Beyond Postmodernism, or Christ Among the Pagans (Part III)

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they may accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (I Pet. 2.12)

If it is true that we are moving beyond postmodernism into a neo-pagan culture, then the first thing we need to do is to evaluate the values and media of our culture. Further, if it is true that we are living that we are living in a neo-pagan culture, the next thing we must do is realize that we ourselves are neo-pagan too. We, the called out, do not live a-culturally. In a world in which everyone does what is right in his own eyes, the church is to hold a higher standard than the ethical disposition of culture, but we are still very much part of its rituals, its thought-processes, its desires.

Without this self-evaluation, we risk an inability to understand or to connect, and we earn (deserved) ridicule. Despite its frequent claims, the church today is not the same church as in the first century; rather, it is the product of the successes of 1950s and ‘60s Christianity. For instance, the 1950s church believed in a building for every congregation—a structural hold-over from pre-modern Catholicism. (We should note that some churches are starting to stray from this model because of the logistical trappings of budgets and property ownership interfering with their stated church mission). It also attempts to erect a church in every city, a political distinction that carries very little spiritual importance but assumes growth is related to proximity. Many churches hold Sunday evening services, a concept invented during the industrial revolution when the departure from agricultural work and toward factory work required some people to labor on Sundays. None of these are essential to church-iness, yet many Christians defend these elements as if they were sacrosanct. If we continue to maintain the pretension of first-century Christianity, assuming some changeless a-historical identity, we will widen our cultural gap and find ourselves doing 1950s Christianity—and doing it badly.

Some syncretism with the culture is unavoidable—and to an extent, desirable. An impotent a-syncretism leads us down the same road as Tertullian, screaming “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?!” while complete syncretism fades the volume of Christianity to the same level as every other voice. Proper syncretism means taking “from the spoils of Egypt,” those things true, good, and beautiful in culture and abandoning the rest. This was exactly Augustine’s model when it came to studying pagan literature. Knowing we cannot divorce ourselves from culture, he suggested we should use the language of the culture (i.e. art) to convey a more sufficient worldview. Were Augustine living in the 21st century, he would advocate using the language of mass communication (i.e. entertainment) to then communicate the truth of Christ. This does not mean we synchronically embrace change uncritically (nihilistic, revolutionary postmodernity); but neither do we reject change uncritically (as if we were still living in modernity). We should critically examine change and be willing to experiment with new methods of sharing and living out the Gospel. Ideally, we want evolutionary, not revolutionary, change—that is, change that is still anchored to history rather than removed from it. Evolutionary change will not forcefully take over pop culture via Christian sub-cultural media or legislation. It will slowly transform it, baptize it, and use it for the Kingdom through engagement in the overall culture.

In this respect, Christianity is—and should be viewed as—an intellectual movement as much as it is a personal faith. It elevated man out of the ashes of pagan immorality in the first century because it provided a rational view consistent with the understood universe. Being the power to salvation for both Jew and Greek, it consistently remained the dominant worldview for roughly two thousand years of Western culture. And it elevates man even today out of contradictory worldviews that cannot account for the human spiritual and psychological need for purpose and meaning.

What movements need are articulate voices—the minds of educators and the hearts of evangelists—and we will need no less to reintroduce the world to Christianity. We need to restore the role of robust, reasonable faith in each of the academic disciplines and re-educate the culture with the practical results of the Christian worldview. We must show our neighbors that not all beliefs can be equal, just as not all consequences are equal (racial science can lead to eugenics just like Christian dogmatism can lead to tyranny). We must show our neighbors that there needs to be an external standard for our beliefs (otherwise I will be easily led to Buddha or to fascism or to meaninglessness). And we must show our neighbors the anti-humanistic philosophies inherent in New Age Theology, Hinduism, and Marxism and contrast them with the personal God of scripture (for God is love). Most of all, we must show our neighbors a life of love and godliness so that the pagans may see our good deeds and glorify God.

The reintroduction of Christianity doesn’t need rebranding or repackaging. If the problem really is that we haven’t been engaged—that we have been sleeping—then the call is to wake up and to strategically take the message wherever we can. The most immediate solution is to do so personally: with people living next door. The long-term solution is to do so institutionally—at home and in the church.

Since popular culture is what we’re already swimming in, then we should pay particular attention toward our teens and young adults, who are the targets of pop cultural media. People watch Family Guy, Game of Thrones, and Twilight not because of prurient elements but simply because the stories are entertaining. Entertainment is the key: it taps into the human condition of comedy and tragedy, which is why it is so universally attractive to all people. And as entertainment has always existed, though perhaps not to the volume it is set at today, we have several options.

On the one hand, we can vainly attempt to keep our children from consuming bad art and entertainment. This tactic should be employed at home for some things that have no value: mindless productions like Jackass and Kick Ass (generally all things having to do with the posterior that motivate us to behave like beasts), reality shows, and nearly everything on music television. By itself, however, censorship will have no effect, especially if they can consume entertainment at a friend’s house. And when they are grown, they will consume whatever they want with little regard for its impact on their minds, hearts, and souls.

Or we can try to create our own morally-upright sub-culture. We can further insulate ourselves by reading Christian fiction or even by creating Christian film. But morally-upright culture, without proper artistic education, will just become morally-upright, bad art.While I enjoy films like Facing the Giants for its God-centered characters and practical moral living, its horribly bad acting and overly optimistic plotlines eliminate it for contention as serious art. It may be good but it is not beautiful—and therefore is not good. Its Christian moral message is undercut by its un-Christian lack of excellence. But The Dark Knight can be even more Christo-centric than Fireproof if we search for the God-given truth at work within it that makes it good—and therefore beautiful and true. But we cannot merely watch The Dark Knight for entertainment purposes nor Facing the Giant for its family-friendly viewing. Insulating ourselves will still keep us from having a seat at the intellectual discussion.

We would do best, I believe, to train our children and students to identify worldviews and teach them how to analyze and defeat them. But we will have to change the way we think. We need to enjoy thinking analytically. If entertainment is available without thought, we need to cultivate ourselves so that thinking is entertaining. We will need to look at every experience with our children as a potential moment for instruction. We will also have to change the way we live. We weep and wail about Noah because someone might believe it or because it is not faithful to the Biblical narrative or because we feel our faith is under attack. But do we know the worldview behind the film? Are we robustly engaged in not only its faithful adherence to scripture but also in what ideas emanate from the story? Better, what worldview are we living out at home? Worrying about the state of the culture is nowhere near as effective as examining the state of our homes: evaluating how much TV we consume, how we make ethical decisions, if we play an instrument and encourage our children to do so, if we read good books, and the like. By first saving ourselves from cultural decay, we will (forgive the cliché) transform the world.

While we don’t need to rebrand our faith, we do need to re-envision how we practice it. We need first of all to listen (really listen) to the voices of culture expressed in music and film. This will require us to selectively filter through the noise to find those harmonies that communicate the truth. And since all truth is God’s truth, we should be able to then connect Philip the Evangelist to Philip Seymour Hoffman, George Lucas to St. George, and Plato to Plotinus. We should also become active participants in the cultural dialogue, using our talents to create and disseminate morally-upright, beautiful art as a means of glorifying God. Make music, write hymns for use in worship, write poetry, teach classes. These creative talents are not only beneficial to mankind, but they are essential for developing analytical skills within ourselves that will also help us to reason lovingly with the unbeliever. This is not easy; just like learning a foreign language takes time, so too will disciplining ourselves to be salt and light. But through the process and on the journey we become useful tools for the Kingdom, relevant to the world and beautiful reflections of God.

The problem is not the media. The problem is not that we need more Christian media. The problem is that we are men and women without culture. We are only going to become cultured people when we learn to apply the grace of Christ to every aspect of our lives. When we do this well, as Paul and his successors in the centuries after him did, the Parthenon will crumble once again and in its place will stand a vibrant church.

*                                    *                                    *

This essay is a conclusion of a series of essays on postmodernism and neo-paganism. While some of what is written is original to me, many of these insights come from John Mark Reynolds, the writers and thinkers at Biola University, and the countless authors studying worldviews and laboring to gain an authentic Christian voice in culture. It is to them that I owe these thoughts and my thanks.

Beyond Postmodernism, or Can You Hear Me Now? (Part II)

Every now and then I find myself in one of those important discussions that ends like this:

“That’s really just someone’s opinion.”

“That works for you, and that’s great, but I just don’t believe it.”

“That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.”

Existential Modernism told us that since there is no truth we must find our own truth. Postmodernism rightly divined that if there is no truth then even the truths we individually discover are meaningless fictions. They saw through the guise that truth is intrinsic; because when compared to each other, my truth will eventually contradict your truth—in which case they are not truths at all. Where postmodernism has failed is to erect a logistical, palpable, and true alternative to the no-truth hypothesis.

One cannot rationally hold the premise that there is no truth and life has no meaning. This is the difference between a negative belief and a positive action. I may intellectually assent to the notion that there is no truth, but I still look both ways before crossing the street. I may say that life is meaningless, but I still violently protect my right to existence. If I truly believe I am no more than the sum of my atoms, then why do I seek meaning in the first place? If I am nothing but matter, then I have suddenly achieved the ultimate meaning in the physicality of my existence. I have already found meaning. But for none of us is this answer sufficient. We still attempt to find meaning in our jobs, our families, our politics, our beliefs. Nature abhors a vacuum—especially an intellectual one. Because we cannot live in cognitive dissonance indefinitely, we must choose meaning or meaninglessness. Those of us who do not select madness or suicide will elect to find meaning.

The good news is that Western culture at large still hopes for meaning and still believes in hope. For the Greeks hope was an emotional disease that would ruin you (see the story of Pandora’s box), yet the world of postmodernity has an expectation of something (or someone) greater than themselves: a hero, love, God, etc. Everyone is still searching for something. I want to believe in a spiritual extrinsic reality. I want to have something to anchor my thoughts and to direct my desires. But, as Bono popularized some years ago, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

The bad news is that most people will resist older modes of thought. While much financial success has been made with the Percy Jackson series, I have a hard time envisioning any fanboy actually bowing before idols of Olympus. And while Christianity still has a prominent foothold in the worldview of Western culture, many have rejected it as an insufficient narrative for guiding one’s life. Instead, people will turn to new ways of thinking—which are really just modifications of the old ways. New Age theology, as one popular example, blends pop psychology and ancient mysticism, and even if it doesn’t directly embrace the Greco-Roman pantheon at least accepts the notion that the deities we worship are a matter of individual preference.

As we examine both cultural and generational shifts, we may conclude that what exists beyond postmodernism, then, is really just neo-paganism. If I hold that nothing matters metaphysically but my own individual beliefs, I can select my own gods. If every culture develops its own religion, then presumably each individual needs its own creed as well. As a system, Christianity claims one god among a multitude of gods, and while I don’t have to worship Allah or Apollo it is altogether reasonable if you want to do so.

Note the assumption present that no god/truth is exclusively real or true. The statements above are not originally postmodern; they’ve been around since antiquity. People today who argue those positions are not postmodern; they’re just bad thinkers.

What is unique about neo-paganism, in contradistinction to its origins in antiquity, is that it is a spirituality without sacrament. What gave the Oracle at Delphi power in addition to the collective faith in its truthful predictions was the sacrifice of its adherents. But wearing a cross without devoting one’s self to a church—its doctrines, rules, and practices—is a faithless faith. The spiritually uncommitted instinctively know there is no real meaning (or comprehensibility, for that matter) in literal self-worship, but there is at least something psychologically satisfying in acknowledging something external.

Because there is no sacrament, therefore, many of the spiritually unreligious will abdicate their personal faith in service to the state. In this way, many neo-pagans resemble their Greco-Roman forbearers for whom faith was not as important as national loyalty. And this is true for both sides of the aisle today: the smaller one’s religion and religious expression, the greater the role one gives to politics. The recent cultural rush to abandon one’s independence and self-reliance in order to receive goodies from government is a frightening but natural byproduct of neo-paganism. My personal faith in the unseen cannot viably compete with the objective reality of a seen president, law, or activist cause. My personal faith rooted in subjectivity cannot overpower the collective, equally subjective experience of groupthink, and thus I will quickly retreat from my faith in the presence of peer pressure. Neo-paganism is a weakly mixed wine and thus is a breeding ground for tyranny.

Tyranny also thrives in such an environment because a man who will tailor his spirituality to his own specifications is interested primarily in comfortability and entertainment. Fiction is, as under postmodernism, more palpable than reality. Disneyland, Las Vegas, and Middle Earth are not just more palpable but potentially more real in people’s minds than Newark. People experience genuine depression because they would rather live on Pandora instead of earth. Neo-paganism is perfect for the video game generation because it is an experienced-based, pleasure-seeking worldview of affluence and personal peace. Marx was wrong: the opiate of the masses was not religion but television. The sensationalist drama of House of Cards will trump the ritual in a house of worship every time.

Christians who are understandably depressed at the spiritual state of affairs in our nation have no one to blame, unfortunately, but themselves. We too are developing a religion of comfort—not simply in our watering down of the Word but in our laid-back approach to the urgency and relevance of the Gospel. We are spiritually-religious neo-pagans ourselves, which a snippet history of American culture may reveal.

In the eighteenth century Enlightenment thinking beat back Christianity in the intellectual world by advocating a paradigm of science over faith. To some degree this was necessary, as a faith misunderstood is sometimes more deleterious than no faith at all. Thus, atheists like Thomas Paine gave rational arguments for the necessity of American liberty, leading the cause of freedom. Secularists like Thomas Jefferson with his miracle-free Bible and philosophers like Immanuel Kant and David Hume argued against supernaturalism. Yet even while these secular advances were taking place (some of them very essential), Christianity numerically retained the social structures of culture. Homes and families were “Christian” with a Christian worldview and ethic because the church still held an influential hold on cultural thinking. The state supported the idea of a Christian nation not because it was morally right but because its people were Christian.

Because we found comfort in numbers, we felt we did not need to engage the scientific discussions of the nineteenth century and so marginalized ourselves. Countless examples of our technological fears include pamphlets with supporting proof texts in Scripture for the steam engine, or reactions against the steam engine, made stereotypically famous in the statement, “If God had meant man to travel at 60mph, he would have given him wheels.” Because Christianity did not emphasize the intellectual component of its existence, the academy became more secularized. We succumbed in this battle—yet this battle may be the most important.

Today, the secular academy has filtered down through pop culture in ways we have not been equipped to understand and combat. This increased exponentially with the advent of radio, television, and the internet. These technologies are not the cause of our marginalization; throughout most of the twentieth century, Christians chose not to employ these technologies as a direct expression of our faith because of our institutional reluctance toward change. Consequently, the worldviews that are disseminated through these technologies have gained a prominent foothold in our culture. The church has virtually no place in the cultural discussion, even if it does hold a claim on individual households. The state is no longer a support of Christianity because of the shift in demographic electoral politics. As an institution Christianity is pushed further and further to the periphery. We possess hope because postmodern idealists desire spirituality, but this is not enough. Simply because anti-intellectuals in popular culture agree with one of our claims does not mean we are having, or are going to have, success. All it means is that we agree with anti-intellectuals. What we need is to engage the intellectuals and cause them to recognize the reality of philosophical supernaturalism.

Yet because we now have come to acknowledge our obsolescence in the world, we have simultaneously developed a culture of despair. Too often Christians sit around and complain that we are losing. We should remember that faithful Christians are not guaranteed even in a Christian culture (see medieval Europe). We are always losing the culture wars. Yesterday, we were losing to intellectual modernists; today, we’re losing to anti-intellectual postmodernists. But it is we who have reduced ourselves from the equation; it is we who have removed ourselves from the intellectual discussion. Christianity, like neo-paganism, without effective action is demoralizing and meaningless. Despair will only be overcome when we take action. We will need to rearticulate the Christian worldview and live it on a daily basis. But the goal must be Christ for the world—not Christ merely for the culture. The culture will reform in time and more organically as long as the church keeps its focus on the message and intent of the cross.

How we do that is the subject of our next post. Until then, dear reader, keep the faith.

Beyond Postmodernism, or Post-Postmodernism, or Posting Blog Posts About Postmodernism (Part I)

It is a curious thing living in changing times. It is even more curious trying to define cultural shifts in the middle of those shifts—which, of course, are not yet completed. Yet it seems everyone, from academics to pundits, is trying to stay one step ahead of the curve and be the prognosticator of where society will find itself next.

For those of us in the church, we have a unique calling to be transcultural, revealing the Gospel to people in any time and place through the media—electronic and otherwise—of that culture. What is odd to me is that the American church (at least through my historical observations of the last century) is locked in a perpetual culture gap, always a generation behind the times. For some churches and regions, this gap is even wider, for they have not yet even experienced their existential crisis of modernism much less embraced the postmodern.

And what is this thing called postmodernism (after all, how can you be behind—post—that which is contemporary)? If we are ever to bridge the cultural gap and keep up with the inevitable changes, much less get ahead of them, it would be wise to explore what has occurred in the West over the last several centuries.

Ironically, postmodernism as a movement instinctively rejects all labeling and metanarratives (overarching stories that can answer all of the great questions and inconsistencies of life, like evolution, Christianity, or the Force); it does not want, in other words, to define itself. Nevertheless, we must murder to dissect; so in one respect, we can define postmodernism in a context of human—and I mean primarily Western—civilization. This can be subdivided into three categories: the premodern, the modern, and the postmodern. (Please note the tremendous over-simplification.)

  • Premodern civilizations lacked a great deal of social organization, technological advancement, or sense of themselves (think medievalism). People defined their day by the sun as ninety-five percent of them worked in the fields. The majority of them did not have time to think about the deeper things of life. War, famine, and disease were constant threats—there is little to romanticize about the way these societies lived. Men and women both were usually illiterate, and were told what to think and believe by the church. Because of the lack of control man had over his environment, he attributed his existence and livelihood to God, and religion was his primary means of understanding the world around him.
  • Modern civilization in a philosophic sense began with the Renaissance but found its true identity in the industrial revolution. Consider the change from one culture to the next: enlightenment thinkers elevated the individual man above the church, paving the way for republican nation-states; the invention of the light bulb restructured the way humans did their work, found time for recreation, and even when and how they worshiped; advances in transportation connected us from one city to the next. Man was no longer restricted by the sun or by distance or by government, and humanism became rooted in Western culture—God was the originator, but not the providential intimate he once was believed to be.
  • After World War II, another major shift occurred, and what would be known today as a postmodern society began to take shape. With the advances in modern aviation, the entire world is literally just a few short hours away. Man’s work has been reshaped again with microprocessors: premodernity forced man into the fields, modernity into the factories; postmodernity into the office. Communication has undergone a drastic revision in the last decade, let alone the last fifty years. People are becoming more and more post-literate. For example, massive numbers of people know how to read, but what they read is usually work-related (TPS Reports), driven by pop-culture (People magazine, The Da-Vinci Code), or communicative in nature (text messages, emails, and blogs); few people these days read for intellectual stimulation or the cultivation of the soul. War is not always the overwhelming threat it once was, and most of us are able to spend our lives without being touched by it—which is probably the greatest innovation of the postmodern era. And finally, it was believed God no longer existed, and instead of a stronger humanistic theme, anti-humanism seems to have taken hold (as evidenced in part by the power and success of the political environmental movement).

But this is only one context of postmodernism with respect to human civilization. In a cultural context, postmodernism is also a philosophic and aesthetic revolution. Often in hindsight, historians label certain periods of time based on shifts in culture. In America, we began with the Neoclassical Age, or Age of Reason, in which our forefathers wrote some of the greatest documents of mankind, fought a political revolution, and started a new nation in a new world. Like its name implies, it was characterized by a return to Greco-Roman ideas with eighteenth century applications. However, the next generation of thinkers thought their ideas too stodgy; the Romantics emphasized emotion rather than reason, the imagination rather than philosophy, all of which is born out in their art. The Victorians thought the Romantics too excessive, and their age has been remembered for their social conservatism—and the pendulum swung backwards. Then came the aesthetic movement of Modernism, which was greatly defined by the tragedies of World War I and the new morality of the Lost Generation. This lasted until after World War II, and a new artistic movement was born in Postmodernism. This movement has been characterized by contradictory impulses, subjective rather than objective thinking, personal response rather than artistic motive, irony rather than realism. In both contexts of the societal and cultural definitions, it may be helpful to think of postmodernism as anti-modernism. It is rejecting the values and ideas that came before it.

In the history of ideas, postmodernism could not have occurred without existentialism which preceded it. The existentialists of the late eighteenth century stated that God was dead (not  that he died literally or even never existed, but that his purpose in civilization ceased to explain existence); thus, since man no longer can rely on God to give him meaning, he turns to himself to define his own meanings. Modernism accepted this concept but did not do anything with it. Postmodernism took it one step further, beginning primarily in linguistic and literary circles. Linguistically, men built off the theories of structuralists of the early twentieth century. Structuralism tried to define communication through the concept of verbal signs to express ideas. For example, if I hear or read the word “tree”, my mind interprets the letters that form the word T-R-E-E and my mind forms a mental picture of a tree. Structuralists declared the words to be arbitrary; poststructuralists in the 1960s stated that not only were these words arbitrary, but because we assigned meaning to them (since existentially they contain no inherent meaning), the meanings are worthless.

If this is a difficult concept to grasp, we may recall Agent Smith’s words to Neo at the end of The Matrix Revolutions: he asks what reason Neo continues to fight when he has absolutely no chance of winning. Is it love? he asks. Freedom? Hope? Smith states that all these words/concepts are man’s futile attempts to assign value to his life where no value exists. Neo even assents to Smith’s viewpoint, but says he continues to fight because he chooses to. In one sense this is a cheap plot trick (when a movie ceases to contain meaning within itself, then why should we bother watching it?). However, on the other hand, Neo is representing the postmodern ideal: he realizes the futility of his own existence, cannot find any meaning within himself, but presses on in spite of his knowledge. This conclusion is so contradictory that one question blows it all over. If we cannot even find our own meaning, then why don’t we all self-annihilate? Neo does, interestingly enough, but it is in sacrifice to a greater good—thus becoming the Christ figure and reclaiming meaning. This quandary is the reason philosophy departments (and much of academia in general) have stalled over the last three decades, and instead of generating new ideas have segmented themselves into demographic studies.

Literary criticism, which was an offshoot of philosophy, then embraced the idea of deconstructing texts, tearing apart the intellectual foundations on which they were written and reinterpreting as they saw fit. Not only could they reinterpret ideas, but they were free to reverse values (since values were only a construction of society); thus, Darth Vader can actually be a hero if we choose to read him thus, or Samson’s character flaws can be the result of a poor home environment. In the last half hour of the last Matrix film, through his blindness Neo sees the machine world as made of light, a traditional symbol of moral goodness and wisdom. Up to this point, we as viewers believed that the humans struggling for freedom were the good guys; we can no longer hold this assumption and we are forced to reconsider whether in fact humanity is evil, or a step further, if evil even exists. Viewed through this paradigm, everything is open to interpretation, including communication, even something as fundamental as the word is. If communication, the only medium by which we learn ethics and morality, is relative, then ethics and morality are relative also. “How shall we then live?”, the foundational question of religion, can no longer be answered.

What people typically associate with postmodernism is its ubiquitous association with the absence of Truth. If God is dead, as Nietzsche said, then there is no center to hold us together; if there is no center, then we have nothing from which to define our meanings; if there is no meaning, then there is no truth; if I recognize that I cannot even try to define my own meanings in the absence of truth, then I cease to exist. Postmodernism is, in a real sense, a rejection of Descartes’ conclusion, Cogito Ergo Sum (“I think, therefore I am”). In reality, no one could live truly believing this without going mad (Nietzsche did). Even The Matrix can’t get around this problem: Neo cannot recognize truth at first, but truth does indeed exists (because he is translated from the virtual world to the real, a Platonic notion rather than a postmodern one). Neo also concludes that he is The One, a Messianic savior of mankind, a knowledge that by contemporary standards of thought would be impossible (because how can you know if truth does not exist?). The failures of The Matrix to adequately present a story told through a postmodern paradigm shows that people actually do not live, and cannot live, in a postmodern world.

But if we talk a postmodern game but walk a more modern life, then what are we really? Ah, dear reader, muse on this awhile…

Visions of Heaven’s Gate

Thoughts about death have led me naturally into thoughts about the afterlife.

I’m sitting around a campfire on a blue Tennessee ridge at twilight. The cool mountain air mingles with the glow lighting the deepening sky. Miles of rolling hills swallow up the horizon. I look up at the wakening stars with Dante, ask him the names of the constellations as we work our way upwards through the nine levels of the skies. Chaucer is mimicking voices over in the corner, as Shakespeare is acting out some hilarious story of mistaken identity. This gets Lewis thinking, who shares his musings with Tolkien and O’Conner. Milton adds to the mix, and he and Eliot paint word pictures of thought and beauty so intense and marvelous that they nearly come alive. Soon they are all telling stories, even Augustine, and I merely listen, humbled to just be counted quietly among this noble company.

The stories abound as the night wears on. Yet it never grows truly dark, and it never grows truly cold. Dostoevsky weaves a gloomy yarn, and the minutes become pensive as we think about those not with us. Before long, Tolstory pulls out a fiddle, Coleridge his harmonica, and their notes blend a solemn harmony—a reminder of our days spent in the shadows, before we knew what real living was. For the years of mortality are now memory—more real and tangible than memories recalled while in the flesh—and through song and story we can go back again and touch those moments with more meaning and reality than we could ever know on earth.

The fire, which was slowly dying with our somber moods, rises again as the new figure enters the scene. We have all met him before—when we first believed, when we knew death, when we faced judgment. But he graces us now with his presence. And, as always, we bow. His eyes glow with the raging power of the lion, his countenance with the inviting, humble bearing of the lamb. The ultimate paradox, I often ponder. He takes his seat among us and begins sharing his own stories. He is separate from us, but it is a separateness that feels peacefully natural. Everyone knows he could turn on them at any moment, but they are confident he won’t. He is certainly not safe, as Lewis used to say; but he is good. And his goodness diffuses through the night and makes us all the more good, all the more closer, all the more beautiful.

That’s just my whimsical notions of what a good afterlife might look like. Something coolly Russian and hauntingly Appalachian, mysterious and familiar. It will be at once deeply historical and brightly imminent, as mythological and real as ever the two could meet. Both ancient and eternal, aged and youthful. Old, new, and renewed.

No doubt we all have our ideal pictures of what heaven will be like. For some it is endless white beaches, others snowcapped peaks. But when I think of eternity, often prompted by a moving tune, I think of that campfire. I think of warmth and camaraderie, of narratives and music. It is as familiar as the fellowship of the churched, and it is more church than church today could ever be. Those tangible experiences of joy today are the glimpses of the joy to come, placed there by God that we might hunger more for heaven.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21.1-4).

Heaven’s gate is opened here by the imagination—where the gates are never shut. St John describes his own vision of heaven in terms of wealth, luxury, and beauty. Does he do so because this is an actual vision of heaven, or is it a representational view of the church)? Does he do so because as a persecuted apostle these were the things he lacked on earth? Are our visions of heaven constructed on what we lack or on those tangible experiences of joy?

These things I do not know, but I know my own vision will not be too far removed from reality. I will tell stories with Eddie, talk with Jen, tell jokes with my grandfather. I will meet my unborn children and learn the names God had given them. I will hear Solomon’s wisdom and listen to David’s harp. Heaven will be the great Feast after the wedding, when the Christ and the Bride are joined, when the Kingdom is re-experienced in the Empyrean.

On that day, the Heavenly Jerusalem will descend from the clouds and gather up its citizens, we who have been awaiting it will know all things fully just as we are fully known. The nations will walk by the light of Christ, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into the city (Rev. 21.24). Every tongue and tribe and people and nation will be present, and as Dante describes it in the Purgatorio, will be parading their banners through the streets of gold. Those of you reading this in the US will be American Christians, and those in the Netherlands Christian Netherlanders. We will retain elements of our identity—personal, social, national. The man who cannot abide his country on earth will be disappointed, I think, to realize he must abide it in heaven—just as the man who cannot endure his brother here must endure him for eternity. The maimed will be restored, but like the lamb who was slain will bear the scars that make them who they were. The blind will see, the lame will walk, and the prideful will find their humility.

Most importantly, we will drink and eat together. The tree of life which we once ate from freely in the Garden will be bearing its leaves once again. The river of the water of life which we drank from at our baptism will continually renew us. It will be a communion such as has only been tasted in life. Heaven will be a place where we will know one another, where relationships are formed, deepened, and lived more fully than anything we might know on earth. I will share a mansion with my wife (I hope), and I will share community with friends old and new. The Light will surround and infuse us, and we will become who we were created to be. The afterlife will become true life, and this life will be merely the before-life. And life abundant will be transformed into life eternal.

All of the tales we tell in this life are merely glimpses of the life to come, and faith informs meaning. Chaucer’s pilgrimage. Milton’s lost garden. Augustine’s saints in the City of God. Dostoevsky’s connections between strangers in the city of Babylon. Every story is a song of eternity. We can look forward to the day our ship sails to Valinor, when the grey rain-curtain turns everything to silver glass as we behold white shores and a far green country under a swift sunrise.

With such visions, how could we ever fear death?

It’s a Wonderful Death

If you are at all a frequent reader here, you know of my affinity for George Bailey. George Bailey is the 20th century pop cultural equivalent to the most ardent disciple of Christ. He is the humanist par excellence: a man who touches lives with selflessness for the good of others—simply because others need his goodness. George is not perfect; at moments of real crisis, he is far more gruff than he is gentle, though we are too willing to forgive him this vice because of his trying circumstances and because of his many virtues. If anything, his flaws make him all the more human. But too often, I think, George puts many of us Christians to shame. We fail to act as nobly, or we do so out of a joyless sense of duty.

Frank Capra’s and Jimmy Stewart’s shared success in fashioning this inimitable character might be chalked up by some cynics as a manufactured icon of false moral superiority. Surely no one can be that good, we scoff. But our scoffing only reveals our own failings, not the cinema’s. For I would submit that the George Baileys of film find flesh and blood in the real world. In fact, I dare to think I know one or two of them.

We visited a friend last week who just yesterday passed away from cancer. That is to say, the cancer wasn’t the issue—though the lack of food was. As the tumor blocked his digestive system, his body had no way to absorb nutrition. Ultimately, he had no chance at recovery, and he knew his days would be few. Yet he spoke of this blinding truth as if it were just another truth in his life. The slow decay of his health was as real as the color of the sky. The certainty of his passing was as non-chalantly remarked upon as the memories we shared that day with him and his family. And he met his end with courage and confidence such as I have never witnessed before. His courage gave others courage, and his confidence inspired hope.

Never have I entered a conversation which I knew was my last. Nor with someone so close to my family. Perhaps death has not touched me much in my short life—or perhaps I have kept people at such a distance that I have not allowed it to. But the surreality of the experience has caused me to reevaluate my own assumptions. Many of our stories—both complex novels and ancient folktales—explore the psychological dimensions to death.  From Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale to Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” to Hemmingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” nothing is more certain yet more urgently avoided than death.  We know we will someday die; the great unknowns are how it will happen, how we will face it, and what will it be like afterward.

Despite what some may say, there is little dignified about death. Death often involves intense pain, gross fluids, and frustrating indecency–things my friend was, sadly, experiencing for weeks. Our culture has done everything possible to dress death up, to remove it from our homes, exchanging the certainty of our finality for round-the-clock nurses, sanitized surroundings, and hospital gowns—often in the hopes that we might cheat death at the last second. But we don’t. And even if we did, it would still come looking for us later. The climax of the hero’s defeat of his own demise at the end of the story can only be a pyrrhic victory.

I can only imagine the terrors that must overcome a person in their last moments—particularly if they are not sanguine as to what comes next. Even those who claim confidence may fall back on fear at the end. George’s fear of failing himself, his family, and his town narrows his vision of the future and conquers his faith in a humanity willing to redeem George because he had so many times redeemed them.  What George lacked, even in the angel who came to stop him from jumping off that bridge, was a larger vision than even Capra could see.

The Psalmist encourages us, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (116.15). Reevaluated in light of the cross, death is perhaps one of the greatest gifts God could have given us. The alternative is living apart from Him forever. If we hold that we have a Creator, and that this Creator loves us and wants a relationship with us, and sacrificed His own Son to build that relationship with us, then being with Him—not escaping death—should be our highest life value.

Far be it for me to suggest that George should have taken his own life just to presumably make it easier on himself. A death caused by despair is no good death at all, but a succumbing to chaos. The prophet Isaiah comforts us with these words: “When you pass through the waters, 
I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (43:2). The chaos will most certainly come, but losing faith in the midst of the chaos is losing the very thing that makes life wonderful. The paradox is that death brings significance to existence. The cross brings meaning to life, and the empty tomb brings hope to death.

Plato claims 400 years before Christ in his “Myth of Er” at the end of The Republic that what we really need is for someone to journey to the other side and return. This is the only way we will know if justice truly exists, if our republic is right, and if death is not the end. The man who takes this journey, Plato states, will fundamentally transform the nature of reality itself. And he was right: if the resurrection of Jesus Christ was real, then it informs every aspect of the world as we know it.

There are indeed, ladies and gentlemen, people in the world like George Bailey. In fact, all who can truly call themselves ladies and gentlemen may find in themselves reflections of his selfless character. But I think there are men and women even greater than George Bailey—not because they never doubt or never waver or never wish that they had not been born.  We all have those moments.  But because they already know that the only thing better than the gift of life is the gift of eternal life.

With that in mind, Death is only the transition, the first chapter in the true, as-yet-unwritten story of Creation.  Like Jewel the unicorn in CS Lewis’ The Last Battle, my friend is now joyously laughing, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”

With this certainty can we confidently assert, it’s a wonderful death.

I, Levite

Maybe it’s just me, but I wonder how often we neglect to use our gifts for their intended purposes, choosing to bless ourselves and not others. I wonder how often we are poised to help the misfortunate and purposefully pass on our opportunities. I wonder how often God intentionally places the needy in our path precisely because he has faith that we will choose to be his hands—and then his faith in us is unrewarded by our ambivalence.

It is curious to me that God tells Abraham He is going down to visit Sodom to see if things are as bad as He’s heard in heaven (Gen. 18.21). This should tell us that if there are not limitations to divine omniscience, there are at least things that even God must experience to truly know. I think the times that our faith is tested are those moments of experiential knowledge; we think the trial is for us when maybe it is for Him as well.

In Luke 10.30-37, Jesus tells the tale of the Good Samaritan to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” This famous story exemplifies, even in contemporary culture, the heroic act of self-sacrifice. The term has become a badge of honor to credit those who give to strangers without expectation of return. But the story is sometimes lost in its context. The lawyer who asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” was actually trying to ask, “How much do I really have to love?” Christ’s response was prompted by the question we frequently ask, “How little must I do to be considered okay for the kingdom?”

When the story is retold in our pulpits, we often see ourselves as either the Good Samaritan, willing to help out anyone we can. Or sometimes we even envision ourselves as the Good Jew, a victim of circumstance in desperate plea for a hand-up. We either pride ourselves for those stellar moments of genuinely righteous deeds, or we bless others for practicing righteousness to us. Too quickly do we ignore the fact that Christ was telling the parable to experts in the Law (i.e. us), and it was the experts who had forgotten that the Lord desires mercy not sacrifice. With that in mind, perhaps the parable should read like this.

A certain man traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was waylaid by bandits. Him you know, but who you often miss is the real protagonist of this story. He was a Levite, traveling from Jericho to Jerusalem, and he was running late for the early evening sacrifices. It was a rough road, as everyone knew, and it would have been better to travel in a caravan for security purposes; but as we said, he was in a hurry. He had an offering to make and then get back to Jericho the next day for some unexpected auditing. Worship makes good work, was his daily mantra.

He was tabulating the temple tax in his mind when all of a sudden he heard moans echoing in the canyon. His curiosity got the better of him and he hurried up the road to find, much to his dismay, a despondent wretch lying in his path. The man was clearly hurt. Bruises were starting to rise all over his face—and there was just so much blood. If only he had taken the long way around, the Levite thought to himself.  Or if only he had closed his eyes or kept his gaze toward heaven praying the whole time: then maybe he wouldn’t have seen anything. If only he had left Jericho earlier so that he would have missed the robbery. But then, if he had left early, that would have been him lying in the road. Where were the Romans when you needed them? Shouldn’t someone do something? Dear God—there was just so much blood.

Part of him knew he should help, but he had heard that thieves often beat up travelers and use them for bait to rob the unsuspecting bleeding hearts who walked by. Part of him knew he should help, but he was in such a rush after all—and those cows weren’t going to slaughter themselves. Part of him knew he should help, but he just didn’t want to. And so he walked on by, unaware that his decision would make him a cautionary tale for generations to come, unaware that his refusal to help would become a stinging indictment on the self-righteous and self-concerned for the next several thousand years, unaware that his absence meant missing out on an even greater honor than making sacrifice.

I tell this tale because I am that Levite. Last week, I came across a man who, by all appearances and smells, was homeless. He clearly was a card-carrying member of society’s Great Unwashed. Our eyes met only briefly as we passed each other, and neither of us said a word. He talked to someone else behind me for a moment, and then I heard him try to draw my attention. “Sir!” he shouted, and from the direction of his voice, I knew he could be shouting to no one else but me. But I pretended I couldn’t hear him, and I kept on walking.

If I wanted to justify myself like the lawyer (and believe me, I tried), I could say that maybe I didn’t really hear him. Maybe he was shouting to someone else I couldn’t see, and maybe he wasn’t trying to get my attention at all. Maybe I could say that at least I went back minutes later to try and repair my wrong, and since he was already gone I was off the hook for now—maybe God could try again later. Maybe I really was too busy to help. Or maybe I just didn’t want to.

Those opportunities can be the defining moments of our faith precisely because they test how we treat the least of these. We forget that those living on the margins, before they are citizens of society, are fellow creatures of God. Marred as his face and his clothes are, he is nevertheless a mirror of the divine essence. And when we deny those in need, we are denying ourselves the honor of helping our brother and the honor of taking the seat of prominence at Christ’s banquet table. But when we deny ourselves and take up the cross of self-sacrifice, we are taking part in the greater tale of God’s people.

This does not mean, in my opinion, those in need should have those needs met by the government. We similarly miss out on God’s work when we tell people to let our states and our non-profits and even our churches handle compassion. To one degree or another, these institutions are necessary to perform charity, and they should be utilized when necessary. But Christ has called you and me, not the deacon of benevolence. He has asked us to be deacons (lit. servants), not the state.

When Christ divides the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25.31-46), he is not dividing those who know the truth from those who don’t. He is not separating the Christian and the pagan. He is separating the religious Christian from the devoted disciple. The holy criteria is not how well we knew the Law of Scripture but how well we applied the Law of Love. If we want fellowship with Him, in other words, we need to seek out fellowship with others—especially the sick, the prisoner, the hurting, the dying. Our religion means little if we do not use it to help bring the irreligious into our fold.

So what is Christ’s response to my Levitical attitude? Does God take my good deeds and my bad and weigh them in the aggregate? Does he look at my thoughtless (dare I say wicked) act and measure it to all the other thoughtful (can I claim holy) acts I’ve done? Truth be told, I don’t know that I really want him to. Does he instead look at my “good intentions,” knowing I might have wanted to help that man at another time? I don’t want to be a legalist dispensing God’s justice, but I also don’t want to ignore the reality that my Christianity is judged on my actions as much, if not more, than my intentions.

There are times when we are too busy to help; and then there are times when we use our busyness as an excuse for selfishness. There are times when we can’t stop by the side of the road, be it obligation or safety; and then there are times when safety becomes a convenience. There are times when we are genuinely afraid; and then there are times when we allow fear to paralyze our faith.

But maybe it’s just me.

Portraits on the Wall

Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” is a dramatic monologue in which the speaker describes the life and fate of his former wife with the family of his prospective wife.  We study her features, hear her story, but what we really discover is the dark character of the speaker, his preoccupation with female submission, and his obsession with self-promotion.  In some ways, she is simply the medium through whom we learn about him.

It has been said that all poetry is either metaphor or metonymy.  That is, a poem expresses truth either through analogy or by understanding a piece of the whole.  “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson reminds us.  For the direct truths communicated in philosophy are often too rich and multifaceted for us to understand directly.  For many of us, philosophy is simply far too over our head; it is its own language that fails to communicate to all people.  This has been one of the primary justifications for writing and studying poetry for centuries.  Though Plato mistrusted poetry’s corrupt and hypnotic influence over the weak-minded, he was clearly wise enough to use poetic language to construct his republic and make it accessible to its citizens.  God also uses the language of poetry to depict who he is.  We desire to see God face to face, but no mortal can; and biblical history depicts one example after another of man seeing only an aspect of God’s glory.  Though we desire to see face to face, we must be content—in this life, at least—with seeing through a mirror dimly.  Like Christ and his parables, truth is better heard through the word pictures of poetry.  “The truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.”

I think this is a reflection of how we understand God.  How are we to categorize information without its inverse?  How are we to comprehend the ineffable without the effable?  God himself understands this is a challenge to faith—and so the Word becomes flesh and enters human existence.  Christ is the Son of Man, the Lamb of God, the Great Physician, the Prince of Peace.  As I was reminded by a brother a few weeks ago at a conference, God cannot be understood but in part and by analogy – literally through poetry.  And so the truths of God are communicated through the people, the poets, who have come to make him known.  In the hall of faith there hang many portraits that each express a glimpse of the person and character of the Lord.

We begin with the patriarchs and the prophets, men and women who through faith conquered kingdoms, shut the mouths of lions, built and destroyed strongholds, received loved ones back from the dead.  As we examine their portraits, we are amazed to discover that each of these people had their own character, their own strengths and failings, their own unique personality.  When married to the divine essence, that personality shone ever more brightly.  Meaning that God does not obscure who we are when we choose to follow him; rather who we are becomes much stronger, much more of who we were created to be.  Abraham reveals God’s trust, Noah his obedience, Samson the power of the Spirit, David his heart, Solomon his mind.  Each of these protagonists received their scripts from the great director, learned their characters, studied their situations, and gave award-winning performances that inspire greater virtue in the audience.

We then turn down the corridor of the early church.  We witness the acts of the apostles, who burst forth upon Jerusalem like an underwater volcano and from there stretched out to the ends of the earth.  Thomas in India, John at Patmos, Peter in Rome.  We see the fervency of the Spirit poured out on sons and daughters who prophesied, experienced visions, and saw signs.  We remember the martyrs—both those recorded and unwritten—and admire the fire of faith within them that would not bow to a pagan empire.

As we enter the vestibule of the medieval church, we encounter new generations of heroes.  We learn from the fathers—Jerome, Augustine, Clement, Origen—who codified the vastly complex doctrines we view far too simply and take far too much for granted today.  We simultaneously embrace the compassion of Francis and the austerity of the Cistercians.  We study the historians (Eusebius and Bede), the theologians (Abelard and Aquinas), and the poets (Dante and Chaucer).  We esteem the reformers—Wycliffe, Knox, Luther—who longed to save the people from ignorance and error and return to a simpler form of faith.

And what shall we say?  Time does not permit us to discuss Bunyan, Milton, Mather, Newton, the Campbells, Chesterton, Eliot, Lewis.  Not to mention the countless silent servants whose names receive no accolades in death, but who are nevertheless critical fixtures in the celestial scene, triumphant voices in the great cloud of witnesses spurring us on to love, perseverance, and good deeds.  Without the grandfathers and great aunts and great mentors, the legacy of faith might be forever broken.  Instead, and only by the miraculous intervention of the Divine, we are inheritors of a spiritual chain stretching back to Christ, to Abraham, and to Adam, and we likewise have the responsibility to pass on that faith to future generations.

All poetry is either metaphor or metonymy.  Indeed, God’s communication of himself to us is through poetry.  The Bible, much more than a lawbook, is a beautifully constructed metaphor which speaks the truth of God and grants us deep insights into who he is.  Similarly, we who long to imitate the character of God create beautifully ordered lives in obedience to the truth.  More than this, we become the metaphor.  The imago Dei.  The strength of the Son of Man, the humility and self-sacrifice of the Lamb of God, the unity of the Prince of Peace.  Through us, the Gospel is made flesh, expressed eloquently in words and through righteous actions.

The Puritans earnestly believed that through their acts of faith they were continuing to write the continuing saga of God’s people.  And so we are.  So we too hang as portraits in the hall of heaven.