struggle, spirituality, absurdity

Category: tentatio (page 1 of 3)

Rick Warren, His Detractors, and the Body of Christ

The news that Rick Warren‘s son had passed away by suicide will undoubtably continue to be international news for some time, because the combination of tragedy and celebrity tends to be so tantalizing in our culture. Not that that’s healthy, but there isn’t much I can do about it.

Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church.

I did notice one oddly uplifting trend as the news spread… and I say “oddly” because it came from social media, which basically draws its dark life-force from vitriol, ignorance, and hate.

Among Warren’s many critics from within the Christian world (and any supremely public figure within Christianity will, by definition, draw a zillion critics), I have yet to find one that does not consist of pure grace and empathy. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’ve yet to find one (Westboro, I’m looking in your direction).

And there is a special beauty in that observation. Ever since the advent of Christianity, even in the months following Pentecost, disagreement and dissent has been a mark of Christian life. Dissent, regardless of appearance, is not a sign of weakness, but, rather, it indicates strength. Whenever an organization exists without any conflict, it is reasonable to assume that something unhealthy and dangerous lies beneath its surface.

In the wake of tragedy, we put aside the differences, theological disagreements, frustrations, jealousies (the guy sold, like, a billion books), and squabbles, to come together to offer support for the Warren family in the unifying center of who we are: Jesus. And if I know anything about Jesus, he does not shy away from tragedy, loss, and suffering. Actually, that is sort of his thing…

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Genesis 1 and Creation as Function

In Genesis 1:5, part of the creation narrative in 7 days, God calls the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night.’ Why wouldn’t God just call them ‘light’ and ‘dark?’ This signals to us that something strange (to us) is going on in the text, and it turns out that it has to do with how we understand existence in the modern world. That might seem like a huge leap, but allow me to explain.

We in the modern world posses a material ontology, meaning that we tend to think about something’s existence based on its material properties. Salt exists because Sodium and Chlorine bonded ionically, and thus it possesses the material properties required to give salt its existence. The chair I am currently using is made from the finest cheap plastic goop you usually find in only the lowest grade outdoor patio furniture. It possesses legs, a back, armrests, a seat, and it starts to bend in funny ways during the winter when I let the space-heater get too close. All material properties, giving rise to what I call ‘chair.’

It’s completely natural that we would take this same material-oriented ontology to the text of Genesis 1, because when we talk about the origins of the universe, we do so in a materially oriented fashion. We want to know about the age of the Earth/universe, the composition of planets and stars, distances, etc. These are all material concerns.

Material ontology is part of our worldview, and worldviews always insert themselves into interpretations. So, we have to ask ourselves: Did the Israelites (and the rest of the Ancient Near East) view the world in a materially oriented way? In other words, when they wrote about origins and creation, were they referring to the materials of the universe, or did they have something else in mind?

Obviously, I wouldn’t have bothered asking the question if I didn’t think there was something else going on. We can see a different understanding of the world in verse 5, where God calls light and dark by different names. ‘Day’ is a period of light, and ‘night’ is a period of dark, and when that section concludes with “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” we see exactly what God just created: Time.

A period of light followed by a period of darkness gives us the basis for time, unless you live in Scandinavia during either the winter or summer. It’s important to note that for us materialists, God hasn’t created anything material on this day. The sun, moon, and stars don’t come until day 4, and no one in the ancient world had any concept of the particle-wave theory of light. Rather than creating materials, God is establishing functions.

That word, functions, is enormously important because while we often judge the existence of something on its material properties, the people of the Ancient Near East had a functional ontology. For them, something existed if it had a function in an ordered system. My cheap, plastic chair, in this sense, isn’t a chair until someone actually uses it, giving it a function. The ancient Israelites didn’t understand how the earth revolved around the sun, or that the moon reflected the sun’s light, but the interchange between night and day created the function of time.

Before we jump into the rest of the days in Genesis, we ourselves, in our materially-ontological glory, use functional thinking as well. If I told you that I got a new computer,  you probably aren’t going to be interested in when and where it was manufactured, the chemical composition of the components, etc. You’d be asking me about its speed, storage capacity, features, battery life, etc. In other words, you’d ask me about its functions, not its material composition. The Ancient Near East, and Genesis 1 in particular, is quite like that.

See how this plays out over the next few days in the creation narrative:

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

During day 2, God separates out “waters from the waters” (whatever that means) and eventually ends up with “waters above” and “waters below.” According to ancient reasoning (see the image), water fell from the sky so there must already be water up there (they didn’t know about the water-cycle), hence the “waters above.” The important word here usually gets translated “expanse” or “firmament”, and it is what’s formed after God does all this separating. This firmament was like a giant dome, and God calls it “heaven,” though in Hebrew the word is “sky.”

So… the big question here is: What did God actually do? He didn’t create anything material, but what function do we see? Go back to what I said about waters being “above.” The heavens/firmament hold back those waters and control their flow – meaning they allow for the function of precipitation and weather.

Day 3:

And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

A lot happens on day 3. Dry land appears, the seas are gathered together, and then the Earth does something amazing: it sprouts vegetation. It never says anything about the material composition of seeds and plants, and we are only told that the Earth itself sprouts. If we hold to a materialistic view of this creation account, then it would seem as though plants are just appearing like mold on a piece of bread. This won’t make much sense, and we would have to contort the text in order to make it fit into our worldview. However, from an ancient, functional perspective, here emerges the function of vegetation.

We now have 3 functions: time, weather, and vegetation. In my next post, we will look at the functionaries.

If you would like a more in-depth look, I highly recommend the book by John Walton: 


Theological Reflections on the Death of bin Laden

For starters, I’m irritated with the fact that it was under Obama’s command that he was killed. This isn’t a political statement or a revelation of my allegiances; It all comes down to grammar. About 6 times now I have been in conversation with someone about the death of Obama, at which point I feel like an idiot. I seem to remember John Stewart joking about the same mistake.

On a more serious note, I feel very ambivalent about the whole thing. One the one hand, a dangerous man responsible the deaths of thousands of people all over the world is now dead. That is justice.

But a Christian is called to forgive. We believe that all humans bear God’s image (Imago Dei is the fancy-pants term), and thus we affirm the sacredness and dignity of all human life. I think this applies to issues of war, sexuality, human trafficking, business practices, ethics, and everything in between. The more I think about it, humans-as-imagesbearers is a pretty deep rabbit hole that too few venture down. That’s a different matter, I guess.

It particularly disturbs me, though, when the killing of bin Laden is labeled a victory. The taking of life is not a victory; at best it is a necessary evil – and I use that word specifically.

Jesus made a cryptic statement when he was on trial before Pilate, the governor, who was attempting to assess whether Jesus is a threat to the peace and security of Roman interests in Judea. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would have been fighting…” Sounds simple, right? It is, but it also goes very deep into the heart of the matter for today.

Palestine had a reputation of violence for hundreds of years before and after Jesus’ life. Jewish revolts were relatively common, often beginning in the context of the great Temple in Jerusalem. Or to put it another way, the many revolts that took place against the Romans were messianic in nature. The Messiah, it was thought, would lead the great war to kick the Romans out and reestablish an autonomous Jewish nation. These were incredibly bloody affairs, and they rarely ended well for the Jews, especially around the 1st centuries BCE and CE.

So Pilate had to decide whether Jesus was yet another violent revolutionary leader. As it turns out, he was not. Jesus recognized the futility and evil of violence and taught his disciples the same – not that they always understood. His kingdom was not of the world because it operated under a different set of values, but it was still very much for this world.

And this is where we get to the heart of the matter. If read with this background in mind, we can come to understand a deep truth regarding the nature of evil. Namely, that one of the tools of evil is violence, and fighting will never really eliminate the problem. It might contain it, but it will always resurface. This is why thoughtful and courageous non-violent resistance can be wildly successful, especially when the enemy is much more powerful: it strips them of their power.

Giving into violence might make the situation better for a time, but it will never make evil go away. Since all human life is sacred, even those responsible for incredible evil, Osama’s death is still a tragedy. Necessary, but tragic. It is better that he is dead? Probably. Is it a cause for celebration? No, never. We defeat our enemies through forgiveness, not by killing them, and we do not celebrate the death of anyone.

Thoughts on Remission

I have no idea where I am going with this but feel compelled to write. So bear with me. Or don’t, it’s your choice. That’s the danger (from my perspective) of blogging.

So I got the news that I have achieved a 3-log reduction in the presence of the Leukemia mutation. Or something like that, but I was never great with Biology. Suffice it to say, this is the goal for treating my kind of Leukemia (CML), and within this threshold the disease is considered well under control. My next step is for the mutation (actually it’s the presence of a protein, or something like that) to be undetectable by the machines that do the detecting. That won’t necessarily mean the mutation is gone, but rather that it is so low that the machine can’t find it (we are on the molecular level at this point).

It’s strange, though, because I still sense that I have a ways to go in terms of dealing with the emotional side of having leukemia. For those of you that know me well, this summer has sucked horribly. I’ve been sick and injured for most of the season, and then I was forced to try a different leukemia drug because the original one was no longer effective. Not to mention that I struggled with the side effects of that original drug.

Now I feel better than ever, and I actually have more energy now than I know what to do with. But this morning, a friend of mine mentioned in passing that he had had some blood work done and the doctor said he wanted to run another, more specific test. It ended up being nothing (except that my friend needed to lose a little weight), and yet when I heard this story being told, I almost had a small heart attack at the idea of him needing more blood work. I’ve been down that road, and it didn’t go well with me.

It was like a small panic attack induced by PTSD, or something like that. I can be a little dramatic at times.

But it did tell me that I have a ways to go. I still get depressed, and who wouldn’t? After the leukemia, the multiple deaths of loved ones, the car wreck, my cat that died, the million kidney stones, and a few other things, this shouldn’t surprise me.

It all reminds me of how messy life really can be. I get impatient with movies that have nice, black and white, neatly wrapped endings. How is that anywhere near life-like? Real life has real struggles, real joy, and everything in between – and often at the same time.

I am in remission. That’s incredibly good news, but it isn’t the end of the story, nor is it the beginning of another. My good news simply is. I will carry this damned mutation all my life, and my life will likely be long.

Learning to live in that tension takes serious chutzpah. I pray that God grants me some of his…


I think it was Bonhoeffer who said that the goal of meditation ought no to be focused on gaining profound intellectual insights or even deep spiritual experiences. Even if he didn’t say that and I’m really thinking of someone else, it sounds like something he would say. Instead, the goal of meditation is oriented around the act itself – the discipline of meditation. It doesn’t matter if one gains great insights into the Scriptures or has a profound spiritual experience. It’s all about the day-in day-out rhythm of the Scriptures and being faithful to its calling.

I hate that.

I like results. I like hitting a button and getting something in return. I like reading a book and knowing more than I did before I read it. I despise pointless exercises.

But – does that mean I judge something as ‘having a point’ based on what I immediately get out of it? That’s a scary thought, leading me to wonder if I am really more superficial than I’d like to believe.

Now I’m irritated.

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