Friday, May 27, 2011

Homily 30: Rolling the Dice (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"And they prayed.... And they cast their lots...." Acts 1:24-26

The custom of casting lots is a heavy part of our vernacular, but not our practice. Any man on the street, when pressed between two choices, may remark, "I'll cast my lot" with so-and-so and such-and-such, but never do they literally roll the proverbial dice. Such actions are usually frowned upon in pious circles. They find the whole thing suspiciously superstitious. What, then, of the disciples, a certainly pious circle in their own right? They were not superstitious. On the contrary, they were believers, and that is why they "cast their lots".

Notice what happens in the passage. The disciples prayed for God to do something, and then they did something in order to see what He would do. The casting of lots was an act of faith: they believed that God would answer. If they didn't believe it, then they wouldn't have cast the lots in the first place.

In contrast, we modern day Christians (with our civilized emergent blather and Osteen-styled self-help books) get the whole "praying" part pretty down-pat, but we fail miserably at the whole "doing" part. For us, prayer is more often than not an abstraction, a mere exchange of words between us and the ceiling. For the disciples, however, prayer was a highly practical matter. It was meant to get results, and we were meant to expect those results. As stated earlier, that is why they cast lots at all: they wholeheartedly believed that God would answer their prayer. Perhaps we would say that we are too educated and nuanced to cast lots nowadays. I say we are too unbelieving. We doubt a God who does things.

"Prove me now..., saith the Lord of hosts" (Mal. 3:10). There is a difference between "proving" God and "tempting" Him. The former is commanded. The latter is commanded against (Matt. 4:7). The difference lies in this: "tempting" God derives from unbelief, while "proving" God derives from belief. When you tempt God, it is because you doubt that He will do anything, and thus sneer to the heavens, "Oh yeah? Prove it!" When you "prove" God, however, it is because you know that He will do something, and thus cry to the world, "Taste and see that the Lord is good!"

The disciples did not tempt God. They did not cast their lots in order to verify to themselves that God had heard them. Rather, they cast their lots because they knew that God had heard them. Therein lies a major distinction between them and us. We pray without ceasing, but never act on those prayers, never venture forth to see what God will do. Thus, our constant praying turns into a smokescreen for unbelief and doubts about God. We will pray about something until the cows come home, but we will not cast our lots, i.e., actively bank on God giving an answer.

You pray that God will direct you to a new job. Are you filling out applications? You ask God to bring you to your wife/husband. Are you even looking at all? You ask God to guide the direction of your latest novel. Do you then go sit down and start writing? You ask God to give you the words to say to people. Do you then start conversations with others, or even join in on theirs? We ask God again and again (in various circumstances and on various issues) to show us "the way," but are we even moving ourselves at all? There are real times when we must sit still, where there are no clear paths to take or things to do. But when there are clear paths and actions before us, do we sit in sedation and call it "prayer"? Or do we cast our lots with God and go out, not knowing where we are going (Heb. 11:8)?

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Homily 29: How to Be (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them." John 13:17

Happiness is invariably linked to obedience. We must rescue this concept from the legalists and moralists of the world. They have made obedience an arbitrary rule-keeping, reducing it to an inevitable drudgery. If there is any happiness, it is artificial, and there is many a legalistic church full of fake, artificial happiness. Outwardly is all smiles and shouts, but inwardly is a cancerous ennui. Life with God becomes a chore to be done, happiness and joy be damned. This is the view that most people have of obedience, and we must rescue it from such a horrid corruption.

God is Creator: He made everything. More to the point, He is our Creator: He made us. This is much more than a matter of matter. If God has names for all of the stars (Ps. 147:4), which physically are just balls of burning gas, He certainly has names for all of us, a name which He shall reveal to us one day (Rev. 2:17). That is a point that we must not miss: our identity is bound up in God, an identity whose full disclosure will come to us when we see Him face to face (I John 3:2). At the very least, we can gather for now that we are a creature: not in a bestial sense, but in the sense of something that is made. We are from the hand of a Maker; that is (in part) who we are. That is where we belong. It is our "place," so to speak, and identity is about place, viz., the place where we "fit," like a puzzle piece, or a bone in its socket. The whole history of human Sin (even to this day) can be seen as humanity trying to find their place without God, which is a futile endeavor. If we want to know who we are, then we must go to the One who made us.

This sheds a new light on God's commands. He is not just giving us rules, the arbitrary assignments of a divine monarch. Rather, He is teaching us how to be. The commands of God are the precious communique from Creator to creature where the former tells the latter who they are, who they ought to be (for the very nature of the Fall is that we are not who we ought to be). This is why obedience is happiness: when we obey the Creator, we are being who we are, who we ought to be and were meant to be. We have found our place, our identity, our home. And there's no place like home.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Monday, May 16, 2011

An Open Letter to the Emergent Church (as written by an orthodox rebel)

NOTE: Before reading this post, and especially before commenting on it, please read the following definition. Anyone commenting to the effect that I should have contacted someone directly with this letter will have their comment deleted. They obviously did not understand the nature or purpose of this medium of communication.

For the sake of hair-splitters, allow me to make a distinction: by "emergent church," I am not referring to the mere attempt by recent Christians to engage the post-modern culture. Rather, I am referring to the movement that, in trying to engage post-modernism, compromised with post-modernism and became its derivative religious wing.

Dear Emergent Church,

I'm sure that this letter is already obsolete, seeing as how I have heard multiple times that your "movement" is on its way out, revealing itself to be exactly what most sensible people figured it to be: a temporary, fleeting fad and fever, yet another awkward and shameful attempt by Christianity to ape the culture. Thus, as you are unceremoniously passed kicking and screaming out of our system, allow me to add my own voice to the congested and convoluted infinite regression that you call a "conversation". You may ignore my thoughts as you please, but at least your slobbering love-affair with pointless, aimless "dialogue" will guarantee me getting a hearing.

I just want to ask you one question. You believe in Jesus (of a sort). You call Him (on occasion) our "savior". Savior from what, exactly?

From white, European males? From fundamentalists and Republicans? From hellfire preachers and hateful cranks? From unfavorable environments of poverty, politics, and oppression? Is Jesus no more to you than another left-wing activist? Another guru Gandhi, lover of abstract humanity and hater of actual men and women? Teaching us a love with no logic? Revealing a mystery that conceals no truth?

Is this what He has come to save us from: half of all the good things in the world by a gluttonous bloating of the other half? Has he brought us a simpering morality and vacuous social activism in order to save us from honor? Valor? The fight and the battle? The glory and the pride? The beauty and the ecstasy and the unutterable violence of unshakable conviction and creed, definable and categorical to the last non-negotiable degree? Has he come to save us from fairy-tales? From the old stories that said that the princess didn't need a vote or voice but rather a rescue and the knight's armor soaked in the blood of the blatant beast? Is that what your so-called "savior" has come to save us from? From rescue? From riding on the thunderclouds of redemption? Or is it actually true that Jesus came to save us from Sin? Sin that eats at the soul like a cancer? Sin that kills absolutely? The bedrock of all bedlam and horror in the world? Of all tyranny and tragedy?

Why do you give us a God who loves without hate? Who forgives without precedent? Whose heart is made of candy? What pasty, vanilla dullness have you foisted upon us? What is this gross banality that you call divinity? Where is the jealous, wrathful lover? Where is the smitter of Canaan, the plunderer of the treasures of Jericho? Where is the warrior king who chases his ravished and ravishing beloved across a wilderness and wasteland of bones and blood, dragons and demons? Where is the winepress of the wrath of God? What is this God you have given me whose love is not strong enough to hate? True love hates: it must hate all that imperils and spoils the beloved. You have given me your God of sugar, and the slightest rain of horror and great darkness has washed him away. I ask you, where is the Rock of our salvation? The shelter in a time of storm and the great grinder upon which we all must be broken?

Understand this: I despise you as a philosophy and an idea and am absolutely against you for this very reason: you give us a pathetic God. A God without teeth, whose love is watered-down to mere pity, and whose truths wouldn't offend a fly. You remove His righteous and unmovable judgements and instead give Him a weak-kneed moralism born and bred of political manias and secular sentiments, an evangel contrived and constructed by white-guilt for the sole purpose of satiating that white-guilt. Tell me, you almighty doctrinaires and dogmatists of relevancy: is there no room in your narrow-minded and bigoted box of boiled-to-rags religion for God to be God? To be exactly who He, and He alone, said He was? Who Christ said He was? A God of mercy and justice? Grace and truth? Love and holiness? Love and wrath? Wrathful love and loving wrath?

No, there is no room. No room in your paltry little inn and shack for such a God. There never was. You are no better than the post-modern wasteland that you supposedly "engage". Like them, you have stolen God from us, replacing Him with a whitewashed picketer and hipster. A hollow substitute, like a rotted tree.

Take away from me your scarecrow deity. Repent and seek after the living God of Israel, whom you have forsaken for your vain delusions. You have abandoned God in order to have your aimless adventures. I say to you, Come, and find your adventures in God.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Prayer for Writers (as compiled by an orthodox rebel)

(original work with adaptations from Psalm 78, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Beethoven)

We praise Thee, O God, for Thy glory displayed in all the creatures of the earth,
In the snow, in the wind, in the storm; in all Thy creatures, both the hunters and the hunted.
For all things exist only as seen by Thee, only as known by Thee;
All things exist only in Thy light, and Thy glory is declared even in that which denies Thee.
The darkness declares the glory of light.

We praise Thee, O God of glory, power, and mercy; all creation praises Thee.
We, Thy creatures, would adore Thee now and through eternity.
Saved to magnify Thy goodness, grant us strength to do Thy will
With our pens as with our stories, Thy commandments to fulfill.

We praise Thee, O God, as we gather here before Thee, the Author of our Salvation and Faith,
Acknowledging our need of Thee, and asking that Thy grace and true beauty
Would fill up what lacks in our meager endeavors and halting metaphors
As we strive to declare Thy glory and goodness in this way:

We will open our mouths in a parable.
We will utter dark sayings of old,
Which we have heard and known,
Which those before us have taught us.
We will not hide them from our children,
And we will show to the generation to come
The praises of the Lord, and His strength,
And the wonderful works that He hath done.
So that they might set their hope in God,
And not forget the works of God,
But keep His commandments.

We praise Thee, O God. Where we doubt Thee, help our unbelief.
Where we are broken, heal us. Where we are stubborn, break us.
Where we are confounded, shine Thy light.
Where we are self-confident, bring Thy darkness.
Teach us to hunger and thirst only after Thee,
And may Thy Spirit take us into the deep things of God.


-Jon Vowell (and others noted) (c) 2011


Why Religion Matters to Everyone; Or, The Universal Foundations and Consequences of Belief (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

The follow is a "response paper" I wrote while in grad school. It was during a rhetoric class that dealt with the reliability of texts (specifically rhetorical texts). Aside from a corrosive premise that all things deemed "rhetorical" were inherently propagandic and thus inherently unreliable, one thing that irked me about the class was the assumption that the reliability of religious texts was a issue only to the religious, and that the concerns of religion were of no consequence to the secular. In order to politely disillusion the class and its professor, I wrote the following paper. I present it here with a few, non-fundamental alterations.

If we are to be true critical thinkers, it is necessary to view no text as "off limits" in regard to discussion and critique. In the true spirit of Plato's "double open-endedness," no conclusion or assumption is immune from scrutiny. Everyone's assertions, if they are robust assertions, are up for grabs; this is a fact that we must not forget if we are to be honest and clear in our engagement with the world. That being said, I feel that this view of critical thinking must be bolstered with a necessary caution.

We must not kid ourselves: it is erroneous to assume that the reliability of religious texts is a "landmine" issue solely for the religious, and that somehow the non-religious stand in impunity on the sidelines. This is a false premise; it assumes what it seeks to prove, i.e., that religious texts are unreliable. The fact is that the non-religious (and even the anti-religious) have just as much at stake in the reliability of religious texts as the religious. This is because religious texts in general (and the biblical texts specifically) do not claim to be about religion or religious things. Rather, they claim to be about truth, reality, life and death, right and wrong, i.e., the way things really are and really ought to be. This means that their verification or falsification has consequences for all of us, because we all have some kind of foundational assumptions about what is and ought to be.

Most of the non and anti-religious, however, when considering this issue, do not understand this. Their default position runs something like this: The sincere yet wrong-headed religionist, upon discovering the falsification of their holy writ (upon which their entire worldview was grounded and found sustenance), is indeed in a world of trouble, perhaps more than nonchalant speculation has realized. To have your philosophical underpinnings completely undermined, to have your foundational assumptions on metaphysics, epistemology, and morality completely shattered into a million irreparable fragments and lost to the wind, is a position beyond all nightmares. It is true that some manage to survive such an ordeal and move on to some other philosophy, but history gives us other common responses to such a traumatic event: varying degrees of madness possibly accompanied by suicide. Beliefs are not so easily cast aside.

Beliefs, however, are not just a "religious" thing; they are a human thing. We all believe in something (even if it is in "nothing," like nihilists), and those beliefs/biases/assumptions shape our view of the world and how we should function in it. Moreover, because belief is an inherent human quality, the reversal of the non/anti-religious default position on the reliability of religious texts is an equally viable consideration (though it is oddly less considered).

Let us suppose, then, such a reversal. Let us imagine, instead of a sincere yet wrong-headed religionist, a born and bred, thoroughly modern secularist who has been long schooled in the tradition of his elders, viz., that the Dark Ages began at the birth of Christ and continued to the Enlightenment where mankind was set free from superstition and declared (in the words of Lucretius) that " trampled underfoot, / and by [this] victory we reach the stars." He has long been taught that religion was nothing more than a concoction of the weak-minded who happened to be in power, and that their chief points of serious doctrine were the flatness of the earth, the smallness of the universe, the number of angels on a pinhead, and other ludicrous assertions. As such, he sincerely believed in the death of God, the unquestionable reliability of empiricism, the infallibility of scientific inquiry, and the closed system of cause and effect that is Nature, whose highest (and only) elements are matter and energy. To him or her, religion has proved itself impotent and has long lost its voice in any and all matters other than those discussed in churches or seminaries, those last remaining cloisters of narrow-mindedness. Let this be our first supposition.

Now, let us additionally suppose that within the lifetime of this sincere secularist, there arises a rather rebellious traditional religionist with a strong head on his shoulders and a penchant for irony. This religionist (with tact and force) rises up and dares to proclaim that any and every religious text is open to rhetorical (and even scientific) scrutiny. Let us also suppose that this rebellious religionist (through long, arduous study and research) releases a seminal work to much controversy because it substantially demonstrates (on the word of "most scholars") the absolute reliability of religious texts. Let this be our second supposition.

If these two suppositions be the case (we are speaking hypothetically, of course), what is our conclusion? What has become of our secularist? He has suffered the same fate as the religionist, because the same cause has befallen him, and thus the same effect is produced: the very foundations of their beliefs (the death of God, etc.) have been shaken to the ground, and they too are left in the same nightmarish position. Though I could (and would) argue that moving from a vacuously atheistic, materialist position to a substantial robust, theistic position would ultimately result in sanity and joy rather than madness and sorrow, let it be enough for now to say that in the initial stages of the annihilation of first principles, the secular and the religious are in the same boat.

The point that we should gather is this: we take the issue of the reliability of religious texts far too lightly and flippantly if we assume some sort of immunity from the consequences of the verification or falsification of religious texts (or arguably any text whatsoever). We all have a stake in the claims of religion, and I would postulate that this is a fact that even the secular realize. It is perhaps true that the religious avidly fear analysis because that analysis may falsify their beliefs, but it is perhaps equally true that the secular fear such an analysis because it may very well verify the beliefs of the religious (and subsequently falsify their own). In other words, the avoidance of analysis (when there is any) is most likely not the result of stubborn ignorance or denial on the part of any party. The avoidance seems far more ecumenical, stemming from a very human, almost religious-like dread of the consequences. It may very well be that, on the one side, the religious quake, "What if I'm proven wrong?" While on the other side (and somehow able to be ignored), the secular fearfully whisper amongst themselves, "What if they're proven right?"

In either case, if we are to be critical thinkers who approach all texts and all views (with their assumptions and conclusions) honestly and openly, we would be wise to remember to tread deliberately yet softly, for the "religion" we trample on could be our own in the end.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011