How will the post-pandemic church pay the bills? Clicking on headlines like this, along with the usual parade of daily updates, warnings and statistics have become part of my grim COVID daily reading ritual. Forever scanning the horizon in search of some sign of clarity for what the future might hold when it comes to public worship or the gathered life of the church more broadly. This particular headline, unsurprisingly, wasn’t particularly encouraging. According to a Barna Group study, 65% of American churches have seen donations decline during the pandemic. Incredibly, one in five churches may be forced to close their doors in the next 18 months. I don’t know if the same numbers would map precisely on to Canadian realities, but the general trends aren’t hard to recognize. Read more
Posts from the ‘Books’ Category
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post called “I’m Not Spiritual but Not Religious (But I Can See it From Here). It was a gesture of empathy, if of an exceedingly grudging sort, toward some of what might be animating this ubiquitous declaration that echoes throughout the post-Christian landscape. I could appreciate, I said, the suspicion of institutions and the labour they require. I get it, I said, that it’s frustrating to come to a religious institution with a hunger for God and meaning and get asked to join a committee. It’s understandable, I said, that endless debate and “discernment” and bureaucracy can have the effect of stifling the profound human yearning to know and be known by God. Given some of the drearier realities of what the word “religion” conjures up for many, I could understand why some gravitate toward a statement like, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Read more
I’ve been pondering connections between David Bentley Hart and Nirvana this afternoon. As in, the band, not the state of blissful detachment from desire and suffering. Apparently, psychologists have discovered that our musical tastes begin to take shape as early as age thirteen or fourteen and by the time we’re in our early twenties these tastes are locked into place pretty firmly. One study indicated that “popular songs released when you’re in your early teens are likely to remain quite popular among your age group for the rest of your life” and that many of us stop listening to new music entirely after around age thirty-three. This probably explains why I struggle to appreciate the throbbing, migraine-inducing EDM that drifts up from my son’s corner of the basement. Read more
Occasionally, if I’m feeling a least mildly provocative (or if I want to see if someone is actually paying attention), I will respond to the query, “So, how’s it going” with “Good enough.” Sometimes my conversation partner will steamroll on, assuming that I have answered with one of the expected responses (“good,” “well,” “busy,” etc.). But occasionally, they’ll pause and give me a sideways glance. That one word—”enough”—throws a bit of uncertainty into what’s supposed to be a relatively thoughtless bit of social lubrication. Enough? What does that mean? Is that code for “I’m not doing well?” Is it a joke? Good enough for what? Read more
Further to yesterday’s post on the inevitably social nature of human desire, I was fascinated to read the following passage this afternoon in Danish psychologist Svend Brinkmann’s book, The Joy of Missing Out. The quote comes in the broad context of an argument that living well requires being willing to settle for less, to not constantly be chasing after the latest experience, product, or achievement, and, specifically, at the end of a discussion of Søren Kierkegaard’s assertion that “purity of heart is to will one thing”: Read more
To be a pastor is to regularly encounter people who find faith difficult. (It’s also to regularly encounter people who you suspect might find faith too easy, but that’s another post). There are all kinds of people in the post-Christian West whose faith kind of hangs by a thread. It retains a bit of nostalgic affection for Christian ethics, perhaps, and it craves the community embodied and offered, however imperfectly, by the church. It might even have an appreciation for mystery and a dim recognition that this life can’t be all there is. But it can often seem like not much more than a kind of half-hearted and undemanding openness to possibility. It’s a long way from deep conviction and bold faith in the great creeds of orthodox Christian faith. All that talk of virgin births and resurrection from the dead and judgment is too much to stomach. And so, faith often coasts along on the fumes of memory and vague longing, coughing and sputtering until it stalls on the side of the road. Read more
I’ve mentioned (and quoted) Ben Myers’ fantastic little collection of line-by-line reflections on the Apostles’ Creed a few times over the last little while. I’ve been going through it again this morning as I reflect on the beginning of the season of Lent tomorrow and, ultimately, the staggering hope of Easter coming. There were a few passages I encountered today that I thought were too good and too profoundly hopeful not to share. Read more
Death has been on my mind a lot lately. Not my own, necessarily, although I do think about that more than I probably ought to. But just death as a phenomenon. Both of my grandmothers have died in the last six months. Several people in my orbit could well be approaching this threshold. I just returned from a pastors conference about death, funerals and the Christian hope. Death has been a hard thing to avoid lately. Read more
Just sweeping out the corners and gathering up a few scraps of my reading and reflecting over the past little while…
I’ve been reading about dirty words and dirty secrets. Julia Scheeres writes in the New York Times about raising her daughter without the concept of sin. She was raised by fundamentalists and the cloud of sin and the threat of its punishment hovered menacingly over her formative years. There will be none of that for her girl. Moral performance will not be tied to the threat of punishment. She will be taught to resist injustice and inequality because this is the right thing to do, not because some angry imaginary God in the sky demands it. She will go on marches with her parents because of their collective desire to make the world a better place. Scheeres’ is certainly a common enough “I once was blind but now I (and my kids) see” narrative. All well and good, as far as it goes. But how far does it actually go? Read more
This week, I started watching the Polish Netflix original series 1983 which imagines a future where the Iron Curtain is still standing and Poland is a police state. I’m only a few episodes in, so the jury’s still out, but there was an interesting scene in the first episode where Katejan Skowron, a young law student, is being grilled in an exam by his mentor and professor, Janusz Zurawski. Young Katejan has been well-drilled in propaganda: Law and Party are all, and both exist for the sake of justice. “Ah,” says Zurawski, “but you’ve forgotten to take one thing into account: human fallibility. It’s human beings who create laws and human beings who form political parties. And human beings are fallible.” Read more
Most Christians I know have a complicated relationship with the doctrine of hell. Many have grown up with a caricature, with gruesome images of an eternal fiery torture chamber with a horns-and-pitchfork devil presiding over the conflagration. This is deemed intolerable by most. Indeed, I am highly suspicious of those who retain this view. They often seem a bit too eager, not to mention selective, in their appreciation of God’s judgment. The rest of us struggle with hell in various ways. Those who accept the possibility of hell wonder how a merciful God can allow it. Those who reject hell outright often still implicitly long for, even demand, some kind of a final justice for those who have done great evil. We hate the idea of hell but we can’t quite let it go. It’s complicated. Read more
It’s almost the definition of a calling that there is a strong inner resistance to it. The resistance is not practical—how will I make money, can I live with the straitened circumstances, etc.—but existential: Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself while losing myself within it? Reluctant writers, reluctant ministers, reluctant teachers—these are the ones whose lives and works can be examples. Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm.
— Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light
Christian Wiman writes sentences that sound so good that you’re convinced that even if they’re not true, they probably should be. Like that last one: “Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm.” I laughed out loud the first time I read it. It brought to mind the many eager beaver pastor-preneurs I’ve encountered over the years, people who so obviously craved the stage and all that went with it, people so utterly convinced that they could save every lost soul by the sheer force of their own conviction (and often volume). Or the people who are just a bit too desperate to plaster themselves and their causes all over social media, as if almost to overwhelm people with the innumerable exciting things that they are presently catalyzing. I have rarely found such people credible. Who are you trying to convince or impress? I often mutter unholily under my breath. No, I have never much appreciated the fevered sales pitch, religious or otherwise. Read more
I mentioned Christian Wiman’s latest book in my last post. It’s a marvelous read animated by one central question—the question of all questions: “What is the central hunger and longing that drives our peculiar species?” As always, Wiman expresses our options in such compelling ways: Read more
Christian Wiman is a brilliant writer—one of my favourites as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before here. I’ve been eagerly anticipating the arrival of his most recent book, He Held Radical Light and yesterday the blessed brown package showed up in the mail. I spent part of last night reading it. The man has a way of communicating the longing and haunting desire of human existence like few others that I have come across. Read more
Having devoted two posts in the past week or so to the Jordan Peterson phenomenon and what might account for it, and having expressed qualified affirmation for some of the concerns that seem to animate him, I want to add one final post about 12 Rules for Life, this one addressing what I take to be among the least admirable of Peterson’s ideas. I am aware that some readers might be weary of the topic. I’m sorry. I have to take the book back to the library today, so this is all the Peterson you’ll have to endure around here for a while. Read more
I have a dirty, shameful secret to confess. It’s a secret that will likely lay waste to my credentials as a pastor of integrity and compassion, a thinker of anything resembling depth and insight, a citizen with more or less centre-left politics, or even a reasonably decent and upstanding human being. It’s a secret that I do not expose to the light of day lightly. Truth be told, it would be far safer to keep it consigned to the murky shadows. No matter. My sins must be expunged.
My secret? Last week, I read a book by Jordan Peterson. Read more
I spent part of this morning taking a kind of personal inventory that often accompanies the beginning of a new calendar year. As is often the case, there was much to be grateful for and much that brought only sighing and sorrow. Progress—moral, character, spiritual, or otherwise—comes hard, it seems.
As I was thinking and praying on these things, I came across this quote from Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic that made my jaw drop and my soul heave with grief and gratitude. He’s talking about being seen—truly seen—by the living God. About being known as we are and loved even still. Read more
The end of summer (sadly) draws nigh and, like many, I have spent these dwindling days of August attempting to tidy up the clutter, whether it’s physical, mental, or spiritual in nature. I’ve tried to achieve a bit of focus, clarity, and equilibrium before September arrives This has meant tackling my physical desk, rearranging unread books and recycling correspondence that has been rendered irrelevant by inattention, and trying to wrest a bit of order out of the chaos of random files and documents on my computer’s desktop. Things need to be put in their proper place, after all. Here are a few bits and pieces whose proper place is, evidently, another “miscellany” post. Read more