Archive for the ‘global Christianity’ Category

Visual Education

December 11, 2017

GiottoLet me say up front that I possess at best a layman’s knowledge of art. Please, feel free to offer correction or clarification. I’d appreciate the help.

I spent two weeks in Tuscany this fall, and saw a lot of religious art. Some was extraordinarily beautiful (Botticelli) and some magnificent (Michelangelo); some, in parish churches or small chapels, was very ordinary. But the ordinary had a function just as much as the magnificent. It’s that function I want to comment on.

Churches are everywhere in Italy, and within the churches, so is art. Every church, large or small, rich or poor, had art, and the purpose of the art was instruction. Worshippers were mostly illiterate, and even for those who could read, no Bibles were available. The art was their Bible. Many of the churches I visited were so crammed with art you could spend days, perhaps weeks, studying all the paintings, frescoes, windows, statues and mosaics.

They had a kind of curriculum. At its cornerstones are certain scenes revisited again and again: the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, Mary and baby Jesus, Mary crowned Queen of heaven, the Last Judgment. There is also, less frequently: Adam and Eve, the Holy Family, the visit of the magi, the slaughter of the innocents, the pieta, the burial of Jesus. Many other biblical stories and many saints, prophets and apostles are portrayed. (For a quick refresher, google “Italian religious art” and click on “images.”)

Even if you know your Bible well, it’s not always easy to decipher who is who, but there are little tricks. (John always has a hair garment; Peter gets keys, and so on.) I assume that in those days before trains or cars, most people were familiar with only one or at most a handful of churches. Priests or nuns or parents explained the art to them. Worshipers grew up knowing who was pictured in their church as well as modern church-goers know where to find the Psalms in their Bible.

Two other elements pervade the paintings and make them difficult for modern people. One is invisible elements made visible. There are many angels, big and small, and not just the few that you find in the biblical stories. There are sometimes demons, too. Doves and other symbols signal the Holy Spirit. Haloes around the heads of some (not all) the godly people suggest an invisible but powerful sanctity. Add to that, there are often people in the paintings and mosaics who don’t belong there, historically speaking: popes and prophets and saints who lived hundreds of years later or before the events pictured. Sometimes the artist himself is there.

That is the second element: the obliteration of time. Renaissance art witnesses to real, historical people. These are not symbols or fantasy figures, but human beings, like us. Yet, time does not seem to be a barrier. Popes and princes and donors witness the crucifixion or worship Jesus in the manger. They could not be there, historically speaking, but in faith they are.

By faith I mean “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The people who worshiped in those churches saw no angels. Nobody they knew sported a halo. Most of them were farmers or tradespeople, who lived by material facts. Why, and how, could they believe anything beyond what met their eyes? They needed faith.

The art is meant to help them grasp the unseen–that angels and demons are all around, that popes and prophets are witnesses, that the court of heaven hangs just over their heads. When they enter the church (as they do, week by week) they encounter an interpretation of reality that expands their vision and touches eternity. Did everyone believe? Of course not. But some did. Without the art, would anyone?

And we, who have no such art in our churches: what do we believe?


Christmas Carols

December 6, 2017

My father has been gone for 12 years. I think of him often at this time of year, because he so loved music, and particularly Christmas music. Thanks to him I grew up listening every Christmas to a record of the King’s College Choir (in Cambridge, England) singing Lessons and Carols. The sound of those angelic voices singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in the reverberating space of the college chapel moved something elemental in me. It might have been a sound from another world, unlike anything I knew in plain, foggy Fresno, California. In some small way I learned from that music the meaning of transcendence–a concept that, otherwise, I could not have taken in.

The story of Jesus’ birth touches us at a very deep level. You can say all you want about the doctrine of the incarnation, but we feel and understand it through our senses and our emotions, just as much or more than our intellects.

This connection often comes through music. What astonishing, multi-faceted beauty in song has been inspired by Christmas–and I am not referring to “White Christmas.”

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Our deep longing, and hope beyond hope, are caught in that plaintive song.

“Joy to the World–the Lord is Come” occupies the other end of the spectrum. It is really a chorus of the Second Coming, when Jesus’ kingdom is fulfilled. “No more let sin and sorrow grow, or thorns infest the land.” Emmanuel has come, and with dash and vigor “Joy to the World” erupts with the news.

“O How a Rose E’er Blooming.” The delicacy, the utter silence with which the astonishing answer to our prayers is revealed. Jesus unfurls, like a rose.

Many of the carols capture this quiet magic. “What Child is This?”–as if to say, what am I seeing? Can I believe it?

“O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” It begins in the stillness of the night, unnoticed by anyone important. So it has always been, and so it remains today.

“Silent Night, Holy Night.” This is perhaps the greatest of all the carols. Simplicity and calm pervade the music and the words. When we sing it together, for a few moments all is calm, all is bright.

“O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The story calls us. Joyful and triumphant, we join in. O come, let us adore him.

“Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child, make thee a bed, soft, undefiled, within my heart.” These are Martin Luther’s words. The story calls us, and we call back to the one who makes the story. “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care. And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.”


Memories of Max Dunn           

August 23, 2017

My friend and role model Max Dunn died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. I had seen him a short time before, when he was in excruciating pain. He needed a hip replacement, but his doctors were unenthusiastic about operating on a man of his age. Max, characteristically, had no doubt. He had things to do and he needed a good hip to do them. He talked the doctors into doing the surgery, which went extremely well. He was jubilant, his family says, and two days later was ready to go home when he suddenly stopped breathing.

A very capable man, Max had worked as an executive for a big department store chain. He also served on the organizing committee for the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. After his retirement he did a master’s degree in world mission at Fuller Seminary, then traveled all over the world in a wide variety of missions. (He worked with a good friend of mine in Kenya.)

In the small town of Healdsburg Max joined the board of a struggling medical clinic serving farm workers. Pretty soon Max was the CEO. He built that clinic into one of the largest medical providers in our area.

Max was good-looking, athletic, and friendly. He loved tennis, bridge, and ringing the Salvation Army bell (and getting others from his Rotary Club to do it). But when I met him, what Max most loved to do—passionately—was to visit men at the local Salvation Army drug and alcohol rehab program. He went nearly every day, meeting individually with men and teaching an anger management class. It was Max’s enthusiasm that moved me to begin volunteering at Santa Rosa’s Redwood Gospel Mission, in a program similar to the Salvation Army’s.

As much as I admired Max’s capability, I admired his friendliness more. He really loved those men, which is saying something. By the time somebody gets to a free, residential, long-term rehab program, they have usually burned every last bridge to family and friends. Many if not most have been in and out of jail and prison. They have little education and many tattoos.

In short, they tend to be quite different from the people Max met at Rotary. I don’t know whether Max really noticed. Even when he was in terrible pain, he wanted to be at the Salvation Army more than anywhere.

I did wonder how Max became so indiscriminate in his friendliness. It really was unusual. His peers in business, the men he met at Rotary, were willing to help out in good causes, but they didn’t choose to hang out with addicts. Max did. I’m sure that some of that generosity came through his family upbringing, and some came through the genes that he inherited. The primary influence, I’m thinking, came in his middle years when he and his wife Carolyn were drawn into the Episcopal charismatic renewal.

It was hard to get Max to tell stories about the past, because he was far more interested in the present. But when I got him to talk about those years when he was introduced to the renewal, he glowed. Thirty or forty years later, it still excited him. He said it was when his life changed. He would have liked to live in that excitement forever.

That renewal emphasized, more than anything, that Jesus is alive and active through the Holy Spirit. For people like Max, that turned faith from a list of beliefs to an experience—an experience of Jesus.

That explains, I think, why Max liked everybody. If you want to see somebody who talked to everybody, helped everybody, believed in everybody, but especially the poor and the desperate, that would be Jesus. I think Max learned it from him.





Refugee Test Case    

March 7, 2017

President Trump’s ban on refugees entering the US promises to be temporary, and I hope that turns out to be the case. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable and pitiable people on earth. Just over a year ago I was in Europe, interviewing scores of them. Their vulnerability will never leave me.

But how to treat them? This is one issue where the Bible is clear–not as to precise policy, perhaps, but certainly as to its general direction.

In ancient Israel, foreigners were a constant presence. This was not an age of walled borders or stamped passports. Foreigners found themselves in Israel because of economic opportunity—there was always international commerce—and as refugees from war and famine. Israel, preoccupied with threats to its survival, and concerned for a distinctive identity as God’s people, had an important choice: how would they treat foreigners? Would they see them as a threat? Or would they welcome them?

The Law makes it very clear:

Lev 19:10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Deut 26:12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

The welfare system included foreigners. Gleaning was not charity. It was legally mandated, embracing almost the entire productive economy. In addition the tithe was a 10% tax over the entire productive economy, directed to help those who could not participate in the economy (Levites) and those who were poor and vulnerable (widows and orphans and foreigners).

Lev 19:34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Foreigners were to be treated the same as citizens, and with love.

Lev 24:22 You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.’

Numbers 15:15 The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord.

Laws and rules must not distinguish between citizens and foreigners. Foreigners have the same rights as do citizens.

Deut 10:18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.

It’s well known that God is on the side of the defenseless poor. He is equally on the side of the foreigner, caring for their material needs.

Deut 24:14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.

How do our farms and factories live up to that?

Deut 27:19 “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Why should Israel treat foreigners so benevolently? The answer is consistent: because you were foreigners in Egypt. The treatment of refugees is a test case for empathy. Can you feel for others the way you feel for yourself?

Our treatment of foreigners is also a test case for America. History tells us that America has welcomed millions. It also tells us that episodes of fear and prejudice have caused us to exclude millions. (Most dreadfully, Jewish children were sent back to Nazi Germany just before WWII began.) What kind of people will our generation be? We are being tried.

Waiting for Publication

December 13, 2016

I’ve been a writer for most of my adult life. Writing is solitary work. I can tell you what I am writing about, but I can’t really share the stuff that preoccupies me: how to knit a subject or a scene in such a way that it becomes a seamless, almost dreamlike reality for the reader. Not even my wife Popie knows what I am doing at that level. I wouldn’t know how to explain it.

While writing is solitary work, it is not fulfilled in solitude. I write for an audience. It may turn out to be small or large, and I don’t usually know which it will be in advance. Actually the size of the audience doesn’t much affect what I do. What matters is that I will have readers. If there were no readers, writing would be something quite different.

While I’m writing, the work is almost a part of me. Then there’s an interim period, while the publisher edits and proofs and designs and markets. Finally, months later, sometimes after more than a year, I see a printed copy. By then I am usually pretty emotionally detached. It’s mine but it’s no longer me. Nevertheless, publication is an absolutely necessary part of the process. It’s then that my work finds its fulfillment in being read.

Waiting for publication is completely passive. I do nothing. I don’t even worry. I know that the book or the magazine article is coming, and I wait with expectation. After publication, the work is mine but it belongs to the world. I can’t get it back. I can’t change it. It finds its life in my readers.

I know it’s hazardous to compare my work to God’s, but I wonder if God’s creative process is something like this. God’s creation begins with the making of the heavens and the earth, but that is just the introduction of the story. God goes on to draw out Israel, in all its dramatic detail: kings and prophets, wars and sacrifice, laws and songs.

Yet that, too, is only the beginning. What God wants to make is his Son, Jesus, born of Mary, raised a Jew, executed as an enemy, raised as King of kings. That is the work God prepares for us, his audience. He intends us not just to read, but to eat—to take into ourselves his amazing work, his actual self expressed in a human life, so that it becomes part of us forever.

Being God is solitary work. But it is not fulfilled in solitude. It is fulfilled when we take Jesus into our lives—all of him. And just as I wait for publication, so God waits to see his work completed, in us.



N for Nazarene

October 12, 2016


Bob Blincoe from Frontiers, an organization that works with Muslims in the Middle East, brought to my church these tiny mosaics (useful as coasters) made by Iraqi Christians in exile in Jordan. The symbol is the letter N in Arabic. When ISIS invaded Syrian and Iraqi villages they spray-painted Christian homes with this N, standing for Nazarene. It was like being red-tagged by the building department. It meant: either convert to Islam, or get out now, otherwise you will be killed.

It occurred to me that the Iraqi Christians making these mosaics are doing exactly what the earliest Christians did with the cross. They adopted as their own the chilling symbol of oppression and violence used against them. It reminded them of what Jesus the Messiah had suffered, and of what they too might be called on to endure.

Maybe we should put these “N” symbols next to our crosses, to remind us of what they stand for.

The mosaics come from Aslan Child Rescue, an organization working to help churches in the Middle East and in Europe who have opened their doors to persecuted Iraqi Christians.

New Article in Books and Culture

March 14, 2016

Here’s a link. No, this isn’t the big piece on the refugee crisis. It’s about the meaning of justice, with particular emphasis on the biblical view. It tries to sum up a lot of what I have been thinking about over the past three years as I’ve worked on God’s Justice: The Holy Bible

How Then Shall We Live? (part 3)

January 21, 2016

So far we have seen that Paul’s advice for living in crisis begins with rejoicing—a whole-body act declaring that we believe the good news all the way down. His second piece of advice is that we must grasp the good news—a story of Jesus’ humility, obedience, death and resurrection—as a map for our lives. It was Paul’s map, which enabled him to see good in the deathly threat of a Roman trial, and to find meaning and joy in the midst of it.

The third piece of advice has to do with living in community. From the first words of Paul’s letter it is obvious that Paul loves the Philippians. They care about him, and have shown it by sending Epaphroditis to help him, probably with a gift of money. Paul lavishly expresses his love and kinship with this community. He is terribly thankful for them, he frequently prays for them—and he prays with joy. (1:3-8)

It is not, as we noticed, that Paul wears rose-colored glasses. He recognizes the selfish and egotistical in the church, and warns against those who would lead them astray. Nevertheless, his strongest plea is for them to be unified. If there’s anything real in your faith, he urges them at the beginning of chapter 2, “then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (2:2) Earlier he called such unity a sign to their enemies—a sign of how the story will come out. (1:27-28)

Paul doesn’t say why the Philippians’ unity will serve as such a sign. I think it’s rooted in the unique sociology of the early church. For the first time in human history, slaves and free, Greeks and barbarians, men and women were assembling as equals. The people in that early church had literally nothing in common, except their faith in Jesus. (At no time since then could that be said of the church. We come together for other reasons, related to class and ethnicity and style.) It must have been a compelling and bizarre reality—and sometimes an uncomfortable one, to judge by Paul’s letters. As a sort of sociological miracle, brought about by the unifying Spirit of God, the unity of the early church was a “sign and wonder.”

I see, though, a larger and more universal reason for Paul’s insistence on unity in the face of crisis. It has to do with the family mindset that always undergirds the gospel—and is so difficult for us individualists to get.

God works with family. He began to set the world right by choosing Abraham’s family. He made a nation from that family. When Jesus came, he related the good news almost entirely within and to that family. He called twelve apostles (twelve brothers, like Israel’s) for the renewal of that family.

Jesus did not offer a philosophy or a faith that you could adopt on your own. Disciples walked together.

And therefore the little ekklesia that met in Philippi should recognize the importance of getting along. (Maybe the most urgent words in the whole letter are addressed to two women leaders in the church: “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” (4:2))

One common impulse in a crisis is to huddle up with those whom we agree with. Or, to be so pure and principled that we only huddle up with ourselves! That is not how the gospel story runs. We are meant to follow Jesus’ footsteps as the Jesus family. And that means: find a way to “be of the same mind in the Lord.”

I don’t that means paying no attention to differences. I think it means cutting each other enough slack to recognize and appreciate family likenesses. I ran into this just recently, when an old friend began by probing what I believe about radical Pentecostals, and ended up furious that I want to accept them as brothers and sisters. She would nail them to the wall; I want to try to see the world through their eyes. Most of all, I want to be able to worship God with them (and anybody else who says Jesus is Lord.)

Democrat or Republican, Presbyterian or Pentecostal, young or old, male or female, rich or poor, we are not meant to lay down markers that separate us. In a time of crisis, we need to search out common ground, and demonstrate our humility (like Jesus’ humility) in joining with people who don’t meet our total approval.

How Then Shall We Live? (part 2)

January 21, 2016

In Part 1 I asked why Paul, whose life was in terrible crisis, should rejoice, and urge the Philippians to rejoice in their own crisis. The answer is the gospel—the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. This story is so crucial that any time it gets told—even by bad people for bad motives—we should rejoice. It has a power of its own, and Paul rejoices because he sees his life, and the Philippians’ lives, bound to that power. The crisis not only can’t stop it, the crisis becomes part of the story.

The gospel, as Paul narrates it in the famous passage from chapter 2, is a story of Jesus with four movements. They are: humility, obedience, death, resurrection. He urges the Philippians to take on Jesus’ attitude of mind and live out the same story. (2:5) He tells them to “live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27), or as I would put it, “live up to the gospel!”

Paul evidently sees the gospel story as a universal pattern, applicable to anyone. It is universal because Jesus is the creator of the universe, and the pattern of his life is a foundation for whatever happens in the universe.

So we see Paul mapping his own life onto the story. He is on trial for his life; Jesus was on trial for his life. Jesus saw his friends desert him; Paul is seeing his friends desert him. Jesus suffered; Paul suffers. Jesus humbled himself for the glory yet to come; Paul “forgets what is behind and strains toward… the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (3:13-14) Paul knows exactly where he is on the map of the gospel story. He is at the humble obedience part, on the cusp of the death part—and he anticipates the resurrection part.

He urges the Philippians to follow the same map, not only as they see it in Jesus, but as they see it in him. “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.” “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.”

From a practical point of view this means that in dealing with crisis we need to understand our lives as part of a much bigger story. It is God’s story. And God’s story inevitably and universally involves humiliation and suffering, death and… resurrection. This is what the Philippians can see in Paul, and in those who follow his footsteps. Of course the Philippians cannot yet see the resurrection in Paul or his followers. They see that only in Jesus.

Tomorrow, part 3: the crucial role of community.

How Then Shall We Live? (life in crisis part 1)

January 19, 2016


Philippians is a jewel box of Scripture. You can put your finger down just about anywhere and find something beautiful. People love Philippians, with its talk of love and rejoicing.

Last fall I taught a class on Philippians at my church. I’ve studied the book before, even published a Bible study guide on it. But this time I found myself reflecting on it in a different way, long after I was done teaching.

What I realized is that Philippians is like the letters Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison as he waited to be executed. Paul’s circumstances are equally harrowing. He is soon to go on trial for his life. He believes there is an excellent chance he will be executed. Meanwhile, all around him, chaos and venality spread: his rivals are crowing, his helper is sick and close to death.

Philippians is, then, a book about crisis. It’s absorbed in practical advice for times of calamity: “How Then Shall We Live?”

Paul knows that the Philippians are also in crisis—though about this crisis we get less detail, naturally, since the Philippians don’t need to be told what they face. Paul tries to pass on what he has learned about living in crisis, believing it applies immediately to them.

And, one hopes, it applies to us. None of us can help being affected by global calamities—the collapse of the Middle East, the dramatic migration from broken societies toward Europe, the apocalyptic threats of global warming, and perhaps most troubling of all, the sense that our political systems are unable to cope—whether in America from polarized government, in Europe from a dithering elite, or in China from a once-omnipotent oligarchy that seems reduced to stabs in the dark.

Not to mention our own personal and family crises.


Philippians is a letter, not a philosophic essay. The advice isn’t systematic. Paul weaves in and out of several themes, repeating himself. There’s one word that he repeats more than any other: rejoice. That’s where I’ll start.

Paul tells the Philippians that he rejoices in his circumstances, and he keeps telling them to rejoice too. This is not a philosophical stance: “look on the bright side,” or “everything will turn out for the best.” It’s not “count your blessings” or seeing the glass half full. Rejoice is a verb that calls us to make a full-body response. Rejoicing is done with the voice and the heart, often through song. Rejoicing links your whole self to your conviction that Jesus’ story is the important truth about the universe and about your life. It’s an anticipation of glory.

Paul is also under no illusion that all is well in the world. Consider these lines: “Some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry….out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.” “Everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh.” “Many lives as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.”

Yet these realities do not deter Paul for one minute. Having described the sore situation of his rivals and their jealous ambitions, Paul gets right at it. “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

I used to think this was whistling in a graveyard. I have changed my mind, and the best way to explain it is through a story Earl Palmer related.

He told of a local middle school that had an ambitious music program and one day announced that they would perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Music people tried to talk them out of it. It’s a difficult piece to perform, and way over the head of most middle school musicians. “Don’t do it,” people warned. “You’ll embarrass yourselves.” But the music directors at the school were determined, and they went ahead.

It turned out to be as bad as people had warned. The students couldn’t do justice to the symphony. For anybody with a love for music, it was cringe-worthy to hear them try.

“But you know,” Palmer said, “everybody who attended that concert came out humming: Dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah dah….” Despite the performance, they heard the melody. Sometimes the melody is more powerful than the performance.

In Philippians Paul is saying that the melody of the gospel, the story of how Jesus gave his life for the world, comes through even when told by bad people. It is lived out in the most horrible circumstances. It has a life of its own that springs out of the most dire crisis in history. That’s reason to rejoice.

Even more reason to rejoice is this: the Philippians, with all their woes, are living that story too. If you know the story as the pattern by which all the universe is being cut—and if you are part of the story—then you can rejoice.

Rejoicing is a way to get the story down to your gut. You can know the story in a factual way, and even believe it factually, but not have it penetrate. Therefore rejoice, even—especially—in time of crisis.

Which is to say that in times of crisis we need to worship, more than ever.

Tomorrow I’ll post part 2, on how we relate to the melody that Paul wants to sing.