Learning to Read (Again)

I’ve been debating about whether to publish these thoughts. Then I encountered Bibliotheca, a kickstarter project by Adam Lewis Greene, self-described as “The Biblical Literature designed & crafted for reading, separated into four elegant volumes, and free of all numbers, notes, etc.” Greene’s goal is to create a Bible that is meant to be read and enjoyed as literature. The idea excited me. In light of it, I want to share these thoughts on the way we read Scripture.

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I overheard two kids asking each other their favorite Bible stories. David and Goliath? Daniel and the Lions? Those kids absolutely geeked out about Scripture.  At their age, I only took such delight in Star Wars and maybe Spider-Man.  As I grew, I wondered if I’d lost the capacity to enjoy any story that way.  I think those kids, the ones who grab slingshots and pretend to be David just because it’s cool, have something we have lost.

I realized that I needed to learn to read. Again.

As a child, I had a childlike faith in story, before “Beauty and the Beast” became an abusive relationship and “Rapunzel” became chauvinistic propaganda. And as I grew, I snickered at those liberal scholars who would reduce Jane Eyre to a feminist allegory.

But all the while, I was doing the same violence to Scripture.  I analyzed the sub-textual marrow and forgot the feast of the story. I viewed the spiritual meat as the derived system of bullet-point takeaways that brought intellectual peace. I did not accept Scripture with the childlike faith of a fairytale.

In-depth analysis is not always or even usually wrong. Good exposition can reveal unfathomed truth, and scripture must interpret scripture. But as Wordsworth said, we murder to dissect. For Christians, the problem comes when we forget that an un-dissected story can teach us. Story demands to be tasted and enjoyed, not simply understood. Scholars from Horace onward have spoken of literature’s ability teach and delight. Samuel Johnson called this one of fiction’s greatest strengths. The un-dissected story can teach our hearts and our souls. It can teach more than we can rationalize. It can teach things like a peace which surpasses understanding (Philippians 4:7).

I forgot that Scripture can be enjoyed like Tolstoy. If you see no possible way to enjoy Tolstoy, perhaps you’re missing a lot of potential delight in God’s word.  My current study of Kings I and II has “blown my hair back,” as Matt Damon said in Good Will Hunting.  Perfect details flavor the story’s atmosphere, the characters pop from the page, and the narrative slows and changes perspectives at just the right points to make a story that punches you in the chest.  Beauty and truth reside in narrative itself, in the seemingly tedious details, whether they be Tolstoy’s movements of Russian armies or Solomon’s building of a temple.

I believe that for a long time I nominally loved Scripture. In truth, I found it tedious.  Perhaps this happened because I always tried to “get it.” If a story is reduced to a message, it loses its teaching power—and its joy. The stories of Scripture are a feast that is readily traded for nutrition pills. The symptoms show: Christian art becomes explicitly allegorical, devotionals begin to read like manuals and textbooks. We make children explore the Bible with bullet-points and study questions. Yet most school children will attest that nothing kills a story like study questions at the end of every chapter.

We use fairytales to teach children about adult concepts: love, justice, beauty. Some, like scholar Claude Lévi-Strauss, claim that ancient peoples used myths similarly, exploring great ideas with story. At the mythological level, story and message have perfect unity.

You see such a unity in the parables of Jesus. Through story, Jesus taught about high spiritual things, things beyond his audience. And Jesus could exposit them perfectly. He is God. He wrote them. But we are children. Would you trust a child to fully analyze a fairytale and exposit all its meaning?

We are children reading God’s fairy-stories. Our analysis, however insightful and rational, is still for children by children. Again, analysis and exposition are good, necessary and even beautiful. We need our study bibles, or at least I do. But the thing we’re expositing will always be greater than our exposition of it. The story itself is an impossibly grown-up thing. It can teach us what analysis cannot, even if we don’t know we’re learning.

We read Scripture to know God. I’ve found myself trying to do so by fitting His actions into a logical system until every bit made sense. But who would use these methods to understand a parent or a lover? You could never logically explain idiosyncrasies of even one friend. If such methods cannot explain finite people, how could they explain the infinite God, whose ways our higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9)?

How do we know people? We listen to them, watch them and spend time with them. Perhaps if we read the Bible like children watching a parent, we will leave with a deeper knowledge of God. Not a scientific brain-knowledge, but a deeper knowledge, the way you know a friend. It’s the sort of knowledge that leaves you understanding less but knowing more.

God is not simply meant to be understood. That’s the last thing He can be. Maybe that’s why Psalm 34:8 calls us to taste and see.

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Let’s Rebel

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My friends and I used to joke about “stick it to the man for Jesus” songs.  You know, those fist-pump rock anthems that rail against—well, we don’t know what really.  They sound angry and they’re Christian so we mosh to them.

But Christians have a reason for rebellion.

One day I found myself listening to Green Day’s “American Idiot” while driving back to school with my friend Adam.

“Popular music back then used to be so in-your-face,” I remarked as Billie Joe railed against the new media.  “It rebelled against something.  Why doesn’t music do that now?”

“There’s nothing to rebel against,” replied Adam. “Kids have all the freedom they want.”

True enough.  Music has achieved its defiant goal.  Casual sex, marijuana, the party life—society accepts these as normal, especially among twenty-somethings.  Musicians from Miley Cyrus to Lada Gaga camp out in the Woodstock field of sensuality with little resistance.  Pop artists no longer fight for the party life.  They have it.  They revel in it.

The irony is that pop culture no longer fights the system because it has become the system.  It’s a system not just of musicians and magazines, but of the teachers and parents that the musicians and magazines once combated.  And it’s a system that obliterates the toil of knowing others.

In this system, drugs chemically loosen our inhibitions so we don’t have to work up the courage to be ourselves.  We can circumnavigate conversation entirely; internet profiles reduce other persons to lists of facts.  Biology dilutes sex and love to animal necessities, unsacred utilitarian processes that we might as well play with.  If that gets too difficult, we can avoid the interpersonal bits altogether and settle for porn (which, by the way, is a form of sex trafficking).  And don’t worry about the consequences of any of this.  Those are neatly erased by abortion, no-fault divorce, and a click of the “delete history” button.

And we wonder why, after thousands of years on planet Earth, our vocabularies include words like bored and lonely.

The system feeds children to Darwin and expects them to treat each other as more than animals.  It feeds them to Freud and expects them not to reduce each other to sex.  It feeds them to Nietzsche and expects them not to will themselves over each other.  The banner of freedom diverts our eyes from the sexual, emotional, and physical abuse hiding behind.  The eighteen-year gestation period of childhood births a crooked and perverse generation.  We are too selfish to know others and too hurt to be known.

In this midst of this, the simplest Christian commandment becomes the most pugnacious and rebellious thing: Love thy neighbor; love thy enemies.

Christ doesn’t command us to love some generic category of “neighbors,” but thy neighbor.  A specific person.  Not a lump of cells, not an online profile, and not a sex object.  Of course, the whole world is our neighborhood, but let’s start simply.  Picture your actual next-door neighbors.  Do you love them?  Sure, you’d jump in front of a train for them.  But would you take time to say hello?  To chase down their trashcan that has blown down the street?  Even if they’ve let that stupid trashcan blow away hundreds of times, and you could be doing something more beneficial for yourself?

Such love isn’t always easy.  The system trains us to be alpha males and goddesses.  But Christ arrives washing our feet, bearing our cross, and commanding us to die for others.  Humility exists in His very being: that the eternal God would become a temporal man.

Critics brush off Christians as blind conformists.  After all, Christian morality used to be the default setting of the American home.  Schools taught the Bible.  Church attendance was the norm.  An American could comfortably fall back on religious constructs with little effort.  To rebel against your teachers was to declare secularism.  To be an atheist took guts.

But now, Christians intellectually challenge what they’re taught in school.  Now Christians stand on moral principles that drive the establishment nuts.  Now Christians are—if I may—the rebels.

So rebel.  Rebel with your music, your fiction, and your fashion.  Rebel by having sex with your wife.  Rebel by refusing to watch porn.  Rebel by chasing a trashcan down the street.  Rebel by confessing your sins to one another.  Rebel by questioning the things you’re taught.  Rebel by putting someone else before yourself.

Don’t simply dismiss “stick it to the man for Jesus” songs.  To the media-filtered world, the gospel is rebellion.  God tells us that our fight is not against men but against powers and principalities.  These are the powers.  These are the principalities.  Fight.

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Rethinking the Happy Ending

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What kind of stories would Jesus write?

No need to guess.  Jesus preached in stories.  He told of a prodigal son accepted back before earning his keep (Luke 15:19).  He told of a penniless debtor completely forgiven (Matthew 18:23-26).  In his stories, people don’t always get what they deserve.

At my tiny conservative college, some students slam down a book and protest the author’s injustice.  How could the villain win?  How could Odysseus live happily after cheating on Penelope?  We want those characters to get what they deserve.

But Christ told stories of grace.  And as Matt Theissen once sang in a hit 2004 pop-punk song, the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.

We can manage the abstract idea of sin.  But what if the prodigal son was gay?  What if the forgiven debtor had blown his money on drugs?  Literature incarnates the abstract, and incarnate sin makes grace difficult.  It’s easier to slam the book and drive the sinning heroes off the plank.

We’re decent enough forgive our fellow man, but we insist on punishment for fictional characters.  After all, they can’t be hurt.  But what does this say about our hearts?  About our theology?  Will we, whose debts have been erased, throttle the debtors of fiction and demand payment?

We often do.  Why?  God is just, and therefore the good guys win.  Maybe the hero even gets a new truck for his trouble.  We laud Superman and Star Wars because goodness trumps evil, but this alone isn’t Christianity.  Any belief could tell such tales.  Our theology knows this, but does our fiction?  Do we still demand happy endings?

Scripture doesn’t.  Ecclesiastes tackles the truth we sidestep: “There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing” (Ecclesiastes 7:15, ESV).  Good people don’t necessarily live happily ever after.

In upstate New York, I heard a full-bearded, full-voiced preacher named Mark Webb expound the story of JobAs he articulated, Satan demands a “skin for skin” contest (Job 2:4).  This one-for-one moralism—the same moralism that would drive Odysseus off the plank—is Satan’s mentality.

Tragedy hits.  Job’s friends wonder what he must have done to merit such punishment.  He deflects the accusations onto God (Job 19:6).  But young Elihu contends that God works differently.  Then God Himself arrives in a tornado and agrees (Job 42:6).  Every moment of health and wealth that Job had enjoyed was a gift.  His actions earned him neither comfort nor discomfort.

Scripture commands us to do good, but it never promises prosperity.  In fact, it promises quite the opposite.  Yet many who deride the prosperity gospel demand it from fiction.  We must praise the good without false promises.

In a row of believers too modest to ask for a refill of reality, Flannery O’Connor pounds the table and demands more.  The plump paperback of her collected stories comes with no guarantee of a redemptive twist.  The end of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” leaves a family dead.  Graham Greene, the writer-spy who fled to Mexico after being sued by Shirley Temple, also insists on reality.  His novel The Power and the Glory paints the sun-blanched portrait of an alcoholic priest during the Mexican Revolution.  Despite the priest’s failures, the gospel shines through him.

Here you don’t find happy endings.  Instead, you find authors unafraid to dig deep and dust off the treasure-chest of Christian theology.  They don’t settle for a simple moral.

So why do we demand happy endings?

We’ve been promised them.  This time-bound world runs backwards: princes walk the ground like slaves and slaves ride horses (Ecclesiastes 10:7). But God has planted eternity in our hearts.  That planted seed breaks through the earth and reaches out, aching for a place where the last shall be first (Matthew 20:16).  Just judgment belongs to Christ, the one flawless human hero.

But until that judgment comes, we don’t always get what we deserve.  And even if we did, we’d be forced to admit that without grace we’re the bad guys.  We couldn’t swallow our just deserts.

When we write about the real world, we must write about the real world.  In Searching For God Knows What, Donald Miller records a friend’s quip: “Reality is like a fine wine.  It will not appeal to children.”  Sure, sometimes reality is fair.  Sometimes the criminals are caught, the innocent prevail, and everyone gets home in time for dinner.  But if O’Connor’s concoctions taste bitter, maybe we should reassess our diet of sugary stories.

Maybe we should trade our insistent happy endings for the mystery of the cross.  When we look to the cross, we don’t see a well-groomed hero, a new truck, or a simple moral.  We see torn flesh.  We see entrails.  We see blood.  But in this seeming triumph of darkness stands the victory of God.  Christianity takes a candid snapshot of the world and still captures the raw beauty of grace.  Christianity alone stands beautiful and unafraid.

 

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On Writing Like A Christian (Part III)

(Originally published in the Patrick Henry College Herald).

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The lack of honesty in our writing results in a problem of form.  Too often, we retreat from the darkness of the world’s literature into classical forms: knights, faeries, spaceships, Victorian-era dresses—anything to backpedal from postmodernism.  In the mix of high ideas, forced worldview and antiquated literary style, these forms can act as masks for honesty.

Have you noticed that every Christian homeschool kid is writing something Tolkien already wrote?  We’ve absorbed the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis.  But when Lewis set out to write The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, he set out to write a story, not an allegory. He and Tolkien wrote what was honest for them.  They set out to tell good stories.  A good myth by definition says something real and human.  If you write fantasy, be honest.

We craft our masks out of other genres, too: historical fiction, Amish romance, science fiction.  I challenge any Christian who writing in these genres—are you writing here because you love it, because it connects with people?  Or do you write here because it spares you from digging into the honest dissonance the world?  Do you write fantasy because that’s what you do best, or because that requires the least risk?  Do you write fantasy because that’s where you can be most honest, or because that’s where you can discuss God without dealing with homosexuals, feminists, and drug addicts?

We need the influence and wisdom of myth, folklore, and fantasy.  But our culture clamors for more.  They want the real, honest stuff.  Incidentally, that’s the same stuff Jesus demands from us.  It’s the same stuff we really have, if we open up.  It’s the stuff that might make others say—“Hey, they have that too—and Jesus still loves them.”

As it stands, most contemporary portrayals of the world have been left in the hands of the postmodernists.  In response, we have retreated from the earth altogether.  But Gerard Manley Hopkins tells of a planet that is charged with the grandeur of God.  As G.K. Chesterton says in Orthodoxy, “Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary.”  Maybe we should stop putting fairies into the world and start showing the fairies that are already there.

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On Writing Like A Christian (Part II)

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Honesty does not oppose truth.  Sometimes it grates against it, rails against it, pushes it and shoves it.  It comes selfish and unexpected.  But the Bible never denies honesty.

There is a line that Christians mustn’t cross.  We discern that line through prayer, Biblical study, and conversation.  The last thing we need is a gaggle of Christian writers who only dwell on the sins of the world.  The Devil would be delighted to get us spending all our time worrying about demons.  But I think that, as a culture, we’ve fled an unhealthy distance from any discernible line.  The Devil also delights when we leave our real demons in the dark.  He wants us to put out cardboard dummy-demons in their place and shout, “Look at my issues!”  When we show the grace of God destroying cardboard dummies, that’s all we’ve shown.  In our stories, the awesome grace of God has defeated a Sunday-school craft.  We take God’s power, meant to move mountains, and show it stomping in molehills.  It’s not a small issue.

King David, the poet-king of scorching honesty, stands as the most prominent Biblical example of a creative writer.  He cries in pain.  He wishes to see the infants of his enemies dashed against the rocks.  And though he eventually returns to hope in God, he sometimes leaves unresolved the problems he sets up.  So does Jeremiah in the book of Lamentations.  David never pretended he had all the answers.

And he was honest about his situation.  When enemies surrounded him, King David didn’t write about abstract spiritual significance.  He wrote, “Protect me from evil people who attack me.”

Say a Christian man nowadays struggles with homosexuality.   He would more likely write “Protect me from evil people who attack me” than “God help me, I’m attracted to men.”  Sometimes we adopt the language of the Bible skin-deep, ignoring the muscle behind it.  David didn’t deal in abstracts.  Neither should we.

Maybe what many of us write off as postmodern drivel is actually honest writing in a world where honesty means pain and uncertainty.  And despite our commitment to having the right answers, we have a lot of pain and uncertainty ourselves.  Like David, we can drop problems in God’s lap unresolved.  Like him, we can lament along the way.

Many modern Christian writers try to provide characters with whom the world can connect.  But do these characters stem from the real, deep, honest feelings of the writers?  Or from a speculated, parodied idea of the worldly man, drawn from observations of friends and relatives?  Often, the sins of our characters appear so polished that we might as well not portray them.  Where are the real characters, the ones struggling with sexual abuse, murderous thoughts, pornography?  They’re camped out in postmodern fiction, groping through the dark brains of writers who have no answers.

The world knows how badly and in what ways it is screwed up.  Unless we admit that we’re screwed up in the same ways, our writing will be ineffective at best.  At worst, it will turn us into the “holier-than-thou” straw-men we’ve decried all our lives.  By glossing over the honest bits, we make Pharisees of ourselves.

The solution?  Respond with actual honesty.  The truth of Christ in you will never disappear beneath the weight of your problems.

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On Writing Like A Christian (Part I)

(Originally published in the Patrick Henry College Herald.)

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Every good story makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable.

Think back on the great books.  Without fail, something pops out of those pages that makes you squirm.  Sometimes you squirm because of a vulgar point, maybe in Homer or Swift.  But sometimes something else makes you squirm.  Not vulgarity.  Honesty.  The thoughts that seem a bit too personal to write down.  The sort of stuff you’re not supposed to think, but we all think anyway.  Take the opening lines of Tom Wolfe’s A Man In Full, wherein the main character admires the build of his own chest.  Nothing stands out as necessarily vulgar.  Rather, Wolfe gives us a blunt expression of arrogance.

In high school, I attended a writer’s workshop at Susquehanna University.  I was a homeschooled Christian tossed into an ocean of public-schoolers who spoke like sailors.  The first words we heard from our teacher, as he entered the classroom and saw us standing awkwardly with our chairs facing the walls, were “What the fudge is this?”  But like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, he didn’t say “fudge.”  Students and teachers alike wrote about sex, drugs, rock and roll, and everything else we don’t write about.

But something made these stories pop.  Something made them real.  Not their vulgarity.  Their honesty.  The writers at Susquehanna University didn’t drop an awkward moral into the reader’s lap.  They told their lives straight.  Most of the lot didn’t believe in God.  The truth of their lives bled black.  But it was the truth.

Of course, this “truth” did not amount to ultimate truth.  But it often touched ultimate truth.  The unbelieving writers followed their worldviews to logical despair.  Things ended there.  The song rang out on a minor chord.  They had the truth about themselves, themselves alone, and they sang it in the streets.

As Christians, we excel at proclaiming the ultimate truth.  We know our theology up and down, back to front and, in certain denominations, even in between.  But what of temporal truth?  What of basic human honesty?  What of the life stories we see every day, the ones without a redemptive twist?  The outside world shouts “honesty!” and we shout back “truth!”  We will not hear each other until one of us starts listening.  And if we wish to follow Christ’s example, we hold that responsibility.  Once we open our ears, we will hear that cry for honesty.

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On Homosexuality: Faith and Reason and Lady Gaga

“Do not be deceived,” says Saint Paul.  “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, NIV).”

The only part of that whole thing that you really caught is the part about gay people.

There’s no Biblical reason to address homosexuality separately from other sins. Unfortunately this has been done so much—and the topic has been so theologically butchered—that I can’t just sit back on it.  For a while now, I’ve debated whether or not I’m in a position to share the following thoughts. And, for a few reasons, I think I am.

First, my high school crush turned out to be a lesbian and a long-time best friend of mine came out as gay.  Yes, believe it or not, homeschool kids interact with homosexuals.  Both of these situations have made me deeply question my stance on the whole issue.  Second, I attend Patrick Henry College.  The school’s stance on homosexuality has been misrepresented by some, exaggerated by others, and reacted against in a plethora of ways.  And each new wave of controversy reflects upon the students. The students get kind of screwed over every time.

So whoever reads this—liberal or conservative, gay or straight—I only ask that you believe, for a moment, that two people can look at the same evidence, think just as hard, and draw different conclusions.  Those who support homosexuality have thought deeply about their beliefs.  I do not believe that they are brainwashed or bigoted.  I only ask for the same respect.

In a sense, to write an entire spiel addressing homosexuality goes against the entire point of what I’m about to say.  Christians have been asked if they believe that homosexuals deserve to go to Hell.  Truth is, Christians believe that everyone deserves to go to Hell—themselves especially.  We have all violated the very laws of the universe. I’ve held things in higher esteem than God; I’m an idolater.  I’ve lusted after movie-star women who have real-world husbands; by Christ’s standards, I’m an adulterer.

But the simplest form of the question is as follows: do Christians believe that homosexuality is wrong?

The question begs a simple “yes” or “no.” But be honest.  If you don’t support homosexuality, you expect a “yes,” and if somebody says “no” you’ll simply clock out and block out whatever follows.  Likewise, if you support homosexuality, you expect a “no” and will probably brush off anything else as homophobia.  We rarely, if ever, ask this question with an honest motive to hear out the other party.  That said, I’ll come back to it later.

Christianity, despite popular belief, is not about wrongs and rights.  As a PHC student, I’d be remiss if I didn’t quote C.S. Lewis (and yes, I know I’ve used this quote before):

“Christ says . . . . ‘I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it.  No half-measures are any good.  I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down.’”

Many supporters of homosexuality rally behind the Lady Gaga cry of “born this way.”  Homosexuality is natural, they say.  The tendency has stuck with them since birth.  It’s part of them.  Nature displays it.  It’s completely normal.  If they must lose it to become a Christian—well, that’s both ridiculous and impossible.

And all of the above is true.  Sadly, many Christians have argued that homosexuality is a choice. Such a stance only perpetuates and validates accusations of ignorance.  I have seen the “homosexuality is a choice” mindset hurt people first-hand.

But thing is, Christ knows how we’re born.  And he gives us all the same command: “you must be born again (John 3:7).”  We’re literally asked to die to ourselves and our desires (Galatians 5:24).  Daily, even (Luke 9:23).  Christianity, whether you be gay or straight or anything, has always been about becoming a completely new creation.  It’s about giving everything to Christ.

If we needed to be sinless before accepting Christ, we’d all be damned to Hell.  We come to Christ because we are broken, and often we don’t even know in what ways we are broken.  But we know that something inside us is wrong, and something about Christ is beautiful, and we want that wrongness replaced with that beauty.  We want to be new creatures.  Our lives change because we are made new.  We are not made new because our lives changed.

That’s basic theology.  But some—both Christians and others—believe that you can’t come to Christ if you’re homosexual.  On the part of Christians, who understand the above theology, this is absolutely moronic.  To make such a demand forces homosexuals into a pseudo-Mosaic law.  But we know that the Old Testament law only showed us only that we couldn’t live up to it (Galatians 3:19-25).  Christianity doesn’t demand that we sort out right and wrong and try our best to live accordingly.  That’s exactly what Christ came to end (Romans 8:1-4).  He came because we cannot follow the law.  It has never been about “curing homosexuality,” and I beg the forgiveness of anyone who has been led to believe so.  Christ came to make us entirely new men in every respect, whatever that entails.

He won’t let us put even our own spouses and children above Himself (Luke 14:26).  Anything that we would refuse to give up for Christ becomes an idol and, in effect, a sin.  If we truly desire to be made new, we may be asked to give up anything.  We may be asked to let go of a relationship, a job, a habit, or—yes—even homosexuality.  When we hold up anything and say “Christ will never take this from me,” we demand a right that no Christian can demand.  Christ asks homosexuals and heterosexuals to give the same thing: that is, everything.

Despite our wishes, God often convicts us through other people.  And no matter what we’re convicted of, we must listen.  Because when we came to Christ, we embarked on no half-hearted journey.  We want to be made new, we told Him, whatever that entails.  It will suck sometimes.  We knew that.  The Israelites spent years in the desert before reaching the promised land.  God never promised that the journey would be easy or pleasant.

So the question is not “is homosexuality wrong?”  The question is:  will you give up anything for Christ?  Christ never asked us to make lists of morals and try to follow them. He calls us to Himself, the only one ever born perfect, so that we may be made like Him.

Please hear me: nobody needs to “stop being gay” to come to the Cross.  Jesus bled out so that you don’t have to.  When you submit to him, you will be convicted.  You will be asked to change—but only by His power.  And you’ll feel convicted about all sorts of crazy things you never thought you’d feel convicted about.  Homosexuality may be one of them.  And if it is, then like anything else, Jesus must take it upon Himself and bear it on the cross.

For God’s sake.  It’s not about the homosexual movement, or republicans or democrats or “defending marriage” of all things.  It’s about you.  It’s about the fact that, deep inside, we all feel screwed up.  If you don’t, either you’re delusional or you’re a much better man than me.  Everyone one of us is born with broken parts.  Christ desires to heal us and He died to do so.  We may need to die along with him—we may need to be entirely uprooted and planted anew.  By no means will it be safe. It may not even be pleasant.  But it will be so good.

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On Trees

Will you be a John Lennon, or a Zacchaeus?  This may seem like a nonsensical dichotomy, but stick with me.  It all has to do with trees.

Try not to see a tree.  Where I live, and in many other places around the world, you can’t look out the window without seeing one.  Trees have had significance literally since the beginning of recorded history, whether it be Adam and Eve indulging in forbidden fruit or Gilgamesh whacking down Humbaba’s forest.

Last summer, while driving to get dinner before work, I listened to the brilliant song “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles.  In said brilliant song, there is a line that goes “No one I think is in my tree.  I mean it must be high or low.”

Previously, I had done a little research into the song’s lyrics, through a website that was definitely not Wikipedia.  I found this Lennon quote while not searching Wikipedia:

“I was different all my life. The second verse [of Strawberry Fields Forever] goes, ‘No one I think is in my tree.’  Well, I was too shy and self-doubting.  Nobody seems to be as hip as me is what I was saying.  Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius—‘I mean it must be high or low.’”

Back to my car on the way to dinner.  It’s the middle of Summer.  I’m feeling a bit disconnected after spending a year away at school.  I’ve just finished writing a story with a complex metaphor that I’m not sure anyone will understand.  My grandmother’s neighbors and one of my old best friends are separately combatting hydraulic fracturing—a process which I’ve just finished a research project on and concluded is harmless.  My dad wants me to read a book which I’m not sure is theologically or historically sound, but I really want to believe it, because he does, and I trust him and love him and he wants me to believe it.  I feel somewhat alone in a fractured storm of ideas, metaphors, stories and lyrics which I have cultivated over the school year, and which I am now left with on my own.

Everything inside of me says that fracking is harmless, and that my grandma’s neighbors are just scared and overreacting.  But am I really right—do I really know anything about this fracking company that’s moving into their town?  Everything in my head tells me that this book my dad wants me to read is over-stretched sensationalism—or am I just being too critical?  No one, I think, is in my tree.  I mean, it must be high or low.  Am I wrong or right?  Am I crazy, or am I a genius?

I’m in my car on the way to dinner, and John Lennon is singing to me about being alone in that tree.  “Myyyy tree,” he sings, spreading out myyyy over two beats.  Finally, somebody who gets it!  No one is in my tree.

But wait.  That sounds kind of lonely.  No one else is in my tree?  At least John Lennon’s there.  But he’s dead.

And what am I doing in myyyy tree, anyway?  Is that really whose tree I want to be in?

As I pulled into the Wendy’s parking lot, I remembered one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes:

“Christ says . . . . ‘I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it.  No half-measures are any good.  I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down.’”

What is my tree?  I’ve climbed high up into my ideas—my thoughts, my beliefs, my tastes, my philosophies, my religious rituals, my coolness, my writing abilities.  My my my my my my my.  My natural self, as Lewis said.  Myyyy tree.  And just as Lennon found, it’s lonely up there—or down there, or wherever the tree is.  Living in it leads to nothing but shyness and self-doubt.  I will never be smart enough or cool enough to be smart enough or cool enough.

Therefore, God doesn’t just want to trim my tree and make it nicer looking.  He doesn’t just want to correct little parts of my natural self.  He wants to uproot the whole tree.  And that tree will come down, whether or not I’m still in it.  So the question is: am I going to get out of my tree now, and let God cut it down?  Or will I stay up in it, relying on my own ideas until they tumble down and bring me down with them?

The Bible tells of another guy who was up in a tree.  His name was Zacchaeus, and if you grew up going to Sunday School like me, you’ve probably sung about how much of a wee little man he was.  Indeed, today we would euphemistically call him “vertically challenged” (sidenote: at what point is a euphemism so overtly clinical that it becomes a dysphemism?)  So when Jesus came into town, Zacchaeus climbed up a sycamore tree so that he could see Him.  And Jesus looks right up at him in that tree and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today (Luke 19:5, ESV).”

Now, whydidZaccheaus get into the tree in the first place?  It was to see Christ.  Can you think of a purer motive?  If you can, tell me so that I can tell you you’re wrong.  But the thing is, Christ calls Zacchaeus out of the tree.  Jesus didn’t simply want him watching from a self-attained, distant perch.  He wanted to come over to his house.  He wanted to know him.

John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible says this on the passage:

“Make haste, and come down; from the tree. The dangerous estate and condition of a sinner requires haste; it is like that of Lot in Sodom, when it was just going to be destroyed . . . and so it became Zacchaeus to come down with all speed to Christ, who was come hither to call and save him; and the enjoyment of Christ, and his grace, calls for haste . . . .  Such who come to Christ must quit all their exalted thoughts of themselves, of their riches, fulness, and self-sufficiency, and come to him as poor and needy, for such only he fills with his good things . . . . ”

I don’t know anything about John Gill other than that his last name makes me think of fish, but his words on this passage still stand.  Jesus called Zacchaeus to leave his tree, leave his riches and self-sufficiency, because those things are coming down, just like Sodom.  Christ called him to get down quickly and come to Him.

But what if Zacchaeus had stayed in the tree?  What if he’d said, “Nah man, it’s nice and warm up here, and I can see and hear you just fine!”

It’s hard to have a conversation with somebody when you’re up in a tree.  It’s definitely hard to host house-guests from up in a tree.  Likewise, it’s hard to relate to somebody if you’re high up (or low down) in your own ideas, skills, and strengths.  Especially if that somebody is God, whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).  Our tree will always be low compared to His, and it’s honestly just silly to stay in it when He is calling us to Himself.  Jesus sees Zacchaeus in that tree, and He’s saying, “Dude, get down.  I’m over here.  I don’t want you to just be up there watching me.  I want you to get down here and I want to know you.” (Luke 19:5b, New Living International Expanded Jonathan Version).

Zacchaeus got into that tree for a good reason.  But if he’d stayed in that tree, had never gotten down and into the frightening process of knowing and being known by the Creator of the universe, it would have been disastrous.  Likewise, it is good for us to have our own ideas, and philosophies, and even a certain measure of self-esteem.  But if those things are what we cling to—if they are what we rely on, what we live in—then we will miss the reality of Christ.  We will be lonely, shy, self-doubting, and we will ultimately go down with the whole tree.

But the funny thing is—and by funny, I mean funny in a “isn’t funny that a puppy died” sort of way—that so many people get this, get out of their trees, get to know Jesus—and then go back and plant another tree.  And not just another tree, but an even stronger tree.

In the book that my dad has me reading, the author talks a lot about Isaiah 9:10.  A lot.  No, seriously.  The entire book is on Isaiah 9:10.  That particular verse recounts a proud boast, made by the people of Israel in defiance of God after He had judged them.  The second half of the passage reads as follows:

“The sycamores have been cut down, but we will put cedars in their place (Isaiah 9:10b, ESV).”

In God’s judgment, their sycamores (remember a certain tree climbed by a certain wee little man?) were cut down.  God wanted the whole tree out.  But instead of taking the hint, God’s people decided to plant new trees.  Bigger trees.  Better trees, as a symbol of their own ability to bounce back.  Their own self-reliant ideas, based in their natural selves.

In the same way, when God cuts down my natural self, along with the ideas I have leaned on, I easily miss the point entirely.  What I should be saying is: “Hooray, my tree is gone—I’m no longer stuck leaning on my insufficient half-knowledge and self-doubt, but I’m free to trust God!  Jesus, I want to know you!”

Instead, it sounds more like: “Hooray, my tree is gone—I’m no longer stuck leaning on my insufficient half-knowledge and self-doubt, but I’m free to trust God!  Let’s go plant another one!”

It’s one thing to be prideful enough to stay in the tree when Jesus calls.  But to have the sycamore cut down, to feel that weight, and then go back and plant a cedar?

But even a huge honkin’ cedar is no match for God:

“For the Lord of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low;
 against all the cedars of Lebanon,
lofty and lifted up;
and against all the oaks of Bashan; (Isaiah 2:12-13, ESV).”

To put it less poetically, God’s going to take the proud and cut ‘em down, even though they are as magnificently cool as the hugest trees in all the land.

There are two ways to look at this passage.  Just like the sycamore fell, so will that strong, sexy, and magnificently cool cedar.  And though, like cedars, our ideas may be strong, sexy, and magnificently cool, they are not enough.  Maybe I’m an Einstein.  Even so, all that Einstein ever did was discover things that God created from scratch.  No matter how big and bad my tree is, God’s is bigger.  Mine is insufficient, and it is coming down.

My response to this information hinges on one vital question: will I get out of my tree?  Will I leave my lofty pride and come down to Jesus?  Or will I stay up there?

If I’m John Lennon, staying up in my lonely tree, wondering if it’s high or low, then this passage should scare the whatever out of me.  The tree’s coming down, myself and all.  All the ideas I’ve clutched onto—the foundations I’ve laid—are coming down.  And if I’m not crushed in the initial fall, I’ll still be hanging out there with nothing to support me, nothing to hold me up or get me through.  I’m going to be a hermit crab without a shell.  Extrapolated to eternity, this is known as Hell.

But if I’m Zacchaeus, scrambling out of the tree and running for the reality of Christ, then this passage should make me rejoice.  Christ has called me to Him, and I don’t need to live with that big ugly tree in my backyard, because Jesus says He will uproot it.  The same words that are a terrifying judgment for the me who wants to stay in the tree, are instead a cry of freedom for the me that wants to climb down and know Christ.

The bottom line is this: if I am too interested in myyyy tree—my ideas, my being right—to come down and get to knowJesus as a person, and put my trust in Him, then it’s all for naught.  God wants me to think, to dream, and to have ideas—but first and foremost, He wants me.  Period.  And he doesn’t want me to just have ideas about Him, He wants me to have Him.  Not my silly, little sycamores that pale compared to His reality.

As Jon Foreman sings in the Fiction Family song “Prove Me Wrong,” I’m tired of being right.  In Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller writes:

  “Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.”

What Miller describes can be seen in the debate topics of any internet forum, or the comments of any religious youtube video.  Discussion about God is, most often, just about being right.  Sadly, the same often applies to entirety of life.  How often is life just about being right, having the correct ideas, the correct political views, liking the right things, the cool things?  This mindset is completely self-centered.  If I’m talking about God, but my biggest concern is whether or not I’m right, then I’m not really talking about God at all.  It’s all about me.  All about me defending my skimpy little sycamore tree.

I can “be right” about God, and books, and politics, and fracking, and what’s the best item on the Wendy’s dinner menu (it’s the Apple Pecan salad) until the cows come home, but that is not enough.  God doesn’t want a bunch of people who can be right about things.  He wants people who know Him, and who love Him.

God is always right.  That sort of comes with the whole being God thing.  Trusting God is the only thing a person can do that is always right, and all attempts to be right outside of him will inevitably fall short.  Any attempt to find security outside of him with my intellect, my coolness (or lack thereof), my natural self, myyyy tree, will be uprooted.

So get out of the tree.  Know Christ.  Nothing short of this can rescue from shyness and self-doubt.  Our trees will always be lonely places.  Christ’s everlasting embrace—made with those arms, spread out on the tree we sacrificed him upon—is the only solid ground we have.  No matter how much we talk, no matter what kind of face we show to our friends and family, we know that we are not always right.  Our friends know it, too.  God knows it.  So why are we still in our trees?  To quote from Back to the Future, let’s make like a tree and get out of here.  Jesus is calling us down.

Get out of your tree.


John Lennon, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strawberry_Fields_Forever (accessed June 20, 2012).

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Revised ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1986), 153.

John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible, Biblecommenter.com.  http://gill.biblecommenter.com/luke/19.htm (accessed June 19, 2012).

Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts On Christian Spirituality (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 103.

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On Myself

guitartifcact2

My name’s Jonathan Boes.  I’m a songwriter, story-writer, guitarist, literature major, coffee-drinker, wannabe thinker, exaggerator, bad speller, and a follower of Christ.  I believe that all art is meant to glorify God.  As Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman said:

“Art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God.”

This blog is a place to toss out my thoughts on human creativity and its relationship to the Creator.  It’s also a place to share some of my own creative endeavors in story and song.  I can’t promise brilliance, but if we can settle on honesty, I’m sure we’ll be friends.

Write on,

- Jonathan

S.D.G.

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