Archives For Humanity

Right off the bat, I’ll own that this title is pretentious. But I just had this realization, and I think it’s profoundly true. I’ll need to improve my titling skills, because while this post should be broadly relatable, I’m sure the title scared most people away. But not you, dear reader. Thanks for giving me a chance here.

The 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard is one of the most influential thinkers in history. If that statement surprises you, it’s because his thinking comes to most of us indirectly through many currently-influential voices. He’s the philosopher equivalent of the bands who influenced the Beatles, who in turn influenced every musician you’ve ever enjoyed.

But he doesn’t do much direct influencing of modern readers because it takes a lot of work to dig into. (Follow me on this—I promise it will pay off.) For one thing, he wrote a ton of books, and those books tend to have many hundreds of pages. But to make matters exceedingly irritating, many of Kierkegaard’s books were written under numerous pseudonyms (Victor Eremita, John Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, etc. etc. etc.). And some of these works claim to be compilations of writings from still others. Some of these pseudonyms seem to represent more nearly than others what Kierkegaard himself believed, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Kierkegaard would play games with these pseudonyms. He would release two books by two different pseudonyms on the same day, or within a couple of weeks of each other. While he was producing these works, he would be sure to be seen in public frequently so that no one would suspect him of being the author of these works (a bit of theatre that worked for a time, but not for long). These books would offer different points of view on Christianity, philosophy, ethics, and society. Kierkegaard also published several books under his own name, but it still takes a lot of brainpower to untangle the relationship between this Kierkegaard and the pseudonymous authors of Kierkegaard’s other books.

Because of these bizarre methods, there’s no consensus on what Kierkegaard himself actually believed, no universally agreed upon “theology of Soren Kierkegaard.” I’m tempted to think of that as a frustrating loss. But I’m realizing that it’s not. It’s actually a gift.

How can I possibly claim that this quirky, controversial, confusing philosopher could save our world? Because the kind of reading that his books require would make us all better citizens and dismantle our biggest hurdle to mutual understanding.

When I first started reading Kierkegaard’s works, I read them as I read any book. I was in search of “Kierkegaard’s theology.” I wanted to know his views on things. When I do this with any author, I get a feel for their positions, and then I decide whether or not I agree with Calvin or Keller or Wright or Lewis. When I think about it, it’s extremely binary. But this is actually unhealthy. Because I actually agree with and disagree with all of these authors.

What is this pull I feel to identify with some authors over others, as though I need to check [favorite author]’s views before I know what I believe? Wouldn’t it be healthier to learn from each author and pull the most helpful parts from each? Isn’t it most important to walk away with deeper understanding and inwardly transformed as a result of wrestling with an author’s arguments? How does it help me to be able to claim to “agree with John Piper” or whomever, as though it’s all or nothing? Are we not perpetuating the problem by relying on a few individuals to do our thinking for us? Really, it just makes us all that much more divided. Encamped. Partisan.

But Kierkegaard’s bizarre style won’t let us get away with this. You have to think for yourself. When you read Kierkegaard, you have to engage with his actual arguments, because you never really know what it means to “agree with Kierkegaard.” You have to decide, to “judge for yourself,” to use a Kierkegaardian phrase. With each pseudonym; each book; each paragraph, sentence, and argument, you must weigh and decide what you think.

It’s infuriating. And exhausting. And healthy.

Kierkegaard was extremely controversial in his day, and cartoons like this were often printed in newspapers, where he was mocked for his pants and curved spine. People tend to be uncomfortable with those who challenge the norms.

Our political climate is so polarized. You’re republican or you’re democrat. You’re pro or anti whomever. You’re pro this or anti that. We deal in sound bites, in memes. And your response has to be instant. You have to be outraged or impressed within seconds, and if you don’t make a social media statement right now then you’re siding for or against someone or something bad or good. IT’S US OR THEM! RIGHT NOW! Our figure head has made this or that statement, so fall in line!

Don’t you hate it? Isn’t it ugly? Don’t you feel in your bones that we need something better, something more sustainable?

What we need, I submit, is a Kierkegaardian way of reading things. Take your time. You’ll have to decide, but don’t simply follow the party line. Do your homework. Weigh each comment, each argument, each moment on its own merits. It’s not about blind adherence, it’s about the journey.

Judge for yourself.

Kierkegaard also rails against indecision, so you do have to make up your mind. Deciding is important, but you’re not allowed to decide by default, by blindly following your tribe’s voting guide or statement of faith. If we could all retrain our habits of engagement in light of Kierkegaard’s infuriatingly inefficient approach, perhaps we’d learn to understand each other better, to renounce the “hot take.” We would then develop wise, patiently-formed, true-to-the-depths-of-our-soul convictions, and we could hold hands and walk away from the echo chambers we’ve been told to pledge allegiance to.

[If you want to give Kierkegaard a try, I recommend starting with this fantastic biography, or this brief but helpful guide to his thought.]

While there has been a lot of diversity in style and approach, every Arcade Fire album has, to a significant degree, been about one thing: disorientation and alienation in the modern world. They had put out four incredible albums around this theme, and then a few weeks ago they released their fifth. And I love it.

Though Pitchfork gave a weird, negative review, Everything Now holds its own amidst Arcade Fire’s impressive catalog. It’s not their best album, but it doesn’t need to top its predecessors to be an excellent album in its own right. (Feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph, but I want to address the Pitchfork article. The aspects of the album with which the reviewer takes issue are seriously bizarre: He’s mad that Win Butler is monotone on a song or two (why is expansive range a requirement for every song?), he mocks the use of synths throughout (I think it’s cool, it’s a nice development from earlier offerings, and it fits the overall project, which I’ll unpack in a minute), and he unilaterally decides that it’s in bad taste for Butler to list the days of the week in a song  (I dig the way it sounds and works with the song). I’ll just take the liberty of upgrading Pitchfork’s 5.6 rating to an 8.0. Boom.)

In some ways, Everything Now’s message is a bit on the nose: we demand everything, and we demand it now. Our Amazon-addicted society is alienating us from each other, and destroying our souls in the process. But in typical Arcade Fire fashion, the album goes beyond the lyrics. Song after song unpacks the disorientation we feel today, but the music itself is a huge part of the critique and indictment (Pitchfork somehow misses this).

Here’s how it works. Lyrically, Win Butler critiques our constant need to fill our ears, eyes, and minds with “infinite content.” He concedes that this makes us “infinitely content,” but calls out the inevitable result: “all your money’s already spent on it.” But here’s the thing: he’s singing this as part of a song that you purchased! And musically, the album itself is conspicuously upbeat and dancy.* The listener finds himself being entertained by infinite** content that simultaneously calls you out for your addiction to infinite content. It’s brilliant. And the effect is so much more powerful than a mere spoken statement. The reader is implicated in the critique. We’re all guilty as charged, just by virtue of our enjoying the thing that’s accusing us.

All of this makes the album fascinating in itself, but there’s also this: Arcade Fire has just made—probably unintentionally—a shot for shot remake of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. It’s seriously like Ecclesiastes: The Musical.

Watch how this works. The intro and first song (“Everything Now”) explore the endless journey of accumulation: music, movies, possessions. Butler sings: “Every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without” and “Every inch of space in my heart is filled with things I’ll never start.” Now jump back a few thousand years to “the Preacher” of Ecclesiastes: “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (2:10). The Preacher also notes that all of a person’s hard work stems “from a man’s envy of his neighbor” (4:4—how’s that for a critique of capitalism, by the way?). And again, “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied” (6:7).

Then we step into “Signs of Life.” Butler sings, “Looking for signs of life, looking for signs every night, but there’s no signs of life. So we do it again.” This is the pursuit of meaning through experience, but it’s an unending, unsatisfying expedition. And it’s exactly what the Preacher seeks (and finds elusive). In 2:8, he talks specifically about seeking satisfaction through people—singers, concubines (the sexual overtones should not be overlooked). But there’s no better summary of this than his opening poem:

“All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:7–9)

Let’s do one more song just for fun. On “Creature Comfort”—the musical highlight and a lyrical gut-punch of a song—Butler sings about boys hating themselves, girls hating their bodies, people begging God to make them famous or to at least keep them from pain. It’s a song about meaninglessness, suicide, giving up, and the futility of life. It’s tough, and the compelling viby drive of the song adds some tension to the enjoyable music and devastating message. But once again, this is actually the whole point of Ecclesiastes. The Preacher returns to this theme throughout. Here’s how he says it in 8:16–17:

“When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.”

The high points in Arcade Fire’s search are found in love—not rom-com love, but fought-for, struggled-through love between doubt-filled people. This is also one of the Preacher’s realizations in Ecclesiastes. Honestly, there’s so much more to be said, but you get the point. I’m not suggesting that Arcade Fire was trying to preach Ecclesiastes in song, but I do think they were on a common journey. The Preacher set his course millennia ago, and human beings have followed in his steps ever since. I personally find Arcade Fire’s musically documented journey compelling (and convicting), and maybe you will too.

And real quick, lest there be any doubt, I want to provide the Preacher’s conclusion to his journey, lest you come to the end of Arcade Fire’s hopeful yet inconclusive final song and want to know the answer:

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (12:13)

__________________________

* Let me be clear: it infuses this stylistic shift with enough fascinating elements to keep it interesting on multiple listens. Classic Arcade Fire on that count.

** The album uses song titles, style, and the intro and outro to make the album into a perfect loop. Put it on repeat and you won’t even notice the seams.

Brene Brown has become a rockstar! Her TED talks have amassed 28 million views, and three of her books are #1 best sellers on Amazon. The reason for her popularity is simple. Brene Brown speaks on a topic that deeply affects everyone—shame.

We all dread that painful sense of unworthiness and rejection, and work hard to hide our shame from others. The human experience with shame goes all the way back to the beginning of time. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve hid and covered themselves after disobeying God. Hiding and covering—the two trademarks of shame (Gen 3:7-8). Ever since then, the human family has been eager “to make a name for themselves” (Gen 11:4). So what is the cure for this pervasive dis-ease of shame?

Over the last couple of decades, shame has been the domain of psychologists. Both Christian and secular psychologists talk about empathy, vulnerability, connection, and friendships as solutions for shame. Obviously, those are all good things, but they address symptoms more than root causes.

The shame we sense before other people is a mere symptom of our larger problem—our shame before our creator, our disunion from God. Our sin exposes us to spiritual shame. Jeremiah confesses, “Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us; for we have sinned against the LORD our God” (Jer 3:8). Ezekiel used the imagery of harlots, the most disgraceful members of traditional societies, to expose Israel’s sin, “How sick is your heart, says the Lord GOD, that you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen whore. … So be ashamed, you also, and bear your disgrace” (16:30, 52).

The answer for this shame is not just vulnerability or empathy, but the work of God to remove our objective disgrace and to restore honor. God reverses our status from the pit of shame to a position of divine honor. This facet of the gospel is incredible news for the 80% of the world living in an “honor-shame culture.”

In summer 2015 I taught an elective course at EBC titled, “Theology of Honor & Shame.” During the break on day one, an elder lady graciously informed me that she was “skeptical of this honor-shame stuff.” Then during a break on the final day, the Asian-American gal sitting next to her thanked me, “I always assumed the more I wanted to follow Jesus, the more I had to become Western. But everything you said about honor and shame in the Bible explains my culture. I see how to follow Jesus as an Asian!” When the skeptical lady heard that, her opinion changed. Honor and shame are not just cultural or psychological categories, they are profound spiritual realities addressed throughout the Bible, and speak to the very heart of global cultures.

Students’ final assignment for the class was to creatively present the gospel in honor-shame terms. EBC student Zech Hogan made “Healing Honor”—a powerful (and short!) video. This video is an excellent illustration of the ultimate solution for shame—Jesus’ honor. Perhaps it too can get 28 million views! Enjoy watching!

Translational Living

Mark Beuving —  October 19, 2015 — Leave a comment

Theologians and missiologists often use an important but difficult-to-understand concept: “incarnational living.” Using terms like “incarnational” sometimes makes important concepts like these unnecessarily difficult, so I want to reframe this concept using terminology that will hopefully be a bit more familiar.

“Incarnational” refers to the “incarnation,” the act in which Jesus took on flesh. (You can think of carne asada, grilled meat, and make the connection that Jesus wrapped himself in meat—a gross visual, but pretty literal). With the birth of Jesus, God was becoming man, the Divine Being was embodying himself—taking the form of humanity—and thereby revealing himself to us in a new way. This is the significant even the author of Hebrews praises at the beginning of his letter:

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our father by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb. 1:1–2).

There is something unique about God speaking not in words, but in the human (and yet still divine) person of his Son! And in this miraculous event we have a powerful model of what it looks like to speak to our world about Jesus. So now, in an effort to make sense of what this would look like, let me switch from “incarnation” language to “translation” language. (And in doing so, I’m adapting some thoughts I gleaned from missiologist Andrew Walls.)

When Jesus lived amongst humanity, his very life was an act of translation. He was Immanuel, God with us, the very presence of God in human form. To look at Jesus is to realize, “This is what God is like.” We can use many words to convey what God would be like in human terms, or we can simply look at Jesus. Jesus was God’s greatest act of translation.

Hebrew BibleIn translating the Bible from the Hebrew and Greek in which it was originally written, translators have to ask which words in the new language (let’s just say English) fit with the words in the original language. And this is extremely difficult. For example, Greek has 3 words for “love,” and English has only one word to carry the meaning of all three words. Plus “love” in English is pretty slippery, covering everything from our “love” for breakfast food to our “love” for God. So translation carries all kinds of dangers and possibilities: We can express truth about God in new and exciting ways, but we also run the risk of mis-expressing something about God.

When God translated himself into human form (in Jesus), the translation was perfect. We look at Jesus and see God precisely as God would look were he to live as a human being in the first-century Greco/Roman/Jewish world (which is precisely what was happening).

So God translated himself in Jesus. But Christianity is a faith that requires constant translation. (This, by the way, is entirely unique. For Muslims, reading the Qur’an in a language other than Arabic is not truly reading the Qur’an. Sometime after Jesus, at least some branches of Judaism decided that a non-Hebrew Torah was not truly a Torah. But the Christian faith has had translation at its heart from the very beginning because the entire faith is grounded in God’s act of translation through Jesus.) That means that we must always be translating Jesus into our own context and for our own neighbors.

Suburban StreetYou and I are, in essence, walking translations of what God has done in Jesus. We stand in the midst of our neighborhoods and workplaces and friend-groups as an embodied statement: “This is what Jesus is like.” And just like translating the Bible, this is an extremely difficult task. It requires continuously deepening knowledge of who God is, thorough familiarity with our culture—including its interests, thought forms, and means of expression—and a commitment to “being Jesus” in a deep sense in every situation.

It has been said that you and I are likely the only Bible our neighbors will ever read. And that’s true, but not in a resigned, I-guess-that-will-have-to-do, sense. It’s actually true by God’s design that our neighbors will learn about him through the translation of our lives. You and I are acts of translation. We are God-made-flesh (not exactly like Jesus, but much like him) in the specific culture, setting, and relationships of our moment and our day.

The point is, be a good translation. Be a living, breathing example of what it looks like to be Jesus in your location in the 21st century. Call it incarnational living, call it translational living, call it whatever. God has something to say to the people he has placed around you, and he wants to say it through the details of your life.

Bob ArmstrongSeveral years ago, an 80 something year old man walked into one of our classrooms. We often have older “students” sit in on our classes, members of various churches who want to continue growing in their knowledge of the Bible and the world. But it quickly became clear that Bob was not a typical “auditor.”

Our professors could hardly get through five minutes of their lectures without an objection from Bob. And Bob’s objections came in the form of loud grunts followed by aggressively expressed opinions. I remember teaching a class on Paul and having to suddenly field this objection from Bob: “I don’t think Paul actually believed anything he wrote. I think he was in cahoots with the Roman government, and wrote what he did to throw people off.” Needless to say I hadn’t prepared to address that particular theory, so I responded with something along the lines of, “Wow, okay. I can’t think of a single thing in Paul’s writings that would support that theory, but I’d love to talk to you more about it after class.”

Sometimes Bob asked good questions, but for the most part, his objections were off-the-wall, groundless, and frequent.

It wasn’t long before our professors were asking each other, “Have you had Bob in class? What’s his deal?”

It turns out Bob was invited to class by one of our for-credit students: Dave. Dave had just left his teen years, and would talk to Bob at the YMCA where they both worked out. Bob had never considered himself a Christian, but as Dave continued to befriend him and talk to him about Jesus, Bob eventually became curious enough to accept Dave’s invitation to sit in on some Bible classes. I still tear up when I think of this sweet, faithful guy in his twenties patiently and graciously befriending this lonely, grumpy guy in his eighties. To an extent that we’ll never fully appreciate, the Kingdom of God expands through smiles and simple greetings.

I’ll admit that Bob was more of a nuisance than anything else at the beginning. Some professors had to talk to Bob about not disrupting the class with frequent objections, asking him to save his comments for after class.

But then a curious thing happened. Bob began showing up early to church services and greeting the congregation as they walked in. He didn’t do this in an official capacity—he just wanted to do it. He became more friendly and began speaking fondly of Jesus and of many of the things he was learning. Eventually, we were all sure that Bob loved Jesus, that his heart had been transformed.

As we got to know the new Bob, we learned that his first 80-some years of life were very lonely. He fought in three wars (WWII, Korea, and Vietnam) and experienced situations that haunted him for the rest of his life. He was even used as a “model” to test radioactivity-proof clothing, which means that he and his squad crouched in a desert bunker as an atomic bomb was detonated. With his eyes closed and hands covering his face, he said it was the brightest thing he had ever seen. Surprising, Bob never grew any extra arms, but he is quick to affirm that the clothing didn’t work.

After a lifetime of being more or less alone, Bob became part of a family. He took every class he could at the college, took professors and students out for breakfast and lunch, and frequently expressed his appreciation for his new family in Christ.

Post-conversion Bob could still be a bit of a curmudgeon. As an 80 something year old theological novice, Bob stumbled into more than a few odd doctrinal views, but he never stopped discussing the Bible and the Jesus he had come to love so dearly. The new Bob was frequently in tears. Mention Jesus and Bob would be sobbing. He was so struck by the brotherhood of believers that he insisted I call him “Brother Bob” whenever I greeted him. He was so deeply appreciative of Jesus that he would often rebuke me for not using the term “the Lord Jesus.” Bob could be an absolute grump, and the exasperated objections continued throughout his late educational career. But the new Bob was a man who loved Jesus, and we knew he was a man who loved people as well (even if he still barked).

During the last few years of his life, Bob put a lot of effort into planning his memorial service and inviting everyone he could to attend. Jesus was calling him home, Bob said, and he wanted his memorial to be a celebration. It took a few years for his actual earthly end to arrive, but Bob never tired of talking about the day he would be with Jesus. Overplanning his own memorial was Bob’s way of making sure everyone he left behind would remember what really matters.

St. Augustine’s famous words express well Bob’s feelings toward the end of his life: “Late have I loved you, Beauty so old and so new. Late have I loved you.” For me, the curious case of Bob Armstrong will always be a reminder that God is never done with a person’s life; that it’s never too late to be a learner, never too late to start again; that a prickly exterior does not always reveal was is happening beneath the surface; that no one is ever beyond the reach of God, no matter how hard or how long they’ve been running.

[Anyone in the Simi Valley area this weekend is encouraged to join us in celebrating God’s artistry in the life of Bob Armstrong. See details below.]

Bob's Memorial

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