Yes, I intend to revamp this blog. It’s been over two years since my last post, and I’ve gone through many changes in that time. I’ve graduated from art school, I’m married and have a young son (I hope to go into more detail here later) and I’ve embraced a Reformed understanding of Christianity. In the past I’ve written on topics such as veganism, pacifism, anarchism, and environmentalism. Remaining in the situation from which I’ve been called, I intend to continue writing about such topics, but in the light of Scripture through which I’ve been reformed and in the grace of the Spirit through whom I am being sanctified.
Tag Archives: bible
Contemporary philosophy (& some theology as well) tend to emphasize the primacy of language, that various social constructions are linguistic systems made of the interplay of signs. All knowledge is interpretive, relational, and constructed, and not, as was once commonly believed, objective. Words do not have fixed meanings, but rather gain their meaning contextually, through their use in communal settings. This last thought might not be hard for many Christians to accept, but the greater implication is that all social systems, whether they be ethical, legal, religious, etc., are not based on any fixed foundation, but also gain meaning according to their context and communal interpretations. Contemporary Christianity, which is mostly rooted in an objectivist understanding of knowledge, ethics, and religion might find this hard to swallow, but I am of the opinion that we should embrace such perspectives of postmodern philosophy.
This readiness to jettison belief in an objective foundation may alarm some readers. They may even think, “Didn’t Christ say that we should build our house on the rock, a firm foundation?” The answer is that, yes, he did indeed say that. However, the rock he was referring to was not Descartes’ model of the autonomous subject, or Kant’s model of the subject that gains objective knowledge through reason and the senses, but rather, himself. Thus we Christians should build the Church on Christ, who is not a fixed object, but a relational Being.
We can think of the Church as a linguistic system, a body that shares a common language and set of symbols, all of which gain meaning and significance through context and the interpretation of the Church. When we say, “Christians are called to be loving and peaceful,” we must understand that the meaning of words like “love” and “peace” are not fixed, but change over time and in different situations. I have heard several sermons throughout my life contrasting the English word “love” with the Greek “agape”, about how our English concept of love does not compare to this Greek concept. But truly, this concept of God’s love, the love that is God (1 John 4:8), is not a Greek or an English or French or Chinese concept, it is a Christian concept. This kind of love is defined only through the narrative of the Bible, through Christ. The biblical narrative informs the Christian worldview, it defines the vocabulary of the Church. The laws, and rituals, and language, and understanding of the Church are not fixed traditions that must be preserved, but things that the Church should continually reconstruct so that they continue to embody Christ.
The idea of Sola Scriptura has not been the most popular in recent times, especially among the more liberal set of Christians who favor personal experience in deciding how the Church should act. But the Bible is integral to maintaining the particularity of the Christian faith through the communal interpretation of the Church, and dialogue between the text and ourselves.
Martin Heidegger stressed the idea that language precedes us, we are thrown into it, and that it forms us as much as we (communally) form it. The same understanding should be applied to the Church. It precedes us. We are embedded in it. We must allow its past to form us as we continue to form it in its current form. This is the Life of the Church.
The domestication of certain types of plants and animals has often been associated with the rise of human civilization. It can also be seen as evidence of our constant attempt to dominate and control the environment in which we live. This abused sense of dominion can even be seen to extend upwards into the heavenly realms.
The entirety of human civilization can be seen as having been established on the domestication of the concept of God. In this design, God is brought down, in chains, to serve, and the State, in the form of a god-king or divine emperor, is elevated to the high heavens. In a sense, this reversal is a perversion of the concept of Imitatio Dei. Whereas God calls us to “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2), the State seeks imitation to the point of replacement. All the while the concept of God is manipulated to serve the ends of the State through an imposed state religion.
We encounter similar problems when we examine the notion of sainthood, whether it be religious or political. The distinction arises of whether we are to imitate or admire the saint in question. If we assume that the saint is an ordinary human being like us, then we might be more inclined to follow in their footsteps. However, most people place them on a pedestal above the rest of humanity, and attribute to them some semi-divine status. In that case, it seems more natural for us simply to adore them. In the same way the State can co-opt the agenda of a revolutionary through aiding in their assassination and then declaring them a saint posthumously. Whether or not you believe that the American government had anything to do with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it can’t be denied that the FBI and CIA viewed him as a major threat. He has since assumed the status of sainthood in American politics. To me, this seems like a form of co-option, discouraging us from following King’s path of civil disobedience and pacifism, because the State now claims to have absorbed his agenda. I think this is why Dorothy Day said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Christ comes to the world as the example, constantly enjoining: Imitate me. We humans prefer to adore him instead.” This is a common criticism of Christianity. Although I do agree with the distinction, I think it sometimes assumes a false dichotomy in which we must choose between imitating or worshipping Christ. I do believe, however, that either of these is deficient without the other. This is an extension of the doctrine of hypostatic union, the belief that Christ is both fully human and fully God. We are simultaneously called to imitate him in his humanity and worship him in his divinity. And in our imitation of him, we are allowed to participate in the divinity of God, as we are pulled deeper and deeper into the divine embrace.
This dual invitation to both follow and worship is not mirrored by the idolatrous religion of the State. No, the State demands that we worship, serve, and obey. If we were to imitate the imperial god of the State, we would be acting as a threat to the State. If we followed in its’ path of coercive violence and domination, we would become its rival. No, as far as the State is concerned, it is better for us to stay within its’ ideological cage of a state religion, under its domesticated God.
This attempt at usurpation of divine authority can be traced throughout biblical history. It is a continuation of humanity’s initial impulse to “be like God” in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:5). Later, humans tried to rival the majesty of mountains, and even God, by building a tower so high they could conquer the heavens (Gen 11:4). This great sin reached its pinnacle in the crucifixion, when God was tortured and executed at the hands of human beings. The good creation, that was created to love God, was so selfish and godless that it murdered him, seeking to take his place. Humanity cried out at last, as in the words of Friedrich Neitzsche, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
But it could not last. For the promise of God is that love will ultimately triumph over sin and death. In the resurrection, Christ broke free of the chains of death that we had imposed on him and ascended to his rightful place of authority.
God is wild, indeed.
I was walking home from school earlier today when I noticed a piece of litter laying across my path. It was the small daily devotional “Our Daily Bread“. Now, even though I usually find this kind of devotional literature to be pretty shallow, there is something about it that deeply intrigues me. I’m especially intrigued in circumstances like these, where I find it as garbage along the side of the road. So I picked up the booklet, and flipped through to today’s entry. I had to laugh out loud. The title read: “The Wonder of Wilderness” and was written by Philip Yancey. Here is the text of the entry:
The psalmists had an advantage in praise because of their closer tie to the natural world. David began life outdoors as a shepherd, then spent years hiding in the rocky terrain of Israel. Not surprisingly, a great love, even reverence, for the natural world shines through many of his poems. The psalms present a world that fits together as a whole, with everything upheld by a personal God watching over it.
Wilderness announces to our senses the splendor of an invisible, untamable God. How can we not offer praise to the One who dreamed up porcupines and elk, who splashed bright-green aspen trees across hillsides of gray rock, who transforms the same landscape into a work of art with every blizzard?
The world, in the psalmist’s imagination, cannot contain the delight God inspires. “Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth; break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises” (Ps. 98:4). Nature itself joins in: “Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills be joyful together before the LORD” (v. 8).
The psalms wonderfully solve the problem of a praise-deficient culture by providing the necessary words. We merely need to enter into those words, letting God use the psalms to realign our inner attitudes.
So now I’m wondering, what am I to make of this strange coincidence? What are the odds that something like this would happen? If I had come across the same booklet yesterday, or tomorrow, it would not have had nearly the same impact. Nor would it if I had picked it up on any other day in the three month period this booklet covers. Only today could this Christian environmentalist, who uses the biblical symbol of “the wilderness” to explore his own theology, experience such a strange coincidence.
But is it really as strange and coincidental as I am making it out to be? Has environmentalism entered into the mainstream Christian consciousness so much so that it has become frequent in pulp devotional literature? In flipping through the rest of the booklet I see nothing else that overtly mentions nature, the environment, or the concept of wilderness. Of course, I am aware that ideological green-washing is creeping ever further throughout our culture and also into mainstream Christianity. Yet, there is something about this experience that remains profound.
Recently I was talking to a friend about feminist interpretations of a biblical passage. She told me that, had I not provided her with such a specific lens to read the text, the passage would be ghastly. That got me thinking. We often forget that we are reading through the lens of 21st century Americans living in a culture that is far removed from that of the Bible. Also, we might assume that any feminist, or environmentalist, or anarchist lens is a reinterpretation of a biblical passage, that it is somehow altering it to make it more relevant for our present situation. Until recently, that is how I thought of the relationship between environmentalism and the Bible. Environmentalism, I thought, was a rather recent ideological innovation, and since the Bible is ancient, it should have nothing really to say about the subject. I definitely thought the two views were compatible, and that one could make a case for environmentalism that was biblically sound, but ultimately that it was more or less a biblical addendum. I thought that the words of scripture could be used and applied to the environmentalist cause, but not that these interpretations were necessarily the thoughts or intentions of the biblical writers. The further I delve into this subject though, the more I am convinced that this is not the case.
Lately, it is becoming easier for me to imagine the prophets as environmentalists. After all, they are the voice of a Creator deeply in love with creation and who chooses the wilderness of the deserts, the rivers, and the mountains as places of revelation.
This past week my girlfriend and I took a trip east. From Michigan, through Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, we spent a brief moment in Maryland, and stayed in Virginia and North Carolina. In our adventures, we went for a quick skinny-dip in the Atlantic Ocean, probably under the surveillance of nearby security cameras in the militarized tourist trap of the quasi-police state known as Virginia Beach. We slept on the beach while thunderstorms brewed, went canoeing in an alligator swamp, visited an organic farming community in North Carolina, and spent three days backpacking in Shenandoah National Park.
All in all, it was a refreshing step away from my everyday life in the bustling micro-metropolis that is Grand Rapids, Michigan. I sometimes forget how relatively peaceful the wilderness can be in comparison to the civilized world, and how that peace can affect my mood, thought, and experience. There is a spiritual element to our existence that seems so much easier to grasp within the context of the natural environment than from within the confines of human societal constructs.
It is refreshing also to encounter this same reverence for nature within the biblical tradition. Although the Bible has been used throughout history as a tool to uphold societal norms such as patriarchy, anthropocentrism, and disregard for the natural world, closer examination can reveal sharp critiques of these ideologies and the oppressive and imperial structures that they constitute. For example, the God of the Bible is the God of the Wilderness, which in that specific geographical context often meant the desert. God called many prophets away from civilization, away from the slavery of empire, and into the desert wilderness: Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Israelites, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus of Nazareth. References to the natural world are prevalent in the teaching and parables of Jesus; he called attention to the fig and olive trees, the birds and the lilies (Matthew 6:246-34), and even compared God to a mother hen gathering her chicks (Matthew 23:37)!
Christianity has long been criticized, and rightly so, for its role in colonialism and the oppression of indigenous peoples and their respective cultures. More recently though, some scholars have been working to uncover indigenous voices and traditions within the Bible itself. It is no surprise that often indigenous people and other oppressed minorities have radically different interpretations of the Christian narrative than do their oppressors who introduced the religion. In the essay, “The Bible, Indigenous Spirituality, and the Theology of Babylon,” the author makes the case that the Aboriginal Australians have more in common with the people of the Bible than do white Australians.
Last week, after hiking for several miles, I felt the urge to take off my shoes and rest my feet in a calm, cool stream that was trickling through the mountains. This simple and natural pleasure was indescribably beautiful. It is reminiscent, I think, of God’s call to Moses when he was wandering the wilderness of the mountains in Exodus 3. God called to him from the burning bush, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” This was the point of contact that eventually led the Israelites out of oppression in Egypt and into a forty year period of wandering in the desert wilderness.