Down the mountain – The Ten Commandments as Narrative (sort of)

I once heard it suggested that the Beatitudes could be interpreted so that each statement corresponds to a stage of one’s spiritual growth; that we begin as poor in spirit and meek, grow to be merciful and pure in heart, and eventually become peacemakers willing to suffer for righteousness sake. I’m not sure if this was what Jesus had in mind when he taught the Beatitudes, but it is an interesting interpretation.

As a thought experiment, I wonder if something similar could be done with the 10 commandments. I grew up finding these strictures rather dry, despite their obvious moral value. I prefer subtle narratives and symbolism to plain rules, so this is my effort to grapple with iconic scripture.
(And I’ll assume the reader can either remember the 10 in Exodus, or look them up.)

mont sinuses

At the beginning there is God, before he issues any imperative, saying who he is and what he’s done. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt…” His actions are put first because he is the first actor, as in the creation account of Genesis. Then he commands that we (who are only now in the picture) are not to have any other gods before him.

Next we have humans that don’t just exist but can make stuff and talk; two commandments concerning our ability to create (don’t make idols) and to speak (don’t misuse my name). Again comparing with creation, Man’s work and speech (including naming the animals) follow God’s work and speech (including naming the light, the land, etc.)

Not only can we make stuff and talk, but we can also not do those things. Here we get the command on Sabbath. And so works, speech, and rest are all to revolve around God.

In four commandments we have a Genesis-steeped crash course in what humans are like, which itself is founded upon what God is like. Now we just have to learn how to get along with each other.

It is often remarked how the first of the six people-oriented commandments concerns how we relate to our parents, which is quite fitting since how God relates to his people is likened to how a parent relates to their children. It is also true that our parents are the first people we form relationships with, which may also be a good reason to put this commandment first of the six.

Our next relationships are usually siblings, who are our first rivals, first opponents, and first people we have to be told to stop fighting. Equating “Thou shall not murder” to sibling relationships is a bit of a stretch, but then again the first murder in the Bible was between brothers.

Later in life romance and marriage become priorities and there’s another kind of relationship to figure out (and a corresponding command). Then we continue to grow into active members of our community, at which time one’s property and repute may increase in priority (making theft and gossip all the more damaging.)

The last commandment is a longer list of things you aren’t supposed to covet. The positive flip side of this portrait is a person who lives a grateful and contented life, happy with their house, their family, their animals, and all the rest – someone who has learned how to relate to others in his world.

We start by knowing God and knowing how to relate to God, then carry that knowledge forth into expanding spheres of community around us. There is both a logical and chronological sequence to the 10 commandments that has us start with the peak of God’s identity, and then works its way down the mountain into all other areas of life. Of course, most of us will spend our entire lives regularly revisiting how we spend our sabbath, treat our parents, and take care of our donkeys. All the same, it might be useful sometimes to use the 10 commandments as a kind of checklist to make sure we’re letting God’s identity sink into our own.

10 romcoms

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Pygmalion – An Overly Ambitious Incomplete Poem That I Am Sharing Despite My Better Judgement

This poem is incomplete. I’ve been tossing this idea around for 3 months now and been itching to make a blog post about it for 2 months. The idea behind this poem is one that greatly excites me, but clearly this will be one of those projects that takes far more time to settle.

So I’ll present this ‘pre-alpha’ draft, and then I’ll make some comments on what this poem has to do with Hebrew poetry, Greek myth, Christian anthropology, and Anime Waifus!

Dallying dust cloud,   adrift in wind,
Faring formlessly,   flutters; scatters.
Ill-conceived image   of lifeless ivory,
Formerly feminine,   floats now hopeless.
Her face was fair,   bright and unfeeling;
Her lips so lush    got lifeless kisses;
Her cheeks cheerfully   chiseled, unblushing;
Odes were rehearsed    to unhearing ears.

Her figured fulfilled    a private fancy:
Pygmalion molded    this maiden of grey.
With heart hard as rock,    he hated those girls
That charged him “Change!    Share! Show charity!”

Swift currents swept    his sweet words away,
Uttered to earthen    ears, and his gifts
Of flowers grew pale,    pedals faded,
Rings to rust yielded – misspent relics.
Formerly famed,    he floats now hopeless,
His face grown pale,    complexion faded.
He lingers alone,    lifeless in mind,
A dallying dust cloud,    adrift in wind.

While I generally prefer poems that are uplifting, this is a monitory tragedy. The subject is Pygmalion, which is a Greek myth about an uncultured Cockney girl who gets adopted by a linguistics professor…
My mistake, that’s the other one. Pygmalion is a craftsman who, displeased by the character of women around him, makes a statue of a woman to be the object of his affections. He falls in love with the statue, giving her all manner of gifts, and finally offers prayers and sacrifices to Venus that she might become real. Venus grants his request and Piggy and the Statch live happily ever after.

Pygmalion priant Vénus d'animer sa statue, Jean-Baptiste Regnault

By Jean-Baptiste Regnault, wikipedia

So, admitting my religious angle, this story makes me super uncomfortable. Judaeo-Christian tradition holds that God created humanity in his ‘image’ (a word carrying contested implications, but the statue analogy is relevant) and forbids devotion to derivative works made by human hands (aka ‘idols’), the logic being that Images of God (Humans) already exist and therefore we don’t need idols. Blah, blah, theology. Agree or disagree, this is what I’m thinking when I read the Pygmalion story.

(Coincidentally, earlier today I read Psalm 135 which says of idols, “They have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear… Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them!” Cf. Psalm 115)

idol

When the ideological arithmetic is all done, reworking Piggy and the Statch as a didactic tragedy is obvious. Where I really wanted to be clever was in execution. I had been reading a lot about biblical Hebrew poetry so it occurred to me that this would be a great time to try baby’s first chiams.

Chiasms are basically structures where a series of images, ideas, or words are reflected and ordered symmetrically out from the center. 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1; for example. Maybe butterfly wings are a good analogy, or you can google it. I wanted to go for something more modest. Show the ruined statue, tell the story, show the ruined man. The ruined statue matches the ruined man.

And of course I had to try writing it in anglo-saxon alliterative style because it’s. just. fun. Generally, the second of the two versets in the line only needs to throw in that third alliterating lift to complete the line. I’m enjoying trying to sneak rhyming vowel sounds into the second verset just for fun, but it occasionally makes for some contrived wordings.

As a current popular application, we might take a second to think carefully about the way we treat fictional characters. Including but not limited to Anime waifus.

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Sorry, Currently Relevant Waifu!

This all, then, is the experiment. I’m not quite sure if I’m going to keep Pygmalion’s motive for rejecting real women as being that they would try to change him. I kinda like that the fear of one kind of transformation pushes him towards another, but maybe that’s making this project all too ambitious. I should also say that I’m sure there are more charitable readings of Pygmalion and that my experiment is admittedly born of gut-felt cynicism, but I still enjoy playing with these ideas if only as an exercise in trying to bring themes out of a story.

The Language of the Humble

Nelson Mandela is often quoted on the internet as having said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I don’t know if he actually said that but it’s a good quote. However, there may be exceptions.

At the beginning of the year I drafted a regimen by which I would read through the book of Psalms – 7 every week (one every day would inevitably fall apart and I’m a week behind as it is). But just reading through one translation is boring so I decided to make it more interesting. People often recommend reading two translations side by side to get the bigger picture of the translated text. If you can, you can expand on this by reading in two different languages. I got my hands on an Italian bible over Christmas, so off I went.

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This exercise has lead to all sorts of fun discoveries, many of a sort that I anticipated, but others that were rather surprising.

When you hear the same words over and over again from birth, they can become stuck. You stop thinking about what they mean and they become just noise. In the best of cases, I find repeated texts always have something new to offer as I encounter them in different situations. Like a gem that rotates and refracts light in different ways, or a tree that always yields fruit. In the worst cases, the words get stuck and need a jump start.

When I read Psalm 10, I skimmed the words “O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted,” without really paying attention. I think I see the words “O, Lord” and think, Okay, whatever follows is going to be abstract theology language that doesn’t reflect how real people talk or think or feel. Then I compared the Italian, which says ‘the desires of the humble (umili).’

I was comparing afflicted and humble and suddenly the words became faces. Whenever I go through the downtown there are people asking for change. I don’t carry cash and have nothing to offer, so I apologize and move on if I don’t cross to the other side of the street. I often ignore the humble and afflicted, and that’s just when they ask for spare change. Who knows what their desires are for their relationships, housing situations, etc. Apparently God does.

And heck, if he can hear their desires, surely he can hear mine!

I hear this kind of language every day and it doesn’t go to my heart. It gets stuck and it needs some percussive maintenance to get it moving again. I’m sure that God both hears us and speaks to us in our own language, but sometimes it’s worth switching that language up so that we know we’re paying attention.

Alliterative 23rd Psalm

We tend to think narrowly about poetry. Open most anthologies of English poetry and you’ll find a ubiquitous feature – it rhymes. Specifically, it rhymes at the end of each line and in consecutive or alternating patterns (ie. AABB or ABAB.) You could also rhyme within the line, or rhyme the end of the line with the beginning of the next line, both of which I’ve seen done. But those don’t make it into the anthologies.

That is far from the only way to do poetry. You may have heard the simplified accounts of far-Eastern poetry being about syllable counts (eg. Haikus) and Hebrew poetry being about “rhyming ideas/images.” And you can do even more. Classical Greek and Latin poets seem to love their meter.

And, long ago, poets of old Germanic tongues mastered alliteration! I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with alliterative poetry, reading the Alliterative Morte Arthure and some of Tolkien’s modernizations of Middle English poetry. I’ve been trying to teach myself to write in this ancient English form and I figured I’d share one of my earliest attempts (I hope one of the first of many).

I’ll add a couple comments at the end, but first just one quick note. When reading conventional rhyming poetry, you anticipate the rhyme at the end of the line. So how does alliterative poetry work? What do we expect? What gives it its form? It’s quite simple.

You got two half-lines we call hemistichs (like Hemisphere and Stick). The first hemistich has two alliterating stressed syllables. They can be at the beginning, middle, or end of a word but they gotta be stressed. The second hemistich (separated by a little space called a caesura) gives you one more alliterating syllable to round it off. Once you know what to look for, it gives each line a nice sense of resolution. Like with rhyming poetry, the poet can then subvert those expectations for varying effects. So here’s what that looks like in action.

The Wool-Ward – by Aaron Wilkinson

He who all holds   in His hand is my herdsman.
I grasp not for gold,   my gullet to bloat with,
My needs are nothing,   I am never without.
I’ll want for no wealth,   never wish for more.

By freely flowing   waters refreshing,
And bath-worthy brooks,   bending rivers,
Clear courses bright,   falling through fields,
There I am found,   reclined by the banks.

I graze on green grasses,   enough on the ground,
In the Wool-Ward’s shade   through warmth of noon.
When my throat hisses   for thirst and hunger,
He finds where to feed   refreshing me fully.

When days grow dark   as though dawn was never
And hot sun is hid   by high mount peaks,
Down in the dark dale,   death’s dismal den,
I follow and fare well   knowing no fright.

My courage’s cause   is only your closeness.
I am rallied and righted   by your crook and rood.
In faces of foes   you fill up my table.
The froth of the mead   falls from my mug.

Fate has me followed   by favour and faith
All this loaned life   in the length of days.
The hall of the Holy   I will call home
And sit with the saints   in the seats of that hall.

A few end notes. Many will recognize this as the 23rd Psalm. Most of my experiments in alliterative poetry have been with biblical poems so far. It presents a series of interesting challenges and opportunities. What I’m trying to do is take a Hebrew text replete with Hebrew images and ideas and then describe it with language and images from the medieval English tradition. I’m not yet sure if the result is a funky fusion or a disharmonious mess.

In either case, what I think a new (or rather ‘forgotten’) genre of poetry allows us to do is innovate. Some of those innovations will be victories, others disasters.

A major occasion for such innovations is within the restrictions of the genre. You can’t just state something directly if the words don’t alliterate. I can’t use words like “Shepherd” or “Lord” if it doesn’t fit the context. So I have to invent new ways of describing things, sometimes speaking around or circumlocuting the subject of the line. This can give us all sorts of fun results like “Wool-Ward,” which is my favourite part of this little experiment.

And as a side note for those already in love with medieval English poetry, I do want to admit that I directly imported some language just for fun. Rood (a word related to “rod”) recalls The Dream of the Rood, the mead hall is a common setting especially in Beowulf, etc.

Kay, now go write your own. If you wanna get a better feel for this love-lorn genre, read Tolkien’s modernization of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The Shadow of the Valley of Text

I’ve been reading about Hebrew poetry lately and I’ve realized that I may have been reading Psalm 23 all wrong.

Over-familiarity is our worst friend when we’re trying to develop a deep understanding of a text. I’ve heard the words “The Lord is my shepherd” and everything that comes after so many times that I’ve come to take it for granted. It becomes an absent-minded recitation. While I think all of us who grew up in the church have a grasp for the basic ethos of the poem, I’m discovering that Hebrew poetry demands that the reader slow down to really unpack the parallel images and words that characterize it.

I’ll assume you’ve read or heard or sung this poem before. Shepherd, Green Pastures, Quiet Waters. This part makes me feel nice. Although the line “I shall not want” feels more like a wish than an assertion. When I see my friends getting promoted or engaged, I definitely do want. I could say a lot about how profoundly rebellious this statement is against an ambitious and consumeristic culture, but that’s not my main point.

The tranquil tapestry of this mellow meadow ends with this.

“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

And then…

20180805_165603

New paragraph

A gap in the formatting of the text! Now we’re going to talk about a new idea. If this were a film, we might put a scene transition here. The tone is still optimistic but we’re no longer in that prior pastoral paradise.

But were we ever?

The way that the text is usually formatted suggests a shift that I’m not sure is meant to be there. Verse 3 and Verse 4 both use language of journeying. Being lead down the path and walking through the valley. Verses 1 and 2 show us images of stillness. Verses 3 and 4 get us moving. Unless the editors of the text are using the gap between the verses to symbolize a valley between hills, I think this break can be misleading.

Picture this: our scene opens on a young lamb, grazing on grass and sipping from a stream. We then see the lamb approached by a strong but gentle shepherd who signals to the lamb with his staff that it’s time to get moving. The lamb hops up and begins following the shepherd. As they go, they walk. They don’t run. They don’t hide. They walk.

Zoom out and we see that the two are, in fact, in a dark valley. Clouds thunder overhead and predators growl in the distance. Abandoned arrows, slash marks from swords, and spots of blood speak of some battle that was fought here recently. Warriors may still be crouching around the next bend. And there they walk, the sheep and the shepherd. Stopping for a break and a snack every now and then.

The green fields with quiet waters and the valley of the shadow of death aren’t two places. They are one. And Verses 5 and 6 will confirm this for us. How does the poem begin? Fields to graze in, water to drink, rest for the soul. Food, drink, rest. How does it end? A table in front of my enemies, an overflowing cup, goodness and mercy following me all the days of my life. Food, drink, rest – not in some idyllic ethereal otherworld, but in the very presence of enemies and threats. There are always the enemies, the shadow of death, but also the shepherd offers provision and comfort.

What’s more, we’ve zoomed out even further. We began in the sheep’s little world: the grass, the water, the shepherd. We zoomed out to see what the shepherd is protecting the sheep from: the valley. Now we are in “The house of the Lord, forever.” We end in the eternal transcendent House (surely this encompasses all creation) and the enemies and valleys are left sandwiched – surrounded – between the immediate local provision of the shepherd and the eternal promises of the future.

I’m sure there are layers of this poem that I’m still missing. The Israelites were masters of poetry so I’m sure that there are layers that shine out much better in the original language. But this poem is dense even in English. It’s packed. The images are tied together brilliantly and even the subtle implications of a verb like “walk” are carefully selected to tell us something about the beautiful relationship that God has to his creation, and the relationship between his providence and our challenges.

I think we miss this when we treat the Psalms first as theology and as poetry second. When we slow down and read them as poetry, their theology becomes much more profound.

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Baaaa!

Biblical Contradictions – They Exist and I Love Them

(This is a line of thought I’m still journeying through. You may find something helpful or not. It’s cool either way.)

In highschool, a lot of my atheist classmates would talk about contradictions in the Bible. I didn’t really pay much attention. I figured they were probably wrong. My pastors and youth leaders never mentioned these supposed contradictions so I figured it wasn’t worth worrying about.

When I got into the habit of listening to debates, I began to hear atheists point to specific contradictions. In response, the Christian apologists would calmly explain them away.

“Take the sentences ‘Bob is rich’ and ‘Bob is poor’. You might assume that these are contradictions, but perhaps they refer to Bob at different times in his life. Perhaps Bob is poor in finances, but rich in terms of relationships and experiences. Perhaps there are two different people named Bob. We can’t assume and we have to know more.” This is, of course, a very good point and I found it very comforting.

But then in a university class a professor pointed my discussion group to a passage in Proverbs. We were supposed to interpret it and share our interpretation.

folly

Proverbs 26:4,5

I read the first half thinking “Ah, reasonable.” Then the second verse completely froze me. “This is Proverbs. This is the book of rules to live by. I can’t do both of these things, so what do I do?” I tried to find ways to harmonize them – maybe you’re supposed to do it sometimes but not other times – but even then, am I not sitting there trying to fix the Bible? Am I not adding something to it?

Here’s another one. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us one thing, Paul tells us another.

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities. All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” – Ecclesiastes 1:2,3
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.” – 1 Corinthians 15:58

Well, which is it? Do we get nothing but vanity for our toil under the sun, or is our labour not in vain? I could list dozens more but sadly I must be concise. Here’s another one in which Chronicles and Samuel are talking about the same story.

“Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” – 1 Chronicles 19:15
“Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”” – 2 Samuel 24:1

Chronicles: Satan did X. Samuel: God did X. Conclusion: … What?

If you’re anything like me, you’re sitting there trying to harmonize, harmonize, harmonize all of these passages. There may be nothing wrong with that. It’s a good impulse, but I fear we might miss out on something if that’s all we do. What that something is I will tell you, after one more example. Or rather, six more.

Open up to Matthew 5 and you’ll hear Jesus saying he’s not coming to abolish the law or the prophets. Then he goes on to repeat the formula “You have heard it said (quotes the Bible) but I tell you (says something different.)” So here we have a double whammy of contradictions. Six times, we have Jesus speaking in contrast to (“Contra Dicting”) other Bible passages, and he frames this by saying that he isn’t going to take an iota away from other Bible passages.

Right now, you’re either fascinated or really offended. Or both. Or you’re thinking the obvious objection that I’m going to cover in one second.

If the Bible is supposed to be a book of rules, it has clearly failed. I can’t both answer a fool according to folly and not answer a fool according to folly. If the Bible is supposed to be a philosophical panegyric, it has clearly failed. Labour can’t be both vanity and not vanity. If the Bible is supposed to be a textbook on spiritual realities, it has clearly failed. Unless God and Satan are the same person, David’s census has some weird stuff going on.

So it seems we’re left with two options. Maybe the Bible is a failure, or maybe we need to rethink its genre.

When I was in therapy, I learned a word. A word I had never learned from any western education institution; perhaps the entire western world needs therapy. “Dialectic.” Think Dialogue. It’s a conversation. Dialectic thinking simultaneously holds two propositions that seem to be in contrast. In therapy, if I’m caught in the anxiety of thinking I’m absolutely terrible or totally perfect, I’m going to have problems. If I can learn to accept that I’m both good and bad, virtuous in many ways while also having weaknesses to work through, that frees me. Now I can grow more easily.

My virtues and my vices are contradictory, but if I can hold them both as true at the same time then I am empowered to grow. The aforementioned objection that I assume you’re thinking is “But you’re defining ‘contradiction’ incorrectly. Contradictions are not simply contrasting statements, but statements with mutually exclusive meanings. You have to consider the meanings of these verses in context.” A brilliant point which highlights two important things: first that the word ‘contradiction’ needs defining (which I rarely hear happen) and tends to be wrapped up in shades of association, and second that we must ask ourselves what the Bible intends.

In the famous (and occasionally infamous) story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, the Pharisees try to back Jesus into a corner by asking him whether the woman ought to be stoned or not. Jesus redirects the question towards something more important. He seems to do this quite often, and what he does in saying “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” is highlight the Pharisee’s need for forgiveness. Jesus contextualizes our questions and frames our understanding in humility. This, I think, is the intention of the whole Bible.

The Bible does not give us all the answers, it points us to a person. It’s a conversation anchored around a person.

Do I answer the fool according to his folly or not? I don’t know, but if I follow the love ethic of Jesus then I’m sure I’ll make the right choice.

Is our labour vanity or not? I can philosophize over this, but if I’m trusting Christ then I know I won’t need to worry about it.

What is the relationship between the will of God and the will of Satan? Does God incite evil against us? A very interesting question, but one that must consider how God shows his love by participating in our suffering himself in the life and crucifixion of the Son of Mary.

People sometimes describe the Bible as “living” and this is why. A plain set of instructions is static. It’s dead. It only goes so deep and then it’s exhausted. A dialectic work keeps you wondering, keeps you asking questions. It is popularly said that Rabbis answer questions with other questions. This isn’t just deflection. We’re supposed to think deeper and, more importantly, better realize how the answers must be found with Jesus.

I recently listened to a sermon in which Bruxy of the Meeting House interviewed a Zen Buddhist. The Buddhist compared Jesus’ style of teaching with the Koan, the saying or question that’s supposed to freeze your mind and expose your unhealthy patters of thinking. While I think it’s important to recognize that Buddha and Christ have very different goals, there is some true to this. The Bible Project also has a great series that explores some the dialectic aspects of biblical wisdom literature.

In our broken world, if we desire change and growth, we don’t need a static book of precepts. We need someone who is going to freeze our attention, expose our habits, and “make foolish the wisdom of the world.” We need change, not the status quo. We need a living dynamic person to walk with as we grow in life and this is the Christ of the Bible.

This isn’t intellectual foreclosure. It does mean applying our intellect to something more important rather than squabbling over facts and figures. It means finding ourselves in a story, in relation to Christ, and making that the grounds upon which we ask ourselves, and each other, the big questions.

Take us away, Book…

it fixes you

Stupid Peace

I generally like to write blog posts that are self-contained isolated thoughts, but today what I happen to have on my mind piggybacks what I wrote about anxiety last time.

There, I mentioned that my brain “handles” differently now. I have a bit more control over where my thoughts go than I used to. I can steer them, but they don’t turn on a dime. Anxiety still strikes, but now I can do something about it.

A phrase from the Bible that has followed me around for quite a long time is “The peace that passes understanding,” (Phil 4:7). The thing is, I’ve never quite understood what that means. The “peace that passes understanding” passes my understanding. I can partially grasp the idea: because we know that we’re in God’s hands, we can have peace even if everything in our life, as we understand it, is falling apart. We have a peace that transcends what we see in our day to day life.

The problem with this concept is that we’re necessarily giving something up. We handing over our security in ourselves (or lack thereof) and in a self-effacing surrender we’re giving up our desire to be in control and in the know.

This completely irrational foreclosure of individual understanding is called “Trust” and I hate it.

On a similar note, Proverbs 3:5 tells to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” To Western ears, this is the most ridiculous and offensive idea anyone could come up with – willfully not understanding. I imagine it’s also, to those of us prone to anxiousness, extremely attractive.

So I’m still struggling to achieve functional adulthood (whatever that means) and today I was told by my dentist that I might need an unexpected procedure donet. A minor procedure for a minor problem, but a pricey one. And on the walk back I was worrying a lot. But then I took the reins of my Serotonin-replete brain and thought “What if I just choose not to worry about it?”

“Yeah, it feels incredibly stupid to not worry about it because it’s a rather harsh blow to the bank account. It’s an objectively miserable thing to have to deal with, but worrying about it doesn’t get me to a solution any faster so why I don’t I just skip the anxiousness phase and make the most of my day?”

And then I went home and took what a friend of mine calls a “depression nap.” You know, when sleeping is easier than thinking about the thing. Again, it doesn’t turn on a dime, but it can be gradually nudged in the right direction.

The peace that passes understanding is a stupid peace because we, in and of ourselves, have no reason- we see no cause for peace. We, in and of ourselves, have no control. But if there’s someone we can trust watching out for us, maybe a little bit of stupidity isn’t just quite pleasant but in fact the most rational response.

It might take a few hours, it might take a few days, but I’ll get past this emotional bump in the road and hop back on the highway to peace. The way there is rather counter-intuitive but it gets easier once you get the hang of it.

Contributing the Insignificant

We often hear the same Bible stories time and time again, intellectually understanding what’s going on but not fully appreciating it until we live an analogous experience. I just had one such experience and I figured I would share it.

Finding employment and a sense of direction in life have been challenges since I graduated university a little over a year ago. This has left me humble in my best moments and furiously, jealously, bitterly insecure in my worst moments. While a lack of sense of accomplishment is predictably discouraging, a lack of income is unanticipatedly so. The thing that discourages me about not having money is not so much my lack of ability to spend on myself. It’s my lack of ability to use my wealth for others.

A month ago I visited my family and we went out to a restaurant. At one point I took out my wallet to see if I had anything to contribute but I was assured that anything I contributed would just have to be given back to me later since my parents are supporting me. Which was true, but a sucky thing to think about. So my monetary contribution was nil. Perhaps it could be said that I contributed to the conversation.

This evening I went to a service at a church and they took an offering. As they did, I suddenly recalled many different stories and conversations I had heard about stewardship – about people contributing out of meager means in faith that God would provide for them according to their needs in good time.

And I thought of the story in Mark 12 about the poor widow who could give only two copper coins to the temple. Jesus, as you recall, commends this. And so with this in mind, I reached into the pocket of my wallet where I keep loose coins (only ever spent on tea when catching up with friends) and I gave what I had – 25 cents.

Obviously I’m drawing a parallel between myself and the poor widow Jesus commended but I’m not writing this to brag. Quite the opposite. This was my discovery: I felt then, and I feel now, an immense sense of shame and embarrassment. People around me were putting in toonies and bills and I put in a quarter. That’s what I had to spare. I’ve grown familiar with not contributing, like in the restaurant. But there’s something about making a contribution but having it be the tiniest most insignificant little bit that’s somehow more embarrassing than not contributing at all.

And now I think about the poor widow and what it must have been like for her (who was in a much worse situation than I am) to have been in that crowd. To have shown up. In the world of performing arts, you take your bow no matter how many times you screwed up or how bad a job you did. You can just hide backstage and avoid getting booed, but you don’t. You show yourself, say “This is what I contributed,” and you risk people’s judgement.

And then that one lunatic in the audience starts clapping.

I always imagined the poor widow just walking up to the collection box, casually dropping in two coins, and walking away. Now I wonder – maybe not. Maybe it took her incredible courage to go up and do something that felt meaningless and insignificant. “The courage to do something that feels insignificant.” There’s an idea to chew on.

Incidentally, the morning sermon at a different church was about Matthew 20, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard that ends with how “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” It’s either a coincidence or God has been trying to tell me something today. I suppose the lesson for today is to do the insignificant. Have the courage to do the things that seem embarrassingly meaningless because in God’s eyes they aren’t meaningless at all.

“That which you do to the least of my people…” and all that.

Theology and the English Major

Philosophy courses were a mandatory part of my university liberal arts education. Despite being a double major in English and Theatre, I had to take several courses in various other fields of study and I am very grateful for this. It opened my eyes to a lot of different disciplines that are relevant to my majors to varying degrees.

Philosophy is, of course, very important to the English major. A grounding in philosophy makes it much easier to discern and engage the worldviews of the author and characters of a story. This obviously carries over to theatre, where understanding the worldview of the characters is paramount to portraying them on stage.

One of the things I remember being told in Philosophy 101 was this – “Theology is Philosophy applied to God.” We were told this in the context of why philosophy matters. Students of my private Christian university would certainly understand the importance of theology. If philosophy is the discipline undergirding theology then of course philosophy is important.

Having had four years to think about that claim, I think I’ve come to understand that it has some limits.

When I hear philosophical arguments for the existence of God, usually they begin with the nature of the physical universe or with our ability to reason and make moral judgements. Then they explore whether these givens suggest the existence of something divine and whether a divinity is consistent with these givens. A common criticism for philosophical arguments for God is that they don’t lead us to a belief in any one particular deity or groups of deities.

I do see a lot of very interesting and engaging philosophical discourse on the nature, implications, and consistency of the Christian Trinitarian God. Recently, I keep coming into the idea that the Trinity and its plurality of persons allows for God to be loving in eternity past; love requires a subject and an object so a monadic God could not be loving in his eternal nature. Complex and fascinating ideas, but you can only discuss them once you have a doctrine of the Trinity and we didn’t get that from the philosophical arguments. So where did we get it?

This is the limitation of thinking of theology as merely philosophy applied to God: it ignores one of the major fundamental believes shared by all the major Abraham faiths – revelation. We don’t just do guesswork to figure out what God may be like. He told us what he’s like. And while revelation may take different forms, one of the most important (if not the single most important) to the Christian faith is the Bible.

We have a book with recounts to us the words and actions of God and we can explore that narrative, in its varying contexts and genres, to learn about the worldview of its author and main character – hey, wait a minute! This sounds familiar!

Theology is not just philosophy applied to God. Christian theology must be the craft of the English major applied to the Bible. Anything less ignores what God has said about himself.

Any specialist in a field faces the temptation to view their own discipline with a sense of inflated self-importance and I am no exception. I often scowl in my heart at those who pick up the Bible with no experience in, or knowledge of, how to interpret the meaning of a narrative. Many different disciplines have to come together to make Chistian theology happen; if we didn’t have people working homeless shelters and soup kitchens we could understand all the mysteries of faith and never actually live them. I only wish to defend the importance of one more discipline.

And we all need to understand that the the discipline itself is not to be an object of worship but a tool we use to understand the one who is.