high culture, politics, or general influence of the church that will save the world. The church’s message is ‘Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.’ It is the healing, blessing, saving presence of Christ that makes us; nothing more, nothing less.

In Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus asking him, “are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?” (11:3). Why are you out in Galilee? Why aren’t you in Jerusalem, Jesus? Why aren’t you standing before the politicians? Why aren’t you seeking the overthrow of Rome? Perhaps you’re not the Messiah after all.

Jesus’ response is simple and plain:

‘And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me”‘ (11:4-6).

He may not have stood before Caesar, but he was the Christ. His glory may have been a cross, but that was true glory. Therefore,

Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy.

Creation as Story: A Narrative Wrench in Mechanistic Gears

The Whimsical Christian, by Dorothy Sayers, is an intriguing book to say the least. I have written about a couple of her books, The Mind of the Maker and Creed or Chaos?, in the past. My posts on The Mind of the Maker (HERE, HERE, and HERE) still rank among the most read on this blog.

Creed or Chaos? was a bit of a let down, but for good reason. The Mind of the Maker is hands-down one of the best books I have ever read. I read the book almost by sheer accident, having found it in a thrift store and knowing nothing about it other than the fact that I had come across the name of Dorothy Sayers in relation to C.S. Lewis.

The book was tough sledding. I felt as though I slogged through it. There were times when I just wanted to stop reading it, but I just never stopped. And the end result was life-changing. Sayers’ analogy of God and the creative mind of man is a game changer. I will not get into specifics at the moment, but I use things I learned from that book almost every week in one way or another.

There have been two game changers in The Whimsical Christian: the essays Toward a Christian Esthetic and Creative Mind. I will deal with both in due time, but for now I want to record one particular line of thought from Creative Mind.

In my defense of God as creator, I have often pointed out that the biblical record is that God created man and woman, along with the earliest plants and animals, along with every rock and grain of sand, in mature form. We do not know precisely what that ‘mature form’ looked like, but we know that the earliest apple tree did not spring from a seed; rather, it sprung, in maturity, wholly from the creative decree of God. If you looked at Adam, you might have said, ‘He’s probably 20 or 30 or 180 years old, who knows?’I do not have a strict opinion on the age of the universe, but I have sometimes joked that God may have just created the world the way he did to mess with our scientists. Again, that’s a joke. But Sayers actually gives winsome teeth to a similar idea – if the world is younger than it appears, it is simply a part of his craft as an artist:

It was scarcely possible to suppose any longer that God had created each species – to quote the test of Paradise Lost – ‘perfect forms, limb’d, and full grown,’ except on what seemed the extravagant assumption that, when creating the universe, he had at the same time provided it with evidence of a  purely imaginary past that had never had any actual existence. Now, the first thing to be said about this famous quarrel is that the churchmen need never have been perturbed at all about the method of creation, if they had remembered that the Book of Genesis was a book of poetical truth, and not intended as a scientific handbook of geology. They got into their difficulty, to a large extent, through having unwittingly slipped into accepting the scientist’s concept of the use of language, and supposing that a thing could not be true unless it was amenable to quantitative methods of proof. Eventually, and with many slips by the way, they contrived to clamber out of this false position; and today no reasonable theologian is at all perturbed by the idea  that created was effected by evolutionary methods. But, if the theologians had not lost touch with the nature of language; if they had not insensibly fallen into the eighteenth-century conception of the universe as a mechanism and God as the great engineer; if, instead they had chosen to think of God as a great, imaginative artist – then they might have offered a quite different kind of interpretation of the facts, with rather entertaining consequences. They might, in fact have seriously put forward the explanation I mentioned just now: that God had at some moment or other created the universe complete with all the vestiges of an imaginary past.

I have said that this seemed an extravagant assumption; so it does, if one thinks of God as a mechanician. But if one thinks of him as working in the same sort of way as a creative artist, then it no longer seems extravagant, but the most natural thing in the world. It is the way every novel in the world is written.

Every serious novelist starts with some or all of his characters ‘in perfect form and fully grown,’ complete with their pasts. Their present is conditioned by a past that exists, not fully on paper, but fully or partially in the creator’s imagination…

-Dorothy Sayers, Creative Mind, from The Whimsical Christian, pp. 106-107

The argument is simple: Every novel contains a story. Every story exists as a complete ‘creation’ within itself. Nothing outside of that creation can be said to truly exist within the story. Yet for every story there is a back story: it could be the exposition, or it could simply be things the author is presupposing in order to create the story. The bottom line is that the novel often begins with a fully mature character who appears in complete maturity. This maturity may include many warts and flaws, but those warts and flaws are purely a result of the imagination of the author and their cause may or may not be part of the narrative. They may exist purely in the mind of the author and therefore never enter into the actual ‘revelation’ or into the ‘creation’ itself.

Notice also that Sayers uses a ‘poetical’ reading of Genesis to actually argue against the scientists. When folks today attempt to postulate Genesis 1-3 as poetic, it is usually for the opposite reason. Interesting.

Sayers says that applying this type of thinking to our ideas about creation could be entertaining. Indeed.

She pins down most of our problems as ‘creationists’ to our assimilation of modern scientific categories. We, like so much secular Scientism, tend to view the creation as mechanistic. We have taken the watchmaker argument and reasoned that God actually made a watch. Instead, we should be more concerned with the fact that God has made an artistic story. We should consider the words of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, whom she quotes: “God created the world by imagination.” He imagines and speaks; and things imagined become reality. “…Even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17).

In this framework, of God as Creator in the sense of God as Artist, doctrines like predestination and divine providence are no longer abstract philosophical notions, but essential elements of his art. Of course an author predestines his characters; of course he causes circumstances to develop in a certain way in order to accomplish certain preordained ends. Of course he allows the drama of evil to enter the story, how else could there be a story? And of course he creates mature worlds with the appearance of age. That’s what artists do. He just gets to do it with real dirt, whereas we can only put ink on paper that comes from the real trees he has created.

Throw a narrative wrench into the mechanistic gears. The results could be entertaining.

On Video Games: Incarnation or Disincarnation?

Brian shares a quote and comments:

“Yet computer games remove us from reality and morality. They teach us the attractions of causing pain without recognizing responsibility or consequences.” [Living Into Focus, pp.] 102-103

I would love to discuss the validity and ramifications of this idea more.

Why not? This is my first ever post about video games. Let me know if this line of thought makes sense to anyone other than myself…

The quote above made me think about something I haven’t thought about for a while. For the life of me I cannot remember where I got the idea or why I have even thought of it before. I thought I must have written about it in the past, but my internet searches have come up empty. But I digress. The subject is ‘dis-incarnation.‘ I am sure that the idea (for me) was lifted from some source, but I can’t remember who or what, so I can’t give proper credit.

[Update: Three brief points I would like to clarify: 1) I could have, and perhaps should have, used the word ‘excarnation’ instead of ‘disincarnation.’ If the post gets a significant number of views I will probably change it. 2) Note that nowhere do I make any explicit conclusions about any sort of inherent evil or sinfulness in video games. 3) I am not even remotely thinking about anything other than video games (someone asked me if I intended board games as well: no, I don’t. I wasn’t thinking of anything other than video games in this post).]

I do, however, have this quote:

Human nature, or the condition of having a material body and participating in the change and suffering of the creation, was that from which man had to be delivered, but not that by which he would be delivered (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, p. 76).

The quote, of course, relates to some form of gnosticism. In context it is actually about Marcionism, but that’s not important for our subject. I am totally removing it from its context to relate it to another subject.

Pelikan’s point was that Marcionism got it wrong. A suffering existence in this world is not simply what we look to be delivered from, it is actually what we are delivered by. This is true on the macro scale as it is through Christ’s suffering that we are redeemed. It is also true, according to the apostle Paul, on the micro scale:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Rom. 8:16-17).

You can read my take on that specific passage HERE.

Dis-incarnation seeks to take the human existence in general, and suffering in particular, out of the equation. It seeks to spiritualize rather than embody, to mystify rather than to flesh out, to be removed rather than engaged. My question is, Do video games do this? I say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

In one sense video games are extremely engaging. They demand the attention of the whole person (mind and body). They can, at times, engage every aspect of the soul: mind, will, and affections. They often involve person-to-person interaction as well. Likewise there is a sense in which they directly involve incarnation, as we, via technology, seek to incarnate ourselves into a game. Here comes the rub.

Are we really incarnating ourselves? Is it possible to be incarnate digitally? Is it possible to have an incarnation into a (bodiless) digital body? Conundrum. I immediately object to my own line of reasoning. What about books? Aren’t books a form of incarnation? Aren’t they a form of incarnation (say embodiment if incarnation is too theologically loaded a word) into a non-physical environment of words and story? Don’t video games draw out similar passions and emotional experiences as books? I don’t know if I can answer my own objection. Let’s try.

Let me tell you a story about why I started playing the guitar: South Park was big when I was a teenager. I haven’t watched it in years. But several years ago I caught some reruns on a normal TV station (edited with bleeps!). I happened to catch the episode about Guitar Hero. (Incidentally I had been playing guitar hero). The South Park kids were obsessed with playing the game. In the midst of one of their gaming marathons, one of the dads begins to rock out on a real guitar to show them that he can actually play songs on a real guitar. They are indifferent. They continue with their game (which ends disappointingly!).

I got the message. Why would you play Guitar Hero when you could spend that time actually learning to play the guitar? I went and bought a guitar the next day and made a rash vow (nod to Chesterton) to learn to play it (and get rid of Guitar Hero). And I did. And I’m thankful. It’s not the same, and we all know it. Both Guitar Hero and an actual guitar involve skills. But one is truly incarnate (in the sense of truly embodied, though not divine); the other is dis-incarnate. One is hardwood reality; the other is pure fantasy. One is to gather around the living room and make melodies; the other is to gather around the TV and push buttons. One is tangible yet soulful; the other is neither (at least in the fullest sense).

If that is the case with guitars, how much more so with violence. Here’s the answer to my own objection above. First, if we are incarnating ourselves into video games, then we are guilty of the sin of the characters we embody. Not so with a book, because we do not ’embody’ the characters (generally speaking). No one is going to own up to this idea that we sin in our characters’ sinning. Which means that we have to deny that we are incarnating ourselves into the games. And if that is the case, then we are in the process of dis-incarnation – abandoning our fleshly existence for a digital quasi-reality. Books not only have spines, they have flesh and bones. What about games? Have they moved you to tears? Compelled you to love your neighbor? Caused you to strive to be a better flesh and bones (and soul) human being?

Those are my (very rough) musings. My thoughts need some major refining. I would also add that violent games (especially relating to war) tend to be used to fill some innate need in aggressive males. And I try to remind young guys that there are real battles to be fought in their own lives, even outside of military contexts. Spiritual warfare is a reality. Video games might even be a part of it. Thoughts?

Education as Economics

In a growing Technopoly, what do we believe education is for? The answers are discouraging, and one of them can be inferred from any television commercial urging the young to stay in school. The commercial will either imply or state explicitly that education will help the persevering student to get a good job. And that’s it. Well, not quite. There is also the idea that we educate ourselves to compete with the Japanese or the Germans in an economic struggle to be number one. Neither of these purposes is, to say the least, grand or inspiring. The story each suggests is that the United States is not a culture but merely an economy, which is the last refuge of an exhausted philosophy of education.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 174

I was not particularly fond of Postman’s solutions to the problem, but his analysis of the modern state of education is profound, especially considering that he wrote the book before the boom of the internet, laptops, tablets, iPads, and even cell phones. The more engrossed our culture becomes in the skills of technology, the more education seeks primarily to ‘equip’ students to perform technical skills. There used to be a particular type of school for that sort of thing – a technical school. We are now on the verge of all schools in some sense becoming technical schools. My own take on the new common core is that it is a leap in that direction, with everything being geared toward testing and ‘practical’ workplace applications.

Today, education is even more wrapped up with, and in, economics than it was when Postman wrote these words in the 90s. I hate the fact that I have to encourage teenagers to go to college simply for economic purposes, but that’s the sad reality. I would much rather tell them that a good liberal arts education will equip them to see the wonder of life and reality than tell them that it is simply a hoop that one must jump through to live a comfortable life.

I do not see any way of stopping this train in modern American culture. We have been headed in this direction for a long time, and the momentum is likely past the point of no return. But perhaps there is hope in the church. We can encourage our children to read simply for the sake of reading, and for the sake of good stories. We can encourage them to study creation (science), mathematics, history and the like simply for the fact that they are interesting and worthwhile, and a part of the story that God is telling, regardless of their so-called ‘practical value.’ We can continue to find roots in our tradition that will temper our need of flashy technological tools for learning. We can temper the bright light show of our culture with the deep roots and simple beauty of Christ.

Instead of flashier, we must go deeper. Instead of focusing purely on pragmatism and economics, we can encourage the goodness of education simply for the sake of knowing God and what he has created. And as we do so, perhaps, at least in the United States, we have a real opportunity to be different from the culture in a way that has not been evident for the past 100 years.

Let me put it this way: rather than seeking education as primarily a means of competing and gaining currency, we must seek it (1) as a means of reminding ourselves that we are small and (2) gaining currency for our souls.