30 May 2012

When the Ice Melts

© Chema Madoz
THE LAST TIME I ever thought about touching that deadly rock happened while sitting in an apartment without furniture, watching a group of addicts huddled in the center of the "dying" room, like scavengers hovering over a carcass, snarling at each other to pass the pipe, to not take so big a hit the next time.

That memory haunts me still.

Nothing smells or tastes like crack cocaine. I don't type this lightly. In fact, it's a horrific and embarrassing thing to admit. I don't do so merely to bring attention to myself. I do so because at times I smell it and taste it—not as if I'm tempted to partake in that particular activity, but because it still trips me out. Like a shadowy ghoul perched on my shoulder, I'm reminded of sensory experiences that I cannot shake.

When the ice melts (perhaps over a bowl of ash), what will you leave behind? What will you have left?


I posted this about a year ago and then took it down. It seemed a bit too self-absorbed, even for me. I know not many, if any, former crackheads (I was not one, being more of a "generalist") read this blog. So what purpose would this post serve? On the other hand, I'm sure lots of folks out there often feel like they have little control over the events in their lives. And it keeps piling on, forcing you to fix your gaze only on the temporal, which causes fear, anxiety, depression—basically all the stuff that gets you screaming for some quiet.

I'm still shaken and mesmerized by how a piece of rock melts beneath its flame. Its alchemy. And that thirty-second high. There's little competition out there for how high it actually is.

Unfortunately, I've learned time and again that the troubles I walked away from in that scene described above have followed me in different forms these past (almost) twenty years. Starting to take the Christian faith seriously (i.e., practicing it), which is how I'm describing conversion (or perhaps a return of sorts), as anyone knows who has been at it for any length of time, means many years of painful refining, often commensurate with how deeply the evil one's way has become one's own. Sanctification, too, is by grace through faith.

One the reasons my spiritual journey is comprised of a series of rejections of modern evangelicalism (how's that for a non sequitur?) is its obsession with salvation through change—the personal amending of one's life. "Clean up your life and become a Christian!" If we can just stop doing this or that, acting this way or that way, then God will pay it all off with his grace.

On the contrary, the cart of reformation indeed comes. But it's pulled by the workhorse of a restoration wrought by an irruptive grace.

10 May 2012

The Insatiable Hunger (a brief character sketch)

Benjamin hadn’t done anything extraordinary. In fact, he avoided most opportunities that remotely smacked of doing something that could conceivably produce an extraordinary thing. The young women that considered him cute mistook his silence as strength. Those closer to him thought him simply odd. Those closest to him knew he was just scared.

Fear marked Benjamin’s life. He recoiled from falling leaves. He would turn around and walk the other way to evade almost-chance encounters with folks he neither cared for or didn’t trust, which was just about everybody. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he’d wake up shaking. Uncontrollably shaking. Too many Xanax became the only remedy. But too many Xanax led to that sneaking suspicion that everything was wrong. Brain shivers. Self-loathing. Unreality.

One late morning, after a night of the shakes, Benjamin went for a drive. He had no destination, but he found himself at the local park. He unexpectedly cried for a few minutes before leaving his car, and then moseyed around, eyeballing the many baseball games underway. He saw a yellow Lab walking a child next to the concession stand and felt nothing. Finally, finding a small hill some distance from the fields, Benjamin sat and half-watched the games as dusk approached. His thoughts eventually centered on his wife, Kate, as they often did. He always wanted more from her, but it would never be enough. He had never learned how to love and thus he’d suck the life out of every lover. Fear has an insatiable appetite, a fact he already knew, but suddenly conceded.

Some time ago, he had read, in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, about the supposed source of religious sentiments:
“The derivation of religious needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrovertible, especially since the feeling is not simply prolonged from childhood days, but is permanently sustained by fear of the superior power of Fate.”
At the time, Benjamin escaped the incontrovertible opinion of Freud by positing his own unassailable opinion—that the religious-needs vacuum within his heart existed as a result of his being relationally separated from the divine; that, in short, religion being present in most cultures is a result of humankind’s being created imago Dei.

Benjamin knew he could no longer muster up this belief. Fear, he realized, was far more powerful in creating religiosity than a personal Fate.

Night came. The field lights flickered off. Benjamin was jarred to stand up and walk toward his car, and he didn’t know how long he had been sitting there. Since that long morning, it seemed like he was watching his body live and move and breath, like he had no control over where it was heading, like he was merely observing the day’s events through his eyes with someone else at the helm.

He prayed that he would die on the way home. His prayer was not answered.

07 May 2012

A Faith of Whose Own?

AS A TWO kingdomite, of the Pannenberg persuasion, I always begin reading “Christ & Culture” books with a sigh and some hesitation. Jonathan Merritt's A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars was no exception.

First, though, I'll warrant that I'm not representative of the target audience of this book, for the following three reasons: (1) I've read my fair share of academic "Christ & Culture" books; (2) I'm in my late 30s (and thus a cynical, disengaged and barely Christian genXer); and (3) I am not southern (though I am intimately familiar with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Royal Ambassadors, Living Christmas Trees, 4th of July Sunday extravaganzas, as well as Freddy Gage crusades). But enough about me.

This isn't to say that I ought not to have read the book, or that I didn't enjoy it, for what it's worth. I do think the target audience very much ought to read this book, however. If you're just coming to the "Christ & Culture" discussion, if you're in your 20s–early 30s, if you were raised in the Bible Belt, or (which I didn't mention previously) if you're from an older generation and desire to get a glimpse of the angle from which Millennials are engaging these matters, then read this book.

I think I'd commend it even if I didn't largely agree with it; I remain somewhat surprised that I did, actually. I was expecting a conflation of the kingdoms at least on every other page, but Merritt is refreshingly aware that if he were to simply swing the pendulum the other way, to simply react to the cultural construction in which he was raised, that he'd end up being just another side of the same coin (e.g., Fundamentalist/Modernist; Christian Right/Christian Left; Mohler/Wallis, etc.). In the end, Faith of Our Own is essentially a lay-level version of certain bits of James Davison Hunter's To Change the World.

Nutshell message:
  • "As one plunges deeper into the culture wars, one loses a sense of reality and embraces a partisan perception" (p. 35).
  • Christians are not to abandon the public square, but we need to learn how to engage it in a less worldly and politically partisan way.
  • "Good Christians are good citizens, and as such, they should establish a faithful presence in the public square as in media, business, science, education, and the arts" (p. 40).
  • "Ousting is a typical culture-war tactic," leading to third-degree separationism. (And I would add, it's a typical tactic among those who think they have the corner on dogmatic truths.) "The result is an insulated group in an isolated echo chamber where conservatives become more conservative and liberals become more liberal. No one has permission to think for themselves" (p. 61).
  • "We take a slice out of the Bible-pie and then call it the pie" (p. 88).
  • "The change we're witnessing is a shift from a political faith to an incarnational faith. One that seeks to be a faithful presence in the public square but knows that real change happens when we heal and help each other" (p. 153).
  • In his role as public representative of his church (and, by default, Christianity), he "never wades into debates about specific legislative proposals," and "where the culture wars are fought, unity is almost always absent" (p. 160).
It wasn't until the last chapter that it became clear to me that Merritt's thinking about the relationship between the church and state (or "Christ & Culture") was one that I hope others of his generation and younger pick up. Merritt recounts a time when Richard Mouw had written an essay on social ethics that caught the eye of Carl Henry. Henry wanted to publish it, but not without implementing a few edits. Here's the text (from pp. 173–74):
Mouw argued that the church should take stands on specific issues of social justice, but Henry wanted to change the wording to speak of individual Christians' needing to take stands. But Mouw . . . believed that the church as an institution should speak to specific social justice concerns in the public square, so he turned down Henry's offer.
Note that by "specific social justice concerns" what's not meant is the church as an institution decrying in general poverty, racism, criminal justice reform, hunger, etc. (I mean, who would disagree that those are societal ills?), but rather specific legislative solutions to those problems. As the story goes, after a few weeks of back-and-forth, Mouw let Christianity Today publish the essay:
The final version asserted that the church must maintain its prophetic voice and say "no" to the status quo of injustices, but stopped short of saying the church should endorse specific policy solutions. . . .

[Mouw later wrote] "What I really wanted to say is that the church—in the form of both preaching and ecclesial pronouncements—could do no more than merely utter a 'no' to some social evils. There were times, I was convinced, that the church could rightly say a bold 'yes' to specific policy-like solutions. I now see that youthful conviction as misguided. Henry was right, and I was wrong."
What else can I say? [queue: Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus] If this isn't a good two-kingdoms start in the right direction, I'm not sure what is. God bless you, Jonathan, for not offering the same old reactionary tripe.

But this wouldn't be a proper review without some critique, right? While I'm not familiar with Merritt's other writings, the prose is just okay. Not much literary flair here, even if there's a good handful of quotable content throughout it. He also nudges up against pietism at times, spiritualizing everything. And despite his caveat in chapter 9, his generation comes off smelling a little rosy. He sometimes conflates the two kingdoms in his desire to alleviate societal ills through Christianity, as if the gospel itself is about making the world a better place. Sure, it may serve as an impetus to do this or that, but more properly this is where the concept of natural law would enter, which for obvious and forgivable reasons didn't have a place in this book. Finally, his brief recognition of the sinful fragmentation of the church catholic in chapter 9, while commendable, offers little more than the typical Protestant low-church ecclesiology (pp. 162ff.; but Merritt is Baptist, after all).

Because Faith of Our Own is, as one endorser put it on the back cover, "part memoir, part manifesto," the reader ought to move beyond it pretty quickly. Anecdotes can only take one so far. Here's my short list of "Christ & Culture" must-reads, for those whose palates have been whet (in a somewhat arbitrary chronological order of reading):

    1. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge and The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion
    2. The Politics of Jesus
    3. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong
    4. The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It's Tempting to Live As If God Doesn't Exist
    5. A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society
    6. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
    7. The Cost of Discipleship

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