Tag Archives: Christianity

Praise God and Live

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The Abbey, Jesuit priest James Martin’s fiction debut, is not strictly a conversion story or even a prologue to one. This is the novel’s greatest strength. If nothing else, it deserves credit for being more honest than the common, smarmy man is sad…man finds Jesus…man is happy conversion story that reduces faith to a good mood and Christ to life coach.

Its protagonist, Anne, is by her own admission “not so big on God right now.” Raised Catholic, she drifted away from the church as a young adult. She still grieves for her thirteen-year-old son, hit by a car while biking home from a movie three years ago.

Her tenant, Mark, is a once-promising architect now supporting himself by working as a handyman at a monastery. He is thirty years old, and uncertain of the future.

One day, car trouble forces Anne to ask Mark for a ride. He swings by the monastery on the way home, and Anne remembers the place where her parents spent so much time.

She is skeptical of church, and largely ignorant of it—listening to what she thinks are psalms, she wonders if those are in the Old or New Testament—but she is drawn to an icon of another mourning mother: Mary. And so starts a series of conversations with Father Paul, the abbot.

Paul tells her about God, His mercy, His Love. When Anne complains that she sees God as a judgmental man in the sky, Paul concedes that, yes, the judgment is there, but the love is more important:

“[A]t least as I see it, a God who didn’t judge what we do is a God who doesn’t care how we live. And who would want to believe in a God who doesn’t care how we treat each other? But for me God is much more about mercy and love than about judgment and punishment. We see that over and over in Jesus’ parables.”

Paul’s conversations with Anne, and his reflections as he attends to his labors, are the high point of this novel, but would seem more at home in an essay than a novel.

Martin’s narration is both workaday and needlessly ornate. Note the overloading of adjectives in “The vivid color of the flowers in the bright May sunlight was like a scene from a postcard,” or the redundant third sentence in “The silence enveloped Anne. It was like something she could touch. Like a blanket.” Getting through this brief novel is a bit of a slog.

But while this novel may be inelegant, it’s never unintelligent. Martin (also the editor of the Jesuit magazine America and author of many nonfiction books) never lets us think that faith is easy or quick.

At the end of The Abbey, neither Mark nor Anne has become a Catholic. They have found no road to Damascus, and their problems still exist: Mark is still a handyman, and Anne’s son is still dead. But the possibility of faith has brought a glimmer of hope that wasn’t there before.

The Abbey: A Story of Discovery by James Martin, SJ. Published in October by HarperOne. 212 pages. $24.99

A Hard-Nosed Look at Charity

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When secular friends confront us with the more shameful figures of the faith—the pedophile priests, arrogant television personalities, and complacent suburbanites—Christians often find ourselves invoking the charitable giver. She is selfless. She travels to forsaken nations and forgotten neighborhoods to give with no expectation of reward. Now that’s Christian.

But the giver, it turns out, may be doing as much harm as good. Unaccountable charity can undermine local business—some African nations’ textile industries were walloped by foreign donations of clothes—and foster dependency. Even a “successful” food pantry that gives away tons of food doesn’t do much to develop the infrastructure of community and jobs necessary to lift a community into prosperity.

So argues Robert D. Lupton, a veteran of ministries in impoverished communities in Atlanta and Nicaragua, in Charity Detox: “We cannot serve people out of poverty.” (This is a follow-up to his 2011 book Toxic Charity—if that was a diagnosis, this new book offers prescriptions.)

Stories of Christ feeding the masses may make us think that every giveaway is productive, Lupton writes, but, in this book’s only patch of exegesis, he reminds us that Christ was a transformer, not a feeder, who refused to work miracles to win people’s faith: “[T]he kingdom that this radical young rabbi was introducing was about far more than heart-responses. It was about heart-changes. And feeding the multitudes was clearly not the most effective way to achieve heart-changes.”

Even education, vital as it is, cannot lift up a community by itself. A child in a low-income community who received a good education is more likely to leave than to stay and improve the community if there’s nothing to keep her.

So what does Lupton propose instead? Stateside, mixed-income communities can bring the resources of higher-income neighborhoods to once-blighted neighborhoods. He calls this “gentrification with justice,” a process in which higher-income immigrants will join with, rather than displace, their new neighbors.

In such a community, redistribution of wealth is a fact of life, not because it’s imposed from above but because “we live in close proximity to each other—and because we choose to depend on one another.” Thus, “the opportunities for exchange (redistribution) become a normal part of community living.” His ministry in Atlanta has formed such communities, and he briefly overviews their setbacks and successes.

Abroad, he proposes for-profit missions, such a one a friend started that increased the scales—and profits—of farmers in Nicaragua, connecting them with multinational corporations while ensuring they got a good deal.

Lupton’s praise of free-market economics and emphasis on the necessity of personal transformation may unnerve liberal Christians, but he makes clear that, just as charity requires “banker-like accountability,” business requires ethics: “Business without a moral, ethical foundation isn’t liberating; it enslaves people in the perpetual cycle of poverty.”

Throughout its 196 pages, Toxic Charity offers few details. Lupton’s material may have been better served by a tighter focus on one ministry, with specifics giving births to general prescriptions, rather than the other way around. But that may be an unfair expectation, as he’s a minister, not a journalist—or gifted writer. (In one particularly terrible sentence, he compares people moving to a low-income neighborhood to Marines establishing a beachhead.)

Oh, well. Toxic Charity never claims to be anything more than the beginning of a conversation that all Christians should participate in—including the givers, whose good intentions, however laudable, are hardly sufficient.

Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like if We Cared About Results. By Robert D. Lupton. Published by HarperOne on July 7th. 196 pages. $24.99

Faith is Not Feeling: An Essay

It was Good Friday, Easter’s gloomy but necessary prequel. The sanctuary was bathed in the dusk of small-town Iowa, with nothing but low rolling hills between the church and the horizon. Listening to the pastor, I stared at the cross and recalled a line from a short story I’d read recently: You know this was a torture device, right?

For the first time in too long, I felt good. I recognized the irony of feeling good while staring at a torture device, and felt even better. It was a virtuous cycle.

My thoughts were no longer dominated by my failures as a friend and student, by my vices, by the memory of all the time I’d wasted. I still knew that things were far from ideal, but my center of consciousness had shifted away from the negative. I felt a respite.

I had been going to church for only a few weeks, and suspected that this feeling, the awe and the bliss, were what I’d been looking for. This must be what draws people to worship, I thought. This must be what faith is all about.

After the service, I left in silence and retreated to my dormitory. The awe and bliss proved short-lived. Without the cross and the sunlight, I was once again defined by brokenness, my own and that of the things I’d broken. I fell back into junk food, pornography, and online punditry. (I spent a lot of time skimming the Huffington Post just so I could feel superior to something.)

I’ve been a Christian, or have been trying to be one, for the better part of a year now, and have yet to relive that feeling I felt on Good Friday. Even during communion or the Lord’s Prayer, my psyche does not reach new realms. When I clear my head of distractions I reach blankness, not bliss.

I worried that this blankness meant I was doing something wrong. Perhaps I wasn’t focusing well enough, I was breathing too hard and fidgeting too much—or, more plausibly, it was all a delusion and my last sane sliver was telling me to stop kidding myself.

I’ve learned that this blankness is absolutely okay, and means little one way or another. It’s just there. It’s what’s left in what my brain when I’m not thinking.

Though strong feelings often accompany faith, Christianity is not built on feeling. Rather, it’s built on the acceptance of an absurd truth and the mission that follows:

There is a benevolent intelligence behind the universe—let’s call it God. In our pride, humans wandered away from God and the universe turned corrupt. God kept trying to reach us, but we rarely listened. His most radical intervention in human history came in the form of an itinerant rabbi who performed miracles, placed love over law, and spoke about the Kingdom of Heaven, a kingdom not of conquest but of God’s love being made a reality on earth again. The rabbi was murdered, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. He’ll be back someday, though, honestly, we were hoping he’d be back by now.

In the meantime, it’s our job as disciples to set the groundwork for this Kingdom. Nobody, of course, can give as God gives or love as God loves. But we can spend a few hours a week at a soup kitchen. We can litigate and rabble-rouse alongside the downtrodden to help them win their rights. And we can set aside our own concerns and listen as our friends and family share their burdens with us.

I suspect that there are many who are in the position I was in on Good Friday. You’re in church and don’t know why. Perhaps you’ve been so defeated that you feel no choice but to stumble toward faith, hoping for its comfort despite your skepticism. Faith, you may imagine, is ecstasy and comfort and certainly, which we could all use. It means feeling good.

But it doesn’t. It’s okay if you don’t feel anything, because belief—as proved through good will and good works—is the core of faith. That’s good news, because doing things in the realm of reality is much more feasible than chasing after an emotional state.

The first disciples, as recorded in the Gospels, didn’t spent much time basking in bliss and awe. Instead, they tried to figure out their rabbi’s parables—What does the seed mean? What about the sheep? They stole a donkey. They questioned their rabbi for talking to women and Samaritans, and got scolded for their arrogance and lack of faith. They ran errands. They doubted. They walked.

They may have felt awe for some brief moments, as recorded in Acts, when they squinted at the sky after Christ’s ascension. But even that didn’t last long.

As they were straining their eyes to see him, two white-robed men suddenly stood there among them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here staring at the sky? Jesus has been taken away from you into heaven. And someday, just as you saw him go, he will return!” (Acts 1:10-11 NLT)

In other words: The heavenly stuff will take care of itself. Don’t you have work to do?

(Scripture such as the Gospels and Acts, written years after the events they describe in an era before modern historical methodology, shouldn’t be read with the same literalism we’d apply to a history textbook or reportage. While acknowledging that they’ve been filtered through centuries of Christian tradition, we can use them to glean broad outlines of history. The resurrection takes a leap of faith to believe. But there’s no denying that Jesus walked and changed the world.)

As I write, we’re inching into January. The thrill of the holidays has faded, replaced by the banality of yet another year. Life is, more often than not, boring. And while our creator loves us, a quick scan of headlines and even a cursory study of earth science tell us that his creation certainly does not.

Under these circumstances, emotional blankness makes more sense than any strong feelings–ecstasy would be inappropriate, and despair would paralyze us. Christians may not have a reason for constant bliss, but we have a savior to keep faith in, and a kingdom to help build.

And That’s the Gospel Truth

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I

The phrase “Good News” evokes more unease than joy, at least in a reluctant Christian such as myself. It brings to mind the secular caricature of a Christian, which the faithful often prove true: a small-town preacher waving around a Bible, telling people to forgo fun and freedom and the wrong kinds of sex so that they can reach a palace in the clouds.

So it’s indeed good news that celebrated Scottish theologian N.T. Wright has written Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good. Here, he sets the gospel in its proper context as the fulfillment of God’s promises recorded in the Old Testament, and refutes both those who see it as a key to an entirely personal, otherworldly salvation and those who emphasize Jesus’ earthly works at the expense of his divinity. (By the gospel, Wright refers not as much to the four stories in the Bible as to the events at their center.)

Wright makes clear that the goal of Christianity is not to escape into heaven, but to begin God’s work of rebuilding earth in the image of heaven, without the violence or hatred or corruption that plague it today. “We cannot stress too strongly, or too often,” he writes, “that the whole message of the New Testament—the whole point of the mission and message of Jesus, of his life, death, and resurrection—is the coming together of heaven and earth, not their separation.”

This “coming together,” he continues, was made possible by Jesus, particularly in his resurrection, which was a sign of a larger defeat of death to come. He was not the sacrifice demanded by an angry, “quasi-pagan” God that many imagine, but an agent he sent into the world to take up its sins and inaugurate the work of rebuilding.

Wright wisely refrains from trying to prove the truth of the resurrection on purely historical grounds. The resurrection was not merely an event within history, but a starting point of a whole new history: that of earth being prepared for the Kingdom of Heaven. “[T]he good news,” he writes, “comes knocking on doors we didn’t even know we had; it flings open the curtain on windows we didn’t know existed to reveal the rising sun flooding the room with glory when we had imagined that all light came from candles.” (Wright makes this point with greater depth in his essay “Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?” from Surprised by Scripture.)

Like C.S. Lewis, Wright lays out his arguments in clear, friendly prose, striking a good balance between the abstractness of theory and the condescending simplicity of much Christian writing. He spends a long and fruitful passage unpacking common phrases, like “Jesus died for your sins,” which represent only part of the gospel but are often taken as its entirety. He makes liberal use of images, anecdotes and imagined dialogue to strengthen his points, and occasionally takes a turn for the rapturous, as in the quote above.

II

Wright’s emphasis on the gospel’s transformative nature has forced me to confront a part of my faith I’ve been embarrassed to acknowledge despite its obviousness: It’s not rational. I believe in something supernatural, which cannot be proved through science and reason, and is no less absurd than the innumerable faith claims I reject.

My love for and knowledge of Jesus has tended to focus on his teachings and subversive actions, and downplay the miracles and resurrection. It’s tempting to see him as a liberal table-flipper who, as an afterthought, just happened to be the Son of God. That way I can tell my inner atheist, he was a community organizer! Like Obama without the drones! Sure, he calmed the seas and rose from the dead, but that’s not the important part. Don’t worry; I’ve just made some minor modifications to our materialist worldview.

But Jesus’ this-worldly significance is inseparable from his divinity. He was not a human revolutionary, because human revolutionaries, even at their most idealistic, use power and coercion. By contrast, Jesus’ revolution comes through love, and, if only for now, is left to humans to carry out voluntarily. The final coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, though, will not be a human accomplishment. Faith without works is dead, but works without faith—faith that God will eventually finish the job—are vain.

Now that I’ve said that, my inner atheist asks, Are you really waiting for a hand to reach down from the clouds and set things right? Are you eagerly anticipating doomsday? No. I’m pretty sure any magnificent intervention is a while away. In any case, it doesn’t relieve humans of the responsibility to work for change. And I’m looking forward not to the end of the world, but a better world—one where people are provided for and stand together, much like the imagined utopias of both left and right which have failed under human control.

Okay. But all this “Kingdom of Heaven” talk recalls Christian fundamentalists’ efforts to prevent gay marriage and the teaching of evolution—or, on a more awful level, the Islamic State’s efforts to establish a caliphate in the Middle East. Like I said, the Kingdom of Heaven will not come through human actions, though we need to set its foundation by working for justice and charity. Anyone who says the Kingdom of Heaven begins with theocracy is after power, not justice.

I’m still a very this-wordly, pragmatic Christian. But Wright reminds us that the Christian faith is not merely in a set of teachings, nor in the works of a social reformer rabbi, but in his divinity, and in the new relationship with God that he made possible.

It is liberating. And it is crazy. And it is true.

–Available January 6th from HarperOne. 198 pages. $25.99

“The Way of Serenity” Offers Comfort, Wisdom, and Flimsy Theodicy

I

Devotionals are simple, unglamorous, and vital works of religious literature. They don’t give detailed instructions or draw us deep into the intricacies of theology, but they offer thoughts for our faith to build off—the gentleness of Jesus, for example—and prayers we can use to keep those thoughts in mind, and turn them to action.

Father Jonathan Morris’ The Way of Serenity is best described as a collection of devotionals based on the Serenity Prayer:

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

In the book’s three sections, Morris—a Catholic priest and frequent commentator on radio and television—elaborates on what each line of the prayer means and how Christians can put it into practice. Morris doesn’t hide his Catholicism or conservatism (the latter is especially apparent when he writes about his family’s struggles to love his sister despite her “homosexual behavior”) but his insights are accessible to Christians of all denominations and politics.

Morris’ prose, and ideas, are workaday: “When we pray for the courage to change the things we can, we are already accepting God’s wonderful plan for us to be his hands and feet on this earth.”

This isn’t a bad thing—simplicity is the point of devotionals, and, to a lesser degree, Christianity. God doesn’t set rules on what not to eat or when to rest or what to wear while praying; He sets a standard of selfless love that’s impossible but nonetheless worth striving for.

II

The Christian faith goes far beyond laws and pragmatic considerations. Yet it also has an intellectual component, one that this book often backs away from.

When Morris grapples with questions of theodicy—how the existence of God as we know Him can be reconciled with the existence of evil—his God starts seeming less like the mysterious Lord of this flawed world and more like the simplistic sky fairy of atheist ridicule.

After pondering instances of evil, including “little children with horrible birth defects,” he assures us that “[t]here can only be one satisfying explanation for all this. Somehow God must be able to turn evil on its head and bring good out of it. Somehow God must be able to take even the most horrific of tragedies and bring them to a happy ending.”

This theodicy works on a small scale: perhaps a child born with birth defects could inspire new heights of selflessness in its parents. On a global scale, however, it falls apart. The tragedies of sectarianism and colonialism in the Middle East have yet to be turned into a “happy ending” by God or man.

(Neither Morris nor I are among those Christians who cheer bad news as a sign of the second coming. “Our health, our environment, our wealth—responsible stewardship of all these things is part of what it means to be a good Christian,” writes Morris. Seriously. The apocalypse cheerleaders display all the sense and maturity of people who burn down their houses hoping to buy mansions with the insurance money.)

In Morris’ depiction, God is the parent of a newborn, who guides our every step and does good even through things that seem senseless and cruel, like making us take a bath, or get our shots. That doesn’t make sense in a world run by grown-ups, however fallible. War, genocide and famine seem senseless and cruel not because of our limited human perspective, but because they are senseless and cruel.

Let me propose another metaphor for our Father, not quite as comforting but better reconciled with the world as we see it and the Fall as we know it.

Heavenly Father is an empty nester. Humanity had the option of staying in His house forever, but, restless and proud, we struck out on our own. “I still love you,” He told us. “How could I not? I am love! I’m always here to answer the phone, but I’m not your ATM anymore, and I can’t always swoop in to save you from the dangers and temptations of the big city.” He came to visit once, at the height of our sin, but we were none too kind. He can work miracles if he wants to, but they are exceedingly rare. While he can part waves or multiply loaves of bread, directly changing someone’s conscience—the kind of miracle that would be necessary to end war—is beyond even Him, because of His gift of free will. I assume He’s shaking His head, appalled at our actions and our taste in music, but needs us to know that, in the natural universe, fucking up has consequences. (The Mormons add that, like many older adults, Heavenly Father took a while to get comfortable around black people.)

God doesn’t always make things right, but is worth worshipping because He created this world, occasionally offers us guidance within it, and will be fully present with us in the next.

Everyone’s journey of spiritual growth, writes Morris, “is as long as life, and it is lined with unique street signs, designed and placed by God, that correspond perfectly to the twists and turns, the bumps and bruises that God allows to come our way.” Our signs, however, don’t always “correspond perfectly” with our trials. The universe can be an immoral place, not because it’s meaningless or random but because its Creator gave it free will. Earlier in the book, Morris writes that free will is the risk God took to enter into a loving relationship with us, but he seems to forget that here.

III

Morris’ theodicy may fail, like all theodicy, but The Way of Serenity is not overall simplistic. Morris often reminds us that living our faith is neither easy nor immediately gratifying, as “the Lord is not a God of quick fixes and fifteen-minute spiritual oil changes, but a God of long-term and indeed eternal promises.”

Here he is on the Christian “primacy of persons over things,” acknowledging the difficulty of love rather than reducing it to facile images of shepherds and smiling couples:

“Christianity is not for the faint of heart….Once in a while love comes naturally, and then it is easy. But this is the exception. Most of the time love requires courage, self-sacrifice, and lots of patience. We really need a heart like Christ’s to love people the way he wants us to.”

Morris’ attempts at theodicy are sunny and shallow, but the paragraph above shows The Way of Serenity at its best: a fiercely unpretentious look at Christian love through the lens of a short and crucial prayer.

–Published September 16th by HarperOne