The Devil, Not So Black and White

I want to introduce you to a new podcast hosted by Missio Alliance. My good friend Sean Palmer with John Alan Turner are co-hosting a new podcast called Not So Black and White.

The premise of Not So Black and White is to discuss issues in the church and world that tend to get unhelpfully reduced to "black or white" positions. Those issues, Sean and John argue in the podcast, are actually more complicated, not so black and white.

For example, I think Sean and John's podcast on 5 Views of Christianity and Politics is a really helpful overview that I think pastors and church leaders should have everyone in their church listen to during this anxious election year. Using that podcast as small group discussion material would, I think, really help people talk about the church and politics in a much more non-anxious, theologically informed and charitable fashion.

For my part, I was honored to be interviewed by Sean and John Alan about my new book Reviving Old Scratch. In the spirit of the podcast I try to talk about the devil in my book in a way that is not so black and white, finding space between progressive silence about the devil and charismatic excesses on the other.

Give that episode a listen.

But more importantly, put Not So Black and White on your podcast feed.

Personal Days: Praying With Hank Williams

I first bought a guitar and started to learn some chords because I wanted to strum along to accompany myself as I sang old gospel hymns.

Most gospel hymns are simple three chord progressions. "Amazing Grace" is G, C, D7 (or D, G, A7). Those same chords are also used for "I'll Fly Away." And many, many other songs.

Learn three simple chords and the whole hymnal opens up.

I'm not the best guitar player. I mainly play because I like to sing.

Lately I've been working through and teaching myself gospel songs written or covered by Hank Williams. Outside of "I Saw the Light," Hank Williams isn't really known for his gospel music, but I've found his religious music to be remarkable.

So prior to our summer vacation I printed off the lyrics and chords for a bunch of these songs and have been practicing and singing them. Some of my favorite songs are "The Tramp on the Street," "Thank God," "The Devil's Train," "The Angel of Death," "A House of Gold," "I'll Have a New Body," "Jesus is Calling," "When the Book of Life is Read," "I'm Gonna Sing," "Wait for the Light to Shine," "How Can You Refuse Him Now," and "The Battle of Armageddon."

You can find most if not all of theses songs on YouTube if you'd like to give any of them a listen.

Anyhow, our dear friend Hannah was visiting us from England this last week. One of the mornings during Hannah's visit I was working through these Hank Williams' songs. Strumming and singing along like I do on many mornings.

"It's one of the ways," I told Hannah, "that I like to pray."

Edging Toward Enchantment: Doubting in the Other Direction

During the Spring semester at ACU I gave three guest lectures about recovering enchantment for my friend Paul's Faith and Science class.

In that class I talked about, borrowing from Charles Taylor, how our experience in a "secular age" isn't wholly disenchanted. As I talked about in an earlier post, in a secular age we also, from time to time, bump into enchantment. While perhaps fragile and fleeting, we still experience transcendent moments. We still step into the sacred.

Consequently, while for the most part we live in a disenchanted world we are dissatisfied with that world. We suspect that a wholly disenchanted world isn't being true to our lives.

Basically, we grow disenchanted with disenchantment.

We become doubtful about disenchantment. We are dissatisfied with disenchantment. Disillusioned with disenchantment. We might even get disgusted with disenchantment.

And what I suggested to the class in my lectures is that this "disenchantment with disenchantment," this "doubting your doubts," can become material for enchantment.

Flip the script, I said. In a secular age we use disenchantment to doubt enchantment. So turn it around. Cultivate doubts in the other direction.

When, where and why do you become disenchanted with disenchantment?

When, where and why do you doubt your doubts?

Think on such things. Linger here, and you'll starting edging back toward enchantment. 

Edging Toward Enchantment: The Eccentric Self and the Holy Spirit

One more post about selfhood and enchantment.

Again, in the last few posts we've been talking about the relationships between the buffered self and disenchantment and the porous self and enchantment. As we've discussed, Charles Taylor's argument is that the modern experience of disenchantment has been less a matter of changing beliefs than an intrapsychic change, a change in how we experience the self in relation to the outside world.

In the enchanted experience the boundary between the self and the world is "porous," where the outside world can impinge upon, affect and invade the psyche. The porous self, we might say, is an involved, engaged and relational encounter with the world.

By contrast, in the modern, disenchanted era the self has become introverted, isolated, and closed off from the world. "Buffered" against the world. The ego is now alone with itself, disengaged, withdrawn, and no longer in relationship with the world. And according to Taylor, it is this shift from the porous to the buffered self that drives the experience disenchantment. Taylor describing this:
Here is the contrast between the modern, bounded, buffered self and the porous self of the earlier enchanted world. As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to “get to me,” to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term “buffered” here...

And so the boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy in the enchanted world; and the boundary between mind and world is porous...[A] similar point can be made about the relation to spirits. The porousness of the boundary emerges here in various kinds of “possession”—all the way from a full taking over of the person, as with a medium, to various kinds of domination by or partial fusion with a spirit or God. Here again, the boundary between self and other is fuzzy, porous. And this has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of “theory” or “belief.”
Given all this, in the last few posts I've been arguing that we can edge back toward enchantment by opening up the buffered self to the world. If not making the self more "porous," than at least more open, especially open to surprise. The enchanted self is a receptive rather than ruminating self.

The notion that I'd like to bring into this discussion is something I've written about before, an idea that plays a huge role in my book The Slavery of Death.

That notion is eccentricity, the idea that the "center" of selfhood is located outside of oneself. Our identity is something we receive rather than possess. For example, in the biblical imagination, our lives are "hidden in Christ." That is to say, our identity is not found within ourselves but outside of ourselves, "in Christ" rather than "in ourselves."

The point here, given what we've been discussing the last few posts, is that the experience of enchantment is driven by this eccentricity: enchantment is the experience of the porous self encountering something from outside the boundaries of the buffered self.

Connecting back to our discussions about enchantment and charismatic spirituality, and even with the sacramental ontology of our very first posts where we saw the Holy Spirit brooding over creation, we can suggest that the pneumatological encounter--the enchanted experience of the Holy Spirit in daily life--is an eccentric encounter.

As Charles Taylor argues, the porous self is an experience of risk, uncertainty and vulnerability. Eccentrically open to God, the porous self can be interrupted by the Spirit. By contrast, the introverted and buffered self is "autonomous," impervious to the interruptions of the Spirit and, thus, unable to be surprised by God.

These observations connect with what we noted in James Smith's book Thinking in Tongues, where we described the charismatic experience of the Spirit as being rooted in an openness to God, an openness which "makes room for the unexpected" and where "the surprising comes as no surprise." And again, the key feature of this eccentric openness is cultivating a posture of receptivity.

Phrased differently, to make the connection with The Slavery of Death, an open and receptive self is an eccentric self.

We edge back toward enchantment when we cultivate an eccentric identity, an identity we receive from God.

An identity not found by turning inward to plumb the depths of our buffered psyches--searching for the "real me" under layers of Freudian repression--but an identity received as gift, the enchanted, charismatic experience of the Spirit poured out upon us.

Edging Toward Enchantment: Openness to Surprise

Building upon the work of Charles Taylor regarding how disenchantment flows out of a inwardly focused "buffered" self, in the last post I suggested that we can edge back toward enchantment by getting that buffered self to turn outward in expectant receptivity to the world.

Two years ago I wrote about just this dynamic in a series of posts about my experiences encountering the charismatic worship at Freedom Fellowship. Incidentally, my life at Freedom is a big part of my recent book Reviving Old Scratch. See especially the chapter entitled "Holy Ghost Conga Lines," a chapter inspired by that series of posts from two years ago.

In that series I was trying to map out the terrain of charismatic spirituality because I didn't grow up in a charismatic tradition. Consequently, as I recount in Reviving Old Scratch, my first experiences with Freedom threw me for a loop. I couldn't get a handle on what I was experiencing.

A resource that helped me, upon which I based my series, was the book Thinking in Tongues by James Smith, a book in which Smith tries to trace out the contours of what he calls "the pentecostal worldview."

For our purposes in talking about how we might edge toward enchantment by opening up the buffered self, Smith argues that one of the features, perhaps the defining feature, of the charismatic/pentecostal worldview is a radical openness to God, especially God doing something different or new.

According to Smith this radical openness involves "a deep sense of expectation and an openness to surprise." Pentecostal worship "makes room for the unexpected" where "the surprising comes as no surprise."

And key to this experience is a posture of receptivity. As Smith notes, "pentecostal spirituality is shaped by a fundamental mode of reception." This posture of receptivity creates the potential for surprise.

In prior posts we've talked about how Catholic spirituality gives us resources to edge back toward enchantment. But charismatic spirituality is also an enchanted spirituality, so it also holds out for us some insights about how to edge back toward enchantment. And the key insight in my estimation is the charismatic openness to surprise, an openness that combats the ruminating inwardness of the buffered self.

Prior to my life at Freedom I had God in a box. A rational, logical box in my head. That's the disenchanted faith experience of the buffered self. When you have God in a box in your head you lack the capacity to be surprised by God. And when you lack the capacity to be surprised by God you lack the capacity to experience grace.

And if you lack the capacity to surprised by grace all you have to rely on, spiritually speaking, is the junk rattling around in your head, the ruminations of the buffered self.

The charismatic worship at Freedom--in its radical openness to being surprised by God--helped me identify and name something that I've come to think is the key to Christian faith and spirituality.

Grace and enchantment flow out of an openness to surprise.

Edging Toward Enchantment: Incurvatus In Se

In the last two posts we've been talking about how, in our modern, disenchanted world, the self is experienced as "buffered," closed off and isolated from the external world. The disenchanted, buffered self contrasts with the enchanted, porous self that is affected by and vulnerable to the outside world.

In the last post we raised the question of Ross Douthat, that the buffered self might be affecting modern perceptions of the world. Having turned inward on itself the buffered self might be ill-equipped or unable to see or experience the enchantment of the world, a world charged with the grandeur of God.

If this is true then disenchantment and doubt is associated with an introverted experience of faith. Enchantment, by contrast, would be associated with an outward facing, receptive and expectant posture.  

The Latin phrase incurvatus in se--curved inward upon oneself--has often been taken as a classical description of sin. Being curved inward upon yourself was to be prideful and self-focused.

But in our conversations here about disenchantment and enchantment we can think about incurvatus in se in other ways as well. Incurvatus in se describes the faith experience of the disenchanted, buffered self, a faith that is excessively introverted and ruminative, separated from the world and preoccupied with the sorting through the contents of its own mind.

Cognitive rumination are hallmarks of doubt and disenchantment. Introverted, cognitive rumination--mental wheels obsessively spinning and spinning in the mind--is the buffered self's experience of faith. 

I think that is true. Disenchanted, doubting Christians tend to be preoccupied with their own thoughts about faith, working hard to get it all sorted out in their minds, getting the answers to all their questions about faith and the bible. The buffered self's experience of faith isn't an outward posture of receptivity but thinking a lot. Questions about God rather than experience with God seem to dominate the faith experience. For example, questions about prayer are more likely to be entertained than actually praying. Criticisms of praise songs are raised over singing praise songs. Concerns about the Bible are voiced over reading the Bible.

All this seems to suggest that edging back toward enchantment may involve getting us out of our heads.

Enchantment is a faith experience that is not incurvatus in se but is, rather, excurvatus ex se.

In opening up the disenchanted, buffered self, enchantment involves being "curved outward" in expectant receptivity to the faith and God's presence in the world.

Personal Days: Holy Relic

Our son's muffler is a holy relic.

Of course you've seen the miracles where the face of Jesus shows up on a piece of toast, right?

I'm sure numerous miracles have been associated with that holy relic, and while we can't top an image of the Lord the Beck family can come close.

Last week we took Brenden's truck in to get the muffler fixed. It had a rust hole. And guess what the hole looked like?

Not Jesus, exactly, but still pretty miraculous. In a happy, smiley face sort of way.

Edging Toward Enchantment: Closing the Doors of Perception

In my last post we shifted away from talking about sacramental ontology to selfhood as we continue to explore how we might "edge toward enchantment" as people of faith in a secular, disenchanted world.

As Charles Taylor has argued it, the disenchanted self is "buffered" against the outside world. In contrast to the enchanted, vulnerable, porous self the buffered self is experienced as being inviolably separate from the external world.

There are a couple of different reasons why I want to ponder how the experience of the self can edge us toward or away from enchantment.

The first reason has to do with a question raised by NYT columnist Ross Douthat in post he wrote entitled "Religious Experience and the Modern Self."

Read the whole column to get Ross's full argument, but the gist of it is this. We often think that the disenchantment of secularism is caused by our tendency to "explain away" weird, uncanny, numinous and spiritual experiences. And given that our selves are "buffered" against the external environment, we tend to look for these explanations within our psyche--these experiences are fantasies, perceptual tricks, mental breakdowns or odd turns of the mind. Your duty in the modern world is to ignore and shake off these perceptual ephemera. Because the origin of these experiences is found within your head rather than in the world. That's the buffered self.

But Douthat's worry about the buffered self runs deeper.

Here's his worry in a nutshell: What if the buffered self isn't simply explaining away perceptions but is changing perception itself?

Phrased another way, what if the buffered self isn't simply involved in intellectually dismissing our experiences of enchantment but is eroding our ability to experience enchantment in the first place?

As Douthat rightly points out, this latter is much more worrying. If you're explaining away experiences of enchantment at least you're having those experiences, you're still bumping into the magic from time to time. And those experiences provide the raw material for religious experience in the modern, secular age. These experiences provide, to go back to an earlier post, updrafts of transcendence as a countervailing breeze against the downdrafts of disenchantment.

But if the buffered self is changing our perceptions and experiences of reality then we're not explaining away the magic, we're no longer experiencing the magic, no longer seeing or bumping into enchantment in day to day life.

And that's a deeper problem.

Edging Toward Enchantment: The Disenchanted Self

Over the last few posts in this series I've been talking about recovering a sacramental ontology where, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, we come to experience the world as "charged with the grandeur of God."

In this post I want to shift the focus and start talking in some posts about how psychology and selfhood affect enchantment and disenchantment.

As argued by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, enchantment isn't just about the world being more spooky or supernatural. Enchantment also involves a particular experience of selfhood.

According to Taylor, enchantment entails a porous self, a self where the boundaries between self and the world are thinner and more open. For example, with things like spells or demonic possession things could enter the self. The porous self is open and vulnerable to the world.

But over the last few hundred years, the experience of the self has changed in the face of disenchantment. The boundary between self and the world is increasingly experienced as inviolable and impermeable. Anything that affects the self must arise from within the self, biologically or psychologically. Nothing from the outside enters in. If we face demons today they are inner demons.

As opposed to the enchanted, porous self Taylor calls this modern, disenchanted self the buffered self, a self with buffers and walls between itself and the outside world.

All this suggests that disenchantment hasn't just affected the world. Disenchantment affects our selves, our perceptions of reality, our experience of being a self-in-relation to the world. Here's how Charles Taylor describes all this:
Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

This is not a mere “subtraction” story, for it thinks not only of loss but of remaking. With the subtraction story, there can be no epistemic loss involved in the transition; we have just shucked off some false beliefs, some fears of imagined objects. Looked at my way, the process of disenchantment involves a change in sensibility; one is open to different things. One has lost a way in which people used to experience the world.

… Indeed, “enchantment” is something that we have special trouble understanding … we tend to think of our differences from our remote forbears in terms of different beliefs, whereas there is something much more puzzling involved here. It is clear that for our forbears, and many people in the world today who live in a similar religious world, the presence of spirits, and of different forms of possession, is no more a matter of (optional, voluntarily embraced) belief than is for me the presence of this computer and its keyboard at the tips of my fingers.

… We have great trouble getting our minds around this, and we rapidly reach for intra-psychic explanations, in terms of delusions, projections, and the like. But one thing that seems clear is that the whole situation of the self in experience is subtly but importantly different in these worlds and in ours.
All of which suggests that we'll have to psychologically reconfigure ourselves if we want to edge back toward enchantment.

But what does that look like? That's what I'd like to explore.

Blaming the Devil: Empathy and Responsibility

Interviews I've given regarding my new book Reviving Old Scratch are continuing to appear online. Let me point you to two different ones as each one gets into issues and topics related to the book that prior interviews didn't explore.

The first is a podcast interview with Todd Littleton for his Patheological podcast. Among other things, Todd and I got into my claim in the book that "standing around and drinking bad coffee is saving the world."

The other is an interview with Josh de Keijzer at the online magazine HelloChristian.

In that interview with Josh I raise a point from the book about how a recovery of spiritual warfare can help us become more peaceable. As I describe very briefly with Josh, but give a fuller treatment in Reviving Old Scratch, when our struggle against evil is wholly disenchanted all that is left on the stage of moral drama are human beings. Moral action then becomes "the good guys" taking control of the world away from "the bad guys." In that disenchanted moral struggle our battle reduces to a battle against flesh and blood.

When Jesus faced that flesh-on-flesh conflict in the gospels--the violent antagonism between Roman and Jew--he deflected the hostilities of each group away from flesh and blood toward a common enemy, the Satan. Spiritual warfare became about establishing the kingdom of God in our midst, a uniquely spiritual and political struggle to lift up the least of these while embodying enemy love.

All that is just one point I make in Reviving Old Scratch about why we might want to recover a vision of spiritual warfare.

However, one bit of pushback I've gotten along these lines is nicely summarized by Kyle Roberts in his post "Richard Beck Wants to Bring the Devil Back (Sort of)."

Kyle writes:
The problem with that isn’t so much that we minimize human responsibility for evil acts (regardless of our metaphysics of evil, we’re pretty good at demonizing people and punishing them for bad deeds). Instead, the problem may be that, if we lay the blame on evil, supernatural agents, we may not take the time and effort to understand, from the natural side of things, why it is that we do bad things. What are the systemic, social, psychological–which is to say, natural–causes the lead up to evil acts? The answer can’t simply be, “the devil made me do it.”
I think Kyle is right. Two quick thoughts.

First, when it comes to spiritual warfare, the devil and demons in particular, it's really, really hard to keep the conversation situated in a healthy middle ground. Theologically, this subject seems really prone to excesses. The two extremes I mainly deal with in Reviving Old Scratch are the extreme progressive/liberal position that finds any talk about the devil or demons completely awkward, dangerous or superstitious versus the extreme Pentecostal, charismatic position that sees a demon under every rock. If we could attend closely to the Bible there is a huge, largely unexplored, middle ground between these two views. Reviving Old Scratch tries to cultivate something in this middle ground.

Kyle points to a different extreme that I don't go a whole lot into in the book. So a thought about that here.

On the one hand you have the view I'm concerned with, a wholly disenchanted political struggle to bring about the kingdom of God that effectively reduces social justice to a Nietzschean "will to power." As I point out in Reviving Old Scratch, Satan made Jesus that exact offer, and Jesus declined. A point many social justice minded Christians seem to forget.

But if we swing the pendulum too far the other way, we can radically weaken human moral agency, giving too much weight to the influence of the devil and demons. We wind up with "the devil made me do it."

So how do we navigate that middle ground?

One way is to make a distinction between the first- and third-person.

When I talk about this issue in Reviving Old Scratch I'm mainly talking about the third-person, extending grace and mercy to other people. As I argue it, we find empathy for each other when we come to realize "There, but for the grace of God, go I." We recognize how fragile virtue can be in the face of formidable--psychological, social, political, economic, world-historical--forces. True, there are moral heroes out there. But they are heroes because they are rare.

All that to say, attending to the power of these forces creates a capacity for empathy when we observe moral failure in others. The devil works in the third-person. The devil made you do it.

But the devil made me do it? The devil doesn't work as well in the first-person as it absolves us of moral culpability and responsibility.

The issue is this. Our virtue is walking upwind. Love isn't easy, especially not the cruciform love of Jesus. We recognize the force of these very real winds. So when we see others falter and fail we get it. People get blown off their feet. So we extend them grace and lend them a hand.

So the winds are real, but we're called to stand and fight. The problem with the appeal "the devil made me do it" isn't that you've invoked the devil, it's that you've laid down and abandoned the fight. You've let the winds take you. And that's the exact opposite of spiritual warfare.

Spiritual warfare isn't blaming the devil.

Spiritual warfare is the fight.

Neo-Reformed Theology and Suffering: What Happens When God Becomes a Math Problem

There's been some buzz in the Neo-Reformed Watch world about comments some of its leaders have made about God ordaining suffering. Basically, according to some within the Neo-Reformed camp, if God is sovereign then every unfolding event has to be "ordained" by God, a manifestation of God's plan and will.

That creates a bit of a predicament when we're faced with horrific suffering in the world. Does God plan, will and ordain horrific suffering? According to some in the Neo-Reformed camp, yes, because God is sovereign.

I don't here want to get into my specific issues with Neo-Reformed theology regarding the problem of evil. I do want to acknowledge that God can work through and can redeem suffering and that, pastorally speaking, I have friends who have taken great comfort in the notion that God has "a plan" for the pain they are experiencing. My focus here is narrow, upon the claim that God "ordains" suffering. I want to share an analysis about what's going on with Neo-Reformed theology in these instances, why it backs itself into a theodicy corner in reaching problematic conclusions.

The reason Neo-Reformed theology winds up in such bad places is because it's a theo-philosophical system. True, it's a theo-philosophical system that takes its axioms from the Bible, but at the end of the day Neo-Reformed theology is an intellectual theory about God.

Now, the trouble with theories is that you'd like for them to be internally consistent, logical in every point. Otherwise, if the theory is logically inconsistent and self-contradictory, we'd question its truth.

Note well, in all this, how we are thinking about God like a math problem.

And when you think of God like a math problem you end up with issues like those we observe in how Neo-Reformed theology tries to tackle the problem of suffering. Specifically, for Neo-Reformed theory to be logically consistent you have to reach the conclusion that God ordains suffering. The internal consistency of the system demands it.

Again note well: the Bible doesn't demand it, the system demands it.

And when you privilege a theory over the Bible, like the Neo-Reformed often do, you pride yourself on defending the logic of your system to the bitter end, leading you to logically consistent but monstrous results.

Exhibit A: Neo-Reformed theology on the problem of suffering.

To recap, you end up with monstrous results when you are defending the logical structure of a theory.

And at the end of the day, that's what you can compliment the Neo-Reformed camp on. At the very least you can say, "Well, at least they are being consistent." My hat's off to them. They are rigorously consistent. To the bitter end.

Even if it produces monstrous results.

That's what happens when you treat God like a math problem.

Personal Days: Birthday

If 1) I were on Facebook and 2) you were my friend, you'd have gotten a notice that today is my birthday. And I got about that many candles on my cake.

I don't ever make big plans for my birthday. I keep it low key. I simply like to go to dinner and movie with Jana and the boys. That's the only party and present I ever want.

When the boys were little they were annually surprised that the movie they were dying to see was, in some mysterious way, always the EXACT movie Dad wanted to see for his birthday.

Year after year, what an amazing and fortunate coincidence!

Goodness, there was no better birthday present than taking Brenden and Aidan to a movie they were busting to see.

Fond, fond memories.

Christian Pop Music Circa 1950

One last post this week on Summer and Winter Christian themes in Christian music, traditional and contemporary.

Again, as Leah Libresco's essay "The Sun Is Always Shining In Modern Christian Pop" shows, traditional Christian hymns have more negative content compared to popular Christian music, the hymns containing more "Winter Christian" themes.

But what about comparing the Winter Christian themes in Christian pop music from different generations?

Specifically, I've been listening to a lot of Hank Williams lately. And as I think about the themes of Hank Williams' gospel songs, the "contemporary Christian music" of his day, dark themes are very predominant.

And I don't think Hank Williams is an exception here. I bet the gospel music of the '40s and '50s--Christian pop music circa 1950--is significantly darker than modern Christian pop music. Because just like today, the Christian music on the radio in the '40s and '50s, while created for commercial success, eventually found its way into the hymnbooks of Sunday morning worship services.

As a taste, here is one of my favorite Hank Williams gospel songs, a song entitled "The Angel of Death":
In the great book of John you're warned of the day,
When you'll be laid beneath the cold clay.
The angel of death will come from the sky,
And claim your poor soul when the time comes to die.

When the angel of death comes down after you,
Can you smile and say that you have been true?
Can you truthfully say with your dying breath,
That you're ready to meet the angel of death?

When the lights all grow dim and the dark shadows creep,
And then your loved ones are gathered to weep.
Can you face them and say with your dying breath,
That you're ready to meet the angel of death?

When the angel of death comes down after you,
Can you smile and say that you have been true?
Can you truthfully say with your dying breath,
That you're ready to meet the angel of death? 
You can listen to Hank Williams sing the song here.

"The Angel of Death" was once Christian pop music. I can't imagine a song further from what you hear today on Christian radio today. Or in a Christian worship service.

Reviving Old Scratch Now Available On Kindle

I promised to alert readers when Reviving Old Scratch was available on Kindle. So here's the announcement:

Reviving Old Scratch is now available on Kindle.

The "Search Inside" function is also live now on Amazon. So if you'd like to take a peek inside the book can do that now.

Since I'm talking about book related things, I've been making the rounds of various media outlets to talk about the Devil. One you might want to check out is my interview on the Eric Metaxas Show.

Two reviews of the book you can check out are Bob Cornwall's and Jon Dengler's. There's briefer reviews on Amazon as well.

Summer and Winter Revisited: Comparing Hymns with Psalms

I'm still pondering Leah Libresco's essay over at Nate Silvers' 538 blog.

Again, if you've not read the article, "The Sun Is Always Shining In Modern Christian Pop", Leah uses a statistical analysis to make a quantitative comparison between the lyrical content of old Christian hymns and the content of contemporary Christian pop songs.

As Leah's analysis reveals, traditional Christian hymns have more negative content compared to popular Christian music, the hymns containing more of what I describe as "Winter Christian" themes.

And yet, as dark as they are, even the traditional Christian hymns aren't as dark as the Psalms, the hymnbook of the Bible.

I'm reminded here of another quantitative analysis, one done by my ACU colleague Glenn Pemberton in his book Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.

In Chapter 2 of Hurting With God, with the help of Austin Holt, Glenn makes an inventory the content of the Psalms and compares that content with the content of three different songbooks--Songs of Faith and Praise (used by my faith tradition the Churches of Christ), The Baptist Hymnal, and The Presbyterian Hymnal. These would be the same sorts of songs in Leah's analysis.

As I've shared before, according to the system Glenn and Austin used, the three biggest categories of songs, for the Psalms and the three songbooks, were songs of Trust and Thanksgiving, songs of Praise, and songs of Lament. Using these categories Glenn and Austin inventoried the Psalms and the songbooks, calculating the percentage of the songs in each of the categories. (There were more than three categories. I'm just focusing on the biggest three.)

When Glenn and Austin graphed these percentages they found this:

Notice anything interesting?

Note that 40% of the Psalms can be classified as lament. Forty percent of the Psalms is Winter Christian content.

By contrast, the three songbooks don't even crack 20% when it come to lament themes. And two of them don't crack 15%.

Yes, as Leah points out, the traditional hymns are dark, darker that Christian pop music.

But even the hymns aren't as dark as the Bible itself.

Growing Up Shape-Note

Yesterday I pointed you to Leah Libresco's essay over at Nate Silvers' 538 blog. In her article "The Sun Is Always Shining In Modern Christian Pop" Leah described the differences in the lyrical content of old Christian hymns with the content of contemporary Christian pop songs.

These differences struck Leah as she attended a shape-note hymn sing in her town. Which fascinated me, because while Leah called me to weigh in on the theological issues raised by her analysis, I had another connection with her research as well.

I grew up with shape-notes.

If you don't know anything about shape-notes let me introduce you.

While the origins go further back, shape-notes were introduced in America in 1801 as a music education tool. The idea was simple: Help the person reading the music know what note to sing not just by where the note was located on the musical staff, but also by the shape of the note.

As you know, in conventional musical notation the shape of the note is uniform, an oval. But in shape-notes, the oval could be a diamond, square, triangle, and so on, depending upon the note.

More on this in a minute, but in America there have been two main shape-note systems, the four-note and the seven-note.

The four-note system:
The seven-note system:
Shape-notes became hugely popular in the American South for sacred hymnody and congregational singing. There are two main shape-note traditions for congregational singing in the US, each corresponding to the four- and seven-note systems.

The four-note system is the system used by Sacred Harp. Sacred Harp singing is a form of a cappella congregational singing that uses shape-note hymnals. Sacred Harp singing originated in New England, but reached its peak popularity in the American South during the mid-1800s to mid-1900s.

Interestingly, Sacred Harp is experiencing a resurgence today among younger audiences in urban settings.

For more about Sacred Harp watch this trailer for the Sacred Harp documentary "Awake My Soul," and this video about the history of Sacred Harp, its method of singing and its recent renaissance. 

Outside of the four-note Sacred Harp tradition, there is the seven-note tradition found among some Protestant congregations, mainly Southern Baptist, Primitive Baptists and some Free Methodist and United Pentecostals.

And almost all of the non-instrumental Churches of Christ. My faith tradition.

The hymnbooks of these denominations, according to Wikipedia, represent the largest branch of the shape-note tradition. And given that the Churches of Christ universally used shape-notes, I consider myself to have grown up at Ground Zero for shape-note congregational singing.

I've done a bit of digging into the history of shape-notes in Church of Christ hymnals. I'm a psychologist and not a musical historian, but here's the history as best as I could construct it.

The first shape-note hymnal (or one of the earliest) in the Restoration Movement was The Sacred Melodeon, published by Amos Sutton Hayden in 1848 (PDF here). Trouble was, Hayden was on the instrumental side of the Restoration Movement. That debate, between the instrumental and non-instrumental (a cappella only) congregations in the Restoration Movement, eventually led to a split in the movement, with the non-instrumental Churches of Christ being recognized for the first time in the 1906 US Census as a distinct denomination.

After the split with the instrumental congregations, the Churches of Christ began to publish their own hymnals. The first of these was Christian Hymns, published in 1889 by the Gospel Advocate. Christian Hymns did not use shape-notes.

Shape-notes returned and came to dominate Church of Christ pews with the publication of Great Songs of the Church, by E.L. (Elmer) Jorgenson. Great Songs of the Church is considered to be the most influential songbook in the Church of Christ tradition, but the original 1921 edition did not have shape-notes.

But shape-notes were wildly popular in the American South, not only with the Sacred Harp crowd, but also with the church and community singing events held throughout the South in the early 1900s.

A huge influence upon these singing events was the Stamps-Baxter Music Company.

Formed in 1924, Stamps-Baxter would arrange and publish annual paperbacks to be used for these church and community singing events, often called singing "conventions." Many country, blue-grass and gospel standards were first published by Stamps-Baxter in these annual paperbacks, songs like "Just a Little Talk With Jesus," "Farther Along," "If We Never Meet Again," and "Victory in Jesus."

And most importantly for our subject matter, these Stamps-Baxter hymnals used the seven-note shape-note system.

Pressured by Southern demand for a shape-note version of Great Songs of the Church, Jorgenson responded. In 1925 Jorgenson published a shape-note version of Great Songs of the Church, reintroducing shape-notes to the Churches of Christ. Great Songs of the Church (in its later editions) is the hymnal I grew up with.

Other hymnals followed. Each one, very often, triggered by doctrinal squabbles in the movement.

For example, in the first half of the 1900s the Churches of Christ were roiled by controversies regarding premillennialism. Jorgenson endorsed premillennialism, making his songbook suspect in the eyes of those who rejected the doctrine.

In order to have a hymnbook free of any whiff of premillennialism, L. O. (Lloyd) Sanderson and the Gospel Advocate revised and republished Christian Hymns. And in order to compete with the popular Great Songs of the Church, Christian Hymns II also used shape-notes.

Another influential songbook in the Churches of Christ, responding to other doctrinal issues going on that the time, was Sacred Selections, published in 1956 by Ellis J. Crum. Sacred Selections also used shape-notes, and was a favorite among very conservative Churches of Christ. Sacred Selections is notorious for re-writing the lyrics of classic hymns to make them conform to "Holy Writ" (i.e., Church of Christ doctrine).

Beyond the "Big Three" hymnbooks in the Churches of Christ--Great Songs of the Church, Christian Hymns and Sacred Selections--all of which used shape-notes, another popular hymnbook was published in 1971, Songs of the Church by Alton Howard. Songs of the Church also used shape-notes.

In short, all the major hymnbooks of the Churches of Christ tradition have used shape-notes. No matter what Church of Christ you visited, even if you were pulling a different hymnbook from the pew, you were always singing with shape-notes.

To be raised in the Churches of Christ meant a capella singing, and growing up shape-note.

Summer and Winter: Modern Christian Pop vs Shape-Note Hymns

Leah Libresco is one of my favorite writers. If you aren't following her blog Unequally Yoked you should. And if you struggle with prayer be sure to check our her book Arriving at Amen

Two weeks ago Leah called about an article she was writing for Nate Silver's 538 blog over at ESPN. If you know 538 you know its specialty is bringing quantitative and statistical analysis into political and cultural conversations.

Leah had come across shape-note singing of old Christian hymns at local sings and noticed a difference between the lyrical content of those hymns and the content of contemporary Christian pop songs. Specifically, Leah plotted the ratio of negative to positive words across these genres.

You can read about Leah's analysis, and some of my reflections about her findings, in her article "The Sun Is Always Shining In Modern Christian Pop."

Also, if you don't know anything about shape-note singing I'll be posting about that tomorrow.

Personal Days: Summer Reading

Before setting out for summer family vacation travels I spend a ton of time narrowing down the books I plan to take with me, the core of what will be my summer reading.

I think I've just about narrowed down the list, though I'm always tweaking. But right now here's my summer reading list:

Walking the Nile, by Levison Wood.

The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Volume 2 : The Everlasting Man, St. Francis of Assisi, St Thomas Aquinas, by G.K. Chesterton.

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, by Brad Gooch.

The Givenness of Things: Essays, by Marilynne Robinson.

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, by Yuval Levin.

Hank Williams: The Biography, by Colin Escott.

Romans 8.35-39 (KJV)

shall separate us
from the love of Christ?
shall tribulation,
or distress,
or persecution,
or famine,
or nakedness,
or peril,
or sword?
it is written,
For thy sake
we are killed
all the day long;
we are accounted
as sheep
for the slaughter.
in all these things
we are more
than conquerors
through him
that loved us.
I am persuaded,
that neither death,
nor life,
nor angels,
nor principalities,
nor powers,
nor things present,
nor things to come,
nor height,
nor depth,
nor any other creature,
shall be able
to separate us
from the love of God,
which is in Christ Jesus
our Lord.

Edging Toward Enchantment: Dripping Sacramentals

I've suggested in the last few posts that we can edge back toward enchantment by embracing a sacramental ontology. We can do this by recovering a Catholic imagination, coming to see the world as "charged with the grandeur of God."

But as I pointed out in the last post, the paradox here is learning to set aside particular places, times, activities and things as uniquely sacred, hallowed and sacramental. Re-enchanting our days involves adding a sacred texture to our lives.

We can re-enchant time by embracing the liturgical calendar and fixed hour prayer. As a simple example, over the last few years Jana and I have been very intentional to celebrate all twelve days of Christmas, from December 25 to Epiphany on January 6. We keep the tree up through the 6th and keep playing Christmas music. We keep our house enchanted--with music, lights and nativity sets--for the entire liturgical season. We don't tear everything down on December 26, rushing into the disenchanted New Year's day celebrations of football and watching the ball drop in Times Square with celebrities. Personally, from a celebratory stance, I wholly ignore New Year's Day. I find it an unwelcome intrusion into the Christmas season.

As another example, I've also embraced fixed hour prayer. I work hard to pray Morning and Evening prayer each day, along with Compline before closing my eyes to sleep.

Beyond time I also try to enchant space. I do this by using and embracing sacramentals. Sacramentals are material objects that are set aside and/or blessed and are used, in the words of Wikipedia, "to excite pious thoughts and to increase devotion."

Candles, prayer beads, prayer ropes, religious medals, scapulars, statues, kneelers, pictures, icons, oil, ash, palm leaves, water, incense, crosses and crucifixes. 

To help myself edge back toward enchantment I've filled my life with sacramentals. I carry prayer beads and wear a prayer rope. I wear a religious medal (depending upon what I want to spiritually focus on I rotate between St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Michael and St. Thérèse of Lisieux) or a crucifix. Icons fill the walls and shelves of my office. A crucifix hangs on the wall above a prayer kneeler. There are candles. I listen to Gregorian chants.

At Freedom Fellowship we also like to use oil when we pray over people.

And though it's a bit unorthodox, I'd even argue that tattoos can be sacramentals. Material reminders of the sacred.

Years ago, inspired by Nadia Bolz-Weber's liturgical calendar tattoos, I got a tattoo of Rublev's icon of the Trinity on my left arm.

When I finally got to meet Nadia last year I made sure we got a picture of our sacramental ink.

You'll also note in that picture with Nadia the religious medal I'm wearing. And if you could see it, there's a prayer rope on my right wrist. The rings on my left hand also have religious symbolism.

I drip sacramentals.

It's all very intentional. No matter where I look on my person or in my personal spaces I have a sacramental there to remind me of the sacred and holy. Because in my experience, sacramentals help us re-enchant space, edging us back toward enchantment.

Let Us Visit Christ Whenever We May

Blessed are the merciful, because they shall obtain mercy, says the Scripture. Mercy is not the least of the beatitudes. Again: Blessed is he who is considerate to the needy and the poor. Once more: Generous is the man who is merciful and lends. In another place: All day the just man is merciful and lends. Let us lay hold of this blessing, let us earn the name of being considerate, let us be generous.

Not even night should interrupt you in your duty of mercy. Do not say: Come back and I will give you something tomorrow. There should be no delay between your intention and your good deed. Generosity is the one thing that cannot admit of delay.

Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the needy and the homeless into your house, with a joyful and eager heart. He who does acts of mercy should do so with cheerfulness. The grace of a good deed is doubled when it is done with promptness and speed. What is given with a bad grace or against one’s will is distasteful and far from praiseworthy.

When we perform an act of kindness we should rejoice and not be sad about it. If you undo the shackles and the thongs, says Isaiah, that is, if you do away with miserliness and counting the cost, with hesitation and grumbling, what will be the result? Something great and wonderful! What a marvelous reward there will be: Your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will rise up quickly. Who would not aspire to light and healing.

If you think that I have something to say, servants of Christ, his brethren and co-heirs, let us visit Christ whenever we may; let us care for him, feed him, clothe him, welcome him, honor him, not only at a meal, as some have done, or by anointing him, as Mary did, or only by lending him a tomb, like Joseph of Arimathaea, or by arranging for his burial, like Nicodemus, who loved Christ half-heartedly, or by giving him gold, frankincense and myrrh, like the Magi before all these others.

The Lord of all asks for mercy, not sacrifice, and mercy is greater than myriads of fattened lambs. Let us then show him mercy in the persons of the poor and those who today are lying on the ground, so that when we come to leave this world they may receive us into everlasting dwelling places, in Christ our Lord himself, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

--Saint Gregory of Nazianzen

Edging Toward Enchantment: Recovering a Catholic Imagination

In the last two posts I argued that recovering a vision of the immanence of God is a way we might edge ourselves back toward enchantment. This vision of immanence involves embracing a sacramental ontology where we come to experience the world, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, as "charged with the grandeur of God."

Another way to say all this is that we edge back toward enchantment by recovering, in the words of Andrew Greeley, a "Catholic imagination."

Here's how Greeley opens his book The Catholic imagination:
Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. Because these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.
You can make a good argument that disenchantment was the unwitting outcome of Protestantism. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age makes this argument.

For example, one of the impulses of Protestantism was to shift the spiritual load onto the laity.  Holiness was no longer to be the occupation of "spiritual specialists," the clergy, monastics and saints. Everyone was expected to be holy. The domain of holiness and saintliness shifted away from monasteries, convents and cathedrals to the town, the realm of work and family life.  As we know, there are no saints in Protestantism.

These trends also effectively disenchanted the sacred spaces of Catholicism. There is no clearer example of the disenchantment wrought by Protestantism than comparing a Catholic cathedral to the auditorium where Protestants gather to worship. The cathedral is an enchanted, sacred and holy space. The Protestant auditorium is a disenchanted, utilitarian and functional space.

Beyond people and space, time was also disenchanted by Protestantism. The holy days and seasons of the liturgical calendar of the church was gradually replaced by the time-keeping of the town, the secular clocks and calendars of the marketplace and the nation state.  

Finally, the demise of a sacramental ontology was also brought about by the Protestant rejection of the "real presence" of Christ in the Eucharist. The Eucharist became symbolic rather than sacramental, pointing to rather than participating in the life of God.

Things weren't supposed to work out this way. By releasing God into the world the hope was that God would be found everywhere. But the exact opposite happened. By disenchanting people (the saints), space (the cathedral), time (the liturgical calendar) and the Eucharist, Protestantism banished the holy, the sacred and the enchanted.

Basically, when every place is holy no place is holy.

So there is a dialectic here. We need to recover an experience of the immanence of God, an experience of the whole world being charged with the grandeur of God. But in order to cultivate these experiences we must create and experience places, times, people and events as specifically and particularly holy, sacred and enchanted. This is the Catholic imagination.

Edging toward enchantment means cultivating a sacred texture in life, recovering holy time and space. When it comes to hallowing, a disenchanted life is flat and homogeneous. There is no sacred texture.

By contrast, an enchanted life involves cultivating a sacred texture to life, where moments, places and experiences are set aside for wonder, awe, mystery and transcendence.

Enchantment is hallowing, the recovery of a sacred texture to life as witnessed to in the Catholic imagination.

Personal Days: Prison Bible

I'm a bit of a Bible nerd. I have all sorts of bibles in all sorts of bindings and translations. It's crazy how many bibles I own.

For study I like translations like the NRSV and the ESV. For daily devotional reading I like the King James Version.

But for the bible study out at the prison I like the New Living Translation.

The NLT is my go-to translation whenever I'm doing any public reading of the bible. Read aloud, the NLT is fresh, clear and dramatic. That was one of the goals of the NLT, it was meant to be read aloud. And from my experience, the NLT delivers on that score.

So this is a picture of my prison bible. My NLT with a blue leather cover.

Edging Toward Enchantment: A Sacramental Ontology

As I noted in my last post, we can edge back toward enchantment by emphasizing the immanence of God.

As I pointed out in that post, when you emphasize the transcendence of God in an age of doubt the whole thing tends toward deism. That is, we believe in God existing "above creation" (transcendence) but have increasing doubts, as modern scientific people, in things like miracles. And a God existing above or outside of creation who doesn't do miracles is the God of deism.

In a sense, transcendence increases the burden of faith by upping the ante on miracles. The actions of a transcendent God in our lives, almost by definition, have to be outside intrusions--miracles. To believe, then, in the existence of God or, at the very least, the activity God, you must also believe in miracles, the very thing many modern Christians have trouble with. Basically, when we emphasize the transcendence of God--in sermons, songs and prayers--we place strain upon the weakest parts of a disenchanted faith.

So as I'm arguing it, I think we can shift all this and edge back toward enchantment by emphasizing the immanence of God--God indwelling creation.

In his book Heavenly Participation Hans Boersma describes how we can embrace the immanence God by recovering what he calls a sacramental ontology. According to Boersma, a sacramental ontology argues for the real presence of God in the world. Consequently, a sacramental ontology can also be described as a participatory ontology. The life of creation participates in the life of God.

In a sacramental ontology there is an overlap between God and creation--an intermingling of the earthly and the heavenly, the human and the divine, the mundane and the holy, the secular and the sacred, the natural and supernatural, the material and the spiritual.

With a sacramental ontology the world is "haunted" by God continuously from the inside rather than through episodic and miraculous intrusions from the outside. Creation itself, because it is "charged with the grandeur of God," is miraculous, sacred and holy. Creation is an ongoing and unfolding miracle rather than a disenchanted machine occasionally interrupted--if God answers our prayers--by an external miraculous force.

To rethink a famous metaphor, creation isn't a mechanism, a watch separate from the Watchmaker. Creation isn't a machine. Creation is alive

Tweaking some diagrams from Boersma (page 23), we can visualize the sacramental ontology this way:

Boersma makes the point that the sacramental, participatory link between God and creation goes beyond a relationship based solely upon covenant, as important as that is. Boersma writes,
There is, I believe, a great deal of value in highlighting this covenantal relationship. But the insistence on a sacramental link between God and the world goes well beyond the mere insistence that God has created the world and by creating it has declared it to be good. It also goes beyond positing an agreed-on (covenantal) relationship between two separate beings. A sacramental ontology insists that not only does the created world point to God as its source and "point of reference," but that it also subsists or participates in God.
Biblical texts Boersma points to that are supportive of this sacramental ontology:
Acts 17.27-28a
God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’

Colossians 1.17
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Edging Toward Enchantment: The World Is Charged With the Grandeur of God

I think a critical piece of the puzzle in recovering enchantment is embracing the immanence of God.

To unpack that very important word, immanence describes how God indwells and permeates creation. Immanence can be contrasted with transcendence, the way God is separate from creation.

Immanence speaks to how God is in creation, transcendence to how God is outside creation.

The irony of transcendence, often celebrated in praise music as the "awesomeness" of God, is how it tends toward disenchantment. With God exalted as King ruling over and above creation, God is subtly pulled out of creation. Rather than indwelling God evacuates creation.

Transcendence also tends toward deism, furthering our disenchantment. When transcendence is emphasized, highlighting God's separateness and Otherness from creation, God's actions in the world are conceptualized as intrusions, miraculous suspensions of the daily flux of cause and effect. But as science has progressed these miraculous intrusions are harder to believe in. And when you starting doubting the miracles of the transcendent God you, by default, find yourself in deism. A God who is out there, somewhere, but a God who doesn't miraculously intrude upon creation.

Transcendence + Doubt (mainly in miracles) = Deism
In light of all this, we edge back toward enchantment when we begin to emphasize the immanence of God, God indwelling creation. Miracles aren't the intrusions of a transcendent God but the enchantment of creation itself.  

No one described this better than the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
       It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
       It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
       And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
       And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
       There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
       Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
       World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Edging toward enchantment involves emphasizing the immanence of God, experiencing the world as charged with the grandeur of God.

To Love Is To Be Vulnerable

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

--C.S. Lewis

Edging Toward Enchantment: From Deconstruction to Reconstruction

When you first start struggling with doubts and disenchantment you enter into a phase of deconstruction. You start sifting through and analyzing everything you believe with the goal of stripping faith down to the stuff you really, truly believe.

Trouble is, you can go so far down this path that by the time you're done there's nothing left. You keep whittling faith down until, eventually, all that is left is scraps on the floor.

But deconstruction is important. Faith must and will go through the fires. In the words of Paul, when our faith was a child it talked like a child, thought like a child and reasoned like a child. Faith has to grow up and put childish things behind it. But that can be painful. There are attractive things about a childish faith. It's simpler. It's consoling. It's certain. To grow up in faith is to step into complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty and anxiety. And there are times when we wish we could turn back the clock of faith, to go back to simpler times.

But you can't go back. I often tell my students that there is a threshold of doubt, that once you start asking certain sorts of questions there is no going back. When it comes to faith there is a class of questions that, once you get to them, just don't have any answers. When you reach these questions you'll live with them for the rest of your life.

During a season of deconstruction it makes sense to read a lot of stuff that tests and pushes your faith. Stuff that lightens the load of faith but keeps you hanging on in the face of your doubts and disenchantment. For example, there was a season of deconstruction in my life when I was attracted to death of god theology and its spin on religionless Christianity. Hey, I thought, maybe I can be a Christian without believing God!

Now, if you don't struggle with doubts you likely don't understand the attraction of that idea. A Christianity without faith in God seems ludicrous to Christians who are devout, certain and orthodox. But if you're struggling with faith the notion of a religionless Christianity seems like a gift, a way to lighten the burden of faith while keeping connected to the faith. Often the tether is behavioral, a focus on orthopraxy (the right practice of the faith) than on orthodoxy. Doing things rather than believing in things.

The thing I'm trying to point out here is that people are attracted to these strange notions because they are a form of coping with doubt and disenchantment. For the most part, Christians aren't attracted to things like death of god theology, religionless Christianity or Christian atheism because they are trying to be radical, progressive, cool, relevant or avant-garde. No, they reach these ideas because they are the final stages in the journey of deconstruction, lightening the load of faith to make it easier to carry in the face of doubts and disenchantment. This constellation of ideas--a faith without faith, a religion without God--is just about as light as faith can get before it completely evaporates.

And when you get to this point something has to happen.

In my experience, a radically deconstructed faith just isn't sustainable. It can be for a season, even a long season. This is a place where you end up after you have journeyed through the fires. Faith here is in its lightest, most insubstantial state. But over time the unbearable lightness of faith starts taking a toll.

The first place you'll start noticing the unbearable lightness of faith is in your attitude about going to church. What's the point of rolling out of bed on Sunday morning? You hardly believe in any of this stuff, so the entire experience of church is just one, massive doubt trigger. Church is too faithful--all the songs and sermons so full of conviction--to be tolerable. Our faith has become so wispy and insubstantial that we experience full-bodied expressions of faith jarring and uncomfortable. Even unseemly. A lyric of a song makes us wince. A sermon illustration slaps us in the face.

It's hard to go to church when your faith has become so light. So you stop going. Now you have a faith without God and without a church. It's just you, alone, with all the doubts in your head.

Many of us have been in or are currently in this exact spot. It's a fine, perfectly predictable spot to reach. Having been there myself hear no judgment on my part. I get it. My point is simply that I don't think you can stay in this spot forever. Perhaps some can. I do think a lot of people can be there for a very long time. I was in this spot for many years. But eventually, the unbearable lightness of faith becomes intolerable. This being betwixt and between belief an unbelief is just not sustainable.

Something has to give. If you want to maintain a hold on faith the season of deconstruction has to be followed by a season of reconstruction. But a lot of doubting and disenchanted Christians never make the decision--and it is a decision--to commence with the work of reconstruction.

In the lament psalms the season of deconstruction is followed by a season of reconstruction. A turn is made. A jarring turn, but a turn nonetheless. Lament, doubt and disillusionment is followed by doxology, praise and thanksgiving. Faith has a rhythm. At some point, doubting Christians must force themselves to read the psalms all the way to the end. We need to practice making the turn.

Same goes for the prophets. The prophets rage and despair. But a steady diet of rage and despair is not sustainable. So the prophets are also poets of grace and hope. Like the psalms, the prophets make the turn. Deconstruction is followed by reconstruction. Faith must find this biblical rhythm if it is to be vibrant and sustainable.

Edging back toward enchantment is a part of this journey toward reconstruction. Edging back toward enchantment is the intentional practice of reading the lament psalms and the prophets all the way to the end. It is the intentional commitment to let mystery, and even faith, season our diet of questions. The intentional commitment to not let our doubts and objections be the primary intellectual and emotional filter of Christian community and worship. The intentional commitment to check our doubts and cynicism at the door.

Edging back toward enchantment is practicing faith. Not practicing as faith. But just what I said: practicing faith.

Personal Days: My Suitcase

I love retro things from the 1950s and 1960s.

Two summers ago, when we were visiting Rachel Held Evans and her husband Dan in Dayton, TN, Jana and I were going up and down Market Street shopping in the antique and junk shops. In one of them I found this vintage suitcase, pictured here.

I fell in love with it.

When I travel this is the suitcase I take. As people wheel their handled roller-board suitcases up and down the airport, I carry this.

And you know what? I get tons of compliments.

When the suitcase comes through the security scanners. "I like that suitcase." When I'm standing in line to board the plane. "I love that! I haven't seen a suitcase like that in years." When I'm taking it down from the overhead storage. "That suitcase is awesome."

True, some of my friends make fun of my old-school suitcase. I've enduring some teasing for my retro taste.

But I love this suitcase. When I show up at your church or speaking event, it'll be there in my hand.


Am I now
seeking human approval,
or God’s approval?

Or am I
trying to please people?

If I were still pleasing people,
I would not be
a slave of Christ.

    --Galatians 1.10

In light of the work of Brene Brown I was recently interrupted by this text.

How much am I trying to please people? Addicted to pleasing people? Obsessed with pleasing people? Terrified of not pleasing people?

How much shame-resilience is needed to be a slave of Christ?

Edging Toward Enchantment: Updrafts of Enchantment

Many Christians struggle with disenchantment, but our experience isn't wholly characterized by disenchantment. We're still haunted. Here and there we still bump into the magic. We're interrupted by beauty and ugliness. We're caught up by wonder and awe. We suspect there is more to the universe than the equations of particle physics. We revel in the mystery.

Yes, we have our doubts. But we also, from time to time, doubt our doubts. Belief nags at us, so we crave help with our unbelief.

In his book A Secular Age Charles Taylor argues that modernity isn't a wholly disenchanted space. Modernity is characterized by cross-pressures of belief and unbelief, enchantment and disenchantment, immanence and transcendence. Yes, there are the downward pressures of disenchantment, which collapse the spiritual and transcendent into the physical and the immanent. But here and there in the secular world we also experience updrafts of enchantment, a pull toward the heavens.

As Taylor writes (p. 549), the secular is "that open space where you can feel the winds pulling you, now to belief, now to unbelief."

Of course, each person experiences the cross-pressures of these countervailing winds to different degrees. Some feel the downward pressure of disenchantment more than others. Doubts are heavier, belief is harder. Still, if you're a Christian you're at least haunted by Christianity. And all of us, like I said, bump into the magic from time to time.

So I think the first thing we have to do, if we want to edge toward enchantment, is name and recognize these cross-pressures and then learn to surf the updrafts of enchantment.

Our church retreat is on the Frio River. The Frio has carved out a small canyon in the Texas hills. So when you sit by the river and look to the top of the canyon you can watch the birds circling, riding the rising warm air from the bottom of the canyon to the top. As the air warms in the Texas sun it rises. This rising air is called a thermal, and birds will ride these thermals upward. Like an elevator of air.

These thermals aren't strong winds or updrafts. They are gentle and subtle.

When I think about edging toward enchantment I think about those birds on the Frio river. I think about catching subtle updrafts of transcendence, thermals of enchantment in our day to day lives.

Boiled down to its essence, I think you keep in touch with enchantment by intentionally attending to the thermals of enchantment, subtle as they are, to rest in them and ride them upward. I think a lot of our struggles with disenchantment stem from failing to attend to the updrafts of transcendence in our lives. We binge on disenchantment, ruminating on everything that gives us doubt. But we don't give equal time to the magic and mystery.

For many of us, reconnecting with enchantment will be an intentional, attentional practice.

Enchantment is like a bird spreading its wings to feel and search for that subtle thermal updraft.