Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Should Heaven be a Place We Want to Go?

I read an article this morning from Relevant Magazine entitled “Everyone Wants to go to Heaven Just Not Yet”.  The point of the article is that there seems to be an absence of longing for heaven in all but the oldest Christians among us (whose longing seems logical because their bodies are deteriorating and they have already experienced a full life).  This lack of longing for heaven is presented by the author as evidence of our attachment to this world and lack of eternal priorities.  While I think there is some truth to his argument it seems a bit misdirected.

When Longing for Heaven is a Bad Thing
While there is certainly room for more longing for God in all of our lives, sometimes a longing to go to heaven can be rooted in escapism and a fear of living life with all of its challenges and trials in the here and now.   My limited experience as a Christian has seen many examples (at times from my own life) of folks whose spirituality is exemplified by retreating from the culture and an obsessive hope of one day escaping this evil world.  Too often these folks see little value in this physical world and thus slip into a form of Christianized Gnosticism that makes people so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.

But what if our lack of longing for heaven isn’t as bad of a thing as it has been made out to be?  What if our lack of longing for heaven is because we were made for earth?  What if heaven isn’t a place that we are to escape to but rather a realm we are to pray to intersect with ours? 

Rocky Mountain National Park, Photo by Crispin Schroeder
On Earth as it is In Heaven...
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus encourages his followers to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Jesus never encouraged his disciples to long for heaven as an escape from the troubles of the world but rather to long for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.  One of my favorite chapters in the Bible is Romans 8 in which Paul talks of creation groaning under the curse of sin as it awaits the revealing of the sons of God.  Paul also talks about the Spirit groaning within us.  These pictures of groaning that Paul gives in Romans 8 are perhaps closer to the appropriate longing of Christ-followers—a groan that doesn’t seek to escape the troubles of this life but instead groans with the creation, that expresses solidarity with the hurting, a longing that prays and seeks that God’s kingdom will be manifested in the midst of this sin-scared world. 

While heaven is no doubt glorious beyond all imagining I am a big fan of earth!  I love the stuff I have experienced on planet Earth: friendships, sunsets, movies, mountains, concerts, coffee, campfires, my wife and kids, Texas barbeque and Cajun cooking, and I could go on…    The picture we get in Romans 8 is not a picture of creation marred beyond repair but rather creation being held back, unable to reach its full potential.  And what we see at the end of the Bible is that at some point heaven and earth will be in the same place (the Apostle John writes in the Book of Revelations of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth, and also of the new heavens and new earth).  Perhaps the reason we love earth is because it is the natural habitat of humans.  God created all of this for us.  God knew how stoked we would be by sunsets, food and friendship, by a place that gives us all of the natural resources to express our own creativity from playing instruments to building buildings, from painting pictures to cooking—And God created a world in which all of those buttons would be pushed on a regular basis.  While it is not bad to long for heaven, our longing should be that heaven will be manifested on earth, that the very creation will be set free from the curse of sin and death and that this marred world will be freed to be as God had originally intended when he created it in the beginning.

So, should heaven be a place we want to go or a place we want to come into our world?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Outsourcing Memory

A few months back I published a review of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  One section of the book deals with how computers and the internet have been increasingly become supplements to our memory to the point where we no longer bother to memorize facts anymore because in a moment we can find the answer via Google or Wikipedia.  For the first time I really began to realize this phenomenon personally when I went on a study retreat.  For my study retreat I intentionally chose a cabin that had no internet so I could be freed from distractions a bit.  Over the few days I was studying and planning I began to notice that it was very hard for me to remember certain things... nothing big, but stuff I would have had no trouble remembering a few years ago like the name of a movie or an actor or a band.  It is clear that I have been outsourcing my memory with the aid of computers and the internet for so long that I have now become dependent on these technologies for some of the more trivial memory functions.  What was really interesting is how frustrating it was to be cut off from the access to immediate answers via the internet.  I guess this lends support to the thesis proposed by Nicholas Carr, that the internet is truly changing the way we think and use our brains at a fundamental level.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Religion, Patriotism, Commercialism and Wal Mart

This week an organization called American Atheists caused quite a controversy when they posted a billboard that said, "You know it's a myth... this season celebrate reason."  I heard plenty of angry callers call a local radio show to voice their opinions on this issue which for the most part looked at the billboard as a bad thing (even several atheists called in and mentioned how inappropriate it was).  I don't really care to weigh in on such an issue myself because this is simply another example controversial soundbite warfare that really does nothing but stir people up on both sides of the issue.  I came across something tonight which I find much more offensive.

I was watching the classic Christmas cartoon of Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" with my Dina and the kids when a really disturbing commercial came on.  The commercial started with a woman singing O Holy Night and then changing to America the Beautiful and then back and forth through the commercial.  As the music played their were inspirational pictures of Christmas and America followed which ended with the Wal-Mart logo (I have tried to find the commercial online but unsuccessfully so far).

There's no doubt that Christmas has become overly-commercialized but when I see Christmas becoming patriotized as well I can't help but cringe.  

Monday, December 20, 2010

Waves of Memories

I hear a song in my mind
Whose melody reminds me of another
A song which inhabited a certain space
A certain geography and time
Along the backdrop of my life

These memories and associations
So languid
As waves on the water
Colliding effortlessly
As form is lost then reshaped
Making their way towards the shore

The water longs for equilibrium 
Craves rest
The waves give neither

The wave itself is not the water
But a force that acts on it from within and without
Sometimes as memories from far away
And at other times awakened
By immediacy unforeseen

Yet mostly it is both
As the past and the present mingle
In this metamorphic dance
Moved ever onward to the future’s shore

Friday, December 17, 2010

Desiring the Kingdom, a Book Review

In recent history we have heard plenty of talk on the culture wars in America between the competing philosophies of secular humanism and the Judeo-Christian ideals that once held such a prominent place in America.  This battle, played out daily in universities, churches, and in the culture has for the most part centered on putting together well-crafted arguments for beliefs while each side tries to poke holes in the logic of the other.  But for James A. H. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College, this way of going about things has failed to get at the way people are truly formed by ideas. 

In his book Desiring the Kingdom, Smith writes of how the Enlightenment bought completely into the philosophy of Descartes – “I think therefore I am”, the underlying philosophy being that humans are primarily thinking creatures.  In reaction to this idea the church gradually adopted a philosophy that we are primarily creatures of belief summed up as -  “I believe therefore I am”.  But Smith sees that these philosophies, both of which have been at war to the present day, fail to understand that we are primarily creatures of desire which he encapsulates as “I love therefore I am”.  He makes his point by use of various illustrations, one being that the early church was worshipping God and living out faith long before the New Testament was ever solidified or before doctrines and theology had been marked out and that there even Trinitarian ideas in early church hymns long before there were ever any discussions on the doctrine and theology of the Trinity.  In other words, we don’t start with thinking or belief but rather in the realm of desire which then gives rise to our beliefs and intellect.

Smith makes the case that there is a desire for the kingdom in all of us (not necessarily God’s kingdom.  He uses kingdom as the metaphor for whatever is perceived to be the good life.)  So from this angle he sees that certain aspects of our lives are moving us towards a version of the good life (kingdom) and that they are acting upon us at the point of desire and thus shaping our thinking whether or not we are even conscious of them.  To illustrate this he paints a brilliant picture of how the local mall is a type of worship experience where parishioners (shoppers) arrive and meet in a sanctuary from the world with its own religious pictures and icons (advertisements and mannequins) that prod shoppers towards its picture of the good life (kingdom).  Products are attained and an offering is made at the counter.  While this picture of the mall as a religious institution may seem silly (it is developed much better by Smith than my little summary) he makes the point that advertisers and marketers have realized something of which those waging the culture wars of ideas and beliefs have seemed ignorant which is that our lives are shaped by liturgies (whether secular as in the case of shopping at the mall or religious) that orient our desires towards a kingdom (version of the good life).  Thus we are continually being shaped in our beliefs and thinking by going through the rituals (liturgies) of shopping at the local mall, mostly without even recognizing it.  We see the promise of happiness in wall-sized advertisements of shiny happy people enjoying life and it gets at us at a gut level – our desires.  Without even being aware we begin to move in the direction of that version of the kingdom precisely because it isn’t trying to argue with us about intellectual ideas and beliefs but because it is reaching us and shaping us through our participation at a much deeper level. 

Smith points out how we are shaped and formed by liturgies:
“Liturgies, whether “sacred” or “secular”,—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world.  In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.  They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down.  Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies.  They prime us to approach the world in a certain way, to value certain things, to aim for certain goals, to pursue certain dreams, to work together on certain projects.  In short, every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us, in all sorts of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person.” (P. 25)

Thus Smith argues that students in college are formed as much or perhaps more by the routines of a university whether dorm life, frat parties, and meals in the cafeteria as they are by the actual information they receive in classes.  These routines (types of liturgies) have a profound way of shaping the way people think and believe. 

Smith makes the point that the primary mode of Christian formation in the church does not come in the dissemination of beliefs in the sermon but in the actions of worship when people actively participate in liturgy (this is a point many a pastor already suspects and maybe even dreads because there has been such a focus on the sermon as the centerpiece of church gatherings).  (note: Smith makes it clear that liturgy is not simply the stuff of more traditional churches but is every bit as present in Pentecostal and other nondenominational churches because a liturgy is simply the action of worship whether Charismatic and flamboyant or high Church.)  The Christian liturgy is engaging people in their desire for love by activity that directs their desire towards the Kingdom of God. 

In the final chapter of Desiring the Kingdom Smith turns his attention to Christian education which is admittedly part of the reason he wrote this book.  I will close this blog with a quote from this concluding chapter A Christian University is for Lovers:

“Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn’t actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market?  By reducing the genius of Christian faith to something like an intellectual framework—a “perspective” or a “worldview”—we can (perhaps unwittingly) unhook Christianity from the practices that constitute Christian discipleship.  And when that happens, we end up thinking that being a Christian doesn’t radically reconfigure our desires and our wants, our practices and our habits… To be blunt, our Christian colleges and universities generate and army of alumni who look pretty much like all the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive their SUVs, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder “from a Christian perspective”(P.218).

In conclusion, I found Desiring the Kingdom to offer fresh and insightful perspective on issues of faith and culture which have become so bogged down in the wrong kinds of debates in recent years.  The biggest weakness I found in this book was in terms of the practical ways of implementing this approach of steering desire towards God’s kingdom.  But perhaps this shows Smith’s gifting more as a philosopher than practitioner.  For my part I will definitely be wrestling with these ideas and their implications for a good while as I endeavor to connect people with the kingdom of God in my little corner of the world.

Wrestling With Genesis

A few years back I read the compelling book The Language of God  by Francis Collins who spearheaded the Human Genome Project which became the first group of scientists to map out a complete sequence of human DNA in 2003.
In The Language of God, Collins writes of his faith journey as it has happened alongside his journey as a scientist and how he has come to deal with some of the major questions that folks of faith seem to be wrestling with in recent years, the biggest question having to do with the creation narrative of Genesis 1-3.  While Collins is thoroughly convinced that there is a God (and furthermore that Jesus is God) he is also thoroughly convinced (largely by his research on DNA) that evolution is the means  God used to create this world (he refers to this concept of deistic evolution as Biologos).  Collins doesn't see science and faith as ways of thinking and believing that are at odds with one another but rather has come to see that there can be great harmony.   I stumbled across a website called Biologos.org founded by Collins that seeks to pursue a path of harmony between science and faith rather than pitting one against another.  What drew me to the site were a couple of videos I stumbled across on Youtube which I have included below.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Few of My Favorite Christmas Songs (in no particular order)

One of my favorite things about this time of the year is Christmas music.  In recent years I have made quite a hobby of collecting Christmas songs, especially more obscure ones as I endeavor to put together the most awesome Christmas music mixes.  So… I thought I might share my top current top 20 favorites.  This list contains some classic renderings, some great originals, and some quirkier carols by some folks you have likely never heard of.  Read the list and let me know any you think should be on it.

1. Christmas All Over Again – Tom Petty
What can I say about this one?  I love Tom Petty and he captures the childlike celebration of Christmas in this great little tune.  As with other Tom Petty songs, it’s brilliance lies in its simple straightforward songwriting.  This is a must have for any Christmas music mix

2. Silent Night – Kenny Burrell
I love me some Kenny Burrell!  This understated and slightly bluesy jazz guitarist is one of my favorites and what he does to Christmas songs is just tasty!  While I love most all of his Christmas tunes this one in particular captures what he does best.

3. Here Comes Santa Clause – Los Strait Jackets
While this song is kind of a gimmicky instrumental mixture of music that lands somewhere between alternative rock and surf music it is quite a festive rendering of this Christmas classic that is sure to liven up any Christmas party.

4. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause – John Melloncamp
I haven’t been the biggest John Melloncamp fan, but like the Tom Petty song at the top of this list, this catches Melloncamp at his best.

5. I Pray on Christmas – Blind Boys of Alabama
While I love the original by Harry Connick Jr. these guys just kick it up a notch with a little help from one of my favorite organ players – John Medeski.  This one is gritty and soulful and makes me smile.

6. Blue Christmas/ Let it Snow – Gypsy Hombres
I stumbled across this gem of a gypsy-jazz band a couple of years ago.  Their album Django Bell has some amazing interpretations of Christmas standards done in the gypsy jazz style made famous by Django Reinhardt.  This little medly of Blue Christmas and Let it Snow is really cool (so is the whole album though).

7. Christmas Time is Here – Erin O’Donnell
While I have heard many covers of this classic from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, Erin O’Donnell has turned out my favorite version.  Her voice just works with this melody.  Beautiful!

8. My Favorite Things – Dave Brubeck
I can think of very few songs that fit Brubeck like this one with it syncopated rhythms and well crafted melodies

9. O Come All Ye Faithful – Chris Potter
This version of O Come All Ye Faithful is performed solo on sax with some beautiful improvisations around the melody.  Very creative take on this classic without being gimmicky.

10. Sleigh Ride – From Christmas Grass featuring Cody Kilby, Darrin Vincent, Joe Caverlee, Rob Ickes & Scott Vestal
Christmas bluegrass?  Yep!  You’d be surprised by how well Christmas music works in the realm of bluegrass.  This track is one of many excellent tracks in the Christmas Grass collection which really captures the dynamic of mandolins, bajo, acoustic guitar and sleigh bells.

11. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Bare Naked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan
While I would have never thought of putting these artists together on a Christmas song but this is just crazy enough that it works.

12. Feliz Navidad – Los Lonely Boys
Growing up in west Texas I got way too much of this song in my childhood.  Thankfully Texican group Los Lonely Boys have breathed fresh air into this otherwise hoaky song.  I love the Texas Blues treatment that they bring to this tune.  This is the way the song needs to be played!

13. Peace is Here – Jars of Clay
Last year Jars of Clay released truly one of the best modern Christmas Albums simply titled Christmas Songs.  Peace is Here is an original that really adds life to this genre of holiday music with an amazingly well-crafted song.

14. Jingle Bell Rock – Bobby Helms
This one is just hard to improve upon.

15. Merry Christmas Baby (3 Versions) – Otis Redding, Charles Brown and Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King
I love this song but I can’t make up my mind which version I like best so I have listed 3 versions and they all find their way into my Christmas mixes.  Buy all three and you won’t be disappointed!

16. O Come All Ye Faithful – Wynton Marsalis
Of all the songs on Wynton Marsalis’ Crescent City Christmas Card I love this simple solo piano track the most.  Nothing flashy here in this simple piece that somehow captures the hope and reverence of the Christmas story in such an understated way.

17. Sleigh Ride – Relient K
This band obviously has some fun turning out their Alternative Punk infused Christmas tunes.  Sleigh Ride is just fun!

18. O Come, O Come Emmanuel – Sixpence None the Richer
Sixpence treats this song with great care and really capture the feel of the words in this Christmas classic.

19. O Tannenbaum – Vince Guaraldi Trio
My favorite track from the Charlie Brown Christmas special.

20. The First Noel – Over the Rhine
Over the Rhine has a knack for turning out really great Christmas songs.  This song, unlike most of their holiday songs, is an instrumental which is built around a cello as it’s centerpiece in this darker and reflective Christmas tune.