The Strange Violinist

Drink the Water?

I have a friend who works in water treatment for the City of Buffalo.  This persons job is to help provide clean water to the people of our City.  So the question is, do they drink tap-water?

They know what's in it!  They know where it comes from!  Their job is to tell people its safe to drink!

So the question is, do they drink the water?


This is, of course, a wonderful parable...

...there once was a City that got its drinking water from a particular man.  This man had become rich selling the water, but he wouldn't touch the water himself...

The question is most easily applicable to us as followers of Jesus.  When we encourage others to 'drink the water,' are we hypocrites?  Are we embracing the teachings of Jesus in our own life?  Do we live in community?  Are we learning to love our enemies?  Are we growing in our love for God?  Are we learning a life of joy and celebration?  Are we sacrificially generous?  Are we engaged in friendships with non-Christians?  Are we learning how to throw great parties?  Are we mentoring others in the ways of Jesus?

...are we indeed His followers?

Do we love Him, and His wisdom, or do we love the idea of Him?

Do we drink the water?


My friend, does drink the tap water...


The Problem

"The problem with the church is never that we don't have enough money, or people, rather the problem with the church is the quality of its people.  And that begins with me."

Dallas Willard


Lateral Thinking

A truck drives under a low bridge and gets stuck.  It can't go on, and it can't back out.  The driver calls his dispatcher who calls a tow truck, but the rig is still stuck.  Soon enough the highway patrol is called out and along with them a construction crew.  They are in the middle of trying to removed one of the struts from under the bridge when a small boy comes up to the foreman and says, "Sir, I think I know how you can get that truck out."  The foreman first dismisses him, but then, thinking better of it, asks the boy what he has in mind.

"Let the air out of the tires," says the boy.


Sometimes the problem isn't the problem.  Sometimes the way we see the problem is the problem.


Who or What?



Jesus First

What is a Christian?
A student of Jesus

Who is Jesus and how do we know?
Jesus is defined by the activity of the Spirit and the testimony of the Word.

How do we interpret the Word, and understand the Spirit's leading?
Community and Tradition

What do we learn from the traditions of the Church?
We learn about specific creeds and deeds.


In general, there is nothing wrong with the way we answer each of these particular questions.  The problem comes when we have answered the first question with the second, third, and fourth answers.

Rivers or Reservoirs

I had lunch with a new friend the other day.  In the course of the meeting he shared with me that he has learned to treat his money like a river, not a reservoir.  That God provides in order for him to give, and that he has to keep 'the flow' going in order to keep it healthy.  I felt like that was a really good picture of the Christian life in all areas.

Whatever God gives us is to be treated like a river.  Prayer, mentorship, joy, food, hospitality, prophecy, righteousness, courage, discipline, and service, as well as money.

So what has God given you?

Are you giving it away?


2 “I will make you into a great nation 
   and I will bless you; 
I will make your name great, 
   and you will be a blessing. 
3 I will bless those who bless you, 
   and whoever curses you I will curse; 
and all peoples on earth 
   will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12:2-3


Combatting Injustice

"We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Discipleship House for Churches

Our church has a men's discipleship house.  In this house are several men who love God, and are learning to love each other.  They do not always like each other, but they are walking this out in a common commitment to Jesus, community, and service.

Our church shares a building with several other organizations.  We love God and are learning to love each other.  We do not always like each other, but we are walking this out in a common commitment to Jesus, community, and service.


It happened the other day, I had left a meeting at the men's house where I was helping a couple of brothers deal with conflict, and had walked into a meeting at the church, where we were dealing with our own conflict, that it dawned on me...

...God had set me up.  This was a discipleship house for churches.


Good ol' Patrick

"It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace-but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"

-Patrick Henry-

"There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave."

-Patrick Henry-

Acts Pt II


Two Types of Knowing: Pt II

Spanish Words and an Epistemology of Love:

The Spanish words "conocer" and "saber" are both translated into English as "to know."  However, they don't mean the same thing.  Saber means to have knowledge about something, whereas conocer means to have relationship with a person.  I know (saber) which cupboard the plates are in but I know (conocer) Jim who owns the house, the cupboard, and the plates.

This speaks to the previous post of Lewis' reflections.  In short, there is a kind of knowledge that comes from study, and there is another kind of knowledge that comes from love.  It is this second kind of knowledge that NT Wright refers to as an 'Epistemology of Love.'  Whereby we are learning about things from the inside, as it were, instead of from without.

Two Types of Knowing

“Meditation in a Toolshed"
  C. S. Lewis 

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

But this is only a very simple example of the difference between looking at and looking along. A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes casual chat with her is more precious than all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. lie is, as they say, “in love”. Now comes a scientist and describes this young man's experience from the outside. For him it is all an affair of the young man's genes and a recognised biological stimulus. That is the difference between looking along the sexual impulse and looking at it.

When you have got into the habit of making this distinction you will find examples of it all day long. The mathematician sits thinking, and to him it seems that he is contemplating timeless and spaceless truths about quantity. But the cerebral physiologist, if he could look inside the mathematician's head, would find nothing timeless and spaceless there - only tiny movements in the grey matter. The savage dances in ecstasy at midnight before Nyonga and feels with every muscle that his dance is helping to bring the new green crops and the spring rain and the babies. The anthropologist, observing that savage, records that he is performing a fertility ritual of the type so- and-so. The girl cries over her broken doll and feels that she has lost a real friend; the psychologist says that her nascent maternal instinct has been temporarily lavished on a bit of shaped and coloured wax.

As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction, it raises a question. You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the “true” or “valid” experience? Which tells you most about the thing? And you can hardly ask that question without noticing that for the last fifty years or so everyone has been taking the answer for granted. It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists; that if you want the true account of sexual love you must  go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you  want to understand some “ideology” (such as  medieval chivalry or the nineteenth-century idea of  a “gentleman”), you must listen not to those who lived inside it, but to sociologists.

The people who look at things have had it all  their own way; the people who look along things  have simply been brow-beaten. It has even come  to be taken for granted that the external account of  a thing somehow refutes or “debunks” the account  given from inside. “All these moral ideals which  look so transcendental and beautiful from inside”,  says the wiseacre, “are really only a mass of biological instincts and inherited taboos.” And no  one plays the game the other way round by  replying, “If you will only step inside, the things that look to you like instincts and taboos will suddenly reveal their real and transcendental nature.”

That, in fact, is the whole basis of the specifically “modern” type of thought. And is it not, you will ask, a very sensible basis? For, after all, we are often deceived by things from the inside. For example, the girl who looks so wonderful while we're in love, may really be a very plain, stupid, and disagreeable person. The savage's dance to Nyonga does not really cause the crops to grow. Having been so often deceived by looking along, are we not well advised to trust only to looking at?   in fact to discount all these inside experiences?

Well, no. There are two fatal objections to discounting them all. And the first is this. You discount them in order to think more accurately.  But you can't think at all - and therefore, of course, can't think accurately - if you have nothing to think about. A physiologist, for example, can study pain and find out that it “is” (whatever is means) such and such neural events. But the word pain would have no meaning for him unless he had “been inside” by actually suffering. If he had never looked along pain he simply wouldn't know what he was looking at. The very subject for his inquiries from outside exists for him only because he has, at least once, been inside.

This case is not likely to occur, because every man has felt pain. But it is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honour, and the like, without having been inside any of them. And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters. You go on explaining a thing without knowing what it is. That is why a great deal of contemporary thought is, strictly speaking, thought about nothing - all the apparatus of thought busily working in a vacuum.

The other objection is this: let us go back to the toolshed. I might have discounted what I saw when looking along the beam (i.e., the leaves moving and the sun) on the ground that it was “really only a strip of dusty light in a dark shed”. That is, I might have set up as “true” my “side vision” of the beam. But then that side vision is itself an instance of the activity we call seeing.  And this new instance could also be looked at from outside. I could allow a scientist to tell me that what seemed to be a beam of light in a shed was “really only an agitation of my own optic nerves”.  And that would be just as good (or as bad) a bit of debunking as the previous one. The picture of the beam in the toolshed would now have to be discounted just as the previous picture of the trees and the sun had been discounted. And then, where are you?

In other words, you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another.  Therefore, if all inside experiences are misleading, we are always misled. The cerebral physiologist may say, if he chooses, that the mathematician's thought is “only” tiny physical movements of the grey matter. But then what about the cerebral physiologist's own thought at that very moment? A second physiologist, looking at it, could pronounce it also to be only tiny physical movements in the first physiologist's skull. Where is the rot to end?

The answer is that we must never allow the rot to begin. We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything. In particular cases we shall find reason for regarding the one or the other vision as inferior. Thus the inside vision of rational thinking must be truer than the outside vision which sees only movements of the grey matter; for if the outside vision were the correct one all thought (including this thought itself) would be valueless, and this is self-contradictory. You cannot have a proof that no proofs matter. On the other hand, the inside vision of the savage's dance to Nyonga may be found deceptive because we find reason to believe that crops and babies are not really affected by it.  In fact, we must take each case on its merits. But we must start with no prejudice for or against either kind of looking. We do not know in advance whether the lover or the psychologist is giving the more correct account of love, or whether both accounts are equally correct in different ways, or whether both are equally wrong. We just have to find out. But the period of brow-beating has got to end.


Heros and Saints

On a large cruise ship, an elderly woman fell overboard, immediately afterward there was another splash.

A young man, swam toward her and managed to save the elderly woman.  The two were brought back onboard the ship.  For his act of bravery, the Captain of the ship called for a special ceremonial dinner.  The entire crew, and all of the passengers were present as the parents praised the young man for his heroic dive into the sea.  
They presented him with a gift certificate, and a plaque, as well as a free pass to ride the cruise line for life.  The Captain repeatedly called the young man a "hero," and asked him to share a few words.
The young man only said one thing:
"I just have one question, after the woman fell in, who pushed me off of the ship?"


Who's Shoulders did I Stand On?

"In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letters and Papers from Prison

Consumerism and Mission

"In religion, nothing fails like success."


Do you agree?

"A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will lose both, and deserve neither"

-Benjamin Franklin -


Holiness is an Embrace, not a Rejection

"Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A Role for Intentional Ambiguity

Teaching people to paint masterpieces simply can't be done in an over-structured environment, for this reason, sometimes the best place to learn to swim is the deep end of the pool:


I think this is a big part of the reason why Jesus was so often so ambiguous.  Often, the best way to prevent someone from understanding something is to answer their questions.


Spontaneous Expansion


The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church

Allen's Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes that Hinder It is an essential companion volume to his Missionary Methods. The primary argument in Allen's work is that the Spirit would quite naturally lead men to work for the advancement of the gospel in such a way that the subsequent result would be new local churches. It is this 'spontaneous expansion' that we see as characteristic of the early Church, as well as Churches in countries antagonistic towards the gospel. Allen goes on to diagnose the current reality (which is anything but 'spontaneous expansion') as a result of fear. Our fear of the uncontrolled move of the Spirit of Jesus is what causes us to rely upon organizational principles to do what can only be done by the saint who is surrendered over to the Power of God.


Missionary Methods


Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours

What a phenomenal book! Allen discusses all aspects of Church oversight. In spite of an emphasis on cross-cultural church planting, very little of this book loses application within our own cultural context. From finances, to authority, to preaching, to discipline; Allen reveals the fundamental differences between the method's of Paul and ourselves; namely, a fundamental trust in God's Spirit in the Church.


The Seeds of Destruction

I was recently involved in an interesting conversation.  It took place between a christian woman in her 60's and christian man in his 30's.

Cheryl was lamenting the destruction of the family unit, and the family bond.  She was expressing her frustration that her own children (who were now John's age) had left home, moved to a different city, and now she had less time to see her children and grand-children.  She was pointing out that this pattern of life is not 'christian.'  John was trying (tactfully) to point out that Cheryl's generation had begun the cultural trend toward individualism and the fracturing of relational ties, but she seemed to fail to grasp the point he was making.

The irony of this conversation, is that it took place in a suburban living room, very far (in geographical distance) from Cheryl's ancestral home, not to mention very far (in social distance) from everyone in the neighborhood.  The irony is that Cheryl is a member of a (not quite) mega-church, that she came to attend after abandoning the church family she grew up in, and raised her children in.  The irony is that Cheryl's way of life is the seed which bears fruit in her children.

The boomer generation created suburban isolationism, and fragmented society with its individualism.  Today's youth culture is much more aware of its need for relationship, in fact, it may very well be the pursuit of authentic community that has driven Jane's children to move away from her suburban lifestyle.


Why Tents are Best: Sojourning as a Prime Ministry Strategy

We like the phrase 'soft architecture' not least because it brings to mind edible structures, but primarily because of the functionality implied.  Christianity is a missionary religion.  In many ways our faith was birthed in a syncretic impulse, taking fundamentally Jewish concepts, commitments, and creeds and translating them into a plethora of non-Jewish cultural paradigms.  As such we must stay flexible with our practices.

We are committed to a person, not a tradition; to a grand strategy, not a particular set of practices; to a community, not an institution.*  This necessitates that our fundamental posture towards life and ministry must be that of a pervasive flexibility.  We must constantly be learning, re-evaluating, listening, and re-organizing.

In short, we are sojourners; our philosophy of life must be nomadic, we cannot afford to built permanent structures, because then we will be committed to maintaining THEM instead of what is central.  This applies to everything we do; worship styles, preaching styles, small group ministries, children's ministry; as well as things like how we pray, what books we read, where we spend our money, and how we organize our time; it even applies to where we work, how we raise our children, and the theological commitments we have made.


*This, of course, doesn't need to imply that traditions, practices, or institutions are evil, or even avoidable, merely that they aren't primary.  Indeed, they should only be implemented insofar as they aid the pursuit of what IS primary; Jesus, Mission, and Church.


Our Gift, or His?

"Discipleship is not an offer that man makes to Christ."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Cost of Discipleship


My Change pt IV

My own change has been the result of one simple conversation.  It took place in my head.  I have to assume the other voice was the Holy Spirit.  In reevaluating my political position I was confronted with the plight of other human beings.  My response was to ask, "Am I my brother's keeper?"  The other voice said, "someone else asked that question first."  The Christian answer is obvious, "Yes!  I am indeed my brother's keeper!"

As I evaluated myself it became obvious that it was this question that prompted me to avoid contact with those who were poor, suffering, or simply different.  As I look at the lifestyle of conservatives I have to acknowledge the same pattern.  Our political platform declares, "I am not my brother's keeper," and our lifestyle simply reflects that declaration.  We may give to organizations, we may pray for the homeless, and we may even purchase free-trade goods; but we would never invite homeless people over for dinner, invite addicts to pray for us, or give up patronizing international conglomerates altogether.  Such tactics hit too close to home, and impinge upon far too many of our comforts.  In short, I didn't really believe that individuals are the solution to social problems, at least not if the individual in question is me.  That is just a line I could use to blind myself to the reality that I could indeed be the solution if I weren't so greedy, lazy, and self-centered.

I confess, I still have some fairly 'libertarian' opinions about policy.  I still think the government is possibly the worst place to look for help in solving any kind of problem.  But I have come to despise the way those policy opinions so often go hand in hand with private decisions that are patently non-Christian.


My Change pt III

Now here is where things get tricky (we'll keep it to two main points):

1) Systemic issues exist.

Systems exist; roads, power grids, delivery services, food production and distribution, education, etc.  Where systems exist, they benefit some more than others, and may even benefit some at the expense of others.  Irrespective of the good intent of individuals within that system, the system itself is constructed in such a way as to promote the welfare of some, and not others (this can be intentional or unintentional).

Examples abound.  Historically disenfranchised communities are the typical sites for social malcontents and environmental pollutants; we put our industry and waste-water treatment, prisons and half-way houses, in poor and marginalized neighborhoods.  Our system for choosing how zoning laws will be put into effect is set up to give certain people control, and inhibit others from entering the process.

The Libertarian position assumes that all individuals start at the same place, have the same opportunities and live in the same world.  But we are each embedded into the systems of our society at different points, and that necessarily shapes what is possible for individuals to accomplish, irrespective of their drive, work ethic, and innate ability.

2) Communal responsibility is necessary to form responsible individuals.

Individuals are a social project!  Individuals within our society are put together by their interactions with other individuals, groups, systems, and their environment.  Individuals are formed by the relationships they have with parents, teachers, neighbors, coaches, and peers.  Individuals are formed by their experiences in classrooms, on teams, in the playground, and in family units.  Individuals are formed by the educational system, the political system, and our infrastructure.  Individuals are formed by the physical world around them.

All of these factors shape an individual.  They do not predetermine the course of his/her life, but they do direct it.  The individual still has a will with which to respond to the world, but the world provides significant limits as to what is possible and what isn't.  Our unique cultural paradigms helps us to make sense of the world, but they also limit what is possible.

A woman who works hard, graduates college, earns a good salary, and is a faithful wife and loving mother, owes a serious debt to society.  She was shown the value of hard work, told she could go to college, given the tools to succeed in school, taught the value of family solidarity, and was born with the ability to pursue these things.  She did none of these things herself.  Only one thing was hers, the diligent pursuit of what was taught her.  For her diligence she should be commended, but she stands on many shoulders.

A man who lives on disability, abuses drugs and alcohol, and fathers children with many women without concerning himself with their upbringing is owed a serious debt by society.  We taught him the value of free money and self-destructive pleasure, we raised him in a social setting that was fractured and violent, and we never let him suspect that there was any other way to exist.  (I know, I know, you are pulling your hair out at this point.  But ask yourself, is it possible that this person learned to do this without being shown how?  I know, I know, YOU didn't do it... but then, thats kinda my point.)



My Change pt II

Libertarians are accused of insensitivity to issues of public good, and private misfortune, i.e. what happens when we could pave the road at the cost of a few tax dollars; what happens when we could advance our own economic interests abroad with a larger 'defense' budget; what happens to individuals who are unable to pay for their families basic living expenditures.  Big government folks assign these tasks to centralized, tax funded structures, and they see Libertarian policy restraint as a refusal to address these issues.

Libertarians, however, respond by pointing to individual, private action as the proper way in which these situations should be dealt with.  For the Libertarian, it is true that public good and private misfortune should be addressed; at issue is how they should be addressed.  If the individual is the pinnacle of our society, then the individual is the key to addressing these issues.  Individuals, acting independent of their governing structures, will address issues of public good, and private misfortune, and will do so much more efficiently and effectively than governments are able to...

...that is the Libertarian assumption.

The Libertarian is in favor of redistribution of wealth and the maintenance of infrastructure, s/he just believes that the private individual is able to achieve them more effectively and efficiently than public institutions.  Furthermore, the Libertarian believes that public attempts to accomplish these goals move forward at the expense of individual liberty, and are therefore ideologically unsound as well as practically irresponsible.


My Change pt I


I don't usually talk about my own personal politics because they are so often intertwined in such unhealthy ways with our faith.  But I think this is a spiritually helpful line of thought, so here goes...

Over the past 10-15 years my understanding of politics has changed significantly. I used to be a self-avowed Libertarian.

Most people would consider libertarianism to be 'ultra-conservative' and in some ways that is true, but in other ways Libertarianism is fundamentally opposed to conservative politics. The explicit underlying philosophy of Libertarianism is 'initiate no violence.' This is applied in the international sphere, the national sphere, and the interpersonal sphere; which means no preemptive war, no government regulation of personal sexuality or drug use, strict demarcation of individual rights, as well as no taxes. Many of these positions look scandalously conservative, but many look scandalously liberal.

Libertarians would argue (and I would still argue) that they are the party that consistently applies a political philosophy to our political system in order to craft a platform. Republican and Democratic platforms are a hodgepodge of contradictory impulses. Republicans are clamoring for government intervention and taxes on some issues (lets say, military expenditures and reproductive health) and simultaneously decrying government heavy-handedness on others (business regulation and fire-arms restrictions). Democrats are the same.

In many ways I continue to hold to the explicit Libertarian philosophy of 'initiate no violence,' and the underlying distrust of collective policy-making that goes along with it. But there is an implicit philosophical commitment within Libertarianism that I have come to disavow.

That implicit commitment is this: the sanctity of individualism as an ethical and political philosophy.

The individual and his/her rights to life, liberty, and property, are untouchable; there is no reason whereby any of those rights can be impinged upon, except where the exercise of those rights infringes on the rights of other individuals.  This means that projects for the common good cannot be promoted at the expense of individual good, nor at the cost of limiting the exercise of individual rights.  Again, the only common good that this political philosophy will work toward is the maintenance of inviolable individual rights.


Automatic Ethics

15"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
21"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' 23Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'
Matthew 7


Its not about what we do, its about who we are!  But who we are will naturally and automatically be reflected in what we do.  We do not say, "do this," or, "don't do that," but rather we say "put on Christ."  We do not say, "this is God's will," or, "that is not God's will," but rather we say, "be transformed and then you will know God's will."  The Christian admonition is to embrace the work of the Spirit, Christian ethical decisions are a response to that embrace.  In this way Christian 'ethics' are automatic.



"Stop using the word 'missionary' and stop sending people out to the 'mission field.' Or keep the word, but also commission public school teachers, and dentists, and CPA's, and construction workers, and those people who take your money at the toll booth. We're all disciples, all ground is holy, every interaction and conversation is loaded with divine potential, anytime, anywhere. Ordain everyone, call everyone a minister, invite the whole church to be on staff."

Rob Bell


Christian Materialism

"It is God's earth out of which man is taken. From it he has his body. His body belongs to his essential being. Man's body is not his prison, his shell his exterior, but man himself. Man does not "have" a body; he does not "have" a soul; rather he "is" body and soul. Man in the beginning is really his body. He is one. He is his body, as Christ is completely his body, as the Church is the body of Christ"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Creation and Fall / Temptation: Two Biblical Studies


The Secret pt VI

Contemporary Gnosticism: The Story we Find Ourselves In

The fascinating and prescient aspect of 'the Secret' isn't its content.  As we have breifly discussed, it isn't all that new, or insightful.  First, it is as old as Christianity (which isn't a bad thing).  Second, it advocates the dismally naive idea that we just need to find out what we want, want it more, and then the world will be a better place (which isn't a good thing).  The insight of 'the Secret' is its framing narrative, its packaging.

In point of fact, 'the  Secret' isn't alone in this, much of the contemporary gnostic discussion is framed in the same way, whether it is Dan Brown's 'DaVinci Code,' or Elaine Pagels 'Beyond Belief.'  The framing story always goes something like this: 'ancient wisdom of significant power has always been known to those iconoclastic few who attempted to share their wisdom with the masses, but were silenced and persecuted by conspiracies of powerful elites who were threatened by the democratic nature of that wisdom.'

Contemporary gnostics have managed to capture the popular imagination as the defenders of democracy and egalitarianism, as a persecuted minority, as an explosively radical and powerful movement, and as the purveyors of a hidden truth.  Setting aside the simple historical fact that gnosticism has never been all that radical, and never been persecuted, because it has never been politically dangerous to those in power, it remains a remarkable feat of marvellously succesful marketing!

It is, of course, historically false to see gnostics as radicals who threatened the status quo.  They were never persecuted for their claims in the way Christians were and are to this day.  It is the Christian narrative that threatens the political authority of nations with allegiance pledged to the sovereign hand of God.  (It is precisely this radical, explosive, subversive, power that is bleeding out of the church in the bastardized forms of faith that we see so prevalent in the West.)

It is the Christian narrative that provides the moral imperative for egalitarianism and democracy (although the Greeks were responsible for the political form).  Gnosticism was actually an elitist sect, with tiers of purity that formed a hierarchy, with those outside viewed as beyond the pale.  The Christians were the ones lifting up the poor and marginalized of society; admitting slaves and women to not only enter the fellowship, but to lead it; serving and helping their pagan neighbors.

The only claim the gnostics make that IS true is the claim to esoteric truth.  The Christian church has a long history of publicizing its creeds.  The gnostics like to hide theirs...

...in our final post we will look at just what this marketing angle has to say about our culture, and what that might mean for the church.


The Secret pt V

Contemporary Gnosticism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

We've looked at the good and the bad of New Age beliefs, now lets take a deeper look at what the implications might be for contemporary Christianity.

The Ugly:

1) Bastardized Christianity
Just as Westerners have bastardized the Gnostic tradition, we have bastardized the Christian tradition.  We have taken bits and pieces of data from the Biblical framework and have embedded them in a completely foreign framework.  From eschatology to ecclesiology, soteriology to pneumatology, we have kept the biblical terms but redefined much of what they mean.  We have kept the characters, but changed the story.
2) Ascetic Christianity
Christianity has become a religion that denies the world, denies pleasure, and denies passion.  Even in the places where we are able to enjoy the world, we do so with an apologetic stance.  We call it 'worldly' to enjoy culture, music, art, wine, food, dance, and other forms of beauty.
The biblical faith, however, is one that embraces the creation as God's good work.  The biblical faith embraces pleasure and sees it as a gift from a wise and loving Father.  The biblical faith seeks to encourage and direct our passions, not to eviscerate us into a dull and sober existence.   Contemporary gnosticism is, in this way, much more biblical than contemporary Christianity!
3) Powerless Christianity
Alongside our asceticism, contemporary Christianity has lost its practical wisdom and transformative power.  We have removed so much of contemporary life from the power of the gospel by removing so much of life from the sphere of the gospel.  We label university education and film-making 'secular' activities and then lament that professors and film-makers don't engage in their work with Spirit-led aims.  We label construction and medicine 'secular' activities and then wonder why carpenters and doctors don't see the need for the Holy Spirit to guide their work.  In short, we do not think God cares much about anything that happens outside of the 'sacred' arena.  Unfortunately this is the arena in which we spend most of our time.


The Secret pt IV

Contemporary Gnosticism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

We've looked at some of the positive attributes of contemporary gnosticism, now lets continue with a look at how the teachings of 'the Secret' are contradictory to reality, and antithetical to God's Kingdom.

The Bad:
1) The path to accomplishing our purposes requires more than 'believing.'
The so-called 'Law of Attraction,' whereby one thinks and desires something in order to attain it, is sorely misleading.  We cannot get what we want by wishing for it.  Although it is absolutely true that desire is a part of the process, there is also much more involved.  Wise understanding about the nature of the world around us is needed, and a practical course of action by which our goals can be attained, not to mention a resolute commitment to that course, and a practiced diligence.
2) Truth does indeed exist, whether or not we are inconvenienced by it.
New-Age spirituality's embrace of 'inner truth' coincides with a willingness to ignore universal truth claims.  We cannot have what is contrary to reality.  This includes spirituality.  Not all paths lead to fulfillment, and not all paths lead to God.  Either the claims of Christianity are true, or they are not; either the resurrection happened, or it didn't; either Jesus is divine, or he isn't.  One must chose.
3) We aren't the only power at work in the world.
Contemporary gnostic navel-gazing downplays the reality of other actors effecting our reality.  If it is true that I have power, then it must also be true that other humans have power, and their power can impinge upon my life.  As well, there are beings other than humans who exercise power over us.  Demonic forces are indeed real, and have the ability to effect our world.  What's more, God Himself is an actor in our world, and He is the true power at work in our Universe.  A belief in the inherent power of individual human beings must be tempered by these truths; indeed the power inherent in us must be submitted to God in order to become truly powerful and truly good.  Which brings us to the next point...
4) Our identities are broken, and so our desires are corrupted.
Ancient gnosticism prescribed the renunciation of desire, contemporary gnosticism encourages the pursuit of desire.  The genius of Jesus' ethical teaching is that neither course of action is the correct one; our desires must be retrained before they can be pursued.  Human beings are a walking jumble of alienation, angst, fear, and pain.  Encouraging a human, broken in such a way, to look deep within and pursue whatever is found there, is a recipe for disaster.  New Age teachings are blind to the simple truth that evil in the world results from the pursuit of untrained desire.


The Secret pt III

Contemporary Gnosticism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If you are familiar with contemporary New-Age teachings, or if you simply watched the videos in the previous post, then you should be able to spot the obvious lies.  But the most effective lies are half truths and partial deceptions.  This is no exception and a deeper look will be illuminating.

So lets look at the Good in contemporary gnosticism, the Bad in it, and then we will look at the Ugly in contemporary christianity.

The Good:
1) The emphasis on human potential.
The power and potential of human beings is real and indeed immense! We are the image of God, set in the garden as a mirror to reflect God out to the created order and to reflect the worship of creation back to God.  We are indeed created to rule and reign in God's authority; we have been vested with the power to re-create the universe!
2) The focus on tapping into our deepest desires.
The pursuit of something bigger than ourselves is vital to our own health and that of the world around us.  Dreams are to be encouraged and pursued!  Our desires do indeed have the capacity to take us into the realm of something larger and more comprehensive.  Even more, the desires that flow out of our identity should not be repressed; it is indeed dangerous to deny who we are.
3) The awareness of energy in all things.
The universe is indeed full of vibrancy and life; the rocks cry out, "Hosannah," the oceans reveal glory, the mountains display righteousness.  In a universe that contains the Incarnation, material reality is indeed imbued with deep theological significance!
4) The embrace of a holistic spirituality.
Spirituality should indeed effect everything in our life; family, housing, occupation, relationships, are all impacted by the spirituality we embrace


The Upside of Consumer Habits?


I couldn't disagree more...

The Secret pt II

Bastardized Gnosticism

Gnosticism, and ancient spiritual philosophy, is making a resurgence; even to the point of the popularization of ancient gnostic texts.  Now ancient gnosticism was characterized by several defining emphases: a disgust of the material world and the eschewing of physical pleasure; a belief in esoteric wisdom (hence the name); a commitment to the inner spark of divinity of some human beings; and the goal of escaping from the prison of the material world through the pursuit of that inner spark and ascetic practices.

Contemporary Western gnostics have (in true Western form) taken bits and pieces of the ancient forms, and used them to suit their own purposes...  Contemporary gnostics are attracted primarily to the concept of inner divinity, but of course, they democratize it; each human carries the spark of divinity, unlike the ancient beliefs.  Wisdom remains esoteric and otherworldly to the contemporary gnostic, but the asceticism of the ancient way is rejected for a hedonistic pursuit.  In short, contemporary gnosticism has bastardized the old; where the old was the renunciation of desire, the new has become the unshackling and divinizing of personal desire.

No where is this contemporary gnostic impulse better displayed than in 'The Secret.'  A popular book, concept, teaching, film, movement.

The following two video clips highlight this for us:

The Secret

The Power


The Secret pt I

The Western Approach to Culture

There is a phenomenon that I have observed in our culture that I rather abhor...  perhaps you have observed it yourself?

Have you ever met a 'buddhist' or a 'hindu' who grew up in a nominal christian home in a middle-class suburb of America, visited India and bought a necklace and came back calling themselves a Hindu?  They don't own a Bhagavad Gita, don't worship in shrines, don't (in point of fact) know the first thing about Hinduism, they just like proclaiming, "namaste," over everyone they meet.  It is the aesthetic of Hinduism that they love.

Our culture predates on others, cannibalizing them for the parts we like and leaving the rest of the carcass to rot.  We then take those parts, devoid of their original intentions and significance, and we use them for our own purposes.  Yoga is perhaps an obvious case of this kind of bastardization, but examples abound.  American Christianity is itself bastardized in this way; a child removed from it's lineage and brought up in another.  We will return to Christianity shortly...

The point is, we refuse to accept a tradition or a culture on its own merits and instead deconstruct it to create our own syncretic hybrid.  This would not be such a problem if we didn't label such things 'Hinduism,' or 'Christianity.'  It is as though we adopt the bastard child, but don't allow her the use of our family name.