Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Faith of Pi

I was about half-way through Yann Martel's Life of Pi when I heard it had just been made into a movie.  I had just finished reading when the film was released.  By that point I was curious about what had been made of it, and dubious that the movie could retain the impact of the book.  Two weeks worth of feedback later, my doubts remain.  Though Roger Ebert, whose opinion in such matters I well respect, has reviewed it highly, I've decided just the same not to see the movie until the book has receded further into the deeps of memory. I don't want to be disappointed. It's better to wait until I'll be better able to judge the film on its own merits.

The movie trailer I've seen looks beautiful, romantic, and fanciful. The book, though full of vivid imagery and gut-wrenching story telling, was not, to me, a grand scale adventure. Or perhaps I should say, it was an adventure, but an adventure described as adventure feels to those who really experience it, as a series of close and terrifying realities. Hearing adventures or dramas told, or seeing them acted, can be exciting and even entertaining. The reader and the watcher are safe. Actually living one is more like hell.  It is to Martel's credit that, Life of Pi, could be beautifully written, vividly painted, charming, and sometimes funny, but also deeply unsettling.  

Life of Pi is about an Indian boy, a teen really, but one whose naivete makes him seem much younger than that to me. His family owned and operated a zoo. It was also their home. There Pi lived a nearly idyllic childhood. In it he gained a world of wisdom and an allegory for just about every truth in life and faith. "I have heard nearly as much nonsense about zoos as I have about God and religion," says Pi. "Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are 'happy' because they are 'free'."  But a good zoo like his family's, Pi explains, provides all that the animals really need and would spend all their energies looking for in the wild:  food, defined territory, comfort, mates, freedom from predators, etc. It is their home and within its confines all their wants and needs are met. So it is with faith.  
"Close them all down if you want (and let us hope that what wildlife remains can survive in what is left of the natural world).  I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces.  Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both."
As it happened, it is here in the confines of the zoo that Pi first fell under the influence of an atheist, Mr. Kumar - his biology teacher.  Pi's zoo is Mr. Kumar's temple.  Its empirical truths reinforce his need for  structure, and thus were a source of comfort. His atheism was a result of the unanswered prayers of his childhood bout with polio. "What a terrible disease that must be," Pi reflected, "if it could kill God in a man." Yet Pi felt a kinship with with him.  As he put it, this Mr. Kumar gave him his "first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith.  Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them - and then they leap."

Pi's real name is Piscine Patel. Piscine means swimming pool in French.  His father's love of swimming bordered on religious.  In time Piscine's would too.  Though his guilty pleasure was to betray his own name by sneaking off to swim, not in a swimming pool, as his father preferred, but in the sea.  Unfortunately, Piscine, spoken in English, sounds an awful lot like pissing. So, fed up with the inevitable adolescent school-boy taunting, he crafted a new name for himself and launched it with theatrical flourish on the first day of his first year in secondary school at the beginning of each class period. To his great relief, it caught on.
"In that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge."
In this simple statement we are given the first hints at themes that are bigger than just Pi. Perhaps the life of this Pi might also be a tool to understand the universe.  We are not meant to mistake Pi for an ordinary boy.

Pi loves God. Or, you might say, he loves the idea of God, which is sometimes but not always the same thing.  I can't tell which it is with Pi.  What is unquestionable is that he loves religion, and his love is sincere. Like the sea, he, once he had discovered the joy of it, plunged into it at every opportunity. He was not brought up in a religious home.  It would be a relative of his mother's who would bring him for the first time into a Hindu temple. The smells, the sights, the rituals, and beauty of it all sowed in his heart "a germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed."

But," he assures,
"religion is more than rite and ritual.  There is what the rite and ritual stand for.  Here too I am a Hindu. The universe makes sense to me through Hindu eyes....I have been a Hindu all my life. With its notions in mind I see my place in the universe."
His Hinduism is lovely, formative, and surprising:
First wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fits in the impression made by the first.  I owe to Hinduism the original landscape of my religious imagination, those towns and rivers, battlefields and forests, holy mountains and deeps seas where gods, saints, villains and ordinary people rub shoulders, and, in doing so, define who and why we are.  I first heard of the tremendous, cosmic might of loving kindness in this Hindu land. It was Lord Krishna speaking.  I heard him, and I followed him. And in his wisdom and perfect love, Lord Krishna led me to meet one man. I was fourteen years old - and a well-content Hindu on a holiday - when I met Jesus Christ.
On holiday with his parents, Pi would be drawn to a faith with a beauty of a different kind. Three hills ringed the hotel where they stayed.  Each of these hills was crowned with a place of worship: one donned a Hindu temple, another a mosque, and the third a Catholic church. Though the school he attended was nominally Christian, Pi knew little of Christianity beyond its reputation for violence and for operating good schools.  Curious, he climbed the hill to the church and wandered in.  He spied on a priest immersed in quiet study and prayer - not very violent-looking.  He moved on to the sanctuary proper and wondered at the gruesome image which hung there: a cross on which a bloodied man hung, dying. "It was hard to connect this torture scene with the priest in the rectory....Catholics have a reputation for severity, for judgment that comes down heavily.  My experience with Father Martin was not at all like that.  He was very kind."

Through the kindness and patient teaching of this priest, the reputation Pi had of the severe Catholic God was called into question. 
"That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand.  The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers and usurpers.  What is the Ramayana but the account of one long bad day for Rama?  Adversity, yes.  Reversals of fortune, yes.  Treachery, yes.  But humiliation? Death? I couldn't imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets and, to top it off, crucified - and at the hands of mere humans, to boot.  I'd never heard of a Hindu god dying...divinity should not be blighted by death.  It's wrong.  The world soul cannot die, even in one contained part of it.  It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar die.  That is tantamount to letting a part of Himself die.  For if the Son is to die, it cannot be fake.  If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ.  The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me that it was.  But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected.  The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth.  The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father.  The horror must be real.  Why would God wish that upon Himself?  Why not leave death to the mortals?  Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect?
"Love.  That was Father Martin's answer."
Certainly love would replace the stench and taint of death with the aroma of pleasing sacrifice. Pi grappled with the ramifications of God incarnate.  Pi's own Hindu tradition overflowed with stories.  He was certain Christianity would too.  But Father Martin taught him that the many stories of Christianity together only point to this one. "It was story enough for them." (And so it is.) 

Day after day Pi meets for tea with the priest.  Agitated, he questions Father Martin about God's very human and unimpressive Son. (Any Hindu god can do better miracles than Jesus and without so much talking and sweating.) Yet day by day he could not get this Christ out of his head:
"The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him.  And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him."
On his last day of vacation, Pi ran to the priest to tell him he wanted to become a Christian.  Father Martin welcomed him happily into the faith.  Pi prayed for the first time to the living Christ, then left with a joyful heart.  He "raced down the hill on the left and raced up the hill on the right - to offer thanks to Lord Krishna for having put Jesus of Nazareth, whose humanity I found so compelling, in my way."

In less than a year we find Pi curiously exploring his hometown's Muslim quarter. "Islam had a reputation worse than Christianity's - fewer gods, greater violence, and I had never heard anyone say good things about Muslim schools."  He peeked into a mosque, then moved on to some tiny shops.  There he encountered a poor baker of flatbread, who invited him into his hovel.  It was time for the call to prayer, and  Pi stood watching.  "So it went the first time I saw a Muslim pray - quick, necessary, physical, muttered, striking.  Next time I was praying in church - on my knees, immobile, silent before Christ on the Cross - the image of this calisthenic communion with God in the middle of bags of flour kept coming to my mind." 

His name was Mr. Kumar.  (Kumar is a common surname in India.).  He was a Sufi mystic.  "He sought fana, union with God, and his relationship with God was personal and loving. 'If you take two steps toward God, God runs to you!'"  

Pi embraced Islam.  "I challenge anyone," Pi would later say, "to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it.  It is a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion."  

Piscine's conversion to Pi was but a first step on a long road of curiosity, investigation, discoveries, and conversions. Along the way he gathered and laced together beliefs, systems of thought, and perspectives on reality and used them to convert the world of his experience into something more beautiful and meaningful.  His story pleads with us to understand the human desire to gild this dismal life with the glow of faith.

His religious pursuits, I should mention, went on for quite some time unnoticed by his secular parents. The outing of his religion was a pivotal moment in his young life.  Pi and his parents were strolling one day along a beach on the Bay of Bengal. All at once, to Pi's horror, they were approached, from three different directions by a priest, a pandit, and an imam.  Each of Pi's religious leaders had spotted him at once and determined to greet him and to meet his father, the illustrious owner of the city's zoo.  In this way these secular parents and religious leaders learned that their son and pupil was not just a good Hindu boy, but also, a good Christian boy, and and a good Muslim boy to boot. A three-way argument ensued with each man of faith insulting the religion of the next until Pi's father silenced them.  

Then the pandit spoke, "'In these troubled times it's good to see a boy so keen on God.  We all agree on that.' The imam and the priest nodded. 'But he can't be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim.  It's impossible.  He must choose.'" A blushing Pi responded, "Bapu Gandhi said, 'All religions are true.'  I just want to love God.'"'  Unable to answer his simple zeal and unwilling to argue with Gandhi, Pi's parents gave in and allowed him to be baptized a Christian, and to obtain a Muslim prayer mat.

With this foundation laid, we come the event that will comprise bulk of the story. I've been agonizing over how to discuss it without giving up the end.  Throughout the narrative we are reminded that this story has a happy ending, so to say as much is not to spoil anything.  I will try limit myself to what you might be able to surmise from watching the movie trailer: a series of turnarounds led Pi's parents to decide it was time to sell their zoo and emigrate to Canada. They sold the animals to zoos all over the world, and then boarded a cargo ship to cross the Atlantic, bringing with them those animals which they had sold to Canadian zoos.  In rough seas, the ship sank, leaving Pi and life boat full of wild animals as the only survivors.  With him were a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, a rat, and a large Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. 

Pi's life is now a survival epic - a brutal, sometimes beautiful, tragic, sometimes funny, months-long parable of the meaning of life and humanity - played on a massive theater of rolling seas and relentless weather.  Pi, and his boat-full of predators and prey are the players. Though there were moments that felt magical, I found little that was cute or fanciful about Life of Pi.  It is life, boiled down to its realest terrors, its glimmers of hope, its agonies, and its beauty. A little life-boat becomes a whole world of life fighting to keep living, a world of suffering, of desperation, and of faith bobbing and drifting, aimlessly and seemingly endlessly on a vast and impersonal sea. 

Like a sovereign deity, Martel artfully ensures that no detail is wasted. Every moment serves the end, and the end gives meaning to all that came before it. The rhyme and reason of it all, if there is any, will not be discovered until the very end. 

At heart, Life of Pi  is about religion. It is a passionate appeal on behalf of faith, or at the very least on behalf of religious tolerance and understanding. I found a tight and unified theory of religion at work. Every detail in Pi's story builds on it. Though Pi denies that he defends the rights of zoos to exist, implying he feels the same about religion, I think it is fair for me to say that this book is both an allegory and an apologia of faith. At the very least, it is an appeal for understanding and tolerance. Throughout the narrative we find Pi selecting from  his religions what he needs for the moment. In doing so he paints ugliness with beauty and invests chaos with meaning. In then end we are presented with two possible realities and, find ourselves along with Pi, looking back at the sea and the boat and asked to choose which story we prefer. The mind and the heart races - it is not an easy choice.

In this world where faith is ridiculed as unreasonable, where it is blamed (and often rightfully so) for all kinds of evil, it is refreshing to see religion championed and valued for its very real ability to color life - with all its pain and tragedy - with meaning, to touch it with tenderness, quiet it with peace and tickle it with delight.  I'm happy as well to see atheists and the devout placed back on the level playing field where they belong. Pi brings us all together - united in our humanity, united in our ignorance, united in our weakness - right back to square one.

In my next post I will discuss Life of Pi from a Christian perspective: its value, its challenges, and its limits.

Friday, November 9, 2012

As She Lay Dying

"You're a lecturer. You got that from your father."
It's something my mom used to say, usually when she didn't care for whatever it was I was going on about. Never mind that I barely knew my father. Apparently there is a "lecturer" gene, and I got it.
Maybe she had a point about the genes, or maybe not. I don't know. But I was a lecturer, particularly where she was concerned. I'm a born know-it-all, annoying from birth. And I felt the need to correct my mother often and play the devil's advocate at any given opportunity. Deep down I just didn't have the respect for her that I should have, or a love pure enough to just let her be, to stop trying to "fix" her or set her straight and to overlook her traits that annoyed me to no end.
Don't get me wrong. I did love my mother, and as my love for God grew, so did my respect and love for her. She suffered from depression and I wanted with all my heart to see her happy. (I cannot put to words the frustration of trying to make a depressed person happy.) And I was committed to her. I visited her 365 days a year for the last six years of her life - even more often when she was sick. I was devoted to her and yet could not just let her be.
I was arrogant.
It was never my place to "fix" my mother, as though I were the one with the power to heal her soul. I was not better than her, just different. And I don't even have the power to change my own soul.
I realized this on the morning of the day of her death. The moment I knew Mom was dying, there was no room for annoyance anymore. All my breaking heart could see was the treasure that she was. I prayed there would be moments left to tell her so. And there were. A brief few.
And now I have my whole lifetime to remember all the things I should have left unsaid. To remember her as the charming woman she so often was. To forget the annoyances and manipulations. What did those matter in the face of death? How could I have let pride and irritation rob me of a moment's love for my mother?
And that evening, after she had passed, as I drove home in the dark, I wondered why I hadn't treated her all my days with the tenderness and gentleness I did during the hours that she lay dying. Why could I not drop my pride and see her for the delicate soul, the little girl grown old, that she was? After all, like every one of us, she was dying from the moment she was conceived. Why did I wait for a doctor's verdict to face it? Why did I put the deepest of love off until the last moment? Would it really have been so hard to just love her as she was all those years?
And I thought how different things would have been if I had. And I thought what a different place this world would be if every one treated one another as a dying soul.
And now she is gone and It is too late to honor her. But I know now, and pray I will never forget, not for a moment, that every soul I meet is terminally ill. We all lay dying.  Whether we realize it or not, our lives are precarious and we are all as fragile and helpless as my mother was that day. May God grant me grace from this day forward to treat every person I meet with the tenderness and affection I felt for her then. May I never speak a word to anyone that I would not speak as they lay dying.

I originally wrote this over two years ago as a private expression of grief following the death of my mother. I share it here now with the prayer that others may gain from my loss.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Raising Horizons

Raising Horizons
(Thoughts' Captive, Conclusion*)

I've you've ever tried to comfort someone suffering from depression or anxiety, you have likely found that a few chipper words or fitting Bible verses will not be enough to snap them out of it.  Your best intentions might even have been rewarded with irritation or hostility. I know this because I've responded this way myself a time or two.  Assuming I am not unique in my experience, I will say that those who are suffering emotional distress, whether it be depression or anxiety or grief, are likely to be also suffering, even if only temporarily, from an extremely myopic worldview. Pain has a way of focusing our attention inward, onto ourselves, narrowing our field of vision until it seems that our pain is the only reality that matters. For as long as the black orb of suffering eclipses the light of hope, we must handle sufferers with grace and patience, gently meeting them where they are, guiding them by the hand if needed, until the pain abates and rays of clarity once again begin to peek through. I feel safe in saying this, because this is how God has dealt with me.  He has stooped to meet me in my place of need and tenderly guided me every step of the way.  

It has been months since my last entry in this series. Since then I have encountered some unexpected trials on top of the more ordinary ones. Through it all I've persevered in scripture, prayer, and fellowship, doing the very things I have been recommending here.  In the process, I've seen many, many prayers answered and experienced God's faithfulness firsthand.  I've sensed my roots growing steadily deeper and wider into the bedrock of Jesus Christ and the hope of his Gospel.  And as I've grown I've found myself being drawn up and out of myself.

With Christ as my horizon and hope, my perspective has changed. With my eyes fixed on Him I gain the perspective and hope I need to live a life marked by joy and purpose.  As I look to Him I began to see the big picture, to know where I am headed and to be drawn inexorably in that direction.  Each step toward that goal reinforces my hope and increases my joy.  As I've raised my horizons my day-to-day emotional life has stabilized.  My soul is quieted and peace now plays a dominant role in my heart and in my relationships. Nevertheless, all this hope and joy is not a guarantee against future emotional trauma.

The steps I've taken in this series have been the steps of toddlers just learning to walk.  They are groundbreaking and essential to further progress, but they are baby steps. Like the parent of a child who has just learned to walk, God is happy with this progress, but He is not pleased to see His children toddle forever. We must learn to walk, to run, and to plant our feet firmly enough to withstand violent attacks against our souls.
"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." Eph. 6:10-12
In my earlier years I traveled in circles which gave the devil too much credit, almost as if he were on the par with God - the dark side of "the Force".  In later years, perhaps in reaction to that, I found myself traveling in circles which closeted the devil behind the doors of God's providence and sovereignty and thus, in essence, disregarded him altogether.  This, too, is a mistake. It is with good reason that the apostle Peter warns us to:
"Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world." 1 Peter 5:8-9
Since I've lifted up my eyes and begun following hard after Christ, I've found my faith tested and violently shaken in ways I could have never expected or predicted.  I've  learned the hard truth that when you look up and out, when you set your sights on the horizon of God's glorious kingdom, Satan looks up as well and takes notice.

Our soul has an adversary looking for any opportunity to destroy us. He will use any weapon at his disposal against us and will seek to exploit our every weakness.  He will use our thoughts to beat us down and make us useless in the battle, and he will use our actions so that we discredit ourselves in the eyes of others.  And so we cannot afford to forget, even for a moment, that we are not here on our own business. We must be vigilant and sober-minded, (this means exercising control over our minds, which are the battlefields of our souls) ambassadors for Christ, his emissaries carrying a message of peace in an enemy territory.
"Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one;  and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints..." Eph. 6:14-18
The bad news is, the battle for emotional stability, though it ebbs and flows, will never end in this life.  The good news is that God, by His grace, has given us all the equipment we need to persevere to the end.  It is, however, up to us to engage in the fight.

* This is a heavily re-written version of an entry I posted a few months ago. After a serious and unexpected spiritual battle (an episode of acute anxiety) I revisited it and did not care for it's tone. It seemed to imply that if you have your sights set on Christ your emotional battles are over, when the truth is we have only just begun to fight.     

On Samaritans and Scoffers

I know am about to run the risk of being labeled a stick-in-the-mud, but  it's a chance I'll have to take.  There are some things more important in life than humor, and the gospel is one of them.  If I didn't think this was a gospel matter I wouldn't be bothering about it at all.  So here goes.

There is a meme floating around on the internet.  It is being passed around and "liked" by Christian people which is, again, the only reason I'm bothering to address this at all.  We Christians are gospel people - or at least that is what we are called to be.  We are not our own. We represent Christ on this earth, so our behavior, even the the act of "liking" things on Facebook, reflects on the message we are here to present to the world.

The text of the meme, in case you can't read the fine print in the picture, runs like this:

Hi Friend,

I just wanted to let you know that some knucklehead vandalized your car by slapping an Obama sticker on it.  The last thing you want is to be driving around all day looking like an idiot.
Take Care,
A Good Samaritan
The import of this little note, though couched in indirect language, is obvious.  It is using friendly language to send a hostile message.  It is calling the supporters of this politician (who also happens to be the sitting President of this nation) idiots. The act of photographing it and putting it out on the internet signals another intent: to gather up laughter, and thus support, in calling Obama supporters idiots.  This person is scoffing at the President and his supporters.  Our laughter in response reveals that this scoffing resonates with us, and it makes us scoffers too.

"The devising of folly is sin, and the scoffer is an abomination to mankind."  Proverbs 24:9

I've noticed that some Christians these days seem quite fond of referring to certain sins as "abominations".  Though I think we are often less than prudent and far less than loving in our use of such language, the fact remains that our Bible does label some sins in this manner. But let me ask you this: when was the last time you heard a Christian decrying scoffing as an abomination?

Yet, the Bible has a surprising amount to say about scoffers, and none of it good.

The truth is, even though I don't have cable or satellite TV, don't listen to partisan talk-radio, and regulate my media intake via selective internet use, still I am exposed to scoffing every day.  I'm quite certain we all are.  We live in a culture of mockery and scoffing.  It is in the air we breathe. It is the stuff, the veritable backbone, of our media and entertainment, and most especially of our humor.  There are few forces more powerful than humor.  Its very nature is to surprise us, bypassing the guards of our hearts and throwing open the closets where we hide what we really think and how we really feel. When we laugh at a joke, it is because it is speaking our emotional language.  Therefore, the things we find amusing reveal a lot about our character.  Scoffing is the dark side of humor. When we scoff, or when we laugh with scoffers, we are taking pleasure in tearing others down.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven."  Matthew 5:44
You cannot love people and tear them down at the same time.

"Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor." 1 Peter 2:17

You cannot honor people and insult them at the same time.  

When we Christians engage in scoffing, we reveal our willingness to engage in ad hominem attacks, we insult those with whom we disagree, and we forfeit all hope of changing their minds or winning their hearts.  We undermine our trustworthiness in the eyes of those we offend, misrepresent the God we serve, and discredit our testimony as Christians in their eyes. 

 Without love we cannot lead anyone to Christ. 

“The one who showed him mercy.”

Finally, I found the greatest offense as a Christian was to see the signature "Good Samaritan" taken up by a person in the act of scoffing at a stranger.  The expression itself comes from a story told by Jesus Christ in response to a man who was hoping to get out of having to love people he doesn't want to love.  Jesus had just told him that in order to inherit eternal life he must love God with all his heart and love his neighbor as he loves himself. So the man asked, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus responded with the story of a Samaritan (a deeply despised kind of person regarded as immoral and traitorous by the Jews), a good Samaritan, who took care of a wounded man who had been ignored by all the respectable passersby.  The impact of the story on the young man would have been much like the impact on a Republican being told this compassionate stranger was Obama himself.  The writer of this note, wittingly or not, is making a mockery of what it means to be a Good Samaritan.

We are nearing the end of another heated election year and yet again I find myself distressed by the behavior of Christians on both sides of the political divide.  (Yes, there really are committed Christians in both parties, and thank God for it, since people on both sides need Jesus!)  And I am seeing Christians on both sides allow their political opinions to undermine the fruit of the Spirit and the work of the gospel in their lives and relationships. I ask and challenge you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter what your political tendencies, to leave all un-Christlike behavior (all scoffing, mocking, insults, slander, malice, envy, etc.) out of your lives and any political discourse you may engage in.  It might help you to do this if you keep in mind that our kingdom is not of this world.  (If it were, Christ would have commanded us to fight.) The stakes of our temporal politics are only temporal, and salvation will never come through political conquest and domination, but through the proclamation of the gospel.  Indeed, Christ's power in us is manifested best when we are weak.

We cannot afford to be like those whose mind is set on earthly things. Our citizenship is in heaven and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. In His time He will subject all things to himself.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Graced Again

Thanks to Graced Again (and John Calvin of course) for this little gem:
“To make this intelligible, we must return to the distinction between flesh and spirit, to which we have already adverted, and which here becomes most apparent. The believer finds within himself two principles: the one filling him with delight in recognizing the divine goodness, the other filling him with bitterness under a sense of his fallen state; the one leading him to recline on the promise of the Gospel, the other alarming him by the conviction of his iniquity; the one making him exult with the anticipation of life, the other making him tremble with the fear of death. This diversity is owing to imperfection of faith, since we are never so well in the course of the present life as to be entirely cured of the disease of distrust, and completely replenished and engrossed by faith…Though we are distracted by various thoughts, it does not follow that we are immediately divested of faith. Though we are agitated and carried to and fro by distrust, we are not immediately plunged into the abyss; though we are shaken, we are not therefore driven from our place. The invariable issue of the contest is, that faith in the long run surmounts the difficulties by which it was beset and seemed to be endangered. John Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.18 
You can sign up here to receive a reminder of grace every week from Graced Again.  The quotes come from a variety of sources and seldom fail to encourage.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Spiritual Depression

Due to an absolutely unexpected (aren't they all?) spiritual crisis, I was recently reminded to re-read a book I read about seven years ago. It has helped me immensely, cutting to the heart of my trouble within the first few chapters and giving me the tools use to combat my out-of-control thoughts. I can recommend it more highly than anything I've written here. In fact, if you struggle with depression, or are in a crisis of your own, I recommend you read this book immediately. This is the first and only book on the subject of depression/spiritual warfare that has ever been of any help to me. It is far more useful than anything I've ever written here (and tempts me to delete all my own writings on the subject!).

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

To You, O Lord*

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
You are my greatest fear
and my only hope.

O my God, in you I trust;
     let me not be put to shame;
     let not my enemies exult over me.
Though the thought of you
fills me with dread,
Still, my heart cries to you.

Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
    they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Meet not my hope with shame.
Lord, though full of sin and confusion, my heart yearns for you alone, 
for your embrace, your smile, your words of comfort. 

Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
    teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
    for you are the God of my salvation;
    for you I wait all the day long.
Dear Lord, don't leave me waiting, fainting and helpless.
Lead me, but gently, down paths not too hard 
for I am weak and frightened, and it is dark.

Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love,
     for they have been from of old.
You have always cared for me, even while I walked in rebellion.
Why can I not believe you forgive me now?

Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
    according to your steadfast love remember me,
    for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!
Dear Father, if You count them up there will be no hope. I will be forever lost.
Forget for ever the sins of my life, that torrent which threatens to flood back and drown me.
Hold them against me no more. 
Let me hide in Your Son. Let me know I am safe with Him.

Good and upright is the Lord;
    therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
    and teaches the humble his way.
It is true that you are good, but I am not.
I lie here broken, helpless, afraid of your goodness,
Teach me what is good about you. Teach me how you forgive.

All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
    for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.
But what of me, full of doubt and fear, afraid to believe?
My faith is flagging?
Will your love for me fail as well?
Dear God, don't desert me in my weakness.

For your name's sake, O Lord,
    pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Who is the man who fears the Lord?
"For your name's sake..."
Oh Lord, what does this mean?

After years of sin, it is I who fear.
I have no right to your love, your pardon.
I tremble at the thought of your displeasure, your rejection.
But I bear the name of Christ....
for His sake, in His name, I beg it.

    Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose.
His soul shall abide in well-being,
    and his offspring shall inherit the land.
The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him,
    and he makes known to them his covenant.
Restore my faith, Oh God! 
Open my eyes and pour light into the darkness of my heart.
Restore the joy I once knew,
the hope as I looked into your loving face.

My eyes are ever toward the Lord,
    for he will pluck my feet out of the net.
Turn to me and be gracious to me,
    for I am lonely and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart are enlarged;
    bring me out of my distresses.
Consider my affliction and my trouble,
    and forgive all my sins.
Consider how many are my foes,
    and with what violent hatred they hate me.
Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me!
     Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
May integrity and uprightness preserve me,
    for I wait for you.
Redeem Israel, O God,
    out of all his troubles.
And redeem me!

*Psalm 24, a prayer of David, mingled with one of my own.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Mission in the Mirror*

Like David, I groan under the weight of blasphemy and scorn,
of assaults on my faith that come day and night,

    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
    "Where is your God?"

Where are you, God, while they mock?  
Should I be oppressed while they laugh with glee?
The doubts within echo the atheist taunts, 
but meet faith in my heart and cry out in prayer:

I say to God, my rock:

    "Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
    because of the oppression of the enemy?"
As with a deadly wound in my bones...

 What if they are right, and there is no You? 
Worse yet, what if there is a You, but You don't care about me? 
You, my God, are my only hope!  
I have nothing apart from You.

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
    so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.

If  I could just hear your voice, louder than mocking,
If I could see your face and know that when You look at me You smile.
The aching would cease and the tears turn to joy.

When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
 day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
    "Where is your God?"

The face I see is mine, in the mirror.
It reminds me of life before I knew You.
It takes me back through days and weeks,
through years of protection and answered prayers.

By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.

I see the lives transformed, mine and others, the souls set free
and remember your faithfulness through the darkest of times,
I look into the windows of my eyes and wonder:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

*  A reflection on Psalm 42

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Long Dark Night

"...they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles..." (Isaiah 40:31a)

In spite of the medication the nurses gave her to sleep, she lay awake all night, crying out to God, praying, and crying some more.  Even the pills could not drug it away.  The truth of her situation could no longer be denied.  She was never going home again.  This place was her home now.  She had been here for weeks, sinking into herself, dying.

It depressed her: the woman carrying the giant crazy stuffed bird-thing everywhere, even to meals; the hunched  man in a ball-cap wheeling from room to room, even in the wee small hours of the morning, mindless; the rest lined up in front of the nurses' station, waiting for something, anything, to happen; the cold coffee; the dry cake.  Stuck for the rest of life in this hole, waiting to die.

Morning overtook the long dark night and brought with it a gift, a friend.  She wept prayers into her open arms. Two huddled praying against the horrors of life, old age, and death.

 "'You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off';
fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous hand." (Isaiah 41:9b,10)

She combed her hair and looked around.  Who were these people?  Her roommates, that's right.  She would learn their names now, work hard to remember them. She would tell them about Jesus. She would put on her glasses for the first time in weeks and open her Bible.  What day was it?  Wednesday?  Another friend comes on Wednesday. She fixed her hair.  She would recognize her friend this time, and remember her name.  She would be ready to go for a walk.  She would remember again how to play their favorite game.  She would tell this friend of God's kindness, how He had not forgotten her in the dark weeks of her soul. She would tell her how, in the praying arms of a friend, He had filled her heart with hope.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


I remember well that age when my children began asking "Why?"

Now, I'm not referring to that cute and occasionally annoying toddler stage that little ones go through as soon as they learn that a "Why?" guarantees some kind of response.  At that age, I'm not even sure they understand what they are asking.  I do believe, however, such repeated questioning lays the foundation for understanding logic, and for future decision-making.  It also represents the early stages of understanding that other people are, well, other people. These are the innocent beginnings of a quest for understanding.

No, the asking "Why?" I have in mind comes later, and is less innocent.  This "Why?" is asked not to gain understanding so much as to gain an advantage.  This "Why?" is asked with the intent of getting around the will of other person - usually a parent, teacher, or other authority figure.

"It's time to do your homework,"  Mommy says.

"Why?" replies Precious One.

"Because it's not going to do itself," chirps Mommy.

"But, why can't I do it later?"

"Because if you don't do it now, you'll be too tired later, or you may not have enough time to finish before bedtime," answers Mommy.

"But I'm not at all tired, and I know it's easy work.  It'll only take a little while...."

You get the idea. The point of the child's questioning here is not to gain understanding, per se.  The point is that the child does not want to do homework. The question is a tool to get out of doing it, to draw out reasons which can then be shot down, undermining the position of the authority, and hopefully weakening their resolve. Any understanding gained will only be used to further the argument and hopefully gain the upper hand.

It's been a while since I've had little ones at home, but I still hear my share of this kind of questioning.  Sadly, I now hear it all too often from Christians, and it is usually directed at God, and His Word.  The questions are asked to undermine His character, or the reliability of His word and so to justify disregarding or disobeying it.

There is an innocent "Why?"  It is the "Why?" of belief.  There is a sinful  "Why?" It is the "Why?" of unbelief.  The "Why?" of belief seeks understanding. It wants to know God better. It also respects his authority. It is willing to accept His response and, if it is a directive, obey it.  It is also willing to accept when God does not, for whatever reason, see fit to offer an explanation.  The "Why?" of unbelief seeks reasons and excuses to disregard God and His word.

Do you have a "Why?" for God today?  Which kind of "Why?" is it?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Jesus, My Joy

Paul and I feel blessed to attend a church whose pastor also happens to be a violinist with our local symphony. This past Sunday evening our usual service was preempted by our local chamber choral's performance of Bach's, Jesu, Meine Freude (Jesus, My Joy), and Haydn's, Heiligmesse.  Our pastor would be performing with the orchestra, but rather than just having someone else substitute for him at church, he cancelled the service and urged us all to attend the concert instead.  Then he took the opportunity to give us a lesson in music appreciation, and much more.  He dedicated the Sunday evening service a week prior to walking us through Bach's motet, explaining its structure, background, and rich meaning.  He left us with hearts aching to see such dedication to creating art for the glory of God revived in His church in our times, and really, really excited for the upcoming performance.

And, on a geeky note, as a person who likes very much to interact in my own writing with the writings of others, I was tickled to learn that  in Jesu, Meine Freude was Bach's own interaction with an existing hymn by the same name written by Johann Franck.  Bach begins with Franck's text and weaves it together with passages from the eighth chapter of Romans, blending a sermon with music which will deliver it straight to the heart.

On the evening of the concert, which was held at the Catholic church downtown, Paul and I were so eager that we got there 50 minutes early. This gave us plenty of time to read the program, which provided historical background as well as the English translation of Bach's German and Haydn's Latin.  I knew that Bach was a Lutheran and a man of vibrant faith.  The program notes, however, seemed to be written from a secular perspective.  I say this mainly because the writer seemed puzzled that what Bach had written as a "memorial to the recently departed" could sound so "celebratory."  What really struck me about this, and the reason I bring it up, is that this person clearly struggled to find a context for Bach's joy in the face of death:
 "The Lutheran ideal of death as a release from the pains and difficulties of life's suffering is more easily understood when we examine the lives of those in times, places, or situations other than our own.  The 18th-century perspective on death must surely have been affected by the frequency with which it was confronted. Bach himself buried more than ten of his children." 
Indeed! Bach fathered twenty children, seven with his first wife and thirteen with his second.  Out of the twenty, only half survived to adulthood. I understand what this writer is getting at. It is true that we, overall, are living longer and easier lives. But regardless of our "time, place, and situation", the fact remains that the death rate has not changed since Bach's day, and, truth be told, life is still full of suffering for the majority of those living it. Even so, by and large, suffering or not, we fight tooth and nail put off death for as long as we can.  Death was the great enemy of man in Bach's time and it remains so today.  In fact, as a Lutheran, and a man devoted to Scripture, Bach would not have viewed death merely as a release from the hardship of life.  He believed that death was serious business, not because it was the end of life, but because after it came God's judgment, "the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.  He will render to each one according to his works..."(Rom. 2:5b,6).

No, to find the key to Bach's triumphant tone in the face of suffering and death, and to find the key for our own, one need only listen to the words of his music.

Jesus, my joy, my heart's delight, Jesus my treasure!
Ah, how long? Ah, long has my heart troubled and longed for you!
God's lamb, my bridegroom, besides You on earth nothing shall be dearer to me.

Now there is nothing damnable in those who are in Christ Jesus,
who do not walk after the way of the flesh, but after the way of the spirit.

Under your protection I am safe from the storms of all enemies.
Let Satan rage, let the enemy fume, Jesus stands with me.
Whether now it thunders and flashes, whether sin and Hell terrify, Jesus will protect me.

For the law of the spirit, which gives life in Christ Jesus,
Has made me free from the law of sin and death.

Defiance to the old dragon, defiance to the vengeance of death, defiance to fear as well!
Rage, world, and attack; I stand here and sing in entirely secure peace!
God's strength holds me in watch; earth and abyss must fall silent, however much they might rumble.

You, however, are not of the flesh, but rather of the Spirit,
since the Spirit of God lives in otherwise in you.
Anyone, however, who does not have Christ's Spirit, is not His.

Away with all treasures, you are my delight, Jesus, my joy!
Away, you vain honors; I don't want to listen to you; remain unknown to me!
Misery, want, torture, shame and death shall, although I must suffer much, never part me from Jesus.

However if Christ is in you, then the body is dead indeed for the sake of sin;
but the spirit is life for the sake of righteousness.

Good night, existence that cherishes the world! You do not please me.
Good night, sins, stay far away, never again come to light!
Good night, pride and glory! To you utterly; life of corruption, be good night given!

If the spirit of him who has raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,
So will the same one who has raised Christ from the dead,
bring life to your mortal bodies, because of His spirit that dwells in you.

Give way, you spirits of grief, for the Lord of joy, Jesus enters in.
For those who love God, even their sorrow must be of pure sweetness.
Even if I must endure mockery and scorn, yet you remain, even in suffering, Jesus my joy!*

In Christ, all of life has meaning.  In Christ even suffering can be rich.  In Christ there is triumph over sin and victory in death.  The answer to it all is Jesus, My Joy!  When Jesus is your joy in life, He will be your joy in death as well.

*There are other English translations available on the internet.  I've merely copied the text provided in the concert program.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Return from the Stone Age

We've spent the last eighteen days here at Casa Mathers remembering what people did before the internet.

This was not intentional.

This is what happens to people like us who fail to intuit that changing internet providers is a dance which requires a series of carefully choreographed movements.  Silly us, we thought we could just cancel one and call the other and voila!

Not so.  At least not when your provider is both the owner of your land-line and a major corporation with dozens of left hands who appear not to be on speaking terms with their right hands.

Well, enough said on that matter.  It only goes to explain why I have been nearly three weeks longer than usual between blog entries.  You might think I'd have spent all that free time writing, but you'd be wrong.  I found that sitting in front of a computer which is capable of little more than word-processing is about as inspiring as sitting in front of a blank TV screen or listening to a dial tone. (How many of you remember what that sounds like?)

So here I am, dipping my toes in the water, trying to work up the nerve to jump back in, hoping that three weeks isn't the length of time it takes to run out of things to say or forget how to write altogether.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Standing in the Middle

"Now standing in the middle has its advantages and disadvantages.  Common sense tends to pull people to the middle of issues, so those standing in the middle usually have peer support.  Those in the middle, however, don't have the luxury of having to defend only a single flank - they get shot at from both sides." - Ric Machuga, In Defense of the Soul, What It Means to Be Human
This was only a passing remark made in the book I am currently reading, but it caught my eye because the older I get the more often find myself occupying the middle ground on so many issues.

Standing in the middle is what often happens when you give both sides of a matter a fair listen. Both sides usually have at least part of the matter right.  If to the left of you the right hand is correct, you take hold of it.  If to the right the left hand holds truth, you take hold of that. Next thing you know you're standing between the two, holding hands with them both.

A happy picture, is it not?  You have a friend on either side. But what you also have on either side is the enemy of the other.  You in the middle bear a heavy weight of responsibility.  You are what stands between the rivals and their mutual destruction. You represent the common ground and the potential for peace. Those on either side of you have a couple of choices.  They can, if they respect you, each respect what you see in the other and let you help bridge the gap, or they can continue to tear each other apart and destroy you in the process.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." Mt. 5:9

Friday, March 16, 2012

Book Talk: Kingdom Coming, The Rise of Christian Nationalism

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.  2 Peter 3:8-13
"Since all thee things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be?..."

Those words hung in the air as I read Michelle Goldberg's 2006 journalistic work about the rise of Christian nationalism in America.  Indeed, I found the entire book unsettling in many ways.

I originally purchased my copy of the book a couple of years ago after hearing an interview with the author.   Though she is a secular writer, her discussion of the topic was so fair and reasonable, and so compelling that I was intrigued and ordered a copy even though I knew that the interview and the book were already a few years old. It then took me another two years before I finally made time to read it a couple of weeks ago.  Considering it was written in the second term of the Bush presidency, it is still surprisingly relevant.  It contains many names, organizations, and causes that are very familiar to me as an evangelical believer.  A few of the players have changed, some have dropped out of the limelight, some have gained even more influence.  One shocked me by turning up in the course of my reading shortly after he turned up as a front-runner in our current G.O.P. primary race.

Goldberg describes "Christian nationalism" as "Christianity as a total ideology" -
"The people who live inside this reality often call it the 'Christian worldview.' The phrase is based on the conviction that true Christianity must govern every aspect of public and private life, and that all - government, science, history, culture, and relationships - must be understood according to the dictates of scripture.  There are biblically correct positions on every issue, from gay marriage to income tax rates, and only those with the right worldview can discern them."
Furthermore, she asserts that this ideology "is what drives a great many of the fights over religion, science, sex, and pluralism that are now dividing communities all over the country.  It is a conscious refutation of Enlightenment rationalism..."

Speaking as an evangelical Christian, I would say this is a fair assessment of the mindset of a significant segment of American evangelicalism.  I can also easily imagine many of my brethren reading much of her book and responding with a puzzled, "She says that as if it were a bad thing".    (In truth, I found myself during the course of my reading spending a lot of energy puzzling out how it is that so many people with whom I agree about so many things could have ended up with such different objectives.)

I found little to fault in Goldberg's observations. Other than a misunderstanding* or two, which seemed to stem simply from not being a Christian herself, her treatment was, by and large, fair.  Not painting with too broad a brush, she carefully emphasized that the Christian nationalistic movement is not representative of Christianity as a whole, or of all American Christians, or even of all evangelicals.  She was also open about how helpful and genuinely nice so many of the Christians she interacted with were.  But the fact that she was  speaking from the perspective of a non-Christian gets to the heart of why I found her observations and concerns so disturbing.  Through her eyes I was able to get a glimpse of what American Christianity in its loudest and most visible form sounds and looks like to an outsider.

Rather than a people who, like their God, do not wish that any should perish, she found a people who would like to re-institute some version of the Mosaic Law, with its diverse death penalties and all, right here in America, and who are using whatever means they can - from local and national politics to child-bearing and homeschooling - to gain the power and influence needed to make it happen.  Instead of a people committed to living holy, godly lives, hoping and waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwell, she found a people seeking to impose the righteousness of God on this earth right now - on believer and unbeliever alike.
"The motivating dream of the movement is the restoration of an imagined Christian nation.  With the revisionist history that claims the founders never intended to create a secular country and that separation of church and state is a lie fostered by conniving leftists, Christian nationalism rejects the idea of government religious neutrality... the ultimate goal of Christian nationalist leaders isn't fairness.  It's dominion.  The movement is built on a theology that asserts the Christian right to rule.  That doesn't mean that the nonbelievers will be forced to convert. They'll just have to learn their place."
I find little to argue with in Goldberg's assessment not only because her findings are well documented, but because she well represents how I've found much of American evangelicalism to be. To flesh out her story, she selects several evangelical political issues as cases in point: the meme of a "Christian nation"; gay rights; the evolution/creationist education debate, the "abstinence industry", government funding of religious social service institutions; and the drive to remedy "judicial tyranny".  She was not, so far as I could tell, reacting to phantom threats. Neither, so far as I could tell, was she misrepresenting the facts.  In every case the Christian positions she presents are ones I am at least acquainted with, and in certain cases very familiar.  Some of the causes she describes are ones I am sympathetic toward.

Goldberg gave me a sense of how the political activity of the Religious Right looks and feels to outsiders.  I can clearly see how alarming all of this activity is to a non-Christian.  But I am a Chrisitan - and, truth be told, the behavior of the Religious Right has been disturbing me for almost as long as I have been a follower of Christ.  Before my conversion, I was a Republican, leaning toward Libertarian in my views. In fact that was my position at the time this book was written. I was not paying much attention back then to the machinations of the Religious Right, but if I had been, I would have mainly approved. As a nominal Christian I would have seen no problem with any of the political actions Goldberg describes in her book. But because I was a conservative before my conversion, I did not conflate my conservatism with my faith in Christ.  I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that being a Republican did not save my soul and that conservatism is not the way to heaven.  Unfortunately, in this I feel out of step with much of American evangelicalism, which seems to be under the impression that it can make America into God's kingdom via political power.
"Jesus answered,'My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.'" John 18:36
When I became a Christian all my hopes and dreams, and my loyalties along with them, transferred.  My kingdom is no longer of this world.  "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." (Col 1:13:14)
Now my citizenship is in heaven, and my status in this world is that of a sojourner.  I am an exile here, and the Scripture teaches me to alter my life accordingly:
"Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 1 Peter 2:11-12
"...aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one." 1 Thess. 4:11-12
"Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life..." Philippians 2:14-16a
"Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor." 1 Peter 2:13-17
It grieves me that instead of living quiet lives, honoring everyone - even ungodly rulers - subjecting ourselves to human institutions, and letting our good deeds and honorable conduct stand in our defense, I see my fellow Christians loudly demanding control, disputing, grumbling, and attempting to subvert the powers that be. I find a great host, under the banner of Christ, striving with all their might to make this world their kingdom and to make the unbelievers the exiles in it.

I do not deny that this effort is often well-intentioned.  Many, as Goldberg rightly explains, believe that in doing so that they are obeying the "Dominion Mandate" of Genesis 1:26-27.  I am well aware that not all Christians share the same eschatology. However, regardless of whether one believes this dominion will ultimately be exercised in this world, or in the New Earth, the New Testament makes it clear that there is only one way to advance God's kingdom and only one legitimate source of God's power in this world: the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Never in the New Testament are we taught to advance God's kingdom through political force.  On the contrary, God chose to reveal His power through the humility and suffering of Christ.  The cross should remind us that God's strength is made perfect in our weakness,  The kingdom reign of Christ expands only through the faith that comes from hearing the word of Christ. When we exchange the weakness that is our strength for the "carnal weapons" of earthly power plays we are declaring our belief that the gospel is inadequate, that the Cross of Christ is is not quite powerful enough to secure the kingdom. Or perhaps we are revealing that it is not God's plans we are truly interested in, but our own.
"The anxieties that underlay Christian nationalism's appeal - fears about social breakdown, marital instability, and cultural decline - are real.  They should be acknowledged and, whenever possible, addressed.  But as long as the movement aims at the destruction of secular society and the political enforcement of its theology, it has to be battled, not comforted and appeased." 
Remembering that we Christians are exiles in this world, I found the title of  Goldberg's conclusion, "Exiles in Jesusland" sadly ironic.  In it she expresses her fear of religious tyranny - by religious fundamentalists - by us.  To an unbeliever (and to many thoughtful Christians as well), the imposition of Old Testament Law on America would be no less terrifying a notion than the imposition of Sharia Law would be to every non-Muslim. The alarm she expressed is no different than that which we Christians feel at the thought of an Islamic takeover of America.

After years of hearing panicked warnings from Christians of the threat posed by liberals, I found it eye-opening to read that secularists have similar fears of the Religious Right.  The "F" word, in both mouths is fascism, and, for good reason; ever since Hitler, it has been everybody's great fear. Six years ago, Goldberg still held out a ray of hope, "Tremendous crises would have to shred what's left of the American consensus before religious fascism becomes a possibility..."  She then went on to paint a worst-case scenario:
"Historically, totalitarian movements have been able to seize state power only when existing authorities prove unable to deal with catastrophic challenges - economic meltdown, security failures, military defeat - and people lose their faith in the legitimacy of the system....Such calamities are certainly conceivable in America...If there is a hard landing - due to an oil shock, a burst housing bubble, a sharp decline in the value of the dollar, or some other crisis - interest rates would shoot up, leaving many people unable to pay their floating-rate mortgages, and credit card bills.  Repossessions and bankruptcies would follow.  Many Americans would lose everything they have, including their houses.  The resulting anger could fuel radical populist movements of either the left or the right - more likely the right, since it has a far stronger ideological infrastructure in place in most of America.  Economic hardship incubates hate."
Does any of this sound familiar?  Considering this was written before the economic collapse, the Obama Presidency, and the Tea Party and Occupy Movements, I found her forecast to be unnerving:
"If current trends continue, we will see ever increasing division and acrimony in our politics.  That's partly because, as Christian nationalism spreads, secularism is spreading as well, while moderate, mainline Christianity is in decline... This is a recipe for polarization.  The religious divide in America isn't so much between the faithless and faithful - it's between those who want to maintain a secular pluralistic society and those who do not.  But the growing presence of non-Christians will exacerbate the frightened anger of those desperate to drag the country back to its mythical Christian roots....As Christian nationalism becomes more militant, secularist and religious minorities will mobilize in opposition, ratcheting up the hostility.  Thus we're likely to see a shrinking middle ground, with both camps increasingly viewing each other across a chasm of mutual incomprehension and contempt."
To try and head off a takeover by the Religious Right Goldberg suggests that the left fight fire with fire and use same strategy that has worked so well for the right: "try to build a culture," she advises.  "Political parties and social movements operate in different ways. Political parties address the beliefs people already hold.  Movements work to change those beliefs...A movement has to shape the culture before candidates who reflect its values will have a chance". At this point I scribbled in my margins, "Carnal weapons work in anyone's hands...If the 'Christian' tactics can be used just as effectively in secular hands then there is nothing uniquely Christian about them".  And this is what most alarms me about the Christian nationalism movement.  In taking up worldly methods, it denies the power of the gospel, and misrepresents the mission of Christ to the world.

As Christ did not come into the world to condemn, but to save, so we, His church are called to continue His work. And so, God has "made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." (2 Cor. 3:6)

Kingdom Coming remains, six years after publication a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.  As ambassadors of Christ in this world, I think it wise for Christians to pay close attention to the impact their behaviors, attitudes, and politics have on unbelievers, remembering that we are not called to condemn, but to be ministers of reconciliation and adjusting our behaviors and attitudes accordingly.
"From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." 2 Cor. 5:16-21


* In Chapter One, in which she discusses whether or not America can rightfully be called a Christian nation, Goldberg, in my opinion, reads far too much meaning into a statement by President G.W. Bush:
"...the president himself speaks the language of Christian nationalism... In January 2005 Bush told the Washington Times that, while religious freedom is essential to America, 'On the other hand, I don't see how you can be president, at least from my perspective, how you can be president without a relationship with the Lord.' A personal 'relationship with the Lord,' of course, is a central tenet of evangelical Christianity, although not of many other faiths.  Assuming he meant what he said, the president's statement implies that only evangelicals are qualified for his job."
To a Christian a statement like this generally is meant only to reflect humbly one's own sense of inadequacy and dependence on God's help in the face of an incredibly difficult circumstance or responsibility.  Bush felt he needed God's help to be a good president. I don't think he meant to imply there could be no effective president who is not a Christian.