the best I could find

Friday, December 31, 2010 Posted by

I suffer from a psychological compulsion which means that I can’t let the end of the year go by without compiling lists of my favourite things from the twelve months just past. I know some of you can empathise. Hopefully putting up my lists may provide a spur to get back in the saddle with some more regular blogging in 2011. And also a spur to sort out my life and watch some more movies next year. Unlike certain other people, I’ve seen nearly nothing this year and had to scrape the barrel to find some offerings.

So without any comment, and in no particular order, here are my top 3 favourites from the culural artifacts that were new to me this year:

First, the music:

The National – High Violet

Over the Rhine – The Long Surrender

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

And the novels:

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

And the non-fiction books:

Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright*

A Million Miles In A Thousand Years by Donald Miller

Planet Narnia by Michael Ward

(* definitely helped by the fact that I got to read and discuss it week by week with one of our favourite people)

And finally, the best I could find from the movies I managed to see:

A Serious Man

Up In The Air

Toy Story 3

(seriously, that’s all I can come up with)

I’m happy to defend my choices against your scorn, but more than that I’d love to hear your nominations (which will then form the core of my choices for next year).

Finally, if you’d like to catch up a little on the everyday craziness of life in our little family, I recommend a meander through my amazing wife’s advent blog.

Peace on all (three) of you in 2011.

life is a miracle

Friday, May 21, 2010 Posted by

I like to think I take a generally positive view of science. And I’m confused by those who seem to think that the creation of the first “synthetic life form” presents some kind of drastic threat to the credibility of religious faith. In the-Christian-version-of-things, human beings are created in the image of their Creator. So the fact that humans have used their God-given resources of intelligence and creativity to copy something they found in God’s creation seems, well, unsurprising.

This is a genuinely impressive breakthrough in the history of human discovery, and of what Kepler called “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” So why do I feel uneasy and not excited? I spent this morning in Starbucks reading Wendell Berry (which is a bit like sitting in the Enron board-room reading Karl Marx) and he put words to my feelings of unease:

The journalists think it intellectually chic to stand open-mouthed before any wonder of science whatsoever. The media, cultivating their mediocrity, seem quite comfortably unaware that many of the calamities from which science is expected to save the world were caused in the first place by science – which meanwhile is busy propagating further calamities, hailed now as wonders, from which later it will undertake to save the world. Nobody, so far as I have heard, is attempting to figure out how much of the progress resulting from this enterprise is net. It is as if the whole population has been gentically deprived of the ability to subtract….

The only science we have or can have is human science; it has human limits and is involved always with human ignorance and human error. It is a fact that the solutions invented or discovered by science have tended to lead to new problems or to become problems themselves. Scientists discovered how to use nuclear energy to solve some problems, but any use of it is enormously dangerous to us all, and scientists have not discovered what to do with the waste. (They have not discovered what to do with old tires). The availability of antibiotics leads to the overuse of antibiotics. And so on. Our daily lives are a daily mockery of our scientific pretensions. We are learning to know precisely the location of our genes, but significant numbers of us don’t know the whereabouts of our children. Science does not seem to be lighting the way; we seem rather to be leapfrogging into the dark along series of scientific solutions, which become problems, which call for further solutions, which science is always eager to supply, and which it sometimes cannot supply…

It is dangerous to act… on the assumption that our knowledge will increase fast enough to outrace the bad consequences of the arrogant use of incomplete knowledge. To trust “progress” or our putative “genius” to solve all the problems that we cause is worse than bad science; it is bad religion.

(From Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition)

on the importance of not being earnest

Friday, March 26, 2010 Posted by

I’ve been reading a strange and fascinating book called Planet Narnia by a scholar called Michael Ward who claims to have uncovered a hidden theme running through CS Lewis’s Narnia books. I was pretty sceptical of the whole idea of a “hidden theme,” but I was first hooked, then floored, then completely convinced by Ward’s arguments.

The basic idea is that each Narnia book reflects one of the seven planets in medieval astronomy (Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, Saturn). Lewis was endlessly fascinated by the medieval worldview, and always believed that there was wisdom in that era that has been lost in the modern, scientific age. He knew that the medieval view of the solar system was not “literally” accurate, and he didn’t believe that the planets influence life on earth in the way that astrologers (medieval and modern) describe, and he didn’t believe in the pagan deities named after the planets.  But he did believe that the seven medieval planets were useful as literary metaphors, or as “spiritual symbols” of “permanent value.”

Each planet had its own particular character, which Lewis believed reflected some aspect of reality, of life, of God himself. And so Ward argues that each Narnia book was crafted to reflect the particular character or mood or atmosphere of one of the planets, especially in how it depicts the character of Aslan. You’ll have to read Ward’s book to find out how the flip that works.

But the bit that has grabbed my imagination is the way Ward (and Lewis) talk about the relative significance of Saturn and Jupiter. This is the tricky part to write about, since each planet represents a mood or atmosphere, and can’t be reduced to a strict definition. But in very simplistic terms, Saturn is the planet that speaks of sorrow, disaster, melancholy, pestilence and ill luck. He is “the last planet, old and ugly.” Jupiter, on the other hand, is the King of the planets, and speaks of benevolence, festivity, peace and joy – of “winter passed and guilt forgiven.” (For those who are interested, Saturn is the planet corresponding to The Last Battle,  and Jupiter is the ruling planet of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). The influence of these symbols is seen in the adjectives which are still sometimes used to describe these two different moods – “saturnine” (OK that one’s not used very much today) and “jovial.”

Lewis argues that the modern age is dominated by the spirit of Saturn, as reflected in the sombre, bleak, “realistic” literature of highly-admired writers like TS Eliot and John Donne. As a young man, Lewis was drawn to this kind of literature, but he later grew to question the dominance of this serious, melancholy mood.

Of Saturn we know more than enough, but who does not need to be reminded of Jove?

The view Lewis came to (and expressed in his Narnia books) is that Saturn must be given his place – there is pain and sorrow in the world, and it must be faced, and felt, and acknowledged, and lamented. But Saturn is not King, not the centre of the universe. So sorrow and melancholy are not the last word, are not the deepest truth we can bear witness to about reality. At the end of everything, at the heart of everything, Jupiter is King. Joy is at the heart of the universe.

This gets me thinking about a lot of things. A lot of times our Christian subculture  tries to skip past Saturn and get to the joy of Jupiter, and we end up with a cheap, sentimental, chirpy cheerfulness.  This is what I find reflected in a lot of Christian art (music, fiction, etc.) as well as in a lot of sermons and Christian books. It doesn’t face the depth of the brokenness that’s in the world and in our own hearts and lives. As that old saturnine prophet Jeremiah once growled, it “dresses the wounds of the people lightly.” That’s why in spite of the surface chirpiness and optimism, I find this music and writing strangely depressing and dispiriting.

I think it’s for that reason that I ended up being drawn to the art being produced outside the Christian bubble, and developed a great love of depressing novels and music and films. They seemed to describe the world more truthfully, more courageously than a lot of Christian art and teaching. They were deeper, more mature, more grown-up. There was wisdom in Radiohead and Fight Club and Ian McEwan that was missing from the shelves of Wesley Owen.

But I think Lewis is right. Melancholy has its place, but it’s not the last or best word we have to say. Cynicism is not more truthful than hope, and sorrow is not more mature than joy. What we need to bear witness to in our art, our preaching, our lives, is the joy that lies on the other side of sorrow, or even in the midst of sorrow.

Lewis says that capturing this truly “jovial” spirit is much more difficult than the melancholy of Saturn, and there are very few writers who pull it off. I think Lewis is one of those who did, and this jovial spirit, this infectious joy-beyond-sorrow, is the heartbeat of his best writing. It’s also the heartbeat of  the writers who most influenced Lewis, like George MacDonald and GK Chesterton, and of his old friend JRR Tolkien.

But are there any artists in our generation who manage to convey the spirit of joviality? Only a few come to mind for me. Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robsinson, Sufjan Stevens, Gillian Welch…? Among popular Christian writers, Frederick Buechner and Philip Yancey. There must be others. I’d love to hear your suggestions.

I’m also convinced that this is the heart of the challenge for preachers and for the Christian community. How do we acknowledge the heartache and brokenness in the room and in the wider world, the reality of cancer and depression and divorce and abuse and war and debt and anger and lust? Saturn must have his due. The sorrow must be felt and faced. But still, we must bear witness to a reality deeper than sorrow. Jupiter is King (because Jesus is King). We are to be a community of hope and joy and good news. We’ll let Tolkien have the last word:

there is joy beyond the walls of the world, more poignant than grief

now that’s what i call a decade

Friday, December 25, 2009 Posted by

OK so without any further explanation, here are my favourite records of the past decade for your entertainment and ridicule. I’d love to hear what you would include instead…

Heartbreaker – Ryan Adams (2000)

Time (The Revelator) – Gillian Welch (2001)

American IV: The Man Comes Around – Johnny Cash (2002)

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – Wilco (2002)

Ohio – Over the Rhine (2003)

Illinois – Sufjan Stevens (2005)

I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning – Bright Eyes (2005)

Our Endless Numbered Days – Iron and Wine (2005)

Songs from the Deep Forest – Duke Special (2006)

 Boxer – The National (2007)

Happy Christmas everyone!

(and a special word of sympathy and affection for Zoomtard and his two broken wings)

making a list (and checking it twice)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009 Posted by

I’ve been reading High Fidelity and it has reminded me of the simple, boyish pleasure of compiling “top 5” lists. At the end of every year I like to try and pick the best books, movies and music I’ve discovered that year. But until the other day I had turned my nose up at all the “top 50 whatevers of the decade” lists that were popping up everywhere I looked. I like end of year lists and I like all time lists, but decade lists just seemed unnecessary and random.

But then I read Zoomtard’s delightful romp through his favourite movies of the last decade. And it got my list-maker whirring. And I realised on reflection that decade lists make more sense given the way I now engage with pop culture. When I was a student, I tried to keep up with new music and movies as they came out, and my end of year lists would have consisted mostly of newish releases. Now, with a house full of kids, I catch up with new albums and new films just whenever I can get round to it, which is sometimes two or three years later. So looking back on the “best of the decade” suits my middle-aged, behind-the-times, consumption of pop culture.

So first, here are the movies (I’ll do the music tomorrow). I tried to be honest and left out critically adored movies which I appreciated but didn’t love (like No Country For Old Men, The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost in Translation). These are the ten movies which I loved most deeply, which really stirred me and delighted me and floored me, and lingered in the memory. I haven’t tried to rank the ten so the order is chronological:

Memento (2000)

Traffic (2000)

The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Hidden/Caché (2005)

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Juno (2007)

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

There Will Be Blood (2007)

There were some brilliant documentaries which kept trying to force themselves into the list, so to keep them quiet I made them their own list. My five favourite documetaries from this decade:

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Spellbound (2002)

The Fog of War (2003)

Grizzly Man (2005)

King of Kong (2007)

I’ll be happy to make a passionate defense of my choices if you want to question my taste and cultural illiteracy and lack of basic human decency. But I’d also like to hear what you would include that I’ve left out. I’m aware that there are some widely-praised movies I haven’t got round to seeing yet, including Children of Men, The Lives of Others, Gran Torino, and The Dark Knight. What other gems have I missed out??

a story

Monday, October 19, 2009 Posted by

Ruth grew up in a loving home in the countryside just outside Coleraine. For fifteen years she flourished under her parents’ gentle care like her other siblings.

But in fourth form she fell in with a crowd of girls who were a little wild, a little rebellious. It started with black eyeliner and pierced tongues and angry music, but with time their rebellion took on more extreme forms. Her parents saw enough to break their hearts, and they kept reaching out to her, but she was slipping away from their influence.

By seventeen she was living with her boyfriend in London. He had some money and introduced her to a vibrant party scene. She was funny and attractive and confident and she moved easily into the centre of a hip new social world.

She jumped at the chance to apply to be on a new reality TV show inspired by Big Brother. At her interview she sold herself as the little girl from the provincial backwater who had become the party girl in the big city and they bought it.

On the show, she found herself acting more crudely to get attention. She got drunk every chance she got, dressed provocatively, got involved with two of the guys. And she entertained her housemates, and the watching world, with hilarious stories about her dull hometown and her small-minded parents and their stupid family traditions.

Her parents tried not to watch but they were drawn like a magnet to the TV, to the internet, to the papers, hoping for some small glimpse of the daughter they knew and loved, but they came away hurt and confused. Their friends eventually stopped mentioning Ruth in their presence because they saw the pain it caused.

For a while after the show Ruth was the darling of the tabloids and the fashion magazines. She was everywhere. But before long there were rumours about her drink-problem, about drugs, about a succession of tempestuous relationships. The stories in the tabloids became more sordid. As the papers turned against her, she seemed to turn to ever more outrageous behaviour to get attention. She alienated everyone she had called a friend. There were rumours about anorexia, about an abortion, about a suicide attempt…

Finally the stories dried up. In the canteen at work her dad would scan the pages of the trashy papers looking for the tiniest mention of his daughter, but her fifteen minutes of fame had passed.

Five years later, Ruth woke one morning in her grotty apartment in north London. She had no job, no money, no friends, no options. Her body was a wreck, her mind was worse.

Suddenly she saw the most vivid picture in her mind, of her family home and garden and her little box-bedroom and her mum and dad and she felt a longing like a deep pain in her side. She didn’t feel like a rebel or a confident woman of the world. She felt like a little girl, lost and alone. She wanted to go home, more than anything in the world.

24 hours later she’s sitting on a bus headed from the airport to Coleraine. She had phoned her parents to tell them she was coming home. She got the answering machine. The first two times she hung up without leaving a message. The third time she told them she was coming home,  told them what time her bus got in. Now she’s realizing the stupidity of her plan. What if they’re out of town and don’t get the message? What if they’ve moved house? She should have waited another day to talk to them, given them some time to get over the shock. What if they just don’t want to see her again, after all the ways she’s hurt them?

She practices her apology for her father. “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault, it’s all mine. I don’t blame you if you hate me, if you don’t trust me. If you’ll let me stay for a bit, I’ll get a job, I’ll pay rent, I’ll help out in the house. Maybe with time you can forgive me.” She hasn’t apologised to anyone in years.

She watches the familiar countryside rolling past her window. Every now and then a sign tells her the miles to go to Coleraine. She feels sick.

Finally the bus pulls into Coleraine station. She checks herself in her make-up mirror, looks at her pale reflection, fixes her hair.  Her stomach is in knots.

She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect. Not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind have prepared her for what she sees. There in the plastic-chairs bus station in Coleraine stands a group of forty brothers and sisters and little nephews and nieces and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and even a great-grandmother in a wheelchair. They’re all wearing goofy party-hats and blowing party-blowers, and taped across the entire wall is a home-made banner that reads “Welcome home!!”

Out of the crowd steps her dad. She stares at the floor as the tears run down her nose and she begins to stammer out her memorized speech.

But her dad is crying too and he’s holding her so tight she can barely breathe and he’s saying, “Hush, child. We’ve got no time for that. We’ll be late for the party. I know its July but your mum has cooked Christmas dinner and there’s a feast waiting for you at home.”

 

(OK so clearly I’m not much of a story-writer, but in the spirit of “telling it slant” I’m having a go. The best bits were my wife’s idea, a few lines are stolen wholesale from Philip Yancey, and obviously the whole thing is inspired by the greatest story Jesus ever told…)

coffee with freddie

Saturday, July 25, 2009 Posted by

(or more thoughts on telling it slant)

There are a handful of books that I try to revisit every year or two, because they have been so important in shaping my sense of who I am as a Christian (i.e. as a human) and what I am called to as a preacher and pastor. One of those books is Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. More than anyone else, Buechner reminds me that “telling the truth” is about something more than simply “explaining the Bible” or passing on information about God accurately.

This morning our house was unusually quiet, with wife and baby asleep, and the boys amusing themselves happily, so I sat in a sunny kitchen with a pot of coffee and listened again to Buechner. Here are the passages that caught my breath this morning:

So if preachers or lecturers are to say anything that really matters to anyone including themselves, they must say it not just to the public part of us that considers interesting thoughts about the Gospel and how to preach it, but to the private, inner part too, to the part of us where all of our dreams come from, both our good dreams and our bad dreams, the inner part where thoughts mean less than images , elucidation less than evocation, where our concern is less with how the Gospel is to be preached than with what the Gospel is and what it is to us. They must address themselves to the fullness of who we are and to the emptiness too, the emptiness where grace and peace belong but mostly are not, because terrible as well as wonderful things have happened to us all…

The preacher is not brave enough to be literally silent for long, and since it is his calling to speak the truth with love, even if he were brave enough, he would not be silent for long because we are none of us very good at silence. It says too much. So let him use words, but, in addition to using them to explain, expound, exhort, let him use them to evoke, to set us dreaming as well as thinking, to use words as at their most prophetic and truthful, the prophets used them to stir in us memories and longings and intuitions that we starve for without knowing that we starve. Let him use words which do not only try to give answers to the questions that we ask or ought to ask but which help us to hear the questions that we do not have words for asking and to hear the silence that those questions rise out of and the silence that is the answer to those questions. Drawing on nothing fancier than the poetry of his own life, let him use words and images that help make the surface of our lives transparent to the truth that lies deep within them, which is the wordless truth of who we are and who God is and the Gospel of our meeting.

telling it slant

Monday, May 18, 2009 Posted by

So I’ve decided it’s about time I got back on the blogging bike. It does me good if nothing else.

I’ve been inspired recently by the title of a book I haven’t read yet. It’s a book by that wise and joyful old man, Eugene Peterson, about the parables and prayers of Jesus, and it’s called Tell it Slant. Peterson borrowed the title from a line in a poem by Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.

I guess the idea is that sometimes we need to speak in a way that doesn’t attack the issue directly, but comes at things sideways. Sometimes we need to slip in the side rather than battering down the front door.

I’ve been thinking about how many of the writers who have most inspired me in the life of faith have been those who come at things from a poetic or artistic slant. Fiction writers like Wendell Berry and Marilynne Robinson. Imaginative spiritual writers like Frederick Buechner and G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. These writers move me and change me and do me good in ways that most of the books in the Christian bookshop don’t.

Most Christian books, like most sermons, come at things dead straight. They use the language of explanation and definition. They tell us what to believe and how to live. And they do it a clear, structured, systematic and logical way, with three points (each with their own subpoints) or seven steps or a 12-week programme.

The imaginative writers who most deeply feed my soul come at things slant. They don’t always define and explain everything, or reduce things to simple steps with diagrams. They hint and suggest and evoke. They paint a picture, tell a story, use a peculiar and poetic phrase. And something inside me shifts. It’s kind of hard to even write about because when you try to describe it directly it slips from your grasp. Lewis said when he first read George MacDonald’s fantasies he fell in love with holiness or goodness, though he didn’t know that’s what it was, and his imagination was baptised. That sounds about right.

A lot of the biblical writers are masters at telling it slant. The puzzling parables of Jesus, the peculiar prophets, the delightfully strange Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, John’s bewildering Revelation. None of these deal in neatly packaged formulas or steps to holiness and happiness.That’s why they make us nervous. We prefer to stick with books that come at things in a more direct and linear fashion, like Paul’s letters. Or if we do pick up these books, our instinct is to tame them, to explain the ambiguities and strangeness away, to reduce them to a three-point form we are comfortable with. We don’t dare just let them be wild and strange, and see how they change us as we immerse ourselves in their imaginative world.

There’s something about coming at things slant that’s more true to the richness and complexity and ambiguity of life. Neat definitions and systems can’t do justice to the mystery of being human, never mind the mystery of God.

So all this has got me wondering about a few things. I’m wondering how those of us who talk about God in front of other people can learn to (at least sometimes) come at things slant. Are there ways of preaching that don’t just try to explain and define everything to death, but hint and suggest and evoke a world that is larger and more mysterious than we imagined? How can we use stories in a way that baptises the imagination and gets past the “watchful dragons” at the front door of people’s minds (and not just as a way of “illustrating” one of our explanatory points)? How can we rise to the challenge posed by Walter Brueggeman and become “poets speaking against a prose world”? I’m an explainer and definer by instinct. In my braver moments I even think that’s one of my “gifts.” Yet the writers who most inspire me are novelists and poets and artists. Is there a way to marry together clarity and ambiguity, logic and imagination? C.S. Lewis still provides the best proof that it might be possible.

I’ve also been wondering how we make space in our church communities for those who instinctively come at things slant – the artistic and poetic and intuitive. My guess is that they don’t often get asked to preach or lead small groups or chair committees. But we need their voices. When we do give space for artistic expression, we usually prefer that it should be direct and unsubtle – basically a three point sermon in the form of a song or painting or novel. How do we make space for artistic explorations of life and faith that are puzzling and provocative and strange and messy, like life itself?

And I’m wondering how we make space for people to come to faith, and grow in their faith, in a way that is uniquely suited to their own story. Our evangelistic courses seem to assume that most people come to faith through the front door, by systematically working through various questions in biblical apologetics. I’m quite sure that plays an important role. But people also become Christians because they fell in love and then got their heart broken and then read an article in a newspaper and heard a beautiful piece of music and watched their Christian friend go through a bereavement and a hundred other strange and slanted pathways. That’s the mystery of the way the Spirit moves in a human story.

I’ve always loved Frederick Buechner’s description of how he came to faith through an almost random phrase in a sermon:

Again and again he said that Jesus was crowned in the hearts of those who believed in him.I remember thinking that this was a nice enough image, as images in sermons go…And then he went on just a few sentences more and he said that this coronation of Jesus in the believer’s heart took place among confession – and I thought, yes, yes, confession – and tears, he said – and I thought tears, yes perfectly plausible that the coronation of Jesus in the believing heart should take place among confession and tears.

And then with his head bobbing up and down so that his glasses glittered, the preacher said in his odd, sandy voice, that the coronation of Jesus took place among confession and tears and then, as God was and is my witness, great laughter, he said. Jesus is crowned among confession and tears and great laughter, and at the phrase great laughter, for reasons that I have never satisfactorily understood, the Great Wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face.

My guess is that most of us grow in the life of faith through a similarly slanted and haphazard pathway. How do we allow for this and encourage this in the life of the church, when it’s so much easier to assume growth happens the same way for everyone, through the right kind of sermon or book or discipleship course?

As you can see, I have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. I’m just wondering about these things, and I’m wondering if any of you are wondering too…?

glimpses of goodness in 2008

Thursday, January 1, 2009 Posted by

You would think that after six months of blog silence I’d be back with some devastating insights into the global financial crisis, or the future of the church in the post-Christian west, or something at least a little profound and substantial.

Instead, here are my top five lists of books, music and movies that were new to me in 2008. First, the books (in no particular order):

Andy Catlett (Wendell Berry). For me, Wendell Berry and his Port William novels are now in a category all of their own. He’s been writing about this small Kentucky town for decades, and with the last three novels (Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter, Andy Catlett) has reached something close to perfection. He can say more in the space between two words than most writers can say in several pages. This one is short and simple but deeply moving and satisfying. On the one hand, it’s about a few days uneventful days in the life of a small boy in a small town. On the other hand it’s about all of life – family, community, work, food, faith, death, loss, war, hurt, love, longing and hope.

The Road (Cormac McCarthy). This one sneaked in at the last moment. I’m a slow reader, but I devoured this in two sittings on the last two days of the year. I think I hardly breathed while I read it. I can’t remember being so emotionally devastated by a novel in a long time. Maybe it’s because it’s about a father and his son, clinging onto some sort of kindness and goodness while the world burns around them. The end of the world at the end of the year. Astonishing.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer). I can see lots of reasons why I should hate this novel. It’s a self-consciously “post-9-11” novel, narrated by a nine-year-old boy who lost his father in the twin towers. It’s full of postmodern literary quirks – pages with only one word written on them, photographs of the back of people’s heads, etc. The little boy who narrates the story is impossibly intelligent and imaginative, if a little socially autistic. But somehow it has enough heart to pull it off. It’s funny and sad and provocative and hopeful and hugely enjoyable.

Lament For A Son (Nicholas Wolterstorff). This is written by one of the most formidably intelligent Christian thinkers alive today. But here he sets aside the philosophical fireworks (though not his intelligence) and reflects on the death of his son in a climbing accident. It’s simple and poetic and gut-wrenchingly moving. It’s wiser than anything I’ve read on “the problem of evil/suffering,” and the only book I’ll ever consider giving to someone who has been bereaved.

A Community Called Atonement (Scot McKnight). McKnight is fast becoming some kind of hero or role-model for me, both through his blog (Jesus Creed) and his books. It’s not only his wise and provocative ideas, but the way he articulates them in ways that reach out with generosity and grace to those who disagree with him. While some corners of evangelicaldom tear each other apart over definitions of the atonement, McKnight calls us to be a community which embodies the message of at-one-ment, reconciliation, forgiveness, peace. (Zoomtard agrees with me, too).

Just missing the cut were some other wonderful books: Confessions (St. Augustine), Revelation of Love (Julian of Norwich), On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan), Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.), A Holy Meal (Gordon Smith).

And now I’m losing the heart and energy to keep commenting on all my choices, so here, without comment, are the movies:

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
There Will Be Blood
Goodbye Lenin
Juno
Once

In a good year for movies, lots of great ones miss the cut: Michael Clayton, Zodiac, No Country For Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Pan’s Labyrinth, Eastern Promises.

And finally, in a bad year for new music discoveries, here is what I could scrape together:

The Rifles EP (The Lowly Knights)
The Reminder (Feist)
The Boatman’s Call (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds)
The Swell Season (Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova)
Cassadaga (Bright Eyes)

Honorable mentions for Dig, Lazarus, Dig! (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds), Evolved (Martyn Joseph), Fleet Foxes (Fleet Foxes), Garden Ruin (Calexico), Impossible Dream (Patty Griffin) and I Never Thought This Day Would Come (Duke Special).

Now I’d love to know what has rocked your boat, tickled your fancy, blown your mind or warmed your heart over the past year. I’m haunted by the fear that I’ve missed something of astonishing beauty and brilliance.

Wishing you mountains of grace and peace in 2009.

i know this much is true

Tuesday, July 8, 2008 Posted by

With apologies to all those sane souls who find this kind of discussion dull, this is a response to Zoomtard’s recent post about post-modernism. I don’t want to write about post-modernism. Really. But he provoked me and now I need to write or I shall not sleep.

Zoomie suggests that what we call post-modernism is really just ultra-modernism – that is, modernism taken to its logical extreme. We have a very smart Professor who is our resident expert on such issues, and he agrees (he calls it hyper-modernism). And I partly agree too.

Most of the people you and I rub shoulders with each day are relativists when it comes to questions of religion and morality (you have your view and I have mine) but not when it comes to questions of science. Religion and morality deal with values, which are personal, subjective, and relative. Science deals with facts, which are impersonal, objective, and true-for-everyone. Something like this view is held by most people in our supposedly post-modern world – and it is also the view most commonly attacked in Christian seminars about post-modernism.

As Zoomtard and the Prof both insist, this is simply modernism-to-the-max. The underlying assumption is pure Enlightenment rationalism – only what can be logically and empirically proved using scientific methods can be known as a fact. Everything else belongs to the more wishy-washy, arty-farty, airy-fairy world of “values,” which can be believed but not known. Richard Dawkins is the high priest of this ultra-modern nonsense.

BUT (and here I tentatively dip my toe into possible disagreement with my smarter friend and teacher) I’m not sure this is all we can say about post-modernism. There are lots of thinkers who in recent decades have been questioning this ultra-modernism as just described, and it is their ideas which I think deserve to be properly described as post-modern. The heart of their critique of modernism has been to show that the idea of “neutrality” and “objectivity” is pure myth, even in the hallowed realms of science. All knowledge is personal knowledge. Everything that we know, we know from within a particular context, a web of relationships, a limited and finite point of view. We can’t escape from subjectivity because we can’t escape from our humanness. (I posted something about this part before here.)

This kind of post-modernism is our friend. It demolishes the arrogance and pretentiousness (and blasphemy) of our claims to detached and objective knowledge. It calls for a humbling of ourselves, an awareness and embrace of our limitations. It calls for us to enter into dialogue with others who see things from a different point of view.

It’s here that I think the story can branch in two very different directions. These wise insights can lead to a kind of radical relativism which says that we can’t really know anything with any confidence. We can’t know anything about science because scientists are human beings who look for evidence to match their hypothesis which they formulated to gain the approval of their peers in the scientific community. We can’t know anything about historical events because history is written by the winners who pick the facts that suit their story. We can’t know anything about what this book in our hand means, because reading is a picnic to which the author brings the words and we bring the meaning.

This kind of radical relativism is disastrous for Christian faith, since it undermines all confidence in the historical events of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the particular ancient books that we call Scripture. Thankfully this kind of radical relativism is also utterly unlivable, which is why it remains largely a discussion among tedious academics.

The other way to go is to accept our limitations, embrace the subjectivity of our perspective, and move forward in a humbled and chastened way – but to still insist that some kind of real knowledge is possible. By becoming aware of the baggage we bring (our presuppositions and prejudices and cultural conditioning) and listening with humility to others, we can come to provisional but real knowledge – in science, history, literature… and also in the world of religion and ethics, since this healthy post-modern view breaks down the artificial wall between facts and values. There is objectivity and subjectivity in both worlds, there is a need for humility in both worlds, and there can be real knowledge in both worlds.

The wisest and most refreshing implications of all this are spelled out in the area of mission and apologetics by Lesslie Newbigin in his stunning book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. A lot of traditional apologetics has tried to combat ultra-modernism on its own terms, by providing irrefutable logical arguments and objective evidence for everything from the creation of the world to the resurrection of Jesus. Newbigin suggests that we should accept the limitations of this kind of argument. We will not batter or coerce or argue anyone into faith.

What we can do, is get on with living out the gospel in the midst of our culture. We can keep singing the songs and telling the stories that express what we believe, what we know – in our heads, our hearts, our experience – to be true. We can be a community that lives and loves and celebrates the story of Jesus. And as people are drawn in by the beauty of that story, we can enter into dialogue with humility – listening to their story, learning from them, and continuing to tell the truth about Jesus (in a reasoned, thoughtful, humble, joyful way).

We believe the gospel is true for all people at all times. We hold it with “universal intent.” But we only tell it truthfully when we tell it from within our limited, subjective, human perspective, within this local community, with a humble openness to being stretched and corrected and enriched, to learning and growing as we listen to others and share life with them.

This is my truth. Tell me yours.