Friday, February 29, 2008

My Brief but Happy Brush with Bill Buckley

This past Wednesday, William F. Buckley died. He was 82. Best known as a bastion of conservative thinking, he was a novelist, newspaper columnist and master sesquipedalian (that’s a Buckley-like word, which I freely admit I had to look up!). To understand the success of the Ronald Regan era, one probably needs to go back to Buckley.

My only real acquaintance with Buckley came as a result
of stumbling upon his television show Firing Line one day
back in the early or mid 80’s. I was flipping through the channels when I came upon him interviewing an interesting looking old man. That old man was Malcom Muggeridge, a British journalist who had converted to Christianity late in life and to Roman Catholicism even later. What made me stop turning the channels was nothing more than the physical appearance of Muggeridge. But it was their conversation about Christianity that fascinated and transfixed me.

As I recall, I myself did not identify as a Christian then. I was young, and had at the time other more fleshly interests than what struck me as the ethereal and cerebral interests of Muggeridge and Buckley. But still I was transfixed.

That was the only episode of Firing Line I ever watched, my only real and sustained brush with Buckley. But it turned out to have a profound effect on my own conversion, though it would only be in retrospect that I would locate it within my own Christian narrative.

And I am remembering now something Muggeridge said of conversion, something that resonated with me then and resonates with me still. He said to Buckley, as I recall (although I could be running together in my memory that interview and one of Muggeridge’s books),

Some, like the Apostle Paul, have a Damascus Road experience…No such experience has been vouchsafed me; I have just stumbled on, like Bunyan’s pilgrim, falling in the Slough of Despond, locked up in Doubting Castle, terrified at passing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death; from time to time, by God’s mercy, relieved of my burden of sin, but only, alas, soon to acquire it again.

Like Francis Schaeffer, there is much in Muggeridge that I passionately disagree with. For example, he seemed to me to be a kind of theological determinist, to believe that particular instances of horrific suffering and evil are part of the script God has written for the world and the particular human beings afflicted by those particular instances of horrific suffering and evil likewise God scripted. Yet also like Schaeffer, he was instrumental in my early Christian formation. And were it not for Bill Buckley and Firing Line it seems unlikely that I would ever have come into the timely orbit of Muggeridge, and unlikely too that I would have been introduced to the likes of Simone Weil, Kierkegaard, Chesterton and others to whose work I would be introduced by Muggeridge himself. I’m quite grateful that I was introduced to the work and thought of these folks at the time I was introduced to it. And so I'm glad I stumbled upon Bill Buckley lo those many years ago. Thank you, William F. Buckley, Jr. Thank you.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Speaking of Music

If you're in the Grand Rapids area on Friday night, get yourself to Schuller's Books and Music on 28th Street for the great sounds of Ellery. If you're not familiar w/this young, husband/wife duo, you need to be! Have a listen. See you there. 7:30.

I Love Rock-n-Roll....And Home

My spiritual life has always had the feel of journey about it. The phenomenology of that journey is that of always traveling but never arriving. And if it’s true that you can take a person’s spiritual temperature by the music they listen to, then mine would register a fever, a symptom of homelessness and the hunger for a home I often feel.

When I first began teaching philosophy at Calvin College I was given all 8:00 a.m. classes. I grew to hate walking into the classroom at that godforsaken hour. It was like walking into a morgue, as a veritable sea of pale, lifeless faces greeted me each morning. So one day, when I could take it no more, I tried something different. I arrived about 15 minutes before class began and played songs on a cd player so that what greeted students when they arrived was music. To this very day, before each introductory level class I teach, I now play music. I play music that I enjoy listening to, like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Counting Crows, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes and others. This practice has revolutionized my classroom experience. When I enter the classroom now, regardless of the hour, there is evidence of blood coursing through veins and signs of life among my students. Since I prefer the sights and sounds of life to the deafening and soul-sucking silence of death, I am much happier.

Not long ago the before-class set list consisted of these songs: When it Don’t Come Easy (Patty Griffin), Shipwrecked at the Stable Door (Bruce Cockburn), Love’s Gonna Carry Me Home (Pierce Pettis) and Where the Streets Have no Name (U2). It occurred to me only afterward that every one of those songs gives voice to a profound sense of homelessness and a yearning for home. And though not intentionally chosen for that common theme, there is no doubt that the music I played that day says a lot about where I was and am spiritually, what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling.

Patty Griffin, for example, wonders aloud if we’ll ever make it home:
Everywhere the water’s gettin’ rough/Your best intentions may not be enough/ I wonder if we're gonna ever get home tonight…/I don't know nothin’ except change will come/Year after year what we do is undone/Time keeps moving from a crawl to a run/I wonder if we're gonna ever get home…./You're out there walking down a highway/And all of the signs got blown away/Sometimes you wonder if you're walkin’ in the wrong direction…/So many things that I had before/It don't matter to me now/Tonight I cry for the love that I've lost/And the love I've never found.

Bruce Cockburn is not exactly sure where home is, but he knows it can’t be bought: Big Circumstance has brought me here/Wish it would send me home/Never was clear where home is/But it's nothing you can own/It can't be bought with cigarettes/Or nylons or perfume/And all the highest bidder gets/Is a voucher for a tomb.

While Cockburn may not know just where home is, Pierce Pettis seems to know what or Who will lead us there: These days I’m noticing things/Smell of the rain/Wind in the trees when it gets moving/Seems to say, I’m not alone/Some day Love’s gonna carry me home/These days I’m learning to smile/The hand of a child/Has led me into fields of laughter/They make sure that I know/Someday Love’s gonna carry me home.

Finally, U2 has an unmistakable sense that when we do finally make it home differences will no longer divide, the streets will “have no name” and we will travel those streets together: I wanna run, I want to hide/I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside/I want to reach out and touch the flame/Where the streets have no name/I wanna feel sunlight on my face/I see that rain cloud disappearing without a trace/But I can dance, dance, dance in the dirty rain//Where the streets have no name/Where the streets have no name/Where the streets have no name/And when I go there/I’ll go there with you/It’s all I can do/Still building then burning down love/Burning down love//The city’s afloat/Our love turns to rust/We’re being blown by the wind and trampled by dust/I’ll show you a place with no sorrow no pain/Where the streets have no name/Love, Love, Love

Each song, in its own way, expresses what is perhaps a universal longing for rest and refuge, especially for the world-weary wanderer. Each expresses a yearning that resonates with those who never were clear where home is and who sometimes feel, in the words of Patty Griffin, like we’re walking down a highway void of signs, wondering if we’re walking in the wrong direction.

I must confess that this is part of the fabric of my own experience—disorientation, dislocation, groaning, longing, and hoping, hoping that Love has the last word after all and that when I go “there” I go there “with/you” and not alone.

Reminds me of a children’s story, Runaway Bunny, which I used to read to my own children when they were younger. It’s the story of a young bunny who schemes and shares with its mother all the ways it plans to runaway and leave home. And it is also the story of the lengths to which a loving mother will go to find her prodigal baby. “If you runaway, I will run after you,” says the mother bunny to the runaway bunny, over and over and over again. I think I was always reassured as much by the reading of that story to my children as my children may have been by my reading it. It reminds me that runaway bunny that I am, I can never outrun the long arm of Love.

The story of journeying home is the story of us all; it’s the story of the prodigal children we all are and the love of a Father who will spare no expense in coming to our rescue. Patty Griffin puts it well in the chorus of When it Don’t Come Easy:
But if you break down, I’ll drive out and find you/If you forget my love, I’ll try to remind you/Stay by you, when it don’t come easy/When it don’t come easy.

It’s been my experience that life rarely comes easy. And I am more like the runaway bunny than the sheep who knows its Shepherd’s voice and follows. In the hardest of times, when the water is “gettin’ rough,” I am easily temped to forget God’s love and to want to runaway. Even so I’m still on the highway, stumbling and blundering home. At times I may even be walking in the wrong direction, heading home but way off course. The really good news is that even if I am sometimes heading in the wrong direction, then just like the mother bunny, God runs after me. He “drives out and finds me.” And He carries me home, where I “dance, dance, dance.”

Monday, February 25, 2008

One Hell Of A Week!

H-SAB is taking its dog and pony show over to the other side of the pond this week. Today Jason Clark (leader of Emergent UK) is hosting a conversation b/w yours truly, one pseudonymously named Gregory MacDonald and Justin Thacker. We’ll be discussing a topic that landed me in hot sulfur a couple of years ago—HELL! GM and I will be defending the claim that universalism—the view that eventually all are reconciled to God—is compatible with orthodox Christian faith. Justin will be taking exception to the way GM and I frame the issue on Jason’s site —i.e., in terms of whether or not the two are compatible. Justin will be urging us instead to try to make a case for, and thereby convince him that, universalism is true and taught in the bible. (But, alas, Justin doesn’t think we’d be successful.) Should be one hell of a good time!!! So stop over at Jason’s virtual digs and jump in!!! Here’s the schedule: GM today. Me tomorrow. Justin on Wednesday.

Peace, Love and Eternal Damnation. --Kevin

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Heaven Is Not Up

I’ve been saying for some time that the traditional and vertical way of conceiving of heaven needs to be replaced with a more biblical and horizontal view of heaven, that heaven is a future toward which things are moving and our task is to actively anticipate that future. (I say so, for example, here.) I’ve also been saying that that future is a fleshy, physical, embodied future. (I say that here, for example.) I’ve been saying that this is what the bible says. Well, apparently N.T. Wright has been clandestinely reading my work, has stolen my ideas and has now written his own book. JK. (-: And I bet he never once acknowledges me! JKA. (-; Seriously, I’ve not yet read this new book of his, but I enthusiastically recommend it strictly on the basis of his previously published works. In a future post, maybe I’ll take up some of these issues as they are, quite obviously, near and dear to holy skin and bone! (Thanks are due Keith DeRose for the link to the Wright interview. Thanks, Keith.)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Story And Argument: Jerusalem and Athens?

On Tuesday I floated the following quote from Robert Webber’s book Divine Embrace:

But in the postmodern world, the way of knowing has changed. We now live in a world in which people have lost interest in argument and have taken to story, imagination, mystery, ambiguity, and vision....

I wanted to know what you thought. Four of you weighed in on this. I also mentioned the recent row in the UK over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks concerning sharia law. Here too I wanted to know what you think. One weighed in. Let me share with you my thoughts on Webber’s quote and then tie those in with my assessment of what has transpired in the UK following Rowan Williams’ remarks. If you want, you chime in.

To begin, let me say that I don't believe that very much has changed over time with respect to how we human beings know. The world—pre-modern and modern—was never such that most people came to know very many things through argument. Read Plato’s Republic (4th century before Christ), for example, or any of his dialogues. They are not treasure troves of careful argumentation. They are instead rife with stories.

That story—not argument—is what captures the human imagination, moves us and serves as a significant mode of knowledge is not unique to postmodernity. And whereas mystery and ambiguity seem more like ways of unknowing than ways of knowing, story surely seems to be one sort of invitation to knowledge. In fact, I would have to say that the most important thing I've ever come to know I came to know through story, not argument. What is the most important thing I ever came to know? The most important thing I ever came to know is this: "Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me; the bible tells me so." And it tells me not in syllogism and argument, but in story, complex stories involving all the ambiguity, pathos, mixed motives and twisted intentions that characterize human life in human skin.

Now, I agree that mystery and ambiguity seem today to be valorized and readily embraced more so than in days gone by. But, again, they ought not, I think, to be thought of as ways of knowing. Rather, they seem to me to function more at the level of a psychological milieu, a milieu that is more hospitable to story, liturgy and sacrament than to argument. Story, liturgy and sacrament engage us much more holistically than does argument. They engage the affective, the passional and the sensual dimensions of human existence, whereas argument seems to engage us almost exclusively along the cognitive/cerebral dimension. So those whose experience of life and God have the feel and flavor of mystery and ambiguity will resonate more readily with story, liturgy, sacrament and the imaginative. No surprise, I think.

Now, here’s what Webber goes on to say in the next sentence, following the ellipses:

However, this does not mean or at least should not mean the complete loss of reason. Reason has a place in story. It is Christian rationalism that has failed, not intelligent discourse.

And this brings me to the sharia law kerfuffle involving the Archbishop. Intelligent discourse has in fact failed, and is failing, in the sound-bite culture postmodernity has helped to create. Mystery, ambiguity, story—all good and fine, but there are public spaces, occasions and contexts where argumentation is both necessary and helpful. And one such space is the public square of debate concerning how to negotiate an increasingly pluralistic and global society/world. But to a culture with the attention span of a squirrel, a consumer culture characterized by fragmentation, montage and sound-bite, the features of nuance, care and settling in with a lengthy text—features characteristic of argumentation in the best sense of that term—are found to be difficult, annoying and...well... downright “modern”.

Here’s how I see it. To the extent that postmodernism involves deconstruction, and deconstruction involves memory and omission, the sharia law kerfuffle precipated by the Archbishop’s remarks presents a deconstructive moment, a moment both for liberal democracies and religious faiths. Let me explain.

To my mind the most important point made by the Archbishop in his speech to the Royal Courts has gone systematically overlooked by the mass media and general public, both in the UK and the US. This point has been omitted from the story the media tells partly because it threatens claims of loyalty near to the heart of secularism and secularized liberal democracy and is, therefore, spectacularly unsettling to secularism. One of the Archbishop's major points--the idea that one’s loyalties and allegiances should be and should be allowed to be split or shared--is unthinkable to the secularizers of liberal democracy. Yet for a person of religious faith living in a pluralistic society governed by the rule of law, one’s loyalties are split or shared. “I am Christian. And I am an American.” “I am Muslim and I am a British citizen.” “I am Jewish and I am American.” The secularizers cannot tolerate the identity forming features of confessional religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam because, they think, confessional religion threatens social cohesion. Religion is fine, the secularizers would have us believe, so long as it is kept in its cage, domesticated at home, taken out for leisurely strolls within synagogue, mosque or church one day a week (or year); but, we mustn’t let it out of its cage to run amok in the public square.

The Archbishop had the audacity to suggest in the face of the monopolizing claims of the state—and so to remind those of us with religious identities—that with respect to who we are we are joint species, dual citizens. And what he urged upon the state was to make fair accommodation, accommodation in law, accommodation that simultaneously recognizes one’s identity as Christian, Jew or Muslim (say) without in effect introducing into society barbaric tribalisms of various sorts.

But. But one must actually read his remarks—complex and nuanced as they in fact are—in order to see that he was not advocating the adoption of sharia law or suggesting a parallel legal system. So reading, dwelling with nuance and complexity, i.e., the stuff of argument, is absolutely essential to our well being and flourishing. It has its place and must have its place, especially in a pluralistic and increasingly global market place of ideas and identities.

So, while I am glad that the bible is not chock full of argument with propositions, premises and conclusions I am also enormously grateful for the clarity of argument. And grateful too that when it came to public debate, the Archbishop employed reasons and argument--the economic currency of public discourse--not story, liturgy or mystery. My disappointment and sadness is in the fact that we--the religious and the (ir)religious-- seem to have become impatient and deaf to careful argument. To the extent that we have done so we have done so, I fear, to the very detriment of civil society.

The End.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Two for Tuesday @ Holy Skin and Bone

It’s Two for Tuesday at Holy Skin and Bone.

I want to float two items today, get your feedback on one or the other (or both) and then tomorrow (or maybe Thursday) I’ll share with you my thoughts. First up is this quote sent to me from my good friend Susan Matheson. She wanted to know what I made of it. Here’s the quote (from the introduction of Robert Webber's Divine Embrace, p. 17):

But in the postmodern world, the way of knowing has changed. We now live in a world in which people have lost interest in argument and have taken to story, imagination, mystery, ambiguity, and vision....

What are your thoughts? Go on, wax eloquent(ly)! I’ll share my thoughts soon enough.

Next up is this from the UK; Lambeth Palace, London to be exact. Archbishop Rowan Williams, a former professor of mine and someone I had the good pleasure of interviewing just last month during a Calvin interim course I led with my good friends Kurt and Lori Wilson, continues to be raked over the coals for his comments concerning sharia law. In a speech to the Royal Courts of Justice a few weeks ago, the Archbishop explored ways in which reasonable accommodation might be made within existing political arrangements for the religious conscience of Muslims (and people of other faiths). That speech, and his comments during a subsequent interview, set off a media feeding frenzy as well as mass public hysteria. (Just go to youtube and search "Archbishop and sharia law" to view painful skewerings of the Archbishop by Catholics, Anglicans and assorted secularists.) What did you make of the Archbishop’s remarks and suggestions? What do you make of the strident reaction to his remarks from both the media and the British public?

Next time, I will attempt the herculean task of tying together these two seemingly unrelated issues.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Truth Fish Eats Darwin Fish. Huh?

You’re familiar with the expression “You learn something new everyday.” Well, I don’t know about that, but I suppose one could learn something new everyday, or nearly everyday if one was sufficiently attentive. Yesterday I learned something new. It’s something everyone else apparently already knew. Not me. I am a ridiculously slow learner.

You know the Ichthus, the ancient symbol of the Christian faith that is a simple line drawing of a fish and that scores of very rude and bad drivers affix to their bumpers? Well, I always thought the Ichthus with legs and the word “Darwin” emblazoned inside it was a statement by those Christians who accept both the Christian faith and evolutionary creation. Since I have been such a person for quite a long time I just assumed that there were lots of us and some of us—those into bumper stickers—decided we’d announce it to the world just to let the world know that the two—Christian faith and evolutionary creation—are not at odds. I was wrong, of course. Apparently, as everyone but me knew, the Ichthus with legs and “Darwin” emblazoned inside it is supposed to signal the ridiculously false view that the Christian faith (a supposedly ridiculously silly and dangerously false view of the world) has been replaced by atheistic naturalism (a supremely enlightened and wonderfully liberating) view of the world.

That’s pathetic, really. It is surpassed in its pathetic-ness only by the “Truth” fish (which I just became acquainted with yesterday) swallowing whole the “Darwin” fish (whose true meaning I just became acquainted with yesterday, too). The messages of both of these pathetic bumper stickers make the same mistake. (I know, I know—they’re BUMPER STICKERS for cyrin’ out loud. Don't take them so seriously. Right. But did you watch any of the coverage of the Republican Party National Convention during the last election? There are lots of bumper sticker-loving, bumper sticker-believing, bumper sticker personality types making really important decisions about our future and the future of our planet. It’s scary!) Anyway, as I was saying, the messages of both these pathetic bumper stickers make the same mistake. They falsely imply that Christian theism and evolutionary creation are alternative and mutually exclusive explanations of the natural world. They’re not. And it doesn’t take a genius to see this.

In my kick off blog (when was that? Oh, yeah, just yesterday) I pointed out even if very briefly how we came to be. We develop from a small, hollow sphere through a natural process of cell-division and growth. Things begin with a single celled zygote and through a series of cleavages and divisions we get what biologists refer to as a morula, then a blastocyst, then there’s the development of body form, and eventually a fetus. Then, after more development, we get you! Now who made you? Well, God, of course. But my description of your biological origins didn’t mention God. Yet I bet not a single one (of the two or three of you) who read that description said to yourself, "Oh, did he just say I wasn't made by God?" Of course not. That's because the natural facts and biological processes causally responsible for your coming to be do not in any way exclude God from being the author of your being. They're perfectly compatible.

Alright. ‘nuff said. I had to get that off my chest. My colleague Steve Matheson is a biologist. He’s a much quicker learner than me, too. And he’s got an amazing blog that deals with all these sort of issues. Every Christian whose undies get in a bunch when they read or hear about the facts of common descent and evolutionary creation should read his blog. Every dim-witted naturalistic atheist should read his blog, too. Both might then stop saying the same sorts of silly things. You can visit Steve’s blog here:

Peace, Love and Good Sense to All,

[NB: The comment above about the Republican National Convention refers to the infamous slogan "Flip-Flop" raucously chanted by throngs of flip-flop carrying conventioneers during one of the speeches I saw. It is not meant as an indictment of Republicans as such. No doubt bumper-sticker-deep thinking is an equal opportunity employer and scores of rabid Demoncrats are also in its employ.]

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Holy Skin and Bone Kickoff

Dirt. The biblical story of our origins is one of dust and ashes—earth, mud and breath. We are made from the dust of the ground, says the writer of Genesis.

Then the Lord God formed Adam from the dust of the ground... (Gen. 2.7)

Adam, Adamah, the Hebrew word for ground. We human beings are dirt-people, of a piece with shrub and shrew, mountain and mollusk, armadillo and ant. Earth-people is what we are; made of flesh and bone, sinew and socket. We develop from an astonishingly small, hollow sphere through an equally astonishing process of cell-division and growth. From zygote to morula, from blastocyst to the development of body form, all the way through to the appearance of a fetus—the miraculous process of our biological development takes place amid an earthy mix of urine and blood.

While some may regard this carnal tale with horror and disgust, let me remind you that the urine and blood, this earth and dirt, is God-breathed, God-loved, God-blessed, holy stuff. Indeed the biologically incarnated life of Jesus unfolded just like ours. His geneology is equally soiled, including as it does adulterers (King David) prostitutes (Rahab) and other assorted outcasts and sinners. Like all collisions, the beautiful collision of heaven and earth is messy business. It's holy business. Holy and messy. Wholly messy.

This is a blog whose author is made of mud, whose author lives in the mud and whose author hopes and dreams in the mud and who expects those hopes and dreams ultimately to be realized on the surface of a little round planet made of mud. This is a blog, therefore, that is ultimately about the kingdom of God. Don't be surprised. The kingdom of God is ultimately all about the dirt and mud, once beautiful, now twisted, but on its way to glory. That kingdom is a future that has collided and intersected with this little round planet, a future that has come and is coming still. It's a future some of us long for, work for and eagerly and actively anticipate. Since this blog is about that kingdom, this blog will be about politics, sex, music, literature, science, community and all those earthly realities that delight us, frustrate us, confuse us, fascinate us and ultimately make us hunger and thirst for the consummation of all things.

I'll plan just to say what's on my mind when the mood strikes. And maybe, if you're interested, you will respond and there will be born a conversation that will make us all better human beings or more informed human beings or more enriched human beings than we would otherwise have been.

So here's to skin and bone set apart for the most exciting task on earth--heralding a kingdom that is at once "not of this world" but every bit "of the earth."