Sweet summer rain, like God’s own mercy

When I’ve had a week like this past one, I find Reformed theology to be as refreshing as a summer rain.

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American gods

I’m currently working my way through Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Though I have long been a fan of the cinematic adaptations of his books, this is the first time I have actually read Neil Gaiman. I wasn’t sure what I should expect but I didn’t expect this. The book is weird; not China Mieville weird, but weird nonetheless. The basic premise is that the gods people have believed in over the millenia do exist. But they somehow are brought into existence through our faith and when we no longer believe, they are left in this weird, immortal, limbo. America is filled with the old gods, like Odin, who immigrants brought with them. These old gods are now being squeezed out by the new gods of American culture.

But while the premise is interesting, it lends itself well to some introspective thought on what is America and what defines Americans. Gaiman explores this somewhat through his main character’s extensive traveling with Mr. Wednesday (Odin):

“It’s almost hard to believe that this is in the same country as Lakeside,” he said.

Wednesday glared at him. Then he said, “It’s not. San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside any more than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis.”

“Is that so?” said Shadow, mildly.

“Indeed it is. They may share certain cultural signifiers—money, a federal government, entertainment; it’s the same land, obviously—but the only things that give it the illusion of being one country are the green-back, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s.” 

Living in a Tri-State region, I’d have to agree. While there is much that unifies us, there is a tremendous difference in culture between the populace of the three states. In addition, being a transplant, I have an outsider’s perspective on where I live and it is very different from where I’m from.

So what does unite us? Gaiman makes the case that Americans are a very religious people: we worship lots of different gods. I’m always happy when I find something in pop culture echoing the Reformed faith. As John Calvin said, “The human heart is an idol factory… Every one of us from our mothers womb is an expert in inventing idols”  We worship our government:

“As they passed their first signpost for Mount Rushmore, still several hundred miles away, Wednesday grunted. “Now that,” he said, “is a holy place.” Shadow had thought Wednesday was asleep. He said, “I know it used to be sacred to the Indians.” “It’s a holy place,” said Wednesday. “That’s the American Way—they need to give people an excuse to come and worship.”

We worship technology and television. Even Media is a goddess in Gaiman’s book. Shadow is confronted with the god of tv in a hotel room when Lucille Ball starts to talk to him out of the tv:

“It’s not Lucille Ball. It’s Lucy Ricardo. And you know something—I’m not even her. It’s just an easy way to look, given the context. That’s all.” She shifted uncomfortably on the sofa.

“Who are you?” asked Shadow.

“Okay,” she said. “Good question. I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I’m the boob tube. I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.”

“You’re the television? Or someone in the television?”

“The TV’s the altar. I’m what people are sacrificing to.”

“What do they sacrifice?” asked Shadow.

“Their time, mostly,” said Lucy. “Sometimes each other.” She raised two fingers, blew imaginary gun smoke from the tips. Then she winked, a big old I Love Lucy wink.

“You’re a god?” said Shadow.

Lucy smirked, and took a lady-like puff of her cigarette. “You could say that,” she said.

So imagine my surprise when yesterday, while watching Anthony Bourdain’s show Part’s Unknown he made a keen observation. This observation came while visiting Las Vegas and it had to do with another god we have come to worship. His commentary starts at around the 1.05 minute mark. Truly, if anything shows it, this scene shows us what “the kingdom and the glory” we have come to worship as Americans.

All of this leads to a pertinent question: when we worship something that doesn’t give life, are we truly living? In American Gods, the main character Shadow is confronted with this conundrum by his dead wife. I’ll end with their exchange:

“I’m alive,” said Shadow. “I’m not dead. Remember?”

“You’re not dead,” she said. “But I’m not sure that you’re alive, either. Not really.”

This isn’t the way this conversation goes, thought Shadow. This isn’t the way anything goes.

“I love you,” she said, dispassionately. “You’re my puppy. But when you’re really dead you get to see things clearer. It’s like there isn’t anyone there. You know? You’re like this big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world.” She frowned. “Even when we were together. I loved being with you because you adored me, and you would do anything for me. But sometimes I’d go into a room and I wouldn’t think there was anybody in there. And I’d turn the light on, or I’d turn the light off, and I’d realize that you were in there, sitting on your own, not reading, not watching TV, not doing anything.” She hugged him then, as if to take the sting from her words, and she said, “The best thing about Robbie was that he was somebody. He was a jerk sometimes, and he could be a joke, and he loved to have mirrors around when we made love so he could watch himself fucking me, but he was alive, puppy. He wanted things. He filled the space.” She stopped, looked up at him, tipped her head a little to one side. “I’m sorry. Did I hurt your feelings?”

He did not trust his voice not to betray him, so he simply shook his head. “Good,” she said. “That’s good.” They were approaching the rest area where he had parked his car. Shadow felt that he needed to say something: I love you, or please don’t go, or I’m sorry. The kind of words you use to patch a conversation that had lurched, without warning, into the dark places. Instead he said, “I’m not dead.”

“Maybe not,” she said. “But are you sure you’re alive?”

Malarkey

Earlier this week news broke that Alex, a boy who was in a terrible car crash and subsequent coma, did not end up spending time in heaven as he claimed. The boy, who has the unfortunate last name of Malarkey, made the whole thing up. However, this should not be surprising. In the few places in Scriptures where we gain glimpses of heaven, it is not a comforting place. It is a place where awe and terror are so seamlessly one that it is hard to distinguish between the two.

In a story I saw later on in the week on this story, it appears the poor boy was taken advantage of. The above linked article has his mom claiming he has never been paid for the book. But while the substance of the book was malarkey, the boy did say something true when he recanted:

“When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.”

Wow. Now that is a remarkable statement. A few observations that I’d like to point out.  First and foremost, the nature of revelation.

Protestant Christians happen to believe that revelation came from God through the Holy Spirit and was made clear through the Holy Scriptures. That is to say, the Scriptures are the first, middle and last word of God. Any further revelation is not to be trusted, especially if it contradicts what is found in heaven. Even if a boy should die and go to heaven and have amazing visions or an angel should appear with a fantastic message–if it is different than what Scripture has already made clear we should not believe a word of it.  The apostle Paul made this clear when he wrote to the church in Galatia (1.8): “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”

I don’t know if what Alex wrote contradicted Scripture or not: I haven’t read his book. I haven’t read any of those books. I don’t need to, I have this book called the Bible.

Now, not all Christians feel this way. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe in non-biblical revelation. This non-biblical revelation can be summed up with the word “Tradition.” That is, the teaching of the church. But their teaching is more in line with the historic faith because they still trust what the Bible says as being true.

However, there are major religions which “trust” the Bible while believing in non-biblical revelation. Specifically, heavenly or angelic revelation. These religions are Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints. Actually, if you study Mormonism and Islam, you’ll discover that they have quite a bit in common starting with how they were formed: Joseph Smith and Mohammed had an angel from heaven appear and let them know there was more to their faith than what the Bible had revealed.

This is why Galatians 1.8 is so important–a Protestant would not fall for Mormonism, Islam or any other teaching that adds to Scripture because we know that even if that teaching comes from an angel–it isn’t to be trusted.  So kudos to Alex for coming clean. Remember–if it doesn’t add up to Scripture don’t believe a word of it.

Gin again?

A Reformed evangelical author/pastor posted this on FB. Since Gin is my favorite, I thought I’d share.

11 Perfectly Good Reasons To Drink More Gin

image - Flickr / Tomas
image – Flickr / Tomas

1. Gin contains natural ingredients.

Of course, every gin is made with a different combination of ingredients, but besides the main berry, juniper, gin can include coriander, sage, cassia, nutmeg, rosemary, and angelica root. It’s like a much more fun version of the paleo diet…right?

2. Juniper berries are jam-packed with health benefits.

The main ingredient in gin is taken by many people as a daily supplement due to it’s medicinal properties. It combats infection(gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria), renal insufficiency, bad coughs and lung congestion, and can jump start a late period.

3. It’s a natural remedy for arthritis.

The stuff that helps chronic conditions is found in gin and cantherefore help with loss of tone in tissues and organs, as well as joint pain, gout and rheumatoid arthritis. Many people haverecently started to eat gin-soaked raisins at night as a homeopathic formula to keep inflammation at bay.

4. It can help eliminate wrinkles in your skin.

Alcohol, in general, contains antioxidants, but the added juniper-boost aids your body in regenerating cells, which in turn is great for maintaining smooth, line-free skin.

5. It fights kidney and liver disease.

Gin contains diuretic ingredients, which eases kidney filtration and therefore helps get rid of bad bacteria.

6. A gin and tonic can help prevent malaria.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get shots before travelling, but the cocktail was used in the days of the British Empire to prevent catching the disease that was ravaging both its colonies and colonizers. Quinine, which is used to make tonic water, was consumed religiously by English colonial people in order to stay healthy, and it didn’t take too long for people to realize that adding a bit of gin would make the tonic water a little more exciting.

7. Your digestive system will thank you.

The bitter herbs contained in gin can cause increases in digestive enzymes and stomach acid secretions, which helps break down food quickly and improves digestion.

8. It fights cancer.

The high antioxidant levels in gin help to “neutralize free radicals in the body,” which are some roots of cancer. These same kinds of benefits are found in fad drinks like kombucha, but wouldn’t you rather skip the ‘buch and get tipsy?

9. It won’t jeopardize your waistline

Gin happens to be one of the least calorific types of alcohol atabout 97 calories per 1.5 ounces. Since your digestive system is being revved up by the juniper, you’re also less likely to bloat and develop a urinary tract infection as it helps flush out toxins. That’s the kind of cleanse we can get behind.

10. A decent gin will not cost you an arm and a leg.

11. Frank Sinatra liked it. How much more classy can you get?

Ups and Downs

The Washington Post has created a hilarious, and disturbing, compliment engine. Drawing on Joe Biden’s memorable, and inappropriate, compliments and statements during his tenure as Vice President you can now be personally complimented by him! Check it out, it is hilarious and fun.

And just in case you think I’m being partisan, nothing beats the original: the Martin Luther insult engine. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Luther was the most quotable person in history. And many of his quotes are hugely inappropriate. Check it out and enjoy being insulted by the great Reformer.

Bad Santa

Well, Christmas is nearly upon us. The music has been playing in stores and on the radio for some time, Christmas specials and shopping sprees, Christmas cookie exchanges, the tree, presents….all of the things that go into making this holiday have become an integral part of our life. But the interesting thing about Christmas is it is a shared holiday. That is, two religions claim Christmas.

The first religion that claims Christmas are the Christians. The ones who celebrate the birth of their Savior on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day. The other religion is that of the American secular society that celebrates Christmas Eve/Day as the day when Santa Claus delivers presents to children all over the world.

I’m not a fan of Santa. In fact, I’d prefer to not have Santa involved in the discussions of Christmas with our children. I lost that battle. But, nevertheless, I still think Christians make a mistake when they buy all-in to the Santa Claus story. You see Santa and his mythology, is the anti-gospel.

Don’t get me wrong: it is the perfect story. Somewhere in the frozen tundra, specifically somewhere in the North Pole, there lies a magical land inhabited by elves, flying reindeer and a Tolkien-like creature named Santa Claus who is ancient but frozen in time. This creature known as Santa is all powerful:

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you’re awake

He knows if you’ve been bad or good

So be good for goodness sake. 

Santa is, in effect, omniscient and omnipresent. He is a god. Not only does he know everything about everyone everywhere, but in one night he is able to visit every household on earth, enter, deliver toys and depart undetected. It is a fun story. One that I’d probably enjoy reading any other time of day.

But it has been turned into a religion. The religion now has hymns, poetry, movies, decorations, employees. The government endorses it; the media encourages, corporations push it and consumers joyfully buy into it.

willworkforsalvationpage

My problem is focused on the central story of Santa Claus, the theology of pseud0-Christmas. It is a works-based salvation. If you behave, you are rewarded by god. If you are bad, then you are punished by god. Parents encourage their children to be on their best behavior throughout the year, because if they don’t, they might get coal for Christmas. This is the antithesis of the gospel. And unfortunately, we celebrate this lie on the very night we are supposed to be celebrating the good news of great joy known as the gospel, which is inaugurated with the birth of Jesus Christ.

The gospel starts from a similar place. There is a God who exists, and this God is indeed omniscient and omnipresent. But instead of rewarding us for good works, he rewards us because of the work of His Son, Jesus Christ. Our reward is a free gift of grace, not something we can earn and not something we can lose. As Paul put it in Ephesians 2.8-10: For it is by grace you have been saved,through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

So this Christmas remember, there are two religions and they are in opposition to one another. One teaches a gospel of works, one teaches a gospel of grace.

Religion in a Secular Society

In 2007 I spent a brief period of time at L’Abri in Massachusetts. While there, I was introduced to the teaching of Tim Keller, pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC. His teachings on grace, which I was there to study, changed my life. I have nothing but admiration for the work he has done and aspire to be like him. The Wall Street Journal has done a profile of him that is quite interesting. Stop on by their website and check it out.