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Posts from the ‘Books’ Category

On Deciding in Advance

In her marvelous book Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren tells the story of her friend Julie, whose infant son had to undergo surgery. As the nurses were about to wheel him into the operating room, Julie looked at her husband and said, “We have to decide right now whether or not God is good, because if we wait to determine that by the results of this surgery, we will always keep God on trial.” Read more

On Textbook Characters

There’s a scene in the opening pages of Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel, Jack, where the eponymous protagonist has contributed to an unpleasant dinner experience with a certain bishop’s daughter named Della. The walk home is tense and the dialogue is strained. Jack has, evidently, really stepped in it:

She said, “I have never been so embarrassed. Never in my life.”
He said, “Well, you haven’t known me very long.”

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Final Exam

I often talk to people who feel like they’re failing. Failing God, failing their kids, failing their spouses, failing their church, failing their colleagues or shareholders, failing to realize their potential, failing to optimize, prioritize, maximize. Sometimes the people I talk to about all this failing are the voices in my own head. Life is conceived of as some kind of a test or a race or contest with winners and losers. It’s remarkable how frequently people who, by all outward appearances seem to be thriving, or at the very least keeping their heads above water, feel like they’re not measuring up. Read more

Sunk Costs

Last week marked an anniversary of sorts, at least in the life of many churches. It’s been one year since the pandemic closed our doors, drove us online, kicked into motion myriad restrictions for eventual physical gatherings, etc. It’s obviously been a long and difficult year for many, and for a wide variety of reasons. Read more

If I Ran the Zoo

My wife got a little heated over breakfast today. Not at me, thanks be to God. No, the object of her displeasure this morning was the story of Dr. Seuss running afoul of the cultural gatekeepers that broke yesterday. Evidently, six books from the well-known author and illustrator will no longer be published due to “racist and insensitive imagery.” Classics like The Cat in the Hat and The Sneetches are safe (for now), but And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and If I Ran the Zoo did not make the cut. My wife does not normally have much interest in the culture wars, but, like many, she grew up on Dr. Seuss and this was just a bit too far. “I need a platform to protest this!” she said. I reminded her that I had a platform, modest though it may be. She wasn’t interested in writing a guest post, strangely. At any rate, I don’t run the zoo, but if I did, here are three things I might say.  Read more

Forgive Us Our Sins

Last year at the beginning of Lent I decided that rather than giving something up I was going to take something on. I would read Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. What better way to journey toward Good Friday than by immersing myself in a serious theological reflection on the cross of Christ? I made it just over a hundred pages. I wish I could say I had a good reason for quitting, but I don’t really have one. I suppose I could blame COVID’s arrival in Lent 2020 and the way it colonized most of my mental bandwidth, but mostly it was just a combination of distractibility, apathy, and preoccupation with other (lesser) things. What can I say? The truth isn’t always flattering. Read more

What’s the Matter with Death?

Reading a book about the philosophy of the mid-life crisis is comparable to being on the receiving end of targeted advertising for Rogaine. You instinctively resent the fact that you now represent a category of humanity for whom this could even plausibly be relevant. Alas, haughty resentment is about as useful in stalling the clock as it is in stimulating long dormant hair follicles. I have thus far resisted the siren call of Rogaine. Mid-life philosophy books? Evidently not. Read more

The Importance of Time Travel

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

The Insult of Religion

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

Smells Like Teen Spirit

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

More, Better, Faster!

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

On Liberating Desire

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

And Yet, Once 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

Oh Boy, I Hope So!

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

Rest in Peace

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

Wednesday Miscellany

Just sweeping out the corners and gathering up a few scraps of my reading and reflecting over the past little while…

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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

On Fallibility

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

I Don’t Want to Be My Own God

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