Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Yawning at Tigers by Drew Dyck

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

There is a powerful metaphor near the beginning of Yawning at Tigers. Author, Drew Dyck recounts an experience swimming in a man-made lagoon at a Hawaiian resort. Despite the vast pool of salt water, tropical fish, and picturesque surroundings, something was missing - namely waves, predators, and mystery. He stood on the edge of the lagoon, looking off, towards the "real" ocean and asked, why am I swimming here, when I could be swimming there?

It's a great illustration of his main point in the book - that many Western Christians have so reduced God to a familiar, knowable, tame God that they miss out on the profound, mysterious, miraculous, radical power of the faith they profess.

It's a great idea, but one he could have approached more thoughtfully. In his attempt to express God's might and power as mysterious and beyond our understanding, he re-interprets this big God in a very defined, specific sense - particularly one of wrath and fear. He ridicules Anne Lamott's attempt to imagine an all-powerful, transcendent God beyond religious convention, as well as The Shack's attempt to portray the undefinably power of God in terms of love and relationship.

These seems inadequate and overly domesticated to Dyck specifically because they fail to match his expected understanding of God's power in traditional human terms - the one with the most strength, intimidation, control, etc. It's almost as if he's using traditional Old Testament understandings of God as a lens through which to view Jesus, rather than treating Jesus Christ as the revelation of God.

His expansive vision of God is really far too small to properly illustrate the majesty and mystery he's attempting to present. He fails to differentiate between God's anger towards sin and God's anger towards sinners. There is some implication that the second doesn't exist (that God is, indeed, love), but it's not easy to find. This tactic of introducing a "dangerous" God is just theologically problematic and pedagogically unproductive.

Despite this obvious fault in the opening chapters, the overall critique of contemporary western evangelicalism is spot on. We're often far too content with a generic spirituality of religious habit and miss out on the profoundly world-changing reality of almighty God.

The second half of the book is about the love and immanence of God, but, with a basis in the first half of the book, this argument is weakened. I recognize that much of my critique has to do with his use of a theological perspective with which I disagree. I see no need to give any credence to penal substitution theory or to keep God's transcendence and immanence separate.

In the end, though, it is just theological disagreement, but it does underscore the implications of such disagreement, the logical conclusions of which can be quite divergent. Dyck, in my opinion, missed the chance to disconnect a fear of God from being afraid of God. He seems determined to dance around the CS Lewis-Narnia analogy when claiming it outright might do better for his argument. Aslan is not a tame Lion. The children recognize his potential for danger and destruction, but also his absolute love and justice.

In the same way we can recognize and respect the power of God, without being terrified. That's sort of what makes God God. While Dyck's main point is how expansive and uncontained God really is, his adherence to a logical system of conventional rational theology leads to a more contained God than needs exist. Perhaps, instead of beginning with God for theology, as he claims, Dyck might be better of beginning with Christ, the tangible revelation of God and then moving to illustrate transcendence and immanence; I think he'd end up in a slightly different, more necessary and refreshing place.

In fact, he does get close. With ten pages to go, Yawning at Tigers veers into what can only be described as a truncated "application" section which he calls "peculiar children" and in which he introduces, oh so briefly, the concept of an upside-down kingdom. Pursuing those ends and describing he God who brings such a thing about would be a far better tactic than trying to end there.

Still, this small section alone, helps increase the value of the book. It's worth reading if you're willing to explore, on your own, some of the questions Dyck's particular theological path precludes one from asking. It's certainly valuable to get people thinking about a God bigger than their conceptual boxes, I just hope people will get to thinking beyond even the conceptual framework on this book.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Creation and Responsibility

I don't typically do this, but I'm posting the manuscript form of the sermon I preached Sunday, June 15. I've been thinking a lot about creation and evolution and our response to whatever debate occurs in the evangelical world. I have my own opinions on how things have gone down and why it makes sense to me, but you can find that elsewhere on the blog. Besides, I've been really slacking on posts lately and this is an easy way to do it:

Long ago, when the earth was formless and void, chaos reigned. Tiamat, goddess of chaos, a great sea monster was challenged by Marduk, god of the sun and all light. They wrestled for control and allegiance of all the lesser gods; they fought for power. In the end, Marduk killed Tiamat with an arrow through the heart. He took her corpse and split it in two. With one half he made the earth and with the other, the sky – to separate the waters from the waters.

Marduk then took his place, ruling from on high – shining down on the whole world. He ruled with his supporting gods – the planets, moon, and stars – together they marked times: days, seasons, and years. Finally, Marduk created rain and gave life to the world. But his fellow gods began to complain – ruling the world was too much work, maintaining all these plants and animals was no fun. So Marduk created humans – savages, he called them – charged with service to the gods the gods may be at ease. Humans serve at the beck and call of the gods, bowing to their every whims, forever slaves, constantly trying to remain on Marduk’s good side.

This is the creation story as everyone in Mesopotamia would have known it before the time of Israel. Marduk was the patron god of Babylon; the name would have differed if the story was told in Sumer or Assyria or Canaan, but the story itself remained the same.

It tells a sad story of creation. A world created from violence and selfishness; humans created as reviled slaves of the gods. I don’t doubt that’s how the world seemed to many people. Floods and famines were commonplace; it was difficult to grow crops, build cities, or find grazing land without a fight. The creation story was crafted to reflect their underlying beliefs about the world.

Israel, God’s people, had a different set of beliefs about creation. They used the Marduk story, the language of it anyway, and changed the details around to reflect these different beliefs about God and the world. It’s sort of like the missionary, Don Richardson – you may have heard this story – who was working among the Sawi people in New Guinea. The tribes there often fought, but they had a unique ritual for making peace – the leader of one tribe would give his son to the leader of the enemy tribe as a sign of peace and good faith. Richardson used this analogy to introduce Jesus, the peace child, and explain the gospel in a context the Sawi could understand.

So too, Israel. They took the language of the day – the only creation language anyone knew and transformed it to reflect the truth of God’s work in the world. You notice the beginning of our passage is still a story about the conquering of chaos – but it is non-violent. Chaos is not another god or another person, but an enemy force, like hunger, pain, or death. Creation is the ordering of chaos. You see the same phrases used “formless and void,” “separating the waters from the waters,” but in this story there is no battle, God just does it: creation out of nothing.

In the ancient world, the words for sun, moon, stars, light, etc were also the names of the various gods they represented in culture. Through the Genesis creation story they are depersonalized and domesticated; they are all created things, subject to god. So, too, in verse 21, the odd reference to God creating sea monsters makes more sense when you know about Tiamat – the sea monster goddess of chaos. In Genesis, she has no power, no identity other than as God’s creation.

It can be dangerous to preach on creation these days. Many Christians like to fight tooth and nail over how creation happened – but ‘how’ is not the question any of these creation stories were designed to tell. The ‘how’ is only in service to the ‘why’ and the ‘what.’ Why would God create the world and what does the kind of world God created say about God?

Jesus was never a peace child on the island of New Guinea, but presenting the story that way communicates the truth about God and God’s love and salvation in ways the Sawi people would understand. For Israel, using the language of the time and place in which they lived was the best way to communicate the truth about God and creation to the people who needed to hear it.

Ultimately, the ‘how’ didn’t matter at all to the Israelites or the Babylonians for that matter. They assumed it was impossible to know how the world was created – no one was there to see it. What’s more, I suspect they thought it was impossible to ever know anything about how creation happened. The very fact that today we can look back and even begin to examine the past in such ways would blow their minds. The ‘how’ may be important and interesting to us, but it is not at all a concern of this passage. Our creation statement in the Church of the Nazarene says: “we oppose any Godless interpretations of creation,” which means so long as you believe God did it and it’s consistent with the rest of scripture, you can tell the creation story any way you want.

For us, for the Babylonians, and for the Israelites, the ‘how’ is just not the main question. The real meat of Genesis 1 is the ‘why’ – and especially what the differences between the Babylonian story and the Israelite story say about God.

The first big difference is that God created out of love and with intentionality. Marduk almost seems create the world accidently. He didn’t need the world. Those gods were floating around in space and doing just fine on their own. Creation is an afterthought for him – and what’s more, creation is the result of a violent, bloody war. There is no love in that creation, only hate.

The Israelite creation is an act of care, generosity, and love. We like to say God is love and God is so much love that this love can’t be contained even within God, that love was so overflowing, so bursting forth, that God chose to create the whole universe as a repository for that love. And it wasn’t an accident. Genesis talks of God’s careful crafting of the world – whether that was done in an instant or over billions of years is irrelevant to the main point: God created out love and with intention. In fact, God cares so much about the world that creation itself is given a part to play in its own ongoing development. You see, over and over again: be fruitful and multiply – that’s God letting the world be co-creators; we get to bring forth life.

It’s not in the passage we read today, but God lets the first human being name all the animals – and scripture is careful to point out that whatever the Adam named them was their name. God gave up the right for final say over something pretty important. That’s an example of great love.

It’s also a great introduction to the second major difference between the Babylonian account and the Genesis account: God created with a purpose. That purpose is to reflect God – a God who is entirely selflessness, radically self-giving. Nothing God creates exists for itself. The land is created for the plants, the sea for the fish, the sky for the birds. The plants are created to feed the animals and the humans are created to take care of the whole thing – to make sure God’s creation continues to work in the way God intends. If you look into chapter two a bit you see we were created to serve the Earth, not the other way around.

It’s all about self-giving. God exists only to love and created, not just us, but the whole world to reflect that same purpose. In the Babylonian story the humans are slaves; they are created to serve the gods, so the gods can lounge around by the pool and take it easy. The Genesis story is the opposite of that. God didn’t need creation – in fact, things probably would have been a whole lot easier for God without creation.

It’s sort of like having kids. If you have kids selfishly, to fulfill something missing in you or to make your life better, the whole process will be horrible – they’ll get on your nerves and they’ll constantly be bothering you and you’ll grow to see them as a pain in the neck – the way Marduk viewed the people he made. But if you have children as a means of extending your love, of giving yourself to another, well, they will still get on your nerves and bother you and be a pain in the neck – but it’s worth it because you love them and we’re designed to find fulfillment by giving ourselves away, by loving others with no expectation of return.

God has poured all of who God is into this creation. The universe was made out of deep love and with a purpose. That purpose extends not just to people, but to every last atom of the universe – each and every molecule contributing something for the good of the whole. We humans do have a special assignment, though; we’re specifically tasked with keeping the world on track, making sure each part of God’s creation is free to do what God created it to do. It’s a big responsibility and quite frankly we’ve been horrible at it.

We take the mandate in verse 28 to subdue the earth and rule over it and we interpret it through our own history. When we think of subduing, ruling, we think of kings – of King Tut and Julius Caesar, and Richard the Lionhearted – all strong men who ruled under the threat of violence. You did what they said or you paid the price. We think about ruling in terms of power. When we do that, we miss the whole point of the creation story. Ruling by power is what the Babylonian story teaches us to do. In Genesis, we rule by giving of ourselves, by sacrificing for each other and for creation. We’re not supposed to use our historical, human kings as a model; our example should be the rule of God – a rule expressed most fully in Jesus Christ, who humbled himself to be like us, served selflessly, and died innocently and tragically.

That is the kind of ruling we were created to do. Human beings are tasked with keeping everything in line. When the forest gets too thick or the deer too numerous, we cut them back. Often we’ve taken that responsibility for granted – we use creation to make our lives easier, like Marduk and his friends – rather than sacrificing our desires, our ease, for the good of the whole.

The creation account in Genesis is not about how the world was created; it’s about why the world was created – and what our responsibility is in light of those reasons.

Some of you may know, our family is, for the most part, vegetarian. I came to a real conviction about the way we were eating during a class focusing on this very passage. I was really challenged by our responsibility as God’s superintendents of the world. I did some research into how we treat the animals we eat and I found they’re not often treated like animals, but like products, commodities. We use them, rather than care for them, keeping them in cages and artificially fattening them up. They lack the freedom to roam and do what God created them to do. Cows are meant to be nature’s lawnmower; pigs are the composters. When we rob them of the chance to be what God created them to be, we’re neglecting our responsibility. I’ve come to believe that ease and efficiency are not good enough reasons to act this way.

Now, I’m not saying you all need to stop eating meat (and if we could afford the good, grass-fed, free-range stuff or had access to wild game, we’d probably eat it). I’m also not saying you have to read this passage and come to the same conclusions we have. I am saying we all have to take this chapter seriously. We need to wrestle with the question of what our actions say about the God we serve and the world our God created. The world wasn’t created for us to use as we please; that lie has been going around for far too long and it’s time to put it to rest. We were put here with a purpose – and that purpose is to serve the world, because that’s how we serve God.

This isn’t just an ecology lesson, though. Genesis 1 focuses on non-human creation and so the sermon has too, but the principles here are not just about environmentalism. The way we interact with each other, our fellow human beings, is just as big a part of our purpose in the world. It’s just that most every other sermon we ever hear deals with that stuff, so perhaps just this one time the rest of creation can get its due.

In the end, it’s not about who or what we interact with, but the attitude and perspective from which we act. Are we using our relationships, our abilities, our politics, to make our own lives better or are we sacrificing the pleasures we have and the ease we enjoy in service of others? Sometimes people call this utopian ideal unrealistic, it’s a pipe dream, it’s socialism. I call it a picture of heaven; I call it the Kingdom of God. Guess what? The Kingdom of God takes work.

We chose, each and every day, which creation story we’re living out: the story of Babylon or the story of Genesis. We choose whether to be slaves to our own happiness, our own desire, or to be the superintendents of the world as God created us to be. We are not called to find our own place in the world, but to work – tirelessly, sacrificially, lovingly – so that every part of God’s creation, every person, every thing, can fulfill their purpose and be what God created them to be.

We’re going to close with an old hymn - #77, All Creatures of Our God and King. The lyrics were originally written by Francis of Assisi in 1225. St. Francis is sometimes called the first environmentalist, because he recognized the call of God in this passage and he lived it out – sharing his food with birds and beggars alike. The opening line of the last verse says, “Let all things their Creator bless, and worship him in humbleness.” I hope we’ll pay special attention to those lines today. We are incredibly fortunate to have a God worth blessing, worth worshipping – a God who loves us and gives us purpose, a God who cares not only for the mighty and powerful, but also the lowly and forgotten.

Let us be who we were created to be: people who reflect the image of that loving, awesome God!

Friday, June 06, 2014

Prophetic Imagination

I recognize that we have an almost universal assumption in our culture these days that war is the only option for good to battle evil. It seems we've lost the imagination to see things other than black and white. I am encouraged that some Christians are beginning to reclaim an alternative approach to politics (that is: the way we interact with each other in society) and life. Part of that optimism is the wonderful reception Brian Zahnd's new book, A Farewell to Mars is getting in its first week.

This book tells the story of an evangelical pastor's discovery of a Christian prophetic imagination and his conversion to a deeper, more-profound gospel that takes seriously the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and recognizes the cross as more than just securing heaven for the faithful.

It became every more clear, today, as I opened the newspaper, how much this alternative narrative is needed in our world today. Below is the letter I sent. I was limited to 200 words. I'd love to have said more, but I figured evangelism probably isn't going to help its chances of publication.

To Whom it May Concern:
I have become quite accustomed to the political cartoons you print each day, despite their lack of depth, satire, or wit, and penchant for taking easy shots at low hanging fruit.  The cartoon from June 6th, however, is easily the most careless example to date.

Yes, we all admire the tremendous personal sacrifice and bravery it took to storm the Normandy beaches, knowing full well the odds of failure. And I would not want to detract from the grief and loss of families whose soldier did not return.  However, using a quote from Gandhi, about Jesus Christ is entirely irresponsible.

These two figures form the ancient and modern paradigms of non-violent resistance - the quote used is part of Gandhi's explanation of his non-violent position - to use them in a cartoon glorifying war, no matter how emotional or noble the intentions, is completely inappropriate.

I hope your editors will use more wisdom and discernment in the future.

Ryan Scott

I believe the cross of Christ forever changed the world. Victory and freedom do not come at the end of a fight, but in the life-giving rejection of violence and embrace of love so deep we'd rather die than kill. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We may find it difficult to work out perfectly that ideal in our own lives - and we all make less than ideal choices - but we must never forget the truth and reality of this underlying truth. Even when we fall short of Christ's example, the example remains.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Racism and Prejudice

So there's this Donald Sterling thing happening. If you haven't heard, there's this old, slimy guy who also happens to be the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers professional basketball team, who said some pretty horrible stuff about black people in a secretly recorded private conversation. He's since been essentially stripped of his team (with a ten figure payout), lost his legal sanity, and potentially his will to live.

The guy's been a bad dude for a long time. He's badgered and won and paid off a lot of sexual harassment and racial discrimination suits over the years, but everyone knows he's slimy. He insists he's not a racist.

He does date women of color fifty years his junior. He was among the first NBA owners to employ a black executive. He gives millions and millions of dollars to the NAACP. And, as the old trope goes - he can't be racist because he has black friends.

I wonder if he isn't right.

Do we have far too low a bar for racism these days? I could be wrong and I very likely am, but I always associated racism with a strict hatred for a particular group of people (without exception) based solely on skin color. Under this definition, Donald Sterling may not be a racist. He's certainly a bigot and a jerk and completely prejudiced, but he may not be a racist.

I think the difference between prejudice and racism is where fellow NBA owner, Mark Cuban, was going in some unfortunate comments he made at a conference some weeks ago.

Cuban essentially addressed stereotypes. He talked about avoiding a hoodie-clad black teen when alone at night on a dark street, in the same breath he talked about equally avoiding a white guy with lots of tattoos. He never got around to a point, really, other than to remind us that we've all got impressions of other people based on a lot of factors completely unrelated from their individual identity.

This is prejudice. Literally: judging before.

I don't think its outrageous to say, be a little more intimidated by a big, leather-clad dude of any ethnicity than you would be by a gray-haired lady. We really can't control the judgment calls our brain makes in any given moment. This is what Cuban was talking about. Some people just seem scarier - sometimes because of choices they've made, other times through no fault of their own. I imagine this cognitive assessment is part of our evolutionary DNA; it's important for us to spot and evaluate potential threats.

What Cuban didn't mention, though, is that we do have a choice. We do not have to operate on instinct, no matter how deeply embedded in our DNA it might be. We should be evaluating such input and choose to respond with some sense of rationality. I don't have to assume every black man I see on a dark street is a threat and I certainly don't have to act like it.

Now, I imagine a lot of people, through rational thought, will still choose to avoid some people and make themselves close to others based on stereotypes. In fact, I think we likely all will do this. Even if we're open, trusting people, there is some line at which we decide it's not worth the risk to investigate.

Donald Sterling's line is very short. In fact it's miles shorter than is even socially acceptable in our society. His prejudice is outrageous in its ignorance. He certainly deserves whatever consequences come his way. I have no doubt Donald Sterling likes some black people. He probably likes some Hispanic people and some Asian people - his real problem, though, is assuming the ones he likes are the exception to the ignorant, unfounded stereotypical conclusions he's come to about people who look different from him.

That's the rub, though, isn't it? Racist is a strong word, probably overused - but when we do use it, we can separate ourselves from "the other," the bad guy, them. We an use racism as a wall to prevent any inspection of our own prejudices. Prejudice is a much more malleable term, and one that likely cuts deep.

Yes, Donald Sterling is a sad, comically-extreme example of prejudice, but he's an example nonetheless. I don't know how often I meet someone and assume my stereotypical perception of them is correct until proven otherwise, but I know its not zero.

What's more, even when I avoid making generalizations about people, they still form over time. My perceptions of blind people are likely colored by the blind people I know and interact with - whether that experience is indicative of the whole or normative for blind people at all. Past experience is no guarantee of future reality. I am no more likely to meet an Hispanic woman who matches my expectations because I've known other Hispanic women than I am if I knew none.

People are people and people are different, unique, individual. Yes, we often resemble each other in appearance or habit or personality. There are commonalities and generalizations to make. I'm not sure it even matters if those stereotypes pop into our heads - so long as they don't determine our actions.

In the end, though, prejudice is challenged by meeting new and different people.

Donald Sterling has met some black people he likes - I'm sure he's got a list of them if you'd ask him to name some. To him, those people march against his prejudice and stereotypes. I imagine, though, if his life, friendships, and sample size were much bigger, if he actively sought to include more people on color in his life, he'd recognize the immaturity of his views.

Relationship matters.

It was real easy to be racist in 16th century Europe. Black people were mostly five thousand miles away and if you saw one, it was likely from a great distance. As those of different skin colors were integrated into the same society (albeit on far different social positions) it became more difficult to simply apply a racist line across the board. It's impossible to believe all black people have inferior brains when the guy who drives your carriage clearly possesses a cunning mind; you must reassess your notion (perhaps most, not all, are intellectually challenged). As the process continues so does the reassessment - until you reach a point where the diversity of any one group becomes too obvious and immense to draw specific generalizations at all.

I suspect this Donald Sterling thing is a wake up call to many people in a variety of ways. I hope, at the very least, we give the universality of this problem enough respect to allow it to address the prejudice in our own lives - that we take the opportunity to examine those areas where stereotypes dominate our thought and action - and give us impetus to make changes.

One of the unique features of humanity is that we're not trapped by our own evolution. We do not have to run on instinct. We can intellectually analyze our responses and act against them. By all means, let's condemn Donald Sterling and his terrible examples of prejudice, but, please, let's not stop there. Allow the light to be turned on ourselves and let's be the better for it.