Sunday, March 25, 2007

Reflections on Twenty and Five Years

Yesterday was my 25th birthday. There has been one thing going through my mind almost constantly since I acknowledged its existence, something my father said to me awhile ago. He told me that 25 was his most depressing birthday, since it marked the official end of our culture's prolonged adolescence and the finality of adulthood. He said that 40 or 50 didn't bother him, but 25 did. Needless to say, this has caused me to be doubly reflective about this day.

A lot has happened in 25 years. The question that I'm faced with is: what is the truly important stuff? What is it that I would like to tell my children, both as tales of virtue and tales of tragedy? The difficulty of self-reflection, of course, is that I concentrate too much on myself, as if to say, "Mine own hand has gotten these things for me." Really though, 25 years is as much, and arguably more, the celebration of the communities that have nurtured and rightly-directed me than the celebration of my self (space intentional).

For example, after I shaved today I noticed in the mirror that one of my primary descriptors has changed. My whole life I have been described as the spittin' image of my mother. Looking in the glass, however, I noticed that my visage look surprisingly more like my dad's. The whole history of the Warrens and the Schaefers has a part in who I am, from looks to the way I act. Whole communities of people I will never know had a part of producing me the way I am today.

Which, really, is a very important part of human life that I couldn't have understood until yesterday. One of the sobering realities of birthdays is not just that I have survived another year, but I am another year closer to my physical death. This could lead to much hand-wringing and despair, but instead it has made me thankful. The things that I am doing, the teaching and business owning and the child-rearing and whatnot, are not, ultimately, for myself. They are for a generation newly born (my daughter's first birthday being a week and a half ago) and generations yet unborn. Having a selfish attitude about what I am doing would only undercut what people will say of the Warrens 1000 years from now (if even Warren is how it will be spelled or pronounced). My daughter's inheritance, which I pray she will preserve and pass on to her descendants (isn't that a thought!), is being made in the everyday nitty-gritty in which I live. No matter how one tries to live for the here-and-now, one is always living for the future.

In this light, the question of what will my family think of me 50, 100 or 250 years from now becomes important. Not as a question of pride, since I won't be living to hear them say it, but as a question of shalom. Will I have left a mark on this world that confirms my belief that everything is created by YHWH, redeemed by Jesus the Messiah, and being implemented by the church? Will my place, where God has set me to work and live, be better and more life-affirming because of my life or work? I pray so.

Being a tried-and-true Protestant, it is with some irony that I realize that I am engaged in the work of cultural tradition building. I have received gifts from those who have gone before me with their hands to the plow and hearts to the task and I will, in turn, be required to pass those gifts, hopefully with useful and beautiful additions, to the next generation of plowsmen and women. Undoubtedly, some chaff will be in the midst of the wheat, but maybe less chaff will be present.

So, really, this day has no need to be depressing or despairing to me. Instead, it is filled with hope: the hope that all of life, even mine, matters to God and His plan. I am a small part of the drama, but sometimes the smallest characters have a large impact. Whatever the case, God be praised for His mercy on me these wonderful 25 years.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

On Being Graceful

Jesus said: "For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more that others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?"

Usually, I have no problem being nice or gracious to those I don't know. It was something instilled into me from a young age and further reinforced by my faith. I've always thought that I had this passage down pat.


I'm finding my problem is that it is easier to be kind to stranger than to those close to you. I'm not sure if it is because I know them better (and so know their faults) or if it is that I'm known better by them (and they know my faults). Whatever the reason, I find myself much more harsh towards those closest to me, whether it is my wife, my friends, or my employees. There is so much less to lose by being gracious and loving towards strangers, but so much vulnerability to be humble and caring towards your closest companions.

I should, at the very least, be treating those closest to me as tax collectors.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Reflections on the End of Movements

Being labeled can be a dangerous thing. However, distinctions (which are always accompanied by labels) can be a helpful, even beneficial, thing. The older I get, the more I realize that the labels (or badges, one might say in good Wrightian style) need to be held loosely, never as a true identity marker--apart from faith in Jesus as Messiah. This faith is the only badge worth retaining, since it makes the only distinction worth making. Often times, though, the further distinctions we make within that distinction ("I'm of Paul" or "I'm of Cephas" or "I'm of the Scottish Reformation" or "I'm of the Dutch Reformation") can be dangerous and unnecessarily divisive. Especially when the labels are held on tightly to.

I used to be a part of two different, only tangentially related labeled movements: theonomy and preterism. While I consider myself to still be at least a "moderate" theonomist (whatever, exactly, that means), I have broken off most ties to the preterist world. I would, I guess, consider myself a cautious partial preterist, but no where near the "full" preterism I held in my (earlier) youth.

I think that this is a good thing.

When RJ Rushdoony, the grandpapa of theonomy, died, the movement ended. One of his students, Andrew Sandlin, declared the end of it (although I don't have the article in my archives). It was a good thing to declare. Fewer movements have been so striken with dissession, in-fighting, and arrogant out-fighting as theonomy. What could have led to fruitful exegesis and thoughtful engagement with the wider world devolved into bickering internally and rudeness to the outsiders. It is no wonder that when I tell people I'm a theonomist that they look at me askew, especially if they know anything about me before I say that (largely) four-letter word. Maybe, just maybe, with the end of a movement devoted to much leader worship (the big three, especially: Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen), exegetical theonomy can make some contributions to the Church. I'm hoping so.

Preterism, however, is a different story. I remember some of the things that initially made me wary, while I was in the midst of being groomed as a future leader of the movement: sloppy exegesis and dependence on pagan thought for proof (one writer proved that the resurrection body was non-material by referencing, of all people, Plato...shudder). The fruits of that, I am finding out, are now becoming ever apparent. Universalism, the doctrine that all people are saved--whether just by existing or through the remedial means of post-mortem purgatory--is becoming popular and widespread amongst preterists. The equation seems to be "no final judgement = no judgement at all historically :. no judgement at all". This, and the fact that some non-universalist preterists claim that a "secret Rapture" occurred in AD 70, seals the coffin lid for me. Most preterists either end up here, or so "spiritualizing" (that is, exegetically destroying and fuzzying) scripture as to be almost laughable. I don't laugh, though, since I have many friends and even some relatives that are a part of this movement. The end, one might say, is near.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Wanted: An Authentic Spirituality

The word "spiritual" chafes me. In my lectures at Geneva, I try my best to avoid the word, or if I must use it, add the proviso that it doesn't mean some nebulous, ecstatic experience of unknown quality, origin, or duration. The word is overused to mean anything mystical or mysterious or supernatural. It shouldn't be so. The word "spiritual," in the Christian tradition (however those who aren't Christians want to use the word is fine by me, I'm speaking of how the followers of Christ need to be careful about their language, as I've written before), means "of the Spirit", that is, from the holy Spirit of God.

In other words, to be truly "spiritual" means that we follow the Spirit. The Christian tradition, however, has not necessary agreed with my definition of the word, instead often opting for a more mystical and (frankly) dualistic meaning of ontological/metaphysical oneness with the "divine". So the great masters of spirituality become the Desert Fathers, folks like Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart, and modern day teachers such as Richard Foster. Not all go to the lengths of outright Neoplatonism that mystics are famous for, but the language they use often leads down that road. The dualism between body and mind or body and soul that Neoplatonism often produces is firmly rejected (albeit indirectly) in the Bible. Elevating contemplation of God above earthly work is the hallmark of the monastic tradition and has, in my opinion, caused much harm to the work of the Church throughout the centuries. Not that the faith and hard thinking of these folks is without warrant or inauthentic; I consider it on the right road, but going in the wrong direction.

This isn't to say that I don't find much good in these writers either. The extreme devotion to God found in monasticism and contemporary practioners of the spiritual disciplines is something worthy to be emulated, even if the end result needs to be different. If the end result isn't to be some mystical/metaphysical union with God, what should it be?

The ancient debate was always whether man was more god-like or animal-like. Different philosophies held different views and all had vast social consequences. The debate has never, to my understanding, been resolved. The question that I have, however, is why the testimony of Genesis 1 has consistently been ignored: man was not created metaphysically like God, nor was he created as an animal; he was created as a human being--a totally separate category. He is under God metaphysically and ethically and over the animals royally. Authentic spirituality, it would seem, would be to make man not more like God ontologically, as this is impossible, but to make him more truly human, more in the image of God ethically than he was before. Since Jesus is the true human, the point of spirituality is to become more like him (such as is found classically in Romans 8).

Jesus' whole life was guided by the Spirit. He was conceived by the Spirit in his mother's womb (Luke 1:35), baptized and filled by the Spirit at his baptism (John 1:14), cast out demons (an ancient word, I'm finding out, for pagan deities) by the Spirit (Matt. 12), and was raised in a Spirit-animated body (I Cor. 15). An authentic spirituality, one with teeth for the (post)modern world would follow this Spirit-filled man's teaching concerning how we can be truly human, starting (most likely) with the Sermon on the Mount, which is an elaboration and realigning of the ignored and maligned (by the people of God no less!) Torah given through Moses.

The question, though, really isn't "what" of spirituality, since the answer has always been there. The question is "how". Here is where I've found the most help from the "classics" of spiritual devotion. They often developed elaborate and complicated "rules" of spirituality, such as the famous Rule of Saint Benedict. He divided the day up into seven sections, based on Psalm 119:164, "Seven times a day have I praised you," in which the monks would stop their work and join for prayer and the chanting of the Psalter (if only those of us who are Reformed Presbyterians had such a devotion to the Psalms!). The idea of "rule" for life is powerful and seem like a suitable idea to building an authentic spirituality: one that connects the devotee to God, not in transcending humanness, but by using our humanity--which is time-bound--to honor Him. Another reference, found in Deuteronomy 6, seems to lay out a rule for life:

"You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up."

The day, here, is broken up into 5 sections, each with a community involvement (whether familial or in the larger, reconstituted family of the Church) and each involving, significantly enough for us silent moderns, speaking. Silent prayer, while having a Scriptural place, is not the main way used. This does not, however, complete the "how" of spirituality, but it is a step in the right direction, I think.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

My Own Contribution

I really don't consider myself an expert in anything. As I've said before, I dabble. There have been periods in my life when I have concentrated more on one thing than another, but that hardly makes me an expert. Over the past year or so, one of the subjects that I have had the pleasure of reading up further on (syntactical nightmare, that was) is sociology. The way that we humans interact with each other, whether at the skating rink or with more techie means, fascinates me. Sometimes none of it seems rational, until I realize that "rationality" is a slippery word. As Alasdair McIntyre asks, "Whose Rationality?"

Anyway, my own little contribution to sociology, which I'm sure is one of the first things you learn in SOC 101 (which I've not taken), is this: to create lasting local prosperity, you must have a vibrant artisan class. Too many thinkers and nothing gets done. Too many merchants and junk is the end product. However, a healthy, creative class that must both think and sell to their neighbors on the small scale can help bring beauty to a place. What if the local carpenters had the expertise for beautiful, long-lasting (meaning more than 150 years at the least) buildings? Or the local baker was able to introduce exotic and nutritious staples for the health of the community?

Teaching a unit on cultural criticism really has gotten me to think about this. What are the foundations of culture? Henry Van Til argues, rightly I believe, that culture is the externalization of religion. Religion in this context, however, doesn't mean what you do on Sundays, but what guides your thought, actions, and words at the deepest level (it is unfortunate that "religion" equals "external, institutional worship"). On top of that religious underpinning, though, are a few basic things: shelter, food, clothing (a form of shelter), and companionship. Just as shelter and clothing are similar, so is food and companionship. The obvious examples in the past of friends/equals eating at table together comes to mind. Also, what holy communion should be, but don't get me started. At a more metaphorical level (and all our thinking is in metaphors), companionship literally means "to eat bread with". The artisan class makes these basic things: farmers, builders, designers, clothiers, restaurantiers, baristas, bartenders, bakers, butchers, etc.

Having been a part of the now largely defunct theonomy movement, I believe(d) in the Christian reconstruction of culture. One of the large downfalls of that movement, however, was that the jump from exegesis to policy was too quick. The long term, start-at-the-bottom attitude of many of the leaders (and yes, if you can get past the bravado, it is there) was quickly jettisoned in favor of the Religious Right. However, if Christians want to make a long term impact on society, maybe we should stop trying to legislate our religion and train our children to bake or build or pull fine shots of espresso. Maybe we have forgotten the weighter matters of the faith and law: justice, mercy, peace. Hospitality has fallen on hard times, so has our idea of communion (don't get me started). Cultural change from the top-down is the way of violent empire and the violence in unavoidable. The recalcitrant always look different from oneself, who is seen as the epitome of the imago Dei. Bottom-up, however, can be peaceful and lasting. It is not always, especially when it is co-opted by empire, but it at least has the possibility. Change your world, learn a trade.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Attention Undergraduates!

Whole M.I.T. curriculum online for free.

You don't get credit for their courses, but instead you get the ability to get ahead at your own pace and possibly test out of many undergraduate courses, especially in the hard sciences. The best thing that can be done with an undergraduate education is to get ahead through these means--skip the technical stuff that requires massive memorization but doesn't affect character. Get the skills through these sorts of ways (for free, no less) and concentrate on application, career, and developing yourself in other educational facets!

A word from your friendly professor.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

On the joys of amateurism

Amateur: A person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science as to music or painting; esp. one who cultivates any study or art, from taste or attachment, without pursuing it professionally.

I've spent the last decade of my life figuring out what to do professionally. Early on, I had a set idea of what was going to happen. I planned my education and dreams on that. Unfortunately, my life-aspirations were shattered very quickly. I have, though, held on to similar dreams and worked hard to make them happen. In some respects, those early aspirations have come true. I currently (for at least this semester, anyway) teach Bible at the collegiate level. And I love doing it. However, I'm beginning to realize that I will always be an amateur at it. My love of God and how I have pursued that have led me to certain conclusions that will always keep me happy as an amateur and uncomfortable as a theological professional.

My model for this is the Jewish teaching style found in some circles: every man a teacher, every man a learner. My desire to teach does not need to be tied down to any particular institution, although sometimes it takes that form. I am always at the feet of the theological masters and someday I will teach a young man or woman to follow the Scriptures by imparting my (admittedly small) learning. I enjoy this thought.

It is strange when your calling appears in a place that you never expected. No test could have told me that I would find such a love in the business world. However, here I've found a place where all my varied interests find some fulfillment and expression, including my theological withdrawals. None, of course, finds exhaustive expression, but that is for the better. The strong inclination in me to find wholeness and harmony has always been somewhat uncomfortable in the highly specialized world of academia. I need to be able to dabble in sociology, psychology, theology, economics, business, art, physics, chemistry, biology, and the like. Otherwise, I feel restless. This isn't to say I'm promiscuous academically, though. I'm a through and through generalist, committed to seeing that no one aspect of creation is more important or fundamental than another. Working as I do know allows me to see some expression of every part of creation in my work and also allows me the freedom to study widely and broadly.

I do not know what the future holds. Callings mature as people do and I'm sure my role in my company will be different five or ten years from now, not to mention 30 or 40. Maybe I'll be called to something different. But, for now, I'm perfectly content where I'm at.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Reading: You Decide

I read a lot of non-fiction. My wife thinks too much*. Theology, sociology, ethics, and many more topics might cross my eyes throughout the week. Every once in awhile, though, I feel the need to connect with my humanity again--I'll pick up a good story, a fictional story. I've always found it funny that I get my feet on the ground by entering imaginary worlds.


What fiction book should I read? I'm so out of touch that I thought I'd ask you, the faithful reader. Thanks in advance for your help.

What shall it be?


The first two sentences of the post sound like a dig against my wife. Such is not so. Please read them as "I read a lot of non-fiction. My wife believes that I should broaden my horizons with books of various sorts." Thank you.