The Theology of Faërie: Part 5, The Good Catastrophe

What does the land of Faërie look like?

We've already discussed the first two of the three characteristics of Faërie--Recovery and Escape--described by J.R.R. Tolkien in his lecture "On Fairy-Stories." In this post we'll talk about Consolation, the third characteristic of enchantment.

For Tolkien it's with Consolation where we reach the very essence of enchantment, the "highest function" of the fairy-story. This is the consolation of the Happy Ending for which Tolkien coins a new word:
But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
For Tolkien the eucatastrophe--the good catastrophe--is an experience of "sudden and miraculous grace":
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. 
Importantly, eucatastrophic grace is not a denial of the sorrows and sufferings of the world. Eucatastrophic grace is, rather, commitment to hope, loyalty to hope, fidelity to hope:
It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
Faërie enchants the world through an eschatological commitment to the Happy Ending.

Faërie is a gospel proclamation--glad tidings--hidden in a fleeting glimpse of Joy. The enchantment of Faërie is rooted in a denial of universal final defeat.

Faërie is watchfulness for the eucatastrophe, the sudden unanticipated turn in the story that brings miraculous grace.
“It will not be long now,” thought Bilbo, “before the goblins win the Gate, and we are all slaughtered or driven down and captured. Really it is enough to make one weep, after all one has gone through. I would rather old Smaug had been left with all the wretched treasure, than that these vile creatures should get it, and poor old Bombur, and Balin and Fili and Kili and all the rest come to a bad end; and Bard too, and the Lake-men and the merry elves. Misery me! I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious. It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing. I wish I was well out of it.”

The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed the West. Seeing the sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round. He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that made his heart leap, dark shapes small yet majestic against the distant glow.

“The Eagles! The Eagles!” he shouted. “The Eagles are coming!”

The Theology of Faërie: Part 4, Glorious Treachery

What is the land of Faërie like?

As mentioned in the last post in his lecture "On Fairy-Stories" J.R.R. Tolkien describes three characteristics of Faërie: Recovery, Escape and Consolation. In this post we turn to the quality of escape.

Tolkien recognizes that for many of us the word "escape" immediately creates some problems. Fantasy is often considered "escapist," as a flight away from the hard realities of "the real world."

Facing that characterization Tolkien quickly moves in his lecture to rehabilitate the notion of escape. Taking the gloves off, Tolkien comes out swinging:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer's or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say “the land you loved is doomed” to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it.
As I noted in the last post, enchantment is resistance. Enchantment is heroic and patriotic resistance rooted in disgust, anger, condemnation and revolt.

Quoting Tolkien again from the prior post, enchantment is "seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them." Enchantment isn't "escaping" the "real world" into a "fantasy world." Enchantment is seeing a better world and then returning with a prophetic rebuke. Reconciling oneself to the "real world"--refusing to visit the land of Faërie--is tantamount to the prisoner refusing to escape his cell.

To borrow the phrase of Walter Brueggemann, enchantment is a "prophetic imagination." Faërie is the vision of the New Heavens and the New Earth, the world set free from the consequences of the Fall.

As Tolkien writes,
But there are also other and more profound “escapisms” that have always appeared in fairy-tale and legend. There are other things more grim and terrible to fly from than the noise, stench, ruthlessness, and extravagance of the internal-combustion engine. There are hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death. 
Thus Faërie stands in judgment of the world. Faërie is glorious treachery against "the real world."

We join the prophetic cry of the elves and St. John, "This land you love is doomed. Come out, come out, my people."

Or as Gandalf might have said it, "Fly, you fools!"

The Theology of Faërie: Part 3, The Wonder of Things

What does the land of Faërie look like?

According to J.R.R. Tolkien in his lecture "On Fairy-Stories" the enchantment of Faërie is characterized by three particular qualities. Tolkien calls the characteristics of Faërie Recovery, Escape and Consolation. We'll devote a post to each.

What is the enchantment involved in what Tolkien calls "recovery"?

Life in "the real world" is often burdened by boredom and weariness. As it is said, there is nothing new under the sun. We move numbly from entertainment to entertainment, pleasure to pleasure, screen to screen.

Worst of all, our relationships with others becomes affected by this "taken for granted" feeling. We feel the tragedy of this, a feeling of monotony even among those we love most dearly, but we struggle to regain contact with wonder, surprise and awe.

The enchantment of Faërie, according to Tolkien, helps us recover these lost feelings. What was old becomes new. What was boring becomes surprising. What was grey becomes bright. What was dead comes back to life again. Tolkien writes:
Before we reach such states [like boredom and tedium] we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish.
Enchantment is not a fanciful fleeing of the world. Enchantment isn't "pretending." Enchantment is the recovery of the world. Enchantment is looking at green again and being startled anew. 

Enchantment is "re-gaining the world," recovering "the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle." A long paragraph of Tolkien describing recovery, but so rich it is worth quoting in full:
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiars are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their color, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. 
Many things to unpack here. Enchantment is less about a realistic "seeing things as they are" than "seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them." Enchantment is an act of resistance. Enchantment is the daily work of "cleaning the dirty windows" of both our perceptions and affections so that the familiar again surprises us with joy and gratitude. 

And why do the windows get dirty in the first place? What causes the familiar to become trite?

Tolkien gives a surprising answer. Triteness is the penalty of appropriation. Boredom is the price of possessiveness. Monotony is the cost of taking, acquiring and hoarding.

And the possessiveness here is fundamentally epistemological in nature, thinking we "know" these things. Mentally "taking" something. Cognitively and intellectually acquiring the object.

This temptation to mentally appropriate the world--which has been source of modern disenchantment--is driven by the mechanistic view of the universe that emerged during the Enlightenment. The world has come to be viewed mechanistically and objectively, as raw material to be controlled and shaped into useful technologies. A disenchanted world is no longer hallowed or sacred and, thus, neutral "stuff" to be manipulated for our own purposes.

According to Tolkien, then, the posture of skeptical and scientific "adulthood" is to adopt this mechanistic view of the cosmos. Which is to say, to see the world as an "adult" is to adopt a posture of domination over the world. And it's this posture of domination that disenchants the world, stripping it of its enchanted, sacred character.

And we can extend this into the social realm as well. Wherever there is domination over others the view of human beings had become disenchanted, people have been stripped of their sacred and hallowed nature.

By way of illustration, in The Lord of the Rings we can see how Mordor incarnates a disenchanted, mechanistic view of the world. Mordor uses the world as fuel for domination.

In contrast to Mordor is the enchanted imagination of Faërie, epitomized by the elves and the humble people of the Shire.

And speaking of the elves, if Tolkien desired dragons with a profound desire (see the previous post) I desired Lothlórien with a profound desire. I wanted to walk with the elves through the trees of that forest. And to this very day, whenever I see fireflies dancing among trees this deep and profound ache--what C.S. Lewis named as Joy--fills my soul. I desire the woodland paths of the elves with a profound desire.

Enchantment is the recovery of the world as "a thing apart from ourselves," as something we cannot take or own, as something alien and therefore strange and wonderful.

And if that stance is childlike it is because children remain surprised by the world, experiencing it as enchanted and miraculous. Enchantment is the sacramental experience of the world, where common and ordinary things become symbols and signposts. Inbreakings of the divine. Gateways to heaven.

And that might be enchantment at its most basic, cultivating the ability to be surprised, interrupted and arrested--again and again--by the world. And especially by each other.

Love is a form of enchantment. To love is to enchant, to experience our beloved as source of wonder.

As Tolkien writes, Faërie recovers "the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."

Shall we leave the final word to Gerard Manley Hopkins?
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
       It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
       It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
       And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
       And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
       There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
       Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
       World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Enchantment is experiencing a world seared by trade as still charged with the grandeur of God.

To see this bent world with fairy-eyes, where the Holy Ghost broods over us with bright wings and warm breast.

The Theology of Faërie: Part 2, The Elvish Art and Desiring Dragons

Before we can unpack the theological characteristics of Faërie we have to begin with defining Faërie. In his essay "On Fairy-Stories" Tolkien begins, in good scholarly fashion, by working out those definitions.

What makes a story a fairy-story?

According to Tolkien a fairy-story isn't a story that contains fairies or elves or other sorts of fanciful creatures, the insertion of a fantastical element into our world. Rather, a fairy-story is a story about a world, the realm of Faërie. Middle-Earth and Narnia are examples here.

Tolkien writes:
[F]or fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.
That last is key, Faërie is an enchanted world

And this is why for Tolkien the magic of Faërie is a non-negotiable. The minute the magic of Faërie is questioned within the story the spell is broken and we're no longer in the world of enchantment. As Tolkien writes:
[In a fairy-story the] one thing that must not be made fun of [is] the magic itself. That must in the story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.
What this requires of the storyteller is that the land of Faërie is always presented as being real and true. The land of Faërie is never presented as a dream-state, vision or delusion. Faërie is presented as a real world.

Tolkien then goes on to consider the origins of the fairy-story. How is the world of Faërie created?

One of the tools Tolkien describes is how enchantment is created by our use of adjectives.
The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man's face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.
Enchantment begins, then, with the incantation of adjectives. No spell of Faërie is more potent. And yet, those adjectives can't just be thrown around willy-nilly. Otherwise the world being described becomes confused, incoherent and nonsensical. What is needed, as Tolkien says in the last line of the quote above, is "sub-creation," the careful weaving of those adjectives to create an intelligible world.

For Tolkien the art of the fairy-story is the labor of sub-creation. Sub-creation involves the creation of a Secondary World where Secondary Belief becomes possible. If the world being described in the fairy-story has coherence and integrity things become believable in that world. This artistic creation Tolkien calls "enchantment": "Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside."

That is the enchantment of Faërie, the description of a world--or the re-description of our world--where certain things become believable and certain experiences become enjoyed.

Tolkien goes on to contrast enchantment with magic. "Magic produces," says Tolkien, "or pretends to produce, an alternation in the Primary World...its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills." In contrast to magic, the elvish art--the art of enchantment--is the creation of a world which you are invited to enter and enjoy. Tolkien making the contrast:
To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centered power which is the mark of the mere Magician...Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.
The elvish art is non-coercive. At its heart enchantment is an invitation, an invitation to enter and explore a world to discover and experience shared delights.

Faërie is a choice. Enchantment is a decision. You don't have to walk through the Wardrobe. Just as Bilbo doesn't have to leave the Shire. Faërie is an invitation to a journey, and who knows where that road will take us?
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Which brings us to a final point. What does it mean to enter Faërie, to accept the invitation of enchantment?

Specifically, are we "pretending" when we enter Faërie? When we accept the invitation of the elves are we "making believe" and playacting? Are we adults indulging in the whims and imaginations of children? Tolkien recounts in his lecture how he corresponded with a man who said that fairy-stories were "Breathing a lie through Silver."  

That question--Is Faërie real?--is one that we will circle back to in this series as it bears upon how skeptics feel about the enchantments wrought by faith, seeing them as "lies breathed through silver." For now, let's just give one part of Tolkien's answer.

For Tolkien Faërie is less about "reality" than it is about desire, and about what those desires tell us about ourselves and the world. On that point we can conclude with Tolkien's description of what drew him to the land of Faërie:
I had no special “wish to believe.” I wanted to know. Belief depended on the way in which stories were presented to me, by older people, or by the authors, or on the inherent tone and quality of the tale. But at no time can I remember that the enjoyment of a story was dependent on belief that such things could happen, or had happened, in “real life.” Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded...I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse. And that was not solely because I saw horses daily, but never even the footprint of a worm. The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir [a dragon in Norse mythology] was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.
"Our hearts are restless," wrote St. Augustine, "until they rest in Thee."

And for many of us, that desire was first experienced, and is still most acutely experienced, in the land of Faërie.

That land where we desired dragons with a most profound desire.

The Theology of Faërie: Part 1, The Enchantment of the Inklings

I recently finished the very good book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski. The book focuses upon four of the Inklings, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. But most of the book is taken up following the careers of Lewis and Tolkien. If you're interested in these authors or the Inklings generally The Fellowship is an excellent book.

One of the things that struck me in reading The Fellowship is how the Zaleskis describe the literary project of the Inklings as an attempt to "reenchant" the world in the face of modernity. The Inklings did this, we know, by combining fantasy with the Christian faith. This is most obviously seen in Tolkien's books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Lewis's Narnia books and Williams's supernatural novels.

The Inklings didn't write much about themselves and they never formally articulated their shared goals, but according to The Fellowship if there was a manifesto that articulated the project of the Inklings it was Tolkien's Andrew Lang lecture delivered in 1939 at the University of St Andrews. The lecture "On Fairy-Stories" was eventually published in 1947.

Given that I'm interested in the project of reenchantment I thought I'd take a few posts to summarize the main points of "On Fairy-Stories" to sketch out "a theology of Faërie" and how that theology might be used in discussions about faith and belief.

Beyond this theology of Faërie, let me end this introductory post by pointing out some other characteristics of the Inklings's particular attempts at reenchantment.

That the Inklings used fantasy and the Christian faith to reenchant the world faith goes without saying. But their imagination wasn't just fanciful or whimsical, it was infused with both reason and morality. That's a combination that interests me, enchantment that is the product of Christian faith, imagination, reason and morality.

As an example of the role of reason in enchantment consider the conversation the Professor has with Peter and Susan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Peter and Susan are trying to puzzle out if Lucy is lying about the wardrobe and meeting a faun in the forest. Hearing their skepticism the Professor counters with a discourse on logic:
“Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don't they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”
These are lines that echo a famous moment in Lewis's apology for the Christian faith Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
I don't here want to adjudicate the adequacy of Lewis's famous "Liar, Lunatic or Lord?" trilemma. I simply want to note how he inserted it into a children's story, using logic as a tool of enchantment. That blend isn't unique to the Inklings, but it was a mark of the Inklings's imaginative art. We could also go to Lewis's science fiction novels to make similar observations about how Lewis used reason and science to create enchantment.

Tolkien's use of reason was different from Lewis's. More than anything Tolkien was artist so he didn't go in for Lewis's analytical and logical fireworks. As we know, Tolkien's use of reason was demonstrated by his creation of a dense and comprehensive mythological world, complete with Elvish languages of his own devising. Key for Tolkien was the inner consistency of that world. Achieving that consistency, given the richness and size of the world Tolkien was creating, was one of Tolkien's great accomplishments. It was Middle-Earth's intellectual integrity and richness that made it so believable. Once again we find reason to be the engine of enchantment.

In short, enchantment for the Inklings wasn't "pretend" or "make-believe," it was serious intellectual business.

Accompanying this intellectual seriousness the fantasy produced by the Inklings embodied a strong moral sensibility, one informed by the Christian faith. The moral journey Edmund makes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an example. And so are the hobbits in Tolkien's novels. In Tolkien's Catholic hands the hobbits become incarnations of Mary's Magnificat:
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate
An appeal to the "moral law" also played a large part part in Lewis's apologetics. In fact, if you recall, Lewis starts off Mere Christianity with an appeal to a shared, common morality:
Everyone has heard people quarreling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: "How'd you like it if anyone did the same to you?"—"That's my seat, I was there first"—"Leave him alone, he isn't doing you any harm"— "Why should you shove in first?"—"Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine"—"Come on, you promised." People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups. Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man's behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: "To hell with your standard." Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard...It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed.
These infusions of reason and morality into the fantasy of the Inklings won't be featured when we turn to "On Fairy-Stories" in the coming posts, but I did want to mention these characteristics here at the start as it's this combination of imagination, reason, morality and Christianity that gave the enchantments of the Inklings their distinctive and peculiar quality.
"But do you really mean, Sir," said Peter, "that there could be other worlds--all over the place, just round the corner--like that?"

"Nothing is more probable," said the Professor, taking off his spectacles and beginning to polish them, while he muttered to himself, "I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.”

Unpublished: Theology Is Personal

I always like to remind people that I'm not a theologian. To be sure, all Christians are called to be theologians. And I'm more than happy to own the tag "theologian" when it's framed as a lay calling. But I've never been to seminary and I don't teach theology or biblical studies. I can't read Greek or Hebrew. There are classics texts in the field that I've never read. I have huge areas of ignorance.

For me, theology has been a very personal pursuit, a quest for answers to the questions at the heart of my faith journey. I am a theologian looking for answers to my questions. If I'm reading a theology book and it doesn't have anything relevant to the questions I'm pursuing I quickly get bored and move on.

Theologically, I'm a hunter, not a scholar.

--an unpublished post reflecting on the choices I make in my theological reading

The Faith of Demons

I can't tell you how many times I've waded into James 2 to hash out with someone the proper relationship between faith and works. You likely know the famous text:

James 2.17-19, 26
In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. 
Typically, the debate about faith vs. works is discussed in the abstract. "Works" are good deeds generally conceived.

But, and here's my point, the works being discussed in James 2 are very specific. Faith without this specific work is dead.

So what is that specific work?

The context of the "faith vs. works" text highlighted in red:
James 2.1-19
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.   
The context is clear. The works being discussed in the "faith vs. works" debate is the preferential option for the poor. James is very clear on this point. Can a faith which ignores the plight of the poor save us?


That sort of faith is akin to the faith of demons.

Faith without the preferential option for the poor is dead.

Newsworthy with Norsworthy

Just a note to say I'm back over with Luke for the Newsworthy with Norsworthy podcast. Head on over there to listen to our conversation where we discuss church in a post-Christian culture, our time with Rob Bell, if humanity is making moral progress, our family trip to Selma and race in America.

Again, if you're not following Luke's podcast make sure you check out some of his conversations, to name a few, with Nadia Boltz-Weber, Jonathan Martin and Ian Morgan Cron, Pete Enns and Chris Green, Rachel Held Evans and Lauren Winner.

Luke's podcast is really one of the best things going out there on Christian social media.

There is a Story Guiding Love to Love

Throbbing at the heart of the material universe, amid the buzzing and hum of the swirling mass of particles, is the Ache of Love.

This is as empirical a fact as is the apple hitting Sir Isaac Newton on the head. Factually, scientifically, Love exists. You've felt it crackle through the atoms of your body like you've felt the jolt of electricity when you touched a doorknob. And facts, as they say, are facts.

Atoms ache. Matter moans. Particles wince in pain.

Love exists, but she is blind. Love needs a Story.

Some call the Story fantasy or fiction. It's all make believe, a fairy tale, because the Story of Love can't be observed in the test tubes or under the microscopes.

Love, some claim, needs no Story. Love can figure it out on her own. Let Love work her way through the School of Hard Knocks. Let pain teach Love her lessons. Let suffering be her syllabus.

And so, Love ventures forth.

And we find her, years later, stumbling through the alleyway looking for her fix. Or staring blankly at a computer screen. One screen followed by another.

She found pleasure, Love did. And even ecstasy, in some moments. But the feelings have faded. The Ache is still throbbing, but distant now and numb.

Blind Love, lost Love, stumbles around as pleasure and desire.

Love needs her Story.

And there are some of us who say that the Story is no fairy tale, no fantasy or fiction.

The Story is True. As True as an electron. As True as a green bean. As True as Love herself.

Love with her Story? She grows like a garden. Like roses under sunshine and rain. Like cells in a petri dish. Like chemicals fizzing in the tube.

The Story traces the highways and byways though the cosmic swirl, knows the nooks and crannies in E = mc2 where Love can be sheltered, nurtured and shared. As scientifically as the trails of the particles through their cloud chambers. Or the blaze of lightning seeking the ground. Or the river creeping to the sea.

There is a Story that knows where Love will flourish. And where she might find shelter from the storm.

And watching Love bloom you know that Story is True. As true as a toad. As factual as a fractal.

There is a Story guiding Love to Love.

I don't believe in it.

Just as I don't believe in gravity or turnips or the swaying of flowers in the breeze.

I observe them all.

Factually. Empirically. Scientifically.

And know.

The Devil on a Wiffle Ball Field

It's a tradition to have a wiffle ball game in the backyard at my nephew Mason's birthday party, all the kids in attendance taking to a field that my brother marks off with spray paint on the lawn.

The field has a home run line. Hit the ball past that line and you've hit a home run.

Now this is a friendly game, no one is monitoring that line. So when the ball falls close to the line you have to trust the opposing outfielder to tell you truthfully if the ball landed past the line and was a home run.

Which, for younger kids, is agonizing. They know what they saw (that the ball was a home run) but they don't want to say it (that the ball was a home run) because a home run hurts their chances of winning. They are the outfielders, the defending team. They don't want to see or admit that a home run was scored against them.

As you can imagine, all this can create a sort of moral test for the children. Will they forthrightly admit that ball was a home run when it was a home run?

Most of the time, while you can see the pain on their face, because truth is hard sometimes, the kids admit that the ball was a home run.

But sometimes they fail, denying that a home run had been hit when the ball landed past the line. And not surprisingly, these moral failures tend to occur more often when the game is very, very close.

The whole thing is a fascinating psychological and moral experiment.

Last week when one of these moral failures occurred during the annual wiffle ball game, a particularly egregious one, my nephew Matthew, who is in college, asked me, "Why do they do that? Why do they lie about a ball being a home run?"

"Because," I said, "they are young. Winning or losing, even something as silly and inconsequential as a wiffle ball game, impacts their self-esteem. Winning makes them feel special and losing makes them feel like a loser. And so they compromise their integrity in order to build up their self-esteem."

"And truthfully," I went on to say, "nothing changes when we get older. The 'winning' and 'losing' may look different, but we are all tempted to compromise our integrity or treat others badly in order to build up our self-esteem."

Now, it's possible I wrote a book about this dynamic. How neurotic anxiety, a desire to secure a sense of significance and self-esteem, becomes "the power of the devil" in our lives.

It's just interesting to see it play out so clearly at such a young age.

Watching the devil at work during a wiffle ball game.

Unpublished: The First Thing I Ever Wanted

I'm largely stumped when it comes to plunging the mysteries of faith. I don't know what it is that enables one person to hold on to faith in the face of doubts where another person eventually walks away. I don't know why faith stays strong for some and evaporates for others. And I know of no secret or intervention that can change this outcome for any given person.

What keeps me holding onto faith? I think it is this.

For as long as I can remember I've been transfixed by the image of Jesus. I remember being a young boy and wanting, more than anything, to be like Jesus. I wanted to be fearless and kind, courageous and caring, strong and gentle, raging and forgiving. That's the first thing I ever wanted. And I've never stopped wanting it.

That primal desire and memory sits at the foundation of my faith. And it seems to me now that this is the reason I am able to sustain faith in the face of doubts that cripple so many others. I've never stopped wanting to be like Jesus.

--from an unpublished autobiographical post

On Discoveries in Used Bookstores

Like many people I picked up a love of books in college. If I have a materialistic streak it comes out with books. I buy lots of books.

The main struggle I have is keeping my buying in pace with my reading. When I was younger I was simply trying to acquire books to build a personal library. So I just bought books. Way more than I could read. Simply having the books made me happy. That's the materialistic aspect I struggled with. The craving to own and acquire the books as physical objects.

I'm more disciplined now. I typically have a large "to read" stack, around 5-15 books on a specific shelf in the bedroom. And when the shelf gets full I work hard to stop buying until I get some of those books read and moved off the shelf.

A part of the struggle in limiting my buying is simply how much I love bookstores and shopping for books. Especially used bookstores. I've joked with my sons that if I have a natural posture it's tilting my head to the right so I can read the spines of rows and rows of books in used bookstores. I adore huge, sprawling used bookstores. Whenever I visit a town or city "bookstore" is the first thing I type into Google maps. If you have a used bookstore in your town I'll be in it, head tilted to the right, scanning the stacks.

A huge part of the fun of shopping in a used bookstore is the thrill of discovery. It's the same thrill Jana gets shopping for clothing at thrift and consignment stores. The lure of the hunt and finding something totally unexpected and awesome for an amazingly low price.

So what do I hunt for in used bookstores?

The main thing is titles I've never seen before. If you go to chain bookstores the titles get pretty predictable. I can pretty much tell you what is on the shelf right now of your local Barnes and Noble. To keep a Barnes and Noble interesting you can't go into one but one or two times a year. If you visited a Barnes and Noble every month you'd quickly become bored as the selection doesn't change that quickly.

Which is why you prefer the used bookstore. The stock is totally unpredictable. And most importantly it will have older and out of print titles that aren't on the shelf of the chain bookstore. Those titles are waiting there for you to discover them.

The other thing I look for in a used bookstore is something that might be collectible. I'm not a huge collector and my tastes are quirky which keeps the prices down. For example, if I found, say, a first edition copy of a William Stringfellow book at a used bookstore I'd be excited about that. But no one else cares all that much so that book might be $10, which is easy on the pocketbook.

So I have a few first edition copies in my collection. Here are some of my prized possessions. A first edition of George MacDonald's The Hope of the Gospel (a gift from my friend Chris). Autographed and first editions from William Stringfellow and Will Campbell. I have a first (American) edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison (published first in the US under the title Prisoner for God). I also have many first editions of Thomas Merton.

Most of these books were inexpensive. Most of them found scanning shelves in used bookstores. I have, however, gotten into buying autographed copies which is best done online. I like to collect autographed copies from authors who have greatly impacted me. That's why I have the autographed copies of Stringfellow and Campbell.

Along these lines the most expensive thing I've purchased is a first edition copy of Loaves and Fishes signed by Dorothy Day. That book was $120 and I got it as a birthday present.

Now, if you start looking for rare and collectible books, first editions and such, every used bookstore becomes the possibility for the Great Discovery. We've all seen and heard stories about such discoveries. Someone finding something really rare and valuable sitting in a junk heap at a garage sale. That's the dream of a collector scanning the stacks in a used bookstore. The possibility of finding something really rare and special sitting on some dusty shelf.

And that happened to me just the other day. I made my great discovery.

I've always wanted a book signed by Thomas Merton to sit next to my signed copies of Dorothy Day, Will Campbell and William Stringfellow. They all knew and corresponded with each other. Day, Campbell, Stringfellow and Merton. These are the radical Christian theologians who, outside of George MacDonald, have most greatly impacted me. And they were all friends.

And so a signed book by Merton was the book missing from my collection of these radical friends. But sadly, given his fame and the rarity of his autograph (Trappist monks don't do book signing tours), Merton's is the most coveted signature of the lot. Over the years as I've searched Abe Books I've found that books signed by Merton are just way out of my price range. Right now, as I did another search, prices for signed books by Merton go from $750 for a signed eighth printing of Seeds of Contemplation to $8,550 for a signed first edition of Seven Storey Mountain. Prices for other signed first editions range from $1,000 to $2,700.

So I knew I was never going to get a signed copy of a Thomas Merton title.

But all that changed yesterday.

I was in a used bookstore yesterday, head tilted to the right, scanning the stacks in the Christian section. And as I was scanning the M authors I found the collection of Merton titles. I knew all the titles and had many of the books already.

But then I saw an older copy, still in its dust jacket, of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. This is one of the last books published by Merton before his death in 1968, a collection of essays and reflections on a variety of topics.

The book looked old enough to be a first edition, so I pulled it down and opened it to find out.

And on the inside page I saw this:

My heart jumped. It was a first edition copy and the book had been signed by Thomas Merton.

I looked up at the price penciled in at the top.


The bookseller knew it had been signed, pointing this out to me as I checked out. The book, the seller said, had come from the collection of the late Bishop Murphy (1915-2007) who had been the bishop in my hometown of Erie. As you can see, Merton signed the book for then Monsignor Murphy.

The bookseller commented that it was neat that Merton had signed the book. I don't think the seller knew a lot about Merton. I have no idea how much a signed, first edition copy of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander costs. But I wholeheartedly agreed.

It was, I said, very, very neat.

I Did Not Make It. It Is Making Me.

Some of you, if you're younger, may not be familiar with music of Rich Mullins. But for Jana and I Rich Mullins was an important part of our faith journey in college.

One of our favorite songs is "Creed." The lyrics of "Creed" are almost a straight recitation of the Apostles' Creed. In the early days of contemporary Christian music within evangelical culture that in itself was a bit of a revelation. Sola Scriptura people didn't talk a whole lot about the ancient confessional creeds. Creeds were a bit too liturgical, too Catholic.

The lyrics of "Creed" that really get me come in the chorus. After reciting the confessional statements of the creed in the verses the chorus makes a comment:
And I believe that what I believe
Is what makes me what I am
I did not make it, no it is making me
It is the very truth of God and not
The invention of any man
I did not make it, no it is making me.  That's the lyric that grabs me.

I'm put in mind again of the assessment of George Lindbeck in his book The Nature of Doctrine:
[T]o become religious--no less than to become culturally or linguistically competent--is to interiorize a set of skills by practice and training. One learns how to feel, act and think in conformity with a religious tradition that is, in its inner structure, far richer and more subtle than can be explicitly articulated... [Thus] it is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have it, and the richer our expressive or linguistic system, the more subtle, varied, and differentiated can be our experience...
There are numberless thoughts we cannot think, sentiments we cannot have, and realities we cannot perceive unless we learn to use the appropriate symbol systems...[U]nless we acquire language of some kind, we cannot actualize our specifically human capacities for thought, action and feeling. Similarly, so the argument goes, to become religious involves becoming skilled in the language of the symbol system of a given religion. To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one's world in its terms. A religion is above all an external word...that molds and shapes the self and its world...
This is the important bit: It is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have it. And the richer and more expressive our language, symbols, rituals and art the more subtle, varied, differentiated and deeper can be our experience. Because there are numberless thoughts we cannot think, feelings we cannot feel, and realities we cannot perceive until we learn to use this language with its rituals, symbols and art.

Or, more simply, I did not make it but it is making me.

A Yoke of Paradox

We all know the famous passage in Matthew 11 where Jesus describes his "yoke":
Matthew 11.28-30
"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
What is this "yoke" and to what other "yoke" is Jesus making a contrast with, his "yoke" as opposed to some other "yoke" the people were carrying and pulling?

Many people think that the "yoke" Jesus is making a contrast with was the "yoke" of the Torah. That is, Jesus is ushering in a law of grace--the "yoke" of Jesus--as opposed to a law of works-based righteousness--the "yoke" of Torah obedience.

Now, is true that Torah obedience was described by the rabbis as a yoke. However, if you look at the Old Testament the image of the yoke has less to do with Torah obedience than two other things: 1) punishment for sin and 2) the experience of political oppression. And in Israel's experience of exile these were, in fact, the same thing. Punishment for sin was political oppression during the exile.

If the yoke the people were carrying, then, was the yoke of judgment and exile then the yoke of Jesus is a pronouncement of forgiveness as the end of Israel's exile.

Jesus replaces the yoke of judgment, punishment and exile with a yoke of grace. A paradoxical yoke that is easy and light.

The labor of grace that brings us rest.

Unpublished: Easter Morning (A Poem)

death hangs off everything
like tattered Spanish Moss on ancient, gnarled oak trees
and spiderwebs on decaying, rotting things
death blows coldly with the plastic trash rolling through
empty alleyways like tumbleweeds

but on this day the birdsong of dawn
seems more real
than the abandonment of night
and the news of life echoes a hope
that the hegemony of loss is cracking
under the soft caress of love
it is here in the surprise of this blue small flower
impossibly splitting the weight of oppressive concrete
resurrection in the cracks
blooming underneath it all

--an unpublished Easter poem written about a blue flower spotted growing in a sidewalk crack on the way into church

Preferences vs. Promises

In March and April our adult bible classes at church studied Christine Pohl's book Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us.

In the book Christine works through four practices that sustain vibrant Christian communities. The four practices are gratitude, promise-keeping, truth-telling and hospitality.

I'm keenly interested in all these practices but today I want to say something about promise-keeping and community.

Specifically, one of the questions I often ask myself about my church, which is reflective of most churches I suspect, is this: What binds us together as a community?

As best I can tell what binds us together is liking. We're at our church because we like it. Because we like the sermons. Or like the worship. Or like the programs. Or like the bible classes. Or like the people.

We are there--we are a "church," a gathering--because we like the same things.

Obviously, this is a very thin web of support--our liking, our preferences--that is holding us together. What happens when we get a new preacher and we don't like the sermons as much anymore? Or what if the worship style changes and we stop liking it?

What happens when the going gets tough? When sin needs to be confronted, when discipleship gets costly, when love gets sacrificial or when deep disagreements are aired? What happens when doubts deepen and faith grows cold?

Will liking be enough to bind us together during these seasons?

There needs to be something more than liking. So what might it look like if a church was bound together by promises rather than preferences?

Because love, it seems to me, is less about liking than it is about promising. 

Prophecy and Doxology

"Prophecy cannot be separated very long from doxology, or it will either wither or become ideology."

      --Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination

I think this insight is important for progressive Christians trying to resist the purity psychology that operates within progressive Christianity in their efforts to lift up "the least of these."

Social justice activism without doxology--without what Thomas Merton described as "the contemplative core" of activism--is tempted in two different ways. On the one hand is burnout, cynicism and despair. On the other hand is bitterness, anger and violence, which fuels the creation of another oppressive order to oust the current one. Victims become victimizers.

In short, the pursuit of justice--prophetic utterance and action--must attend to the spirituality of the conflict with the principalities and powers in order to resist and combat the attendant temptations. Let me restate that so the point is clear: We must attend to the spirituality of the conflict--and not just the external, political particulars--in our resistance to the principalities and powers.

Prophetic utterance and action focuses on the politics, the raw empirical facts of injustice. Doxology--along with other spiritual disciplines such as prayer, silence, fasting, and Sabbath--focuses upon the interior spiritual life of the Christian fighting for justice, the fight to love and extend grace toward self and others in the heat of the fight.

Black Heroism and White Sympathy: A Reflection on the Charleston Shooting

As regular readers know, all of June Jana and I were on a speaking tour in the UK. So we missed quite a lot back home.

Not that I make it a habit as a blogger to weigh in on current events. But I did want to make an observation about White America's response to the tragedy of the Charleston shooting in contrast to our response to other instances of White-on-Black violence. From Michael Brown in Ferguson to Eric Garner in Staten Island.

As we all know, the response of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the wake of the shooting, especially that of the family members of the victims, has been inspiring and heroic. The lines between good and evil were so clearly drawn in Charleston that the national response to the tragedy was practically unanimous in expressing outrage and sympathy. As President Obama noted in his eulogy, the killer had unwittingly united rather than divided the nation.

And yet, if I might step into troubled waters, I want to suggest that there is a problem with the national response to Charleston, how the almost universal sympathy expressed for Charleston demonstrates a racial bias at work.

Specifically, why was the response to Charleston so different from, say, our response to Ferguson? Charleston united Black and White America. Ferguson divided us.


I've already alluded to the answer. In Charleston the lines between good and evil were clearly drawn. The killer, motivated by racial animus, entered a church where he was warmly received by a Bible study group. An hour into the study the killer began to shoot the people who had lovingly welcomed him. It was a clear cut case of Good vs. Evil.

Contrast that with Ferguson. Ferguson presented itself as a moral Rorschach blot to White and Black America. White America saw the events in Ferguson one way and Black America saw it another way. The lines between Good and Bad were murkier and, thus, open to interpretation.

Which brings me back to the racial bias that was at work in our collective response in Charleston. Specifically, to make the point plainly, universal sympathy from White America was only forthcoming when the moral narrative regarding Black virtue and innocence was clear and indisputable.

And that, let me suggest, is a problem.

The heroic, Christian witness of courage and grace displayed by Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is awe-inspiring. They are saints and martyrs for the ages.

But we have to ask, is that the moral bar Black America has to clear in every instance to receive unanimous sympathy from White America?

Because that bar will very rarely be cleared. I can't clear it. Saints like those at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church are very rare. And so is the evil the like of Dylann Roof.

So the moral contrast that was displayed in Charleston is hardly going to be typical. What we have in America day to day are ambiguous mixtures of right and wrong, moral narratives that are open to interpretation.  Who was more to blame, for example, Michael Brown or Darren Wilson? Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman?

These more ambiguous situations are the ones that divide America. And why is that? Because these events are open to interpretation. And because they are open to interpretation--moral Rorschach blots--they are the situations that most reveal our biases and prejudices.

The problem with our response to Charleston is that we can't expect Black America to display that level of virtue in every violent encounter. But for the grace of God it is an almost impossible, heroic standard. What we will have, instead, are events that are morally mixed, with the lines between Good and Bad blurry and ambiguous. Events open to your interpretation and, thus, open to your bias.

The power of the American Civil Rights movement was that it was able, through direct, non-violent action, to create high-contrast moral dramas like what we witnessed in Charleston. On the one side, at a clear and obvious location of discrimination, like a segregated lunch counter, we had peaceable Blacks and on the other side violent Whites. Non-violence at a location of obvious discrimination made the moral narrative crisp and clear. No ambiguity. No room for interpretation. The case for justice was unavoidable and compelling. And because of this Jim Crow segregation laws were swiftly, within a decade, dismantled.

But things have stalled since the 60s. Why has that been? I think it's been because overt and clear cut examples of racial prejudice and discrimination are harder to point to. Segregated lunch counters, bathrooms and bus seating were unambiguous locations of discrimination. You could literally point to a "Whites Only" sign on the wall. And that made the moral narrative clear and compelling.

Things are different now as Martin Luther King Jr. realized post-1965 when he began to focus on the issue of poverty. Why is there poverty? Is it due to personal moral failures like conservatives tend to believe? Or systemic injustices as liberals believe? Poverty is a complex Rorschach blot which is why it's so hard to focus the collective sympathy and will of America to address the problem.

I think the contrast between our responses to Charleston and Ferguson shows that we have a similar problem with race relations. Improvement in race relations in America cannot happen if we regularly demand in every instance that Black America meet the moral standards of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Black heroism can't be the asking price for White sympathy.

What is needed is for White America to exercise sympathy when the situations are morally ambiguous. This does not mean that we jettison our critical faculties. It is, rather, the honest admission that when the situation is most ambiguous my racial biases and prejudices are most at work. Let me state that again clearly: The more ambiguous the situation the more biased and prejudiced I will be.

What is needed, then, is what liberation theologians call a "preferential option." This isn't liberal guilt but a disciplining of our affections in order to counter deeply rooted biases and prejudices. When the situation is most ambiguous we should be our most vigilant and most willing to grant the benefit of the doubt.

Black America shouldn't have to wait for a Charleston to receive White compassion and sympathy.

Sympathy in the face of moral ambiguity is what has been lacking in White America. We can muster sympathy in response to Charleston. That is a relatively easy effort given the grace and heroism of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

But sympathy for Charleston won't crack the impasse we are facing in America where the injustices at work amongst us are more subtle, complex and ambiguous.

Unpublished: Doubts Aren't That Important

A lot of people come to me when they experience faith problems.

There's not a ton that I can do to help. There's no magic bullet that I have. No great answer I'm sitting on that I haven't shared.

But I'm not speechless. I can share my own story. I can express solidarity. I can suggest things to read if there's a particular theological perspective that I think might be helpful. And sometimes I offer this response:

Have you given Christianity a try?

A lot of "faith struggles" are purely mental events. Wheels turning in the mind. Which is fine, but much of that mental drama has little to do with being or not being a Christian. I'm not saying that our questions aren't important. I'm saying that getting mentally okay with Christianity still doesn't make you a Christian. There's more to it than that. Like actually being a Christian.

Let me say it this way. We routinely say that Christianity isn't about intellectual assent to propositions. Christianity isn't about believing all the right things, checking all the right theological boxes. But if that's the case we have to say the same thing about our doubts.

Being or not being a Christian isn't about all the mental drama, all the stuff floating around in your head.

If orthodoxy isn't all that important than neither are your doubts.

--an unpublished post about doubts and the need to move past them

Broad Is the Way That Leads To Destruction

Matthew 7.13-19
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.


I know lots of liberal and progressive Christians really dislike this text. But I'm here to tell you, brother and sisters, that I agree with Jesus!


I believe this!

In fact, I think it's pretty obvious if you read the daily paper or watch the evening news. Really, is this actually news to anyone? Is this actually controversial? I don't think so.

Broad is the way that leads to destruction.

Let us, again, remind ourselves about the destruction Jesus was warning about: the destruction of Jerusalem.

And who were those false prophets Jesus was warning about?

Again, these were the false Messiahs who were or would be agitating for the violent overthrow of Rome. But as Jesus declared, the one who lives by the sword will die by the sword. Jerusalem was on road to destruction because she had, in the words of the gospel of Luke, "failed to learn the things that make for peace."

And in contrast to this "broad road" of violence the way of Jesus as described in the Sermon on the Mount is a very different sort of path--a narrower, harder and lonelier path. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Turn the other cheek. Go the second mile.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

These are the teachings that bear "good fruit." These are the teachings that provide, like the wise man building on a rock, a firm and lasting foundation. These are the teachings that make the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

And yet, this is a hard, hard teaching. So hard it will be a narrow way. Few will find this path. Most will opt for violence. And we know where that road leads.

No one said it better than Jesus.

Broad is the way that leads to destruction.

To the Girl With the Rainbow Stairs

Grace comes to us
in little things.
Even as we dream and struggle
for each other
and the sky and the water and the air.
Hoping, fighting
for all things to be healed and whole.
Grace comes to us
in the colors and the laughter
in the bread broken and the wine
and our voices joined and chanting.
Grace comes to us
in little things.
In the pinch of sunlight on the skin
and the wind soon to be blowing through your hair.
Grace does come.
Even in the ache of leaving.
That too is grace.
For it is the pain of joy,
and happiness,
and love.

All Aboard the Blue Train: Johnny Cash and the Train Song

As regular readers know I've become a bit of a Johnny Cash nut. I listen to Cash all the time so as my sons ride in the car with me they hear a lot of Johnny Cash playing.

My son Aidan sums up Johnny Cash like this. Aidan says, "Johnny Cash sings about trains, prison, murder and Jesus."

That's just about a perfect description of Johnny Cash.

In my series about the theology of Johnny Cash (see the sidebar on the blog homepage) I wrote about the prison, murder and Jesus parts. But nothing about the trains.

Johnny Cash's first recording with Sun Records wasn't "I Walk the Line" or "Folsom Prison Blues." The first song Cash wrote and recorded with Sun was a song about trains.

That song was "Hey Porter." "Hey Porter" needed a compliment song to make a record. Cash went off and wrote "Cry, Cry, Cry." "Cry, Cry, Cry" became the A-Side of Cash's first record and was his first hit. "Hey Porter" was the B-Side and also got a lot of air play.

"Hey Porter" is one of the few (and it might be the only) happy train songs recorded by Cash. Inspired by Cash's feelings returning home after his tour overseas in the air force, "Hey Porter" shares the excitement of a man riding a train back home to loved ones in the South. The last verse of the song:
Hey porter! Hey porter!
Please open up the door.
When they stop the train I'm gonna get off first
Cause I can't wait no more.
Tell that engineer I said thanks a lot,
and I didn't mind the fare.
I'm gonna set my feet on Southern soil
and breathe that Southern air.
Again, "Hey Porter" is a happy train song. The train is bringing a son, a lover, a brother and a friend back home. This happy theme is an exception in Cash's train song discography. For the most part when Cash sings about trains the theme is loss, sadness and regret. The train is passing the singer by taking other people to happy places. That's the image from "Folsom Prison Blues." From the first, second and third verses:
I hear the train a comin'
It's rolling round the bend
And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when,
I'm stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin' on.
But that train keeps a rollin' on down to San Antone.

When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.

I bet there's rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They're probably drinkin' coffee and smoking big cigars.
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can't be free
But those people keep a movin'
And that's what tortures me.
Another sad train theme in Johnny Cash's songs are trains taking lovers away or not bringing them back home. A nice example are the lyrics of "Train of Love." From the first two verses:
Train of love's a-comin', big black wheels a-hummin'
People waitin' at the station, happy hearts are drummin'
Trainman tell me maybe, ain't you got my baby
Every so often everybody's baby gets the urge to roam
But everybody's baby but mine's comin' home.

Now stop your whistle blowin', 'cause I got ways of knowin'
Your bringin' other people's lovers, but my own keeps goin'
Train of love's deceivin', when she's not gone she's leavin'
Every so often everybody's baby gets the urge to roam
But everybody's baby but mine's comin' home.
Sometimes a train isn't in the song but railroad tracks are mentioned to similar effect. The railroad tracks are leading off to a happy place but we can't get on the train to follow them. We see the path leading home but we are unable to follow it. From "Give My Love to Rose":
I found him by the railroad track this morning
I could see that he was nearly dead
I knelt down beside him and I listened
Just to hear the words the dying fellow said.
He said they let me out of prison down in Frisco
For ten long years I've paid for what I've done
I was trying to get back to Louisiana
To see my Rose and get to know my son.

Give my love to Rose please won't you mister
Take her all my money, tell her to buy some pretty clothes
Tell my boy his daddy's so proud of him
And don't forget to give my love to Rose.
In short, beyond the debut of the happy "Hey Porter" the train songs of Johnny Cash tend to be sad and melancholy songs. Happiness is on the train and that train is leaving us or passing us by. We're left standing by the railroad tracks listening to the whistle in the distance.

(By the way, if you'd like to explore many of the early train songs of Johnny Cash check out the "All Aboard the Blue Train" compilation album put out by Sun Records in 1962. It's one of my favorite Johnny Cash albums. I have it on vinyl and play this record in my office more than any other.

Some interesting backstory behind this and other compilation albums put out by Sun Records.

Cash left Sun for Columbia in 1958. But Sun owned all Cash's early material. Consequently, while Cash was recording new albums with Columbia Sun kept releasing "greatest hits" compilation albums alongside Cash's newer material, much to the chagrin of both Cash and Columbia. "All Aboard the Blue Train" is one of those Sun compilation albums.)

So the train song for Johnny Cash is a sad song. The train whistle is a sound of lament, loss and regret for the sinner sitting in prison for the poor man dying by the railroad track and for the lovers who are saying good-bye forever.

And yet, at the end of Cash's career a note of redemption is sounded. On his 1994 American Recordings album, the first he did with Rick Rubin, Cash recorded the song "Down There By the Train," a song written for Cash by Tom Waits. (Waits also recorded his own version of the song twelve years later on his three-disc Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.)
If you've lost all your hope, if you've lost all your faith
I know you can be cared for and I know you can be safe
And all the shamefuls and all of the whores
And even the soldier who pierced the side of the Lord

Meet me down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow
I think it's theologically fitting that one of the last train songs recorded by Cash is "Down There By the Train." For me, the song reaches back to the start of Cash's career as the answer to the sinner's lament sounded in "Folsom Prison Blues." It is a song that brings the hope of reunion in "Hey Porter" to the man dying by the railroad tracks in "Give My Love to Rose."

Yes, the train songs of Johnny Cash are laments, filled with loss and regret. But there is a place where the "train goes slow," slow enough for all of us in our sin and sadness to hop aboard and find our way back home.

Unpublished: A Letter to My Class On Being Prepared for Sadness

In a recent lecture in my PSYC 120 Introduction to Psychology class I was talking about sadness and spirituality. My sense is that a lot the theology we give to young Christians is so optimistic, hopeful, and triumphalistic that they aren't prepared for sadness, loss and disappointment. Consequently, when these young Christians encounter pain their faith is shaken and often falters. They draw the only conclusion available to them: If life is sad then God has abandoned me.

So in class I said that you should learn to expect sadness and be prepared for it. Which sounds awfully depressing. So after class I sent the students an email trying summarize what I was trying to say. Here's the email it sent them:
Dear PSYC 120,
I was thinking about class today and wanted to say a bit more.

If you weren't in class this might not make much sense, but if you were in class you'll recall I said that life is often very, very sad. All of us will shed many tears before it is all said and done.

That's where I left it in class, but I wanted to follow up and say a bit more about all this.

My goal in sharing all this isn't to make you depressed. It's to help you prepare for the future. Now is the time, here at ACU, to construct a theology--a way with God--that prepares you for sadness, prepares you for difficult times. You need to have a theology that expects loss, failure, pain, abandonment, accident, illness and death. Otherwise, you will be knocked off balance when these things occur, and you will wonder why God has abandoned you. But God hasn't abandoned you. God is there, in the midst of it all. But we have to prepare ourselves to seek God in the darkness, to find God in the darkness.

To be sure, life is and will be filled with joy, wonder, and deep, lasting happiness. I pray these things will fill your life to overflowing. But be prepared for sadness and disappointment. Come to know that God is and will be waiting for you in those dark moments. Do not panic when the pain comes. Do not avoid or fear the pathways of grief. Learn to suffer patiently and wisely, knowing that even in midst of pain that you are deeply loved and that you are not alone.

Grace and peace,

--an unpublished post sharing, obviously, a letter I sent my class a few years ago

Orthodox Alexithymia

In 2012 I wrote a post describing something I called "orthodox alexithymia." Some recent conversations I've had about the role of emotion in theological reflection brought that post back to mind:

David Hume once famously argued that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions." What is interesting about that claim is that, particularly in the area of virtue and morality, modern psychological science has proven Hume to be right. And I wonder, what are the implications for theology?

To be sure, Hume stated his case too strongly. Reason isn't necessarily the slave of the passions. And we don't think it ought to be all of the time. But modern research has shown that cognition and emotion are interwoven systems, with emotion often taking the lead in helping us think correctly and virtuously.

This is a bit different from how the Greeks viewed the situation. For the Greeks emotion was error-prone and wild. Consequently, the wise person would use reason to subdue, tame, and guide the emotions. Thus the vision of the detached, cool, and cerebral philosopher.

We now know that the Greeks got this wrong. When emotion is decoupled from reason we have something that looks like sociopathy. At the very least reason needs emotion to do its work properly. I'm thinking here of work done with persons with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. People with damage to this area of the brain have trouble connecting emotion to how they make decisions or plans. Because of this these individuals can make long pro versus con lists but never reach a final decision. Cognitively these individuals have the ability to plan, and in great detail. But without emotion the cognitive system doesn't care about one outcome over others. And this caring, this emotional attachment, seems to be what breaks the rational stalemate and terminates the chain of calculation. In this reason is functioning as the servant, if not the slave, of the passions. It's as if Reason is saying to the Emotions, "Hey, I'll do all the calculation and accounting, but at the end of the day you're going to have to tell me what we really care about."

It is as Hume once provocatively argued. He said, "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." There is nothing unreasonable or illogical in preferring scratching your finger over preventing the destruction of the whole world. Yes, such a choice is monstrous and evil, but it's not illogical. The monstrosity goes to the issue of caring and emotion. What is broken in preferring scratching your finger over preventing the destruction of the world isn't reason, but emotion.

What does this have to do with theology?

Simply this. When theology and doctrine become separated from emotion we end up with something dysfunctional and even monstrous. A theology or doctrinal system that has become decoupled from emotion is going to look emotionally stunted and even inhuman.

What I'm describing here might be captured by the tag "orthodox alexithymia." By "orthodox" I mean the intellectual pursuit of right belief. And by "alexithymia" I mean someone who is, theologically speaking, emotionally and socially deaf and dumb. Even theologically sociopathic.

(Alexithymia--etymologically "without words for emotions"--is a symptom characteristic of individuals who have difficulty understanding their own and others' emotions. You can think of alexithymia as being the opposite of what is called emotional intelligence.)

Orthodox alexithymia is produced when the intellectual facets of Christian theology, in the pursuit of correct and right belief, become decoupled from emotion, empathy, and fellow-feeling. Orthodox alexithymics are like patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex brain damage. Their reasoning may be sophisticated and internally consistent but it is disconnected from human emotion. And without Christ-shaped caring to guide the chain of calculation we wind up with the theological equivalent of preferring to scratch a doctrinal finger over preventing destruction of the whole world. Logically and doctrinally such preferences can be justified. They are not "contrary to reason." But they are inhuman and monstrous. Emotion, not reason, is what has gone missing.

(In my opinion, hard-core, double-predestination Calvinism looks just like this. An icy, monstrous and alexithymic theology.)

In their defense, the orthodox alexithymics will emphasize the view of the Greeks: reason must tame the passions. We cannot discern the will of God if we allow our feelings to get in the way. Emotions are temptations. Therefore we must make our feelings submit to reason. Reason leads you toward God. Emotion leads you away from God. So put your feelings to the side. If a chain of theological reasoning starts to horrify you then you must repress those feelings. Stuff that horror, swallow it.

But in light of what we now know about the relationship between cognition and emotion this Greek-inspired defense is sounding more and more hollow. And dangerous. A theology that is repressing the emotions, we suspect, just like in other spheres of life, is more rather than less likely to lead us astray.

Theology, as an activity of reason, might not want to be a slave of the passions, but it might want to partner with emotion much more closely.