Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Disliking Facebook's Like

This post is written in weariness. Expect little of it.

A friend shared a link to a news article about a loved one's death on Facebook earlier today. I wanted respond meaningfully. I could not. I could hardly click "Like" with its little thumbs-up. Think about it: how bizarre is it that a website has standardized and minimized our reactions to things to whether we like them or not?

A comment on the shared item would have been only marginally better. There is something missing in a short blurb of text pasted on a white screen. Had this friend held up the article in the paper in person, I would have reached out and squeezed her shoulder, or perhaps offered a hug. The internet has no comparable communication. There are no internet touches—only internet letters, images, symbols. Everything is fleeting, unphysical, almost unreal.

I like the internet. I use it every day, often for several hours. I spend considerable amounts of time creating content for use on the web—whether in writing or in web design. I enjoy the ways it enables us to communicate with others, with people we would not otherwise be able to stay in contact with. I appreciate the ways I can interact with the lives of my friends even when apart, separated by miles or circumstances. It is nice to know that a friend had a baby, a cousin joined ROTC successfully, or a sibling got splattered in paint on the first day of school.

But sometimes, I just want to give a friend a hug when it's needed. The internet can't do that. For all its promise, and all its already actualized potential, it is in the end as insufficient as a letter—save that the letter has on it the advantages of physicality.

I wonder if, in our rush to embrace the internet, we have perhaps forgotten the necessity of touch for reality to make sense?

For me, at least, ebooks will never replace a book, for this very reason. Paper's very texture carries feeling, weight, substance.

Take some time away from your screen. Go give a friend a hug. Share a cup of coffee. Read a book. Take some time away from electronic signals and spend some time talking in person. Enjoy the internet for what it is—but stop trying to make it do things it will never be able to do.

Someday I will make a real essay out of these thoughts. For now, I'm going to sleep.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Living Eschatologically

Over the last few months, I have been increasingly compelled to think and live eschatologically. By this I do not mean an obsession with the particulars of end-times prophecy, but rather a continuous remembering that we are not of this world but sojourners who eagerly await a city with foundations. If you've read my posts or poetry, you may have picked up on this thread in my life. In the past month alone, the following have all touched on our expectant waiting for Christ's return, the already/not-yet tensions of the current age, and so on:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of this comes out in the form of poetry or expressive non-fiction. There is something of the longing and hope of our eschatological desires that can hardly be expressed in simple essays. Great depths of emotions demand expressions that go beyond the didactic.

Our hearts long for more—and what they long for is real. The Holy Spirit uses that longing to remind us that we were not made only for here and now, not only for this fallen, broken ruin of a world, but for eternity. We were not made for dying and death, but for life. We were made for a world that does not end, that entails no suffering, that sees no hopes crushed by the weight of disappointment. We were made for more.

And that more that we wait for is already here and now—though only in part. As I wrote at 52 Verses today, the sky is brightly lit long before the sun actually rises. So too it is with us: we live in a world illuminated by Christ's coming, and the way our future hope has broken in on this world and begun its renewal, even as we wait for Christ to come again and finish what he started in his birth, his life, his death and his resurrection.

Eschatology is not merely a secondary topic. The particulars are more secondary, I think, but the fact that, as Rich Mullins put it, the old world has started dying and the new world has started coming in is perhaps the most important thing for us to realize, after the gospel itself, as we walk out our Christian lives. The world will not remain as it is, and the new version will break in, triumphantly and conclusively.

(Perhaps it's simply from reading N. T. Wright. In which case, a lot more people need to be reading him—even if we differ on some conclusions, that's a remarkably helpful emphasis in his writing.)

Romantic Relationship Diagram of Awesomeness

Relationships of the romantic variety can be complicated, messy, and confusing. They especially tend to be difficult when we don't communicate clearly, and when people aren't on the same page about where the relationship is or where it's headed. As I have discussed relationships with people over the last several years, walked my own path toward marriage with Jaimie, and read quite a number of books on the topic, a picture has slowly gelled in my mind.

This isn't prescriptive. I'm not trying to tell people how to date so much as I am describing what I have seen in healthy relationships. As I told a friend recently, I really don't even care what you call the stages in the chart below—you can call the courtship phase "munchkins"—as long as you and your significant other are on the same page, you're good to go.

Talking through these steps in the relationship, by whatever name, can help us present a God-honoring, Christlike picture of healthy romantic relationships to our friends and family and acquaintances. We take care of each other's emotions by being clear, not playing games, and making sure we're all on the same page—and that is significantly different from what we see in our culture at large.

First, a diagram, then descriptions of each stage, and finally some commentary:

[click for a larger version of the image]

  1. Talking (1-2 months): the phase of friendship where both parties are indicating romantic interest in each other—by flirting, spending long periods of time talking (thus the name), and so on, but have yet to actually go on a date or formalize their interest in any way. Jaimie and I spent about a month in this phase before I asked her out the first time.

  2. Dates (1-2 months): it is quite possible (and sometimes good) for people to be willing to go on dates without having a commitment to date only each other or to even go on another date. Jaimie and I went on one official date before we actual started dating, and it was helpful. (As it turns out, I asked her on a second date and she turned me down... but that's a story for another day.)

  3. Dating (3-6 months): a step beyond going on dates (though you'll definitely still be going on dates!)—a solid commitment not to see anyone else. This is a good time for exploring your interest and friendship with each other, getting to know each other's friends better, meeting each other's families, and generally having a good time. Older generations might have called this "going steady." It's also a good time not to be too serious about the relationship, and to spend most of your time in groups. Jaimie and I didn't spend much time here, and honestly it might have helped a bit if we had spent a bit more!

  4. Courtship (3-6 months): a time of intentionally seeking wisdom and counsel about whether you should get married. While the previous stages should definitely include feedback from friends, family, and spiritual leaders, this is the time when both people should actively seek input as to whether they should marry each other. Actively talk about what ministry together could look like, whether you can see yourself working toward the same goals (and indeed whether your goals are the same). If you get significant concerns raised by friends, family, or spiritual leaders—and especially if you get negative responses from more than one of those groups—you should stop and take those concerns very seriously. If you recognize that you are not going the same direction in life and ministry, and are unwilling to compromise (which may be fine!), you should stop and think very seriously about whether to continue.

    You should be willing here most of all to break off the relationship. A successful courtship, as Josh Harris pointed out, is one in which you graciously and selflessly answer the question of whether you should marry each other. Even if the answer is no, you can have a successful courtship if you honor each other throughout.

  5. Engagement (3-6 months): a time of preparation for marriage. If you answered the question yes in the previous phase, you get engaged—but in our culture, that has come to mean "planning a wedding." That's a terrible idea. Plan for your marriage instead. Take care of the wedding, of course—find ways to make it God-honoring and unique to you and your spouse—but remember that you will marry your spouse once, on one day. You will, God willing, be married to each other for the rest of your lives—many days. Don't waste this time.

  6. Marriage (life): the final phase. There is, Biblically speaking, no turning back! That's a relief. As I noted in my last post, that permanence is an incredible relief. Commitment is at its highest, and it continues to grow over time. (You can read my views on divorce, and remarriage, over at Pillar on the Rock.)

These are very general suggestions. I know a couple in the midst of a two-year engagement, and there are good reasons it is so long. I have friends who have skipped dates and dating to jump right into a courtship phase, and I am acquainted with a people who simply jumped right to engagement. All of this is therefore a recommendation, but a loose one that acknowledges the great variation in how relationships progress.

For the record, Jaimie and I were "dating" for about three months, courting for about four months, and engaged for ten. We were talking for about a month, and in the "dates" phase for about two months. That long engagement was absolutely the most difficult part of the entire process.

In each stage of the relationship, there is increasing commitment, and between each stage there is an step upward in commitment to each other. That means that you will be emotionally closer to each, spending increasing time together, and spending increasing time alone together. In dating, much of your time should be spent with friends, but the more you move out of dating and into courtship, the more time you will be spending one-on-one. You will spend a lot of time together one-on-one during your engagement, and that is as it should be. Preparing for marriage is preparing for the most significant relationship of your life, and how your marriage goes will determine much of how the rest of your life goes, as well.

Because there is an increasing amount of commitment over time, breakups are increasingly painful and difficult—but they are also more important if they are the right decision. It is a terrible idea to continue dating someone if convinced you shouldn't: you will hurt the other person significantly worse by continuing to string him or her on over time.

Increasing commitment will also lead to increasingly emotional attachment, and increasing physical desire. Personally, I think that a year and a half is frequently a reasonable timetable for the whole process, with two years as a (very) general upper bound. First, a year is generally plenty of time to know someone well enough to make a wise decision about marrying someone, regardless of how the intervening months are broken down in dating and courtship (I have them equal in the graph). Second, engagements that are longer than six months can be incredibly trying because of the temptation to sin physically. It gets hard. And yes, you can plan a wedding in only three months! I was a best man in a wedding that was planned in three months while both people were either working full time or in school full time, so I know it can be done.

Now, those guidelines are very general, and there are plenty of good reasons to vary the amounts of time in each stage. Whether it is six months each for dating, courtship, and engagement, or three months each, or various combinations of amounts of time, is less of an issue than that the stages are approached intentionally and thoughtfully. Stringing out any stage too long can cause a great deal of confusion by dint of increasing ambiguity as to the direction the relationship is going. That is especially true of "talking" and "dates," as they are already so ambiguous. Jumping ahead can make the relationship feel rushed and make later stages difficult as you haven't laid a good foundation. Again, the particulars of timing for each couple will vary based on their circumstances and personalities.

Between each phase, it is helpful to have a conversation indicating clearly where the relationship is and where it's going. For the step between talking and going on a date, this is usually as simple as clearly asking a girl on a date. Between going on dates and dating, this probably looks like the classic "Define the Relationship" talk—DTR, in the lingo of my church-going generation—in which you sit down together and say, "Let's start dating." Between dating and courtship, there might be one or several conversations, but it should be clear to both parties that there is a definite shift from casually dating to seriously deciding whether to get married. Between courtship and engagement, there is one big question and answer session. (The guy gets one question, the girl gets one answer... at least, that's how it usually works!) Between engagement and marriage, there is a ceremony in front of church, family, and friends recognizing the final commitment.

I hope you find this helpful, and I would love to hear your thoughts and comments in response!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Breaking Up for the Wrong Reason

Note: I have been chewing on the following thoughts off and on for several years. I don't have any specific scenarios or people in mind here—so if you're reading this, understand that I'm not talking about you in particular!

For years, I have watched women break up with men for the wrong reasons. "Immaturity!" they claim, when what they really mean is simply youth.

I am, as anyone reading this blog knows, very much in favor of high expectations. I have frequently written (and sometimes railed) on the low expectations we set for Christians in general. I am deeply frustrated by men my age who continue to act like adolescents and so give the rest of us a bad name. I am particularly annoyed by Christian men in their twenties who refuse to step up and lead in their homes and churches, abdicating their God-given responsibility to exercise their gifts for the good of their families and communities—whether because of laziness or fear. I have little time for immaturity that is not the product of simple ignorance.

So when I say that I have seen women break up with godly men for the wrong reasons, I hope you take my meaning clearly. I am not letting men off the hook, not excusing immaturity, and not suggesting that we lower our standards. I am, however, suggesting two very important correctives: realism and humility. (I should also note that everything that follows is equally applicable with the sexes in the discussion flipped; I write as I do because it is the main way I have seen this problem play out.)

Let us imagine for a moment two early twenty-something people who meet and begin dating. Both are serious about their faith, but the woman has been a Christian most of her life while the man came to Christ only a year or so ago. He is new to walking with God, but passionate and hungry for more. She is solid in her walk, and still passionate and hungry for more. They date for several months, but eventually she grows convinced that he is simply not mature enough to lead her spiritually, and breaks up with him.

This scenario is common; I've seen it at least a dozen times over the past five years. It concerns me deeply. Here's why: in many of these cases, the woman was wrong—perhaps not to break up with him on the whole (that's between her, God, and her spiritual authorities) but certainly in her reasoning. The man she was dating was quite capable of leading her spiritually. Sometimes he was not only capable of leading, he was leading. The problem was that she didn't think he was capable because of a few symptoms of an entirely different issue. She misunderstood what she was seeing and, heeding the advice of godly mentors who told her she needed a man she could follow, broke off the relationship.

This would have been the correct course of action if indeed the problem was immaturity in the way her mentors meant. That sort of immaturity essentially reduces down to two things: a lack of humility and a lack of responsibility. Men who lack humility cannot be taught, because they are sure they are capable of figuring things out on their own. They are unwilling to learn. They stagnate. Men who are not responsible will not carry the relational and spiritual and physical weight that they must if they are going to be faithful husbands. Women should certainly be willing to end (or forgo) a relationship with this sort of man. (If so, make it absolutely clear why—no stepping lightly around it. Tell him the truth and pray God uses it to break his heart and make him the man he should be. You do him no favors by trying to be "nice" about it.)

Unfortunately, people often confuse real immaturity and simple inexperience. A woman may see a man who is only beginning to develop the habits she has had for years and assume it means he cannot lead. The man is beginning to read his Bible daily, developing habits of prayer, getting the basics of theology under him, and struggling to do relationships in a godly way—to break years of ungodly habits. He is relatively immature in one sense of the word: he has far less knowledge than she, far less experience than she, and perhaps even less steadiness than she.

In the long run, though, none of this matters a whit. I remember hearing Matt Chandler comment that a man's trajectory is far more important than his current position, and I think he was absolutely right. A man's position tells you where he is now, but his trajectory tells you where he will be in five years. Give a man a year with his Bible, a few good mentors, and a heart that is on fire for God and see what happens. He'll grow like an aspen tree by a stream—fast and strong. A man who is teachable and works hard at his faith will soon surpass a much more "mature" man who has stagnated for lack of teachability or discipline. The real measure of a man's ability to lead spiritually in the home is how much he is willing to work hard at growing and learning—no matter how long he has been a believer.

As I said, many women need a dose of realism and humility. Realism, because they often expect men who are relatively young in their faith—even those who are working hard at it—to have knowledge or habits that take time to form. More: because they are often modeling their expectations on men much older—their fathers, their mentors' husbands, their pastors. No man my age will look like that; we haven't had time to grow into it yet! (Ask Jaimie: I'm much more mature than I was when she met me... and nowhere near as godly as lots of other men we know!) How much more is this true of men who came to faith in college than for those of us who grew up in the church? This is where humility is necessary, too. Be honest, ladies: how many of you think you would measure up well if men held you up to the standard of your mentors or their pastors' wives?

In short, to all my single female friends: before you break up with a guy (or turn him down for that first date) because he's not mature enough, stop and look again. Is he someone who is on fire for God, who is willing to work hard at his faith and his life, who receives correction humbly? If so, stick with him, even if he isn't very knowledgeable or wise yet, because you have a treasure. He might pass you in knowledge and wisdom—and he might do it sooner than you think. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to break off a relationship. Real immaturity, the kind made up of pride and laziness, is definitely one of those—but simple youth usually isn't, in my opinion. Sometimes it's even an asset.

Don't break up for the wrong reasons!

Monday, August 16, 2010

In the mixer

In the mixer for the week are quite a few things. I just got back from Colorado, and it was a busy if wonderful trip, seeing friends, family, and friends that are like family. For the week ahead, I have just a few things planned:

  • a summary of my oft-used but never written-out description of healthy dating relationships
  • a plea for young women to have high but realistic expectations of the men who seek their hearts and hands in marriage
  • another poem at 52 Verses—it'll be the 10th
  • a treatment of Romans 14:1-23 and 1 Corinthians 1:7-13 for my ongoing treatment of Christians' use of alcohol, to be published sometime next week at Pillar on the Rock
  • lots of good time spent with my wife before she gets absurdly busy by going back to school for her second-to-last semester next Monday
  • work
  • working out
  • brainstorming and plotting for a fascinating short story hook I came up with today
  • reading books, a few of which I'll be reviewing (either here or at Pillar) when I'm done with them

God bless! Hopefully you'll see some of that content before the week is out.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Chick Flicks and Cheating

Chick flicks teach people to have affairs. Before you roll your eyes and move on, allow me to clarify. I like some "chick flicks," and romantic love is a good thing. I bring my wife flowers regularly, I take her on dates every week, and I have even watched the six-hour long BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with her. Nonetheless, my point stands: chick flicks teach people to have affairs.

How many movies can you think of that deal with life after marriage? How many of those honor marriage, rather than mocking it or glorifying infidelity? The list is short. How many movies have you seen that deal with dating and falling in love? That list never ends: it is filled with dozens of romantic comedies, dramas, sob stories, and breakup-hookup-breakup-hookup tales that never, ever go a moment past the kiss at the altar. In short, our culture is obsessed with falling in love. It knows little of staying in love, and nothing at all of the pains of committed love.

We should hardly be surprised, then, that people soon grow tired of the relative monotony of faithfulness, that they begin to long again for the thrill of the chase. Mystery and novelty are the guiding lights of our romances; they are all we have ever known. Marriage has neither in its favor, and brings with it the solemn weight of commitment. Little wonder that it is on the rocks; we have no idea how it works—much less how glorious and beautiful it is.

We are witness to a strange convergence of historical ideals about romance and marriage (from late medieval courtly love right up through 27 Dresses) and the opportunity for such ideals to be realized. Modernity affords us the luxury of choice in spouses much as it does in all other areas of life. Our culture is not unique in prizing romance. Unlike other times, though, when romantic love was often idealized but less frequently realized as a basis for marriage, it is now the decisive factor in most decisions of whom to wed. In earlier times, people generally married within their small communities and made a life together. Romance was a perk; financial stability and the ability to carry on the family name were the real necessities.

There were, without question, downsides to this. People often found themselves married to people they did not like, had little in common with, and would never have chosen for themselves. By the same token, these marriages never suffered the illusion that a spouse would somehow provide ultimate happiness and satisfaction in life, and they certainly did not entail the expectation of constant emotional highs.

Few people today are obligated to marry anyone at all. Women in particular are no longer economically shackled, and our world at large is far wealthier and far more economically mobile than that of earlier times. People thus have little or no financial incentive to marry someone they do not like. With the steady march of urban- and suburbanization, they have little geographic incentive either; for most people, an alternative romantic partner is nearly always available. Accordingly, people generally marry for romance.

Unsurprisingly, movies have continually pushed romance to the forefront of popular thought on marriage. This is nothing new; popular media has emphasized courtship and falling in love for centuries. (Read anything from Shakespeare to Jane Austen if you're unconvinced.) Movies are but the latest to take up the fashion. Like the many media before them, they portray the glories (and woes) of romance, courtship and pursuit—but never the very different glories of marriage.

Movies are hardly alone in this. Popular music (from country to hip-hop) emphasizes the same basic approach to relationships and romance. Think: how many songs mention, much less dwell on, the quiet struggles and triumphs of daily life with someone? How many, in contrast, emphasize unfulfilled longing, the insecurity of dating, and the ultimate happy ending of a proposal or wedding? Again, the examples are too numerous to mention; just turn on the radio. The same is true of novels, television shows, and even video games.

Christian nonfiction has been just as guilty of perpetuating this view. I have read numerous books instructing husbands that their wives simply need to be pursued. The art of marriage, it seems, is simply the art of the chase: make your wife feel as though you are seeking to attract her attention as though you just met, and your relationship will be perfectly healthy. Marriage will never be boring, because it will feel just like dating. Infidelity will never tempt—because the same thrills can be had in marriage itself.

The problems with this idea, wherever it is communicated, are significant.

First, this view promotes a deeply abortive understanding of relationships. Courtship itself fits the narrative perfectly, of course: it is the narrative. Boy meets girl, boy and girl like each other, boy and girl flirt, boy and girl get married. The narrative cannot fit the sequel, though: marriage is no longer the object of the relationship. A man is no longer seeking to earn a woman's trust and affections; he has earned them. A woman is no longer seeking to win a man's heart; she has won it.

This is obvious to us in all our other relationships. The beginnings of a friendship are far more exciting than its steady continuation—but most of us enjoy having friends more than we enjoy trying to make friends. We value the commitment inherent in long-term relationships with each other. We appreciate the security in knowing that someone will continue to stand by us as they have in the past. We enjoy having someone who understands us well and values us as we are. Generally speaking, we do not spend our days longing for the rush of finding new friends; we simply enjoy the time we have with our existing friends.

Only in romance do we think that the emotional rush of uncertainty and the thrill of the new are normal. But they are not normal. No one can perpetually sustain the sort of emotion that characterizes the early stages of romantic involvement. Marriage entails a commitment that, at its best, is inviolable, and much of the emotional rush of dating is the insecurity inherent in the absence of that commitment.

However carefully one treads, there is always the chance that one's significant other will break off the relationship and move on to someone else. This may not be a particularly pleasant thought, but it serves to heighten all the emotional aspects of the relationship. Even as low moments are crushing, happy moments cause the heart to soar with hope and expectation.

Further, hope and expectation are two of the primary positive emotions of courtship. They are not primary characteristics of marriage, however. Courtship's hope and expectation are toward marriage itself. Marriage, by definition, has already fulfilled those hopes and and expectations. Various desires remain, of course: dreams of what the future holds, of children and family, and of a happy life together. These are not the point of the relationship in the same way that the hope of marriage is the point of dating, though. The defining characteristic of marriage is not longing but commitment.

Finally, at a purely practical level, sustaining the level of emotion experienced in courtship is impossible. Gestures that once stirred the heart to rapturous happiness now produce contented smiles and tender hugs. We grow accustomed to each other's ways of communicating love. Holding hands may remain delightful and a helpful way to demonstrate togetherness, but it never thrills quite the same way as it did the first time. Much as a woman loves being gently kissed, she will never feel the same rush she did on being kissed the first time. It is well worth the effort to keep these gestures fresh and appreciated. Nonetheless, no amount of effort can maintain the emotional heights of courtship.

These media model for us an entire set of relational expectations which are ultimately unrealistic. Pursuit cannot continue forever. Moreover, it should not: marriage is not a continuous pursuit, but a steady commitment to remain. Marriage cannot thrill as dating (or infidelity) does; obedience to God's word is never as exciting in the moment as sin. The antidote to infidelity is faithfulness, plain and simple and boring though that answer may seem.

If indeed the thrill of novelty is not normative for marriage, what is? Are we to throw away romance entirely and content ourselves with dull and dreary days and lackluster love? Not at all. We must, however, begin to reorient our conception of love.

As has often been emphasized, love is not an emotion; it is a choice. However helpful affection is, love shows itself most powerfully when affection is at its lowest ebb. Loving someone when your heart overflows with warm emotion toward them is easy. Loving someone when you are both tired, your days are frustrating, nothing exciting is happening, and then something goes wrong—that is hard. Such moments expose us. They reveal whether we really love each other, or whether we simply enjoy the benefits we have from each other's company. Men and women who love each other will show it a little more all the time, in the worst of circumstances as well as the best.

In large part, the advice offered by the Christian nonfiction I decried above is good advice. The problem is one of terms and the expectations they engender. When the wedding ends, the pursuit ends; what remains is the far less exciting but far more meaningful and important project of remaining. This by no means indicates that the time for romantic gestures has likewise ended—such gestures are a part of remaining well. Wherever we continually set our wills, our affections usually follow. People who start running to exercise often end up as runners. People who pick up a hobby stave off boredom often find themselves outright hobbyists. And people who choose to offer and gratefully receive romantic gestures as demonstrations of love for each other often find that they continue to grow in affection for each other.

Chick flicks can only (and barely) teach us how to begin loving each other. They cannot show us how to continue loving each other. At best, they give us false expectations of marriage as an endless pursuit; at worst, they lead us to hunger for that chase elsewhere. We learn the joys of contentment from watching those who have gone before us, and by practicing it every day. Romantic love is good, but it cannot sustain us. It can only be sustained by real love—the kind that is willing to sacrifice, to stay when it hurts, to endure anything for the good of someone else at great cost to self.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Songs With Anchors

Over the last few days, I have been listening to a collection of astoundingly beautiful music. Arvo Pärt is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. He started his musical career at the height of serialism's popularity, and his earliest works bear the imprint of the era. Despite the deterministic influences, Pärt even then distinguished himself as having a particular talent for composing particularly compelling, melodically rich and harmonically powerful music.

In later years, he left behind the serialism and kept the impressive force with which he communicates ideas. Whether in his instrumental or his choral works, emotion of the deepest sort tugs at the soul. He somehow pulls reality into the shape of his notes, leaving the soul aching with joy at the beauty of all that is and longing for all that we wait for.

Pärt's music carries such power because it bears the imprint of an influence beyond serialism. The Estonian composer writes from the rich cultural depths of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. Whatever its theological troubles (and it has a few), the Eastern Orthodox church has remembered the power of mystery, and has held onto the already/not-yet tensions of this age far better than the Protestants generally have. The liturgy provides both template and mold for Pärt's writing: its history and weight have given shape to his thought and language, and it is for the church that he often writes.

Part's music soars with joy because the world is good, and God delights in what he has made. It strains with yearning because, for all that the kingdom of God is among us, we still wait for its fulfillment. Christ has died, and Christ is risen, but Christ will come again. We live in the age of inauguration, when the world to come is breaking into this one, like light shining through the cracks into the dark of our eggshell.

Others have often observed that the liturgical traditions have done a far better job producing world-class artists than the evangelical movement has. Among the various hypotheses offered, I think two bear the mark of truth.

First, the liturgical traditions are inherently loaded with narrative. Indeed, whatever its weaknesses, the church calendar and litany continually remind parishioners of the sweeping work of God—and emphasize that his work is not yet done. The triumphalism that has marked evangelicalism, especially evangelicalism in its culturally and politically ascendant moments, is continually held in check by the weight of tradition. (That weight carries a cost, as well, but evangelicals should pause to learn from it nonetheless.)

Second, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have continued to understand themselves to be part of the Great Tradition. Their words and their understanding of the world are, at their best, continually informed by their relation to the rest of the story. Thanks to a sometimes healthy distaste for tradition, evangelicals have tended to jettison this connection to history. Evangelicalism floats, buoyant, on the tides of the time. The liturgical churches are anchored—sometimes more firmly than we might like, but always at least enough to provide stability and context for the artist's imagination.

The two go together, of course: there can be little weight to narratives that are abstracted from the grand tale of history. Without an anchor for the reflecting soul, we are left simply grasping for a way to speak at the current trends of our day. We lose our sense of the eternal—of the glory that is this world, of the way it is shot through with dark horror, of the impending eucatastrophe (to borrow a term from Tolkien) that both has come and will come smashing into our world to end it and begin it all in one. We lose our ties to reality.

For the evangelical artist, the temptation is to run to Rome or Greece as a refuge for drifting souls. We dare not, though. Our convictions are too important to sacrifice for the sake of their anchors, however beautiful. We cannot relinquish the solas, and we dare not minimize the anathemas of Trent. Our differences are serious and substantial (if perhaps still not definitive).

No, we must reforge our own connection to the Great Tradition and remember what the Reformers understood: tradition is an enemy only when it trumps Scripture. Further, we need to align ourselves on Scripture itself. Too often, the Bible has been nothing more than a series of principles to apply to our lives or a ground for theological discussion. It is both of these things, but it is also more. It is the very grounds for understanding our existence. It is the context for our lives, and thus for our art.

The Bible lets fly the most epic and the most mundane aspects of our days. Its poetry sounds the depths of despair, pauses in the struggles of the ordinary day, and clambers to the pinnacles of the twin mounts of triumph and joy. Its doctrinal pronouncements are shot through with streaks of urgency and eschaton, like slabs marbled with fire.

If art, as is so often claimed, is our attempt to communicate transcendence, it must have as its ground the source of transcendence, the Transcendent One. It cannot stand on its own, weightless, any more than evangelicalism can remain stationary in the shifting sea of culture without an anchor. But evangelical art, like the evangelical project on the whole, will succeed when it is captivated by the liberating bonds of Scripture and history—and it will triumph when it sinks its anchor on the priest who sacrificed himself in our stead.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Weddings, Photography, and Writing

I edited—in whole or in part—three articles for Pillar on the Rock tonight. They'll all be going up over the course of this week. If you haven't stopped by in a while, you should; Pillar is slowly shifting in the direction of an online magazine (a format we've been close to for a long time). Among other things, we're increasing the number of authors we have writing for us, and offering some broader perspectives on Christian living as it relates to the church.

Due to helping with Anthony and Megan Plopper's wedding, I had little time to write last week. I anticipate having only a little more this week (on Wednesday evening), as Jaimie and I will be traveling to an in Colorado from Thursday through Monday. We will have some time with my family, and I will get to reconnect with a number of friends from Focus on the Family Institute (now the Focus Leadership Institute) at a reunion being held this Friday through Sunday. I'm looking forward to seeing both friends and family again. It will have been a good week for visiting; Jaimie's whole family came up and visited us today. We really enjoyed spending a few hours with them—especially since it didn't involve driving to Fort Worth.

One of the little ways I helped Anthony and Megan with their wedding was taking engagement pictures for them. I was reminded, in the two or so hours we were at it, how very far I have to go as a photographer. (I also recognized the one significant shortcoming of my current camera body: it won't do spot metering. When you're shooting in high-contrast environments, that can be a serious time-killer!) Below are my favorite two pictures I took that day. You can see the rest of the ones I've put up so far here.

While those two came out well, I definitely still have a long ways to go as a photographer. Unfortunately, I have more hobbies than I can manage to sustain at any given time. I have my often-mentioned web design interest (I just added some more functionality to Pillar last week, focusing on a simple but pretty new animation for the navigation menu and on post snippets on the home page), music, writing, and reading projects!

I mentioned early in the year that I was planning to write a string quartet based on the life of David. I have never been able to get that project off the ground, thanks to a combination of busyness and a general lack of inspiration. Despite spending a great deal of time mulling it over in my head, I could never quite get the ideas to gel. I've recently been contemplating taking the same idea and writing a full-scale symphonic work (probably totaling 30 to 40 minutes of music). Obviously, that's a huge project, and it would take me a while with my current schedule. Nonetheless, I'm thinking hard about attempting it. I know I would enjoy it.

I have a few other projects in the dock as well. In addition to writing the final post in my series on alcohol over at Pillar (a controversial one, as you can imagine), I am brainstorming a post on discipleship, outreach, and the relationship between the two. I am continuing to work on my essay regarding media, pop culture, and relational wisdom; with some writing time set aside on Wednesday evening I may even be able to finish it. 52 Verses continues to plug along nicely; fully 8 poems are live now—each one a bit different from the others.

I've also been reading N. T. Wright's massive treatment of the historical evidence for the resurrection, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3). It's good, but very thick and very heavy reading. I also have a Joyce Meyer book waiting to be read and reviewed. (Odd as that may sound, I make a point to read and review a wide variety of books, because lots of other people read a wide variety of books, and the most useful content on this blog is in the book reviews, at least in terms of the reasons people come here from search engines.)

Jaimie is contentedly working her way through the latter parts of The Wheel of Time, and I am enjoying watching her do so. The further she gets, the more we can discuss, and since the series is one of my favorites, that makes for a lot of fun conversations. She also keeps baking me good cookies—which is great, except that it makes it far more difficult to steadily lose weight in my bid to get in shape for a marathon someday in the future. My running speed steadily increases, as does my strength, but it would be much easier if my wife weren't such a good cook. (Even so, I am managing to keep on target. It's hard, but I'm getting there, and enjoying it.)

Speaking of Jaimie: you should go take a look at the most recent posts on her blog. She has a knack for hammering out spiritual truth in compelling ways that pushes me to do better myself in my own writing. Her most recent posts, It Is Finished and Baby, Baby are both exercises in communicating transparently, honestly, and Truthfully about the realities of this life.

With that, I am going to go; I have some reading of my own to do this evening, and I plan to be up at 5am and at work at 6am tomorrow. May God bless you with his peace, whatever your circumstances, and may his grace be your hope and strength in all things.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Custom Header Image for Individual Pages on Blogger

One of the most common niceties of many sites around the web is a unique header or background image for different pages on the website. The unique image sets the page apart from others on the site. When done well, the images tie in nicely with each other and reinforce the overall theme of the site.

Unfortunately, this is difficult to accomplish on Blogger, and requires a good working knowledge of the way Blogger templates function to figure out for yourself. Having figured out how to do this recently in some on-the-side help for the bike shop my sister works for, Ascent Cycling, I decided I would do as many others have done before me and share the method I used. I will also explain some of the basics of Blogger's somewhat unique XML tags so that you can begin to see how to make these sorts of changes yourself. I'm going to assume zero familiarity with Blogger's Template HTML and very little familiarity with HTML in general; if you're experienced in these areas you should just be able to skip down through the code and see what I've done.

The first thing you need to do is go to the Design tab on your Blogger Dashboard and selected Edit HTML.Once you've done that, you will see a box of HTML, at the top right of which is a little box labeled "Expand Widget Templates." Check the box. There is a link near the top of this page, "Download Full Template;" you should click on it and save the file someplace where you can find it again. This way you'll have a backup in case anything goes wrong along the way.

Now, find the following snippet of code. The easiest way is usually by using your browser's search function (Ctrl-F on Windows, Cmd-F on Mac):

<b:widget id='Header1'...>

Once you've found this, you'll need to look and see how your header image is referenced. Usually you will have a series of tags something like this:

<b:if cond='data:useImage'>
  <b:if cond='data:imagePlacement == "BEHIND"'>
    Show image as background to text. You can't really calculate the width
    reliably in JS because margins are not taken into account by any of
    clientWidth, offsetWidth or scrollWidth, so we don't force a minimum
    width if the user is using shrink to fit.
    This results in a margin-width's worth of pixels being cropped. If the
    user is not using shrink to fit then we expand the header.
    <div expr:style='"background-image: url("" + data:sourceUrl + ""); " + "background-position: " + data:backgroundPositionStyleStr + "; " + data:widthStyleStr + "min-height: " + data:height + "px;" + "_height: " + data:height + "px;" + "background-repeat: no-repeat; "' id='header-inner'>
      <div class='titlewrapper' style='background: transparent'>
        <h1 class='title' style='background: transparent; border-width: 0px'>
          <b:include name='title'/>
      <b:include name='description'/>
  <!--Show the image only-->
    <div id='header-inner'>
      <a expr:href='data:blog.homepageUrl' style='display: block'>
        <img expr:alt='data:title' expr:height='data:height' expr:id='data:widget.instanceId + "_headerimg"' expr:src='data:sourceUrl' expr:width='data:width' style='display: block'/>
    <!--Show the description-->
    <b:if cond='data:imagePlacement == "BEFORE_DESCRIPTION"'>
      <b:include name='description'/>

Some of the particulars may be different, but the overall flow should be similar. Now, we're really only concerned about one tag, the one highlighted in blue. This tag is a combination of a basic HTML tag, <img>, with some of Blogger's template XML. The expr: tag tells Blogger that what follows is an expression—one Blogger knows how to interpret. In this case, it tells Blogger that the alternate text for the image (for screen readers, people who disable images, etc.), the title (what you'll see if you hover over the image), the height, the width and the location of the image are all stored somewhere Blogger knows to grab them. Most important for our purposes are the height, width, and src parts of this.

Before we do anything else, you need to upload the image you're going to use for your secondary header somewhere. You can use a service like Picasa or Flickr, or you could even upload it to a Blogger page that you simply don't show to your readers. The important part is that you can get the address to the image itself easily (with Picasa, Flickr, or other sites, you'll need to find the permanent link to the image, rather than the page the image is normally displayed on). We'll be using it in just a minute. You also need to know the height and width of your original image, or at least the height and width you want to display. (If those are different, make sure you choose numbers that allow the image to scale properly, rather than ending up squished one direction or another.)

In order to make this work, we're going to need to add some Blogger conditional formatting. Blogger uses special XML codes, <b:if> to accomplish things under certain conditions and not others, usually by referencing other information about the page. The first thing we're going to do is add another image on any static page (a feature Blogger finally supports). I'll show you the code, then explain each part. Replace the line I highlighted in blue earlier with the following:

<b:if cond='data:blog.pageType != "static_page"'>
  <img expr:alt='data:title' expr:height='data:height' expr:id='data:widget.instanceId + "_headerimg"' expr:src='data:sourceUrl' expr:width='data:width' style='display: block'/>
  <img expr:alt='data:title' height='your image's height' expr:id='data:widget.instanceId + "_static_page_headerimg"' src='url of your image' width='your image's width' style='display: block'/>

Changes are in yellow, things that are the same are in blue, and things that have been copied are in gray. Note that the second line (still highlighted in blue) is identical to the original line. What we've done with the first line is said that if the blog page someone is looking at is not a static page, display the header image just like normal. In the third line, we have a <b:else>, which tells Blogger that if the first condition isn't true—in other words, if the page is a static page—we want to do something different. Now, on the fourth line, note the replacements we've made. The original is in blue, while the new changes are in yellow. Italics indicate that you should substitute the correct information where the italic text is. For example, your height field might be height='600px' and your src field might be src=''.

The height and width fields give your image the correct custom dimensions. If your special header image is the same size as the header image for the main page, you can leave these as they are in the original. You also don't actually have to change the id field, but I think it helps make clear that this is a unique element that should have its own behavior and styling. If you want to go back later and add some sort of custom effect to that image alone with CSS, you can, because it has its own id.

The most important change is in the src field: instead of Blogger's address for your default header image, you now have your own. All of your static pages will now display the new header image.

Let's go one step further: make it so that individual pages show different headers as well, with a default image for static pages that we don't need an individual header for but we still want to be different from the normal blog page. We'll only have to add a couple lines of code to pull this off.

<b:if cond='data:blog.pageType != "static_page"'>
  <img expr:alt='data:title' expr:height='data:height' expr:id='data:widget.instanceId + "_headerimg"' expr:src='data:sourceUrl' expr:width='data:width' style='display: block'/>
  <b:if cond='data:blog.url == "custom page url"'>
    <img expr:alt='data:title' height='1st custom image height' expr:id='data:widget.instanceId + "_1st_static_page_headerimg"' src='1st custom image url' width='1st custom image width' style='display: block'/>
  <b:if cond='data:blog.url == "2nd custom page url"'>
    <img expr:alt='data:title' height='2nd custom image height' expr:id='data:widget.instanceId + "_2nd_static_page_headerimg"' src='2nd custom image url' width='2nd custom image width' style='display: block'/>
  <b:if cond='data:blog.url == "final custom page url"'>
    <img expr:alt='data:title' height='final custom image height' expr:id='data:widget.instanceId + "_final_static_page_headerimg"' src='final custom image url' width='final custom image width' style='display: block'/>
    <img expr:alt='data:title' height='default image height' expr:id='data:widget.instanceId + "_default_static_page_headerimg"' src='default custom image url' width='default custom image width' style='display: block'/>

Note that I've again supplied a unique id for each image, again allowing you to style it. We've also added a <b:else> to the final check. It has to be after the final conditional, because otherwise it'll get overridden by others. But as it is you should be able to add new static pages and automatically have a default image that is different from normal blog pages show up, while retaining unique header images for all your other custom pages. If you later decide you want to change that image, you'll just need to add another <b:if> like the ones above. (I haven't had a chance to test this in any detail, but it should still work. Let me know if it doesn't.)

Once you've added the new lines, click "Save Template," and check out your blog to see the results. If something doesn't work, you can go back and continue editing, and if worst comes to worst and things just keep getting worse, you can always go back to the version of the template you saved off at the beginning.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Web design

I'm beginning to think I missed my calling. Perhaps I should have been a professional web designer. I get a huge kick out of it.

I finally understand why: it mixes technical problem solving (really a certain kind of programming), which I enjoy, with the demands of artistry. On the one hand, the successful web designer must be fluent in the sometimes complex technical languages that make web design happen: HTML, CSS, XML, Javascript, and so on. I'm fairly proficient in the first two, and just dangling my toes in the water of the latter two. (Frankly, I find Javascript pretty grimy.)

At the same time, a good web designer has to have an eye for layout, understand relationships between elements, have some degree of skill in manipulating images, and be able to put typography to good use. As my wife (and, for that matter, friends from high school) can attest, I love fonts. I sometimes pick them off of signs driving down the road. I am certainly weaker in this area than in the "coding" aspect of web design, but I enjoy it as much or more. Recently, I have found myself studying web sites, admiring the good ones and critiquing the less good ones.

Even more amusingly, I find myself looking at designs and pondering how I could improve them, what I would do to make them compelling and useable.

Over the last three days, I have done a good deal more tweaking to Pillar's back end, yielding a fairly significant change in the front end appearance (go take a look). Along the way, I've puzzled out how to accomplish a number of tasks with Blogger's backend that, in my search across the web in the past have generally been considered difficult or impossible. I have also helped my sister with the site for the bike she works at, Ascent Cycling—I made different header images appear in different pages.

(Never let anyone tell you that Wordpress is more powerful or more customizable than Blogger. It's just easier to customize under certain conditions. I have used both quite a bit, and they both have their pluses and minuses.)

Because I spent a fair amount of mental energy on these puzzles, and because the answers to them, near as I can tell, do not appear anywhere else on the internet, I will be posting a few of them in the next week so that I can help others (just as plenty of other bloggers have helped me along the way). These will be more like reference pages than my normal content, so apologies to my normal readers, but I know the pages will be helpful to others in the future. (Those of you who enjoy messing with blogger may find it interesting!)

[If you're wondering about that essay I mentioned last Saturday, it's about a third done. The content is substantial and it's requiring significantly more time than I expected. That combined with the aforementioned web design efforts has led to a short delay in its publication. Worry not: it is still coming.]