Comment on Culture

A friend recently lent me the book Mister God, This is Anna. The book centres around Fynn (the author) and his adventures with a little girl named Anna. And, as the title of the book might suggest, their greatest adventure focuses on discovering the nature of God. “Anna searched for Mr. God and her desire was for a better understanding of him,” Fynn writes, adding, “It was just my luck that I happened to be with her when she was doing her ‘working out’.”

Let me first of all say that this is an enjoyable book. The writing is engaging, the characters endearing, and the illustrations truly lovely in their inky simplicity. Most enjoyable is that the book simultaneously and beautifully blends philosophically complex ideas with childlike wonder. A particularly striking scene occurs when Lynn and Anna use mirrors to uncover “hidden worlds” dwelling within our own – a sort of glimpse into fairy land, if you like, revealing the existence of “meaning” beyond the realm of mere facts.

But, like any book, Mister God, This is Anna has its faults – namely, in this case, that the theology Anna articulates is – whatever else it may be – certainly not Christian in the orthodox sense of the term. Anna seems convinced that in order for faith in “Mr. God” to be real, it ought not to be constrained by outward rules: church, theology, even Scripture – all inhibit her from meeting God, she thinks, in his abundant openness. “People,” she asserts, “when they go to church measure God from the outside…. They don’t get inside and measure Mister God.” In order to truly know God one must fully experience (indeed, indwell) him. Everything else just gets in the way of knowing God personally.

It’s curious therefore that Anna’s own approach to God has the unintended effect of robbing God of his personhood, rather than enhancing it. For, in essence, she basically decides she will know God only on her own terms, rather than meeting him on the terms he himself provides. One needs to figure out who God is based on the world, she says, but she seems to leave no room for the idea that God himself might wish to explicitly tell us who he is. Fynn sums up Anna’s thoughts in the following way:

So far as Anna was concerned one thing was absolutely certain. Mister God had made everything, there was nothing that God hadn’t made. When you began to see what it was all about, how things worked, how things were put together, then you were beginning to understand what Mr. God was.

When you think about it, that’s the eventual conclusion of any religion which insists on knowing God solely through experience: you end up so focused on your own ideas that the personhood of God seems to slip into shadow. Everything ends up dependent on your interpretation of the world around you. To be sure, Anna propounds some fascinating thoughts (philosophical, even mystical) in the book which we can learn from. But they’re ideas about an abstract God – not the personal God she seems so eager to know.

One need only think of earthly, human relationships to understand why this approach to God doesn’t work out. Friendships aren’t built on our perceptions of other people; they’re based on actual communication. If I claim to be friends with someone – let’s say Bob, for example – then it’s important I actually listen to what Bob has to say. I can’t simply look at the type of clothes Bob wears and say, “Well, that’s Bob.” I can’t look at his house, see the environment in which he lives and then conclude I know the man. While all this can provide insight into who Bob is, it is a far cry from a real relationship. No, I must actually speak with Bob in order to know him.

Anna’s approach to God is similarly concerned with the trappings rather than the actual person, and this is why her meditations on the character of God (while interesting) nevertheless lack depth. She ends up doing what she accuses the church of: merely describing God, not actually knowing him. She views the world that God has made, contemplates the mysteries of language, biology, and much more – in essence, she views the house that God built and the clothes he wears. And based on these observations, she develops a philosophy of God. But for all that, she does not truly know him. Her “Mister God”, we must confess, remains for her a Mystery. He is too broad. He is spread too thin. He is an idea, alas, and not a person.

The personal knowledge she lacks (and which we in our sin also lack) can only be attained through real conversation with God. We cannot simply talk to and about God; we have to let him speak as well. And that’s why Scripture is so important (and why Anna’s low opinion thereof is the more unfortunate). For in these texts, God himself speaks to us. His love for us might be, as Anna reasons at one point in the book, infinitely higher than our own human capacity to love. But we only find an overt expression of that love in the Scriptures. Here we hear the God of power and creativity speak us into creation. Here we hear the God of justice speak words of judgement over our sin. Here we hear the God of love speak himself into human form, bear our sin, die in our place, and live again that we also might live.

In short, Anna’s concept of God misses the relational, incarnational mercy of God – the God who speaks human words to us, who becomes human for us, and who continues to care for us in our human endeavours. To be sure, philosophy can be good; the “heavens declare the glory of God,” as the Scripture say. But we need revelation to truly know our Creator. We need the Word of God. We need Christ – the image of an otherwise incomprehensible, invisible God.

Perhaps some people haven’t yet heard that the final film adaptation from the Harry Potter series has just come out in theatres. To such gentlefolk I am not writing, as I can only assume they must be living under rocks in some God-forsaken land without access to the internet. You, however, dear readers, are not under-rock dwellers (not most of you, anyway) and are no doubt aware, therefore, of the film’s release. And if you’ve already seen Deathly Hallows Part 2, perhaps you’ve been turning over in your mind the events of the story, wondering what to make of it.

Enter my new review of the film over at The Canadian Lutheran Online: “Love amidst the ruins”. Be forewarned – it has spoilers in it. And it’s a bit rushed in its analysis; the ideas desperately wanted to come out as a 20 page essay, but I think I sufficiently pruned (bludgeoned?) them down into a 1,000-ish word piece. Not that my ideas are necessarily the gospel truth (I don’t have the benefit of legilimency to take a peak into J.K. Rowling’s mind), but I hope they provide some small insight into how the Potter stories themselves interact with the literal Gospel Truth.

If you’re still reading this, it means you missed the link to the article above. Never fear. The above image also serves as a link (read “portkey”) to the article in question. Now, away with ye!

"Holy Rapture, Batman!"It’s very easy to laugh at Harold Camping’s recent rapture prediction and his subsequent explanations for why said rapture failed to materialize. But while we can fault his theology, Christians should be at least a bit more hesitant in their wholesale criticisms of his ideas.

Let me be clear: I think Camping is dead wrong in trying to predict when end-times events will occur. Scripture is clear on the matter: “Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36; cf. 24:42,50; 25:13; and Mark 13:32, 35). Nor am I a fan of his eschatology (the rapture, as popularly understood, is too new an interpretation for me, being popularized only in the 19th century ). But what Camping is right about, and what most Christians have failed to affirm during the recent media brouhaha is this: Christ is coming back again.

In his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne articulates a scientific (if fictional) theory of how space exploration might be accomplished. Some of his predictions proved accurate: for example, the location of American launch sites for lunar missions (as near the equator as possible, Verne suggested, to minimize distance between the earth and moon; the Apollo missions followed suit). But others are laughably wrong. The idea of using a gigantic canon to launch space exploration vehicles never materialized… and a good thing too, as the Gs generated by such a cannon would entirely squash the astronauts.

Still, for all his errors, Verne was right about the idea of space exploration – the idea that engineering could conquer the seemingly insurmountable challenge of escaping earth’s gravity.

During the intense media scrutiny of Camping, it was easy to get caught up (no pun intended) in the humour of it all. I myself laughed heartily over an “End of the World Garage Sale” sign I saw the day of the supposed rapture. But we as Christians should step back for a moment to consider the following: we laughed with the world around us over the silliness of Camping’s prediction; but was the world similarly laughing with us or was it – without our realizing it – laughing at us?

As out-there as Camping’s ideas are, Christians of all stripes and sizes agree with him that there will be a Second Coming. To the world around us, that’s just more nonsense of the Camping variety, more 2012-style lunacy. Sure, we might not set a date, but our end-of-the-world ideas are just as much “foolishness” to the world at large as any other crackpot’s.

"The Last Judgement" by Jean CousinWhile we laughed with the world, they laughed at the Church, at simple-minded Christians who against all logic continue to believe in old fairy tales about a God who made the world, died for the world, and is coming again to create a new world. They weren’t just laughing at Camping alone; they were laughing at the very idea of the Second Coming.

The Second Coming has been the belief of the Church since the very beginning. It’s all through the Scriptures. It’s affirmed in the early creeds. And we still confess that faith every Sunday (at least in my church): “He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead.” We need to reject nonsense (like Camping’s) that distorts that truth, just as we would reject Verne’s nonsense about canon-launched space vehicles. But the general idea? It’s sound Christian doctrine. Let’s not downplay that fact in our efforts to distance ourselves from errant interpretations of it.

Growing up, The Chronicles of Narnia were my favourite books by far (and were a glorious introduction to the wider writings of C.S. Lewis). Needless to say, when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe finally made it to the big screen in 2005, I was ecstatic. I had always thought the Narnia stories were made to be watched (Lewis’ own concerns on that front not withstanding). And now, for the first time ever (ignoring, as we must, the infamous BBC series), Narnian fans would be able to enjoy the stories visually.

Fast forward five years. A week since opening in theatres, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is doing extremely well internationally (though, alas, not particularly well in North America). The Canadian Lutheran asked for my thoughts on the latest film and I was more than happy to write up a little something for them. Check out my article “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: An odyssey in faith” at their website.

Incidentally, have I mentioned how much I love The Canadian Lutheran Online? The digital counterpart to the bi-monthly magazine, it’s among my favourite sites on the web. With up-to-date news and views on a variety of subjects (both popular and theological), the site is an absolute must-read. Go check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

I just returned from seeing Harry Potter 7: The Deathly Hallows pt. 1 this evening. It was brilliantly executed.

Still, despite my own admiration for the movie (and the books), we all know that the Harry Potter series has gotten a lot of flack from Christians throughout its run. In my opinion, an awful lot of it has been unjustified. Her books might not be as overtly Christian as C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, but Harry Potter is nevertheless deeply influenced by Christian ideals and symbolism. That symbolism is perhaps most evident in the final book, The Deathly Hallows.

Christianity Today had an interesting article entitled “Harry Potter 7 is Matthew 6” back in 2007 when the final book came out. Given the public rush to see the first part of its film counterpart, it might be worth rereading that article to remind ourselves of how Rowling’s own Christian faith manifests itself in the story of the Deathly Hallows.

And yes, I did write that Rowling is a Christian (or at least self-identifies as one). And frankly, given how the series winds up, it’s hard to doubt her. Consider this quote from an interview Rowling gave the Vancouver Sun back in 2000 – seven years before the final book would be released:

“Yes, I am [a Christian],” she says. “Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.”

If you haven’t read the series, let me fill you in on what that “what’s coming” comment is all about. Better yet, let Rowling (quoting Scripture in The Deathly Hallows) fill you in:

“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”

This evening (or rather, this morning) I finished reading the excellent novel Godric. It seemed well to record my reactions now while they are fresh than to wait until tomorrow when they are likely to have diminished somewhat. Godric is the 1980 work of Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister and award-winning author. Godric itself was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps my sentiments on the book are best expressed in saying I consider it a great injustice it did not win.

Wrapped in an unusual but beautiful prose, the novel is a fictionalization of the life of Godric of Finchdale, who died in 1170 A.D. Thereafter he would come to be known as St. Godric, and it is with this treatment of himself as a holy man by others that the protagonist find his main concern. Well over one hundred years in age and nearing death, Godric finds himself joined by Brother Reginald who desires to record an account of his life. But the story he wishes to write is at great odds with that which Godric himself wishes to impart.

In the novel, Godric recounts his life, considering both the present and the past. “I’ve told my life from both its ends at once,” he explains near the end. The first half of his hundred years is his youth, it might be said. This is the story of a man who is not seeking God but is nevertheless being sought by him. The second half, his agedness, is the story of a man who, though still a sinner, is nonetheless one redeemed by God, and who tries to live his life accordingly. And these two aspects of his life are surely not the end of Godric’s story. “The third’s the Godric yet to be,” he confesses, “the Godric God will raise again to life and either burn in Hell as he deserves or caulk and patch until he’s fit to sail to Heaven at last.” Though a hermit for the latter fifty years of his life, he understands that salvation is not dependent on his works. “When I deserved it least, God gave me most,” he admits in humility. One can almost hear Paul’s words to Romans in this passage: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)

In reading this book, one cannot help but contemplate again the concept of the monastic or hermitic life. It is certainly an unpopular idea among Protestants today. And yet I must wonder whether this is necessarily a fair judgement. To be sure, the monastic life is not a “better” or more “holy” life. The Confessions speak as much, and with them I do agree. But perhaps it is worth noting it is not a worse life. As in the desert lived John the Baptist, so too there may remain today those who would do well in a monastery or convent. While it is not a higher calling, perhaps it nevertheless remains a calling for some.

The Augsburg Confession (27) condemns the piling on of rules and vows in such institutions, to be sure. But it seems to have no problem with the idea of a “free association”, as monasteries were in Augustine’s time (meaning one could leave at will). It appears to me that the early reformers’ criticisms of monasteries and convents were primarily of the abuses of the institutions and not necessarily of the idea of the institutions themselves. It is worth noting, I think, to remember that the early reformers allowed a number of monasteries to continue to operate after becoming Protestant. In fact, two such German monasteries (Amelungsborn Abbey and Loccum Abbey) continue in uninterupted use to this very day.

What do you think? Is there room in Lutheranism (and Protestantism at large, for that matter) for such institutions? To what extent do modern day bible colleges among evangelicals (at least those that require students to live on campus) provide similar structures to such religious communities? Could a long-term contemporary Protestant order exist today in North America without being thought by the average Christian as a “holier” calling than their own?

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