New Here?
     
Posts tagged "Francis Spufford"


See It, Believe It! The Faith & Doubt Issue!

As early as January 30, we will be putting the thirteenth issue of The Mockingbird onto mail trucks to readers like you. We’re incredibly excited for you to see it. It’s colorful, it’s insightful, and believe it or not, despite the heady-sounding theme, it’s as winsome and down-to-earth and heartfelt as all the others. But don’t take our word for it! Jump on it! Over half of our inventory will be out the door Thursday… until then, here’s Ethan’s Opener and the Contents page.

The “I Surrender” List

More often than not, pop culture depicts the faith of ordinary people about as badly as it depicts, well, ordinary people. People of faith are always “extra” somehow: ultrasincere, overeager, ubercaffeinated. On the rare occasion, though, you find a source that gets it right.

Last year the podcast StartUp—which normally follows one new business for an entire season—followed a different kind of venture taking the runway: a church plant. Eric Mennel, the journalist covering the story, is himself struggling with faith and decides to join the head pastor AJ on a silent, all-day retreat. AJ recommends Eric try the following journal exercise to jumpstart his prayer time: take three pages and make three separate lists: “I want…” and “I fear…” and “I surrender…”

The first two lists come easy: “I want someone to care for me… I want to fall in love…” And then, “I fear I’m not wanted… I fear there is no God…” But when it is time for his “I surrender” list, Eric stalls, and eventually resigns himself to leaving the page blank. When the day is up, AJ has of course had a splendid time with his best pal Christ. Eric, on the other hand, is despondent. He tells AJ, “The idea of surrendering is a real sticking point for me. I have a lot of trouble trusting God…trusting God will be around…or even if God would be that helpful.”

AJ tells him he can relate. Who can’t? Even if you are the prayerful, retreat-loving type, transcendent experiences of God are probably rarer than you’d like. And meeting people like AJ can often exacerbate the feeling that faith is a wished-for athleticism the flabby multitude will never achieve. Certainty is impressive. Those who “have it,” have it 100 percent, and the doubters who don’t, don’t. This is the popular caricature drawn by old-time religionists and New Atheists alike: that faith and doubt are two rival schools of certainty, and never the twain shall meet.

Faith isn’t certain, though. And neither is doubt. Both are by definition uncertain, always circumscribed by the unknown and unaccountable. This is why I appreciate Eric’s hesitation: I don’t even believe the neighbor when she says it’s recycling day. How could I possibly believe this Jesus nonsense? As the writer Richard Rodriguez says, any honest person going to church is also bringing their “inner atheist” down the communion line.

So, in working up the essays that came to make up this issue, it has become clear that the opposite of faith is not doubt—doubt is the enduring human companion, even in faith. No, the opposite of faith is control, the need to be in the driver’s seat for every turn in the road. Just like Eric facing that silent room and that blank page, the invitation to faith also means a resignation of will, namely your will. Faith means surrendering the notion that you are the Higher Power guiding your life, and realizing instead that it might be better off in Another’s hands.

Surrender is never considered a virtue, though, especially in a culture which champions, uh, champions, those who don’t surrender. Surrendering means failing—raising the flag of defeat or incompetence. And surrender is especially dubious when the terms are chartered by some less-than-appealing Religious Authority. Faith simply isn’t worth the risk with a God Who Vindictively Punishes or God Who Is Church Lady. But with a God Who Forgives?

Our friend Jason Micheli tells the story of a Lutheran pastor named Jim Nestingen, a hulking 6’6” Minnesota beer drinker with the belly to prove it. Jim was boarding a plane to fly coast-to-coast when he saw who he would be sharing a row with: a man just as big as him. They awkwardly wedged up against one another and exchanged niceties, preparing for the long haul, basically sitting in one another’s laps. In response to the obligatory job question, Jim said, “I am a preacher of the Gospel.” The man next to him responded loudly, almost allergically, “I’m not a believer!” Jim assured him that was okay, and they kept talking. Turned out that the man had been an infantryman in Vietnam and ever since had carried with him all the awful things he’d seen and done there. As the plane flew from one end of the country to the other, the man dumped his entire story out into the lap of his seat mate.

When he had finished, Jim asked the man, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”

The man balked. “Confess? I haven’t confessed anything!”

Jim boomed back, “You’ve been confessing your sins to me this whole flight long. And I’ve been commanded by Christ Jesus that when I hear a confession like that to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, you have any more sins burdening you? If so, throw them in there.”

To which the man balked again, “No, that’s all. But I’m not a believer! I don’t have any faith in me!”

Jim unbuckled his seatbelt mid-landing and stood over the man, which caused quite the stir with the flight crew. “Well, that’s quite all right, brother,” he said. “Jesus says that it’s what’s inside of you is what’s wrong with the world. I’m going to speak faith into you.” And he proceeded with the absolution: “In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”

Flabbergasted, the man balked again: “You can’t do that!” To which Pastor Jim responded, “I can! And I just did! And I will do it again!” And he did. The man began weeping uncontrollably until finally he began laughing uncontrollably, all the way down the tarmac to the gate. As the two men were grabbing their overhead luggage, Jim grabbed the man’s hand and gave him his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or a week from now. When you stop having faith in it, call me and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep on doing it until you do—you really do—trust and believe it.”

The man did. He called him—no joke—every day until the day he died, just to hear the declaration spoken over him in Christ Jesus. Surrendering to this absolution became something he couldn’t live without.

What if this were the kind of surrender on offer for the rest of us weary, incredulous passengers? What if the good news was actually this good, that no matter how many times you balked, no matter how many misgivings you had about belief, and how much you’d prefer to keep matters in your hands, the forgiveness of sins remained? As the man says to Jim, “It’s just too good to be true. It would take a miracle to believe something so good.”

It takes a miracle for us all. And this is the theme we’re exploring in this issue: in the fluctuations of faith and doubt, the persistence with which God bestows his grace. We have words from Francis Spufford, Sally Lloyd-Jones, and Gordon Marino. We talk existentialism, the Flat Earth Movement, and anger at God. But through it all, this is what we’re getting at: that despite our earnest questions and heavy burdens, and even still our empty “I surrender” pages, Christ is our answer. He has surrendered all, and it is on his account, believe it or not, that we have hope.

To subscribe to The Mockingbird, click here. To order Faith & Doubt alone, click here. 

ORDER NOW!

The Top Theology Books of 2017

The Top Theology Books of 2017

Were you given an Amazon or Barnes and Noble gift card, but don’t know what to spend it on? Or perhaps you’re a bibliophile like me and have an insatiable appetite for the latest and greatest theology books. In either case, I’ve got just the list for you: the top Mockingbird theology books from 2017. […]

The Possibility of (Actual) Dialogue Between Atheists and Christians

The Possibility of (Actual) Dialogue Between Atheists and Christians

Hooray! The much-esteemed Francis Spufford has a new book out this month, a collection of essays entitled True Stories & Other Essays. Highly recommended for anyone interested in language and literature, to say nothing of thoughtful Christianity (or, curiously enough, the Arctic!). The earliest piece in the “Sacred” section takes the form of an open […]

A Consolation You Could Believe In

Via the introduction to Francis Spufford’s wonderful Unapologetic, pg 13-14:

A consolation you could believe in would be one that didn’t have to be kept apart from awkward areas of reality. One that didn’t depend on some more or less tacky fantasy about ourselves, and therefore one that wasn’t in danger of popping like a soap bubble upon contact with the ordinary truths about us, whatever they turned out to be, good and bad and indifferent. A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it, or even because of it, with your fingers firmly out of your ears, and all the sounds of the complicated world rushing in, undenied.

When God Leaves It Unresolved

When God Leaves It Unresolved

As it goes when its 90-plus outside and no body of water is cold enough to cool you off, much of my time the past few weeks has been spent on the couch, in the air conditioning, streaming television. Lately, Hannah and I were recommended the crooked-cop show, Line of Duty, and in the past […]

Another Week Ends: Wellness Epidemics, Praying with Kesha, Novelizing <i>The Kingdom</i>, and Confirmation Naivety

Another Week Ends: Wellness Epidemics, Praying with Kesha, Novelizing The Kingdom, and Confirmation Naivety

1. First up, Amy Larocca over at The Cut delves into “The Wellness Epidemic,” ht CB: Paltrow began to describe in detail her exercise regimen with her trainer Tracy Anderson, who believes one should work out two hours a day, six days a week. Then she began providing information on a cleanse she does each January. The […]

Another Week Ends: Vanishing Adults, Mysterious Loss, "Spiritual" Mental Health, A Tragi-Comic Religion, Humanities vs. Engineering, and the Power of Groupthink

Another Week Ends: Vanishing Adults, Mysterious Loss, “Spiritual” Mental Health, A Tragi-Comic Religion, Humanities vs. Engineering, and the Power of Groupthink

1. I recently had a conversation with an elderly woman who became supremely concerned over whether or not I would work on the 4th of July. “Surely you’ll take off a federal holiday,” she intoned. I admitted that I probably would but hadn’t made any plans yet. That wasn’t enough to defuse the tizzy that […]

When #adulting Gets Real: A Christian Response to Suffering

When #adulting Gets Real: A Christian Response to Suffering

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that at least once in the past three years, I have used the hashtag #adulting without the least bit of sarcasm. We were on a weekend trip with two other couples to Pittsburgh, where we visited the Warhol museum, ate at a nice restaurant, and drove out to see Frank […]

What Kids Can Teach Us About Screens

What Kids Can Teach Us About Screens

Devorah Heitner, who was interviewed on our podcast back in October, recently wrote an interesting article on the themes from her book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. The kids in the piece demonstrate quite a grasp of the ambiguities and pitfalls of constant connectivity. Heitner’s stance is that children are […]

<i>This Is Us</i>, Unfortunately

This Is Us, Unfortunately

Golden Globe-nominated This Is Us follows the lives of triplets Kate, Kevin, and Randall. Kate and Kevin were the two surviving babies of a triplet pregnancy, and their parents, Rebecca and Jack, were determined to bring home three babies. Enter Randall: a black baby who had been left at the fire station by his biological father […]

A Royal Progress and a Parody of a Royal Progress

00093201

How better to kick off Holy Week than with Francis Spufford’s memorable description of the Triumphal Entry, via Unapologetic?

They arrive at the walls, but it’s too late in the evening for the entrance Yeshua has in mind, so they wait till the next day in the straggly settlement outside the gates. Then in they go, Yeshua and the nucleus of twenty or so men and women who have been following him about. The narrow stone streets are packed with visitors who’ve come in from the province for the biggest festival of the year, a festival of death averted, in which the people of the one God remember how he saved them by smiting the rest; and the visitors see, well, something like a parade, with Yeshua riding on a borrowed donkey, and the friends around him shouting make way, make way. Who’s this? It’s another bloody prophet. It’s that crazy preacher who says we don’t need the law. It’s the rabbi from up north who heals people. What, the river-dipping one? No, he’s dead. This is another one. It’s a kind! Rubbish, kings ride on horses, not donkeys. But there are prophecies about donkeys. Maybe he’s the one. Oh come on. This fellow? Where’s his sword? It’s the king, it’s the king! Keep your voice down, idiot. Better get the children indoors, just in case.

Is it a king? The scene is hard to read. It’s like a royal progress and a parody of a royal progress, all at once. Yeshua is doing exactly what a christos would do if he were making a momentum play, gambling on snowballing crowd support. Yet the details are off-script somehow, from the donkey, to the way that only some of the friends seem to be shouting the slogans you’d expect, to the way that the man himself doesn’t have his face set in the shining megawatt mask of charisma. It isn’t clear what’s happening. But something is, and though only a portion of the crowd are young enough, or hopeful enough, or desperate enough, or unwary enough, to give Yeshua their acclaim, quite a lot of them are curious enough to follow and see what comes next: for the parade, or procession, or whatever it is, is clearly heading for the temple, up the twisting alleyways to the top of the city, and.. into the wide forecourt of the one God’s most sacred place…

Yeshua looks around. He sees the doves in their wicker cages, and the half-grown spring lambs in their straw, and the nervous cattle sidling, kept perpetually antsy by the smell of blood that drifts out of the temple’s doors. He sees the money-change stalls where, before you can even buy your animal for the sacrifice, you have to swap the emperor’s dirty coinage for the temple’s own clean currency, good nowhere else. He sees the whole apparatus for keeping this one little walled acre of ground separate from the compromised, colonized world outside. And he begins to shout. Do you call this pure? Do you think any of this keeps you clean? Do you think any of this keeps that at bay?–waving his arms out at the city, the hills, the entire empire. Nothing is pure! This is the house of the loving father who welcomes home his lost children! This is the house of my father, and your father! Do you think you can sell his forgiveness? Do you think there is a price for peace with him? It cannot be bought! It cannot be sold! It can only be given! These are thieves! They promise you are buying what can only be given! God gives freely! (pgs 134-136)

To wit, a few days later, ht JE:

Francis Spufford on the Cruel Optimism of an Atheist Bus

Francis Spufford on the Cruel Optimism of an Atheist Bus

Another wonderful passage from the introduction of our 2014 NYC Conference speaker’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. Take the well-known slogan on the atheist bus in London. I know, I know, that’s an utterance by the hardcore hobbyists of unbelief, but in this particular case they’re pretty much stating […]