Keeping the Fast

Happy, or, maybe sad, Ash Wednesday! Here is a good article over at Mere Orthodoxy on why you should keep eating sausages during Lent. Maybe you should buy an extra sausage since they’re always better with a friend. And here’s another article over there consisting mainly of quotes from wise people who reject common pitfalls that come with observing Lent.

I have no doubt that Lent can be observed wisely and helpfully by the kind of people who recognize the wisdom and cautions in the above articles. Jesus went to Jerusalem to conquer death, so this is cause for celebration and a wonderful reminder to take up our crosses. This is why Lent provokes discussion, because it makes us ask the question: What does it mean to take up our crosses? That is a huge question, but here I only want to briefly address the topic of fasting which is central to the way Lent is typically observed. Continue reading

You Can Only Give What You Have

“No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got. You may frame the syllabus as you please. But when you have planned and reported ad nauseam, if we are sceptical we shall teach only scepticism to our pupils, if fools only folly, if vulgar only vulgarity, if saints sanctity, if heroes heroism. Education is only the most fully conscious of the channels whereby each generation influences the next. It is not a closed system. Nothing which was not in the in the teachers can flow from them into the pupils. We shall all admit that man who knows no Greek himself cannot teach Greek to his form: but it is equally certain that a man whose mind was formed in a period of cynicism and disillusion, cannot teach hope or fortitude.”

C.S. Lewis, from “On the Transmission of Christianity” in God in the Dock


Thick & Clear

C.S. Lewis gave an address titled Christian Apologetics (found in God in the Dock)  to Anglican priests and youth leaders at a church in Wales where he made a distinction between Thick and Clear religions:

By Thick I mean those which have orgies and ecstasies and mysteries and local attachments: Africa is full of Thick religions. By Clear I mean those which are philosophical, ethical and universalizing: Stoicism, Buddhism, and the Ethical Church are Clear religions. Now if there is a true religion it must be both Thick and Clear: for the true God must have made both the child and the man, both the savage and the citizen, both the head and the the belly.

Thick religion accounts for the goodness of our “parts and passions”, as previous writers called them. It’s important to say the goodness of the passions, because most belief systems do something with them, and at least since Plato the West has tended to consider the body something to ultimately escape. To be in heaven, tragically even in many Christian churches, is to be airily disembodied. So ethereal has come to mean “heavenly” and “light, thin, airy.” Thick religion embraces the goodness of beer and baseball, of bed and board.

Clear religion utilizes what the West has identified as fundamental to our species, homo sapiens, thinking man. Man may love bread, but he doesn’t live by it alone. He thinks, studies, compares, classifies, and writes poems about it. Someone said no pleasure is complete until it is remembered. So Thick and Clear go together. Lewis argues that only two religions really combine these, Hinduism and Christianity.

But Hinduism fulfills it imperfectly. The Clear religion of the Brahmin hermit in the jungle and the Thick religion of the neighboring temple go on side by side. The Brahmin hermit doesn’t bother about the temple prostitution nor the worshipper in the temple about the hermit’s metaphysics. but Christianity really breaks down the middle wall of the partition. It takes a convert from central Africa and tells him to obey an enlightened universalistic ethic: it takes a twentieth-century academic prig like me and tells me to go fasting to a Mystery, to drink the blood of the Lord. The savage has to be Clear: I have to be Thick. That is how one knows one has come to the real religion.

The Son of man came eating and drinking. The Word of God took on flesh, and after his bodily resurrection Jesus ate fish and honey. In Him we see a continual adventure, truth and wonder for the mind, and exultant joy in the body; we find the way, the truth, and the life seamlessly woven together.

Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves in Three Generations

In his new book David and Goliath about the advantages of disadvantages, Malcolm Gladwell describes the rough upbringing of a kid in Minneapolis who would become a wealthy Hollywood producer. His father taught him the value of money by making him split the cost of things like new shoes or a bicycle. 

If he left the lights on, his father would show him the electric bill. “He’d say, ‘Look, this is what we pay for electricity. You’re just being lazy, not turning the lights off. We’re paying for you being lazy. But if need the lights for working–twenty-four hours a day–no problem.” (pp. 45-6)

His father told him how much things cost and made him adjust because times were tight. He worked in the family’s scrap metal business, lived in a bad neighborhood in business and law school to save money, and worked hard to rise to where he is now–living in a colossus in Beverly Hills with a gate “that looks like it was shipped over from some medieval castle in Europe.”

He worked hard to succeed and now wants to provide opportunities for his children, including the opportunity to learn the same lessons that brought him so much success. But now with millions of dollars, he lacks the incentive his father had to show his kids the electric bill. He’s never going to have trouble paying it which means what he learned by necessity growing up where he did, his children can only learn by artificial imposition.  Continue reading

Ending Spiritual Hokey Pokey

This article from The Atlantic (6/13) describes the testimonies of students who left the church and ended up members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS). The Fixed Point Foundation conducted interviews with students all over the nation, and their findings are fascinating, showing the rise of atheism resulting from the dumbing down of discipleship in the church. 

Bonhoeffer famously said “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And many do. But if you bid someone come and find the answers to all his problems and have his best life now, or bid him come and have an awesome time playing twister and listening to the band, well, he comes but then he goes. If we make the message of the gospel, the person and work of Jesus, and the call to repentance vague or shallow, it should follow that people put a right foot in and a right foot out, and do the spiritual hokey pokey in and out of the church.

Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. We would hear this again. Continue reading

More About Formation than Information

The kids are back to school and the bustle begins: schedule, curriculum, books, assignments, all the fantastic accoutrements of learning. As this process picks up speed and the details of life in a classroom come flying at students and parents, it’s important to remember what is actually happening in this thing we call education.

What did you learn in eleventh grade? What classes did you take? If you can remember half the classes you took that year, you would be better off than most. If you can remember and put into practice particular skills you may have acquired or facts you memorized–equations from physics or calculus–it’s almost certainly because you use them today in your vocation or you happen to have a photographic memory. Or you cheated and just looked them up on Wikipedia.

I think it was Dorothy Sayers who pointed out in her essay The Lost Tools of Learning that a student is expected to forget most of what he learned in school by the time he is an adult. I feel better already. Of course she wasn’t talking about the ability to read or do basic math, but rather the vast minutiae of information we acquired and dutifully divulged on tests. Three years of college French left alone for ten years will be as forgotten as a campaign promise, n’est ce pas? Okay, at least the French can be recovered with review. But the point is that more is going on in education than a transfer of data. More is being learned than information.  Continue reading

The Danger of Divine Familiarities

“We are frequently told, indeed, that the great danger of the theological student lies precisely in his constant contact with divine things. They may come to seem common to him because they are customary. As the average man breathes the air and basks in the sunshine without ever  thought that it is God in his goodness who makes his sun to rise on him, though he is evil, and sends rain to him though he is unjust; so you may come to handle even the furniture of the sanctuary with never a thought above the gross earthly materials of which it is made. . . . The very atmosphere of your life is these thing; you breathe them in at every pore: they surround you, encompass you, press in upon you from every side,. It is all in danger of becoming common to you! God forgiven you, you are in danger of becoming weary of God!”

-B.B. Warfield from “The Religious Life of Theological Students”

The Harvest of Lust

“Men who want to stay faithful must remember that lust is not a sensation; it’s a road with an established destination. That destination is always some form of sexual immorality. When lust is planted, the harvest is consistently some sort of sexual grief.” –Douglas Wilson, My Life For Yours p. 74


The Testimony Trap

In his hilarious book Stuff Christians Like, Jonathan Acuff has a section titled Telling Testimonies That Are Exciting Right Up Until The Moment You Became A Christian. The idea is that the way testimonies are often recounted, life is wild and exciting until meeting the living God.

I had this really hot girlfriend who was named after a city, and we were living in this cool loft downtown and every night, not just on the weekends, every night, we were going out. Her uncle owned a bunch of nightclubs and a fleet of yachts, so we would just party and then get on one of the yachts and have the craziest times and catch fresh crabs in the Florida Keys and then watch the sun pierce the morning sky with streaks of red and orange and yellow. And then I became a Christian. The end. (pp. 125-6)

The hair-raising excitement is all pre-conversion, and kids growing up in the faith, listening to this account at a church function, have the distinct sense they are missing all the fun. “Why can’t I wreck my life and have a thrilling testimony?”, they want to know. Churches that tend to emphasize conversion run into a real problem this way, but it really only surfaces because of another problem.

To the extent that pre-conversion life is truly interesting and exciting, it is so because God gives rain to the just and the unjust. The world is an interesting place and everyone with life and breath can go enjoy it. It’s the job of Christian parents to school their kids in the art of enjoying it, living full, grateful, generous lives in fellowship with the Giver of all of it. The scope of this discipleship has to be total. If it’s not, people will think the grass is greener on the other side, and that is exactly what the world is telling them. It’s not whether they will encounter this lie, but simply when.

Since sex, for instance, is one of God’s gifts to us, if you let your kids learn about it from pop culture, they’re going to buy the lies that result in broken hearts and bodies. These details often get left out of the testimony given to a large crowd. “She was hot, but also had an advanced case of genital herpes.” That isn’t appropriate in every setting, but rebellion always has its underbelly, one that you ought to know from fearing and enjoying the Lord. You don’t need to try heroin to know it must come with intense, short-lived pleasure, and long-term utter misery. You don’t need to learn your lessons on covetousness by going bankrupt.

The hard balance is to keep the testimonies, showing trophies of grace, and making life in the covenant what’s it’s supposed to be–an abundant one. Conversion is exciting and if we’re faithful to proclaim the gospel, it will continue to be. But so is life with Christ, ever deepening over a lifetime. These stories too must be told in the church.