"The canonical literature does not offer a settled, coherent account of reality; rather it provides the materials for ongoing disputatious interpretation." - Walter Brueggemann

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Scary Truth: The Important Difference Between Despair & Disorientation

From the film The Abyss (1989)
I'm a skeptic. For me, it's hard not to deconstruct, doubt, and criticize. So when it comes to my spiritual life, I have a pretty hard time with what Lesslie Newbigin calls "proper confidence."

I just wrote in a poem/song, "Everybody thinks their god is really cool / He kinda looks like them and tells'em what's true / So if someone asks if I'm confident in what I've got / Lean your face against your hand and tell'em I'm not." That's my way of saying we can never be certain of our construal of reality, and our individual versions of the truth tend to resemble our selves. Because of this, it seems imprudent to me be certain of what we believe is true.

Our finitude always limits what we can say with sure knowledge, and so I think it's important to be self-aware and self-critical, calling into question our presuppositions and assumptions.

However, when this attitude crosses over into the spiritual realm, I personally am left with an agnostic "faith." There is a constant warring within myself between belief and unbelief. To a certain extent, that's fine with me, but at times this battle makes genuinely calling myself a Christian problematic, as I don't always feel like one, nor do I always want to be one.

Seeking to be self-critical, I acknowledge how convenient Christianity is for me. I grew up with it. I've been passionate about it my whole life. Plus, I have a terrible fear of death that is alleviated by belief in an afterlife, particularly one in which everything wrong with the world is made right and we all live in a peaceful, love-centered community. Indeed, Christianity often seems too good to be true. But recently I've been learning the difference between despair and disorientation.

Let me explain what I mean.

As someone who is eager to progress toward the truth, I often find myself disoriented. If you're open-minded and you seek to learn a lot, from time to time you have your whole world shaken by something you read or think. This experience is daunting and, at first, maybe a little terrifying.

I call it 'disorientation'. You were settled on a particular idea (orientation) and that idea was compromised or even shattered (disorientation). I have come to love this experience, as it has always proved to be liberating and has always led me one step closer to the truth.

But there's also despair. Despair does not lead one closer to the truth. Despair halts progress. It is debilitating and life-sucking. Despair in truth-seeking happens when one cannot see any way but hopelessness and nihilism.

I know despair as well as I know disorientation. I experience it if I think about death and the possibility of nonexistence long enough--and that's why I'm beginning to think my convenient belief in Christianity is not really so bad.

Uncertainty, though unavoidable, often brings me before nihilism, as the inability to be assured of whatever version of the truth I happen to espouse makes me wonder if I can justifiably believe anything at all. It is a real struggle, but I'm beginning to see the weakness of sustaining the on-the-fence life I've been living.

I know I'm too afraid to let go of Christianity. I know at the end of the day that letting go of my faith altogether would cost too much for me. If I were to stop being a Christian--and I've tried several times--I would drift into despair, and my fear of death would take its tole on my mind.

Once, I was watching a movie and started to imagine myself on my death bed, about to say goodbye to the life I've always known. I had to stop the movie because I couldn't keep myself from crying.

Death anxiety is legitimately unhealthy. The stress it causes does damage to the brain and raises one's risk of cardiovascular disease. If Christianity isn't true and believing it is ends up meaning I lived in an ignorant bliss, so be it. I would rather die believing a lie than live in anxiety.

Learn the difference between despair and disorientation. The latter is often vital for one's truth walk; it enhances life. The former is debilitating and life-sucking.

Whatever conclusions you come to, choose life.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Little about My New Song "Barbarella"

I usually don't like to explain my songs, but the message behind this one I think is important, and the execution is too subtle to catch. If you haven't heard it yet, you can listen to it here.

I was inspired by the Jennifer Lawrence fiasco. In case you don't know, J-Law's phone was hacked and nude photos of her were leaked on the internet. The response consisted of a wave of social media activism standing against the objectification and violation of women. This song belongs to such a stance.

It is a kind of reflection on how our society objectifies and violates women, and even how I myself collude with that system. In the song, I embody the evil so as to depict how ugly it is. The darkness in the song represents the darkness in how our society treats women. It's an enslaving system, not only enslaving women--demanding that they look and be a certain way, and assaulting them when they don't--but also enslaving men as they become addicted to a fetishized interpellation of women that really doesn't exist.

By that I mean that we have created an ideal of women that is illusory. Men developed through TV, movies and porn expectations and desires that they seek women to fill. Of course, no woman can, and so there is dissatisfaction. This contributes to the downfall of marriages, because men go into it with these absurd qualifications that they impose on their wives, only to see them not met. Instead of letting the dream die, they let their marriages die. What we need is what I like to call "sexual atheism"; that is, declaring that there is no sex god--my precious ideal of a woman and of sex does not exist, and I need to be content with the reality.

I wanted this song to be a kind of shock treatment for the naive objectification of women. I wanted to pull back the curtain and say, "This is all your exploitation is: madness and oppression." I wanted it to be like watching the devil in The Exorcist possess that little girl and shout to the priest "F*** him!" (referring to the other priest). To me, that says, "This is what is going on underneath the surface of your desire to have sex with that model--it's just a demon yelling 'F*** her!'" That's what I wanted this song to be.

The sound clip at the end of the song comes from the movie White Zombie (1932). The scene shows a bunch of people (seemingly slaves) working to maintain some machine, and they're being whipped. I think in the movie it's purposefully reminiscent of the Israelite slavery in Egypt in the Old Testament. I used the clip specifically to represent slavery. You can hear the whips, and that creaking is so eerie. It symbolizes the modern slavery that is the objectification, exploitation, and oppression of women, and the simultaneous slavery of men to sex-worship.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Books for Recovering Fundamentalists

Growing up in American evangelicalism, we are not taught multiple ways of looking at the Bible. "The Bible says it, that settles it," is the motto. Of course, there are silent, unspoken presuppositions and interpretations that dictate how one sees Scriptural passages, but that's another story. For young adults like myself who came out of this environment, being subjected to the rest of the world can be daunting and ground-shaking. Finding many weaknesses in the faith that we were surrounded by growing up, it's easy to want to drop Christianity altogether, and many do. But for those of you who have experienced this but still find something in Christianity worth holding onto, I recommend the following books. But even if you haven't had that experience, these are some great books.

The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus by Dale Allison

I just finished this recently and it's incredible. You may have to supplement it with some other historical Jesus reading, but as it stands it's a fantastic book from a leading historical Jesus scholar on the reconciliation of faith with biblical criticism. Allison offers some pretty uncomfortable conclusions for the common evangelical. It's a book I wrestled with, but ultimately one I found freeing and profound. I actually threw the book across the room at one point!

Love Wins and Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell

Bell is a must-read for recovering fundamentalists. He's an easy read, but a challenging one. He offers a lot of great insights, and even more great questions. If you're a recovering fundamentalist, I would start with Bell.

Is God to Blame? by Greg Boyd

This is a book for those who wrestle with theological issues like the problem of evil. I haven't read anyone stronger than Boyd on this topic. He tears apart the "blueprint worldview" that attributes everything that happens in life to the work of God, and offers a "warfare worldview" in which pervasive evil and suffering are the results of free agents who so often choose evil over good. Boyd gives you a lot of comfort and a lot to think about.

The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann

While this isn't specifically a book for recovering fundies, it is a must-read for all Christians, and I think young progressive Christians will get a lot from it. Every new person I have read it comes to me with the same reaction: "This book blew my mind!" Brueggemann uses the Bible in a way that I never heard used growing up. He talks about the Bible's teaching on social justice, and the countercultural message it presents to society. This book is gold.

The Bible Tells Me So and The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns

Enns is incredible. Like Bell, he is a perfect person for ex-fundies to read. His books are challenging, but also liberating. I would read The Bible Tells Me So first, and then The Evolution of Adam if you want a good intro to Genesis as mythic poetry instead of a historical book that describes the literal origin of the universe. If you haven't been subjected to his ideas before, you will never look at the Bible the same after reading him.

If the Church were Christian by Philip Gulley

This one is so good because it's so subversive. Gulley is a heretic, straight up. There's something so interesting about reading what a heretical pastor has to say and what his experiences are. Whatever your beliefs about Christianity are, Gulley will challenge at least some of them. I don't endorse everything he says, I think he's wrong about several things and the book has weaknesses, but it's a very thought-provoking read. Whether you're cheering him on or making this face O_o, you will get a lot out of this book.

The God-Shaped Brain by Timothy Jennings

This one is not as controversial as the others. It's coming at Christianity from a psychology perspective, and what a perspective! Jennings provides a new angle from which to think about the implications of our Christian beliefs. Although he gets a little evangelical-y at times, so much of what he says is so beautiful.

In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen 

Really, anything by Nouwen is excellent. I have never read another devotional author more consistently edifying. His theology carries such beauty, and the way it transfers from mind to heart and practice is compelling and inspiring. It is a tiny book that can easily be read in one or two sittings, but it's gold, pure gold!

Sacred Word, Broken Word by Kenton Sparks

If you wrestle with the problems of Scripture while maintaining a desire to recognize its authority, Sparks is essential, along with Enns. He makes the case that the same dilemma we face with the problem of evil, we face with the problem of Scripture; that is, Scripture, like creation, is corrupted by human evil, even if it is thoroughly a work of God. The book is insightful and challenging.

What else should be added to this list?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Why Christians Should Be Wary of Dave Brat

My Richmond district voted on Tuesday between Jack Trammell and Dave Brat, both of whom are professors at Randolph-Macon College here in Richmond. On Wednesday, we found that Dave Brat won with 61% of the votes. No doubt, many of my friends are excited about this victory. There was once a John Daniel who would have been excited as well, but that is not the case with the present me.

While I have many reasons for being disappointed, as Brat's political views are essentially the opposite of my own, there are certain reasons for disliking him that I think all Christians can (and should) appreciate.

The chief reason for Christians to be wary of Brat is because of his admiration for Ayn Rand. Like Paul Ryan, Brat is heavily influenced by Rand (hear Ryan talk about her, here), and also like Ryan, Brat should be criticized by Christians for this influence. Even Charles Colson, a Republican Christian, issued a call to Christians to be wary of Ryan because of his admiration for Rand (see the video, here). Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and many others are also among her admirers.

Rand was a writer and philosopher. She is the author of the infamous Atlas Shrugged, a novel about a heavily regulated market/highly intrusive government inspiring the wealthy to abandon society. The wealthy are Atlas, holding up the world, and if Atlas shrugs, the world collapses. The point is, we should cater to the needs and desires of the wealthy, for they are the ones who sustain society. Her philosophical system is known as Objectivism. It emphasizes the virtue of selfishness, so that each person pursues his/her own happiness, considering his/her own interests above all others. With this, Rand condemned altruism. (See Rand talk about her philosophy, here.) For a brief, comedic introduction to Rand, see the special Last Week Tonight with John Oliver did on her, here.

Any devout Christian can see the blatant divergence from Christian principles here. The virtue of selfishness? That is the exact opposite of what Jesus would call virtue.

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. (Isaiah 5:20)

Because Rand's teaching is the opposite of Christ's, Daniel Burke talks about "The anti-gospel of Ayn Rand." Along the same lines, Tim King says, "To follow Ayn Rand and her vision, one must give up Christ and his Cross." Similarly, Gary Moore says, "For Rand, the dollar sign was a symbol of selfishness and material productivity that was to replace the cross, a symbol of sacrifice and eternal concerns." 

Following Rand's philosophy led Brat to write a paper defending usury. Usury is the exploitation of the needy by the rich. It includes charging heavy interests rates on debts (think PayDay Loans). It's also technically illegal (although, it commonly comes in forms that are technically legal, even if morally reprehensible).

Make no mistake: Brat does not represent Christ in his political/economic thinking. Christ would condemn Rand's thought (just as she condemned his!).

Christians should be wary of Brat, for it seems as though Brat is not wary of whether or not his views are consistent with the Gospel, with the mission and message of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Consistent and without God," a poem

How was I supposed to know you were out here all alone?
No, don't you give me that crap
Let's just go to a bar and see what's on tap

Bet you thought you'd come out on top
Payin'em big just to make a shit flop
You don't have to tell me that I'm not cool
but I'm not sorry for breaking the rules

We all need someone else's home
We all need someone else's home
Hey man, I'm gonna need your home
So c'mon, go out and get me a room

I'm not gonna try and be okay
Not gonna make an effort to do the right thing
Everybody's telling me I have to be afraid
if I want to be successful, get laid and paid

Take up a collection for the filthy rich
You see, they're the ones who own all the needs
The more you get, the more you need
And so I ask the television, "What's my dream?"

We all want mercy; mercy, please!
Well, I gave you mercy and you gave me the police
We all want mercy; mercy, please!
I gave you mercy, you gave me the police

Everybody thinks their God is really cool
He kinda looks like them, and he tells'em what's true
So if someone asks if I'm confident in what I've got
Lean your face against your hand and tell'em I'm not

I was talking to God the other day
He was tellin me how he doesn't talk to people that way
But if you want to live, boy, you better die
And if you don't want to die, then man, you better stay alive

We all want a calm and consistent hand
We all want a certain 'n golden land
Make sure it's cool and it has a lot of rules
and doesn't ask me nothing, and doesn't tell me I'm a fool

Don’t ask me nothing, don’t tell me I’m a fool

Thursday, October 16, 2014

3 Characteristics of Truth-Seeking

The title of this blog might make me sound presumptuous or big-headed. "Oh, so you understand truth and you're going to explain it to me?" The irony is that I believe very much the opposite. I agree with Cornel West that we can never know Truth, but can only focus on the way to it.(1) It is in that vein that I offer the following remarks about truth-seeking.

I share this because I am passionate about truth-seeking and because I wish more people would think about these things. My comments come from a lot of reading and thinking and exposure to philosophers and theologians who have wrestled with life's biggest questions. I don't assume any superior knowledge or intellectual high ground. I could be misguided. If you think I am, please share your thoughts with me. I want to be a humble truth-seeker, and if anything I say comes off as arrogant, please let me know so I can grow in wisdom and understanding.

With that, here are 3 things I've learned about truth-seeking.

1. Truth is Subversive

I keep learning again and again that truth does not care about what I want. It doesn't care what makes me comfortable, or what I've always believed, or what I like. Truth is subversive.

The way to truth will never look like a continual affirmation of what we believe. It must be regularly challenging, scrutinizing to many of our beliefs and presuppositions. Truth-seeking is arduous, convicting, unsettling, and even distressing at times.

Why? Because of our finitude. People don't realize how arrogant they are when they claim certainty. How can you be certain when you're so finite?

So when we're assessing something's truth-value, we need to make a distinction between what is traditional, likeable, comfortable, and what is true. Oftentimes, I will find myself resisting a certain conclusion, not because I think it's false, but because I don't like it.

The answer to "Is this true?" will often not coincide with the answer to "Do I like this?" or "Is this coherent with what I believe?"--but it is a much more important question.

"To live outside the law, you must be honest" - Bob Dylan

2. Truth-Seeking Will Cost You

I'm realizing more and more that for a lot of people, altering a belief in something is not about whether or not the evidence points them in an alternate direction, but it's rather about how much the change costs.

If someone believes A and is presented with evidence for B, what is often more important is how much it costs to adopt B in place of A, so that if the cost is too high, B will be rejected even if the evidence points to it.

What is comfortable is often made more important than what is true. But what is true is often uncomfortable, and if we are honest, we will let truth-seeking change us. It might mean letting go of beliefs, traditions, and assumptions that we grew up with, or that we're passionate about, or that we just really like--but what ultimately matters is not what's comfortable and likable, but what's true.

However, it should be said that cynicism is not equivalent to truth. Just because you make the negative conclusion that makes certain people uncomfortable, doesn't mean you're right. For example, oftentimes in biblical scholarship there's a negative conclusion to make (like, "this event did not actually happen") and a positive conclusion to make ("this event did happen"). It is flawed to assume the positive conclusion because it's more comfortable, but it is equally flawed to assume the negative conclusion because it's challenging to believers.

"There is nothing so stable as change" - Bob Dylan

3. Questions Will Lead the Way

Jesus--maybe the most subversive person to ever live--said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 18:3). Children are led by questions. They're always asking them. They are bewildered by the world, and they want to understand it, so they ask questions.

We lose our child-likeness when we think we have life figured out. It's the arrogance of adulthood to suppose that because we have come as far as we have, we have arrived at truth. Child-like truth-seekers will never stop asking questions, and so will never stop growing in truth.

Questions are so beautiful. They guide us to uncharted territory. They teach us not just about reality, but about how to think. Asking questions is to truth-seeking what lifting weights is to strength-building. The more you do it, the more you understand, and the more equipped you are to understand even more.

If something is true, asking questions will lead you to it. This is why I suspect that those who condemn asking questions are secretly aware that what they believe does not have truth-value. If it had truth-value, the question-asking and the evidence would suggest it.

I wish more people would teach kids to keep asking questions, instead of trying to spoon feed them propaganda and control the boundaries of their minds.

"I was born knowing the truth. Everybody is. Trouble is, they get it knocked out of them before they can walk." - Bob Dylan

What have you learned about truth-seeking? What should be added to this list?

(1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfD3X3f5C_w