Monday, August 27, 2007

Meditations on Genesis (#1)

For the edification of both of my readers, I'm risking a venture into the large and ominous waters of Genesis 1 & 2, and beyond. I've been spending multitudinous minutes in the Bible's salutatory book this summer, and I've gathered a few eggs. And by eggs, I mean good stuff.

It will be hit and miss, hither and yon.

Here's my first thought (#1):

Why would any author choose the particular words and phrases that he does? This question certainly applies to the author of Genesis. Our usually answer is something akin to "to communicate theological truths" or "to teach a particular moral message." But this is only partly true, and the smaller part at that. Genesis was not written by anyone resembling a theologian, as we would imagine one.

The author of Genesis is not writing a manual or a news story. He selects his expressions with a desire to please the ear and the imagination as much as the intellect. His words are sometimes called upon for their phonetic and aesthetic properties, as much as their meanings. Consider his word choices for the ideas of "emptiness" and "formlessness" in 1:2 -- he chooses two locutions that rhyme: tohu va bohu. It is no coincedence that they compliment each other aurally. This should give us some clue as to the author's intent for Genesis 1 and 2.

I'll let your imagination fill in the rest.

Post Script (8/28): Two quick clarifications -- (1) I am assuming that the author of Genesis was "under the Influence" (of the Holy Spirit), making God a collaborator of sorts; (2) To be precise, I should have mentioned formlessness and emptiness in the correct order.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Calvin & Hobbes Teach Us Something About Evangelism

Long blog posts often deter me, but this one was worth the 5 minutes it took to read it. Theologian Fred Sanders contemplates what Christians can learn about communicating the gospel from Bill Watterson, author of Calvin & Hobbes.
Monday, August 13, 2007

Harmony Part 3: The Devil, the Divine & the Details

“Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!” says Gradgrind, “Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals!”
[Even though Sissy’s father was a horsebreaker, and she had lived around them all her life, she was a bit perplexed at the demand for a definition and had been speechless. The schoolmaster turns to another student, a boy named Bitzer:]
“Bitzer,” said Thomas Gradgrind. “Your definition of a horse.”
“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
“Now girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind. “You know what a horse is.”

This passage from Dickens’ Hard Times illustrates beautifully the spiritual myopia that so often plagues us. Gradgrind was in the business of facts, empirical data, and couldn’t be bothered with anything else. Of course Sissy knew what a horse was, better than anyone in that room, but her knowledge was of a different sort. She was accustomed to looking past the physical details and beholding the soul of the thing.

The integration of faith and life is not merely an intellectual enterprise. It is a profoundly spiritual one, requiring spiritual eyes. One of my favorite examples of such other-sight is found in the life of 18th-century poet Christopher Smart. When Smart observed his cat sunning himself, he saw more than the cat. He penned the following:

For I will consider my cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the living God.Duly and daily serving him.

For at the first glanceOf the glory of God in the East
He worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body
Seven times round with elegant quickness.
For he knows that God is his saviour.
For God has bless'd himIn the variety of his movements.
For there is nothing sweeterThan his peace when at rest.

For I am possessed of a cat,
Surpassing in beauty,
From whom I take occasionTo bless Almighty God.[1]

Where others saw felis silvestris catus, Smart saw an ambassador of the heavenly kingdom. Smart saw God in the most mundane of things. This passage is my favorite:

For the flowers are great blessings.
For the flowers are great blessings.
For the flowers have their angels,
Even the words of God's creation.
For the flower glorifies God
And the root parries the adversary.
For there is a language of flowers.
For the flowers are peculiarly
The poetry of Christ.[2]

Where others saw only rosa damascena trigintipetala, Smart beheld the Word of God.

You don’t have to write poetry in order to look past the cells, the molecules, the quanta, the notes, the letters, the graphs, the curves, the subjects, or the media. To see with other eyes and escape the soul-killing myopia that daily work so often engenders is a simple thing. All we have to do is pause now and then in our busyness and ask God to show us the beauty and poetry of even the smallest jots of creation.

I close with a stanza from the mind of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush aflame with God.
But only those who see take off their shoes.
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.[3]

[1] Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno, c. 1760, first published in 1939. These are selected lines from the poem that were set to music by Benjamin Britten in 1943 under the title Rejoice in the Lamb.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Aurora Leigh," book vii.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

The Harmony of Faith & Life, Part 2: Nacho Libre

I have a surprise hero: Nacho Libre. Yes, I'm talking about the Jack Black-portrayed luchadore. My wife and I watched with that "one eye brow-raised" look on our faces for the better part of the film. But then, it happened. I saw the spirit of the great saints of old flowing through the chubby monk.

Nacho faced the same quandary we all face: Am I a monk, or a wrestler? Well, for us, it may be something like, How can I be a passionate Christian and a _________? Caught on the pointy horns of a (false) vocational dilemma, we can't bring ourselves to give up either side of our lives, and we can't see how they work together. Then, God displayed the answer through Nacho as a living parable.
Nacho had come to pray in the monastery cathedral for a wrestling victory -- already having discovered fresh inspiration through a decision to use all his winnings to help the orphans. Of course, he kept his cotume hidden under his robe, since wrestling was frowned on by the church. As he knelt by the gently flickering candles, his robe caught fire, prompting him to run from the sanctuary and roll wildly on the dry ground outside. Nacho extinguished the flame, but only the top portion of his robe survived, revealing his wrestling tights underneath. At that moment, for all the world to see, Nacho was both monk and luchadore!

The conclusion to the story is a powerful picture of a man who has reconciled his two callings into one. Nacho is able to receive God's blessing as a wrestler, and defeats the menacing "Ramses." The same can be true for us. We can bring our faith to work, and we can bring our work to God. Doing our work with God can make a tremendous difference in how we fulfill our vocation. And coming to church, to God, as a carpenter, a cook, a mother, a student, will allow us to be whole in our worship. (Of course, these roles do not define our identity -- that is found in Christ alone. But to segregate a part of ourselves, thinking it is of no interest to God, will cripple our intimacy with Him.) Viva Nacho Libre!
Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Harmony of Faith and Life, Pt. 1

Our first hero of faith and life is a simple man named Giovanni, who gained great fame as a juggler. Traveling through the Italian countryside one summer afternoon, he had a chance encounter with two monks. Giovanni shared his small meal with them, and entertained them with his juggling act. They told him that his juggling brought glory to God, but he just laughed and went on his way.

At the end of his life, Giovanni could no longer amaze the crowds, and found himself homeless and taking shelter in a church. The sanctuary was filled with people carrying beautiful gifts, but he didn’t understand why. Then a villager told him it was the birthday of the Holy Child, pointing to the statue of Mary with Jesus on the altar. Giovanni had nothing else to offer, and so he decided that when the church emptied that night, he would juggle for the wistful-looking Child in his mother’s arms.

That night, even in his old age, he gave his most brilliant performance. A monk spied him, and thinking it sacrilegious, ran to summon the priest. When the monk and the priest arrived, Giovanni lay dead on the floor. But as they turned to look at the statue, the Holy Child was smiling. Giovanni had died as a "Clown of God."[1]

The monks Giovanni met that one summer day were right. His juggling brought great glory, and pleasure, to God. This is true for any gift or ability that God has given us. When you make discoveries in the laboratory, God delights. When prepare a meal for your family, God delights. When you bring a young mind to new knowledge in the classroom, God delights. When you serve others in the Body or in the world, God rejoices over you with singing.

C.S. Lewis has said being a Christian isn’t so much about doing new things as it is about doing the “same things one had been doing before, one hopes, in a new spirit.”[2] So watch that you aren’t deceived by the monotonous repetition of your labor into thinking that it is of no consequence to God. Every pen and key-stroke, every changed-diaper, every note played, can be holy. “The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.’”[3] So like Giovanni, make an offering of your gifts and work, and render yourself a “Clown of God.”

[1] The story is from Tomie dePaola’s delightful children’s book, The Clown of God.
[2] “Learning in War-Time,” from The Weight of Glory. (Macmillan, 1980: p.23).
[3] Ibid, p. 26.