Category Archives: Religion

Developing a Taste for Meat

“Christians are actually, to me, anyway, as a Jew, much more interesting in America. And weirdly, much more misunderstood. Evangelical Christians are the most incompetently portrayed group in America, in TV, in fiction, in the news. When Christians say that the media gets them wrong, Christians are absolutely right. Christian life in this country is really horribly documented, and way more interesting than is done. Generally, in the media, very religious Christians are portrayed as hardheaded doctrinaire knuckleheads. But in fact, from my experience, the most religious Christians I know tend to be incredibly thoughtful, complicated, generous to a fault, very principled and not knuckleheads. Actually, they’re sort of weirdly the opposite of the stereotype, and that includes people from the hardcore fundamentalist faiths.”
Ira Glass (Thanks to Mollie at Get Religion)

By way of counterpoint, according to Barna’s survey data, there are precious few of these “most religious Christians” in America. I don’t think I’m one of them. And there’s little chance of surviving as a Christian writer, publisher, or acquisitions editor catering only to this small group. And yet, there’s little chance of preserving your moral standards if you’re catering to the majority of Christian book-buyers in America. Doing so will almost certainly require compromise. For example:

1.    As Barna points out, most American Christians are hypocrites. We want to follow Jesus, but we’d rather watch other people doing it.
2.    We’re shallow. “Just give me Jesus” isn’t a simple slogan, it’s a cop out. Deep theology and paradoxical spiritual truths are too hard. Keep it simple and make us feel better.
3.    We’re dualistic. We want to live simply, but be complicated. We want to get uncluttered, but we can’t accept the limitation of giving up stuff.
4.    We’re blind. Of course, we can’t really admit any of this because were too smart for that. But by closing our eyes to avoid the uncomfortable realities, we face consequences.

We know a large portion of our audience buys books to feel better about all this, for the psychological freedoms they offer. Lucrative Christian books (indeed, entire publishing programs) are built on these 4 little navel-gazing secrets, using them to apply band-aids: a little encouragement, a little spiritual salve, an easy out. They help us feel for a while that all is within our reach if we buy an inspirational book.

But as publishing professionals, do we have to accept this catering to the masses? Can we resist this? Must we give people easy outs? I don’t mean we give up easy reads, but can we sneak in some real meat with the stuff? Maybe we can trick them into developing a taste for meat by making it cheaper, faster, fresher, newer, easier, and making them laugh and cry at how good this “fast food” tastes.

I guess I have to believe this IS possible, that the first all-important step is looking at how you yourself have compromised, realize you’ve been had, and decide to stop furthering the enemy’s aims. Then, praise God for his grace and repent on your knees. If you’ve been in 1, 2, 3, or 4, you don’t have to stay there. And if you’re just starting out, commit to the higher purpose of Christian “inspirational” books and band with others to fight for balance with God-honoring messages that reach our respective corners of the market.

And together, maybe we will manage to keep Ira’s good impression.

If this is you, then it’s time to get it going.

Attraction of the New

I just got back from California after spending Easter with the family. Good times, restful, and important for reflecting on the distance traveled since last year, and the year before that.

Mt. Hermon was a blast. I met so many great people, people of passion, of ideas, and of incredible faith. I came back with one manuscript I really like, a nonfiction book I hope to acquire in the coming weeks, and some good possibilities for fiction as well. But mainly, I was excited to be representing a company with such a great reputation, a smaller, newer company with a diverse backlist and strong growth year after year.

And now I leave for the Calvin Faith and Arts Festival, my first time to this conference. It’s a huge, daunting place and I wonder if there can possibly be so many of my favorite people in one place–these writers I’ve loved and grown from over the years. I first heard Walter Wangerin when he came to Westmont and spoke. We’d read The Dun Cow, Ragman, and The Book of Sorrows, and everyone was so enamored in their collegiate-sophomoric way. I’m sure it will be no different for me this time. I’m so easily led into new areas of thought by writers like Wangerin, I can’t seem to help myself being a bit bedazzled by that mysterious ability they have to always know just what is the newest thing to discuss at the front of the wave.

I want to suppose though, just for a moment, that even if there was this universally held belief that whatever was newest was the most important thing, what would happen if writers didn’t care about it? Imagine if we all stopped wanting to know what Walter Wangerin or Luci Shaw or Marilynne Robinson thought about current affairs, the state of publishing, or the “emerging” newness of a new Christianity, whatever that might look like. What if we only listened to the old? In fact, if we’re honest, we have to admit there’s no such thing as new. If we lived seeking the old instead of the new, would that change how we’re writing, maybe what we’re writing? Maybe it would change for whom we’re writing too.

I don’t want to jump on a soapbox to denounce the cult of the new. I just think there may be something more to this Christian writing revolution than has really caught on yet. Getting back to the old is the new, and the inescapable fundamentals of life like those in our favorite quotes from Ecclesiastes–those are the real distinctives of a “Christian” kind of writing.

“For what does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world yet lose his soul?” I’m thinking I’ll seek my fortunes in the foundations of life and forget the baubles of the day for a while. See if I start to become irrelevant or out-of-touch. I guess that’s the real fear. But I wonder if that has to be the case–are these mutually exclusive terms?

Whenever I read a book, I try to pay attention to the state of mind I’m in since it has so much bearing on what I get out of the book. Everyone’s had the experience of reading some old book again and finding it completely changed. I wonder what the Calvin conference will have to say about this old vs. new debate. I’ll let you know what I find.

Forging Headlong Into the Familiar Frontier

NEWS FLASH: This just out! Don Miller, with Lauren Winner (Girl Meets God, Real Sex, Mudhouse Sabbath), Rick McKinley (founding pastor of Imago Dei in Portland, author of Finding Jesus in the Margins), Derek Webb (I See Things Upside Down), and Chris Seay (The Tao of Enron) is launching a high-quality literary and music publication called THE ANKENY BRIEFCASE. They’re planning to publish “quality short fiction and essays” (along the lines of McSweeny’s or The Believer, if those titles mean anything to you). The group is called The Burnside Writers (www.burnsidewriterscollective.com –and sign up for the newsletter!), and the mag’s website is www.ankenybriefcase.com. Send submissions to the editor, Jordan Green, at ankeny@ankenybriefcase.com. All of this comes compliments of Mike Morell (web ed. of Sites Unseen) who says: “It doesn’t have to be ‘Christian’ per se, it just has to be good!”

Those of you curious enough to venture over to the site will be treated to a quiet postmodern assault. “Literary who?” “Emergent what?” Don’t worry. Such reactions are normal. Just keep your hands and arms inside the car and keep a firm grip on your panties. Grandma, that goes for you too. God love you.

Sorry. I was just so excited to hear about this, I wanted to be the first one to go all wibbly about it (I’m watching Notting Hill right now, so pardon the Londonisms–“brilliant!”). But congratulations to all of you first to jump on board. At the risk of sounding like Tank on The Matrix, this is an exciting time. But please don’t go getting all wibbly about the “Emergent movement.” We’re not really reclaiming Zion the way so many twenty-somethings would have you believe. Fact is, emergent is a horrible description of what is basically a desire to reassess the essence of Christian faith. Paring things down to barest essentials is nothing new to those familiar with the gospels. There’s nothing emerging here. It’s more of a regression. A shedding of the layers. Trimming the fat. Of course, there’s a lot of idealism driving this “movement,” so the emergent term intends to signify this, I suspect. Whatever.

Movements will come and go, fade like everything else. Emergent will go the way of the “Gen X” and “postmodern” passé designations, become “uncool” and swing back with the next shifting tide. What is truly at the core is the idea that somewhere we’ve gotten away from the hard work of being followers of Christ (instead of leading, whining, and all the other things the Israelites were so good at), and replaced it with the trappings and appearances of faith. This is the ever-present reality, the danger no human can resist, the pride of life. I see it as the same root evil our parents’ idealistic generation fell to after all the demonstrations of disestablishment when the reality of life came knocking offering regular paychecks and lifestyle security. Faith leads to religious fervor that’s impossible to maintain, so the natural inclination is to start relying on the props. Like the actors in Cats who can’t think straight anymore for the routine that’s replaced their original passion. Or the pastor who used to wake up Sunday ready to change the world and now can’t remember what it was that made him think seminary was a good idea. It will have to happen to all of us too if we’re to learn what only 40 years of wandering in the desert can teach.

God is. We are not.

But here’s the thing with the Emergent folks. I’d be a better Christian if it wasn’t for all the phony Christians out there. And we like not being the only ones to feel this way. Don Miller knows it. Brian McLaren knows it, whether he’s willing to state it that way or not. I believe a lot of us know it and that’s why I know “emergent” will eventually be simply the new faithful who replace the old guard.

But if they’re going to make it into Zion, they’ll have to learn from their predecessors to discover how to hold to the truth and forget the props. May God’s favor shine upon them as they make their way to the fray.

Holy God, Lowly God

The majority of America is Christian and yet Christians in America are largely uninvolved in their world. Why?

Some have even come to resemble Pharisees more than the Good Samaritan. Some don’t see a problem with it. I’ve even heard recent comments by well-known Christians that the Pharisees weren’t so bad, we’ve just vilified them, and they were really a pretty good lot overall, not deserving of being so maligned and misunderstood.

It’s true, Jesus didn’t say all of them were vipers. Yet it’s a dangerous group to belong to. When you put personal holiness before obedience to the Great Commission, you’re treading some familiar and dangerous ground. A report from cultural analysis company, The Barna Group, shows people’s faith doesn’t make as much of as difference as might be expected–especially among born again Christians. While Evangelicals’ faith is most clearly evident in their behavior, overall, Christians are not living their faith.

”Jesus taught that Christians would be recognizable by their distinctive behavior – specifically, by the way they love others and how their lives reflect their spiritual values and beliefs (i.e., the “fruit” of their transformation). Based on a national survey that related people’s faith and 19 lifestyle activities that might be expected to be affected by faith views, the results of the survey caused George Barna, the Directing Leader of The Barna Group, to note that many Christians are hard-pressed to convert their beliefs into action. ‘The ultimate aim of belief in Jesus is not simply to possess divergent theological ideas but to become a transformed person. These statistics highlight the fact that millions of people who rely on Jesus Christ for their eternal destiny have problems translating their religious beliefs into action beyond Sunday mornings.’”

Apparently, it isn’t just an isolated problem. And it isn’t just how you interpret the data or which denomination you happen to be in. While there are significant differences among those who hold a more orthodox view and those who are simply “washed in the blood” at a Campus Crusade rally, one of the difficulties we might point out is an inaccurate view of God. Many of us have a warped or incomplete view of who God is. It could be argued that none of us can “know God” because we can’t begin to understand all the paradoxical facets and mystery He encompasses. But there are some things we can know, some things he has given us from the secret places. It’s these things that we should strive after to understand in all their complex beauty. It’s these things I’m hoping we can discuss and continue to challenge each other.

Don Miller, in his book, Blue Like Jazz, talks about setting up a booth on the Reed college campus in Oregon, known for its extreme liberal, atheistic humanism, and offering “confessions.” Only he isn’t taking, he’s giving. He tells of the spiritual release and blessing he received by giving out apologies for the atrocities done in Jesus’ name throughout the ages. He’s taken it upon himself to transform the perception of Jesus in the culture. That’s a revolutionary act: using the truth as a weapon of love against those who have been causing damage in their wrong-headedness. We need more people willing to repair the damage caused by self-proclaimed Christians who promote “dogmatic, backwards, anti-intellectual, bigoted, racist, sexist, and simplistic notions.”

And rather than focusing on the distance we have to go, sometimes it’s good to focus on the great opportunities we have to share the gift we enjoy this season. It’s an honor and a privilege we truly can’t deserve. That we lost men are still of inestimable value in His eyes, considered by Him as worth His sacrifices and attempts at reconciliation, is cause for celebration.

On Friday, trying to finish a quick entry about enjoying the true reason for Christmas, I said God considered us worthy of His love and concern. That comment sparked some debate. My point wasn’t to say we deserve anything God offers us, but that He considers us worth the sacrifice of His Son. Relevantgirl said it wonderfully in her comment and I agree. There’s a problem with disrespect in the church today. I fear I may have allowed some of that to seep into my thinking if I could make such a statement and not hear the inaccuracy in it. In my effort to point to the purpose of Christmas, I ended up suggesting that God has no problem accepting us in our evil and fallen state. I didn’t intend that. The fact is, God has a problem with evil. If He didn’t we wouldn’t need to celebrate Christmas. God is holy, and in His holiness, He requires holiness. That unattainable for us without His assistance. Yet Christmas is the time when God came down to repair the separation man had devised in His fallen state.

And still, I maintain that it is a profound mystery that God would be humble. The notion that God’s name could not be uttered for fear of sullying it, that it should be only written in code and with different ink and a different pen, thereby resisting the temptation to think of Him as less high than He truly is, was a grandiose notion that did damage by keeping the original scribes from realizing the love with which God created them. They couldn’t fathom a God who sought relationship with them. The damage that follows from such thinking is a works-based, law-bound, grace-less faith, wrapped up in empty ritual and self-flagellating practices that have nothing to do with the freedom and true humility Jesus came to bring. It’s good to remember that the legalistic notions the original religious leaders perpetrated were what Jesus came to destroy.

While it’s true a low view of God can keep us from appropriate reverence, too “high” a view of God, or maybe I should say “emphasizing God’s holiness over his love,” causes distance, removal, separation, and suffering from the very one who created us for oneness with Him. If God could not stoop to us in His great mercy, grace, and love we could never hope to find anything but suffering and torment. At its worst, this mindset binds Christians in a “woe-is-me” mentality and prevents the exercising of our talents, cutting off the beauty and Truth His followers are instructed to share.

I’m no theologian, and I don’t give these views with any recommendation that you make them yours. But I think the answer comes in seeking both God’s grace and His holiness, His love and His law. I have spent nights “delighting” in God’s law, analyzing it, turning it over in the light like a finely carved diamond, letting it reflect the ineffable beauty of His orderly creation. But if I stayed there, I’d only be half revolutionized.

He is holy, and yet check out what else: Isaiah 57:15. “For this is what the high and lofty one says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

He is above us, but He is not removed and He is not distant. He does consider you worth His concern and love. When Jesus came as a man, he knelt and washed his disciples feet to teach them how to be true leaders. When Peter protested—“No. You will never wash my feet,” Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Think of that. Unless you accept the humility of God and follow His example of servant leadership, you can’t be called a follower of Christ.

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls,” Matt. 11:29.

“God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble,” 1 Peter 5.

Of course, we must not forget that we are lowly created to understand only in part: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law,” Deuteronomy 29:29.

My point here is that holding too high a view of God’s holiness does damage when elevated above His grace and love. I relate it to the fundamental balance between the order in the universe and the “deep order” observable in randomness. The seeming chaos within our orderly universe is not truly chaotic. While no one can predict how a cloud will form, if we could understand all the influences acting on that water vapor, we would see the “deep order.” That we cannot see the order does not mean it is disorderly. What truly expanded my mind to accept Christianity was grasping how intricate and complex the universe really is. I have greater respect for God’s magnificence when I consider the paradox of “chaos,” the complex randomness from which the deep order emerges, much more than I do from simply appreciating Newton’s laws alone. Linear structures and physical principles are great. But without an understanding of cyclical and fractal structures, I couldn’t appreciate nearly as much.

To me, this “deep order” in randomness reflects God’s grace and holiness. Holiness might be seen as the order we use to describe God’s nature. God is holy. Newton applied rules and laws to explain the universe’s properties. The universe is orderly. But without an understanding of the order beyond what those laws can account for, it is impossible to explain the deep order, just as holiness is insufficient to explain God’s humility. Newton’s universe is a high and lofty concept to try to appreciate. But if I think that God made His laws to provide a framework for appreciating the deeper mystery of His love and grace, I begin to see how truly deserving of praise He is. Even though I understand Newton’s physics, everything about the universe remains a mystery to me. Even though I understand God’s holiness, everything about Him remains a complete mystery as well. It’s only in realizing the divine paradox of a deeper order within the seeming randomness that my wonder at His nature is given life.

I’ve rambled on long enough. I guess I never really put all that into words before, but I like it. I hope it makes sense. If not, just leave a comment and I’ll try to explain. :) Thanks to Becky for her insightful and challenging comments. I appreciate you and your concern. I’ve been sharpened by you. And to Sally, your eloquent comments are a testament to your sharp mind. Thank you, both.

Faith in Fiction and the Arts

Tonight I feel compelled to let my faithful readers (all two of you) know about two indispensible sites, from which I will be stealing (let’s call it “sharing”) much of my principled discussions and foundational ideas.

The first is Dave Long’s “Faith in Fiction” forum here: http://p220.ezboard.com/bfaithinfiction

The second is Greg Wolfe’s brand spankin’ new Image Journal Forum outfit here: http://forum.imagejournal.org

Though I don’t typically consider myself a raving patriot, both of these sites illicit a response in me along the lines of, “Is this a great country, or what?” Dave’s schtick is increasing the talent pool and expanding the literary sensibility of the CBA fiction market from his post as top fiction acquisitions dog at Bethany/Baker. Greg is a literal walking database of knowledge and insight into the larger world of working Christian arts (with a more decidedly acedemic/orthodox bent). Both get my vote for sites of the week/month/decade since there’s nothing that holds a candle to them that I’m aware of. And since I have no special award or grant money to bestow on either of them, I’m simply hoping that both my readers will consider them in their evening prayers and be encouraged that they aren’t alone in their desire to see more support like this in the much-neglected area of Christian arts.