Search This Blog

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Wells of Night: The Prophetic, Ecstatic, Utterly Compelling Poetry of Gabriel Blanchard

Wells of Night: A collection of verse by [Blanchard, Gabriel]In The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante the poet, novelist, and philosopher Charles Williams has the following to say about Dante's account Beatrice as an image of Divine love:
The divine beauty of this most gracious being appeared in her speech and her acts. But it also appeared in the different members of her body. The body 'has organs for almost all the powers' of man; and these organs were, for Dante, of a nature as everlasting as his desire for God; they were indeed part of his desire for God: 'the organs of the body', says the Paradiso, 'shall be strong for all that means delight.' Dante himself did not go far in the analysis of the human body itself; much there remains to be done.
In Wells of Night Gabriel Blanchard has moved that project forward another step.

This collection of poetry, described by the publisher as a place where "Homoeroticism, Catholic mysticism, philosophy, and fantasy are blended" is swollen with meaning and with the soul of its author. To read the volume is to come into shocking—by turns terrifying, compelling, whimsical, and devastating—contact with Blanchard's soul. For those of us who read poetry in order to experience the deep being of another person, Wells of Night is all that we could ask.

The book is divided into four sections consisting of sonnets, elegies, lyrical work, and one extended fairy tale in verse. Throughout, Blanchard's felicity with the language and with his source material (Færy Ball is a veritable banquet of classic færy lore) will certainly delight. He uses English like a paintbrush or a flute. The art is nearly always delicate, intricate, and usually voluptuous; the book is well worth reading for the quality of the language alone.

But Blanchard goes well beyond the virtues of aesthetic language in this book—he offers a vulnerability so naked and so piercing as to make the reader fall in love and shy back in terror at nearly the same time. Wells of Night is Blanchard's particular humanity displayed through curtains of eloquence.

Image result for Christ in the Wilderness Iwan
Christ in the Wilderness - Iwan Kramskoi
For myself I was most moved, and am most haunted, by his poem The Adoration of the Image of God the piece in which he most directly takes up Williams' charge quoted above (though he contributes in a number of his other pieces as well). The poem reads, in many ways, like a post-coital ode to a lover. Blanchard takes a meditation on a male body and works the reader, organ by organ, though the ways in which this distinct, ever-person, man in front of him is a mystic window into the character of God; the meditation is summed up (but not concluded) with the lines

Masculine maculate immaculate glory
Incarnate archetype
and then, called by his own exquisite sensibility and iron honesty he crushes and recreates the entire poem in four final lines of resurrection and death. For Blanchard, his own poem seems to reflect a grace too real to deny and too terrible to survive. I am convinced that in this poem, a gay Catholic has shown me, a straight Anabaptist, aspects of God in the body of a man I cannot know. The object of his meditation is a window into the Divine which is of the same type as Beatrice and yet utterly distinct from her. Once comes away convinced that, without a gay man to tell us about it, this would be an aspect of God, the rest of us might never know. The poem needs to be read for itself so I will not try to convince you, but Blanchard has shown me a picture of God which, two weeks ago, I would have said I could not experience, and he has wept bitterly while giving his gift.

And still, ever the full orbed, near transparent creator, Blanchard refused to make this work into a simple, monochrome study of the darkness. As the night sky has stars, Wells of Night has Færy Ball, a narrative piece which manages to obey every rule of the pre-modern legendarium, presented in the idiom of the best of the romantics and so full of archetypal story blended with human and divine nobility that I found myself crying for joy while reading it.
Image result for stars
If this makes you want to dance, then read Færy Ball

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

On the Vulnerability of Wise Vikings - Wisdom of the Vikings Part 12


The cattle know
when to come home
from the grazing ground.
A man of lean wisdom
will never learn
what his stomach can store.


He is unhappy
and ill-tempered
who meets all with mockery.
What he doesn't know,
but needs to,
are his own familiar faults.

Note: This is part 12 in an ongoing series (the series starts HERE) bringing together the Hávamál (a collection of Norse wisdom poetry) and the still-evolving rules and mores of the Internet, particularly as they are developing in the realm of social media.

As we have moved through the wisdom of the Hávamál it has become more and more apparent that virtue ethics, rather than a particular set of ethics rules, are the functional framework. The aphoristic poems don't so much tell the reader what action they ought to take in each and every situation as they lay out conditions under which particular virtues prove necessary. In that way they highlight those virtues which were most necessary to flourishing in a medieval (Viking) Icelandic society and are (by my hypothesis) also critical for online participation.

In these two poems, I would suggest that it is the virtue of vulnerability, or at least the virtue of an internal vulnerability which is being highlighted. In the first we get the pastoral image of a grazing cow, which knows when to stop eating and come in, applied to a man of "lean wisdom" who will "never learn what his stomach can store". In the second we get a reflection on the idea that an unwillingness to know your own faults can steal your happiness; or maybe it would be better to say that until we recognize our own faults, we will not be able to be happy. In both cases, we find that flourishing emerges from a lack of self-knowledge. 

Image result for socrates
Notably, this is a bit of wisdom which the Vikings have in common with Socrates and the Greek philosophical tradition. The aphorism "Know Yourself" (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) is said to have been etched over the doors of the temple of Apollo at Dephi—the structure which housed the Delphic Oracle. For Socrates the aphorism formed much of his motivation for engaging in philosophy and was also (if we are to believe The Apology) the clue to solving his ultimate riddle. The charge to seek out self-knowledge is a well established bit of wisdom. 

And yet, it often seems to be lacking in our online engagement. There seems to be no end to the stories and studies on the way in which social media in particular, but cyberspace generally, has been isolating us in to ever-more polarized echo chambers. Generally the danger these stories and studies are working to point out is that closing ourselves off from dissenting opinion and an attendant decreased capacity for empathy with those outside our echo chambers, and that is a legitimate and weighty concern. At the same time, though I think it is also critical to highlight the way in which existing in an echo-chamber robs us of opportunities for self-knowledge. My Dad regularly points out that "It takes a non-parochial fish to know that it is wet", in other words, it is often hardest to see the very thing we are most surrounded by. In fact, the greatest opportunities we have to discover our own condition is the experience of encountering other conditions. Those experiences are what give us the opportunity to contrast our own "normal" with someone else's "normal". The best chance that fish has of recognizing its own wetness is if it begins to encounter air bubbles.

So too, when we find ourselves spending our time online, immersed in mono-cultural echo chambers, it becomes incredibly difficult for us to recognize our thoughts and approaches as anything but "the way things are" and, since we tend to seek out the most comfortable possible environments, we are particularly unlikely to be confronted with our own faults and weaknesses. The phenomenon of socio-cultural isolation and grouping isn't just bad for society as a whole, it stunts our growth as individuals (think about how much easier it is to think of yourself as a "rugged individualist" when everyone you encounter has your back anyway).
A new environment can be...challenging

But what does all of this have to do with vulnerability as a virtue (and for those of you who aren't sold on the idea that vulnerability isn't a virtue at all, I have included Brene Brown's excellent TED talk on the subject below)? As I understand it, vulnerability is a hybrid virtue combining love and courage. Vulnerability means loving the other (or the self) enough to risk being hurt while courage is the capacity to do what needs to be done. In this case we are being called to be vulnerable with our own selves. This critical virtue means first seeking out enough of an experience of the world that we are able to recognize ourselves, not as default humans, but as particular and unique beings (be like the cow and don't stop eating before you are full) and we have to take a good long look at that self which our experience has illuminated and risk the pain of seeing our own failings. In his essay On Forgiveness, CS Lewis points out:
Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.
I would suggest that that forgiveness critical when "the man" is myself. And it is vulnerability which empowers that forgiveness.


Image result for politecho
If you are looking for ways to break out of—or at least recognize—your echo chamber, I ran into this tool from PolitEcho the other day which analyzes your FB feed and lets you know more about your political bubble. You might find it useful.

Brene Brown's talk on Vulnerability, she has also written a number of books on the subject:

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Blue Ocean Reflections Part 2: Centered Set

This is the second post in a six part series. You can find Part 1, Solus Jesus is HERE.

The Blue Ocean Reflections series consists of my personal interaction and history with the six "distinctives" of the Blue Ocean Faith movement as laid out in the book of the same name (you can find my review of the book HERE). Throughout the series I intend to talk about my own history and journey of faith and to offer some thoughts on how what I have come to believe impacts my understanding of the world. As such this series is likely to have a heavy focus on theology, philosophy, and politics. But since my formal education has been as broad as I could make it, my reflections are apt to be fairly wide-ranging as well.

The second "Blue Ocean Distinctive" is their utilization of a centered set approach. Before I get into how taking a centered set approach to faith has affected my life and relationship to Jesus, let me get a big caveat out of the way: The theological take on set theory was first proposed by the missiologist Paul Hiebert of Fuller Seminary and was brought into the Vineyard movement by (I think) John Wimber. I do not know whether Schmelzer encountered it first through the Vineyard movement or from his own time at Fuller, but I first encountered it through a presentation he gave back when he was a Vineyeard USA pastor. Apparently the theological/missiological usage which has been made of centered set theory makes a total hash of the mathematical theories from which it derives its origin. I am totally fine with that as fidelity to the math is not at all necessary to the value of the framework as such, but I know it bugs some people so I want to acknowledge it.

OK, with that taken care of, let me open this piece by saying that centered set faith has been of incredible benefit me, spiritually and theologically (a distinction which will probably begin to make more sense in Part 3). Let me provide Schmelzer's outline of the idea, and then I will talk about the impact it has had on my thinking and end with a few of the modifications I have found helpful in thinking about the framework.

From Chapter 3 of Blue Ocean Faith:
...[P]icture two sorts of sets.
The first is represented by a circle. We'll call this a bounded-set. The issue with a bounded-set is with people being inside of the circle or outside of it.
The second, though, has no "inside" or "outside." Picture a large dot in the center of a page that has lots of smaller dots on the page as well. The issue here is motion. Are the smaller dots moving towards the center dot or away from it?
Image result for centered set theory
Schmelzer goes on to clarify that the "center dot" in this centered set framework represents Jesus while the other dots represent individuals whereas in this analysis, the circle of the bounded set represents something like "being a Christian", "Chirstian culture", or "Christian identification" (it can actually be a lot of different things to different people). Later in the chapter he offers a refinement of the framework which he says he got from a friend named Dan:
 But what, Dan suggested, if we all have more than one arrow? What if people are more complicated than that? What if we all have, say, a hundred arrows?
and he goes on to talk about encounters which move some arrows towards Jesus.

For me, this idea has been incredibly helpful in thinking about spiritual and metaphysical realities and has also proved to be amazingly freeing. My own experience of faith has been pretty exclusively Christian, I was born in South Carolina to parents who were Evangelical Christians. When I was five, at a vacation Bible school meeting, I asked Jesus to forgive me for my sins (being then convinced that this prayer would result in Jesus choosing let me into heaven rather than allowing me to go to hell when I died—it seemed like a pretty solid deal to five year old me) and to "come into my heart" (and to this day I am convinced that that five year old did have an encounter with the living Jesus). When I was seven my family moved to Ankara Turkey where they quickly integrated into the Protestant ex-pat community and helped to start the International Protestant Church of Ankara. I returned to the US for college where I matriculated from an accredited Christian University in South Carolina (read "not Bob Jones") with a double major in Bible and the Humanities. And I have been a regular church attender my entire life. As a result, I have spent much of my life with an un-questioned sense of who is "in" and who is "out".

My basic, unexamined framework was bounded set.

I suspect that this is the case for a great number of Evangelical Christians; bounded set is the unexamined framework with which they categorize people—it may even be the primary framework they use. I am confident that this is the case for many at the conservative Christian university I attended. Before people are black, white, male, female, American, or anything else, they either are or are not "really" Christians. I remember talking to peers and faculty about the best ways to put words around the category of people who were "in"—should we talk about "those destined for heaven", was "Christians" too broad or too narrow, did baptism make a difference, etc...—just because that was the category which mattered most.

For a conservative Christian working within that framework, getting people over the line into the "us" is the most important thing in the world, and it comes with a whole lot of stress. Notice that in the refined centered set model, if an interaction results in one of either person's many arrows swinging at all in the direction of the center, the good outcome has occurred. To borrow language from another theological framework, insofar as arrows are moving towards Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is coming on earth. But in a bounded set framework, there is this line, and most of us were never entirely confident about where that line was exactly—though we were darn certain it was there and we had competing rough ideas of where "there" was—and getting people across the line was everything.

You always felt that you might be this guy...
For a lot of us this meant living with a constant sense of guilt since any interaction with a person who we suspected to be on the outside had a built in imperative to shift them over the line. The natural result has been the clustering of bounded-set folk into social conclaves wherein all or nearly all of their friends are safely inside the bubble which allows for more unforced, natural, friendships; at my school we called it "the bubble". But this compounds the guilt since we also believed that by not going out "into the world" we were letting people down and failing our duty to God. So we would rush outside "the bubble" and engage in some incredibly awkward conversations with people where it became eminently clear that we weren't so much interested in them as whole, complex, and fascinating individuals as we were intersted in convincing them to jump over the line with us (we called this "Evangelism"). People became projects, which always felt wrong but did assuage the guilt—temporarily.

This just isn't healthy, and there wasn't much of joy in it.

And there was another problem. In a bounded set world the critical thing, what really maters, is the boundary since that boundary is what determines (in most bounded set thinking) whether one spends eternity in heaven or in hell (I will have more to say about heaven and hell in another post). Those are incredibly high stakes, arguably the highest possible. The atheist magician Penn Jillette once explained that he sort of appreciates it when people try to convert him because it lets him know that they care about him enough to try to save him from the eternal fate they worry he is headed to; of course he disagrees but he definitely understands that their heart is in the right place.

The problem here is that the line is not Jesus. When we spend all of our attention on the line (and, lets face it, if bounded set is a good model and the stakes are as high as it would suggest then it is really hard to construct an argument for looking away from the line) we are, by that very fact, not looking towards Jesus. Jesus himself pointed out that it is impossible to serve "two masters" (he was talking about following either God or wealth when he made the statement but I think the principle applies more broadly), if the line becomes our master then Jesus is not.

Take a deep breath... centered set feels like this to me
When you think about it, centered set just doesn't have these problems. In a centered set framework the critical thing is to get your own arrows pointing towards Jesus. The focus is not on the line, it's on the center. And this means that any and all interactions have the potential to result in arrows moving towards the center. Centered set people get to walk into all of our conversations without first asking about what side of the line our friend might be on (there aren't really lines to pay attention to) and then we get to delight in anything good that comes out of the conversation, we get to celebrate the wisdom and insight our friends have to offer and we get to offer our own insights. The guilt and the stress pretty much vanish. And, speaking from my own experience, the freedom and joy this brings are heady and glorious. I no longer have to measure the "success" or "failure" of my conversations against a sort of "pass/fail" rubric having something to do with moving people across a vaguely defined cultural/ideological boundary. Successful conversations and interactions are conversations and interactions which result in goodness, in justice, in the world becoming that little bit more like it ought to be. I get to learn from everyone and I get to offer my own insights without feeling forced or awkward. It is really amazing.

Side note: I have included one of my favorite TED talks below in case you are interested in thinking a little more about what successful discussions and even arguments might look like. It is by Daniel H Cohen and he breaks down the unhealthy, distorting ways we think about arguments. I can't recommend it enough

For all of that, I do have a few refinements of my own for how I think about centered set theory (I want to thank my friend Aaron Brooks for helping me with this one and suggesting key elements). I'll call it a Gravitational Centered Set while admitting that we are drifting really far from the original model.
Image result for black hole

I like to expand the picture from a set, to a physical scenario. So instead of a point with a bunch of other points moving around it, try imagining a black hole with all sorts of stuff orbiting it. In this iteration, Jesus is the black hole (yes I realize that our cultural associations with "black hole" are less than positive—just work with me here) and we are the particles flying around Him. In this iteration, everything is gravitationally drawn towards the event horizon of the black hole (after all Jesus did say that when he was lifted up he would draw all people to himself) but we also have a bunch of our own energy which we can use to try and break free of the orbit. The goal is still to be unified with the center (the black hole) and every interaction has the potential to further that progress. But here, without extreme effort on our part, being drawn into the goodness, love, and joy of Jesus is practically a sure thing—God claims to be about the business of rescuing all creation after all—and our "job" is to let it happen and not to give up on the process even when things get hard.

Also, I have been told that the closer you get to a black hole, the more things get weird. Looking back, the universe that made so much sense before starts to become distorted as light, time, and mass all start working differently, presumably we actually begin to see the goal itself more clearly. Also this process takes a long time (at least subjectively) but that is OK, God isn't short on time. I like this because I have found it to be true of my own relationship with Jesus. The closer I have gotten to him, the less the world which used to make sense, seems to actually cohere (I remember certain Pauline passages about the wisdom of God seeming like foolishness to people who aren't close to Jesus). It also means that getting everything "just right" isn't just implausible, it's a pretty foolish endeavor (though trying to improve our understanding to the best of our current ability is richly rewarding—it is always possible to have a better view even after you have given up on trying to claim you have the perfect view). Nothing outside the event horizon can see into the black hole. We aren't going to get some sort of perfect view of the center (I remember Paul saying something about seeing through a dim/distorted mirror for the time being) but the longer we look towards it and the closer we get, the better our understanding is likely to be. For me this has all had profoundly positive effects on my relationship with Jesus and on my interactions with my family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers. Strangers are a lot more compelling and fun when they aren't reduced to potential Evangelistic subjects.

So what do you think? I would love to get your thoughts in the comments section below.

For Part 3: Childlike Faith click HERE

Product Details
Click HERE to get Blue Ocean Faith on Amazon


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Manners are Essential to Community - The Wisdom of the Vikings Part 11

Good Manners
A man should drink
in moderation
be sensible or silent.
None will find 
fault with your manners
though you retire in good time.

The glutton does not 
guard himself
eats till he's ill.
Wiser men
only mock
a fool's fat belly.

Note: This is part 10 in an ongoing series (the series starts HERE) bringing together the Hávamál (a collection of Norse wisdom poetry) and the still-evolving rules and mores of the Internet, particularly as they are developing in the realm of social media.

I characterize the Viking wisdom which emerges from these two poems as follows: "The internet is a community, not merely a platform and you ignore that to you own peril".

Image result for drunk viking
Is this really what you want the world to see?
Participation in online community requires listening as well as talking. Really successful "interneters" listen and engage rather than merely shouting and declaiming though there can certainly be a place for both of those things. I think there is a particular tendency to believe that in our own spaces (our blogs, our tweets, our Facebook walls) we do not have some sort of licence to be more rude than we would be in someone else's space. It is common to see people posting remarkably offensive things in their spaces and then defending those posts as unassailable due to a sort of perceived "right of self expression" or "freedom of speech". Of course, it is entirely true that they have a right to post what they like (remember that my basic working theory here is that online spaces are anarchic to nearly the same degree that Medieval Iceland was, if in its own way), but I believe that they are missing three important truths when they act this way.

First, they seem to be laboring under the misconception that civility exists as a discipline rather than as a virtue (I am, for the moment, ignoring those artists and philosophers who use shock value to communicate a point--they are another case altogether). In The Four Loves C.S. Lewis explained this well saying:
If you asked any of these insufferable people--they are not all parents of course--why they behaved that way at home, they would reply, 'Oh, hang it all, one comes home to relax.  A chap can't be always on his best behaviour.  If a man can't be himself in his own house, where can he?  Of course we don't want Company Manners at home.  We're a happy family.  We can say anything to one another here.  No one minds.  We all understand.'

Once again it is so nearly true yet so fatally wrong.  Affection is an affair of old clothes, and easy, of the unguarded moment, of liberties which would be ill-bred if we took them with strangers.  But old clothes are one thing;  to wear the same shirt till it stank would be another...
Affection at its best practices a courtesy which is incomparably more subtle, sensitive and deep than the public kind.  In public a ritual would do.  At home you must have the reality which that ritual represented, or else the deafening triumphs of the greatest egoist present...
We can say anything to one another.'  The truth behind this is that Affection at its best wishes neither to wound nor to humiliate nor to domineer.
The enforced rules of civil society—rules which are unenforceable online—are there to impel those of us who have not yet acquired the virtues of civility to act as though we had nonetheless. At the end of the day, it is specifically in your own space that you will most often practice the civil virtues of moderation and sensibility exactly insofar as you posses them. And I think that people realize this on a fairly gut level. We we encounter someone who is rude, brash, and foolish in their own space, we are far more likely to be leery of their participation in other spaces.

Second, the "fool" here, fails to realized that, online, even their "own" spaces are never really private. What is said online is said publicly. The advent of screenshots makes this particularly the case. In the case of the two largest social media platforms, comments, graphics, and memes posted on ones own "wall" (I use the term generically) are, absent particular privacy settings, going to be put directly into the feeds of other people who will then unavoidably react. Of course they may choose to react privately and not to comment, but that is no less a reaction. So it is basically untrue to believe that most online spaces are really "private" unless particular care is taken to ensure that the audience is limited and particular. Moreover, it has been my experience that the vast majority of people who hide behind the "it's my private space" claim have not actually engaged any privacy settings and seem to be intent on broadcasting the foolishness to as much of the internet as possible—they want the clicks.

Finally, the defense commits the over-common mistake of conflating the freedom to say something with some sort of freedom from repercussions. Randall Munroe of XKCD put this most clearly.
Free Speech
Taken from
The fact is that the freedom to spew foolishness does not, in any way, guarantee a protection from other peoples reactions. In the anarchic environment of the internet (where rights are negative but almost never positive) it couldn't. You can be blocked, you can be screen-shot, you can be publicly ridiculed by those with more wit and intelligence than yourself. Your freedom to be publicly foolish, in no way prevents me from drawing the public's attention to your foolishness or from blocking your voice in my own sphere.

Click HERE for Part 12: Vulnerability 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Blue Ocean Reflections Part 1: Solus Jesus

The Blue Ocean Reflections series consists of my personal interaction and history with the six "distinctives" of the Blue Ocean Faith movement as laid out in the book of the same name )you can find my review of the book HERE). Throughout the series I intend to talk about my own history and journey of faith and to offer some thoughts on how what I have come to believe impacts my understanding of the world. As such this series is likely to have a heavy focus on theology, philosophy, and politics. But since my formal education has been as broad as I could make it, my reflections are apt to be fairly wide-ranging as well.

Image result for ocean

Solus Jesus

In the context of Blue Ocean faith the phrase "Solus Jesus" is usually presented in apposition to the protestant reformation doctrine of "Sola Scriptura" and, less often, "Sola Fide". In broad strokes, Blue Oceaners tend to see themselves in the recent tradition of the "post-Protestant" conversations which first notably coalesced around the "emergent church" movement in the US. By any religious taxonomy I can think of, Blue Ocean is still Protestant insofar as it is certainly not Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Anglican, or Roman Catholic. Since it has it's roots in the Protestant tradition, it is a "thing" that grew out of Protestantism and, more specifically, American White Evangelicalism. Whether it is sufficiently distinct from Protestantism to ultimately justify a new category is yet to be seen, but this theological distinctive makes a good argument for it. 

The claim in this distinctive—and as you will see as we work through the series, the distinctives each impact one another—is often more epistemological than anything else. It is about where we look for Truth. In contrast with traditional Evangelicalism, which tends to identify the Bible as the fundamental, basic source of truth (and often Truth), Blue Oceaners try to hold on to Jesus of Nazareth as the basic source of Truth (and much truth). You can see that the parallel is not perfect. Evangelicals certainly don't claim to reject that Jesus Christ is "the Truth", and Blue Oceaners do not dislike the Bible (although their relationship with it does tend to make Evangelicals uncomfortable). But the focus is nearly entirely different. Where the axiom for Evangelicals might be "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." Blue Oceaners would likely come up with something more like "I am pretty sure Jesus says this, I am doing my best to follow Jesus, so I'm going with this."—The Blue Ocean isn't quite as tidy or succinct as Evanglicalism.

Image result for middle eastern JesusBut I there is a really good reason for that. Blue Oceaners value a far more relational faith than Evangelicals tend to do. Or, let me replace that with a statement I have more authority to make: As a Blue Oceaner I find that I my faith is far more relational than it was as an Evangelical and I value that. Furthermore I find that the Blue Ocean folks I know publicly value a relational faith far more frequently and consistently that my Evangelical friends. And I have a suspicion about why that is.

When I was an Evangelical (and for the record I am now part of a wonderful Mennonite congregation and, if pressed, would probably label myself a "Charismatic, Blue Ocean style, Anabaptist") I took "Sola Scriptura" very seriously. "Yes, definitely" I would have told you, "Jesus is the point of our faith—it is really all about knowing Jesus. But..." I would continue, "The only externally verifiable way for us to know anything about Jesus is through the Bible. We need the Bible if we are going to really know anything about God and what God wants in the world." Once I added the "Charismatic" to my self description (I joined a Vineyard church around the time I turned twenty-five) I would have modified it to "We need the Bible if we are going to be able to have meaningful conversations with one another about God. The Bible is our final authority, it gives us an objective standard for knowing what God really wants."

This was Sola Scriptura.

The role of the Bible was to be an objective standard for knowing whether I was, and/or others were, correct about the will of God. Yes, the point was to know God. And, yes, a significant part of knowing God meant actually talking to, and hearing from, Jesus Christ—total side note, many Christians really do believe that we hear from a dead and resurrected Jewish teacher on a fairly regular basis; we don't seem to talk about that a whole lot in secular circles because people look at you funny when they hear that you believe that God talks back, but we still believe it—but, since the human mind is imperfect, God had given us the Bible to use as a final, absolute, "gold standard" for knowing God's will.

The massive allure this had, and continues to have, for me is that certainty is a hell of a drug, particularly when something as foundational as one's faith is concerned. I remember growing up I was regularly reminded that one of the great selling points of Christianity was that it offered a guaranteed answer to the question "If you died tonight, are your sure you know what would happen to you?" For Sola Scriptura people the comforting answers was "Yes, if I have 'asked Jesus into my heart' then I know that I will be in heaven when I die". Whether or not that was a good answer, the justification for it, it's whole selling point really, was that the Bible guaranteed it and the Bible represented an absolute, objective set of true propositions. Now I would be far more likely to answer a question like that with something like "Gosh, that is a kind of abrupt question—I don't really think anyone knows a whole lot about what happens after we die, but I know that Jesus loves me and wants to be with me so whatever it is that that looks like (and I know of a number of really interesting compelling theories if you want to chat about it) I am confident that I will be with Jesus." That answer seems far richer to me, but it is clearly less confident, less certain.

See, Solus Jesus takes relationship rather than academic study to be the central anchor of our faith. Where a Sola Scriptura person is likely to answer "because the Bible clearly says", a Solus Jesus person will more likely say something like "because Jesus is like that". The pushback (and it was my biggest pushback for years) is that we need Sola Scriptura if our faith is going to be objectively true. I thought Schmelzer put this objection and his response well in the book:
It feels so ... subjective! (And we modernists hate subjectivity!) Just because you say you "heard from God" about this or that, why should I trust you? Why should you trust yourself?
And, indeed, that's a totally worthy line of conversation. But, whatever our concerns, Jesus seems fine with all that risk. There's that "secret of the kingdom of God" stuff [a reference to the Jesus saying that the secret of the kingdom of God had been revealed to people on the basis of asking him questions directly and in person]. There's the Hebrews 10 encouragements to go to the throne of God because of Jesus. There's Matthew 11:28, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."
So for all the rists and the need for thoughtful pastoring and wise and loving community, are we advised to make sure not to require a living God?
Image result for oceanIt is that last line that, I think, ultimately got to me. Let me try and recommend an un-philosophical category: Philosophically (traditionally) an event can be recognized as objective or subjective. Objective events are ones which exist independent of the observer (some physicists, if I understand them correctly, seem to be suggesting that there may not actually be any objective events if we insist on this definition) whereas subjective events are known only through the experience of the observer. Objective events are therefore taken to be far more certain, solid, and reliably true than subjective events. Now to be honest I have quite a few issues with all of that but let's let it ride for the moment and imagine a third "between" category—relational events. If Objective events are certain, and subjective events are dubious, I would suggest that relational events fall somewhere in between. If a truth claim is relational, it speaks to or describes the reality which is created between two or more participants. The participants are therefore likely to be quite certain about it but effectively unable to demonstrate it to the satisfaction of a third party who demands objective certainty. My wife and I know in our bones that we love one another, but I would be at a loss if you asked me to prove objectively that our love is real and not an act, thus our love is a relational truth.

What strikes me as so incredibly beautiful, good, and true about Solus Jesus is that it is the enunciation of an entirely relational framework. If Jesus is not a real, existing person who interacts with us, then the whole thing collapses. And I am entirely fine with that. Some friends and I were talking about this just recently and I explained that I had no way of imagining someone who found the Blue Ocean approach satisfactory who didn't also experience a living Jesus. but that I could easily imagine a Sola Scriptura person accepting the internal coherence of a Christian theology without, themselves, knowing Jesus of Nazareth as a person. Put another way, the structure built on Sola Scriptura can stand whether or not Jesus of Nazareth is a living person; the structure built on Solus Jesus cannot. And maybe a third way of saying the same thing: In my experience, the Jesus of the Blue Ocean cannot be understood by study, He has to be surfed.

There is a lot more I could say here about my thoughts on Jesus and what he is like, about why I think that the whole concept of objectivity is complicated (I think things are objectively true but that any individual thing cannot be absolutely demonstrated to be so), about how I learned to let go of my desire for certainty and embrace uncertainty instead (I cannot recommend Peter Enns' book The Sin of Certainty enough) but this is probably a good place to stop. I would love to interact with any comments, questions, or objections in comments below. I am, by nature, fond of disputation and the back-and-forth of rigorous intellectual questioning so please don't hold back (though I would ask that you be respectful).
Product Details
Click HERE to get Blue Ocean Faith on Amazon
Part 2: Centered Set is HERE

Monday, March 6, 2017

Review of the Second Edition of ALtmC

Note: I wrote this review back in May and only just discovered that I had never published it outside of Amazon. My analysis remains the same and I heartily recommend this book.

Ken Wilson, the former senior pastor of the Ann Arbor Vineyard and current co-pastor of Blue Ocean Faith in Ann Arbor has just released his second edition of A Letter to my Congregation in which he expands on the first edition in a number of helpful ways. But before I address them I would like to mention what the book does as a whole.

Those who have spent any time in the environment of American evangelicalism are, by now, well aware of the “micro-culture war” taking place over the place of LGBTQ+ Christians in the Church. When Wilson’s first edition came out in 2014 it offered a path beyond culture war. The “Third Way” as Wilson and others refer to it, requires a lot of combatants on both sides. Laying down our arms involves making space for the other without devaluing anyone, including those some see as a threat and those who have hurt us and/or the people we love. Wilson’s Third Way, based on Romans 14 and 15 and expounded in the book with exquisite pastoral care and compassion, calls for “traditionalists” to abstain from excluding those they believe to be in sin while simultaneously calling on “progressives” to maintain unity with, and respect for, the very people whose views and actions have done so much damage. Ken Wilson is calling us all to the very radical love for one another which is at the heart of Jesus’ high priestly prayer and was the overriding priority of the first Jerusalem council. This book will not be an easy read for anybody who shares in God’s heart for the church, but it is a necessary one. If there is to be any catholic and Christian way forward for the church in the west, I am convinced that it will have to be the Third Way.

As more and more books are being published to address Christian responses to LGBTQ+ Christians (and they vary widely in degrees of quality and of applicability on both “sides”), “A Letter to my Congregation” and particularly this second edition of it, find an important place in the genre. First, because Wilson writes from his experience as a pastor. In the first edition, he wrote as and evangelical proposing an exciting, if challenging, way forward. In the second, Wilson has added some somber reflections on his projects. Two years into the Third Way, Wilson is able to provide the reader with an report of what is likely to happen for and to churches which choose to adopt this way. To judge from his update, the way has,indeed, been a difficult (one might even say “narrow”) one, but there are rays of hope as we now see Third Way communities growing and flourishing around the country.
The second major addition to this edition, is some careful revision to Wilson’s theological analysis of “the question”. In Chapters 3 and 6, Wilson has responded to some of his more strident critics with a more thorough, robust analysis of the “clobber texts” and of the more general theological and philosophical arguments which are often brought to bear on the discussion. Here we get to see Wilson accommodating and responding to critiques of the original book in a way that show he has “done his homework” and that it has resulted in an even stronger theological foundation for the Third Way approach.

In these two updates, we get a glimpse in miniature of the core strength of this book. Ken Wilson writes as a pastor, the book is a pastoral letter, but he does so without abandoning a rigorous commitment to theological scholarship. Readers looking for a thorough engagement with intellectual and theological questions will find it here, shot through with the shepherd’s care of an experienced pastor, while readers looking for a compassionate, human approach to the very real relational stresses they have with LGBTQ+ friends and family (or their own experience of life) will also find those needs met, rooted in careful, deliberate exegesis and scholarship.

A Letter to my Congregation reflects the heart of God the Father for a wounded and fractious creation, the love of Jesus for His shattered, invaluable church, and is shot through with the Spirit’s discernment of the broken hearts and desperate longings of individual Christians.

You can pick up the Second Edition of A Letter to my Congregation on Amazon by clicking HERE.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

A Time to Speak and a Time to Listen - The Wisdom of the Vikings Part 10

Don't be like this

Bad Manners

At a feast
the fool chatters
or he stares and stammers.
Just as soon as
his jug is full
ale unveils his mind.


He is truly wise
who's travelled far
and knows the ways of the world.
He who has travelled
can tell what spirit
governs the men he meets.

Note: This is part 10 in an ongoing series (the series starts HERE) bringing together the Hávamál (a collection of Norse wisdom poetry) and the still-evolving rules and mores of the Internet, particularly as they are developing in the realm of social media.

As we have worked our way through the Hávamál, it has become increasingly clear that the wisdom structure within it relies heavily on an Aristotelian style virtue ethic (click back to Part 9 for a good synopsis of virtue ethics). The aphorisms all apply but sometimes may seem to be contradictory due to the fact that the situations differ. In one context, the wise thing may well be to avoid confrontation, whereas in another situation it is all but necessary to engage as thoroughly as possible. The first situation calls for the virtue of discretion while the second requires boldness or courage. Critically though, any application of virtue ethics requires a controlling virtue of discernment, what Aristotle referred to as practical wisdom (phronêsis)

These two poems do a good job of establishing both the necessity and basic process for acquiring discernment. In the first, we get a picture of the person who lacks discernment—the fool. The character who, in medieval Iceland, distinguished himself by talking first and noticing later, or attempting to engage beyond his depth - talking and chattering just as soon as he relaxed into his drink, is just about as easy to spot online. This is the character who seems to have something to say before he even reads the comments thread, the individual who is sharing her "all important, epic takedown" which turns out to be a banal or fallacy-filled scree. One of the troubling things about the fool is that fools rarely recognize their own foolishness - they are proverbially "wise in their own eyes". Internet fools, like Viking fools, are recognized as such by others long before they see their own foolishness. 

Wisdom will be recognized —
it doesn't have to be asserted.
In these two poems, the Hávamál offers the, remarkably un-sexy, reliable cure to fool-dom—experience. The virtue of discernment—that power to recognize the quality of ones own thoughts, as well as others as well as when it is and is not appropriate to share those thoughts—cannot be bought for gold or silver. There is not quick and easy method for obtaining it (though if you can get a sip of the mead of the Gods that might not hurt). One has to experience the relevant world. The best advice at this point is to probably assume that "being new" = "being a fool", though that should be taken far more as a rule of thumb than as some sort of ontological proclamation. A second piece of advice (though it does not show up in these two poems) would be to be humble whenever possible. One clear difference between fools and the wise is that fools are far more likely to make sweeping declarations where the wise ask questions and hedge their statements (though this too can be taken too far but that is a question for another post). 

So take some time, read all the other comments before you post anything critical, and stick around to see how the conversation goes. Thank others for their input and the read some more.

Click HERE for Part 11