Friday, September 28, 2012

The Lifted Burden

"When we become a burden to ourselves, when we don't want to keep on going, when we are afraid of the mountain lying in front of us, when guilt feelings weigh down heavily on our mind, when we feel we have been lied to and victimized by the world, then we need only one thing - we need a person whom we can fully trust without reservation, a person who understands everything, hears everything, a person who bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, forgives all things. We need a person to whom we can say: 'You are rest, you are gentle peace, you are the longing and the one who stills it' (Ruckert). We need a person under whose eyes our suffering disappears and out heart opens up in silent love, a person who gently takes our burden from us and frees us from our fits of rage and from all our fears. In so doing, this person delivers our soul from the world... Now the greatest of all miracles is that every individual has and can find this person because this person calls each of us to himself on his own initiative, offers himself, invites us. This person who is our rest, our peace, our refreshment, and our deliverance, is Jesus Christ alone. He alone is truly human. And in this true humanity he is God."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom, 235-36

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sex as Escape from the World

The times are tough now, just getting tougher 
This old world is rough, it's just getting rougher 
Cover me, come on baby, cover me 
Well I'm looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me 
Promise me baby you won't let them find us 
Hold me in your arms, let's let our love blind us 
Cover me, shut the door and cover me 
Well I'm looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me 

Outside's the rain, the driving snow 
I can hear the wild wind blowing 
Turn out the light, bolt the door 
I ain't going out there no more 

This whole world is out there just trying to score 
I've seen enough I don't want to see any more, 
Cover me, come on and cover me 
I'm looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me 
Looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me

"The only hope the singer has is to find a lover who will 'cover' him, in whose presence (and in whose body) he can hide, and lose himself, and avoid the challenges of life. Outside there is rain and driving snow. Against these forces of nature - and the social forces they represent - the sing wants only to retreat into a purely private life. I ain't going out there no more, he sings. He no longer wants to face the struggles and trials life continually deals forth. Let our love blind us, the singer implores his companion. Let us be blind to the problems of the world and lose ourselves in one another. 

But such a love, founded entirely on escape from the world, is a truncated love. In its most profound sense, perhaps, love is the opposite of escape. It is by engaging life, in all its messiness and contradictoriness and complexity and hurt and pain, that we truly come to know love. The further we move from this full engagement, the close we approach mere hedonism." (Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz, The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen, 95)

"Today, more than ever, the lesson of Marguerite Duras's novels is relevant: the way - the only way - to have an intense and fulfilling personal (sexual) relationship is not for the couple to look into each other's eyes, forgetting about the world around them, but, while holding hands, to look together outside, at a third point (the Cause for which both are fighting, in which both are engaged). (Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 85)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Theology as Pastime: Learning to Enjoy 'God-Talk'

I love theology. I could sit around for hours talking about God, the world, and what it means to be human (provided enough libation). But not everyone shares my affinity for theology. For some, theology is intimidating and serious business: a battleground for truth or a religious exam that can be passed or failed. For others, it is irrelevant and downright boring. This is unfortunate and yet understandable. Having spent my life in the church I too have grown dissatisfied with theology as many practice it. That's why I've come to approach theology as a kind of pastime: "an activity that someone does regularly for enjoyment rather than work; a hobby," (Oxford-American Dictionary). Here's why I prefer this approach:

1. There's No Pressure.  Pastimes are activities that bring us enjoyment, not performance anxiety. Theology can never be the criterion for salvation because those doing the 'theologizing' are saved by [grace through faith in] Jesus the Christ. To put it simply, Jesus, not theology, saves. No theological question or doubt can change that. St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) famously defined theology as "faith seeking understanding" and I believe this definition gives us great wisdom. Christian theology is the consequence of or supplement to faith, but not the means to 'securing' or 'proving' faith.

When St. Paul proclaimed the certainty of God's love, I'm pretty sure it covered theological exploration. There is therefore no pressure in exploring Open Theism, Womanist Theology, Liberation Theology, Universalism, etc.  Collin Morris affirms, "Jesus has given us the freedom to be both rigorously agnostic and insatiably curious. And the community which bears His name exists to promote free enquiry, not to defend some orthodoxy. No doors are closed to us. No thoughts are forbidden. We can explore any system or philosophy or idea fearlessly and judge the truth or lie in it according to the single standard that it helps us to get at the meaning of Jesus in the concrete event," (Include Me Out! Confessions of an Ecclesiastical Coward, 82).

I'm not saying that theology doesn't matter (see below). But I am saying that salvation does not depend on one's ability to theologize. And this fact could afford many Christians the comfort to fearlessly explore the questions that burn within.

2. It's an Art, Not a Science. The very word "theology" ends with an academic suffix: -ology. That suffix conveys a scientific, orderly account of the subject to which is attached. Hence, theology is often viewed as a systematic account of God just like biology is a systematic account of living organisms. When theology is approached in this manner it becomes a task for the God-scientists: the metaphysicians and philosophers of the ivory towers. Theology becomes stale, objective, and abstract; distanced from ordinary life. No wonder Jeff Tweedy sang, "Theologians don't know nothin' about my soul."

But theology is not a science, it is an art. It is not an objective investigation to discover evidence and proofs, it is a subjective adventure into the richness of life itself. It is for this reason that many are beginning to use the term theopoetics to describe theological exploration. One blogger writes, "Theopoetics is the appreciation of - no, the embodied luxuriating in - God's words and works as art. The same God wrote the Bible as spoke the world, so theopoetics extends from the exegesis of Paul's use of 'kosmos' to the dancing of taste buds at breakfast this morning." (I highly recommend reading this blogger's entire post. See 'blogger' hyperlink above.)

This means that theology (or theopoetics) is not confined to the four walls of the classroom or to the ink of scholarly papers. Theology happens in the dirt, around the dinner table, under the stars, and across the bar top. It comes in the form of songs, stories, paintings, films, parables, jokes, prayers, hugs, dancing, food, drink, and all the riches of life. It requires not only information and reason, but experience, passion, and imagination.

Like any art, theology is an expression of what it means to be human and therefore a witness to the God of Life whose image we bear. The greatest revelation of God came in the form of skin and bones, it is therefore imperative that our theological exploration look outward into the world as well as upward. As Marjorie Suchocki writes, "God's aim directs us toward the world, not necessarily toward God." When theology is seen as the "art of life" it will soon become a favored pastime. Let us remember that pastimes don't have to be done "right," they are to be done well 

3. It's More than 'About'. If I wanted to know about telephones I could go to Wikipedia or buy a book about the history of telephones. If I wanted to know you, dear reader, then I would probably need to sit down with you and share a cup of coffee (probably many). The difference is that you are living and becoming whereas a telephone is inanimate. We cannot come to know living beings through objective facts alone. Living things require the dynamism of relationship and relationship is, of course, the oldest and greatest pastime of all.

The Christian faith asserts that God is living. God is therefore not an object to know about, but a Subject to know and be known by. In the same way that I cannot replace my wife with mere knowledge about her, we cannot replace the living God with a static, mechanic set of beliefs. Is this not a dominant motif in the Gospels? Those "children of Abraham" may know their Scripture, but they cannot see the living, breathing God-in-the-flesh! The Psalmist warns that those who create such breathless idols will end up putting their trust in them instead of the God who is alive and on the move. One of my favorite Gospel passages is at the end of Mark when the women are told that the risen Jesus is on the move, "going ahead of you to Galilee." We must take seriously that Jesus is not just a historical figure to read about, but the living Savior who may, in fact, be doing more than just sitting in a chair in the sky.

Theology at its very core is a relational pastime. The late Thomas Merton once explained that theology "is the way to a vital contact with a God Who is alive, and not to the view of an abstract First Principle worked out by syllogisms from the evidence of created things." (New Seeds of Contemplation, 127) When we approach theology as a relational pastime that is to be enjoyed purely for the sake of itself, we come to see that our 'theologizing' is a means to knowing the God who is alive. Again Merton writes, "Theology ceases to be a body of abstractions and becomes a living Reality Who is God Himself." I have found that approaching theology as a pastime allows me to enjoy getting to know the Living God who is more mysterious, more beautiful, and more alive than I can even imagine.

Like any pastime, theology becomes more enjoyable the more that we do it. Perhaps this is not because we get "good" at theology, but because it is the very means by which we come to know the One in Whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).


There will no doubt remain those who wish to practice theology as an objective science (and consequently those who find theology boring and irrelevant). But as for me, I'm going to continue to practice theology as my favorite pastime: to soak up the richness of life and reflect upon what kind of crazy, beautiful Lover is behind and embedded within it; to wrestle with the complexities and injustices that keep me awake at night; and to wonder how it is that the Christ Event speaks to me and the world today. 

Furthermore, I'm not trying to say that this is the best approach to theology. But it is working well for me and I'm convinced that there are many who might also benefit from this approach. If you've found this post helpful, please comment or send me a message. Peace.


Friday, September 14, 2012

To See as We Are Seen

This is a short film made for the song "Seraph" by Sigur Ros as part of their Valtari Mystery Film Experiment. The film tells the story of a young boy who is taught to be ashamed of his body. This shame is the grounds for successive traumas as he becomes more and more confused about his body image. The boy's insecurity eventually lands him in prison where he reaches deep into his own woundedness in order to bring healing to another.

To watch the video click this link.

Sigur Ros is no stranger to nudity (see the video for their song Gobbledigook), but it is the role of nudity in this story that is particularly profound. Whether or not the writers were intentionally criticizing religious prejudice or homophobia, the film is obviously about self-image. We see that more than anything the boy wants to be seen for who he is, which is expressed most symbolically in the film (and the Bible) via nudity. The father, on the other hand, would rather turn a blind eye to things that are "hard to look at."

Personally, I find this a compelling commentary on living an embodied existence with other embodied beings. While our culture is obsessed with body image, we are not necessarily good at truly seeing one another as embodied. In fact, we are very good at not seeing others in their true embodiedness (e.g. anyone who does not fit the 'normal' body image). Even the film betrays its bias: all the skinny dippers have a trim physique. [Which reminds me: Why is Jesus always handsome? Why don't we ever see a painting of an overweight Jesus?]

At the end of the film the boy - contrary to his father's conservative opinion - opens his eyes to see [presumably] God. One cannot help but feel that the boy sees something that is more beautiful and glorious than imaginable: it is the sight of loving eyes that see him as he truly is.

One of the most moving experiences that I've ever had came when I worked as a chaplain at the Hospital at University of Pennsylvania. I had just finished visiting with a patient in the CICU (Cardiac Intensive Care Unit) who was in particularly bad shape. The man had unofficially become the most depressing case on the floor amongst the staff not only due to his physiological deterioration but also because his family lived far away and never visited. As I thanked the man for allowing me to come see him, he replied, "It's good to be seen."

"I gradually realize that I want to be seen by you, to dwell under your caring gaze, and to grow strong and gentle in your sight. Lord, let me see what you see - the love of God and the suffering of people - so that my eyes may become more and more like yours, eyes that can heal wounded hearts." [from "A Prayer to See and Be Seen," in The Road to Daybreak, Henri Nouwen]

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Religious Approach to God... [Peter Rollins]

"The religious approach to God drains life of its pleasure through offering an elusive being from beyond who one must either accept is... 

  • never fully present (thus rendering our faith practices into ultimately tedious disciplines), 
  • whom we think we can have bunt never encounter (making us feel excluded and unworthy), 
  • or who appears to us in exceptional moments (thus causing us to pursue ever more extreme religious practices that might create 'thin space' for these meetings). 
To approach God as a person we will meet in a future time, a person who is always avoiding us or whom we occasionally bump into, like some friend at a party, misses the properly theological insight that God is manifest only in our embrace and affirmation of the broken world." 

- Peter Rollins, Insurrection, 124

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Interesting History of the Word "Jehovah"

The word "Jehovah" appears in a lot of Christian hymns and worship songs. But did you know that the word itself originates from a mistaken, literal-phonetic translation of Hebrew letters? Here's the explanation...

The term tetragrammaton (from Greek τετραγράμματον, meaning "four letters")[1][2] refers to the Hebrew theonym (Hebrewיהוה‎)transliterated to the Latin letters YHWH. It is derived from a verb that means "to be",[1] and is considered in Judaism to be a proper name of the God of Israel as indicated in the Hebrew Bible.
As Jews are forbidden to say or write the Tetragrammaton in full, when reading the Torah, they use the term Adonai.[3] Christians do not have any prohibitions on vocalizing the Tetragrammaton; in most Christian translations of the Bible, "LORD" is used in place of the Tetragrammaton after the Hebrew Adonai, and is written with small capitals (or in all caps) to distinguish it from other words translated "Lord".
The original consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible was provided with vowel marks by the Masoretes to assist reading. In places where the consonants of the text to be read (the Qere) differed from the consonants of the written text (the Kethib), they wrote the Qere in the margin as a note showing what was to be read. In such a case the vowels of the Qere were written on the Kethib. For a few frequent words the marginal note was omitted: this is called Q're perpetuum.
One of these frequent cases was the tetragrammaton, which according to later Jewish practices should not be pronounced, but read as "Adonai" ("My Lord"), or, if the previous or next word already was "Adonai" or "Adoni", as "Elohim" ("God"). This combination produces יְהֹוָה and יֱהֹוִה respectively, non-words that would spell "yehovah" and "yehovih" respectively.
The origins for the composite term Jehovah, came from early English translators who transposed the vowels from Adonai to the Tetragrammaton, and read the word literally so that the Y in YHWH, was pronounced as a J in English, and the W as a V.[1] Taking the spellings at face value may have been as a result of not knowing about the Q're perpetuum, thus resulting in the term "Jehovah" and its spelling variants. The Catholic Encyclopedia [1913, Vol. VIII, p. 329] states: "Jehovah (Yahweh), the proper name of God in the Old Testament." Had they known about the Q're perpetuum, the term "Jehovah" may have never come into being.[12] Modern scholars recognize Jehovah to be "grammatically impossible" (Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol VII, p. 8).
The consensus of mainstream scholarship is that "Yehowah" (or in Latin transcription "Jehovah") is a pseudo-Hebrew form which was mistakenly created when Medieval and/or Renaissance Christian scholars misunderstood this common qere perpetuum; the usual Jewish practice at the time of the Masoretes was to pronounce it as "Adonai," as is still the Jewish custom today.[3]

Curious about Jehovah's Witnesses? See this BBC page.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Peace Between Individuals :: Peace Between Nations

"We Christians are above all addressed by the command of love to the point that we ourselves must live in peace with every person, just like Christ when he preached peace to the community, exemplified in peace with one's brother and sister, with one's neighbor, with the Samaritan. Unless we have this peace, we cannot preach peace to people.

Most who are annoyed at the world of peace among peoples, moreover, are already calling in question the love of enemies over against personal enemy. When we wish to speak about the conditions for peace, therefore, we would do well always to keep before our eyes the fact that relationships between two nations bear close analogy to relationships between two individuals. 

The conditions that are opposed to peace are in the one as in the other relationship: lust for power, pride, inordinate desire for glory and honor, arrogance, feelings of inferiority, and strife over more living space and over one's 'bread' or life.

What is sin for an individual is never virtue for an entire people or nation. What is proclaimed as the gospel to the church, the congregation, and, thereby, the individual Christian, is spoken to the world as a judgment. When a people refuses to hear this command, then Christians are called forth from that people to give witness to peace. 

Let us take care, however, that we proclaim peace from a spirit of love and not from any zeal for security or from any mere political aim."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom, 95

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Canadian National Exhibition in Photos

The Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) was all the rage in Toronto over the last three weeks. The annual event attracts millions of people each year to milk the last days of summer before school. This was my first year to attend and it certainly won't be my last! It is heaps of fun and offers attractions for all types of people: petting zoo, thrill rides, gambling games, carnival games, deep fried foods, desserts, arts and crafts, shopping, and special acts like musical artists and the exhilarating air show. Anyone who grew up going to the local country fair will find the CNE a flashback from childhood's good old days. Here are just a few photos I snapped when we visited.