Dante, Courtly Love, and the Contemplative Life

This quarter in the eighth grade great books course I teach, we are spending several weeks on Dante’s Inferno. The class covers the medieval period in general, a period I find fascinating. And in some ways, Dante is the distillation of the best of medieval literature, cosmology, and theology. It’s fun.

Dante himself is quite the character. In the Divine Comedy, the work of which the Inferno is only the first third, he portrays himself wandering through a dark wood, plagued by vicious beasts, trying to get to the top of a mountain. He is met in those woods by the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, who is going to take him through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to reach God. But it turns out that Virgil has been sent to Dante by Beatrice, the love of Dante’s life.

Fun fact: Dante met Beatrice when she was eight and he was nine, she married another man, and died three years later at the age of twenty-four. Dante had been married to someone else for five years at that point, and would end up having several kids with this other woman. Yet throughout his life, Dante maintained that he was madly in love with Beatrice, and had been since the day they met. He wrote a collection of love poetry in her honor that he published five years after she died, and finished the Divine Comedy, in which she had a starring role, only a year before his own death.

So, that’s interesting. Actually, it’s less weird than it sounds, if only slightly. This was the era of courtly love poetry, when falling in love with married women was the thing to do. In a lot of the stories of knights in shining armor fighting for the honor of fair ladies, said fair ladies were often married to another man. Now, a good Christian knight would never try to act on his love in an unbecoming manner–say, by sleeping with the lady whom he loved so madly. No, he would just admire her from afar, and fight in her honor. In theory. There was that whole Lancelot thing. Also Tristram and Isolde. And maybe one or two others. But most of the time it was platonic.

To modern sensibilities, this concept is wildly foreign. In what possible context could this be interpreted as a good thing, especially in the eyes of such a heavily churched culture, especially coming from such a self-consciously Christian guy as Dante? Well, there actually might be an explanation.

In the third part of the Divine Comedy, Paradiso, Dante ascends through the heavens one heavenly sphere at a time. Just as in Hell below, people are here placed into separate spheres based on their character. In the sphere of Mars, for instance, are those who fought for the faith. Above them, on Jupiter, are righteous rulers. But at the top, on Saturn, the last real planet in medieval cosmology, we find… monks?

Actually, this sphere is usually labeled “The Heaven of the Contemplatives.” Contemplatives are pretty much what they sound like–people who spend their lives in contemplation, either of God himself or of various divine mysteries. This would certainly include monks as we normally think of them, but it would also cover other people who led a similar lifestyle of meditation on holy things.

This is actually a huge part of the medieval view of the world. The best thing you could be was not one of those adventurous knights, not some righteous king like Arthur or Charlemagne, nor even necessarily a regular priest or bishop, caught up in the affairs of your parish or bishopric. No, medievals considered a life of contemplation to be the pinnacle of human existence.

There are several reasons for this, but one major reason is grounded in their philosophy of the soul. Medieval philosophy said that there were three kinds of souls–vegetable, animal, and rational. The vegetable soul was the kind of life that grew, but didn’t do much else. You know, like veggies. The animal soul belonged to life forms that could move around and act on their environment. But the last kind of soul, belonging to men and angels, and perhaps just a few others, was the rational soul. This kind of soul was capable of reason.

This view had certain implications. Lifestyles that primarily involved action, that involved working or fighting or other such things, were things we held in common with the beasts. Ruling, which engaged more of one’s reasoning abilities, would be higher up the chain. After all, you were using the faculties that distinguished you from lower creation. But higher up, higher even than wise and just rulers, would be people who did nothing but use their reasoning faculties. These were the people who contemplated the deep and holy things of life, using that faculty which God gave to his children and his servants above all others.

So what does this have to do with courtly love? Well, imagine a kind of love which was not focused on your merely animal drives, one which demanded instead that you meditate upon your beloved, use reason to contemplate her. Imagine, if you will, a contemplative rather than an active love. In fact, imagine a love where the actual activities of romance are ruled out, but not a higher and more platonic admiration. So, yeah, imagine you are in love with a married woman.

It’s kind of twisted, but it makes a weird sort of sense. If reason is the best part of our nature, and animal instincts to some extent reduce us to the level of beasts, then a love which is elevated to a solely rational level is a higher love. Of course, in practice it becomes something that is either creepy, if unrequited, or adulterous, if the lady returns your affections. It’s dangerous, and there’s no doubt it led to all sorts of excesses as well as some very sketchy fiction at the time. Dante even placed a couple adulterers in Hell who were inspired to sin thanks to reading courtly love poetry. But it does make that twisted sort of sense.

Now, no society is really simple, especially one as diverse and cosmopolitan, yet weirdly provincial, as medieval Europe could sometimes be. This little chain of reasoning no doubt leaves out quite a lot, and paints a very uneven portrait of a culture shaped by people from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of weird quirks and personal histories. Still, it’s a striking and surprisingly coherent story. It’s just the sort of thing to make you wonder what weirdly alien practices we take for granted as a society, and how strange some of our values might be in the light of history. What might our descendants think of us seven hundred years from now?

Where I Stand: A Testimony, Of Sorts

Where I Stand: A Testimony of Sorts

My parents started attending church when I was very young. I don’t really remember the transition, but I really took to it. I had a very high view of the world, both the natural side of it and the artificial. It made sense to say there was a hand that knit the stars into the black heavens, that raised up the pines like swaying giants over the forest, that mixed the white sand and red clay, and scattered old river rocks among them. I was also invested in the struggle of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, love and hate, life and death. A Creator and a heroic Redeemer made sense.

I readily enough bought into the idea of my own sin, though in my immaturity I often only acknowledged the less significant ones. But as a general concept, I knew that good and evil was in all of us, that good was natural and evil unnatural, and that unless we were rescued, evil would win.

That idea certainly applied to individuals, but it also made sense writ large. The world was a story, starting at a perfect creation, then falling at a moment when man chose sin. In the centuries that followed after, those who remained faithful to God and those who turned from him would struggle over the earth. And, as in any good story, the good guys were fighting a losing battle for most of history. Until, of course, the Hero arrived. He swept in and made the ultimate sacrifice, accepting the consequences for our own ingratitude towards our Creator, our betrayal of the one who loved us. Now, in following him, we partook in his death and his resurrection, and in the long run were promised a redeemed world in which to live. All would be right again.

It’s hard to point to any one place where I learned this narrative. We attended a Bible church at the time, which had an AWANA program. As a family, we often listened to the Christian teaching and talk radio station in our area, and continued to do so long after we switched churches. Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson, Adventures in Odyssey, Unshackled, and a wide array of preachers from the Bible Belt and the evangelical community more generally all had an indelible influence on my heart, mind, and imagination. I also got ahold of Christian fiction books as a kid, including a lot of Frank Peretti and the Left Behind series. I enjoyed them both, but especially the latter. I was a big end times nut in my preteen years, falling in love with the drama of the apocalyptic narrative.

At some point, my family switched churches. I was not aware of much of the drama surrounding that decision, and was surprised to find myself quite suddenly in a little wooden church in the boonies where people said scripted phrases back and forth to each other, there was a confession of sin, and we drank alcohol at every communion. It was very disconcerting, and I found myself having to account for the change. This was the first time I moved beyond the bare Bible story into the world of theological controversy.

The whole thing was disconcerting to me, in particular the Calvinist-Arminian controversy. I could hardly side with the Arminians, as their position seemed to deny God’s power and treat man as if he could save himself, as if original sin had not caused a fundamental character flaw. Calvinism, on the other hand, seemed to deny the agency of people. We were not characters in God’s story, not in any real sense. God also seemed to be a much more dour sort of person, a frowning lawgiver who smashed people for offending him in ways they could not have imagined were offensive, and arbitrarily sparing a trembling few who could not know if they were really safe from God’s wrath, or just self-deceived like the rest.

That was a long, hard struggle that very nearly tore me apart. Eventually I conceded the truth of the essentials of the Calvinist position. God did guide the destiny of men and nations, and we could not choose to follow him unless he had first freed us from the power of sin. Granting that, I still felt uneasy about the way some Calvinists I had read talked about God and man and the whole Gospel story. But I put that unease aside. There was far more going on in the world.

I also did an about-face on the end times business. I read a very lucid little tract explaining how the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 fulfilled the prophecies of John in Revelation in the most minute details. Recognizing my own tendency towards flights of fancy—I was a big believer in UFOs at the time—I conceded that the language of Revelation was, for the most part, far from literal, and that my vision of vanishing churches, planet-wide dictatorships, centaur-locusts, and apocalyptic battles was more indulgent than accurate.

I also adopted covenant theology, which I saw as more connected with Presbyterian government than it necessarily had to be. The concept of the covenant, or solemn agreement of some kind, appealed to me, and it also explained far more of the Bible to a far greater degree than anything I had seen before. Of course, I had never given much concrete thought to the nature of God’s promises or the relationship between the testaments, so that was hardly surprising. Unlike Calvinism and the end times, this transition felt largely superficial and easy, though, as with corporate confession and high liturgy, the paedobaptism that went with it struck me as a bit Roman Catholic.

All these issues and more were profoundly disorienting, and at about the same time as we switched churches, there were a number of other upsetting events going on in my life. I dove into all this theology to give myself an anchor, and found it didn’t quite do so. Furthermore, my longtime love of fantasy, mythology, and fairytale creatures was starting to sit uncomfortably with my newfound sense of obligation to live a purified life before sovereign God. If things had gone on that way, I am not sure where they would have ended, but it was all very depressing and very confusing.

Then along came C. S. Lewis. I had read some of his stuff in the past, and categorized him with the rest of the Christian fiction authors I was familiar with. One person in my life encouraged me to read more of him, saying that I would surely love his stuff. I was reluctant, especially when she recommended Surprised by Joy, which I assumed to be the story of his falling in love with his wife, Joy. (How I knew he had a wife named Joy, I have no idea.) Eventually, though, I caved. I am more glad of that than of almost any other event in my life.

Surprised by Joy narrates Lewis’s early life, and his spiritual growth up until his belief in God. For me, it was earth-shattering. Here was a man who loved the Norse myths, who loved stories like I do, and the glimpses of beauty in the old paganism. Here also was a man who was intensely rational, as I was learning to be, and had no particular dog in any theological fight. Long years of reasoning and argument eventually led him to belief in God, but it was how he reconciled that belief in God with love of the old myths that captured my attention. He did not find that contradictory. Instead, he believed that the beauty he saw in the myths pointed towards Christ, towards the fulfillment of his spiritual longings.

For some time, theology had begun to choke the life out of my imagination. I was turning into one of those people that believes all truths are hard truths, and that if an idea makes you uncomfortable, it is more likely to be an accurate description of reality. Lewis undid that. I dove into both his fiction and his nonfiction, and they gave me both a clear, rational explanation of a broad faith very like what I had been raised with, and the ability to carry on loving the myths and fantasy that appealed to me, without them conflicting with that faith.

At some point I had decided I wanted to be a writer, and Lewis gave me a stronger drive to move in that direction. Life is more than what we read, however. It is our habits and seasonal rhythms, it is who we spend our time with, and it is the sheer necessity of making it to the next day that make us who we are.

My parents had decided long ago that we would be raised with a Christian education. By my secondary years, I had fallen in love with the little classical Christian school they had helped found. It was good for me in so many ways, and one of the best experiences of my life. On the other hand, it was very closely tied to the little church we had begun attending, and the pervasive influence of the Reformed subculture to which it belonged gave me reason to dwell more and more on the rational and theological sides of my personality, to the detriment of my ambitions as a mere fiction writer.

By the time I graduated, I had not quite given up that dream, though I had certainly dialed back my ambitions to a very great degree. I decided I would go to a college that would buy me time in deciding what path to take. There was a college I knew of that would allow me to dive deeper into classical learning and reformed theology, and the degree they offered was broad enough that I could take it anywhere. At the time, I was probably leaning towards the ministry, but I certainly had other thoughts in addition to that. But on top of the curriculum I respected and the options it left open, they also had a deep love of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Silmarillion was one of the most captivating things I had ever read. If they were obsessed with these distinctly Christian authors, surely I could find a home there. And thus it was decided.

Before I talk about my experience there, let me provide some context. Because the church I had spent my early years in was nondenominational, as was the Christian radio I listened to and the school I attended, my picture of the church was very broad. Generally speaking, I thought the Gospel was fairly simple and straightforward, and that Christ embraced all who accepted him, from feverish backwoods revivalists, to the frozen chosen, to big churches in the city with fancy lights and praise bands, to respectable little Episcopalian chapels, and just about everything in between. My slow immersion into the world of Reformed theology had hardened my views on which interpretations of the Bible were right, and therefore who was doctrinally wrong, but I still believed that most everybody could get along.

My experience at college was something like having a bucket of ice-water dumped on your head.

That college was closely related to a pair of churches in the town, and between those three communities a person could disappear for four years and never see anybody else. This in a university town of more than twenty thousand people, with another just like it down the road. And everywhere I turned, these Reformed people were badmouthing the rest of the Church. Dispensationalists got blamed for all manner of outlandish things (and dispensationalism and premillenialism were not at all distinguished). Baptists, I soon found out, were why the American culture was so messed up, and Left Behind was why American Christians were not involved in politics. (?!?!?) Focus on the Family was also apparently too liberal, and definitely compromised, and the Bible Belt consisted exclusively of Pharisaical hypocrites. Now, I was under no illusions as to the shallowness of the faith of many of my fellow Southerners, but to apply that failing to everyone there (and exclusively to them) and then to add that they were legalistic Pharisees when in fact they often lived too loose a life—that just boggled my mind.

Despite this muddle of often contradictory slanders against the church more broadly, I didn’t think the church there was necessarily in a poor place doctrinally or had any lack of love for Christ. Just a little doom and gloom, I thought. I soon found my niche—a little circle of pseudo-Inklings—tried to focus on my studies, and drove on. For a number of years, that worked.

Before we go any further, it has to be said that the number one character flaw in my book had always been ingratitude. I loved Christ and the Gospel story, and kids who took that lightly got very little respect from me. I had watched my parents work hard and shed sweat and tears trying to get our school off the ground, saw all the drama involved in such a project, especially on such a small and intimate scale, and absolutely despised people who could reap the benefits of that and go on complaining. I loved my small town, partly because of its smallness, and I loved the whole region. People who spoke ill of it, who just wanted to get away—they had an attitude problem. Thanksgiving was the first virtue in my eyes, and thanklessness was the vice most likely to get under my skin. (Not that I was never thankless myself—but that is another story.)

So as the terms wore on and I grew less and less satisfied with the college and the church community, the last thing I wanted to do was complain. I flat out could not leave. I had come to this place, and they had given me their time, they had given me opportunities, they had accepted me, more or less, as one of their own, and I would not turn away from them.

The problem was, I felt I had reason to. That community was constantly harping on the sins of other churches, and would not hear one bad word about their own. They seemed to reject Christ’s church, and in their love of theological controversy, had turned the Gospel into something like a political platform that outlined the minutest details of what was and was not acceptable in their culture. People who struggled in that environment were pushed out, and any troubles in the community were swept under the rug and any memory of them was hushed. “Our party” could not be seen to have any trouble within it. Everything wrong with the world must come from outside.

This cut right against my understanding of sin. Sin was in everyone, including those saved by God’s grace. Their own efforts could never make them perfect, and any community was guaranteed to have problems as a result. Admitting such things was not shameful, but merely part of being human in a fallen world. Furthermore, it was a key part of repentance, which is necessary to the Christian life. How could a community follow Christ and pretend to be faultless at the same time?

On other side of that was the fact that this was God’s world. God had created mankind in his image, and sin could not obliterate that image, nor any other part of creation. No human being could be entirely corrupt, and to pretend that unbelievers embodied every possible evil seemed to cut against God’s sovereignty, and common sense. This was doubly the case when the community attacked the rest of the Church, which had the Gospel and the holy Scriptures, and stood before God as equals with us. These people talked as if they wanted to amputate the better part of the Body of Christ.

I was going through other personal issues at the time, and that made things more complex. But the long and short of it is, I switched churches. There were other places in town, and I went there, despite hardly feeling more comfortable. I had grown used to high church liturgy and certain Reformed habits, so my new church could not feel homely. Furthermore, I was still removed from a lot of cultural things I had been raised with in the Bible Belt and the Deep South. I felt more than a little adrift, knowing what I was looking for, but not knowing where to find it.

Under the circumstances, my ears were open to a lot of complaints about the Church generally. The churches I had just left attacked others for lacking doctrinal rigor and liturgical solemnity while overemphasizing the saving of souls, and the church I found myself in said the Church was both too American and too doctrinally tight. (Oddly enough, I have never felt so surrounded by hip, contemporary, upper-middle-class white Americana as at that church.) Other expats from the community I had spent the past several years in complained that the church was too conservatively evangelical, while I did not recognize that church’s somewhat distorted Gospel and trendy alternative theology as very conservative or as evangelical at all.

At any rate, I managed to graduate by the skin of my teeth and made it back to more familiar surroundings. Being displaced on so many levels for so long, I had taken on a much more pessimistic view of life, and was beset by more doubts than I ever remember having. There were teachings I found readily accepted by certain groups up there which I would have called heresy in anyone else, and the sparsity of teaching on redemption itself—hot-button culture war issues were preferred—left me with vague memories of what the Gospel was, and a thirst for grace-filled teaching, but with no idea what it looked like. I was at a loss.

Often I have found that time and space create room for peace. Removed from the constant battles of that town, and granted new rhythms, I gained the ability to process things. I have been living with my family again for about a year now, teaching at the school I grew up in, and attending the Reformed church we switched to when I was young. I listen to Christian radio fairly often, though my favorite preachers come on during school hours or after I’ve started winding down at the end of the day. I made my way slowly through the writings of John, which were some of the most frightening books in the hands of certain people at college. I found them very profitable, and recently got involved in a BSF study on the book of Revelation. I had no idea such a wild apocalyptic vision could be so practical.

Through a tangled series of events, I have also gotten more intentional about my writing than I have ever been. I read much more fiction than I could afford to at college, and my imagination is thriving as a result. I enjoy walking beneath the pines when I can, and recognize more stars than I used to.

Many of the doubts I had have been put to rest, and many questions answered. Many, however, remain. I think that’s healthy. I never want to settled into the complacency that simply accepts an explanation without holding it up to the light of Scripture and God-given common sense to see if it will stand.

I have heard the complaints of burnt out millennials and of culture warriors, of trendy evangelicals and the heirs of fundamentalists. There are so many pundits throwing around ideas for how the church can fix itself, for the platform it can adhere to that will drive up its numbers and restore it to the proper degree of influence in the world. Some of that seems like crass salesmanship to me, but there is also a great deal motivated by a sincere love for something, or else sincere pain that cries out for healing.

In the end, though, I don’t think any of those platforms or strategies or trendy new doctrines have the answer. I think somewhere along the way we forgot that Christianity is a religion. It is not based on a series of beliefs, but on the worship of Christ. Love of a particular party—even if that party is the “we aren’t a party” party—does not create a community, and certainly not a redeemed one. We aren’t here for that We cannot save ourselves as a Church any more than we can as sinful individuals. Only Christ can do that, and that is why we gather to worship him.

That’s a nice sentiment and all, and I think it’s said often enough. It does have real meaning, though, if you can find it. The fact is that platforms, even doctrinal or cultural ones, are not eternal. They are specific to a time and place, and they are born and die. Sometimes very quickly. Lasting communities cannot be built on them.

For example, talking about Left Behind and how to interpret Revelation made sense when it was a bestselling series, but now that the apocalyptic crazes that led up to 2000 and 2012 are past, continuing to talk about seems a bit beside the point. The issues have changed, and so the platforms of all the little parties will too. The same goes for the worship wars and any number of other things. You can plant your flag there, but those hills are made of shifting sand. They won’t be there in a while.

What will be there is Christ. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We have him, we have stories about him, the Scriptures, the Gospel in a number of different tellings. We have the world he created, and we have the people we know—both those who are redeemed and those still in need of redemption. We have our own souls and our own sin, with our own need for salvation and sanctification. Remember these things, and the Church will do well enough.

When I meet a Christian these days, I am far less concerned about whether they agree with me on a series of doctrinal points. I am concerned with whether they seem to be concerned with Jesus Christ and what he thinks. I am concerned with whether they display a humility and a willingness to conform their life to his standards, whatever those turn out to be.

I may disagree with a Roman Catholic on transubstantiation or the veneration of the Virgin Mary, but if I see him pursuing chastity when he doesn’t want to because he loves Christ—he is my brother. If I run into a Pentecostal girl with hair down to her knees who tells me she has a word from the Lord, but who pours over her Bible, making it a guide for her life, and puts others before herself—she is my sister. Maybe the kid with the purple hair and the gauges is more liberal than I’d like, and his worship band makes me uncomfortable, but if he places the words of Jesus over the words of his peers, I respect him We have the same Lord. The same goes for wealthy men in business suits who go to respectable churches, but when times are tough they hold fast to Christ. Nothing that is of Christ is alien to me.

But what about all of the problems in the Church? What about all the things that need to be fixed? I still think those can be pretty significant, but finding some conservative scapegoat, or some liberal boogieman, or some high church spook to blame it on, does no one any good. We are here to worship Christ together, to serve him and learn from him. Our sins are our own, whatever circumstances might make them easier. We have enough trouble repenting of them without paying attention to what the guy across the map is doing. More often than not, that self-righteous crusading serves as a nice distraction from our own problems, a good reason to close ranks and cover up our sins.

The Church I’d like to see is one at peace. Sunday should be a day of rest, not a day of war, and fellowship should encourage brothers and sisters in their walk, not fill them with fear of the world. Christ is sovereign. He has conquered sin and death, and there is nothing you or me or those lunatics in the church across the street can do about it. God is sovereign. That’s the end of it, and our job is just to accept that. We worship him. That’s what makes us Christians.

And that, I suppose, is my testimony. I stand on Christ, however imperfectly, and find anything else more than a little disappointing. It’s that love for an actual God, not platforms vaguely related to his commands, that I want to see blossoming out there in the world. But before I see that, I have to see it in myself. Salt does not give its savor unless it is already salty, and light that’s not lit doesn’t shine. So that’s where I am. I stand with Christ, and want to get better at it.

Marvel, the Gods, and Atheism

Marvel has a tense theology. Let’s lay some quick groundwork before tackling it.

One of the fundamental principles of classical monotheism is the Creator-creature distinction. Imagine a bubble. Inside is all of time and space from beginning to end. At one end of the bubble is the first domino ever knocked over, and all of reality ripples out from that first action, that first moment of creation.

Now, standing outside the bubble, outside of time and space and the chain of causality and reality as we can understand it, is the Creator. The Creator caused everything else to exist, and caused it to exist in the way it exists. But the Creator himself stands outside of that bubble of spacetime. Nothing made him exist. He just exists because that is what he does. He is the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. Among other things.

In a monotheistic universe, all of reality is shaped by the personality and by the will of the Creator. To a very great extent, everything is just mimicking what Dad does. Each thing’s meaning is defined by the meaning he gave it, and its purpose by the intensions he has for it. And because he authored it all, he has authority over it.

In the Marvel universe, and in the imagination of those who deny any such being standing outside and independent of spacetime, this is not so. Puny mortals, superheroes, and gods all exist on a spectrum. There is no fundamental distinction between them.

Take Spiderman. Spiderman has superhuman sense, superhuman reflexes, and cool web-shooters. Your average Joe might be tempted to think his powers were supernatural, even godlike. But set him next to Thor, and there’s no comparison. Thor’s got mojo. He is so clearly godlike in comparison to Peter Parker, earthlings actually worship him. But set him next to Jean Grey (a.k.a. Phoenix), and again, there’s no comparison. So what if Thor is really strong and can fly? So what if he apparently lives for eons? Phoenix is more powerful than death itself. She controls space, she controls time, and she controls the thoughts inside a person’s mind, given a good excuse. Can most of the gods of classical paganism claim that?

And that’s why Joss Whedon’s refusal to let the Avengers bow before Loki makes sense. Sure, he’s a “god,” relatively speaking. He’s got oomph. He has power. But fundamentally he’s no different than any other creature zooming around the Marvel universe. Under the right set of circumstances, he can have all that taken away. Under the right set of circumstances—say, acquiring the Infinity Gauntlet—a puny human as klutzy and awkward and harebrained as Peter Quill might become top dog in the universe. The difference between one Marvel character and another is just degrees of power, which can be won or lost. There’s no real difference in kind.

And that’s why Captain America’s offhand remark that there’s only one God is such a big freaking deal. Perhaps Joss and the producers meant it as an offhand funny remark from a charmingly out-of-date super-patriot, but it has major implications. If Captain America believes that there is still a real God, a transcendent God, someone who stands outside of the bubble and stands as Lord of the whole shebang and judge of the actions of the Avengers and those around them—that changes everything.

In a world where the chain of being is all there is, there’s no reason for Iron Man or Thor or anybody else not to play with morality. There’s no reason they shouldn’t cross a line to get things done, let a few people die in order to save the world. Break a few eggs to make an omelet. The ends justify the means. It all comes down to what you think the greater good is and what you think you can get away with. Besides, if the other guy is bigger than you, and you let something as petty as your qualms about personal freedoms, or the sanctity of life, or whatever else get in your way, you’re going to regret it. There’s no room for that in the big leagues.

But if there is a just God standing outside of that chain of being, then you might be held accountable to him. The ends do not necessarily justify the means. Superheroes do not get a blank check and a free pass when they run around destroying cities or overthrowing democratically elected governments. There is a judge who will see justice done in the long run, and you are not him. And you might guess where I’m going with this.

Marvel’s Civil War plotline is ultimately about this question. In the grand scheme of things, are there limits to the authority of the guys with the supersuits and magic powers? Are they to be held to the standards of common mortals? Is there a God standing outside the universe who presides over the destinies of planets and the fates of the Avengers, or is it all a conflict between different degrees of power in a mechanistic cosmos? If the former, let’s put some brakes on Tony Stark. If the latter… maybe we leave the tough calls up to him. After all, he’s bigger.

Before I bring this in for a landing, let’s bring in another fictional universe. This is why H.P. Lovecraft, the materialist par excellence, is so comfortable with a universe filled with so many gods. The line between atheism and polytheism isn’t one that separates two fundamentally different mythologies. It’s just a question of terminology. If you believe that the world is one vast uncaring void, then maybe some small creatures the universe doesn’t care about worship other, larger creatures the universe also doesn’t care about. The gods of a polytheistic universe aren’t deities in any ultimate or transcendent sense, but they sure do look like it compared to the ants walking around beneath them. The Christian—or Muslim, or Jewish—disbelief in the gods of polytheism is simply nothing like the atheist’s or some polytheists’ disbelief in the Creator God.

And that is why Captain America can still not believe in pagan gods, even after hanging out with one.

Two Kinds of God and Sloppy Argumentation

“Some contemporary writers zealous for God’s unrivaled authority have expressed concern about natural law thinking, supposing that it presents a potential competitor with God. But whether this might be true in a kind of universe where God was a finite, Zeus-like, immaterial extra-terrestrial, and natural law some impersonal surd structuring the universe without an explanation for its existence, it is certainly not true in the theology and cosmology of classical theism.”

This is one thing that bugs me about some discussions concerning religion. People often equate gods like Zeus, Marduk, or Thor with the God of the Bible. But where the former gods are finite–though extraordinarily powerful and relatively inhuman–immaterial extraterrestrials, who exist within the universe and are subject to its laws, the God of the Bible (and the creators proposed by other monotheist faiths) transcends the universe and its laws, standing outside it, and in fact creating and sustaining it.

In other words, God is not Cthulhu, mighty and inscrutable, but ultimately subject to other superhuman forces and the passage of time. He’s not on top simply because he’s got more power, whatever form that power takes. God’s authority comes from the fact that he is author and creator, the one who established the universe and its laws, and everything in it. We belong to him because we came out of his head, and out of his spoken word, not because he’s big and can smash us.

Atheists are free to disbelieve in such a God, but to equate such a transcendent Creator with Cthulhu or Thor and so dismiss him is sloppy argumentation. It’s a category error. You’re talking about a totally different sort of being. To equate the two may work as a joke among already convinced atheists, or as an insult directed at Christians–and other believers in a creator–but it doesn’t work as logic. Disproving one is not necessarily to disprove the other, and to disbelieve in one is not necessarily to disbelieve in the other. Atheists do not simply “believe in one less god” than Christians, they disbelieve in a totally different kind of God.

The quote above is from an article on natural law in the Bible over at The Calvinist International. The site is a great resource for people interested in natural law or historic two kingdoms theology, as well as other topics of interest to Evangelical armchair and professional theologians.

A Man Stopped Being Dead

This morning, people across the country will gather with their families for a quiet spring dinner, send the kids out into the yard to gather pastel-colored eggs, and perhaps exchange gifts. Some people may go to church who would not ordinarily go. But overall, it will be quiet.

Easter is not a holiday like Christmas. Whatever it means inside the church, it means far less to those outside. The fierce, merry joy of Santa Claus may capture some of the joy, the wonder, the sense of a gift received and something magical breaking into the ordinary that rightly belongs to a holiday intended to celebrate Christ’s birth. The Easter Bunny, on the other hand, is vague and meaningless, an uncertain step up from the Tooth Fairy. And as confused as we are by the presence of this anthropomorphic bunny with his basket of abnormal, painted eggs, that confusion seems to carry over to the holiday itself.

I often wonder what non-Christians see when they look at what in some churches appears to be a laid-back celebration of spring, a celebration of some vague hope about a teacher who seems to come back from the dead, float around for a while, then disappear Jedi-style, becoming one with the Force. Is it symbolic? Is the point that his teachings live on? Or that we all live on in the hearts of our friends? Or that maybe, hopefully, we too can ascend into some unknown, but conscious existence in the clouds when we die?

No.

The point is, a man stopped being dead.

Scrap vague moralism, and think about that. Christians know what dead is. We know that biological processes stop for no man. We are all unraveling, our hearts will stop beating, our brains will stop functioning, and we will begin to rot. Decay is built into the order of the universe as we understand it. All things die, all things pass away, and all the might of every civilization, every attempt by king and conqueror to make themselves live on in story or song, in a building project, or some new polity, it all crumbles to dust, and is forgotten. The cracked and fallen statue of Ozymandias, like that of all kings and great men, lies half-buried in the sand. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Death wins. Everyone will die, and nothing we do can change that. There is no cure for death. The graveyards, the battlefields, the vast and roaring sea are full of evidence.

We believe that a man stopped being dead.

His heart did not stop beating for a minute, and then start back up. This was no resuscitation. He was whipped till the flesh came off his back, had large thorns shoved into his forehead, his hands and feet were nailed with spikes to a rough piece of wood, he was hung from that makeshift tree and mocked until he strangled. And then, to be sure, they put a spear to his side until blood and some inner fluid that looked like water poured out. Then they took him down, wrapped him in burial clothes, and left him in a tomb for the better part of three days. If he was not dead in every sense of the word, then no man is.

We believe that this man stopped being dead.

We are not naïve. The laws of nature do not permit death to reverse itself. Decay does not go backwards. Gashes do not heal on their own, after the heart has stopped beating. A corpse cannot replenish its own supply of blood. Once turned off, the brain begins to die almost instantly, and that damage is not lightly undone. Cells that burst throughout the body, muscles that come unknit, chemicals that only hold together under the right temperature, the right supply of oxygen, all these begin to fail. When you rot for three days in the grave, you do not come back. It cannot happen.

It happened.

We believed that a man stopped being dead.

The force that kills the poor and the rich, the force that humiliates the best of us, that weakens the strongest of us, death was beaten. Natural law, the world as we know it, was violated, reversed. The impossible happened, a miracle beyond miracles, nothing simply strange, but something supernatural—“above nature.” A dead un-rotted, a dead man un-bled, a dead man healed, and a dead man lived. He rose in his tomb and folded his burial clothes, walked outside passed armed guards who were preventing the theft of his body, and lingered in the area long enough to surprise his friends who had come to practice the local approximation of embalming.

A dead man stopped being dead.

And that’s not all.

That dead man claimed to be God. He claimed to know why everyone dies, why we’re trapped in this unraveling world. We sinned, he said. We rebelled against the God that created us. He gave every good thing imaginable, our very lives, and we slapped him in the face. Then for a thousand years, and a thousand years again, and on and on, through generation after generation, we set about killing each other, humiliating the weak, being cruel to man and beast and world at large. We deserve death, and death comes for us.

But God would not let the story stop there. The God who made us, and gave us every good gift, the God we hate, whose creation we seek to destroy, whose image-bearing people we constantly dehumanize, that God still loves us. He came to earth in the person of his son, walked the rough and thorny ground that we walk, faced every temptation and trial we ever faced, and at the end of the day, the people he came to save seized him, spit on him, beat him, and crucified him.

That was the punishment we deserved.

He went to the cross willingly. He took on our sins, our evil, the shame of every hateful thing we’ve ever done, the guilt of every crime, the penalty for every line we crossed, he took it on himself, and died. But as he died, he experienced the true thing that makes death hard for us, the thing that makes living this world unbearable. “My God, my God,” he said, “Why have you forsaken me?” For a moment, it seemed he was cut off from his Creator, from his purpose and meaning, from the source of all life and happiness, from the source of any hope in the future.

But he stayed on the cross. He died. He took on our penalty, our humiliation, he said, “It is finished,” and he died.

And it was finished.

Everything we had ever done wrong, everything that separated us from our Creator, from a life worth living, from hope in the future, everything that ever meant we had to die—it was finished. Over. Done with.

And they placed him in the grace.

He was dead.

And then, he stopped being dead.

The story did not end with the penalty paid, with a final humiliation. No, he came back, alive, whole healthy. Death itself reversed, the impossible happened, he rose from the grave, and he lived.

Think about that. Our sins are done with, over, finished. And so is death. If we died in him, if our penalty was paid in him, then we rise with him. We, too, receive the promise, we, too, receive the hope. If sin could not hold us, then death cannot hold us.

All of creation, all the slow decay, the dark unraveling, the doom of man and beast and every green thing, all death, is coming undone.

Christ the Lord is risen today.

We, too, shall rise.

Death—humiliated—Death, too, shall die.

That is what Easter means. Not a warm feeling in our hearts, not the survival of the teachings of a kind, young teacher, and not merely the hope of a vague, bright consciousness beyond the grave. No, the reign of death is ending. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, rose to heaven—not the cloud-filled afterlife, but the throne-room of God—and sits at the right hand of the one who rules the universe. All things that look bleak and hopeless, all evil in the world all death, their time on earth is limited. The one who runs the show is guiding things to better a place, a grand finale, a great and hopeful conclusion. Death is dead. The way of the universe is changing.

In Christ, all died.

In Christ, all shall rise.

And that is what Easter means.

The Future of Protestantism: A Personal Church History

Kicking Up Dust

A few months back, Dr. Peter Leithart kicked up some dust with his article titled “The End of Protestantism,” suggesting that although the Reformers were right to protest, the ground had shifted since the sixteenth century, and now was the time for their heirs to abandon tribal rhetoric and be at one with the church at large.

Though his call for church unity was admirable, the tack he took sparked a stir in the Protestant blogosphere, culminating in a talk at Biola. This mini-conference, “The Future of Protestantism,” featured Dr. Leithart, Dr. Carl Trueman, and Dr. Fred Sanders, with Peter Escalante moderating. Sectarianism was discussed as it effected intra-Protestant relations, confessional standards were referred to, and everyone gave their opinion on how to approach Catholics. Speculation ensued as to just what the future held for Protestantism, and how we ought to act in light of our place in that story.

During the Q&A period, one questioner asked whether perhaps the crisis was being exaggerated. Was institutional disunity really a problem? Doesn’t most of the country lump all Bible-believing Christians into one group? If that is how unbelievers see us, are denominational divisions really some sort of visible rift in the body of Christ?

This question resonated with me. I don’t believe the church has to be very monolithic in terms of doctrine, liturgy, or governance in order to live together in brotherly love, worship the same Savior, and preach the same Gospel. If the past saw Protestant sectarianism and division, everyone queuing up into their own little tribes, the future need not see us all join the same tribe in order to be part of the same body. Because I believe in justification by faith, I believe Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Catholics, and any other brand of Christian are all part of the same body, regardless of whether they all send delegates to the same general assembly or subscribe to the same confession or statement of faith, or are ministered to by the same priesthood.

I say this as an individual with a history, a testimony of how my life in the Church has demonstrated the unity of Christ’s Body. My experience is not universal, but it does point to a way some people in some places have lived together in Christian brotherhood. I hope it can add something to the discussion.

Life of a Wandering Evangelical

My parents came to Christ and began attending church when I was very young, early enough that I’m not sure I remember a time when we didn’t follow the Lord. At first we attended a small Bible church on the campus of our local university. It was nondenominational, encompassing people of various broadly Evangelical, low-church bents.

Sunday nights all of us kids would participate in AWANAs, a non-denominational program used in churches across America. We memorized Bible verses, played games, learned lessons, and raced these awesome little wooden cars we made during the AWANA grand prix. There was also a Super Bowl Sunday thing, but that might have been just our church. But most of all, we learned the basics of the Gospel, and that Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed.

During this time, my family began to listen to the local Christian radio station. There were actually two—one for teaching and talk, and one for contemporary Christian music. We did not spend a lot of time on the latter. This radio station connected us to the broader church in East Texas, the Bible Belt, and all over the USA. It was nondenominational, representing Evangelicals from widely scattered backgrounds. I heard more sermons during the years I listened to that station than the rest of my Sundays put together.

Eventually, I got into a groove. At six thirty in the morning—or was it seven?—I would listen to Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson. If I missed any of it, I could catch the rest in the evening at six. At six thirty was Adventures in Odyssey, also brought to you by Focus on the Family. By this time my family had usually gone their various ways, but I loved the seven o’clock show, Unshackled, which dramatized the conversion stories of countless people who had been wandering through life without Christ. And if I was having trouble sleeping, and midnight arrived, I could listen to Into the Night Live, with Dave Kirby and Dawson Macalister.

Sprinkled throughout the week, during the summers, and whenever my schedule was off, I could catch other preachers and speakers. I could hear Charles Stanley, Dr. Tony Evans, Chuck Colson, Adrian Rogers, or Alistair Begg. One of my favorite jokes—which I have so much trouble remembering—comes from a talk given by Ravi Zacharias. Nancy Leigh Demoss, Joni Eareckson Tada, David Jeremiah, and Ed Young all made significant dents in my soul. I’m sure my politics still carries the baggage of Kerby Anderson’s Point of View and Janet Parshall’s America.

Talk about a wave of nostalgia right there.

At the time I had no idea what denomination most of these guys were, nor did I care. The point was, they loved Jesus, and so did I. They wanted to see the world turned towards him, and so did I. The Bible was their book, and it was mine, and we were all in this together. Looking back, I realize that these folks included a slew of Baptists, what some have called a “Neo-Puritan,” a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and several people associated with nondenominational, broadly evangelical ministries. But as they came over the airwaves, those affiliations didn’t matter.

Eventually we switched to a Reformed Church, where both the family as a whole and myself in particular developed a more robust theology. We became acquainted with the history of the Protestant Reformation, familiar with several creeds and systematic theologians, and became conversant on issues which divided church from church, denomination from denomination. Confronted with this challenge, I began to identify myself as Reformed.

But during this time, not only did I continue to listen to the Christian radio station, I began attending a nondenominational Christian school. Though much of the board and many of the teachers were either from my church, or would later join it, I began rubbing shoulders with Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, Baptist, and Bible Church people. On a daily basis I was confronted with serious Christians not from my denomination—people I loved, whose opinions I respected. Over the next seven or eight years of my life, I was thoroughly inundated in a broad, evangelical Christianity.

This is not to say that there were never any rough times as bumped into one another. There were, though I doubt many of them really had much to do with liturgy or doctrine so much as personality. But for eighteen years I lived in a world where Christians of differing backgrounds working together was simply the norm. Perhaps we did not worship at the same church, and our congregations were not linked by the same conference, classis, or episcopacy, but so what? One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

The Way Forward

I am not am academic theologian, a church historian, or a pastor. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but my experience does suggest that certain things are true.

First, Christians can work together despite denominational differences. It is achievable. In addition, it’s not a wild dream, a far off and unfulfilled item on a wish list. It has been done, is being done, and can continue to be done.

Second, we are already one Body. For those who recite the Apostle’s Creed, this is a part of our statement of faith we proclaim every Sunday. Not a goal, a statement of faith. We were all baptized into the same Lord, Jesus Christ. Not a Baptist Jesus, a Presbyterian Jesus, or a Pentecostal Jesus. One Lord. If we all worship him, we all confess him, all our hearts are changed by him, then it follows that in some respects we will never really be divided. That is the foundation of our unity.

But what about the things these three intelligent men suggested?

Does the Protestant church need to return to its confessional roots? Will this give us a robust theology, freeing us from having to define ourselves as not-the-other-guy? Or will it deepen divides by driving us back into various denominational ideals?

Will we find common ground in liturgical reform? Will common priorities in worship enable us to recognize our brothers washed with the same baptism and partaking in the same Supper? Or will our insistence that our brothers adopt a better sacramentology and theology of worship simply become another tribal marker?

Is dialogue the way forward? Should we meet our differences head-on, joining in discussion to find the truth together? Or does that open the way for concession and compromise and the slippery slope to a contentless faith?

I don’t know. These are all potentially fruitful areas of discussion. But as we pursue these lines of questioning, we ought to keep in mind that sometimes church unity is really not that far away. We find it in common schools or radio stations, shared ministries, and faith in the same Savior. Out of many members, there is one body. Denominational divisions need not be perceived as some crisis of disunity. Division may be a cause of discord, but it is also a prerequisite for harmony.

Just something to keep in mind.

Have a blessed evening.

Hope, Grit, and Faith

I have a melancholy temperament. I am keenly aware of everything wrong with life. I can be overcome by fear, despair, suspicion, and bitterness. Life is not easy, and people are not essentially good. What good guys there are don’t always win, and the bad guys frequently don’t lose. Not in this life. There are horrible things that happen to people, some of them acts of nature, some of them the malicious actions of fellow human beings. We don’t live in a happy-go-lucky world. It’s dark out here. I’ve plumbed some deep depths of depression, what is terrifying is the knowledge that plenty of people go through far worse.

But when I’m at my lowest, when I think I’ve failed at everything I care about, when everyone seems to be against me, when it seems that the only people who care are thousands of miles away, when I’m at most cynical and I’ve given up on my dreams–at those darkest moments, something happens. I take a look at life and say, “Screw it. I’m going to keep going. I’m going to be happy.”

I am of the conviction that this world is ruled by a sovereign God who loves me, and who works all things together for the good of those who love him. I believe the world is bigger and more complicated than I can began to comprehend, and I believe God is a heck of a lot smarter than I am.

When life is hard, he’s shaping me. He’s building me up in his image–to be a man worth being, and to live a life worth living. No matter how bad things get, they’re getting that bad in order to make me someone capable of handling something better. And it’s not just me. God is in the process of redeeming this world. Every tragedy, every unjust act, every hardship, it all means something. It’s leading to something better. The world ends in a heavenly city, in feasting and bright sunshine, in tears being wiped from every eye and every nation’s wounds being healed.

So hardship is a nuisance, a trial, an enemy to be defeated. It’s something getting between me and where God wants me to be. God has better plans for me than this. So I refuse to be defeated. I will not be. I cannot be. I already know how the story ends. What right does life have to think it can keep me down?

Depression, for me, ends in pissedness, in stubborn refusal to let doubt, loss, sadness, and worry win. It’s not long after I reach that point that I begin to feel 1) thankful, and 2) bulletproof. I thank God for loving me and promising me eventual victory. And I feel bulletproof because I know that no matter how bad it gets, it will never get so bad that things won’t change direction and get better.

Hope is not fluffy and warm, made of sweet dreams and naivete. It is built out of stubbornness and grit. It is built out of refusal to believe in ultimate failure, despite all evidence to the contrary. But it is not built on *my* grit, on *my* strength. It comes from resting on another’s strength. It comes from a complete and utter trust, a reckless commitment, an almost blind faith in a holy, all-loving Almighty.

People ask me what my testimony is. I was in church for most of my conscious life. I was raised in Christian schools reading Christian literature and soaked deep in Scripture. I do not remember a time when I could have been called pagan. But if you ask what the foundation of my life is, and how I keep on going, this is it. Stubborn hope, built on faith in an invisible, all-loving, Almighty God. That is my testimony.