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Vast Construction Work in O’Connor’s Wise Blood

A quick passage from Flannery’s first novel, Wise Blood, that comes just after protagonist Hazel Motes has arrived in Taulkinham (“Town of the Little Cross”). The following doubles as both a dark look at how consumerism has limited our vision and a metaphor for O’Connor’s fiction falling on unreceptive ears:

His second night in Taulkinham, Hazel Motes walked along down town close to the store fronts but not looking in them. The black sky was underpinned with long silver streaks that looked like scaffolding and depth on depth behind it were thousands of stars that all seemed to be moving very slowly as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole universe and would take all time to complete. No one was paying attention to the sky. The stores in Taulkinham stayed open on Thursday nights so that people could have an extra opportunity to see what was for sale.

Fight-Club-image.jpg

Motes goes on to found the “Church Without Christ” and preaches from atop the hood of his car before blinding himself with lime and ending up dead in a ditch (can you say BLEAK!?). Yet despite his efforts to physically blind himself, he still has the tools to see Christ. He desires after the truth that O’Connor’s fiction tries to present. But he’s not quite there yet. Fortunately, the beauty of the prose – the description of the sky as God’s “vast construction work” – is also an encouraging reminder of His presence in and around us.

 

On the Fragile Souls of Imperial Sycophants

Another one from Ted Peters’ Sin Boldly!:

51lU3StHrKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Measurements, milestones, merits, awards, and orthodoxies rule over our psyches like Caligula ruled Rome. Like sycophants in the emperor’s royal court, we create a fictional public image by bowing and fawning before the ambient opinions of what is acceptable, respectable, admirable, good, just, and true. And in our rare moments of self-bolstering, we assure ourselves that we stand for eternal justice, the unassailable good, and what is absolutely right–what Luther refers to as “the Law.” In doing so, the fragile soul becomes temporarily hidden beneath self-justifying bravado. Nevertheless, fragility is ever present, sapping our soul of honesty, integrity, and authentic caring. To make matters worse, Christian sermonizers–preachers whom Cathleen Falsani calls “spiritual bullies”–man their pulpits like a captain on the bridge; they manipulate our already innate anxieties and turn timidity into terror. The perpetual fear of eternal damnation turns a fragile soul into a petrified self. We fragile ones go through the motions of life, but we don’t really live it.

Romans 8:33b, “God is the one who justifies,” should be heard by us as good news, as grace, as gospel. The gospel is aimed at liberating our selves from fragility and our souls from the endless unrolling of [spiritual] duct tape.” (pgs. 16-17)

The Real Value of Justification By Faith (For Fragile and Broken Souls)

The Real Value of Justification By Faith (For Fragile and Broken Souls)

I’m a couple of chapters in to a remarkable new book, Sin Boldly!: Justifying Faith for Fragile and Broken Souls by Ted Peters. It’s an approachable yet meaty treatise on the everyday value of Justification By Faith, what the author calls, “the key that unlocks the prison door, the hand that rips off the blindfold, the aloe that cools the burning gash, and the elixir that tastes of Eden.” To say that it’s shot through with our favorite themes would be a supreme understatement. Moreover, the text bristles with humor and personality, drawing on enormous wells of empathy and even…

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Reading Memoirs: David’s Little Helper

Reading Memoirs: David’s Little Helper

I love reading memoirs. Turning to personal accounts of people’s paths through life is fun; it allows me to enter into their experiences for a while. I can’t deny, though, that implicit in my reading is a vague desire to live vicariously through the subject. I read stories to be transported and transformed. Art that deserves merit can have this transformative effect, but with memoirs I think my aim is less lofty. Some of the more memorable ones I’ve encountered were by Chuck Lidell, Rob Lowe and Jony Ive, among others– an eclectic bunch, yes, but all with flourishes of…

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Thoughts on the S—- Word and Left-Handed Power

Thoughts on the S—- Word and Left-Handed Power

You guessed it – secularization! There was that recent Pew survey release showing that 78% of Americans identified as Christians in 2007, but only 70% in 2014. DZ’s already covered that topic pretty well, and the stats are disheartening, but it’s worth thinking about some possible silver linings.

First, from a Law/Gospel perspective, pressure engenders rebellion, so it’s nice that Christianity is less mandatory than before. The people I know least receptive to religion of any kind are megachurch children or people who went to (the wrong kind of) Catholic gradeschool. As long as Christianity’s a cultural status quo, people can…

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Distinguishing Between Law and Gospel: A Brief Guide

This handy guide comes from the first appendix to our newest book, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), coauthored by Will McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl. Hope you enjoy:

The distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christendom
–Martin Luther

Mbird LAW AND GOSPEL Cover options4A strong belief of Luther, and those who follow in his footsteps, is that people should not be enticed to church by the Gospel and then, after believing, turn toward self-improvement. The Law always kills, and the Spirit always gives life. This death and resurrection of the believer is not a one-time event, but must be repeated continually: It is the shape of the Christian life. On Sundays, therefore, some form of the Law is ideally preached to kill, and the Gospel to vivify—“the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). But in many situations, the Law is mistakenly preached to give life, on the assumption that the believer, unlike the new Christian, has the moral strength to follow the guidelines. This leads to burnout, often producing agnostics or converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. Words like ‘accountability’ or ‘intentionality,’ for example, are sure signs that the letter, rather than the Spirit, is being looked to for life. To help distinguish this form of misguided Law from the Gospel, here’s a handy guide:

1. Listen for a distortion of the commandment: Anytime a hard commandment is softened, such as “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48) to “just do your best,” we’re looking to the Law, not the Gospel, for life.

2. Discern the balance of agency: If you’re in charge of making it happen, it’s misguided Law. If God’s in charge, it’s Gospel. If it’s a mixture, it’s Law.

3. Look for honesty: If you or others either seem ‘A-okay’ or ‘struggling, but…,’ then likely it’s because the Old Adam is alive and well (there will also be a horrible scandal in the next three months). If people are open and honest about their problems, such freedom shows the Gospel is at work.

4. Watch for exhaustion: If the yoke is hard and the burden heavy week after week, then the letter’s probably overpowering the Spirit.

5. Examine the language: If you hear ‘If… then,’ ‘Wouldn’t it be nice…,’ ‘We should all…,’ or anything else that smacks of the imperative voice, it’s implicit works-salvation. If you hear the indicative voice—‘God is…,’ ‘We are…,’ or ‘God will…’—then it’s probably Gospel.

6. Watch for the view of human nature, or anthropology: If human willpower, strength, or effort are being lauded or appealed to, it’s Law. High anthropology means low Christology, and vice-versa.

7. Finally, keep an eye out for the ‘Galatians effect,’ summarized by St. Paul:

Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal 3:2-5)

If how you’re approaching or being told to approach Christianity now feels different from “believing what you heard,” we’re in Galatians territory. Christianity is Good News, and it never ceases to be Good News.

Grab your copy of L&G today!

Trapped in The Corrections: Family Life in Franzen and Boyhood

Trapped in The Corrections: Family Life in Franzen and Boyhood

Back in March, my Dad took a week away from work, and we spent spring break together in Southwest Florida. It was awesome. One of our oft-repeated tasks, along with eating fish and chips and baking in the sun, was combing through the nearest Barnes and Noble looking for beach reading. Dad happened to have Mom on the phone as we perused one night, so he told her what we were considering buying and asked for suggestions. She offered a few titles but finished with, “definitely don’t read The Corrections.”

I came across a hardcover copy of the Jonathan Franzen novel for…

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Chants of Paradise: Progress, Christianity, and The Soul of the Marionette

Chants of Paradise: Progress, Christianity, and The Soul of the Marionette

In the can’t-make-this-up department, someone commented on The Guardian’s review of John Gray’s The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom:

While science is the only game in town in deepening our understanding reality, obviously, philosophers and experts in history are also pretty handy to have around.

Here is a distorted picture of British philosopher/public intellectual John Gray’s ideal of the graceful (because un-self-conscious) marionette: someone likely careening this way and that through life, with no semblance of where he’s going or what it all means. This blindness is typical of triumphalism, and we live in triumphalistic times, times…

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God As Heather Kopp Doesn’t Understand Him

God As Heather Kopp Doesn’t Understand Him

Happy to report that we’re in the midst of putting the final touches on the Forgiveness issue of The Mockingbird magazine (should be out at the end of June). One of the last elements to be added is “On Our Bookshelf”, which is exactly what it sounds like, a short list of what’s been making the rounds internally. Anyway, one of my selections this time around is Heather Kopp’s Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk, which I’ve been greatly enjoying. The subtitle kind of says it all. It’s a superbly written account of what happens when…

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A Quick Quote from Richard Rohr

fallingupwardA quote by Richard Rohr recently struck me, from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Rohr admittedly sounds new-agey sometimes, and this is no exception, but he talks in the book about how things fall apart from the “first half” of life, characterized by identity-building and Law, and then the “second half” – analogous to what we might call life under the cross – happens. This second moment is marked by mystery, surrender, destitution, and spiritual maturity, traits which often go together, as Rohr’s monastic tradition remembers. How does this passage from worldliness to spirituality, identity-building to identity-surrender, life under law to life under grace, happen? At Mbird, we talk a lot about theology of the cross, the idea that suffering can expose the pride and futility behind our self-justification schemes and free us from their burden. (It’s not the healthy who need a doctor anyway, but the sick.) Rohr describes this transition in his own, to me fresh, way:

Today we might use a variety of metaphors: reversing engines, a change in game plan, a falling off the very wagon that we constructed. No one would choose such upheaval consciously; we must somehow ‘fall’ into it. Those who are too carefully engineering their own superiority systems will usually not allow it at all. It is much more done to you than anything you do yourself, and sometimes nonreligious folks are more open to this change in strategy than are religious folks who have their private salvation project all worked out. This is how I would interpret Jesus’ enigmatic words, ‘The children of this world are wiser in their ways than the children of light’ (Luke 16:8)…

The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling or changing or dying. The ego is the part of you that loves the status quo, even when it is not working. It attaches to past and present, and fears the future.

The rest of Rohr’s book explores the mechanism of this transition, and I think he does well to remind us, that God’s work to change is often deconstructive, undesired, even violent. And it reminds me that whatever else people might say about the Bible, its books are some of the only ones written with sufficient originality to speak against the grain of any time or place or culture, since it speaks against the Adamic ego itself. And he does well to remind us that nonreligious people often do best with the message; early Christianity got the most traction among Gentiles, after all. Which means that, far from the prevalent American model of preaching the Gospel to unbelievers and (baptized) self-improvement to the ‘mature’, we religious people need the message just as deeply as anyone – though we’re more likely to resist it.

Law and Gospel on Kindle (and YouTube)

Good news! Our new book, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) is now available on Kindle. We’re also excited to debut a little promotional video we made for the project (thank you Mark Babikow!) and invite you to share it as you see fit. Oh, and let’s not forget: those Amazon reviews aren’t going to write themselves.

2015 NYC Conference Book Table

2015 NYC Conference Book Table

Thanks again, so much, to all the volunteers, speakers, and attendees of our 2015 New York Conference! Recordings and videos are on their way, but for now, here’s what we featured this year on our conference book table. A bunch of familiar suspects with a few new additions (for more Recommended Reading, click here):

Photo courtesy of Ellis Creek Photography (www.elliscreekphotography.com/)

LITERATURE

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays
T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party
Mary Karr, Sinners Welcome: Poems
Flannery O’Conner, The Complete Stories
J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
Ted Scofield, Eat What You Kill
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis: The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Writings
Thornton…

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