Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Reading and Experiencing “The Shack” at the Shack

To begin with, I am not much of a fan of things that are specifically labeled as “Christian,” whether art, or music, or books, or movies, or radio stations, or television channels, or high schools…well, you get the picture.  Most art and music used to be inherently Christian, without having to adopt the moniker.  I think of the beauty of the Sistene Chapel or the novels of Dostoyevsky; neither artist set out to create something specifically “Christian,” so much as to worshipfully compose works that were reflective of the presence of God in the world.  Somewhere along the way, Christianity fell behind the ranks of “secular” artists, and rather than attempt to create something original and beautiful, it decided that imitation is the best form of flattery.  And so came about the rise of Christian rock and inspirational literature, which by and large is fluffy and superficial, taking the best of what’s popular and turning it into a “precious moments” art-lite insufferable mess of God and pop and family friendly kitsch. 

Now certainly there is still Christian innovation in the world of the arts; I think of the music of mewithoutyou, Gungor, and Reed Jones and the visual art created by my good friend Todd Buschur. And it would be faulty of me to say that no good comes out of the paintings of Thomas Kincaid or the “Inspiration” section at Barnes and Noble. 

With all of that in mind, I am especially suspicious of Christian Fiction.  I have a great love for literature and for novelists who over the centuries have been able to weave faith into their writings without sacrificing literary quality.  And I hold a special reprehension for authors who pump out masses of skin-deep pulp Christian books for the sake of a few dollars (I’m thinking of you Tim Lahaye!)  So it was with a great degree of wariness that I picked up and began to read “The Shack” by Wm. Paul Young. 

I had heard about this book several years ago from some friends who absolutely raved about it.  But being in my cynical undergraduate stage, I dismissed it.  My dad, however, decided a few years back to purchase copies of “The Shack” for the family, and being the dutiful son that I am, I proceeded to pick it up, read a few chapters, and then put it away on the shelf for safe keeping (and to gather dust). 

This weekend, my wife and I went on a retreat to Maple Ridge Ministries, a stunning pastoral suite located on the back of a minister’s property outside of Zanesfield Ohio.  Outfitted with a deck overlooking the forest, a hot tub, a small but quaint sitting room, a kitchenette, bedroom, and bathroom, and the sounds of nature, we were thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to get away from “the world” and connect with one another on a deeper level.  I brought along with me my copy of “The Shack,” hoping I could blaze through it in time to sell it at the garage sale this coming weekend.  Surprisingly, I have found myself to be totally immersed and engaged in the world that Young created.

For those who have not heard the synopsis of this book, I will try to not spoil too much of the plot.  Suffice it to say, the story centers around a man, Mack, who suffers a horrific tragedy and is left in a great depression.  Upon discovering an anonymous note inviting him to return to the scene of the tragedy, the shack, for the weekend, Mack apprehensively makes the trip.  At the shack, Mack mysteriously encounters the three persons of God, “Papa” who comes in the form of a large, jovial African-American woman, Jesus, a middle-eastern carpenter, and Sarayu, the Holy Spirit in the form of a small, effervescent Asian woman.  Through  various episodic encounters, Mack discovers that his perception of God and God’s interaction with the world has been wrong and is able to work through his deep hurt and anger, which God patiently allows him to voice.

At the risk of sounding unintelligent to my academic friends, the theology contained within “The Shack” is solid.  Young creatively explores the doctrine of Trinity without attempting to systematically explain the nuances and implications of their relationships.  He even talks about them in the sense of a circle of love, which even theologian Clark Pinnock could appreciate.  Along with that, Young discusses the power struggle between God and humankind and how this has affected a multitude of relational structures in the world, including the connection between men and women. 

But, one of the most striking elements of theology that Young attempts to disseminate is the presence of suffering in the world.  And in spectacular fashion, he takes it slowly, allowing both Mack and the reader time to fully digest the character of God in relation to the evil that so affects our lives.  Young was able to express my exact feelings towards the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  That God created humankind and allowed for our freedom because love cannot be true if it is forced, and because of our freedom we chose to sin and invited evil into creation.  And this evil has warped creation so that we today experience all kinds of atrocities, such as murders, rapes, genocide, warfare and diseases.  And none of these events are caused explicitly by God, but rather they are the result of a free world given over to sin.  Of course, this is a simple enough thing to type, but it’s much more difficult to assimilate into our belief systems when we are the ones experiencing hardship and heartache.

But that’s the beauty of “The Shack;” the reader is allowed enough time to empathize with Mack’s emotions and experiences so that by the time this answer is revealed, it does not seem so harsh and cold. It helps too that this response is given not in an academic setting but in a loving relationship to a present God. 

During my reading, there was one particular response that God gives to Mack that struck me hard and fast.  Mack, lamenting over the unnecessary occurrence of the tragedy and his inability to understand its purpose, says “I just can’t imagine any final outcome that would justify all this.”  (129)  Who of us has never asked this question, when a loved one gets diagnosed with terminal cancer or when we lose a job that we’re dependent on to feed our family or when a young child dies in a terrible car accident on a beautiful day?  What possible good could come out of those situations?  How can God justify them?  “Papa” responds to Mack by simply saying, “We’re not justifying it. We are redeeming it.”  (129)

And there’s the answer to our suffering.  God has no need to justify why those things happen because He (or she in this case) did not cause them to happen.  They are a result of a sinful and fallen world.  However, God does not stand idly by at the torment of His creation.  Instead, He mourns alongside of us and seeks to redeem, or to make right, the situation.

I have experienced my own “shacks” in life:  certain situations and events that I wish I could take back but know that I can’t, tragedies that I desire to control but cannot change.  And I have struggled, and continue to struggle, to understand the great question, why?  Why God?  Like David crying out to God over his son Absalom, I have felt a deep and unending despair, wanting to know how God is going to justify all of this. 


It’s not about justification at all; it’s about redemption.  The question was never, “God, how can I change the past?”  It has always been, “God, will you redeem my present?”  And the answer has always been a resounding “YES, just stop trying to control it and let Me take over.”

So now comes the truest and most difficult challenge for all of us; how do we let go of control?

I haven’t yet finished the book, and I look forward to see Mack’s painful journey come to fruition.  In the same way, I am looking forward to seeing the conclusion of my own journey through suffering, and yours as well.  I am experiencing “The Shack” at the shack (which really isn’t a Shack, it’s incredibly nice, Google it.)  And I continue to pray for God’s revelation and my own release. 


Monday, April 22, 2013

Challenging the American Christian Public System: Review of A New Evangelical Manifesto-A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good

*Originally published in Englewood Review of Books

No matter how many times I read about evangelicals, their history, their theology and their current work, I find myself struggling to piece it all together, to explain who they are and how they came to be.  Perhaps it is because it is not a centrally defined movement and so much of its history and faith is nebulous in that it started in different places by different people who acted in different ways with similar core beliefs.  In the introduction to A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good, editor David P. Gushee offers his definition of evangelicalism as a foundation for the essays that are to come:
“…evangelicals are spiritually serious, theologically orthodox, evangelistically engaged, morally earnest Protestant Christians, members of hundreds of particular denominational traditions and tens of thousands of congregations all over the country." (p. ix) 

In this characterization, Gushee does not explain what evangelicals believe but rather wishes to define the movement as a wide variety of adherents apart from the most radical sects within, usually identified as right wing conservatives and fundamentalists. 
Gushee prefaces this book by saying that it sprang out of the work being done by the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.  His hopes are that the essays contained within would promote the principles of the mission statement of the organization.  It is too long to reprint here, but I will include portions of it that I think are necessary to understanding the particular stance of this group and their aims in the collective essays.

“Christians by definition are those who bear witness to our faith in Jesus Christ….one way is to offer proclamation and action concerning the moral will of God for human communities…some Christian moral witness occurs at national and international levels, where many significant challenges to human well-being are often created and addressed.  Christians have no choice but to engage religious, economic, cultural, and political institutions with our best efforts to articulate and embody the love and justice of Jesus Christ for the well-being of God’s world.” (p. x)

Specifically, the NEP wishes to engage the world in these ways: 
“We want to see Americans to choose to believe in Jesus and live as his disciples.  We see that the evangelistic and discpling work of American Christianity has been badly damaged by a generation of culture war-fighting-some doubt Jesus…because of Christians...We want to see an engagement of Christians in American public life that is loving, rather than angry; holistic, rather than narrowly focused; healing, rather than divisive; and independent of partisanship and ideology, rather than subservient to party or ideology.  We see in many sectors a Christian public engagement that calls itself Christan while often damaging the work of Christ and violating the teachings of Christ…We want to see a Christian public witness that reflects the actual life, ministry, and teachings of the Jesus Christ we meet in Scripture and expience in the church at its best.” (pp.x-xi)

Saturday, March 30, 2013

“I Bought a Book on Minimalism” and Other Ironies

Sometimes I like to imagine an alternate reality in which I am a lighthouse watchman and my wife and I life in a small cabin with few possessions.  It’s not so much the profession that I’m drawn to as it is the simplicity inherent in this kind of lifestyle.  And though I could live this way in the place that I am at now, I have found that it is such a great struggle to let go of my possessions.

More and more I am drawn to the concept of minimalism and what it might look like in my life.  Several weeks ago, my wife, some friends and I participated in a “possessions fast” as a part of our Lenten experiment to give up excess.  My job for that week was simple:  to get rid of 42 items, 7 each day of the week.  I had been looking forward to this for a while and am pleased to say that not only was I able to give up 42 of my “toys,” but that since then I have potentially doubled (maybe tripled?) that number.  There’s something invigorating about letting go of things; every item given away (or trashed or sold) is another burden or obligation lifted off of my shoulder.  I no longer have to use or make time to use that item, and I am freer to enjoy the simpler pleasures. 
Since this time I have been reading the blogs Becoming Minimalist and The Minimalists which, while also giving guides to de-cluttering different parts of your life (because minimalism isn’t just about things, it also involves our time commitments as well as other areas of our lives), offers helpful articles on different aspects of a minimalist lifestyle and provides links to other bloggers and articles.

Along with that, while at the Simply Youth Ministry Conference, I had the chance of running across Joshua Becker’s book Living with Less: An Unexpected Key to Happiness.  I was excited to lay my hands on this short primer on the Biblical impetus and benefits of reducing our possessions.  Becker, the author of the Becoming Minimalist blog, wrote this book specifically as a guide for teenagers, but I really have found it be a great starting point for anyone interested in beginning this journey. 

In the introduction to his book, Becker writes:
"Nobody really believes it.  Nobody really believes possessions equal joy.  In fact, if specifically    asked the question, nobody in their right mind would ever say the secret to a joyful, meaningful       life is to own a lot of stuff.  Deep down in their heart, nobody really thinks it’s true.  Yet almost all of us live like it is.” (pg. 1)

Becker spends part one of the book examining Jesus’ story for our lives, a story that is much richer than the riches we are promised will bring us happiness.  He explores several Gospel passages in which Jesus deals with the issues of money and possessions.  I appreciate his take on the parable of the rich young ruler from Luke 18:18-23.  He criticizes the common pastoral response to Jesus’ command for the young man to sell all his possessions and give to the poor, saying that when we make this a broad application to deal with whatever holds us the most captive from following God, we miss the deep and convicting truth that just maybe Jesus was really talking about money.  (pgs. 20-22)  Personally, I think Jesus had a definite purpose in that command; He himself modeled a life of poverty and simplicity, if we expect to follow after Jesus, shouldn’t this also be a part of that following? 
In part two, Becker shares his journey towards minimalism.  He first began considering this “movement” when one Saturday, he was unable to play ball with his son because he was too busy attempting to clean up and clean out the garage.  His neighbor, noticing the situation, began a conversation with him that ended up with her sharing about how her daughter is a minimalist.  (p. 31)

I wonder, in my own life, how often I have been so consumed with cleaning, organizing and even using my “stuff” that I have missed out on some important time spent with my family.  I say “I wonder,” but of course deep down, I know the answer.  Absolutely I have allowed the use and upkeep of possessions to interfere with the more enriching family moments.  I have been too “tired” to take a walk with my wife and dogs, but not so tired that I don’t end up watching six episodes of “Psych” in a row.  I have spent Saturday after Saturday trying to make a dent in the mess that becomes my room upstairs (I have a separate room for my books, music, and desk) when I could have been outside.  And, though I fantasize about being a famous author and blogger, the truth is that sometimes I would rather just play video games.  So no, I don’t really wonder. 
In this section too, Becker defines what minimalism means to his family.  He breaks it down into four statements:

          1)  We will intentionally promote the things we most value. (p. 38)
         2)  We will remove all “clutter” from our lives. (p. 38)
          3)  We will use our money for things more valuable than physical possessions. (p. 39) 

*(As a side note, I have been considering what this might look like in my life.  I am wondering if, rather than expending money on “things,” I should buy tickets to several Dave Matthews Band concerts in our area this summer.  He is one of my favorite artists, and the concerts have been pretty euphoric experiences for me.  If you would be interested in a two day stint in Indianapolis, let me know!)

         4)  We will live a countercultural life that is attractive to others. (p.40)

As I look over this list, I notice that only one of the four deals intentionally with the reduction of possessions.  The rest address the way in which we will prioritize our time.  Will we allow ourselves to be consumed by consumerism, or will we strive to get the most out of the short time that we have been given? 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

God is on the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter: A Review

(*Reviewer’s Note:  I am reviewing a pdf. copy from NetGalley on Kindle which does not include page numbers.  I will do my best to indicate from which areas of the book I use citations.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, minister and theologian living in Germany during the rise of Nazism, was imprisoned for taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler.  In 1945, three months before he would be executed, he wrote the poem New Year 1945 about his hope for the coming year, in spite of all of the tragedies that had happened in the world the year before.


When now the silence deepens for our harkening
Grant we may hear Thy children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening

their universal pain, in Thy praise.

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,

boldly we’ll face the future, be it what may.

At even, and at morn, God will befriend us,

and oh, most surely on each new year’s day


Each year, the church experiences the season of Lent and Easter as hope in the face of tragedy, which makes the writings of Bonhoeffer a perfect accompaniment for our journey towards the cross. 

God is on the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter(Westminster John Knox Press, 2012) is a devotional text of collected writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant to be read daily in preparation for Easter.  In fact, it is a specific reworking of selections of text from a devotional collection released previously by Westminster John Knox Press entitled I want to Live These Days with You:  A Year of Daily Devotionals. Jana Riess, the editor, wove into the original text Scripture references from the NRSV and what she calls “bonus material” (xi) ,additional selections from other works of Bonhoeffer which tie into the devotional for the day. 

A theme is given to each week, week one being prayerful reflection, week two self-denial, week three temptation, week four suffering, week five the cross and finally devotions for Holy Week.  To draw the reader towards the “why” of using Bonhoeffer’s works, the editor notes that “These reflections have been chosen especially for Lent and Easter, a time when the liturgical calendar highlights several themes of Bonhoeffer’s beliefs and teachings:  that self-deinal is a necessary aspect of a Christian life; that the cross is central to human understanding; and that, without the atonement, every one of us would stand forever in the role of Judas.  Overall, the theme of suffering for Christ runs through Bonhoeffer’s work as one of the “costs” of discipleship. (Editor’s Preface) 

To help establish the context of the writings, the editor provides a brief biography of Bonhoeffer’s life in the preface.   Many of the secondary texts are drawn from letters and works written during his imprisonment and prior to his untimely execution by the Nazi state.  An example of this can be found in the bonus material for the first Sunday in Lent, an emotionally moving letter written by his fiancée, Maria Von Wedemeyer regarding the tragedy and hope of his situation, that we can commune with God and one another in spite of physical barriers and like the great paschal story, there is more to life than this present earth.  “My dearest Dietrich, every morning at six, when we both fold our hands in prayer, we know that we can have great faith, not only in each other but far, far above and beyond that.  And then you can’t be sad anymore either, can you?”

My biggest struggle with the general structure of this book is that the primary devotional texts drawn from the various works of Bonhoeffer aren’t cited.  In fact, I had to do some digging through the front of the book to find that these specific texts were already printed in another collection.   The editor does not tell even from where in the other devotional these texts are taken; one can only assume that they come from the correlating Lenten and Easter texts.  As one who enjoys looking to the original sources, I struggle with the amount of legwork that one would have to do to find from where specific quotations come.  Additionally, the bonus material is cited, but it isn’t plain at first whether or not the primary devotional and the bonus material come from the same source:  they do not.   The Scripture references, though, are clearly sourced. 

Structure aside, the selections chosen are mostly very good and appropriate for the selected themes of the week.  For the Ash Wednesday devotion under the first week theme, “Prayerful Reflection,” we are given a text from The Cost of Discipleship which sets the tone for the narrative scope of this devotional collection:   “Jesus emphasizes that each of us has his or her own cross, ready, appointed, and approximately measured by God.” 

From there the editor chooses readings about the power of meditation, the ever-presence of God and enduring hope in our faith.  From the devotion for the first Monday in Lent, “A faith that does not hope is sick…We will one day have to be ashamed, not of our hope, but of our miserable and anxious hopelessness that trusts nothing to God, that in false humility does not grasp where God’s promises are given, that is resigned to this life and cannot look forward to God’s eternal power and glory.”  The editor then connects this passage with Jeremiah 29:11, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” 

As with any attempt to connect Scripture with other writings, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  The difficulty of assessing this is that much of its related quality is subjective; to me, the devotion and the Scripture do not seem to connect overly well aside from sharing the word “hope.”  However, this may contain a strong connection to other people and serve as a very meaningful pairing. 

On the other hand, I believe that the editor made a very strong connection between the secondary devotional material and the Scripture reference for the second Thursday in Lent.  The theme for this week’s devotions is “Self-Denial.”  In a letter to Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer writes:   “You must know that I still have never regretted for a moment my return in 1939, nor anything which then followed.  It all happened in full daylight and with good conscience.  The fact that I sit here now (in prison) I reckon also as participation in the fate of Germany , to which I committed myself.”  Dietrich felt convinced that he could never again serve the German people if he did not suffer with them.  The editor connects this act of self-denial to Paul’s description of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-8:  “and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross.”  Jesus, through his own actions asserted that the path to ultimate service of others was denial of self.  Bonhoeffer’s decision to remain in Germany, then, is an awe inspiring modern day example of fulfilling this form of self-denial.  As a reader, I could see this connection and recognize the full scope of Jesus’ calling, that true acts sacrifice and self-denial are much more difficult than giving up chocolate for Lent.

And so through these types of connections and many others in this work, the reader can gain a deeper sense of the terrible journey to the cross, the awe of the resurrection, and the heavy implications of following after Jesus.  In this way, the devotional succeeds. 

If there are areas in which the reader cannot make such a strong connection, there are many good one-shot devotionals, bonus selections, and Scripture references. 

For instance, in the primary devotional text for the third Wednesday of Lent, “In the Wilderness,” Bonhoeffer writes:
“God removes from his son all human and creaturely help.  The hour oftemptation is supposed to find Jesus weak, alone, and hungry.  God leaves human beings alone in temptation…

What must remain incomprehensible to all human, ethical, and religious thought is that in            temptation God does not reveal himself as the one who is gracious and near, who arms us with all gifts of the spirit.  Rather, God forsakes us and is quite distant from us.  We are in the wilderness.”

Despite the sometimes experienced hopelessness in our own stories, being able to connect with Jesus’ narrative, as Bonhoeffer does here, allows for a mystical, trans-generational commiseration on temptation, that these things we experience are not unique.  Jesus, in his journey towards crucifixion, experienced temptation, and because of His sacrifice we can ultimately experience freedom from this “wilderness.” 

Reviewing any devotional material can be tricky; I recognize that this is not one cohesive narrative, rather it is a collection of snippets from other narratives, structured together thematically for shor, inspirational reading.  The editor set about a noble task in working with Bonhoeffer, though; to provide a deeper alternative to the many Easter devotionals out there that read more like “Christianity Lite” instead of touching on the true darkness of the season.  There are certainly flaws in the structuring and some of the pairing, at least from my perspective, but if you are looking for some devotional readings to turn your heart towards the cross that come from one of the premier theologians of this last century, this is more than a good start. 

Thursday, February 28, 2013

7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess Week 3-Possessions

It is always astounding to me the kind of attachments I put on my things.  They serve as memory keepers, unique collections, sheer entertainment, and in many cases I use them to bolster my identity.  Of course, I am not always active in labeling them in this way; however, these thoughts do come up whenever I consider getting rid of my things.  You see, week three’s fast focuses on possessions, and frankly, I’ve been looking forward to this one. 

My wife and I, since getting married, have gone through cycles of purging our possessions.  Much of our drive came from different books that we read during college and examples of simple, communal living that we had heard about, such as the Simple Way community in Philadelphia.  Several years ago I read Art Gish’s challenging book Beyond the Rat Race which made me seriously consider the different ways that I have bought into the materialism of the “American Dream.”  It was one of those works with a message that, unfortunately, I could not ignore.

Every time Erin and I finish another round of possession purging, I feel certain that this is it, that there couldn’t possibly be anything but the bare necessities left.  And every time I am proven to be drastically wrong.  The fast for this week is to “give up” seven items each day for the six days.  That’s forty two items, which, depending on how you look at it, may or may not be a challenge.  An added difficulty to this fast is that I got wild hair about a month back and did a quick purge of a few things that seemed to be cluttering up our space. 

But, committed to the fast, I began, again, to meticulously search the shelves.  This time, the items did not seem to jump at me as easily as before.  However, threw much rigor, I have been able to let go of more clothes, books, movies, music and several odd items.  I even threw away several sentimental items.
Some items of note:

-A DVD copy of “Goonies,” my all time favorite movie.  I have a Blu-Ray copy.

-A butane Statue of Liberty Lighter from my senior trip to New York.  It hasn’t had fuel in it since it first ran out and has successfully been gathering dust in my desk for the last eight years.  But I just needed to keep it!

-The paperback copy of Salem’s Lot that I read under the covers of my bed in third grade.  It’s seen much better days, and I have a much better print. 

During our Wednesday night church group, we read through Isaiah 55:1-2, one of the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday. 
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. 2 Why spend money on what is not bread ,and your labor on what does not satisfy?

How disgustingly appropriate.

As a pastor, there aren’t very many vices that we are allowed without too much consternation on the part of the congregation.  Basically, we are permitted to overeat and spend money, both practices which I have been known to indulge in from time to time. 

One of the ways in which I “relieve stress,” as it were, is through “retail therapy.”  However this doesn’t happen with the traditional shopping spree.  Rather, like a chess player, I like to meticulously plan how I will spend the extra cash I have, maximizing its potential on valued items, usually media products such as books, movies and music. 

The Isaiah passage serves as a strong reminder that the “things” towards which I labor do not ultimately satisfy.  The hours I spend browsing and planning my next purchase should not have as much control over my life and my labor as they do.  I buy books that I do not have time to read and movies that I will watch twice, and even as I click “confirm order” on, I am thinking of the next purchasing conquest in which I may endeavor. 

At the same time, I am increasingly attracted to minimalism and micro-living, two practices which could not live any further away from the bounds of materialism.  So there exists within me a constant inner tension between the desire to consume and the desire to purge. 

 Recently I read a blog from “Miss Minimalist” on de-cluttering your inner fantasy self. A fantasy self is the person that we imagine ourselves to be; we then surround ourselves with things based on this image.  She writes about her own fantasy self, a collector of antiquities which she dutifully carried from place to place in hopes that she might, someday, be able to fill a nice home with these various conversation pieces.   In the blog she writes:  All too often, we hold on to stuff because it represents who we think we should be, rather than who we are. Sometimes our fantasy selves are meant to impress others; sometimes they’re relics of our past; sometimes they’re fantasies about our future.”  Some of the fantasy selves that she describes include a “culinary diva,” a “fitness guru” and a “globetrotter” whose possessions are all reflective of their owner’s fantasy. 
Let me describe to you my fantasy selves (because like Legion, there are many).  In my mind I am…

-A multi-instrumentalist jazz musician and record collector.  This explains the multiple guitars I use infrequently and my burgeoning collection of music as well as books on music. 

-A film critic.  I have a revolving collection of hundreds of DVDs in my short life which have been sold (for very little profit, DVDs retain little value) in order to purchase more DVDs (and now Blu-Rays), all to impress nobody. 

-A world renowned writer and collector of books.  Between my home and my office, I could have over 1,000 books (probably more than I realize).  I shop book sales and thrift stores, Amazon and Ebay, to find the books that will define my interests, who I perceive myself to be, and how I would like others to think of me.  My collection includes classic literature, poetry and books on writing, an extensive theology collection, works on black history and religion, etc. 

With all of this in mind, I am not a hoarder.  In fact, due to our frenzied purging every year, our house probably has much less than the average American household.  But to me, it’s not about the amount of “stuff,” it’s about the significance I put upon my things, and whether or not my labor is being spent on items of eternal significance.

This will be, for sure, a battle not easily won.  I’m fighting against not only the pressures that American culture has put upon me but also the pressures I put upon myself.  In many senses, I’m taking back precious ground that has been given over to materials for quite some time. 

I don’t expect this process to end after this week, but I pray that the challenge serves as a continuation of God working to remind me that my identity lies in Christ, not my books.   

Thursday, February 14, 2013

7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess Week 1

This Lenten season, my wife and I are foregoing the usual 40 days of fasting from one specific item or practice and instead are partaking in a social experiment.  We, along with several friends, will be participating in the study version of 7:  An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, purchase at, by Jen Hatmaker. 
In the book, Jen  and some friends choose seven justice issues that they will interact with, one each month, by altering their lifestyles and habits in a way to better understand the hold that excess has on their lives and to draw closer to God.  The interactions look something like this:  for one month she will only eat seven items of food.  For another month, she will only wear seven articles of clothing (discounting socks and underwear).   And for another month she will only shop at seven stores.  And so on.  The book then chronicles her joys, struggles, and frustrations with these fasts, often in very funny ways.

As stated before, we will be using the study version, which lasts only seven weeks, rather than seven months.  This happens to correspond almost perfectly with Lent, so now seemed like a great time to start.  For seven weeks we will fast from certain practices or alter the way that we live in order to draw our minds away from the excesses of the world and towards a greater understanding of justice and a reliance upon God as we journey towards the cross and Easter. 

The first week is focused on food.  The suggested practice for this week is that we would eat only 7 items of food.  It’s amazing to realize how much of a variety there is in my diet when I have to pare it down.  Jen really states it best when she writes:  “Picking seven foods is like trying to pick my favorite kid.  Some people eat to live, but I live to eat.” (11)

Easy, I thought.  I’m on the road two days of the week for school, and I’m often so busy that I can’t really make a full meal.  So in some ways I believed that I would be relieved without the burden of choice. There were a few considerations that I had to make, though.

 I recently started dieting and taking supplements for working out, though, so good sources of protein needed to be taken into consideration.  Beyond that, I am a caffeine addict and cannot function well without my standard half to full pot of coffee in the morning, accompanied by a Diet Dr. Pepper in the afternoon.  Since it is a fast, and there should be SOME sacrifice, I decided that I could forgo the soda (pop) for the week; coffee alone should suffice.  Besides, there’s nothing wrong with brewing a pot as an afternoon pick me up, right?
After a lengthy discussion with my wife, we decided on 7 items that we should be able to reasonably survive with for the week without missing out on any important nutritional factors.  And we decided to center these items around the idea of simple meals.  So for the week, our diet would consist of:


Deli Turkey
Black Beans

Notice that I didn’t put coffee in there.  That’s actually eight items for me.  Admittedly, I am a cheater from the get go, and my wife is just a better person than me.  There, I said it.  Moving on. 
We chose rice and beans as one of our meals, recognizing that this is a staple food for many countries.  So in an effort to begin to understand what it is like to live without the freedom of choice, we cast our lot in with this simple meal, which also happens to provide a fair amount of carbs, fiber, and protein.

Interestingly enough, there were a series of events which led to a trying start to our fast.  Before I recount these, though, I need to say that our land-friends (I don’t like the term landlords because it sounds like…well like lords), are awesome.  They take amazing care of us, and we are so grateful for their love and concern.  The events I will discuss have nothing to do with them; they worked their hardest to help us, the incidents were really only unfortunate because of timing and weather conditions. 
And so, the week before, our bathroom was being painted.  This was a blessing, but as we have only one bathroom, it displaced us from showers for a couple of days and messed with the feng shui of trying to herd two active dogs around without disrupting the painting process.  On Friday, we had mostly reclaimed our bathroom when our furnace broke.  Sadly, it turned out to be a fairly brisk (see freezing) weekend in Ohio, and so the core temperature of our house quickly dropped to 48 degrees.  We were assured that our heat would be on by Monday night, so we attempted to be scarce around the house until our climate troubles were righted.  Unfortunately, and due to nobody’s fault, this was not able to happen until Tuesday; after that, the workers continued to piece together the new furnace throughout the week.  This all created an “out of the norm” atmosphere (it’s all fine now though!).  On top of that, we were beginning this fast, which removed many of the comfort items we would normally have turned to (i.e. pop, chocolate, ice cream, Chinese buffet!).

In the midst of this, I was planning for our Ash Wednesday service.  In doing some historical and contextual research for the sermon, I stumbled across this little factoid:  it is a common practice to fast on that day.  Great!  Fasting has not been a regular practice of mine for some time, and I thought that this seemed like the perfect occasion to begin again.  And so in the midst of my 7 fast, I was taking an even stricter fast, to be broken again by the 7 fast.  It was like a fasting Oreo, a delicious Oreo that I could not eat because it was not one of my seven items.   
The week was certainly not without its struggles and temptations.  As a pastor, I have many opportunities for breakfast and lunch meetings; much business can be done (and should be done) over a cup of coffee and a piece of pie.  This week, it seemed, held more of those types of meetings than usual.  And so frustration has run a little high; why couldn’t we pick a week to fast when there would be no meetings (and no small group with delicious dessert)?  We really should’ve carefully planned this fast in such a way that we were sleeping most of the time.  But, that would really negate the purpose of the fast, wouldn’t it?  After all, it is only six days.

Week one’s fast has given me an opportunity to consider the excess of food in my life.  Not only do I simply eat too much (as do most Americans) but I am so blessed to have a great cornucopia of food at my disposal.  I can eat peaches in February, shipped from somewhere in South America because it is nowhere near time for peach harvest in the U.S.  I can choose from a variety of organic cheeses at premium prices:  mango cheddar, chocolate cheddar, jalapeño havarti, smoked baby Swiss!  And if I want, I could place those delicious chunks upon any number of wheat, whole-grain, or even cornbread crackers and top them with a smoked meat or fig jam or some kind of vegetable shaving.  And I could eat all of that until I explode! 

All the while, people in the 2/3rds world are happy just to have eaten at all. 

It’s only been four days and I’m ready to throw out the rice and beans and never look at deli turkey again.  What is it about excess that makes us so unappreciative of what we have?  I resonate with Jen’s words of reflection and reassurance during her food fast.

“I’m doing this for a reason.  This is a fast, a major reduction of the endless possibilities that accompany my every meal.  It is supposed to be uncomfortable and inconvenient.  Not because I’m narcissistic but because the discomfort creates space for the Holy Spirit to move. This shake-up of my routine commands my attention. I can no longer default to normal, usual, mindless, thoughtless.  It’s like having an eyelash under my contact all day.” (16)

It’s hard not to think about food while fasting or not to long for something not included on my list.  And yet I think that this longing is healthy; it puts my life into perspective, realizing that I really am fortunate to have been born into the circumstances in which I live.  That I am not in want of anything and that to many people my “meager” seven items would be a feast.

And it forces me to rely on God just a little bit more.  In these sorts of situations, I am constantly reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:26:  “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”  Well, yes, God assures me that I am valuable.  And He has always provided for me.  And I have the audacity to look at the manna that he has provided and say, “This is great and all Lord, but can’t I have a little bit of ketchup or Siracha with this?”

Lord, forgive my unappreciative spirit; teach me to live simply and enjoy the bounty you’ve laid before me.  And Lord, every once in a while, may I please add some Frank’s Red Hot Sauce?  Amen. 



Saturday, February 2, 2013

Facing Death Without God: A Christian's Response to "Mortality" by Christopher Hitchens

Originally Published in the Englewood Review of Books

“Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know, live and die on this day, live and die on this day.”

             -John Ottway from The Grey


“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,”

-Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 (NIV)


Christopher Hitchens never met a cow so sacred that he would not gleefully serve it medium-rare with a glass of red wine (or more-likely scotch), if the mood struck just right.  As a journalist, he endeavored to explore, unravel, and critique the largely unchallenged parts of society.  In doing so, has taken on Christianity and religion as a whole, the Pope, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and even dear Mother Theresa in his short work Missionary Position:  Mother Theresa in Theory and in Practice.  For some, he has been on the radar for quite some time as an author, speaker, and avid spokesman for atheists.  For others, his name has only recently cropped up with the much hailed release of his series of essays entitled Arguably and his posthumously released memoir on the process of dying from cancer, Mortality.  It is the latter that I would like analyze and respond to in this article. 


Many Christians have balked at his abrasive approach to faith and his heated debates with those pro-religion.  As a Christian, I became interested in his thoughts on death and dying as related to his own experience and what this would look like for somebody who does not believe in any kind of higher power or afterlife.  In fairness to his experience, I wanted to read the book from a point of listening and understanding rather than with defense or critique.  In addition, I have read through parts of his great Atheist manifesto, God is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything, to better understand his worldview. 

Mortality is Hitchens attempt to starkly and actively view and participate in his own death, unfettered by the trappings and hopes of religion.  In fact, in God is Not Great, he attributes the popularity of religion to a fear of death.  “Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable.  It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.[1]  He often referred to this experience as “living dyingly.”[2]  Even the cover, the title mortality in plain white contrasted against a black background with his name in gray, emits an air of uncompromising stark challenge to the reality of life and death. 

The chapters in the book represent the chronological advancement of his cancer and the various issues that arise with continued medication, loss of function, and grappling with Mortality, all a part of living in what he called “Tumortown.” 

Mortality begins with Hitchens recounting the experience of discovering that he may have some kind of cancer.  “I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death.  But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse.”[3]  From there he describes traveling to the hospital and the various tests that showed he had esophageal cancer, which would spread to the lymph nodes and eventually invade his entire body.  This was eighteen months before he would eventually succumb to the ravaging effects of cancer. 


Throughout the book Hitchens takes the reader on a journey, in his own fashion, of dealing with the self-consciousness of losing faculties and abilities once precious to you, like growing hair on your upper lip and being able to speak.  He addresses the Christian reaction to his cancer, which ranges from a vengeful “God is smiting you” response to prayer groups, whom he largely rejects because he, as an atheist, does not believe in the efficacy of prayer.  He also talks about the etiquette of correspondence between those who reside in Tumorville, sickness, and the shadow of death, and those of us who cannot empathize with this experience, and how both sides have a lot to learn about passing off the burden of responsibility to one another.  And in the final chapter we are treated to unfinished sentences and paragraphs that he never got to craft into a cohesive whole. 

To understand Hitchens’ approach to death then, one must understand his approach to life.  Among many other things, he spent a great deal of time combating proponents of faith and religion, especially the Christian religion.  Hitchens, as described in God is Not Great, was a lifelong atheist from an early age.  At one point, he goes so far as to say that he is not an atheist, but an anti-theist.  His work was not centered on co-existence with or tolerance of religion, but rather in reputing, disproving, and ridiculing it.  As a progenitor of the modern atheistic movement, Hitchens provides in God is Not Great a pseudo-manifesto for himself and his fellow free thinkers to their objections to religious faith:  It propitiates the creation myth which makes man servant to some higher power, that it is the cause and result of sexual repression, and that it is just “wish-thinking.”[4]  He also asserts that ethical living is certainly possible without religion while in the same token religion has spurred the faithful towards immoral lifestyles, “in ways that would make a brother-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.” [5]   According to Hitchens, religion is a man-made phenomenon,[6] and man, not God, is the creator.  “God did not create man in his own image.  Evidently it was the other way about.”[7]   This creation, then, has “so retarded the development of civilization.[8]  In subsequent chapters, then, he uses historical violence as proofs that religion is a catalytic force for crimes against humanity. 


As an example, Hitchens talks about Abba Eban, a diplomat from Israel, who on a visit to New York noted the ease in which the Irael-Plaestinian debate could be solved.  He remarks to this:  “And so it would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it.  But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stoked by Amrageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war.  Religion poisons everything.  As well as a menace to civilization, it has become a threat to human survival.”[9]


Admittedly, I struggle with the vicious tone of his argument, and yet, I cannot help but agree with him on some points.  History, viewed from a certain lens, does paint a bleak picture of the social efficacy of religion.  Beyond the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, 9/11 and the Jonestown massacre, religious sentiments inspire everyday attitudes of racism, sexism, homophobia, and a general sense of dividedness between people with differing points of view.  And Christianity, a religion founded on the law of Christ that says to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself, is the chief of sinners. 


That being said, I disagree with his basic definition of religion.  Hitchens sees religion from a popular, well accepted point of view, that groups of people who claim to have faith in some kind of lifestyle, law, or higher being and turn their lives towards that faith are religious.  This of course includes both theistic religions, such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as atheistic religions, such as Buddhism and Confucianism.  He also assumes that religion is an entity separated from other outside influences such as state and national power, and that any motivations towards violence and other forms of oppression were founded in the religious beliefs rather than an outcome of syncretism with national or patriarchal values.   Furthermore, using William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence, I would assert that one cannot define religion without including other typically non-religious entities such as nationalism and patriotism.   


In the book, Cavanaugh undertakes a veritable Goliath of a project:  challenging popular modern thought that religion in the public sphere is dangerous because it encourages violence, as evidenced in history.  And one might wonder how one man could tackle all modern “opponents” of religion who would cite that history reveals its violent tendencies.  Cavanaugh, however, asks a simple question and cuts down popular arguments at their roots:  what is religion?  Can anyone properly define religion?  And if they do offer a concrete description, then how does one separate religion from secular?  He painstakingly searches through the foremost scholars who argue on this subject and reveal how, at one point or another, their theses fail because they assume that religion is just “understood.” 


Cavanaugh also addresses historians’ inability to separate religion from politics, economics, etc. in history, and in fact exposes the subversive revisionist history that occurs when one posits that the idea of secular even existed prior to the modern age. 


And so, in the third chapter of the book, Cavanaugh addresses the myth of wars of religion, which incidentally are used as the primary source material for arguing that religion is inherently violent, while the secular society is not.  He does so by arguing that “the myth of religious violence is inextricably bound up with the legitimation of the state and its use of violence.”[10]  Religion, therefore, is not the great “poison” in society because it is not the source of all evils.  It certainly has been used in the name of violence, but religion cannot be separated from state, from personal desires for power and money, and therefore cannot be the sole blame for the problems of the world.

That being said, Christians’ reactions to Hitchens cancer certainly do not prove that their God is indeed a God of love. 


Hitchens shares in Mortality this online entry from a “Christian” responding to the announcement of his cancer.  I warn that this anonymous contributor would make Pat Robertson proud.  I realize that this is a long quote but for the sake of Christians who do not wear condemnation as a badge of honor, it needed to be known that not all who claim to follow Jesus subscribe to this retributive garbage, neither do we all believe that suffering is a natural outpouring of God’s wrath upon those deserving sinners. 

 “Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer (sic) was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?  Atheists like to ignore FACTS.  They like to act like everything is a “coincidence.”  Really?  It’s just a “coincidence” (that) out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy?  Yeah, keep believing that, Atheists.  He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire.”[11]


I do not deny that amongst my fellow believers, there are those that wish to make their point through assuming to understand the will of God; and yet, I know of enough children who have died of cancer to recognize that the advent of this disease is not directly proportionate to the level of blasphemy in one’s life.  But again, no wonder Hitchens holds a grudge against religion.


In a subsequent chapter, Hitchens writes on the etiquette rules of how the living interact with those in the process of dying.  Oftentimes to attempt to reach out to or relate to others we try to empathize with stories, which, to Hitchens, is our “attempt to cover the awkwardness in diplomatic relations between Tumortown and its neighbors.”[12]   In that same manner, Hitchens feels that it is necessary for the sick person to show restraint in his or her sharing with others. 


I would agree that, in the Western world especially, we do not know how to let others die graciously.  With all of the advances of modern medicine coupled with the ability to live far beyond what our body was meant to handle, we do not know how to accept death as a natural conclusion to life or how to ease others into this acceptance.  We are fixers and storytellers, and so to fix we tell our own stories, hoping that somehow their conclusions might inspire others.  And all the while we are imposing ourselves onto others.  Death has become so taboo that we cannot navigate it from either side of the hospital bed. 

Diana Butler Bass, in her book A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story, contrasts the way that modern society reacts to death versus the way that the medieval church faced it. 


Unlike in our society, where we hide it, death surrounded medieval people.  They had few       hospitals, and so churches, poorhouses, and homes handled the dying and the dead.  Death was not a distant prospect at the end of a long, healthy life.  It was integrated into ordinary experience.  Medieval life was transitory, a journey through this world that often ended too soon and too abruptly.  Death was often violent and unexpected.  Extended death, through illness and in one’s own bed, was actually a blessing.  Death was part of everyday life; medieval people considered their deaths regularly.”


With this context in mind, the medieval church was more readily equipped to dialogue with death and the dying, rather than attempting to “make everything okay” through empathy and casseroles. 


Hitchens, in making his point, though, criticizes another recent author who attempted to discover meaning of life and death through positive reflection upon dying of cancer:  Randy Pausch.  Of Randy Pausch, a college professor and author of The Last Lecture, Hitchens writes:  “It should bear its own health warning:  so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it…It ought to be an offense to be excruciating and unfunny in circumstances where your audience is almost morally obliged to enthuse.”[14]


In the same way that the uninitiated “healthy” should not try to impose their own feelings upon the sick, the sick should not capitalize on their experience through the sympathies of others.  Of course in establishing this segregated society, the sick are alienated and the healthy are not given the opportunity to learn of the dying experience, whether or not one views it while wearing “sugary” lenses. 


In the fifth chapter, Hitchens talks about the painful experience of losing his voice.  For a man who made a great deal of his living through public speaking, this was a particularly nasty side effect of cancer.  To Hitchens, writing was only one component of his work, one that did not yield nearly the same impact without his ability to speak as well.  In talking about all of the painful medical procedures that he had to go through to address his cancer, Hitchens writes that “What do I hope for?  If not a cure, then a remission.  And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language:  the freedom of speech.”[15]


Some of his final thoughts, Hitchens addresses one of the most common aphorisms that both the sick and the healthy subscribe to when considering any kind of illness, malady, or stress:  whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  To this, Hitchens responds:  “In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.”[16]  He discusses Nietzsche, the author of this quote,  and notes the irony in his own life that when he contracted syphilis, the disease only proved to rot his mind rather than strengthen his resolve, and so his experience negated his own philosophy. 


As I sit here, editing this article and re-watching the Liam Neeson thriller, The Grey, I cannot help but reflect upon the similar approaches to death between Christopher Hitchens and John Ottway, Liam Neeson’s character.  In the movie, a plane taking workers from an oil rig in remote Alaska to Anchorage crashes in the vast, desolate wilderness, and the survivors are forced to defend themselves against the elements and a pack of wolves as they attempt to travel to safety.  Ottway, an atheist, makes a plea with God to show him some sort of sign that He is watching.  When no response is given, Ottway gives up and resolves to finish on his own.  At the movie’s denouement, Neeson squares off against the leader of the murderous wolf pack who had killed the rest of his companions with only a knife and several shards of broken glass taped to his hands as weapons.  As the two stare into one another’s eyes, readying themselves to lunge, Neeson recites the poem at the top, “Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know, live and die on this day, live and die on this day.”  He faced his death with a cold hard stare and a steel resolve, refusing to allow himself the comforts that religion might have offered. 


In that same way, Hitchens gritted his teeth, stared death in the eyes, and lunged fists forward.  Nowhere in the book does he turn to religion as a sedative, as he feared may happen, though at certain points he allows a bit of fear and humanity to gleam through his hardened exterior.  And he left the world his legacy, a bleak, unflinching look at mortality.  Yet I wonder in all of this, what did Hitchens really accomplish?  What can one learn from his encounter with death?  Certainly we can treat cancer patients with greater kindness and dignity and attempt to love others as ourselves, even if the “other” happens to be a militant anti-theist.  But there is no happy ending, no hope; there is nothing but earth and darkness, cold and nothingness. 


For me, as much as I appreciate understanding his mind and experience, I cannot accept that the beauty of this life flares out into ashes.  Nor would I suggest this to others suffering from fatal illnesses.  Because I cling to hope found in religion, that humanity was created with the purpose of loving God and this world and restoring it back to some semblance of peace, that we can see evidences of the truthfulness of this faith in creation, history, reason, and Scripture.  And that death does not have to be greeted with a cold hard stare, but rather, it can be welcomed as the conclusion to our journeys here on earth and the entrance into our promised life with God in eternity. 





Bass, Diana Butler.  A People’s History of Christianity:  The Other Side of the Story.  New York:     HarperCollins, 2009.


Cavanaugh, William T.  The Myth of Religious Violence:  Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern            Conflict.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009.


Hitchens, Christopher.  God is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything.  New York:  Twelve, 2007.


Hitchens, Christopher.  Mortality.  New York:  Twelve, 2012.




[1] Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, (New York: Twelve, 2007), 22.
[2] Christopher Hitchens, Mortality, (New York: Twelve, 2012), 97.
[3] Ibid, 1.
[4] Hitchens, God is Not Great, 7.
[5] Ibid, 9-10.
[6] Ibid, 18.
[7] Ibid, 13.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid, 41.
[10] William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, (New        York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 124.
[11] Hitchens, Mortality, 12.
[12] Ibid, 42.
[13] Bass, Diana Butler Bass.  A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story, (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 118.
[14] Hitchens, Mortality, 43.
[15] Ibid, 55.
[16] Ibid, 60.