1. It’s always gratifying to see the discussion about grace and law taking place in unexpected venues. For instance, over at The Living Church, a publication geared toward Episcopalians, a couple of articles have gone up recently about the preaching of absolution and the role of ethics/exhortation in the Christian life. Before you glaze over at the insider language, it would appear that Mockingbird–or at least our perspective–served as a reference point. In the initial post, “Grace, growth and God’s dream”, Jordan Hylden was critical of what he perceives to be a biblically reductive and borderline Manichean approach to the pulpit, raising some valuable (if familiar) questions in relation to the Sunday sermon. The underlying anthropology was, needless to say, a bit higher than one might find on here. But it’s always nice to be taken seriously and have someone engage in such a thoughtful and respectful manner. It’s even nicer when someone responds the way that Jonathan Mitchican’s did this week. Sure, he leaves a bit more room for ‘the third use’ than some of us might–a fact he openly acknowledges–but the article is highly sympathetic and good-natured, not to mention full of wisdom and memorable turns of phrase. And you don’t have to be familiar with these debates to glean something from what he writes:

1280There is an acute danger for Catholic Christians that when we hear preaching on kingdom living, we find in it the means by which we can climb the ladder to heaven. The preacher may think, “Well, last week I told them about how their salvation is purely by the grace of God, so now I can move on to giving them God’s Word on how to live.” But between week one and week two, people will forget the message of grace. As much as we may want to hold onto it, our hearts will not let us. The sinner who still lives in our skin is always looking for ways of sabotaging grace so that we might go back to searching for ways of carrying the burden ourselves. We do not mind God giving us a little help from time to time, but in the end we want to be able to say that we got there mostly on our own.

The law is good, but the law cannot save us. Christian community is good, but it cannot save us either. Only the Gospel can do that, and far too few faithful, church-going Christians today can even identify what the Gospel is, let alone rest in its promises. Until we learn again to center all that we preach and teach on grace, our calls to live the Christian life will not yield the fruit we hope to see.

Until we make grace our first and last word, even our most well-intentioned efforts to proclaim the Kingdom will be absorbed by our listeners as a recipe by which they can make themselves better.

2. Couldn’t ask for a better opening to direct you to Abby Pratt’s moving and profoundly humbling “A Testimony”, which traces her journey from performance-driven Christianity to a more grace-focused understanding of the faith. Full disclosure, Abby is a dear friend who attended the NYC conference, and the church she talks about is the one that houses the Mockingbird offices. But I have a feeling that her journey is one to which many of us can relate. It certainly resonates with what Stephanie wrote earlier this week. Don’t think I’ll do it the disservice of excerpting, as it packs much more of a punch if you read the whole thing (which is not long). Opening line is all you get: “By the time I graduated from college, I was ready to quit being a Christian.” Click here to read what happened.

3. This is remarkable. We announced a couple weeks ago that Bill Fay, a favorite and long-forgotten English singer-songwriter, was about to release his second record after a 40 year hiatus, Who Is The Sender? (2012’s Life is People was our ‘album of the year’). I’m happy to report that the new disc is a bit more subdued but no less vertical. Allmusic concluded their review by saying that, “because these tunes embrace the totality of earthly experience in the presence of the Divine, they can willfully accept a painful, broken world with a gentle, wide-open heart.” Still, even with ears open, it took me a few listens to realize that two-thirds of the way through he drops an ode to… William Tyndale. That’s right, “The Freedom to Read” is an affecting tribute to the English Reformer and Bible translator (and closet antinomian… kidding!). Pretty confident that it’s the first time Tyndale has been referred to on Pitchfork. Grayson Currin’s review for that site had the following to say about Fay, which, considering the source, constitutes extremely high praise:

Who Is the Sender? runs deeper than blind kvetching: Fay’s Christianity, and his cautious optimism in its power, uplifts him. The gently rising “Order of the Day” treats the Book of Revelation like a balm. The banjo-backed “Bring It on Lord” is a prayer for peace and healing. Perhaps all this sounds off-putting and naïve, but on Who Is the Sender?, Fay emerges as the rare religious songwriter who talks about his God without imploring the audience to make it their God, too. His beliefs seem too personal for him to proselytize on their behalf, too wrapped up in his survival for him to justify them. On “Something Else Ahead”, he even confesses that his doubts about religion have never really vanished but that maintaining his faith is his tool of perseverance. “Let’s just hope there’s something else ahead,” he sings sweetly above circling strings, “that a life on Earth don’t just end.”

That sentiment resonates with the resurrection of Fay’s interrupted career.

4. A wide-ranging review on The Federalist of David “love and merit” Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character, in which Abby Clevenger echoes our enthusiasm while offering a caution similar to what Bryan voiced a few weeks ago, i.e. when reduced to ‘principles’, grace can quickly become a new law:

It’s commendable that he mainstreams and addresses morality in the public conversation. On the other hand, here he reduces and markets morality as a checklist. Great moments of moral testing or salvific suffering tend just to come to us and are not usually experiences we can seek out and check off. In that case, morality becomes about accomplishment and achievement, precisely the things Brooks wants to eschew. Brooks is walking a tightrope between self-awareness and embodying the superficial aspects of the amoral culture he’s railing against.

Still, the book is breath of fresh air, and Brooks is remarkable. According to a new must-read interview with The Washington Post, DB now considers Augustine of Hippo “the smartest human being I’ve ever encountered in any form.” Something of import has clearly happened to this man. I pray for his energy level.

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5. On a less upbeat note, The Wall Street Journal published “Why the Future of Religion Is Bleak” by card-carrying New Atheist Daniel Dennett, and I have to say, what’s discouraging about the article is not its content, which is supremely yawn-inducing, but the fact that anyone would give it the time of day. Sigh. Reader Brent Gunsalus puts it well when he writes: 

“Basically [Dennett’s columne] amounts to shouting “SCIENCE!” and hoping that the faithful will retreat to their caves in fear, knuckles bleeding from dragging on the ground… To the basic question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” the best I have heard is “Why not?” which at least acknowledges a draw. This article, alas, does not rise to that level. It simply declares victory, and hopes that we don’t have any setbacks like a nuclear war which might encourage people to pray, the possibility of which [according to Dennett] apparently is the worst thing about nuclear war.” 

6. Fortunately, there’s a ton of great humor this week. Nihilist Arby’s is about as funny a meme as I’ve found on Twitter. The Onion bared its teeth with “College Encourages Lively Exchange of Idea. And The Toast hit a grand slam with”Bible Verses Where The Word “Forbidden” Has Been Replaced By “Unchill”“. They’re all funny, but Acts 10:9-16 may take the cake:

1280-1“About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unchill.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything unchill that God has made chill.”

This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.”

See also: this post.

7. Neuroscience Study of the Week: Scientists suggest invisibility as a cure for anxiety. Runner-up would be “Tell Everyone! Science Says There’s A Physical Cost To Keeping Secrets”.

selfhelp

8. In TV, Noel Murray makes a very compelling case for why we should all be watching the recovery-focused sitcom Mom. As for Mad Men, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s ready for it to end. Still, the scenes with Peggy in the most recent episode are the highpoint of this final arc. Elizabeth Moss does an astonishing job of conjuring the mix of guilt, self-justification, confession, and despair. I find her friendship with Stan to be the most believable male-female friendship on television. Over at Netflix, Bloodline is no masterpiece but it sure made for a gripping thirteen hours of storytelling–talk about the opposite of a ‘clean slate’! Absolution and the lack thereof plays an enormous role, Ben Mendelsohn is amazing, and no matter how many f-bombs he drops (and he drops a lot of them!) Kyle Chandler remains a joy to behold. 

Then there’s Daredevil, which gets a little too self-conscious about its ‘grittiness’ to approximate the Frank Miller source material, but there’s certainly a lot of religious overtones. Leah Schnelbach does a great job of unpacking that aspect over at Tor in her article, Daredevil, Catholicism, and the Marvel Moral Universe”. Final couple paragraphs are terrific, especially relevant for those of us who plan to see Avengers this weekend: 

Daredevil_BornAgain06-1This is the question I’m always asking myself: how would the sudden appearance of superheroes change society? When Mjolnir, a weapon out of ancient mythology, suddenly pops up in the desert, what does that do to people assumptions about other mythologies they’ve learned, and the beliefs that guide them now? Cap, Iron Man, and the Hulk can all be explained with SCIENCE, but Norse gods? Aliens crushing New York? If they’re out there, what else might be out there?

…The first Avengers movie has a couple scenes of Natasha describing Loki as a god, and talking about an idea of moral balance. But we don’t really get to see the man on the street aspect–the droves of people turning to their religions for help, or turning away from them in horror, now that everything they thought about the universe has been proven wrong. The people who realize that the stakes of good and evil might be higher than they thought, and might try to become heroes or villains on a grander scale than ever before. Daredevil is the first MCU work that’s tackled it, and they did it by taking Matt Murdock’s Catholic worldview and running with it.

9. Finally, can’t believe we missed the powerful, anonymous reflection on “Grace and Addiction” over at The 1517 Legacy Project a few weeks ago. The opening is especially, er, potent:

I am a sober drunk today because I found a place where people understood the depth of sin. Where there wasn’t a whiff of judgment. No one harassed me into joining a ‘new members’ group. No one spoke about how great life was going to be, but rather, how we live in a constant struggle as simultaneously saint and sinner.

But the theology there kind of sucks. And we meet in a charismatic church. And it’s not a church at all. It’s Alcoholics Anonymous. And trust me, the church could learn a lot from the way AA has been operating for the three quarters of a century.

I know, we pray a generic prayer to the “god of our understanding”. I know, there is no formal absolution. But I’ll be damned if they don’t get the fallen nature of humanity better than anyone else. And really get it.

Strays

  • The NY Times Book Review ran several features about Mbird fave Saul Bellow, in conjunction with the new biography. I particularly appreciated James Parker’s re-appreciation of Henderson the Rain King.
  • Yet another endearing anecdote about Pope Francis.
  • RIP Ben E King.
  • James Gilmore’s NYC conference talk, “Learning to Look in a Distracted World” is now up on the recordings post.
  • I’ll be in Birmingham, Alabama next week to talk about A Mess of Help with the good people at Cathedral Church of the Advent. Thursday, May 7th at 7pm. More info, and a cool poster, here. Hope you can come!
  • Our new publication Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) should be available early next week – seriously. Those who’ve managed to get their hands on it up to this point are in possession of the “conference proof”, not the final typo-free version. More in a couple days.
  • Finally, as relates to the upsetting events in Baltimore, this interview with David Simon, head honcho of The Wire goes into fascinating depth. CNN is not always where we turn for pastoral reflections on tragedies, but this one struck a chord, esp the turn it takes mid-way through. This made me smile too: