Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hope: Willard refutes the disconnect between life and faith

I've been reading The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard, and thought I'd share a few enlightening things I've read so far. These are things that I tend to think, "of course that's part of our faith and church!", but find that even in my own thinking I am not always where I expect to be. That may sound confusing, but perhaps as you read on you'll see what I mean.

What exactly is the central message of the gospel?
Many Christians would begin with John 3:16, and by saying that God, in his infinite love and mercy saved us from the punishment our sins deserve through the death of Jesus Christ, defeating death allowing us to have eternal life. This is true, yet Willard suggests that our focus on eternal life after death really misunderstands Jesus' main message and leads to a kind of hopelessness about how we are to live now.
"When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual's sins. On the left is removal of social or structural evils. ... Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message. Moment-to-moment human reality in its depths is not the arena of faith and eternal living" (41)
Willard translates John 3:16 as follows:
God's care for humanity was so great that he sent his unique Son among us, so that those who count on him might not lead a futile and failing existence, but have the undying life of God himself (1)
Eternal, or "the undying life of God himself", life begins now. Christ healing and touching us, working in our everyday lives.

The Kingdom of Heaven
Sometimes when I'm reading I get really excited. I sense that I am finally going to have an important question I've been wondering about answered. This was the case when I read this:
The phrase kingdom of the heavens occurs thirty-two times in Matthew's Gospel and never again in the New Testament. By contrast, the phrase kingdom of God occurs only five times in that Gospel but is the usual term used in the remainder of the New Testament. What is the significance this variation in terminology? (73)
Willard devotes many pages to this, but the gist of what he is saying is this: the world translated "heavens" meant, in the context of both the old and new testaments, the space where God is. Importantly, this was considered to be the "air or atmosphere which surrounds your body" (67). "The heavens" are not far away, neither in time nor space. They are here and now. (This is really hard for me to explain in a few words; you should either read the book or talk more with me later!) When Jesus said "the kingdom of heaven is at hand", he did not mean that it was arriving soon or in the future. God is in this very real world he has created, and offers to us the possibility of living in this heavenly reality.

To more clearly answer the above quotation:
Matthew, the quintessentially Judaic Gospel, as a matter of course utilizes the phrase he kingdom of the heavens to describe God's rule, or "kingdom". It captures that rich heritage of the Jewish experience of the nearness of God that is so largely lost to the contemporary mind. (73)

The Brilliance of Jesus
I will close by leaving you to meditate on the brilliance of Jesus. Willard cautions that "The world has succeeded in opposing intelligence to goodness" (135) This discourages our faith, and doesn't really make sense. As Willard writes,
Can we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart? If he were divine, would he be dumb? Or uninformed? Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived? (94)

I've been reflecting on this, because as Willard also says, "It is not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters where we do not believe him to be competent" (94)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Let the Painting Begin!

Visual art. Some of the best art has been historically found in churches, and yet now it is conspicuously absent from much of protestant church life. Many of you who know me will know that this is a subject of great interest and concern for me. Thus, while I know that there is an increasing amount of writing and thinking being done on the subject, I will let this post be an opinion piece, drawn out of my thoughts and experiences.

It has been said that a church is not just a building, but a church building does reflect a lot about a church(see also a previous post). I have been inside so many churches with bare white or brick walls, conservative architecture, and direct lines to the pulpit at the front. The focus is on the spoken word (as taught during the sermon) and, only slightly indirectly, on the written word.

This makes a lot of sense with the birth of the Protestant tradition. The epistemic focus shifted from church authority to individual understanding of the Bible. The beginning of the modern era, so linked to the Reformation, revealed a confidence in the human ability to reason and understand God's word. These things, combined with the break from the traditions of the Catholic church, meant a significant change in the church's attitude toward images.

I am arguing here that the church needs to more consciously and carefully think through its use of images, especially visual art. Intentional change may be needed. First of all, we in the church worship an incredibly creative God! Not only that, but we have been made in his image, and I think creativity is a big part of that. Doesn't it make sense that we should express our exuberant joy in God through the arts? Much of this has been done with music. But why neglect the visual arts?

Many of the most artistically impressive cathedrals were build during a time when your average person could not pick up and read a bible. The art served an important role in helping people understand God and his workings in our world. It is much different now, of course. Or is it?

We live in an image-saturated world. Everywhere we look there is a billboard or a colorful label or a screen. The advertising world has certainly picked up on the power of an image. Children grow up with high visual stimulus through TV and computer screens. Many people, myself included, absorb information much more easily visually than aurally. And sometimes words are quite simply inadequate. Perhaps the church is in need of the arts more than one would think.

I want to close by noting a few of what I would call "successes" or "inspirations" pertaining to art and the church.
  • St. Andrew's Ottawa: I was struck during a visit that they had on display the work of an artist who had done these beautiful textile works which included passages of scripture. I just visited their website and noted that they have installed a sculpture outside.
  • HTB, London: the prodigal son sculpture, by artist Charlie Mackesy, is a powerful work and features prominently in the church space.
  • Orthodox and Catholic churches: I think we need to be willing to learn from them
  • Nathan Turner: a Canadian artist I was first introduced to through his show in a local gallery. His work is not always explicitly Christian, but it certainly speaks of his faith.
Thanks for taking the time to read this far. I challenge you to get involved in some way in bringing the visual arts into our protestant churches.

Nathan Turner. "Through The Veil". Charcoal, conte, graphite, gesso on plywood.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Wisdom from Wildflowers

I am back from my little vacation from posting. One of my mini projects this summer has been learning about the wildflowers I see. This has given me a new love and appreciation for them.

I think that knowing the name of something - or someone - is important. I don't feel that I can really begin to know someone until I can call them by name. It's difficult to speak affectionately of a particular place without knowing its name. (On a side note, that is why I wish more people in this country named their houses, as is traditional in the UK.) Speaking God's name is powerful. Naming is vital to knowing and loving.

I'm going to let you experience the delight of being able to name flowers by sharing with you the names of some of the common flower names. The photos were all taken within a few minutes walking distance of my house.

Lady's Thumb
Polygonum persicaria

Bird's-foot Trefoil
Lotus corniculatus

Crown Vetch
coronilla varia

Daisy Fleabane
Erigeron annuus

Spotted Touch-me-not
Impatiens capensis

Chicorium intybus

Red Clover
Trifolium pratense

Wild Carrot
Daucus carota
known in Canada, at least, as Queen Ann's Lace

Carolina Larkspur

Sunday, August 02, 2009


It looks like I'm taking a holiday from posting. I'm away from home, spending time with a good friend before her wedding, so I doubt if I'll get much time to write something today or next week (I will be traveling next Sunday).