Friday, December 7, 2007

Thoughts on Killing God

I'm just reading the first book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, Northern Lights. Here in the States we call it, The Golden Compass, and the New Line Cinema production with the same name will have been running by the time this blog is read.

On our morning show, we talked about the difficulty many Christians are having with various aspects of Pullman's story. I encouraged Christian parents not to just read the e-mail forwards and form conclusions based on innuendo. With that in mind, I turned to a friend who is working on a scholarly treatment of Pullman's His Dark Materials. He taught English Literature at Purdue for over 30 years, crafted a course in high fantasy and became a "Miltonist" (a specialist in the author of Paradise Lost, the work from which the phrase, "His dark materials" derives). Dr. David M. Miller spoke with me about what many Christian critics consider the most diabolical detail: the "killing of God" in book three, The Amber Spyglass.

Dr. Miller pointed out, first, that the version of God killed in the dramatic sense is "a tyrannical old man," who "I suppose welcomes death - that god is slain..." Now that, I think, is a very important detail, and one that Christians might want to get straight before they get worried that somehow Philip Pullman has managed to pull off the very thing the hordes of Hell never could. If Pullman's God-figure (the "Authority") is a caricature of the real God, then he has unwittingly portrayed the very act we must commit if we are to come to real faith.

Most of us have a de facto image of God based on our experiences, our image of earthly fathers, and stories of Zeus (Jupiter) and the mythological pantheons. Many people are hindered in their trust and love for God and their understanding of grace because their view of God is faulty. In other words, the thundering figure who is synonymous with corrupt institutions, angry dads and capricious self-interested tyrants is an idol that needs to be killed in order to make room for the God who reveals himself in creation, Scripture and supremely in Jesus Christ.

Let the pretenders be slain. Thank you Philip Pullman.

Second, Dr. Miller reminded that "what goes in (that god's) place is an important question," and the answer, I believe, entirely depends on one's worldview. Since Pullman is agnostic, we can't expect that he has killed a false god to make room for the True God. Instead, as I read on I expect to find a humanist vision in a human-centered universe. I expect that vision will be dim in volume one (muted in movie one) and more explicit in the subsequent volumes (movies). So how can Christians respond?

We must not misrepresent the facts and fall prey to another witness-defeating overreation in the name of "standing up for the faith." Instead, we should get informed and critically interact with people who might even be led to the God of Scripture indirectly by the crooked witness of Pullman's stories. I'll give the last word to the Apostle Peter, who writes in 1 Peter 3:15:

...but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (ESV).

That kind of witness turns our paranoia in to a powerful conversation that might even lead to someone committing the kind of deicide that opens the way to true Christian faith.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Have a Holly Jolly Thanksgivemas

(forthcoming in Inspire Magazine, Dec. 7, 2007)

Urban sprawl has invaded the holidays. Thanksgiving used to be a day we celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, by Presidential proclamation. It reminded us of our godly heritage and dependence on the graciousness of others (the Wampanoag Indians, in this case). I speak in past tense, because it seems to me we no longer have room for such a simple, un-Hallmarked, non-materialist observance as Thanksgiving. Wall Street has dictated that we try to capture the “spirit” of Christmas (fourth quarter profits) earlier and earlier. With all the displays, sales and sounds of Christmas we’ve been living with these weeks, I got to thinking that maybe instead of lamenting the eclipse of Thanksgiving, what if I could find a way to make Christmas a more thanks-filled celebration?

The inspiration for my infusing the celebration of Christmas with the substance of thanksgiving is found in a psalm written by King David’s worship leader. Right in the middle of Psalm 50, a prophetic psalm of judgment, comes Asaph’s inspired refrain: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Psalm 50:14-15). This divine instruction finishes off a section of the psalm where God has told Israel he doesn’t need their bulls and goats (50:7-13). At the same time, God accepts their free offering of thankfulness in the form of a sacrifice (see Leviticus 7) because He still wants relationship with them .

The sacrifice of thanksgiving, like all other offerings to God, requires two things: 1) that the worshiper give an animal from his own herd or flock for the priest to slaughter before God and 2) that the offering be combined with a heartfelt change of our attitude and actions (repentance, see Romans 12:1-2). If these conditions were met, the sacrifice was acceptable to God. Even when the conditions weren’t met, though, God still allowed the formal “sacrifice of thanksgiving” to take place. Why?

There is a symbolism in sacrifice that, for me, ties together the significance of Thanksgiving and Christmas: in sacrifice an innocent animal is offered for the sins of the guilty, and that exchange is required for God to have relationship with broken, sinful worshipers like us. When we understand the grace of God in providing Jesus as the “lamb of God” (John 1:29), the one who, having been born of a virgin was “a male without defect” (Leviticus 1:3), and by whose death “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10), then we see what great lengths and depths God went to in order to love and accept us. When the reality sinks in that the blood of every innocent animal slaughtered in the Old Testament paints a picture of the Son of God suffering as our once-for-all sacrifice, then thanksgiving and Thanksgiving, and thanks-giving and Christmas come together in our hearts, and we overflow in praise.

What a tragedy and a contradiction in terms is a Christian celebrating Christmas without thanksgiving! It’s like longing for a legal but loveless marriage, like working indoors on a perfect spring afternoon, like voicing prayers to empty idols, god-less forms without any substance. Such is the culture we live in, who celebrate the shell of a holiday devoid of both meaning and praise to God. When we put thanksgiving and Christmas together, we ourselves become a living sacrifice, demonstrating God’s love to those outside. Don’t think friends and family won’t savor the aroma of a life fully devoted to God and full of thanks during this holiday season. Merry Christmas, or maybe I should say, “Merry Thanksgivemas.”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

We All Get an Award

I'll be posting another article-length blog soon, but I just need to say how cool it is to get a couple of comments on my first post (below)! I love the interactivity (interconnectivity, interpossibility?) of blogging. Give yourself a pat on the back, and feel free to leave comments on any area of this blog.

Carmen is in Nashville today representing us at the Radio and Records Industry award summit. We were nominated for "Personality of the Year." Click here if you want to see the page. There are some really fine folks on this page, and it's an honor to be in their company, especially for a guy whose talents in radio are meager. What put me on this page is working with Dave and Carmen, two of the best, God-called professionals in the Christian radio industry, period.

At this moment I have no idea if we won or not. And that brings me to a message I'm going to deliver at a local church this Sunday. One of the application points is that we all try to find signficance in things that cannot deliver what they promise. We all want our lives to have made a dent in this world, but as Ecclesiastes says, our life is a vapor. The only things that crease the fabric of legacy are eternal things. Only what God does through me and you will last. This is a lifelong lesson for me, not as much in radio as in other areas.

When we come to the day heaven passes out awards, the standards will be quite different from the criteria of this world. I only hope I will have given enough of my heart to things that last so as to have a crown to throw at the feet of Jesus.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Fishing Up A Storm

(Originally published in Inspire Magazine, Sept. 7, 2007)

“Many fish bite if you got good bait.
Here's a little tip that I'd like to relate:
Many fish bite if you got good bait.
I'm a-goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin',
And my baby's goin' fishin' too.”
(Fishin’ Blues)

My sons and I recently had a spiritual experience involving a boat, a fishing hole and gathering storm. It was near the end of a long day catching plenty of fish, but only one keeper. All day we’d been pursuing a cooler-full for the hunt. In fact, “free dinner” was one of the justifications offered to my wife when purchasing the boat, along with:

1. It’s rated for 7 passengers, like a minivan without wheels;
2. It’s not about having a toy, it’s about making memories, and
3. It could save us money on flood insurance!

Some wives deploy a counterargument (whether my wife did or not I cannot say) that runs like this: “the definition of boat is: a hole in the sea you throw money into.” That’s why I take lots of pictures of my children’s smiling faces. That’s also why I HAD to catch dinner. But the hunt had been fruitless that Saturday afternoon, until we found the spot. (“The spot” is fishermen’s lingo for that special location which an angler keeps secret and where he stores hundreds of edible fish – right; like herding cats!) We arrived at “the spot” at around 6:30 P.M. By 6:35 rods were bending and water was churning, but not just from the fish. In the east, a storm was brewing.

As we fished on, forbidding clouds rolled in like a giant claw, surrounding us and threatening us with their piercing convulsions. I forecast the number of fish needed to fill the table and decided to defy the weather for just five more minutes. By 6:40, my oldest son had landed a mangrove snapper. Finally, from the seven year old came the prize catch: a fat redfish big enough for the entrĂ©e. We had done it, but not soon enough. I had been stubborn too long, and now we would have to face the storm’s fury.

The boys hoisted the anchor. I brought the boat about and set an eastward course toward the dock and into the deepening black. We met rain, first as stinging pellets, then a seamless sheet. Rainblind dusk was split by flashes of lightning falling from the heavens like shards. Silently, I began my heavenward cries for guidance into port, and safe haven. The engine screamed as the boat raced on, buoyed by prayer. The boys hunkered down.

The ordeal seemed stretched out, time passing slower as the storm accelerated. By the clock the race was over by 6:55 – a mere quarter-hour stand against nature. Safe inside the familiar confines of my SUV, we laughed and began boasting about our victory. Boasting gave way to a serious moment: “Boys, were you scared? What did you do?” The reply came in chorus, without prompting: “We prayed like crazy for God’s mercy!” Suddenly, like lightning a father’s foolishness was transformed into a providential lesson. My children had responded to the storm, not as flimsy sons of the world, but as Christian soldiers.

I realized in that moment that, unplanned by me, there were more fish caught that day than the prey in my boat’s livewell. Jesus told Peter and Andrew, fishermen, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19). Indeed, while I was leading an aquatic expedition, scratching for my dinner table, Jesus was using the whole experience to create an existential exercise for genuine biblical faith. When young boys spontaneously pray and get their theology right, the world is amazed (see Luke 2:47). When we cry out to God in the storm, he answers (see Luke 8:24). The children knew all this as they cried to the sovereign God of mercy. In that circumstance, the dinner-table devotions and Sunday school lessons paid off. In a moment when life’s prize was not just fish, but real trust in the God who can bring us safely home, the conquered spoils of a fishing trip were cashed in to become the currency of real faith.