Penelope

“Maybe iPhones have feelings, too,”
I replied, in a last-ditch effort
to plead my case, my lost

cause, my losing battle not
worth fighting, my stubborn
resistance to those who, like

you, self-righteously insist that
persons should talk to other
persons when in their presence.

“But let’s suppose they did,” I
continued. “I could put mine down
on this restaurant table and fix

my eyes and my desires squarely
on you instead, but Penelope—
let’s call her Penelope, provisionally—

could, through her one ear located
on the bottom of her long face,
still hear us arguing about my

priorities and begin to despise you
for wedging your way between us.
She would still take in at least the

ceiling and perhaps the occasional
especially demonstrative gesture
from one of her highly-evolved eyes,

either the one perched atop her radiant
face or—let’s not forget—the dominant
one peering through her helmet

on the back of her head. When
the bill arrives and it’s time to
calculate the tip, you can do

the math, I will presume, and she and I
will watch and listen as we drum
our digits on the table with justified,

spiteful impatience. And when it is that
time in the midst of our riveting conversation
to turn our attention to Ohio Sports

teams, I’m looking forward to hearing
your incisive analysis of the Cavs’
offseason trades and whether you

think the Tribe has the right elements
and chemistry to win it all this year. But
we both know that Penelope here is

the Michael Jordan of baseball conversation
and you’re more like our eldest son
insisting on the contemporary relevance

of castle sieges and pressing your case
that Minecraft counts as a STEM activity,
both of which are fine topics for conversation

for fine people, of course, given the proper
time and place. And I think we’d both agree
that this fancy restaurant on this, the

occasion of our fourteenth anniversary, is
by any estimation, neither the time
nor the place.

Diary Space

Would you mind terribly reading
to the children for perhaps five
minutes? I have a space in my

diary upon which I’d like to write
the words “Read to the children
for five minutes,” next to which

it would please me to place a check
mark denoting the task’s completion.
Another thing you might consider

doing is buying me flowers and
commemorating our fast-approaching
anniversary with a romantic dinner

and perhaps some French kissing,
for I have space in my diary also
available upon which I could chronicle

a surprisingly memorable evening
spent with a surprisingly thoughtful
husband. Alternatively, said diary

space could certainly be filled with a
list of various desiderata easily
purchased from the kinds of stores

which stock goods commonly
associated with wives whose husbands
are slow to read, flower, dine, and/or kiss

 

 

What’s the deal

What’s the deal

What’s the deal with everyone
always asking what the deal is
with strange things?
As though all oddities could be
explained by underlying
economic transactions.
Are we to believe Grape Nuts are so-
called, despite their lack of both,
because the numbers were right?
And you can’t tell me that
German Checkers became “Chinese”
and Ecuador’s hats “Panama”
to sell more games and headwear.
I’m simply not buying it.

Worldview and “Final Narrative”: My Philosophy of Education

“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

-Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

“But we have the mind of Christ,” Paul tells the Corinthians.

Theirs was a sensual culture, and its people followed their hearts wherever their hearts should lead them. This approach earned them notoriety within the Hellenistic world: to fornicate was to “Corinthianize.”

At the same time, there were powerful religious and secular leaders who championed not the heart but the hands. For them, it was all about action, power, movement, the exertion of the will, and the demonstration of mastery.

There were also intellectuals, both genuine and spurious, who advocated for the primacy of wisdom. These peddlers of philosophy weren’t “heart people” or “hands people”; they were “head people.”

It was into this context of disputed anthropologies that Paul called the Corinthian believers to a better way, the way of Christ. His pedagogy was imitatio Christi—the imitation of Christ. He called for Christians to have the mind of Christ.

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Sola Sapientia?

Unfortunately, when we read that we are to have the mind of Christ, we often assume that Paul’s antidote to our culture’s Corinthian hearts, its lust for signs of power, and its sophistry is simply to out-think our secular opponents. We imagine that if we teach our children to best their peers in the realm of the intellect, bringing the Christian worldview to bear on every aspect of our culture, we can preserve the faith and pass it along to another generation despite Christendom’s decline.

Pedagogically, then, Christian education acts as though the secular head, heart, and hands must be replaced primarily with a Christian head. We tend to privilege the head over the heart and hands, hoping that a Christian heart and a set of Christian hands will follow naturally from a mind that has been thoroughly shaped by a Christian worldview.

But are we primarily thinking beings? Do our thoughts supervene upon our emotions and volitions in such a way that they determine the kind of people we become, and ultimately how we feel and what we do?

I don’t think so.

First of all, it’s not just our hearts that are fallen–though the heart is desperately wicked, as the prophet tells us. Nor is our fallenness confined to our actions. Our minds are fallible, too. Our ability to conform our minds to the teaching of Christ in his word is fallible, even while his word itself is not. We are just as capable of being mistaken as we sketch out the components of a robust Christian worldview as we are capable of unwittingly engaging in unfaithful conduct.

Story-shaped, or Argument-shaped?

When my best friend and I were both newly married, we frequently talked about our difficulties adjusting to married life. Those were heady days for both of us, and especially for his wife and him. They were intellectual people determined to sort out their married life according to their robustly Christian worldviews. They argued. A lot.

One day, as my friend recounted a recent heated argument between him and his wife, and the philosophical stalemate that resulted, I had a rare flash of insight and brilliance. I told him: “You two are going to have to decide if you want your marriage to be shaped like an argument, or shaped like a story.” I’ve never said something so incisive and helpful again in my life.

Worldview education as a program for outthinking our secular counterparts can only get us so far. It won’t even get two thoughtful Christians who love each other on the same page all the time. Many times we are so steeped in “the Christian worldview” that we begin to generate an unsavory Christian McCarthyism that constantly suspects other Christians of being secret agents for secularity.

Even if our typical worldview program gets us to the place where we can analyze everything under the sun with heroic levels of scrutiny and sophistication, it still misses the mark. Too often, the way worldview education is pursued in schools, churches, and homes falls woefully short of helping young people begin to lives that are shaped like stories.

We may be able to fill our children’s minds with arguments with which to defeat their pagan peers. But without something more than “worldview education,” our children’s lives will be shaped more like arguments than stories. And to have “the mind of Christ,” I believe, is not simply to stack up the right arguments for Christ’s lordship in a secular world. Rather, one has the mind of Christ when one begins to live into, to believe into, the story of God’s reconciliation of all things through Christ. A disciple of Jesus doesn’t just think Christian thoughts. A disciple of Jesus grows to have one’s whole being—emotions, thoughts, actions—follow the pattern of the Jesus’ own life. Disciples begin to think, feel, and act as though his story was really true, as though the story of Jesus has the one true happy ending we all want out of a good story.

Why Read? For “Final Narrative”

In his remarkable book Why Read?, University of Virginia professor of English Mark Edmundson puts forth the concept of “final narrative”. We read literature, he says, in order to try on a character’s way of being in the world, the story that their life is trying to tell. Trying on a character’s final narrative involves attempting to think their thoughts after them, feel things like they do, and consider what it would mean to act according to their pattern of action.

The author of the story, of course, lurks in the background of the action and the characters. She choreographs the movements of the character within the story arc of the book, and in so doing, she might be holding forth the character as a model of faithful human agency in the face of the twists and turns of the plot. Or she may be creating a character for whom the plot twists prove too difficult for a morally malformed character to navigate faithfully. Or she may have a complex character who acts with a mix of integrity and moral compromise.

Whichever way the author paints the character and the world that the character inhabits, a final narrative is proposed. We, as readers, must take stock of the proposed final narrative, and ultimately we must take them or leave them. Otherwise, our reading is pure entertainment and never reaches us at the core of who we are.

Final Narrative > Worldview

I believe that, by God’s common grace, Edmundson has hit on a concept that Christian educators should appropriate—one which could supplant “worldview education” in our schools, churches, and homes.

Worldview emphasizes thinking and seeing. By contrast, a final narrative approach to education would continue to recognize the importance of thought in the development of Christian character, but would also take much more seriously our emotions and volition, which are constituent parts of our humanity.

Where a worldview approach to pedagogy might teach children how to think Christianly, a final narrative approach to pedagogy would pay just as much attention to our practices. Biblical worldview integration might produce lessons that can help us know the truth. But a final narrative approach seeks to integrate the story arc of the drama of redemption. In doing so, it will go beyond a call to know the truth and challenge students to love the truth and enact the truth. Instead of thinking our way into having the mind of Christ, a final narrative approach would challenge students by having them inhabit practices that are meant to shape and develop their loves. Ultimately, we want students to be truthers, not just people who think in orthodox manners while they continue to feel and act in a heterodox fashion.

James K A Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, insists that we are not primarily thinking beings, but loving beings. In his books Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love, he traces this Augustinian insight throughout the history of discipleship. He makes the case that our educational practices need to stop exclusively targeting the minds and begin to target the lives of students. As Annie Dillard has perfectly said, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Smith fears that our instructional habit of targeting the mind does not take account of the fact that students’ days are usually spent dutifully following secular liturgies, and that these liturgies have a formative power beyond that of our our lectures to guide students into story-shaped lives.

Thus, Smith argues, students may fill their medium-term memories with the thoroughly Christian data we teach them in the classroom; they may retain that data for long enough to regurgitate it on a test; and in so doing they might please any Christian educator and impress their classmates with their worldview knowledge. And yet, when they hand in their test and return their textbooks, their lives are still shaped by final narratives that are fundamentally secular. Students can know Christianity back and forth, but spend their days and their lives essentially adhering to the pattern of this present evil age, and having their desires shaped by those habits.

Most of our lives are not spent thinking. Rather, they are spent inhabiting practices that shape our loves, form our habits, and make it easier for us to act in certain ways. The Christian life is not the life of a detached observer, analyzing discrete phenomena on the intellectual plane. A Christian life, like any human life, is a life of thinking, feeling, acting. 

Final Narrative in the Classroom

In the classroom, a final narrative approach to Christian education will, of course, involve instruction. We cannot live our students’ lives for them or get into their emotions and conform their feelings to a Christian final narrative. We will have to use our minds to reach their minds.

However, a pedagogy built on a Christian final narrative will also challenge students to inhabit Christian practices in ways that shape, form, and order their loves—loves that are ofttimes shaped by the final narratives of advertisers, shopping malls, pop stars, sports heroes, and the like. 

Such a pedagogy will meet students at the existential level and not only the cognitive level. It will ask students to examine the lives they are living, and challenge them to give an account for the final narrative they are inhabiting, and the story their lives are telling.

We will need to ask students to examine their emotional reactions to events in the world, and not simply to rationally analyze current or historical people and events from a Christian worldview. We will have to draw students out of the classroom and into the surrounding community to interact with professionals in various fields, in order to hear people’s stories and uncover their final narratives. We will then need to challenge students to decide whether to adopt the story that such professionals are inhabiting as their own, to integrate certain twists and turns of those stories into their own unfolding story, or to reject the stories they encounter as ones which do not follow the narrative arc of a fully-lived Christian life.

Such a pedagogy would not be afraid to expose students to the final narratives of people who have no faith, or other faiths. Rather, it would welcome such engagements as opportunities to listen to the life-stories such people inhabit, comparing and contrasting them to the stories students want to tell with their own lives. In a Christian worldview-oriented approach, pedagogical gatekeepers often feel they must screen out potential speakers, artists, texts, music, and films if they deem them to be insufficiently Christian in worldview. A final narrative-oriented philosophy of education would certainly be sensitive to obscene and damaging content from outsiders. But it would not shy away from encountering alternative final narratives.

This approach recognizes that students are already having implicit dialogues with holders of competing final narratives as they go about their days. Therefore, it makes sense to bring those encounters into the classroom and to trace their story arcs. We need to help students ask good questions of others’ final narratives. What kind of story are we being told by their life? Does their story have  a happy ending? Is their supposed happy ending consonant with the happy endings that can only be reached when all things are renewed by the Lord Jesus Christ? What kinds of practices are we being encouraged to inhabit? How will these practices shape our hearts, minds, and affections if we were to enter into them?

We can’t shield our students from competing or antithetical final narratives. They’re already hearing the stories. And even if we insulate students from such spurious final narratives through an airtight Christian school, an orthodox and pious church, and tight parental controls on the home computer, students will soon be off at college or out in the workforce, where they’ll be inundated with foreign final narratives. Why not unmask inadequate final narratives in the classroom under the leadership of a wise Christian teacher instead?

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with the idea of “worldview” per se. Part of having the mind of Christ is literally “to think Christ’s thoughts after him.” Educators must help students learn to love God with all their minds. 

But we mustn’t just see the world. We mustn’t merely know the world. We must live in the world, and as we do so, we must tell a story about the world and where it’s been, where it is, and where it’s going.

Ultimately, a final narrative approach to Christian education re-tells the narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation through stories and practices that aim to shape the loves of students’ hearts in such a way that many will come to desire to live into the Christian story with more and more thorough commitment. A final narrative approach challenges students to think, feel, and act in such a way that they spend their days, and therefore their lives, seeking to live within the story-pattern of Christ rather than that of this present, passing age.

Note: I was required to write a paper setting forth my personal Christian philosophy of education as part of my certification by the Association of Christian Schools International. It turns out that this is something I’ve been meaning to articulate for a while now, and so I decided I’d post it here. As usual, I’d welcome your comments.

In Bold Defense of “I Feel Like”

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Molly Worthen wants us to quit saying “I feel like.” It’s a provocative and punchy New York Times piece that almost had me convinced—if it weren’t for a funny feeling I got that she might only be feeling like “I feel like” was a bad thing. So I got to thinking.

Here’s some bold, “I feel like”-less assertions from her column.

‘“I feel like” masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too — but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks.’

‘Most disturbing about “I feel like”: The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning.’

‘The phrase “I feel like” is a mundane … means of avoiding rigorous debate over structures of society that are hard to change.’

I completely DISAGREE.

Here’s why:

1) The author admits that language is always evolving. I assume she knows that meaning comes in the use, not in the words themselves. But then she immediately goes on to imply that, while in every other case a word’s evolution is benign, in this one special case, it “is not a harmless tic.” (This tic is SERIOUS. Like Orwellian serious!”)

Sorry, but it’s just a word, the meaning is evolving with common usage like every other word.

2) The author notes the global awareness and the empathy of Xers and Millennials—a reason for the way they’ve dialed back on intellectual bravado. But then she says it’s not actually humility, but hedging: we “feel” in order to remain on safe ground, as no one can attack our feelings the way they could challenge our thoughts.

Um, no. Is there anyone who actually thinks a sensible political comment that begins with “I feel like” has moved from the cognitive to the affective domains? That the speaker is using their heart or their gut instead of their mind? It’s perfectly clear to me that when a speaker omits “I feel like”, they are cognitively settled on their position, while when they include the phrase, they are expressing not their feelings, but their rather their uncertain, tentative thoughts. “I feel like” is a *wonderful* tool not for shutting down conversation, but for stoking it. If someone comes to me and says “If we elect Bernie Sanders, we’re asking for communism”, I will challenge that opinion if and only if *I feel* up to arguing with an alarmist partisan. However, if someone says “I feel like it’s odd that we’re seriously considering electing a socialist when we spent so much effort fighting communism”, *I feel like* I’m being invited into an actual exchange of ideas rather than a bunch of mindless sloganeering and line-towing.

3) The author assumes that our extra-cognitive faculties are less reliable than our intellectual faculties.

Nonsense. We’re just as capable of faulty reasoning as we are of getting our feelings mixed up. And besides, there is a fruitful interplay between our cognitive and affective faculties: I may like the content of what I’m hearing from a candidate, but still get a funny feeling about them based on how they carry themselves. Would it be shallow to disregard what they say about policy based on my funny feeling? Maybe a little. But “I feel like Sanders/Cruz/Whomever comes off a little bit out of touch with real people and their actual needs” might cause me to do some research to determine if the candidate is just kind of awkward, which I can live with, or if they’re consistently not hearing important segments of their constituency.

4) The author makes a last-ditch effort to appear concerned with actual feelings. There’s a shortage of feelings, apparently, because we’re “misusing” the word assigned to the affective domain.

Sorry, but we have a lot of other words at our disposal, and we can always make up new ones. We can describe our affective reaction to phenomena. People leave us frigid, cold, lukewarm, warm, fired up. Meals leave us satiated, content, bloated, hungry. There’s a gazillion words to describe subjective experience. Know them, love them, use them. We can “lose” *I feel* to the uncertain thinkers without losing the Republic.

5) Am I being a little too strident in my criticism of the author? Maybe. Perhaps I should have began a few of my sentences with *I feel like*—that would have made me come across as someone who is a linguistic non-expert who is curious to learn more. See how this works?

I feel like we should let language evolve, quit complaining when it does, use our imaginations to search for better words, warm up to the idea that some of the tics of Xers and Millennials might not only be harmless, but salutary, and welcome our actual feelings into the conversation alongside our tentative opinions and our settled conclusions.

Death Still Stings (For Now)

Easter is the day when we like to say “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” And it’s a line quoted from the climax of one of the best theological meditations on the resurrection found anywhere in Scripture. 

  

But here’s the thing: death still stings. Ask anyone who’s got the stinger in them: like my wife, for instance, who lost her father a couple months ago; or her mom, who just visited us here in Seoul, who lost the love of her life. 

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida recalls the occasion of his younger brother tragically dying of tubercular meningitis at the age of two: “I remember the day I saw my father, in 1940, in the garden, lighting a cigarette one week after the death of my little brother: ‘But how can he still do that? Only a week ago he was sobbing!’ I never got over it.”

You don’t ever really get over it. My mom lost a teenage brother. I have only rarely heard about Uncle Kenny, but when I do, I can tell no one has ever really gotten over it. 

This Easter, I remember that death is too big a deal to ever get over. I remember that Paul isn’t suggesting that the sting of death is gone, or that the grave has been stripped of its victory. Not yet, anyway. 

Not till the mortal puts on its immortality:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” 

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

 – 1 Corinthians 15:51-55

Death has had a big fat bite taken out of it. And this is Eastertide’s tidings. And so we can declare these things proleptically, bringing their future facticity to bear on our present stings and sorrows. 

But death hasn’t been swallowed whole. Yet. 

When Will We Finally be Done Following Jesus?

When we talk about following Jesus, I wonder if we assume that this following is done
with when our earthly days are done; that our following will be over and our chillaxing will commence once we’re over Jordan.  

It’s like we think that spiritual and vocational effort (and aren’t these ultimately the same thing?) are a consequence of the fall, and that one day, in the sweet by and by, we won’t have to work to know Jesus and follow him faithfully.

We are allergic to effort, we champions of grace. But as Dallas Willard has told us, grace is not opposed to effort, but only to earning. In the New Creation, we’ll labor–but not just in our “work.” We’ll work to know and follow hard after Jesus in, through, and after any honest day’s labor. 

We won’t struggle against the world, the sinful flesh, and the devil as we try to know and follow Jesus in the age to come. But exhaustive theological knowledge and unabridged discipleship blueprints will not simply be downloaded into our heads when the trump resounds. Jesus is too mind-blowingly infinite and loving, and his (new) world is too full of places to venture further up and further in, for us to expect our following days to be done when the roll is called up yonder. 

And that means we’re practicing now. 

Thickening the Sermon’s Plot

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s delightful book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. If you are interested in writing short stories, novels, or even memoirs–in other words, any writing that is less expositional and more dependent on character and plot–you really need to get this book. It will demystify the writing process, while still leaving lots of room for you as a writer to lean into the real mystery: people’s lives, folks’ souls.
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I happened to get to Lamott’s section on plot the other day when I should have been writing my sermon. I decided to try and redeem my procrastinated time by trying out Lamott’s counsel for developing a good plot in the writing of my sermon.

Lamott shares a trick she learned from one Alice Adams on plot-making. It follows an ABDCE pattern. Action, background, development, climax, ending. 

You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, and what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot–the drama, the actions, the tension–will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?

My experiment in sermon-plotting

I was assigned Exodus 5:22-6:12, the story of Moses confronting God for failing to deliver Israel from slavery under Pharaoh, and how God responded. Here’s how I ‘plotted’ my sermon:

Action: Easy. Moses actually says what so many of us are thinking lots of times. “God, are you on our side, or have you teamed up with our enemies?” How will God respond to this accusation? What will God do? Incinerate him? Turn his staff into a serpent and have the serpent bite him? But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. That’s enough action to pull us all into the story.

Background: What’s the history of Moses’s relationship with God up to this point? It’s had its highs: being saved from an infanticidal Pharaoh, getting a Harvard education, enjoying Egyptian courtly privilege. It’s also had its troughs: being exiled into Midian and demoted to a lowly shepherd, almost being struck down by God along the roadside for not having circumcised his son. We’re rehearsing the twists and turns of this relationship that have brought us to the current action and dialogue. The action was at first introduced as raw action. Now, each bit of background shows how the present action is freighted with significance, and shows how the stakes are higher than we would have assumed with the action alone.

Development: Development is the part of the plot that sets the stage for the big climax. In Marylynne Robinson’s Gilead this is where we feel the feel the tension in the room when Jack and Rev. Ames say 10 words with their lips and 100 more words with their tone, body language, and with all the words that aren’t said. In Exodus 5-6, this is where I want the congregation to feel the sting of Moses’s words as he accuses God (who had promised to deliver Israel) and Pharaoh (who regularly threw Hebrew infant boys into the Nile to drown) of being on the same team. It’s here that I pull my “exegetical goodies” into the story–but only those exegetical goodies which actually help tell the story. Nothing will slow the story down like a bunch of parsed Hebrew verbs at this point.

Climax: Where is the confrontation between a God who is not going to change and a character who therefore must change in one way or another? When you’ve identified this point, you’ve found your climax. What remains is to make the climax of the story the climax of your sermon. In this case, everything hinges on how God reacts to Moses’s accusation. So my climax focused on how Yahweh did not incinerate Moses, but instead reiterated his promises to him, with two particular details:

  1. Yahweh underscored the intimacy with which Moses had come to know him, based on the fact that God had revealed his personal name to Moses, though not to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
  2. Yahweh told Moses that for generations to come, Israel would constantly recall the deliverance that was about to happen–that these wild events would become Israel’s national origin story.

Ending: Here’s where you make sure to have Jesus be the real hero of each Old Testament story. The reality is that we’ve all been where Moses is from time to time: convinced that we’d answered the call of God to obediently follow his lead into some difficult task, only to begin to wonder if God had sadistically sent us on a fool’s errand. But from the cross onward, we know at least 2 things that Moses himself wouldn’t even come to know:

  1. God isn’t just God (his title). His ‘first name’ is Jesus, and this Jesus has drawn far nearer to us than Yahweh did to Moses. We have a God who invites us to call him by a personal name–a name which means what that same Jesus did: “God saves.”
  2. Jesus was sent on a ‘fool’s errand’ to fight a losing battle at the hands of sin, death, hell, Satan, Judas, the Pharisees, Sadducees, the crowds, Pilate, and the Romans. But in walking the plank like this, he saved us, and by rising again, he raised us. No matter what happens on the apparent ‘fools errands’ we seem to find ourselves on in obedience to Jesus, we can know, only because of the the cross and resurrection, that our labor in the service of Jesus is not in vain.

Let’s thicken our plots

The preaching of Old Testament narratives, in my opinion, doesn’t just lend itself to story-shaped sermons; it almost requires it. If anything, we should be taking the so-called expositional and doctrinal parts of Scripture and thinking about how to bring the impact of the text to our audience through the conventions of good storytelling. But what we’re prone to do is strip mine ready-made biblical stories, full of dramatic intrigue, for doctrines and principles. This is one of these instances in which Dorothy Sayers’s criticism of churchmen rings sadly true: Christianity is often boring through no fault of Christianity itself.

Remember, the point of preaching is not to teach doctrines. The point of preaching is to confront us with Jesus in such a way that we, like the characters after the climax of a dramatic story, are changed in a lasting way. If we’re aiming to reach a spiritual climax by preaching, why not make a plot out of our sermons?

Coffee and the Skinny Glutton

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It’s fairly easy for me to identify my favorite sins.

I’m currently teaching the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ to both a group of eleventh-graders and a group of faculty. Each capital vice is extremely nuanced in its manifestations and subtle in its habit-forming encroachment upon the soul. And each sin is a fountain from which flows a variety of discrete patterns of transgression. The most fascinating to me are, somewhat startlingly, the that are a little too close to home. Which ones? If you know me, you guessed it: sloth and gluttony.

Sloth will have to wait for another post. For now, gluttony has grabbed my attention like the mention of a cheeseburger around quitting time.

Happily, gluttony doesn’t simply effect people who would vote for pizza for president if they could. It’s satisfying to learn that gluttony embeds itself in the habits of the prissy waif just as it grips the hot dog eating champion.

According to Rebecca DeYoung, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, gluttony not only involves how you eat (ravenously, hastily, excessively, for example), but also what you eat. One type of glutton, of course, eats sumptuously–that is, she eats things that make her feel full. But the other type of glutton fixates on another type of food: exquisitely delicious food.

This fastidious glutton is fixated on taste. Rather than being enslaved by the demands of the belly, the food snob only lets the most delicious things, prepared to her precise specifications, come near her lips.

In Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape teaches his pupil Wormwood how to tempt eaters who are not prone to overeating with this alternative pattern of gluttony. The key, Wormwood learns, is to cultivate an increasing fastidiousness with respect to food and drink. When successfully tempted, the ‘patient’ habitually sends perfectly good sandwiches back to the kitchen with exasperated instructions like “Listen, all I want is …”.

You can see the pride and elitism in this sort of approach toward food. The high-brow glutton says, for all intents and purposes, “All I want is for everything to be precisely according to my tastes. Is that too much to ask?”

Is it too much to ask for a world in which all the nutritional, social, economic, and agricultural dimensions of eating–in which even the humanness of the persons making and serving your food–are bracketed out? Well, yes. It is too much to ask. It’s not difficult to see the fundamentally antisocial nature of this sin, and the god-sized pride in assuming that such a relationship to food and drink is “not too much to ask.”

And so I wonder: is it possible to be a connoisseur, an aficionado, of anything, without becoming a glutton?

I am all the other kinds of glutton in my relationship to all other kinds of food and drink. But I am decidedly high-brow in my coffee tastes. Am I an elitist?

Some have noticed that in the gospels of the New Testament, Jesus is always on his way to a meal, at a meal, or leaving a meal. He eats his way through Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Given that almost everything I do is either done with coffee in hand, or done in the strength of a post-coffee caffeinated state, or done on the way to my next coffee break, coffee is part of the warp and woof of my life in a way that almost no other person, place, or thing is.

The same is true of James Freeman, founder of the esteemed Blue Bottle Coffee–a name revered by baristas here in Seoul, even though most of them have never been in a Blue Bottle cafe. Freeman described his obsession with  coffee to a group of Stanford entrepreneurs recently. One thing that stands out from his talk, apart from his touchy-feely language about coffee culture and his against-the-grain principles of entrepreneurship:

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Freeman is obsessed, not just with coffee, but with control. Control over everything that happens from the purchase of beans to the roasting to the brewing to the tasting experience of the customer.

My friend Sooin, whose sheer knowledge of coffee is astounding (she attended a coffee college for two years), is similarly exacting in her approach to making a great cup of coffee. To watch her work is to watch a careful artist demanding the best of herself.

What’s the difference between these coffee professionals and myself? Sooin and Freeman approach their work as craft and as calling. They are professionals. When I make coffee, I’m an amateur.

I am also a consumer. And here, I think, is the heart of the matter:

What is my attitude when someone makes a cup of coffee for me? What is going on in my head and my heart when Sooin makes me an $8 pour over from a rare bean? When my wife brings me a cup of coffee in bed that she’s not super proud of? When my parents pop a K-cup in the Keurig and bring it to me in their living room? When a tea-drinker serves me instant coffee after they’ve served me a home-cooked meal?

Sooin has actually helped me think soberly about all this. Whenever we’re around her, I find myself peppering her with questions, looking for tips that will improve my coffee-making, and my coffee drinking, game. I ask about coffee origins, and what notes I should be tasting in different coffees. And usually I end up saying , in a disappointed tone, something like: “I wish I could taste the difference between a good cup of coffee and an excellent cup of coffee.”

And then she sets me straight. She reminds me that I am not a coffee professional. I have not been to coffee school. I don’t make my living trying to give people incredible coffee experiences. My relationship to coffee ought to be one of enjoyment. Especially when someone is serving it to me. For her, the professional, that’s the source of joy: when she meticulously controls as many variables as possible to yield a great cup of coffee, and people like me take our first satisfying sips.

It’s true that I am enhancing my enjoyment of coffee as I learn to distinguish and appreciate more and more nuances and subtleties from cup to cup.

But if I approach a cup of coffee, made with care and given to me in hospitality, with a critical spirit, with an air of elitism, and with a readiness to reject it if it’s not to my standards, then I have indeed become a glutton. Even when my experience of someone else’s coffee is dampened by my preoccupation with my own lack of discerning taste buds and faltering tasting-note vocabulary, I teeter on the edge of gluttony.

The vice of gluttony, whether manifested in a ravenous eater or a skinny, self-appointed food critic, consists in an antisocial, self-centered approach to what is consumed. Instead of being received with gratitude, the coffee, the food, or the wine is devoured in a stingy spirit or rejected with a stuck-up lack of gratitude. When one eats and drinks in a way that fails to acknowledge how food and drink is connected to the social act of eating and drinking , one commits gluttony.

I was raised on the slogan “food is love.” Indeed, it is. And coffee, too. May we all reject the self-love of gluttony and receive our food and drink with glad and generous hearts.

Stabs of Sorrow

It’s odd. I’m about as happy as I’ve ever been.

Big-city life is thrilling to me, and Seoul bigger than the biggest city in America. My wife and kids love living overseas. We’re all enjoying learning Korean, more or less. Work is tiring, but fulfilling. I have some fine colleagues and some generous friends. Church life is joyful and familiar: Presbyterian, liturgical, biblical, theological, communal, small, foodly. The kids are flourishing, my wife is wonderful, and the cherry blossoms will bloom in a couple weeks time.

Things really are great. Really great.

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In his memoir of his spiritual journey, CS Lewis writes about occasional, unpredictable experiences that he called “stabs of joy.” He was mostly melancholic, but every once in a great while, he was deeply moved by something otherworldly and joyous, painful because freighted with longing.

I, on the other hand, feel as though I am living in a world of enchantment—things are great, and I’m happy. But every so often I experience not the Lewisian stabs of joy, but rather their opposite: stabs of sorrow.  

I’m rather new at this.

I was new to the unforeseen disappointments of leading a group of prodigals and pilgrims in a shared and local life. I was new to having my influence rendered, in many cases, surprisingly uninfluential.

I was new to seeing families rent asunder up close, and I was certainly new to that peculiar sort of failure one feels when one knows that one’s help didn’t help—especially when help, it seemed, was so desperately needed.

I was new to opening my heart and my life and my home to so many different people. And I was most definitely new to having many of those people close their hearts and lives and homes to me.

And I’m new at the grief and melancholy that now strike unexpectedly, when the sheer awfulness of some particularly awful days in a hard season not so long ago come flooding into my consciousness. Without warning, it all comes back, but somehow stronger and more achy with the passage of time.

I make my attempts to reconcile with the apparent inevitability of it all, which blunts the force of these stabs of sorrow. But even my belated ‘acceptance’ (whatever that means) of these severe providences seems to cement this season in my past and make it always retrievable. My disappointments have become memorialized now; they’re a thing of my historical record, a chapter in my unwritten memoir that gets read aloud to me involuntarily from time to time, whether I like it or not. 

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There are books with titles like Leading With a Limp and The Wounded Healer that sound like they were probably written for punks like me; for people who find themselves—what’s the Christianese word?—humbled. I should probably read those.

There are also many people I know whose present suffering makes my reflection on these stabs of sorrow, situated as they are against a backdrop of steady happiness, feel utterly unwarranted. I should probably remember this.

My grief isn’t utterly overwhelming like the grief of many others. My vocational failure isn’t utterly catastrophic. But since my sorrows stab me every so often, perhaps my grief is a grief that nevertheless ought to be observed. I’m attending to these sorrows when they come upon me. Surely they have something to teach me, even though I suspect at times that the truths I’m meant to learn are ones I already know: fallenness, finitude, frailty.

I take these stabs of sorrow to be indicators that my knowledge of these postlapsarian conditions needs to be deeper still. More personal. It’s not “people” who are fallen, but me. It’s not “the world” that is frail, it’s me. It’s not “creation” that is finite, but me

These stabs of sorrow are no fun, but the creatureliness they underscore is true. And a reckoning with true things, however not-fun, has got to be a good thing.