Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.

inversions

Recorded in 2014, these songs are sort of a chronicle of my journey through a pastoral burn-out last winter. They deal with themes of mental-health, spiritual burn-out and depression, but also with the inexorable presence of God in the midst of darkness. Click the album art to download.

soundings

soundings
click image to download
"soundings" is a collection of songs I recorded in September/October of 2013. Dealing with themes of hope, ache, trust and spiritual loss, the songs on this album express various facets of my journey with God.

bridges

bridges
Click to download.
"Bridges" is a collection of original songs I wrote in the summer of 2011, during a soul-searching trip I took out to Alberta; a sort of long twilight in the dark night of the soul. I share it here in hopes these musical reflections on my own spiritual journey might be an encouragement to others: the sun does rise, blood-red but beautiful.

echoes

echoes
Prayers, poems and songs (2005-2009). Click to download
"echoes" is a collection of songs I wrote during my time studying at Briercrest Seminary (2004-2009). It's called "echoes" partly because these songs are "echoes" of times spent with God from my songwriting past, but also because there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.

Accidentals

This collection of mostly blues/rock/folk inspired songs was recorded in the spring and summer of 2015. I call it "accidentals" because all of the songs on this project were tunes I have had kicking around in my notebooks for many years but had never found a "home" for on previous albums. You can click the image to download the whole album.

blogs I follow

random reads

Book Reviews

Book Reviews
The Shallows, Nicholas Carr
In this very readable, very thought provoking analysis of electronic communciations technology and its impact on our brains and culture, Nicholas Carr brings together media theory (think Marshall McLuhan), history (think Gutenberg) and neuroscience (think discoveries in brain plasticity) to show how computer technology is shaping us in ways of which we are only dimly aware. He argues that such technologies reduce our capacity for deep, creative and sustained linear thought (or at least have the potential to do so) and predispose us to the fragmented, the cursive and the superficial. Worth the read.

Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf

Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit, Edith Humphrey
A fascinating and engaging introduction to spiritual theology-- or the theology of spirituality, as the case may be. This book is a very scholarly, devotional, christo-centric, ecumenical and trinitarian overview of what it means for Christians to live in the Spirit and with the Spirit within. Bracing and enlightening.

Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender

five smooth stones for pastoral work, Eugene Peterson

From Darkness to Light: How One Became a Christian in the Early Church, Anne Fields

Life in the Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell
Snell's Life in the Ancient Near East offers a social history of the ANE, tracing the earliest settlement of Mesopotamia, the development of agriculture, first cities, ancient economy and the emergence of empire. Bringing together a rich variety of data gleaned both from the archaeological record and extant historical texts, he tells the history of this cradle of civilization with a special eye for the "human" element - focusing on the forces and factors that would have directly affected the daily life of the various strata of society. Worth a read generally, but all the more for someone with a particular interest in the biblical stories that find their setting and draw their characters and themes from the same provenience.


The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Richard Davidson
Davidson's Old Testament theology of human sexuality is stunning in its achievement, challenging in its content, and edifying in its conclusions. Davidson addresses every-- and I do mean every-- Old Testament text that deals (even obliquely) with human sexuality, and, through detailed exegesis, careful synthesis, and deep interaction with the scholarly research, develops a detailed picture of the Old Testament's vision for redeemed human sexuality. 700 pages of Biblical scholarship at its best.


Eaarth, Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben's Eaarth, is a call for us to wake up smell the ecological coffee...while we can still brew it. Unlike his previous work, or any writing on ecology I've yet read, however, Eaarth does not argue that catastrophe is pending. Instead, he argues that catastrophe has arrived, and that our all talk about "going green to avert disaster," "and "saving the planet" is woefully obsolete. In ecological terms, the planet as we once knew it is gone, he argues, and rather than trying to "avert" disaster, we need to start figuring out how to live in the disaster that's happened. Key themes he identifies as important for life on planet Eaarth resonnated with me as profoundly Christian ways of being (disaster or no). We must stop assuming that "bigger" is better; we must acknowledge limits on economic and technological growth; we must get reacquainted with the land; we need eschew self-sufficency and nurture community.

Love Wins, Rob Bell
So fast and furious has the furor over this book been, that any review will inevitably feel redundant or tardy. Given the crowd on the band wagon by now, I actually had no intention of hopping on myself, but my kids got it for me for Father's Day. About 15 pages in, I realized that I could probably finish it in on good push, so I got it over with. My thoughts: probably the most over-hyped book I ever read; I loved it and found it frustratingly under-developed at the same time; while he raises some important issues, his handling of them reads like a yoda-meets-Tom-Wright account of salvation; nothing C. S. Lewis hasn't already said more clearly and more cleverly; I'm glad he wrote it, and I'm glad the Evangelical world has errupted over it the way it has, and I hope a much more spirited and generous and optimistic understanding of soteriology and eschatology will infuse the evangelical church's mission as a result.

Rediscovering Paul, David Capes et. al.
Rediscovering Paul is a hepful overview of Paul's life, times and theology. While at times I felt it might have gone deeper, or expressed its ideas more clearly, it provides some interesting and inspiring insights into the man behind the letters. Among these is its discussion of the communal aspect of first century letter writing, and the influence of one's community on one's personal sense of identity, and how those issues might have played out in Paul's writings. Another challenging issue that it tackles is the whole process of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world, especially as regards the role a scribe often played in shaping the text, smoothing out the langugae or providing stock phrases, etc.


Lavondyss, Robert Holdstock
If you've read George MacDonald's Lilith, then think of Lavondyss as sort of a Lilith-for-Non-Christians. It's the convoluted labyrinth of a story about a young girl called Tallis and her adventures in a magical wood that brings the Jungian archetypes buried deep in our subconscious to life. Dense with questions about Jungian psychology, and the spiritually-thin-places of the world, and death and myth and magic and story, it's pretty tough slugging at times, but thought provoking and challenging. At times I felt like I was reading the Narnia book C. S. Lewis might have written if he had pursued the "stab of northerness" in directions other than the Christian Faith where he found it eternally satisfied.

Jesus and Money, Ben Witherington III
My friend John Vlainic once ranked Ben Witheringon as one of the strongest Biblical scholars in the Wesleyan tradtion working today. This thin but powerful volume is evidence to support such an accolade. I opened it expecting (judging by the cover) either a how-to book on Christian finances, or (judging by the other books I've read on Christ and Money) a hodge-podge of Bible verses taken out of context and mushed together as proof texts about the tithe. I got neither; instead, Ben Witherington walks slowly, thoughtful and exegetically through the breadth of Biblical teaching, with special sensitivity to the cultural context of the various texts, the tension between Old and New Testament teaching on the topic, and the differences between modern and ancient economies. If I were to recommend one book to develop a biblical theology of money, it would be this one.

The Gravedigger File, Os Guinness
My first taste of Os Guinness, and, if you don't mind a mangled metaphor, it went down like a bracing pint of... well... Guinness. Grave Digger file is sort of a "Screwtape Letters" project on a church-wide scale. In concept, the book is a series of "training files" for an undercover agent attempting to undermine and ultimately sabotage the Western Church, delivered from the pen of a seasoned saboteur to a young agent recently assigned to Los Angeles. In plot, the young agent ultimately defects, and delivers the "Gravedigger File" into the hands of a Christian, urging him to alert the Church to the operation. It is bursting with "things that make you go hmmm..." and deserves a second, careful read with pen in hand, ready to mine it for its scintillating and eminently quotable lines.

Happy Holidays!

I hope everyone's Christmas celebrations were blessed with all the peace, joy, hope and love the season has to offer.  I realize that, as far as this blog is concerned, it's "been a long time since I did that stroll" (to quote Led Zeppelin).  I am planning to reboot terra incognita for 2014, though I've decided to take things in a slightly different direction. When I started this blog back in 2009, I was looking for a space to vent all the pent-up theological steam I had accumulated in five years of Seminary.  Five years later, I've exhausted most of that steam by now (pun intended).  And, given I have so much opportunity to practice theological writing in my day-to-day duties as a pastor, I've decided to use this space for more creative writing projects.  Expect to see more poetry, songs, word-play, story-telling and humorous sketches.  I'm currently working on some "reserve material" and I'll be resuming regular posting (my goal is twice a week) in the New Year.

Until then, and as a taste of things to come, I'm posting my annual album of home-made music.  Each year I try to do a recording of original songs and offer it as an online Christmas gift to friends, family and passers-by.  This year's project, an album I'm calling "soundings" was recorded in the garage through September and October.   You can click here to download.  Enjoy.  Merry Christmas.  See you in 2014.

Teaching the Gospel of John

I was teaching Bible out at Pine Orchard Camp this week. We've worked our way through the Gospel of John, using what I call the "helicopter approach" (i.e. touching down on key texts, looking at them closely, and then "lifting off" to see how the same themes/ideas fit into the bigger picture of John's Gospel). I wanted to make the material for this study available in digital form, and figured the blog would be the quickest way.

If you're interested in downloading the Gospel of John material, you can download it by clicking here.

On the Occasion of His Thirty-Ninth Birthday (a poem)

I'm still standing
this side of forty
and the view's okay in both directions:

Another chapter
for my story
with no more answers than I have questions.

Not Gone, Just Thinking

In light of my recent lengthy silence in the blogosphere, let me assure you that I was not called out on assignment with the British Secret Service, nor was I abducted by aliens, nor did my recent work on the theology of technology scare me off of blogging once and for all.  I didn't go anywhere.

It's just that spring was long and late and dreary this year, and I had a lot on the go, and somehow or another, blogging just never seemed to make the cut whenever I made the "A-List" of "Things to Do Today."  It's not you, it's me.

But the break has been good.  I've been thinking through some big-picture stuff regarding this blog, and feeling like it's time for some re-purposing.  When I started terra incognita four plus years ago, it was because I needed a venue for my pent up theological musings; and then it was to chronicle of my new life as a pastor.  These days, though, I have plenty of venues for theological musing that use up a lot of the energy that would otherwise have been devoted to the blog; and my life as a pastor has found enough of a regular rhythm that there doesn't seem as much to chronicle anymore that's all that new.  I don't wish to shut down terra incognita, but, like I say, I'm looking to re-purpose it.

Ideas are still in development, but I'm thinking about making it less a "theological musings" space and more a creative-writing space (think fiction, poetry, story, songs).  This will probably mean fewer posts, but more interesting posts when they come along.  I'm planning to take the rest of May to reflect on what the new face of terra incognita might look like, and then June and July to do some initial writing without the pressure of posting, so you probably won't hear from me for a few more months. 

In the meantime, if for no other reason than to keep the spark glowing, I'm posting a song from my last recording project, echoes.

This is a new arrangement of a song I wrote and recorded almost 10 years ago; the song's called "windhover," and it's based on a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem of the same name.  It's about hope and joy and longing for release.  Enjoy.




 

Thinking Theology and Technology III: Technology Among the Powers

Before examining what, exactly, a “redemptive, realistic and intentional” use of technology would look like for Christians, it is perhaps helpful here to note some of the ways it exerts a spiritual influence over us, to show why, after all, we have listed it as one of “the powers” the way we have. Though this field of study is still relatively young, a number of sociologists, psychologists and media theorists alike have begun to examine the impact of internet technologies on our culture, our society, and even our brain anatomy. Their findings suggest that technology does indeed have a significant spiritual dimension. In particular we will look at the impact of these technologies on our social interactions, on our experience of cultural diversity, and on our mind’s capacity for traditional spiritual disciplines like silence, focused prayer or meditation on Scripture.

In her 2011 book Alone Together, MIT technology specialist Sherry Turkle identifies one of the ironies of our relentless use of social media: that “[Americans] brag about how many they have ‘friended’ on Facebook, yet [they] say they have fewer friends than before” (Turkle, 280). “Technology,” she argues, “has become the architect of our intimacies. Online we fall prey to the illusion of companionship, gathering thousands of Twitter and Facebook friends and confusing tweets and wall posts with authentic communication.” In particular, her research suggest that these technologies predispose us towards interactions that are superficial (in that they encourage us to meticulously engineer our online image), inauthentic (in that they encourage us to lie about or experiment with our online identity), insecure (in that they encourage us to craft our online messages carefully, sometimes obsessively, but then to post them as though they were spontaneous), and above all, ambiguous (in that they convince us that such superficial, inauthentic and insecure interactions are actually deep, authentic and safe). Turkle notes, for instance, the way such technologies have conditioned young people to avoid or even to fear face-to-face interactions (191); or the phenomenon of “risk-free” online confessing (236); or the way “we defend connectivity as a way to be close, even as we effectively hide from each other” (281).

Turkle’s work is of special concern for a theology of technology, inasmuch as authentic, deeply connected community is central to our experience of salvation, our spiritual formation, and our ongoing sanctification. We might consider 1 John 1:5-7, as one of many examples where the Bible aligns spiritually healthy community with a deepening life with God. Though Turkle is not specifically interested in Christian spirituality, her work suggests that our growing and unreflective dependency on social media makes the kind of “fellowship with one another” envisioned in 1 John 1:7 increasingly rare and ephemeral. In Turkle’s own words: “in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. Sometimes people feel no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. And they report feelings of closeness when they are paying little attention. In all of this there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind, and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?” (12).

This brings us to a second area where we see the spiritual impact of internet technologies: their tendency to isolate us from perspectives different from our own. Again there is an irony here. Though social media promise to increase the range of our social networks, they actually shrink them, because they feed into our natural tendency to identify only with the like-minded. Sometimes called “the echo chamber,” a number of observers have noted this phenomenon: because it uses similarity as the main criteria for connecting, the internet tends simply to echo our own opinions back to us. Social activist Eli Parsier analyzes this problem extensively in his 2012 book, The Filter Bubble: How the Personalized Web is Changing What we Read and How we Think. He looks in particular at the “personalized filter algorithms” that sites like Google, Yahoo News or Facebook use to customize the information we encounter on the net. These filters draw on a variety of statistical data about individual users to predict what the user’s preferences will be, and then “tailor” their query results to fit them. As an example, Parsier describes the day he noticed that Facebook had systematically removed all the “politically conservative” links in his Facebook feed, based on the types of searches he (as a political liberal) had been making. In a 2012 TED Talk, he suggested that filter-bubbles like these are moving us “very quickly towards a world where the internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.”

The ethical, and subsequently the spiritual implications of the world-wide “echo chamber” deserve careful theological reflection here, because, as Paliser argues, “the structure of our media affects the character of our society.” A society that never has to encounter ideas that challenge, stretch or contradict it is likely to develop an ethically stunted character; a Christian who never has to encounter ideas that challenge, stretch or contradict him is likely to develop a spiritually stunted character. Indeed, for Christians especially, such “filter bubbles" should raise particular concerns. They feed a natural (but unbiblical) Christian tendency to retreat from the world and surround ourselves with those who think and act just like us (see 1 Cor 5:10 for warnings against such isolation). They reduce our appreciation for the radical gospel vision of unity in diversity, as people from “every nation, tribe and tongue” worship the Lamb together (see Revelation 5:9, 14:6 to catch the vision). And they limit our ability—even perhaps our desire—to genuinely speak the truth to one another in love, by pandering to the false belief that one’s own narrow, individual perspective on the truth is all the truth that needs telling (see Ephesians 4:15).

Along with the fragmentation of community and the creation of spiritual “echo chambers,” a third dimension of technology that deserves special consideration here is the physiological impact it is having on our brain-functioning . In his 2011 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that technologies are never simply “exterior aids” but are also always “interior transformations of consciousness” (Nicholas Carr, 51). He cites a variety of neurological research which suggests that the brain is far more plastic than previously thought, continually adapting itself to the tasks it is called upon to perform; and he refers to a number of studies which suggest that the particular tasks the brain is called upon to perform while surfing the web have begun to change the way the brain learns, thinks, and process information. “The Net’s cacophony of stimuli,” he argues, “short circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again” (119). In particular, his research suggests that the internet physically reduces our capacity for deep, sustained, and focused thought; that it develops the habit of scanning superficially for easily digested data-bites while reading; that it actually hinders our ability to concentrate and remember and imagine and reason. “The mental functions that [we] are losing” he warns, “are those that support calm, linear thought—the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument, the ones we draw on we reflect on experiences or contemplate and outward or inward phenomenon” (142).

The kind of research Carr cites in The Shallows has huge implications for our theological analysis technology, because so many of the traditional spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith—lectio divina, prayer and meditation, silence, Scripture reading and so on—to say nothing of the more intellectually rigorous disciplines like theology and apologetics—require us to “traverse lengthy narratives,” to “reflect on experiences,” and to “contemplate outward and inward phenomenon”. If Carr is right when he argues that the internet actually discourages these mental functions, wiring our brain instead to be especially good at “locating, categorizing and assessing disparate bits of information in a variety of forms while we are being bombarded by stimuli,” then as ominous as it sounds to say it, it may actually be changing the way we know, and experience and relate to God.

Thinking Theology and Technology, Part II

Whew! This is turning out to be harder than I thought.  Here is the second section in my draft of a "theology of technology."  Still only at the "thinking out loud stage," but here's what I got:

II. Christ and the Powers: Technology Disarmed, Technology Redeemed

From the vantage point we gain when we view “technology” as one of “the powers,” we are better able to see how the Gospel of Christ informs our response and redefines our relationship to it. After all, though the Bible says very little about Facebook, it has very much to say about “the Powers” and the way Christians ought to relate to them.

In Colossians 1:16, on the one hand, Paul affirms the Powers as a part of God’s good created order, insisting that all things (and he specifically includes “the powers and the principalities” in the list) were created by and for Christ. This moves us out of black-and-white, good-or-bad dualisms when it comes to things like developments in social media or the ubiquity of the Internet. It allows us instead to recognize and affirm the positive potential off all such technologies, while at the same time insisting that they are not “ultimate,” that Christ is the Lord of world, even of the world- wide-inter-web. (See also Ephesians 1:21, where Christ is pictured enthroned in the heavenlies, “far above all ‘power’.”)

On the other hand, of course, the Bible is hardly naive when it comes to the fallenness of the Powers. Paul states quite strongly that “the Powers and Principalities” are ranged against us in the struggle of the Christian life (Ephesians 6:12), and he implies just as strongly that in their fallenness the Powers do not recognize the Lordship of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:8). This keeps us from blindly accepting technology as “given” or “spiritually neutral,” and forces us to acknowledge that if they are to serve Christ, “the Powers” must be both dethroned and redeemed.

This brings us, at last, to the Cross of Christ, allowing us to see how the Gospel actually shapes our relationship to things even as seemingly mundane as the text-message. In what is probably the pivotal text for any theology of technology, Colossians 2:15 describes the redemptive work of the cross and then applies it specifically to the Powers. “God has disarmed the powers” he writes. “He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them through the cross.” The word translated “triumphing” here (thriambeuō) is actually a technical term for one of the special victory parades a Roman General would make through the city of Rome after a successful military campaign. They would lead their troops, their chariots, and especially their prisoners of war in a victorious procession while the citizens cheered in triumphant celebration. Paul applies the potent symbolism of such a parade to the work of the Cross, indicating that through his death and resurrection, Christ has stripped “the Powers” of their idolatrous claim on our lives, nullifying their influence over us, and making them now to serve his purposes for them (in much the same way a defeated prisoner of war displayed in a public “triumph” served the political purposes of the Roman Empire).

Because the “disarming of the Powers” is so abstract but also so essential to any theology of technology, Berkhof’s analysis of Colossians 2:15 is worth quoting here: “Christ has ‘disarmed’ the Powers. The weapon ... is struck out of their hands. This weapon was the power of illusion, their ability to convince men that they were the divine regents of the world, ultimate certainty and ultimate direction, ultimate happiness and the ultimate duty for small, dependant humanity. Since Christ, we know this is illusion. We are called to a higher destiny ... we stand under a greater Protector. ... Unmasked, revealed in their true nature, [the Powers] have lost their mighty grip on men (sic.). The cross has disarmed them; wherever it is preached, the unmasking and the disarming of the Powers takes place" (ibid, 39).

To spell this out in practical terms, we might say it like this: every modern “technology,” by its very nature as a human effort to order our life together, has an unseen spiritual dimension to it that exerts a very real spiritual influence over our lives. This influence is evident, for instance, when we accept new technologies unquestioningly as indispensable to human life, or when we depend on them for meaning and identity, or when we allow them to dictate the terms of our relationships and the means of our social interactions, or when we trust in them for a kind of “salvation” (i.e. to hold society together and keep us from sliding into chaos). In the death and resurrection of Christ, God, has exposed all such claims (technology is ultimate, it’s a source of meaning, it’s a “saviour” from chaos, etc.) as the illusions that they are, showing us instead that Christ is ultimate, that life in him is the source of meaning, and that he alone is saviour. Having thus disarmed the Powers like this, technology among them, the Gospel frees us to relate to the Powers, technology included, in ways that are: 1) redemptive (i.e. affirming their goodness and potential), 2) realistic (i.e. accepting their limits and acknowledging their subservience to Christ), and 3) intentional (i.e. discerning of their “spirit” and wisely selective in how we will use them).

In this way, our redemptive, realistic and intentional use of technology becomes a concrete instance of what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 3:10, when he said, “God’s intent in Christ was that, through the church, his manifold wisdom should be made known to the powers and authorities in the heavenly realms.”

Thinking Theology and Technology

One of the projects I'm working on for the FMCiC's Study Commission on Doctrine is a "theology of technology," which would lay out a theological framework for thinking about technology as a Christian.   As I mentioned earlier, I hope to use this blog as a place to "think out loud" as I work through this project, and to that end, I'm posting here the first section of draft one. I welcome feedback.

One of the challenges we encounter when we try to think theologically about issues related to modern technology is the question of categories. On the one hand, the modern use of that word “technology” is so broad in scope that it is hard to know what exactly we mean by it; on the other hand, most of the things we do mean when we refer to technology—computer science, communication technologies, social media and so on—simply did not exist in the world of the Bible and find neither reference nor parallel in Scripture. If we wish to approach them theologically, then, we must first ask: In which theological category do they belong?

The first and perhaps closest reference we have in Scripture to something that today we would call “technology” is the account of Tubal-Cain in Genesis 4:22. Tubal-Cain, we’re told, was the original “forger of all implements of bronze and iron”; and while a bronze axe-head is admittedly a far cry from an ipod, there is still something instructive for us in this ancient account of the “origins of metalsmithing.” It can’t be accidental that Tubal-Cain, the father of “all” metalurigcal technologies, is also the last son of Lamech, the notoriously vengeful descendant of Cain who will bring the whole of that failed line to its ignoble end. After Lamech boasts of avenging himself seventy-seven times on his enemies (4:23-24), the genealogical record abandons Cain altogether and switches to the birth of Seth (4:26), a brand-new branch on Adam’s family tree, whose line will include Noah, and Abraham, and ultimately Christ. If Tubal-Cain is indeed the father of “technology” (or at least a father of certain kinds of technology), it must be noted that he is also the last of Cain’s fallen descendants. Whatever else we will say about the Bible’s perspective on “technology”, the fact that it first appears as fruit on Cain’s family tree assures us that for all its usefulness, it is still a fallen force in the world.

Biblically, then, technology is useful but fallen. And when we look for a theological category that allows us to talk about it both in terms of its usefulness to human life and its spiritual fallenness, the category that best holds these two aspects together is the biblical concept of “the powers.” Picking up on the many references to “the powers and principalities” in Paul’s writings (see, for instance, 1 Cor 2:8; Eph 1:20, Col 2:15), a number of theologians have suggested that when the Bible refers to “the powers” like this, it is describing the “invisible structures” or “inner reality” of human society (see, for instance, Hendrik Berkhof, Christ and the Powers; Walter Wink, Naming the Powers). As a theological category, “the powers” refer to the spiritual dimension that is inherent to any human effort to order its life together, from political and economic institutions, to cultural, religious or technological ones. All such “organizations” of human society are, of course, useful and necessary; but they are also inevitably “spiritual,” and, owing to the fallenness of human nature itself, inevitably fallen. In their fallenness, “the powers” exert unintended, often unrecognized spiritual influence over us, behaving, in Berkhof’s words, “as though they were the ultimate ground of being and demanding from [people] an appropriate worship” (Berkhof, 30).

We might point to the cult of Roman Emperor worship for an ancient example of “the Powers,” or to the inexorable “givenness” of the global economy for a contemporary one. We might point to the psychological impact of advertising media for a cultural example; and we might point to the way the internet has begun to shape and redefine our social interactions for a technological one. Because, though it is unlikely in the extreme that Paul had the iphone 5 specifically in mind when he said it, technology can and should be listed under that broad category of human institutions he has in mind when he talks about “the Powers.”

A Song for the First Day of Spring

It doesn't feel especially like spring here in Oshawa, what with a gentle snow falling and the temperature hovering a bit below freezing and all, but technically speaking today marks our passing of the Spring Equinox. I've been bogged down with the late winter doldrums these last few weeks, with little energy or motivation for fresh blog posts (what was that warning to Caesar about the ides of March?). However, in the interest of breaking my month-long post-less streak, I thought I'd offer you a song in honour of the first day of Spring.

This is an old e. e. cummings poem I set to music a few years ago. The song's more about wonder and savoring the small stuff and living in the now than it is specifically about Spring, but the imagery is very much spring-y, and the breezy feel of the song, I hope, makes for a fitting "adieu" to Old Man Winter and warm "Welcome in" to Lady Spring.

Enjoy.

i thank you god (for most this amazing)



If the audio player fails to load, you can download the song here.

A Song for Valentine's Day

As part of my theological analysis of the themes of St. Valentines Day, I share this song somewhat hesitantly. The hesitancy has to do with the fact that I wrote the words as a much younger man, and the sentiment seems a bit naive to me today; but it's also because I recognize that the themes of sexuality that the song deals with are far more complex than a 5:10 ditty could handle well, and I don't want to appear flippant or trite when it comes to these matters. I will refer you to this insightful discussion of the "psychology of sexual purity" over at Experimental Theology, if you'd like to do some "deep-sea" fishing with the can of worms I've opened here (so to speak).

In the meantime, I'm still posting "New Song of Solomon" today, the above disclaimers notwithstanding, because like I say: we're theologically analysing the themes of St. Valentine's Day this February at terra incognita, and whatever else it is, this song is about the Bible's vision for sexual wholeness, and how we humans have so often distorted that vision (verse 3 quotes Ophelia from Hamlet, as if to say: this problem is no modern one). Confession songs are rare in the praise-and-worship ethos of modern evangelicalism, but "New Song of Solomon" is actually meant as a prayer of confession, acknowledging the many ways North American Evangelicalism has simply acquiesced to the sexual ethic of the modern world.

Click here to download the song

Revisiting A Lesson from St. Valentine

In keeping with the Theological Analysis of Valentine's Day I introduced yesterday, I thought I'd re-post this Valentine's Day reflection I posted back in 2009.

I went through a phase where I was really intrigued with the lives of the saints. I'm not big-C Catholic, of course, but the strange mix of legend and biography, adventure and romance, faith and fiction that is the church's hagiography fascinated me. St. Patrick lighting the paschal fire on Slane hill, St. Brendan saying the mass to the fish in his little skiff on the Atlantic, St. Francis preaching the gospel to his "brother birds": there's some really mysterious and magnificent stuff in there.

I'm saying this because today is the Feast of St. Valentine; or, as we would say in our iconoclastic tradition of Hallmarkangelicalism: Valentine's Day.

There are actually a few saints by the name of Valentinus, but there's general agreement that the Valentinus of Valentine's Day fame was martyred under Emperor Claudius II. A number of stories surrounding Valentine might explain how his name became synonymous with waxy chocolate hearts and timid 3rd Grade card-exchanges. While in prison he sent notes of encouragement and love to his parishioners. He also restored sight to the blind daughter of his jailer, who would later fall in love with him. As legend has it, his last note to her before his execution was signed: "From your Valentine."

But there's one story in this strange mix of legend and history that has always stuck with me. They say that Valentine was martyred because Emperor Claudius had made it illegal for soldiers in his Imperial army to marry. Apparently Claudius was having a tough time recruiting males. Believing it was because married men were reluctant to leave their wives and families, he annulled all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine continued to perform Christian marriages in secret, convinced that there was a Lord of marriage whose authority transcended the Emperor's. He was caught, and brought before the Emperor. When he refused to renounce his Faith in the true Lord of marriage, Valentine was condemned to be executed by clubbing, stoning and beheading.

Now here's a little Valentine's Day chocolate food for thought: Valentine died convinced that marriage is not just an end in itself. He was not martyred for marriage, he was martyred for Christ. He stood before Claudius convinced that Christian marriage served a living Lord whose redemptive reign could not be renounced. Marriage is but one of the many human goods that God has given us to bear witness to His loving lordship in Christ.

I'm not big-C Catholic. But in the Evangelical tradition I call home, I think we might learn a small lesson from St. Valentine. Because here the family is an institution of special focus; and I sometimes wonder if, in all our focus on marriage, we inadvertently make it an end in itself. Do we stand convinced that our marriages have meaning-- not because they satisfy our romantic desires-- not because they fulfill our domestic needs-- not because they make us happy-- but because they bear witness to the loving lordship of Christ? Some of the stronger Evangelical rhetoric I've heard defending marriage has seemed more about what's politically or socially expedient than about the good news of Jesus.

The word martyr itself means "a witness." As I reflect on the martyrdom Valentine, I wonder: what would my marriage look like if it were transformed by a spirit of martyrdom-- if I could see my life together with my wife as bearing loving witness to the redemptive reign of Jesus?

On St. Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday

In case you've yet to purchase a bouquet of roses or some such similar gesture of appreciation for the object of your affection, let me remind you that today is St. Valentine's Day Eve.  It's also, incidentally, Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, but I try as I might, I couldn't find any "Happy Ash Wednesday" cards at the local Walmart.  Another case of Hallmark commercialism trumping the sacred calendar in our collective reckoning of the year. 

In different post, I'd  maybe tackle the themes of Lent, and lament, perhaps, how little air-time they get in the modern evangelical church; but then, my favorite blogger over at Experimental Theology beat me to it, and with much more ease than I could have done, so I will simply refer you to his "Ash Wednesday" reflection here and turn my attention to our forthcoming celebration of love, passion, affection and eros happening tomorrow. Owing to the unexpected popularity of my theological analysis of Halloween last October, I am planning to do a similar treatment of the themes St. Valentine's Day over the next few days, exploring the theological significance of this red-letter day and especially that most potent of human bonds it celebrates.

To start things off, let me share a sermon on modern love that I preached at the FreeWay a few months ago.  Happy listening, and Happy St. Valentine's Day Eve everybody.


Song of Solomon 4:15-5:1  "A Love Song of Love Songs"


Click here to download the sermon.


Musical Mondays (XIV)

Here's another song from "echoes" to start your week off. By way of explanation, let me say that Zoe is the Greek word for "life" and the lyrics are meant as an ode to life in Christ. By way of credit-where-credit's due, let me say that the mandolin solo towards the end is a medley of two traditional Irish jigs (St. Patrick's Day, and The Priest's Leap). And in the spirit of Ephesian 5:18, let me say that the song (and my performance thereof) is my best effort at writing a worship song that sounds for all the word like an Irish drinking song. Cheers.



Download the song here.

Zoe

Zoe is dancing again in the daylight
She comes to me lovely and full of delight
Skipping and spinning with all of her might
She sets my heart free
Richer than milk and sweeter than honey
Stronger than wine, more precious than money
A blue sky divine, all brilliant and sunny
She dances lovely

Life!  Springing up from the
Ground, like nothing that I've ever
Found, on this sweet earth
Joy! Filling my heart like
Wine! Now that I know that you're
Mine, I'm filled with mirth

Zoe is shining again in the twilight
She's burning like stars in the darkness of night
She's casting off blindness and putting on new sight
To make my heart see
Flowing like water, burning like fire
Sent from the father to like me higher
Anointed with laughter, delight and desire
By Christ my master

Love!  Bubbling up in my
Soul!  Your mercy has made me
Whole, and gave me new birth
Zoe!  Foaming out like a spring
You teach my spirit to sing
To sing your worth

Zoe is running again in the rain
She is leaping and falling and rising again
She's there in the joy and there in the pain
The life Christ gave me
Richer than milk and sweeter than honey
Stronger than wine, more precious than money
A blue sky divine all brilliant and sunny
She dances, lovely

Life! Springing up from the
Ground, like nothing that I've ever
Found, on this sweet earth
Joy! Filling my heart like
Wine! Now that I know that you're
Mine, I'm filled with mirth
Love! Bubbling up in my
Soul! Your mercy has made me
Whole, and gave me new birth
Zoe! Foaming out like a spring
You teach my spirit to sing
To sing your worth

Contending Against the Baal Within


In Judges 6:32, when the Lord's "Valiant Warrior" Gideon destroys the altar of Baal that was in Orphah, he earns himself the nickname "Jerubbaal."  Jerubbaal is a combination of the Hebrew name baal, and the verb rı̂yb-- to contend or strive with.  It means essentially:  Let Baal contend with him, and when you put the name in the context of the story, the meaning is clear.  Gideon has knocked down the altar of Baal, a competitor in the people's hearts for the glory due to YHWH; if Baal is indeed true god, then let him contend with Gideon.  This nickname is a challenge to Baal's legitimacy as direct and as poignant as the contest with the priests of Baal that Elijah had on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:20ff).

And when you consider that the act of vandalism which earned Gideon his nickname was actually his first step in leading the Lord's Army against the invading Midianite horde, it also becomes a profoundly political statement.  If Israel is going to be victorious in its struggle, it will take a radical purge of anything that stands between then and single-minded devotion to YHWH, fancy altars to Baal be damned.

Let Baal himself contend with us, if Baal doesn't like it.

But here's the curious thing I've been mulling over this morning.  Later, after YHWH has trounced and routed the Midianites, the tribe of Ephraim complains that General Gideon didn't call on them to join in the fight (See 8:1).  This is interesting on a number of levels.  First, Gideon is from the half tribe of Manasseh, the half tribe for which Ephraim forms the other half.  So that's curious: there is a close kinship between Gideon and the men of Ephraim.  More curious still is the motive behind Ephraim's complaint.  Judging by the tack Gideon takes in placating them, speaking self-deprecatingly, and then flattering them with that line about how the "grapes of Ephraim"  are better than the "Wine of Abiezer" (8:2)), it seems like the reason they're put out has to do with their sense of honour.  By not including them in the fight, Gideon has shamed them, or at the very least, denied them the opportunity to win glory for themselves in battle.

That's curious to me especially because in 8:1 it says that (again, presumably because of their loss of tribal honour) the men of Ephraim "contended with Gideon vigorously."  And the word translated "contended with" there?  You guessed it:  rı̂yb.  The same rı̂yb that gave Gideon the nickname Jerubbaal-- let Baal contend with him.

In 6:32, Gideon tears down the altar of a competitor for YHWH's glory, leaving his friends dumbstruck and earning himself the title:  Jerubbaal.  "Let Baal contend (rı̂yb) with him."  And then in 8:1, after the battle's been fought and won, Baal does indeed, one might say, contend (rı̂yb) with Gideon-- through the contentious vainglory of his closest countrymen.  At least: if Baal represents those things that compete in our hearts for the glory due to YHWH, then Ephraim's complaint that Gideon denied them a chance to win glory for themselves, whatever else it is, is Baalistic to the core.  When they contend with Gideon for letting YHWH win the glory instead of sharing it with them--whatever else is going on there--that is certainly the spirit of Baal, if not Baal himself, contending with Gideon.

The reason this matters to me is because it suggests that the real enemy in Gideon's fight against the Midianites was not the Midianites at all.  Gideon was actually leading a struggle against the "Baal-within"-- the spirit of Baalism in us, that prompts us to steal for ourselves the glory that belongs to the Lord  alone (read the rest of Chapter 8, if you're not convinced).  When I consider Gideon's war in  this light, the story suddenly rings sharply and prohpetically in my ears.

Could it be that the greatest struggle in the Christian life is actually against the Baal within?

Sometimes Christians can move into "crusade mode" when it comes to things happening in the culture, resisting and entrenching and contending for causes with all the zeal of an Ephraimite after a retreating Midianite horde.  Sometimes churches can.  Sometimes, maybe, you've seen it.  And if this is ringing any bells for you, then let Ephraim's contention with Gideon ring louder and clearer.  The struggle against godlessness "out there" is really a struggle against the Baal within.

Musical Mondays (XIII)

Here's another song from "echoes" to start your week off.  The song grew out of that opening riff, which came to me one day when I was practicing some scale patterns.  It hooked me enough that I figured:  there's got to be a song in there somewhere, and I kept playing it till something more substantial bobbed to the surface.  Bonus points to anyone who gets the hommage in the bridge. If the audio player doesn't load below you can click the title to download the song.  Enjoy.

You Said (Seeking You)




You said, if we would seek you we would find you
If we sought you with all of our heart
You said if we would call you, you would answer
If we called you with all that we are

You said, if we would ask you, you would grant it
If we asked you according to your will
You said if we would seek you we would find you
If we knocked you would open the door

chorus:
We are seeking you with all of our heart Lord
We are seeking you with all of our mind
We are seeking you with all of our strength Lord
Leaving the treasures of this world far behind

Theology and Technology, a Reading List

One of the issues the Free Methodist Church in Canada's Study Commission on Doctrine is tackling these days is the "theology of technology," which is our way of asking questions like these:  In what ways should the Bible inform and guide our use of technology in the modern world?  What are some of the key theological issues that should colour our perspective on technology?  What theological issues does the ubiquity of electronic communication technologies raise for us?  What ethical issues?  What faith issues?

Since I'm part of the group that has been tasked to do some research along these lines, I'm hoping to use this bloggin space once in a while to air out some ideas, work through some reflections and generally think out loud when it comes to the theology of technology.  For starters , I thought I'd post my current "technology reading list" to give you an idea of some of the work that's already been done in this area, and to suggest trajectories for my own thinking about the issue.  The attached "jacket blurbs" come almost word for word from www.goodreads.com.  The asterisks mark books I've already read.

The Theology of Technology:  An annotated Bibligoraphy

* Jardine, Murray. The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society: How Christianity Can Save Modernity from Itself. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004.
“ The advance of modern technology is certainly ambiguous. It has promised less work and more leisure, but we actually work longer hours than premodern peasants and villagers. Present-day Western societies are facing a moral crisis, argues Murray Jardine, and our inability to make ethical sense of technology is at the root of this crisis. Jardine shows how Christianity fostered an ethic of progress that led to our technological expertise. However, Christians never fully grasped the implications of technological progress and failed to create an ethic that embraced unconditional grace. Jardine advocates a Christianity that fully understands technology, its responsibilities, and its possibilities.”


* Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage, 1993.

“In this witty, often terrifying work of cultural criticism, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death chronicles our transformation into a Technopoly: a society that no longer merely uses technology as a support system but instead is shaped by it--with radical consequences for the meanings of politics, art, education, intelligence, and truth.”

Waters, Brent. From Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology And Technology in a Postmodern World. Hampshire England: Ashgate, 2006.

"Technology is one of the dominant forces shaping the emerging postmodern world. Indeed the very fabric of daily life is dependent upon various information, communication, and transportation technologies. With anticipated advances in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and robotics, that dependence will increase. Yet this growing dependence is accompanied with a deep ambivalence. For many, technology symbolises the faith of the postmodern world, but it is an ambivalent faith encapsulating both our hopes and fears for the future. This book examines the religious foundations underlying this troubled faith in technology, as well as critically and constructively engaging particular technological developments from a theological perspective."

 

* Stahl, William A. God and the Chip: Religion and the Culture of Technology. Wilfred Laurier Press, 1999.

"Our ancestors saw the material world as alive, and they often personified nature. Today we claim to be realists. But in reality we are not paying attention to the symbols and myths hidden in technology. Beneath much of our talk about computers and the Internet, claims William A. Stahl, is an unacknowledged mysticism, an implicit religion. By not acknowledging this mysticism, we have become critically short of ethical and intellectual resources with which to understand and confront changes brought on by technology."

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. W. W. Norton, 2010.

"'Is Google making us stupid?'” When Nicholas Carr posed that question in a celebrated Atlantic Monthly cover story, he tapped into a well of anxiety about how the Internet is changing us. He also crystallized one of the most important debates of our time: As we enjoy the Net’s bounties, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply? Now Carr expands his argument into the most compelling exploration of the Internet’s intellectual and cultural consequences yet published. Weaving insights from philosophy, neuroscience, and history into a rich narrative, The Shallows explains how the Net is rerouting our neural pathways, replacing the subtle mind of the book reader with the distracted mind of the screen watcher. A gripping story of human transformation played out against a backdrop of technological upheaval, The Shallows will forever alter the way we think about media and our minds."

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books, 2011.
"Consider Facebook—it’s human contact, only easier to engage with and easier to avoid. Developing technology promises closeness. Sometimes it delivers, but much of our modern life leaves us less connected with people and more connected to simulations of them.

"In Alone Together, MIT technology and society professor Sherry Turkle explores the power of our new tools and toys to dramatically alter our social lives. It’s a nuanced exploration of what we are looking for—and sacrificing—in a world of electronic companions and social networking tools, and an argument that, despite the hand-waving of today’s self-described prophets of the future, it will be the next generation who will chart the path between isolation and connectivity."

Parkin Grant, George. Technology and Justice. House of Annasi Press, 1991.
"George Grant—philosopher, conservative, Canadian nationalist, Christian—was one of Canada's most significant thinkers, and the author of Lament for a Nation, Technology and Empire, and English-Speaking Justice. Admirers and critics of the author will welcome these compelling essays about society's traditional values in a technological age."

4 ways a Middle Earth Worldview is more Biblical

... than our own.  What with The Hobbit's release piquing fresh interest in all things Tolkien at our house, prompting a family movie marathon through the Lord of the Rings and inspiring my daughter to muscle her way through all three books in about two weeks, I've got Middle Earth on the brain these days.

One of the things that struck me forcibly this time through the series, and especially as I unpacked them with our kids, is how different the worldview of the book is from our own.  "Worldview" is a way of describing the psychological underpinnings, the cultural values, the epistemological framework, and the philosophical assumptions that unconsciously guide the way we interact with the world.

The worldview of our modern, western world, for instance, tends to seek instant gratification, places a premium on the image, takes a mechanistic approach to nature, has an evolutionary outlook on life and society, values self-expression and individuality, gives epistemological authority to screens, numbers, results and speed, sees the self as ultimate and the latest as best.

Realizing that each one of the above statements is loaded far beyond the ability of a mere blogpost to unpack, let me just suggest that these things-- instant gratification, the image as prime, nature as machine, the individual as ultimate-- these things are different from a biblical worldview.  When the writers of the Bible looked at the world, they felt different things were of utmost importance.  They made different assumptions about how things worked and what you could reasonable expect out of life. They drew meaning from different source.  They concluded things were "true" based on different criteria.

And then, as an experiment in "worldview studies," let me point out some ways the worldview of the inhabitants of Middle Earth is also very different from our own, but curiously (even unexpectedly) very much like the Bible's.

1.  Older is better.  When Tolkien points out that something is old, it's usually said with reverence, awe, humility and deference; indeed, some of his most poetical passages are devoted simply to describing the age of something.  This is because in a Middle Earth worldview, older is proven; older is wiser; older is tested; older is true.  Our world tends to see the newest and youngest as best-- fresher, original, more innovative--but this is neither a universal nor especially a biblical assumption.  Generally speaking the Bible's worldview, like Tolkien, sees age as venerable (It's not for nothing He's called the Ancient of Days).

2.  Nature is deeply alive.  One of the brilliant aspects of Tolkien's book, I think, is the way he spiritualizes nature without deifying it.  He draws out the deep-down "aliveness" of the natural world without slipping into the ditch of paganism.  In our worldview, we tend to view nature as a dead, cause-and-effect machine that is ours to tinker with (witness the latest talk about "bioengineering" or "geoengineering").  Not so in Middle Earth, where trees, rocks, rivers and creatures alike are vibrant with a life that give them intrinsic worth.  Though it's sometimes overlooked, this too is a biblical worldview.  When Isaiah talks about the trees of the hills clapping their hands and the mountains breaking forth into song, it's a metaphor, but it's no mere metaphor.

3.  Song and Story are authoritative.  No war council in the modern world would have begun by recounting in full detail the story of the enemy's chief weapon, reviewing all the twists of fate and turns of history that brought the allies to the point they find themselves at.  But that is precisely where Elrond starts with the war council of Rivendell, on the assumption that the decisions of the council depend precisely upon their hearing this story.  It always struck me that in the book, great emphasis is placed on Aragorn's ability to recite the legends, songs, lore and stories of Middle Earth, as though his claim to the throne rested as much on this as it did on his skills with a sword.  That none of Aragorn's songs make it into the modern film adaptation of the book is evidence itself that our world draws "epistemological authority" from other sources.

4.  Fellowship, Community and Fealty are profoundly humanizing.  When Merry is sworn in as a guard of Gondor, Denethor promises to reward his "fealty with honour."  When Theoden musters his cavalry for their glorious charge onto the plains of Minas Tirith, he calls on the men to fulfill "oaths they have taken." In his final rousing speech at the Black Gates of Mordor, Aragorn assures his men that "a day may come when we forsake all bounds of fellowship, but it is not this day."  In a world like ours, that so highly values individuality, these appeals to higher commitments that draw us up and out of ourselves may seem like a relic of a bygone time. In Tolkien's world, however, bonds of fellowship, commitment to community, loyalty to causes that transcend the self-- these are things that separate humans from all the other mythical races (it's no coincidence, for instance, that the orcs always end up battling and devouring themselves; nor is it a coincidence that the elves remain so detached from the plight of Middle Earth).  This, too, is very much like the biblical worldview, where community is throbbing at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Musical Mundays (XII)

This song comes from my latest recording project, "Echoes" (see sidebar). Over the next few weeks, Musical Mondays will be dipping in to some of the tracks from this compilation for your listening edification.  Today's offering is the first track from the album, "Speak Lord"; its a piece I started almost ten years ago, after an inspired reading of Psalm 29.  It's been through a couple of permutations and combinations over the years, but this is a brand-new recording of a fresh arrangement of it.

If you're curious, you can explore some of the theological reflections underlying the song here, in this post from back in 2009.  Enjoy.  If the audio player doesn't load below, you can click on the title of the song to download.



The failure of Barak and the Assassination of Sisera-- on Violence in the Book of Judges

This idea is only half-baked, so feel free to tell me if it needs to go back into the oven for a while more-- and I know that former OT instructors of mine check in on terra incognita once in a while, so consider this an open invitation to tell me I'm out to lunch altogether... but ... I was reading the Book of Judges the other day and something sort of hit me I'd never noticed before.

First a disclaimer:  I have always found the violence in the Book of Judges unpalatable (on the one hand) and somewhat barbaric (on the other).  Only a few chapters in, for instance, we have that vivid but disturbing image of Ehud disemboweling Elgon, the King of Moab, by thrusting a dagger so deep into his belly that the fat closes around it and he's unable to draw it free.

Of course, if you read 3:22-24 closely, you'll notice a subtle, if gruesome irony in the telling of this story.  Verse 22 specifically mentions that when Ehud slew Elgon, the dagger cut so deep that his "dirt" (KJV) or "offal" (NIV) or "refuse" (NASB) spilled out.  It is, I'll admit, a strange and disturbing detail to mention.

But then in verse 24, after Ehud has made good his escape, leaving King Elgon dead in his own offal, the servants come.  Finding the doors to the chamber locked, they wait "to the point of embarrassment" for Elgon to emerge.  They assumed, the text points out carefully, that he was "relieving himself in the cool of the room."  And I call this "gruesomely ironic" because the Hebrew phrase that's used here-- they assumed Elgon was "covering his feet"-- is an euphemism for having a bowel movement (see 1 Samuel 24:3).  Indeed he was having a bowel movement, one might say, though they had no way of knowing in what particularly grisly a way his bowels had in fact been moved.

I point all this out because it suggests to me that, for all their graphic violence, these narratives have been carefully, one might say artfully honed, so that the violence, while disturbing, serves the narrative (rather than the other way around).   There is a larger purpose beyond simply thrilling or grossing-out the reader, that the violence in some way or other fits into.

Which brings me at last to the half-baked idea I'd like to share here.  Because the next story after Ehud is the one about Barak, Deborah and the assassination of Sisera (who was the General of the Cananite army). If you recall, Deborah inspires Israel to a stunning victory over the Cananites, and Sisera flees for his life.  He hides out in the tent of a Kenite woman named Jael, who, after lulling him to sleep, takes a hammer and drives a tent peg and through his temple and into the ground.  "And so Sisera died."  (Incidentally, Jael's betrayal of the code of hospitality here probably would have sent colder chills down the spine of an ancient reader than even the assassination itself).

But here's what I'm wondering about.  The Israelite general who was supposed to have led the charge against Sisera, but wouldn't until Deborah agreed to join him, was Barak (in Hebrew Bârâq). His name means "thunder-bolt" and many commenters point out the irony inherent in the fact that the Lord's "thunderbolt" was so reticent to join the battle (so Deborah's indictment of Barak in 4:9). But there may be an even deeper word-play here: in Hebrew, the phrase "into the temple (of one's head)" (bᵋraqqâh) sounds a fair bit like "barak."  Bârâq ... bᵋraqqâh ...  At least, they're enough alike to my very inexperienced Ancient Hebrew ears, that I wonder if there isn't a vivid pun going on in the telling of this assassination, too. 

The Lord's Bârâq failed to live up to his name, so Jael was forced to kill Sisera bᵋraqqâh. (If that seems like a strech, then imagine I was telling you the story of a certain figureskating feud from the 90s, but to protect the innocent, maybe, I changed the names to Nancy O'Kneel and Tonya Knee. You'd get it, wouldn't you?).

Again, I welcome input from heads better-trained in Hebrew than mine.  I admit, for instance, that the similarity is less convincing when you attach the third-person pronoun to bᵋraqqâh, which is how it actually appears in the text.  And let's be clear, Barak was still called to a pretty gruesome duty; Hebrew homophones alone can't let us off the hook when it comes to making sense of this violent war.  But if I am on to something, it would suggest that the violence here, at least, is hardly gratuitous.   The disturbing image of a Canaanite general, with a bloody tent-peg in his murdered temple, killed bᵋraqqah by the Kenite woman who had been his hostess, is meant very much to disturb us.  It is, in fact, a further indictment on Barak.  Had Bârâq lived up to his name, and joined the battle swiftly, this horrid murder bᵋraqqâh might have been avoided.

And if you're still with me, then perhaps you could wonder out loud with me a bit, here at the end.  Are there similar acts of meaningless and disturbing violence happening in our world today, that might be avoided if the People of God would but live up fully to their name?

On Oaths, Vows and Spiritual Formation

Those who know me well know that early January is one of my favorite times of the year; and this is especially because I find making New Year's resolutions to be a pleasant activity.  I know I'm in a sparsely-populated boat on this one, but ever since I was young, the first few weeks of  my Januarys have always been scattered with lists of goals, drafts of reading lists, records of my aspirations for the coming year, and freshly-started journals.  It's only two weeks into the new year now, and some of my resolutions have already fallen by the wayside; but then again, some are still with me, or I with them, and if even one or two make it right through to 2014, I'll feel the effort was worth it.

A New Years Resolution, of course, is kin to making a vow or taking an oath.  Admittedly, it's not nearly as solemn, nor as binding, but the kinship is real, which is perhaps why it struck me so forcibly the other day when, right at the height of New Years Resolution season and all, I was reading this book about Christian leadership that pointed out the deep connections between spiritual bondage, spiritual formation and vow-making.

This book (Mentoring Leaders, Carson Pue) unpacked Leviticus 5:4, where it says that anyone who "thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil, in any matter one might carelessly swear about" is guilty of sin and must go to the priest with a sacrifice for atonement.  I've read this verse a few times before and, aside from deeply appreciating how Christ is the atoning sacrifice who fulfills and transforms the Old Testament Law for us, I've never really thought much about how this specific injunction against thoughtless vows might play out in a contemporary Christian context.

The book I was reading, however (and have been mulling over ever since) suggested that thoughtless vows can actually be a source of spiritual stuntedness, even bondage in our lives, and that identifying and renouncing such vows can be an important piece of our spiritual formation.

Let me be clear:  we're not talking about New Years Resolutions here, and more importantly, we're not talking about those solemn vows that Christians take in Christ's name and are actually essential to our maturity in the Faith-- baptismal vows, child dedication vows, wedding vows, ordination vows and the like.  In a different post I'd talk about how such vows as these are humanizing, how they enlarge our spirits and how they deepen our discipleship.

But that's a different post for a different kind of vow.  What we're talking about here are those hasty promises we make to ourselves in moments of fear, resentment, hurt, bitterness or pride, often without ever realizing we've done so, and usually without ever considering that we have, in fact, sworn a vow.  And we're talking about how such vows stunt our spiritual growth because they close areas of our lives off from the healing work of the Holy Spirit.

Some examples will probably help.  Who has ever heard someone say, or said perhaps themselves, something along these lines:  "I'll never to talk to them again." or "I'll never forgive him for what he did." or  "That's the last time so-and-so will get the upper hand on me." or "I swear I won't grow up to be like him (or her or them)." or  "I promised myself I wouldn't cry (or 'go there' or go back to 'that' again)."  or  "I'll get even."

It's hardly blood-oath material, to be sure, but such statements have an oath-taking ring to them, at least, and whether we realize it or not, when we make determinations like these in our hearts, whatever else is going on there, we've made a thoughtless vow. 

God's Torah says that anyone who has made a thoughtless oath "about any matter one might carelessly swear about"-- is in need (in sacrificial need) of atonement.

I won't speculate a lot on why, except to point out that when we vow such things to ourselves (I'll never forgive so-and-so ... deal with such-and-such ... become like so-and-so ...); when we make these inner self-commitments out of hurt, fear, resentment or pride, whatever else is going on when we do that, we are actually setting our wills against the possibilities of God's sanctification in our lives.  Consider it this way:  Saying "I'll never grow up to be like 'her'" (or "him" or "them" or whomever) shuts you off from the possibility that there may in fact be something in "her" (or him or them or whomever) that God wants you to grow in or learn from or redeem.

Promising myself "I won't go there," is actually closing my heart to God's healing in that particular area of my life. 

Vowing "never to speak to so-and-so again" is vowing unforgiveness.

I need to stress some things.  Forgiveness doesn't mean allowing someone to hurt us again; nor does "dealing with the past" mean accepting the dominant narrative about the past; there may be patterns of relating or cycles of behaviour in those around us that we personally want to break free from, and it's altogether appropriate to articulate that; there are times when genuine reconciliation is not possible this side of eternity.  It's not wanting things to be different or better or whole or safe that's in question here.  It's the act of exerting our wills over our lives-- taking matters into our own "emotional hands"--in such a way that it excludes or precludes the sanctifying work of God precisely there, in that area of our lives.  That's what's in question. 

And maybe it's because thoughtless vows have this dangerous edge to them that Leviticus 5:4 prescribes a sacrifice of atonement for the guilt of swearing such oaths.  Which leads me to appreciate all the more deeply still that Christ is the atoning sacrifice who fulfills and transforms the Old Testament Law for us.  Because in Christ we have a saviour who not only atones for those thoughtless acts of self-exertion that cut us off from the sanctifying work of God, but in him we also have the Spirit who can answer the fears, heal the hurts, redeem the resentment or humble the pride that led us into the vow in the first place.

In Christ we discover not only the invitation to stay fully open to the possibilities of God's redeeming work in our lives, but also the grace to answer "yes."

My Evangelical 2012 in Review

Another year of news-making has come and gone.  Not to trivialize Kate Middleton's morning-sickness or anything, but as I look back over the headlines of the last 365 days, I'm thinking more about those news items that impacted the Evangelical world, and more particularly Evangelical Canada, in some way or another.  I am, of course, no pundit, so in presenting this list of the "Top Headlines of the Evangelical Year," I am not claiming any expertise on these matters; they are simply the stories that stood out to me as significant.

January 3:  Mark Driscoll publishes Real Marriage.  Nearly everything Pastor Mark says in the public sphere seems calculated to shock his listeners into sending it viral, if not by assent then at least by incredulity, so I don't want to give this tell-all "marriage manual" any more air time than absolutely necessary.  However, the publication of a very explicit and prescriptive book about the state of holy matrimony, by the self-styled guru of locker-room evangelicalism was notable to me for a number of reasons.  (Not least of which was the way it reinforced my commitment to rigorous and christocentric exegesis when it comes to teaching the Scriptures.  Esther is not a housewife's handbook, nor is the Song of Solomon simply a Christian Karma Sutra.)

January 9:  Rob Bell's final service at Mars Hill.  I followed the publication circus that was Love Wins pretty closely (see my review of the book in the sidebar), so the headline announcing Rob Bell's last service at Mars Hill stood out for me.  Whether or not Pastor Rob's decision to leave his church was really due to the fallout from his book (as some suggest), a number of things stand out to me in this dramatic conclusion to the story.  Among other things, it shows how the "culture of celebrity ministers" in the States actually has a pretty dark underbelly.  (Note how Pastor Bell was maligned almost as viciously for leaving his church as he was for publishing the book in the first place.  In celebrity culture, the once the famous have fallen from grace the only thing left to do is devour them whole.)

March 5:  Invisible Children launch Kony 2012 campaign  I have not been able to establish whether Invisible Children should be called a "Christian organization" or not.  They have certainly been accused by their detractors of being "insidiously Evangelical," though nothing in their literature or campaigns is explicitly Christian.  What stood out to me in the Kony 2012 campaign, however, is how black and white the underlying narrative they presented was, and how simplistic the solution they proposed (wear an arm band and throw up some posters).  Even if Invisible Children is not a Christian group, there are lessons for the Church here.  Solutions to world issues are seldom as simple as getting the "good guys" to stop the "bad guys."  And as a side note, we might take the whole thing as a cautionary tale, pointing out how celebrity has become the new source of moral authority in an age of viral videos (what was going to stop Kony, after all, was "fame").  Whatever else we make of the campaign, it illustrates how inconsistent and unstable this particular "source" of authority actually is.

March 21:  Canadian film-maker Kevin Miller releases Hellbound  Kevin Miller's documentary "Hellbound" explores traditional Christian perspectives on the fate of the departed from a number of angles, interviewing pastors, psychologists, theologians and historians alike.  Coming so soon after the aforementioned Love Wins debacle, and from the hands of a Canadian film-maker no less, it suggests that the question of Hell will be the hot issue (no pun intended) for Canadian Christians in the coming years.

August 16:  Dr. Gary Paterson elected new moderator of the United Church of Canada  Realizing that a two or three line mention on a list like this is hardly space enough to unpack the significance of the vote itself, I will simply state that it is extremely significant, that this year the United Church of Canada became the first Christian denomination in history to appoint a practicing homosexual as its leader.

September 27:  Rona Ambrose votes in favor of Motion 312  I mention this one if for no other reason than that it vindicates me in this blog post last month.  Rona Ambrose was the Federal Minister for the Status of Women; Motion 312 was a private member's motion introduced by Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth asking Parliament to review the Criminal Code's definition of when life begins (i.e. does it begin, like the Criminal Code states, only after the baby fully emerges from the birth canal, or does it begin at some point between conception and birth?).  The motion failed, but pro-abortion advocates slammed Ms. Ambrose for being one of the few MPs who voted in favor of it.  Of all people, they claimed, the Minister for the Status of Women ought to have known better than to risk reopening the abortion debate.  Ms. Ambrose's defense:  as Minister on the Status of Women, she felt the issue should be studied, because in some parts of the country gender-selective abortions are being used to terminate girls.

October 30:  Rachel Held Evans publishes The Year of Biblical Womanhood   There were, I am sure, more scholarly books published this year on gender issues and the Christian faith, but I note this one here because A) I suppose if there is such a thing as a yang to the yin of Mark Driscoll's Real Marriage, The Year of Biblical Womanhood would probably be it; and B) as a blogger, the fact that Ms. Held Evan's writing ministry began on the blogosphere suggests to me that there have been some pretty seismic shifts in the balance of power in the Christian publishing industry.

November 21:  The Church of England rejects female bishops  A friend pointed out to me the irony inherent in the fact that the Anglican Church could have accepted a theological canon as loose as John Shelby Spong as bishop for so long, but still vote to reject women (although, to be fair, Spong is Episcopalian, not specifically C of E).  But the point still stands: the Church of England, it seems, missed a golden opportunity to follow the gospel to some logical conclusions here. 

December 26:  President Morsi signs Egypt's Islamist constitution into law  Speaking of inherent irony, I suppose there is some small irony in the fact that Egypt's President Morsi signed the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamist Constitution into law the day after Christmas-- inasmuch as many analysts suggest that a constitution based on Sharia Law bodes very ill for the Coptic Christians in the country, and is likely to result in increased marginalization and persecution of Christians in that part of the world.  As William Dalrymple suggests, the much lauded Arab Spring is turning into a Christian Winter (and by and large the Christian West seems indifferent to the plight of their Middle Eastern Brothers and Sisters).

The 2012 Literary Awards

Reading forms a pretty major piece of the spiritual jigsaw puzzle that is my life.  I read for work; I read for leisure; I read for spiritual formation; I read for recreation.  My habit of recording the books I read each year started sometime back in 1999, when I was teaching High School English and trying to catch up on "the classics."  The habit stuck, and 13 years later I still find it satisfying to look over the year's reading list and reflect on what I found and who I met there. 

The habit of awarding "literary awards" to the good, the bad and the ugly reads of the year started three years ago, as a bit of an experimental blog post.  In the hopes of nurturing this habit into a tradition, I am pleased to present here the third annual terra incognita literary awards.  You can check out previous awards ceremonies here and here.

Most Annoying Read:  Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender

Judging almost entirely by the cover, I bought this book thinking it would be a refreshing change from the more typical "purpose driven" books on leadership I'd read.  In awarding it the "most annoying" honours, I don't mean to imply that I disagreed with Allender's main thesis-- that godly leaders must be authentic and transparent when it comes to their weakness, flaws and mistakes.  It's just that his style was so rambling and unfocused that it often left me wondering where he was going, or where he had been with his point.  This confusion at times bubbled over into annoyance.

Most Traumatic Read:  Dragonslippers, Rosalind B. Penfold

This was one of the required texts for a course in "the dynamics of abuse" which I audited this spring.  Presenting her book as the "illustrated diary" of a woman who has escaped a sexually and emotionally abusive relationship, Rosalind B. Penfold (pseudonym) tells her story in a series of deceptively simple, but haunting cartoon drawings. Although it was indeed a traumatic read, it was also one of the most vivid and compelling illustrations of the dynamics of abuse I have ever encountered.

Most Disappointing Read:  Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Wolf.

I first read this ground-breaking stream-of-consciousness novel for a University course on the English Novel, back in my undergrad days.  Some 20 years later, I remembered little of it, except that the account of Septimus Warren Smith's suicide had deeply moved me back then.  I reread it last winter for old times sake, and, while I still found Septimus Warren Smith a sympathetic character, the rest of the book was far more tedious than I ever remembered.  Since it's unlikely the novel itself has changed, I can only assume my reading tastes have; that, or the many shots of espresso I consumed before reading the novel the first time, at 3 am the night before the big final exam, gave Mrs. Dalloway's quest for the flowers (which she said she would buy herself) a certain je ne sais pas which I will never recapture. 

Most Rewarding Re-Read:  The Power and the Glory,  Graham Greene

Another re-read, though this one was satisfying in every way Mrs. Dalloway was not.  Graham Greene's story of a failed Catholic priest on the run from the communist government in revolutionary Mexico is one part redemption story, one part spiritual odyssey, one part spy-thriller.  I love this book, and the longer I do ministry, the more sense it makes to me.  It helps, perhaps, that this time I read it while on vacation in Mexico.
 
Most Enraptured Read:  Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson uses the megaloth--the five traditional books read on the five feast days of the Jewish Calendar (Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther)--as thematic entry-points for the five practices of pastoral work (prayer-directing, story-making, pain-sharing, nay-saying and community-building).  This book was food for the head and balm for the heart.  I read it as much for Eugene Peterson's whimsical style as for the deep insights he offers into the real nature of pastoral ministry.  A must-read for any fledgling pastor.

Most Willing Required Read:  From Darkness to Light:  How One Became a Christian in the Early Church, Anne Fields

This one was required reading for a seminar on the "theology of conversion" our ministry network hosted this year.  It's essentially an anthology of readings, sermons and liturgy excerpts from the early church's catechism for baptismal candidates, peppered through with a bit of commentary from Ms. Fields herself.  It showed, essentially, what a third Century prosylete would undergo if he or she wanted to become a member of the Christian community.  The forty-day ordeal of daily sermons, scripture lessons and exorcisms which culminated in a public baptism on Easter Night (a naked, public baptism, mind you), makes the "ask Jesus into your heart" fare of now-a-days look like the TV dinner of conversion experiences.

Most Unexpectedly Interesting Read:  Evoking Change,  Anna Christie

The reasons why my expectations were so low when I started this one are complicated, but among other things, let me say that the dust-cover's claim that this book will "put you on a foolproof path that will positively impact all aspects of your life and eventually improve the world" seemed a bit grandiose for my taste.  There was much I disagreed with here, both theologically and psychologically, but its overall thesis resonated with me: that leaders can only effect outward change in the systems they are called to lead when they are willing to do the painful work of inward transformation.  And, important theological quibbles notwithstanding, Anna Christie offers some very helpful and challenging insights into human psychology and systems theory in her unpacking of this thesis.

Most Edifying Read:  The New Testament and the People of God,  N. T. Wright.

I've blogged before (and effusively) about N. T. Wright.  I have been waiting for a while now for the fourth installment in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series, breath bated ever since The Resurrection of the Son of God heralded for me the end of the world as I knew it (but I feel fine).  Anyways, rumour has it that part four, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, is due any day now, and to brace myself (or while away the time, as the case may be) I started re-reading the first three books in the series.  I finished The New Testament and the People of God this week and found it as edifying as before, and perhaps twice as rich, academically speaking, coming as it did after a couple of years in the ministry trenches.  What can I say:  I'm a Bible Geek.

Happy 2013 Everyone!

Like I usually do this time of year, I have been waxing especially reflective today, thinking back through what was in 2012 and looking ahead to what might be in 2013.  Usually, of course, years-in-review get done in the week leading up to the start of the new year, but between double services on Christmas Eve and the general festivities of the season, who's got the time?  So my year end retrospectives tend to happen in the first week of the New Year. Not to disappoint, I am working on a couple of posts along those lines -- the highlights of the media, ministry moments, literature-read and lessons-learned in Dale's world this year -- which will be appearing over the next few days. As you stay tuned, let me start you off with this brief review of the highlights from this blog over the last year.  Here are (in my humble opinion) the ...

Best Blogging Moments of terra incognita's 2012

Best Post of 2012: A Bottle of Pop for Eddy Bearnaise A writer's opinion of his best work doesn't always match the opinion of his readers, so I doubt this one will resonate with everyone. For my part,however, it was a post I'd been mulling over for almost two years, one that summed up a couple of themes I'd been reflecting on, and let me "stretch my legs" with some rhetorical flourishes, too. Enjoy.

Best Blogging Series:  The Halloween Files. Who knew when I started this somewhat whimsical theological analysis of Halloween that it would strike so many chords? It is by far the most shared and most "hit" series I've done since I started blogging.  Start here if you're curious.

Most Fun Post to Write:  When King Solomon's Temple Meets Minecraft.  This post earns the title "most fun" simply because of the joy it was to actually make the Minecraft model of Solomon's Temple with my kids.  You can take a tour here.

Best Exegetical Work:  The book of 1 Samuel caught my imagination in a special way this year.  I did a couple of posts on this book in 2012, but this is the one that started it all for me:  On Being a Reject Messiah.

Best Sermons:  The Book of How!?  It's perhaps a bit sketchy of an enterprise to "rate" sermons, but when it came to challenging and formative work for the preacher this year, this series on the Book of Lamentations was stretching and edifying to prepare.  Start here if you're interested. 

Like I shared in a recent post, I came close to shutting down this blog this year.  Partly because I'd felt like it had served its purpose and partly because I'd lost a bit of the heart for it, I was getting ready to hang up the blogger's hat.  After a bit of a gut-check this summer and a bit more re-purposing this fall, recommitted to regular posting, a commitment I'm renewing here for the New Year.  I hope that at least some of what you find here, in the flotsam and jetsam of my spiritual musings, is helpful or thought provoking to you.  If one or two readers enjoy one or two posts here even half as much as I enjoy writing them, it will have been worth it.