Hi, It’s Nice to Meet You

Hello all! The calendar reading March 14th leaves me scratching my head for two reasons—how has winter steamed by so quickly, and how am I ever going to dig my little VW out of a FOOT of snow?! (Winter storm Stella’s been a doozy!)

Today I want to welcome the newcomers to Shasta’s Fog! A few of you are showing up for the first time, and today I’d like to discuss four types of posts you can expect from Shasta’s Fog in the future. (And for faithful readers, this post is for any of you who haven’t had a chance to read my recently updated About page!)

1. One type of post I usually write is literary in nature. (Last year 50% of my posts were in some way related to literature or poetry!) These posts are normally the brain-child of literature I’m currently teaching (I’m a high school AP lit teacher), books I’m currently reading, poems I’m pondering, or poems I’m writing.

My most recent literary post included thoughts on C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, and if I were to write a literary post right now, I might include a poem I wrote sitting in a graveyard by the North Sea in England, after a 5 a.m. jaunt along the cliffs, past the bombed out Whitby Abbey, a strong monument to the history of monastic life, English poetry (Caedmon DID live there after all), and the church of England.

(I found this poem after digging through my 2014 U.K. photos and journals, which I was perusing in order to co-teach a mini-term called “Urban Exploration.” Every winter, my school cancels all classes for 7th-12th grades for one week and hosts a week of Mini-terms, where students can take career-oriented or personal interest classes.)

Whitby

Fair morning whispers to the child of light.
She rises early who farewells the night.
Pink sky, brown rooster—white, the gulls which cry,
salt wind, green cliff, stone monument nearby
wet grass, thick wheat, stone pathway for her feet
small bird, fat slugs, three snails—all these do meet
the sun above the cliffs at Whitby’s shore,
smooth North Sea, tugboats, church bells, gates, and more.
Light’s morning glimmers, puzzling beauty’s flash
amiss—“For safety, stay on this, the path.”

2. The second type of post I write is spiritual in nature, though many of these posts are literary posts in disguise. (For example, I discussed N. T. Wright’s book After You Believe, but it felt more like a personal spiritual credo than anything else.)

If I were to write a post relating to spirituality today, I would write about my foray into observing Lent, how I’m observing the Episcopalian kind this year (mainly because they get to cheat on Sundays), how I eagerly champion the virtues of Lenten fasts in all my literature classes, and how that basically flows from two agendas: (1) It is my personal agenda to increase all hype around the Easter holiday because it is excruciatingly under-celebrated in most Christian circles, which in no way relates to the God-created fasting and feasting tradition of Old Testament Judaism, nor to what I imagine God intends for healthy faith communities today, and (2) I basically just don’t want to be the only one walking around admitting that I actually am addicted to Netflix, Youtube, and snacking. You have vices too.

3. The third type of post I write is travel posts. I recently traveled to Central America and posted some photos and poetry related to Nicaragua.

IMG_20170203_171615_160.jpg

Upcoming travel posts will be in honor of my personal conviction to properly celebrate the Easter holy day, as I will be celebrating in community by traveling with friends to a new city—Québec City! Let the party begin! (Not that breaking my fast there will necessarily include Netflix or Youtube, but it may include some exquisitely divine food (poutine and macaroons!), architectural wonders, crisp river walks, and a cathedral Easter service.

4. Last but not least, I also write about cultural issues, including but not limited to:

(1) those issues relating to geography (Pennsylvania: a place to where all women wear maroon, guys still wear deck shoes even though everyone else stopped wearing Sperry’s in 2012, and where chip aisles do not exist and only pretzels are munched!)

Sarcasm.jpg

(2) issues relating to Anabaptism (including snarky posts about Mennonite culture), and

(3) those issues relating to singleness and marriage (you all seemed to really like [and really hate] this post).

If I were to write a cultural post today, I would write about some thoughts I’ve been thinking relating to single women in the church and this idea that all women ought to submit to all men in general, whether on a committee, whether at a job, whether at a hardware store, or on a co-ed soccer team. (Here it goes. Friends and family: keep your fire extinguishers nearby.)

Deep breath.

The cultural milieu in which I find myself has this unstated (and sometimes stated) belief that all women must submit to all men. Were I to write a post about this cultural topic, I would (1) take a close look at the Scriptures from which this application is normally derived, (2) I would note when those Scriptures are speaking to women in marriage relationships and when they are not, and then ask if there are any “submitting” passages left over, (3) and then I would ask my favorite current question: “Why are some people so intent on making sure that all women (single or married) know their place as “submitters” when, in my experience, single women in the church do not practically live under any especial authority that differs from that of married men in the church?” Because that would be a fun conversation (though one probably best had in person).

So there you have it, new readers! Feel free to use my blog’s category guide as well to find content most suited to you: Teach (education topics), Read (books and literary posts), and Travel (cultural posts).

I look forward to reading your feedback, and I welcome suggestions for new posts in the comments!

Laughing at Demons: Why You Should Read The Screwtape Letters

On second page of The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis provides a framework for reading his work—

“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”—Luther

“The devill . . the prowde spirite . . cannot endure to be mocked.”—Thomas More

C.S. Lewis takes a swipe, however, in his classic satire about an uncle demon instructing his young nephew in the ways of the diabolical. Each chapter is structured as a letter in the Screwtape’s own hand. As a senior demon, he has much advice for the younger novitiate.

Reading this novel is like chewing the best kind of cake. The texture and flavors are unexpected, satisfying, and, even better, you find out AFTER you’ve eaten it that it’s one of those really healthy kind of cakes that’s barely a cake at all, but full of fiber and those natural sugars that someone named Dawn told you about.

So you eat another slice.

Lewis.jpg

Announcement: if you’re opposed to learning, skip this book. I’m learning a lot about my own vices, the enemy’s role in using them, and suddenly I find myself highly on the defensive. Therefore, it’s much too practical for those opposed-to-learning types. Avoid at all costs.

I offer you a brief sample, Letter 10, which hit me, well, like a load of cinder blocks. That is, I identified with it grand ways, and I felt as if I were ogling myself with an awkwardly large magnifying glass. (Do not materialize that image of me in your mind.) (Before or after the cinder blocks, you say.)

In this letter, we are warned of the problems of “pretending;” in this case, the “patient” starts pretending in order to be accepted into a group of intellectual elites. If you, or anyone you know, is a Christian interacting with an intellectual community, you would do well to read this letter. Or, if you are not a part of an intellectual community, but you’ve ever felt tension between Who You Are and Who They Are, and you desperately wish to close that gap, and you find yourself no longer being true to yourself (or your Lord), you, too, ought also to read this letter.

Afterward, I’ve posted a few thoughts, and I welcome your questions.

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,

I was delighted to hear from Triptweeze that your patient has made some very desirable new acquaintances and that you seem to have used this event in a really promising manner. I gather that the middle-aged married couple who called at his office are just the sort of people we want him to know—rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly sceptical about everything in the world. I gather they are even vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an ingrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism. This is excellent. And you seem to have made good use of all his social, sexual, and intellectual vanity. Tell me more. Did he commit himself deeply? I don’t mean in words. There is a subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a Mortal can imply that he is of the same party is those to whom he is speaking. That is the kind of betrayal you should specially encourage, because the man does not fully realise it himself; and by the time he does you will have made withdrawal difficult.

No doubt he must very soon realise that his own faith is in direct opposition to the assumptions on which all the conversation of his new friends is based. I don’t think that matters much provided that you can persuade him to postpone any open acknowledgment of the fact, and this, with the aid of shame, pride, modesty and vanity, will be easy to do. As long as the postponement lasts he will be in a false position. He will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and sceptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be. This is elementary. The real question is how to prepare for the Enemy’s counter attack.

The first thing is to delay as long as possible the moment at which he realises this new pleasure as a temptation. Since the Enemy’s servants have been preaching about “the World” as one of the great standard temptations for two thousand years, this might seem difficult to do. But fortunately they have said very little about it for the last few decades. In modern Christian writings, though I see much (indeed more than I like) about Mammon, I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time. All that, your patient would probably classify as “Puritanism”—and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life.

Sooner or later, however, the real nature of his new friends must become clear to him, and then your tactics must depend on the patient’s intelligence. If he is a big enough fool you can get him to realise the character of the friends only while they are absent; their presence can be made to sweep away all criticism. If this succeeds, he can be induced to live, as I have known many humans live, for quite long periods, two parallel lives; he will not only appear to be, but actually be, a different man in each of the circles he frequents. Failing this, there is a subtler and more entertaining method. He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a “deeper”, “spiritual” world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea—the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction. Finally, if all else fails, you can persuade him, in defiance of conscience, to continue the new acquaintance on the ground that he is, in some unspecified way, doing these people “good” by the mere fact of drinking their cocktails and laughing at their jokes, and that to cease to do so would be “priggish”, “intolerant”, and (of course) “Puritanical”.

Meanwhile you will of course take the obvious precaution of seeing that this new development induces him to spend more than he can afford and to neglect his work and his mother. Her jealousy, and alarm, and his increasing evasiveness or rudeness, will be invaluable for the aggravation of the domestic tension,

Your affectionate uncle
SCREWTAPE

My Meager Thoughts

1. Anyone who has grown up in an insular conservative community and suddenly finds themselves “outside” knows what is that “subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a Mortal can imply that he is of the same party is those to whom he is speaking.” We are try-hards.

2. “All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” This is chilling.

3. The pleasure of belonging can be a temptation—wow, Lewis, you’re really on fire.

4. Embracing the paradox of the two worlds… I’ve done this. You’ve done this. You’re really smart, so contemporary, and you’re very glad that you can so easily dance between both worlds. Strange, isn’t it, that C. S. Lewis just condemns it? Pretending is not an option. He really does poke fun at your little urbane dreamworld.

But C. S. Lewis is talking about a young Christian, maybe or maybe not on a university campus, who is dazzled by the intellectual elites. He is probably not talking about all the identity issues of a leftover female Anabaptist who sometimes feels like a polar bear at a rice convention. (But maybe he is.)

Ah well. Perhaps we all are little devils. Because as C. S. Lewis writes, we soon find that he is sniggering at us. In a helpful uncle-y way.

And as annoying as it is, I’m glad.

READ THIS BOOK

 

 

A Good Mennonite Poem

One new little blog feature that I’m happy to roll out this year is a Good Reads widget that gives you a peek at what I’m currently reading.

(Yes, I said books, plural. I’m famous for reading several at a time. This is actually good practice according to Douglas Wilson, author of the cunning little writing book Wordsmithy. In his chapter, “Read until Your Brain Creaks,” he encourages writers to read widely, and he announces that it’s perfectly acceptable to have to have, say, twenty books going at a time.

I don’t quite have that many, but I DO try to follow his advice by reading a lot, dabbling in different genres, and bouncing between several different covers.)

Currently, I’m still digesting The Brothers Karamasov… then there’s Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth (a movie by the same name was released in 2014) about a young British scholar, who, after fiiiiinally convincing her Papa to let her go to college (and Oxford at that!), she abandons her studies to enlist as a nurse in the armed forces during World War I, after which, she becomes a staunch pacifist, due to her experiences on the front and the war-time death of her brother, her lover, and another friend.

A reader once pointed me to the biography of Lilias Trotter (after having blogged about the writings of John Ruskin), and let me tell you, Lilias Trotter’s testimony is phenomel (though much of the literature around her life is a bit lacking). A documentary of her life was made in 2015 (a little disappointing cinematically, but I made my parents watch it on Christmas with me, and we enjoyed her testimony, despite some of the movie’s slow pacing). Basically, John Ruskin, leading art critic of the Victorian era finds 20-year-old Lilias to be England’s next rising artist. Convinced of her artistic genius, he offers to tutor her, and they enjoy the kind of friendship that only the arts provides, until Lilias announces that she cannot continue to paint, but that she has another love–that of Jesus Christ, and as a young women, heads off to Algeria as a missionary. Despite her poor health, her inability to speak Arabic, and the fact that all missionary societies refuse to support her, she and a few friends leave on their own, determined to make North Africa home. Her slow, steady work and her approach to missions was uncommon for the time as she tried to reach the Arab world through the written word and the arts. Go google Lilias Trotter! Or better yet, read her biography A Passion for the Impossible!

I’m also reading The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil by Andrew Delbanco. (That’s pretty self-explanatory.)

And finally, I continue to page through one of my new favorite books, an anthology of poems (published by the University of Iowa Press and edited by Ann Hostetler, professor of English at Goshen College) called A Capella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry.

a capella.jpg

I picked up my copy at my favorite used book store in Goshen, Indiana for $9, only to go to the Goshen Library sale a few weeks later and find a copy for $1. (Lucky me. I gifted one to my roommate). And. We have been devouring Mennonite poems for days!

Who even knew that writing like this existed?!

Good Mennonite poems!

Good poems. The kind I read at university and dearly loved but never stumbled across ones that were about me.

I read the poetry of white British mothers, African American artists, Native American activists, political poetry from Guam, plays from Hawaii, Lakota cries, Cherokee voices, Argentine verse… but where was the story of me?

In Mennonite Voices, these poems are our story.

Probably the strangest poem in the anthology is this poem about cookies. It is my favorite poem of the anthology. If you read it here, and you don’t understand it, that’s fine. It’s probably not meant to be totally understood at the first reading.

The Cookie Poem
by Jeff Gundy

“Here are my sad cookies”

The sad cookies. The once and future cookies.
The broken sweet cookies. The cookies
of heartbreaking beauty. The stony cookies
of Palestine. The gummy and delicious
olive and honey cookie. The pasty
damp cookie trapped in the child’s hand.

Sad cookies, weird cookies, slippery
and dangerous cookies. Brilliant helpless
soiled and torn cookies, feverish and sweaty
cookies. Sullen cookies, sassy cookies,
the cookies of tantrum and the cookie of joy
and the sweet dark cookie of peace.

The faithful cookie of Rotterdam. The wild-eyed
cookie of Muenster. The salty Atlantic cookie.
Cookies in black coats, in coveralls,
in business suits, cookies in bonnets
and coverings and heels, cookies scratching
their heads and their bellies, cookies utterly
and shamelessly naked before the beloved.

Cookies of the Amish division, cookies
of the Wahlerhof, cookies of Zurich and
Stassburg and Volhynia and Chortitza,
Nairobi Djakarta Winnipeg Goshen.
Cookies who hand their children off
to strangers, who admonish their sons
to remember the Lord’s Prayer, cookies
who say all right, baptize my children
and then sneak back to the hidden church anyway.
Cookies who cave in utterly. Cookies
who die with their boots on. Cookies
with fists, and with contusions.
The black hearted cookie. The cookie with issues.
Hard cookies, hot cookies, compassionate
conservative cookies, cookies we loathe
and love, cookies lost, fallen, stolen,
crushed, abandoned, shunned. Weary
and heroic cookies, scathingly noted cookies,
flawed cookies who did their best.
Single cookies, queer cookies, cookies of color,
homeless cookie families sleeping the car,
obsolete cookies broken down on the information
highway. Sad cookies, silent cookies,
loud cookies, loved cookies, your cookies,
my cookies our cookies, all cookies
God’s cookies, strange sweet hapless cookies
marked each one by the Imago Dei,
oh the Father the Son the Mother The Daughter
and the Holy Ghost all love cookies,
love all cookies, God’s mouth is full
of cookies, God chews and swallows and flings
hands wide in joy, the crumbs fly
everywhere, oh God loves us all.

You Are Rare Art (Before I Met You)

Before I met you, you were already a rare piece of art. Grey background, yellow flourishes, black shadows, peach strokes, all overlaid with strands of gold.

You are rare, a type of art that takes time and talent to appreciate, to understand, to comprehend.

pollock
Jackson Pollock, Number 5, 1948

Sometimes I’m not in the mood for Art, though. I don’t want to spend the time. And that is the worst thing I (we) can do. To never take the time to take a step back and appreciate a good canvas.

When I’m not thinking artistically, I find myself sometimes wanting to add to the picture. Do you ever want to adjust a painting? (Maybe some people come to mind—your brother, a parent, perhaps one of your students.) Do you ever meet a new person and think, “Well if I could fix just this one thing, then they’d be a really nice person.” “I like her, but this Thing really bothers me about her.” “Such a nice guy, but did you know This?”

I learned something this week: Nobody asked you. Nobody asked you to change a painting. Nobody asked you to “fix” a “broken” picture. Nobody asked you to create anyone.

You know, people really are who they are, whether or not you affirm them.

But sometimes we get struck with a savior complex, and we feel like it’s our duty to change people. When I run up against this, it always turns out badly.

My own impulse to “fix” people, and my inability to see, to listen, and to understand, remind me of the impulsive and sensual Dmitri in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamasov, who in his love-stricken state, cannot bear the facts about Grushenka, a disloyal woman.

Dmitri reasons to himself: “‘If she’s sitting at Kuzma’s, she won’t go to Fyodor Pavlovich . . . if only she’s not lying,’ he added at once… His jealously was precisely of such a sort that, separated from the beloved women, he at once invented all kinds of horrors about what was happening with her, and how she had gone and ‘betrayed’ him; but, running back to her, and shaken, crushed, convinced irretrievably that she had managed to betray him, with the first look of her face, at the gay, laughing, tender face of this woman, his spirits would at once revive, he would at once lose all suspicion, and with joyful shame reproach himself for his jealousy.”

But she has betrayed him. And Dmitri cannot see the truth (rather he cannot accept the truth) because of his own selfish jealousy.

And Dostoevsky indulges us at length, with this explanation: “It is hard to imagine what some jealous men can tolerate and be reconciled to, and what they can forgive! Jealous men forgive sooner than anyone else, and all women know it. The jealous man (having first made a terrible scene, of course) can and will very promptly forgive, for example, a nearly proven betrayal, the embraces and kisses he has seen himself, if, for example, at the same time he can somehow be convinced that this was ‘the last time’ and that his rival will disappear from that moment on, that he will go to the end of the earth, or that he himself will take her away somewhere, to some place where this terrible rival will never come. Of course, the reconciliation will only last an hour, because even if the rival has indeed disappeared, tomorrow he will invent another, a new one, and become jealous of this new one. And one may ask what is the good of a love that needs constantly be spied on, and what is the worth of a love that needs to be guarded so intensely? But that is something the truly jealous will never understand, though at the same time there happen, indeed, to be lofty hearts among them. It is also remarkable that these same lofty-hearted men, while standing in some sort of closet, eavesdropping and spying, though they understand clearly ‘in their lofty hearts’ all the shame they have gotten into of their own will, nevertheless, at least for that moment, while standing in that closet, will not feel any pangs of remorse.”

In this case, it is ridiculous to feel shame but no remorse. This, truly is the jealous heart.

We need not limit Dmitri’s blindness toward (and jealousy for) his lover alone. How many of us, due to our own selfishness, or jealousy, refuse to really see a person for who they truly are? How many of us refuse to allow someone to live outside of “our box,” never bother to sit down and really listen to a human, especially if it’s a person who either makes you feel AWKWARD or really just flat out annoys you? (Distant children, difficult students, and new acquaintances come to mind. Or, in Dmitri’s case, a person whom you love very much…)

In every situation, be careful if you feel like the bringer of truth. Please pause and consider carefully: while we influence people, we do not necessarily recreate them.

People are not containers. You can’t “fill them up” with truth.

People aren’t boxes that you put things in.

They are canvases.

In your whole life, you may only get to paint one purple stroke or a green dot.

No need to cover them in voluminous red vomit.

Before you meet them, and after you are gone, they are rare art.

The Idol of Marriage

Guys, staaaaaap.
Why is everyone so curious what I, the outspoken blogger, thinks about marriage?

“Stats are booming!”

You wackos.

(But thanks. I feel the love!)

In my last post, I gave my exact thoughts about the topic of dating and marriage. In that post I shared mostly what was on my heart. I have, however, decided to throw caution into the wind (due to reader disappointment) and share a few thoughts. (This post has been percolating.)

Here are a few thoughts I have on the subject of marriage, some of which I may or may not have shared in my Practical Christian Living class.

In my opinion, marriage is an idol. Marriage, its place, and its importance have grown far too large in our minds due to our misunderstanding of what marriage actually means. And further, idolizing marriage leads to ineffective Christian witness both inside and outside the church.

100_7259.JPG

  1. First, a lot of people are confused about what marriage means.

Marriage is a metaphor created by God to represent the future union of God Himself to His pure, beautiful church.

The first “thing” is God and His church, not the other way around. Human marriage is not the “thing.” God one day receiving His pure, beautiful church—THAT is the thing. Marriage is temporary. The church is eternal.

Jesus Himself said, “When the dead rise, they will neither marry, nor be given in marriage, they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). (You know you won’t be married in heaven, right?)

Paul reminds us that marriage is not the ultimate goal by a strange inversion at the end of his comments on marriage in his letter to the Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (5:25-32).

Just when we think Paul won’t end his moral rampage about husbands, he flips the argument on its side, indicating he’s actually been talking about God and the church the whole time.  (This is not to say that husbands ought to be rude to their wives. Paul’s instructions regarding Christian love still stand.)

Paul’s inversion reminds us that we do not look at marriage and say, “Oh, this is kind of like God and the church.” No, we look at God and His church and say, “This mystery, so amazing, is reflected to me by the human institution of marriage.”

Let us not have such an earthly perspective that we do not see marriage as temporary or that we do not see the church as eternal.

  1. Second, the idolatry of marriage is evident within the church.

It seems like we in the church place great importance on marriage, sometimes at the expense of Kingdom work!

Why is it that many Christian young people find themselves secretly praying, “Jesus, don’t come back until I get married”? (Which is really the subliminal “Jesus, don’t come back until I have sex.”) (And honestly, this is a very common prayer, according to youth!)

Strange isn’t it, that we prefer getting our jollies over the return of our great Lord?

What is it about this marriage relationship or this intimacy that is of utter importance that we cannot imagine getting to the end of our lives without it?

(And married people can’t imagine it. Grown men who are happily married get very uncomfortable by the idea of being celibate for the rest of their lives.) (Though I can’t imagine why. We single people have been doing it for years.)

So where do we get this idea that ultimate satisfaction comes from a romantic relationship (or a marriage relationship)? Is it coming from the church? If so, why?

Or, perhaps, have we bought into the secular message that sexual expression = worth?

Strangely, we in the church forget that our ultimate goal is contributing to God’s kingdom on earth and living in relationship with His people. Building God’s kingdom through the church is the Gospel message, after all.

When people don’t recognize that marriage is a metaphor for something greater, and that marriage itself is not eternal, it can become an idol after which many people seek. People desperately browse the marriage market, follow and like their next new crush, safely marry, and then obsess over all their unmarried friends, attempting to lead them into “Christian bliss,” or marriage, the obvious path to spiritual maturity.

There are people (married or not) who cannot imagine a person living on one’s own (especially a woman living on her own). They cannot imagine “not being known,” as it were, emotionally and physically. They cannot imagine laying down their idol of marriage and instead fully devoting themselves to Kingdom work.

(We know after all, that that’s the whole point of singleness. Paul says in I Corinthians 7:28, 32-35: “But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this… I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”

Paul so clearly outlines the purpose of single living. (Did you hear that singles? We are just SO MUCH MORE SPIRITUAL than everyone. The Bible says so.)

And a side note, perhaps this is what I am saying to you, O gentle reader, who does not wish to be mimic Immoral Married Monica. Help us change the conversation about single people. Instead of the inevitable, “Are you dating?” “Why are you single?” “So have you found anyone yet?” I beg you to instead ask, “Tell me about your Kingdom work.” I know so many single people who have so much to say about how they are influencing the Kingdom of God… either immediate work, or dreams and goals. Can we not talk about these eternal things? Do we have to talk about your second cousin in Goshen who still single and what you would describe as “decent”?

There is a lot to be said about how the idol of marriage appears in church when it comes to preferring marriage to just about ANY other identity, but I’m running out of time, so let’s move on.

  1. This idolatry also creates problems for the church’s witness regarding relevant social issues.

Bellering about marriage convinces young people that they CAN get their jollies in the church, just find a right nice young fella and settle down. However, this does not take care of the problem of people idolizing marriage and refusing to find their identity in Christ alone and refusing to find meaning in Kingdom work. I do not need to explain to you how this could be problematic.

Christians, then, finding their worth in their marriage relationship, or in their partner, haven’t got much to say regarding the sexual revolution in which we find ourselves. You know we’re in a new sexual revolution, right?

How can Christians who find their identity in their partner have anything valuable to say to lonely divorcees? How can Christians who find their identity in being married have anything important to say to single adults, young or old? How can Christians who find their identity in something other than Christ alone have anything to say to homosexuals? How can Christians who find their identity in their partner, and not Christ, have anything to say at all about the fornicating teen who wants to get an abortion due to the consequences of her behavior? (We Christians love to condemn the sin of abortion without ever (or, okay, rarely) thinking about what sin, and what belief about identity, that sin proceeds from.)

It is my personal opinion that sexual the climate in which we find ourselves is in part due to the Church’s improper view of marriage. Perhaps marriage became too important. (In the 50s, maybe?) Then the Church failed to get something across in the 60s, and in the 70s, leading to even more sexual freedom, which led to boredom, which led to sexual experimentation, which led to still more boredom.

That boredom is today’s sexual climate. After all, virginity is on the rise.

Relevant magazine recently pointed this out in an article called “Why Aren’t Millennials Having Sex Anymore?” The article states, “Nearly 40 percent of college students claim they’ve never had sex. Only five years ago, as the Esquire editorial notes, a 25-year, ‘exhaustive’ study called ‘Sex Lives of College Students: A Quarter Century of Attitudes and Behaviors,’ found that college students who say they’re virgins made up only 13 percent. If both numbers hold up, that’s a startling, 27 percent jump in a really short time span. As counterintuitive as this may seem, it’s not totally new information. Earlier this year, data from Match.com—yes, Match.com publishes studies—indicated that one in three of all twentysomethings, not only those in college, are still virgins.”

And we ask, so why HAVE kids stopped having sex? What have they stopped believing, and how does it relate to the church? If sex is not the thing, then WHAT IS? Millennials are asking this question, and we better have an answer.

Back to the issue at hand: if we look to marriage or to sexual expression for our ultimate satisfaction, we will miss our ultimate meaning.

Allow me to quote from Christopher Yuan from his book Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God, A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope. In this book, Yuan hints at those ultimate identity markers which those of us in Christianity are offered:

“God says, ‘Be holy, for I am holy… God never said, ‘Be heterosexual, for I am heterosexual’…

Holy sexuality means one of two scenarios. The first scenario is marriage. If a man is married, he must devote himself to complete faithfulness to his wife. And if a woman is married, she must devote herself to complete faithfulness to her husband. The idea that I might marry a woman seemed like an impossibility—though God could do the impossible. But the truth was, I did not need to be attracted to women in general to get married; I needed to be attracted to only one woman. Heterosexuality is a broad term that focuses on sexual feelings and behaviors toward the opposite gender. It includes lust, adultery, and sex before marriage—all sins according to the Bible. God calls married people to something much more specific—holy sexuality. Holy sexuality means focusing all our sexual feelings and behaviors exclusively toward one person, our spouse.

The second scenario of holy sexuality is singleness. Single people must devote themselves to complete faithfulness to the Lord through celibacy. This is clearly taught throughout Scripture, and abstinence is not something unfair or unreasonable for God to ask of his people. Singleness is not a curse. Singleness is not a burden. As heirs of the new covenant, we know that the emphasis is not on procreation but regeneration. But singleness need not be permanent. It merely means being content in our present situation while being open to marriage—and yet not consumed by the pursuit of marriage.

Holy sexuality doesn’t mean that I no longer have any sexual feelings or attractions… So the question is, if I continue to have these feelings I neither asked for nor chose, will I still be willing to follow Christ no matter what? Is my obedience to Christ dependent on whether he answered my prayers my way? God’s faithfulness is proved not by the elimination of hardships but by carrying us through them. Change is not the absence of struggles; change is the freedom to choose holiness in the midst of our struggles. I realized that the ultimate issue has to be that I yearn after God in total surrender and complete obedience.”

When we do not find our identity first before our Lord, and when we do not find our ultimate satisfaction in Kingdom work, then perhaps we have some sort of idol.

I believe this idol keeps us from regenerative work both inside the church (in our ministry to singles, homosexuals, single parents, the divorced, the elderly) and outside the church as we seek to bring meaning and true identity to all who ask.

You Think Language Isn’t Important? Microstyle Begs to Differ

One fantastic book I read this summer was Christopher Johnson’s Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little. I picked up this snappy writing guide at my local library because as a writer I think it’s important to read books about composition. I definitely hit the jack-pot with this volume, a book about successfully communicating in small spaces.

In today’s world, how do you capture a person’s attention in slogans, company names, advertising jingles, social media, and bullet points of blog-land? By carefully crafting your message and playing with linguistic patterns, says Johnson, a Berkeley-trained linguist, who has worked as a verbal branding consultant for Lexicon Branding, the naming firm that developed the names for Pentium, Blackberry, Swiffer, Febreze, and others.

An extremely successful linguist, Johnson PLAY WITH LANGUAGE FOR A JOB. I’ve always said that linguists have the most fun (and Johnson delivers with this satisfying read). And it IS fun, not uptight like that grammar Nazi friend of yours. Johnson writes, “Linguists are, quite simply, specialists who take a scientific interest in language. They want to know how language works, and they’re not interested in judging you. Prescriptive rules are among the least interesting things about language” (12). Oh Christopher, I couldn’t agree with you more! I despise when people find out that I have a job teaching English and inevitably remark: “I better watch my grammar.”

Johnson smirks at this reaction: “Prescriptivists are language poison sniffers. They pay little attention to what makes language delicious… I believe that people could genuinely love language more if they shifted their focus from judgment and insecurity to curiosity and appreciation. We do interesting things when we use language, whether or not we’re being “correct,” and we should all be able to relish and discuss those things without fear of embarrassment” (12). Grammar isn’t playful or poetical, but language is.

And we respond to it subconsciously, which means that if you’re using language AT ALL in your job as a business owner or working in marketing, some of Johnson’s insights may prove beneficial to you. He talks about why some brand names work better than others. Why some ad campaigns bring business and why others fall flat. In the book, he explains why “Apple” works as a business name, and why it is that we say “dry land” and “solid ground” but not “dry ground” and “solid land.” And, amazingly, WHY THIS MATTERS for writers and business owners.

A sampling of Johnson’s artistic writing tips:

When writing in small spaces, be clear, especially if you’re promoting a product.

Consider these ad slogans:

LISTERINE FIGHTS BAD BREATH

MILTON BRADLEY MAKES THE BEST GAMES IN THE WORLD

I JUST SAVED A BUNCH OF MONEY ON MY CAR INSURANCE (Geico)

It’s pretty clear what service is being offered. But not every business gets it right. For example, Johnson grumps about Twitter’s new description of itself on its homepage: “Twitter is a rich source of instant information. Stay updated. Keep others updated. It’s a whole thing.” Johnson quotes Steve Spillman from Slate magazine, “‘Seriously, Twitter, ‘It’s a whole thing’? That’s the way I describe Twitter, but I’m a 20-something New York hipster, or something close to it. And I’m usually not trying to get millions of people to sign up, or whatever you are trying to do with this. This doesn’t say anything about how Twitter works’” (49). While it’s sometimes okay to play with ambiguity, Twitter ultimately fails in its homepage description.

Another campaign slogan Johnson deconstructs is Google’s old Droid slogan: A BARE-KNUCKLED BUCKET OF DOES, whose failures include but are not limited to the verb “do” becoming the noun “does,” but possibly being scanned as the third-person singular of “do,” or even the plural of doe, as in the female deer, in which case, what is it doing in a bucket, which metaphorically refers to the phone, we presume, which is also “bare-knuckled” (?) A tragic case of mixed metaphor, to say the least. In small spaces, one can’t afford to be unclear.

When writing in small spaces, choose the right word.

Since microstyle depends on briefness, it is highly important to be choosy. Consider the company Reebok, who named one women’s shoe style the Incubus, which Johnson defines as “a demon from medieval folklore that rapes women in their sleep.” He concludes, “If you aren’t absolutely certain what a word means, at least look it up in the dictionary” (55). Truly, when it comes to writing in spaces as small as A SINGLE WORD, choosing the right word is critical!

When writing in small spaces, push buttons.

Writers effectively appeal to emotions to achieve desired effects. When Maytag employed the slogan OUR REPAIRMAN ARE THE LONELIEST GUYS IN TOWN, “they knew that we’d sympathize with those poor repairmen even though we knew they were fictitious, and that we’d remember their plight (73). For emotional appeals to work, they either need to be very subtle or especially over-the-top. However, some fall in between these two extremes, resulting in, well, unappealing appeals. (I simply loved all the moments when Johnson points out how writers sometimes just plain miss it.) Johnson complains, “CELEBRATE THE MOMENTS OF YOUR LIFE, the General Foods slogan for International Coffees, rings hollow with its bland coziness. Proctor & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer products company, claims to be TOUCHING LIVES, IMPROVING LIFE. Really? How are you touching my life, P&G? With a Swiffer?” (74). With emotional appeals, either go big, or go home.

Besides noting the intensity of the appeals, one might also be aware of the varying types of emotional appeals: self-actualization (US Army: BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE, Apple: THE POWER TO BE YOUR BEST), generational rebellion (THIS IS NOT YOUR FATHER’S OLDSMOBILE), and spicy (Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science). Johnson deconstructs that last one: “The… title connects eco(yawn)nomics to the titillating topic of nudity” (76). A title from the latter category that I’ve discovered on my own: Naked Anabaptist: the Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. Hmmm yes, I notice this appeal to sensuality. Apparently the idea of reading about Anabaptist theology is so mind-numbingly boring that the writers figured that the only way to get people to buy their book is to make it sound SEXY. (Seriously now. Aren’t you A LITTLE curious about these naked Mennonites?)

When writing in small spaces, zoom in on telling details.

Johnson opens this section by citing Ernest Hemingway’s six-word novel: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Talk about telling details. (Sniff.) In small spaces, you can’t tell the whole story, so you’re going to have to decide which parts to leave out and let the readers “connect the dots.” The problem lies in deciding what to leave out and in using metaphor inappropriately in the included details. Johnson includes one painful example: “Choosing the wrong way to indirectly evoke an idea can result in bad framing… In 2010, I saw a billboard for 7-Eleven with the following slogan: ‘Stuff your face with value.’ Pictured on the billboard were two pale, unappealing lumps that I believe were microwaveable burritos. That was the ‘value’ you were supposed to stuff in your face. This ad might appeal to people who enjoy taking their meals at 7-Eleven, but it certainly doesn’t appeal to me. Part of the reason stems from its peculiar use of metonymy. The word value refers to the food items that can be had at 7-Eleven. Tangible food is represented by the concept of the economic value you enjoy when you purchase it. But value, while desirable, lacks both specific sensory associations and emotional appeal” (88). Therefore, the details you include must be the ripest, freshest ones you’ve laid eyes on. You’re appealing to emotions, are you not?

When writing in small spaces, use ambiguity for good, not evil.

A sampling of newspaper headlines, which may have got it wrong:

GRANDMOTHER OF EIGHT MAKES HOLE IN ONE

PROSTITUTE APPEALS TO POPE

IRAQI HEAD SEEKS ARMS

RED TAPE HOLDS UP NEW BRIDGE

YOU CAN PUT PICKLES UP YOURSELF

MCDONALD’S FRIES THE HOLY GRAIL FOR POTATO FARMERS

This reminder of the possibilities of ambiguity had me giggling over here like:

When writing in small spaces, say the wrong thing.

Sometimes, saying the wrong thing will appeal to your target audience. And even if it sounds wrong, the implication can still be positive. Volkswagen did this with its THINK SMALL campaign. (I mean, we’re supposed to THINK BIG, right? Nope. Volkswagen is reminding us that sometimes compactness is more environmentally friendly.) The company continued this marketing trend with its UGLY IS ONLY SKIN DEEP campaign and WHILE IN EUROPE, PICK UP AN UGLY EUROPEAN (113). Here’s a smirk-inducing campaign: “Avis Rent  A Car System used to boast, ‘We’re number two. We try harder.’” (Hertz had run a campaign about being number one. Avis. Those little devils.)

When writing in small spaces, keep it simple (in relation to sound).

For the love of Pete, make it easy to pronounce. Johnson describes the problem of hard-to-pronounce names: “Stephen Merritt…decided not to keep it simple when naming the albums for one of his side project bands called the 6ths (itself a real mouthful). The band’s two albums are called Wasps’ Nests and Hyacinths and Thistles. This tongue-twisting names are a sort of a practical joke—a radio DJ’s nightmare. Just imagine having to announce one of these albums on air… Think of pronunciation as driving. Vowels are like cruising down the open road. Consonants are like city driving, with all its stops, perilous lane changes, and unexpected turns. Saying ‘hyacinths and thistles’ is like having to cross three lanes of busy traffic to exit the freeway, only to find yourself heading east instead of west” (125).

Indeed, I have found there’s a good many people who cannot pronounce “sixth.” It invariably comes out as “sikth” (INCORRECT) versus “sikSth.” (Please let’s include the “s” in there, shall we?) But due to the amount of consonants there (four total!), it’s hard to pronounce. And even Ed Sheeran can’t do it, using the incorrect pronunciation “sikth” in his chart-topping song “Photograph.” No wonder my students can’t pronounce the word. Nor can they correctly pronounce “especially.” Half of them insert an anomalous “k” sound at the beginning, articulating “EK-specially.” Poor dears. It’s “ES-specially.” From where do they get this “k”? They create more work for themselves by adding sounds that aren’t even there. This also happens in the word “escape.” For my students, it becomes “eK-scape” for some unknown reason. And they’re just stumbling over TWO consonants!

But we should take Johnson to heart. Too many consonants are problematic. (OH FRIENDS. My own domain name features multiplicities of consonants of which I am now very insecure. More than one acquaintance has given me a hairy eyeball when I suggested they check out my blog “Shshchtashtshsffphoaugh.” Announcement: blog name change coming soon.)

When writing in small spaces, break the rules (in relation to structure).

I’ve always said that good writers know the rules, but if they have a reason to break them, they do so confidently. Certain misspellings can be used to create a brand. (We’re not thinking KOA Kampgrounds or anything, but more clever uses like that of “Clay Shirky, the NYU professor, author, and social media commentator, [who] used the following bio on his Twitter profile: ‘Bald, Unreliable, Easily distracte’” (155). This sort of clever rule-breaking extends one’s message. There the misspelling augments Shirky’s message about his quirky personality. Indeed, the misspelling is not some far-flung pun attempt, like that of Ephrata’s local “Compleat Restoration.” The company’s logo features the curiously spelled “compleat” atop two houses and a cozy flame. (Google the image.) When I saw the logo, I assumed the company installed new heating systems (complete… compleat… heat). However, the company’s website indicates that it is a disaster restoration service, specializing in fixing fire and flood damage and that “compleat” is an Old English spelling of “complete,” chosen in order to “set the company apart.” Yeah, sure, as a company that doesn’t know how to spell! What do Old English, large houses, and cozy flames have to do with cleaning up after catastrophic infernos? If I were a consultant, I might suggest that the spelling is arbitrary, unhelpful, and (like in my case) just plain confusing. There’s too much explaining that has to be done on the company website with that one. And in small spaces like company names, customers shouldn’t have to do that much work.  The odd misspelling, in my opinion, doesn’t work like Shirky’s does.

And this is where Johnson’s work shows how a firm grasp of the language of microstyle connects to our society. His showing us where the rubber meets the road reminds us what we have always known but we’ve been scared to bring up about grammar: sometimes we focus on things which students will never apply, and we skip teaching the art of applied language.

When writing in small spaces, combine words artfully (in relation to structure).

Having a knowledge of word associations and figuring out how to combine these associations unusually is a sure-fire way to make your wording stand out. A Seattle web design firm named their company Blue Flavor. A pretty fetch name if you ask me. Johnson explains why: “Colors don’t literally have flavor, but there are certain canonical color-flavor associations. Makers of jelly beans, slushy drinks, and other artificially colored foods use these all the time. Yellow for lemon. Purple for grape. Red for cherry or strawberry. Orange for orange, of course. Green for lime or mine or maybe green apple. But missing from this list is blue… Blue Flavor names a mythical taste that doesn’t exist. Something you’ve never experienced before. It’s a great idea for a web design studio to evoke, and it shows the power of putting words—even just two of them—together” (175). Contrast Blue Flavor’s naming win with LiftPort, the name for a company building an elevator to outer space. Johnson bemoans the moniker: “Lifting is carrying, porting is carrying, a lift is a kind of conveyance, a port is a place of departure. Combining these words hits the same overly general and uninspiring meanings again and again, neglecting more interesting ideas like outer space, science fiction, and doing the impossible” (176). Too true! An elevator to space and “LiftPort” is the best you can do? Combining words is a delicious task unless you’re using old alphabet soup.

Finally, word combination has its limits. Don’t decorate a title which doesn’t need decorating. Be up front. Johnson jokes about “pre-owned” cars (they’re “USED” for Pete’s sake!) and other words and prefixes frequently used to ornament common things. Like the prefix “pre-.” “The most ridiculous euphemism I’ve encountered lately is pre-reclined, used by Spirit Airlines to describe the nonadjustable seats in its new Airbus A320s,” Johnson explains. “Just imagine a flight attendant dealing with a confused customer asking how to make his seat go down: ‘Sir, our seats are pre-reclined, which means you’re already comfortable!’” (178). Ah, language. I love it more than most people.

This is only a sampling of the best bits of Microstyle. If you’re in business, in marketing, or interested in personal branding, you’ll love this book. It uncovers some subtleties of language and makes suggestions for the kind of writing that many of us do everyday but for which we were never trained—writing in the small spaces of social media, personal branding, and advertising.

What Happens After You Believe?

A basic question every Christian has at one time or another is: so what’s the whole point? What does Christianity DO? Is Christianity working? After I believe in my heart and confess with mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, what’s supposed to happen?

I remember discussing Christianity with a Chinese classmate at Ohio State at the café in Thompson Library. I was interviewing her for a missions class I was taking off-campus, and we were discussing the basic tenets of Christianity. I clumsily explained the steps of salvation and then came up for air.

She nodded: “Okay, but does your life change?”

Me: “…”

Chinese classmate: “?”

Me: “Oh. Well. YES! It does! …For example, um, I would say that you become… more… peaceful?”

Chinese classmate: “Okay, but does your behavior change? Like do you stop doing the things you used to do before you become a Christian?” (Honestly, she was being a better missionary than even I was at that moment.)

For some reason, this question jolted me then and has since been one that I contemplate. I might even ask YOU this question. What EXACTLY is the nature of a life affected by Christ?

“To become like Christ,” you fire off. “To be a better person.”

Why, I ask you? And, how? How EXACTLY does one become like Christ? May I ask what are the steps and the methods? Exactly?

This summer I finished a book which has answered for me, in part, that question. It’s called After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N.T. Wright.

It’s the sequel to another excellent book called Surprised by Hope (which I also highly recommend) in which Wright doesn’t so much present new topics as he reminds us what we’ve always known according to the Bible, but have sometimes let contemporary society drown out. What happens, for example, after you die? There is a bodily resurrection, and Wright explains why this is so important and how that changes how we live here on Earth. But some Christians miss this part about LIVING ON EARTH. (Remember Miss Maudie in To Kill a Mockingbird? “There are just some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.”) It’s as if Wright notices the same. Perhaps he is perplexed by separatist Christians jamming fingers in their ears, determined they’re “not listening” to the world, and seeking only to “endure” this life until they get to the real one, heaven. Wright complicates this, determined to explore the mystery of “Why are we here?” and he does so by “rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church.” By the end of the book, one begins seriously examining the notion of God’s intention to redeem all creation back to Himself and, against all odds, His inviting us to join Him in that work.

 

DSC_0948

Wright’s not always a light read, but at times his Britishisms and friendly, conversational tone are downright charming. He also provides a fascinating introduction to the landscape of British Christianity, which is in fact the viewpoint from which he is writing. Besides being one of the world’s top biblical scholars, he is also a Bishop for the Church of England.

This is the backdrop for reading After You Believe in which, having firmly in place the idea that all Christians are called to redemptive life works, Wright focuses a little bit more on the how. If all Christians exist for the purpose of uniting with God in His grand design to ultimately redeem all things to Himself, then there must be a way that God intends for us to go about that.

Some points he makes:

  1. Wright ties worship and mission together with Christian holiness, indicating that two without the other, well, in fact, aren’t:

    “The high calling of Christian morality is therefore the necessary handmaid of the still higher callings of Christian worship and mission. The virtues which constitute the former are the vital components of the latter. The only way for worship and mission to become second nature to the followers of Jesus is for the virtues, the Spirit’s fruit, the passion for unity, and the celebration of the multiply varied vocations within the one body all to become second nature as well” (247).

  1. Wright further expounds on the why of Christian virtue and warns against common misunderstandings. For example, we don’t “put on virtue” to either receive rewards or to avoid punishment.

    “Jesus is not meaning either ‘If you can manage to behave in this way, you will be rewarded’ (a kind of legalist solution) or ‘Now that you’ve believed in me and my kingdom project, this is how you must behave’ (the sort of thing some post-Reformation theology might insist on)… What Jesus is saying, rather, is, ‘Now that I’m here, God’s new world is coming to birth; and, once you realize that, you’ll see that these are the habits of heart which anticipate that new world here and now.’ These qualities—purity of heart, mercy, and so on—are … in themselves, the signs of life, the language of life, the life of new creation, the life of new covenant, the life which Jesus came to bring” (106).

    Here is Wright’s notion that Christian virtue is an expression of the Gospel (the advent of God’s kingdom) which has already come to pass and is coming to pass.

    DSC_0930

  1. Another claim by Wright is that one doesn’t attain Christian virtue simply by “following Jesus’ example” as it is so commonly (and awfully) put these days. (One way that many people approach this question of “How shall we live?” is pointing out Christ as the great example.) Wright has some terse words about this.

    “To what extent would this be a helpful, or even possible, line to pursue? At one level, it certainly wouldn’t be helpful and might well not even be possible. Holding up Jesus as an example of how to live a moral life seems rather like holding up Tiger Woods as an example of how to hit a golf ball. Even if I started now and practiced for eight hours a day, it is highly unlikely that I would ever be able to do what Woods can do; and there are many people out there, younger and fitter than I, who are trying their hardest to do it and still find they can’t. Similarly, watching Jesus—with his astonishing blend of wisdom, gentleness, shrewdness, dry humor, patience with blundering followers, courage in confronting evil, self-control in innumerable situations of temptation… makes most of us, all but the most proud and ambitious, feel like we do when watching Tiger Woods hit a golf ball. Only more so” (126).

    Wright goes on to explain how expecting virtue to proceed from watching Jesus as example is not only improbable, but also simplistic and untrue to Jesus’ conquering nature:

    “It is basically safe: it removes the far more dangerous challenge of supposing that God might actually be coming to transform this earth, and us within it, with the power and justice of heaven, and it neatly helps us avoid the fact, as all four gospels see it, that this could be achieved only through the shocking and horrible events of Jesus’s death. Jesus as ‘moral example’ is a domesticated Jesus, a kind of religious mascot. We look at him approvingly and decide we’ll copy him (up to a point at least, and no doubt he’ll forgive us the rest because he’s a decent sort of chap.) As if! If all we need is a good example, we can’t be in quite such a bad state as some people (including Jesus himself) have suggested. Over against all such notions stands the entire tradition from Jeremiah with his warnings about the deceitful heart, through John the Baptist, with his warnings about the ax being laid to the roots of the tree, through Paul, with his warnings that if righteousness had come by the Law the Messiah wouldn’t have need to die, through to Ambrose, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard . . . and a host of others. And of course Jesus himself. He doesn’t go about saying, ‘This is how it’s done, copy me.’ He says, ‘God’s kingdom is coming; take up your cross and follow me.’” (126-27).

    It seems that expecting the appearance of virtue simply from “Jesus’ example” is just bad theologically, not to mention downright unBiblical.

  1. We can agree, then, that there is a process to learning virtue and it admittedly takes effort. Wright compares learning Christian virtue to learning a foreign language as an adult.

    “You will often get it wrong, but it’s worth persisting for the goal… of what lies ahead. If you’re an English speaker learning German, you must continually remind yourself that the verb comes at the end of the sentence. And, even in a language quite like your own (think of an Italian learning Spanish), there will be quite a large amount of vocabulary which just has to be memorized. This requires mental effort, the conscious, acted-out intention to imprint these patterns, with their physical outworkings (the contortions of tongue, teeth, lips, and vocal chords), upon the brain, aiming at the point when they will happen without effort and indeed without conscious thought. It is exactly this kind of complex effort, as we shall see, which the early Christians described when they were urging one another to develop the character which anticipated God’s new world” (40-41).

    Certainly, some sort of human patience and “practicing” is necessary.

    DSC_0968

  1. But what about “practicing”? In his book, Wright brings clarity to age-old arguments about virtue, especially the one about hypocrisy. He concedes that invariably the question will be asked:

    “If developing character by slow, long practice is what it’s all about, doesn’t that mean that for most of that time we will be acting hypocritically, play-acting, pretending to be virtuous when actually we aren’t? And isn’t that kind of hypocrisy itself the very opposite of genuine Christian living?” (58).

    But Wright deflects this question (vehemently answered YES! by the likes of Martin Luther) by giving a voice to none other than Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

    “‘Putting it on’ is all right. It isn’t hypocrisy, Hamlet is saying. It’s the way virtue comes into its own:
    Refrain tonight;
    And that shall lend a kind of easiness
    To the next abstinence; the next more easy;
    For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
    And either curb the devil, or throw him,
    With wondrous potency. (lines 165-170)
    The alternative is to let ‘custom’—that is, the force of regular behavior which carves a groove in our minds and our behavior patterns—so dictate to us that we cannot see sense (lines 37-38)” (59).

    If we never put on, then our custom may be to continually follow a pattern of behavior which is not good. Wright goes on to express the possibilities of changing our custom not only to virtuous behavior but also to the custom of embracing and inviting virtuous behavior:

    “Instead, such ‘custom’ or ‘use’ should be turned to good effect, helping us to ‘put on’ virtues which do not come naturally to begin with but which will do so in time (lines 161-165). It is remarkable, he says, what can be achieved by this means” (59).

    Thank you, Hamlet.

    DSC_0602

  1. Getting back to the how, Wright makes the point that we shall be transformed (to answer my Chinese friend’s question) by the renewing of our minds. “Oh, good!” you say, “now I can finally know how to live!” But I will warn you that Wright refuses to offer a 10-step approach. First, he argues that before a transformation can take place, your mindset must be renewed. To get to this, Wright pulls out Paul’s New Testament vision of Christians being “daytime” people, as it were. First, one has to be utterly convinced that God’s kingdom and redemptive work has already come to pass and is already being worked out in the world. This knowledge gives one the confidence to begin the life-long journey of renewing one’s mind. (Again, read Wright’s first book Surprised by Hope for more on that.) Wright points out that the Beatitudes are a picture of this. The blessings listed there are a picture of God’s ordered world, not how things perhaps are now but ultimately will be, due to God unleashing His blessing on the world. Christians must, then, develop ways of being that ultimately reflect this upcoming ordered world. We must be people of the day.

    “For Paul, faith, hope, and love are already given in Christ and by the Spirit, and it is possible to live by them. But you have to work at it. And to work at it you have to want to live in the daytime. You have to understand how your own moral life functions. You have to think through what it all means and how it all works. You have to develop, consciously and deliberately, the habits of heart, mind, soul, and strength that will sustain this life of faith, hope, and love” (138).

    (Hmmm, what are these “habits”? Do I have them and how do I develop them?) Then Wright supports his vision that the knowledge of God’s new order is necessary before this virtue appears by quoting Colossians and I John.
    DSC_0593.JPGAdditionally, in these passages, Wright admits the challenges that many of us avoid in our pursuit of virtue.

    “What then is Paul saying in Colossians that Christians must do? Answer: he is telling them to develop, in the present, the character which will truly anticipate the life of the coming age… What we need to grasp, as being of the essence of his summons to Christian virtue, is the moral effort involved. ‘Put to death . . .’ (3:5), ‘put away . . .’ (3:8), ‘put on . . .’ (3:14)” (143).

    This is a point which I think many of us shy away from. That it actually takes work to define one’s character.

    “[Paul] does not say, ‘You might to try giving up a bit of this’ or ‘If it feels all right to you, think about doing without some of these thing.’ He says, ‘Put them to death.’ If you don’t kill them, they will kill you (3:6). This is not, we must stress, because God will suddenly invoke some arbitrary and tyrannical divine prohibition to cramp our style, stop us having a good time, or punish us if we step out of line. Rather, it is because these styles of behavior lead directly, as a matter of necessity, into corruption, decay, and death and hence away from the new creation where heaven and earth come together and resurrection results” (143).

    In essence, these particular “natural” ways of being do not foreshadow God’s ultimate redemption of all created things and therefore must be avoided.DSC_0790.JPGBut Wright does not leave us in a legalistic time-out to think about how bad we’ve been behaving. No, rather, he points to the glorious dawning of God’s new order, reminding us that we are already awake to this new life.

    “As we saw, that future state is, for the Christian, the resurrection to a body like that of the risen Jesus Christ, a resurrection to share in the new world, the new creation that has already begun with him, and in which God’s people are to be a royal priesthood, the genuine human beings through whom God’s world is brought into glorious flourishing and order” (141).

    Since Christians have been translated into this new world order THAT ALREADY IS AND IS GOING TO CONTINUE TO BE, we can ask ourselves the question how might God expect it to come about. We have already touched on the renewing of our minds, first by announcing that one must be convinced of the this new order and be convinced of one’s own place in this new order, that is, that a Christian has already been inducted into this new life. If you are a Christian, you WILL receive the virtue of God Himself (I John 2:28, 3:2-3).What Wright does is he continually suggests that setting a goal is paramount to actually achieving some sort of Christian virtue.

    “This same setting of the goal—the goal of complete and finished product of humaness—drives and shapes the habits of mind, heart, and body which will lead to that finished product and, in addition, drives and shapes the way in which those habits must be clearly understood, chosen, and learned” (167).

    This is the mind-renewal which must firmly be in place before one can expect any transformation at all.

    DSC_0603

  1. Next, Wright discusses the importance of what I earlier pointed out as “habits.” One of the most important things that I came away with from this book is that what happens after you believe is a new life of new habits formed by a life-giving knowledge: that knowledge of God’s intended order. And I continue to explore ways in which those habits of thinking and being might be formed. For Wright there are a variety of ways (though he does NOT spend his book exploring what to DO to ACHIEVE, this is not his style but rather arguing for a case for Christian virtue) but he does hint at times how these might look for the curious Christian:

    “A rich mutual ministry of the word, then, is what Paul has in mind: the word bought taught and sung, telling and retelling the story of God, the world, Israel, Jesus Christ, and (not least) the future hope. The aim is that individual Christians might have their minds and hearts awakened and alerted to fresh visions of God’s reality, of the final hope set before them, and be able to discern in a fresh way what habits of mind and heart and body are necessary if they are to grow into the people God intends” (169).

    There are various habits or pathways within which a development of Christian virtue might occur, and Wright discusses these throughout his book.

  1. But for those of you practical folk, Wright doesn’t leave you hanging and after an entire book of comparing early Christian views of virtue in Pauline writings to even earlier views of morality, in the final chapter, he finally hints at the ways in which a Christian might think of answering this question of what happens after you believe and how it comes about. (Hints, because, Wright does not insult us with a 10 step approach.) In the final chapter he answers the question: “how can virtue be practiced?” Wright offers a circular approach by which these virtues might come about: scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices (260).First, Scripture:

    “The practice of reading scripture, studying scripture, acting scripture, singing scripture—generally soaking oneself in scripture as an individual and community—has been seen from the earliest days of Christianity as central to the formation of Christian character” (261).

    DSC_0976

    Being Church of English, Wright necessarily makes a case for the use of liturgy and its ability to impress scripture upon believers. One such passage which I enjoyed and simply have to share with you: 

    “The church needs constantly to learn, and constantly to be working on, the practice of telling and retelling the great stories of the world and Israel, especially the creation and the Exodus; the great promises that emerged from those stories; and the ways in which those promises came to their fruition in Jesus Christ. The reading of Scripture—the written account of those stories—has therefore always been central to the church’s worship. It isn’t only that people need to be reminded what the stories say (though that is increasingly important in an age where otherwise ‘educated’ people simply don’t know the Jewish and Christian stories at all). It’s that these stories should be rehearsed in acts of celebration and worship, ‘telling out the greatness of the Lord,’ as Mary sang in the Magnificat. Good liturgy uses tried and tested ways of making sure that scripture is read thoroughly and clearly, and is constantly on the lookout for ways of doing it even more effectively—just as good liturgy is also eager to discover better and better ways of singing and praying the Psalms together, so that they come to be ‘second nature’ within the memory, imagination, and spirituality of all the worshiping faithful, not just of a few musically minded leaders” (225).

    But Scripture is not the only way to develop virtue, Wright offers.

    “Scripture trains us to listen to and learn from stories of all kinds, inside the sacred text and outside, and to discern patterns and meaning within them. And stories of all sorts form and shape the character of those who read them” (264).

    Wright goes on to make an excellent argument for the study of all literature, an argument that as a teacher of literature I find highly validating.

    “Within the Christian tradition there is special reason to pay attention to stories. Many of the great writers in the world have been deeply formed by the Jewish and/or Christian tradition, and their thoughtful words can help us to reflect on that tradition more deeply. But Christians believe that all human life is itself a gift of God and, however much it may be distorted, a reflection of God. Thus even stories written by writers who are explicitly atheist—indeed, writers whose words were intended to mock or dismiss God—have a strange knack of making crucial points about what it means to be human, about the importance of love and justice and beauty. Living within the world of stories increases—if we let it—the capacity for discernment” (265).

    DSC_0928
    Besides Scripture and stories, Wright offers “examples” as another pathway to Christian virtue. I have already mentioned that Wright discounts “example” alone to be a pathway. It only works once knowledge and a greater understanding of “what will be” are firmly rooted in the believer. However, once these things are in place, “examples” may well be a pathway to Christian virtue. Both the example of Jesus but also countless other Biblical and nonbiblical examples (268-269).Add to examples community, including the large church abroad, the home congregation, and small groups, which Wright breaks down for us:

    “It may be a parish church, it may be a neighborhood Bible study group, it may be a group that meets to plan strategy in relation to local social issues, whatever—where sharply focused learning can happen and where decisive action can be planned and taken. Here the habits are formed by Christian friends, neighbors, and colleagues working together, prayer together, sharing one another’s lives and sorrows and frustrations and excitements” (274).

    Wright then presents a beautiful pictures of what he means by community—how exceedingly diverse, yet unified in spirit we can expect our smallest “communities” to be.

    “Here is Jane slowly thinking through the plan to meet women ex-offenders when they emerge from prison, to prevent them going back to the new habits that got them there in the first place. Here is Jack, full of a new Bible study guide he’s been reading, which he knows will open the whole group’s eyes to vistas of truth previously unimagined. Here is Jeff, who has been talking to the local education authority about starting a preschool for the young children of single parents (of whom there are many in the area) who have nothing to do when Mom goes out. Here is Lisa, who has been writing some new music for use at the Sunday night service for which a motley crew of young people typically drifts in. The point of introducing you to this four, and millions like them in small groups around the world, is that they are learning the habits of heart and life together. The point of ‘virtue’ for them is not that any will become the kind of striking ‘leader’ who will win awards, be recognized on the street, and appear on television chat shows. Nor is the point that they are all just like one another. They are not; they are very different characters, with different gifts and vocations and temperaments and social and cultural backgrounds… In order to work together, these four, and the others in their local fellowship, have to develop the fruit of the Spirit. If they don’t have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, they won’t get very far. Their fellowship will fragment. Each one will go off and do his or her own thing, muttering about the lack of vision of the rest of the church. This is what I mean when I say that the church, the community of God’s people, is the forum within which virtue is learned and practiced” (274-75).

    Finally, Wright cites “practices” of the body of believers as the final pathway of developing virtue in the believer. These community practices include the shared worship of communion and baptism, prayer, tithing, and reading scripture.So there you have it:

  1. (Worship + mission) – virtue = 0
  2. Putting on virtue is the sign of life.
  3. Virtue is not attainable by following example alone.
  4. Virtue is a process that requires effort.
  5. Practicing virtue is not hypocritical.
  6. Virtue cannot come about until your mind is renewed.
  7. There are habits within which virtue is more likely to come about.
  8. A cycle of scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices is most effective for the putting on of virtue.

Herein have I offered you the best bits of N.T. Wright’s After You Believe. I invite you to read the book for yourself to more fully answer for yourself the why and how of what happens after you believe.