Monday, March 29, 2010

Scripture, Missiology, and Trying Too Hard

Sometimes, I try too hard. Like right now. I've been trying to think of something to write for Pillar on the Rock for the last two hours. Tried a few things... they did not work. I took a break, read my Bible for an hour, studied Titus in serious detail.

There are depths and profundities and riches in every book of the Bible, but I certainly gravitate toward the New Testament. I like words, and I like digging at the way they are layered together to form coherent arguments. The Epistles normally attract people because they are the most eminently practical aspect of the Bible, apart from Proverbs (another perennial favorite). Not me. They attract me because of the depths buried in the flow of authorial thought. I tend toward the gospels and the prophets when I am hungry for longer passages to read, but when I want to dig in on a text, I tend to sit down with an epistle and try to get in as close to the author's thought process as possible.

It is good for me to read the long narrative sections of the Old Testament on a regular basis (as it is good for all of us: that is why God included it). I see glimpses of God in the narratives that are not present in the same ways in the tightly constructed argument of Romans or the sermonic structure of Hebrews. Narratives and numberings are just as important as epistles and gospels. When I read through all of the Bible last year, I was incredibly challenged and blessed. Seeing the entire flow of history laid out in the biblical narratives, complemented by the proclamations of the prophets and the explications of the epistles, was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. That said, I am glad to be able to sit down and study Titus!

Last week, Jaimie and I were discussing missions, contextualization, and the importance of narrative and storytelling in many cultures. Many missiologists have suggested that missionaries need to shift the focus away from the western preoccupation with argument and toward the broader interest in story—not least since the Scriptures are filled with narratives. I think they have a good point; western Christianity has certainly been overly preoccupied with argument. However, I also think it is entirely possible to overcorrect, and I fear many missiologists are doing precisely that. Though we should certainly not emphasize reasoned argument more than Scripture does, neither should we emphasize it less. Certainly, when engaging other cultures, we ought to look for the God-built openings for the gospel already present. Sometimes those will be narrative; other times they will be argument; yet other times they will be poetry.

What is important is that the gospel is clearly communicated, and that the people do not stay where their culture is comfortable. Just as westerners often need to grow in understanding of the importance of story in Scripture—and not merely as analogy for our lives!—so people in other cultures may need to grow in understanding of the importance of argument, or poetry, or prophecy. These may not come naturally. Certainly I don't think that the prophets or Leviticus naturally seem immediately helpful to most American Christians, and so we must learn to think in the ways that the Bible thinks. The same is true in every culture.

And now I'm trying too hard again. Part of the challenge of writing for Pillar on the Rock is that I tend not to let my thoughts move naturally anymore: I am constantly looking for ways to tie the package up neatly. This is not entirely a bad thing—but then, a blog post is not exactly an article, and it should not be treated as such. Somewhere along the way is a balance, a clear expression of my voice. I will find it eventually—but like reading the Old Testament, it may require some work. It does not come naturally.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The first late night in a while

Perhaps I'm simply odd, but there is a part of me that very much enjoys staying up late writing. (Of course, that's the same part that is tempted to spell "writing" as "righting," so perhaps I am crazy.) Watching my wife work, I increasingly recognize that perhaps this is simply an oddity of writers.

I am rarely up this late anymore, thanks to the demands of a regular-hours job (and trust me: that is a good thing). I do occasionally miss the flexible schedule of college, especially as I often had the freedom to stay up late writing (or composing) and thinking. The only reason I am able to be up so late tonight is because I have lab time scheduled late tomorrow evening (from 7 to 10 pm) and I am only allowed to work 4 hours a day, tops, right now.

Whether because my brain is simply in a more meditative mood thanks to the late hour, or for some other reason, I find that I do much of my best reflective writing late at night. I also do some of my best composing late at night. A few years ago, I was working on a very tight deadline on a composition project and spent a number of late nights churning out the notes. The music I put out ended up being my single favorite chamber piece I composed in all of college, though I wrote it in less than 3 weeks. Similarly, many of my favorite blog posts over the years were published after midnight.

I am not the only person to find late hours productive. In addition to my aforementioned wife, I know that many writers have historically found the night a good time to work, as have many of the great men of God. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that there are far fewer distractions available late at night than there are during the day. The world is a far quieter place—even in our technologically humming age—when the sun has gone down and the rumble of traffic has died to a minimum. A little gentle music (or simply the steady pulse of a clock's ticking) and the tapping of a keyboard or the stroke of a pen are very beautiful things indeed.

Jaimie and I were discussing Karl Marx today, as she's been reading his work for a "Books of Western Civilization" class she's enrolled in. It struck me that the Marxist countries have never really known what to do with their artists, except use them as propagandists... and the reason is simple: Marx's philosophy had no room for art. For all his rejection of the symptoms of modernity's emptiness, he only substituted one form of utilitarianism for another. Just as capitalism has little understanding of the value of art in and of itself, tending either to ignore art or abuse it beyond recognition, socialism finds no room for art that is not directed at some societal end.

Stephen Carradini shares one of my great passions: to change the world with art. It is harder to do than one might think... world-changing art is rare. I would argue it is rare for at least three reasons: first, that world-changing art must be exceptional in merit; second, that it must challenge its audience without so deeply affronting them that they ignore it; and finally, that it must say something ultimate, though its subject is usually incredibly mundane. Whether world-changing art is beneficial or not largely (perhaps entirely) depends on whether its author is working within a Christian framework (though whether he or she is doing so consciously is another issue entirely).

Sleep calls me, but art calls me as well. I wonder: is this the perpetual dilemma of every even slightly artistic soul, to be torn between health and the mad rush to create? If so, perhaps it is no coincidence that our Creator-God rested when he had made all that is.

And yes, I am self-aware enough and thoughtful enough even at this late hour to recognize that one consequence of writing so late (especially being out of practice as I am) is that the post above is essentially a series of small non sequiturs.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Observations about Billboards

Since I went back to work a week and a half ago, I have been seeing the strangest billboards on my commute. Three of them are funny enough, odd enough, or thought-worthy enough that I decided to write them up.
  1. [Picture of a cat, ad for humane society] Too bad there's no soup kitchen for her. There are so many things wrong with this. We have soup kitchens because we believe in the inherent dignity and worth of every human being—regardless of poverty, mental illness, or other reason for being homeless. While I'm all for helping take care of animals, I'm just not convinced that animal homelessness is nearly the problem that human homelessness is—nor that the comparison is warranted. By all means, encourage animal adoption... just please don't be silly while you're at it. Also: last time I checked, very few cats die of malnutrition on the streets, seeing as they're natural predators for other non-domesticated animals. The cats don't need soup kitchens.
  2. "There's no such thing as an unwanted, adopted baby. —God I could not agree more deeply with the message being presented here. Abortion is not the answer to "unwanted" children: adoption is an infinitely better alternative when, for whatever reason, a mother is simply unable to carry a child. That said, I have been bothered by this billboard for months, and the reason struck me forcefully last week. It's the attribution: making it a quote from God. (Incidentally, that's why it took me such a long time to put my finger on the source of my unease: I kept looking for problems in the quote itself, but there aren't any!) The message itself is very good... but God never said anything of the sort, even he undoubtedly agrees. I do not think we ought to attribute to God anything outside of Scripture itself as "speech." The word of God is sufficient, as I have argued before, and we ought not add to what God has said. So it is a good poster that would have been better without the "—God" tagged on at the end. The attempt to add moral authority to what ought to be an obvious and compelling statement, in my case at least, ended up being a source of distraction. I may, however, be a unique case...
  3. Let's go out for ice cream after you get us all paralyzed! [Picture of a girl holding a sign in a rearview mirror] —Don't let your friends drive recklessly. This one was just plain funny. It was clever, somewhat sarcastic, and incredibly well-done visually. Given the sad state of the drivers around me, not to mention the frequently dangerous antics of many high school and college students, it is a much needed message, too. Normally, I find advertisements of the "Friends don't let friends do drugs" variety to be executed poorly at best and worthy of mockery and derision at worst. This was a pleasant change.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Writing and Idolatry

Even as I worked to redesign my blog yesterday, I continued to contemplate the issue of voice in my writing. Part of the answer struck me at church today. (Conviction struck me a moment later as I realized I was thinking about blogging instead of worshipping God.) I realized that, especially at Pillar, my writing over the last few months has moved in a very systematic direction. Lists, four-point analyses, and carefully organized paragraphs have become the norm for me. Even now, writing here, I find myself moving that direction. Systematic approaches are not in and of themselves bad. To the contrary, they are often very helpful for quickly navigating the content of a blog.

However, my writing flows better when it flows. If you will allow me the metaphor: I can sometimes forget that I am a musician as well a programmer with a physics degree. Writing is not merely a problem to be solved; it is also an activity to be enjoyed. Words are not merely a means to the end of communicating content, at least for me: they are also a source of beauty and joy. When content eclipses beauty as the goal of my writing (or, frankly, vice versa) bad things happen. The time I spent learning to write technically was good, and I will never forget my physics professor's quiet amusement at the language in the first draft of my capstone paper. That said, a style that was horribly inappropriate in the context of a scientific paper may not be inappropriate in the context of my personal blog or even a more tightly focused platform like Pillar on the Rock.

In my mind, these past few days, Pillar on the Rock has come to represent a number of challenges facing me. The first was my search for my voice, and my recognition that writing for Pillar has changed my writing—and not always to the better. Of course, the problem is not the blog itself, but how I have allowed my goals to decide (and not merely influence) my style. I hope to change that over the next few weeks and months.

Similarly, I recognized today that I have allowed my work on Pillar to channel my theological interests and passions in a particular direction. Again, this is not anything intrinsic in the blog; it is my (very bad) tendency to allow a project to dictate my overall direction. In this case, my focus on church has distracted me from the very reason I was passionate about the church in the first place: my passion for the glory and supremacy of God himself. As I have written before, when anything takes the place of God himself as our chief passion or greatest love, it has become an idol. That means that healthy churches can easily become an idol, and there are few more dangerous idols I can conceive of. Striving for churchly goodness without God's glory as our only real aim will lead us to tear the body of Christ down faster than any imperfection would.

Of course, if I return to the original topic of this post, then I must admit that writing well is as apt to become an idol as doing church well is—and the consequences would be no less disastrous. Writing well is a good goal. But it will remain a good goal only while I strive to point not to the quality of my own writing but to the glory of the one who spoke the world into existence. He loves words, so I should love words too—but I should love the Word far more.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

And, we're back!

Having spent an afternoon implementing what I'd spent a week thinking on, and thanks to some of blogger's handy new features, Thoughts; A Flame is up looking new and improved! Comments welcome!


Thoughts; A Flame will be unavailable temporarily as I transition to a new theme and layout. You'll like it... I promise.

Losing my voice

Somewhere in the past few months, or perhaps even the last year, I seem to have lost my voice. In the midst of reading back through some old blog posts, and comparing them to both posts here and posts over at Pillar on the Rock, I realized that there is not not only a distinct stylistic difference between past and present but also something of a loss.

I suspect some of this has to do with my capitulation to the long-standing call for simpler writing. It's a worthwhile goal, no doubt, but I made the decision to move in the direction of modernity without considering the impact on my personal voice, or how I might offset that in other ways. Truth be told, I'm still not sure how to write concisely while still maintaining the individual color that makes my writing so distinctly my own.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a very great compliment when she noted that I tend to speak the way I write, while most people write the way they speak. In the time since, I've noted two trends in my speaking: a tendency to slide toward the vernacular, and a slow progression away from the clear enunciation that I once possessed. Both trends annoy me somewhat. Both are the result of peer pressure, though in rather different ways. My enunciation has begun to deteriorate thanks to prolonged exposure to the more slurred mode of speech common everywhere throughout the South, even here in Oklahoma. I do not have any particular disregard for Southern accents; I simply have no desire to pick one up myself. On the other hand, my vocabulary has moved quite consciously, in response to others' comments that I made them feel talked-down to. This, like the change in my writing, is a decision I do not regret, but that I wish I had made more thoughtfully.

It is possible to speak just as carefully and clearly in simpler words as in more complex ones, though perhaps more difficult. Likewise, it is possible, though somewhat challenging, to be both concise and maintain my slightly peculiar approach to writing. I just have no idea how to express myself in a way that is both readable and strange.

I wonder, of course, to what extent we should accommodate ourselves to the whims of culture in these sorts of things. My contrarian (perhaps rebellious is more accurate) streak runs directly contrary to the idea that, if I am going to be read and appreciated by more than my circle of friends and family, I must write in a certain vein... not least because many of the best authors write in ways that thoroughly defy convention. Of course, they get away with it because they are superb and particularly talented writers. I might like to think that I am among the number of supremely talented writers who can, with some careful thought, do what they desire and get away with it, convention thrown out the window. A more realistic accounting of my abilities, however—not to mention my readership—would tend to suggest that I am not, in fact, in that prestigious group, and would thus be better off finding some way to accommodate my preferences to society's tastes, at least if I ever wish to be read.

How to do this is the question of the hour, perhaps indeed of the month. Experiments lie ahead. Perhaps, when all is said and done, I will have found my voice again and found some way as well to make it readable.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Y'all guys,"—or, thoughts on the English second person plural

The other day at work, I heard someone say "Y'all guys." Further evidence of English's tendency to slide second person plurals into second person singular positions.

Historically, "you" replaced "thou," leaving English with no distinct second person plural. Accordingly, "you all" filled in, quickly contracting into the ubiquitous (southern) "y'all." This in turn has started to bleed over into a singular usage (as in, "How are y'all?" addressed to a single individual, which I've heard with increasing frequency over the past few years). The result, as before, is a gap in the language's ability to convey number when in the second person. As was the case with the transition from "thou" to "you," the result is a set of odd-sounding combinations: "you guys" seems to have lost the competition with "y'all," but is now staging an odd comeback in the form of "y'all guys."

As far as I'm concerned, this is hilarious. The whole trouble might have been avoided by a mild and conscientious prescriptivism, but alas!—such things are far out of favor among our linguists, and grammarians have no place at all in our modern society. In any case, I will maintain my staunch avoidance of the use of "y'all" and continue to pursue a more elegant and refined mode of conversation, insofar as it is possible. The dangerous wiles of Texan or Oklahoman speech shall not claim my soul!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Reflection and Confession

One plus side to having had mono for a month and a half, and being home for half that time, is that I've had plenty of time to think. While that hasn't corresponded to increased blogging output, thanks to my general fatigue, it has corresponded to opportunity for reflection.

Reflection is a rarity in American culture. Whether because of the frenetic pace of our days or because of our fear of confronting the difficult inner world we inevitably face when we do pause and consider, we avoid reflection like, well... mono.

Some of the great men of the faith—men I deeply admire and would like to imitate in many regards—were sick for much of their lives. Hudson Taylor, one of the great missionaries of the last several centuries, spent many months lying ill in his bed. In the meantime, he worked feverishly (pun intended) on his correspondence and his encouragement of others. John Calvin was beset by an incredible amount of physical agony, and yet was one of the most prolific (and powerfully productive) Christian writers in history... even while he pastored a church and helped lead the Reformation. Obviously, these were men of extraordinary gifting and calling. Yet they also chose how to spend every day. They chose whether to work through their sickness and pain. They chose to honor God with every breath.

The doctor prescribed rest, so I don't feel bad for simply having rested. Yet as I had a good deal of time and silence in which to think this afternoon, I recognized that it's quite possible to take the doctor's orders as an excuse. There are many things I could not do during these past weeks... but there are other things I could do that I have not done.

And so I see highlighted again one of the quiet struggles of my life, spiritual and otherwise. Sometimes, I am lazy.

Where does it show up? In my walk with God, in leading my wife, even at work. When there is something I do not want to do, or something that bores me, I can very easily tend toward laziness. Worse, I can fake diligence quite well—I can do my work, make a show of godly leadership, and memorize a great deal of Scripture. But these external things are not always reality. Sometimes they're a show, a fa├žade over a layer of quiet lethargy that simply does not care.

There is something to be said for doing what we do not want to do, but this isn't that. This is giving every appearance of wholehearted, diligent work, while quietly hating it and wanting not to do it. It's laziness of the heart and frankly, I think that the quiet, internal variety is as bad as (or worse than) the external. External laziness has obvious consequences. Internal laziness simply deadens the soul.

It is good that I go on doing what I ought despite my heart's condition, but it is bad when I do it for any reason other than loving obedience to God. The same is true not only here but in every aspect of life. The Pharisees of Jesus' day were far more morally upright than any of us can hope to be, judging by deeds alone. But in their hearts, they were just whitewashed tombs. A sepulcher is no less full of death because it has a pretty covering.

Dealing with sin means dealing with these ugly internal realities. We must hold them up to the light of the word of God and let his moral beauty and holiness show our moral ugliness and unrighteousness for what they are. Then, when we see our sin for what it is—disgusting, evil, and deeply offensive to God—we can begin to hate it. We can also, finally, turn to God and call on him to sanctify us. More, we can be confident that he will deliver us from sin: justice demands it.

Thank God for mono!