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Is Justin Bieber Allowed to Suffer? (and Other Indecent Calculations)

Over the last few months, no fewer than three people I know and respect have told me that I should listen to Justin Bieber’s new album. These are all people that know me well enough to understand what a musical stretch this would be for me. Each recommendation was met with slightly hostile incredulity from yours truly. Justin Bieber?! Seriously?! You might as well ask me to forfeit my soul. How would I even begin to salvage the tatters of my reputation? But three people. And people I respect. Hmm, what to do. Read more

Running on Religious Fumes

Freddie deBoer is, I gather, known as something of a “nice atheist.” He’s not explicitly hostile toward religious belief. His atheism represents more of a surrender than a decision. He believes an atheism that doesn’t come out of a process of loss and pain isn’t worth a whole lot. He’s not going to try to convert you to his unbelief. He has no evident interest in a world where people suddenly cease to believe in God. He would, however, like for you to take it a bit more seriously if this is in fact what you claim to believe. Or, at the very least, for you to be a bit more consistent. If God is the point of the whole show, then you should at least have the courtesy to act like you believed it. Read more

Risk Assessment

I got the COVID vaccine yesterday. Given all the hopeful freight that this solitary word—“vaccine”—has carried in our cultural discourse over the past thirteen months, it was a rather understated affair. I phoned a local pharmacy on Monday night inquiring as to when I might receive my precious dose. “Tomorrow morning?” was the unexpected reply. So, on a bright Tuesday morning, off I trudged toward my equally bright, post-pandemic future. 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

The Monstrosity of Easter

 

I remember a few years ago I was hunting around for some music to listen to while preparing my Easter sermon. It was Holy week, so I thought I should try to find something a bit more inspirational than my usual fare. Perhaps some classical music. I surveyed the options on my streaming service. I was presented with two choices for Holy Week. How delightful! I read the description of each.

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I Spy

A strange thing happens on the Wednesday of Holy Week. Jesus is in the home of Simon the (former) Leper when an unnamed woman pours out an expensive jar of perfume on his head. It’s an extravagant waste. It is done with little evident regard for the cost or for what those gathered might think. And Jesus calls it a “beautiful thing.” Read more

“You’re Not Very Nice”

There’s a woman who calls me at the church with some regularity. She calls from two or three different phone numbers and uses a handful of pseudonyms. I have a file full of the various names and numbers she’s used. I’ll call her Mary. The stories she tells vary. She’s dying or mortally ill. She has to get somewhere far away for a surgery and needs gas money. Her kids are terrible and mistreating her (and will probably be calling me soon to ask for money—don’t give it to them!). Her grandkids need food. She needs a hotel room. She needs a thousand dollars, but she’ll settle for fifty. This has been going on for the better part of a decade. I suppose most churches have a story or two like this. 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

Beyond the Limits of our Puny Selfhood

Well, here’s a breath of Friday fresh air from the New York Times. It’s an article by Leigh Stein called “Influencers are the New Televangelists” and it compares modern-day social media quasi-spiritual wellness influencers like Glennon Doyle to religious hucksters from yesteryear like Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. The comparison is apt, in my view, even if the content of their message could hardly be more different. 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

Wonder Shining in My Eyes

I wonder if one of the central tasks of faith at this middle stage of life is that of reimagination. To unlearn the notion that faith is a “whoever dies with the most correct ideas about God in their head wins” kind of game. To open oneself to the possibility that when it comes to the things of God, it’s less about arguing than evoking, less about proving than reminding and revealing, less about heroically thinking enough right God-things or doing enough good God-things than loving mercy. Sigh. Even as I look at the preceding three sentences, I hate the soppy mid-life cliché that they sound like. Perhaps one of the other tasks of the middle-stage of life is to somehow come to peace with the cliches that we inevitably become. 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

So Much to Love

I spent part of a cold February morning reading two things: a chapter on the phenomenon of “missing out” from an average book on the philosophy of mid-life and a 2015 article on the marvel that is legendary NFL quarterback Tom Brady. I suppose it’s a fittingly ironic combination. While most of us in our mid-forties are pondering lives left unlived, Brady seems, by all outward appearances at least, to keep irritatingly living his best one. Read more

The Good Guy

Over the last few months, I have regularly encountered recommendations, whether from friends or articles and reviews I’ve read, to watch the television show Ted Lasso. It will restore your faith in humanity, I heard. It’s the perfect antidote to this soul-sucking pandemic, I heard. It will make you smile and laugh and feel good in the midst of all that is bad in the world, I heard. I heard a great many things, very few of them bad. So, yesterday, my wife and I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. We had planned on watching one episode but by the time we turned the TV off, we had plowed through half a season. Read more

Amidst the Flames

For the last four years or so, our church has taken the stretch of time roughly between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent to focus our sermons on questions of faith from members of our congregation. These questions range from the existential (Does God exist?) to the hermeneutical (What is the meaning of passage x) to the socio-cultural (What does a Christian response to this or that thing going on in the broader culture look like?). Needless to say, it’s a sermon series that forces me out of my proverbial comfort zone. I am sometimes thrust into issues and texts that I might prefer to avoid. I am also at least partially liberated from the confines of my own subjectivity and forced to read Scripture, experience, and the broader culture through the lens of other people’s questions. Which is good.  Read more

On (Not) Working Backwards

The events of one week ago at the Capitol in Washington, DC have produced a veritable torrent of outrage, analysis, reaction, despair, fear, defiance, and many other things besides. The vision of a mob of rioters descending upon this hallowed symbol of democracy was unsettling, to put it mildly. Even more distressing, from a Christian perspective, was the sight of religious imagery and language (crosses, signage, etc.) on display throughout. There is a kind of perverse irony in the fact that this event took place on the Day of Epiphany, a day when Christians celebrate the revealing of Jesus Christ as the light of the world that pierces the darkness and reveals the path of peace. There was indeed a revealing on this Epiphany, but it was not of God. Read more