May 02, 2011
Reactions to the Death of Osama bin Laden: A Digest
Apparently this is what happens to a blog when your life is too busy to be interesting, your motivation to write is sapped by a thesis and funneled through a second blog with a more focused topic than "life in general," social networking is sucking all of the air out of the (chat)room (see this insightful post by a friend whose link in my sidebar has gone dark), and you've just begun a somewhat ambitious multi-part series (which I still think about continuing . . . fairly often).
So, what brings me back here once more? Well, it's in the title, I guess; a momentous historical event has occurred, and I am struggling to understand the reaction and formulate a response. How do I feel about this? How should I feel about this? What does it all mean? 24 hours after the first announcement, the internet has run through the full spectrum, but a minor debate is building around the spontaneous celebrations taking place across the country (both on and off-line).
This is basically a victory, and victory makes people happy, but a great deal of the jubilation seems to center on the fact of Osama's death itself. And, while we could discuss whether these kinds of emotions are "natural" to feel or "appropriate" to express, I think it is at least clear that some elements of what we are seeing are decidedly lacking in Christian charity.
Consider two video clips: one is nearly 10 years old, the other was taken last night. Maybe you think it's in rather poor taste to correlate or compare the people in these two clips, even by merely placing them in proximity with one another. Is cheering the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians the same as cheering the death of one mass murderer? No, it isn't at all. But there are perhaps certain similarities that ought to give us all pause. Perhaps. Personally, I think there is something even more significant going on here that we aren't really discussing yet, but I'll get to that in a moment.
Meanwhile, while you are (I hope) paused, here's a little light reading that has popped up on my Facebook wall feed during the past several hours. I find much of what is said in these pieces insightful, and all of it thought-provoking. A few of the authors are friends of mine, but I'll let you tease out which if you care to.
In the face of a man's death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.
Celebration over a death, in other words, is closely related to the bloodlust that leads to the death of innocents. It is human; that does not make it right.
In the end, the Bible tells us that God is unwilling that any should perish, that God loved his enemies so much that he died for them, that we should mourn those who do not live, even if they are our enemies.
And as much as Osama was “our Hitler,” we need to be better people than this.
Violence is not the hero. Christ is the hero. Love wins, it never fails.
This death is not the depiction of God's justice. The cross is that portrait. This death will unite us in mourning and love or in revenge and hate. We can not be a people who support endeavors which consist of top priorities such as killing a particular man.
The tragedy of our world is the evil into which we are drawn, even when we hope to remain aloof. This is why we as Christians cry for divine salvation. Human action is not enough to combat the evil that persists in our world and in our own hearts. As one commentator on Bonhoeffer has said, "Tyrannicide is sinful even if it is the least sinful option remaining."
Whether or not we can consider the murder of bin Laden as one of these extraordinary situations is certainly up for debate. But whether you believe it was necessary or gratuitous, Bonhoeffer would say to us all that "ultimate ignorance of one's own goodness or evil, together with dependence upon grace, is an essential characteristic of responsible historical action."
But what's interesting in situations such as the murder of bin Laden is that we are so sure of the goodness of our actions.
For most of us (myself, at least), when historic events like this happen our first reaction is to head to Facebook or Twitter. Part of this reaction seems to be a natural and healthy desire to share an important experience with those we love or to use our online community to learn more about the event. But these gatherings on social networks that occur right after a historic event seem to also encourage us to use the event to promote ourselves. Instead of sharing a historic moment with our community, where the focus is outward towards the event and around us towards our community, we can easily shift our focus to drawing our community towards ourselves–our wit, intelligence, spirituality, politics, etc–using the event primarily as a means to our own ends.
But it’s a very measured relief beyond the momentary catharsis. The sudden, unexpected elimination of the perpetrator of the 9/11 crimes looks very different in the shadow of the past decade than it would have in 2002. The sudden surge of patriotism Americans are expressing so loudly and in some cases crassly tonight suggests they feel as if that decade has been somehow wiped away, as if the troubles are gone now that we’ve accomplished what we set out to accomplish in the very beginning.
I saved that one for last because, while it has a truly terrible title, I think it cuts straight to the heart of what is really going on. We just got the guy who screwed up the first decade of our bright, shiny new millennium, and now we think we can pretend that the last 10 years never happened . . . or at least like it was somehow all worth it. Because we've won now, right?
The Taliban. Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein. Iraq. The Patriot Act. Guantanamo Bay. Water-boarding. Threat levels. Airport security. And on and on and on . . . But none of that crap matters anymore, because Osama bin Laden is dead now. It's simple, it's unambiguous, it's something they can be unequivocally happy about. Except we already let him change the world.
Maybe for some people, this news turned back the clock for one night, or a couple of nights, to a time when terrorists only bombed American soil in movies and they could still walk onto a plane with a bottle of water and a Leatherman. But tomorrow they're still going to wake up in America, 2011, where our soldiers still fight and die off in the Middle East for vague and complicated reasons and children and little old ladies (and everybody else) have to get invasive pat-downs before they can go visit their relatives for Christmas.
Pardon me if I'm not filled with elation.
June 09, 2010
Blogging Nonviolence: WWJD?
Last time, I explained that while I hope to address the strongest pro-violence arguments directly, it only makes sense to do so in a biblical context. That is, if an argument cannot be supported biblically, or if it is contradicted by the Bible, then it has very little to bring to a discussion of Christian nonviolence. I concluded by stressing the importance of working out an understanding of what the Bible actually says about violence.
As I mentioned before, the current series was inspired by a series posted last summer by Nick Loyd. I'll be continuing my discussion with the 2nd of his series, which I encourage you to at least skim right now before meeting back here to go on. I'll assume you've read it as I proceed below: God's Character in Reverse
Jesus is Normative
So, now that we have established scripture as the definitive element of our discussion, we can establish the definitive way to read scripture, which is, as Loyd says, "through the eyes of Jesus." This isn't new to the discussion if you read the long excerpt by Richard Hays from a few posts ago. As he says near the beginning, "the New Testament's witness is finally normative. If irreconcilable tensions exist between the moral vision of the New Testament and that of particular Old Testament texts, the New Testament vision trumps the Old Testament."
In other words, whether we're talking about the character of God or the moral life of the Christian, Jesus is the gold standard. He isn't the only standard in the Bible, of course, but all other standards are measured against him. There shouldn't be anything radical about this assertion at all. If you've been a Christian in America during the last fifteen years or so, you are aware of the saturation of "What Would Jesus Do?" (or, more commonly, "WWJD") on every possible form of merchandise.
You would, I hope, be hard pressed to find a Christian who didn't acknowledge that this is what we're all about. The question is almost childishly simple (this quiz is open-book). Why, then, are we so bad at answering it correctly? I'm less interested in answering that question than I am in clearly establishing that we have been incorrect, but it might be useful to suggest some possible answers nonetheless.
The Myth of Redemptive Violence
It doesn't get any simpler than this statement by Walter Wink: "Civilization is hooked on violence." His so-called "myth of redemptive violence" ("the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right") is, if not the defining myth, then certainly one of the defining myths of human civilization.
Consider how many creation myths begin with murder, treachery, or rebellion. Societies arise out of violent upheaval, and govern and sustain themselves by violent means. Small wonder, then, that Jesus' lone nonviolent example, central as it is to our faith, tends to get swallowed up by thousands of years of racial memory and ongoing conditioning (affirmed over and over by Christ's Church for over a millennium and a half), with no end in sight.
That Pesky Old Testament
Now, those of you who have been having discussions with me for many years might be a little on edge, recalling some flippantly dismissive comments I might have appeared to make about the first half of the Bible in the past. Let me reassure you, at least somewhat, by noting that I intend to address this at some length later, and that my interpretive model does not seek to abandon the Old Testament, but rather to read it exclusively in the context of the New Testament.
In any case, I suppose that heading might more accurately say "Those Pesky Old Testament Readers." The Old Testament is one of the most dangerous books in the world, partly because it is a complex, ambiguous, and powerful work, and partly because most of its many readers tend to go crashing clumsily around in it without really knowing what they're doing.
Like the Israelites in Judges 21:25, everyone interprets what is right in their own eyes, cherry picking which guidelines to take seriously, and pretending that they aren't being inconsistent. What emerges, unsurprisingly, is a Bible that supports whatever your view of the world happens to be, whether you're a 13th-century pope who wants to raise an army, a 19th-century Southern plantation owner looking for cheap labor, or a 20th-century Midwestern preacher with a homophobic streak a mile wide.
The Jesus I'd Rather Know
Of course, this sort of thing isn't merely the province of Old Testament interpretation. As renowned New Testament scholar Scot McKnight explains in a recent piece for Christianity Today, "To one degree or another, we all conform Jesus to our own image." It doesn't matter if you're a conservative Tea Party protester, or a liberal advocate of social justice (will that be regular or extra Beck?), your Christ will probably be more you-like than you are Christ-like.
It's only natural that our deities should become mere extensions of ourselves. We all have sociocultural baggage to deal with, values and ideas that we are bombarded by from all sides from the moment we enter the human community. Ancient peoples imbued their gods with all sorts of undesirable human qualities. They raped, pillaged, quarreled amongst themselves, were petty and vindictive. So, when you think about it that way, maybe it isn't so strange that some of us seem to think our God is on board with all sorts of mayhem, death, and destruction. Understandable . . . but no less silly.
Log in Your Eye, Much?
"How convenient," you're thinking now. "This guy is some kind of pacifist, and suddenly Jesus is, too." Well, if you weren't thinking that, you should have been. It's a fair point. However, no, the title of this post doesn't stand for "What Would Jared Do?" (although ultimately you'll be the judge of that). I should note that I began to question my interpretation of the Bible regarding various aspects of nonviolence long before I was prepared to act accordingly. In some ways, perhaps I'm still not.
Suffice to say, though, I didn't set out to come to a particular conclusion. The conclusion just wouldn't leave me alone. Maybe this is the wrong instinct, but I feel like ending up in a place that is counter-intuitive to human nature is a good sign. In any case, I do believe that McKnight is right to find everyone guilty of re-imagining Jesus to a greater or lesser degree.
There are a few ways to make sure that your degree is lesser. Mainly, it helps to be aware of the problem. Just as I need to know my own biases when I do research, knowing about this makes it possible to compensate accordingly. And, really the only way to compensate is to go back to the source, over and over, while doing the grunt work in concordances and commentaries to make sure that you're getting it right.
According to Who?
That brings us full-circle back to the main point, so I'll conclude with a brief discussion of a passage that Loyd quoted:
"See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority." Colossians 2:8-10 (ESV)
Loyd, of course, is emphasizing the "whole fullness of the deity" bit, which is certainly key (as he explains at some length). However, I have included the context that he omitted, which strengthens the point even more. Paul is talking about the importance of staying grounded in the teachings of Christ rather than the philosophies of human tradition and "elemental spirits" (the actual Greek word here, stoicheion, means "basic principles"). What human tradition is older or principle more basic than selfish acts of violence?
Going by the biblical account alone, by the third chapter of Genesis, mankind is basically at war with his environment. By the fourth, the first murder has been committed. Two chapters later, "the earth [is] filled with violence" (Genesis 6:11). And we were just getting started. Of course, Paul isn't addressing that directly in this passage, but the general principle is clear: Live your life according to Christ, even if he contradicts your personal traditions and principles. If you're doing it right, eventually he will.
Next time we'll be taking a look at what the red letters, which we have hopefully established as the clearest, most complete biblical expression of God's character, have to say on the subject of violence. Everything so far has been mostly groundwork. It's time to start building something on it.
April 08, 2010
Blogging Nonviolence: The Authority of Scripture
I discovered this series, "Jesus and Nonviolence," awhile ago, and I've been anxious to call attention to it ever since. Last summer, blogger and pastor Nick Loyd published a lengthy, in-depth examination of the idea of Christian nonviolence in 14 parts (with occasional input from some special guest bloggers). However, I don't just want to link to his posts en masse and say, "Go. Read." I want to have my own conversation about them, even if it's just with myself.
My idea is to use some of his posts as a starting point for my thoughts on the subject, which I too will spread across multiple posts. However, I will begin today with my own introduction to the topic instead of a link (I would also refer you to the lengthy excerpts from important books quoted in the two posts preceding this one, and to my brief history of nonviolence in the two posts entitled "Good Company" from October 2006, accessible from the archives in the sidebar).
I would argue that it is incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to mount or maintain a genuinely solid case for total nonviolence without somehow turning to religious doctrine for support. This ought to be extremely convenient for me, as I hope to convince fellow Christians of the moral importance of pacifism, and for them, religious doctrine is the highest possible authority (often the only authority). Strangely, though, there is a (not entirely unjustified) perception among certain nonbelievers that religion is actually the leading instigator of human violence, historically.
Many Christians seem determined to do everything they can to strengthen this perception. In fact, a large number of American Christians, both as individuals and as churches, are quite outspoken in their support of the military (by which I mean the institution, not the individual soldiers), of warfare, of capital punishment, of torture, of the right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of doing violence to anyone who threatens them or their loved ones; in short, of almost every possible form of deadly violence that one human being can commit against another (with the notable exception of abortion, their one claim to the label "pro-life").
In short, a lot of Christians would have no trouble describing themselves as "pro-violence" (to select a convenient label that encompasses any or all of the above issues), perhaps in a qualified way, but usually not. In doing this, they seem to sense no conflict with also being "pro-life," or with scripture. Why might this be the case?
Arguing for Violence
All of the forms of violence I've mentioned are very different issues from one another, and there are many strong arguments to be found on both sides. In my experience, major pro-violence arguments tend to fall into three very general, overlapping categories: pragmatism, precedent, and morality.
Arguments from pragmatism generally claim that individuals and nations must respond to violence with violence. In other words, if you try to kill me, I should try to kill you first so that I don't wind up dead. This seems rather obvious (hence, pragmatic). The primary idea is one of self-preservation, and the appeal is to logos.
Arguments from precedent rely on two things: tradition and analogy. The tradition argument relies on a history of shared values that have developed into a worldview. It can refer to nationalism, but needn't. In America, for instance, one might treat scripture and the writings of the Founding Fathers as interchangeable authorities, as they are founded on identical principles. According to this tradition, America is a Christian Nation, and is righteous and justified in acting in its own interests. That which is best for the nation, is right, and sometimes the application of violence is best for the nation.
The analogy argument imagines a scenario in which violence clearly seems to be the only option that will lead to a desirable outcome. World War II is probably the most frequently-cited source of pro-violence argument by analogy of the past 50 years. Others might include the "ticking-bomb" torture scenario. Both types of argument from precedent appeal primarily to pathos.
Finally, arguments from morality (which rely on an appeal to authority, and are thus the most likely to be supported by scripture) claim that there are times when it is a sin not to employ violence (i.e., in protecting the weak, often broadly but flexibly defined, i.e., all American civilians, no foreign civilians). One might point to the many instances in the Old Testament when God orders the Israelites to make war, even to carry out genocide, in His name, clearly showing that violence can be a moral imperative. This sort of argument represents an appeal to ethos.
Now, as I said, there is often a great deal of overlap between these different sorts of argument in actual practice. I have mentioned the example of World War II. One might easily argue that America had a moral obligation to oppose the evils of Nazism, was righteous to do so as a Christian nation, and was forced to defend itself against Imperial Japan. History shows that, by employing violence, the United States was able to stop the Holocaust and Japanese expansion and aggression. Thus, violence was the best course of action for the nation; it was morally right; it was pragmatically necessary; and it worked. For most Christians, these points are indisputable. Case closed, right? Well, not quite.
The Ultimate Authority
I've attempted to briefly outline the discussion by presenting some of the strongest and most common pro-violence arguments. If I cannot somehow answer them, then I am just wasting your time. I do not intend to address them fully yet. I am merely attempting to outline the parameters of the discussion. I would like to begin by suggesting that all of these arguments, as powerful as they are, can theoretically be overruled by scripture.
All of the arguments I have mentioned are important, but I think I can safely assume that for Christians they are only valid if they are not ultimately contradicted by the Bible. My case for Christian nonviolence must be won or lost in its pages alone. If we take the Bible message as both absolutely true and internally consistent, then its position (once you have worked out what that is) is the definitive one regardless of other considerations.
Fortunately, unlike some topics (I'm looking at you homosexuality), the Bible has a lot to say about violence. The difficulty comes in sifting through it all, seeing how (if?) it fits together, and applying it to our lives today. And that's where we'll pick things up next time.
December 01, 2009
The New Testament Repudiation of Violence, and What It Means
This is rather a long excerpt for me, but I started transcribing and just couldn't stop . . . really good stuff. This is roughly the final quarter of a chapter from the case studies section (part IV) of another book that was recommended to me in preparation for my paper on redemptive violence in film. I am told it is a standard seminary text. After devouring this and a few of the other chapters (the chapter on homosexuality is a refreshing balance of rigorous exegesis and compassionate but agendaless discussion), I can see why.
I have picked up after an extensive exegetical analysis of Matthew 5:38-48, followed by a systematic examination of all of the key portions of the New Testament (with some attention to the Old Testament, as well) which could be or have been interpreted to pertain to its view of Christians and violence. You can read most of it on Google Books. At this point, Hays has essentially established what the New Testament actually says on the subject. He will now discuss what we ought to do about it.
Taken on its own terms, the Old Testament obviously validates the legitimacy of armed violence by the people of God under some circumstances.
This is the point at which one of the methodological guidelines proposed in Part III must come into play: the New Testament's witness is finally normative. If the irreconcilable tensions exist between the moral vision of the New Testament and that of particular Old Testament texts, the New Testament vision trumps the Old Testament. Just as the New Testament texts render judgments superseding the Old Testament requirements of circumcision and dietary laws, [...] so also Jesus' explicit teaching and example of nonviolence reshapes our understanding of God and of the covenant community in such a way that killing enemies is no longer a justifiable option. [...]
[...] The vocation of nonviolence is not exclusively an option for exceptionally saintly individuals, nor is it a matter of individual conscience; it is fundamental to the church's identity and raison d'etre. Mainline Protestantism has usually treated this matter as though it were a question of individual moral preference, supporting the "right" of the individual conscientious objection but also generally sanctioning Christian participation in war. In light of the New Testament's call to the community as a whole to embody the teaching of Jesus, however, this position is untenable and theologically incoherent. The church is called to live as a city set on a hill, a city that lives in light of another wisdom, as a sign of God's coming kingdom. That is one reason the examples of individual "good soldiers" in the New Testament weigh negligibly in a synthetic statement of the New Testament's witness. Clearly it is possible for a Christian to be a soldier, possible for a Christian to fight. But if we ask the larger question about the vocation of the community, the New Testament witness comes clearly into focus: the community is called to the work of reconciliation and--as part of that vocation--suffering even in the face of great injustice. When the identity of the community is understood in these terms, the place of the soldier within the church can only be seen as anomalous.
[...] When the New Testament canon is read through the focal lens of the cross, Jesus' death moves to the center of attention in any reflection about ethics. The texts cannot simply be scoured for principles (the imperative of justice) or prooftexts ("I have not come to bring peace but a sword"); rather, all such principles and texts must be interpreted in light of the story of the cross. The meaning of dikaiosyne ("justice") is transfigured in light of the one Just One who exemplifies it: Christ has become our dikaiosyne (1 Cor. 1:30). When we hear Jesus' saying that he has come to bring not peace but a sword, we can hear it only within the story of a Messiah who refuses the defense of the sword and dies at the hands of a pagan state that bears the power of the sword. The whole New Testament comes rightly into focus only within this story. Whenever the New Testament is read in a way that denies the normativity of the cross for the Christian community, we can be sure that the text is out of focus.
None of the New Testament's witness makes any sense unless the nonviolent, enemy-loving community is to be vindicated by the resurrection of the dead. Death does not have the final word; in the resurrection of Jesus the power of God has triumphed over the power of violence and prefigured the redemption of all creation. The church lives in the present time as a sign of the new order that God has promised. All of the New Testament texts dealing with violence must therefore be read in this eschatological perspective. [...] Otherwise, "Turn the other cheek" becomes a mundane proverb for how to cope with conflict. But this is ridiculous: if the world is always to go on as it does now, if the logic that ultimately governs the world is the immanent logic of the rulers of this age, then the meek are the losers and their cheek-turning only invites more senseless abuse. As a mundane proverb, "Turn the other cheek" is simply bad advice. [...]
This is the place where New Testament ethics confronts a profound methodological challenge on the question of violence, because the tension is so severe between the unambiguous witness of the New Testament canon and the apparently countervailing forces of tradition, reason, and experience. [...] I set forth the guideline that extrabiblical sources stand in hermeneutical relation to the New Testament; they are not independent, counterbalancing sources of authority. That is to say, tradition, reason and experience come into place in enabling us to interpret Scripture; they cannot be used simply to overrule or dismiss the witness of Scripture. How does that guideline work itself out in normative deliberation about the problem of violence?
Although the tradition of the first three centuries was decidedly pacifist in orientation, Christian tradition from the time of Constantine to the present has pre-dominantly endorsed war, or at least justified it under certain conditions. Only a little reflection will show that the classic just war criteria (just cause, authorized by legitimate ruler, reasonable prospect of success, just means of conduct in war, and so forth) are--as Barth realized--neither derived nor derivable from the New Testament; they are formulated through a process of reasoning that draws upon natural-law traditions far more heavily than upon biblical warrants. It is not possible to use the just war tradition as a hermeneutical device for illuminating the New Testament, nor have the defenders of the tradition ordinarily even attempted to do so. Thus, despite the antiquity of the just war tradition and its fair claim to represent the historic majority position within Christian theology, it cannot stand the normative test of New Testament ethics [...] the New Testament offers no basis for ever declaring Christian participation in war "just." If that be true, then our methodological guideline insists that the church's majority tradition, however venerable, must be rejected and corrected in light of the New Testament's teaching. At the same time, the church's tradition also carries a significant and eloquent minority cloud of witnesses against violence, beginning with the New Testament writers themselves and extending through the writer of the Epistle to Diognetus, Tertullian, St. Francis of Assisi, the Anabaptists, the Quakers, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and on into the present time. These witnesses--characteristically appealing primarily to the New Testament and the example of Jesus--have spoken out firmly against all war and killing and have declared such practices incompatible with following Jesus. Such witnesses have had a historic influence vastly disproportionate to their meager numbers, because their vision resonated so deeply with the New Testament and because their Christian witness therefore possessed such evident integrity. [...]
It is more difficult to know what to say about reason and experience on the matter of violence. On the one hand, some interpreters [...] believe that Christians are sometimes forced by the ambiguities of human historical experience to employ violence to secure the contingent peace of the civitas terrena. To do otherwise [...] is to ignore the consequences of our choices and actions (or inactions) and thus to abdicate moral responsibility for the world in which God has placed us. [...] This approach reckons very seriously with the historical fact that the social and political context for Christian moral decision has changed dramatically from the time of the New Testament writers. If the Sermon on the Mount was addressed to a marginal community outside the circle of power, its teachings cannot be directly applied in a context where Christians hold positions of power and influence, or where they constitute the majority in a democratic political order.
On the other hand, an equally serious case can be made that, on balance, history teaches that violence simply begets violence. (Inevitably, someone raises the question about World War II: What if Christians had refused to fight against Hitler? My answer is a counterquestion: What if the Christians in Germany had emphatically refused to fight for Hitler, refused to carry out the murders in concentration camps?) The long history of Christian "just wars" has wrought suffering past all telling, and there is no end in sight. As Yoder has suggested, Niebuhr's own insight about the "irony of history" ought to lead us to recognize the inadequacy of our reason to shape a world that tends toward justice through violence. Might it be that reason and sad experience could disabuse us of the hope that we can approximate God's justice through killing? According to the guideline I have proposed, reason must be healed and taught by Scripture, and our experience must be transformed by the renewing of our minds in conformity with the mind of Christ. Only thus can our warring madness be ovecome.
This would mean, practically speaking, that Christians would have to relinquish positions of power and influence insofar as the exercise of such positions becomes incompatible with the teaching and example of Jesus. This might well mean, as Hauerwas has perceived, that the church would assume a peripheral status in our culture, which is deeply committed to the necessity and glory of violence. The task of the church then would be to tell an alternative story, to train disciples in the disciplines necessary to resist the seductions of violence, to offer an alternative home for those who will not worship the Beast. If the church is to be a Scripture-shaped community, it will find itself reshaped continually into a closer resemblance to the socially marginal status of Matthew's nonviolent countercultural community. To articulate such a theological vision for the church at the end of the twentieth century may be indeed to take most seriously what experience is telling us: the secular polis has no tolerance for explicitly Christian witness and norms. It is increasingly the case in Western culture that Christians can participate in public governance only insofar as they suppress their explicitly Christian motivations. Paradoxically, the Christian community might have more impact upon the world if it were less concerned about appearing reasonable in the eyes of the world and more concerned about faithfully embodying the New Testament's teaching against violence.
Let it be said clearly, however, that the reasons for choosing Jesus' way of peacemaking are not prudential. In calculable terms, this way is sheer folly. Why do we choose the way of nonviolent love of enemies? If our reasons for that choice are shaped by the New Testament, we are motivated not by the sheer horror of war, not by the desire for saving our own skins and the skins of our children (if we are trying to save our skins, pacifism is a very poor strategy), not by some general feeling of reverence for human life, not by the naive hope that all people are really nice and will be friendly if we are friendly first. No, if our reasons for choosing nonviolence are shaped by the New Testament witness, we act in simply obedience to the God who willed that his own Son should give himself up to death on a cross. We make this choice in the hope and anticipation that God's love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this is possible. That is the life of discipleship to which the New Testament repeatedly calls us. When the church as a community is faithful to that calling, it prefigures the peaceable kingdom of God in a world wracked by violence.
One reason that the world finds the New Testament's message of peacemaking and love of enemies incredible is that the church is so massively faithless. On the question of violence, the church is deeply compromised and committed to nationalism, violence, and idolatry. (By comparison, our problems with sexual sin are trivial.) This indictment applies alike to liberation theologies that justify violence against oppressors and to establishment Christianity that continues to play chaplain to the military-industrial complex, citing just war theory and advocating the defense of a particular nation as though that were somehow a Christian value.
Only when the church renounces the way of violence will people see what the Gospel means, because then they will see the way of Jesus reenacted in the church. Whenever God's people give up the predictable ways of violence and self-defense, they are forced to formulate imaginative new responses in particular historical settings, responses as startling as going the second mile to carry the burden of a soldier who had compelled the defenseless follower of Jesus to carry it one mile first. The exact character of these imaginative responses can be worked out only in the life of particular Christian communities; however, their common denominator will be conformity to the example of Jesus, whose own imaginative performance of enemy-love led him to the cross. If we live in obedience to Jesus' command to renounce violence, the church will become the sphere where the future of God's righteousness intersects--and challenges--the present tense of human existence. The meaning of the New Testament's teaching on violence will become evident only in communities of Jesus' followers who embody the costly way of peace.
--Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996)
Hays is telling the absolute, unvarnished truth here. I simply don't see any way around it that doesn't involve either distorting the text or contorting your mind. This is what the Bible teaches. If you see things differently, feel free to explain why. Alternately, if you find it difficult to argue with anything here, but still aren't willing to concede the point, perhaps you might take a crack at explaining your own reasoning.
November 12, 2009
Beyond Pacifism and Just War
The new reality Jesus proclaimed was nonviolent. That much is clear, not just from the Sermon on the Mount, but from his entire life and teaching and, above all, the way he faced his death at the hands of the Powers. His was not merely a tactical or pragmatic nonviolence seized upon because nothing else would have worked against the Roman Empire's virtual monopoly on power. Rather, he saw nonviolence as a direct expression of the nature of God and of the new reality breaking into the world from God. In a New Testament passage quoted more than any other during the church's first four centuries, Jesus taught that we should love our enemies [...] nonviolence is not just a means to the realm of God. It is a quality of that realm itself. Those who live nonviolently are already manifesting the transformed reality of the divine order, even while living under the jurisdiction of the Domination System.
The early Christians saw themselves as already inaugurating the new order. So they refused to engage in war. For three centuries, no Christian author to our knowledge approved of Christian participation in battle. Such data as we have indicate that involvement in the army even in peacetime was frowned upon. The early church theologian Tertullian had pithy advice for solders who converted to Christianity: quit the army, or be martyred by the army for refusing to fight.
When the emperor Constantine forbade pagan sacrifices by the army in 321 C.E., most Christians apparently read this as removing a major objection to military service. The other objection--killing--was easily rationalized since the empire no longer waged wars of expansion [...] When the Christian church began receiving preferential treatment by the very empire that it had once so steadfastly opposed, war, which had once seemed so evil, now appeared to many to be a necessity for preserving the empire that protected the church.
Christianity's weaponless victory over the Roman Empire resulted in the weaponless victory of the empire over the gospel. A fundamental transformation occurred when the church ceased being persecuted and became instead a persecutor. Once a religion attains sufficient power in a society that the state looks to it for support, that religion must also, of necessity, join in the repression of the state's enemies. For a faith that lived from its critique of domination and its vision of a nonviolent social order, this shift was catastrophic, for it could only mean embracing and rationalizing oppression.
Violence is contrary to the gospel. But we are not always able to live up to the gospel. [...] Even so, when as individuals or nations we are unable to act nonviolently, we are not excused for our actions, nor may we attempt to justify them.
But we also cannot condemn those who in desperation resort to counterviolence against the massive violence of an unjust order. We must wish them success, even if they are still caught in the myth of redemptive violence themselves. Who knows; perhaps their victory will usher in a better society able to divest itself of some of its oppressive elements [...]
We must admit our addiction to the Myth of Redemptive Violence--an addiction every bit as tenacious and seductive as bondage to alcohol or drugs. Civilization is hooked on violence. Rational argument, therefore, is not enough to break its grip over us. We need to acknowledge our bondage and turn to a higher power for help in extricating ourselves from our trust in destructive force.
A nation may feel that it must fight in order to prevent an even greater evil. But that does not cause the lesser evil to cease being evil. Declaring a war "just" is simply a ruse to rid ourselves of guilt. But we can no more free ourselves of guilt by decree than we can declare ourselves forgiven by fiat. If we have killed, it is a sin, and only God can forgive us, not a propaganda apparatus that declares our dirty wars "just." Governments and guerrilla chiefs are not endowed with the power to absolve us from sin. Only God can do that. And God is not mocked. The whole discussion of "just" wars is sub-Christian.
Jesus' third way is coercive insofar as it forces oppressors to make choices they would rather not make. But it is nonlethal, the great advantage of which is that if we have chosen a mistaken course, our opponents are still alive to benefit from our apologies. The same exegesis that undermines the scriptural basis for traditional just-war theory also erodes the foundation of nonresistant pacifism. Jesus' teaching carries us beyond just war and pacifism, to a militant nonviolence that actualizes in the present the ethos of God's domination-free future.
History itself has been confirming the practicality of Jesus' program of late. The irony would be delicious if it were not so bitter: earnest theologians have been earnestly persuading Christians for sixteen centuries that their gospel supports violence, while massive outpourings of citizens in one officially atheist country after another recently have demonstrated the effectiveness of Jesus' teaching of nonviolence as a means of liberation.
The position proposed here affirms the pacifist heritage of nonviolence as a fundamental tenet of the gospel of God's in-breaking new order. The church cannot, then, justify any violence or war as "good" or "just." And it affirms the "violence-reduction criteria" drawn from the just-war heritage as well.
No doubt the objection may be raised that affirmation of nonviolence by the churches would be too simplistic, that ethical judgments in the real world of the Powers are far too complex to adopt a fixed ethical stance. This objection, I must confess, was one of the main reasons I resisted committing myself without reserve to nonviolence for so many years. I have slowly come to see that what the church needs most desperately is precisely such a clear-cut, unambiguous position. [...] the church's own position should be understandable by the smallest child: we oppose violence in all forms. And we do so because we reject domination.
--Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium (1999)
October 31, 2009
I literally cannot believe that it has been a month since my last post. I'm still doing the same things as before. Nothing stands out as worth the effort to chronicle in extreme detail . . . Well, it does, but frankly, I haven't got the time. It makes me sad. Nevertheless, I remain determined to keep this blog alive . . . much like continuing to visit and talk to a comatose person in the hope that they can hear you, not knowing whether they will wake up again.
But enough of my buoyant optimism. I write this from the House of Gallagher after a long, relaxing day of Halloween-inspired recreation. I have carved a pumpkin into a zombie and eaten a great deal of candy, but mostly I watched movies. My Halloween movie marathon consisted of:
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Zombie Nightmare
The Mummy (1932)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy
The Nightmare Before Christmas
And, because nothing you do while pursuing a Master's degree can really be for no reason, my excuse for this particular indulgence is preparation for next semester. In order to complete my film minor, I plan to take a course on "The Horror Film" in the Spring. I'll likely be trying to tie it in with my own research by way of Southern Gothic (that is, hillbilly horror films like Deliverance).
Speaking of my own research, I tentatively have a thesis director. Which means that someone besides myself is now invested in the fact that I will get this done. And that is far scarier than anything I've seen today.
September 30, 2009
So lack of time and general laziness have prompted me to substitute a link on Facebook for more substantial blogging here. As a result, my poor blog is looking a bit abandoned.
It's not that I have nothing to say. Quite the opposite, actually. I have so much that I could talk about, and so little time to do so, that nothing gets said. I'm teaching two sections of freshman composition this semester, and taking a course outside the department in Contemporary Film Theory and an independent study inside the department in Theology and Film (as you may have surmised if you've been watching Moviegoings). There are plenty of other things going on as well, but this isn't a full-fledged post . . . just a word of explanation.
In closing, check out my movie list for Theology and Film:
Jesus of Montreal
The Last Temptation of Christ
Children of Men
A Man for All Seasons
Lars and the Real Girl
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
August 05, 2009
I've been thinking about posting a few words related to healthcare, but then Scholl cornered that market for the time being and this video crossed my path. It's 15 minutes long, but that's pretty short for a documentary, and it's very compelling stuff.
It's the story of what happened after a massive immigration raid last May saw around 20% of the population of Postville, Iowa (mostly Guatemalans) arrested. If you don't already wonder exactly what we're trying to accomplish by cracking down on illegal immigration, maybe this will make you scratch your head a bit and ask, "Who is supposed to benefit from this?"
July 03, 2009
Some that I know enfold belief in warm
Embrace, like an over-stuffed teddy bear;
Recline there comfortable and free from harm,
As though faith were a harbor, safe; secure
From fear or questions, shallow source of joy.
A relic from childhood, perhaps. A toy.
Others clutch it desperately, knuckles white;
A lifeline from an unseen ship amid
A sea of doubts. They peer but catch no sight
Of hope to justify their trust; just dread.
This soggy rope might be adrift. No source
Of life, an anchor on a downward course.
Then there are those who wield it like a sword,
A hacking, slashing weapon made to crush
Both infidel and heathen with The Word.
And handy, too, for slicing through thick brush,
Overgrown hedge of bothersome debate
And arguments from people that they hate.
My faith resembles none of these. It is,
Abides. Not blanket, opiate or crutch.
A story that I feel and know and prize,
Sweet music, metaphor made flesh, a touch
Of the divine, I think. Belief, here now
Then gone; a sometimes absence I allow
Like bitter parting from a cherished friend.
More true than real: an authentic fiction.
Doesn't quite break, no matter how I bend.
A mystery that offers benediction.
The part of me that knows how to transcend
And sees strange meanings in a crucifixion.
June 23, 2009
A Poor Reflection
I got the latest issue of LeTourneau's in-house news magazine in the mail yesterday, and found it fuller than usual of interesting tidbits. Among those was a blurb that mentioned that Dr. Jarstfer, who is a biology professor and serves as the dean of both Arts (which includes both departments from which I earned my degree) and Sciences, had testified before the Texas State Board of Education and recommended that critical thinking be encouraged among high school students, specifically by continuing to require that science teachers include information about weaknesses in the theory of evolution.
The single paragraph did not, of course, mention that the board ultimately voted to drop this requirement a few days later, but it did note that Jarstfer was quoted in a "Christianity Today" article about the "controversy." That blurb, and the article it cites (which can be found here), raised all sorts of conflicting thoughts and emotions for me which I shall attempt to work through here. And, yes, the title is a pun.
Of course, for starters I am always surprised whenever I see LeTourneau mentioned in any sort of larger state or national context. I am still getting used to attending a university that is widely-recognized by name, and which regularly crops up in all sorts of places (including the above article, where I was not at all surprised to find it). I hope that's not taken as a knock on LeTourneau, but let's face it . . . my undergraduate alma mater is a little fish in a big ocean.
It's probably that fact more than any other that elicited any response at all from me in regards to this issue. When an institution that I still feel so intimately connected to garners a little attention, and when that attention is so rare, I am naturally interested in the sort of attention it is getting. In this case, I have to say I'm distressed, and I feel that Dr. Jarstfer's stand reflects poorly on the university and its academic chops (which is the sort of reflection it can ill-afford). However, I remain somewhat conflicted about whether I am correct in feeling this way.
My first impulse just upon reading the blurb from LeTourneau was one of annoyance. It seemed to me that Jarstfer was attempting to "strike a blow for Creationism" (and whatever the reality, I remain convinced that the piece was crafted to give that impression). However, after skimming the "Christianity Today" article, I vascillated a bit and began to charitably consider that perhaps Dr. Jarstfer really is willing to give evolutionary theory a fair hearing and was just advocating a "good science" which is willing to question everything. Upon closer reading, not only of the article but of the several links that it includes, I have to return to my previous opinion.
This isn't about good science (although I don't know whether Jarstfer recognizes that); it's about scoring political and religious points in an increasingly destructive debate. And, in this case specifically, I'd say it's about very publicly scoring points with the university's financial base while members of the department with less acceptable views wisely keep their heads down.
Now, I can't say with any certainty precisely what Dr. Jarstfer's opinions on evolution are, or how he arrived at them, but at the very least he is guilty of keeping bad company. As the article notes, Jarstfer has signed the famous "scientific dissent from Darwinism" document which is associated with the infamous Discovery Institute. The purpose of this document is (and here I am grossly mischaracterizing its actual purpose) to create the illusion that there is significant and genuine scientific dissent to the theory of evolution. That is probably a terribly unfair accusation to make, and if I were one of the signers, I would be outraged at . . . myself. Here's why I made it:
The list of scientists that have signed off on this dissent are from all over the world. That is, most of them are from the United States, but in terms of representation, this gives the appearance of being a global list of scientists who are opposed to evolution. There are somewhere in the general neighborhood of 750 names on the list, including 2 from LeTourneau (Jarstfer and my former chemistry professor, who just retired after 40 years of teaching) and 5 from Baylor (one of whom, incidentally, teaches my Sunday school class . . . I have a great deal of respect for the guy, lest it be thought that I am displaying an unthinking bias here).
Meanwhile, the CT article links to another list. This is a list of Texan scientists (that is, scientists who are living and working in the state) who are opposed to what they (in my opinion rightly) view as a "teach the weaknesses" red herring. Part of their statement reads, "Evolution is an easily observable phenomenon and has been documented beyond any reasonable doubt." There are, as I say, only Texas scientists on this list. And it contains 1550 names, including 41 from Baylor.
Of further interest to me: There are no names from LeTourneau on the list, although I happen to know that some of the science faculty there hold opinions which would align them with this statement. I have to wonder, did they willingly choose not to sign, or do they just know better given the institution they work for? After all, LeTourneau is a Christian technical school, and there are quite a few faculty members who meet the qualifications required to sign the dissent, and yet there are only two that chose to do so.
This is pretty much pure speculation on my part, but is it possible that Jarstfer, and LeTourneau, aren't quite as favorable towards asking questions and thinking critically as they say? Feel free to note here the cheap tactic of asking a very leading question. I'm not trying to be disingenuous or slyly give the impression that this is definitely going on. I'll just conclude with option #3, presented by at the end of the CT article by Jim Nichols, biology chair and Abilene Christian. He summarizes my own position on the matter rather nicely, and that makes him the logical place to end this:
"[Petitions] too often oversimplify causes. I suspect [the curriculum debate] is really more of a political/religious showcase than something that will really affect public education. I and many others live relatively comfortably in both camps and tire from attacks from both sides. With all the real problems in the world, this is a serious waste of energy to keep beating on this topic."
June 20, 2009
Garrison Keillor once remarked: "If you can't go to church and, for at least a moment, be given transcendence; if you can't go to church and pass briefly from this life into the next; then I can't see why anyone should go. Just a brief moment of transcendence causes you to come out of church a changed person." Commenting on this observation, Ken Gire writes, "I have experienced what Garrison Keillor described more in movie theaters than I have in churches. Why? I can't say for sure . . . movies don't always tell the truth, don't always enlighten, don't always inspire. What they do on a fairly consistent basis is give you an experience of transcendence. They let you lose yourself in somebody else's story." What many churches have forgotten and preachers ignore, the movie theater recognizes: "story reigns supreme."
-Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue
I think there's a lot of truth packed into this paragraph, although there is also a great deal left unsaid that would need to be unpacked. I guess the reason it resonates with me is that I'm just not sure what the Church is peddling sometimes. I don't think the Church is very aware, either. Whatever it is, though, it's something I'm often not interested in.
Not only does the Church not have the market cornered on truth, all too frequently I find that it's not even one of the best sources of truth. The Church has been hijacked by people who are far less interested in truth or faith or even love than they are in rigidly defining a very dubious worldview, manufacturing an enemy that opposes that worldview, and then destroying that enemy. Well, I'm not interested in a war. I'm interested in hearing other people's stories and telling them mine, and in having a conversation about what our stories have to do with Story and what that has to say about how we should live.
June 15, 2009
The Power of Aesthetics, Part 2
In casting my mind around for works of various art forms that have and do inspire and inform my own faith, it immediately occurred to me that I know some forms better than others. Narrative art forms have always had a certain power over me, and as a result I am less able to call, say, a transcendental painting or musical piece immediately to mind. There were also a few additional points that I thought I should raise.
First, while a lot of Christians may think of a favorite work of Christian fiction or a contemporary Christian song when I speak of linking "faith" and "aesthetic experiences," I'm basically talking about works that are valued by the secular world for reasons which have little to do with religion per se. For the most part, these will be works that you won't find in a Christian bookstore (or, at least, not exclusively there). Some of them are religious works created by religious people, but to me their power is that they continue to be appreciated by all sorts of people.
Second, I envision art which inspires a sort of faith as being of at least two kinds. There is art which is explicitly religious (that is, actually about faith in some way), and there is art which inspires a response through its beauty or emotion or profundity without any obvious religious connection. The works that I have chosen to describe below are primarily the former type simply because, even if they don't speak to you the way they speak to me (as some/most of them certainly will not), you will at least be able to see the connection.
I'll start with the Jennings poem (which I didn't include last time) that really inspired this whole line of thought to begin with:
"Act of Imagination" by Elizabeth Jennings
Surely an Act of the Imagination
Helps more than one of Faith
When a doubt brushes us. We need strong passion
To summon miracles. Life after death,
Bread turned into flesh and blood from wine,
I need to cast around
And find an image for the most divine
Concepts. My mind must move on holy ground,
And then the hardest creed - the rising from
Death when Christ indeed
Bled finally - ideas cannot come
As barren notions. Yes, I always need
And rising up. I watch a lucid sky
And see a silver cloud
And Christ's behind it; this is part of faith,
Hear the Great Hours sung and let faith be loud
With the best imagining we have.
This is how I approach
My God-made-Man. Thus I learn to love
And yes, like Thomas, know Christ through a touch.
I love the image of imagination as a virtue and as a faculty worth cultivating, and the way this poem expresses the joy of belief without being dismissive of the magnitude of obstacles to belief. There are all sorts of ways in which doubt can lead to a crisis or loss of faith, but surely one of the most tragic of these would be a simple failure of imagination. I had hoped to somehow avoid invoking the Inklings, but if we're talking about the power of imagination and its role in spiritual life, no group or movement has championed it as thoroughly or eloquently as they have.
Now, while I genuinely enjoy the experience of going to art museums and just standing in front of an original, full-sized painting or sculpture, it isn't something I've done as often as I'd like. The same could be said of my relatively limited knowledge of famous artists and their creations. As a result, not only is my experience very limited, but I must fall back on images that I have only experienced via copies, and often only on a computer screen.
One of the first such images that came to mind in the context of this project was William Blake's "The Ancient of Days." It is not a work which immediately stuns the viewer with its beauty or skill, the way a painting by, say, Caravaggio might, but there is something immediately striking about the way it captures the lovely scriptural metaphors of creation.
God is crouched within the circle of the sun, as though it were not a sphere, and his hair is blowing wildly to the side (by what? we wonder), lending a feeling of energy and activity which might otherwise be lacking. Notice how his attention is focused completely, and with such care and intensity, on the work of creation below. Notice the grace and precision with which he holds that magnificent compass. He seems to be projecting it outwards from his fingers as beams of light. Awesome. The picture makes the immense, unfathomable act of creation into an image we can grasp in the same way that scripture does: by depicting God as a master builder/craftsman/artisan.
When I was much younger, my favorite music was classical (as I had little exposure to any contemporary music that wasn't praise & worship), and my favorite composers were Tchaikovsky and Gershwin. When I reached my mid-teens or thereabouts, my appreciation of instrumental music led to an interest in movie soundtracks; and now, as a full-fledged movie fanatic, I am hard-pressed indeed to call to mind a suitable piece of music that is not from a feature film.
Lest you think I'm cheating, I should note that I own a lot of soundtracks, and the music I'm talking about is not necessarily associated with corresponding images from the film in question. I love it for itself. Before I share, though, I would like to throw in some images from a film: specifically, the scene from Amadeus where Salieri describes his first encounter with Mozart's music.
I feel like I'm hearing that voice sometimes when I'm listening to music, and probably never so much as in this piece from Ennio Morricone's score for The Mission (mostly the first two and a half minutes or so). The film itself is wonderful, but this particular piece seems to have something of its own to say. I'm even less of a music critic than I am an art critic, but there is an extremely haunting beauty about the way that lone oboe carries its melody across the backdrop provided by the rest of the orchestra. It seems like the sort of thing Jennings might have been talking about when she writes (in "Eden"):
There are moments when we find we are
Back in Eden. Its authentic air
Carries the breeze and draws up every flower
Sunwards and shining. Trees surround us but
Always a special one is heavier
With fruit and promise too. No gates are shut
But all swing to our touch. We do not go
Directly to one tree but back in sun,
Sit down a moment, then walk to and fro
shaped of admiration, looking on,
Not picking anything [...]
By way of transition into more literary forms of art, I offer a song that many of you probably already know I particularly love: "Into the West" by Fran Walsh, Howard Shore, and Annie Lennox (who sings it). The song, of course, plays over the end credits of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of Tolkien's Return of the King, and it is an incredibly fitting end on a number of levels. In writing the song, the lyricist has drawn a number of ideas and phrases from the book itself (always a good place to start), and there is a wistful, bittersweet quality to the music and performer's voice that heightens the effect considerably.
The song is ostensibly about the final departure of the story's heroes from Middle Earth to the lands across the sea, but of course it is really an extended metaphor for the loss and separation of death, tempered by a hope for an eventual joyous reunion on the other side. To me it is both a reminder that nothing is forever (neither life on earth, nor the separation from loved ones who have gone on before or remained behind) and a heartbreakingly lovely collection of celestial images. I have listened to this song countless times, and it never fails to move me in some way.
In this, it is not unlike another favorite poem of mine: Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar." This poem is much more about the author's feelings about his own death rather than death in general, and it is much more specific about what he hopes to find on the other side. The last two lines of this poem (or perhaps the last four) are among my favorite lines in literature.
Moving on to narrative, I offer the 7th chapter of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. It's a very fun book with memorable characters and an exciting story, but this chapter (which really has nothing to do with the main plot) is something quite special. In it, Mole and Rat decide to help out in the search for a missing otter pup, but end up finding a great deal more than they expected.
The events in this chapter represent for me the most intense and captivating description of an encounter with deity that I have ever read. It will take the most time to experience of anything that I've linked, but it's not an absurdly long read, so of course I recommend it. At the very least, though, scroll to just over halfway down the page and read the crucial scene. I won't promise that you won't regret it . . . but I never do.
Last but not least, here is my example from that synthesis of all art forms: film. Naturally I've had a number of profound experiences while watching movies, but this scene from American Beauty is a particularly good example because it is actually about the way that aesthetic experiences can surprise and transform anyone at any time, as long as they have been willing to keep their eyes open. Additionally, in the same way that we might not find much meaning in the experience that this character describes, so some viewers and critics found this scene hokey and pretentious, while others were moved by it and what it had to say. In this way it also illustrates yet again the subjectivity of the aesthetic experience.
These are just a few examples for the sake of the conversation which I hope others will contribute to. I'm interested in what sorts of works inspire you, in how you describe that experience, and in its effect on you and your feelings about faith. Talk to me.