Fragile Faith and a House of Cards

I’ve been thinking about worldviews and Christianity, in particular. In all honesty, the topic fascinates me to no end, despite me being on the receiving end of a profound couple of worldview challenges over the course of my life. There is almost nothing more disorienting than realizing that your worldview is too small, or, worse still, wrong.

I had my own disorienting “valley of the shadow of death” moment back in college. Cliche, I know. “Next, you’ll be telling us the sky is blue and water’s wet.” I mean, sure, it is, but sometimes cliches are there for a reason. Anyway, being a Bible major, meant I was wrestling with theology daily – from all different traditions of Christian history. I found myself at one point staring at a metaphorical pile of cards where what I thought was my faith had been. It had, in my mind, been an unassailable fortress of belief and right doctrine. Everything had a place and answer… and then my professors walked through and plucked out or shifted the cards one by one. My reading began to shift the table under the house of cards, and new forms of worship opened up as I traveled with our choir to different churches and had devotions with an Anglican friend out of the Book of Common Prayer.

This to say I still cling to orthodoxy (“right doctrine”) and orthopraxy (“right doing”), but the object of my trust has shifted. To say that I trust God now would sound, to most of us, a little odd. But, looking back, I think that was my problem. I trusted the system I had, rather than trusting the One that system described. When my system was challenged, and my house of cards fell, what was left was a person, a God who was smiling at me like a father whose child has just realized playing cards don’t make a sturdy house. And so I began wrestling – which has a long Biblical tradition in Jacob, whose name was even changed to “God struggles with” or “struggles with God.” That wrestling took me through church history, through modern theological thoughts, back to the church fathers, and through recent discoveries and scholarship on 1st Century Jewish life.

I’ve heard of so many Christians that have a trust in God based on a list of “provable facts” and some basic apologetic work who found themselves in a dark place when confronted by a worldview or counterpoint that challenges these basic beliefs. Many overcome this by realizing that our trust is in God, not in rhetoric or some tightly-constructed system of thinking. Some, though, if challenged on one belief, begin to question other beliefs and can drift into agnosticism as their house of cards collapses around them.

It’s okay to doubt, to question, to dialogue with God and others. The Bible isn’t particularly concerned about doubt – see Abraham, Job, David, etc. What the Bible seems to care about more is who is being doubted. Notice that the names listed above are still heroes celebrated for their faith, despite their moments of doubt. These people and many in the Bible like them are examples that God can take doubt, He can handle questions. God works with insecurity. One of the biggest complaints from naturalists of religion is that we believe regardless of facts. I take issue with this, a little. We believe because we trust, the other way around can lead to shaky ground.

Is your trust in a system of theology, or in the One that system describes? It can be hard to confront when we realize our theology is getting in the way of our trusting God. I may not subscribe to someone else’s theological blueprint, but I can celebrate those commonalities that we can affirm together as we worship, praise, and serve as one Body.

If you had to really think about it, where is your faith (read trust) centered: on a system of belief, or on the One that system describes? What do you model to your children? How are you introducing your children to God, and not just a system of belief?

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Your Media Bubble Is Unscriptural

Who knew that bubbles would be all the rage in public conversation after second grade? I hadn’t really considered bubbles much since learning that most weddings use them instead of rice or birdseed in order to be more environmentally friendly.¬†Of course, though, I’m not talking about the fun, pop-able joy orbs that can make a bad day seem more joyful.

A media bubble is the echo chamber that we create around ourselves to solidify our worldview and make sure that we have the sanity we need to face the day. Before the internet and the million-or-so channels on television, there were only a few ways to get your news and its interpretation: 3 local/national TV stations, 1-2 local newspapers, a national paper (if you bothered), and word of mouth. Most everyone seemed to be working from a similar framework. Now, though, conservatives can go to their corner, liberals can go to theirs, independents can find their place, and so can just about any other label. Today, then, no one is working from a common framework or even a similar worldview. Plurality has divided us to the point of hilarity.

Starting in college, I challenged myself to listen to viewpoints that differed from my own. Why? Because I realized I was missing crucial perspectives and ideas that might help me to better engage with the world and the people around me. Did I agree with all of those new ideas, of course not, and many new ideas I have to run through some serious critical thinking before deciding what to do with them. Here’s my hot-take on the bubble problem: our media bubbles are unscriptural and damaging.

“The time is coming, you see, when people won’t tolerate healthy teaching. Their ears will itch, and they will turn away from listening to the truth and will go after myths instead. But as for you, keep your balance in everything. Put up with suffering; […]; complete the particular task assigned to you.” 2 Timothy 3-5

This verse comes after an exhortation to hold fast to Scripture and the teaching of Jesus and to continue announcing the good news of Jesus’ Kingship at all times. I see our media bubbles, especially as Christians, to be damaging. It would be similar to a doctor deciding to operate on a patient without listening to the patient describe his symptoms. At that point, the doctor would be guessing and might perform the wrong operation on her patient. If we, as followers of Jesus, aren’t listening to those around us, how can we know what needs they actually need met? (As an aside, can I say that adding qualifier to the term “Christian” is about as dangerous as lighting a stick of dynamite and then putting it in one’s pocket?”) Christians who are liberal and those who are conservative need to branch out and listen to the other side. If we do not, we will have no idea how to partner with, show compassion toward, and love those who also claim to follow King Jesus. On top of that, we are disregarding Jesus’ prayer in John when he prayed for unity for His followers, in addition to scratching our own itching ears with the stories we want to hear.

It should go without saying that I am against blind acceptance of anything. Scripture never suggests that we blindly follow anyone. GK Chesterton points out that artistic descriptions of Hebrew prophets and Christian saints almost always show them with eyes wide open – alert and in awe of what they have seen and must say. We should live the same way, with eyes wide, alert, and ready to unleash compassion, justice, and love on the world around us.

What does your media bubble look like? Do you have any voices in your life that challenge you to think? Do you encourage your family by challenging them? To you accept challenges to your thinking when they come, or do you actively avoid them?

Quitters never win…

And winners never quit.” I’m sure the saying has been around forever, but my grandfather (we call him “Bear”) and my mother would often hand me this saying when I would inevitably want to stop something I had started. Whether on the little league baseball diamond, band drama in high school, or my stupidity in over-committing in college, this phrase rang around in my head. It’s also akin to some phrases Paul liked to give about running the race marked out for us, and being willing to push through suffering because it produces character, and then hope.

I may even take this to extremes sometimes. I have a hard time not finishing things now, which has led me to hate-read a book or two out of spite in order to say I had finished it. An unfinished project will keep me awake at night. Ok, so maybe this attitude is not the healthiest at its compulsive level, but it has helped me to tackle some daunting challenges and make it through in one piece.

To me, honoring commitment is a thoroughly godly trait. Now, I admit there are exceptions for when that commitment turns out to be in the direction of something ungodly – theft, injustice, murder, selfishness. (See the amazing act of the Egyptian midwives in Exodus 1 who refused to follow through on their commitment to their Pharaoh when he required them to murder.) But for the most part, if we commit to something, we should stick with it.

I see faith this way. As with all of us, I have had my periods of doubt and frustration. (I don’t relate to to the prophet Elijah and the apostle Thomas for nothing.) I’ve gone through a whole year of questioning, of bowing, kneeling, begging God for some kind of direction and answer. But here’s what made the difference – walking away was never on the table for me. I have known what my baptism meant – a vow made before a congregation to God and a transformation – and I wasn’t going to quit. Quitters never win, and winners never quit. Faith to me is a trust, a commitment, a decision that goes beyond doubt or belief. Faith is what keeps a marriage healthy. Faith is what keeps friendships viable. Faith is what keeps a congregation together. Mutual commitment is at the heart of every relationship, human and divine.

Our children must have a foundation of what commitment means. Our children must value their word as their bond. Jesus said to let our yes be yes, and our no be no. If we commit, we must stick with it, no matter the challenge. We shouldn’t need to use vast promises and reassurances to convince others that we will keep up our end of the agreement – we should just do it, and let our actions speak for us.

When do you find time to discuss and encourage commitment in your children? How does your example of commitment and faith differ from the culture around you? What have you struggled keeping commitment-wise? What kept you going?

A Certain Scientific Landmine

Can the Bible and science really work together to give us a picture of the world, or are we doomed to choose between them in order to define our reality either by faith or by observation?

Yes, we’re tackling that one today. Lucky me.

Yesterday, on Labor Day, I took a break from all of my labors to… do laundry and clean the yard, and finally give my grill a good scrubbing. Oh, and I listened to a podcast or two, and one challenged me to dig deep and think critically. The conversation lingered on why people seemed so critical of science today. If you’re not sure what I’m getting at just type in “global warming,” “anti-vaxers,” or “flat earth truthers” to see what I mean. The podcasters joked about how there seems to be an oddly shaped line running down conservative and liberal circles as to whether or not we as human beings can trust science.

We can trust science… to a point. See, science’s role is to describe the way things are. It doesn’t have the mechanism to make a value judgment on anything, but requires interpretation to make sense of the observation and data collected. Religion, on the other hand, is all about answering value judgements and the ultimate questions every human being wrestles with at some point in their lives: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “How shall I live?” “What does it mean to be human?” Science has a hard time with those questions. It can certainly describe the scenario, but the ultimate “why” is out of its grasp.

I have never had an issue with science, really. My family dealt with optics and the science of eyes and vision correction. Even though they were steeped in the medical and scientific field, each of them has a healthy respect and reverence for God, especially as they look at the complex structures within the eye, and how fragile the entire system is.

My father in law is an amazing chemist who develops plastics and materials for commercial and industrial use. His chemical work can be seen in my house in a few clear plastic popcorn bowls that have come in handy more than once. He, though, has no trouble observing systems and reactions and interpreting data and worshiping the God who developed those systems and reactions in His great imagination.

Reading Genesis has given me some pause recently, as its description of Creation is so poetic and captures the imagination. For all of its poetry and majesty, this one passage (Genesis 1-2) has caused more than its fair share of debates and disagreements. Was it literally six days? Was each day a longer period of time? Is this just a poetic retelling of an event human beings would have trouble comprehending? Is the earth young or old? Evolution or nah? Why do the two chapters seem to disagree?

I think if we get caught up in those details, we may miss the point. What is the point? God made it. Period. It’s like looking at a piece of art hanging in a gallery and wondering how long it took the artist, or what methods, brushstrokes, and materials he used. Sure, those can be important questions to think about, but regardless of what conclusion we come to based on our information and study we can still enjoy and marvel at the masterpiece sitting in front of us.

Genesis, and the whole segment of the Bible from Genesis to Deuteronomy, is answering the question, “How should I live, and why?” Think about those ultimate questions listed earlier. How many of those ultimate questions are answered in the first two chapters of the Bible? Who am I? I am a creation of God made to care for the earth God also made. Why am I here? I am here by the power, grace, and love of God, who made me to share in His love and care of the earth and its life. How shall I live? I will honor God by honoring his creation by tending to it. What does it mean to be human? It is to be an image of God in His creation, to create, build, dream, and strive – to be in relationship with God, humans, and the earth.

Rabbi Sacks, as well as David Bentley Hart, point out that belief in an organized, creative God who founded the universe on order paved the way for science, which needed an ordered universe in which to function.

How do you view the relationship between religion and science? What do your conversations concerning these two things sound like with your family?

Faith, Trust, and Biting the Dust

One of my recent sticking points has been a focus on defining faith, for myself, as trust. Listening to the podcasts I listen to (“Unbelievable?,” etc,) gives me look into the way people view religion from outside the fold. Often, most people only hear faith outside a religious context in the realm of marriage. And remaining faithful is remaining true, trustworthy, to and of the promises made during the wedding ceremony.

I have also been noticing a large downhill slide in American society when it comes to trust. Philosophically, and scientifically, there has been a trend the last century or so of proving that nothing can be trusted, even our own thoughts and brains. I am not so certain why we as humans need so desperately to prove that trust as a social construct is naive at best and foolish at worst. The idea is so far removed from anything that could engender connectivity and, well, faith in humanity.

I have see this distrust manifesting itself politically and economically as well. Consider the current two party system where one is highly distrustful of large corporations and the other is highly distrustful of government. (And a smattering of smaller parties that are distrustful of both sides, plus corporations and government.) Watching each side tear down the other with all the ferocity of a ravenous bear certainly makes me question whether any side really has the right viewpoint.

But, maybe, this goes to illustrate a deeper point about the state of our world and what God is doing in it. Consider that having trust in another human will almost always lead to disappointment, one way or another, small or large. Being flawed beings, we take most chances to prove ourselves such by unintentionally, or otherwise, hurting our friends, family, acquaintances, constituents, customers, or congregants.

The Psalmist reminds us that: “Man, his days are like those of grass; he blooms like a flower of the field; a wind passes by and it is no more, […] But the Lord’s steadfast love is for all eternity toward those who fear Him…” (Psalm 103.15-17a)

While we as humans might fail, God continues to work in and through our fragile “clay pot” bodies in order to build the Kingdom. God’s plan may not be entirely visible, but He never fails and we can trust God no matter what. In some ways, this allows us to have some forgiveness for those who do not live up to the standard. On the other hand, we also can see where injustice and selfishness are rampant and work to bring them to and end.

How do you talk about trust and faith in your home? Do you focus on the person, or on the action, the injustice, the mistake itself? Do you give chances to repent and restore in your home when trust is broken? How do you work to rebuild trust when a mistake is made?

Book (Author) Review: Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase (and more!)

So this is probably my first book review on this blog. I was hoping to do more of this type of thing, but current events and my own easily distractible mind had me hovering over some more pressing topics. Today, we revisit the whole “talking about a pop culture thing and how it works into our own faith/life” thing.

Let me begin by stating my biases right up front: Rick Riordan is a fantastic author with a unique penchant for wit, sarcasm, humor, and the ability to weave a tales that are so different and at the same time familiar. I am one of those adults who have, I admit, had one of his books on pre-order for months and then read the entire thing in less than a week (with a busy schedule.)

Riordan’s unique characters include a startlingly diverse range of family situations, personalities, and voices that can easily spark discussion with each new chapter. He also draws heavily on mythologies including (at the moment) Greco-Roman, Egyptian, and Norse. The protagonists are well-intentioned, flawed individuals who give nothing else than their best while learning the value of companionship, courage, and even sacrifice. These characters feel startlingly real at times as they struggle with single-parent homes, death, poverty, and race, all while battling against forces of evil that are seemingly unbeatable.

Riordan also does a great job at setting, I would say, recommended age levels for when to read these books, in a similar way that J.K. Rowling did with her Harry Potter series. The issues covered and the challenges faced often coincide with the maturity level of the protagonist of the book, so an 11-year-old Percy deals with struggles that an average 11-year-old might deal with (aside from battling the occasional monster.)

So you’re probably wondering, “Well, you seem pretty positive on the books. Why write a post about them?” Fancy that, I was just about to answer that question.

The fictional universe of this book does assume that the gods of Greek, Egyptian, and Norse mythology are very much real and capable of affecting the world by their actions. This can be both a challenge and a tool for Christian families. On the one hand, this will need some careful discussion to talk about the difference between fiction and reality (a conversation probably already covered) and also the difference between these gods and the God of Christianity. The gods depicted in these books can be selfish, fickle, and hold long grudges against specific characters, whereas we believe God is loving, faithful, and forgiving. The characters also have to struggle with faith (read here also “trust”) in their godly fathers (or mothers) in order to help them get past certain struggles or challenges. What better kickstarter to a conversation about prayer and our relationship with our Father in Heaven than to read about preteens and teens who have to work that sort of thing out during a battle or some perilous trial?

The latest book Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer dives into the life of Magnus Chase, a 16-year-old orphan living on the street. (A great conversation starter on how we interact with and treat those who are living with homelessness and what Jesus commands us to do about that problem!) He meets friends who are very different from him, including a girl who is still in the midst of dealing with the repercussions of being a Muslim interacting with Norse gods. The usual wit and humor are present in this novel, alongside some more mature themes such as arranged marriage, violence, and death. There are some wonderful moments where violence proves to not be the best option, which is always exciting to see, especially in a novel about Viking/Norse culture which thrived on many forms of violence. (And can I say, it is painful to write this much without mentioning a single spoiler for any of these series!)

I would encourage seeking out different points of view to challenge us, especially through books and subsequent discussions. These book series (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Kane Chronicles, The Heroes of Olympus, and Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard) can give kids adventures, relatable characters, and an opportunity to think through how they approach life and faith.

If you haven’t given these books a chance, yet, I highly recommend them for late elementary and preteen aged students. I also recommend reading along with your children so that you will be prepared when those conversations do come up, and because you might just find yourself enjoying them as much as your kids!

What books or series do your and your family love? Which ones have challenged you or your kids to think hard about life or faith?