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.

A View of the World from Gravity Falls, Part III: Gnosticism, Gospel and Gravity Falls

Psychologists trained in the art of lie detection sometimes describe a phenomenon called “duping delight”—an intense, often uncontrollable thrill that people experience when they’re in the midst of a lie and getting away with it.  Often “duping delight” manifests itself in a nervous laugh or a fleeting smile that seems inappropriate to the context or the situation.  

The term was coined by Dr. Paul Eckman as a way of explaining the half-suppressed grins and other “micro-expressions of pleasure" he noted on people’s faces when they're trying to manipulate other people with lies.   Duping delight, he suggested, is the “pleasure we get over having someone else in our control and being able to manipulate them.”  Subsequent psychologists have connected it to the natural thrill humans experience when they exercise power.   Deception delights us, in particular, because it stimulates the neurological reward systems that are activated whenever we believe we have something that others do not have.

In other words, we are hard-wired to find a deep-down, often uncontrollable delight in secrecy, deception, and truth-hiding, because these things—the art of the dupe—make us feel powerful, knowing we know something that others do not.

“Duping delight” is a helpful concept as we continue this month’s theological analysis of Gravity Falls, the popular new animated series by Disney that’s a pretty big hit at my house.  To the extent that Dr. Eckman was on to something there, it helps us get at one of the unique aspects of the show, something that has contributed both to its popularity and to the endless speculation swirling around it on the internet (and not a few conspiracy theories, too).

I’m talking here about its use of the dupe.

Even a casual viewer of Gravity Falls—like, say, a father trying to keep up on the interests of three adolescent fans—will notice that it majors in deceptions, mysteries, and secrets of all kinds.  There’s the surface, of course: Grunkle Stan is a self-admitted con-artist running a phony “museum of the paranormal,” with the express intent of bilking tourists out of their hard-earned vacation dollars.  A number of the early episodes, in fact, lean heavily on this plot-device.  Stan’s arch-enemy is a phony child-psychic named L’il Gideon, himself a conman who uses fake psychic powers for his own bilking enterprises.   The dramatic finale of Season 1 leaned heavily on this plot-device.  Then, of course, there’s the mysterious, anonymously-penned journal (itself a riddle wrapped in an enigma) which reveals the hidden truths behind the deceptive “everyday” of Gravity Falls (nearly every episode leans on this one).

So that’s the surface.  But, as with all things Gravity Falls, there’s also the beneath-the-surface.  Peppered throughout the show are all sorts of mysterious ciphers, strange riddles and pseudo-cultic symbols.  Dipper’s journal itself is scrawled with them, as are the paranormal paraphernalia in the Mystery Shack.   Grunkle Stan sports an unexplained fez that's reminiscent of Masonic headgear.  The main villain in Gravity Falls is a disturbing demon named “Bill Cipher,” who bears an uncanny resemblance to the “All-Seeing-Eye” on the American dollar bill (yeah, the one that conspiracy theorists believe is a Masonic insignia).  Similar “triangle-framed-eyes” appear all over the place in the show’s background.

So that’s the beneath-the-surface; but there’s an even deeper layer here.  Every show, for instance, is littered with bizarre cryptograms and hidden messages, which only the most attentive viewers notice (see here for a list).  The opening credits always end with a backward message whispered breathlessly, which, if you've got the time and the interest to play it the right way 'round, gives away a clue about one of the characters.  And the closing credits, too, always show a cipher at the very end, which, if you enjoy that sort of thing, you can decode to learn something about an upcoming episode.

And then, of course, there’s this arcane-looking picture that flashes briefly at the start and end of every episode, and has generated more conspiracy theories online than chem-trails or water-fluoridisation combined.


On the one hand, it’s all this enigmatic symbolism that’s made some Christians skeptical about the show (see Part I of this series on that), but it’s also what’s made it especially popular.  The fun’s not just in the goofy gags and the interesting stories; it’s in all the deciphering and decrypting and detecting that carries on after each episode’s done.  The “delight” of Gravity Falls is, in fact, a kind of duping delight—the pleasure of knowing a hidden truth that others don’t because you were able to decode riddles that others weren't.

The word “occult,” of course, is so loaded with images of goat heads and spiritual evil that it’s hard to use it here without giving the wrong impression, but to the extent that the word simply comes from the Latin word occultus, meaning “hidden, or secret,” and to the extent that it literally just means “knowledge of the hidden,” we might suggest that it aptly describes the appeal of Gravity Falls.  The truest fans of the show—the ones who take the time to crack the codes and unscramble the letters—are rewarded—“delightfully” rewarded, you might say—with an insider’s knowledge of the hidden.

Gravity Falls, it turns out, appeals to the all-too-human pleasure we derive from knowing a hidden truth.  And, whether Stan’s Masonic headgear is anything more than a tongue-in-cheek gag, I suspect this is also the appeal of secret societies like the Masons, and conspiracy theories of all kinds, and the Occult of the worst kind—the supposed power that comes from having an insider’s knowledge of the hidden.

If this is making sense, then let me draw some theological lines between all this mystery, and the Christian Faith.  Because whatever else they believed about Jesus, the earliest Christians believed that in encountering him, they had come into contact with a mystery that had been hidden from the creation of the world.

Here’s a smattering of their writings on the subject: “[I want you to know] the Word of God, the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints” (Col 1:26); or “[God’s intent was to] make plain to everyone the administration of the mystery which for ages past was kept hidden in God” (Eph 3:9); or “We declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden [since] before time began”  (1 Cor 2:7).  And don’t get me started on the Book of Revelation, an apocalyptic vision that’s all about the hidden spiritual realities going on behind the veil of the everyday.

Like Gravity Falls, the Gospel, too, appeals to the all-too-human pleasure we derive from knowing a hidden truth, but with one big difference.

And it’s a difference that makes all the difference

Because unlike the kind of mystery that is the purvey of a show like Gravity Falls (or more importantly, the purvey of those darker things that Gravity Falls draws on superficially for its symbolism—secret societies and conspiracy theories and weird occult gobble-de-gook) the Gospel is not a mystery to be uncovered.  The Gospel is a mystery that has been revealed.  This is woven right down into the fabric of the New Testament, and is altogether different from “occult” mysteries, so called (however we define that word):  The Gospel is the Truth about Life that was once hidden, kept secret, but now, in Christ, is revealed to all, disclosed to all, and available to all.

In Jesus, God went public with the mystery of his intentions for the world.

This actually takes us right to heart of one of the very first heresies the Church faced.  It was called Gnosticism (from the Greek word, gnosis, meaning "knowledge"), and it specialized in "secret knowledge" about god, mysteries that only the initiated knew, and the outsider, especially, didn't.  In Gnosticism of all forms, it was this secret knowledge that saved.  Salvation itself was a mere matter of knowing and keeping secrets, and in the worst forms of Gnosticism, this "secret knowledge" devolved into the most convoluted, obscure and bizarre obfuscations imaginable.  A theologian named St. Irenaeus (ca. 200 AD) wrote one of the first and most decisive refutations of Gnosticism ever, and the title of his book sort of says it all:  On the Detection and Overthrow of 'Knowledge,' Falsely So-called.

Gravity Falls is not the worst form of Gnosticism, of course, but neither is it the only cultural phenomena these days that draws heavily on the delight—and the subtle feelings of power—we derive from believing we're on the inside of a secret.  From Harry Potter to "Paul is Dead" from Anonymous to Wiki-leaks, the list is long and varied.  Any theological analysis of Gravity Falls, then, would be remiss if it didn't at least point it out, how the Christian message both speaks to the power of the secret, but also disarms it.

Because the earliest Christians recognized how easily "spiritual secrets" can manipulate and ensnare and exploit the human heart; and more importantly, they believed that in Jesus, they had encountered a God who had gone scandalously public with his love for this hurting world—and because of these things, they kept insisting that the mystery of the Gospel was, in fact, an open secret, offered to any and all who had ears to hear it and a heart to receive it.

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