Thursday, February 26, 2015

C.S. Lewis VS Rob Bell

(With apologies to chapter 5 of The Great Divorce.)

The year is the distant future, and an elderly Rob Bell (who has aged masterfully well) is sitting in his study, finishing his latest manuscript, when he is startled by the materialized spirit of C.S. Lewis.

Bell: My dear sir! What are you doing here?

Lewis: I was sent to you, my friend. Your time is soon, and I have been commissioned to aid in your last rites. A bit of a jump start, as it were.

Bell: Well isn't that fascinating! I never would have guessed such a thing, though why not? All things are possible, you now.

Lewis: (grins) All except the impossible, friend.

Bell: Ah, sir. It's charming to see you still being a stickler for rigid categories. Reminds me of when I used to read your books. I suppose you've changed your views a bit since then. You became rather narrow-minded around middle-age, but I suspected death would broadened you back out.

Lewis: How do you mean?

Bell: Well, it's obvious to you by now, isn't it, that you weren't quite right. Why, my dear sir, you actually believed in a literal Heaven and Hell! (laughs humorously)

Lewis: But wasn't I right?

Bell: Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure. I still believe in them in that way. I am still, good sir, looking for the Kingdom, but nothing fundamentalist or outdated....

Lewis: Excuse me, my friend. Where do you imagine I've been?

Bell: Why, right here! In a higher dimension, perhaps, but under God's endless hope of morning and empowerment, with its field for indefinite progress and human aggrandizement. That is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we had eyes to see it. It is a beautiful idea. (looks expectantly) Have you, perhaps, been sent to tell me as such.

Lewis: I have been sent to give you a jump start on your last rites.

Bell: Ah! Right. Well, go on, good sir, go on. What have I to confess first?

Lewis: Well, your heresies for starters.

Bell: (taken back) Are you serious, sir?

Lewis: Perfectly.

Bell: You really think people are penalized for their honest opinions? Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken?

Lewis: Do you really think there are no sins of the intellect?

Bell: There are indeed, good sir. There is hide-bound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed---they are not sins.

Lewis: I know you like to talk that way. So did I until my middle-age when I became what you call narrow. But it all turns on what are honest opinions.

Bell: Mine certainly were. They were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. For example, when the doctrine of Hell ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I wrote my famous book. I defied the whole of evangelicalism. I took every risk.

Lewis: What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came---popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and a loyal following?

Bell: (offended) What are you suggesting?

Lewis: Friend I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Let us be frank. Your opinions were not honestly come by. You simply found yourself in contact with a certain current of contemporary ideas and plunged into them because it seemed relevant and fashionable. When did you put up one moment's resistance to your loss of orthodox beliefs?

Bell: If this is meant to be a sketch of the genesis of liberal theology in general, I reply that it is mere libel. Do you suggest that men like....

Lewis: I have nothing to do with generality. Nor with any man but you and me. Oh, as you love your own soul, consider! You know you were playing with loaded dice: you didn't want the other side to be true. You were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule in front of Oprah and any number of secular idols, afraid of real spiritual fears and hopes.

Bell: I'll admit I needed to step out of the limelight for a while, which I did. And I'll gladly admit that men can make mistakes, and that they may well be influenced by current fashions of thought. But it's not a question of how my opinions were formed. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed.

Lewis: They were sincere in the sense that they did occur as psychological events in your mind. If that's what you mean by sincerity, then they were sincere. So were mine, in my younger days. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.

Bell: (scoffs) Such intolerance. You'll be justifying the Inquisition any moment!

Lewis: Why? Because the Middle Ages supposedly erred in one direction, does it follow that there is no error in the opposite direction?

Bell: Well now...I hadn't looked at it that way before. (considers, then chuckles) My dear sir, I apologize. Is not this disagreement verging on mudslinging? I am a Christ-follower, like you. I am a believer, like you. We may not by perfectly agreed, but you have completely misjudged me if you do not realize that my religion is a very real and a very precious thing to me. (leans forward) I simply believe in a religion of certain guarantees, certain assurances about the next life: a wider sphere of usefulness, and further scope for the talents God has given me to flourish, and an atmosphere of free inquiry! In short, all that is truly meant by a civilized, contemporary spiritual life. Can you not, from your exalted perspective, confirm these things for me?

Lewis: No. I can promise you none of these things, for you or anyone else. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them and restoration to what they ought to have been. No atmosphere of inquiry, for you shall be brought not to the land of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.

Bell: Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me, there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? "Prove all things." The journey is more important than the destination. To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.

Lewis: If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.

Bell: But you must feel yourself that there is something stifling about the idea of finality? Stagnation, dear sir, what is more soul-destroying than stagnation?

Lewis: You think that way because you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I have been where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.

Bell: Well, really, you know, I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will I still have the free play of Mind, good sir? I must insist on that, you know.

Lewis: Free, as a man is free to drink while he is drinking. He is not free still to be dry.

Bell: (brows furrowed) I can make nothing of that idea.

Lewis: Then listen! (leans forward) Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you found them. Become that child again!

Bell: (smiles) Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish things.

Lewis: (concerned) You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you call the "free play" of inquiry, or the "sacredness" of doubting,  or "holy questioning," has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given than masturbation has to do with marriage.

Bell: Easy now! (sits up straighter) The suggestion that I should retrogress back to the mere factual inquisitiveness of childhood strikes me as preposterous. That question-and-answer conception of thought only applies to matters of fact. Religious and speculative questions are surely on a different, much higher level.

Lewis: There is no religion where you're going: there is only Christ. There is no speculation either. Soon, you will come and see! You will be brought to Eternal Fact, the Father of all fact-hood.

Bell: I should object very strongly to the describing God as "fact". The Divine Progressive would surely be a much better description. It's hardly....

Lewis: (alarmed) Do you not even believe that He exists?

Bell: Exists? What does Existence mean? You still keep on implying some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, "there," and to which our minds have simply to conform. These great mysteries cannot be approached in that way. If they could, then I would not be interested in it. It would be of no religious significance. God, for me, is an inward spirit pushing us progressively forward, into sweetness and tolerance and...and service, good sir! We can't forget that, you know!

Lewis: (saddened) Then...the thirst of the Reason is really dead.... (ponders next move)

Bell: (waits, twiddling thumbs) You know, if you're going to stand there for a moment, I'd like to tell you about my latest and, it seems, last book! I'm taking the text about "growing up into the measure and stature of Christ" and working out an idea which I'm sure you'll find interesting. I'm going to point out how people always forget that Jesus was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he'd lived. I am going to ask my audience to question what his mature views would have been. A profoundly interesting idea, wouldn't you agree? What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had progressed to his full stature! I shall end up by pointing out how this deepens the significance of the Crucifixion. One feels for the first time what a disaster it was, what a tragic waste! So much promise cut short... (startled as Lewis fades away) Oh, must you be going? Well, so must I. Goodbye, dear sir, and see you soon! It has been a great pleasure, most stimulating and provocative.

No way through....

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Interstellar and the Incarnation

(Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.)

2014: A Space Odyssey
When Interstellar came out last November, the hoopla surrounding it was matched only by the film itself. It was, in a word, spectacular. It was a true space epic on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey in its scope and profundity, and it arguably outdid 2001 with its more humane depiction of mankind's future (i.e., no disturbing acid-trip tran- scendence into who-knows- whatzit). Add to it moments of thrills and suspense, plus outstanding special effects that afforded scientifically accurate space phenomena, and it is as I said: spectacular.

It is not unfair to say the film espouses humanism, but it's not entirely fair either. True, there is a great deal of emphasis on humanity's ability to save ourselves with our pluck, ingenuity, and (above all) science and technology, but there is something more than these that the film acknowledges, something outside of science and technology and pure reason but not wholly outside of us: love.

Kickin' it old school.
This is a new kind of hu- manism. Old school human- ism (from the Enlightenment to Modernism) saw Reason as the supreme attribute of humanity, and thus its advancement was our pri- mary motive power: we are built to know, so let us unlock and understand and manipulate and control the very fabric of existence. Love, being primarily emotional, was unreasonable, and therefore of limited use outside of coercion and manipulation. (See The Abolition of Man.) Such an older humanism is present in Interstellar, mainly embodied in Matt Damon's character, the interestingly named Dr. Mann, who talks a big game about his duty to preserve the human species at all cost. Such costs included betraying his own teammates (killing one of them) and nearly wrecking the entire interstellar mission in a foolhardy move that only killed himself and jeopardized everyone else. All the while, he excuses himself as doing what is necessary, and how one day the human race will recognize him as a hero.

Dr. Mann: the failure of the old.
He's an interesting character, mainly because you know he doesn't believe a word of what he's saying. The brilliance in Matt Damon's performance is the anguish and struggle you see come over Dr. Mann as he does his nefarious deeds in his well-meaning attempt to save humanity. There's more that could be said about him, but the movie makes the basic point quite clear: Dr. Mann's way is not the right way. His attempts to be purely detached from his decisions fail miserably (in more ways than one), and Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) rightly dubs him a "coward," someone who uses rational justification as a smokescreen for giving up hope.

But what exactly drives Cooper and the others? The answer is love. Love is their motive power. Not some abstract "love" for the human race, but specific, concrete love. Cooper goes on the mission because saving the earth means saving his daughter. Amelia (Anne Hathaway) is trying to reach a fellow explorer trapped on a distant planet because she loves him, even though getting to him is not an option, and the scene where she argues for going there anyway ends up with her admitting that she's wants to go there simply out of love, but what's wrong with that? Maybe love is something scientifically understandable, some force or power or substance in the universe existing dimensionally in ways we don't yet understand but know it's real because we experience it nonetheless.

Cooper and Amelia: the near miss of the new.
That scene is fascinating to watch, because as Amelia goes on, her argument breaks down and sounds utterly absurd, and the movie lets it sound absurd because it is utterly absurd to try and scientifically quantify love. It is (as she puts it) "transcendent," something existing beyond the scope of pure scientific inquiry, and yet it is knowable because we just know. Our experience and intuition rise to defy (and convince) our reason. It was this sequence, listening to Amelia speak of love this way, that made me later realize how amazingly, frustratingly close to the truth this movie got.

Listen again to what was being said: Love is a transcendent something existing and acting within our universe and yet is greater than it, filling it, and driving us in our deepest being to move beyond ourselves towards something other than ourselves. That sounds suspiciously like God.

Think about the basic plot: Cooper agrees to go on an interstellar journey across space and time to save humanity from an inevitable doom, and he does this all out of love. That sounds suspiciously similar to the Gospel.

Somewhere in time....
And think of the climax: When Cooper is swept up into a tesseract of Time, he attempts to communicate with his daughter out of frantic, desperate love for her by interacting with the physical world from his transcendent position. During this scene, he at times literally had his finger on the Incarnation: his transcendence touched the very dust.

This is not a Christian movie. Christopher Nolan was not deliberately trying to symbolize the Gospel or Incarnation. I believe that it just happened that way, because the Gospel and the Incarnation are true (not just factually and historically but also ontologically and ultimately), and you can't talk about "love" in any serious or profound way without them. It just isn't possible. (It's vital to note that the very strength of the "love" in this film is made possible because we see it incarnated in Cooper's relationship with his daughter. In this way, it avoids becoming merely sappy and sentimental.) This is the film's true power and what makes it so moving: not just its incredible composition as a work of art but also that it was so incredibly close to the truth. It brushed up against it multiple times, literally (as I said) placing its finger on it.

In the end, brushing up was all it managed to do. Since the film contained no concept at all of Christ or God (either for or against), it couldn't make the final step to connect it all together. Just as old school humanism emptied Reason of any higher meaning and thus left it bankrupt whenever it came up short (as it did in the 20th century), so Love in the new humanism points to nothing beyond itself and thus must ultimately remain mysterious and unknowable, a transcendent something that we experience but don't really understand. We experience it, but are ultimately shut out from it. It is there, but it is silent.

Thus, the film feels like a near, near miss.

But, good grief, what a spectacular near miss.

Seriously: you need to see it.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2015


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Built to Behold (Pornography and the Beatific Vision)

"Whatever you want me to be..."
"One thing have I desired of the Lord, [and] that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and inquire in His temple." Ps. 27:4

We all know why pornography in any form is wrong. The arguments have been made again and again. It is the objectification of human beings that reduces and degrades an individual person's unique Image-bearing self down to a mere sexual object. It is also inherently selfish, a one-way street of desire, where everything is taken in by the voyeur but nothing given in return, and thus reduces and degrades the voyeur to a mere appetite, an animalistic maw, a black hole, an empty void and abyss. Pornography is the hell of the users and the used.

There is, however, another reason why it is wrong, evil, diabolic. There is a reason that strikes at the very essence of what pornography is and therefore its essential perversion. To put it another way, if evil is merely the corruption and perversion of some good, then pornography, being evil, is essential a perverted good, and it is the perversion of that good that reveals the true tragedy. And guess what? It isn't about sex. We assume this, and understandably so (for pornography speaks to sexual desire), but it is not the true core, the most basic good it corrupts and destroys. Peel back the sexual, and you find a more fundamental drive, one that speaks to a unique element of our humanness.

We are built to behold.

Eye to eye
When David says there is "one thing" that he desires above all else, we need to listen careful to his answer. What he desires is intense intimacy and comm- union with God (which is the true sense of the word "dwell" in Hebrew), and that intimacy comes in two forms. One is the pursuit of true knowledge ("to inquire in His temple"). The other is aesthetic appreciation: "behold" in Hebrew means to contemplate with pleasure. This is no small thing. It is similar to the experience one may get when considering a work of art (such as a painting or sculpture or building), but is also similar to the experience everyone has when they look at their beloved, especially eye to eye. Indeed, looking upon beautiful things does something to us that we can't quite understand. We feel drawn in and locked out, called forth and ignored, embraced and left behind. And all this merely in the act of seeing that is also somehow experiencing. To see is, in some way, to experience; and the more intense or profound the sight, then the more intense or profound the experience.

This was not lost on philosophy, and certainly not Christian philosophy. Plato and Aristotle both saw the contemplation of the "Good" as the highest end to human pleasure and happiness (though they disagreed on how to reach such contemplation), and later Christian thinkers like Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, and Aquinas would work off of them and conclude that since God is "the Good" and God is love, then the only way to truly contemplate Him was to love what we contemplated, to behold Him with pleasure. It is from this logic that Dante's Divine Comedy concludes with the Beatific Vision, the pure beholding of God that is also communion with God.

Dante approaches home
This Vision is no mere fancy of mystics. On the contrary, it is exactly what Christ prayed for in reference to all believers. During His prayer in John 17, Jesus refers to "the glory" that He enjoyed with God "before the world was" (vs. 5), and that that same glory would pass on through Him to all who believe in Him (vs. 20-23). What exactly is this "glory" that Christ shared with God before the world was made and that He now shares with all believers? The communal love found in the Trinity itself: "that they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us.... And the glory which Thou gave Me I give to them, that they may be one, even as We are one: I in them and Thou in Me.... That the love with which Thou has loved Me may be in them, and I in them" (vs. 20-26).

In both the Old and New Testament, the "glory" of God is shorthand for his essential nature, who and what He really is at His core. What Christ revealed about God's "glory" was the mystery of communal love found in the Trinity, and it is that "glory" we are called to and swept up into so that we may behold: "Father, I will that they also, whom Thou has given Me, be with Me where I am, that they may behold my glory which Thou has given Me, for Thou loved Me before the foundation of the world" (John 17:24). This is eternal life: to know God and Christ in a deep, intimate way (John 17:3), the intimacy of seeing that is also experiencing, for we were built to behold.

"We shall behold Him...."
It is that good that pornography fundamentally perverts. We are built to behold the Good, whether in its substance found in the triune love of the Godhead, or in its beautiful shadows found in sunsets, in paintings and sculptures, and (yes) in the naked, freely given body of the beloved to whom you also freely give yourself. Our eyes were made to see God, and thus experience God, now and forever, and this is what makes pornography so perverse and yet so powerful: it is tapping into our fundamental drive to behold the Good, to behold God, to have the door open and the clouds part and the gray rain curtain of this world rise up and away and reveal the home our hearts ache to have, our real home, our real Lover and Friend.

We are built to behold, and porn is the perversion of beholding.

What do we do with this? There is no simple answer. For those struggling to escape pornography's powerful grasp, the remedy will be complex, a multifaceted administration of grace through hard knocks and strong friends. However, let this truth also be a part of the remedy. Let it provide some clarity, some solid ground to stand on: it is the fair beauty of the Lord that you really seek to see, that you are meant to see, and it is that desire that pornography has sunk its tentacles into and corrupted towards lesser, perverted substitutes. But you are not a hopeless case, because you have this hope: you were not built for unreal images on a page or screen (or stage); you were built for God, to behold Him who no eye can yet bear, nor any mind yet conceive. Draw near to this God, to His beauty, and He will draw near to you (James 4:8), and you will find help in time of need.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2015

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

An Inconsistent Hiatus (until further notice)

Folks, I've had fun. Seriously. I've loved every post I've ever posted, and I do plan to keep posting in the future.

But not in the near future. I have to close up shop for a moment (though I may pop in every once in a while). I'm currently at the University of Memphis going through their MFA in Creative Writing program. It took five years and three tries before God saw fit to let me in there, and now I'm on the road to fulfilling what I truly believe is my "calling," my voce, my vocation: to be a writer.

Big surprise, right?

Anyway, one thing I learned last semester is that since creative writing is truly my craft (and not just another means to a degree), then I need to take it seriously. I need to devote all my energies and concentration to it, and thus my blog must go dark for now. As one writer put it, "Writing is not an indulgence. You give up your indulgences to write." Well, my blog is an indulgence; a very wonderful and (I think) important indulgence, but one nonetheless. So I'm giving it up. For now.

Until our next meeting....

The sea is calling me home.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Other Side (of Delight)

"Delight the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart." Ps. 37:4

Gandalf hears drums in the Psalms.
Parallelism in the Psalms is not just a device used within verses; it can also inform a psalm's entire structure (or part of it). Take Psalm 1, for example: six verses set into two three verse parts contrasting "the godly" with "the wicked". Psalm 37 is another example, at least in the beginning. The commands to "trust," "delight," "commit," and "rest" in God are complimentary parallels meant to bounce off of and build on each other. Furthermore, as compliments to each other, they are also meant to be synonymous, a singular note swelling in intensity, like heavier and heavier beats of a drum.

Yet the synonymous nature of these four words is not completely apparent, at least as it is translated in English. Part of it makes sense: to "trust" something is to "commit" to and "rest" in it, and to "commit" to something (lit. in Heb: "to roll your load onto another") is to "trust" and "rest" in it, and to "rest" in something (like a bed or chair) is to "trust" in and "commit" to it. In each case, the meaning of the words play off of each other naturally, like mirrors reflecting the same sunbeam.

Just imagine a logistical gymnast.
But what about "delight"? It does not seem to fit quite so easily. Of course, it is still a positive term like the others, and we could reasonably imagine it following any one of the others: it is possible to "delight" in what you "commit" to and "trust" and "rest" in. Nonetheless, it does not necessarily follow them. To "trust" or "commit" or "rest" in something does not necessarily mean you "delight" in it. Your attitude towards the chair you are trusting and resting in may be quite neutral, and there are probably commitments you've made (to some chore or work or duty) that you can't say you're looking forward to. In fact, "trust" and "commit" can be occasions for fear as much as anything else, for they always contain a level of uncertainty, as when you trust your friend when he or she says the food they suggested for you is "not that spicy." Thus, the connection between "trust" and "commit" and "rest" is natural and easy, but the connection between them and "delight" is not; it requires some logistical gymnastics.

"Simply delightful..."
But perhaps we're missing something. Perhaps (as I said before) English is incapable of fully capturing the exactest meaning, which is not unheard of: it is not as rich a language as ancient Hebrew (or even modern Japanese). Its limitations are no mark against it, for limitations can be an occasion for glory as well as shame, for opportunity as much as disadvantage. The point here is that we are in fact dealing with a slight limitation. The Hebrew word used here that English translates as "delight" is not one of the typical Hebrew words for it, not one that carries all the typical meanings: to be glad in or take joy in or find pleasure in, etc. Rather, the Hebrew word here is "anog," which literally means "to become soft or delicate." The image it suggests is melting, like solid strips of cheese melting onto bread, or a cube of ice melting in a glass. The implication is relaxation: of molecules loosening their bonds, of breath exhaling from a body that's sinking into a couch after a long day's work, with all its muscles releasing their tension.

Now the connection is clearer and easier, for you cannot "commit" to something, nor truly "trust" in something, and certainly not "rest" in something, without this sense of ease, of relaxation, of losing the grip of your anxieties and laying your head down in gentle repose. The whole of life may be buzzing around you like angry hornets, but you are quiet and still in God. This is the other side of "delight," the other side of its ecstasy and joy, for this is the ecstasy and joy of being still and knowing that He is God.

Into the calm of delight.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2014

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Heaven (and the Fulness of God)

"...with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light." Ps. 36:9

Parallel (in contrast)
Hebrew poetry follows the logic of parallelism: the first part of a poetic line is mirrored in the second part, either in contrast or by compliment. The parallelism found here is complimentary, implying that "life" and "light" are in some way synonymous, which is not an unheard of biblical image. Jesus was said to be the "life" that was "the light of men" (John 1:4), and He Himself said that any who followed Him would have "the light of life" (John 8:12). This imagery even has its biblical contrasts, such as when the "Shepherd Psalm" talks of "the shadow of death" (Ps. 23:4). None of this is new symbolism: light and dark have long been associated with good and evil and all their corollaries, and this image is consistent in the Bible as well.

What is interesting here is the odd repetition in the second part of the verse: "in Your light we see light." It smacks of tautology, but I believe it can't be anything so banal. Psalm 36 is broken into three movements: the first describes the wicked as those "with no fear of God" before their eyes (vs. 1-4), the second describes God and why it is foolish to not fear Him (vs. 5-9), and the third describes the separate fates of the righteous and the wicked, of those who fear God and those who don't (vs. 10-12). The odd repetition comes at the end of the second movement; it is the climax of the psalmist's thoughts on God, the purest expression of why we should "fear" Him. As such, I like to think it is more than a mere redundancy.

More than just this.
The Hebrew word used here both times for "light" is "owr," which means more than just illumination (like lighting a match). It means illumination in every sense of the word: glory, splendor, the dawn, happiness (i.e., someone's face "lights up"), enlightenment, and of course, life (the "spark" or "flame" within). It is an all-encompassing light, a Light of lights, one that includes all lights and yet is reducible to none. Now, there is still a repetition, but it is not "light" and "light" but rather "all-light" and "all-light". In short, the psalmist is saying, "In Your All-Light we see all light," or "In Your full Goodness, we see all that is good," or "In Your full Glory, we see all that is glorious," etc.

It is similar to Psalm 16:11 where it says, "In Your presence is fullness of joy." The Hebrew word for "fullness" is "soba," which means to be filled to satisfaction. "Fullness" of joy is a summation and fulfillment of joy, a culmination of all that is joyous. Likewise, just as God is "fullness of joy," He is also "fullness" of light. He is all things joyous, all good and glad moments and objects and concepts, in a single source; and He is all things luminous, all glorious and vivid and illuminated things, in a single source. He is the All-Light and the All-Joy: in His Light we see all other lights, and in His Joy we find all other joys.

Home at last.
This is why Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they rest in God, and why Anselm said that the "most supreme" Being had to encompass all that was good while being reducible to none of it, and why Aquinas posited God as the proper desire and home of the soul, drawing it to Himself like gravity draws a stone to the earth. In the Christian mind (as in the mind of our Hebrew ancestors), there is only one place of complete satisfaction, only one place of rest and peace at last and forever, and it is not in money, sex, power, success, prosperity, self-actualization, self-discovery, activism, capitalism, socialism, progressivism, conservatism, or the thousand other flawed institutions and endeavors of fallen humanity. Rather, it is in God alone, for He alone is the All-Joy, the All-Light, the All-Good, the source and fullness of all things joyous and splendorous and wonderful.

In this life, we are blessed enough to catch just shadows and echos of His greater life, both in the way that all facets of existence declare His glory (Ps. 19:1-4) and all visible things reveal His invisible attributes (Rom. 1:19-20). The numinous moments allotted to us now contain enough beauty to weaken us like a wound, if we're paying attention. How much more then shall the effect be when faith turns to sight and all shadows turn to all-light and all echos swell into one mighty voice as singular and as multifaceted as a symphony? How much sweeter will life itself be when we find its fountain in God and taste and see its fullness in Him? I know no other definition of Heaven than that.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2014

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Dirty Hands of God

"How long will You look on? [...] O Lord, be not far from me." Ps. 35:17, 22

An old friend of mine has been leaving much of the faith he grew up with, and it has made him say some strange things. For example: one of his step-daughters (who's about six or seven) came up to him and asked if he would like to donate some money to her church. He asked her why and she said her church was trying to raise money to build a well or water pump (I forget which) in some African village that did not have a consistent and clean water supply. My friend then asked her if she knew God really loved those people, and she said He did. His response was: "Then why doesn't He give them water?"

Knowing my friend, I'm sure he thought he was being clever or funny, though I don't know whether or not he gave her any money. What I do know is that his final statement was ironic, ironic because of its ignorance about God and His main means of operation in the world today: the Church. The Church is made up of all true believers everywhere and is referred to in Scripture as "the body of Christ" (Rom. 12:3-5; I Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 4:15-16), which means several things, but one in particular is that the Church is the continuing presence of Christ (and thus, God) on earth in human form after His ascension. That is why my friend's statement was ignorantly ironic: he wondered aloud why a loving God wouldn't give people water, not seeing that God was in the process of doing just that through His body, viz., the people of a local church, including my friend's own step-daughter.

I suppose the fact that God doesn't play by our rules (or our logic or "good" ideas) can be quite frustrating. It would seem simpler and smarter for God to just snap His fingers and fix a problem, any problem, all problems, in an instant. But He doesn't. He seems instead to take the long way around: holding off the apocalypse while working out His will through people and their actions. It does seem counter-intuitive, though why it's not is an issue for another post. For now, the point is that what the story of Scripture (and I would posit common Christian experience as well) seems to say is that God prefers to work through things: actual objects and places as well as people and their actions. He does not work in the abstract nor perform out of thin air. As with the creation in Genesis and on through to today, all God's works are gritty and tangible, even if they're often too subtle to be a spectacle.

The god of this world.
We demand a spectacle. We often demand (as my friend did in a roundabout way) that God "prove" himself though some spectacle, some instantaneous feat from nowhere, like He's a magician performing tricks for an audience. It is the attitude Mussolini had when he said, "God, if you are there, strike me dead!" It is the sentiment expressed in a very moving scene in The Grey when Liam Neeson's character calls out for God to save him from the dire situation he's in (which of course "God" doesn't do). It is the position held by the Pharisees when they demanded a "sign" from Jesus (Matt. 12:38; Matt. 16:1; Mark 8:11), and Jesus' answer then seems to be God's answer now: "no sign will be given" (Mark 8:12). No performance, no spectacle, no show. It is not the way He works.

"Let's get down to 'de nitty-gritty."
God's work is concrete and patient, like an invincible yet currently invisible seed planted in the earth, growing unstoppably though subtly. He does not work through instantaneous nothingness but rather though all the solid substances He has made: through flesh and blood, through dirt and water, through all the elements of nature and man. His presence has been marked by pillars of fire and cloud as well as whispers and whirlwinds, and His influence has been felt by thunder and hail as well as plagues of famine and pests and diseases. He wrought His will through the lives of nations and empires as well as individual people, from Moses and Joshua and Samuel to Balaam and Rahab to Peter and Paul. He has revealed Himself, first in words through voices and writings, and then by becoming a man Himself. And all of His acts take their time, from 40 years in the wilderness to 400 years of silence to 2000 years of the Church. He is always practical, methodical, and patient.

The hands of God.
Again, this can seem counter-intuitive to us, or at least counter to our intuition, which is necessarily limited, finite, and fallen, and of course God's thoughts are not our thoughts, etc. However, I don't care to leave the whole thing at the feet of "God works in mysterious ways," because I actually like the way He works. Seriously. I like that it is concrete, actual, gritty, a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-your-hands- dirty affair. I like that the heart of the king (or president) is in God's hands (Prov. 21:1), and that my sanctification is God working through me (Phil. 2:12-13) rather than outside of me or in spite of me. I like that he can work and chooses to work through a local church and a little girl in order to bring water to someone. In short, I like that God is an incarnational God, a God of flesh and blood and earth. He is not "out there" or "over there" somewhere but rather right here with us, in the midst of all of us (Acts 17:26-28), both our pains and our joys, weeping and rejoicing in turn, and all the while working His unstoppable will and way through the actual, everyday lives of His actual, everyday people.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Lover and a Fighter (a Christmas postscript)

The following is from pages 124-125 & 130 of C.S. Lewis' book Reflections on the Psalms:

[The Psalms' focus on the Messiah as a conquering hero] emphasizes an aspect of the Nativity to which our later sentiment about Christmas (excellent in itself) does less than justice. For those who first read these [messianic] Psalms as poems about the birth of Christ, that birth meant something very militant: the hero, the "judge" or champion or giant-killer, who was to fight and beat death, hell and the devils, had at last arrived, and the evidence suggests that Our Lord also thought of Himself in those terms.


The hero has come.
Read in this sense, the [messianic] Psalm restores Christmas to its proper complexity. The birth of Christ is the arrival of the great warrior and the great king. Also of the Lover, the Bridegroom, whose beauty surpasses that of man. But not only the Bridegroom as the lover, the desired; the Bridegroom also as he who makes fruitful, the father of children still to be begotten and born. Certainly the image of a Child in a manger by no means suggests to us a king, giant-killer, bridegroom, and father. But it would not suggest the eternal Word either---if we didn't know. All alike are aspects of the same central paradox.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Man of Sorrows

"Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all." Ps. 34:19

"I'm having my best life now."
Our God is a man of sorrows. He has been acquainted with grief and affliction (Is. 53:3-4), and He has promised the same to those who follow Him (Matt. 10:16-25; John 15:18-20). I find an odd comfort in this. Our God has made a plan for pain. He does not ignore it or downplay it or frown upon those who experience it. He experienced it, deliberately (Phil. 2:8; Heb. 12:2-3), and has sanctified it into an avenue of glory (II Cor. 4:16-18). This does not suddenly candy-coat it. This does not mean that all who suffer should "buck up" and smile more. Pain is still pain. Affliction is still affliction, and suffering is still suffering. It all still hurts and wears you out. The difference is that it isn't meaningless anymore; nothing is meaningless anymore. All has been infused with purpose, and thus infused with hope: not just that you'll get through it all but also that it is all leading somewhere good (Rom. 8:18, 28-30).

This is what makes "prosperity" teachings or any other syrupy Christianity so laughable and damnable. Laughable because they so blatantly contradict common sense about the fundamental tragedy in existence, and damnable because they attempt to undo the deeper comedy that God has done. He gave pain a purpose, but they would undo that purpose in our minds, returning suffering to a sign of disfavor and failure. They have displaced hope with despair, for who can truly say they are living their best life now? Who can truly say they have claimed all that they've named? Who can say that their afflictions have all ended because they had just enough faith (as if faith were a cure for suffering rather than the strength and succor to endure it)?

The world does not need another rabid optimism to spread childish lies; rather, it needs something stronger, something more robust, something adult. It needs something that can face all the rugged realities of life without flinching or excusing or dismissing. In short, it needs a God who is acquainted with grief to take pity on our frail frames (Ps. 103:13-14) and provide a purpose for pain.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013