Monthly Archives: July 2007

Will you walk in the darkness, or make a fire?

– Matthew R. Crawford –

“10. Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God. 11. Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches! Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled! This you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.” (Isaiah 50:10-11)

This passage, coming at the end of the third servant song of Isaiah (50:4-11), describes two possible responses to the Servant of the Lord. First to recount a bit of the context, I believe that one of the primary themes of the latter part of Isaiah is exile. Chapter 39 ends with a prediction of the exile, and the ensuing chapters appear to be addressed to Israelites in exile, even mentioning Cyrus by name. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the chapters were written after the exile, but that’s another topic. Israel in exile would have considered her experience to be darkness. Indeed, Lamentations 3:1-6 describe it in such terms. Imagine watching the blood bath in the streets of Jerusalem, as a ravaging army cut down men, women, and children. The temple is desecrated and its treasures carted off to be used for a very different purpose than that described in Leviticus. You then find yourself living in a foreign land, everyday hearing a foreign language, not being familiar with the customs of your new city, being surrounded by people worshipping a god other than the Lord.

Isaiah’s answer to this situation is the Servant of the Lord. Yet as it is in our day, so it was for Isaiah – the Servant does not enjoy uniform acceptance. There are those who accept the Servant and there are those who reject him. What is striking about Isaiah’s description of these responses is how he reverses the meaning of a common biblical metaphor. Usually in Scripture, especially in the Johannine corpus, walking in darkness is equivalent to living in disobedience to God’s law – being a child of Satan and an enemy of God. Living in the light is a metaphor for walking in obedience and honoring God. Isaiah flips the metaphor. He says that those who walk in darkness are blessed and those who walk in the light will experience God’s judgment. What are we to make of this seeming contradiction?

Closer inspection reveals that Isaiah is not contradicting, but rather further explaining the typical biblical metaphor. As stated above, these words were written primarily with the children of Israel in exile in mind. In the midst of such apparent hopelessness and loss (i.e., darkness), there were only two options. One could walk forward in the darkness trusting in the Lord or one could make one’s own light to walk by, that is, to trust in one’s own wisdom and strength.

Isaiah is thus saying that there are times when God wills for us to walk in the darkness for a while. How often is it true in our Christian experience that we see as but through a glass darkly? We don’t understand why a certain providence is ours. Life takes an unexpected turn. The church runs you out for preaching the truth. Your child dies at birth. You are rejected by all of your potential graduate programs. How is the Christian to respond to such circumstances? Isaiah would say that the answer is not to think that you are wiser than God and to go forth trusting in your own ability, while accusing God of lack of foresight or malevolence. Rather, the proper response is to wait on the Lord while being faithful to obey all the light that he has given you. Waiting in darkness is difficult. Walking forward in the darkness is even more difficult because you cannot see the way before you. Nevertheless, it is better than the outcome for those who walk by the light of their own intellect – to lie down in torment. As the hymn says, “I may not see the way I go, but, oh, I know my guide.”

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On the Worship of the Early Church

– Matthew R. Crawford –

I just started reading Robert Louis Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. It is a fascinating book. Wilken is a church history professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in the early church. His book was originally published in 1984, but was recently republished by Yale in 2003. Wilken’s method in the book is to look at the early Christians through the eyes of their detractors. He examines the descriptions of the Christians contained in the writings of significant non-Christians such as Pliny the Younger, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate.

The book succeeds in giving a glimpse into the world of early Christianity. For example, below is a description of the early Christians in a letter written by Pliny, a government official, to Emperor Trajan from Asia Minor sometime during the fall of A.D. 112. Apparently some persons in a certain town were upset because the sale of sacrificial meat was down, presumably due to people converting to Christianity. Pliny made an investigation of the matter and reported it back to the Emperor for advice. He stated that the Christians

declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this; they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary harmless kind. (22)

It’s quite a description of the worship of the early church, isn’t it? The church met weekly on a certain day. They engaged in some form of chanting or singing to one another. Perhaps they were chanting to one another portions of the Psalms or the New Testament. The focus of their worship was to honor Christ as if he were God. They encouraged one another towards holiness through the means of something like a proto-church covenant. That is, they had a sense of their corporate responsibility to aid one another in sanctification. Finally, they enjoyed fellowship with one another over a meal. How does Pliny’s description of the early church’s worship compare with what you do at your church?

The model of the early church’s worship does not serve as an irrefutable authority for how we should structure our church gatherings today. In fact, the description above leaves out some important elements such as communion and the preaching of the word. Nevertheless, Christians should draw encouragement from the fact that when we gather for worship we are doing so even as so many millions of fellow believers have done for the last two thousand years. We are part of a community that greatly transcends us in both time and space. Nevertheless, we are bound together by our common faith. Let us not forget so. Some have argued for the importance of biblical theology because it gives Christians a cosmic narrative in which to place their own lives and so find significance in this larger story. This is certainly true for biblical theology, but I think it is also true for church history. Pastors should strive to communicate to their congregations that the faith did not arise yesterday, but that there is a long tradition that can teach us much if we are willing to listen. The community of the local church is primary, but this community is a part of a much larger community, the community of those redeemed by the blood of the lamb throughout all the ages.

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On The Life of the Mind and the Pursuit of Beauty

– Matthew R. Crawford –

In this post I hope to bring together the themes that I have discussed thus far as well as shed further light on them. Another book from my summer reading list is James V. Schall’s The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006). Schall is a Catholic who teaches government at Georgetown University, and he has written numerous books on education, philosophy, and related topics. The Life of the Mind is one of the most enjoyable books that I have read in a while. There are many of us evangelicals who have rightly criticized the anti-intellectualism that mars the modern evangelical movement. However, I have not encountered a book that more effectively encourages the life of the mind than Schall’s book. Schall writes about the life of the mind with such obvious joy that it causes the reader to pursue the same. We as evangelicals must go beyond mere criticism to constructively define how the life of the mind fits into the life of the Christian. It is intriguing to me that such a book comes from the pen of a Catholic priest. I’m still trying to think through what to make of this last observation, but in the least it stirs within me the desire to see more solid evangelicals who interact with the broader Western intellectual tradition as does Schall.

Now, to the issues at hand. As I look back over my two previous posts and the comments they have generated, I see at least three themes/questions:
1) How do we help our churches to see the beauty of God?
2) How do we enjoy cultural products discerningly?
3) What is the Christian’s responsibility regarding the creation of art?

Here is a quote from The Life of the Mind that I think helps to answer these questions:

“In the ancient struggle between philosophy and poetry, Plato only allowed that poetry back into his city which was beautiful in what it held about the gods, in its rhythms, and in its melody. He knew that in the end there is only one way to counteract music or philosophy that does not glorify God as He is supposed to be glorified, and that is to produce a counter-poetry, a counter-music that is even more beautiful. To grasp the central point of Christianity in the intellectual sense means, whether we agree with it or not, to acknowledge that this poetry or myth has been produced, and that its production is not wholly something of human origin, that we did not ourselves produce it.” (88)

To summarize Schall, I think preliminary answers to the three questions would be:
1) By creating sermons, books, and art that echo the beauty/truth/goodness of God;
2) By looking for that which rightly exemplifies the beauty/truth/goodness of God;
3) To create art that resonates with this beauty/truth/goodness

To clarify that last point a bit, let me state that I don’t think this means that songs, films, poems, etc. produced by Christians must always present life in an ideal state. Francis Schaeffer wisely stated that the art produced by Christians should have a major theme and a minor theme. The minor theme is sin and the major theme is redemption. Both must be present in an artist’s corpus of work if he is to be faithful to his calling.

I think that I’m a novice in these matters. I would love to hear from some who have pondered this topic more than myself. What do you think?

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Theology at the Movies

– Matthew R. Crawford –

Summer is the time for big blockbusters at the theater. Movies are fun, at least partially because they allow us to escape for a short while from our less-than-satisfying reality. However, movies also speak volumes about the state of the culture. Many conservative Christians sharply criticize movies with morally objectionable content because they think that such films will lead to the practicing of the type of sin displayed on the screen. Undoubtedly there is truth to this claim. Nevertheless, it is also the case that movies serve as a mirror of where the culture already is, not simply where it is going. It therefore follows that Christians can learn much about the broader culture from movies, especially very popular movies. Let me illustrate this point with two examples. Two of the biggest films of Summer 2007 were Spiderman 3 and Transformers. In what follows I am not necessarily encouraging you to watch these movies. Rather, my hope is that we learn to see such cultural products as a window into the collective mind of our society. I’ll try to analyze the movies without spoiling them for those who haven’t yet seen them and have a desire to do so.

Some critics faulted Spiderman 3 for its many overlapping plots. It appears that the main plot is the internal struggle within Peter Parker, symbolized by the battle between Spiderman and Venom. Will Parker continue to act selflessly and use his great powers responsibly? Or will he use his powers to attain that which he desires with no regard for the concerns of others? In the end, as you could guess, he does what is right and saves the day. Reflecting upon his experiences, Peter Parker, in the last line of the film, states, “Our choices make us who we are and we can always choose to do what’s right.” Both parts of this statement are problematic. The first proposition – “Our choices make us who we are” – seems self-evident enough, but if taken as a summary of human existence it is terribly lacking. One of the great modern lies (stemming from scientific naturalism, I believe) is that humans have no nature, no essence. We are thus free to do as we wish, to remake ourselves, indeed to pursue our own self-actualization to infinity, so long as we do not infringe upon the pursuit of someone else. In contrast, the Christian worldview asserts that humans have a nature, and that our choices are the result of our nature. As our Lord said, “The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:35). Parker is right that our choices make us who we are, but it is also the case that who we are determines our choices. This leads into the second half of Peter Parker’s statement – “we can always choose to do what’s right.” The problem with this assertion is easier to see and follows from the above discussion. The Bible unequivocally declares that, as a result of the Fall, we have corrupted natures and therefore are prone to sin. Augustine stated it even stronger: natural man is non posse non peccare (“unable not to sin”). Peter Parker was wrong. We cannot always choose to do what is right.

In my estimation, Transformers was an even less satisfying movie than Spiderman. Lingering at the center of the movie is a tacit contradiction, a contradiction that well represents one of the great cultural fissures of our day. The background to the movie is that a very advanced species of aliens evolved into shape-changing robots. Eventually there arose a civil war between two groups of these so-called autobots. The military leader for the ‘good’ side is Optimus Prime. He is thoughtful and virtuous. Optimus Prime’s fundamental belief is that freedom is the right of all sentient beings. However, given the assumptions of the narrative, there is no metaphysical grounding for this assertion. If one assumes a narrative of atheistic evolution, and a corresponding worldview of scientific naturalism, there is no ultimate moral justification for valuing life. Indeed, intrinsic value of any sort is impossible. In fact, the evolutionary process favors the weeding out of the weakest organisms. If evolutionary theory is true, the weak should die so that the strong can live and further the species. Optimus Prime should stop trying to save the humans and join forces with the ‘evil’ Decepticons.

So there you have it – superheroes, robots, and in the midst of it all a little bit of theology. So the next time you’re watching that movie, listen closely because you might just gain a glimpse into the false assumptions of our age. May we have ears to hear well what the culture says so that we can speak faithfully the truth to the world.

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Albert Einstein on Beauty, Science, and God

– Matthew R. Crawford –

Is it possible for a physicist to instruct a theologian on the topic of God? This is the question that has been rolling around in my mind since I read Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Einstein while on vacation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007). Physics and biographies are two topics that have long interested me. How could one not be enamored by the forgetful scientist with the disheveled hair? I found the biography to be a stimulating and enjoyable read. Einstein is of course most well-known for the equation E=mc2 (energy equals mass times the speed of light squared), a consequence of his theory of special relativity. However, perhaps Einstein’s greatest contribution to physics was the general theory of relativity in which he gave an explanation for gravity that far surpassed what was known at the time. Isaacson says that the theory “was a whole new way of regarding reality” (223).

The reason I mention the general theory of relativity on a blog like this is to note that what drove Einstein to his scientific conclusions was a conviction that nature displayed a beauty that was discernible, and that a characteristic feature of this beauty was simplicity. One of Einstein’s contemporary physicists, Max Planck, even wrote that in Einstein’s general theory of relativity “the intimate union between the beautiful, the true and the real has again been proved” (260). Similar transcendental statements about beauty and simplicity in scientific theories are echoed in the more recent work of Brian Greene, a prominent physicist working on the much-hyped string theory (note the title of his book: The Elegant Universe). For the Christian, the significance of this concept of beauty is two-fold.

First, it demonstrates that scientists are far from the objective fact-gatherers that they are popularly held to be. Scientists have presuppositions just as we all do. That is, they’re assuming that something is true (nature exhibits simplicity) and then acting on the basis of that belief (seeking out the most elegant mathematical solutions). Indeed, Einstein’s concept of beauty drove him to spend the last decades of his life in an unsuccessful search for a unified field theory. Today, large expenditures of money and brain power are spent on research that is at least in part driven by the presupposition that the universe is elegant in its rationality. For this reason, Christians ought not be bothered when they are castigated by empiricists for relying upon faith. Indeed, the scientist has his own kind of faith. In other words, the way of knowing for a scientist and the way of knowing for the Christian may have some important similarities.

The second significance of Einstein’s concept of beauty is that it resonates with the God of the Christian faith. Einstein’s own journey of faith never led him to embrace Christianity. After a few brief teenage years as a devoutly practicing Jew, Einstein went on to hold a deistic concept of God. He stood in awe at the beauty and complexity of the cosmos, but could not bring himself to accept the idea of a God who meddles in human history. As Christians we must affirm that Einstein saw correctly that the beauty of the universe reflects the beauty of something or Someone beyond the universe. If God had remained silent, we could say no more than Einstein said – that the vast darkness of the universe presents suggestions of a transcendent beauty. However, the uniqueness of the Christian story is that it asserts that this God has not remained silent. He has spoken into the darkness and revealed his beauty in even more striking colors than can be found in mere mathematical equations. The beauty of God is seen most clearly in the Christian narrative of a God who did meddle in history by doing the most unimaginable thing – becoming a human and redeeming mankind. It is a disgrace that more Christians who have the gift of the word and Spirit do not stand in awe of the beauty of God as did Einstein who only saw through a glass darkly. May we say with David, “One thing have I asked of the Lord . . . to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).

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On Guest Blogging

– by Matthew R. Crawford –

The honor bestowed upon a guardian is directly proportional to the value of that which he guards. Allow me to illustrate. My wife and I once had a couple of friends present us with an unexpected request. They asked that we become the guardians of their newly born son in the event of their untimely death. We were honored, since this new child was the most valuable thing on earth to these parents. In a similar, albeit lesser degree, I am honored to be guest blogging for Owen this week, since I know the value that he places upon this blog and on you, his audience. Humbled by this opportunity, I will endeavor to faithfully continue his meditations on the delicate art of Christian conformity. Owen, thanks for the opportunity and have a great vacation.

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Introducing My Guest-Blogger, Matt Crawford

Two posts in one day–a veritable avalanche here at consumed. This second post is intended to introduce my guest-blogger for the next week. I’ll be going to Oregon tomorrow, and Matthew Crawford will be taking my place. A native of Tennessee, Matt is an MDiv student here at Southern Seminary in the School of Theology. He is a humble, godly guy, a valued friend, and a very gifted thinker and writer. Matt is husband to his sweet wife Brandy, father to a darling baby girl (Violet), and a mean tennis player. He is one of the sharpest guys I know, and I am excited to have him as my guest-blogger. Please feel free to encourage him and keep him on his toes, as you do with me.

I’ll see you in a week–and many thanks for reading. Best, Owen S.

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Near-Death Living: On Learning to Drive

Walking to work this morning, I was alerted to the presence of a lone car in the seminary’s massive parking lots. I noted two cones, a car inching forward, and a tall man watching the car’s progress, his arms folded, his lips pursed. Initially puzzled by this scene, I soon realized that it was nothing other than a father teaching his child how to parallel park.

Now, parallel parking is not usually a near-death experience. At least I hope it’s not, for your and my sake. But it is part of a larger process that does lead fathers and their teenage progeny to the very precipice of personal extinction. What is that process? The learning-to-drive process. Walking to work this morning, I was reminded of my sainted father and his efforts to teach me how to drive our Nissan Pathfinder over a decade ago. Eleven years later, I can recall the experience with an uncomfortable level of detail.

If I close my eyes, I can see us. It’s Dad and me, out for a drive. But this is a drive like no other. This is a drive in which I, not my father, am the pilot. So we buckle up, I start the SUV–which was a manual automobile, not an automatic–and away we go. Well, wait a minute. It’s not that easy. Before the “away we go” part, there was a “tires screeching on tar and sand” part. A watching cat nearly lost its fur, and the driveway was never the same. Nevertheless, we were off. I was driving.

We wound our way along the country road, meeting almost no other cars along the way. Things were fine, though I do recall driving, for some inexplicable reason, about ten miles per hour faster than I wanted to. I’m not sure why that happens with young drivers. It’s not like you want to do so. You want to go a nice, comfortable speed. However, you invariably seem to push the gas pedal too hard, and thus your turns are sharper, your senses are heightened, and your palms are sweating. You reassure yourself that you are one of many billions of people who drive, and thus that this has to get better, though such a happy result is not immediately on the horizon.

Things went pretty well on this initial drive until, for some reason, I stalled. I have no idea why. At any rate, I distinctly recall sitting on the side of the road, waving cars by, utterly unable to start the car. It’s safe to say I reached a new level of human embarrassment in that moment. Eventually I got the car started, and we were, once again, sailing down the road, my shifting clumsy, my posture taut, my father quickly giving me instructions about what to do. Things were looking up.

That is, until it came to turn the car around and head back the other way. This involved merging with oncoming traffic, which was going about 50 mph. I steeled myself for the re-entry. “I can do this. Just ease off the clutch, and push in the gas. I’ve done this plenty of times. Here we go.” And with that, seeing an opening, I proceeded to prosecute the maneuver. While everything checked out in my brain, however, my feet failed to execute as planned, and so the following happened: 1) the car shook with a hurricane’s violence, sputtering along, almost dying, 2) my father yelled at me to push the gas, 3) I pushed the gas, 4) we burned rubber for a good 4 seconds, furiously throwing our heads back against the seats, 5) we merged onto the highway. I think my father lost 4% of his life that day. That loss notwithstanding, things got steadily better, and we made it home.

All this flashed back this morning as I walked to work. I watched the father observing his child, and I could see my father, coaching me, helping me, sweating. I knew that though that father was tense, and his child was stressed, they were forging a memory together, one neither would easily forget. Not that my father or I will. You could go to East Machias, Maine today, and there’d be a burnt rubber streak about twenty feet long, a tangible reminder of the sacred, near-death process of learning to drive.

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The Pleasantness of Vacation

Later in the week I’ll be trucking off to Oregon with my wife’s side of our family for a vacation. In August, I’ll head to Maine to see my side of our family. These coming vacations afford me a chance to reflect on vacation and why it’s so magical.

Prepare yourself for some truly amazing insights on vacation. For example, vacation is pleasant because one does not work while on vacation. See, there you go. It takes me hours to think of this stuff (and hence the overwhelming need for one). In all seriousness, is there not exhilaration in vacation? The sheer joy of reading for pleasure is enough to make vacation worthwhile in itself. As one who reads for school, and has done so for, well, almost my entire life, there is nothing quite like working through a really well-written book. Sun and cold drinks also do not hurt. Time with family is always full of meaning and quiet joy. In simply catching up, in returning to the old rhythms of life, one finds a few moments of solace. For a little while, we can enter fully into the roles which we still occupy but devote less time to now: son, brother, nephew, grandson, etc. For a few days, a week, two weeks, the balance of the past is restored, and we laugh, talk and explore as we once did, time granting us a brief exception to its laws.

Vacation allows us a taste of heaven. That may sound a bit grandiose, and perhaps it is, but how else am I to apply this MDiv education? No, in reality, it does. We get to feel for a short while what heaven will be like–a place of rest, joy, and comfort, a place where deadlines do not exist and where our love for Christ will be made whole. Don’t you often find that vacations are spiritually refreshing? I certainly do. I can’t help it. Put me on a beach, give me some time to pray and think, and I can’t help but worship God in a way I find evasive during the hustle of normal living. Those moments–some of the best moments of my life–are an appetizer for heaven, where contemplation and worship of God comprise the sum total of our existence. How kind of God to give us vacations to rest, relax, and practice for heaven.

Vacation invariably draws us back into our former days. It allows us to reminisce about vacations gone by in a way that is not doleful but celebratory. When I visit Maine, and sit in an ocean cottage, I know that memories will slowly drift through my mind, syncopated with the incoming tide. My sister and I pitching a wiffle ball to each other on a private beach in Maine. My father playing “beach golf” with us. Jumping off a raft at a cottage my mother’s father rented for several weeks. Eating an occasional Blizzard. Sitting in a ocean cottage, reminiscing about the past. Yes, I’ve done that for many years now, such that the past blends with the present, the present with the past, and the pleasantness of vacation lingers with me for just a little while longer.

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Living a Beautiful Life

It is easy for the Christian faith to become a set of propositions. To paraphrase a recent Russ Moore quotation, God can become a side to an argument, a conclusion, and not a living being. We can easily fall into mere assent to doctrine and fail to embrace God as a presence in our midst. In short, we can lose sight of the beauty of God and see only the dim outline of His presence.

We do this when we fail to understand the world-changing nature of the gospel and the Christian faith. Our preaching can easily become dry and flat. Our evangelism becomes a simple good-bad proposition–hell-bad, God-good–and our lives become either Pharisaical or amoral. Isn’t that what happens when the gospel becomes merely a statement? You end up in one of two places, it seems to me. Either you make the Bible’s commands–which call us to holiness and are intended to show what the gospel life looks like–demands, or you cast off all constraints and live as if the gospel doesn’t really matter. The way we present the gospel, no, the way we think about the gospel and then present the gospel, closely relates to the way we live.

Too many of us live normal, ordinary, boring lives that show no dread of hell and no delight in God. Too few of us have an eye for beauty and a care for imagination. We have been given a calm, boiled-down, watery gospel, and we live listless lives as a result. It is my contention that we need to restore the power of the gospel in our thinking and presentation. If the gospel is a great neon sign proclaiming the way to heaven, we need to turn the sign on, to light it up, and show the world that we do not follow dogma. We follow a risen Lord, a conquering Christ, and He has reached down and rescued us from the face of horror and lifted us to heights of world-shattering glory. That is our message. When we believe this, perhaps then we will be able to live a beautiful life, an odd life, a transcendent life that calls out to all who witness it to see and believe.

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