Posted by: cgibson | October 15, 2012

After the Storm

After the Storm
Jim Gibson

The soil is black and soft from the rain.
The loss of the sky is the farmer’s gain.
The clouds are gone and the rainbow glistens,
All is quiet, even the sparrow listens.
Why the earth’s so quiet no man can tell,
But the one who reads, mark this well;
The next time after the storm and thunder,
And nature has been loosed in fiery plunder,
Hear the sound that comes from the world.
There is only silence that’s been unfurled.


This clever juxtaposition of the Article I word of “armies” and the Second Amendment’s preamble on militias by Akhil Reed Amar in his latest book on the Constitution, The Unwritten Constitution, serves to illustrate the concept of America’s unwritten Constitution through deed and action (“We the People .. do ordain and establish…”) that Amar seeks to impart in the second chapter of his book. In this case, the national draft is a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power to raise armies granted in Article 1 because of the enactment played out in the adoption of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment. After the Civil War, the Union Army played a vital role in reestablishing republican government in the southern states that had rebelled against the constitutionally elected government of the United States and the states that had remained loyal to the Union. 

Amar’s argument is that the events and acts that lead up to the proposal and ratification of the Constitution and its amendments compose part of the unwritten Constitution that, interwoven with the actual written Constitution, makes up the foundational fabric of American law. He examines the principle by proposing that the Reconstruction Congress reinterpreted the expectations of the Founders underlying the militia system. The militia system had been established by the Founders to be locally-based and under the control of the States in order to preserve the People’s freedoms and liberties from centralized tyrants. However, by the 1860’s, the militia system had been turned into an instrument of resistance against the federal government and Civil War erupted, turning the Founder’s experiment in republican government on its head. The Union Army, an Army which was composed of conscripted soldiers up until the end of the Civil War, helped to bring the Reconstructed South into the Union, and part of their readmission was the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. 
So because of the events and actions behind the adoption of this important Amendment, the Constitution was reconstructed and the Army, an institution of suspicion in late 18th century America, was given a new place of trust and prominence because of its role in freeing the slaves and the hold slavery had on the liberties and humanity of all Americans.  
Posted by: cgibson | October 6, 2012

Thin Places hits The New York Times

Thin places have caught the attention of ERIC WEINER in the Travel Pages of The New York Times: “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer”:

Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic of travel.

Posted by: cgibson | October 5, 2012

Why Christian Character Matters

Many books have been written on how to come to belief in Christ. Many books have been written by the larger society to help people help themselves – how to live a better life. But there are not many books on how to live the faith to live a better life once life has come to belief in Christ. N.T. Wright seeks to provide some helpful thoughts in this space through his book, After You Believe, Why Christian Character Matters.

Continuing the theme that he has started in his first two books of this loosely-coupled series (Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope), Wright argues that the biblical vision of salvation is not that of our disembodied souls floating off to heaven to play golden harps on lilly-white clouds, away from space and time. Wright calls us to the recall and reclaim the apocalyptic visions of Daniel and Isaiah and Revelation: God will create a new heavens and new earth and the dead shall be raised for either life in Christ or condemnation. In the meantime, God’s Kingdom on earth is established in the here and now as it is heaven by the hard work of those who believe in Him. As Wright has summed the thought in years past through his pithy refrain: “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world”.

Wright draws on the story of Captain Chelsey Sullenberger (“Sully”), the miraculous landing of the US Airways flight on the Hudson River, to show how important character is for being truly excellent at any craft.

Now, as I say, many people described the dramatic events as a “miracle.” At one level, I wouldn’t want to question that. But the really fascinating thing about the whole business is the way it spectacularly illustrates a vital truth — a truth which many today have either forgotten or never knew in the first place.

You could call it the power of right habits. You might say it was the result of many years of training and experience. You could call it “character,”as we have done so far in this book.

Ancient writers had a word for it: virtue.

To become truly excellent at any skill like a sport or a language takes countless hours of practice and dedication and attention to detail (some experts have said 10,000 hours of focus on one thing makes the practitioner “an expert”). It entails the daily denial of some liberties and passions to free one’s time to “put into” the chosen activity. One cannot go on an extended vacation with her family, perhaps, if she needs to train for a marathon. Or a young man working to “make it” in the field of music cannot be out partying with his friends and still be practicing his instruments or vocals. Greatness comes at a cost. Freedom must be sacrificed, so greater freedom (soaring? excellence?) can be achieved in the chosen sphere. Captain Sullenberger saved the lives of those on Flight 1549 because of his countless hours of practice and study in the art and skill of flying. He had so dedicated himself, so mastered the craft, that by the time the “Miracle on the Hudson” incident occurred, flying his airliner was second nature. It was just what he did. It was who he was. They were his right habits of heart.

Wright goes on to ask: if this is true of things in this world, how much more so will it be true of things in the next? And for our modern-day society which is so used to the “get what I want now” mentality (most of the time with costs that amount to “kicking the can down the road” – crippling debt or substandard quality of construction – think of the shortcuts made in building houses these days), this could turn out to be a shocking message.

So for the Christian, Wright lays it out: the job of our life here on earth after we believe is to build the features of character and right habits that prepare us to live in the new heavens and earth as children of God, as more than kings and conquerors. What must we do to develop a “deep, wise, and trustworthy character” (p. 11) to enable us who are clothed in Christ to move and act and breathe in the age to come (translated as “eternal life” in many modern Bible translations) as second nature — as our first nature in God. Wright argues that this sort of character can only be built up through a life-time of what ancient philosophers once knew as “virtue”: “courage, restraint, cool judgment, and determination to do the right thing for others.” (p. 21) Of course, the New Testament lays claim to these pagan virtues and quickens them with Christian spirit. The New Testament seeks to impart those practices of mind and heart that will enable us to be truly human, as we were created to be.

Scott McNight has an excellent review of this book, in which he nicely packages the thesis of Wright’s book much more succinctly than I ever could:

Aristotle pondered how we get from where we are to the telos, the goal of the philosopher and citizen, which is “flourishing” (eudaimonia). We develop “character.” The way to get there is through the habitual practice of virtues (arete)—courage, justice, prudence, temperance—so that they become “second nature.” Wright finds the same pattern, though with entirely different substance, at work in Jesus and Paul. In so finding a virtue ethic at work in the New Testament, Wright stands against other ethical theories at work in the academy. At the same time, he insists that Christians have to wake up from the idea that we play no part in our moral transformation or that somehow in God’s mystery we just become more holy or loving or virtuous; we are to avoid as well the idea that keeping “rules” will somehow get us to the goal. The romantic, the existentialist, and the emotivist movements don’t line up with either classical ethics or the ethics of the New Testament, both of which focus more on our complex effort. A recurring theme in this book is that God’s grace animates us but we must cooperate and strive to put on these virtues. All along, Tom is both using Aristotle and turning him on his head and inside out.

If the goal (telos) of ancient pagan virtue was Aristotle’s flourishing (eudaimonia) and this was achieved through the development of character, then the goal of the Christian virtue is blessedness, as stated principles and expectations for the age to come in the Beatitudes, “in the Hebrew sense of ashre or baruch (p. 103).

1. The goal is God’s kingdom: a time of comfort, of heaven coming to earth at last, of the renewal of creation, of plenty, of mercy, of reward, and perhaps above all of seeing God himself.
2. This goal has arrived in the present, now that Jesus is here. How his public career will work out is, from the perspective of those listening to the Sermon on the Mount, not yet clear.
3. Those who follow Jesus can begin to practice, in the present, the habits of heart and life which correspond to the way things are in God’s kingdom — the way they will be eventually, yes, but also the way they already are because Jesus is here. (p. 105)

With the goal of blessedness in mind – what we are called to be now because God has already ushered in the final reality through the death, resurrection and ascension of His Son – Wright finds three virtues called out in the New Testament, which are so because of the permanence found in love, hope and faith, with the greatest of all being love (1 Cor 13). It might be obvious how love is permanent, as it is in the final analysis what God is, but what about faith and hope are permanent? Wright calls in the old nineteenth-century hymn “Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost,” by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, to restate the question:

Faith will vanish into sight;
Hope be emptied in delight;
Love in heaven will shine more bright;
Therefore give us love.(p. 203)

But Wordsworth, as an expositor of the New Testament, knew that 1 Corinthians 13 “insists, as we have seen, that these three abide. They will last into the future world. Faith and hope will not vanish or be emptied. Why not?” (p. 203)

Faith is the settled, unwavering trust in the one true God whom we have come to know in Jesus Christ. When we see him face to face we shall not abandon that trust, but deepen it. Hope is the settled, unwavering confidence that this God will not leave us or forsake us, but will always have more in store for us than we could ask or think….

To speak of “virtue” is indeed to say that we are concerned with moral growth, he habits of the heart, of every single individual. But to insist that the three primary virtues are faith, hope, and above all love is to insist that to grow in these virtues is precisely to grow in looking away from oneself and toward God on the one hand and one’s neighbor on the other. The more you cultivate these values, the less you think about yourself at all.

Ever practical, Wright spends Chapters 8 and 9 to set forth “the Virtuous Circle,” where he lays out very concrete things we can do now to start developing the habits of mind and heart, the character of a child of God, in the here and now. These are practical actions that not only build our own discipline but also the communal aspects of the church: worship, eucharist,
baptism, prayer, giving, and public Scripture reading. Again, McNight superbly highlights the contribution Wight makes here:

Here Wright manages to tie into the spiritual formation movement in the United States in a way that may surprise Tom but will also surely surprise the likes of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. His virtuous circle, instead of being the classical spiritual disciplines (fasting, solitude, contemplation, etc), which tend toward the individualistic, includes Scripture reading, stories, examples, community, and then practices. But even the “practices” shift from the dominating paradigm in the United States, forged by a Quaker and a Baptist, neither of whom is as Eucharistic as an erstwhile Anglican Bishop.

Beyond the broad themes of this vitally important book, there are some great one liners in this book:

“The English word ‘love’ is trying to do so many different jobs at the same time that someone really ought to sit down with it and teach it how to delegate.” (183)

“To accept appropriate moral constraints is not to curtail true freedom, but to create the conditions for it to flourish.” (234)

“The church is often called a killjoy for protesting against sexual license. But the real killing of joy comes with the grabbing of pleasure.” (253)

Posted by: cgibson | September 3, 2012

Seen and Heard for the Week of 8/26-9/2

I have generally refrained from linking to other pieces from this blog, figuring that is more suitable to forums like Facebook or Google+ or Twitter. Nevertheless, there has been some truly excellent writing on the Web that needs to be called out and preserved (for my use if for no other reason) for future reference.

  • MommaJ calls us to think before posting to Facebook. This is a piece that could be dropped right into Proverbs and not be at all out of place. This is a very inspired piece of writing, and one that shows the application of Christian virtue to new forms of human behavior and forms of social interactions enabled by technology.
  • Bill Jones at Texas Baptist Committed highlights the difference between moderate, like the BGCT and CBF, and conservative Baptists, like the SBC and SBTC, in Theology? or Relationship?
  • Dr. Pursiful at Dr. Platypus (an excellent blog with a long track record of insightful postings) explores what The Fruit of the Spirit if not…. This theme is one that continues to appear in my readings since reading N.T. Wright’s book After You Believe, reminding me again to review this seminal work. Stay tuned. That will be my blogging goal for this week.
Posted by: cgibson | August 12, 2012

The Road Less Traveled

This month two different kinds of events played out in our society that shows we are at a crossroads of sorts, and the direction in which we turn over the next months and years will have ramifications for generations. Which it will be only God through time will tell.

1. Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick Fil-A, dared to express his opinion that the traditional, 2000+ year old meaning of marriage should be maintained. For his troubles, he was called a bigot, a hate-monger, and a homophobe. Those who disagreed with him built up strawman arguments against him so they could proceed to boycott his business, accuse him of hijacking the Bible for his own purposes, and twist his position so that they could score political points of their own against their demonized opposition.

And in turn, the Church of Jesus Christ, the people of God, lined up in droves at Chick Fil-A stores to support the right of the chicken restaurant chain’s founder to speak his mind. Of course, greater injustices plague the world, to which the Body of Christ in America manages to turn a blind eye. One need look no further than one’s own blighted inner cities or the depravity spewing from one’s own television set to understand the reality of this. Somehow, the majority of conservative America continues to fight the battles their liberal antagonists define and carry on the great tradition of the right of Missing the Point.

Through all of this, we continue to talk past each other, seeking to label “them” as the unholy other, simply because they subscribe to a different political position than “us.” It’s easy to hate “them” when we don’t have to bother with the pesky inconvenience of seeing them as human. If they were human, after all, they would agree with us. How could it be otherwise?

2. The Olympics in London played out their Closing Ceremonies tonight. Over the past two weeks, we have been inspired by the best athletes in the world, as they came together to give their all to a sport they loved and dedicated themselves to. Oscar Pistorius showed us that even the limits of the human body can be overcome through determination and persistence. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt demonstrated what it is to be the best their ever has been. Missy Franklin proves that youth is not wasted on the young because they too can become more than themselves through focus on God, their talents, hard work, and a teachable spirit.

These and all of the athletes in the Thirtieth Olympiad bring us the best of the human spirit, free and united, unleashed to be what it was created to be by God. They show us the best of ourselves, of what is possible when we rise above the pettiness of self and embrace each other in love, demanding excellence from one another when the “other” are friends and competitors driving you to better yourself for a cause greater than yourself.

Which of these two visions of the human spirit will America choose to embrace as we stand at this crossroads? The first – the spirit focused on the self and the small and the parochial – leads to death and destruction. The second – the spirit surrendered to God and unleashed to become what it was created to be – leads to true freedom, life, love, and humanity.

Virtue is a lost word and discipline in our society, but it is one that we sorely need to recapture to help us choose the road of life and humanity. N.T. Wright’s recent book After You Believe analyzes Christian virtue, something even the Church seems uncertain of how to discuss. In my next post, I will take a deeper look at what Wright has to say on this important topic for our time.

There are profound implications in trinitarian teaching for all who seek God, provided we do not misread and wrongly teach God’s trinity as being about three of something or other. Thus Nicholas Lash helpfully reads the doctrine of the Trinity as a set of rules correcting our natural errors about God. Trinitarian doctrine, he says, is “more fundamentally a matter of ensuring correct reference than it is of attempting appropriate description.” (1988:28) First, there is the mistake that identifies God with everything. The truth of pantheism (represented in this chapter by Emerson and company) is retained in the doctrine of God as Spirit, which maintains the presence of God in community while demanding that conversion be the hallmark of community if God is to be known there. A second natural mistake, common in our time, is to conclude, since God is no thing, that God is nothing. The truth of atheism (represented in this chapter by Nietzsche and company) is already expressed in the doctrine of God as the Creator-Father, who is no thing in the cosmos, but is other than the cosmos entire. To disregard this rule is idolatry, and it is an idolatry that atheism generates, since humanity will have its gods when there is no God. The remaining, third rule bears upon this third, natural error concerning God, the error of particularity (represented in this chapter by wooden trinitarianism). God is idolatrously said to be here and not there, this and not that. It is an error repeated within Christianity, says Roman Catholic theologian Lash, by “ascribing divine status to the language and institutions which mediate the memory of Jesus” (1988:271). The corrective use of the third rule is to link the fist God (God as Gift or Spirit) with the second God (God as Other or Creator). The link (God as Word) “furnishes us with the pattern or figure” by which we may correlate the other two. Without that link, Lash warns, Spirit dissolves into pantheism and Father vanishes into atheism. In the Word, though, we have a particularity that is authentic as it issues in community whose role is to be catholic or universal, including all people….
–McClendon, Doctrine

Posted by: cgibson | June 17, 2012

Simply Jesus

Simply Jesus
June 17, 2012

Finishing the remarkable book by N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus, was an incredibly important event in my life this week. I didn’t realize it until this week, but it seems some sort of funk has been coloring my perspective over the past weeks or months – I don’t know how long. But Wright’s book has simply helped me find my core again – and that core “breathes, moves, and has its being” in God.

Wright does not bring forth anything revolutionary in his book about Jesus or anything else, but he recalls the vision of Christianity and who Jesus is. And the vision he calls us to is the one that is central to the biblical worldview or perspective, the view this blog calls “thin places.” As Wright lays the foundation in his first book of this “series”, Simply Christian, heaven and earth overlap and interlock. They are not two spheres separated by time or space – they are mutually present and interweaving with one another. They were meant to be mutually co-existent, two halves of a whole creation. Witness the Garden of Eden in Genesis, where Adam and Eve walked in the cool of morning with God Himself.

However, human disobedience to God and our allegiance to our own selves to be our own god have separated not only us from God, but earth – the human sphere of creation – and heaven – where God lives and reigns. It is the place of His throne room. Nevertheless, the membrane between heaven and earth is a thin one, and there are places and times where the boundary becomes transparent and translucent. We see some of these places in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament. The three godly visitors of Abraham, the burnt bush that speaks to Moses, the shekinah glory of God that leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, the ark of the covenant that holds the presence of God, the Temple where God comes to tabernacle with His people. And there are times as well that become sacred to the Israelite people: the night of the Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land.

These are glimpses of divine intrusions into this world, thin places and times where and when heaven and earth become one. It is vitally important to understand this as the central paradigm of the Bible that it is – without it Wright argues in Simply Jesus that we cannot possibly understand who Jesus said He was or what He thought He was doing. Indeed, Christian theology over the past 200-300 years proves the point. We have oscillated between the triumphalism of the Catholic Church to the liberalism spawned by the Enlightenment to the fundamentalism spawned by liberalism. These are all based on the mistaken paradigm that earth is fundamentally separated from heaven and God’s agenda is not first and foremost about saving this world from sin, corruption, and Death.

But this is exactly what the New Testament writers insist that Jesus was coming to do – save this world from sin, corruption and Death. Wright walks us through the three threads of Hebrew expectations that Jesus draws together into Himself as His vocation – Messianic anticipation and God sending His king to save the people from their oppressors, the call of the Suffering Servant to take on the sins of his people, and the return of God Himself to rule among His people. These threads had never been brought together in the way that Jesus did, and so it is not surprising that He threw those around Him – friend and foe – for a total loop. Jesus was about inaugurating the Kingdom of God in this world, of ushering in a completely new era where the reign of Satan and Death are penultimately defeated in Him, so they can be ultimately defeated on the final day of redemption. Jesus is the beach head on enemy territory of God’s advancing army – the ultimate thin place and time where heaven and earth are brought together.

And so the world could not stand for Jesus’ program, because He brings upon Himself the powerful rush of three various storm systems, to use Wright’s analogy, that verge on Jesus as the “perfect storm.” The gale of Roman power (the powerful and oppressive systems of the world), the high-pressure system of Israel’s national aspirations, and the highly unpredictable wind of God, the divine element with the force of a hurricane. This perfect storm does Jesus in on the cross, but Jesus’ perfect obedience to God – His perfect love – overcome the worst of this world’s powers and enable the power of God to raise Him from the grave.

The gospel, then, is an announcement that Jesus is King and that God’s Kingdom in this world has been established. Those who hear are told of the new reality and invited to partake in all the benefits, energy and new life that this brings. To ignore the royal pronouncement or to reject it does not change the fact of its existence. Presuming that all this is mere “spirituality stuff” that is some transaction for us to “get to heaven one day” does not reduce the imperative for action today. The one day is important, but this is the day that the Lord had called for action from those who call Him Lord.

Rick Warren was right – “it’s not about you.” It’s about Jesus. But even Warren starts with “you” when trying to explain why it’s not about you. Wright starts at the beginning with Jesus to show us what the true center of reality is. And when we each find this reality, we find our own center and reason for being.

Posted by: cgibson | April 29, 2012

All is Forgiven

Christy Gibson

“You can come home now, Judas.

All is forgiven.”

What… What did you say?

I, who have been damned for an eternal voyage

Through Pandemonium alone…

Condemned and abandoned completely by God

In this fiery inferno, charred black

from the ashes of the walking dead

Separated forever from God,

can come home?

“You can come home now, Judas.

All is forgiven.”

I, who set off the ricochet of shouts

across Jerusalem

That condemned the Lord to die on a cross,

(I with the memory of the Crucifixion

still bitter in my mouth)

I, who for a cursed thirty pieces of silver

Betrayed my Lord with a kiss of

cinnamon upon his cheek,

I who shed his blood as well as my own

And drove the nail through his palms with

my hammer,

can come home?

“You can come home now, Judas.

All is forgiven.”

Posted by: cgibson | April 29, 2012

American Localism

In his book Timely Renewal, James W. Lucas makes a particularly effective case for decentralization of government power and placing governance as close to the people, in geographic terms, as possible. Arguing that large federal government (and its associated suffocating regulations and debt) and large corporations (and their anti-competitive monopolies) have brought declining creativity, productivity and standards of living, Lucas argues for a return of “American localism.” Large-scale nationalism and mercantilism have killed the spirits of entrepreneurism and local community. The natural relationships among humans have been severed as integration at greater and ever larger scales abstract us from one another at ever increasing levels, leading to dysfunction and dehumanization. Is it any wonder Congress is so polarized and entrenched?

Politics and economics “as if people matter” demands decentralization and devolution of power. Lucas writes:

Progressive, anti-globalization activist David Korten considers it “to be a near-universal truth that diversity is the foundation of developmental progress in complex systems, and uniformity is the foundation of stagnation and decay…. Our challenge is to create a locally rooted planetary system biased toward the small, the local, the cooperative, the resource-conserving, the long-term, and the needs of everyone.” Strong local economies “encourage the rich, flourishing diversity of robust local cultures and generate the variety of experience and learning that is essential to the enrichment of the whole.” (David C. Korten. When Corporations Rule the World, second edition. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc. and Kumarian Press, 200-, pp. 240-241.) A key principle in achieving these ends is that “governance authority and responsibility are
located in the smallest, most local system unit possible to maximize opportunity for direct, participatory democracy.” Such communities are strongest when they have strong social capital, for which locally owned businesses are a key element. (Korten, pp. 245, 251.)

The author quotes another historian William Appleman Williams, who proposed replacing the institutions of “American empire” with a federation of regional communities. “The price of liberty is not so much vigilance as involvement. If you want to rest, vote for a dictator. The crucial arena for such citizen groups is and will remain the states. That is where social movements have to be build.”
(Lucas, pp. 60-61)

Lucas reminds us that simple arithmetic shows that states are more representative of and responsive to citizen needs than the federal government. “The 435 members of the national House of Representatives have on average more than 700,000 constituents in each of their districts…. In contrast, the more than 7,000 state legislators represent on average just over 50,000 constituents each.”

Those who pine for government activism should return their efforts to the States. The federal bureaucracy has become so bloated and the Congress so plodding that change at the federal level takes decades of tireless lobbying, advertising, politicking, and horse-trading. It took 100 years to pass so-called “universal health-care.” However, the states are close to the people, both in heart and geography, and there are less people across a state for which to account in the eventual compromise, making conversation more natural and participation for the average citizen possible (big money campaigns at the local level are not of concern). Change can be tried with greater ease and nimbleness, and any potential failure is contained in its scope to the state at hand. Success of experimentation is then rewarded by other states seeking to emulate the model, latching onto the successful government involvement.

Those who love freedom and limited government clamor for a more vibrant federal-state balance as well. Jefferson said, “unless the mass retains sufficient control over those entrusted with the powers of their government, these will be perverted in their own oppression, and to the perpetuation of wealth and power in the individuals and families selected for the trust.” Remembering that the federal government was put in place for continental defense and cooperation, the balance of an energetic federalism has the added benefit of diffusing power across a broad number of institutions, separated by thousands of miles, making coordination difficult, even in this age of the Internet (state governments cannot coordinate to call a federal Constitutional Convention, it seems, never mind some effort more complex).

In his book, Lucas does a fantastic job of tracing the rise of federal involvement, control, and centralization. While his book is more focused on proposing constitutional amendments that would allow the People to take control of that document and reduce the tendency of the Supreme Court to continue sitting as a perpetual constitutional convention, Timely Renewal has highlighted a root of many current problems and it’s corrective vision is exciting to contemplate, even if unlikely to be widely embraced.

Older Posts »