Category Archives: Arts and Culture

Test-Driving an Advent

It’s too early to be blogging about Advent.

I know what you’re thinking. Well, ok, I know what you might be thinking. Either a: “what is Advent?” or b: “too early? It’s half over already!”

This is my first time giving Advent a try, so I’m kind of fumbling my way through here. I had no plans to observe it coming into the season, but some friends from church invited me to join them for a study and I said yes.

I think most of us in the group have never done this before; it’s not a very Baptist thing to do. Advent is the time Christians long ago set aside to prepare for Christmas. It’s a time for pondering the mystery of God becoming one of us.

Full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of the Incarnation, but not so big on finding more things to celebrate. I have a hard enough time infusing one day with meaning—Advent just feels like a whole month of days to fail at being holy. Plus I have a slightly radical streak that rebels against the whole idea of being compelled to celebrate something at an artificial and arbitrary time. Why can’t we be thankful all year? Why can’t we celebrate God with us every day? Why can’t we revel in the resurrection continuously?

By now you can probably tell the problem isn’t Advent. The problem is me.

The problem isn’t the suggestion that we spend a month preparing to celebrate a day that changed every other day since. The problem is the temptation to be a perfectionist, making up laws and judging myself righteous by them. Maybe some people feel compelled to do this, but that’s not Advent’s fault. At least not if you’re a Baptist.

In my context Advent is something that’s not from the Bible, but is a good, biblical suggestion from the broader church across generations and denominations. It’s an opportunity to take or leave. Have a hard time making much of Christ on Christmas? Here are some ideas to get you in the spirit.

Of course, leave it to me to take a time set aside for pondering Christ and instead pondering my own heart and habits.

On the bright side, I’m making some encouraging discoveries:

First, I’m discovering that celebrating and meditating on the Incarnation is something I do all the time. I owe that to my theology professors at Dallas Seminary. They taught me that God becoming one of us is central to everything we do. We know the Father through the Son. We are sent into the world just as the Son was sent to us. We become all things to all people so that we might save some in the same way Jesus became man without giving up His divinity. God’s revelation is always contextualized, and that’s a gracious gift. To Drs. Burns, Horrell, Kreider, and Svigel, THANK YOU! What a gift!

Second, (and hopefully this doesn’t get me into too much trouble), there’s a sense in which we celebrate Advent without knowing it. We put up the lights after Thanksgiving, we play Christmas music all month, we send out cards (sometimes) and bake goodies and watch Christmas movies. You can do all of these without savoring the birth of Jesus, but each one is an invitation to ponder, to meditate, to prepare your heart for the big day. It’s not much like the way the church has celebrated in the past, but it’s an opportunity to accomplish the same goals.

I don’t know if I’ll follow an Advent curriculum next year. We’ll see how the rest of this year pans out. But I’m all for taking advantage of the traditions we already have and share, for redeeming the culturally neutral activities.

And if you’re not already doing something for Advent, I invite you all to do the same. Let the things you’re already doing for the season invite you to ponder what Jesus did and prepare your heart for Christmas Day. While you hang your lights, ponder what it means that Jesus was the light that came into the darkness (John 1:4, 5). While you listen to Christmas music, ponder the image of God in man that longs for the love and peace and joy that Jesus offers us. While you bake goodies to share with family and friends, consider the joy the Father had in sending His Son to us—even the joy the Son had in giving Himself to us.

May your days be merry and bright!

Worship and Aliens: A Random Sci-Fi Postscript

I’m not a sci-fi fanboy by any stretch, but I love a good story and I don’t hesitate to admit that includes lots of science fiction. Right now my wife and I are almost done with Stargate SG-1, which has lots of religious themes tied in. At this point in the story, the enemy is an advanced race of people claiming to be gods and demanding worship. They have great demonstrations of power, a book of origins, promises of blessings for believers and destruction for unbelievers.

Hits a little close to home sometimes.

Why do we worship God? Is it because we don’t want to get smoted? Is it because of His power? Is He asking a little much that everyone praise Him or face eternal damnation? Because from a certain perspective this could smell really fishy.

Psalms does emphasize God’s power, absolutely. An impotent god is not worthy of worship. It’s like the old married bachelor; once you find out he’s married you realize the label “bachelor” doesn’t fly. A powerless god is no god at all.

But the Bible doesn’t stop there. God is powerful, yes, and how He uses His power shows His character. This is a God of second chances. And fiftieth chances. He’s a God who holds back when it comes time to punish wrongdoers. He’s a God who does not forget those who love Him. He’s one who brings order from chaos, healing from sickness, life from death. God is good, faithful, merciful, kind.

He is worthy because of His goodness, but also because we are His. Maybe if God hadn’t created us, we might not owe Him so much. If He did not sustain us, maybe He’d have to work harder for our attention. But if He’s our creator and sustainer, isn’t His creation just a teensy bit obligated to give Him His due? His patience is mind-boggling.

Ultimately, God—hypothetically ANY god—is God in virtue of who He is, not what He does. What you do testifies to who you are, but it doesn’t determine it.

If you start from the premise that God created everything, sustains everything, had a relationship with our first parents, constantly intervenes in human affairs, revealed Himself time and again, and even became one of us to die for our sins so that we might live then how could you do anything but worship? Failure to worship would indeed be a crime. Even though He is wholly “other,” He is not a foreigner. He is not imposing something from without. We are not in neutral territory even if He does allow us the freedom to choose.

Of course I know people have their reasons for not believing. Often very good reasons. But this is the Christian account, this is why it makes sense to us. And once you meet Him and get to know His heart, you realize He asks very, very little for all He gives.

Kodachrome (Music Monday)

I used to hear this song a lot when I was younger. Not sure if it was part of a marketing campaign back then or if it’s just what my friends were listening to (I know it was at least that). The song came to me this morning and the lyrics are too delicious to pass up. Paul Simon is one of the best singer-songwriters ever, and here he is as elegant as ever (even if this performance looks a bit awkward; I prefer the studio version but there’s no video for it).

Kodachrome by Paul Simon

Sun Ray, parts 1 & 2 (Music Monday)

My favorite music is both technical and groovy, lyrically deep but catchy, smart in the studio and on stage. As far as I’m concerned, Mutemath is the total package. I’m not sure if they’ve ever gotten much attention, but I just discovered they did some live recordings for VH-1 (which still exists!) and you NEED to go find their cover of “Fallin'” by Alicia Keys, which I must add has a heavy dose of “House of the Rising Sun” mixed in.

As excited as I am about that, an unlikely song has been haunting my thoughts these past few months: an instrumental broken into two tracks, called “Sun Ray.” Very smooth and chill, but with the kind of rhythm you count on from King & Mitchell-Cardenes. I think the thing that gets me most is the pulsing vibrato in those opening chords (which comes out clearer in the studio mix). You can hear the whole thing performed together here in this fan recording, which also gives you a little taste of their on-stage visuals:

Sun Ray, parts 1 & 2 by Mutemath

The Bible as Literature

I’ve been reading through the Bible cover-to-cover for what is in some ways the first time in my life. I read all the books of the Bible for seminary (even translated a few) and growing up we read through the whole Bible every morning, randomly jumping around from book to book. But I can’t recall ever starting in Genesis 1:1 and persevering through all 66 books in conventional order.

It’s been absolutely FANTASTIC.

I’ve been journaling through the whole process, but rarely blogging. And it’s killing me! Because this stuff is too good not to share. So my hope in coming weeks and months is to be more vocal and hopefully spark some dialog along the way.

The thing that makes this reading so unique is it’s the first time I’ve really read the Bible as literature. I remember as a student hearing that CMU had a class by that name, and shuddering at how liberal and godless it must have been. The Bible is so much more than that, I thought. Sure the Bible is literature, but so what?

Seminary quickly taught me the answer.

I don’t believe the Bible is mere literature, I believe it’s true. But whatever you think of its divine origins, you have to agree that it’s nothing less than great literature. And recognizing that it is great literature opens up so much more of the Bible’s meaning.

You don’t have to major in English to experience the joy of this dimension of study. But I did. And what a huge blessing! I’m seeing connections I never saw before, like what I wrote last year about the Mountain of God. Or then there are recurring themes like the way “the LORD, God of our fathers” provides backbone to 2 Chronicles (post forthcoming). You see similarities between characters and situations and responses. You see irony and dramatic turns and lots of foreshadowing. You see things you might never otherwise expect.

I think the main reason I couldn’t see the Bible this way before is because I’ve always approached Scripture one of two ways. Either 1) I’m looking for practical moral instruction for today and trying to merge my world with the world of the chapter or verse, or 2) I’m looking for doctrinal premises on which to build my theology.

Now let me be clear: both are excellent things to do with Scripture. I believe there is truth for all times, and it takes wisdom to know how to apply things of the past to the present, whether ethically or ontologically. But before you can extract and apply you have to understand the text as it is first.

I came to see this clearly after studying Augustine and familiarizing myself with the medieval ways of reading, but as I sit here now I realize that lots of my professors were trying to beat this into my head but I didn’t have ears to hear.

You see, Augustine writes in his De doctrina christiana that before we can move to the spiritual sense of the text (which if remember correctly includes [or will come to include] the two approaches I mentioned above) we must correctly understand the literal sense of the text. For example, you can’t identify Abraham offering up Isaac on Mt. Moriah with the Father offering up Jesus at Golgotha until you understand each of them in their own right. Only once you grasp both situations can you draw the connections.

This is so basic to language I think it often escapes our notice. You can’t say “tight as a drum” unless you know what a drum is and what it means for it to be tight. The metaphorical (simile-ical?) is rooted in the plain.

Often my professors would say things like, “Josh you need to bracket your theology and just read the text.” What I heard based on other questions I was wrestling with was, “Josh, read objectively, without the bias of faith.” (Perhaps sometimes that was closer to what some meant.) But I now think at least some of them were trying to say, “Josh, get a firm grasp of the text in its own right before you begin prodding it with spiritual questions.”

Now whatever he may have advocated, Augustine was not shy about interpreting the Bible spiritually, often in ways we’d be really uncomfortable with today. And I’m not saying we stop at a literalistic understanding of Scripture either. But I do think if we want to interpret correctly, we need to understand the plain meaning first, and that means embracing the literary majesty of Scripture.

At this point it would be awesome if I had tools to give you if you wanted to dive in. I don’t have many. But the book we used in seminary was Ryken’s How to Read the Bible as Literature. It seemed pretty redundant for someone who already had a degree in literature, but I suspect that means it’s exactly what you’re looking for if you majored in something less holy but infinitely more employable like chemistry or marketing. (Wink, wink.)

Also, I’ve just been made aware of some new reader’s editions of the Bible that try to make it easier to read the Bible as literature, for example the new ESV Reader’s Bible (which I haven’t explored yet, myself). Maybe worth a look.

One final note: a great many scholars, including a growing number of people who identify themselves as evangelicals, understand the literary nature of Scripture in a way that undermines the historicity of its accounts. I am not one of them. Just as it is more than literature but not less, so also is the Bible more than history—but not less.