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My Three-letter Worldview: Part 2

In Part 1, I began exploring my three-letter worldview. I discussed what Ayn Rand calls the “Axioms” . . . the indisputable, irreducible facts . . . of Existence and Identity. I discussed how I believe these concepts originated with the God of the Bible, and how they are reflected in His creation – in us – with the three letters, “I Am.”

But what do those three letters  – those “axioms” really mean?

Simply this:

Existence exists, therefore something exists. That “something” is divided into distinct, identifiable entities. But these entities are not only distinct, they are conscious.

This is the final of Rand’s three axioms: Existence, Identity, Consciousness. Again, it is an irreducible fact. “How do you know consciousness exists?” . . . I know it because without it the question of its existence cannot be asked, or even considered.

We are, therefore, distinct, identifiable entities with distinct consciousnesses operating independently of one another. Independent existences. Independent selves. You. Me. Everyone.

So what?

The existence of independent selves implies some sort of relationship between those independent selves. What, then, is a “relationship”? The word is used to mean different things – that which we call a “ball” is often said to have a relationship with that which we call the “earth,” in that they are both round. A “cat” is often said to have a relationship with a “tiger,” in that they are similar species with similar traits.

I would submit, though, that these are imagined relationships. They exist only as theoretical constructs in the minds of conscious individuals.

I would submit that a true relationship – one that exists in both the conceptual and material world – can only exist if both parties to it are conscious of it. Any two individual selves who are conscious of one another’s existince have SOME sort of “relationship.” That relationship can be characterized in many different ways: friendship, hostility, fear, apathy, love, worship. All of these are different characteristics of a relationship . . . different ways of relating.

I believe humans are specifically, and uniquely, designed for this kind of relationship . . . the kind which is conscious, deliberate and real. In Genesis, God specifically states that, “It is not good for man to be alone.” I believe what He said is true for all men and women.

Relationships, then, are the points at which two conscious, independent selves intersect. How those selves interact is by means of choices.

Choices are not unique to relationships . . . a conscious being has a choice about how he or she interacts with other, unconscious beings or objects, as well. We make choices every day – every minute. Which socks should I put on this morning? What should I eat for lunch? Should I read the news or watch TV? Usually we make these choices without a second’s thought . . . and sometimes without any at all.

I believe that, in addition to existing in relationships, humans were created to make choices as well. Genesis Chapter 2 records the very first pair of interactions between God and the first of His human creations. The first is when he commanded Adam not to eat of the tree in Eden. The second was when He brought the animals to Adam. In both cases, He placed Adam in a position where Adam had to choose.

It is the first of these choices that I’d like to focus on. It is the choice He offers here that I believe tells us more about God than perhaps any other in Scripture – not so much for the choices He gave Adam, as for the fact that He gave Adam a choice at all.

A different kind of god – one who did not create Adam for choice – would have simply created an automaton, told it what to do, and left.

Yet another different kind of god – one for whom choice was acceptable, but not of paramount importance – would have simply created Adam in the idyllic Eden and left the tree out.

This is how I know, with absolute certainty, that the God of Scripture finds value in the human ability to make our own choices.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how this leads to the concept of “rights.”

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My Three-letter Worldview: Part 1

Ayn Rand, as she often does in my opinion, puts it best . . . most succinctly.

“Existence exists.”

It is a reformulation of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” but it is somehow more complete, less problematic, more . . . satisfying.

“Existence exists.” It is one statement that brooks no counter-argument, for to even make a counter-argument presumes the statement itself. To argue with this simple statement is to concede the argument before it begins.

How do I know existence exists? The answer is, “if it doesn’t, how are you even asking that question?”

Existence, then, is not an assertion, a theory, a postulation, an argument. It is a fact.

From this indisputable fact of existence flows another – Identity. If you refuse to acknowledge that existence exists, then there is no point in . . . well . . . anything. But if you acknowledge that fact, then you have to acknowledge this: something exists. Something is allowing you to even have these thoughts . . . to even read this blog.

That “something” is identity. At this moment, you are reading something I have written. It is the first you’ve read it – the first time it has entered your mind. But it entered mine first, because I wrote it. That, in and of itself, is a demonstration that I am not you, and you are not me. We are separate individuals, rather than a great, amorphous It.

You may think this is self-obvious . . . and indeed you are right! But just being self-obvious is not enough. It has to be considered, because it is the basis for everything else.

How do I, as a believer in Christ, reconcile my worldview with that of a rabid athiest like Ayn Rand?

Easily, in fact . . . because God did it first.

In Genesis, God asserts that humanity is created in His image. Entire volumes have been written around the question, “What did He mean by that?”

Here’s what I think:

There is one time in Scripture where God is asked to identify Himself, and complies with the request. In the single instance we have of God telling us who He is, His answer is three letters. “I Am.”

I believe that is the image in which we are created. How could you possibly capture the concepts of existence and identity?? “I am” proclaims existence, while “I Am” identifies that which exists.

As I said before, Ayn Rand didn’t come up with this idea on her own . . . she merely distilled what was much, much older.

God says, “I Am” . . . and because I am created in His image, I am, too!

Existence exists. . . . I exist!

What does that mean?? . . . That’s what Part 2 is all about. Stay tuned.

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When “Real” isn’t Good Enough

It was, for me, the best part of the Presidential inauguration two short weeks ago. The speech was decent, the poetry atrocious, but the music . . . oh, the music . . .

As a violinist myself, I have for most of my life looked up to Itzak Perlmann as the unmatched master of my craft. Yo Yo Ma enjoys similar status atop the world of the cellist. I’m not as familiar with Anthony McGill or Gabriella Montero, who joined them on clarinet and piano, respectively, for a rendition of John Williams’ “Air and Simple Gifts.”

I remember discussing the piece afterward with my wife – a professional violin teacher and freelance performer. We wondered if they were using special carbon fiber instruments that are better able to hold a pitch – or if not, how they managed to play in such bitter cold.

Well, as the world now knows, they didn’t. Or rather, they did, but that wasn’t what the rest of the world heard. We heard a prerecorded version created a week before, comfortably indoors.

To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. I’ve performed in the bitter cold myself, when the wind was whipping around and trying to take the music off the stand in front of me, and when my fingers were so cold that they didn’t want to work properly. Their music, while gorgeous, wasn’t difficult at all to play – particularly for musicians who are undisputedly the best in the world at what they do.

But they faked it anyway.

Then yesterday, I watched the Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals – two teams I care very little about. Though it was a pretty exciting game, I was more interested in watching the commercials and sharing the time with my wife’s family. The one highlight, for me, was Jennifer Hudson’s national anthem. Her stirring rendition was made all the more moving given the fact that it was her first time back singing in the national spotlight since the tragedy she suffered back in October with the brutal triple-murder of her mother, brother and nephew.

Except that it wasn’t. Like Perlman, Ma and their colleagues, she had recorded the anthem in advance. It was beautiful, to be sure, but the fact that it wasn’t HER . . . or rather, that it was her voice at another place and time . . . stole something from the moment.

These instances were both accompanied by breathless exclamations of: “My goodness . . . we couldn’t have had them perform live! Can you imagine? . . . something might have gone wrong!”

“Why is this such a big deal?” you might ask. “It was their instruments! It was her voice!” And you’re right. It’s not like this is Milli Vanilli, whose 1990 Grammy Award for best new artist was revoked when it was discovered that their talent was for lip-synching, rather than actual singing.

It’s not the same thing, but it’s part of the same problem.

The Wikipedia entry for Milli Vanilli says:

[Milli Vanilli producer Frank] Farian chose to feature vocals by Charles Shaw, John Davis, Brad Howell, and twin sisters Jodie and Linda Rocco; however, he felt that those singers lacked a marketable image. Thus, Farian recruited [Fab] Morvan and [Rob] Pilatus, two younger and more photogenic model/dancers he found in a Berlin dance club, to front the act.

Farian’s mindset, and that of the folks who produced the inauguration and the national anthem, seems to be symptomatic of a larger ailment that plagues our culture in this era of technological and philosophical advancement.

I’m as geeky as the next guy when it comes to the technological conveniences of 21st century America. I have an iPhone, a Facebook account and (obviously) a blog. I use all three of them with gusto.

But the problem arises when we allow these technologies to serve as a substitute for reality . . . a surrogate for what IS.

This mentality has permeated every area of our world. Our entertainment industry has been overrun by those who insist on having one more plastic surgery . . . on losing five more pounds . . . on looking like concentration camp victims in real life, simply because “the camera adds ten pounds.”

Reality isn’t good enough.

In the world of medicine, the reality of how our bodies feel and behave is subjugated to “the labs” . . . the all-important diagnostic tests that may or may not be accurate, may or may not be reliable, may or may not yield any valuable information about what ails us.

Then these often questionable test results are used to justify pumping us full of made-up substances designed to treat made-up problems that are more often than not mere symptoms of the very real problems that plague us. These underlying problems are largely due to the choices we make in our lifestyles and our diets . . . but a pharmaceutical company can’t make money by pressuring doctors to prescribe organic vegetables or grass-fed meat. Sit-ups don’t come in pill form.

So they give us cholesterol and blood pressure meds instead.

Reality isn’t good enough.

Speaking of food, how about that breakfast you had this morning? I’m betting that for most people across the country, it went something like this:

  • Two eggs, bought from your local supermarket and produced by pen-raised hens who have lived on genetically-modified corn their entire lives, rather than the grass, grubs and other things their stomachs are actually capable of digesting.
  • Two strips of bacon, preserved and colored by nitrates and nitrites, which form nitrosamines (a carcinogen) once they get into your body.
  • A bowl of cereal comprised of what was - at one point, perhaps - fairly healthy wheat or oats, but has been processed and manipulated so much that all the good stuff has been cooked, pressed, ground, fried or leeched out of it. Then, of course, in order to make the stuff palatable, they have to add high fructose corn syrup, or at least (if you’re lucky) sugar, which has of course been similarly processed.
  • A glass of “fruit beverage” that roughly resembles grape juice, well-laced with high fructose corn syrup, of course, because our American palates have been conditioned to think that the fructose in actual fruit isn’t sweet enough.
  • If you’re the really conscientious type, you may have had an apple, which probably found its way to your table from an orchard that was covered in toxic chemicals to keep the bugs off. Because unlike those of us who actually EAT such things, insects are smart enough to realize that poisons are very specifically and efficiently designed to make things dead.
  • Perhaps you topped all this off with a pancake or two . . . which probably came from a box, doused in syrup that alleges to be “maple,” but is actually mostly high fructose corn syrup. You may have even added a dollop of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (TM).”

Because reality isn’t good enough.

Before you think that I’ve suddenly decided to go out and join my local chapter of the Sierra Club, those folks could use a healthy dose of reality too. They are, after all, the ones who have perpetuated the myth of man-made climate change (by a variety of different names) for decades now, based on climate models that even John Theon, a former NASA executive who was responsible for all weather and climate research in the agency, says are completely unreliable.

Reality, after all, isn’t good enough.

This is true even in the way we relate to each other. I think about my coworkers, for example. I spend a minimum of 40 hours a week cooped up in a small aisle of cubicles with about half a dozen other people, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t really know most of them. We talk, certainly, about the weather, about our mortgage and rent payments, about our pets and our phones, our weekends and sports teams – all the safe topics. But just watch what happens when anyone brings up something REAL . . . even something only superficially real like politics. Oh my gosh! We can’t have that! People might, well, take it personally, or get offended, or by golly, we might not agree!

Every once in a while I’ll get a glimpse of who the people I work with really ARE . . . like the time a coworker and I travelled to Japan together on business, or the time four of us went to give a presentation in Fort Hood, Texas. On such occasions, people tend to open up a bit more . . . to reveal a bit more of themselves.

And I have to tell you . . . as it turns out, I really like the folks I work with! I wish I could see more of that side of them, more often.

But I can’t, because reality isn’t good enough.

This is often true, even in our very closest relationships.

Phones, email, text messaging, instant messages and Facebook are all great tools for keeping in touch with one another . . . but too often we use them to substitute for actual relating. I enjoy reading the status updates my friends post on Facebook, but that’s not the same as going to dinner with them and sitting down for a good conversation. Unfortunately, I happen to live in an area, Washington D.C., where most folks place a lot more value on “doing” than they do on “relating” . . . and as a result people are more often than not too busy to have dinner, or coffee, or hang out for an evening or a weekend.

So we settle for checking up on each other on Facebook.

Because reality isn’t good enough.

Alas, this has even become true of our most important relationship . . . our relationship with Father.

I am reminded of an article I read early last year, by Darrin Hufford over at Free Believers. Hufford’s provocative article calls the average “relationship with God” a “spiritual porn addiction.”

Talk about reality not being good enough! As a former porn addict myself, I can attest quite vividly to the allure of the fake reality that pornography offers. Hufford goes further, though. He points out that the spiritual “high” we get from those “mountaintop experiences” at religious conferences, worship services, etc. are much the same thing. I’ve been to those conferences. I’ve had those experiences. I’ve loved every minute of them . . . they are, after all, exhilarating. The term “spirtual high” is fitting . . . it’s one of the most moving and uplifting things I’ve ever experienced.

The problem is that we idealize those experiences . . . and we condemn ourselves for the “low patches” that we feel between them. We come up with an endless stream of ideas for bottling up that feeling . . . you know, that feeling . . . the one you get when you’ve just finished a group conversation with God, and you know, beyond all doubt, that he was an active participant in the conversation?

But those experiences are not the same as the day to day work of living in the world He placed us in. Even Peter felt the allure of the “mountain top experience” of Christ’s transfiguration, and wanted to do something to permanentize it . . . to institutionalize it . . .

Hufford extends the analogy into the average church service, saying:

The majority of our Christian lives were spent watching the Christian play at church, we have grown accustomed to sitting through the show and demanding to be entertained. Every spiritual facet of the “personal relationship with God” has been caked with makeup, airbrushed, pumped with steroids, injected with botox, sprayed with perfume and stuffed with implants. In the end, we’re left with a “Glam Shot” perception of “relationship” that is about as real as a fifty dollar blow-up doll. It’s perfect for the theater, but when it comes to a real, one-on-one relationship, it’s just impossible.

There’s nothing wrong with mountain top experiences . . . nothing wrong with the incredible spiritual experiences that come with dedicating an entire day, or an entire weekend, to seeking God. The problem, as Hufford points out, is when we come to expect that those mountaintops define what a healthy relationship with God is. The problem, he very vividly says, is this:

The addiction to these spiritually accentuated concepts is almost identical to an addiction to pornography – some people can’t get aroused without it.

Why? Because reality – the reality of a God who is just as present in the depressing, or disappointing, or boring moments of life – just isn’t good enough.


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On Consistency

I am finding that the various streams of my life seem to run in some similar directions. I don’t go to church. I don’t like doctors, I don’t like public education, and I don’t like government entitlement programs (or think very highly of governments in general). I work in an industry (Strategic Communications) where most of the jobs are government ones, yet I am employed as a private consultant.

I don’t identify with either of this country’s major political parties (or any of its minor ones, for that matter). I received both my Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from very small, private schools, neither of which could truly be called “institutions” in the truest sense of the word, given that both were less than ten years old at the time.

In short, I don’t really fit. Those of you who know me or are accustomed to reading this blog will hardly be surprised by that, but it is still jarring to admit sometimes, given how much of my life I used to spend trying to do just that.

I think that all of this comes down to the fact that I value consistency far too much to be as inconsistent as is required to truly “belong” to any of these institutions. I live a fairly consistent life – and I strive to be more consistent than I am.

I think the problem with much of our world today is that people don’t value consistency nearly enough. Our most prominent government leaders certainly do not. The two major Presidential candidates’ reactions to the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of D.C. vs. Heller are very instructive in this regard. Readers of this blog may have very strong feelings about politics in general, and about the issue of gun control in particular, but the simple fact is that however you feel, you can learn a great deal about both candidates by how they reacted to this touchstone decision. John McCain’s statement praises the decision as “recogniz[ing] that gun ownership is a fundamental right — sacred, just as the right to free speech and assembly.”

McCain calls these rights – speech and assembly – sacred . . . despite the fact that he spearheaded the campaign finance reform effort that severely curtails these same two rights . . . the freedom to use one’s money to promote the speech one agrees with, and the freedom of political parties – private organizations – to use their money to convince others to “assemble” with them.

Obama, on the other hand, begins his reaction to Heller by saying, “I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms . . .” The same Obama with a history of opposition to such an individual right.

Of course, the fact that our nation’s – or any nation’s – politicians are prone to inconsistency should come as no great surprise to anyone who is paying attention.

One might expect better of our nation’s spiritual leaders. But if one did, one would be mistaken.

Take, for example, Josh Harris, the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church, and a leader in Sovereign Grace Ministries. In a post on his blog, Harris quotes my old pastor, Mark Dever, who takes issue with the assertion that the church is responsible for social justice – claiming that while individuals can and should practice social justice, the church has no business doing so, and should instead focus on evangelism.

I happen to disagree with this premise, and I personally think he is creating a false dichotomy or two – but that’s not my point in bringing it up. A commenter on Harris’ blog says it perfectly,

If we say we will only do good to those immediately around us or in the church, then we relegate the role of all social welfare to the government, which most of us do not want to do. If we get involved in “civilian affairs” then we can easily compromise our faith. Added to this, many churches say they are against para-church ministries, but they also don’t want their own churches to have ministries (as you state above). So what happens when I have someone who needs somewhere to stay?

Whatever the answer, we as the church can’t have it both ways. We can’t say neither the government, the church, nor parachurch organizations are allowed to do social justice.

The position Dever and Harris (and most ultra-conservative spiritual leaders, in fact) advocate is untenable. It is religious NIMBYism. “Someone should be doing social justice, just not MY organization.”

But the leaders of the evangelical left are no better. Take Jim Wallis, the leader of Sojourner Ministries, who commented on a recent dust-up between Barack Obama and Dr. James Dobson by accusing Dobson of engaging in “attacking discourse,” saying that such language should have no place in politics.

Again, you may agree or disagree with Wallis, but it seems that he himself does not fully agree with his own statement, having used the same sort of “attacking discourse” himself.

I was asked once, recently, what I would say to those who find certain beliefs and positions “too extreme.” What I would say is that extremism is nothing more than a product of consistency in a belief system.

There are, of course, good and bad belief systems – Osama Bin Laden has a fairly consistent one, for example – so a philosophy’s consistency cannot be used as the sole judge of its merit. But I think its inconsistency can.

No human being can live 100% consistently – it’s part of what makes us human . . . but the inconsistencies should be acknowledged as either human failures or conscious concessions to practicality, rather than core tenets of our beliefs, as they appear to be in the cases of Barack Obama, John McCain, Josh Harris and Jim Wallis.

As Ayn Rand would say, if you come upon two concepts that seem to be equally valid and are yet contradictory, you’d better check your premises.

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A Crisis of Fact

Five months.

It has been five months since I last posted anything here. Last fall, the last few times I posted, I apologized for the scarcity of posts. This time I won’t, because I’m not sorry at all. I quite simply had nothing to say.

You see, for most of the last five months I’ve been going through what I’ve referred to in conversations with my wife as a bout of “low grade depression.” What exactly that means, I’m not sure, but I had to give it a name in order to talk about it. Mostly it has manifested itself in an inability, much of the time, to access the deep places of my heart in any expressible way.

Much of this feeling I’ve been talking about relates to what God has been doing in my heart over the last few years – moving me away from convention and “normalcy,” out into the fringes of His body. Some would say I have left it all together, but that is not the case.

This is not, however, going to be another post where I talk of the disappointment and hurt I have felt at the hands of the “normal” church. This crisis has been of a related, but different nature.

In figuring out where I stand in my relationship with Christ, one thing that has come to consume my thoughts of late is the question of where I stand in relationship with Scripture.

I named this post long before I wrote it – long before, in fact, I had any idea what exactly it would say. You see, we often refer to these moments where we are questioning much of what we believe . . . much of what we have believed all our lives . . . as a “Crisis of Faith.”

My faith, though, is not something that is in crisis. This is a crisis of a different sort. It is a crisis of fact.

. . . as in, I am constantly wanting more of them. More facts, more knowledge, more information.

In this case, I want more information about this thing, this book – or collection of books, to be more accurate – that we call “The Bible.”

You see, there are some things about it that just have not made sense to me. I grew up believing something very close to the story that God planted the exact words in the heads of those who penned the original Scriptures, that they wrote them down infallibly, and that those words have been passed on to us completely untarnished.

I do not believe that anymore. My first step away from that belief came with the realization that Scripture itself may claim to be inspired, but its myriad of scribes, copyists and translators do not. Thus I came to believe that Scripture is infallible in its original form, but that minor errors have been introduced in its copying and translation.

Then I began to wonder about that word “inspired.” Scripture claims to be “inspired,” but what does that really mean? Does that truly mean that every word – even in its original form – was absolutely infallible? The word, in Greek, literally means, “God-breathed.” The meaning of that term, in turn, is somewhat of a mystery.

Then I began to study more about what has become one of my passions – one that I have written about here before, as well as on my wife’s blog – the historical context of Scripture. I began to realize that there are little things that just don’t seem to fit. One minor example is found in the story surrounding the birth of Christ. Luke relates that the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem was undertaken when Cyreneus was governor of the Roman province of Syria. Then, Luke says, after Jesus was born, King Herod – fearing for his throne – killed all children in Bethlehem below the age of two.

The only problem with this is that other contemporary historical sources reveal that Cyreneus did not become governor of Syria until after Herod’s death. Furthermore, the entire purpose of a census such as the one recorded here (and mentioned in those same historical writings) was to survey the population of a province like Judea as it transitioned from a semi-autonomous kingship to direct Roman rule . . . something that happened not only after, but because of Herod’s death. Furthermore, there is no chance that the mistake was in the other historical sources, for history has carried down to us exactly when Cyreneus was governor, as well as the names and dates of his predecessors and successors in that position.

In other words, Luke – writing roughly eighty years after the death of Christ, got some of his facts wrong.

In any other historical book, this would be no big deal . . . but discovering this about Scripture left me in somewhat of a quandry. After all, if mistakes exist in little things, why not in bigger ones? And if they exist in bigger ones, then how can we be sure that we have a true picture of what God wanted for us when He gave us the Scripture in the first place?

It makes perfect sense to me that Scripture might not mean everything we think it means. After all, my whole life I have had scriptures spouted at me to justify things like male headship, the duty of tithing, the primacy of the local church fellowship, even the biblical basis of the Republican party . . . all positions I no longer believe.

It is a big step, though, to realize that Scripture might not even necessarily mean everything it was meant to mean.

There has always, in my moving away from the various positions mentioned above, been a small kernel of doubt in my mind about certain things. After all, it says “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Taken completely separate from the surrounding historical context, and even the surrounding verses, that seems to be a pretty straight-forward command. However, it never sat well with what I know to be true of my Savior – the fact that He looks on all of His chosen equally . . . and that He promises, among other things, to be the sole mediator and spiritual authority in their lives.

Whenever I raised these issues to those who still believed as I once did, the question was always the same: “Don’t you think that God is capable of preserving in Scripture an accurate record of what He wants from us?”

This question has always presented a challenge to me. I felt trapped by it. On the one hand I could answer “yes,” and admit that my admittedly more “nuanced” reading of Scripture – together with the belief that God doesn’t necessarily have the same message for all people at all times – is wrong. On the other hand, I could say “no,” and deny the sovereignty of God to manipulate the laws of science and nature to miraculously preserve his written will.

I am willing to do neither. To do the latter would be to deny that God is who He is. To do the former would be to call Him a living contradiction.

This morning, I realized that there is a third option to this struggle I have been waging in my mind for the last several months.

You see, the question itself: “Don’t you think that God is capable of preserving in Scripture an accurate record of what He wants from us?” makes an incredibly deep-seated assumption . . . it assumes that’s what He intended for Scripture in the first place.

I have struggled for so long wondering how I can believe God incapable of miraculously preserving some sort of guideline for his people . . . I’ve never considered that the flawed, incomplete, sometimes incomprehensible story we have of God’s interaction with mankind may be exactly what He intended us to have.

After all, God’s language has been that of riddles for as long as He has interacted with humanity. From his claims on the life of Isaac to his curse of a fruitless fig tree, the simple fact is that God sometimes just does not do what is expected of him. We expect Him to give us a rulebook to live by, so when He gives us something else, we see it as a rulebook anyway. We expect Him to tell us what He wants us to do . . . so when He tells us how He wants us to love, we try to turn THAT into something we’re supposed to “do” as well . . .

He spoke in riddles, even to his closest friends and followers. They rarely made sense of what he meant – and he usually did his best to keep it that way.

What if that’s exactly what He continues to do, to this day?

What if the book we call “Bible” is another grand riddle? What if He’s being deliberately vague, and throwing in a couple seeming contradictions just to make us engage in some introspective head-scratching? Isn’t that just like him? Isn’t it just like a loving Father, when his child asks a question to which he might very easily give a straightforward answer, to instead say, “Why don’t you go do some reading, thinking, or research on that and figure that one out on your own?”

I know my own father did that many times – and I know that I’m better off for having learned how to think for myself.

Maybe Scripture is intended not to tell us what to do or think, but to teach us to think for ourselves, and to live in the shadow of our God as best we can. Maybe we are all suffering from a crisis of fact . . . and are trying to compensate by creating new “facts” – new religious commandments, traditions and “to-do lists” where none existed before.

But aren’t the folks who perverted the Jewish faith in the same way the very ones that He whipped out of the temple courtyard? Aren’t they the same ones he called “beautiful tombs, full of dead men’s bones?” Didn’t he roundly criticize and condemn the people who tried to turn the Scriptures into more than they were intended to be?

. . . and didn’t they kill Him for it?

I don’t want to follow in their footsteps. I don’t want to try to invent some new set of commandments because I can’t accept that the words He left us just aren’t enough to tell me what to do with myself at each and every fork in the road.

I want to think for myself . . . to take what He’s given me and use it to continue onward as I believe He would have me do.

And honestly, I don’t think He ever intended otherwise.


Filed under Ideas I came up with totally on my own, Things most people won't understand at all, Things that will convince you I'm a godless heathen, Things that will get me excommunicated, Things that will piss somebody off

Ecclesiastical Orphism

Last night, my wife and I had a delightful evening out at an orchestra concert, but the object of our evening outage was no ordinary orchestra.

The fare for the evening was the world-renowned Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which happened to be visiting the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, MD, where Heidi often freelances with the National Philharmonic Orchestra.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

This was a very special night, shared with a very special group of people. Orpheus is, quite simply, a joy to watch. Their philosophy of music and of life is evident with every note.

You see, unlike the vast majority of “normal orchestras” – even world-famous ones – Orpheus has no conductor. There is no “leader” standing up at the front of the stage waving a stick, giving orders to the performers on stage, and taking responsibility if something goes wrong.

Rather, this group operates by what it calls “The Orpheus Process,” described on their website thus:

“Instead of one person taking on the orchestra’s artistic responsibility and leadership, we share leadership throughout the membership of the orchestra. Each piece sees a different concertmaster, rotating principle musician chairs, and a sharing of ideas and inspirations. This empowering formula creates a dynamic setting where each musician takes artistic ownership of the performance, not just his or her own part. When we feel personally connected to the music, we know you will too.”

Indeed, that connection was obvious – inescapable, even. Each musician was personally invested in every note, every movement, every breath that escaped the stage.

As an amateur musician myself, I’ve performed in a number of low-level orchestras. As a professional violinist, my wife has performed in more advanced settings. I’ve never experienced anything close to what I saw on that stage, and according to her, neither has she.

Normally, the conductor chooses the music, interprets it, and then coaches the orchestra into performing his interpretation. Normally the orchestra members have a responsibility to follow him, and to pay attention to their section leader and their stand partner. Normally the section leaders have the responsiblity for coordinating and leading the other members of their sections.

That framework means nothing in Orpheus. Yes, there are section leaders, but they rotate for each piece. Yes, there is even a concertmaster (The section leader of the First Violin section in a traditional orchestra, arguably the “lead musician” on the stage, underneath the conductor.) But when it comes time to prepare for a performance, each musician is fully invested in the art the group is crafting. The section leaders are rotated for each piece. A violinist might be the concertmaster for one piece, sit near the back of the section for another, and watch a third from off-stage if it calls for a smaller number of violins. The music is interpreted, not by one person, but by the whole ensemble, through a collaborative rehearsal process that gives each musician a chance to examine the piece from both inside and out, and to provide input to the group.

Similarly, where a normal orchestra receives its cues from the conductor – starting and stopping based on the movement of his baton – Orpheus might take its cues from the concertmaster, or the oboe, or the section leader of the string bass section . . . all in the same piece of music, depending on where the melody is at any given point in time. The music is almost organic – cues come from the people responsible for the particular phrase of music being played at that point in time, and each musician is keenly aware of the other 40 or so musicians on stage at every point in the piece. They have to be, or the whole enterprise would collapse.

I found myself musing, as I watched them play, “This is what the church should look like . . . “

The traditional, institutional church has followed a very similar path as the traditional, institutional orchestra. In the beginning, neither had a “conductor” in the true sense. The early church was led by learned men who agonized over the interpretations of what they perceived to be the words of God. Similarly, early orchestras were led – if not by the composer of a given work himself – by the concertmaster . . . the most learned and experienced musician among them.

Over time, both institutions began to travel a different path. Rather than a musician being both a part of the orchestra, in addition to being its leader, the role of “conductor” became a “special” function – set apart from the rest of the people on stage. It became the conductor who solely interpreted the music, who solely took responsibility for its successes and failures, and who solely accepted the applause of appreciative crowds.

Similarly, in the church, the “vicar class” was born. Bishops, Priests, Pastors, and other roles were invested with meaning well beyond that found in scripture, or invented from whole cloth – meaning that set them apart from “normal” members of the flock – the “laymen.”

Where the conductor was responsible for interpreting the intent of the composer, these “pastors” became responsible for the interpretation of God’s intent. Where the conductor’s shoulders bore the weight of the orchestra’s success or failure, the pastor’s shoulders bore the responsibility for the eternal souls of his parishoners. Where the conductor was glorified when “his” orchestra performed well, the pastor became the object of special status – including promotion in the new ecclesiastical hierarchy – depending on the “performance” of “his” church.

Orpheus, to me, is a symbol of where the church is going. I cannot speak for all believers, but I can speak for a small but growing portion of us. We are steadily wearying of the so-called “experts” who impress upon us their interpretations of God’s will with less and less justification. Instead, we are turning to relationships – the same sort of relationships that I saw on that stage last night.

Think of the incredible amount of trust those musicians must have in one another. If a single person falters, the whole performance suffers. If a single person even fails to communicate – fails to cue the others when beginning a new phrase, fails to hear or see what another part of the ensemble is doing, fails in any way to either understand the other musicians, or to make him or herself understood in turn – what was a glorious piece of music a moment before is suddenly a cacophany of mere noise.

In the same way, believers should be able to trust one another. If we all have the same goal in common – the joy of a life lived with Christ – I should trust that my fellow travellers on this journey are living that life as best they know how, and I should expect them to trust me the same way. None of us should be due any individual credit for any “kingdom” successes – the reward belongs to the body of Christ. The tapestry that is created when the body of Christ lives and works as an organic entity – all parts in relationship with one another and working in their unique and separate ways toward the common goal of seeking to know God – is truly a work of art . . . one even more stunning than that created when 40 musicians trust each other enough to get out on stage and create something beautiful together.

Just like the Orpheus process, participation in the body of Christ should be, and is, an empowering process. It does require an incredible amount of investment. In a traditional church setting, I could sit back and let some pastor tell me what to think. Outside of the traditional church framework, I cannot do that. I am responsible, any and every day, to truly “give a reason for the hope that is within me.”

I can’t just regurgitate some talking points or a list of scripture verses. In the same way each member of Orpheus has to know what they think of the piece being played, I have to know what I believe about the God I walk with.

It is a big responsibility – and one I don’t always live up to. There are too many questions I continue to ask myself, and to which I don’t know the answer. There are too many times when I still find myself reciting a party line, rather than giving coherent thought to a question.

I want more for myself – demand more from myself.

I want a life – a faith – that looks like Orpheus.


Filed under Ideas I stole from somebody else, but improved on, Things most people will disagree with, Things that will convince you I'm a godless heathen, Things that will get me excommunicated, Things that will piss somebody off

An Anti-Christian Christianity

My friends, it has again been a long time. I think I find that some posts just flow from my fingers, while others take time to germinate and grow in my mind. With this latter type of post, I feel – as I have always felt, with many projects and pursuits throughout my life, to allow it to gain a level of maturity before I share it with the world.

This is such a post.

Many of you who read this might consider yourself representatives of the “emergent” or “missional” community as it is sometimes known. I need to preface this post by the fact that I consider myself neither, for reasons that have nothing to do with the reasons those who take these names have for choosing them.

I simply do not like the terms. The first – when taken to its logical conclusion – seems to me to imply that believers can somehow “emerge” to different levels of spiritual enlightenment. In one sense, I have “emerged” from the institutional religious setting known in the 21st century as “the church.” But in truth, the sense in which I have “emerged” is the same sense in which all those of us who follow Christ are free from the bondage of our own sin and the weight of our humanity.

The second, it seems to me, misses the point. Even those who consider themselves “missional” define it as a different way of “doing church,” a different focus.

All of that said, I have a tremendous amount of respect for many of the ideas espoused by missional and emergent thinkers, and for those who espouse them, particularly their focus on how much of Christian tradition is precisely that – mere tradition.

It is for this reason that I was incredibly disturbed by something I read on the popular conservative political site formerly operated by the Heritage Foundation,

I was disturbed because it was one more reminder of who I used to be . . .

The item in question was a column by Townhall columnist Frank Pastore, referred to in his bio as “a former professional baseball player with graduate degrees in both theology and political science,” who is also a radio talk-show host for KKLA 99.5 FM in Los Angeles. His original column has now become two. They can be found here and here.

The first column is entitled “Why Al Qaeda Supports the Emergent Church.” It is a lengthy diatribe against members of the emergent movement, the logic of which seems to run “Emergents are generally not politically conservative. Political conservatives are the only people interested in fighting al Qaeda.” Therefore, Emergents are allies of al Qaeda.

His second column is a defense of his first, in which he responds to challenges for his “sources” by citing several emergent writers and a number of critics of Emergent, none of which, according to his citations, at least, says anything about al Qaeda at all.

The most ironic thing, for me, is that as someone who is generally pretty politically conservative, I probably line up with Pastore’s political views a fair percentage of the time. Nevertheless, despite the fact that I do not consider myself “emergent” or “missional,” I feel the sting of Pastore’s accusations myself, simply because I seem to fit his overarching definition of an “al Qaeda ally” – by which he seems to mean anybody who disagrees with his personal, political and spiritual agenda. I have written a lengthy response to his first column that addresses several issues he raises point by point. That response continues below the fold . . .

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Filed under Things most people will disagree with, Things most people would agree with if they really thought about it, Things that will convince you I'm a Democrat, Things that will convince you I'm a godless heathen, Things that will get me excommunicated, Things that will piss somebody off

With “Friends” like these . . . (UPDATED with Video)

One of the last few remaining institutions of government that reminds us the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, rather than freedom from religion, is the morning prayer held in the U.S. Senate. Over the two centuries of our country’s history, this prayer has predominantly been offered by Christians of some stripe or other, though in the past Jewish and Muslim leaders have also offered morning prayers.

This morning was a historic first. For the first time in history, a Hindu spiritual leader offered the opening prayer of the U.S. Senate.

The invocation given by Rajan Zed, a Hindu priest from Nevada, was taken from the Rig Veda and Bhagavad Gita, and I find its words quite inspiring, despite the fact that they come from a culture that does not acknowledge the God I worship:

“We meditate on the transcendental glory of the deity supreme, who is inside the heart of the earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of heaven. May he stimulate and illuminate our minds.

“Lead us from the unreal to real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality. May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening.”

I can certainly agree with particularly the second half of of this stirring invocation.

Unfortunately, this morning’s Senate prayer was an historic first for another reason.

. . . three reasons, actually, named Ante and Kathy Pvkovic and Kristen Sugar.

For the first time in U.S. history the morning prayer of the U.S. Senate was disrupted by the shouting of protestors who interrupted Zed by “loudly asking for God’s forgiveness for allowing the ‘false prayer’ of a Hindu in the Senate chamber.”

UPDATE: Here’s a video of the travesty, courtesy of Talking Points Memo

[youtube EZ9To30Hz7A]

One of my favorite political blogs, Captain’s Quarters, the author of which is a devout Catholic, excoriates the trio:

Thank the Lord that this trio doesn’t represent real Christians. They’re great ambassadors for the numbnut contingent, however.

Unfortunately, I think this is a shortsighted view of the incident. While most “mainstream” believers might not try to disrupt the U.S. Senate, it is clear that they have the sympathy of a large contingent of the so-called Christian mainstream. A Newer World points out this statement from Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council. The statement closes with:

There is no historic connection between America and the polytheistic creed of the Hindu faith. I seriously doubt that Americans want to change the motto, “In God we Trust, which Congress adopted in 1955, to, “In gods we Trust.” That is essentially what the United States Senate did today.


On many fronts.

The U.S. Senate is not a religious body, and while many of those who came up with the concept of the Senate may have been believers in the God of the Bible, even Christian tradition is fractured and diverse – and our nation is hardly exclusively a “Christian” nation.

According to the Hindu American Foundation, the nation contains 2 million Hindus, and it is one of the fastest growing belief systems in the country. To say that we are a “Christian nation” is to live in the past. To say that Hindus have no impact on our history and culture is to ignore the impact words like “karma,” “yoga,” and “avatar” have on 21st Century American culture.

Certainly, a practicing Hindu could tell us that these words are hardly used in their original context . . . but then, even the U.S. Senate doesn’t operate like it did at its founding. The point is that American culture is no longer exclusively influenced by that of Western Europe.
The simple fact is that Hindus, like Christians, Jews, Muslims, Athiests, Wiccans and many, many more adherents of all manner of belief systems make up this country. Members of each are represented by the U.S. Senate, and each has its right to be heard. That is, after all, what freedom of religion is all about.

I may not agree with most of what some – or any – of these religious traditions has to say, but the least any of us can do is respect their right to say it.

It’s people like Kristen Sugar and the Pvkovic’s who make me ashamed, at times, to call myself a Christian. If statements like Tony Perkins’ are representative of the “Christian” response to this morning’s events, I’m not sure I am one.

With Rajan Zed, I pray to the deity supreme, who resides in my heart, and ask Him to stimulate and illuminate my heart and mind, and those of all who read this.

I ask Him to lead us from the unreal to real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality. May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening.


Filed under Things that will convince you I'm a godless heathen, Things that will get me excommunicated, Things that will piss somebody off

Formerly Known as Ex-Gay?

We’ve written a lot here about Bill Kinnon’s “Formerly Known” meme that has become increasingly popular across the internet, and to which Heidi and I have both contributed. Yesterday, I read a post from a blogger who has captured my attention on a few occasions, which is not a part of that meme . . . but which perhaps should be. It’s called “My Ex-Gay Survivor Story” and was written by Eric over at the Two World Collision Blog.

His post presents some very interesting food for thought. Please read it before continuing on with this post.

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Filed under Things that will convince you I'm a godless heathen, Things that will get me excommunicated, Things that will piss somebody off

Technology, Trust and Transformation

I discovered a new blog yesterday – one that focuses on a topic near and dear to my heart. It’s called “When Religion Meets New Media.”

The author, Heidi Campbell, is involved with the Wikiklesia project I mentioned here about a month ago, and her blog concentrates on the religious response to, and use of, the ongoing communications revolution in which we find ourselves.

As a Public Affairs professional who has tried, with relatively little success, to move a decidedly “old media” Defense agency public affairs office towards an appreciation of new media tools and tactics over the last two years, this topic intrigues me.

As a blogger and writer on things philosophical and theological, the intersection of this phenomenon with religion – any religion – fascinates me.

If you are here, reading this blog, you probably don’t need me to tell you what constitutes “new media.” It used to shock me how little appreciation institutions of any sort had for powerful tools like blogs or social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace. The deeper I get into this issue, though, the more I am coming to think that this is precisely because they are institutions. New media, it seems to me, is innately anti-institutional. Already it is driving down the readership of virtually every major newspaper in the United States, changing the face of politics, bringing down corrupt governments, chipping away at attendance in local institutional churches, and threatening national security.

It is these last two applications that intrigue me the most, for it is in these areas that we see the intersection of new media with religion.

Those of you who have read much of my writing here are already aware what I think of the institutions and traditions that make up modern-day “Churchianity.” This being the case, I believe the online revolution and the advent of “Web 2.0” – the sprouting of social networking, wikis and other collaborative sites – to be perhaps the most exciting thing that has happened to the church since Martin Luther picked up a hammer in Wittenburg.

What you might not realize is that Christianity is not alone in this. I’ve talked before about the tremendous propaganda successes radical Islamists have achieved using websites, cell phones, and video cameras. Just last week, ABC News was handed a tape that was all over the Internet within hours, showing a Taliban “graduation ceremony” of suicide bombers preparing to enter and attack Western targets such as Germany, Canada, Britain and the U.S.

However, Islam is also suffering its own identity crisis in strikingly similar ways to that being endured by Christianity – and for largely the same reasons. Due almost entirely to the ease with which materials can now be published, ordinary Muslims all over the world are beginning to question the previously unassailable credibility of both the Ulama (Islamic scholars) and the Hadith (Islamic traditions).

I find all of this very exciting, because it forces each of us – no matter what we believe – to reexamine what, and who, we trust.

Going back to Islam, the importance of the Hadith has always stemmed from the assertion that it relates back to the practices and words of the prophet Muhammed and helps to explain the words of the Quran. Similarly, the Ulama are those most studied in Islam, and thus have been the arbiters of Islamic Law.

Similarly, the importance of Christian tradition has always been said to be its relation to scripture, and the importance of the “vicar class” has always been its members’ study and training in scripture and doctrine.

Prior to this time, those assumptions have been virtually unassailable – and those who make waves have found themselves cast out by the very arbiters whose authority they doubt, using the very traditions whose legitimacy they question. I’ve felt this myself, having been threatened with excommunication due to my decision to leave the Southern Baptist Church of which I was a member for two years. It’s not exactly as bad as a fatwa calling for one’s death, but it’s unpleasant enough.

Increasingly, though, technology is loosening the desperate hold of the so-called “religious experts.” No longer does a Muslim seeking to better understand his religion need an Alim to explain it. No longer do I need a pastor to tell me what He believes God wants from me.

So again, Who (or what) do we trust?

As Christians, who do we trust? Ask yourself this question. Do you trust Scripture?


And what do you mean by your answer?

Think about it for a moment. Do you believe Scripture to be infallible? Authoritative? Inspired?

What do each of these words mean to you?

If Scripture is truly infallible, then which version (or versions) are flawless? If your answer is “the original texts” then how do you feel about the fact that no person now living has ever seen one of these texts? If your answer is “copies of the originals in their initial languages” then does it disturb you at all to place your trust in human translators to “get it right”? Does it bother you that many well-meaning people have come up with different answers? Does it give you pause to realize that some of the most trusted versions were blatantly politically motivated at the time of their translation?

If Scripture is “merely” authoritative, what does that mean to you? Does it mean that every word must be followed? How then do you feel about the Old Testament demands to abstain from eating rabbits, stone rebellious children and engage in blood feuds with rival families? How do you feel about the fact that Christ himself advocated routinely breaking some of the ten commandments? How do you feel about the myriad interpretations of various New Testament issues like drinking alcohol, wearing headcoverings and speaking in tongues?

Who do you trust to tell you what to think?

If Scripture is “inspired” – the only one of these three terms it actually claims to be – what does that mean? What does “profitable” mean? How about “teaching” (doctrine in the KJV), “reproof,” “correction” or “training in righteousness”? How do you feel about the fact that the single passage in which scripture does claim to be inspired is a very specific reference . . . to the Old Testament?

How do you feel about the fact that the Old Testament canon was compiled based on material from books that didn’t make the cut? How do you feel about the fact that the New Testament canon originated as a sort of “pastor’s recommended reading list“?

Who do you trust? Historical church leaders like Martin Luther – who called the book of James “an epistle of straw,” yet quoted from it anyway? Even more distant church fathers like Athanasius, Origen and Augustine, who disagreed with one another?

Who do you trust?

My point is not to belittle Scripture. My point is that human authorities, no matter how respected or credible, are not perfect. It seems to me that the more conservative, “fundamental” sects of Christianity have ceased to be “Christians,” and have become “Biblists.” We (I include myself in this group because it is in this tradition that I grew up) have forgotten that Christ said that He, not the writings of His followers, was the way, the truth and the life. We have forgotten that a relationship with the living God is a personal relationship . . . not a matter of academics.

Who then do you trust? Your pastor? your church leaders? your Bible? . . . or your Father?

This is the glory found where technology intersects with religion – the glory of a personal relationship with our Creator, free of intermediaries, interventions and interpretations. Of course we are never free of our own interpretations, but as Samuel once had to be reminded, the Lord knows our hearts. Of course we . . . I . . . struggle daily with my own presuppositions and interpretations, but I trust God. I trust Him to draw me to Himself. My own filters are difficult enough to navigate. I am grateful that technology has negated the need for any others. It has transformed relationships of many kinds – only one of which is my relationship with Father.

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