After the Advent

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“So come down from your mountain and stand where we’ve been

You know our breath is weak and our body thin.”

–Mumford and Sons, “Babel”

The Advent

Even if not embraced as historical event—the abdication of the ultimate power; the willing subjection of the self to conquer evil in a way that creates love—the Advent provides a sublime picture of the response to what ails us.

I’m stopped at a Buc-ee’s near Austin on my way to an early Christmas celebration with family in San Antonio. My wife is inside grabbing consumable essentials. I’m on my phone checking the Facebook news feed for social consumables. My chest tightens and my brain begins the long division that deciphers unimaginable atrocities through my wavering theological filter when I read that a town I had never heard of has experienced a pain I hope to always avoid. I latch onto the idea that children have been gunned down. My toddler is asleep in the back seat, blissfully unaware of the horror glowing from my screen. When I hear about things like this, my reaction is, Really, God? Selfishly, I don’t immediately pray for survivors, for friends, for neighbors, for those who have suffered inexplicable loss. I immediately pray for what I feel I’m losing in those times—my faith. And then it starts. I check the back seat again. My boy is safe. I had better park closer to the building. Probably need to face the storefront. I need to go to the bathroom so I’ll pull right up to the door, then when my wife gets in I’ll lock her and my son inside the car and set the alarm. I wish the key fob had some kind of alert on it. I’ll have my phone and she’ll have hers. God, please don’t let anything happen to them while I’m in the Buc-ee’s bathroom. It hits me: in order to pray, I need to trust the God I don’t trust right now. This terrible tension robs me of joy and of hope. God, please protect my family. Did those families pray the same thing that morning? Why did you not protect them? Are you able? Are you indifferent? How can I trust that this prayer will reach attentive ears? That it will reach willing ears? That my prayer makes any kind of difference to the God that watched this from afar? 

He came down from his mountain and stood where we’ve been. He embodied youthful innocence cut down by insanity. His family and friends shook and sat devastated at the news. His story was not over. And neither is the story of Newtown. Nor the story of our broken world, replete with Newtownian physics. Our answer to the tragedy is love. It provides no “answer”—no satisfying logical conclusion, no scientific demonstration, no psychological evaluation, no retribution. It provides the direction, the power to move forward, the plan for continuing to create our world anew. Love moves into the destructive present and quells its acidic drip into weakened hearts. It promises to carry on and stand as the balm for roughened skins. Love moves into the disorder. Love takes steps, makes progress, comforts, and provides. It goes. It runs. The significance of the advent does not stand or fall with its historicity. I am not promoting demythologization here; if historically true, the advent is even grander than its ethical fodder. But the story of Christ’s coming into the world climaxes at the resurrection—the defeat of death, the ensuing outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the reinstatement of God’s people to reflect his loving image into the rest of the world. Precisely because people are infused with this love, and are commanded to love others, this message is historical here and now. It is the fact of loving people working together, creating, moving, going. The mobilization of an abdicating, sacrificing love cannot solve the logical problem of evil. It is not a “because” to any “why?” We may never receive or concoct a “because;” but we can always choose to respond in love—the perfect counter to any evil set on utter destruction.

The terrible event in Newtown has brought destruction; in its aftermath love can slow the spread and encourage us to build again.

Revisiting the Problem of Evil…Again

The problem of evil constantly occupies my thoughts. So much of theological reflection takes place within the emotional effects of reality; its practical import never escapes me and I fail to understand how so many Christians draw such a sharp distinction between theology and practice. These thoughts about evil have a direct impact on how we see things, how we treat people, how we handle the troubling things that happen to us and the rest of the world. Theological appropriation for the religious person is paramount.

While vacuuming my house today, I dwelled on the thought that if evil is the strongest argument against God’s existence, then God’s existence must be the strongest argument against the problem of evil. Maybe. If this life is not the whole story, if justice comes, if somehow all of the suffering proves to have been worth it, then that means evil does not ultimately prevail. Believe me: I tend to side with Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov and say that I would give that ticket back—the kind of suffering humanity has experienced can’t possibly be worth any compensation, can it? I suppose on certain levels the idea seems reasonable enough. Nasal congestion, pets dying, minor surgeries, bumps and bruises, even death at the end of a long life. But we all can think of myriad events and situations that offer an insurmountable case against any metaphysical compensation.

Christians speak of a hope that we can scarcely imagine: living on the new earth that God will create, in His presence, without evil or trial. We will have the “benefit” of having endured all the suffering, which indeed shapes us, yet living freely without fear or anxiety. Therein lies the appeal of universal salvation, at least for me. I have already done away with any notion that infants, the mentally handicapped, or any other person incapable of “making a decision for Christ” will undergo any kind of judgment. If God is all-loving and all-just then what possible reason would we have to think He could find an infant deserving of the same condemnation as Hitler? I’m familiar with the possible answers and, frankly, they all suck. They don’t actually answer the question. If you find yourself in a hospital with a mother who has just lost her child, you’re a monster if you give her anything less than hope that her baby is snuggled up with Jesus and waiting for her mommy to join her “soon and very soon.”

I followed Jesus for years before I became aware of the problem of evil. My most basic response then, as it is now, was “But that’s not the whole story.” The last twelve years have realized a persistent revisitation of the problem. Because of my insistence that theology directly impacts my life and ought to do the same for any Christian, I don’t find theological answers to this problem proving themselves utterly useless; indeed, the hope that my beautiful baby boy is loved by the God who created him supports my own weak love. When daddy fails him, when it seems like daddy doesn’t love him, he is loved on the deepest level with the unfailing love of the God who lovingly knit him for His own glory. Imperfections and all, babies belong to the Lord and I believe He is faithful to restore them.

I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know if every parent is reunited. I don’t know how the future will make up for the past and for now. Many days I don’t care how or why and I don’t believe anything can be compensated for. But I won’t hang up my hat. The irony presented by the problem of evil lies in the fact that it asks me to sacrifice what I now know for what is not a reality for me. When we shake our fists at the sky over what happens to others, we don’t abandon our families over it. Other evil is not my evil to endure in the same way, (and I think both sides of this debate do an awful disservice to those who have and are suffering by making them object lessons.) I don’t live less thankfully for my own child when someone is devastated by the tragic loss of theirs. Please understand, I’m weeping as I write this because I’ve seen what it looks like for a family to lose their child. I hate it with every fiber of my being. It utterly baffles me why God would allow such a thing in silence (which is perhaps a lesson to us theologians and to the apologists who venture “the answer” when even God won’t reach down in the darkest times and offer a whisper for a crushed family.) But whether religious or not, the response of every witness who has their own child is to squeeze that child even tighter and sigh grateful sighs that they still have their child. I just can’t hug my boy and not be grateful.

The suffering of others has set up camp in the center of my mind. I beg for an answer. I pray angrily sometimes and ask, “What are you doing?!” I’ve nearly abandoned my faith because of it on several occasions. But intellectual honesty and integrity don’t allow me to abandon the reality of the fact that I have been spared, and that the hope I have was given to me as a gift that I did not originally want, and that it circulates throughout my being with the same blood and along the same pathways as the hope I have for others. I don’t abandon that hope for others because as badly as I want their suffering to end, I want to give them hope. I want to comfort the dying child in his hospital bed. Russell may not have been able to believe in God after seeing that child, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to punt when that child asks me if she is going to heaven.

Thermopylae and The Doubting Thomases

The Public Library is a great place to grab a few good DVDs. On my family’s most recent visit to the Rockwall Library, I found a History Channel special called Last Stand of the 300, which details the events surrounding the Spartan stand at Thermopylae during the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE.

A particular fact about these events struck me. The Greek city-states (not a unified, singular “Greece” yet) stayed away from each other for the most part. Each city-state looked after its own interests, including religious differences, and did not typically become embroiled in the affairs of others. The second Persian invasion changed that, at least for this battle. Several city-states banded together to prevent overall domination by the Persians—a force with tremendous momentum and evil intent.

Before I even finished the documentary, I texted Zach to point out the analogy between the Greek city-states and us—The Doubting Thomases. Zach and I agree on very, very little. Our presuppositions—despite a somewhat-shared realism—could not be further apart: he’s an atheist and I’m a theist. Such a difference has massive implications socially, politically, hermeneutically, and so on. The fact that we have this difference and continue to be friends is not shocking or even surprising because we’re both fairly nice people and easy to get along with. We send Christmas cards to each other. We sometimes get books for each other when we see books the other would like (Including an awesome set Zach got for me last year, which had autographs from three of my heroes: Robert M. Price, Bart Ehrman, and Daniel Wallace!) We’ve sent gifts to each other’s baby boy and occasionally even seek wisdom from one another about difficult personal matters. In short: we’re friends. Good friends (don’t correct me on that, Zach, or I’ll cry.)

What makes this partnership so fascinating is that, like the Greek city-states, we don’t share universal interests. We have our own agendas and our own views to refine and develop. We even have “battles” between us that have been known to stretch out into 65 comments on my Facebook wall. He has frustrated me a few times and I’m certain I’ve returned the favor more times than that.

What unites us is a shared sense of responsibility to use the gifts and resources we’ve been (yeah, I’ll say it) blessed with to make a difference and push back against “evil”. We both hate social injustice. We both want the world to be better for our sons. We are both disgusted by hatred, intolerance, neglect, and abuse caused by those using religion as a justification for their subconscious or conscious lust for power.

Zach has known some good Christian and otherwise religious people. I have known some good atheists and otherwise non-Christian or non-religious people. There are truths we can all agree on and there are evils we can all take up arms to battle against. We don’t have to erase what makes us unique; but we need to set aside what prevents us from growing stronger so that we can truly push back the darkness that threatens to destroy us all.

Billboarding Faith

Zach posted an intriguing blog about billboarding the other day. While growing up, he did not feel the need nor cultural pressure to advertise his faith through bless-ed threads. Only now, as an atheist, is he making use of ideological branding to share his views.

I share the younger years indifference to outward marketing of my “faith.” To be fair, I did not take my faith very seriously so any displays of religious affection would never have even crossed my mind. It wasn’t until I started following Jesus at age 17 that I felt emboldened to make sure everyone knew I was a Christian. T-shirts (including the “Lord’s Gym” shirt Zach mentioned,) bracelets, necklaces, wallets, patches, car emblems, car stickers, guitar case stickers, hats, sweatshirts, and the ultimate self-branding: tattoos. Thankfully, I was smart enough to get good-looking tattoos independent of hyper-evangelical memes.

The situation changed as I became more aware of how such in-your-face “witnessing” came across to others—even other Christians. I admire people who are bold and open about their faith. But I admire those who are free to share because it is a part of who they are and they use genuine interactions and situations to show what their faith means and provide solid commentary when appropriate. The Gospel does need to be told; but so often it’s told very poorly because of awful theology or communication. Billboarding and branding usually exhibit both.

I don’t wear Christian shirts anymore (except one from my seminary, DTS, which says “Hallelujah” in Hebrew—I mean, come on, that’s cool.) I don’t wear bracelets period. I took the Jesus fish emblem off of my guitar pick guard. Why? Because I don’t want to be lumped together with every other person who has those things. Let’s be honest: a lot of people have fishes on their car who are awful drivers and show no respect for anyone else on the road. History is replete with examples of people who call themselves Christians yet act like monsters. I don’t want such an easy association to be made with me (I’ll screw up my witness to others by myself, thank-you-very-much.)

On the other side of the discussion, just because someone wears the WWJD bracelet doesn’t mean they are so easily categorized, either. The trouble with branding is that it conveys things beyond one’s control. Even in close, lengthy, detailed conversation people can get the wrong impression. Billboarding just makes it that much more difficult to be clear.

Zach mentioned his son’s bib with “Damn Atheist” embroidered on it. Like Zach, I get the joke and in private it’s relatively harmless. But Christians aren’t the only ones who have public image obstacles; atheists come in all shapes and sizes and colors and don’t always agree on everything. To brand oneself is one thing. To brand someone who can neither live up to nor fail to live up to the branding is another. We want our kids to think for themselves! However right we think we are, we don’t do any service to our kids by stunting their intellectual growth. Not only that, we set ourselves up for parental anguish if we over-anxiously set an intellectual course from which they could later diverge.

And lastly, evangelicalism and company have done a terrible job with branding anyway. As a fan of good comedy, sharp design, and well-thought expression, I think Christian shirts and stickers suck (www.randomshirts.com being a notable exception to the rule.)

Billboarding

So, I have a lot of “atheist” T-shirts. My wife calls them “billboards.” In a way, I suppose they are. But I didn’t grow up wearing religion on my (literal) sleeves; as a young Christian kid, I don’t think I can recall even a single shirt or hat or jacket patch that in any way proclaimed my religious identity. Part of that may have been the tight-lipped and conservative Germanic culture of my hometown, Cincinnati, or it may have been my family’s rather conservative theology. We were a Matthew 6:6 family, without a doubt.

When I got to high school, I saw a different perspective. Further out from the urban center (such as it was), the culture was still overwhelmingly Christian, but it was also much more public about its religiosity. Several of my classmates had “Lord’s Gym” shirts in regular rotation, and there were annual shirts promoting a local Christian youth theater group that were quite popular. Though I was a willing and, at times, enthusiastic participant in this culture, I never adopted the uniform. My clothes were, almost uniformly, branding-free.

That changed in college. As most students do in that context, I sought to explore my own individuality. I became heavily interested in designing my own T-shirt logos, and with the advent of inkjet printing, I was able to control all aspects of production as well. Soon, nearly every shirt I owned was branded in some way, whether a quote from a favorite movie (most likely Army of Darkness), a purloined image (for a while, a photo of the founder of a local mattress factory), or a novel design (a stylized gas gauge). But none of these were religious in nature, oddly enough.

Once I became involved in the freethought community, things changed a bit. I suppose I resisted for a while, but once I became personally involved with local organizations, I began to feel pride at being associated with the branding, whether it was amateurish or professional-grade. It really began to represent a significant and cherished part of my life, and suddenly I didn’t mind being a billboard anymore. Now I’m in a somewhat similar situation as I was in college – nearly every T-shirt now has some kind of freethought or atheist logo or message.

There’s still an unknown for me, however. How appropriate is billboarding for the next generation? By which I mean, it’s all well and good for me to parade around with my infidelity on my sleeve, but what about for my kid? Soon after he was born, we received a gift from some atheist friends near Tulsa, who sent (among other things) a bib emblazoned with their atheist group’s logo, and the slogan, “Damn Atheist!” The joke’s cute and all, and the bib is actually quite well-made (we use it all the time), but it sure drove my still-Christian mother up the wall when she saw it for the first time. I’m thinking that we’ll probably keep the baby billboarding to a minimum until he’s old enough to choose his own clothes for himself. Then he’ll take the same interesting journey as his father.