Doubt and Disbelief

I saw a brave and beautiful thing yesterday.  Hundreds of people had gathered to hear good news and, in his turn, a young musician stood to deliver it…but he could not.  Instead, he admitted feelings of doubt and profound sadness.  I squirmed in my seat, having learned how to conceal my own intervals of doubt and sadness, at least in church.  After his disclosure, the musician performed a song he had written about the struggle of life, a song which expressed his intention to obey the instruction to “be still, and know that I am God”.

When I stopped squirming I realized that this is really the test, isn’t it?  If faith is more than self-hypnosis, if church is more than group-hallucination, then periods of doubt are reasonable and telling.  If God wanted to prevent doubt, he could.  But he leaves us this fissure to leap; he often remains behind the veil of plausible deniability.  As Christ in humility allowed himself to be crucified in the flesh, God in humility allows himself to be debunked by the intellect.  This is not to say that the evidence is ambiguous but that our intellect is weak; evidence is easily evaded and forgotten and – at times – truly lost in the dust storms of life.

But there is a world of difference between doubt and disbelief.  The young man I am here honoring follows in the tradition of Job and David, grieving his sense of disconnection, bringing his complaint (if I may call it that) to the one who must answer him, if anyone will.  Doubt holds the evidence in both hands, for and against, weighs it honestly, prays for clarity, endures the uncertainty.  Disbelief chooses to empty one hand, simply discarding evidence that is incompatible with the chosen path.

Disbelief is easy.  Doubt hurts.

I love our church, and hearing of this man’s honest struggle and witnessing the acceptance and encouragement he received may help me to move beyond my squirming and even my pretension of spiritual health.  I love, too, that the church deals patiently with our struggling, not as though our doubts could somehow injure the object of our faith.  Doubt a fairy tale and it disappears.  Doubt a rhinoceros at your own risk; you certainly will not diminish his reality.

Our faith creates nothing, but it connects us to realities beyond our grasp.  It is for this connection that we were created, and so precious to our Creator that he refuses to force it upon us.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you…

Psalm 139

Art and Celebrity

There is great beauty in this world and much of our joy arises from it.  Some of it we experience directly but much reaches us through the senses of other people who have the ability to distill their experience into art. 
Christianity says that beauty is a clue, a residue of God’s creative genius that has survived our rebellion against him.  We are surrounded by faint echoes of Eden.  Art, then, is an echo, a memory from another world.  For art to succeed, it must awaken our own memory, though we may not remember quite what it is that we are remembering.  Successful art produces the pain of homesickness, a disease more precious and wholesome than health. 
It is our longing for that distant, mostly forgotten place which gives art its power.  It is our desire to remain in this safe and familiar place that gives art its temptation because, while the task of art is to awaken longing and deepen our awareness of the mystery around us, we, the consumers of art, often prefer light comedy.  We enter (and exit) the passionate joy or sorrow of a skilled musician with the press of a button.  We wish to be transported from our pedestrian routine by the beauty or heroism of an actor on the television screen, which is to say that we wish to be transported without the inconvenience of moving.
And so we long, weakly, for truth and beauty and, more forcefully, for entertainment.  The dual nature of our desire gives rise to the Celebrity; the performer who has learned how to exploit beauty to his own ends by giving us what we want.  He may be a politician or a beauty queen; the art form does not matter because he is selling oblivion, not art.
My pastor is teaching about the events recorded in Acts 14, where the apostle Paul did a miraculous thing.  He saw a man listening intently to his public speech about Jesus, saw that the man “had faith to be healed” and so he healed him.  The rest of the crowd was astounded and immediately anointed him a celebrity.  “The gods have come down to us in human form!”, they shouted.  What a relief!  No more terrifying religious doubts: the gods had appeared in manageable form, validating their practices and requiring no further accommodation.
Paul had achieved stardom, an elevated state that continued until his apparent death…about fifteen minutes later.  He fell from grace by refuting the concept of celebrity.  “Why are you doing this?”, he said, “We too are only men, human like you”.  He tried to turn their attention from himself to what was true and beautiful, “to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them”, a loving God who “has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy”.  For this, he was enthusiastically (but incompetently) murdered, a decision which made sense at the time.  It is, after all, easy to appease a human celebrity who, by definition, is in the business of appeasing you, but something else entirely to acknowledge your debt to the founder of the cosmos.
The “good news” of Paul and every true artist is that there is something odd about this place, something more than meets the eye.  It is both too beautiful and too terrible to stand alone in the universe.  We are surrounded by faint echoes of Eden, and each echo began with a voice.   This is a fact of great beauty and also of deep, frightening wonder, like standing on the very edge of the Grand Canyon.  Behind the echo is a voice and it is not speaking to humanity, it is speaking to you.

My Fast from Church

I have fasted before.  The discomfort begins in my middle, works its way up to my head.  The thing I lack soon dominates my thoughts.  I learn more about the thing – and my relationship to it – in its absence than I did in its presence.  This fast was a little different.  I abstained from church, of all things. 
This alone is not remarkable, and may seem a small sacrifice, indeed.  Church has been many things to me over the years, but rarely something for which my spirit longed, as the poor fellow in the middle of a fast longs for beef and potatoes.  If you go to church you may know what I mean.  Like any human institution, churches grow habits and symbols and patterns of speech.  They become more and more themselves as time goes by.  Growing up in the church I learned by osmosis our mutual understanding of hair styles and neckties and tattoos, and a hundred other symbols.  Without overt instruction I learned how to speak in a code that signaled my adherence to the church’s world view.  If this sounds like criticism I assure you that it is not; churches try – as loving parents try – to build a shared understanding of the world and a safe haven for their message and members.
The problem is that the church’s culture – a layer intended to protect the message – may grow translucent, if not opaque and can easily obscure the message.  Perhaps it was easier for the apostles; the scandal of Jesus’ teaching, his adoration of anyone who would come, his fierce opposition to opaque religious practices; all this offered a stark contrast and clear decision.  No one chose the church; they merely entered the church because they chose Jesus.
I did not exactly choose this fast.  The church I attend tries to keep its layer of culture very thin and clear, that those who come will see through it to Jesus.  That it often succeeds in this is demonstrated by growing crowds who come, perhaps to meet Jesus, perhaps only to bask in the joy of those love him.  So many come that the church is nearly full and, to make more room, some regulars attend services on another day.  For me, for several weeks, this was not possible and, thus, my fast.
For years I would have said, “I have the Bible, I have prayer, and this is enough” but I have noticed that I, too, have developed my own culture, a mottled layer of personality and preference that often insulates me from Christ, often prevents him from being seen through me.  
Perhaps the best part of getting older is a growing certainty that I do not want to become more and more myself.  I have tried that and know well – a knowledge made clear again during this fast – the poverty of my own soul, a selfishness that often prevents me from imitating Christ when I am alone, sometimes even from seeing him clearly when I am alone.  But, then, it was not his intention for man to be alone.
I choose Jesus and so I enter the church.  Sometimes I come with a full heart, anxious to thank him, ready to give.  Sometimes  I come empty, to bask in the joy of others who love him, to be softened and healed, to be fed and freed from the prison of self.
I am thankful for the Church and especially for my church, a human institution to be sure, but one that tries so hard not to obscure the message, that all who enter may clearly see the beauty of Christ and hear him say “Come!”.

Thoughts about Rob Bell’s comments on the Bible

I have just read a discussion about the Bible that deserves a better response than I can provide.  The author of the discussion, Rob Bell, has achieved some notoriety, largely for his idea of what the Bible is not.  He does not think it helpful to ask if the book is true or divinely inspired.  Rather, as he says,  “When you read the Bible, then, you are reading an unfolding narrative that reflects growing and expanding human consciousness”.

I think this is a common view outside of the church, though Mr. Bell communicates it with uncommon capability, and from inside the church.   His skill and cultural sensitivity has attracted a large audience to his thoughts about Christianity and, while there may be much good in this, his argument that the Bible is an important – if not necessarily truthful – book reminds me of those who say that Jesus was a good – if not necessarily divine – man.

The problem is that, like Jesus, the Bible claims for itself an embarrassing level of authority.  Jesus said that he was God; that he could forgive sins, that no one could reach God without him.  Such claims are either crazy or deceitful or…true.  As C. S. Lewis said of Jesus, “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.”

Likewise, the Bible, which speaks with uncompromising moral authority and claims definite knowledge of God’s thoughts and intentions.  It is absolutely tone-deaf to our modern sensibilities.  You can revile it as a work of human posturing or revere it as God’s self-revelation.  Make your choice but do not speak of it as merely a good or important book; God has not left that option open to us.  He did not intend to.

Or so I thought.  But Mr. Bell recommends a middle ground; a view of the Bible that is well suited to a culture steeped in Darwinian mythology.  In his opinion, the primary characteristic of the Bible is humanity; of authors whose inspiration may or may not have been divine, whose words may or may not be true, whose message developed over time.  Indeed, Mr. Bell is not a materialist; God is in there, somewhere, mysteriously superintending the spiritual evolution of the race.  He is somewhere  behind the scenes in the Bible, too, though its human authors sometimes distort his image.  (Most often, it seems, in those parts of the Bible which our culture finds most offensive).

I do not fully understand Mr. Bell’s position and, in any case, I am not qualified to criticize it.  I mention his teaching because it raises what seems to me the critical question: Can it work?  If we could reasonably explain away every incredible story, every offensive word in the Bible, would it help people draw near to God?

Take, for example, the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale, which seems – I grant – a highly unusual turn of events.  If you think that the whale found this whole thing hard to swallow, just imagine the modern reader…  Why does such a story turn people away?  The obvious answer is that, in our experience, people who enter fish don’t come out in one piece.  Our disbelief, we think, is reasonable; a product of our experience.

But another, less obvious answer also deserves consideration.  What if the tables have somehow been turned; that what we record as experience is actually colored or filtered by our disbelief?  We might argue that, because of his presuppositions, the modern reader has given little thought to the world he lives in, to even the body that he lives in.  Perhaps he is less qualified than he thinks to measure the story’s plausibility.

Is it a greater miracle that a whale should swallow a man, or that such an unlikely creature as a whale should exist at all?  Is it a greater wonder that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale or that the reader has spent 270 days in the belly of a giantess?  Very likely, the reader has somehow forgotten that fact or – more to the point – he has forgotten the wonder of it.

He lives in a world perishing for lack of wonder.  He moves through it with eyes cast down, focused on what is man-made and man-sized, like a child barely aware of the wider world beyond his sandbox.  He thinks the cell phone in his pocket is a miracle and the intricate dance of the solar system a monotonous routine.

He thinks he knows the difference between the natural and the supernatural, but he is mistaken.  He thinks that if something happens once it is a miracle; if it happens a thousand times it is not.  He thinks that the repetition of something marvelous removes the marvel and cancels the need for explanation or gratitude or reflection.  He is surrounded by wonders that he has lost the ability to see.  He is asleep.

We should not, I think, pare away uncomfortable passages in the Bible to make it somehow fit within our modern enchantment.  It is God’s book.  It says what he wanted it to say.  Far better that we recognize the Bible (whether we regard it with suspicion or with gratitude) as a strange message, alien to this world… a message strange enough to break the spell and strong enough to set us free.

A Dream

Man, did I have a strange dream last night.  I seemed to be on the sofa, watching TV as the evening news began and the announcer said something like this…

“…Many in the nation were surprised today by a Supreme Court ruling that the celebration of ‘Christmas’ is a ritual of the largely discredited Christian religion and thus disqualified from public display.  In his response to the ruling, the President stated ‘As this nation emerged – slowly and painfully – from the deeply rooted practice of slavery, so we will survive the turmoil that arises from this painful but necessary decision.  Christian intransigence has forced this nation into a clear and unmistakable response.  Those who continue to embrace a dangerous and hurtful tradition that excludes and offends many of our citizens must be confronted.  Those who would raise their children in an atmosphere of mystical thinking and intolerance must be restrained.  For too long, Christians in America have claimed the right to think and say whatever they want by hiding behind a very un-American tradition.  It is time for a change.’”

“The ruling specifically forbids any observation of the ‘Christmas’ ritual in public and lists both visual and audio indicators which will constitute violation, including manger scenes and several familiar songs.  The American winter holiday, Festivus, is not affected by this ruling.  No word yet on implications of the Christmas prohibition upon observations within private homes.”

“In a companion case, the Supreme Court denied an appeal by Phil Robertson, the extremist jailed three years ago for quoting an unpopular Christian scripture during a media session.  The Court found that the FCC regulation violated by Robertson – which has since become the law of the land – did carry the authority to arrest and incarcerate offenders, even though that clause was appended by federal administrators, rather than by Congress.  Responding to this ruling, the President hearkened back to a major theme of his third election campaign: ‘We remain a nation in transition.  For a brief moment in our history, it has been necessary to increase the protective powers of the federal government in order to guarantee the freedoms of our people.’”

“In other news, the Court upheld the conviction of a Michigan man who, according to NSA records, attempted to transmit an email note stating that ‘Government of the people, by the people and for the people is – right now – perishing from the earth.’”…

Suddenly, the dream was shattered by the sound of my alarm.  Imagine my relief to wake up in the real world.