A short opinion piece I wrote on Evolution-Creation is posted on FoxNews.com. I wrote it at the suggestion of my PR guy for my new book, The Adam Quest.
Reading N.T. Wright’s scholarly work is like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. As far as I am concerned, it is a fire hose spouting good wine. I am a few hundred pages into his massive two-volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God, a book he has been pointing toward for decades. It’s a pleasure.
I won’t try to describe his argument, but I thought I would pass on a few memorable quotes.
p. 12 “For Paul, much as he valued freedom, the mutual reconciliation of those who belonged to the Messiah mattered more than anything else. For Philemon to have responded angrily to Paul’s letter by giving Onesimus his freedom but declaring that he never wanted to set eyes on him again would have meant defeat for Paul. Reconciliation was what mattered. That is why Paul wrote this letter [Philemon].”
p. 20. “Paul is not only urging and requesting but actually embodying what he elsewhere calls ‘the ministry of reconciliation.’ God was in the Messiah, reconciling the world to himself, he says in 2 Corinthians 5:19; now, we dare to say, God was in Paul reconciling Onesimus and Philemon.”
p. 32 “Slavery was, for both Philemon and Paul, simply part of the worldview. It was how things got done. It was the electricity of the ancient world; try imagining your home or your town without the ability to plug things in and switch them on, and you will realize how unthinkable it was to them that there should be no slaves.”
p. 42 “The distinction between ‘faith’ in the Reformers’ sense and ‘theology’ or ‘doctrine’ has by no means always been clear, producing as we saw the problem whereby ‘justification by faith’ has come to mean ‘justification by believing in the proper doctrine of justification,’ a position which, in attempting to swallow its own tail, produces a certain type of theological and perhaps cultural indigestion.”
p. 50 “The reason history is fascinating is because people in other times and places are so like us. The reason history is difficult is because people in other times and places are so different from us. History is, to that extent, like marriage….”
pp. 96-7 “The Temple, and before it the wilderness tabernacle, were thus heirs, within the biblical narrative, to moments like Jacob’s vision, the discovery that a particular spot on earth could intersect with, and be the gateway into, heaven itself…. The Temple was not simply a convenient place to meet for worship. It was not even just the ‘single sanctuary,’ the one and only place where sacrifice was to be offered in worship to the one God. It was the place above all where the twin halves of the good creation intersected. When you went up to the Temple, it was not as though you were ‘in heaven.’ You were actually there. That was the point. Israel’s God did not have to leave heaven in order to come down and dwell in the wilderness tabernacle or the Jerusalem Temple. However surprising it may be for modern westerners to hear it, within the worldview formed by the ancient scriptures heaven and earth were always made to work together, to interlock and overlap. There might in principle be many places and ways in which this could happen, but the Jewish people had believed, throughout the millennium prior to Jesus, that the Jerusalem Temple was the place and the means par excellence for this strange and powerful mystery.”
p. 181 “Like Marx, ancient Jews seem to have thought that the point was not to explain the world but to change it.”
p. 203 “In the western world for the last two hundred years the categories of ‘politics’ and ‘religion’ have been carefully separated, each being defined negatively in relation to the other. ‘Politics,’ for the modern west, is about the running of countries and cities as though there were no god; ‘religion’ is about engaging in present piety and seeking future salvation as though there were no polis, no civic reality.”
I heard a quote in a radio interview yesterday:
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
It was said in the context of Silicon Valley innovations. But it applies to our families, communities, neighborhoods, churches, and a lot else.
My friend Bill had a thoughtful response to my “Patriotism” post. Thanks, Bill, for taking these matters to a deeper level.
In case you missed Bill’s comment, here it is:
I don’t think most folks’ patriotism is motivated by abstract ideas such as equality. It is largely based on love of country, home, and family–concretes, not abstractions. And as to “contempt,” it’s too inflammatory a term: I freely admit that I dislike some people, but not because of abstractions such as race, national origin, or sex. I dislike some people because of their values or because of the harm they have done to others or which their beliefs will entail. We are required as Americans to respect the abstract equality of all persons because we are uncertain of our own ability to judge others fairly, but that doesn’t mean we believe equality, rather than goodness, is what we should honor. I wish I could respect all who disagree with me, but frankly I do not. I respect an honest person’s disagreement, but I don’t find all persons to be honest. Some are malign, lazy, or thoughtless. Indeed I think such qualities are unfortunately quite widespread today. Such people will not, and should not, have my respect.
Bill puts his finger on the trouble with democracy. Fools and knaves persist, and we can’t honestly pretend we don’t notice. Yet democracy insists, as a matter of first principles, in giving them the same voice as me!
If you had suggested democracy to the royal family of England in the 16th century, this would have been their response: Respect the voice of peasants? Illiterate, dirty, uncultured brutes? Give to such the power of government? You must be crazy!
Similarly all those who have fought against giving the vote to black people. Or to women. Or to non-property holders. They believed–and had some grounds to believe–that such people lacked the understanding to properly govern.
Democracy is and always has been an act of faith, that government by and for the people–all the people–will be to my benefit, even while I know quite well the incapacities and foolishness of those people.
Democracy is therefore more than a set of laws and procedures. It is a faith in people. One can defend its rationality in various ways. (For example, the supposed good faith of the nobility, elite, landowners, males, whites is a fraud and a cover for oppression.) But it does require a certain willing suspension of disbelief. That is why democracy cannot find its feet in so many societies today: riven by suspicion and prejudice, the various tribes cannot put aside their own loyalties and certainties to trust “the people.”
Bill is certainly right that patriotism is “based on love of country, home, and family–concretes, not abstractions.” It is not only so in America. It is so in Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria, and North Korea. But democracy calls us–so Lincoln insisted–to another kind of patriotism. And we can’t do democracy without it.
That’s where contempt comes in. It is a strong word. In marriage counseling, contempt can be identified by one partner rolling his eyes when the other party is speaking. The gesture expresses complete unwillingness to contemplate another’s point of view, or even the possibility that their point of view could have merit. It dismisses the other as worthless for dialogue. Contempt doesn’t even argue. It preempts argument.
Democracy doesn’t require that I like everybody else, respect their virtue or their opinions. Democracy allows for complete disagreement and radical argumentation. But it does insist on respect for the persons making the wrong arguments and lacking the needed virtues–respect for persons as persons, made in God’s image. We respect them by protecting their right to speak, maintaining the highly theoretical mindset that we could be wrong and we could learn something, even from such a person. We respect them by protecting their right to cast a vote. We respect them by sharing with them the ruling of our beautiful country. As Lincoln said, brave men gave their lives for this: government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It’s a faith we must guard. Contempt can undermine and destroy it.
A piece by Drew Gilpin Faust in my Sunday Press Democrat touched the sore spot in our current governmental dysfunction. “Is Government By the People, For the People, Threatened?” harks back to the Civil War and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Faust notes how astonishing it was in the day that millions of northerners, whose lives were not directly threatened by Southern secession, should fight and die. They were nearly all volunteers. Lincoln, he says, articulated the inchoate logic that sustained America in that horrific fight. It was not merely to preserve the Union, but to preserve a Union that represented the best hopes of humankind–a government of the people, by the people and for the people. (As the Constitution puts it in its opening sentence, “We the people… in order to form a more perfect Union….”) Such a government, Lincoln recognized, was unique on the earth and uniquely hopeful. Millions of Americans agreed, to the point of sacrificing their lives.
The exact political shape of that Union–in particular, that it must involve citizenship for all people, not just those with the right color of skin–became clearer during the course of the war. Thus slavery, which had always been the point for the South, also became the point for the North.
But Faust’s contention is that something very large and precious lay under that commitment to end slavery. It was a commitment to a government dedicated to the welfare of its people, as defined by its people. Lincoln had earlier described the war as, “a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders — to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life. … I am most happy to believe that the plain people understand and appreciate this.”
Do the plain people still understand and appreciate this? When we shoot off fireworks for the Fourth of July, and stand with hats off for the Star Spangled Banner at baseball games, is this what we honor? According to Lincoln, it’s not first of all “America the Beautiful” we should admire, with its spacious skies and productive fields, nor is it “the Homeland” which is worth defending simply because it’s our home. It’s a political philosophy known as democracy, by and for the people.
With all the grousing and suspicion (some of it very much justified) about government we may lose sight of what we are ultimately seeking. It’s not to beat somebody who has the wrong ideas. ( Lincoln offered very benevolent terms of surrender for the South because he was not fundamentally interested in victory, but in democracy.) It’s not even to have less government or more government, efficient government programs or strong free enterprise. It’s to decide matters together, through a political process that gives everyone an equal voice and thus is equally for everyone. This process represents fundamental convictions about the worth of every single individual, and also about the possibility of a shared welfare. It offers no space for contempt. Search the words of Abraham Lincoln and see whether you can find words of contempt for his enemies.
Today’s politics is full of contempt. It’s not just our representatives in Washington; it starts with us plain people. How can you have a democracy when you show contempt for your fellow citizens?
I read a lot of fiction, but I only post about it when I happen on something pretty spectacular. (If anybody is interested in my regular reading opinions, check out Goodreads.com, where I post minimally on whatever I read.)
The last novel I went gaga on was Wolf Hall. Not quite to that level, but really worth noting, is Someone, by Alice McDermott. It’s the unspectacular life story of an Irish-American woman, Marie, who grows up in Brooklyn This is not a family saga, but a portrait offered through a series of almost-still lifes. McDermott is not a showy writer, but she is extraordinary at depicting ordinary life. She’s subtle, detailed, devoted to faithfulness and truth. That’s what makes the novel so fetching: it’s reality, watched with attentive reverence.
Yet it’s quiet and unobtrusive reverence. The title, for example, comes from a line early in the book when Marie is heartbroken by a cruel jilting from her first love. She pours out her agony to her brother, asking who will ever love her–an awkward, myopic girl? Someone, he says, someone will love you. And the book is nearly at its end before you realize who that someone is. There is love, McDermott seems to say, but it comes from where we are not looking, and in forms we do not automatically recognize.
FYI I’ve put out a new ebook edition of Personal God: Can You Really Know the One Who Made the Universe?
It’s available on Amazon here for $2.99. It’s also on Smashwords.com and (through them) should be on most other bookselling sites soon.
Personal God has an interesting history. Years ago (in 1986, to be exact) I published a book called Knowing the Face of God. The best way to summarize its success is: a few people liked it a lot. It sold only modestly, but even today I occasionally hear from people who tell me it was very helpful to them.
Just a few years ago, John Sloan called me. John is a friend and a long-term editor at Zondervan. He was editing Philip Yancey’s book Prayer, which included some extensive quotes from Knowing the Face of God. That made him go back to Face and re-read it. John is a man of enthusiasms, and his call to me was very enthusiastic. He brought the idea of a simplified, condensed edition that eliminated some rabbit trails and concentrated on the main ideas.
I was skeptical. Editors and writers often feel that a book should have been better received, but it’s notoriously hard to revive a book. With so many good new books on the market, why would someone give a second chance to an old one? Nevertheless, John was insistent, and he convinced Zondervan to get behind the idea.
I ended up thoroughly re-writing the book. In doing so, I became moderately excited all over again. The book examines the classic evangelical phrase, “a personal relationship with God.” I raise doubts about whether that’s just talk, and whether there is anything really personal possible with the God who made the universe. I try to bring a new perspective and understanding to “personal relationship,” one that is both hopeful and truthful. That’s why a few people like it a lot. It poses questions that rarely surface in Christian circles, and it offers some answers. For people with doubts and questions, that can be very significant.
Then disaster struck. My friend Scott Bolinder was overseeing books at Zondervan, and he got fired. All of a sudden this special project, Personal God, became project non grata. Having lost its chief in-house supporter, it became an orphan. I knew the book was in trouble when two cartons of signed books arrived at my house, without explanation. When I had visited Zondervan in Grand Rapids, they had asked me to sign 100 copies to use in promotion. Now, having no use for them, they posted them to me.
All that work, and all that excitement, for nothing.
That’s why I’ve brought it back as an e-book. The book lives on.
My community, Santa Rosa, California, is in turmoil after a 13-year-old boy was shot and killed by the police last week. The boy was walking to a friend’s house carrying a pellet gun made to look like an assault weapon. The police saw him, thought the gun was real, and ordered him to drop it. He had his back to them, and instead of dropping the gun he swung toward them. An officer put eight bullets into him. (Read more here.)
There’s some question of racial profiling, as the boy was Hispanic from a tough neighborhood. But the more prominent issue is over whether the police are trigger happy. We’ve had quite a few deaths at the hands of the police recently, sometimes when an unarmed person made a gesture that was interpreted as reaching for a gun. According to an article in the local newspaper, police are trained to respond almost instantly to a perceived threat. With modern weaponry, there’s no time to think so they shoot for the body to disable the possible shooter.
Just because you’re only 13 doesn’t mean you’re not dangerous. The day before this incident, another young teenage boy in another state killed his teacher and shot two friends at school before killing himself. The police have reasons to fear.
I’m wondering, however, whether police procedures confuse war with peace. Soldiers at war have a primary duty to defend themselves and eliminate the enemy. Police officers, on the other hand, have a duty to protect citizens. They put themselves in harm’s way for that purpose. The citizens they are sworn to protect include all the people they encounter–innocent until proven guilty.
Though police accosting a boy carrying a rifle has similarities to war, it is subtly but fundamentally different. The main difference is that a police officer should value the life of that boy more than his own. Not more than the lives of bystanders or potential victims–if there are any, as there were not in this case–but more than his own.
It appears that some officers consider their own lives inviolable. If somebody is going to die, it won’t be them. That’s how warriors act. It’s not how peace officers act. Is it?
I’m not blaming police officers. I know they are put into extraordinary conditions that require split-second decisions. Apparently they are trained to shoot at the first hint of threat.
I am questioning the mindset behind that training. It seems like one more aspect of a society that has become increasingly adversarial, that admires the OK Corral of the Old West more than the towns that replaced them–places that valued libraries and churches and mothers’ societies. In those towns, I believe, a police officer would rather die than shoot a 13-year-old boy.
I have been thinking about drive because I’ve lost some. Not that I’ve ever been a very driven character. I know people who are. And when I read biographies of famous people I’m often struck by their obsessive qualities. Some of those qualities are obviously problematic. Norman Mailer was driven to write but also to attract attention and to take women to bed. Vincent Van Gogh was driven to paint but also to quarrel.
More positively, though, obsession and ambition create focus and motivate work. Some people are born with talent, but very few successful careers are built on just talent. You have to work at it. Driven people work at it long after other people have taken a break, gone out to dinner, or gone to bed. I have no doubt I would be a better writer if I were more driven.
I don’t think I have it in me. At any rate I’ve never wanted to be like that, never saw it as a good thing. My father-in-law, a successful surgeon, sometimes cited three factors that made a recipe for success: ambition, participation, and hard work. I wasn’t fond of the first of those. I saw ambition as selfish. It meant thinking too much about yourself and how you could advance yourself. It went with self-importance.
With the benefit of a few years I have revised my views. I now see that ambition does not have to be selfish. I have little doubt that Mother Teresa was driven. So for Augustine, Luther, Francis. The Bible word is “zeal.” Jesus had zeal. So did Paul.
I don’t know many people who would put themselves in that category, though. Can you make yourself zealous? Can you manufacture drive? To a limited extent, I think you can. You can determine that your goals demand a certain level of intensity, and you can bind yourself to that intensity. However, I think most driven people are born that way, or maybe made that way by a certain kind of ambitious parent. Driven people don’t usually choose to be obsessive, it’s just the way they see the world. They can’t help themselves.
Here’s where it gets a little subtler, though. We usually think of drive and ambition relating to the public world–to politics, business, the arts, to fame and achievement. But I know mothers who have little interest in the public world, yet will drive themselves to the limit as mothers. In fact, I myself never had to decide to pour myself into fatherhood. It was simply the most engrossing thing I knew, and nothing would stand in my way. I was more driven to fatherhood than I ever was to my writing, to judge by my willingness to go on when exhausted.
Something of the idea of “calling” comes into play here. Someone who finds a “calling” just naturally devotes himself to the work–whether it is gardening, bird watching, coaching basketball, or fixing cars. Nobody has to remind him or her to work at it. The hard thing is to get such people to stop.
As I review my own life, I see that I had such a calling to write. I loved it, I never got enough of it, I was ever eager to do more and I was zealous to write well. The same with parenting. Yes, other people were more driven than I. But it’s relative, and I suppose my ambitions in those areas would rank fairly high.
I’m now in my sixties, and I can feel quite clearly that I do not have the drive I once did. I’m pretty sure it’s related to hormones. But it’s also related to circumstances. My kids are grown and married. It feels as though I’ve found my level as a writer–I’m probably not going to be published in The New Yorker or win the National Book Award. If I were a more driven character this might drive me to ever-greater efforts to transcend, but instead it leaves me just content to keep doing what I do and love to do. I don’t have much ambition any more. And I miss it.
I miss it like a gap in my teeth that my tongue keeps finding. A force in myself that I relied on–I just had to write–isn’t really there any more. It’s as though you sat down to breakfast one morning and found you didn’t have much of a taste for food. You still eat. But it’s something you choose to do, not something that comes automatically.
My mother, who had lots of sayings we repeat fondly, used to say that when you are young, your great temptation is sex; when you are middle-aged, your great temptation is money; and when you are old, your great temptation is grumbling. I’m thinking that grumbling comes in because life isn’t providing built-in gusto for you; you miss it, and you tend to think someone or something must be to blame.
If God is behind the aging process, as I think he must be, then he pays us a great compliment, disguised as a challenge. We have reached the stage of maturity–or should have–when we must provide our own motivation. We don’t find ourselves seized by a vocation. We aren’t driven any more. Not the longing for sex, nor money, nor fame, nor achievement, nor love makes us live and breathe. We have to decide what is worth pursuing, and do it.