Category Archives: God

Crunchy Cons

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In Station Eleven, survivors of a global pandemic and subsequent post-apocalyptic chaos decamp to an abandoned airport in Michigan and eventually establish a Museum of Civilization, comprised of assorted artifacts from life before “year zero,” when the pandemic paralyzed the world and rendered much of the stuff that had comprised their lives useless. The Museum was a place of remembering — the old ways, the things they had once cared about — but also for preparation. Though the world of Station Eleven is dark and uncertain, if civilization were ever to rise again from catastrophe, the wares and wisdom held in the Museum, however haphazard and incomplete, would form the basis of renewal.

This wonderful and trenchant book popped into my mind as I read a different but just as wonderful and trenchant book: Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher. I’ve followed Rod’s blog for years, and read (and recommend) his memoir The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Though Crunchy Cons was published in 2006, standing as the Republican Party now is before a dark abyss, ready to jump as soon as Donald J. Trump is named their nominee for president, Republicans need the Crunchy Con Manifesto more than ever.

As a self-proclaimed social conservative, Dreher focuses his criticism and encouragement on his fellow conservatives and those under the Republican Party umbrella. But I couldn’t believe, as a moderate independent who tends to lean left but supports some small-c conservative principles, how much I was nodding along while reading this book. Anyone who doesn’t fit into tidy political molds or abide all the shibboleths of establishment Democrats or Republicans will feel at home with one of the topics Dreher spotlights, which include consumerism, food, home, education, the environment, and religion.

The original subtitle lays out the thesis well: “How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).” Bombast aside, the juxtaposition of otherwise contrary stereotypes establishes the general sense of counterculture that pervades the book. Whether Dreher is talking to conservative homeschoolers or liberal organic farmers, their common refrain is a disillusionment or dissatisfaction with the status quo, with the cult of the bottom line and efficiency, or with how “everybody else” does things. It’s why Dreher can find more common ground with liberals on anti-consumerism than the free-trade fanatics in his own party, and why he feels more comfortable spending a little more for quality food at Whole Foods than get unethically produced cut-rate meat at the nearest SuperMegaMart.

Take the chapter on Home, or more specifically houses and how their style and place can affect their owners’ lives. The McMansions and cookie-cutter homes littering suburbia may be efficiently built and ostensibly indicative of financial success, but as bland, soulless carbon copies they fall short on fostering hominess and familial integrity. (One guy in the book likens getting one to dating the prom queen with a drinking problem: it’ll start out nice but quickly sour when someone prettier comes along.)

As an insecure teen I sometimes felt ashamed by my family’s simple, one-story house that wasn’t as big as some of my friends’ houses, that didn’t have its own rec room or backyard golf course or enormous kitchen. But in retrospect I’m glad for it, and glad my parents still live there, in a cozy house with character that they didn’t hastily buy with a bad mortgage and have to dump when the economy crashed. Despite my siblings and I having our own rooms, the more intimate size of the house allowed (or forced as it sometimes felt) us and my parents into closer proximity. It was harder to flee to our rooms and avoid each other. Obviously the size of one’s house doesn’t directly correlate with the quality of the family within it, but it does help create a culture — for good or for bad.

Similarly, the choices we make about education can have profound effects on the quality of the upbringing of one’s kids. The Drehers are passionate about (and financially capable of) homeschooling their children for several reasons, the biggest one seeming to be that they’d rather take responsibility for their kids’ rearing than abdicating it to others:

If you don’t educate your children for metaphysical truth and moral virtue, mainstream culture will do it for you. Absent shared commitment to these spiritual and moral verities, it is hard to see how we renew our families, our communities, and our country with an ethic of duty, self-restraint, stewardship, and putting the needs of people, not the state or corporations, first.

Though I’m a proud public school kid, and made it through without the scars others have (and may still harbor), the idea of forming my own children, rather than letting the state and wider culture do it, makes more and more sense as the state of public education gets bleaker and less hospitable to anyone who deviates from state-sponsored directives.

The same theory applies to religion. Though I didn’t go to a private religious school, those I know who did seemed to have an equal or even less chance of remaining in the faith as those who got their religious education solely from church. What matters most, I think, is the example that’s set by parents and the larger community, more than what is said or dictated. A kid whose parents set a positive example of marriage and life, who let their deeds speak for them rather than adopting a “Because I said so” strategy, will probably be much more likely to buy in to whatever religion or ideology they’re steeped in.

Whatever it is, it has to mean something more than whatever the wider culture is providing. “A religion in which you can set your own terms amounts to self-worship,” writes Dreher. “It has no power to restrain, and little power to inspire or console in times of great suffering. No matter what religion you follow, unless you die to yourself — meaning submit to an authority greater than yourself — it will come to nothing.”

Above all, according to Dreher, the crunchy con values authenticity: “In a world filled with the cheap, the flashy, the plastic, and the immediate, we hunger deeply for things that endure. We are the kind of people who long for the Permanent Things,” a phrase borrowed from Russell Kirk, the putative godfather of the crunchy con movement. The book Dreher is working on now concerns the “Benedict Option,” a model of community and cultural engagement (or lack thereof) for Christians who find the secular world increasingly hostile to people of faith. I suspect it will dovetail directly from the crunchy con impulse for smaller, enduring, and prudent living, and hope it will provide more practical wisdom for how to live out the crunchy con creed.

My fool’s hope for the Republican Party is that whatever emerges from the rubble of the modern GOP will include Crunchy Cons as a foundational text. A party that supports families fully rather than sundering them, that protects rather than pillages the environment, that promotes prudence and virtue over consumption and the bottom line, that values humanity and the living over materialism and Mammon — that’s the kind of party I could join.

But until then…

Deep & The Divine Milieu

freedivercropAt one point in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Mason asks his father if there’s magic in the world. Probably not literal magic, his dad replies. But then he asks the boy: if you didn’t know what a whale was and someone told you there was a giant mammal that lived underwater with a heart as big as a car and arteries you could crawl through, wouldn’t you find that pretty magical?

I’d say so. But more than that, I’d call it divine. Scientists, I’m sure, would frown upon using a religious word to describe biological processes and characteristics, but I find it quite appropriate, especially after learning about the profundities of the ocean from James Nestor’s new book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves.

Perhaps it’s because the book I read before Deep was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu, a meditation on the earthly omnipresence of the divine. Consistent with the Jesuit motto of “finding God in all things,” Teilhard, a Jesuit priest and archaeologist, saw the natural world’s evolution not in conflict with the eternal Divine, but convergent with it. Thus the “divine milieu” is not just in heaven but on earth too, manifest in the world around us. Deep, though a study in scientific phenomena, aligns in fascinating ways with the spiritual phenomena described in The Divine Milieu.

Consider the “master switch of life,” a term that refers to the physiological reflexes in the human body that are triggered when we enter the water and intensify the deeper we go. This transformation, writes Nestor in Deep, “protects our organs from imploding under the immense underwater pressure and turns us into efficient deep sea-diving animals.” But this isn’t an automatic switch. It requires intensive training, coupled with total peace of mind and body, to fully realize its power and unlock the so-called “doorway to the deep,” the point at about 40 feet down where the ocean stops trying to spit us out and instead draws us down. Surrendering to the immersive power of the ocean is the only way to survive.

Likewise, writes Teilhard in The Divine Milieu: “The man who abandons himself to the divine milieu feels his inward powers clearly directed and vastly expanded by it with a sureness which enables him to avoid the reefs on which mystical ardor has so often foundered.” Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the freedivers Nestor meets all describe their underwater experiences in spiritual, almost mystical terms: “transcendent, life-changing, purifying. A new shimmering universe.” They could see new things in a way that a life on land couldn’t fathom.

The ocean, like the world itself, seems suspended between the tangible and mysterious, the clearly natural yet utterly magical. Nestor’s book is an ode to the people who inhabit that space in-between, who plunge into the unknown to push the limits of human understanding, like theologians of the sea. (Is sea-ologians a word? It should be.) The water beckons us to explore, to contend with the mystery of the divine as Paul does in Ephesians 3:18-19: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

A dive into the water, taken on faith but also with a clear mind, transforms and renews us all. Only when we’re in over our heads, holding our breath as we’re baptized into the deep, do we really live. Sounds like a divine milieu to me.

Originally published at ThinkChristian, August 2014.

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Calvary

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The Master of death will come soon enough—and perhaps we can already hear His footsteps. There is no need to forestall His hour nor to fear it. When He enters into us to destroy, as it seems, the virtues and the forces that we have distilled with so much loving care out of the sap of the world, it will be as a loving fire to consummate our completion in union.  The Divine Milieu

There’s a well-known exchange in the documentary Bowling for Columbine wherein Michael Moore interviews Marilyn Manson about politics, media culture, and his supposed influence on Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the Columbine shooting. Pretty quickly after the 1999 tragedy, Manson’s violent lyrics, “trenchcoat mafia” look, and anti-authoritarian attitude were scorned by parents and politicians, and the man himself was made a primary scapegoat for the carnage done by two troubled teens. Moore asks Manson what he would say to them if he could have talked to them directly: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them,” Manson said. “I’d listen to what they have to say. That’s what no one did.”

Wise words from a surprising source. I thought of them after seeing Calvary, the new film from John McDonaugh. (Here be spoilers, natch.) The film begins with Father James (Brendan Gleeson), pastor of a small Irish parish, listening in a confession booth to something startling: a mystery parishioner, abused by a priest as a child, threatens to kill him—an innocent priest—as payment for the sins of the Church. The man tells Father James to settle his affairs, make his peace with God, and meet him on the beach in a week’s time. Father James doesn’t fight back, call the police, or flee: he listens, letting the heavy words sink in, and then embarks on his allotted week bearing a new and heavy cross.

But it’s a burden, it becomes clear, he must bear alone. His fellow parish priest (a nervous, judgmental type) doesn’t share Father James’s relative serenity, earned from his pre-priesthood life. As a layman, I’d imagine, Father James experienced the same loss, doubt, and other common plagues of the soul; it’s what makes him unlike the other priests, “too smart” for this parish as one woman puts it and yet faithful enough to abide in it. Yet even as a priest he’s still a sinner, struggling with alcohol and the desire to flee. His parishioners aren’t a reliable source of inspiration or support, their interactions with Father James throughout the week ranging from tepid respect to outright scorn. And his adult daughter, visiting after a botched suicide attempt, struggles to reconcile her father’s new pastoral role with his lack of paternal guidance in the wake of her mother’s death. He’s trying his best with the deck stacked against him, the trauma of the Catholic church sex abuse scandal still fresh for his wary flock.

Simultaneously, Father James tries to deduce his would-be killer’s identity. Like many whodunits, most of the players in his life are suspects: is it the cuckolded town butcher he confronted about beating his wife? the pompous, grandiloquent millionaire whose support he spurned? the sarcastic male prostitute who’s contemptuous of the Church? or the nihilistic doctor hardened by the suffering around him? Father James fields each of these parishioners’ caustic commentaries —against him, the Church, or whatever else travails them. He listens, but also wearies. The parade of sin feels too long, too hopelessly unredeemable. As King Theodin remarks in The Return of the King, “What can men do against such reckless hate?”

And what can we do? Marilyn Manson’s response aside, I doubt merely sitting down with the Columbine killers and listening to them would have persuaded them not to commit their heinous crimes. So for as much as Father James listens patiently to the troubles of his congregants, there’s not much he can do. He can administer absolution, sure, but only to the penitent, of which there are few. But now, with a very real target on his back, the time for talk is over: what is he to do?

Calvary winds through Father James’ (final?) week with that question in mind. It’s Gleeson’s charisma as an actor that keeps things steady throughout this tumultuous journey. Gleeson teems with soulful presence and hard-won wisdom. This differs greatly from his role as Sgt. Boyle in The Guard (also directed by McDonaugh) yet still retains a similar good-heartedness. McDonaugh brings the celestial themes of sin, sacrifice, and redemption back down to earth in this darkly comic story, in a community that really could be anyone’s. It’s a welcome relief from the spate of sterile, overtly “Christian” films that proselytize more than ponder, that make good sermons but usually not good art. Calvary is good art because it isn’t sterile; it’s not afraid to get dirty, to search for truth and beauty in the muck of faith on earth. With life and death as the stakes, Calvary’s search is on indeed.

Dorothy Day And The Noah Way

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A passage early on in Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own popped out when I first read it and stuck with me as I watched Darren Aronofsky’s remarkable Noah. 

Elie’s book chronicles the intersecting lives and spiritual journeys of four influential Catholic writers: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. I’m still working my way through it, but from the get-go I was hooked by Elie’s weaving narrative of literature, faith, and pilgrimage in the lives of these four exceptional figures. The passage that stood out to me described a moment in Dorothy Day’s bohemian days in New York City as a young socialist and hard partier. She was returning home at dawn from another booze-soaked bacchanalia when she felt inspired to stop at St. Joseph’s Church for the 5 a.m. Mass:

She knelt in a pew near the back and collected her thoughts. She was twenty-one years old. All her life she had been haunted by God. God was behind her. God loomed before her. Now she felt hounded toward Him, as though toward home; now she longed for an end to the wavering life in which she was caught. …

For the time being, she began to pray. “Perhaps I asked even then, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.'” Perhaps she told herself, kneeling there, that “I would have to stop to think, to question my own position: ‘What is man that Thou art mindful of him, O Lord?’ What were we here for, what were we doing, what was the meaning of our lives?”

I wonder now if Aronofsky read this book while working on Noah, because the same thoughts that haunted Day also haunt Aronofsky’s Noah. Except the God that Dorothy Day sought and implored and felt haunted by was not the same God that Noah knew. God is known in the film as The Creator, the celestial deity that everyone in this ancient time knew to be the creator of the world and everything in it. The Creator is everywhere and is in everything. (“God was behind her. God loomed before her.”) And this Creator haunts Noah: with dreams of a great flood; with preternatural visions showing the weight of sin on the world; and with an overwhelming mandate from above to carry out justice on the wicked.

How Noah and his family deal with this is one of the key threads of this film, a miracle of a movie. I call it a miracle not to discount the massive amount of creative work put in by Aronofsky and his team to get it on the screen, nor to minimize the miraculous works from scripture depicted in the film; it’s a miracle because it’s good.

Again, I’m not discrediting Aronofky’s directorial prowess. The opposite, in fact. Christian movies (rather, movies made by Christians with explicit Christian messages marketed chiefly to Christian audiences) just aren’t that good. They too often focus on the transmitting the message (or The Message) instead of making good art. But great films can do both well without sacrificing either. Films like Noah and The Tree of Life and Short Term 12 and Ikiru and Into Great Silence and Winter Light and so many others aren’t worried about whether viewers “get” the message. They are art. They are beautifully created, and they are OK with asking questions and not hearing back about them. They ought to haunt you as they are haunted, by something deeper and bigger than themselves.

I’m grateful to Aronofsky for rendering this story for the screen with such theological savvy and care for craft. Noah isn’t perfect, but neither was Noah. Yet the Creator used him anyway. And why that is haunts me.

Electrick Children

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And you’ll see the glitter of crashing cymbals
and you’ll hear the thunder of rolling drums
and the shimmer of trumpets.
Ta-ta-ta!
And you’ll feel something akin to the electric thrill
I once enjoyed.
— “Seventy Six Trombones” from The Music Man

How does God speak? Through nature, according to the book of Job. Through Jesus and a holy spirit, says the New Testament. But ask Rachel, a teenaged fundamentalist Mormon who believes she has experienced an immaculate conception in Rebecca Thomas’ 2012 film Electrick Children, and she would tell you God spoke to her through a song.

On a rustic Utah compound, Rachel, dressed in plain Amish-type clothing, lives simply and dutifully within her Mormon sect’s rigid culture. On the day she undergoes “ecclesiastical interview” by her pious father that is documented on a tape recorder, the existence of which she only then learned. The device is intriguing and mysterious, but according to her pious father, “can be used for evil” and must be guarded only by those who can be trusted. But when Rachel can’t shake the allure of this (to her) new thing, she does what many teenagers do when confronted with the forbidden fruit: she breaks the rules. Picking out a cassette seemingly at random, she sneaks a listen of The Nerves’ 1976 song “Hanging On the Telephone” (covered by Flowers Forever) and is immediately transfixed. It’s like lightning through her body, an electric thrill that fills her with a spirit she hasn’t known before.

Weeks later, her thoughts (via narration) are told as if recorded onto a tape. “A few weeks ago, I experienced a miracle. An angelic voice came unto me and when I heard it, I was troubled… The only voice I heard was from a song on a tape. Could it be that he did this to me? This wonderful blessing of heavenly light. The voice that sang those words, wonder and spirit; Don’t leave me haaaaaaaaaangin’ on the teeeeelephone. Is he the one who felled me with this Jesus baby?” Juxtaposed with a telling of the story of Mary’s virgin birth, Rachel’s symptoms of pregnancy allude to a possibility too confounding to believe.

But it’s a possibility that her father does not believe, which leads Rachel to flee from an arranged shotgun wedding out into Las Vegas, the wilderness of civilization to her. “I travel beyond the walls of a home I cannot again call my home, in search of the father of my holy child — the man who sings on the cassette tape.” Static clogs her thoughts as she enters the unknown land. She’s on a quest and, though her zealous brother Will follows her in search of a confession of Rachel’s sins, she’s on her own.

The theme of encounter continues along Rachel’s journey. She meets a ragamuffin skater rebel, Clyde, who must have experienced the same electric thrill in Rachel as she did in the tape, for he becomes her shepherd even though he himself is a lost sheep. Later on she even finds the source of the voice on the tape, in an encounter that adds new light to her search for the father.

Spirit is alive in this story’s searchings. Rachel, Will, and Clyde all seek an encounter and a resolution to the dissonant tones clouding their minds. They are infused with an unnamable aura compelling them to act: Rachel, to find a (or is it The?) father; Will, to find atonement for (or escape from) sin; Clyde, to find reconciliation with his family and purpose for his connection with Rachel.

Electrick Children tells this nuanced fable with visual snap and a serene flow. Thomas, who also wrote the script, demonstrates care for the characters and respect for the wide-eyed searching that Rachel undergoes. This is a film not about where a journey ends but about how and where it begins. And the how and the where for Rachel’s odyssey happen to be the same electric thrill of encounter with a simple cassette tape. From there her quest, and that of the other wandering souls, is merely a response to the voice’s exhortation: Don’t leave me haaaaaaaaaangin’ on the teeeeelephone. 

The Purple Rose of Heaven

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Just read this in the peroration of N.D. Wilson’s (magnificent, challenging, tempestuous) Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl:

If the Maker of the world were to descend to earth, how would you expect him? If you heard that the Infinite, the Spirit Creator was entering into His own Art, wouldn’t you look to the clouds? Wouldn’t you look to the cherubim in their storms; wouldn’t you expect a tornado chariot?

There really must be meaning in the universe, because I read this passage the morning after watching Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, which asks similar questions N.D. Wilson does. Cecilia, the downtrodden waitress in Depression-era New Jersey with a tool of a husband, goes to see the film-within-a-film The Purple Rose of Cairo so many times that the character of Tom Baxter, the wide-eyed archaeologist, feels compelled to call out to her in the midst of the movie. Tom is so transfixed on Cecilia that he breaks through the screen into the real world and runs away with her.

Tom isn’t the creator (or the Creator) in the story here, but he is the infinite made finite. The eternal, the Art, come down to earth. Not by a cherubim storm or tornado chariot, but by a brave step into another dimension. Cecilia is astonished. All those times she came to the theater alone to watch the film for hope or escape, they are now dwarfed by the source of her hope made tangible before her eyes. Looking at the screen was her way of not looking at the ground, but now, in a way, she gets to look at the clouds.

Alas, the dream would just be a dream, seemingly over as quick as it started. The entr’acte cannot last forever, for the show must go on. The art must return to its frame, and the viewer to her life. But the film’s bittersweet resolution doesn’t negate Cecilia’s soulful resurgence. She watches Fred croon to Ginger: Heaven… I’m in heaven.

Fade to black. Next showing in twenty minutes.

In Heavenly Peace

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7 NIV)

Paul beckons us to present with thanksgiving our requests to God. But he doesn’t say that by doing that those requests will be granted. The only thing Paul says we’re going to get for sure is the peace that comes from trusting that one’s desires are being heard. At that moment, whether they are eventually fulfilled isn’t the point.

And why is this holy peace called upon to guard our hearts and minds in the first place? We need only look back at the beginning of the passage. The anxiety Paul refers to, and that we all feel, is often the impetus for praying at all (at least for me). I worry, therefore I pray. Paul, and the savior he speaks on behalf of, knows that prayer contains multitudes more uses than that, but I think he gives us a pass here. He knows how hard it is to send requests to the stars without knowing if or when you’ll hear back.

Job hunters can sympathize well. When I click “Submit” on a job application, I have surrendered control over that process and am now at the mercy of someone else’s divine judgment. I worry my application for a job I’d be great at won’t even make it out of the résumé-infested swamp of the hiring manager’s inbox. I worry I’ll never stop hearing an assembly line of “no”s. I worry I’ll never get a great job again, that I’m doomed to endless days as a grocery store clerk or professional SimplyHired stalker.

But this peace offered by the Comforter is tailor-made for worriers of all kinds. No matter what compels someone to pray, God has the same reply: Message received. Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.

Gives new meaning to “sleep in heavenly peace.”

The God Of Freedom

Andrew Sullivan highlighted this post by a woman named Rachael, the daughter of Matt Slick, the founder of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM). Rachael is now an atheist, largely in response to what (at least according to her post) was a spiritually abusive upbringing at the hands of her fundamentalist father.

To sum up: For a long time, Rachael was the “perfect” Christian child. She memorized Bible verses, passionately debated esoteric theological principles, and even “spouted off” religious arguments in college philosophy classes. She was so certain of her beliefs and took solace in the strength of her intellectual prowess. But soon the arguments she would make turned into questions of her own. The one that particularly stood out: “If God was absolutely moral, and if the nature of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ surpassed space, time, and existence, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?” She concluded that there wasn’t an answer for this:

Everyone had always explained this problem away using the principle that Jesus’ sacrifice meant we wouldn’t have to follow those ancient laws. 
But that wasn’t an answer. In fact, by the very nature of the problem, there was no possible answer that would align with Christianity.
 [Emphasis hers.]

She felt a “vast chasm” opening up in her identity, hearing a voice that said The Bible is not infallible. If it’s not infallible, you’ve been basing your life’s beliefs on the oral traditions of a Middle Eastern tribe. The Bible lied to you. “

I was no longer a Christian,” she said.

I recount her story here because I think it’s important to see how Rachael has jumped from one religious extreme to another without considering that there’s a middle ground. I’m blessed to have been reared in a positive, spiritually loving Christian home, so I can only imagine how difficult it was for Rachael to have endured such a destructive and rigid environment, and then to have her long-held and cherished assumptions smashed. In that context, I can understand why she has swung so strongly to the opposite end of the spiritual spectrum.

But I don’t think Rachael ever understood the crux of Christianity. She certainly understood it intellectually (or at least her father’s version of it), but by being so thoroughly fixated on the word of the law she seems to have ignored its spirit and its embodiment in Jesus. Reason was her idol, her “summum bonum identity” that was so easily destroyed when it came under attack.

But she has a new idol now. When asked whether she would have traded her childhood for another, Rachael said she wouldn’t:

Without that childhood, I wouldn’t understand what freedom truly is — freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure. Nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life has been so breathtakingly beautiful. 

Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.

This is ridiculous. Again: she has an understandably emotional aversion to the concepts of obedience, purity, and God. To her, obedience equals blindly following orders; purity equals punishing oneself for one’s humanity; and God equals a distant deity. But God is not the one who has lied about these things, and worshipping freedom is just as destructive as worshipping religion. Lord knows we Americans love to worship the god of freedom, but that also means we’re enslaved to it. We must have our guns, sugary drinks, money, land, power, sex, and so many other desirable but worthless things. We’re so subject to our whims and selfish desires that anyone trying to fight against them — a politician, pastor, or Jesus himself — is shouted down and has the Constitution thrown in his face.

I believe in freedom just as I believe in beauty, love, grace, joy, and many other blessed things in this world, but I don’t want to be enslaved to them. Only when used in tandem with obedience to their creator can they be fully realized. Since she barely mentioned Jesus in her article, I’m guessing this is why Rachael has such a perverted view of Christianity. Good things alone will never satisfy without the will to obedience towards Jesus. This true obedience — not the abusive, authoritarian kind of obedience so many erstwhile Christians like Rachael have unfortunately endured — gives us the freedom to rely upon something bigger than our fractured selves.

Despite becoming an atheist (and kind of a smug one at that), Rachael is no less religious than when she was a kid. Now, instead of worshipping words, she’s worshipping the god of her own volition. That probably feels better for her than what she had before, but it’s just as misguided.

Let Me Die Trying Something New

My cousin recently posted a quote from my Uncle Steve, who died of cancer in 2001. He was writing to a friend with whom it appears he was discussing the future and the stress of the unknown. I’ll let the quote speak for itself:

I appreciate the struggle about the future. Just a few thoughts that may give you a sense of how I think about such things. The following Bible verse Proverbs 16:9 tells me I can relax about that and take risks in planning my future: ‘For the mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.’ I think this verse tells me that God gives me the option to plan to do the things I want, and then God interacts with my plans to accomplish his sovereign purpose. For that reason I may never know if my plans are ‘right’ until after the fact. I have principles, not a road map. Walking by faith means not seeing the ‘rightness’ of my plans, but believing that God is guiding it. That enables me to take more risks, try more new things, explore, dream, and pursue the ‘off the course’ course. Because I am increasingly convinced in the gracious purpose of God for me, and that God has given me the ‘go ahead’ to use my faculties to make choices, it helps me relax about the choices…

…Admittedly, not knowing the outcome of my plans can create stress. It takes a great deal of courage to grab the reigns of life and ride off into the wilderness, to live in the chaos of the uncertain. But I would rather live in the stress of uncharted seas in the cause of exploring and living, than in the tepid, stale waters of the charted, programmed life. Let me die trying something new. None of my choices are ever wasted.

– Steven E. Huhta (September 28, 1997)

The Summum Bonum Identity

Someone on the Internet once said something to the effect of: “I’m not a writer; I write.” Writing, for example, is something you do, but it’s not who you are. You might really love writing and consider it integral to your life, but it isn’t your very essence–at least, it shouldn’t be.

I’m re-reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. In a section about the social consequences of sin, Keller argues that when societies and individuals cling too strongly to any belief or entity other than God, that ultimately broken belief will become the essence of their identity and will let them down. He quotes Jonathan Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue, which argues that a human society fragments when anything but God is its highest love: “If our ultimate goal in life is our own individual happiness,” Keller summarizes Edwards, “then we will put our own economic and power interests ahead of those of others. Only if God is our summum bonum, our ultimate good and life center, will we find our heart drawn out not only to people of all families, races, and classes, but to the whole world in general.”

The question then becomes: What is your summum bonum? What is your utmost identity? Our recently endured presidential election season provided ample proof that many people cling so tightly to their political views that it basically becomes who they are instead of merely what they believe. When that happens, civil discourse becomes impossible and anything approaching compromise is deemed impure and even cowardly. Keller sees the problem with this: “If we get our very identity, our sense of worth, from our political position, then politics is not really about politics, it is about us. Through our cause we are getting a self, our worth. That means we must despise and demonize the opposition.”

I think it’s especially easy for religious people to fall into this trap, despite good intentions. It understandably becomes hard not to transfer the ardent passion attached to a deep-seeded belief in God or whomever onto other less divine issues. But as Stephen Colbert said, the road connecting politics and religion runs both ways; if we insist on forcing our religious identity into our politics, our muddied and corrupt politics will come right back into our religion.

Walt Whitman was right: I contain multitudes. I act as a son, brother, friend, significant other; I study, I write, I read, I work, I create… I identify with all of these roles, but any one of them doesn’t define me because I don’t rely on one to give my life meaning. I can argue with people who disagree with my views on politics or music or religion because my views aren’t me. They’re just the tools I use to try to make sense of life. They can be beautiful, inspiring, enraging, or intriguing–but they can’t be everything.