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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

New Site, New Domain—Make the Permanent Switch!

Thanks for reading Blogles! I've moved my blog to a new address:

Please bookmark the new site and add the new feed to your RSS because that's it for Blogles—it will no longer be updated. The blog continues, just on a faster, sleeker, more interactive site with the new name:

And on the new blog, feel free to tell me what you think!

- Samuel

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

4 Sources Every Christian's Hermeneutic Needs

Everyone has a hermeneutic. A hermeneutic is simply your way of interpreting Reality or God's presence in texts, creation, religion, science, and so on.

Before you buck at the idea and think, "I don't do that! I don't do anything as subjective as interpreting God myself," it's wise to keep in mind that all religion, all churches and pastors and creeds, use a hermeneutic. If you've ever asked, "What is this biblical passage saying to me personally," then you've engaged in interpretation, too. And that's okay.

Although hermeneutics can be bad or good (or somewhere in between), simply having a hermeneutic is neutral and natural. It's how we're able to grasp anything from God at all. All language—even the "original" Latin, Greek, or Hebrew—is a form of interpreting and making the inexpressible somehow expressible. Interpretation isn't bad, it's a necessity.

The four elements below are what every Christian must balance. I call the hermeneutic, "REST," which is an acronym that is self-explanatory below. But "REST" also connotes the place that such a hermeneutic should lead us: a place of tranquility, openness, and freedom. These four are a way of knowing truth, and "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).

  • Reason
    I've written before about the use of reason in faith. There is nothing wrong with being logical in your faith. The trick is simply knowing where its limits our. Logic and reason produce questions. Questions are good. Questions can lead you to God. You cannot love a question. Cardinal Edwin O'Brien says that someone will give their life for a mystery but not for a question mark. Reason has limits but it is still invaluable. You cannot have a faith that does not use reason. If you're open to truth in all its forms (even logical and scientific truth), than you're view of God will be more holistic and therefore more true.

  • Experience
    My own experiences have proved vital to my faith, and I really couldn't have maintained faith without making room for them to inform what I think about God, myself, and life. Experience does the hard work of growth for us. Many Christians view experience as something dangerous or a subjective challenge to other authorities like the Bible. That's not always the case (and probably not even most of the time). Experience is subjective but it's also a way for God to speak to you. It may teach you things you can't learn anywhere else. There's a difference between reading about the Good Samaritan and actually being a Good Samaritan.

  • Scripture
    This is probably the biggest common denominator that Christians as a group share. Yes, there are differences of preference, of what's given authority. There are even different versions of the Bible and different books or words. But for the most part, we recognize the Bible as a complex but ultimately true text with Christ at its center. I do think that Scripture can be called the authority in Christianity. But for me, this does not outweigh the other three sources, and it certainly doesn't outweigh the value of Christian tradition. You can take a Catholic or a Protestant view of Scripture but its best to remember that Scripture's authority does not exclude other authorities.

  • Tradition
    I suggest that all Christians recognize some authority when it comes to tradition. This is why we quote Augustine or Francis of Assisi regardless of our individual creeds. There is power in the 2000 years of history our faith has had since Christ's death and resurrection. If you still need convincing, the authority of Scripture was determined by Christian leaders, meeting, praying, and weighing tradition in order to determine what texts were authentically the Word of God and should be included in the Bible. That simple realization can open us up to accepting that our vast faith history has something true to say when it comes to informing our own hermeneutic.

REST - Now, how you actually weight each of these elements will be something unique to you and also something you will continue to change but the point is that they harmonize. I do think Scripture and Tradition form the basis on top of which (and through which) you can understand your own views of Experience and Reason but it would be a mistake to think everything works in one direction. Reason can help us understand Scripture and Experience can inform Tradition, and on and on, even if they don't all hold equal authority. There's a lot of nuance here but the general idea should be clear. If some thought of yours appears to be true, you can measure it against the other authorities in your life to test its harmony. If it's false, you'll find yourself twisting everything else to meet this new interpretation and your hermeneutic will be obviously disjointed.

Related Posts:
Abraham, Isaac, and the Heresy of Reason
4 Things Evangelicals Can Learn From Catholicism

God in Evolution

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Can Slytherins Go to Heaven: A Look at Christian Ambition

I am a resolute fan of the Harry Potter books. I'm not crazy for it, off learning how to speak troll or anything. (The real fans will probably write me to correct that the troll language, of course, can't be learned by humans. Or something...) But there are a few troubling thoughts that emerge from the books, and the greatest in my mind is the wizarding school's house system. They're basically like teams with their own mascots and colors. And characteristics. Here's where it gets interesting.

The first house is Gryffindor. All students that go to this house have within them great courage, a desire to do good, and being a champion against injustice. The second house is Ravenclaw, which prizes knowledge, learning, and wisdom above all else. The third house is Hufflepuff, which is honestly sort of a throwaway because all the other houses get cool characteristics and this sort of takes the leftovers. And the fourth and last house is Slytherin. The students of Slytherin all exhibit great attraction to power and ambition.

The problem here is that the author of HP pulls nearly every villain in the series from Slytherin. The implication seems to be that of course a lust for knowledge doesn't corrupt and of course anger at injustice can never end badly but naturally all humans with ambitions who enjoy leadership are very easily made evil.

I don't think the author had Christian intentions but this echoes our own Christian faith and culture. We have divided many characteristics - what are called "personalities" or "essences" or "types" - into 'Of God' and 'Not of God' categories. If you dislike injustice, that's clearly from God. If you're ambitious, that's clearly not. Ambition is evil.

The ambitious are the ones you'll find in Slytherin House. Or perhaps even in your own house and family. Humanity is full of people who seek the spotlight, who are naturally cunning, who have ambitions and goals for themselves. And while we can never condone a life of pure self-interest, it's a mistake to think that ambitions are desires that Christians must automatically deny.

What Do Christians Think of Ambition?

The conversation in most Christian circles assumes ambition is inherently evil. You'll easily find articles with titles like, "Is Ambition Always Sinful" (emphasis added), because of course it's wrong to want to achieve goals or have recognition.

This is because as Christians we've adopted a dualistic view of reality. We hold that certain traits like self-sacrifice come from God and other traits like ambition come from the Enemy. It's one or the other or so we're taught. But is it?

No. Ambition is not an inherently good or bad characteristic; it simply is. For those of us who have great ambitions (and yes, I'm decidedly in this boat), it's simply a matter of orienting those desires properly. I recently spoke to a Wheaton College graduate who said that of course she learned at college to be ambitious, but "ambitious for Jesus!"

This is much healthier than selfish ambition but even what people like John Piper call, "holy ambition," can be dangerous (though not necessarily so). The danger is in thinking that you shouldn't desire success and that if God truly wanted you to be successful, s/he'd give you a winning lottery ticket and 1 million loyal customers overnight! Right...

In one of the best conversations I've had on the topic, I spoke with Adam Graber, a friend, blogger, and deep thinker about faith, technology, and culture (he blogs at The Second Eclectic). I shared that I was feeling guilty wanting my blog to be a success, wanting to get more speaking engagements, wanting to be a voice in Christian conversations. "It's not like I'm person X. I didn't have something from God that was out of my control happen to me that was a sign to write a book or anything," I confessed to him. "I feel like I'm the one choosing to try to be successful." Adam responded, "Even person X wouldn't be a success unless they actively marketed themselves. No one makes it 'just because.' They make it because they pursue success."

He's right. Every popular Christian preacher, blogger, author, and musical artist is popular because they have ambition and because they use that in real attempts to promote their work. "It's hard to imagine anybody who accomplished anything in life or in ministry without a helpful nudge from ambition," says Will Willimon, Methodist bishop and former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University.

God Uses Everything about You

God uses all parts of us, even our ambitions. And it's okay to want to be successful in a personal sense. But we have to come by it honestly and hold it loosely. Probably the greatest quote I've read comes from Rachel Held Evans:
Success and failure are a part of life. And it is for life that Jesus has equipped us.  So he has prepared us to see success for what it is—sometimes the result of faithfulness and hard work, sometimes not, sometimes used rightly to glorify God and care for his creation, sometimes used wrongly to glorify ourselves, never an entitlement, often a stumbling block, and always fleeting. 
Always fleeting...isn't that the truth. I think the pitfalls of ambition are a sense of entitlement and putting yourself above others. But this is very different from simply wanting to be read, heard, seen, or otherwise recognized for the gifts God has given you and the hard work you've done. "Ambition denied can be self-deceitful and eventually self-destructive," says Willimon in Christianity Today's Leadership Journal. We should be honest about our ambitions. We just have to be careful that we see them properly. Feeling recognition and success are owed to us is what turns ambition into self-centeredness.

The themes of living a holy life pervade every part of us, including ambition. You can be a Slytherin and still image God beautifully and uniquely. You can be attracted to leadership, have ambitions, and even desire power, just not power for its own sake. Desires are not bad and I would encourage you to pursue your own dreams and success. But we have an obligation to keep in mind that we may not achieve success according to our own standards and that even if we do, it must be honestly come by.

Love, it's always love. If our ambitions are pure, they need not be overtly religious ("Ambitious for Jesus!"...). We need only be sure our lives - whatever the success - have a worth determined by something deeper, that is, the Deep Something.

Related Posts:
Should Christians Feel Guilty about Being Rich?
The Real and True Enemy: What Is "Evil"?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Do We Have to Choose Church or Not? A Response to Donald Miller

Almost every Sunday I wake up seeing daylight filter through my blinds and I immediately panic. I'm used to it being dark when I open my eyes, and I get worried that I slept through my alarm. I'll roll over, check the clock, and (usually) find instant relief: not even 8:00 AM yet. Plenty of time.

I get worried because in almost seven years, I haven't missed a single Sunday at church.

Sure, there has been the occasional sickness or other force out of my control that kept me from attending. But if I'm able to go, I do. And have since college.

I don't miss church because I'm too tired or don't feel like it, even though both have been the case plenty of times, believe you me. I think I feel that sleeping in or choosing something else - even something nice to reading the Bible - is choosing myself over God. Or maybe choosing God on my own terms and what's convenient for how I feel on that particular morning.

I wish I could say that commitment comes entirely from within but that wouldn't be the full truth. Attending church every Sunday is a requirement for Catholics. It used to be seen as a requirement for all Christians.

Should it still be? That question has gotten a lot of attention in the last week thanks to Donald Miller's blog post, "I Don't Worship God by Singing. I Connect with Him Elsewhere." In it, he basically argues that attending church, for various reasons, really just isn't that important. Naturally this has invited a lot of Christian responses, so many, in fact, that it prompted a second post by Miller clarifying and defending the first.

Miller was attacked for his arguments, which, in truth, weren't initially explained very well and seem to ignore a lot of shared Christian experience. I do admire Miller. He slams "tribal" and "binary" thinking, both being rampant within modern Christianity. He tends to be thoughtful, open, sincere, and unafraid to question the status quo. When I met and helped interview him in 2008, I liked him immediately for these reasons. But I think Miller and prominent Christian responses to him (links at the end of this post) seem to miss some important ideas in the conversation.

Miller doesn't claim to offer a model for other Christians to follow but given his prominence and popularity, for better or worse, he really can't escape that role. People read him in hopes of learning how to be better Christians and human beings. So when he reduces local churches to places "where people find spiritual security through communion with both God and a local tribe" and attending church to "attending a lecture and hearing a singing," he's bound to ruffle some feathers.

Miller expressed that he simply doesn't get anything out of attending church: the "lectures" are boring and the "singing" doesn't connect with him emotionally.  Of course this fueled responses of "church isn't about you, it's about God." Miller responds by saying that sentiment is "a nice cliche," though he does admit it has "some basis in Scripture."

Perhaps the biggest critique was against Miller's argument-from-feelings. He says that he just connects with God much better outside of traditional church services, through writing and through running his business. It would be easy to write this off (and I initially did) but I think there's actually something to it. Why can't people connect with God outside of church? Why can't God's way of speaking to you be through your dancing, writing, business acumen, parenting, running, - the things God has gifted you to do? The answer of course is that God can speak to you through these things, and perhaps even primarily does. The essential matter that Miller misses is that that fact does not preclude the necessity of participation in a real, physical church.

A lot of responses have tried to shame Miller into attending church out of a sense of duty. There's something to be said for duty when it comes to church but if being part of the Body of Christ comes down to duty, our faith must be a a very poor one, and Miller, to his credit, easily recognizes this.

The Larger Questions

The larger questions that are touched on but not explicitly stated in the conversation are about how "church," the Body of Christ, God's dwelling place, and sabbath are all defined and what they actually mean. These are difficult questions, too large to fully dive into here. But it's probably worth noting that for many Christians, the physical building and the actual people constitute a visible and immediate "church" in which we are indeed called to participate. For Miller and many others, "church" has a much more mystical definition where the Body and God's presence is recognized everywhere, sometimes more fully. Miller uses the language of an 'evolving faith' to describe how he no longer has to connect with God or a traditional church community. Again, I do like Miller, but this is a little insulting. He fails to see that we are called to see God first and foremost in the people right before us and in the present moment. Once you see God's presence in your fellow Christians and in your local church, then you can see and understand that God's presence indeed goes beyond them. To Miller's credit he seems to have reached a point of growth where God is not confined within the church walls. Yes - good! But contrary to Miller's view, there are plenty of Christians who have reached those higher levels who still choose to attend church. Throughout history they almost always have. Why?

I think it's because the Christian faith and our salvation are communal by nature. This is what it means to be a part of an indivisible Body. Of course one can have Christian community outside of attending church. Of course God can't be contained in a box. Of course you can connect with God in ways that are unique to you. But if our Triune God is ultimately loving relationship in the Trinity, then we must live that way as well. And unfortunately for Miller, I think God's view of church involves living that relationship with people who sometimes bore you, who sing off key, who try your patience, and may be at different levels of spiritual understanding than you. I think a physical church is not only instituted by God and encouraged by St. Paul but actually healthy for us. By insisting he can opt out of a community that doesn't seem to fit, Miller exposes a very American way of viewing church as something primarily to be consumed. Miller doesn't ask what affect his non-attendance has on others. He doesn't think about the ways in which he's called to bless others in that building.

The Way Out?

I don't mean to pick on Miller; he's just a momentary representative of sentiments a lot of us feel. I sympathize with a lot of his thoughts (the preaching at masses is notoriously terrible nationwide), and a lot of his critiques are true.

But I think it's a close relationship with the Body that Miller forgets, not only the Body we choose for ourselves among our friends and colleagues who share our interests but especially the Body we don't choose for ourselves (something I've written about before). Regular participation in a physical church community is the surest way to get us out of what C. S. Lewis calls our "solitary conceit" that we can have the good Christian life exactly as we'd design it for ourselves.

Such a view leaves no room for community. If we're honest, we wouldn't choose to be in relationship with most of the people we encounter at our local church. And that's the point. It images God's choice for relationship with us, imperfect and bumbling as we are. This relationship to our local church community - like any familial relationship - will involve emotions and feelings but in addition to a commitment that transcends our subjective feelings. Our faith gives us relationship in community designed around the needs of community AND relationship to God on our own designed around our own needs. Being a Christian isn't about choosing one or the other. We can choose both/and. And we should choose both, as often as we should choose love.

Other Perspectives on This Subject:

Donald Miller (original post) | I Don't Worship God by Singing. I Connect with Him Elsewhere
Sarah Bessey | In which I think community is worth intention :: or, why I still 'go to' church
Ed Stetzer | Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? Why We Should Choose Church Anyway

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Abraham, Isaac, and the Heresy of Reason

In Scripture, Abraham is tested by God. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as a burnt offering to the Lord. Most of us know this story and most of us can recognize that Abraham is also a type of God the Father sacrificing God the Son. (If you'd like to read it yourself, it can be found in Genesis 22:1-19.)

I believe that this story actually happened. I believe that it is not only true as a type or a parable but as a factual occurrence in history. I believe the story is true.

If we understand the story, we can recognize that the "testing" of Abraham isn't a testing of his integrity. God is not trying to see if Abraham is willing to violate universal morality (such as "do not kill"). Instead, God is testing Abraham to see if he's willing to sacrifice his legacy. Isaac is the only chance for Abraham's life to go on through his offspring and as confirmation, the reward for Abraham's passing of the test is that he will be blessed through descendants "as numerous as the stars."

But if we hold up this story to morality, God's morality, we must instantly be quite horrified. I don't know how to reconcile the factual nature of the story with a morality that states murder is wrong, something almost every culture at every time has known. But whatever Abraham must have thought or felt, we know how we would think or feel in this situation. The difference is that reason must play a vital role in our faith.

Many Christians view reason as the enemy of faith. But reason and even common sense have been an aid to Christians throughout the ages from St. Augustine to St. Aquinas to even contemporaries like C. S. Lewis (apologetics is merely reasonable argumentation). Pope Benedict XVI stated famously that faith and reason are not at odds and that if it appears they are, then you're misunderstanding at least one of them.

In the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas we can affirm that "all truth is God's truth." We need not fear what Christians at times have thought stood in opposition to their faith and interpretation of Scripture - a heliocentric solar system, women learning and in leadership roles, the belief that slavery was wrong despite its presence in the Bible, and, in our modern day, things like evolution.

You don't have to believe in evolution, of course, but don't be afraid of science. We continue to push back against reason because we feel threatened. Rather than giving reason license to inform and enrich our faith, we wish to banish its authority altogether. This is because doing so is easier than having to negotiate reason's influence on us. We might not like where reason leads us.

Imagine for a moment that you are in Abraham's place. You hear an audible, physical, divine voice asking you to kill your child, or your spouse, or your parents. You believe that it's God. Would you go through with it? I do not wish to and cannot say that Abraham was wrong because I am neither an exegete nor do I fully understanding the cultural and religious attitudes of the time. But I can say, without a doubt, that in our own hypothetical scenario, you would be absolutely wrong to go through with it. Here is where reason must inform faith and we would all have to say, "No."

Reason easily leads us to the realization that killing is wrong - grossly wrong - and that our faith confirms this time and again. The point I'm trying to make isn't really about an impossible hypothetical situation or that killing is wrong, which we all know. The point of all this is that we must not shut out reason when it comes to faith. We must let it have a voice and the power to move us from positions we previously thought immovable. In the above scenario, we need not claim that God is wrong or immoral. We need only take reason, "killing is wrong," and apply it to our situation. We would have to conclude that the voice we heard wasn't really God or that it was imagined or something else that can reconcile the situation.

Many Christians continue to feel threatened by reason and arguments, by facts, and by science, and Evangelicals are leading the way. Evangelicals are almost twice as likely to disbelieve evolution as Catholics or Mainline Protestants. Broadly speaking, Christians seem to be generally averse to reason (and science) affecting their faith. In another poll, Christians were asked to imagine a scenario where clear evidence was presented that actually proved, clearly beyond any doubt, that some of their beliefs were false. A clear majority responded that in such a scenario, they would continue to believe those things anyway.

Almost the exact same question was once put to the Dalai Lama, who, in his usual style, gave a simple yet profoundly brilliant answer. A reporter essentially asked His Holiness what he would do if tomorrow his religion were proven wrong. He responded that if that were the case, he supposed he would have to give up his religion. But then he returned a question to the reporter by asking how someone could possibly show such a proof. The reporter, of course, had no answer.

Do you see? The Dalai Lama was open to reason and yet it posed no real threat to him or his beliefs. Again, all truth is God's truth. Some of us fear reason because we believe it challenges God or that it's human pride to think human things like "science" know best. But ours is a faith that accepts all of reality. The problem comes when we see a conflict and decide, "No matter what evidence comes, I'll believe the way I believe until I die." We mistake immovability for faith-filled courage.

I am not arguing that religious belief needs to be supported by the scientific method or formal logic. I am not saying that reason will guide every facet of your faith (how could it ever explain the Trinity and a thousand other mysteries?). But reason needs to be given a voice for informing your faith. If something is not true, reason doesn't have the power to prove that it is true. And if a religious belief is indeed true, reason cannot damage it. Like the Dalai Lama, we should adopt an attitude of openness to reason, knowing we have nothing to fear. 

It's important to remember that many spiritual realities transcend reason. Note: they don't contradict reason, they just overcome it. And we must remember that reason is ultimately an aid to our faith. Be wary of anyone who says reason, facts, and the natural world are dangerous to your faith. While an exultation of reason as the only way of knowing is certainly dangerous (as with the New Atheists), a banishment of reason makes for a shallow faith, easily shaken by the slightest disturbance. Those who can't hold a faith informed by reason aren't in a position to hear anything but what they want to hear. And that's a decidedly bad hermeneutic for anyone.

Related Posts:
When Christian Doctrine Fails Us
God in Evolution

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sin Doesn't Hurt God, It Hurts You

I suppose I've been troubled by what I've heard my whole life about sin. For the longest time, I pictured God as a divine judge with a literal book in which was written every little thing you did wrong, no matter how small. And there was another book, a giant reference manual. In this book, God took your sins and used them to look up the corresponding appropriate punishment.

The "upside" of the story, I was told, was that if you were a Christian Jesus would come along and overwrite the consequences for all your sins, a sort of divine posting of bail. You did something wrong, you deserved to be punished, but Christ got you out of it.

And for years, I've thought this is how sin works. You sin, you deserve a punishment that God's role as judge demands, but grace gets you off the hook. But I think there's something not only unhelpful in this story but actually something wrong with it.

If we view sin as merely actions that deserve punishments, we've missed the point entirely. Instead we should borrow something from our Eastern brothers and sisters and think of sin as similar to karma.

"Karma" is the Sanskrit word for "action" and is used as "volition" in Buddhism. Karma is not what most of us think. We tend to think of karma as rewards or punishments that we've accumulated for ourselves. That view is not unlike our story of the divine judgment of God. Instead, as Buddhist monk Walpola Rahula notes, karma simply means action and it is in the nature of an action, the karma, that the effect is produced.

In this way, good action - good karma - produces good effects. Bad action - bad karma - produces bad effects. It doesn't produce these because a divine judge is dealing out rewards or punishments. It produces these because an action by it's very nature can't help but have one result. Like pushing a hockey puck in a certain direction on an ice rink, good karma has good results and vice versa. If you push the puck to the right, it can't help but glide in that direction. If you push it to the left, it can't help but keep moving left. It will never switch directions, it just keeps going where you've sent it.

It's helpful to think of sin as similar to karma in this way. While it's theologically true that sin has eternal consequences for your soul, sin's consequences are first and foremost in the here and now. People who exercise avarice, lust, or anger do not feel fulfilled. They do not exist in a happy place. You've heard "virtue is its own reward." Well, sin is its own punishment. Like karma, sin can't help but produce negative consequences. Drop a ball from a great height and it can't help but fall. Sin is like that. It can't help but have negative effects for you in the present.

C. S. Lewis said that each sin committed served to orient you slightly away from the direction of God. Each time you sin, you turn a little more and a little more until you no longer have a clear perspective of God. And that's the real danger.

The English mystic Julian of Norwich said that the reason God doesn't want us to sin is that it keeps us from seeing God as God truly is and from seeing ourselves as we truly are. That's it! God doesn't get upset with our sin because we broke rules or because we made God cry. God simply desires we not sin because doing so pulls a cloak over our eyes. It fogs our mirror. Sin's consequences punish us in the present by clouding our view of Reality.

And isn't that what heaven is - perfect seeing? Isn't the concept of perfect union with God a face-to-face vision? This is why prophets in Scripture must physically turn away from God and never look directly upon him. This is why they're only ever permitted a glimpse at God's back. And this is why in Catholicism we say that to be in heaven is to experience the beatific vision - to be able to stand the "brightness" of looking upon God's face.

Sin isn't bad because it violates a divine and arbitrary rule book, and God isn't waiting to deal out punishments that correspond to what you've done. No, sin is the punishment! Sin carries within itself the life-draining effects we often think are reserved only for the end of time. God isn't waiting to hurt us for our sin. We're the ones hurting ourselves. This seems to be a much healthier view offering us both more freedom and a more loving image of God.

Related Posts:
Advent & Emmanuel: Seeing God was Here All Along

I'm in Love with Judas

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Black & White Photos of Faith

I'm a sucker for Buzzfeed articles. I don't get sucked into cat videos or Reddit, and I don't spend hours continuously checking Facebook or Twitter (outside of my marketing job). But I fall for the Buzzfeed link almost every time, mostly because they have the best headlines in the business.

A couple weeks ago I found myself clicking through to a seductive article with a title close to "These Photos Will Completely Change the Way You See the Past!" I mean, how could I resist?

But believe it or not, the post made good on that promise. They had taken black and white historical photos and artificially added in color. All of a sudden these images no longer seemed so distant. The man with the thick mustache and bowler looked like someone you might pass on the street. The scenes from 1940s life looked like a snapshot of your neighborhood. The retouching with color and thus lifelike aspects closed the distance between the past and present. I felt much more connected to the scenes in the photographs after that. They weren't so foreign or distant. They were right here next to my own experience.

In reflecting on the end of 2013, I think we all take black and white photographs, especially in the area of our faith. There is something very appealing and artistic about deleting color from an image. (Why else would it be so popular even to this day?) Having black and white photos allows contrast and thus a more certain level of understanding. It's easier to deal with images cast in only two colors. The complexity of full-color snapshots is much more difficult for us to process and the duo of black & white seems to help gloss over a lot of imperfections and blemishes. Everything looks better when cast into those two opposite extremes standing side by side in glaring distinction.

In Christianity we are especially susceptible to this. We like to think of our faith history in only two colors, black & white, right & wrong, those like us & those not. It's very convenient for the past to seem simpler, cleaner, or somehow purer - all effects of our black & white-washing. We love to think of golden eras like the early Church period, the high middle ages, the Reformation, or even 1950s America. "That was when men were men, Americans were great, Christians were real Christians and they knew it" and so on.

It's easy to think that the past was simpler with more contrast and stark outlines of morality, ("sure in my day we had problems, but we would never do X like you find now"). And it's easy to think that our current times, with so many complicated colors and hues, must indicate a terrible new height of debauchery, confusion, unfaithfulness, or trouble. You often hear people descrying that the world is now going to 'hell in a hand basket.' Just look at how many Christians reach for 'end times' prophecies and confidently point out their fulfillment today despite our very God decidedly telling us that not one of us would know the hour.

I'm a fan and student of history. And I used to feel some sense of loss about our contemporary culture of faith, as if we must have been screwing it up and the problems of our times were much too severe for reconciliation. But those thoughts are really just illusions (which first-hand accounts of peasants on the coast of France having literally everything they've known destroyed by Viking raiders will make abundantly clear). Think the Middle Ages were a wonderful era where everyone was united by Christianity? Try reading the histories, rife with conflict. Think 1950s America was a time when everyone acted knew right from wrong and acted with propriety? Now we have volumes of stories of what went on in secret, including divorce, forced abortions, and even child sexual abuse.

The good news? We don't have it worse than everyone else did; our problems are just different. Our faith isn't more watered down now then in previous ages. On the contrary, we have a much richer history to learn from than our forbears centuries before. The bad news? We are the ones often finding the complexity of our modern faith culture(s) too mentally difficult to deal with.

But rather than considering the past as a purified beacon or a simplified ideal we can realize, like I did with the color photographs, that there's more relatedness than perhaps we once thought. Our experiences of doubt and complexity are universal and that there's beauty in that shared experience as well. Others have weathered the same storm to their credit and now it's our turn.

The issues of our times may be different than before but that seems to be our task. We get to struggle with the life of faith and the really pressing issues of this age - war, poverty, corporate greed, the emphasis on sexual morality, homosexuality's place in society and the church, combating sexism, Christian disunity, and much more. We get to experience life in a million different colors. Christ didn't divide his reality into black & white, accepted or not, and in fact he condemned those of his time who did just that (See John 8:1-11). Such a task is clearly God's and not ours. We're called to simply be fully present in the here and now.

Our task of living in this full-color time may not be simple or neat but perhaps it holds the potential to be rich beyond anything we could have designed for ourselves, beyond anything we would have preferred. And I think it can give us beauty beyond anything we could have even known we'd always wanted.