Category Archives: Philosophy

Growing Old: Hope, Samuel Beckett, and Krapp’s Last Tape

On a trip to New York City this past December, a trip that had as its genesis a desire to see Rob Mathes’ annual Christmas concert in person (after being introduced to Rob’s music via a DVD of the Christmas show on Mike Card’s bus eight or so years ago), I spent some time with my friends Alissa and Tom. When I first let them know I would be in town, Alissa told me they had tickets one night I would be there to see John Hurt perform Samuel Beckett’s one-man play, Krapp’s Last Tape, at a small theater in Brooklyn. When I found there were still tickets available I quickly purchased one, and set about doing some research on the play, including reading the script after I found it online, having decided to do the same kind of prep work I normally do before going to the symphony every other week.

According to one synopsis: “In Krapp’s Last Tape, which was written in English in 1958, an old man reviews his life and assesses his predicament. We learn about him not from the 69-year-old man on stage, but from his 39-year-old self on the tape he chooses to listen to. On the ‘awful occasion’ of his birthday, Krapp was then and is now in the habit of reviewing the past year and ‘separating the grain from the husks’. He isolates memories of value, fertility and nourishment to set against creeping death ‘when all my dust has settled’.” Continue reading Growing Old: Hope, Samuel Beckett, and Krapp’s Last Tape

Forget Your Presuppositions (Presenting the Gospel)

Start from zero. Try to forget your presuppositions. What do you say to someone who doesn’t seem to have any of the same questions you do about life and religion when they ask you what and why you believe? In a conversation I had about religion with a friend, he started out by describing himself as a “flaming atheist,” later backing down from that descriptor and saying that more than anything he didn’t really think about the subject. He grew up going to church once or twice a year with his parents, but in the last forty years just didn’t think questions about God had any relevance to his life. In the conversations that followed, and the time that has passed by since then, I’ve tried to figure out the best way to answer his questions, the best way to explain why I bother to believe in anything, before I get into any specifics.

Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, author of Velvet Elvis and Sex God, and coauthor of Jesus Wants to Save Christians, was asked a similar question in a recent interview with Christianity Today. The question was, “How would you present this gospel on Twitter?” and Rob’s answer is a more fleshed out version of the answer I’ve started to give. Remember, Rob is not defining the Gospel here, nor giving a full explanation. He is presenting an introduction, calling the hearer into the journey.

“I would say that history is headed somewhere. The thousands of little ways in which you are tempted to believe that hope might actually be a legitimate response to the insanity of the world actually can be trusted. And the Christian story is that a tomb is empty, and a movement has actually begun that has been present in a sense all along in creation. And all those times when your cynicism was at odds with an impulse within you that said that this little thing might be about something bigger—those tiny little slivers may in fact be connected to something really, really big.”

Of course, G.K. Chesterton said many of the same things when talking about the need for fairy tales, like in this quote: “Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these strong enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” And it’s one reason I’m convinced that art matters because it points to something better, that it has the power to stir up questions and desires in us that are otherwise drowned out by the noise and busyness of our everyday lives.

What about you? What answer do you give when asked why you believe?

Roger Ebert on God

Film critic Roger Ebert, who updates his journal at the Chicago Sun-Times website quite a bit more than I do my blog, and frequently with lengthy essays, has a new post up about how he believes in God. I can identify with many of the questions Ebert says he has asked, although I, more often than not, have not come to the same conclusion as he has. I do find myself nodding in agreement when I read, “Most of my neighborhood friends were Protestants who were not interested in theories about God, apart from the fact that of course he existed.” I enjoy the Dillard quote he gives when he writes, “I subscribe to Annie Dilliard, who says that in an unfamiliar area, she seeks out the church of the oldest established religion she can find, because it has the most experience in not being struck by lightning.” And I find myself largely in agreement with his statement, “I have no interest in megachurches with jocular millionaire pastors. I think what happens in them is socio-political, not spiritual.”

Here’s a link to the full essay.

Coming Soon: The Sacredness of Questioning Everything

The wait is almost over. David Dark’s new book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, arrives in bookstores April 1st. I blogged about hearing David read some selections a while back while he was working on it, and have been eager to get my hands on it since. Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message, wrote this blurb for the back of the book: “David Dark is my favorite critic of the people’s culture of America and the Christian faith. He brings a deep sense of reverence to every book he reads, every song he hears, every movie he sees, but it is a discerning reverence—attentive to truth and Jesus wherever he comes on them. He is also a reliable lie detector. And not a dull sentence in the book.”

David and I met for coffee yesterday for a redemptively stimulating conversation that covered film, questions, theology, N.T. Wright, The Watchman, music, and Peter Rollins, among other topics. I should be a getting a copy of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything sometime soon, so look for a review in the next couple weeks.

Here’s a more detailed description of the book from Zondervan’s website.

In this provocative, entertaining book, author David Dark writes, “The summons to sacred questioning, like a call to honesty, like a call to prayer, is a call to be true and to let the chips fall where they may.” Far from being a sign of cynicism or weakness, questions are not only positive but crucial for our health and well-being.


Is Your God Big Enough to Be Questioned?

The freedom to question is an indispensable and sacred practice that is absolutely vital to the health of our communities.

According to author David Dark, when religion won’t tolerate questions, objections, or differences of opinion, and when it only brings to the table threats of excommunication, violence, and hellfire, it obstructs our ability to think, empathize, and live lives of authenticity and genuine engagement.

The God of the Bible not only encourages questions; the God of the Bible demands them. If that were not so, we wouldn’t live in a world of such rich, God-given complexity in which wide-eyed wonder is part and parcel of the human condition. The possibility of redemption and revolution depends on the questions we ask of God, governments, media, and everyday economies.

It is by way of the questions that we resist the conformity that deadens and come alive to visions that redeem.

Tokens Radio Show

Where else but Nashville can you be a part of an audience for a radio show taping that talks about justice, death row, Will Campbell, English-only laws, revivalist preachers, and climaxes with an ensemble performance of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind by musical guests Vince Gill, Buddy Greene, Odessa Settles, Stuart Duncan, Sonya Isaacs, and more?

Last night kicked off the 2009 season of the Tokens Radio Show, described by host and creator Lee Camp as “part theology lecture, part cultural analysis, part old-time radio show, part good conversation, [and] part good music…” I was able to attend one show last year, the Christmas show where my friend Andrew Peterson was one of the musical guests, and thought it was brilliantly conceived and well executed. Last night’s show, Justice Songs, included one skit based on the recent English-Only law that (fortunately) failed to pass here in Nashville, hypothesizing what a conversation would sound like in a Mexican restaurant between the waiter and the guy ordering the food if the law had passed. Would you like that baby donkey roll on a stick in an Arizona bean holder?

One guest was attorney Brad MacLean, who was interviewed about his work with death row inmates. He mentioned a series of newspaper articles that had defended different sides of the death-row issue, concluding with a question from a nun about asking yourself if you could pull the lever. A rabbi wrote in and said that yes, he could absolutely pull the lever, enthusiastically even, if the crime were bad enough. Which was exactly the reason he opposed the death penalty. I was reminded of the great post Shaun wrote recently quoting Stanley Hauerwas on his reasons for his non-violent beliefs: “I’m a pacifist because I’m a violent son of a bitch.”

Will Campbell, author of Brother to a Dragonfly (which I picked up today at my favorite used bookstore when I took my friend Randall there for the first time) had recorded an interview with Lee Camp, which was played with Camp interjecting more comments in between Campbell’s responses. At one point, Campbell mentioned the statement he is probably most famous for, his summation of the Gospel: “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”

Vince Gill sang two songs, one a country song and the other a bluegrass song, Odessa Settles blew everyone away as usual with her soulful interpretations of spirituals, Buddy Greene sang the old Stephen Foster song Hard Times Come Again No More, Sonya Isaacs sang Darrell Scott’s You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive, and the house band, the Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys, were great as usual.

You can hear clips from the show – and an extended interview with Brad MacLean about his work with death-row inmates – on the program’s website,

On Wine and Judging Others

Brant wrote a post last week cautioning against rushing into judgment of others. In spite of the good arguments to be made, the “deep, theologically profound arguments”, and the implications such a position has on how the rest of life is lived and viewed, Brant still says that “it’s not a sin to not drink wine”.

“I think we have to avoid judging other people’s hearts. Rejecting wine, for some, is a legitimate freedom that they have, and they are welcome to that, provided, of course, it’s not borne of selfish, prideful, or legalistic motivations.

Yes, I know, wine is a consistent symbol throughout scripture, of God’s peace, of Heaven itself, of God’s covenant with us. Yes, I know, the O.T. prophets intimately link the image of wine with the very Kingdom of God. I’m aware of this.

Yes, scripture is quite clear and thorough-going about it: Wine is a gift, pregnant with wonderful meaning, linked with the very soil, a sign of the creation that was created Good, and will be fully restored in the great Feast.”

My own “conversion experience” was prompted in part by reading the memoirs of composer JAC Redford, Welcome All Wonders: A Composer’s Journey. In one chapter, when recounting his conversion to Christianity from Mormonism, he wrote about a trip he took to Europe shortly after his conversion. He had just written orchestrations for one of the albums in Michael Card’s “Ancient Faith” trilogy, and he and his wife decided to spend some time traveling around Europe after the orchestra sessions in London. Coming from the strict rules of Mormonism prohibiting all alcohol and caffeine, he wrote about the freedom and joy he felt when enjoying God’s creation and His gift of life by having a cup of hot coffee with breakfast and a glass of wine over dinner.

It’s funny the seemingly random moments that are integral to the journeys of each of us.

Check out Brant’s full post here.

Don Miller on Staying Faithful

Because a lot of the work I do in music preparation has me working on my computer for 10-15 hours a day (like this week), I listen to a lot of podcasts, lectures, and sermons. I recently stumbled across a veritable treasure trove of lectures at The Veritas Forum, where the speakers range from Madeleine L’Engle to Don Miller to N.T. Wright to Dallas Willard.

The one I’ve enjoyed the most so far is by Don Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz and To Own a Dragon, on “Staying Faithful.” I heard Don speak in Chattanooga two weeks ago, and he touched on several of the themes he talks about here. I especially enjoyed his opening:

Well, I was asked to speak on the topic of staying faithful at home, and this is really kind of a “how do we stay faithful to Christian theology”, and I put together a talk. This talk is only about two minutes, so I’m going to do that, and then we’ll take some questions. Because it’s very easy to stay faithful at home; this is not a complicated mystery, and here’s kinda how it works:

The first thing you do as a Christian to stay faithful at home theologically is you read the Bible, right, and then you reduce it to either systematic theology, creeds, or bullet points that also spell out acronyms. (laughter) I’m not kidding. And then, you defend those bullet points with arrogance or hatred, and you condemn people who don’t agree with you. That’s how you stay faithful at home.

I really appreciate you having me. I wish you the best in your attacking other people. Be creative, be loud (because they’re going to be loud, these people who don’t agree with you).

You know, as ridiculous as that sounds, that’s where we are, right? I mean, we memorize these creeds, we subscribe to these specific theological positions, we believe that they’re right, we defend them, we get upset with people who don’t agree, we call them heretics, this sort of thing. That’s how we stay faithful at home. And as silly as that sounds, that is what your culture wants you to do, that is what it is asking you to do. I find that odd, in light of scripture and the sort of methods God that uses to communicate truth, that our culture would have done this.

Download the full lecture here.

“God repairs us through creation and through art.”

I just got home after hearing pianist Pat Coil playing his weekly jazz set at Basil Asian Bistro, with Jim Ferguson on bass and vocals. On the drive home, I remembered a quote I read this morning in Jeffrey Overstreet’s book Through a Screen Darkly that expressed what I was feeling.

I can describe it best by borrowing some words from an artist and music-lover named Jessica Poundstone, who came back from a Bill Frisell concert recently and wrote, “Sometimes music is like one of those programs you run on your computer to optimize your hard drive: it heals a million little broken things you didn’t even know needed attention.”

God repairs us through creation and through art.

Listening to Pat play does exactly that for me. I look forward to every chance I have to enjoy an evening of jazz and a glass of fine wine, and I’m grateful for the echoes of something more that I hear during those times.

On a side note, I thought it was cool when I read that in Jeffrey’s book this morning, since I was sitting at a coffee shop waiting for Don Hart, an arranger I work for, to finish a meeting with Bill Frisell about some arrangements Don’s writing for an NCO concert next week featuring Bill. I had to get some of Bill’s charts from him, since I’m helping with music preparation for the concert.

John Piper on Stereotypes, Generalizations, and Racism

Pastor, Author, and Theologian John Piper sent out an e-mail today to his mailing list titled Stereotypes, Generalizations, and Racism. In light of the hateful rhetoric so popular today in some circles, particularly in regard to other nationalities and/or religions, it would benefit all of us to read Piper’s exhortations on this issue.

One of his points is “Christians should use generalizations justly and lovingly to form true and helpful judgments about people and life.” After quoting Matthew 7:12 (So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.) and defining generalizations, Piper says this:

So the tough question is: When is a generalization about a group racist? I am using the word racist as something sinful, and the following answers move toward a definition. The following uses of generalization would be wrong (racist):

  • When you want a person to fit a negative generalization that you have formed about a group (even if the generalization statistically is true).
  • When you assume that a statistically true negative generalization is true of a particular person in the face of individual evidence to the contrary.
  • When you treat all the members of a group as if all must be characterized by a negative generalization.
  • When you speak disparagingly of an entire group on the basis of a negative generalization without any regard for those in the group who don’t fit the generalization. Or: When you speak negatively of a group based on a generalization without giving any evidence that you acknowledge and appreciate the exceptions. (I assume that Jesus’ generalizations about the Pharisees [Matthew 23] and Paul’s generalization about the Cretans [Titus 1:12] are not sinful because they did have such regard and did appreciate the exceptions.)

Implication for Christians: While realizing that life is not livable without generalizations, beware that pride does not lead you to use statistical generalizations in loving ways.

Read the rest of Piper’s thoughts on this issue here.

Metaphorized History / Historicized Metaphors, and The Meaning of Jesus

I’m currently working my way through one of the most interesting books I’ve picked up in a while, The Meaning of Jesus – Two Visions, by Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright. Marcus Borg is the most popular revisionist voice on Jesus today and a member of the Jesus Seminar, and N.T. Wright is the most prominent standard-bearer for the traditional stance and an outspoken critic of the Jesus Seminar. They wrote alternating chapters presenting their views on who Jesus was, what he taught, and what he did. After writing the first drafts, they sent them to each other and then re-wrote their chapters, addressing the other’s arguments. It is a fascinating read, and as it is written for the lay person it is not very difficult to understand. Although I do still have to read through each chapter a couple times to really get a grasp on their respective arguments.

One of the more interesting sentences I’ve come across so far is in a chapter titled Jesus and God, written by Borg. Under the paragraph heading The Christological Images as Confessional Language, he says:

Very early on, we metaphorized our history, and since then we have often historicized our metaphors. When we literalize metaphors, we get nonsense. We also lose the metaphors, with their rich resonances of meaning.

While I would ultimately disagree with Borg in almost every case about what he thinks was metaphor first and not history, I think the statement is still valid, particularly regarding the apocalyptic literature.

Continuing with the role and nature of metaphorical language in the early church and the scriptures, N.T. Wright wrote a chapter on The Transforming Reality of the Bodily Resurrection where he explores the details of the resurrection stories that existed before Christ, how the resurrection story the Christ-followers told differed from the earlier stories, and the metaphorical layers of the stories. He then says “This is not to say, of course, that the truth value of the stories consists simply in their bare historicity. They are pregnant with so many layers of metaphorical meanings, mythical and eschatological alike, that it is almost impossible to explore them fully.”. He goes on to say:

These stories, with all their metaphorical layers, are not explicable, I suggest, on the basis of subtle scribes sitting down with biblical texts and transforming a non-resurrection-centered early Christianity into a community that told its own stories in terms of the myth of Jesus’ resurrection. We are, in short, offered a stark choice: either grasp the nettle, or resign yourself to a long walk round through thorns and thistles.
Grasping the nettle-proposing, as a historical statement, that the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth was empty because his body had been transformed into a new mode of physicality – will of course evoke howls of protest from those for whom the closed world of Enlightenment theory renders any such thing impossible from the start. But if Christianity is only going to be allowed to rent an apartment in the Enlightenment’s housing scheme, and on its terms, we are, to borrow Paul’s phrase, of all people the most to be pitied – especially as the Enlightenment itself is rumored to be bankrupt and to be facing serious charges of fraud. The lines of historical enquiry point relentlessly inward to the first day of the week after Jesus’ crucifixion. Once you allow that something remarkable happened to his body that morning, all the other data fall into place with astonishing ease. Once you insist that nothing so outlandish happened, you are driven to ever more complex and fantastic hypotheses to explain the data. For the historian, as for the scientist, the answer should be clear.

It is no good falling back on “science” as having disproved the possibility of resurrection. Any real scientist will tell you that science observes what normally happens; the Christian case is precisely that what happened to Jesus is not what normally happens. For my part, as a historian I prefer the elegant, essentially simple solution rather than the one that fails to include all the data: to say that the early Christians believed that Jesus had been bodily raised from the dead, and to account for this belief by saying that they were telling the truth.

It is unusual to find two scholars from opposing viewpoints debating a topic, especially a topic as central to Christianity as the meaning of Jesus, with civility and without resorting to name calling. I’ve found it particularly interesting coming from a background in Fundamentalism where a discussion of this nature could never have taken place. If you have not yet read a book on this topic, I highly recommend The Meaning of Jesus.