Thursday, June 19, 2014

More Beautiful Than Fiction

They ask why I should believe that the Story of God was not composed by a man. The world has seen the rise of a thousand mythologies, the poetic forging of a thousand gods. How do I know the Scriptures were not just another misguided offspring of human thought?

And so I tell them – this is why the God of the Hebrews must be the true and living God, why His story could not have been made up by men:

Because when His most beloved creatures first chose to turn away, in the very breath of cursing them He promised hope and redemption, and clothed their nakedness in exile.

Because He came to a childless old man in the wilderness, hated by tribe and family, and made him a father of nations.

Because He wrestled with a con-man in the twilight and wounded him in blessing, having shown him a ladder to the stars and a glorious destiny for his kin.

Because despite having annihilated pagan nations for their corruption, He yet desired the depraved people of Nineveh to repent of their wickedness and taste forgiveness; He even chastised His own prophet for wanting the city to burn in the fire of wrath.

Because He called a man to love a broken woman without condition, to take her in from the wayside and show her forgiveness, in hopes that His beloved people may know such grace and return to Him even in the midst of their shame.

Because He did not show himself to the cowering prophet in the Fire or the Storm or the Earthquake, but rather in the still small voice.

Because of whom He chose to appoint for His purposes – the smallest son of Jesse, the boy prophet who wept for his insecurities, the brother who used dishonesty to gain an unworthy inheritance, the Prince of Egypt who killed a man and lived as a failure in exile, and the young scholar who hated and persecuted the nascent Church of Jerusalem.

Because of those who will inherit His Kingdom – the peasant, the prostitute, the tax collector, the shepherd, the fisherman, the leper, the Samaritan, the widow, and the orphan.

Because He spoke in thunderous paradox – that one must die in order to live, claim strength through weakness, achieve victory through defeat, overcome a hating world with love.

Because He taught, like no other teacher, that we should carry a sword but not live by it; we should be ready to leave the dead unburied or bear the scorn of loved ones; we should carry a cross but cast our cares on Him; we should follow Him, even when we know the road is named Suffering.

But above all because He descended into our story and died so that we may live. Across the chasm of mystery, the people of every age of this world have constructed gods, carved idols – false deities that have always demanded obedience, toil, meditation, pillars, “ways”, paths. In any case, the major faiths of the world’s present and past deem it fitting for man to build his ladder to the gods. But in the case of the True God, the striving has finished – He has climbed down the ladder and dealt with injustice, cured us of our incurable condition.

This is how I know Jesus Christ reigns, and His story is real – because we could not have imagined the True King would come to us clothed in rags. We could follow a Messiah who wielded such power as the world respects – the power of the sword, or of political demagogy. But a homeless carpenter, dying in agony and humiliation, while praying for His enemies? That is too much.

We could perhaps believe in a god that shared our flaws and desires, like the Olympians of Ancient Greece. We might even go the other way and worship a being of pure, unadulterated spirit; an entity of non-matter that completely transcends the dirtiness of the physical world. But it’s quite another thing altogether to believe in a God who nursed at a woman’s breast, spits in the mud, weeps with the bereaved, fasts in the desert.

We have long exalted our good moral teachers – Socrates, Confucius, the Buddha. We listen to their wisdom and moral discourse with a desire for personal reformation, and we appreciate that their advice often appears practical, even achievable. If religion means moral education or the way to living a “good life,” then such teachers and philosophers have done their job well. But what of a teacher that scolds moral leaders for their hypocrisy, or commands the wealthy to sell all their possessions to the poor? We grow uneasy and uncomfortable when He begins His radical talk of hellfire and being born of water and the spirit. We struggle to understand His strange stories about seeking lost sheep or welcoming home the prodigal son or preparing for some sort of wedding feast. We scratch our heads when He calls Himself the Bread of Life, the True Vine, the Door, the Good Shepherd, the Way and the Truth. We cringe with all His politically incorrect nonsense about embracing the marginalized or forgotten or “unclean”.

And just when we’ve decided that there might be more to this crazy man than meets the eye, this zealot of zealots who claims to be God and King, He is betrayed by a friend and killed like a common criminal. The finality, the banality of it all! Crucified at the Place of the Skull, hung between the thieves. But so be it – we can stomach a martyr. There have been many of those who have died for their beliefs, and we can respect that. Then the rumors begin to circulate about Him rising from the dead. Not only this, but appearing to women first. And if He has risen, maybe then He will sound the trumpet and become the celebrated Hero of the ancient songs – but alas, all he chooses to do is cook breakfast with his disciples and then vanish into thin air.

You see, friends, why we could not have made this up. It is not the sort of story we wish to tell, but it is exactly the type of story we need to hear, from the bottom of our cynical souls. Not with all the imaginations of humanity could we devise such a tale that twists and turns, that satisfies the deepest longings of the heart in mysterious ways. And just as soon as we’ve read the tale and begun to think we’ve figured it out, unmasked the symbols, determined the motifs, the story defies us – it shatters the paradigm, undoes the pattern, strikes remarkably at our existential heart of hearts. No, not even the most venerable religious scholars, ancient or modern, could have invented a Creator God who fulfills His own covenant, the “Deep Magic”, all by Himself – becoming fully man to be man’s perfect representative, and yet fully God so as to die a perfect sacrifice. There have been many stone-age deities, but which one pays the price of justice and offers redemption, adoption, and the forgiveness of guilt to His worshipers (who have never once worshiped rightly)? Those who believe and those who don’t can both agree: it doesn’t make sense. And yet, why do I get the feeling in my very bones that because of its strangeness, because of its unprecedented variables, because of its willingness to deal with the brute, painful, and beautiful things of real existence, that the story must in fact be true?

Thursday, November 14, 2013


It’s high time I wrote something about books, I suppose.

As a child or even teenager I would have said books were my life, because they were an escape into other worlds and other lives; though I didn't always understand why, I knew fictional stories provoked me and moved me in ways that were mysterious. They taught me about the world, about the self, about relationships and meaningful things.

As a college student I would have said books were my life, because I had chosen to study them full time, to learn why they moved me in such ways, to learn the wonderful nuances of literary style and theory. Whereas before the words would overpower me in beautiful ways, like closing your eyes while the water breaks over, I could now sit with other like-minded people, sharers of a passion, and analyze how and why the author wrote such words. I could learn the heartache and poignancy of narrative and still appreciate its abstraction, or pull it apart like a science experiment and get to its inner meaning.

As a working adult I can say books are my life, because they are my field. I get up each morning and drive to a wonderful place where I can talk about books and teach young teens to appreciate them in ways they maybe haven’t before. I can spark a discussion about the object of my passion – books – and allow students to surprise themselves and each other with how powerful and heartbreaking and humorous and relevant and downright enjoyable books can be. I can feel them get the creeps from Edgar Allan Poe, or listen to them defend the dignity of Hester Prynne, or debate the ethical characteristics of Jay Gatsby, or question existence alongside Hamlet. I can see the moment – however brief – when they catch themselves emotionally resonating with a fictional character, or suddenly understanding the message an author pleads with every sentence.

Books have made up my life, and here are some of my favorite moments with them:

As a small boy, listening to my mother read me The Mitten by Jan Brett and wondering if the animals remained friends after their shared home in the mitten was destroyed.

Discovering Harry Potter at the age of eleven, and spending the next thirteen years after that that losing myself time after time in Rowling’s world – whether that be running home on a new release date to lock myself in my room and not leave until the book was finished, or reading The Prisoner of Azkaban during the 2000 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony in Sydney (I had reached the climax in the Shrieking Shack, and kept running breathlessly in and out of the living room to watch the ceremony on TV). Although I love many books, I love none of them in the same way as Harry, for I grew up with him.

Glancing at my older brother’s illustrated edition of Lord of the Rings when I was twelve, and deciding to venture into Middle Earth.

Spending the summer of my sixteenth year escaping into Narnia.

Reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time in a hole-in-the-wall diner on the side of I-79 with a cup of bad coffee and a slice of decent apple pie.

Deliberately making myself close the cover of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell because I was afraid of finishing it too fast; I chose instead to live inside the book for several weeks to prolong the experience.

Finding myself more emotionally moved by Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead and Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow than any film I had ever seen.

Discovering on several sunlit afternoons that C.S. Lewis was a kindred spirit of mine – a lover of the same literature, a sharer of the same humor, and the possessor of a beautiful perspective on Christianity that I still long for.

Sitting in my dorm room after finishing Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner, feeling like I was just hit by a ton of bricks, and marveling that someone could manipulate and contort language in such a way.

Reading Charles Dickens on the train to and from graduate school, and stopping every so often to people-watch.

Only picking up Cry the Beloved Country because I was slated to teach it, but finding instead that I had never read more beautiful or lyrical prose.

These moments are mere glimpses at a lifetime of years loving and pursuing books – and I hope the endeavor continues until my eyes are too old and dim to make out the letters. People often ask me for suggested books, or what might be my favorite book? But you know already that this is an impossible question, that to give an answer would be the same as selecting one beloved child over others, or selecting a single friend to join me at the end of the world. It can’t be done.

Books are my life. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold (Part One)

Here follows a long overdue account of the Mt. Marcy hiking expedition undertaken by James Brinkerhoff, Kris Thompson, John Hayward, and myself the week after our college graduation, circa May 2011:

The planning of the trip took the same shape as most other great plans, especially those that spring from idealistic young men. I believe it started as a desire to see the western United States and do so through an old fashioned road trip; eventually it evolved into a camping/backpacking trip, which seemed a bit more affordable and realistic. Nevertheless, we put most of the planning into effect at the end of our final Spring Semester of college, and things came together nicely. We decided upon my old ’96 Ford Explorer as the vessel that would carry us due North from Lancaster, PA (our convening point) and into the Adirondacks. I distinctly remember that great beast of a vehicle chugging and groaning along the wide freeways of Pennsylvania and New York, and my own hopes and prayers for the car’s endurance (this would be its last long journey in its humble lifetime).

            I don’t remember much of the drive, only that John and James calmly debated the meaning behind the lyrics to Mumford & Son’s “Sigh No More” album in the front seats. James was sure most of the lyrics were vague at best and only hinted at deeper truths without engaging them with true conviction. Needless to say, John disagreed. I don’t believe there was a resolution to that argument.

            Upon our arrival in Essex County (near Lake Placid), we parked at the foot of Mt. Marcy’s main trail and peered through the car windows disagreeably at the light rain. We attempted to rig up makeshift ponchos with trash bags, but I’m still unsure as to their effectiveness. The hike in was fairly muddy – a mere taste of things to come – but we moved at a brisk pace, crossing over Marcy Dam and setting up camp at our first lean-to. After we had made a fire, with the night setting in, we made Cincinnati Chili and spent the waning hours talking. We were so caught up in our conversation that we had to grope our way to the river’s edge and wash our dishes in the pitch dark.

            We set out the following morning up a fairly easy grade – the foot of the mountain –  that traced Phelps Brook and offered us plenty of river stones to scramble across. This ascent eventually reached Marcy Brook, which afforded us the first of many water-crossing decisions we would have to make in our short three-day adventure. Do we attempt a leap, or do we attempt a fording? At this juncture we chose to leap, and thankfully stuck the landing (lack of gracefulness aside). Upon jumping the creek we emerged from a tree-line and onto the Indian Falls lookout (see photo above).

            Though this precipice offered us a spectacular view of the MacIntyre mountain range (including the Algonquin, New York’s second-highest mountain next to Marcy), we also discovered that almost the entire vista was obscured in dense fog (again, an omen of things to come).

            It was at this point in our journey that began to notice that the once sturdy earth beneath our feet was gradually turning to thick snowdrifts as we climbed in altitude. Though the snow was fairly packed under the footfalls of previous climbers, at times we would accidentally find weak spots in the snow layer, causing our feet to plunge into the twelve inches of slush underneath. This trial-and-error way of trekking through the snow, unsure which step would result in a wet and frigid ankle, plagued us the rest of the trip.

            We paused before the final ascent up the mountain’s face for a brief repast of summer sausage, cheese, and pita bread (our protein routine, so to speak). The last half-mile or so offered some decent bouldering as the vegetation slowly thinned out and the summit’s stony skin began to show. We finally reached the summit only to gaze into an impenetrable wall of cloud-cover – one of the greatest views in the Adirondack High Peaks, the tower’s edge at the pinnacle of New York’s tallest mountain, had crystallized into a sea-like void of impassive obscurity, blank and faceless. Though I certainly didn’t think it at the time, I later begrudgingly admitted that this was some sort of lesson the Lord was inclined to teach us about the meaning of work, suffering, and perseverance – that the journey was what mattered, and was surely sanctifying and shaping us into better men. But at the time all I could feel was disappointment. However, my aching joints and beaten dreams were mollified somewhat by the feel of the stone underfoot, that last humble floor beneath the Heavens, and the promise that somewhere through the fog lay the wide world below. Looking at the plaque that proclaimed our arrival at the summit, I thought in some mysterious way that we were in God’s country.

            Lingering just long enough to revel in our success (for the cold wind was breathtaking, quite literally) we began the descent down the other side of the mountain, into Panther’s Gorge. I’ve made myself a promise: that if I were ever to have children or even grandchildren of my own, and they were to endlessly complain about some petty trial they were enduring, I would censure them by saying “at least you didn’t make the hike down Panther’s Gorge.” The trail was so named for the supposed wild cats that lingered in its shadows and thickets, but the real threat was the terrain itself – a natural slide of ice that, if not treaded carefully, would pull you careening into a wall of thorny bramble or worse. We were like animals desperately slipping and clambering down a frictionless surface we couldn’t begin to understand. Each step seemed treacherous. It was certainly the most demanding hike of the whole excursion, and it was downhill. At each turn in the trail I looked up in hope to see the blessed lean-to, our symbol of arrival and deliverance; but it never came, and it felt like we were descending into that accursed pit through an endless night. At this point a cold sleet had begun to fall, chilling us to the bone, and our footing was rendered perpetually unsure and unbalanced by the aforementioned fragility of the snowdrifts. But I haven’t told you the worst part yet: there was no separate trail leading out of Panther’s Gorge, meaning we would have to make the very same hike out of the valley the following morning. For every step down this hellish trail we were purchasing in pain another step back up. The thought was too much to dwell on.

Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold (Part Two)

Eventually we came to a determined creek that somehow seeped into the air its intense frigidness. We surveyed the water body, looked at each other, and decided to use a small outcropping of growth – a shrub, really – growing from our own bank to swing across to the other side. Was it a foolish plan? I’m not sure. All I know is that I watched my three companions make the crossing, seeing with terrible alertness the rescue-shrub become more and more disentangled from its rooted position as each man dared the attempt. Finally I stood up to cross. I grasped the shrub, felt its shakiness, and tried to silently convey my trust in it, as any man might make a gesture of solidarity to someone who stood ready to lend a hand. But my trust was shattered. As I used the shrub to propel myself across the creek, I never made it; the plant came completely uprooted, the bit of muddy bank underfoot crumbled away, and I awkwardly half-plunged into the freezing creekwater. Thankfully I was only half-submerged, and my friends rushed to pull me out.

            To this day, I have never experienced a more intense or frightening coldness. The one side of my body that touched the river’s surface was moving from shocked numbness to a deep and purposeful aching. Trying desperately to forget any story I’d heard about hypothermia, we trudged down the last bit of the trail, making one more river crossing and finally arriving at the promised land. That lean-to was beautiful. I immediately peeled off my drenched clothes, stripping down to my long-johns and an Irish fisherman’s sweater my parents had recently given me as a gift. As my friends hurried to make a fire I immersed myself in layers of sleeping-bag to prevent my body from succumbing to the cold. The fire we built that night was a magnificently raging inferno, and completely illegal, as campers were not supposed to make fires so close to the wooden structure of the lean-tos. One of us voiced this concern, but James stated that he didn’t care; it had been a long, cold, painful journey into that valley, and he was going to make as big a fire as his imagination and foraging skills would allow. The fire was indeed large, and as it warmed our aching bones and feeling slowly returned to my body, we shared stories, read Scripture, and dined on canned Haggis (it’s a strange Scottish dish – look it up) and mashed potatoes, the hardiest food we brought with us.

            We also found an open journal in the lean-to, which was a sort of record or log to which any camper staying there could add their own story. We read through the various accounts and entries that dated back several years, the most memorable ones involving two park rangers searching for a missing person on the trails, a man hiking joyfully with his dog, and two lovers on a honeymoon. We obligingly added our own entry to the ongoing chronicle, and I wonder if perhaps that book still lies dusty and dark in the belly of the gorge. Just before bed we each took a nightcap of whiskey to warm us and lull us to sleep. We were unconscious within minutes.

            The next morning we awoke and prayed together, giving thanks for our deliverance the previous night and beseeching the Lord’s blessing on that day’s endeavors (as was our routine). I’m pleased to say that the morning hike out of the gorge was much easier than the descent, even downright enjoyable. I’m not sure how this was possible, and perhaps it was a divine gift, but our spirits lifted as we climbed up the cold snowy banks. The sun had still not emerged and it appeared an even mistier day than the day before. We rested at Lake Tear of the Clouds, the very spot where then-vice president Theodore Roosevelt, out for a manly hike as he was wont to do, learned that William McKinley would not survive his gunshot wounds. We sat and ate Wilbur Buds (chocolate fragments of paradise – again, look them up), looking out on the dreary swamp and musing on this historical moment.

            The descent back down to the main trailhead was fraught with peril due again to the unpredictable snowdrifts: the path itself had shrunk to a snow bridge barely two feet in width, with sheer walls plummeting down either side. The trail twisted lazily around and around, and we moved with slow deliberateness. As the snow gradually faded into blessed stony earth, we practically bounded down the mountain and sang old hymns at the top of our lungs.

            We crossed Marcy Dam again, treating it like an old friend. Our last night of camping was bittersweet, as we knew the adventure would be at an end soon. In celebration we cooked (in my opinion) our classiest meal: salmon with wild rice. As men tend to do when bound together in adversity, surrounded by God’s good earth on all sides with no whisper of civilization beyond the roaring dam in the distance, we shared with one another our hopes and fears; we laughed and talked and prayed. After all, following this journey we would all be going our separate ways, embarking upon the far scarier journey of becoming men in the world, no longer Grove City College students. I remember feeling stripped to an emotional core, because there was nothing else to distract me. I would be leaving these men for some time, leaving behind their fellowship and companionship. We tried to enjoy these moments, alone as men with the Lord feeling close amid the trees and the wild of the evening.

On the following morning we found the hike out to be surprisingly brief, and before we knew it we were arriving at the old Ford Explorer, drenched in sweat. It was still very early in the morning, so we drove into a small town in the valley (I forget its name) and had homemade apple pie at the local diner. I tell you that pie was heavenly.

            I don’t remember much of the drive home, only that I was desperately looking forward to the showers and hot food awaiting us at the Hayward Homestead. Mr. and Mrs. Hayward are some of the most generous and hospitable people I know (they’ve welcomed me into their home and fed me many times), and they were in particularly fine form this occasion. We had one more day together, my friends and I, and we spent it at the Hayward house engaging in all types of joyous play (furious swimming pool basketball, Frisbee golf, backyard baseball, and hours of boardgames) as well as bountiful belt-loosening meals at the dining room table.

            Then, almost as soon as it had began, it was all over. I was driving back home through the pleasant thoroughfare that is Route 30, through the small towns of Lancaster County and over farmland back to West Chester. But still lingering, if not immediately in the rearview mirror, then at least in the twin lands of heart and memory that towering peak, enfolded in cloud. The land belongs to the Lord, and we belong to the Lord, and the story of our fellowship on the long and crooked road through springtime snowy trails, across shivering rivers, and beneath the mighty boughs belongs to each of us. It was a great adventure, my lads, a great adventure.

Here ends my written account; some of the details have not made it here, or have arrived in some different fashion from the true story, because the truest memories live within me, and will there continue to grow and mature with me, until perhaps I sit down with a grandchild on the knee and tell this story again in full. Until then, the story goes with me from this juncture on, until the Day of the Lord.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thoughts on the Brave New World

Dr. Michio Kaku, a popular Theoretical Physicist from the City University of New York, remarked in a May 2011 interview that the human society on planet Earth was steadily progressing from a “Type Zero Civilization” – the old world of tribal, sectarian conflict embroiled in war because of cultural barriers – to a “Type One Civilization”: a globally integrated, “multicultural, scientific, tolerant society.” If we can communicate with someone across the world in an instant, initiate trans-national economic programs such as the European Union, and speak a near-global language (English), then Kaku believes we are on our way to a truly global society – in his mind, a scientific utopia in which rationality and tolerance trumps the bitter exclusivity of religion, and war becomes but a memory.
            At first glance it’s difficult to determine the proper reaction to this revelation: should we be filled with hope for a potential future in which everything that marked the human race as fallen – conflict, strife, corruption, greed, vanity – could be eradicated in a completely transformative scientific revolution? Or should we be troubled at the thought of man’s brilliance unleashed, determined to “fix” the world? I suppose it depends on the sort of tools required for such a task.
            It is a question as old as the human conscience, as old as the ability to peer beyond ourselves and see that something is wrong with the state of things. Perhaps we were too content in our old world of savagery and passion – perhaps we were not determined enough, like the brightest scientists of the modern age, to not only understand the workings of the world but also seek to improve it. Perhaps even when the course of human existence was changed in the moment of the Incarnation, when the one true God became flesh, we were not yet disturbed or moved enough to change things. But that would be operating under the assumption that man, in all his ambition and brilliance, can endeavor to change the human condition.
            In accordance with the online knowledge forum Big Think, several scientists were asked to envision a world without religion. Robert Wright, author of Evolution of God, offered that the moral progress “required to save the world” could exist without religion, but was quick to say that the perfect society need not shed religious ideas per se – merely that any religion allowed to exist must be perfectly tolerant of other beliefs. The famed evolutionary biologist (and self-avowed enemy of religion) Richard Dawkins commented, in his customarily sardonic way, that in the godless world “we could get on with our science as science and not have to worry about whether we are giving offense to people who get their beliefs from holy books rather than from evidence.” Dawkins also pointed out that our public discourse would move away from anything dependent upon absolutist criteria, but rather those criteria that are based on suffering. This latter idea is not a pleasant one, particularly if it indicates a movement away from an absolute moral code. Nevertheless, Dawkins perceives this movement not as an abolition of morality, but rather a redefinition.
            According to these brilliant men, we could still achieve a healthy and moral world should the dangerous evils of Islam, Christianity, and other world religions happen to fall away. In fact, according to Kaku we might even have a better shot at it were all the cultural barriers to disintegrate. If only the human race could rally together and forget those things that divide us; if only we could be like the truly enlightened men who understand the inevitable triumph of scientific reasoning. Of course, it only takes a single person to reject the utopian philosophy and embrace his own, to make himself a god over other men, for the system to fall into chaos. We need only look to such individuals – Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, and countless others – who have proven the incurable illness in man’s soul.
In listening to the theoretical musings of the world’s smartest men, I sometimes feel as if I had fallen backwards in time, rather than forwards. It would appear that we are trying to recapture the philosophy of the Enlightenment – that man is the undisputed master and corrector of his world, capable of self-perfection. And what of the philosophical shifts that occurred in that movement’s wake? The rational naturalists gave way to the Romantics, who wrestled with the heart as well as the head, who began to observe a beauty in the world and a tragedy in the human spirit. The rise of Industrialism gave us hope in the machine, and a chance at betterment at progress – until the machine was twisted into weaponry and used to slaughter men. Since the rise and fall of our two great wars and the ruinous aftermath, we are still locked in philosophical struggle to understand why, in the words of Dr. Janusz Bardach, “man is wolf to man.” Were we to deny the crippled state of man’s conscience, of his inexplicable aversion to the moral, his amazing capacity to abuse his own life and the lives of others, or his clinging to hatred and rejection of compassion, we would become fools indeed. But then again, “Has God not made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1 Cor. 1:20).
As the believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we have a distinct advantage. We know that man’s condition is not that of the material which the enlightened have endeavored to mend, but that of a spiritual fabric unraveled and unworthy before the Holy God. Not only this, but we know the one true cure, the one thing that fixes the broken man and makes him whole. This beautiful knowledge is no secret to us, though it may be a mystery, and we are not burdened but rather privileged with the task of setting it loose upon the world. Perhaps this issue, like all other issues of the earth, comes back to faith – do we believe that God can fix man’s condition? Perhaps we will never see the laying down of arms in the world of men, but we are promised that sight in the Kingdom of God. That is a braver, newer, and more wonderful world than we could ever hope to imagine.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Worth Fighting For: The Secular Case for Evangelism

For those friends of mine reading this that don’t know, I am a Christian – and each of you have a different conception of what exactly that means. For my own part, I don’t just mean I belong to a global community or sociological people group that identifies itself on government forms and standardized tests as “Christian” – though I do mean that in part. What I really believe is something far more radical and, perhaps, harder and more offensive to accept: I believe I am a child of the One True God, purchased in death and reconciled in life to a glorious destiny by the Son of God, and therefore born again of the Spirit of God. My faith meets at the nexus of two planes – an ineffable sense of the Love that built the world and somehow saves a soul, and the concrete knowledge of a God who entered history, in a specific time and specific place, who laughed and wept and prayed, whose feet felt the dust of Canaan and whose blood really did trickle down a cross, changing the world for all time. 

 I believe these things. You may look at them now and either agree wholeheartedly, or perhaps shake your head in skepticism – but in either case, we can understand each other. You can demand of me a proof that will obliterate any shadow of doubt; you can demand of me an explanation for the tragedies committed in the name of so-called “religion”; you can demand of me a real, no B.S. answer about why an intelligent, rational human being should believe that an old dusty book is the unassailable Word of God; but the one thing you cannot demand of me is that I shut up and let everyone just believe what they want to believe. 

 I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in this refusal to stay quiet, and I don’t think that refusal grants you the ammunition to assail my character. This is something that has bothered me for quite some time. As a man who identifies himself as a Christian, I spend most of my day interacting with those who don’t share my beliefs. This fact doesn’t surprise me; I was taught in early youth to recognize a world that mostly disagrees with me. Still, even as a young man I have heard one criticism of my faith more than any other, and it goes something like this: “The problem with Christians is that they’re always trying to shove their beliefs down everyone’s throats. Why can’t they just keep to themselves, practice their beliefs quietly, and let other people worship their own way? Why can’t they accept that their religion isn’t the only right one, and that all religions are just trying to get at their own forms of truth? The world would be a much more peaceful place.”

There’s a reason why Christians are always trying to “force” their beliefs on others (though we really shouldn’t use that word, because to most people “force” really means “asking if they know about Jesus” or “handing out pamphlets on the street”), and it derives from a character quality that most of the world, atheists and agnostics included, normally admire: compassion for others. If I really believe with sincere devotion that we are setting fire to a world built upon perfect justice and are destined to reap every last twisted sewing – if I told you there was a chance of being healed, of being finally cleansed of pain and heartache, of rediscovering true joy and the perfect homestead we once abandoned – if I believe this is the truth, and yet say nothing, what sort of person am I? The man who knows a way to help his friends but turns away out of pride, or fear of rejection? 

 But that’s so arrogant and condescending of you, claiming you’re trying to save me because you know the “real” truth. How does telling me I’m not merely wrong, but also ignorant, really help me? Why do I have to drop everything and give my life completely to a religion in order to find happiness? Why can’t you just accept me the way I am? These are all valid questions, and you’re right to ask them. But don’t you see, it doesn’t matter if you think that I’m wrong, that Jesus never really existed and he certainly didn’t “die for your sins.” Even if I am wrong, you can’t begrudge me the fact that I loved you enough to try and articulate to you something I earnestly believe. If I’ve done anything to earn your respect, at least permit me to offer you a taste of the draught that saved me, pulled me from the depths, and restored me to life. If I’m an earnest believer, you should see the change in me anyway. Don’t begrudge me the chance to explain why. 

 This doesn’t stop with Christianity. Any man who has given himself over to an ideal – be it something particular like the love of a woman or devotion to country, or something abstract like Freedom or Truth or Human Rights – cannot be faulted for shouting his ideas from the rooftops or from the platform at a protest. He cannot be called intolerant or proud for giving his life on the field of battle, or staring down the barrel of a gun in the name of his beliefs. If every religious devotee or political idealist just kept to himself, we would live in a world much sadder and darker than it already is. Even if you think there is no objective Truth, you must still respect the idea of Truth enough to accept those who live and breathe and die by a Truth they hold to be sacred. If none of us are prepared to fight or defend or evangelize for the things we believe in, why do we believe? 

 When you can articulate to me a utopian model not grounded on some conception of truth, or bricked and mortared with ideals built by the sweat of true believers, than I will say we have no reason to evangelize. But until then, I am not ashamed to proclaim what I believe to be the truth of the Christian Gospel. It is an idea that has earned men not fame or fortune, but the threat of execution and the cold walls of prison. It is an idea that has changed the world, from the action of social institutions in ending poverty to the changing of one man’s heart in a darkened room, when he had already abandoned hope. It appeals to the humble child and makes children of learned scholars. In short, I believe it to be the truth, one worth fighting for. I don’t believe I condescend when I tell you about it; in reality, I believe you condescend when you accuse me of narrow-mindedness or intolerance or hatred. I am not silent, nor do I retreat into private, inoffensive religiosity, because I still believe in something more important than myself or the shallow niceties of politically-correct company. 

The world is full of radicals, and chances are you agree or at least acknowledge the legitimacy of some of them; why do you reject Christianity's legitimacy out of hand? What has it done to warrant such a dismissal? You might agree with Gandhi: you have no quarrel with Christ Himself, only His followers. You might think the people of the Church are judgmental and hypocritical. True, some of them are; but many more have given their hearts and lives for something they saw to be beautiful and true. Many have spent long nights praying for their apathetic friends, not out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, but because they honestly love and care for others with a desperate passion. In the end, we are all believers in something; we would be fools to say otherwise. 

 You are all my friends, and I love you. Perhaps you disagree with what I’ve written, and are currently entered into complete and utter rage. If that’s the case, please – let’s talk about it. If you’ve really read all this, and still think that “let’s talk about it” is some covert tactic of mine to try and convert you, then I don’t think you actually read it. So please, the discussion forum is wide open.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Composed Upon Waking

The world is always half asleep
Deep into dreams and lurching into light –
Quartered into struggle with trite affliction,
Inured to fracture of attention.
We never think on life’s dark portion
Spent still in bed and blind
To luminous stars at night,
Deaf to morning birds in song.

And I have wondered upon my waking,
Taking in her sleeping form
That seems a different woman in repose –
Whether she will know me
Or hear the words I whisper in her ear;
I cannot know if she remains the same
As in her waking laughter coy,
Smiles soft and fleeting;
Or whether she will change
When pain comes fresh with the morning.

All this to say that she is gone
When the lids have closed, and breathing slows
Till worlds have crashed in the cool quiet
Of her soul;
She like the child at slumber’s edge
Becomes a creature of peace.
Yet I, in self-loathing longing for her to arise,
In part wishing her to softly dream
And still somehow wait for her stirring –
In yearning for unforgiving sun
And her shutterfly lashes, without burden, to part –
I am then a child of wrath.