Monday, November 28, 2005

God's Dazzling Darkness

Our Sunday morning adult Bible study was coming to the end of the book of Ruth, when we read the people's blessing, those who had witnessed Boaz' redemption of Ruth by the city gate: "May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah" (4:12). I asked if anyone knew who Perez and Tamar were. One hand went up. So off we went to Genesis 38, and the story of poor Tamar, whose marital fortunes were, let us say, tragic. Her first husband Er was wicked, so the Lord "killed him," then Er's brother Onan was supposed to step in to provide Er an heir, but he pulled out at the last minute (literally), so the Lord "killed him also." I discerned uncomfortable shifting in some Sunday school seats. As a young man, Albert Einstein lost his faith in traditional Judaism upon reading a similar passage in Exodus 4:24, "And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him [Moses] and sought to kill him." What do we make of such passages? They are certainly unsettling, and provide an existential urgency to the proverb, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Pr 9:10). My usual response to the anxious queries of parishioners is that these are Hebrew idioms which attribute the death or illness of a person to God's judgment for wickedness. I try to move them away from the image of God as Zeus, capriciously throwing thunderbolts from Mt. Olympus. I remind them of Romans 8:1, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." But there is no denying a terrifying element to God's power. "Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me" (Psalm 88:16). "Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men" (2 Corinthians 5:11).

For liberal Christians, such texts produce no anxiety. They are merely remnants of a primitive superstititious view of God, which is an embarrassment at best, and an offense at worst. Such passages are often excised from the public reading of Scripture, especially in the Common Lectionary. For those who take the Bible as an authoritative text, however, the relationship between God and violent language must be sorted out. So it was interesting to me over the weekend to read not one, but two reviews of Harold Bloom's newest book, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. I am a fan of Bloom, ever since I read his introductory essay on the poet Geoffrey Hill, in Hill's collection, Somewhere is Such a Kingdom. In Bloom's latest book, he writes that both Judaism and Christianity misunderstand and try and cover up the true Yahweh, the God of Israel. To quote Jonathan Rosen's review in The New York Times, Bloom's Yahweh is "the 'Man God' who appears to Joshua with a drawn sword, the jealous, zealous, hungry, hands-on deity who makes Adam out of a mud pie, picnics with the elders on Mount Sinai, chooses Moses and then, with irrational outrage, tries to kill him as he travels back to Egypt." Interestingly, Bloom finds Jesus, when stripped of his churchly garments, to be very much in touch with this version of Yahweh, especially in the Gospel of Mark.

Frank Kermode, in the most recent New York Review of Books, notes that Bloom, a Jew, is voicing a lament on behalf of the entire Jewish people for God's destruction of his covenant people. In Bloom's reading of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), Yahweh is troublesome, moody, alarming, and unreliable; someone who bears no resemblence to the Christian Father. This early tribal image of God is superceded first by later redactors (Priestly and Deuteronomic writers), and then by the Christian and Moslem appropriation of the "Old Testament." Bloom is waiting for God to do something again, but hopes it is not a command to rebuild the temple, which would ignite a Palestinian conflagration. The value of Bloom's reading is not that it reflects good biblical scholarship (Bloom is a literary critic), but that he is unafraid to confront the verses which disturb our modern sensibilities. He "un-domesticates" Yahweh, and makes him a lurking, moral presence in our immoral world.

Soon hordes of children and their parents will flood movie theaters to see an adaptation of the first of C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles. I remember one particular line from the book which resonates with this discussion of God's darker nature. The children are warned that Aslan the lion (an allegorical Christ) is no tame lion, so they should be careful. The Triune God we are currently dealing with is also no tame lion, and it would serve us well to be mindful of God's unpredictable sovereignty. Ananias and Saphira come to mind here (Acts 5). The great 17th century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughn captures this in his poem "The Night (John 2:3)."

There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they

See not all clear;

O for that night! where I in him

Might live invisible and dim.

Something to ponder as we make our way through the thickets of Advent.

Friday, November 25, 2005

A Most Pleasant Use of Technology

I'm the kind of person who gets easily frustrated when technology doesn't behave properly, and for me, that is quite often. And yet this morning I was able to do something my grandparents could never have conceived. I noticed that there was a glaring omission in my cd collection. I had never bothered to upgrade my old Brandenburg Concertos from vinyl/cassette to cd. I awoke in the mood for some Brandenburg, and alas, none was to be found. I could have gotten into my car, driven to the mall, braved the Black Friday crowds, and plopped down $20 or more for said concerti. I think not!

Instead, I did the 21st century thing and perused iTunes. This presented a problem - a plethora of choices. Did I want the sturdy old Neville Marriner or the feisty Musica Antiqua Koln? Finding classical cd reviews can be quite difficult using Google, so I went to, and looked up most of the choices I found on iTunes. There I found great reviews and details about the performances which informed my choices. From iTunes I downloaded Trevor Pinnock's version with the English Consort. Very nice, leisurely paced, with period instruments (a must for me). Then to reward Amazon for being so helpful, I ordered the complete six concerti from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment ($10.98, not bad!).

This was a most pleasant use of technology. I was able to rectify a glaring omission in my musical library, spend less than $20, and get two fine versions. The best part is that I was able to combine both instant and delayed gratification. I have the English Consort already on my iMac and iPod, and I eagerly await my order from Amazon. The only downside to all of this was the offer of free shipping made to me by the good folks at Amazon. If I only spent a little I ended up with two more Naxos cds by Machaut and Obrecht ($6.99 ea.). Ain't life grand?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Consumer and Christmas

I was reading Ann's excellent post over at What Is Your Only Comfort? blog on Christmas consumerism, and felt the pangs of good old Calvinist guilt. Which is a special kind of guilt only Calvinists can experience. You see, according to certain theories of economic development, Calvinism was instrumental in fostering the nascent capitalism of the Renaissance. So when I purchase things, I help the economy, keep people employed, and enjoy the blessing of God's good earth. But then I hear that consumerism is a bad thing. It depletes our environmental resources, it denudes our land with rising trash levels and pollution, and it increases one's worldliness and lack of dependence upon God. All of this comes to an exquisite, agonizing point somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas. If I remain a dedicated consumer, I uphold my Calvinistic mercantile heritage, but I feel guilty over the economic exploitation of Jesus. If I refrain from gift-giving, I annoy my relations, violate the American economic religious commandment of "Thou canst not have enough," and risk being tarred and feathered as a humbug, a kill-joy, etc. This is the double guilt of the Calvinist at Christmas. The bottom line: you can't win.

Which reminds me of a famous quote by Marx and Engels from the Communist Manifesto. "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with his sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind." What would those conditions be Herr Marx? He sums up the modern world with great prescience: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country...It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In a word, it creates a world after its own image."

That's a pretty accurate description of our society, amazingly written in 1848! I've seen wristbands and bumper-stickers asking, What Would Jesus Do? What Would Jesus Drive?, but maybe we should be asking, What Would Jesus Say About Consumerism? or What Would Jesus Do at Christmas? Oh I forgot, he already gave us the answer to the first question in the gospels. "Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth" (Mt 6:19). "You cannot serve God and wealth [Greek: "mammon"]. "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" (Luke 18:24). As for the second question, perhaps Jesus would say to us, "Give what you were going to spend this Christmas to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" (adapted from Luke 18:22).

Is consumerism the natural result of capitalism, or is it a perversion of capitalism? Since Marx and Engels' secular experiment in communal sharing was such a spectacular failure, is there room for a Christian influenced capitalism? And why do we always ask these questions at this time of the year, instead in July? Perhaps it is because we feel uneasy being wealthy, and celebrating the birth of Jesus by giving other wealthy persons things they probably don't need. What they do need is God, and yet we feel too awkward to mention Him at this time of year. Besides, you can't mention Jesus in Target any more. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Saint John's Bible

Yesterday I waxed enthusiastic about the Gutenberg Bible, but as I was reading The New Yorker this morning, I was reminded by a small sidebar ad of the monumental effort to produce the first handwritten illuminated Bible since Gutenberg made such things obsolete, ca. 1450. It is called The Saint John's Bible ( I had seen a documentary about it, I believe on PBS, but it had slipped out of the old melon until today. You can see individual pages at and at the St John's website (to the left is the Gospel of Matthew). So far the Gospels and Acts are available in facsimile reproductions, with the Psalms set to appear in early 2006. I just added one to my wish list!

Apart from the sheer beauty of the calligraphy and illuminations, what makes this a compelling story is how Donald Jackson has gone about creating the work itself. Jackson was Queen Elizabeth's personal scribe, and does the work in his scriptorium in Wales. He uses "eggs, feathers, calfskins, and handground inks along with gold, silver and platinum" (quoting from the introduction), in conjunction with ancient techniques to create a masterpiece of manuscript art. It is called the Saint John's Bible because, when completed, the Bible will reside in the Benedictine monastery of St. John's, in central Minnesota, which commissioned the work. The project reflects the ecumenical and inter-faith commitments of the monastery, incorporating input from religious leaders and artists from a variety of faith traditions.

While Donald Jackson and his team use ancient methods to create the original, it is organized on a computer, digitally photographed and preserved, and made available in public editions and on CD-ROM. This is a glorious mixing of ancient art, monastic vocation (the monasteries preserved much of the ancient world's knowledge in their Medieval scriptoria), and technological innovation. This naturally appeals to me, Philaskolia (i.e., "lover of manscripts"), but I think many creatively-minded Christians will rejoice over this project, and look forward to its completion. Even more information is available at It's worth a look, trust me.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Gutenberg in the Header

My sincerest thanks must go out to my friend, the very Rev. Scott Nichols, he of Random Responses, who redid the header above. Since I am technologically challenged, the help was both needed and appreciated. I told him what I wanted, and behold, it magically appeared. I especially like the Gutenberg Bible page on the left. What a fascinating thing is the Gutenberg! It represents a watershed in the history of humanity, and yet it was printed to look as if it were a handwritten, illuminated manuscript. It represents humanity looking forward to modernity, and yet unwilling to let go of the familiar and comforting past. Which is an apt description for most of us, wouldn't you say?

A truly great website from the University of Texas at Austin contains digital images of every page of the Gutenberg Bible. It is another example of technology (something new) giving life to something old. Take a look, here's the link.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Church Life Support

What do you do when your congregation is dying? You are told by "experts" to change: change the music, the worship, and the outreach. Stop catering to the old, and go after the young. Be hip, be cool, be casual, be entertaining, be happy, be whatever you have to be to get those people into your pews. It is easy to mock the church growth mantras, but when the prospect of closing the church's doors forever becomes a real possibility, you begin to think maybe it's worth a try.

So after New Year's, our church is going to try and simplify its worship service, modernize its music, and advertise to the local unchurched that we are now "user friendly, so come as you are." This means the organ will be replaced by piano and guitars. The liturgy which I have known since I was a child will be pared back to a few key elements: Praise, Prayer, Offering, Scripture, Sermon, Praise. I recognize that what comforts me and most of the older members is a form of worship which crystallized in the late 19th century. I realize that it is no more spiritual or biblical than the new. In this postmodern, post-Christian megalopolis, our visitors don't care about responsive Psalter readings, assurances of pardon, doxologies and votums. If they come to worship at all, they surely don't want to feel lost or confused, or out of place in a room with 50 retirees singing music which reminds them of Lawrence Welk.

We are recognizing that the congregation is on life-support, its days numbered unless some intervention is made. My prayer is that our efforts will foster a simplicity combined with joy, in the presence of the Spirit, who is "the Lord, the giver of life" (Nicene Creed). My hope is that a visitor will find a community exalting God, preaching Christ, and yet one free of obstacles or time-bound idolatries.

Why then do I feel so conflicted about this? I have no intention of changing the style or substance of my sermons, nor am I about to change the content of our communal prayers. I suppose what I fear is a descent into an arid mediocrity. So much evangelical worship seems repetitive, vapid, and shallow. Perhaps my discomfort comes from remembering the methodology of the early church. In the midst of a hostile, even persecuting pagan environment, the early Christian leaders made it difficult to join the church. The catechumenate was a three year long process, involving much prayer, fasting, instruction, memorization, and mortification of desire. The disorientation Protestants feel upon worshipping in a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church is a reflection of just how out of sync we are with the idea of the Church as a body of believers set apart and called out of the world. We are taught to grow the church by blurring the boundary between it and the world. The first Christians grew their churches by doing the exact opposite: by highlighting the differences between the new life and the old.

In St. John Lateran in Rome, there is an ancient octogonal baptistry attached to the church. At Easter, catechumens were stripped of their old clothes, descended three steps (for the Trinity), immersed in holy water, walked up three steps on the opposite side, and were given white robes and led into the sanctuary, where they were allowed, for the first time, to receive communion. In the midst of this baptistry is a bronze sculpture of a deer, from Psalm 42, "As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God." And so I ask myself, is our church dying because we have become trapped in the past, or rather because we have divorced ourselves from a longing for God which overcomes the love of the world and all "obstacles" the church places in front of newcomers? If we seek life-support by allowing the Spirit to create an ekklesia, a called-out body of believers, then it will have been worth the risk. If all we do is substitute one idolatry for another, we might as well not have tried. No matter what, however, God's will be done.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Late Autumn Longing

My lawn is now afire with maple leaves, and the days darken so quickly that I turn on my reading lamp at 1:30. I begin to fret about the oncoming winter, and yet at the same time a longing is reborn in my soul for that joy which is found only in Advent and Christmastide. It is a healing of a fracture in the soul, which formed itself in suffering and confusion. It is a longing for union with God, a union no other philosophy, aesthetic, or religion can supply. I sense it emerging within me as a hollow space which demands the presence of the Spirit to fill it, and which will not be denied. It is fostered by sacred music, by poetry, by worship, by reading. It signals the death of my prodigal wandering, and I am glad, even in the lengthening shadows. Joy is longing. Joy is the resumption of desire for communion and for spiritual things. Joy is the observance of the death of sin's allure.

This is not my doing. This is God's covenant faithfulness to the Spirit's articulation of the heart's groaning. This restlessness for God is placed within the heart, and cannot be gainsaid. It can be, however, corrupted and turned into a longing for certainty, for absolute clarity, and for the infinity of knowledge which belongs properly only to the Triune Majesty. How tawdry and vulgar seems the world when it is bleached of the divine, and enmeshed in the pursuit of vanity. How grateful I am to feel the centripetal force of divine longing, and how ashamed of the many hours and days spent fleeing the one thing which brings joy, and the one thing which renders all earthly joys clean. As Jane Kenyon wrote,
Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


The first thing I want to say is that if you want a great review of Kate Bush's newest album (yes, album!), then go here. Nonetheless, I offer my own humble musings. As devoted readers of this blog know from previous posts, I am passionate about classical music. Yet man does not live by Bach alone. Ever since I saw Kate sing "Wuthering Heights" in a trenchcoat on "Saturday Night Live," I was hooked. The usual wait for a new Kate album was 2-3 years, but after her last collection, the undeservedly maligned, The Red Shoes, there was a twelve year long silence. Amongst her legions of fan[atics], there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth. I myself assumed that she had merely exhausted her musical offerings, and had settled down to a quiet family life. So it was quite a shock to hear this summer that a new 2-cd album was on its way. Miracles do occur [Kate people are unrestrained in their use of panegyric and hyperbole].

So how does Aerial stand up to the accumulated desires of twelve years of silence? Pretty well, actually. It is a kindred spirit to The Sensual World (especially songs like "Somewhere In Between" and "King of the Mountain"), with a smooth, unhurried tone of pensive reflection on the beauty of life, its fragility, fleetingness, and ultimately its mystery. The islands on the cover are set in a sea and sky of honey, which serve as titles for each disc. But the islands are an illusion, they are in fact the sonic signature of a blackbird's song, forming the motif for disc 2, which is a song cycle of a passing day.

"Sea of Honey" (disc one) has seven independent songs, most of which are very good. In fact, let me state here that the musicianship on this album is the best of her career (especially the guitar work by Dan McIntosh). The first song, "King of the Mountain," is the first single, and is this album's "hit." Family comes into view, with a Renaissance madrigal paean to her seven year old son Bertie, and in "A Coral Room," which is about her mother, who died just before her last album went to print. A lovely song about Joan of Arc is preceded by "How to be Invisible." Both are accessible, rhythmically interesting pieces. There are however, some wincing moments and missteps on this album, notably the song π, where Kate actually chants the numeric value beyond the decimal point!, and on Mrs. Bertolozzi, with its praise to a washing machine. I thought the song "An Architect's Dream," rather mundane, and let's not speak of "Aerial Tal," where Kate tries to imitate a blackbird (which will not be saved to my iPod!).

"Sky of Honey" (disc two) is a song cycle, ala "The Ninth Wave" from The Hounds of Love. It is not as musically adventurous as that previous effort, but has a serenity and charm which makes it an abiding pleasure. This disc will be the one which you will listen to years from now, especially the last four songs, which have hypnotic rhythms ("Nocturne" and "Aerial" especially) and intriguing lyrics. These songs aren't "masterpieces" or even the best of Kate, but they stand head and shoulders above the rest of the current radio dreck.

In the canon of her music, where does Aerial stand? It may be too early to say. When I first heard The Dreaming, I thought she had gone insane, but now I consider it my second favorite album. Therefore, I would place Aerial in the middle. A bit better than The Sensual World, but not as great as The Dreaming or The Hounds of Love. All that being said, it is a joy to hear new music from Kate, and I am grateful for her musical alchemy and eccentricity. Oh, and go buy the cd in a store, don't just download it (legally or not). The cover art inside and out is marvelous, and there is a 24 page booklet to peruse.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Jesus and Redemptive Violence

I have a list of blogs I check every day. Some represent where I have been theologically, and some reflect the direction in which I am moving at the moment. One blog, Pyromaniac, which is definitely "old school" me, keeps me abreast of debates raging in the Reformed evangelical world. It is one of the spiffiest looking blogs around, and while I almost never agree with the musings of its author, Phil Johnson, I have picked up some interesting reading ideas from what is routinely condemned. One book mentioned often, with much opprobrium, is Steve Chalke's The Lost Message of Jesus. So I bought it and found it a mildly interesting, highly redacted depiction of Christ as a loving, welcoming Messiah. No anger, no big stick, no hell-talk.

It wasn't until I came to chapter seven, "A New Agenda," that my interested was peaked. Chalke writes about how repentance is more than regret, confession, and a resolution to "never to do that again." Repentance is a call to follow Jesus into the shalom of God, that is, the abundant life of communion with God in Christ (John 10:10). In Chalke's words, "It is a calling to something rather than away from something." He then turns to Jesus' words in Matthew 5:48, "Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." The word "perfect" (telios, τελίος), describes a copy of something, an exact duplicate. Thus, Chalke translates this passage as, "You must always act like your Father in heaven," which Jesus summarizes as loving God completely and your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37).

If repentance means living God's way, it means we must stand against what Walter Wink called the myth of redemptive violence. Early Christians were uniformly pacifists, who were willing to be martyred rather than serve in the military. They were merely following their Lord, who said, "For all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). The early church turned its back on the idea that violence could somehow achieve solutions to societal problems. It was St Augustine, amidst a sea of barbarian invaders, who baptized the idea of the jus bellum, the just war. By that time, Christianity had already "conquered" the Roman Empire, not with swords, but by the blood of the martyrs, and the power of the gospel.

I mention all this because today the body count from Islamic terrorists is once again over 100. The situation in Iraq is not improving, and the mood in America is skittish and dark. We have decided as a nation to confront terrorism with violence, and have reaped only further violence, and the deaths of countless innocents. Chalke mentions Carl Jung's oft-quoted words, "You always become the thing you fight." I fear we will become so frightened of al-Qaeda, and so self-righteous in our political theology (and we do have a political theology: America as a shining light, a city on a hill, manifest destiny, etc.), that we will resort to even more violence and become filled with hate. This is not the way of Christ, the way of repentance, or the way of righteousness, and our so-called Christian leaders should know that.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fish War Rhetoric

What makes this cartoon so relevant to me is that I was recently told by an upright citizen of heaven, that I had "gone over to the dark side" because of my theological views. Ah the church...the only army in the world which shoots its wounded.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Ending Mutual Prejudice

Cardinal Paul Poupard, the head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, announced a Vatican project to help end "mutual prejudice" between science and religion. The core of this project is simple - start listening to each other. Roman Catholic authorities still feel bad about Galileo, and have learned some important lessons. Indeed, the Vatican now has its own astronomical observatory, and has come to accept the elemental truths of evolution as "more than a hypothesis" (in the words of the late John Paul II).

I was struck by this statement from the good cardinal: "We know where scientific reason can end up by itself: the atomic bomb and the possibility of cloning human beings are fruit of a reason that wants to free itself from every ethical or religious link...But we also know the dangers of a religion that severs its links with reason and becomes prey to fundamentalism."

According a recent CBS poll, 51% of Americans reject evolution, and it seems that this figure may be rising, as fundamentalist evangelicalism increases in numbers and influence. President Bush has come out in favor of Intelligent Design, giving political credence to a non-scientific theory with no value whatsoever. America is losing the battle in scientific education and professions to nations like India, which will have long-term effects upon our economy, as innovation languishes. We are in danger of becoming a nation of debt-ridden consumers, working only in low-paying service-sector jobs. America as Wal-Mart writ large.

I am personally terrified by fundamentalism in any religion or philosophy. It is the triumph of absolutism over reason. It prompts otherwise good men and women to do unspeakable things in the name of God or the state. Which is why Cardinal Poupard's words offer light in a darkening world. If they go unheeded, further violence will erupt between rival religions and civilizations (witness France this week), and ignorance and superstitution will overwhelm the queen of the sciences, which is theology. Fear and a retreat from reason are a lethal combination. Let us hope they are kept far apart.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Not Exactly a Shocking Revelation...

The Monk
You scored 28% Cardinal, 64% Monk, 50% Lady, and 29% Knight!
You live a peaceful, quiet life. Very little danger comes you way and you live a long time. You are wise and modest, but also stagnant. You have little comfort, little food and have taken a vow of silence. But who needs chatter when just sitting in the cloister of your abbey with The Good Book makes you perfectly content.
Link: The Who Would You Be in 1400 AD Test written by KnightlyKnave on Ok Cupid, home of th32-Type Dating Test

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Theology and Alien Abduction

In his delightful travel narrative, Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson decides to return to America, after living for twenty years in England. He cites the statistic that 3.7 million people believe they were abducted by aliens from outer space. "Clearly," he writes, "my people needed me." Now along comes Susan Clancy, whose new book, Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Abducted By Aliens, tries to give an answer as to why so many people believe they were snatched by ET. Clancy is no kook, but a former professor of psychology at Harvard. It is her contention that people who believe they were abducted are desperately trying to find religious meaning in life. She writes, "Being abducted may be a baptism in the new religion of this millennium" (see a fuller review in Slate magazine). She continues, "We want to believe there's something bigger and better than us, or at least is paying attention to us...Being abducted by aliens is a culturally shaped manifestation of a universal human need."

I am not really interested in alien abduction, per se, but I am concerned with our society's loss of spiritual meaning. G.K. Chesterton is said to have famously quipped that "When men stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything." Agnosticism would seem then to promote gullibility. This may not be scientifically provable, but it is certainly anecdotally self-evident. How else does one explain cults, Jesus appearing on toast, Mary on a taco? How do we confront irrationality on a global scale, especially when the church itself is accused of rampant silliness? Over the last week I was invited not once, but twice, to luncheons in my area where Ken Hamm, from Answers in Genesis, was the keynote speaker. This is a person who believes the universe to be thousands of years old, and that dinosaurs didn't make onto the ark. I politely declined the phone invitations, but I wanted to say to the nice woman on the other end of the line: "You are all mental patients!"

They are not mental patients, of course, just folks searching for meaning and demanding certainty and theological tidiness in a messy world. I wish I could offer my own congregants such certainty, it would surely help our little church to grow. Instead I offer them "a still, small voice." I offer them words of grace, of forgiveness, of hope. One would think that would be enough, but people want more. Evelyn Underhill once wrote, "Sanity consists in sharing the hallucinations of our neighbors." But I reject that form of spiritual cynicism, and prefer the words of theologian Josef Pieper (who deserves a wider readership): "Man's life is authentic only when he does not allow his vision of reality to be clouded by his own desire; on the contrary, his decision-making and action depend upon reality revealing itself to him. By his willingness to live the truth he shows himself to be prudent" (Anthology, p.8). But was it not T.S. Eliot who said, "Human kind cannot bear very much reality" ("Burnt Norton," Four Quartets)? Indeed, so off we go into the arms of aliens and cultists, who offer an alternative to truth, and a soft delusion to fill our inner void. One understands Jesus' lamentation a little better: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem...How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not" (Matthew 23:37).