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My Journey of Spiritual Reading

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Jerubbaal, Joash, and the Juxtaposition of Rome and America

While we, as a society, may be pondering the relationship between America and Rome, I have been of late pondering the relationship between the modern church and the book of Judges in the scriptures.  I have been brought to this line of thought primarily by my reading in the book, particularly when it comes to the story of Gideon.  Most of us are vaguely familiar with some aspects of Gideon’s life and work as a judge within the Israelite nation.  For many believers however, our understanding of Gideon’s life centers around two specific acts – the paring of the army and the fleece.  Those are both great moments in the life of Gideon and offer much to the contemplative reader.  However, it was the opening and situational moments of Gideon’s story which drew me to deeper consideration of the story.

In Judges 6, the Bible says the sons of Israel “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and the LORD gave them into the hands of the MIdians seven years” (vs 1).  It is during this time of oppression that the sons of Israel will “cry out to the Lord on the account of Midian” (vs 7) and God will answer by calling Gideon to be a judge and deliverer for the people.  The first thing Gideon is required to do is to tear down the altar of baal (a false god and the constant source of their disobedience to God throughout the book) and the Asherah pole which was beside it.  Gideon did it.  When the men of the city came out and saw what had been done, they set forth to kill the vandal.  When they learned it was Gideon, they beseeched his father, Joash, to turn over his son to mob.  Joash stood against them by uttering these words:

31 But Joash said to all who stood against him, “Will you contend for Baal, or will you deliver him? Whoever will plead for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because someone has torn down his altar.” 32 Therefore on that day he named him Jerubbaal, that is to say, “Let Baal contend against him,” because he had torn down his altar.

Joash is pretty smart.  His argument is basically that baal should be able to take care of himself if indeed he is a god as the people believe him to be.   And what a powerful argument it is!  The bible doesn’t give any more information about the scene, all we know is Gideon doesn’t die at the hands of the mob.  So we can infer reasonably that Joash’s philosophical pleadings were persuasive enough to save his son’s life.  Gideon will go on to be a great deliverer, though not a perfect one.  The land and the people will enjoy 40 years of peace.  But it was Joash’s words which stayed with me.  They caused me to think.

If the sons of Israel were abandoning Jehovah for the baals, why didn’t they cry out to the baals in the first place, as opposed to crying out to Jehovah like they do in Judges 6:1.  The point of their disobedience was the forsaking of Jehovah for a god who was, by evidence of their precipitating action, deemed better.  Yet, it was not baal to whom the sons of Israel cried in the face of the Midian onslaught of oppression, it was Jehovah.  Of course, the answer must be the sons of Israel didn’t believe the baals were real gods and their worship of them was only skin deep, as it were.  Their worship was like a beautifully wrapped present which when opened contains nothing but air.  I came to the conclusion that the sons of Israel stunk at following baal just like they stunk at following Jehovah.  They didn’t worship either one well.

And so I wondered about me and about you, intrepid reader (which if you have made it this far you are intrepid indeed, or bored…you might just have a lot of time on your hands), about us together in the Lord.  I wondered if maybe Christians in the modern world, surrounded and inundated as we are with the prominent and glittering  idols reminding us to worship ourselves, are equally as bad at serving those idols as we are at serving the Lord.  I wondered if maybe our land resembles more the barren and confused wasteland of Israel in the time of the judges than it does the halcyon Christendom of the Holy Roman Empire.  I wondered if maybe a generation has now arisen in which they really do not know the LORD nor yet the ways in which He has moved in history, or even in the hearts and lives of the people around them.  When Joshua died the bible says, “and there arose another generation after them (the generation of Joshua) who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10).

I wondered if maybe you and I are a part of that pagan generation, complicit in its iniquity with our own bad following (disobedience).  And I wonder what, if anything, we are willing to do about that.

One Nation Under God

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I recently completed a book by Kevin Kruse entitled One Nation Under God: How Corporate American invented Christian America.  The book is the kind of book that I normally like.  It is meticulously researched.  The writing is fairly tight and keeps moving.  It tackles its subject well and I learned quite a bit about the subject for reading it.

Kruse attempts to make the argument that much (he often alludes to ‘all’) of what we consider “Christian America” began as an attempt from corporate America to put down the New Deal in the 30s and 40s.  He does a really good job at it.  He shows, quite well, that corporate America reaches out to the predominantly conservative religious people of the time for a political marriage aimed at dismantling aspects of Roosevelt’s New Deal and the impact it has on American ideals and life.  This political marriage is espoused in revivalistic fervor that enshrines a “ceremonial deism” within the public sphere.  It culminates with the election of Dwight Eisenhower as president, who is arguably the most ardent president in regards to public expressions of faith in government.  It is during this time when the words, “under God,” are added to the Pledge of Allegiance and the nation’s motto officially becomes “In God We Trust.”  Though to be fair, the latter expression was in use often and much earlier before it became the official national motto.

The book goes on to detail this political marriage as it attempts to keep its hold on an America that is changing in the 1960s.   The pillars upon which this portion of the book hang are the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding state-sponsored school prayer in 1962 and state-sponsored Bible reading in 1963.  This portion of the book was worth the price for its great depth and reference, not only for what the decisions actually banned, but for the justice’s opinions on what they do not ban.  This was the best part of the book for me.  Reading the justice’s decisions helped me to clear the foggy air as to what these decisions do and what they are not meant to do.  Consider the following excerpt from the majority decision on school prayer.

On June 25, 1962, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Engel v. Vitale. Inside the courtroom, Black arched forward in his high-backed chair, rested his arms on the bench, and began reading the opinion with unconcealed emotion. In the audience, his wife thought his delivery “sounded almost like a sermon.” After explaining the details of the case, Black paused to collect himself and clutched his papers tightly. There could be “no doubt,” he went on, that “the daily invocation of God’s blessings [was] a religious activity” and, as a result, no doubt that New York “adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment clause.” Black asserted that the First Amendment embodied the founders’ belief that faith was “too personal, too sacred, too holy to permit its ‘unhallowed perversion’ by a civil magistrate.” (Here, an observer noted, “his voice trembled with emotion as he paused over ‘too personal, too sacred, too holy.’”) In Black’s view, religion certainly deserved a place of prominence in American life, but the state could not dictate it. “It is no part of the business of government,” he read, “to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by the government.” Departing from his written text, Black added an impromptu plea. “The prayer of each man from his soul must be his and his alone,” he said. “If there is anything clear in the First Amendment, it is that the right of the people to pray in their own way is not to be controlled by the election returns.”  (Bold mine)

This was the guy who wrote the majority decision banning state-sponsored prayer saying that religion deserves a prominent place in American life!

The book finishes with a look at Nixon’s presidency and how he boldly and misguidedly attempted to infuse his administration with religion, though it was certainly nothing more than the “ceremonial deism” of the Eisenhower administration.  In fact, one could argue it was much less. In the epilogue, Kruse goes on to investigate the religious overtones of every president since Reagan (who was the first to pepper his speeches with the benediction(?) “and may God Bless America.”  Each president since as done the same thing, including President Obama.

Kruse does an excellent job of showing the inner workings of many of the groups that espoused religion in the public square, but did not live by that religion in their own lives or in their organizations.  He, likewise, shines a bright light on the failings of ceremonial deism as a form of public religion.  It looks very little like true Christianity.

Kruse finishes the book with these words:

This history reminds us that our public religion is, in large measure, an invention of the modern era. The ceremonies and symbols that breathe life into the belief that we are “one nation under God” were not, as many Americans believe, created alongside the nation itself. Their parentage stems not from the founding fathers but from an era much closer to our own, the era of our own fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers. This fact need not diminish their importance; fresh traditions can be more powerful than older ones adhered to out of habit. Nevertheless, we do violence to our past if we treat certain phrases—“ one nation under God,” “In God We Trust”— as sacred texts handed down to us from the nation’s founding. Instead, we are better served if we understand these utterances for what they are: political slogans that speak not to the origins of our nation but to a specific point in its not-so-distant past. If they are to mean anything to us now, we should understand what they meant then. (bold mine)

It is here where I diverge from the author a bit.  The adding of these “political slogans” can (and perhaps do) speak to origins of our nation, even while their enshrinement is a result of the modern era.  For many church-going Americans (which by every measure was a vast majority of the country for up until the 1970s), these words stand alongside those founding documents and the words of many of the founding fathers regarding a divine origin for this form of government.  The words are enshrined BECAUSE they feel that way.  Even the supreme court justices (quoted by the author) who were striking down state-sponsored school prayer said as much.  Why not explore this?  The author doesn’t and instead gives us rather cold and calculating answers that feel a bit ham-fisted due to his lack of investigation.  It was almost as if he didn’t want to explore some of the deeper questions.

In this way, the book felt more like an agenda than a history.  And I really don’t like agendas masking themselves as history. I would have liked a more robust view of the matter, rather than the narrower version I received.    If you are going to subtitle your book, “How Corporate America invented Christian America,” then you might need to a little more research into the religious overtones and nuances of the revolution, trace their developments in policy, and then close with a modern take.  The book seemed to be all egg and no chicken.  Admittedly, it would have been a difficult undertaking, but great books are always difficult undertakings.

Seeking Perfection by Natural Means

I’m reading The Seven Story Mountain again.

“There is a paradox that lies in the very heart of human existence. It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of a man. The paradox is this: man’s nature, by itself, can do little or nothing to settle his most important problems. If we follow nothing but our natures, our own philosophies, our own level of ethics, we will end up in hell. This would be a depressing thought, if it were not purely abstract. Because in the concrete order of things God gave man a nature that was ordered to a supernatural life. He created man with a soul that was made not to bring itself to perfection in its own order, but to be perfected by Him in an order infinitely beyond the reach of human powers. We were never destined to lead purely natural lives, and therefore we were never destined in God’s plan for a purely natural beatitude. Our nature, which is a free gift of God, was given to us to be perfected and enhanced by another free gift that is not due it.

This free gift is “sanctifying grace.” It perfects our nature with the gift of a life, an intellection, a love, a mode of existence infinitely above its own level.”

Merton, Thomas (1998-10-04). The Seven Storey Mountain: Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition (p. 185). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Ah, the futility of seeking perfection by natural means!

Detachment

Well, I am back after all this time.  Trying to keep a blog going is extremely difficult for someone as spiritually scatterbrained as I can be.  My reading has waned in these late Summer, early Fall weeks, much as it did last year.  I had thought that last year’s swoon was primarily due to my hectic schedule, but this year my schedule was at least a little less hectic and I found that I swooned again.  There is a lot of swooning going on around here.  So, I guess it is not so much about my schedule but more about my laziness.  August and September are hard times for me to read for some reason.

But it is October and I am reading Merton.  I am picking up where I left off in New Seeds of Contemplation and there seems to be a rejuvenation of sorts coming to me as I read.  The more I am reading, the stronger my desire to read becomes.  Merton can have that effect on you.  Perhaps I should save my Merton readings for the hard part of the year!  Or, perhaps I should just be more disciplined.  In any event, I am thinking on detachment.

I wonder if there are twenty men alive in the world now who see things as they really are.  That would mean that there were twenty men who were free, who were not dominated or even influenced by any attachment to any created thing or to their own selves or to any gift of God, even to the highest, the most supernaturally pure of His graces.  I don’t believe that there are twenty such men alive in the world.  But there must be one or two.  They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart.” – Thomas Merton, Detachment.

What is detachment?  I mean much more than mere austere living for its own sake.  There are those who tell me that life is to be found in abnegation.  When you deny yourself earthly gifts and pleasures then you are really living the life of the disciple!  I think that this kind of detachment is more about the person than it is about God.  I mean that a lot of people are living these austere lives because they get some kind of satisfaction out of it, which is itself another earthly pleasure.  So, there is no real detachment.  It is only an attachment to something else, namely the good feeling they get, their satisfaction in themselves and their actions.  I don’t think there is any real detachment in that.

Perhaps true detachment is renunciation in the hopes of annunciation.  That the forsaking of earthly things would result in a deepening of the sense of God’s presence with you, i.e. living a life of self-abnegation in the hopes that He would condescend to bless me with a vision, or sign, or a truth.  There is no doubt that these things are good and worthy of desire.  It is equally true that God can and does do these things in the life of the believer.  And yet, there seems to be inside of this form of renunciation a subtle selfishness, a sort of manipulation of God.  It is not real detachment because I am still doing it for selfish motives.  Granted, it’s not selfish like fasting to win the lottery is selfish, but it still has tentacles of selfishness embedded into it.  So, even this prized and worthy idea of detachment is tainted and not really detachment.  What’s a brother to do?

“You will never be able to have perfect interior peace and recollection unless you are detached even from the desire of peace and recollection.  You will never be able to pray perfectly until you are detached from the pleasures of prayer.

If you give up all these desires and seek one thing only, God’s will, He will give you recollection and peace in the middle of labor and conflict and trial.”

True detachment is about seeking.  If I detach myself from the world or from anything for any reason other than union with Christ, then it is not real detachment.  It is just another form of attachment.  And at the very best, I am only seeking myself.  Somehow, in someway, I am to empty myself of all that is self.  In that emptiness and darkness, I will find God.  And more importantly, He will find me, not the fake me so enslaved to my ego, or my false idea of myself, but the real me.

It is God alone Who I am to seek, not His blessings.
It is God alone Who I am to desire, not His gifts.
It is God alone with Whom I long to be in union, not to manipulate with tainted words.

Vacation Bible School

The following was from a piece of writing I did a few years ago during our church’s Vacation Bible School. It is VBS time again at our church and I was reminded of it as we made our way through the camp this year.  I thought I would share it on my blog. Hope you like it!

Interesting Side Note:  I was reading the Seven Storey Mountain for the first time during this episode.  I have read it twice more since then culminating in last month’s read which you can read about here.

The theme of our VBS this year was “God is with you wherever you go.” What a great theme for a bible school! We had fun, we sang songs, we talked about service to God and man, we played games, and we studied bible characters. It was a wonderful time with a great group of kids. It was a week of pointing kids towards Jesus. Those kids just about wore me out, but it was a good kind of tired, the kind that you are glad for.

Perhaps my favorite thing that happened this week occurred in a very small, out of the way corner of the children’s building and involved the smallest children present at Vacation Bible School. Our challenge for the day was to GO TELL and our Bible story focused on the the women coming back from the tomb and telling everyone that Jesus was alive.

After the opening rally, I had a break so I went to my office to read a new book I started (a great book called The Seven Storey Mountain). In the hallway adjacent to my office, I could hear the pre-K group getting ready to come down the hall. The ground below shuttered as if a great herd of stallions were about to break out upon it. And boy did they! They came careening down the hallway and with all the strength that their tiny bodies could muster they exclaimed, “Jesus is not dead. Jesus is alive!” My whole office shook with fervor of their gospel as did my heart. They repeated their message over and over as they made their way down the hall and out of the building.

It was a very poignant moment. Out of love, pure and undefiled love, they sought to share the gospel story to anyone and everyone with whom they came into contact. It did not occur to them that what they were doing might be politically incorrrect. They had no understanding of such a thing. Their abstract little minds could not imagine it to be so. Neither was it merely a good idea or a metaphysical concept they were declaring. This was no watered down or half-hearted Word they proclaimed. It was truth! And with the kind of faith that all of us should have, and the power of the very Spirit of God in them of which they know only enough to trust completely, they spoke boldly the truth of the gospel. Jesus is alive!

The greatest moment of VBS at my church was in a hallway adjacent to my office with hardly anyone else around. The loud and living Word of truth echoed throughout the cinderblock walls and the glossy tiled floors. It reverberated into my cold heart and there something amazing happened, the gaze of my soul was drawn back to my Savior. Can you imagine?  A bunch of three year olds tore through the church and at the same time, they tore through my heart and I was changed. Amazing.

Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:4

Of courage undaunted…

Along with my reading of On the Incarnation by St. Athansius, I am also reading Undaunted Courage by Steven Ambrose. It is a tremendous book, full of American history, natural history, adventure, human drama, economic theory, sociopolitical intrigue, and really good writing. I highly recommend it.

One of the very interesting and unexpected consequences of reading the book was a focused look at Thomas Jefferson, president at the time and artificer of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This insight into our third president has been a wonderful experience.  For this week’s quote at the melikereadgood blog, I have selected the familiar passage from Jefferson expressing his opinion of Merriwether Lewis.  It may be one of the most beautiful and eloquent commendations from one man to another that I have ever read.  Enjoy!

Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order and discipline, intimate with the Indian character, customs, and principles; habituated to the hunting life, guarded by exact observation of the vegetables and animals of his own country against losing time in the description of objects already possessed; honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding, and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves – with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him. To fill up the measure desired, he wanted nothing but a greater familiarity with the technical language of the natural sciences, and readiness in the astronomical observations necessary for the geography of his route. To acquire these he repaired immediately to Philadelphia, and placed himself under the tutorage of the distinguished professors of that place.

Lagniappe Links:

Lewis and Clark: Fort Mandan Foundation – Much information here, click on “Discovering Lewis and Clark” after the jump

Denver Museum of Nature and Science – I’ve been here with the kids.  It’s awesome!

The Natchez Trace Parkway – I stumbled across this just outside of Tupelo and learned that Merriwether Lewis died while traveling this trail.  There is a monument to him at the stop where he died.

Changes to the Reading List

Well, progress is being made.  If all goes well at the end of the month I will be on pace for 28 worthy books this year which is ahead of my goal.  So far, I am really enjoying most of my selections but not quite all (stupid Mockingjay).  Nevertheless, I press on.  I am making some changes though.

I think one of the reasons I failed miserably in my reading last year was that I did not have enough fiction on the list.  I’d like to think that I am such a smart guy and a good reader that I don’t need to have any fiction on the list.  Give me the heavy weight stuff!  I have learned though, that I read more and better if I intersperse some fiction into the mix.  So, I am adding Harry Potter and the Philosoper’s Stone to my list.  I’ve not read any of Rowling’s books and I hear that they might be worthy and lasting.  So, I am going to find out for myself.  If I like the first one, I may add others to the mix as we go along.

Because of the possibility of multiple books being added to the list, I am removing one: Southern Baptists and the Judgement of History.  While a part pf me would like to read this book, I find very little desire and that of the not-very-edifying kind.  So, I am taking it off the list.  If I read voraciously and have time at the end of the year, I may put it back on.  In the meantime, I’m going to Hogwarts.

Back to the Future

I often wonder about someone coming to our society and our time from the past.  Call it a result of watching “Back to the Future” too often or maybe of reading too much Jules Verne.  If someone from the 19th century arrived in my office or in my house, how would he respond to the new, magical and terrifying world of the 21st century?  How would this time traveler respond to a box that held wondrous images inside of it and produced amazingly life-like sounds?  Would he recoil in fear from the strange sounds emanating from my pocket when my cell phone rings?  He might very easily think me mad because I talk into a small, wireless box to someone he can neither see nor hear.  The world has changed so much in the last 125 years that our time traveler would struggle mightily to ingratiate himself into our world of technological wonder.  For Him, our age would be one of amazement where science and magic, as he understands them, are difficult to separate.  Every place he looks and everything he hears would seem to him to be a miracle.

My rambling train of thought works both ways along the time continuum.  What if we were able to go back in time to a place far removed from our present generation, maybe all the way back to ancient Palestine, a place where miracles were being wrought in myriad ways by a man, in Whom, there seemed to be both immense understanding of the wonders of the universe and also prestidigitations of mythic proportions.  This man is Jesus the Christ.  He walks on water and makes the blind to see.  He heals leprosy and disease by the mere power of his spoken word.  He subdues storms and withers plants and disappears and reappears without a sound.  How would we respond to this power?  Indeed, how would respond to this Man?

This scenario is played out every time a person opens the Gospels.  No, we do not physically go back in time to ancient cities of Nain or Capernaum or Jerusalem , but as we read, we subconsciously place ourselves there observing this Miracle Man with modern eyes of skepticism.  “How can these things be,” we ask.  There must be a rational, scientific, and/or explainable reason for these wonders we find in the pages of the Gospels, orchestrated by this One who, according to our understanding, simply could not have done that which is attributed to Him.  And so, we seek an answer from without, because we have not eyes to see within.  We can’t see the miracles, because we don’t trust the Miracle Man.

So we come up with elaborate explanations.  Take for example the stilling of the storm by Jesus on the Sea of Galilee.  In Alfred Edersheim’s book, the Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Edersheim takes a look at modern explanations of this seemingly unexplainable event.  He cites his contemporaries who would seek to suck away the mystery of the miracle at the sea with explanations that are still being sounded among scholars today.   Surely, this story is engineered by Jesus’ disciples long after the fact in order to give validity to their claim about His Divinity and Power.  Perhaps this story is merely a parallel to an old Jewish story that finds its way to Jesus through those early disciples’ evangel.  The problem with these modern elucidations is that they do not adhere to the standard of reasonableness that modern critics use to debunk the story.  There is no parallel in Jewish tradition of anyone calming a storm from a boat before Jesus actually does it.  It is unique in the pages of Israel’s history.  Neither does the story as presented in the gospels serve to show Jesus as all powerful.  The Gospels relate that Jesus was tired and sleepy, not exactly plot devices that would engender omnipotence of their own initiative.   But the modern observer would rather default to one or another of these “explanations” rather than admit that there are things in the universe that we don’t understand, powers and Personages that are beyond us and beyond our natural explanations.

It is this, our expertise in the rational, that is at once our greatest blessing and our greatest curse, for ours is the pinnacle of civilization, the highest reason available to any generation that has ever lived on the earth.  Even with all we know about the world, our bodies, and the universe, we would submit to bad arguments and unreasonable explanations rather than admit that there once walked upon the earth a man who was God.  This is the curse that blinds us to truth, it is our hubris.  The most reasonable explanation for this story appearing in the gospels is it happened, that it is true, and this is something that a reasonable society finds simply unreasonable.

 

This is my failing…

Well, it looks as if I will not make my stated goal of 25 books this year!  I’m sure 2 of the 3 people that have kept up with my blog so far are not surprised by this.  It is a sad state of affairs when a reasonably intelligent 39 year old American cannot discipline himself to do something that many people could very easily do 100 years ago.  So, my book list will be appropriately changed to reflect the current state of affairs.  If all goes well in the next 2 months, I will have read 15 books in a year’s time instead of the previous goal of 25.

Inside of my goal of 25 books in a year, I had a mini-goal of 4 classic books.  I did complete this goal, sort of.  In fact, I think I read FIVE great works instead of the requisite four.  I made it through Anna Karenina, The Once and Future King, The Imitation of Christ, and The Seven Story Mountain, and I am currently chopping my way through the Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah which should be done by January.  So, I’ve got that going for me.  Of course, The Seven Story Mountain was a re-read (I first read it three years ago) and The Life and Times won’t be done officially til after the new year.  It is what it is.

But I think I have my second wind, and I am going to put my head down and get to the end of the year.  Maybe I will get 16 books in!  Probably not.  In any event, I will continue to keep notes on this blog about my journey.  I am reminded that I am not nearly as smart as I think I am, nor as disciplined, and that brings to my mind the grace and the love that I walk in every day of my life.  I missed the mark, but then again, I always miss and still I am loved.

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