This Is (Epiphany)

It’s January, and in case you hadn’t heard, it recently snowed a lot in the American northeast, where I live. By this point the snow has lost its charm and is becoming an ugly inconvenience. That’s often how January goes around here: it’s cold, dark, gross, and boring. It’s also Epiphany, a tricky little season that’s sandwiched between and probably often overshadowed by Christmas and Lent. But that name – Epiphany – is dazzling. In our common vernacular, epiphany means a realization. It’s ideas, thoughts, and observations coming together in a meaningful way. It’s a sigh of relief as something is resolved. It’s a convergence. Continue reading →

Advertisements

The Mountain

Several months ago, I found myself lost on a cluster of mountains. It was supposed to be a fairly quick and direct little hike, which had seemed simple enough when I planned it before setting out. Alas. The trail was poorly marked, and I didn’t have a map or GPS, so within an hour I realized that I was on the wrong trail, headed in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go. I spent the afternoon trying to rectify this mistake, to no avail, instead tripling the distance I originally intended on going, and climbing up and down all these little mountains in a pretty nonsensical way. Of course, I had to keep reminding myself that everything would be okay: I had plenty of food, energy, fresh water, sunlight, and most importantly, literally nowhere else to be (#vacation). Even if my initial plan was a bust, it was fine – maybe even better – for me to spend seven hours wandering around this mountain range.

At some point during this venture, I was reminded of Dante, because I’m a little boring he was another person who got lost in the woods. In the Divine Comedy, Dante’s allegorical journey to heaven, he sets up Purgatory as a mountain. So the Christians who die with unresolved issues essentially become cosmic hikers. They forge uphill through a series of trials as they are purged of their sins and climb closer to Paradise. Mt. Purgatory’s trail is cyclical – it winds around the side of the mountain, so these hikers climb gradually in circles, which grow smaller and smaller the higher they go. Continue reading →

The Keurig, the Chemex, and Dietary Gnosticism

Picture

There’s no way that anyone could be that happy while drinking instant coffee.

 

Over this past holiday season, I found myself in the coffee-machine sections of several retailers, in search of an espresso maker to give my mom. None of these stores had what I was looking for, instead, their shelves were well-stocked with assorted variations of Keurigs, Nespressos, and the accompanying accessories.

For those who may be unaware, a Keurig is a coffee-making device that is designed for convenience. There’s a small reservoir which users fill with water every couple of days, and coffee – which comes in pre-measured little pods (“K-cups”) – is dispensed in seconds through a small valve. Clean-up is a breeze – when you’re done, all you need to do is throw away the used plastic pod.

If the Keurig is at one end of the coffee-making-device spectrum, then the Chemex is at the other. For those who may be unaware, a Chemex is a glass vessel that is designed for making pour-over coffee. The coffee itself needs to be ground a certain way, and carefully measured (usually with a scale). The water needs to be heated separately, and brought to a specific temperature. When it’s just hot enough, it’s carefully poured in concentric circles over the coffee. The water-to-coffee ratio is important, and varies depending on the coffee itself; one coffee shop I frequent keeps their Chemexes on little digital scales, so they know exactly how much water they’ve added. The coffee slowly drips into a glass basin, and is served immediately. Continue reading →

Evolution: Not a Big Deal

Last week, the ever-so-edgy Pope Francis endorsed evolution.

Tweets were sent. Articles were written. Feathers were ruffled.

And then people started remembering that the Vatican okayed evolution, like, 60 years ago. Not to mention the early Christian teachers who speculated about something like it, like, 1600 years ago.

It’s always fun when church-people get hot and bothered about the e-word. It’s also kind of funny to see how non-church people react when they realize that not all Christians are raging creationists.

Anyway, this conversation seems to pop up in the media every so often, and I enjoy taking the opportunity to remember where I’ve come, and why I’ve grown to appreciate the concept of evolution so much. Continue reading →

Reflektor & The Present Age

Arcade Fire’s latest album, Reflektor, dropped in October 2013 – yes, it’s a little late in the game to be writing a commentary on it. Sorry. But I ended up at one of their concerts a while back and I’ve been thinking about this album a lot since then.

On our way home from that concert, my brother informed me that Reflektor has been called something along the lines of “a love story in the digital age.” Intriguing, yes, but I think that there’s actually a little more going on here than just that. The particular lyric behind all this speculation, and the album’s name, is “we fell in love in the reflective age” (from the title track, “Reflektor,” emphasis mine). This phrase felt familiar, and that’s because Arcade Fire didn’t coin it – nineteenth century Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard did.

In his essay/book review Two Ages, Kierkegaard contrasts what he calls “The Age of Revolution” and “The Present Age.” Compared to the action-packed age of revolution, Kierkegaard laments the present age’s excessive introspection and lack of passion, calling it “a sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence” (68). People in the present age are constantly – possibly cyclically – reflecting, calculating, critiquing, and deciding, but rarely doing. “Everyone is well informed,” he says, “we all know everything, every course to take and the alternative courses, but no one is willing to take it” (104).

In the present age, public life is largely superficial. Fearing silence, people gossip and analyze, and individuals avoid standing out as to not become the subject of reflection and chatter. No longer a part of the public, the individual intentionally becomes a “nobody.” Kierkegaard considers the ways that the present age affects the individual, society, truth, and knowledge in a way that is profound and prophetic.

But Kierkegaard doesn’t say much about love. As interesting as his commentary is, I wonder what he would say about interpersonal romantic relationships in the present age. This is where Arcade Fire comes in, because I think Reflektor touches upon this in an important way. The problematic patterns that Kierkegaard originally described have only intensified in the centuries since he wrote Two Ages. Technology allows us to spend less time attending to meeting basic needs, freeing us up to be more reflective than ever before (24-hour news cycles, social media, personal blogs, and the like are simultaneously catalysts for and products of this reflection). This is why I find Reflektor so compelling and important.

So what is it to be in love in the reflective age? Throughout this album, we encounter two lovers who are just trying to hold on. But will they? Can they?

Questions pierce the quiet moments of the present age, resulting in uncertainty and instability. The two lovers are unsure about who they are and where they stand, and their questions speak to this.

Oh, when love is gone, Where does it go?
“Afterlife”

Will I see you on the other side?
“Reflektor”

She said, “Well how do I know, When I know, When I know?” You already know.
“You Already Know”

They are extremely conscious of themselves and their relationship, and how unstable it really is.

Our song escapes on little silver discs,
Our love is plastic, we’ll break it to bits.

“Reflektor”

We know there’s a price to pay for love in a reflective age,
I met you up upon a stage, our love in a reflective age, 

“Awful Sound”

The album culminates with a duet of songs – “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” – which retell a tragic myth in the present age. Like the mythical Orpheus and Eurydice, these reflective lovers are now anxiously and desperately trying to restore what they had.

He says to her:

 You were born in the little town
Before the awful sound started coming down
There’s so much inside you that you won’t let me see
You fly away from me, but it’s an awful sound when you hit the ground
It’s an awful sound when you hit the ground.
“Awful Sound”

And assures him:

We’ll wait until it’s over
Wait until it’s through
You say it’s not me, it’s you
“It’s Never Over”

And then together, we hear them descend into a cyclical conversation of assurance and uncertainty, assuring each other that “you will get over,” even though “it’s never over.” Ultimately, they reminisce and lament:

We stood beside
A frozen sea
I saw you out
In front of me
Reflected light
A hollow moon
Oh Orpheus, Eurydice
Its over too soon.
“It’s Never Over”

The remainder of the album, “Afterlife” and “Supersymmetry,” shows them trying to work things out, but ultimately wondering about what happens when love is lost wonders about what happens when love is lost. The album ends with the chilling lyrics:

It’s been a while since I’ve been to see you
I don’t know where, but you’re not with me
Heard a voice, like an echo
But it came from you.
“Supersymmetry”

I’m not sure that Reflektor is trying to teach us how to maintain or restore love in the present age. Instead, it gives us a glimpse of that reflective anxiety and how it affects individuals and those closest to them. We see what happens when love is simply abstract and breakable, and insecurity is consuming. It’s tragic, and it’s over too soon.

10,000 Children

In the outcry over World Vision’s hiring policy amendment, 10,000 child sponsorships have been dropped. Until a few days ago, these 10,000 children were being fed, clothed, and educated in the name of Jesus. And now they’re not, in the name of…what? Jesus? Scripture? Theology? A culture war?World Vision

In the midst of this mess, I feel bad for World Vision. They found themselves in a lose-lose situation and now people on both sides of the same sex marriage debate are angry with them, they’re losing donors, and board members are resigning. I also feel bad for World Vision’s married homosexual employees or prospective employees, who love Jesus and simply want to help World Vision care for needy people across the planet. And I pity evangelicalism, a movement that is losing followers by the second and drifting closer toward becoming obsolete.

But all of these people and institutions will ultimately be okay, because they exist in the developed world, where our water is clean, our education is free and mandatory, and our battles take place in cyberspace. Right now, I’m really worried about those 10,000 children. Maybe their lives are stable enough to go on just fine without their sponsors’ support, or maybe they’ll get new sponsors or be picked up by another organization. But what if that doesn’t happen? Will they just stop going to school next year? Will their food just run out or something? What about their next round of vaccinations? And how will their parents explain to them that their lives are about to change significantly because 10,000 adults in America got mad about a corporate policy? Will they be confused?

And to those 10,000 ex-sponsors: what did you do with the picture of your former child, the one that World Vision sent you when you decided, in the name of Jesus, to sponsor a child? Is it still hanging on your fridge or sitting on your dresser, watching you go about your day, disgruntled but otherwise comfortable? Or did you just throw it out?

Note: Right after I wrote this, I did some research and learned, to my relief, that World Vision’s child sponsorship program is modeled in such a way that no individual child will actually be significantly impacted by this scandal. Still, I’m deeply disturbed by the mindset of those 10,000 ex-sponsors, who more or less used these children as leverage in a culture war. In a lot of ways it’s kind of barbaric, and is definitely not Christ-like.

Jesus Saves (Or, Taking a Stab at Soteriology)

cosimo-rosselli-sermon-on-the-mount

“Sermon on the Mount” by Cosimo Rossellini, 1480.

My disclaimer here is that soteriology (the study of the doctrine of salvation) is a really sticky subject that a lot of people have very strong options on, even though I think most people know less about it than they think they do – myself included. This is something that’s been on my mind a lot about over the past couple of years, but I’ve never sat really down and fully processed it. That’s what I’m going to try to do here. I’m certainly not going to claim to have all the answers (to the contrary, actually).

Here we go:

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
(John 14:5-6, NRSV)

Most Christians interpret this exchange in a very particular manner. That is, that no one can know God or enter His Kingdom (“be saved,” as many say) without believing in and following Him – this is the only way, and the only life and the only truth. And it is this belief in Him, or this following of the Way, that saves us. It generally follows that only Christians will be able to enter the Kingdom, but the good news is that anyone can be a Christian, because salvation is a free gift, and the only thing we need to do to be saved is to choose His grace.

There are a lot of things that I really like about this account of salvation, and for a while I was satisfied with it. However, over the last couple of years I’ve grown a bit skeptical. No, I’m not a relativist, or even a universalist, but I think that sometimes when Christians read John 14:6, their perspective is just a bit off. What I’m getting at here is that I don’t think becoming a Christian can save you, because only Jesus can.

Jesus doesn’t say that “Going to church is the way,” or, “Being baptized is the way,” or even “Believing in me is the way.” He says that “I am the way.” We are saved by Him, through His life, death, and resurrection. The more I look at the bloody cross and the empty tomb, the more I realize – and hope (pretty desperately, actually) – that my salvation is a result of His work and His grace, and has nothing to do with my prayers or habits.

Does this mean that I think that there will be non-Christians in the Kingdom? I try not to worry about this too much because it’s God’s business, not mine, but I definitely wouldn’t be shocked.

It also bothers me when Christians claim that they know the Truth. Because Jesus is the Truth, and He’s really big (i.e., infinite) – no one knows Him fully, except Himself. There are so many gray areas in the faith (hence, denominations), which is a pretty good indication that no one is totally right. Maybe in the Kingdom we will have all the answers, but for now I think we need to settle with having perspectives that are limited by space, time, biases, education, etc. Besides, a little mystery is good and beautiful:

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

All of this said, I’m still a Christian, and even though I don’t think that’s my ticket to the Kingdom, I definitely still think that it’s the best thing for me and for all people. We are made in God’s image and, as Augustine says, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him. God’s image in us longs for Him and compels us toward Him. The human end is union with Christ, and we cannot be truly happy apart from Him. But I think that all of these things have less to do with us, and more to do with Christ.