U2, Lecrae, and the Paradox of Christian Music

Review: Songs of Innocence by U2, Anomaly by Lecrae 

Rembert Browne from the music blog Grantland recently mused on the boundaries between Christian and secular music, and what happens when those boundaries are blurred. He holds up Lecrae as an example. Lecrae is a Christian rapper, whose album Anomaly topped the Billboard 200 last month. This is his first Billboard No. 1 album, but each of his last five albums has hit the top of the Christian charts. Lecrae is a Christian artist now finding success on the secular charts, not a successful mainstream rapper who happens to be a Christian.

But Browne, after listening to Lecrae’s impressive new album, wonders whether it isn’t limiting to call Lecrae a Christian artist. After all, he is selling albums to a much broader audience than other Christian performers, and his subject matter is not as straightforwardly Jesus-centric as the average song on Christian radio. Direct references to Jesus are one thing that sets Christian music apart, but Lecrae’s Anomaly contains few of them.

This leads to the question: what, in fact, makes an artist “Christian?” Is he or she a “Christian artist” if they play his or her music on Christian radio, and a secular artist if they don’t? There are songs on Anomaly that are more about the sin of greed or about the sexual abuse Lecrae suffered as a child. These aren’t likely to get many plays on 98.7 Positive Life Radio. But in these songs, Lecrae is dealing with the darkness of sin in a robustly gospel-centered manner. In this case, perversely, that may entail more plays on secular stations than on Christian ones. I think it’s because of the narrow, blinkered subject matter of “Contemporary Christian Music” that Lecrae has publicly distanced himself from it. In an interview with The Exchange, he said “I am a Christian. I am a Rapper. But Christian is my faith not my genre.”

Browne agrees with Lecrae’s self-assessment:

Anomaly is a complicated album to analyze and listen to, because it’s difficult to think about it in a vacuum, purely as a piece of music. Before you hit play, chances are you understand you’re about to listen to Christian rap. And whether that’s a plus or a minus, it’s most likely a something. Then you begin listening, and it doesn’t come off as a Christian rap album, in the way you imagine a Christian rap album sounding. You know it’s being pushed as Christian rap, but, more often than not, it simply feels like rap that is Christian.

Here we could get into semantics: Lecrae is a Christian. But his genre is not. However, as Browne astutely realizes, it still can be. “…[T]he answer is still, yes he is a Christian rapper. Because with Christian music, there seems to be a one-drop rule. As in, if there’s one drop of vice — of unfavorable content — regardless of the representation of Christianity’s positive tenets, it ultimately becomes secular music. Lecrae’s status as a Christian rapper hinges on the fact that he never becomes a bad Christian, lyrically.”

Lecrae is attempting a delicate balancing act. Frustrated with the artificially limited subject matter of music on the Christian charts, as well as the lack of influence Christian rappers have on their mainstream counterparts, and perhaps as well with the limited audience for Christian music, Lecrae decided not to release a “Christian album.” Instead, he released Anomaly. And that’s what it is: an anomaly. If it’s a Christian album, it’s an uncommonly harsh and real one. If it’s a secular album, it wouldn’t talk about Jesus in such a reverent way, or address sins like greed and lust in the ways that it does.

And I think that’s just what Lecrae intended. He is conscious of his own status as an anomaly; he is a black man, a product of a godless upbringing in the inner city, but he is not an Baptist or Methodist like most African-American Christians. He is Reformed. Theologically, that means he has more in common with John Calvin than with Dr. King. But the contradictions don’t stop there. He is a chart-topping rapper, but he doesn’t glorify sexual profligacy, drugs, or rampant greed like Lil Wayne or Kanye (see the song “Nuthin'”). In fact, he glorifies monogamous, self-sacrificial love (see the incredible song “Runners”). He is a well-known entertainer, but a committed and humble Christian. He is good friends with both Kendrick Lamar and Billy Graham, and any man with those two names in his Rolodex must be dealing with some contradictions, or at least doesn’t quite fit in any box.  He is an anomaly, and he’s proud of it, and his album is an attempt to get us to see him uniquely, as he sees himself–and not as “just another” of something else.

There are fantastic songs on Anomaly: the lead single “Nuthin'” is spectacular. It’s dark, brooding, musical, and the verse is impeccable. “Say I Won’t,” “Outsiders,” and “Anomaly” are similar.  They’re in minor key much of the time, with vaguely menacing beats and great electronic samples. In fact, the whole album is a little dark, a little raw. The song “Dirty Water” is even darker, a sneering jeremiad against the roots of black poverty and white disdain. It’s a far more effective song than Kanye’s “Blood on the Leaves”, even though Yeezy samples the super Billie Holliday song “Strange Fruit.” The song “Fear” is perhaps the best example of Lecrae’s dark gospel truth. It sounds like nothing else.

It begins with Psalm 23:4, and then the metaphors for a Christian response to fear and death build until, it seems, Lecrae becomes dissatisfied with mere metaphor. He comes right out and says it:

I’mma tell that truth till it kill me
And I’m chillin’ with my Creator
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
To all of my haters
For the ones that think I forgot Him
And the ones who won’t let me say it
I ain’t scared no mo’

I could go on, but I advise you to explore Anomaly for yourself. It’s dark, haunting, faithful, and excellent.

Anomaly by Lecrae: 9/10

Lecreae’s release coincided with U2’s surprise free release of Songs of Innocence, their first album in five years. Unlike Lecrae, U2 is generally regarded as a secular act. But over the years U2 has recorded many songs with religious allusions, and a few superb songs that are more explicitly Christian than some of the music on Christian radio. Songs from their early albums like “40” and “Gloria,” as well as more recent songs like 2004’s “Yahweh” are as genre-bustingly reverent as Lecrae’s Anomaly.

It wouldn’t be true to call U2 a “Christian band,” but Bono, Edge, and bassist Adam Clayton all adhere to some sort of Christian faith. I’m not the one to tell you whether they take their faith very seriously; certainly their lyrics often make them out to be “bad Christians.” But Bono at least is on record as saying that he believes in a risen Christ. In fact, channeling C.S. Lewis, he went as far as to say that Jesus was either the son of God or He was insane.

The religious themes in U2’s music are incontrovertible, although they are frequently combined with romantic and erotic imagery that made me uncomfortable (before I read the Song of Songs in greater depth). U2’s music is, however, less religious now than it was thirty years ago, when Bono, Edge, and Clayton were all members of a charismatic Dublin religious collective called “Shalom.” Edge almost left the band in the early 80s as he struggled with the seeming contradiction between his newfound religious convictions and the world of rock and roll. Their 1981 album October, often regarded as one of their worst, is living proof that wrestling with contradiction isn’t always musically healthy. However, that album yielded “Gloria,” a superb song that takes the text of a Latin prayer and turns it into an incredible, rocking, guitar-driven anthem. I can’t think of many songs (and all the others are also by U2) that are equally spiritual and equally rocking.

In the 1994 book U2 at the End of the World, Edge candidly told the author that he and the other Christians in the band had not overcome the contradiction, either by becoming “Christian musicians” or by giving themselves over to their rock and roll demons, but rather embraced the contradictions and tried to bridge the gap between being Christian men and being rock gods. Some Christians would say they were hardly the former, and some critics would say that they are hardly the latter, but U2 has gone a long way toward proving both contentions by making chart-topping rock music while becoming world-famous for their charity efforts.

During the lengthy recording sessions for their new album, U2 tried to record an acoustic version of each song, as a safeguard against creating songs that were too big, processed, or distant. It shows: Songs of Innocence is an intimate and personal album. The acoustic versions, which are included on the deluxe version of the album available on Spotify, sometimes exceed the fully orchestrated versions. I think this is the case for album standout “Every Breaking Wave,” and I know it’s the case for album weak point “California.”

A few listens in, I thought Songs of Innocence was a disappointment. But now, after many more listens, I think it may be the best album U2 has produced since 1991’s Achtung Baby (that isn’t saying a whole lot). Songs like “Iris (Hold Me Close),” which is about the death of Bono’s mother, and “Song for Someone” are classic U2. Beautiful, ethereal guitar, combined with Bono’s voice, which has often been described as angelic. It’s a winning combination here, just as it has been for thirty-five years.

However, like a few other U2 records, there isn’t much to latch on to lyrically.  It seems like Bono is trying at times to express something spiritual, but doesn’t quite reach coherence. A recent article in the New Yorker by Joshua Rothman explored this:

Most people think of U2 as a wildly popular rock band. Actually, they’re a wildly popular, semi-secretly Christian rock band. In some ways, this seems obvious: a song on one recent album was called “Yahweh,” and where else would the streets have no name? But even critics and fans who say that they know about U2’s Christianity often underestimate how important it is to the band’s music, and to the U2 phenomenon. The result has been a divide that’s unusual in pop culture. While secular listeners tend to think of U2’s religiosity as preachy window dressing, religious listeners see faith as central to the band’s identity. To some people, Bono’s lyrics are treacly platitudes, verging on nonsense; to others, they’re thoughtful, searching, and profound meditations on faith.

It’s true, “Iris” is a beautiful song and a profound meditation, but it’s not quite a coherent whole, like many Bono-penned songs. Lyrically, this provides a clear contrast with Lecrae. Bono and Edge are a bit shy about their beliefs, and I believe that’s part of the reason they don’t quite make it to the listener on Songs of Innocence. Lecrae, on the other hand, is sometimes coy about his faith, but he never hides it under a bushel. It’s always there, just not in the form you might expect. As a Christian, I might easily wish U2 had Lecrae’s musical courage. But they’re in a radically different place in life, in the world, and in the music industry. Rothman concludes his article by proffering this narrative for U2’s faith journey.

The story of U2 might be this: having begun as a band that was uncertain about the idea of pursuing a life of faith through music, they have resolved that uncertainty. Their thin ecclesiology has become thick. Today, they are their own faith community; they even have a philanthropic arm, which has improved the lives of millions of people. They know they made the right choice, and they seem happy. Possibly, their growing comfort is bad for their art. But how long could they have kept singing the same song of yearning and doubt? “I waited patiently for the Lord,” Bono sings, in the band’s version of Psalm 40. “He inclined and heard my cry.”

It’s not a hard thing, I think, to make music that glorifies God. It just has to be true and beautiful. These two albums fit that description, and that proves God’s truth and beauty are deep and wide.

U2, Songs of Innocence: 7.5/10

David Became Goliath: A Review of Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land”

Book Review: My Promised Land, Ari Shavit (2013)

On July 5th, provoked by the murder of three Israeli teenagers and the reciprocal killing of a young Palestinian, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. Israel responded with air strikes and, briefly, a ground invasion. Hostilities continue.

It is very easy for American Christians to side with Israel in the fight with Hamas. Many American Christians ascribe religious significance to the modern, secular state of Israel. The improbable reestablishment of Israel in 1948, they say, must have been the sovereign will of God, and so must its continuing survival. God is looking out for His people.

Another reason is that Israel is a small Jewish country surrounded by tens of millions of Arab Muslims. Americans love an underdog who punches above his weight, and with its highly-trained military and “Iron Dome” missile defense system, Israel is certainly that. After five weeks of fighting in Gaza, Palestinian casualties have topped 2,000. A full quarter of the Palestinian casualties have been children, another eighth have been women. Most of the sixty-seven Israeli casualties have been soldiers. The conflict is so one-sided that Israel is in danger of losing its underdog status in American media coverage. People have begun to ask, if Israel is basically a Western democratic nation on Eastern shores, why are they killing so many children? It’s a fair question.

However, none of the incidentals of the most recent fighting will help us answer this question. To do that, we would need to examine the origins of the conflict, in the fiery birth of the modern Jewish state. But we would need to more than just read Wikipedia articles on the 1948 and 1967 wars–we would need to read a book like Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. Through personal history, Shavit tells the story of the successful Zionist project to fill Arab Palestine with waves of Jews fleeing persecution and stagnation in Europe.

Ari Shavit is an Israeli journalist for Haaretz, and as a modern secular Jew, heir to the secular Zionist project. His book, My Promised Land, is a stunning personal history of Zionism and of Jewish resettlement in the Holy Land.

But wait, what is a ‘Zionist?’ Before I read Shavit’s book, I thought all Jews were Zionists. I thought the resettlement of Israel was the culmination of a centuries-long Jewish dream, motivated by a deep desire to fulfill Biblical prophecies of returning to the land. But no. Zionism was the brainchild of a group of secular Jews in the 1870s–Jews who didn’t believe in God, much less in Biblical prophecy. They were inspired by Theodor Herzl, an Austrian Jew, and his tract “Der Judenstaat”–The Jewish State. There had not been a Jewish state for millennia, and many Jews were inspired by the prospect of a place where Jews could be safe, free, and above all, Jewish. They began to settle in Palestine, creating communal farms known as kibbutzim, and traded peacefully with their Arab neighbors. They were secular, enlightened, and socialist. Later, as religious Jews joined secular Jews in the Holy Land, the Zionist project created a bridge between them, uniting them as Israelis even as they grew apart from their Muslim and Christian neighbors.

But back to Shavit. My Promised Land is not an exhaustive history. There are no detailed explanations of the Balfour Declaration that brought the Jewish Mandate of Palestine into being in 1917, or the 1948 war in which a young Israel defeated its Arab neighbors, earning the right to exist. Rather, Shavit traces the ambiguities of modern Zionism through portraits of places and persons. He draws the ill-fated Arab city of Lydda and the Jewish kibbutz of Ein Harod with equal care and affection, and there are sections of real pathos as he describes the horror of neighbors, Arab and Jewish, rising against each other. These Jews who massacred Arab children and the Palestinians who blew up Jewish trains–their descendants are fighting in Gaza.

After Shavit describes the teamwork and optimism of the young European Jews who settled at the communal farm of Ein Harod in the 1920s, and traded with their Arab neighbors, he ends the chapter with a chilling reminder that peaceful coexistence could not last.

In three years’ time, the firstborns of Ein Harod will crouch for days in the first cement-built dairy, hiding from the gunfire of Arab neighbors…In twenty years’ time, Ein Harod—and the forces it gave birth to—will have real military might. In twenty-two years, that military might will attack the villages of Nuris, Zarin, and Komay. It will drive all Palestinian inhabitants out of the valley. (p. 46-47)

In each chapter, Shavit deals with a different place, time, and a different cast of characters. He interviews Jewish commandos who mercilessly drove Palestinians from their thousand-year old villages, and he interviews the Palestinian survivors of such pogroms. He talks about his own time as a conscript prison guard in a Palestinian internment camp by the sea. He talks about the energy, vitality, and modernity of Tel Aviv, the zephyr city of secular Judaism. Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish religion, makes only a few appearances. By my count, Shavit interviews only one believing Jew, a xenophobic politician. That’s one thing I understand much better after reading Shavit: the word Jew does not necessarily denote an adherent of Judaism.

There are a few passages that stand out as exceptional. Reading them changed the way I think about Jews, Palestinians, the Jewish state. How did the Jewish people, once David, become Goliath? In this passage, Shavit tells of serving as a guard in an internment camp during the Israeli occupation of Gaza. As another conflict rages in Gaza between Israel and Hamas today, these words are prescient.

I look down at the tents and the fences and the barbed wire. For the last time I try to comprehend the inner logic of the place, the necessity that, so to speak, created it. And I summon up all our just claims, all our mitigating circumstances: Aren’t we refugees too? Aren’t we, too, victims of violence? And if we are to survive in the Middle East, we must be strong. When attacked, we must respond. The IDF and the Shin Bet [Israeli Defence Forces and Israeli Security Service] are all that protect us from total chaos. Only the willingness to use force is what keeps us alive here.

But it doesn’t work here. In the Gaza Beach Detention Camp it cannot work. Because there are places and there are situations that are clear-cut. And this is such a place. This is such a situation. There are no complexities here, no mitigating circumstances. This is what the Palestinians have brought upon us by means of uprising: they deprived us of the illusion of bearable occupation. They have told us that if we are to occupy Gaza, we must have a Gaza Beach prison. And if we are to have such a prison, we must betray ourselves. We must betray everything we were to be and everything we are to be. So the question now is not land for peace. The question is land for decency. Land for our humanity. Land for our very soul. (p. 235)

Later, as Shavit traces his disillusionment with the long process to create peace between Israel and Palestine, he reaches a deep, uncomfortable truth. For all his chutzpah about Israeli might, Shavit has moments of deep reflection where he cuts to the core of the Jewish paradox. His watchphrase is know thyself, and he has determined to know the history of Jewish destiny in a way that will strengthen him to face it. An example:

I worked out a theory. The theory assumed we lived in a tragedy: an almost eternal struggle between two peoples sharing a homeland and fighting over it. For seventy years we Jews had the stamina needed to withstand this tragedy. We were vital enough to be jolly and optimistic while enduring an ongoing conflict. But as fatigue wore us down, we began to deny the tragedy. We wanted to believe there was no tragic decree at the heart of our existence. So we had to pretend that it was not by tragic circumstances that our fate was decided, but by our own deeds. The territories we conquered in 1967 gave us an excellent pretext for this much-needed pretense, as it allowed us to concentrate on an internal conflict of our own making. The Right said, “If only we annex the West Bank, we’ll be safe and sound.” The Left said, “If only we hand over the West Bank, we’ll have peace.” The Right said, “Our dead died because of the Left’s illusions,” while the Left said, “Our dead died because of the Right’s fantasies.” Rather than face a tragic reality imposed on us from without, we chose to create a simplistic narrative of Right against Left. It’s not the Arabs’ fault, it’s the Jews’. It’s not the Middle East, it’s the Israeli government. It’s not the fundamental Israeli condition but some specific mistake made by some specific Israeli politician. In an ingenious way, we turned the tragedy in which we live into a morality play. We created a virtual reality that enables us to blame ourselves rather than face the cruel reality we are trapped in. (p. 253-254)

Even more poignantly, Shavit quotes Israeli politician Moshe Dayan, at the 1956 funeral of a young Jewish soldier, Roy Rotenberg, killed by radical Muslims:

It is not among the Arabs of Gaza, but in our own midst that we must seek Roy’s blood. How did we shut out eyes and refuse to look squarely at our fate and see, in all its brutality, the fate of our generation?

Let us today take stock of ourselves. We are a generation of settlement and without the steel helmet and the gun’s muzzle we will not be able to plant a tree and build a house. Let us not fear to look squarely at the hatred that consumes and fills the lives of hundreds of Arabs who live around us. Let us not drop our gaze, lest our arms weaken. That is the fate of our generation. This is our choice—to be ready and armed, tough and hard—or else the sword shall fall from our hands and our lives will be cut short. (p. 267)

In the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel plays a better game—it’s undeniable. Their missiles are faster, deadlier, and more accurate than shoulder-fired Hamas rockets. Their “Iron Dome” missile defense system has kept Israeli civilian casualties low. But these things cut both ways. Devastating Israeli air strikes have killed an unconscionable amount of Palestinian civilians. Hamas is a terrorist organization so radical and violent that even Israel’s traditional enemy, Egypt, supports Israel in this conflict. But it’s still a massive PR disaster for the nation of Israel. If they’re killing terrorists, not just families and children, the media have kept quiet about it. A few weeks ago, their missiles struck a UN school in Gaza city, injuring hundreds.

How do you choose a side in a fight like this? It seems easy, on the face of it. One of the belligerents seems like a modern Western nation, a liberal democracy, full of white people who believe in the Bible, who are supplied by American arms companies. The other is a terrorist organization made up of poor, armed brown people. For many Americans, that puts them in the same category as al Qaeda.

But in this fight, I choose the side of the civilians of Gaza. Even before this most recent conflict, it was a hard sentence to live in Palestine. Radical elements in the population, with an uncomfortably just list of grievances, carried out horrible attacks on Israeli civilians, leading to a withdrawal of Israeli economic activity from Gaza and the West Bank (the two partitioned parts of what was once Arab Palestine). Thus, these places are effectively refugee camps for an entire nation. I sympathize with the Arab mothers and fathers who have seen their sons and daughters killed. By the same token, the Israeli citizens who are terrorized daily by Hamas rockets don’t deserve such a fate.

I would like to conclude this essay with an answer. The Jews are right! The Palestinians are right! Someone has to be right! But no, I don’t think that’s the case. Just like Ari Shavit’s “virtual reality”, it may seem like there are only two options, and one of them is right. But as Shavit painfully concludes, the Left and the Right, the Palestinians and Jews, are not right or wrong. If they were, then the way forward would be relatively clear. But the situation, the fundamental condition, is not a morality play. It’s a tragedy—a Greek one, set in the Levantine desert.

I don’t mean to reduce the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a play. But that is the tragic and inescapable destiny of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, which reminds me of Oedipus and Jocasta. They cannot escape from the conflicts of the past, and most of all, they cannot escape each other. They are two peoples, separated by a common homeland. Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land tells a story that is tragic, but deeply human. It may be impossible for Jews and Palestinians to live in peace together, but like Ari Shavit I will keep hoping. Impossible things happen in Palestine.

My Promised Land, Ari Shavit (Spiegel & Graü, 2013) – 8/10

Book Review: Dismissing Jesus by Douglas Jones

“Being a Christian should just scare the hell out of us.” -Stanley Hauerwas

Doug Jones believes that American Christianity is deeply blighted by some ideas that we have adapted from the world to serve our own sinful purposes. In fact, we’ve largely neglected the entire thrust of Jesus’ teachings: we have dismissed what Jones calls ‘the Way of the Cross,’ a sevenfold path, a primer in following Jesus beyond death.

(1) Way of Weakness: The Lord “primarily and regularly” works through human weakness, rather than power and wealth. God doesn’t exclude the wealthy, but they aren’t the focus of His reign. Moreover, the cross is a shameful death and Jesus died weakly upon it: our paths need to follow His.

(2) Way of Renunciation: The enemy of God’s work is always the spirit of “domination, selfishness, power, green, ostentation, pageantry, exceptionalism, and greatness.” The evil of this “Mammon” is not money, but un-sacrificial wealth. The Gospel is its antithesis.

(3) Way of Deliverance: The goal is not to think rightly and go to heaven, but to create a faithful, holy community on Earth. This means the mission is always to save men and women from the oppressions of Mammon in this life by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

(4) Way of Sharing: Jesus rejected the life of “charity,” in favor of giving everything, including our every penny and our very lives, over to Christ and His service.

(5) Way of Enemy Love: The movement through the covenants of the Bible is a movement away from violence as God trains His people to forsake it in favor of overcoming evil with good. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty.” (2 Cor. 10:4)

(6) Way of the Foolishness: Faith, seeing unseen things, is inherently foolishness. The faith-full decision will seem irrational and mysterious; the way of the World will seem undeniable, rational, and effective–but we are called to faith.

(7) Way of Community: The way of the cross is for the body of believers, not loners. The way of the cross requires us to image the community of the Trinity in this world, among the scattered believers of a fractured church–no one said it was easy.

In the next chapters, Jones lays out these seven Ways in greater detail. When he’s on-message, he can be uncomfortably convicting. He raises questions here about the nature of Christian life and the “comfortable” lives many Christians lead in the West that I’ll be thinking about for a long time. I tend to agree with Dr. Peter Leithart’s foreword, to the effect that “[this] book is unsettling; frequently, it is unsettling in just the way Jesus is.” For example, this, from the passage on wealth:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” -Upton Sinclair.

It’s amazing how wrong Jesus was about the rich. Jesus said that it was very difficult for people with wealth to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:23), but modern America has demonstrated clearly and overwhelmingly that this is not the case. We have churches full of the wealthiest people on Earth…(60)

In the second half of the book, Jones deals with “special blinders” to the way of the cross. He mostly attacks godless political conservatism.

If I could reduce this section of Jones’ book to its main theses, it would be these:

(a) Are you wealthy? Give it away: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on Earth…” Wealth is a blessing, and the point of that blessing is to give it away.

(b) Are you American? Escape the idolatrous “American dream” and the perception that American militarism, capitalism, or foreign policy have any tendency to be righteous.

(c) Mammon and “wrong wealth” are not just things in the Bible; they’re alive and well today. Look at our 401k accounts and BMWs.

However, Jones also seems to take issue with the doctrine of Total Depravity (ch. 10) and the penal-substitutionary view of atonement (ch. 12). His treatment of sin is brief, flippant, and unhelpful, but I couldn’t follow the logical train well enough to criticize it on a deeper level. At one point, he says “Our modern focus on personal sin distracts us from seeking first the kingdom of God.” Now, it’s true that the best way to fight sin is to do Christ’s work for Christ’s kingdom. But that doesn’t mean we will stop sinning. And God hates sin. We can’t obsess over our sin–Christ has forgiven us. But it isn’t “distracting” to search out our sin and repent of it–it’s necessary.

The last chapter of Part 2, in contrast, is clear and insightful. Entitled “Broad Way Illusions,” it deals with competing perceptions about following the Gospel: is it perishingly hard? Or is it, as Jesus said, an “easy yoke.” To the world, says Jones, it is a great burden, because we have to give up everything the world loves. But if we love Christ first and best, it is the easiest and most natural thing in the world to give up everything that keeps us from Him.

It’s overwhelming. What the Lord requires us not to believe in order to follow the way of the cross is just too much. It seems too much not just in terms of actual sacrifice but also in terms of dismissing so much “obvious” knowledge…If the way of the cross is something like what I’ve sketched and argued for, then we’re called to dismiss traditional applications of providence, sin, heaven, atonement, fundamental political axioms, handy conservative principles, cemented assumptions about property, the prosperity of the west, the benevolence and honor of U.S. military history, the simple pattern of middle class living, centuries of individualist indoctrination, and all the trillions of dollars spent in advertising and government propaganda to catechize more and more in the ways of Mammon. It would require living contrary to the testimony of thousands of well-loved theologians, politicians, economists, historians, satisfied middle class people, Christian family and friends. And each generation of Christians would have to renew that renunciation in its own era. It’s just too much. The slogan “let God be true though every man a liar” would take on unbearable social weight. (226)

Finally, in part 3, Jones talks about enacting the way of the cross, or “Being the Kingdom-Church.” Following the model of early church leaders like Basil of Caesarea, Jones wants the church to be all things to all suffering men, to truly become a hospital for the broken. But he realizes that this is antithetical to the Protestant idea of what a church is meant to be:

Most churches now don’t see themselves even moving in the direction of becoming full-orbed cities for mercy, manufacturing, farming, education, etc. Churches generally act more like think tanks, where people go for weekly inspirational encouragement. We might do some marginal mercy work, some charity, and the like, and give plenty of Bible studies. But that’s it. (p. 240)

In conclusion, Jones’ book is far from perfect. There are things he deals with in a few pages that he would need a book to really prove. Even for a limited-run edition from a small publisher, the typos are thick on the ground (especially in the first half of the book) and distracting. At one point, he cites a conservative scholar named William Russel Mead who doesn’t seem to exist–maybe he meant Walter Russell Mead?

But harping about the typos would really, REALLY miss the point. In fact, it would be somewhat like complaining about a certain translation of Romans 8 because you don’t like what the text says. I don’t agree with everything here, but I can’t deny that Jones is reading the Bible more closely, and examining his heart and middle class American preconceptions with a clearer eye, than almost any other author I’ve read. There is wisdom here, right out of God’s Word, which he quotes at every turn.

Everyone should read this book. We think we have it all under control, don’t we? Our worship services are slick and smooth, our mercy ministries run on a nice, linear schedule. But we’re not that different from the World, just better at delayed gratification. Jones wants the world to see us all as dangerous, crazy, latter-day monastics who threaten their prosperity and their exploitation of the weak. He wants us to wage holy, peaceful war. To forsake our subdivisions for real community and brotherhood. To “tithe” 10% for ourselves, and give the rest away. It sounds crazy. It is crazy. But what exactly is sane or worldly-wise about Jesus Christ? Jones reminds us that the wisdom of God is stark raving madness to the world. Maybe we should be a little more mad.

Jesus asks, “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46)

How will we answer Him?

Postscript: While I was reading this book, Doug Jones, who previously went to my church, moved to Dubai to teach at a college there, gaining a foothold to begin ministry in that Muslim country. This increased my respect for him tremendously and took away my skepticism about this book, which I had been phrasing like this, “Pfft, well he’s not exactly practicing what he’s preaching.” Then I found out he was. That’s the sort of book this is. If you don’t like it, be careful: it could be your pride getting in the way.

Bertrand Russell Builds a Golden Image

101 years ago, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay called A Free Man’s Worship. We read it for my Ethics class and this was my short response. The original here: http://www.philosophicalsociety.com/archives/a%20free%20man’s%20worship.htm

 Bertrand Russell quotes Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, in which humans deny the world’s absurdity: “’There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts.”

Russell is deeply uncomfortable with the absurdity and ugliness of life, a howling abyss which begins and ends in non-being. But he attempts to build a safe habitation for the soul “in the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” If a man cuts his dreams and aspirations down to size, he can preserve them, even as he unflinchingly accepts their emptiness and his frailty. He can, in other words, bring harmony out of chaos by human efforts.

It seems to me, though, as if Russell is attempting to do the same thing as the men in Dr. Faustus. They created a God to worship and a divine plan to help make their lives seem less meaningless, while Russell creates “a temple for the worship of our own ideals,” in the “untroubled kingdom of reason, and in the golden sunset magic of lyrics, where beauty shines and glows.” For someone who prides himself on accepting the horror if life without resort to delusion, he seems very set on transmuting the universe “in the crucible of imagination, that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay.”

But for Russell, this new image is as powerless and meaningless as the old idol—more beautiful, more pleasing to the imagination—but a delusion and a lie just the same.  

One sentence summary: Man is a squib of gas in the silence of the cosmos; it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow of mortality fall, “the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.”

Harry Potter, Jesus Christ, and You

A lot of people have made it into adulthood without reading Harry Potter. Often this is because their parents were uncomfortable with the books when they were younger. As I see it, if you have no problem with the Narnia books, or with other “Christian fantasy” novels, then you can’t really object to Harry Potter. Though they’re not going to start selling them in Christian bookstores, J.K. Rowling has made it clear that the Christian symbolism that fills the books is no accident. From where I stand, Harry’s story is wonderful because in some important aspects, it parallels Jesus Christ’s. I won’t ruin the ending, but when I realized what was going to happen, it knocked me down in shock–I began praising God for what He’s done for us (then I got back to reading).

For years, I’ve been telling people that if they didn’t read Harry Potter as children, it’s not worth it to start now. They might as well spend their time on edifying “adult” novels. Let me RETRACT that advice right now. These novels are shockingly mature. Books 1 and 2 are comfortable in the JUV section in the library. Book 3 should really be in Young Adult. And if I didn’t think the stories were morally praiseworthy, I would never let my kids touch the much-darker books 4-7–they are not “kids’ books.”

J.K. Rowling is a Christian, undoubtedly–but a liberal one. It is lucky, then, that when she set out to write books in which, as she says, “the [religious parallels] have always been obvious,” the religion she is paralleling is grand and true enough to burst out of any box she could put it in. I think she saw this herself: “…I never wanted to talk too openly about [the Christian parallel] because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.” (Again, see Book 7).

But Harry Potter is not perfect. He is not Aslan, nor Peter Pevensie. He is not meant, as Aslan is, to truly represent Christ. He is meant to represent man, limitedly Christlike. But Harry has the capacity to be very un-Christlike indeed. He has a real anger problem and hates and disrespects older and wiser people in the stories (and is often “right” to do so within the narrative). In the final three books he has a rocky relationship even with his closest friends. These traits, while certainly not Christlike, certainly makes him seem more like me. What I like about Harry Potter is that he is someone prideful and angry, who nevertheless sometimes does things like Christ, humbly and often without regard for Himself.

J.K. Rowling can perhaps be compared to an old prospector who was looking for silver in the mountains, and found a rill of perfect diamonds. She was looking to tell a story her way, and to allude to Jesus Christ as she went along. But alluding to Jesus Christ is not like alluding to anyone else. Jesus Christ has power over all such allusions. Jo Rowling has traced a little bit of Story, but the Story itself shines through the cracks brighter than she ever knew or intended, because Christ is always more powerful and loving, more human and vulnerable, more present on the Earth and in our stories, than we imagine.

Harry Potter is not the only Christ figure in popular literature, nor the best. He is, as we have seen, unreliable, angry–very human, even if his heart is “pure.” He is often sorry, often shows remorse, often learns from his mistakes. But he never has a rebirth or conversion, never a self-conscious “I’m learning from my mistakes now” moment. But still, it’s significant that the bestselling and fastest-selling book series of all time is full of Christ and Christian imagery, even if the whole is not really theological at all.

But Jo Rowling’s characters are unique. Granting that she has seven book to do so, I would still assert that few authors have managed to push their characters closer to the reader, until the divide between author and character and reader is slim indeed. Harry Potter is perhaps the most relatable character I have ever read in a work of fiction. His flaws and his qualities are, I think, close to the ones we all imagine ourselves to have. I’m really addressing this to people who scoff at Harry Potter. Sure, there are laughable flaws in the books. Sure, parts are downright silly. But underneath and beyond those flaws are truly human characters, some of the most real I have read, part of the great Story just as we are.

I think the Harry Potter books are going to stick around for the long haul. With that in mind, isn’t it time you read them? It’s easy: they’re more addictive than you can imagine.

Uppity Sheep

Dr. Peter Leithart, recently my Theology professor at New Saint Andrews college and now the head of Trinity House Institute in Birmingham, has a fascinating and provocative post at First Things, called “The End of Protestantism.” (http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/11/the-end-of-protestantism)

Wait, what? Is it really time to end the Reformation and beg for re-admittance into the Roman church?

Protestantism ought to give way to Reformational catholicism. Like a Protestant, a Reformational catholic rejects papal claims, refuses to venerate the Host, and doesn’t pray to Mary or the saints; he insists that salvation is a sheer gift of God received by faith and confesses that all tradition must be judged by Scripture, the Spirit’s voice in the conversation that is the Church.

….

Some Protestants don’t view Roman Catholics as Christians, and won’t acknowledge the Roman Catholic Church as a true church. A Reformational Catholic regards Catholics as brothers, and regrets the need to modify that brotherhood as “separated.” To a Reformational Catholic, it’s blindingly obvious that there’s a billion-member Church of Jesus Christ centered in Rome. Because it regards the Roman Catholic Church as barely Christian, Protestantism leaves Roman Catholicism to its own devices. “They” had a pedophilia scandal, and “they” have a controversial pope. A Reformational Catholic recognizes that turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church is turmoil in his own family.

 This article is, in some places, unhelpfully vague. What does it mean, for example, that Reformational Catholics “[believe] salvation is inherently social?” Not to even mention the semantic danger of using a term in a new way and having it backfire: it simply isn’t true that people who call themselves “Protestants” do the things Dr. Leithart accuses “Protestants” of doing. Some do, for sure, but Dr. Leithart fails to make his new, transgressive definition of “Protestant” stick with the reader.

 That said, I believe Dr. Leithart has hit on something deeply true about the Protestant church. We are eager to distance ourselves from Rome, even when that means divorcing ourselves entirely from Christian tradition between the death of John the Divine and the birth of Martin Luther. In our ignorance, we are quick to deny the salvation of the one billion Catholics in the world because Jesus Christ, donchaknow, has cursed or ignored the largest branch of His spiritual descendants since about 1300 A.D.!

I think the deeper lesson here is humility about what we believe. There are non disputanda articles of the Christian faith; you will find them in the great Creeds to which all faithful churches ascribe. There is Scripture itself and its clear pronouncements about human sin and divine salvation. But everything else, and I mean everything, is up for debate in Christendom.

Each little Protestant island is suspicious and ignorant of all the others. Ask someone in the ARP about the OPC. If you really want to feel the heat, ask someone in the URC about the CRC! This comes, first, from a praiseworthy and deeply held belief that we have found the truth. It comes, second, from a deeply destructive pride in this fact, and a serious suspicion that no one outside our own little platoon has really got the scriptural nut of truth.

No one man has even a millionth part of the Truth that we call the Gospel. And a billion of us Christians together have two billion different ideas about our Father God, our brother Jesus Christ, our helper the Holy Spirit. Our minds are very limited, even and especially in the scope of what we deign to call our “reason.”

So, why would we assume that our group, out of all the groups, has found the whole truth, leaving none for the rest? Why would we CREC-kirkers assume that the other little Reformed bands are wrong wherever they deviate from our norm?

“One thing God has said, two things I have heard.” From the root of Scripture, the tree has grown in a fractal pattern, and out on the skinny branches it’s difficult for us to see the trunk that holds Christianity together. But we have to have faith that it is there, that God loves Catholics and Protestants alike and holds us all in His hand.

“But they’re just wrong,” you will say. Of course they are! But I’m advocating for the admission that we are, too. Yeah, it’s humbling to admit that our understanding of Christian faith is error-filled and limited–but isn’t that the point? We should never, ever be satisfied with our knowledge of the things of God, always acknowledge that it is shallow unless the Spirit has given us the grace to plumb the depths.

So, we should love our Catholic brothers and our Methodist brothers and our Anglican brothers and our Pentecostal brothers. Not because it doesn’t matter who is right, but because we are humble, and our level of certainty should reflect that. In the Bible, we are dust, and we are ants, we are sheep, and we are God’s children. Dust, ants, sheep, and children: not renowned for their intelligence, their rationality, or their grasp of scripture.

So Dr. Leithart is right, but not just because the Catholics are less wrong than we think. It’s because we are less right, we have less of a grasp of the truth of the Gospel, than we would like to suppose. That shouldn’t make us nihilists, but it should make us healthily skeptical about our own beliefs.

The Gospel calls us to take it seriously, to live devoutly for God because of what He has done for us. Nowhere does it tell us to take ourselves seriously. We are children, and we should love each other despite and even because of our playground disagreements. When we are grown, we will see clearly and we will all have been wrong about a lot of things, and we will laugh about it. Until then, we must live in humility.

Movie Review: Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game, dir. Gavin Hood (2013)

I am one of those people who always reads the book. Sometimes, I have conversations that go this way. Someone will bring up a book that I loved as a kid. “Do you know Toot and Puddle?” And I’ll say, “Yeah, I loved those books!” And they say, “They made a book?” And I’ll say, “They made a movie?” I’m not just saying that because I’m a literary snob (although you’ll notice I don’t deny it) and there have been notable exceptions (The Hunger Games), but usually I read the book before any adaptation hits the screen.

Such was the case with Ender’s Game, and boy am I glad. As I sat in the theater last night trying to explain why I loved Ender’s Game so much, Hood’s movie playing in front of us didn’t help. I’ll say this: I can’t really fault the gorgeous special effects, the heart-thumping battle sequences, or even (for the most part) the acting.

But when it comes to getting to the core of what made Card’s novel such a great human story, the script barely tries. Asa Butterfield makes Ender sympathetic, but movie-Ender is hardly the subtle, layered, tortured character he is in Card’s novel.

//SPOILERS//

Ender kills all the aliens. He nukes their planet. And then, that’s victory, right? No. In the book, Ender is wracked with uncertainty and guilt and resolves to find the last Hive Queen, the last surviving member of the alien race he massacred. Ender becomes the “speaker for the dead,” telling the stories of the race he murdered using his special connection to the Hive Queen.

The book goes from being a militaristic, gung-ho, Starship Troopers, wartime bildungsroman to a deep, quiet, sad contemplation on the nature of war and, fundamentally, how we treat the Other, l’etranger, whether it be human or alien.

The book has a certain flexibility that makes it both daring and appealing. It isn’t the sort of book that you like only if you like space opera, or only if you like novels that deal with the human mind. Even for readers who have a slight inclination to either one of those genres, Ender’s Game appeals.

But in a big-budget Hollywood setting, Ender’s Game fails. The constituent parts are (almost) all there, but the script is embarrassing and most of the relationships fall flat. Harrison Ford and Viola Davis perform well as the commanders of the Battle School, the space station in low orbit where Ender goes to train to become a “boy of war,” but they barely have any time to do so. The whole movie feels rushed: 114 minutes is enough to make a loud action extravaganza, or a quiet meditation on the nature of warfare and its effect on the human soul. It’s not enough time, apparently, for Gavin Hood et al. to make something worthwhile out of a book that has elements of both.

Read the book. It’s amazing. It deals with every question that the movie hints at on a much deeper level. It’s a quick, propulsive, surprising read.

The movie: 5/10.

The book: 10/10.