Rebecca K. Reynolds

Honest Company for the Journey

How to Be a Better Atheist: What to Understand if You Want to Be More Effective in Rejecting Christianity

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Lately I’ve seen too many people rejecting Christianity the wrong way. I understand why these folks are confused. The name “Christian” has come to represent a lot of crazy stuff over the past 2,000 years.

 

But if you’re going to be an atheist, you might as well have a solid grip on what you are rejecting. So I’m going to try to make a few clarifications here to help the non-believing do that work with a little more precision.

 

First off, let's talk about what you’re not rejecting when you are rejecting Christianity:

 

1. You're not rejecting a political force.

 

A couple of decades ago, the Moral Majority/Christian Coalition decided to work with the GOP, and what’s grown from that alliance is now a sort of spiritual/political cyborg.

 

This evangelical political movement has borrowed a handful of elements from Christian morality, but the whole machine cares a lot more about gaining earthly power than it does about listening to your hard questions or talking to you about your faith. I mean, think about it. When was the last time someone fighting for political Christianity actually took an interest in your soul? It’s probably been a while, right? Now think about the last time you heard a “Christian” fight for laws, political platforms, and government benefits. Last week, probably.

 

I’m not saying that Christians can’t get involved in government. A responsible government is made of people of all belief systems. I am saying that a lot of what’s hitting the public eye as “Christian” has very little to do with the teachings of Jesus and a whole lot to do with an attempt to maintain cultural muscle.

 

2. You're not rejecting young earth creationism.

 

So in the 50’s and 60’s, America’s educational values changed because of the Space Race. We needed to beat the Russians to the moon, so American school shifted its priorities to produce better scientists.

 

There’s nothing wrong with emphasizing science—science is great. But it’s important to realize that a historical nationalistic/military shift impacted America’s epistemological values. A lot of us were taught the scientific method as kids--a method which is rooted in a philosophical system called empiricism. In other words, we were taught to trust our senses to tell us ultimate truth. And even though we never really thought about the decision we were making here, we went with the flow and accepted the fact that empiricism was the most reliable measure of truth because our nation needed students who could grow up to build bombs and rockets.

 

When Christians realized this shift in values was happening, they got nervous. They worried about losing credibility in a world in which empiricism was the trump card. So some Christians decided to try to engage with the new values of our time. They started attempting to find ways to make the Bible fit what was being said in the realms of science.

 

Some of this feels like an exercise in futility to me. If God has all the creative power, he could make an old earth look young or make a young earth look old. Besides, if he’s outside of time, the complex stuff that wows us quickly becomes a non-factor to him.

 

When you throw an understanding of how ancient Hebrew poetry works into that mix, and then add in two scoops of what modern physicists are finding about human inability to validate the material world, you end up with so much nuance, nobody on either side ends up standing on solid ground. I’ve yet to see a Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate that did anything more than serve as a pep rally for what everybody on either side wanted to hear from the get go. They never get to the first question, which is how to verify a system of truth from premise #1.

 

Some of the most thoughtful, orthodox Christians I know actually allow for an old earth creation model. I’m not saying those people are right or wrong, but am saying that Young Earth Creationists who claim, “If these chapters aren’t literal, nothing is literal,” are (in truth) making a claim for Young Earth Creationism. They aren’t making a claim for all of Christianity.

 

3. You're not rejecting the "Hurry and Get Saved So You Don’t Go To Hell!" bit

 

This point is complicated, and it involves quite a bit of church history that would likely bore you. But let me just say that in some of the revival movements, the great big package of “salvation” got compressed into Tweet-speak: “Trust Jesus, or go to hell.”

 

I think well-meaning Christians started some of this because they were trying to communicate what Jesus is offering in a few simple steps. But the problem is, people are lazy. A lot of folks don’t study. They don’t dig. They don’t take risks. The structure that was supposed to unpack into a lot of different angles ended up being presented as the ultimate deal. These "SparkNotes" of faith didn't just help people interpret the Bible, they took the place of it.

 

The reduction also morphed into some emotional manipulation that was strategic for making big congregations. While awe should exist in the presence of a transcendent, holy God--and while hell is something to fear---the fear that many pastors wield while trying to grow a church is a whole different entity. Earthly religious fear is more about controlling you than it is about helping you. Holy religious fear is about healing your wounds.

 

4. You're not rejecting a God who can kill anybody he wants, who oppresses women, and who encourages slavery.

 

I’ve seen many atheist sites that argue against these three points. They pick verses out of the Old Testament and claim to offer proof that God is an immoral, narcissistic, and bloodthirsty being. Then they cite the Crusades and try to connect the dots. They say that Christianity is dangerous and that anybody who loves a God like that either has Stockholm Syndrome or is content with being a Stepford disciple.

 

This topic is too complex to unpack in a tiny section of a single post. However, all those family members or acquaintances who have told you that you just have to accept all this stuff without questioning God because he’s perfect aren’t speaking for all of Christianity.

 

Scholars like C.S. Lewis had a lot of trouble with the brutality of the book of Joshua. Ivy League philosopher Greg Boyd spent eleven years studying the morality of the Old Testament. These guys didn’t accept easy answers, and they were honest about what they discovered as they explored.

 

There are so many ways Christians deal with some of these passages, and a lot of the best ways boil down to being responsible enough to interpret the Bible like we interpret other works of literature. We look at history. We look at authorship. We look at theme. We make the scholarly efforts we make to interpret every other piece of literature from Sophocles to Tennessee Williams.

 

One of the downsides to the elevation of science, and the subsequent treatment of the text by Young Earth Creationism, was the development of a harsh, humanistic, linear approach to Biblical interpretation. Those folks claim to life by faith, but they have embraced secular values for understanding a sacred book. I don't think they realize how proud that is, but the people who do this have actually limited their interpretative abilities instead of elevating them. And they have also violated some Biblical guidelines for finding truth in the process.

 

Since I’ve already named some of the errors of Christians, I hope you will let me also say that numerous citations on atheist sites do not interpret Scripture responsibly. So many snarky remarks from non-believers have more style than substance because atheist authors tend to miss what was actually being said in the Scripture.

 

Again, there’s not room to deal with this whole point here, but just know that a lot of people are popping off at the mouth about this stuff without having done the academic work needed to make a solid claim. When you find people who have done the work, a lot of times, their answers are much more substantial.

 

SO...IF YOU REALLY WANT TO REJECT CHRISTIANITY.

 

If you reject any of those main points above, you aren’t actually rejecting Christianity. You may be rejecting political, cultural, and financial forces that are attempting to use the gospel for an earthly end, but you aren't rejecting the true gospel.

 

If you want to reject Christianity, you’ve got to go beyond all that. To be a proper atheist, you must reject the heart of the faith, which is this:

 

Once upon a time, there was a God who made a material realm which fit inside of a more complex, metaphysical realm.

 

The smaller, material realm had boundaries (like dimensions and time), and God gave humans (and other creatures) the ability to sense those boundaries.

 

He also gave humans a unique perceptive ability to connect with Him that reached beyond the material. This ability is called "the spirit." Lots of animals have bodies, and consciousness (souls)-- I think some even have feelings--but humans are the only creatures that have the ability to connect directly in the spirit with their Creator.

 

Humans were also made uniquely creative, not just with problem-solving skills or tool-making skills, but with an aesthetic sense and the ability to innovate. We can call this ability the "imago Dei," or being made "in the image of God." Modern lingo? MiniMe.

 

Relationships are important to God because he exists in community with himself. The concept of the Trinity is kind of hard to understand, but I think it boils down to relationship between three persons that is so synchronized, all three beings operate as one.

 

Maybe a metaphor of the creative process will make that more clear.

 

When an artist comes up with an IDEA for a project, she then applies her ENERGY to that creation. When she is done creating, there is a connective POWER that binds her audience to the work she has made. So, an IDEA works out through ENERGY to result in connective POWER (Sayers).

 

Likewise, the Trinity has an invisible directing IDEA (the Father). The ENERGETIC outworking of the idea in the physical realm is the Son (Jesus). And the connective POWER between humans and the godhead is the Holy Spirit. Like a single piece of artwork that is unified in beauty but contains different elements of process, the Godhead is both one and three.

 

God wanted humans to join in that union. So, we were established on earth with a spiritual capacity that would allow us to create with him and live in his love. (Some of the first commands of God to humans were encouragements to be creative, you know.) But nobody can be creative while being a lemming. So, God made us free to either choose that artistic union or reject it.

 

The story of Eve talks about how humanity made a choice long ago that it still makes today. We decided that we wanted to be like God without really being dependent upon God.

 

I think all of us have wanted to be god-like without being subject to God's authority or his resources. We are like teenagers who want to be left alone to try things our way. But in our liberty, we tried to break free, and we tore a great big hole in everything.

 

A piece of art doesn't thrive without its creator. If a painting in process could yank away from its painter, deciding to try to make itself beautiful, it would look terrible. And in a similar manner, the original vision for what humans were supposed to be and do was lost.

 

God saw we had chosen to be fiercely independent. He heard our stubborn insistence that we didn’t need any help. But he also knew that we couldn't get out of this hole we were digging by ourselves. So he sent Jesus from the meta-dimensions, compressing him into our human boundaries of space and time.

 

In this tangible, physical form, Jesus took all of the separation we had created into Himself. He did that so he could patch the break up and make a bridge that led us back into relational and spiritual communion with him, the Father, and the Spirit.

 

Why did He do that? Because he knows it’s hell to be solo. He knew this hell of autonomy could last forever, and grow deeper, and darker, and become more lonely without some intervention. And he knew that even though it would hurt, he could help us live and thrive instead of going deeper and deeper into isolation.

 

It's hard for us to see this, because humans have been trying to make our own autonomy work forever--which means it's still our default. We don't hear our independence any easier than we hear the accents we learned as kids.

 

We notice when humans get surges of brilliance here and there. And we learn to love the thrill of our own roar. We notice that it feels good to say things like, "I am god!" and "I am master of my destiny."

 

But down inside us, there’s still a restless, a homesickness, a sense of loss—and that loss comes from being torn away from the heart of the creator who made us to connect with him.

 

When we refuse that creator, we’re going to feel a couple of things. First, we will feel proud, like we've got this and don't need help. Declarations of self-sufficiency cause an adrenaline rush, right? It's hard to give up that thrill.

 

But eventually, many of us will begin to feel lost and empty, like something is missing. And that emptiness can last for eternity if we remain unwilling to be vulnerable to the God we need. He won't dominate us. He will let us resist him until we harden into a forever-hell of “I’ll do this myself.” But that's not what he wants for us, because we were created for artistic community.

 

The next part of what I'm about to write is something you won't hear from a lot of people who call themselves Christians. I don't know why the rest of the story is hardly ever mentioned in Christian dialogue because it's all over the New Testament. It's hard to read a single book of Paul's without finding this concept. But for some reason, a lot of preachers and teachers don't talk about it much.

 

The whole machine of faith doesn’t stop with a single moment of saying, “Okay, save me." Sure, that's only the starting point, but there’s an awful lot that is supposed to happen after people are born into a new life in Jesus.

 

The New Testament tells us how to finish out the years we have on this planet, plugged in to a God who actually comes to live inside us. This new way of living is not about trying to be moral. It’s not about following a bunch of rules. It’s about letting go of effort and independence and learning to lean into a connection that is free, resource-rich, and beautiful.

 

You’ve seen those television shows where people who have been single for 40 years finally get married and struggle with sharing the toothpaste. Well, after years of living independently, it’s a whole new dynamic for Christians to learn community with a God who lives inside them. A lot of Christians never really explore what that means, so they continue to try to do everything on their own, using shame and guilt as motivators, and leaning on the same old broken methods of self-control and determination that they used when they were secular.

 

This is why so much of what is called Christianity is messed up. A laser focus on only keeping as many souls out of hell as possible has resulted in failure to implement what is actually supposed to happen after salvation. So many Christians think there’s not much more to do after walking an aisle and praying a prayer, so they fumble around post baptism trying to accomplish personal and social change, and they goof a lot of stuff up along the way.

 

But when Jesus comes to live inside a person, new resources for a new life are there.

 

People who were impatient have tools to be patient. People who were selfish have tools to be kind. People who were resentful have tools to be forgiving. Like a kid learning to drive a high-powered vehicle, we have to learn to use those tools, and that knowledge takes time. But resources for living in a new way show up once we are connected with Jesus. At conversation, we at least get the keys to the car.

 

The letters of the New Testament spend a ton of time talking about how when our identity changes with faith. Paul tells us that we don’t have to struggle and strain to be good like we used to; we just need to learn to depend on the gifts of a God who loves working with us, and who is helping us become beautiful like he is.

 

And by the way, we don’t lose our old personalities here. We fill them out until they are winsome and generous. In other words, we begin to look like a painting that has finally turned itself over to an artist who knows what he’s doing.

 

If you’ve never heard of a Christianity that looks anything like this, write me. We can get away from all the politics and arguing and take apart a book of the Bible like Galatians or Ephesians. Or we can look at John’s gospel and see what sort of descriptions he has for us. It’s possible that you might learn things about the faith that most people who call themselves Christians don’t see because they are distracted and confused.

 

In the end, you might still reject Christianity. But if you do, you will be rejecting the true heart of it, not distorted imitations. And you will have rejected it at the source, after having done some primary research, instead of floating along with sloppy, self-serving interpretations. I think this sort of clarity tends to be a good idea, no matter where we stand on the issue.

For the Love of Foyle: The Most Important Television Program Conservative America Can Watch in 2017

 For me, there's no close second. Far and above every other television show that I have ever loved stands Anthony Horowitz's Foyle's War.



Until watching this program, I never understood what fans meant when they said, "This is my show." I'm not a fan of TV in general, so it always felt a little silly to hear someone connect his or her identity with a weekly program.



I now stand corrected. Foyle's War is the show of my heart. I hold these episodes with a similar loyalty to the writings of C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, Shakespeare, Flannery O'Connor, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.



The setting is WWII, in Hastings--a town on England's southeast coast. Michael Kitchen plays the Detective Chief Superintendent, a police officer who is attempting to fight back small town crime in the shadow of a massive global war.



While each episode unpacks a murder mystery, so much more happens simultaneously as well. Like the best mystery stories of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers, Horowitz uses the genre to address human nature in all of its potential wonders and flaws. Essential questions of ethics are addressed in such a way that we learn both the risks and the nuances of living uprightly in a broken world.



Week after week, Foyle shows us that it is both dangerous and vital to maintain personal integrity, and he does this in a way that is so winsome that even a rebel like me wants to make good choices at the end of every episode. As a protagonist, Foyle is shrewd without being proud. He is thoughtful, discerning, kind, brave, and principled. He is willing to stand against corruption that has infected his peers, even when he is threatened. He stares down "for the greater good" arguments, knowing that not all ends justify all means.



Beyond all this, the show is beautiful without sacrificing honesty. The East Sussex countryside is glorious, and yet scenes of bombings and battles show us the trauma of wartime. And as a viewer moves slowly from the opening episode through the last season, the reality of WWII, and the sacrifices made by thousands of families become moving realities.


When I grow weary of the state of the world, discouraged about attempting to hold to what is right and good, I often sit with an episode of Foyle's War. This show reorients my vision, reminding me that it's okay to feel alone in corrupt times. It reminds me to hold fast and to love what is lovely and true, though all the world goes mad around me.



If you have never watched this show, start with the pilot episode: "The German Woman." (Because Foyle progresses through history and plot development episode to episode, chronological viewing matters here.) I think this series is the most important show conservative America could be watching right now. It's stellar viewing for your older kids. It will likely be medicine for your heart as well.


http://www.thistleandtoad.com/wwwthistleandtoadcom/writings/2017/4/6/for-the-love-of-foyle-the-most-important-television-program-conservative-america-can-watch-in-2017

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A Story Told Through a Toothless Grin

Look round you and see how the world is full-bellied, flushed, and pregnant.

Four fetal feet kick within her, for she is great with twins-- two primitive beauties, not tame wonders ruined by convention, instead Holst and Wagner who crash and thrum, with order enough to make you thirsty and with danger enough to keep you wide awake.

Photo Credit : Nate Powers, Morguefile

Photo Credit : Nate Powers, Morguefile

 

If you are brave enough to walk in the woods at the edge of spring, or courageous enough to walk along the foaming lips of the sea as a storm rolls in, you will find that all that is natural and unsullied by human hands speaks a language you've nearly forgotten.

All that has been left alone resounds, and her songs make you ache, and this is embarrassing and uncomfortable for you with all of your school of hard knocks graduate degrees, so you don't talk about it much.

But of all that is wrong in the world, is right also to ache, for this world was created to be read like a child reads.

Photo Credit : Madlyn, Morguefile

Photo Credit : Madlyn, Morguefile

 

Once you start to hear what she has to tell you, it will pass also before your eyes like a flicker of light, and you wonder if you have really seen anything at all. Then once you admit what has come to you, once you relax into all the possibilities that M-theory, and molecular biology, and Degas, and Pascal, and Vaughan-Williams strain to promise, you will have to shove your fingers way, way down into your ear canal to deny what is impossible to deny but difficult to believe.

Because here is a love song sung in an age of lost love, see? But do not sing it. Do not sing it! You dare not hold this melody inside you because it is too much for the frail wineskins of your mortal heart. It will burst you clean.

But if you will not run, I will tell you a story that goes like this... long, long ago the most eloquent of all poets, the most expressive of all musicians, the most nuanced painter of gold light upon blue shadows decided to create a new work of art.

This Creator decided to mold dimensions with his own hands, length, width, depth, time -- and work upon this canvas a creative being that He could love and enjoy forever and ever.

Like a papa creating a playroom for his own, the Creator designed a studio--an entire planet full of pigments, marble, wood, metals, jewels, and every element that could be harnessed to make more beauty still. He planted inspiration all round and about to teach lessons of form and balance, plants, and animals, and stars--a world full of textures, and stories, and lessons packed with inspiration.

Photo Credit : Rollingroscoe, Morguefile

Photo Credit : Rollingroscoe, Morguefile

 

But the Creator knew that an artist cannot be an artist without autonomy. Autonomy allows an artist to make new ideas come to life, and so the Creator took a great risk. He decided to give his created being freedom--freedom to love him or to reject him. Freedom to abide by beauty or to turn away from it.

He got down to the business of making his beloved, formed the animal body of the created, then knelt to place his own mouth around the nostrils of his new man. He exhaled His own sweet soul-life into his creature's lungs, and at that moment, his new man fluttered and quickened and became more than an animal--he became imago Dei--a being made in his Maker's own image.

And oh, this creative creature was stunning. As he stretched out his bare arms into the light of the star his Creator had made, as he opened and closed fingers nimble enough to play Kabalevsky or do a surgeon's work inside the chest of a little child-- the Creator smiled over his work and and said, "This is delightful."

The Creator wanted to keep close company with the created, a closeness very much like the Creator kept with His own God-Kind. So the Creator walked with the man and talked with him in the cool of the day.

He also warned his man of danger, for there was one who hated the freedom and the gifts of this Adam. This enemy was a proud, hateful being who despised the Creator and all he made.

The Creator implored his man to use his freedom to trust him, to recline in his lavish love, to dwell in the life of God-communion so that death would never come to this artistic paradise. (For all that is of God is life, and all that is not of God is dead and dying.) The Creator pointed north, east, west, and south and told his creature to play, to work, to revel in every luxury -- save one single barrier, one boundary that had to be respected out of trust in the wisdom and authority of the Creator.

The warning proved true and good, for the enemy of the Creator and his created did indeed come, and he was sly, and he was wicked. This enemy convinced the created to mistrust the Creator, and so the death of separation from trust in God entered the world. And in the separation of man from God, there is death, and disease, and sadness, and loneliness, and bloodshed, and hatred, and suspicion.

Instead of choosing communion with the Creator, man chose to defy Him. Instead of choosing to yield to the warm light and love of his maker, he chose to rip himself apart and stand alone in the stone cold dark.

Photo Credit: Hotblack, Morguefile

Photo Credit: Hotblack, Morguefile

The mighty Creator's heart was broken, but he had a plan for rescue even yet. Even in the day of her greatest sadness and shame, he whispered over the man and his wife, promising them that one day a descendant of the woman would crush the evil one who had deceived them.

 

The Creator gave her hope, but He didn't tell her how much that hope would cost.

 

In the years that followed, the death that the man had been warned about unfolded. The world was now plagued with trouble, violence, injustice. Humans learned the hard way that even their greatest strengths could not save them. They needed help or else death would grow until there was no life left at all.

And so the Creator did something radical. He shook off His rights and implanted an essential, vulnerable part of Himself into one of the grandchildren of the first woman. He made his infinite self small enough to fit inside of a human womb, small enough and yet vast enough to soak up all human wrongs into His own flesh.

This man-God stretched out his own arms to all the mistakes the created had ever done and said, "Beat me for them. Abuse me for them. Let the payment for my children fall upon me."

All the darkness and the ugliness of all dark and ugly things poured into the Creator's body. Though the gravity and the horror were great, though like a black hole the density of all history was pulled into a single lightless center, the Creator yielded. All death that was meant to fall upon the created, he welcomed in to kill himself instead.

Photo credit: Eduardo, Morguefile

Photo credit: Eduardo, Morguefile

 

And this created a vacuum inside of every soul of every person willing to offer her failures to God, a space large enough to make room for a living part of God to be implanted in her. So when this Son of God rose from the dead, his roots loosened the graveyards, his resurrection plowed up black earth souls, made them soft so that he might dig down through to plant the seed of a powerful, invisible part of His own God-nature to fill up their emptiness.

The communion that resulted from this exchange between the Creator and the created was even closer and more powerful than the communion of those first long walks in the garden. This time, the Creator wouldn't just visit His created. He would indwell them. An internal dance began between the maker and the made.

Once again there was freedom. Freedom to receive this union. Freedom to reject it. Freedom to willingly agree to trust. Freedom to unify with the giver of beauty and love. Freedom to refuse connection with him and scratch the best life possible out of death.

To woo the children of the children of the world, the Creator continued to leave whispers of His love. The crash of the sea against the rocks. The creak of old wood. The little black eyes of a fawn. The romance of His fingerprints. The ache in a chest at the end of a good story. The reaching out of a soul for a home it's never quite had.

And He left stories like trail markers, tales told by prostitutes and tough-talking fishermen. He entrusted his holiest words to the motliest crew of men and women, a rickety, traveling caravan of gypsies who cannot quite translate what they have seen, but if you are humble enough to sit at their feet, you will find mystical, magical tales of wonder.

Through toothless grins, they will tell you of buried treasures, and like a fool, like a child, you will want to listen, and you will pity them, too.

Photo Credit : Taysm, Morguefile

Photo Credit : Taysm, Morguefile

And maybe it will cross your mind that in the best stories there is always a Yoda or maybe a hideous old hag standing beside road asking a glass of milk, and that sometimes it take a week or two in the swamp to learn to become a Jedi.

For the way is narrow and few will walk it, but it is not narrow like membership in the country club, and not narrow like an SAT score, and not narrow like being born with Kate Upton's legs-- but the way is narrow as a fat little bluebird who comes to sit on a barbed wire fence, and stares at you directly, then nods as if she wants you to follow her.

 

The GMO Gospel

I'm an Atlas Obscura junkie. I found the site while grieving the loss of responsible American news stations, and after years of choking down Orwellian newspeak, it's been refreshing to find well-researched articles that unpack the weird and wooly history of the human race.

This morning I landed on a post from 2015 about the history of seed vaults. These are temperature and humidity-controlled chambers which preserve collections of the world's seeds so that if a global disaster wipes out agriculture, the human race will be able to plant food again.

Both my husband and I grew up as the grandchildren of farmers, so from our earliest years, we were exposed to the work of saving seeds for the next year's planting. While modern gardeners rush about to gather "heirloom" seeds, all I have to do is speak with my husband's Pappaw, and I will find tiger melon or tomato seeds that have run in the family decades.

The problem with most modern seeds is that they are highly-specialized hybrids, and many are modified genetically. A hybrid is a plant that has been developed from multiple plants, grown to resist such threats as insects, drought, or mold. Those can be helpful developments, of course. But sometimes hybrids and GMO's are either sterile, or they do not reproduce according to their kind. You get one planting out of them, one harvest, and then you must buy seeds again the next year.

Heirloom seeds, on the other hand, can be grown and regrown indefinitely. As long as cross-pollination doesn't occur, for a thousand years, the offspring of this year's seeds will reproduce the exact same fruit. Although benefits to hybrids exist, there's something wonderful about the security of this sort of genetic purity. Such a plant is dependent upon nothing but the natural rotation of the earth and the care of a good farmer to bring sustenance.

Atlas Obscura's essay, "From WWII to Syria, How Seed Vaults Weather Wars," explains how the devotion of seed vault scientists is tested during the most savage moments of human history. For example, during WWII, nine Russian scientists starved to death while protecting a seed vault during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. Dimitri Ivanov was one of those who died of hunger while watching over thousands of packs of rice. He gave his life because he believed that the purity of the treasure he guarded had the potential to feed millions of strangers.

Interestingly, almost every major conflict of human history has also had an impact on seeds. In fact, while seed scientists have believed their work wouldn't be needed for hundreds or thousands of years, trouble in Syria required the first-ever withdrawal from Norway's Svalbard bank. Because of the crisis in Aleppo, scientists had urged deposits to be made as soon as possible. Now botanists are duplicating those preserved seeds to restock both Svalbard and the damaged lands of the Middle East once the war subsides.

As I think about the state of Christianity in modern times, I see how wars in the unseen realm have already threatened the seeds of truth and hope on a cataclysmic scale. The purity of gospel has been distorted by humanism on the left and nationalism on the right, and as a result, Christians on both sides tend to be feeding off hybrid fruits of faith that will not repropagate.

We re-create a blended theology that deflects the insects and diseases of our era, not considering the trajectory of our additions and subtractions. And this is a way to survive, I suppose. We can sell Christian books by using this strategy, and sell Christian music, and fill the plates of the masses with faith-ish blogs, and faith-ish sermons. But what will happen to this harvest when a larger disaster strikes? Will we have preserved the God-given fundamental elements of orthodoxy which are so pure that they grow life in any soil?

This is a hard question, because the original texts of the Bible are not easy. I've spent many years reading the Scripture closely and thinking very hard about the paradoxes that God allowed to remain in its pages. Verses I scoffed at when I was 20 suddenly became clear when I was 30. Passages that I accepted without flinching at 34 are more difficult for me now at 44. People who consume the Bible without ever experiencing confusion or frustration must either be far holier than I am or far more simple-minded.

But in the Bible, there is life. The word of God is living and active, though it is also primitive in places and wild in others. When my daughter was asking me about some difficult lines in II Timothy last week, I said, "Well, you know, that is one of the epistles that some scholars question. Canonicity and authorship for that book are complicated."

Then we pulled up resources that explained the questions beneath her questions. Questions about the role of women. Questions about the guilt of Eve passed down through an X chromosome. I let her see that there was nothing to fear about asking things like this, because a living God can handle it.

I told her that over time I had found something interesting about passages just like that one. Over years of walking with Jesus, I have learned that the pinch of raw Scripture can serve an important first purpose, even when historical explanations can later be uncovered to soften difficult passages. The preposterous, impossible sections of the Bible expose the limits of my obedience to a mysterious God.

After all, even if I can find an appealing explanation for the commands of II Timothy, God doesn't always make sense. I worship a God who required Abraham to sacrifice his own son. There's no historical context that could make such a request easier. It's a brutal requirement that proved a blessing, but how could Abraham have known that? Hebrews says that he trusted God to raise his son from the dead, but would that make harming him reasonable?

While the majority of the Bible shows a tender deity, there are also instances of severity so extreme that they force the division of soul and spirit. Still today, exposure to this savagery of the Word of God reveals my reluctance to trust Him beyond my own mind and gut.

No matter what I believe about the culture of the New Testament, no matter how the education of 1st century women (or whatever) impacted Paul's words to Timothy, if I am honest, the squeeze of the Bible's exact words raises a question much more important than my acceptance behind a pulpit on a Sunday morning.

Would I trust a God who asked me to keep silent, even for something so ridiculous as my gender? Would I leave a city and walk out into the wilderness if He asked me to? Would I sacrifice what I loved most for Him? Would I build an ark in a land where it never rained? Would I lay down my life, when my life is all I have known? Would I lie on my side naked and prophecy? Would I reject my impulses? My makeup? My animal instincts? My biology?

So rarely He asks bizarre, irrational behavior of his followers, but what if I were one of the ones He approached with such a dilemma? Do I hold my own reason so dearly that I would reject His leadership?

If I subsist only on culture-specialized, hybrid theology, I lose this savage edge of my faith. And after years and years of living off GMO religion, when or if God asks me to do something that conflicts with humanism or nationalism, I will not know how to plant and harvest those seeds.
This is why I try to study the Bible like a scholar while devouring it like a child. Solutions come and go, but will I give a long obedience to a God I see through a glass darkly?

I hope that as Christianity as a whole engages with an increasingly confusing world, she will feel no shame about valuing the stories and teachings of a God who has allowed fruits of mystery to grow up among his fields of rationalism. For when believers preserve pure, obedience-centered, unaltered faith, though it may require sacrifice and vision, we may also preserve life for generations to come.
 

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Photo Credit : MorgueFile, GaborfromHungary

Photo Credit : MorgueFile, GaborfromHungary

The Ten Thousand Ways You Could Goof Up Christmas

Tis the season for holiday shame blogs. You know what I'm talking about, right? The posts that always seem to float around the airwaves this time of year...

Shame on you if you bought too many presents. You are so materialistic.

Shame on you if you are over-scheduled. You are so focused on the Christmas flurry of parties that you don't remember the reason for the season.

Shame on you if you are so zoomed in to your own little family that you don't remember the hurting in our midst and overseas.

Shame on you if you haven't focused on your children. They are growing up so quickly, and if you don't make this holiday magical, they won't have a healthy sense of wonder when they are older.

Shame on you if you Elf-on-the-Shelfed.

Shame on you if you didn't. 

Shame on you if you Christmas pajamaed.

Shame on you if you Santa Claused.

Shame on you if you decorated with so much shimmer and tchotchke that Jesus wasn't made the focus.

Christmas provides an epic convergence for every ounce of the mom guilt we feel all year long.

Eleven months of the year we deal with regular mom shame. The "health food" shame. The "chore chart" shame. The "making the kid read the book before watching the movie" shame. The "how to deal with immunizations" shame. The "providing a perfect education" shame.

But come Christmas, we set all of those concerns aside and obsess about how we are doing this one holiday all wrong.

I've been watching this wave hit every Christmas for more than a decade now, and I've finally decided that the writers of these posts are not trying to wreck our holidays by handing out guilt trips.

They are just processing their own weaknesses and tendencies, speaking out of the social and emotional pressures that have maneuvered them in the past, and seeking a corrective balance. They are saying, "Here's what I've done wrong. Here's how I want to change this year."

 

Readers who forward those posts are doing the same thing. They feel connected to certain writers because they share a struggle with the over-achievers who have tried to fit too much in. Or they identify with the introverts who have forgotten to look outside of their own little circle. Or they are the super-shoppers who have focused too much on "stuff," and now they want to experience more depth.

When I was a young mom, I used to feel threatened by these posts, but over time, I've learned to read them as confessions instead of as universal exhortations.

I no longer feel choked by everything I do (or don't do), just because some blogger somewhere has written about another of the ten thousand ways I have goofed Christmas up.

Because here's the thing--there's no way for every blogger to speak to every person's specific holiday needs. A single voice emerging from a single life in Heresitwhatsit, Montana might resonate with the Christmas mistakes you've made in the past. Then again, it might not.

God is the one who knows your story. He knows if you have been too into material "stuff" in years past. He knows if you need a simple celebration this year.

God is the one who knows if your marriage has been through trauma, or if your children are broken and need a quiet haven this year.

God is the one who knows if He has a plan for your voice at every single social event that you could possibly attend.

God is the one who knows if an older relative or a child will show up at your house, needing the giddiness of every nook and cranny lit up with tinsel and lights.

God is the one who knows if someone in your home needs material extravagance to unpack a lesson of grace.

God is the one who knows if you need a time of quiet and simplicity to make room to be filled up with Him.

God is the one who knows if you need to focus on giving everything away to those in dire need.

God is the one who knows if you need to spend this Christmas grieving with those who grieve.

I don't think I can make that call for you. I think this stuff is between you and God. He is the Wonderful Counselor who knows your heart and your calling.

After all, you wouldn't have read this far if you didn't want to do Christmas right, right? Your heart aches to wrap up the season knowing that you have invested your time and resources well. You don't want to mess this up.

So instead of letting all those "Don't/Do" posts become a spiritual burden to you, know that they are the stories of men and women revealing their hearts--men and women who are ultimately seeking the same God you are over the next few weeks. Learn from them, but don't let those stories trump your own. It's okay if those lives look different from yours. It's okay if their celebrations do, too.

But do make some time to talk to your Lord and ask Him to give you wisdom for your situation. Give him full reign over all your options, and ask Him to direct your hands and your feet.
 

Because Christmas is not a series of spiritual hoops to jump through; it's a time to honor the indwelling Lord.  He is the God who made a plan for us before the foundation of the world. All resources for His calling will be provided, so we don't have to be nervous, threatened, or strained. We just have to lean in to His current.
 

Emmanuel? God with us. We don't have to go this alone.
 

Feel that big deep breath come into your lungs? Feel the freedom and the focus?

Yes, there are a thousand ways to fail this Christmas. But there is also a living God who stands ready to walk you through a sweet, close path of celebrating His birth. That sort of intimacy--that sort of listening-- that sort of yieldednesss--is what will make this your most beautiful, meaningful Christmas ever.

Photo credit: MorgueFile (Jackileigh) 

Photo credit: MorgueFile (Jackileigh) 

Stranger in a Strange Land

Since the election, I've found myself back at the drawing board, trying to decide how to engage in the nation's culture wars. 

 

In times of stress, I tend to revert to my inner nerd, so my first instinct has been to emerse myself in research. Luther said that humanity tends to correct itself like a drunk man falling off a horse. First he falls to the right then to the left, and suppose I imagined that finding just the right evidence would sober the mad course of modern evangelicalism.

 

But even as I tried, I knew better. So many times over the past twenty years, I have seen how facts don't have the power to move mountains.

 

The beliefs of the average American are neither formed nor altered by reason. For the most part, our religion and our politics begin with affective impulses more than formal, cognitive research. What we believe about God and country is usually born in the gut, in the center of desire, nightmare, and imagination.

 

Many of us find our political and theological instincts early in life, then those instincts tend to interweave with a smattering of real life relationships. Over 15-years-worth of Thanksgivings, we hear that FDR destroyed America (or that he saved it). We hear praise or criticism of unions. We hear what happened to our aunts and uncles in California, or in rural Tennessee, or in Chicago as a result of legislation passed in D.C. All of these stories converge to form and then confirm a metanarrative that becomes a framework for how we interpret the entire world.

 

Few of us bother to fact check those metanarratives. They become too personal to vivisect. All of these beliefs have faces, because they are connected to people and situations we know.

 

Americans who don't have this sort of experience may decide that they want to be "a conservative" or "a liberal" by the cultural shadows those words cast. As broad strokes emerge--as we begin to associate conservatism with either selfless maturity or corporate greed--as we begin to associate liberality with social compassion or indulgent immaturity--we find ourselves drawn to or repulsed by the character traits of a party.

 

In such cases, almost unconsciously, without ever walking through a defined season of choosing, we look around one day and realize that we are settled in political and theological camps. We donate $10 to this or that and end up on 25 mailing lists for our tribe. We are told which news source people on our team actually trust. We receive power blurbs and media updates from websites that fortify our instincts, and we allow this information to harden our first impulses.

 

Increasingly, we feel a sense of belonging. We realize that we are Hufflepuff, Calvinist,  Republican, or Democrat, and loyalty to our people warms in our hearts. We see the elephant or the donkey, and we cheer with the whole-hearted devotion of a college football fan. Our political label is no longer just a word that represents an idea. It is now who we are.

 

I think that this is why the *labels* our politicians and theologians adopt to name themselves carry more weight than their actual adherence to the platforms they are supposed to represent. In 2016, an immoral, left-wing politician can simply declare himself a conservative, then go on to win the support of the Bible-belt wing of the GOP.

 

He doesn't need to model the ethics or the lifestyle of the moral majority. He must only wear their t-shirt, sport their logo, and find a megaphone in which to call out the five or six points of national disaster that will inevitably occur if "The Bad Guys" win. Even if he is one of the bad guys.

 

A few threats (real or imagined) and a label will do the whole job, because all of the real decisions have already been made.  Voter biases are stone solid, dug into the grooves of a party identity. When such have been established, only a stiff, personal consequence has a chance at changing someone's mind.

 

Zealots for the Affordable Care Act ignored all evidence-based warnings that this plan would actually cause health care costs to rise. These righteous souls roared and puffed about the humanity of socialized medicine until their own premiums hit the roof last month. Suddenly, Obamacare was a bad idea after all. 

 

This sort of burn, this severity and nothing less, is necessary before an individual will admit that what is happening in their own party is flawed. Even then, excuses will often be made. "It was a good idea with bad follow through," or that sort of thing.

 

I have experienced this tendency in myself in the past year as well. I have read the Republican party platform and nodded my head, let my heart be filled with nostalgia for Ronald Reagan, entrusted my deep conservatism to an institution that slowly veered from the labels it has given itself. 

 

I did not notice that we were no longer who I wanted us to be. I refused to notice.

 

It took the election of Donald Trump; it took his seething hatred, his haughty lies, his misogyny; it took watching leaders in the Republican party overlook his abhorrent character and methods, washing their hands of the matter and saying, "Let the people have Babies rabbas" for me to finally wake up to reality.

 

It took the mass evangelical embrace of Donald Trump, the bizarre behavior of Metaxas, Huckabee, and Carson, to help me finally realize that I no longer fit inside of political party willing to embrace a dastardly, vile, populist leader who actively defies nearly every teaching central to my faith.

 

It is difficult for me to explain how excruciating, how frightened I am by the realization I no longer belong in the GOP. After all, I am not a liberal. I am a true conservative who has been excommunicated. 

 

I am a survivor of a rabid virus that has infected the mind of my party, and like a vagrant wandering away from the epidemic, I am not sure quite where to go yet.

 

I have awakened inside that scene from the Matrix, asked to swallow one of two pills, one that will allow me to see ugly truth and the other which will allow me to slip into comfortable oblivion, the world as I knew it before. But now I know that what is familiar is not what I had hoped it was.

 

Not only must I decide this for myself; my conclusions will impact how I spend my time and energy. They will influence how I try to influence others, many of whom have already fallen fast asleep because they have taken the pill of least resistance.

 

As I've been weighing all this, I have been reading the book of Joshua. This is a beautiful, difficult book to read if you have any heart at all. It is no small irony that the chorus is, "Be strong and courageous," for Joshua isn't the only one who must be brave. The reader of this book must exhibit fortitude as well, for in the first few chapters, God commands the slaughter of women and children to make room for the people of God. He causes the sun to stand still. (Physics, anyone?) Without apology, God defies what we would expect of both morality and nature.

 

And by the way, to think that primitive people were oblivious to the strain of either is to underestimate them grossly. This book has always been difficult, but it has also always been mighty. For in it we also find burning, glorious truths amid the dark Ungit-like fog of holy (sometimes off-putting) mystery.

 

I have been particularly moved by the dance of the ark of the covenant before the people of God. For the most part, the ark goes first on this journey. In fact, there is to be a 2,000 cubit distance between the people and the ark, so that they would be able to see to follow it.

 

"For you have not passed this way before," the text says. Because when moving into uncharted territory, the presence of God must make a path clear for all who follow. This dependence is so beautiful, a moment by moment, step by step, reliance upon the nuances of the Lord.

 

Then while marching around Jericho, we find a command for the people of God to keep utterly silent until the moment God tells them to make noise. My heart pounds thinking about a company so large, moving in a hush for seven full days, not even whispering until the trumpets blast and they are told to shout--not in threats against their enemies--but out of celebration that the city has already been given to them.

 

I've been rolling all this over and over in my sore heart. I'm rolling over the fact that the manna stopped the minute it was no longer necessary. Rolling over God's ability to exalt His chosen leaders so that they would be heard. And as this story pumps through my veins, I conclude that I am small, and dependent, and terrifically happy to be both.

 

Even if the world has gone mad, the presence of God may yet go before us.  Even if my leaders have failed, and even if the prophets have worshipped Baal, God can open the necessary paths for those willing to follow Him.

 

God may allow a haughty political party to hide behind its walls of fear and fury while sending a small band of children to walk in silent rounds of obedience. He may ask for nothing to be said at all, not until the moment of revelation appears.

 

Or He may ask for us to share what we know once to test the waters, and then say, "if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town."

 

In a season of disorientation, all of this is a tremendous comfort. I see how it is not up to me to change anybody's mind. It is not up to me to go where God has not sent me. The ark goes before, and when He wants me to shout because He has given His glory a victory, my voice needs to be ready to celebrate.

Photo Credit: Mourge File (msthurnell)

Photo Credit: Mourge File (msthurnell)