Night

{583298F4-95ED-41DE-9B11-2D30480257D3}Img400

I’ve just now completed the two books: Born a Crime and Eli Wiesel’s book Night. I’ve also started a third, the Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and now I’m ready, ready to be done once and for all with this foolish notion that the human race is fundamentally good. Where does this absurd idea come from? Certainly not from the pages of history. We are not good, not even close. Even in our best and most civilized moments, we are but tiny steps from great evil.

Innocence and Ignorance 

    Somehow in 1944 in a tiny town tucked away in northern Romania the Jew consuming death machine that was the Third Reich still managed to be mostly unknown. The reports were in, the Germans were losing the war, whatever trouble they had caused for Jews elsewhere would not happen here. Even when a survivor of the death camps stumbled into town, describing the horrors and warning all to flee, they did not listen. This is madness, not the truth they thought. When the Germans arrived, they were calm, hopeful even.  After they were put in ghetto’s the positivity remained, sure this isn’t ideal, but it could be worse. At the deportations, some began to worry in earnest, but when  Eli’s family was given a chance to split up and escape deportation they didn’t, they chose to be deported together. They had no idea what was before them. 

From human to animal

    Death camps are built in such a way that one must kill, steal, cheat, and lie just to survive. The dehumanizing pressure of such an environment is probably the worst part about it. If you are not acting like a wild animal willing to sacrifice all morality to survive you don’t make it. When his father was close to death, other inmates beat him mercilessly because he was unable to relieve himself outside. They stole the dying man’s food. A veteran prisoner pulled Eli aside and told him to stop making up for the loss of his father’s rations with his own. No sense in both dying was the thinking.  Prisoners would almost gleefully anticipate the death of another inmate, and in some cases, they would help it along especially if there was bread or boots to be gained. There was no friendship in the camps, only shaky alliances, violence and betrayal.  On the final cattle car ride before liberation, German civilians would throw bread into the cars and watch with sickening pleasure battles to the death for these tiny morsels of food.  

Guilt 

    Eli was with his father when he died, sort of. He was two bunks away when the S.S. guard was beating his dad to death. Eli’s dad called desperately for his son to be at his side, but Eli remained in his bunk, he had neither the strength nor the courage to endure the blows that would be his if he came. The enduring guilt springing from this circumstance and hundreds of others just like it are infinitely worse than any suffering caused by the boot or cudgel of a prison guard.  

The tragedy of loyalty

    By 1944 the war was for all practical purposes over. Why all of this German effort to capture and kill more Jews?  Even as the Red Army in the East had the German army in full retreat, those in charge of the prison camps doggedly followed their orders, to get their prisoners back to Germany. They were death camps for crying out loud! What would it matter to abandon them? Germans left guns on the field of battle as they fled, but they would not leave their Jews behind! The forced retreat in the winter of 1945 left extinguished the lives of thousands of inmates. Cattle car retreats with one-hundred prisoners per car were even more deadly. Of the 100 in Eli’s car, only 12 remained alive to touch the German soil. It’s good to take orders and obey, but it’s even better to consider what those orders are and let the higher moral power of divinity determine whether you should abide by them or not. Blind loyalty to any human will always be a massive mistake. 

The Moral responsibility to step in and speak up. 

    Eli Weisel’s big message is to speak up and step in when the abuse of humans is happening. Borders, customs, convictions, or religious dogma should not prevent any country that has a conscience from doing whatever they can to stop abuse wherever they find it.     Admittedly, this is complicated. Would it be okay to start a regional war, or perhaps even another world war to stop a genocide going on in one country? 

Remembering helps keep away the darkness.

    Eli’s other big message is to remember. If we keep the wickedness and horror of past sins regularly before us, we won’t be able to forget them as quickly. It’s in the forgetting that evil reinvents itself. 

If my worldview allows me to decrease the value of humans, I need to throw it out. 

    Hitler referred to the Jews as rats, Lenin referred to anyone who disagreed with him as insects. American propagandists categorized the Japanese as sub-human how else could they proceed with the firestorm bombings and finally the atomic bomb? Horrific acts always require some system of justification before they can be successfully carried out. There is no better system of justification than to believe that the people one crushes are not really human. A beetle squashed beneath my shoe is one thing a human quite another. Whatever worldview or decision making process one embraces, it is only good to the degree that it values human life.  

What can be done about our black hearts?

    Weisel does not speak to this. We can remember the Holocaust and vow never to repeat it, we can step in as best we can and help the one who is abused, but what of our own wickedness? What about the blackness that is lodged in everyone’s heart? As long as that remains so to will be the possibility of great atrocity. Its the little daily cruelties that reveal who we are, the middle finger, the honk, the passive aggressive comment, the guilt trip, the rolling of the eyes, the condescension and the cursing under one’s breath at the incompetence of another. All of this is dry kindling. The match to set it off is a clever leader who packages hate just well enough.  His remarks spark the smouldering hatred inside all of us and soon the forest burns again. This danger is real, and what blinds us to it more than all else is the conviction that we are all good — we are not. 

Advertisements

Born a Crime

Born a Crime

 

“Look on the bright side,” she said to her dear son Trevor. The bullet had entered at the base of her neck sliced through the bottom of her skull, ricocheted off the inside of her cheekbone and exited through her nose. “You are now the best looking member of our family.” Really? Humour at a time like this? Yes, it was her way. Humour, faith, hard work, and an independent, indomitable spirit characterized the life of this most remarkable woman. The book is a biography of Trever Noah famed comedian, but it’s evident from the very beginning that the book is a tribute to the real hero of the story, Trevor’s mother.

Pride kills — Every case of dysfunction and abuse recounted in this book has at its epicentre pride. Apartheid is the pride of race. Able, Trevor’s stepfather, refused to utilize the needed business help of Trevor’s mom, because a customer commented that “his business was much better now that his wife was running the company” This comment hurt his pride. He would rather lose the company than credit his wife with success over himself. The African tribes all stereotyped each other and regularly and violently acted out against those negative stereotypes in self-righteous pride. It was precisely such an occasion that forced Trevor’s mom to shove him from a moving vehicle. The Mini Bus driver discovered her tribal heritage and concluded that she must be taught a lesson. Their only escape was to jump.

It’s ok to hit your woman — In Africa, it’s ok to beat your wife. It’s just how it is. Able beat up Trevors mom, many times and many times she marched off to the police station to bring a charge against her husband, each time the police refused to do so, saying that the two of them needed to work things out on their own. When he finally shot her after years of abuse, he was able to avoid prison time because he had no previous criminal record. Madness!

The confusing mess of poverty and crime — If you break a few rules to make some money or get some good food so that you don’t have to eat dog bone soup and Mopani worms every night how is that wrong? If rules just protect the interests of the wealthy while at the same time guaranteeing the poverty of the poor how are they good? They weren’t, so Trevor broke them. Regular beatings from a concerned mother at home, and fiery sermons at church meetings multiple times per week, did little to prevent him from lying, cheating, and stealing. “White people have insurance, so if we take their stuff they get paid, we are helping them and us, so it’s ok” is what he was told, and he believed it.

Weed over alcohol? — Before Abel met Trevor’s mom, he had a weed addiction. The addiction mellowed him out for the most part. After Trevor’s mom and he were married, she demanded that he give up weed for religious reasons. He complied with her request and stopped taking pot switching to the more culturally acceptable drug of alcohol instead. This switch turned him into the violent monster he became.

Defiant mission schools — When Apartheid took its stranglehold on the country of South Africa, one of its dirtiest tricks was the Bantu educational system. The government took over the education of blacks and instead of teaching them to read, write, and think they taught them how to cook and clean and farm. It was an educational sham intended to keep black people uneducated and thus easier to oppress. In the black areas, there were all sorts of mission schools that were doing what they could to educate black people properly, most were forced to shutter their doors, but a few struggled on in defiance of the government. One such school reached out to Trevor’s mom and educated her. It’s a good thing sometimes for Christians to defy governments.

Hitler wasn’t so bad — One of the craziest stories in the book is when Trevor took his DJ skills and his troupe of dancers to perform at a Jewish cultural centre. Trevor and his group had been having great success in the townships, and now they were getting gigs in white areas as well. At the centre, Trevor managed to whip up the crowd Jewish young people into a frenzy, at the right moment he brought out his best dancer. The troupe chanted “Go Hitler, Go Hitler, Go Hitler” in time with the pounding beat, to get their number one dancer into his grove. It never occurred to any of them, that the name Hitler might be offensive to their audience. The event was cut short, there was a fiery exchange full of misunderstanding, and they were sent packing. Turns out Hitler is not an uncommon name among Black people. Every black person needed a white name as well as a traditional name, people had heard about this Hitler person, who was so powerful, that white people even required black people to help defeat him. Knowing nothing of the history of Hitler, many blacks concluded that Hitler was a strong name, a mighty name, and thus a good name! Noah mentions several genocides that happened in Africa that no one really knows about. The Jewish genocide is recognized because the Germans kept records and because it happened in the middle of a high profile war. No one cared or kept records of what happened in the dark continent, even though atrocities were committed there on par with Hitler’s madness. Was Hitler the worst? From an African point of view, not even close.

Prayer as bargaining — All of Trevor’s family members wanted him to pray, Why? First, he was a child, God likes that. He also spoke English, God really loves that, from an African point of view, God came in English and so if you want to get something from God it is much better to ask it of him in his native tongue. Finally, Trevor was more white than all his relatives. God was clearly with the whites, look how rich they all were! Trevor was the best bargaining chip they had. How could God refuse an English speaking boy who looked white? So Trevor prayed at all the prayer meetings. Is that what prayer is? Trevor rejected this notion, and so do I.

Trevor doesn’t really mock Christianity or Jesus too much. The crazy expectant faith that his mother had, he respects, it’s just not for him. Deep down Trevor, I think, has seen too much pain and suffering to have a robust faith in a good God. However, I don’t think he is quite ready to accept the alternative either.

Understanding Jacques Ellul

JE

Ellul may often be wrong, but he is never dull…when one engages the thought of Ellul, there is no such thing as a casual reading followed by mild acceptance or bland rejection.

And so it is with this eccentric French philosopher turned Christian. This book is an excellent, introduction to this man of many thoughts. In the review below I have laid out for you some of his bigger ideas.

The Danger of Technology/Technique and Efficiency

Technique tolerates no judgement from without and accepts no limitations… Since it has put itself beyond good and evil, it need fear no limitations whatever. In a technological society, efficiency, rather than goodness, truth, beauty or justice becomes the norm for social relations.

If we can build it, invent it, make it or do it, we should, especially if it makes us more efficient. Efficiency becomes the anchor point for our morality. For Ellul, this is the most “anti-human” way to go about life. For many Ellul is dismissed as a Luddite crank, a grumpy old man who refuses to get with the times. A future hater and a technophobe. I wonder if Ellul would have “tisk-tisked” the invention of the wheel or printing press had he been alive in those days. He may well have!
I also question Ellul’s contention that efficiency supplants goodness, truth and beauty as we develop and grow. Much modern architecture would suggest otherwise, besides what can be said of the worldwide movement to take care of our planet? Undoubtedly, the rise of our environmental consciousness has altered the way we go about living? If technology and technique are poured into making our planet flourish as it was meant to flourish, how is that bad?
At the same time that I raise a skeptical eyebrow in his direction, I also begin to feel like he is on to something. The human race today is rocketing forward with one paradigm breaking invention after another. If the “pace of progress” is swallowing up the souls of men than technology and the worship of efficiency are implicated.

Propaganda and the Church

Propaganda is the use of words, methods and psychological technique’s to sway individuals and groups of people into participation with an organization. Christianity is to have none of this. Instead, our faith is to spread slowly, relationally, from person to person focusing only on the person of Jesus. “We do not bring non-Christians into Church we carry the church to them” Unfortunately, Churches prefer to engage in the full constellation of propaganda techniques instead. When propaganda is used truth is exchanged for power. This trade utterly de-Christianizes the church. Is he right? What exactly does Ellul mean when he talks about propaganda? Social media? Catchy Christian sounds bites? Shiny new buildings? Christian radio? Mass advertising campaigns? State of the art sound and lighting? Mr. Ellul what exactly are you against here??? He doesn’t say! But you get the sinking suspicion that he is probably thinking of all of I’ve just mentioned and more. The church is not a burger joint out to manipulate people into buying burgers, so anything the burger joint might do to get people eating their burgers, the Christian church probably shouldn’t. Again he is on to something here, but what would a propaganda free church look like? Does such a church even exist?

The Supremacy of Words & Hearing

When I read this chapter for the first time, I dismissed it as garbage. Now I’m picking through the trash bag one more time to see if I missed anything. Ellul says that since speech is the one thing the distinguishes humans from non-humans, it’s the most important thing. Words are supreme; God has made it so. He puts his conviction succinctly “In the sphere of truth everything is related to the word, nothing to sight” He quotes Jesus for support. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” Our image-saturated society has created nonthinking emotional spectators who must only believe whatever flashes in front of their eyes. In our day words live in total submission to images. They only exist as slogans for visually charged propaganda. Images bring about less and less thought and reason. Again, as I think about what Ellul is saying, I begin to wonder if he is on to something. But immediately I revolt, the Psalmist says the heavens declare the glory of God. Those heavens have to be seen! God did create all the senses, and they are all good, not just the ears! Police wear body camera’s now because video tells more of the truth than words do. Would Ellul dispute this? What is visual is not some dirty bit of business designed by the devil.

Even still, his writing stirs something in me. It does seem correct that we are not able to properly think about things when they come to us visually. Images always create immediate visceral reactions it’s what they do. Ellul laments that “Images are considered trustworthy while words are suspect” In today’s era of “Fake News” I think everything has become suspect both audio and visual. So maybe Ellul has become dated? We have entered into an era of skepticism and narcissism are images to blame? Ellul says yes.

Reality and Truth

Reality is what is seen, counted and quantified. Realities world is the material world, and it can be known through the accumulation of data. Truth is different; truth pertains to questions of purpose or meaning. Images are helpful in determining reality; they are not helpful in determining the truth. Because the world has become image based we have become “utterly indifferent to the question of truth” says Ellul. In the modern mind, reality has become truth, and nothing exists beyond reality. When Christians use images to help them discover the truth, reality and truth get confused, and we are worse off for it. He doesn’t quite take us back to the Iconoclastic debate which helped to weaken the Byzantine empire. See my review of that crazy time in Church history, but he warns us through Augustine “Images can be used, but they should never be loved.” Is there actually a difference between truth and reality, or is this just Ellul doing his thing? I don’t know. This distinction is a more sensible way to attack images and put them in their proper place I suppose. I’m just not ready to say that there is no “truth” from anything that we happen to take in through our eyes. That’s nonsense to me.

The City is the Devils Playground

Ellul’s work on the city is easily his most unpopular. Its English title was The Meaning of the City, but Ellul’s critics all insist that it should be renamed The Demeaning of the City. Ellul believes that the first city was built by Cain as an act of rebellion against God. Therefore all cities have in their DNA a rebellious rejection of God. From Babel onward cities have a bad rap in the Bible When humans come together God gets pushed out; it is as simple as that. Ellul doesn’t hate cities totally, he believes Jesus will one day redeem them, but he holds out no hope for Christians having success in cities before the return of Christ. Thus he is critical of city planning and technological advancements to make cities better. To Ellul, this is just putting a band-aid on a systemic problem. Beautiful walkways and rapid transit, won’t free the city from evil. If a Christian finds himself in the unenviable position of living in an urban environment, he should focus in on practicing faithfulness to God through varying degrees of martyrdom, for that is all the city brings to the Christian who call it home. I have to admit this is pretty depressing and I would like to reject Ellul thoughts on the city, all through my last eight years in our city match up nicely with what he has said. So there is that.

Politics, Economics, and Work

I read somewhere that Ellul was a Christian anarchist. I can see why now. People worship their systems whether it be communism, fascism, or capitalism. Ellul loves to profane all three. Capitalism’s god is money. How can a Christian revolt against the idolatry of this system? By giving his money away. The God of fascism and communism is the ruler and loyalty to “The Fatherland” or the “collective system” a Christian can resist this idolatry by affirming the liberty of the individual person. When it comes to politics a Christian’s job is to desacralize it all. This doesn’t mean non-involvement, but it does mean having the conviction that every system is fundamentally flawed. We work within our various systems, but we don’t get hopeful about them.
Working for joy and working for beauty is part of God’s gift. However, work out of necessity to gather a surplus, to make a living or to produce is all part of the curse. That whole Protestant work ethic thing, Ellul wouldn’t subscribe to I don’t think. For him, It’s just a convenient excuse to justify ruthless capitalism.

The Authority of Scripture

“Scripture is God speaking to humanity through the text…It is clear that every living word of God cannot be different from that which is attested precisely in the Bible…It turns out that the God who spoke to men in the Bible is also our God, and directly ours, thanks to their witness.”

He acknowledges that faith is ultimately the only way anyone can arrive at the above conviction.

Regarding interpretation, Ellul thought it best to stay away from overly literal and historical investigation. The Scripture’s were not intended to be picked apart into little pieces with all details analyzed. What mattered was to keep the big ideas of Scripture in the forefront. So for example, a detailed look at Genesis as the historical, objective account of how we came to be would be a mistake. The big idea of the first part of Genesis is learning how God relates to man.
Finally for Elull love is the centrepiece of the image of God in each human. Love only exists if there is freedom. So God’s gift of freedom to humanity means that “God submits himself to human initiatives…God withdraws in order to leave the field free for humanity…God does not step by step, minute by minute, dictate what is to happen in the world, thereby establishing the reality of that world, as it were.” With this view, sovereignty and even divine providence get shoved aside. Anything that smacks of “fate” has to bow the knee to freedom. The age-old paradox that has the free will of man in tension with the sovereignty of God is solved for Ellul — but not for me.

Christian Ethics

We don’t know it allChristian Ethics should be a temporary guide that is continually revised, reexamined, and reshaped by the combined effort of the church as a whole

We shouldn’t be pushyOne of the essential rules of the Christian like is never to ask a non-Christian to conduct himself like a Christian.

Christians are not about rulesGods revelation has nothing whatever to do with morality. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He goes on to say that Christianity is fundamentally about a relationship with Jesus Christ, to which no Christian would disagree. However, such a statement is a bit misleading; one need only read the Bible to see that morals are kind of a big deal to God.

Absolute Freedom — Love pre-supposes freedom, the Christian is free to do what he wants; there are no lists. How then does the Christian not disintegrate into subjectivism and relativism? Ellul hints at three answers. The Holy Spirit will guide us, freedom is not a revolt against order, and love is a good guide. Living out Christian freedom is exhausting work! It’s much easier to follow a list. But Ellul is certain the easier path is not, the better path when it comes to ethics.

The Story of World War II

The  Story of World War 2

 

If you ever want to strengthen a conviction towards the cause of peace and non-violence, just read this book. The Story of World War 2 by Donald Miller is a compilation of first-hand accounts strung haphazardly over a loose timeline of the actual events. It’s a terrible book for all the right reasons. The stories captivate, human suffering is put on display, and the reader is forced to shake his head, repulsed by the reality of war. 

I’ve known the general storyline of World War 2 for decades, below are some bits and pieces of this epic struggle that I did not know before now.

  1. From Hero to Zero  — There was nothing to be feared more at the beginning of the war than the German U-boat force. Their destructive capabilities were so far-reaching that in 1942, 400 boats and 5000 seamen were lost all within sight of the United States coast. By 1943 technological advancements, and mind-numbing production had rendered the German U-boat force all but obsolete. Of the 39,000 U-boat personnel, 27,000 of them were killed, and 5,000 captured.  
  1. U-Boat 505 — The U-boat was captured intact, with its crew in 1943. This intelligence bonanza had to be kept in absolute secrecy. So the U-Boat, it’s crew, and the 2400 U.S. sailors that were all involved in its capture were interned in Bermuda until 1947!  The families of the US sailor’s were kept in the dark as to the whereabouts of their loved ones; not even the red cross was allowed to visit them. 
  1. Mussolini out and then back in — In 1943 Italian leadership knew they couldn’t win, they cut a deal with the Allies, imprisoned Mussolini, and were preparing to sign an armistice ending the war in Italy. When Hitler heard about it, he sprang into action. Mussolini was rescued from an alpine chateau by daring S.S. commandos using hang gliders! 600,000 Italians were shipped off to German labour camps because they couldn’t be trusted to defend their homeland.  
  1. Good Catholics, lousy pope — After Hitler pretty much annexed Italy in 1943, Jews were no longer safe in the boot-shaped country. However, over 80% of Jewish people were able to avoid extermination because good Catholics refused to turn a blind eye. Unfortunately, the Pope did not have the same sympathetic view as everyday Catholics did.
  1. Racism Sucks — African American soldiers proved their mettle in the war, as well as Japanese Americans, but the abuse and mistreatment they received as they attempted to serve their country was appalling. Comments by high ranking officials such as “The negroes don’t have sufficient reflexes to be 1st class fighter pilots” and “I don’t want you here, but the black loving people from back home have sent you. I’ll see to it that you see combat and your fair share of the casualties.” 
    • The Red Tails (an African American fighter squadron)  were the only bomber support group never to lose a bomber
    • Japanese American divisions were the most decorated soldiers of WW2, they were known as the Purple Heart divisions, they fought with fearless courage to restore honour to their families many of whom were interned in prison camps scattered across America’s interior. 
  1. A great Irony –– The German’s had a legitimate atomic bomb program, but Hitler designated too many of his scientists and engineers to deal with the challenge of exterminating the Jews. Had he ignored the Jewish issue and used his resources to build an atomic bomb, the story might have been different. 
  1. Humans are not meant for this — Psychiatric trauma was the most common reason for infantrymen exciting the war. Treatment of these patients was slightly better than WW 1, at least you couldn’t be shot for treason. But usually, you would be pumped full of drugs, given 48 hours to sleep it off, followed by a dramatic pep talk, and then sent back into the fray. 
  1. Don’t Lie! –– The Japanese told all civilian personnel a terrible lie. “When the Americans come, you will be raped and tortured to death, so the only sensible thing to do if fighting is no longer an option is suicide.” The Japanese believed the lie. Thousands of them jumped off cliffs or blew themselves up with Japanese issued grenades as hapless GI’s watched. It’s also a lie to think that surrender is so great a dishonour that death is preferable. That lie was believed to such an extent that Japanese forces averaged a 98% casualty rate. The viciousness of their no retreat, no surrender perspective utterly destroyed any rules for engagement, turning many American soldiers into ruthless killing machines.  The Americans had come to see this war as one of extermination. 
  1. Production wins in a war of machines.  America was the champion. They could crank out a B-24 every 63 minutes in one of their factories in Detroit. The Japanese soon realized that for every boat or plane they destroyed, there would be hundreds more rolling off the assembly lines. 
  1. You dirty dog — Stalin sat his troops for 63 days on the edge of Warsaw. The Poles had risen in rebellion against the occupying Germans thinking that liberation from the Russians was coming. Instead, Stalin let the Germans slaughter around 200,000 resistance fighters, making things much easier for the communist takeover of Poland after the war. 
  1. That was close.  Dachau was liberated in part by Japanese Americans. Two female prisoners blindfolded in anticipation of their execution by firing squad waited patiently for their end. The shots never came, the women thinking the Germans were playing some cruel trick, stood there stoically. Finally a Japanese American discovered them and took off their blindfolds. The women upon seeing his Japanese face retorted that after all, they had gone through they were about to be killed by the Japanese! It took a lot of convincing to get them to see that the Japanese face in front of them was the good guy.
  1. The downside of supremacy — Late in the war the Japanese became desperate for workers to support the war effort.  They began to empty their prisoner of war camps spread abroad and ship the slave labour back to the home islands. The cargo ships they used were old and slow, and they couldn’t afford to have them be well guarded. As they limped back to Japan, the American air and navy supremacy asserted itself by destroying nearly all of these ships. More American soldiers died in slave ships bound for Japan than did Marines in the entire Pacific theatre. Over 20,000! 

Everything Happens For A Reason and other lies I’ve​ loved

35133923

First, it’s Christopher Hitchen’s dying words, (Click Here to read my review of his book Mortality). Then it’s Morrie Schwartz’s dying words, (Click Here to read my review of the book Tuesday’s With Morrie) and now it’s Kate Bowler’s dying words. Of the 3 I am the saddest for her. Hitchen’s was defiant, arrogant, and pernicious in death; he went out swinging. Morrie, on the other hand, had made his peace with death, he had lived a good long life, and he viewed his slow death from ALS as an opportunity to help others. But Kates life is being cut short, she is too young to feel the way Morrie did, and while she has some of the spunk of Hitchens, she cannot merely curse God and die. Kate want’s to live! She’s 34, happily married, has a two-year-old son, and a promising career ahead of her at Duke Divinity School. In this raw and unvarnished account, Kate has not at all made her peace with death. Is there hope in despair? Is a steadying belief possible in the midst of such sorrow? Using wit, humour, and the full range of human emotions Kate produces a modern-day lament. If you are dying, you should read this book. If you know someone who is dying you should especially read this book, it will help you help them.
For the Love of God Don’t Give Me A Reason!
Kate wrote a New York Times article about her fight with cancer, it was immensely popular, and she received thousands of letters as a result. Unfortunately, a lot of those letters came full of reasons, explanations and trite cliche’s that were intended to help her understand and accept her suffering, most of them did not.

  • A Hindu writer said “We have had many millions of births and deaths in different life-forms, so don’t worry, this life shall pass, and your soul will move forward to its next step.
  • A Christian neighbour blurted out in the midst of some of the more gruesome parts of living with cancer “Everything happens for a reason, there is some important Divine plan in all of this, God is good all the time.”
  • A Secularist wrote in “I find it comforting to believe the universe is random then the God I might believe in could no longer be cruel.
  • A ‘power of positive thinking’ guru promised that healing was possible by chiming in “Your attitude determines your destiny.”
  • A reformed pastor wrote: “God is a just God to let you die, these are the consequences of your sin.”
  • A Medical professional coldly gives advice, “The sooner you get used to the idea of dying the better.”

Kate Bowler understands that to be human is to ask why, but maybe some things like tragedy lie beyond the reach of good reasons and should, therefore, remain untouched by them. If the search for logic in the midst of chaos is a fruitless one, what then?

Give up on the illusion of control and certainty. Before the illness, Kate wrote the worlds first history of the prosperity gospel movement. That entire movement hinges on the twin jewels of control and certainty. If you follow an assortment of spiritual laws, you can control your destiny and be certain to avoid pain and suffering. The more you believe in and adhere to these laws the more control and certainty you have in your life. Of course, all of this is bogus, but as Kate expanded her search beyond the prosperity gospel, she discovered that everyone religious or otherwise tends to build systems of belief and practice that reach desperately for control and certainty. Kate has come to realize that all such reachings end in despair. She concludes that a much better way is the practice of surrender to the will of God, but she is quick to admit that she is not very good at it.

Touch me, be with me, buy me things, don’t say much. It’s the gentle love of others that is needed in times of great sorrow and suffering. Love opens the door for trust, hope, faith and anything good that can be extracted from the stony ground of pain. Her words describe it best:

“At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus…I did not tell them how few of their words are needed but how much their hands are wanted, a hand on my back as I tear up, a hand on my head for a soft prayer for healing, When I feel I am fading away, these hands prop me up and make me new…Joy persists somehow, and I soak in it. Life is so beautiful, life is so hard.”

Islam and Judeo-Christianity

51e6d1OM72L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

This was my first crack at Jaques Ellul. I’m guessing this isn’t his most exceptional work. Author Jean Claude Guillebaud refers to Ellul as “the Great Disturber,” and after reading this book, it’s not hard to see why. In short, Ellul is not a fan of Islam. He sees Islam as “a permanent military threat to the West.” He gives no quarter to anyone who might attempt to link Christianity to Islam or romanticise about any perceived virtue of this faith. For Ellul, the two religions have very little in common. One is good and (to put it mildly) the other is not.

Even David Gill who writes the forward braces the reader for impact by telling us that Ellul was dialectical in his thought and expression which means that truth is best discovered by highlighting extremes and accentuating contrasts. Dialectical is one way of putting it I guess. Gill recommends reading Volf’s book Allah, A Christian Response as a counterweight to Elulls hard-charging frontal assault on Islam because as he puts it “In the end, we must not just identify our differences, we must learn to live with them in peace.”

To start off, here are some of Ellul’s “dialectical” comments:

It is important to recognize that when Christians worship idols, are violent or anti-Semitic, they are at odds with their founding text. This is not the case with Islam.

Again we see the huge difference between the two books. In the Koran…love is irrelevant.

Some fervent supporters of Islam (in Europe) regret that the Arabs were finally defeated and repulsed (they were the civilized ones after all) These people have forgotten the horrors of Islam, the dreadful cruelty, the general use of torture, the slavery, and the absolute intolerance. It is enough to point out that wherever Islam gained a hold, strong and vital churches like those of North Africa and Asia Minor simply disappeared. And all native cultures that were different were exterminated.

I believe that in every respect the spirit of Islam is contrary to that of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

War is inherent in Islam. It is inscribed in its teaching. It is a fact of its civilization and also a religious fact; the two cannot be separated. No matter what atrocities have been committed in wars waged by so-called Christian nations, war has always been in essential contradiction to the gospel.

Christians did not invent the holy war or the slave trade. Their great fault was to imitate Islam. (Islam) Turned Christian ethics upside down in favour of what seemed to be very obviously a much more effective mode of action. For in the 12th century and later the Muslim world offered a dazzling example of civilization. The church forgot the authenticity of the revelation in Christ to launch out in pursuit of the same mirage.

There is so much talk nowadays of the tolerance and fundamental pacifism of Islam that it is necessary to recall its nature, which is fundamentally warlike…(we must do away with) the romanticized picture (of Islam). History is not an inoffensive discipline.

The world of Isalm is divided into two regions: the Dhar al-Islam and the Dhar al-Harb; in others words the domain of Islam and the domain of war. War is an institution (in Islam) Peace with this world of war is impossible.

Ellul has the moxie to state that everything terrible found in Christendom comes from the Muslims! I’m not kidding either, that is the primary thrust of this book. Personally, this assertion seems preposterous. Christians (or anyone for that matter) do not require outside influences to become utterly corrupted. We as humans are all remarkably efficient at cultivating our own depravity.

1) Christians are flabby! Says Ellul. “The intolerable meaningless of the West” has caused us to “no longer believe in anything.” Consequently, Islam becomes attractive precisely because of its uncompromising and unwavering beliefs and behaviours. People want order, and the freedom of the west leads to chaos. This soft belief of the West is a real danger to its survival.

When a church no longer knows what it believes, or why it believes it, it slides imperceptibly towards Islam. Overwhelmingly and in a short time this happened to the Monophysites of Egypt, the Syrians Nestorians, the Donatists of North Africa, and the Arians of Spain.

I think there are other better explanations for these versions of Christianity being swallowed up by Islam, then the uncertainty of belief, but the point is well taken.

2) Love vs Submission Elull’s understanding of Christianity is that it is fundamentally about love. Love can only exist in the fresh air of freedom. Islam, according to Elull knows nothing of either love or freedom. Faith in this closed system is about submission to the will of Allah. Everything is predetermined, and so one’s duty is to accept and obey. There is no room left over for a relationship with God, for struggle, mystery or even hope as there is in Christianity.

3) The Bible and Koran are nothing alike. “The Bible is about a promise and openness to freedom; the Koran is about constraint and absolute certainty” The Koran is understood as a perfectly dictated message from heaven. The Bible according to Elull comes to us when: “God speaks to a person who receives this message, who understands it more or less, who interprets it, and who writes it down.” The Bible is a paradox, a mystery and a contradiction. It looks a lot like life. The God found in its pages seeks restoration, love and relationship. The incarnation which is the center point of Scripture makes it impossible for God to be understood fundamentally as the impassive, sovereign judge that the Koran makes him out to be.

Is a book like this helpful? Yes and no. Yes because it’s important not to forget history. A straight retelling of Islamic history is so bad that most people would want to write off the telling of it as Anti Muslim propaganda. We shouldn’t do that; we need to be aware. We are sensitive enough to remove a statue of John A. MacDonald from the B.C. Legislature because he said some bad things about first nations people, but when it comes to criticising Islam, we seem to be more hesitant, more generous to give them the benefit of the doubt. This was a frustration of Ellul. In 1983 he lamented that “In France, it is not acceptable to criticize Islam or the Arab countries.” He did anyway, and as of 2018, I would say this unwritten rule of politeness towards Islam has changed. Many parts of Europe now are banning burquas, outlawing immigration from Muslim countries and putting Imans behind bars. Why? Are people coming to see what Ellul was saying all along? He does have that prophetic quality about him.

And No, because Ellul’s language is not gracious and his work is incomplete in my estimation. He doesn’t have the whole picture, granted none of us do, but he is not even trying! Many of his categorical statements are without appropriate levels of scholarship, which is a mistake given the sensitivity of the topic. What we have here is an inflammatory document full of partial truths written by a highly respected person. It is precisely this kind of stuff that could be taken by lesser men and used to promote hate. I would be surprised if it hasn’t already been pressed into service somewhere.  What the world doesn’t need more of is hate.

Is Ellul optimistic that peaceful co-existence between Muslims and non-Muslims is possible?

Only if Muslim people embrace a total recasting of the way they think, a desacralizing of jihad, a self-critical awareness of Islamic imperialism, an acceptance of the secular nature of political powers and the rejection of certain Koranic dogmas.

In others words, not really.

Flourishing​

417MSxHvlRL._SL500_

A Chuckle: I think the contents of the book could have been reduced by as much as 1/3  if all the sentences that said “as I will argue in Chapter 4, as I said in chapter 6, as I alluded to in Chapters 8 etc. etc. were removed. Whatever page you were on, there seemed to be a verbal arrow pointing you somewhere else. 

Globalization is a mess – Market driven globalization has its obvious benefits, but for Volf, the cost to benefit analysis is still very much an open question.  The author refers to globalization as the ultimate temptation to live “by bread alone.” Something Jesus, when tempted by the devil, refused to do. To live by bread alone is to live only according to mundane realities. If all that exists is bread than life is reduced to the accumulation of worldly goods and sensory experiences. Reality becomes commodified, and according to Volf, humanity is lost in the transaction. Through globalization, morality becomes subservient to material wants. Technology makes it, so human interactions are based primarily on usefulness and self-interested appeal. Volf share’s with his readers, the troubling story of the iPhone. Its creation is truly a feat of globalization, which enriches a few, benefits many, but at the same time crushes many more. Globalization’s history is the journey to “success” over the broken backs of others. 

Religion is still vital, and it’s growing. Transcendence defines human beings say’s Volf, and religions exist to connect people to that transcendent realm. Humanity will never be content with mere science and material facts. Truth extends beyond facts for humans. When people use globalization to live life to the fullest but only on the flat plain of ‘this-worldliness’ their lives become caged, hollow, and light. Religion gives meaning, orientation, and a pleasure to all our mundane endeavours like nothing else can. That’s why world religions are growing not shrinking says Volf. He backs up his claim with a fist full statistics.

Volf’s detractors fold their arms and throw shade on the stats. Relativism, they say,  comes from pluralism and since the West, thanks to globalization and technology is living together in an increasingly pluralistic society, the inevitable result will be less and less absolutism, which means less and less religion. But Volf isn’t buying it. The false assumption of this theory is that people are comfortable with relativism. They are not. So they bounce back to the stability of various forms of absolutism which are found in religion. The proliferation of relativism is precisely why all the world religions are growing at such exponential rates. 

Wait for a second! I’m not so sure

  • Is transcendence such a big deal? What if that longing for the transcendent isn’t really as crucial as Volf thinks?  What if that empty space in the heart of humanity that Augustine claims can only be filled with God either doesn’t exist or can be satisfied with more earthly supplements? From my perspective perched in the centre of a secularized, globalized urban centre these last 8 years, it appears to me that loads and loads of people don’t even think about it, or they are able to successfully fill whatever void exists through nature, relationships, meditation, reading, adventure, hobbies and the like. 
  • Is the growth of world religions a positive indicator? What if the growth of world religions isn’t good news? Volf briefly cautions against the dangers of faith groups embracing market-driven globalization at their centre, and he makes the proper connection criticizing iterations of the prosperity gospel for doing just that. What Volf doesn’t do is connect the exponential growth of worldwide Christianity to the prosperity gospel. I have a sinking suspicion that Christian growth is of the “health and wealth” variety. If this is true, then the observation switches from, “Look, world religions are growing, faith belongs at the table of this new world.” to “Look, religions are mirroring market driving globalization and are adding to the problem not helping it.”  

Unhealthy Strategies for Religion in a globalized world Globalization is here, it’s a rat race which crushes people. Religions have developed 3 lousy procedures to deal with it. 

  • Retreat from it (Click Here to read my review of the book the Benedict Option which is a strong proponent of this strategy )
  • Destroy it. This is the M.O. of radical elements of Islam. 
  • Be consumed by it — See the paragraph above on the prosperity gospel. 

Religion is too absolutist to fit in a globalized world. — Religion feels like Globalizations enemy because of its rigid dogma. Pluralism is the air globalization breathes, and absolutism poisons the air. Is that true? Can the absolutism of religion play nicely with the pluralization of our globalized world? Volf is quick to admit that statistically, things are not great for this hope. There are a lot of places in this world controlled by inflexible religious dogma which squashes the life out of pluralism. However, he denies any notion that might suggest religion and pluralism can’t work together.  They can and do, says Volf citing Roger Williams the founder of Rhode Island as his primary example. Roger was a religious exclusivist of the first order and yet he created a politically pluralistic state. 

Do religions really believe in religious freedom? — Volf makes pains to influence his readers into thinking that all the religions of the world at least at some level embrace a concept of religious freedom, this is necessary to bolster his claim that religions can and do play nicely in a pluralistic world. However, when he begins by suggesting that most Muslims believe in religious freedom, I start to have doubts. The Muslim countries that allegedly embrace religious freedom have a very different understanding of freedom than westerners do. Muslims might possibly believe in a version of religious freedom but only in so far as Islam’s veracity is never called into question, and no converts are actually made to other religions. “Freedom” to exist as a non-Muslim in a Muslim country could hardly be counted as religious freedom in my estimation. There is still a lot of work to do here among the world religions, probably more than Volf thinks. 

A word about secular humanism — Technology, politics and economics is the hope of the secularist future. It’s a misplaced hope because it doesn’t account for the passion of humanity. We need something more profound to guide us. Also, the pendulum of secularisms tolerance is swinging towards intolerance. Absolutist claims are increasingly forbidden from the public sphere. Saturation of the public sphere from only one particular point of view (Secularism) creates an unhealthy environment for everyone. Relativism becomes a dictator and chaos is the result. 

Religions value needs to be accepted by all, even if only believed by some.  Religions must shape market-driven globalization. World Religions are excellent and creative agents for change, and they make up 3/4 of the world’s population! If religions could join forces for the common good and use globalizations interconnectedness to bring justice hope and help, then religions will serve a vital role in making our globalized world a better place. It is a mistake to push religions to the margins. It is a mistake to live by bread alone, and it is a mistake to place ultimate hope in technology, politics and economics.  The acceptance of religion is the only way to correct these mistakes. 

Tea with Hezbollah​

This book comes to us because two Christian friends decided to go to the Middle East in a daring and dangerous bid to find enemies of America, sit down to tea with them, and get their thoughts on Jesus’ controversial teaching to love one’s enemies. The book is not a clever apologetic for Christianity or some technique to make the faith that comes from Jesus look better. It’s an honest search for truth. I had a hard time putting this book down because these boys at places seemed to be in real danger and their topic over tea time with terrorists was indeed something I wanted to listen in on.

No one is good at loving their enemy.

“I don’t know what I should believe with respect to governments’ use of power. But one on one, love is the only solution, and nobody does it well. Not Christians, not Muslims, not Jews” — Carl Medearis

Christian Included  I learned that the first suicide bomber was a Christian, I learned all about the Shatila massacre of 1982, In which a Christian group from Lebanon invaded a Palestinian refugee camp and slaughtered over 3000 innocents in revenge for the assassination of the then Christian president of Lebanon. It turns out the real perpetrators of the president’s murder were another Christian group from Syria. I also learned about one of the great tragic ironies of history. The Samaritans whom Jesus uses to communicate his great message of love for all were almost entirely exterminated by Byzantine Christians in the 6th century.  The Spiritual progeny of Jesus destroyed the very people upon whom Jesus built his “love your enemy” teaching. Well, that’s encouraging. Over Tea, these enemies of America didn’t even have to bring up the crusades, they had plenty of more current events to point to regarding Christianity’s failure to love the enemy.

There is always an exception to this rule. Every Muslim interviewed agreed in principle that Jesus’ teaching was more or less useful, but also that there are explicit and necessary exceptions to this rule.

  • If your enemy attacks you must defend yourself and the ones you love, you are a coward not to.
  • Violence towards neighbours and enemies is ok only if it is “In Defence” — over and over again Carl and Ted were told that every violent act committed in the name of Islam was a justifiable matter of defence.
  • “We believe that what Jesus said applies to some situations but not ours” Unnamed “freedom fighter” from Lebanon.

Once Mohammed extended love to a Jewish neighbour who regularly showed disdain for him by dumping her garbage on his steps, when asked if this Muslim folktale could be used to support Jesus’ teaching to love your enemy among the followers of Islam, the Hamas leader being interviewed flatly said: “dumping garbage is one thing, killing people is another!” I will not turn my cheek, I will fight!” and so it is, and so it will always be it seems.

A light in the darkness So was Jesus’ teaching a complete fail? Seems like it, however, there was one interview that was different than all the rest.  His name is Sami Awad. He is a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem who has been persecuted for decades by Israelis. He is regularly the object of false accusation. His property has been taken from him; he’s been arrested, shot at, and had family members deported. He has been humiliated at checkpoints and has received death threats. He has no freedom of movement, and his neighbourhood disappears from behind by high partition walls. But Sami as a Christian person believes in loving his enemies, but how? His enemies are terrible! He says the critical part of loving one’s enemies is to understand their suffering. So for him to do that,  he took a trip to Auschwitz, spent the night in what was an open grave on the grounds. Sami, found himself weeping through the night for the sufferings of Jews in the Holocaust. When he came back he knew we would continue with his non-violent protests, always resisting the gradual takeover of his land peacefully, but he understood more than ever Jewish pain, and somehow that made him not hate them. Sami was quick to say that It’s a dangerous thing to speak about peace when everyone around you wants violence. Or to talk about love when there is so much hate. I suspect that someone will probably kill him at some point. But does that make him wrong or misguided? I say no.

Quote-Worthy:

If Jerusalem is a showcase for faith, it is also a clear picture of the utter failure of organized religion to bring peace and harmony to those it purports to love. Faith may have exalted Jerusalem, but religious fanaticism has decimated it time and time again. If God had ample cause to banish Adam and Eve from Eden how much more does he have for banishing religion for his city!

Jesus gazed out over this land and said, love God and love the heretic next to you. He died for that truth.

Is it belief or behaviour that matters most? If violence is always justified in the name of defence than violence will never stop. Only Jesus’ teaching can break that cycle. I noticed that in addition to Sami there was also a Saudi and a Druze who seemed to be loving their enemies as well.  Are these guys Jesus followers without knowing it? Does belief come down to behaviour? Is it true that it’s not so much what one believes about theology, historical data, or doctrine instead what one does? If faith in Jesus is not actualized through sacrificial love for even my enemies can it even be called Christian faith? I have my doubts. But if this is true, I also have my worries, because I know that many times in my own heart, I do not wish a blessing on my enemies at all. Does that make the Druze and the Saudi more of a Jesus follower than me, even though my theological view of Jesus would be much higher than theirs?

The book is not tied up nicely with a bow at the end, loving one’s enemies seems an impossible task and Christians just like everyone else are generally terrible at it. Moreover, many of those interviewed said, it’s not even right to try to love one’s enemies. Sometimes justice is more important than love said almost everyone who sat down to tea. Are they right? The book leaves us with much room for thought. In the end, I have to side with Sami, his way might get him killed but it’s the best way, I think.

To heal someone, you must meet them where they are. This was what the Good Samaritan did. We serve them by understanding them and speaking to them in love, not by shooting at them.  — Sami Awad.

When the Heart Waits

51HjQo+wjwL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This is a book for those in transition, those who are not sure of the path forward and are perhaps even less sure of the path from which they have come. It’s for those spiritually suffocated ones who must endure what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul. This condition, explained the 16th-century priest, is characterized by a feeling of abandonment by God, as well as dryness, emptiness, and a distressing awareness of one’s own unfulfilled spiritual hunger. Its a time of doubt, and stumbling around in gloomy clouds of unknowing. 

All of a sudden this book became personal. I realized that St John was describing me! Here is what I learned.  

The evolution of faith is scary but good.

  • We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning — for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie. — C.G. Yung. 
  • We must break down our old spiritual structures, cast out false selves. The dark night forces us to stand in the chaos…without such upheaval we would likely go on as always, never deepening, never growing, never being stretched. 
  • Conversion is a continuous and lifelong process.
  • God’s truth often turns up in ways we don’t expect… We’ve built up a callus over (our faith) with our cynicism and the religious certainties that render us incapable of being surprised.
  • I have to enter the darkness of my own doubts and come through to a faith that is true to where I am now…previous ways of thinking about and relating to God no longer suffice. Old religious acts no longer bring the consolation they once did. Former patterns and selves feel like outgrown sweaters.
  • (The Dark Night) is a time to unravel the story’s and illusion’s that we’ve created about ourselves and God. 
  • We are being drawn beyond where we are into an entirely new way of relating to God. One that’s beyond anything we’ve ever imagined. 
  • We are both appalled by the darkness and outraged that old answers no longer work.
  • Most people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty. — Virginia Satir

 The one great unalterable, the unshakable pillar of one’s life is his faith convictions, right? You start tinkering with those, and everything falls apart. Indeed, it’s a scary place to be, most notably if you happen to be a spiritual leader by profession. Sadly as doubt’s and uncertainties have crept into my life, I’ve let fear and despair lead the way. Kidd uses the illustration of caterpillar to butterfly to create a hope-filled picture of what is actually happening when it comes to spiritual evolution. Unfortunately, there is such a natural tendency to settle into belief; to sign off on a doctrinal statement and then stop thinking, stop searching, stop being surprised by God. When we do this, we go into a spiritual regression characterized by sharp defences of party lines and legalism. The end of which is death.  

 Wait, be still, and listen. 

  • Waiting patiently in expectations is the foundation of the Spiritual life — Simone Weil 
  • The fullness of one’s soul evolves slowly…waiting is the missing link of spiritual evolution. 
  • How did we ever get the idea that God would supply us on demand with quick fixes, that God is merely a rescuer and not a midwife?
  • We achieve our deepest progress standing still 
  • We must be emptied of the need to achieve — Meister Eckhart 
  • Not all who loiter are lost. — Anthony de Mello
  • Hope lies in braving the chaos and waiting calmly. 
  • But we need to allow this disorientation. It’s okay to doubt and to feel the remoteness of God sometimes. We all do it if we’re honest. And if we do nothing else in our waiting, we should be honest with ourselves. The white-outs pass more quickly and stay gone for longer periods in the face of honesty, and we come to a truer faith. 

In my dark night, I’ve done the opposite, and it hasn’t helped. I’ve worked harder, prayed harder, read more, and sought to find better answers. These efforts just added fatigue to my discouragement. I’ve stopped trying so hard, my prayer times are more about listening than talking. Sitting quietly on a park bench stilled from all distraction, waiting patiently for God has come to characterize my devotion times more than the consumption of vast amounts of Scripture and the verbalizing of names on endless prayer lists. 

In the struggle don’t lose wonder and humour. 

  • The strenuous process of soul-making does not require the abandonment of Joy. Enjoy “God’s little Jokes”…hold on to the celebration of becoming. 
  • Our eyes become so faceted on goals that we forget to wonder in the presence of a rose — Sam Keen.

 Living well in the tension of paradox and unanswerable’s is spiritual maturity.  

  • What has happened to our ability to dwell in unknowing, to live inside a question and co-exist with the tensions of uncertainty?
  • Creativity flourishes not in certainty but in questions…questions of faith act as agents inviting us to a deeper spiritual experience. 
  • We must learn to dwell creatively with the unresolved inside of us. 
  • I beg you…to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves…live the questions now. — Rainer Maria Rilke. 
  • Living with questions can be a miserable experience we like things fixed, figured out, and nailed down. People who want life nailed down into tight legalistic certainties seem to me to be the people most insecure inside…the most frightening people of all are the ones that are dead certain about everything
  • Souls are activated whenever they experience the pain of contradiction or the sustained state of questioning. The actual groping and searching is the way our deeper self evolves and is released.

 I don’t have to know. I don’t have to understand fully. Truthfully, on the big questions of life certainty is impossible anyway. Sometimes I wonder if good people like Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell and other apologists have unintentionally turned the journey of faith into a factoid search. I hope not, because that is precisely what kills it.  

  The trouble is people want answers. If I just pose questions and live comfortably in the tension of mystery how will the church I started ever grow? The question is my problem. Who cares about church growth! I’m pretty sure Jesus doesn’t. It’s the soul that must grow. Soul growth doesn’t happen through pat answers and attendance records. What is a healthy, soul growing church?  It’s a few people on a long journey together asking lots of hard questions! As I reflected on this, it occurred to me to let the tension of unanswerable questions and paradox serve me like my morning stretch routine. Tension is necessary for both physical and spiritual health.

The Benedict Option

81EqbdoEXQL.jpg

It’s Time for Christian’s to Disappear! 

What? Yes, to hide, to go underground, to withdraw to the margins of society, in some cases literally “head for the hills.” We have entered a dark age for Christianity, and the only way to preserve the seeds of faith is to form small Christian subcultures that intentionally orient their lives fully around the worship of God. These cell groups will practice out of their faith through the rigorous keeping of church traditions, liturgy, and the church calendar. They will practice asceticism, (fasting, prayer, and limitations on distractions & entertainment)  live close to one another and share life together. The absolute priority of these small groups will be to pass on the faith to the next generation. Just like Benedict did in the 5th century. 

Why must Christians go into hiding? 

Secular humanism is the dominant narrative of our time, it runs in complete opposition to Christianity. It’s like a riptide at the beach, the current is just too strong now to resist. All Christians who remain immersed in the surf of our culture will eventually be swept out to sea and lost. The linchpin of cultural Christianity according to Rod Dreher is its views of sex, sexuality, marriage and gender. The Christian worldview doesn’t work with today’s view of whatever, whenever, however, and whoever. If a Christian tries to draw a moral line in the sand that is different from the cultural norm of “be whatever you are” and “love is love” he is shot down with increasing brutality. Also, Christianity needs contemplation and prayer to work but today’s society is constantly abuzz with one distraction after another, followed by one temptation after another. The section that details the staggering amount of pornography consumption in the West and the latest scientific studies about its adverse effects on the brain is unnerving, to say the least. Dreher is unashamedly alarmist. The Western world is not a safe place to hang out anymore if you are a Christian. All Christian efforts to be relevant, missional, or “cutting edge” need to be stopped in the interest of survival. 

What exactly are we talking about here?

  • No more public school education — Putting your kids in public school is “spiritual suicide” says Dreher. And most Christian schools are not much better either. The only solution is what he calls “Classic Christian” education, or homeschooling of a similar vein. 
  • If you are a compromised professional, quit — It’s going to be increasingly difficult for Christian lawyers, doctors, educators, politicians, nurses and the like to avoid having their convictions compromised in their workplaces. The solution says Dreher is to quit. Christians must become comfortable with less money and less notoriety.  He suggests working in the trades, becoming an entrepreneur, or taking up farming.  
  • Move in close to each other. Geographical proximity will be necessary for the dark night ahead.
  • Create a self-contained sub-culture. Dreher has no time for Christianized imitations of the world, whether that be pop-Christian music, radio, technology, consumerism. Etc. Etc. The sub-culture he envisions is unashamedly counter-cultural. Entirely other from the world in which we now live.  

Should we be worried? 

In 8 years living as a missionary embedded in the secular culture, I can certainly see his point. I’ve seen more Christians leave the faith then come into it. I’ve experienced first hand the increasing hostility of influential people who don’t share my Christians worldview. I at times have felt the enticing currents of secular humanisms pull. I’m concerned for sure about the decidedly non-Christian fashions that entice my family and me. My neighbour from Iran lamented to me that his daughter is losing the Persian language and culture, “I can’t keep up” he said. “We practice in our home, but all day at school it is English, English, English.” His daughter is being assimilated into the English Canadian world, not the Farsi Persian one. Is the same happening to us with our Christian heritage? We are teaching Christianity in our home, and at our worship gatherings, but all day, it’s secular humanism, secular humanism, secular humanism. Can I expect anything less than assimilation for my family and me if something more drastic is not done? Dreher’s point is to resist assimilation at all costs. He fears that most Christians are already functionally assimilated, believing in what he calls Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism, rather than Christianity. “Be nice, be happy, God is not really involved.” Indeed there is a dearth of Biblical and Theological understanding among so many who purport to be Christian. 

Is it time to buy 40 acres in northern B.C.? 

Should I take my family and friends and go “off the grid” to preserve our way of life? That strategy is not without historical precedent. Monks, Mennonites, and Puritans have all made that move in times gone by. Is Dreher a prophet of doom whose dire warning I must head? Undoubtedly much of what he says is not without merit and Christians would do well to consider what strategies might work best towards a more comprehensive form of Christian indoctrination. However, I would like to offer some gentle push back as I conclude this review. 

  1. Don’t let fear dominate. The whole message of the book is driven by fear. All is lost if we don’t radically separate ourselves from the cesspool that is our world. Love not fear should dominate our worldview. Are there not things in our culture today that by our very presence we can redeem? Can we not appreciate truth and beauty wherever we find it, even if it is not necessarily Christian? The answer is yes to both these questions. Fear forces us into the false dichotomy that “Christian” is good and “Non-Christian” is bad. 
  2. Serve do not Run. We have lost our voice to be sure, but we have not lost our hands or our feet. We can serve; indeed, we must! My input is not welcome at our local public school that has been made abundantly clear; however, I can still stack chairs, and run the BBQ on Sports Day. Is that not Jesus’ message to us when he washed the feet of his disciples? 
  3. Follow Jesus’ example. Jesus our Saviour and our model for worldly interaction was a friend of publicans and sinners. He regularly scandalized the religious separatists of his day through his intimacy with those who did not think or act in line with him. 
  4. Education is not the Saviour. I’m not convinced classical Christian education is the panacea Dreher claims it to be. Never have I witnessed praises heaped so high upon an educational system before. Perhaps Dreher was overstating his case to make his point. 
  5. Let us not confuse tradition with the gospel. It’s an easy thing to let non-essentials become essentials, especially if they are cherished and have had a long cultural shelf life. This is not a new problem. Every generation of Jesus followers since the first century have attempted to innovate, to grow, to change, to morph, to evolve their faith in a variety of ways and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The big bag of “cultural Christianity” that Dreher wants to carry with him into the back 40 may actually need to be emptied of some of its contents. Christians are at their best with less cultural baggage, not more.
  6. Sex is not the centre of cultural Christianity. Unquestionably Christian views on sexual morality are at odds with the culture of our day, but they have always been at odds with the natural inclinations of the human heart. In this sense, there is nothing new here, except a stern reminder for Christians to take the beam out of our own eye first! The linchpin of cultural Christianity is love, not sexual restraint. Self-sacrificing love that manifests itself in forgiveness, perseverance, patience, and kindness is the mark of true Christianity. Love that extends a worshipping hand to God and a helping had to others, whatever their belief system or sexual point of view might be. 

The book certainly scared me, but I’m not moving up north just yet, check back with me in a years time, and I’ll let you know if I’ve changed my mind!