Category Archives: Musings

Thoughts on Revelation 2: What Did John Actually Know or Understand?

Recently, as a way to review what we’d read in previous Bible studies, I was listening to an audio version of the book of Revelation, as read by actor David Suchet (I know him a little from the Poirot tv series). It’s really a wonderful reading of scripture, particularly of Revelation. In fact, the way Suchet read Revelation was itself a revelation.

He reads it with a note of wonder in his voice, as if he was actually describing what he saw in the vision, as if it was John’s first time sharing the vision. This made a significant difference in how I read and hear Revelation. I’ve tended to read and hear it as if John writing down deliberately coded imagery and narrative, like he’s kind of winking at us and saying, “I know a lot of things but I can’t tell them to you directly, so here it is in code that I hope you can figure out.” It’s our job as modern readers to decode it and try to figure out what exactly John is on about.

With Suchet’s reading, I began to realize that just maybe John is actually just describing what he saw in his vision and that he himself may not know what it all means either. After all, Jesus invites John to “write what you have seen” (1:19). John sees something, but he doesn’t necessarily know what it all means. There are places where John explains something apparently on his own (such as identifying the dragon as Satan in 12:9). On the other hand, when Jesus tells John to write what he sees, he has to explain to John what he had already seen (the seven stars and seven golden lamp stands, etc., 1:20), suggesting that John doesn’t quite understand what he sees.

This is speculative on my part, of course, but I don’t recall seeing anything in the text that suggests that John understood everything he saw. A first century reader/hearer/seer (such as John) might be able to untangle the Old Testament imagery sprinkled throughout better than most average modern readers can, but maybe even for them it was largely a mystery too.

On the other hand, there are some parts that are clearer than others and there are some overarching themes that are also clear. This would emphasize that the point is really to get these more obvious big picture things. Things such as: Jesus is victorious king and worthy of worship, be faithful, endure what you may have to endure, all shall be well, and not get hung up on some of the other weird imagery which may just be intended to evoke something more like general understanding (e.g. evil is at work in the world, Christians will likely face persecution of some kind, etc.) rather than being imagery we are meant to decode. This is how I’ve been reading it already, but mostly so that the youth do get the big picture and don’t get too hung up on sorting out all the weird stuff—but I always with a sense that we are nevertheless missing something.

I tend to agree (with Toni 🙂 ) that much of Revelation is referring to events in Rome in the first and second century, but this doesn’t really change anything for us in terms of reading it the above way, because even if it was written to and about that time period, the book is nevertheless for us, and the big picture stuff we see at work through the centuries.

I started writing this post weeks ago, and it only now occurs to me that this approach presents a sort of irony when it comes to reading and interpreting Revelation. To say that John is simply reporting a vision he saw is to read Revelation in a straightforward, literal way (which is not what I necessarily advocate doing). Yet it is those who tend to read Revelation in a woodenly literal way who seem to be hung up on explaining all the imagery and seeing modern-day significance in every object, creature, and beast.

Thoughts on Revelation: The Mark of the Beast

Our youth small group Bible study has been working its way through Revelation chapter by chapter this year. Knowing that this particular book of the Bible presents readers with unique challenges, I’ve been doing some reading in commentaries and other books in advance as we go through. Yesterday, reading through Eugene Peterson’s excellent Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, I had a bit of a revelation myself.

Yesterday we talked about Revelation 14. Both that chapter and the one before it mention the “mark of the beast,” which goes on a person’s hand or forehead. The question of the mark of the beast and what it is has been a hotly debated question for some Christians, particularly in more conservative circles, for a long time: is it a barcode tattoo? credit cards? debit cards? chip implants? Every time some new technology comes out it seems like someone brings up the mark of the beast. This is especially true when the new technology involves financial transactions, because Revelation 13 says that people won’t be able to buy or sell without the mark.

I’ve always thought a mark on the forehead or the hand was an odd place to put a mark, but then for a long time I’ve also known that Revelation is rich in symbolism and metaphor and so there is much there that should not be taken at literal face value. So I haven’t thought about the mark much, until it came up in our reading.

Then Peterson made a connection I had never heard before, but makes complete sense, especially given how much Revelation (re)uses Old Testament imagery. The mark of the beast is on the forehead or the hand. Way back in Deuteronomy 6, Moses speaks for God and says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” (this is the “Shema“), and then he goes on to tell Israel to tie this command to their foreheads and hands. From this we get the phylactery, a small box Jewish men would wear (or put on their doorposts) containing a little scroll with a portion of the Torah on it, probably even the words of the Shema itself, which reminded them of who they were: people of the One God, the God they were to love completely.

This correspondence between the phylactery and the mark of the beast was a lightbulb moment for me. Suddenly the mark of the beast made a great deal more sense. The phylactery is a symbol or mark identifying who a people belong to, who they follow, who they obey. It is a symbol of allegiance. It is a visible symbol of a life that is lived.

I realized suddenly that the mark of the beast is not about physical objects or marks like credit cards or tattoos. The mark of the beast is a way of life. Just as the mark of Christ, the seal of the Spirit, which the Christian bears, is love (and faithful endurance, to use the language of Revelation), so the mark of the beast is the opposite way of life (Revelation is filled with opposites, e.g. the Lamb that was slain and the beast that looks a like a lamb). Given the contexts of these chapters with dragons and beasts and buying and selling, the mark may play out in things like false religion (including perhaps most insidiously false Christianity), allegiance to a certain political system or market economy, self-interest, individualism, and all manner of idolatries, etc.

If the mark of the beast is a way of life then, on the one hand, the concerns of a more fundamentalist/literalist, end-times/tribulation focussed view—concerns about whether, say, debit cards are the mark of the beast or some future where we’ll have to make a choice about chip implants—largely disappear.

On the other hand, the mark of the beast as a way of life is much more insidious, because we tend to slide very easily and without much thought into the whatever current trend or way of life that comes our way, trends and ways of life that very often are or turn into idolatry. In other words, the mark of the beast is not necessarily something we consciously choose to receive, but something we may simply slide into without even consciously doing so.

This requires patient endurance from the saints indeed!

Why Do We Sing in Church?

(Originally posted November 18, 2017 at malmochurch.ca.)

Tomorrow morning we will gather at Malmo again, as we have been doing faithfully for 125 years or so, to worship together through fellowship, prayer, scripture reading…and singing.

Singing has been a part of Christian worship since the first Christians gathered. In fact, some parts of the Bible are widely believed to be taken from early Christian songs of worship. For example, Philippians 2:6-11 is often referred to as the “Christ Hymn”:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)

These stanzas contain not only generic praise to God, but they tell a story—the salvation story, in fact: God becomes human, dies on the cross, is raised from the dead and made Lord and Messiah.

But why do we do this? Why do we sing together in church, especially when some people don’t like singing or think they don’t have a good voice?

I can think of several reasons, and none of them have anything to do with being able to sing or carry a tune: singing brings glory to God; it helps us remember the gospel story; it is modelled and encouraged (even commanded!) in scripture; it brings believers together and encourages them (have you ever been at a concert or worship event where thousands of people sing along together? There are few things more unifying and beautiful).

(There are more reasons, I’m sure. In fact, here are a couple of further explanations for Christians singing that I have come across that you might find helpful: “The Three Rs: Why Christians Sing” and “Seven Biblical Reasons Why Singing Matters.”)

So as we gather tomorrow and in the weeks to come, consider: can I choose to participate in worship, including the singing, even if I (think I) don’t sing very well, even if I don’t fully understand why we do it?

Author and pastor Eugene Peterson wrote, “Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship.” Often we talk about worship, and especially the singing part of worship, as an expression of our feelings for God. That may be true, but there are some people who do not express their feelings for God in that way, and there are some days when my feelings for God are not great.

In a much more important way, whatever our feelings may be on a given day, our singing praise, our singing the gospel, plays a significant role in transforming us bit by bit over time, through low seasons and high seasons, as individuals and a community, into the people of God…if only we will open ourselves up—both our mouths and our hearts!

Two roads diverged in a wood and yet I return home.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

~ from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

I seem to recall writing a paper on Robert Frost’s poem in university, in which I argued that there didn’t appear to be any difference in either road the narrator had to choose from.* I can’t remember the details, but my hunch, nearly twenty years on, was that I was pushing against the idea of this being a carpe deum (“seize the day”) poem. Carpe deum being the idea that you should live life to the full, taking adventurous chances, etc.

I’ve tended to push against this idea, which seems to me to be the brainchild of a specific kind of personality, rather than some kind of immutable universal truth. My adventurous friends would dispute this, but I have the personality of a hobbit. I’d rather be at home with my books and tea.**

In recent years I’ve also pushed against this in the context of Christian faith and discipleship. Our obedience and service to God and neighbour begins wherever we are in the hum-drum ordinary of the everyday, rather than on some wild adventure in a strange land among strange people doing what we tend to consider exciting (if not altogether extraordinary) things for God (though we may certainly be called to that). This is important, it seems to me, because for young people especially, the idea of ordinary, everyday faithfulness seems boring—surely faith calls us to more exciting things?

In recent years I’ve really begun to appreciate the fictional work of Wendell Berry. His overriding concern seems to be having a strong sense of place, of being loyal to and faithful in the place you are, of putting down deep roots. His fictional world is one built around a small town community and the farmers and families that surround it and their generations of life, death, simplicity, and faithfulness. I am very much drawn to this idea.

It occurred to me recently that there may be good reason for this: the first seven years of my life were the longest I have ever lived in one location (though I did spend twelve years in the same small town). I have moved many times in my life—not least during my university years, before and after the school year I would move in and back out of an apartment. And the pastoral vocation isn’t one where generally deep roots are planted. I’m well past the average duration for the kind of position I hold at my church and the odds are against me being here for a decade. Pastors in one location for more than twenty years is almost unheard of, and I have deep respect for the one I do know. So I have good reason to be drawn to permanence and connection (to family and friends). And these days, my wife and children are the most permanent thing I know, so being with them is growing ever more important.

And yet.

And yet I find that when I am walking in the woods I am drawn to explore every rabbit trail—where two roads diverge—I come across and I want to keep walking just to see what’s around the next bend. Explain that.

Maybe it’s because even though I am wandering and exploring I know I will soon return home.

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*It was for a class on the early 20th century literary theory called “New Criticism,” which allowed me to write a paper without research, but musing on the text alone. I don’t know how legitimate that was, but it was fun.
**That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make the most of every day, but that the most of any given day is generally very ordinary.

Do evangelicals give Israel a free pass?

Do evangelicals give Israel get a free pass?

I was thinking about this the other day as I listened to a podcast interview in which the guest argued that the gospel Paul presents in Romans is universalistic (we should take heed, she suggested, to Paul’s repetitive use of “all” in reference to both the consequences of Adam’s sin and the effect of Christ’s death). Whenever the subject of universal salvation or reconciliation in Jesus Christ—that is, the idea that in and through Christ everyone will ultimately be saved—comes up, my mind tends to go to the strong and dismissive opposition such an idea seems to get, particularly in evangelical circles. What about judgment? What about repentance? these people wonder.

Yet it seems to me that many of these same people give the modern nation-state of Israel, on the assumption that they are are the same Israel of which the Bible speaks and for (to me) vague biblical reasons, a free pass into salvation. Israel, it seems, will be folded into the Kingdom just for being Israel, whether or not they are doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. For Israel it seems like judgment and repentance aren’t an issue, but for gentiles it certainly is.

I admit I do not pay much attention to Zionism (e.g., John Hagee) and its close associates, so perhaps I am mishearing them, but this is the impression I get.

(It occurs to me now that evangelicals also tend to think of salvation as a community thing when it comes to Israel, but an individualistic thing for everyone else.)

This is not, of course, itself an argument for universal reconciliation. This is simply to point out what seems to me, if my impressions are correct, an inconsistency in evangelical thinking about salvation.

Coincidence: God’s Sense of Humour (more walking on water)

Just over a week ago, I was at a Jesuit Retreat Centre for a 5-day silent retreat. It was an Ignatian retreat and as such included daily meetings with a spiritual director. My director asked me about my prayer life, in reply to which I made some necessary admissions. He’s particularly fond of Gospel contemplation as a form of prayer. Gospel contemplation is an Ignatian practice of taking a narrative from the Gospels and then contemplating it by mentally entering the story and getting a sense of the sights and sounds of the story, placing oneself in one of the characters’ shoes, and talking to Jesus about it.

My director suggested I try Gospel contemplation and I was more than happy to do so. I started looking through his files for a sheet of paper that had a number of different suggested passages for contemplation. He had a particular sheet in mind, but he couldn’t find it. So he grabbed a different sheet and handed it to me, saying, “This is a bit random, but try this…”

Of course, it was not random at all. I didn’t look at the paper he had given me until I got back to my room. I laughed as I looked: it was Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus and Peter walk on water. Of course it would be. God has a sense of humour.

(The next day I was praying through Psalm 43. This Psalm has been on my heart and mind a lot lately, mostly because of Sandra McCracken’s beautiful interpretation of it, but also because its words hit home for me these days. The Psalter I use includes short devotionals on a handful of the Psalms. As it happened, there is a devotional for Psalm 43…and as it also happens, that devotional references Peter’s words to Jesus as he sinks into the water: “Lord, save me!” I just can’t see this a coincidence!)

Long-time reader—I use the singular intentionally—of this blog will be aware of the history I have with the story in which Peter walks on water (Matthew 14:22-33). It began in 2007 with John Ortberg’s book If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, which is based on the event. Reading only a small portion of this book precipitated a personal funk and may ultimately have been one of the catalysts to get me to step out of the boat, as it were, and pursue my calling. Since then I keep bumping into this Gospel story. For example: in an interpretation of the story that seems more true to the details (2012); in a preacher who went to the popular interpretation, which always gets me agitated (2014 and other times).

A month or so ago, it was the curriculum topic for my Sunday school class. When I saw this, sitting in my living room preparing, I literally yelled, “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and then said something about hating this particular story. I don’t hate the story itself, of course, but my own history with it and the common misuse (as I see it) of the story continued to agitate me. I decided to dispense with the curriculum material and just work through the passage with my junior high class. It turned out to be a great lesson: the youth didn’t immediately go to the popular interpretation and had some good and helpful things to say about it, and I made a degree of peace with the story.

Back at my retreat: I did try contemplating that particular story, but I had difficulty entering in. I’ve always been fascinated by the disciples who stayed in the boat, since they get little attention, but I couldn’t see things from their perspective. All I could imagine was water and wind and blank faces on all the people involved in the story. All that I got out of it was further confirmation that Peter is not a hero in this tale. I suspect there was too much baggage, too much history, with the story for me to really enter into it with an open heart and mind. The next day in conversation with my director I had some more clarity on what the story may have to say to me (ironically, it’s Peter, the one I always think that gets too much attention in this story, that I identify with).

It deserves further contemplation and as I make my peace with the tale and my reading of it (and other people’s reading of it), I’m sure I will keep learning things about myself and about Jesus.

(And then today I’m watching some interviews of Stephen Colbert, a devout Catholic. In one of them he’s talking about how Jesus must have laughed and as an example he references Peter walking on water, which he compares to Wile E. Coyote running too far off a cliff.)

Post-US election thoughts

This is an old post now, written mostly a couple of days after the US election, with some edits today. My thoughts are still the same. Since then, however, I’ve seen numerous videos online of people uttering hateful things at ethnic minorities and just this morning I saw a video of portions of an “alt-right” leader giving a speech of filled overtly white-supremacist rhetoric—in fact, it sounded not unlike a speech Hitler may have given earlier in his ascendancy and individuals in the audience were giving the Nazi salute, saying “Hail, Trump!” This gives me pause. Trump may not personally endorse this stuff and may not be personally responsible, but it seems that the election of Trump has empowered individuals and groups with these tendencies and from what I hear, Trump has appointed some far-right men with white-supremacist associations. It remains to be seen if this stuff is coming to light because people are aware of those tendencies in Trump’s campaign platform and are highlighting what’s out there anyway, whoever is in the White House. It’s not time to panic (I’m not sure it ever is, given what I say below), but awareness, a willingness to speak out for the poor and oppressed, and prayer are fitting responses.

Yesterday was a weird day. The previous day had begun at 5:30am, ran through a long but productive board meeting that was over at 11:00pm, and then at home some tossing and turning in bed until 2:00am while my wife and son watched the US election results come in. To be honest, I didn’t have much vested interest in the election. Trump wouldn’t have been my choice, but mostly from a character and lack of experience perspective, as I don’t know much about his policies (or Hillary’s, for that matter). My mind was not active because of the election, but because of the business of the day and because what I anticipated happening online the next day as a result of the election. My Facebook feed would be filled with friends and acquaintances celebrating Trump as God’s gift to the world and with other friends and acquaintances weeping over the worst possible election result imaginable, and the two were not likely to speak kindly of each other. I spent some time wrestling with what, if anything, I could speak into that divisive cacophony.

So yesterday I was exhausted and felt a great heaviness. I also felt a bit lost. I couldn’t figure out why. I can understand why people are surprised and upset at Trump’s election. I don’t understand why others think Trump is God’s gift to the US and the world, but I can understand the fact that many people for whatever reason voted for him and so were happy that he won. But neither of those things were weighing me down.

By the end of the day, it became more clear to me. I am generally speaking an even-keeled person. Not much ruffles my feathers, not much gets me either upset or excited. Life is good and it goes on. All shall be well, one way or another. But—possibly as a result of my even-keeledness—I also don’t do drama. I don’t like the wailing and gnashing of teeth over election results; neither do I like the rejoicing and triumphant glee of the religious far-right in response to this particular election. Both sides, it seems to me, overdo the response. The world hasn’t come to an end because of this and it likely won’t; they have not elected the Chosen One, the Saviour, and they never will.

But there is a lot of that kind of drama going on and I find myself caught in the middle and struggling with whether to keep silent or speak up. In the morning I did speak up a bit and it got me more frustrated, mostly because it caused more drama, but also because later I realized that what I should really do is turn it all off and pray, contemplate, be with God.

Late on election night I posted these words from Scot McKnight’s blog:

“I went to bed last night with Jesus as Lord. I go to bed tonight with Jesus as Lord. And every day from now into eternity Jesus is Lord.

Participation in our election dare not be seen as the lever that turns the eschatological designs God has for this world. Where is our hope? November 8 may tell us.” (link)

This is true. But I also realized that Christians on both sides may say or hear similar things but interpret them very differently. Other people have said things like, “God is in control,” but that can mean vastly different things, too.

When I say “Jesus is Lord” and when I agree that “God is in control,” I don’t mean that God wills the election results (whatever they are) or that people and nations cannot make wrong, even devastating, choices. That we can seriously mess up and that God is at the same time in control is abundantly clear from the biblical narrative.

To say, “Jesus is Lord” or “God is in control” is not to say, “It’s okay, don’t worry, this is the way it’s meant to be.” It is to say, “Fear not, Jesus is Lord, God is in control beyond and above this election.” God can and will redeem, fix, justify, restore what needs those things, and even the stupid things we do cannot thwart God’s plans.

To say “Jesus is Lord” is also to remind us that as Christians we are called to allegiance to someone who stands far above whoever the president—or prime minister or premiere—elect may be. To say that “Jesus is Lord” is a reminder that we are called to live lives that reflect Jesus’ lordship over us, which means we must seek after the protection and care of the most vulnerable, the young, the poor, and oppressed, and call our governments to their responsibilities in that regard.**

This is where it tends to get tricky for Christians on the political right (at least the far right). I’ve seen a number of comments on Facebook where Christians suggest Clinton would have been a better choice. In response, inevitably other Christians say, “Well, the unborn that are being murdered wouldn’t think so!” or “Not if you value the life of the unborn!” For some this election is once again a one-(or maybe two-)issue decision. Unfortunately, these kinds of comments don’t reflect the reality of how political (and legal) systems work, nor complexity of the issues themselves. And the fact that we live in a world shot through with sin makes these kinds of issues especially tricky.

But that’s a post for another day. For now I’ll just say that if we are going to vote based on “Christian values,” there are more than one or two issues that should be considered and other issues that need to be reconsidered, and some some issues with which we have to struggle with and remain in deep tension.

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**Patrick Franklin and N.T. Wright both made similar comments on their Facebook pages (I’m sure Wright, at least, as previously influenced me on this):

“God is sovereign. Is this comforting? On one level, yes. But let’s remember that God has sovereignly given human beings freedom and calls upon us to exercise that freedom in ways that honour what God cares about. When we fail to do that, people suffer. And God has special care for “the least of these” – the poor, the suffering, the marginalized, the ‘alien’, the hungry, the outcast, the homeless, the sick, . . . as Jesus and all the prophets passionately insist. To those who are in despair over the Trump win, have hope. To those celebrating: remember that our job is to hold government accountable to be just, fair, benevolent, peacable, and dedicated to the flourishing of all human beings (all of whom bear the divine image).” (Patrick Franklin)

“Whenever the question of national leadership comes up, my mind goes to Psalm 72. It provides a stunning vision of what God wants all leaders and rulers to be like, especially in prioritizing the needs of the poor. Christians believe three things about this: first, that the vision was fulfilled in Jesus himself; second, that with Jesus already enthroned, all rulers are called to imitate this model; third, that those who faithfully follow Jesus have the responsibility to share his rule by reminding those who exercise worldly power of their calling.” (N.T. Wright)

Great but not necessarily great (still thinking about The Tragically Hip).

Last week the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) aired The Tragically Hip’s final concert on every outlet (radio, tv, streaming) commercial-free. It was bit of an emotional experience for me, but I’ve written previously on how this band had been part of the soundtrack for much of my life. It also confirmed to me—again—how smart phones and social media can prevent me from being present in any given moment. I did too much texting when I should have been watching and listening.

It was interesting to read the comments after all the fuss of the concert. Most people posted things expressing sadness or praising their music. Other people made comments ranging from feeling like they’re the only people who don’t care about the Hip (legitimate, considering how much the attention the band was getting) to suggestions that there’s a myth about the greatness of the band, the range of comments suggesting an underlying pride in the fact that they don’t care.

The comments undermining The Tragically Hip’s “greatness” or how “good” they are seem to miss the point. I don’t think all the fuss had much to do with the “greatness” of the band. I was a fan for many years, but I confess that I didn’t pay much attention to their last few albums (I also confess that mid-concert I ordered their last two to complete my collection). However, I really like their music, and so I consider them “great,” but not necessarily great in some kind of semi-objective, analytical way that an expert would identify “Starry Night” or “The Jack Pine” as great paintings. That’s beyond my skills. I just know what I like.  (Though I have no doubt many would consider them great in that way.)

The point of all the fuss is that this band tapped into the Canadian psyche, telling Canadian stories. Their music—great or not—became part of what it means to be Canadian, like poutine, “eh?”, mounties, loonies, and Tim Hortons. Nobody has to agree that Tim Hortons is great in order to agree that they are a significant part of Canadian identity. That 1 out of every 3 Canadians watched or listened to the concert a week ago says enough.

And I, for one, thought that it was a beautiful national moment.

Gord Downie, the lead singer, was certainly not up to his usual antics and was quite reserved, which I imagine has to do with the brain cancer, but it was still a great show. Here’s a song from that final concert:

Three Books that Profoundly Influenced Me: Book 1

I was going to title this series “Three Books Every Evangelical Should Read,” but that seems more than I can rightly say. “Three Books I Wish Every Evangelical Would Read” is a more accurate title. But ultimately this is about books that have influenced me, so we’ll leave it at that.

I’ve read a number of good books over the years, but these three books were good in a way that I want everyone to experience them. I’ll point out the obvious: this is a subjective list. However, these books cover issues that I think can have deeply positive influence in the evangelical church.

The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment, Daniel Taylor (IVP, 1992)

I hope I can do this book justice. Last time I read it was more than 10 years ago. I’m due to read it again. But it had an enormously positive influence on my faith. This book helped me realize that my growing unease and, yes, uncertainty, about some of the beliefs and doctrines I had been brought up with did not mean I had to abandon ship altogether. I was a young university student not so much struggling with faith in Christ, but with some of the other doctrines and beliefs relating to Christianity and the Bible that in my tradition were presented as foundational—so foundational that I was reluctant to express my doubts about them. You might say this book saved my faith.

In The Myth of Certainty, Taylor argues that uncertainty is not the enemy of faith, but in fact a great help to faith, moving us to depend on God more than on our own intellectual certitudes. In fact, Taylor argues that the notion of faith (or trust) implies a level of uncertainty: “Normally doubt is seen as sapping faith’s strength. Why not the reverse? Where there is doubt, faith has its reason for being. Clearly faith is not needed where certainty supposedly exists.” (81-82)

Taylor isn’t the first person to make this point. I’ve heard it from Lesslie Newbiggin, Frederick Buechner, Anne Lammot (not personally, of course, but in their writings), and I’m sure that list could go on for quite a while. But Taylor was the first one to make this point to me at a crucial time in my life and faith.

Taylor takes it a step further—and this was also crucial for me in a university setting—by noting that all of us (in my case, all of the people I interacted with at the university) are on the same level, the same playing field, when it comes to what we know or believe. All of us have “question-able” foundational assumptions upon which we base our beliefs about this or that, and those assumptions are based on other question-able assumptions. Taylor argues (as I recall) that this does not lead us to despair, but calls us to risk commitment to some foundational assumptions, even if it is possible to question them. We all do this every day. This is both the myth of certainty and the risk of commitment.

(This might actually be Lesslie Newbigging breaking in to my memory. He writes, “All major theories…rest on fundamental assumptions which can be questioned.  But the questioning, if it is to be rational, has to rely on other fundamental questions which can in turn be questioned.  It follows…that there can be no knowing without personal commitment.  We must believe in order to know.” [from Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship]. This certainly echoes the sense I recall getting from Taylor.)

Taylor writes, “The goal of faith is not to create a set of immutable, rationalized, precisely defined and defendable beliefs to preserve forever.  It is to recover a relationship with God.” (123) In short, faith is not about intellectual certainty, it is about a commitment to a reasonable assumption: in my case, relationship with God in Christ, and from there the notion that the Christian faith presents an accurate and coherent understanding of our world.

Next up: Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N. T. Wright (HarperOne, 2008)

 

The Hip soundtrack to my life.

Just last week it was announced that Gordon Downie, lead singer of acclaimed Canadian band The Tragically Hip, has terminal brain cancer. None of the major rock deaths from the past year—David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Glen Frey—had any personal effect on me, but Gord Downie will affect me a bit. He’s one of my favourite voices in rock music and the music of the Tragically Hip was a soundtrack running underneath the formative years of my life and beyond.

They’re doing a final tour this summer. I’m thinking of going when they hit Edmonton in July. I saw them in Saskatoon nearly 20 years ago, and it was disappointing (poor sound—but I know better now: sound is rarely great at a rock show).

Matt Gurney, columnist at The National Post, gets it: …”the Tragically Hip has been a big, big part of the soundtrack of my life for decades. I strongly associate periods with the music I was into at that time. I had Elvis Costello years. A long Collective Soul period. Went full Johnny Cash for a while. But throughout it all, there’s been Tragically Hip…” I had a long U2 period that overlapped other periods for a while, an R.E.M. period, a brief 54-40 (also Canadian!) period, a Sloan (Canadian!) period, an Arcade Fire (Canadian!) period, but throughout it all were The Tragically Hip.

So the last little while I’ve been listening to The Hip again and reflecting on all the different stages of my life with which they are associated—mental pictures and memories of people, places, activities, and journeys. It’s all a bit melancholy now with the news about Downie. But here are some of the memories, meaningless to you the reader, poignant for me.

“New Orleans is Sinking” (from their first full-length album, Up to Here [released 1989]) – It’s elementary school, I’m in a buddy’s driveway. The high school principal’s son is playing this song across the road.

Road Apples (released 1991) – I would later come to love this album, but first knew it only because “Little Bones” was the song for the opening credits for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) music television show.

Fully Completely (1992) – I’m in high school. It’s a hot summer day, I’m on a secondary highway north of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in a buddy’s car, going to fish in Buffalo Pound Lake. We listen to this album there and back. “Courage” and “Pigeon Camera” always bring that day to mind. He would be killed in a work accident several years later.

Day for Night (1994) – The first Hip album I bought when it was released, making me officially caught up to the times as a Hip fan. High school: my fishing friend plays me this new album on his portable CD player on the bus to a soccer tournament. College: a buddy plays “Scared” on his guitar in the yearbook office, next to the student lounge.

Trouble at the Henhouse (1996) – “Ahead By a Century” is the first Hip song I learn on guitar.Legendary Canadian comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall, which I loved at the time, used one of the songs from this album for the soundtrack to their cult-favourite movie Brain Candy. I have a t-shirt with the album cover on it. My older brother gave me that shirt for my 19th birthday in December 1997. I still have that shirt. It is in perfect condition. Dixie hates it and wants to get rid of it because it’s so old. Along with the shirt, my brother gave me a ticket for the Hip’s concert for their new album.

Live Between Us (Live, 1997)

Phantom Power (1998) – the first single from this album “Poets” was released in the spring of 1998. I was in the middle front seat of a Ford F-350, somewhere in the wilds of northern British Columbia with my tree planting crew. Everyone else was unimpressed, but I was delighted. That August I would see them live in Saskatoon with the ticket my brother had bought me. The concert was disappointing—my expectations were high, the sound was poor. I bought a t-shirt there. It did not last more than a year or two.

Music @ Work  (2000) – This album was released in the spring of 2000. I remember this because I paid twice as much for it as I should have at a local music store in Whitecourt, Alberta—again with my fishing buddy from Fully Completely—because I couldn’t wait for the tree planting season to be over to buy it at a chain store at a lower price. We again listened to it in the cab of a Ford F-350 on the way back to our camp north of Whitecourt. This album was a huge departure for The Hip, but I loved most of this album from the start. I would get married that August.

“It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken” (from In Violet Light [2002]) – I’m sitting at the second desk at the front of my father-in-law’s law office. My pregnant-for-the-first time wife is probably in the back working. I stream this song from The Hip’s website and instantly love it. In fact, it is one of my favourite Hip songs of all time. The rest of the album would take some time to grow on me.

After this album, I checked out of The Tragically Hip’s world for a couple of years: In Between Evolution (2004); Yer Favourites (2005);  That Night in Toronto (Live) (2005); World Container (2006); then…

We are the Same (2009) – spring or summer: I’m with my wife and three kids in our 1992 Honda Accord waiting in line at the drive-through car wash in Prince Albert. We’re listening to this album, which I’ve just purchased, and I’m delighted. The Hip seem back on form. Later that summer we would move to Manitoba to attend seminary.

Then: Now for Plan A (2012) – I stream this album on Rdio, but am disappointed.

So, I’ve drifted away from the Hip these last years, but the old soundtrack still hums in the background. It’s strange: I was a huge U2 fan, and I still love their earlier albums, but they mostly stay on the shelf, not listened to. Same with R.E.M. and Arcade Fire. I listened to these groups for hours and hours over and over again, but at some point I moved on to something else, and while they still have a place in my heart and I would still list them among my all-time favourites, it is only to The Tragically Hip that I return regularly. At the very least, a summer road-trip needs at least one listen to Fully Completely.