Discovery of Heaven

I recently completed Discovery of Heaven, by Harry Mulisch. The book is a philosophical/theological novel that covers some pretty major themes first in human relationships and modern culture, but then also in considering the role of the supernatural in a modern world that typically denies any supernatural reality.

The background of the novel has two angels in dialogue about a plan they have been working on—a plan that involves a final interaction with the increasingly self-sufficient modern world

What drew me into this novel was the story itself. The narrative begins by tracing the friendship of two men, one an astronomer (Max) and the other an academic-turned politician (Onno). Together they not only display a constant intellectual banter that challenges the reader to reflect on many different important themes, but they also experience several adventures (told in vivid and usually humorous form by Mulisch) that pull the reader along through all 700+ pages. And eventually, through a bizarre set of circumstances (influenced by the angels), these men end up raising a son, Quinten.

And it is Quinten who is ultimately the person whom the angels use for their final interaction with modern world. Experiencing a recurring dream throughout his childhood, Quinten realizes at a young age that he was born for a particular purpose, even if he doesn’t know what that purpose is. And so in his teen years, Quinten decides to travel to Italy on the quest to fulfill this purpose (Having recently traveled Italy, I especially appreciated Mulisch’s colorful descriptions of Italian architecture and culture). The narrative eventually takes Quinten to Rome where he uncovers the special purpose of his life, culminating in an event that signifies, essentially, the cutoff of supernatural interaction with the world and thus the completion of the angel’s plan.

What drew me into this novel was both Mulisch’s excellent descriptive writing and ability to weave a story. And while both characters and events are at times far-fetched, the truths that are represented make these situations somehow believable, if not for the simple fact the reader cannot help but see that the story presents much of what we experience in modern culture.

For someone who holds out hope that God still interacts in our world the end of the book was somewhat depressing. Yet the reality of humanity’s hardening towards supernatural interaction—whether that be through science, art, music, or otherwise—was a sobering reminder of how modern culture has come to see itself as the pinnacle of reality—sufficient unto itself.

In my opinion, any novel that walks the line between entertaining prose and profound themes related to the human experience is worth reading. With this criteria then, Discovery of Heaven is without a doubt a must-read.

Who's Change? Obama or America?

Well, the wait is over. The world now enters a new era in politics with the inauguration of Barack Obama.

The question now is if “change,” so celebrated throughout Obama’s campaign, will actually take place to the degree in which people expect. While I am optimistic that Obama will influence a degree of change in a variety of areas within America, the buzz that his presidency has created surrounding the office of the president and the role that office has in the well being of America is, in my opinion, as cause for concern. While it’s obviously too early to evaluate whether change will in fact be realized, the elevation of the president to a degree of savior-like status shifts the focus away from the only way I see America making positive changes: the American people must embrace change, not just embrace a president who preaches it.

Basically, Obama can only inspire change. Americans are the ones responsible for making that change happen. For example, I wonder if people really understand the personal impact of environmental sensitivity at a political level. Or how a shift in global policy will involve openness to other cultures that will need to redefine how Americans view national security. Or how a new perspective on the economy will necessarily involve redefining prosperity and God’s blessing. Essentially, are the American people, not just Barack Obama, willing to sacrifice an old way of living for a new perspective on American identity that seeks the wellbeing of all peoples, cultures, and ultimately the whole world?

And so I agree these comments from Obama’s inauguration speech:

“For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”

I only hope the American people realize the personal responsibility they all have for making Obama’s celebrated “change” a reality.

We’ll see…

Movies Anyone?

Well, this time of year when award ceremonies grace our Sunday evening television sets, I can’t help but wish I had more time to go to the movies. Undoubtedly for marketing purposes, December and January produce many of the year’s best flicks just in time for publicity of the Golden Globes and Oscars. Unfortunately, life with a 3 ½ month-old doesn’t facilitate frequent movie-going. And so instead of offering reviews (I haven’t seen anything recently except James Bond, which was only ok) I simply offer a few movies I think (and have heard) would be worth watching. Here goes:

The Wrestler

A story about a washed up wrestler (Mickey Rourke) still hanging onto his career at the age of 50, what draws me to this film (besides the memory of my teenage years and watching WWF) is the struggle of individuals navigating their own brokenness presented in what appears to not gloss over the reality of pain in our world. Said to be a “complex meditation on addiction and eternal struggle,” this movie tops my list.

Doubt

I find myself drawn to films related to issues of morality, particularly stories that present the often turbulent and confusing process in which competing moralities are confronted with one another. Set in a New York Catholic school, the story pits a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a nun (Meryl Streep) against one another in what appears to be a battle of character and conviction as the nun accuses the priest of sexual misconduct. From what I hear, there is no lack of discussion points from viewing this film.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

While a sucker for a quality romance (no, I’m not joking!), what interests me about this film is how they made it. In a story about a man who ages backwards (Brad Pitt), the filmmakers utilize their current technological prowess in what is supposed to be a believable presentation of an otherwise unbelievable story.

Anyway, feel free to offer other suggestions or comment on these (just don’t ruin anything please!). If you’re interested in good reviews, my favorite site is Rotten Tomatoes, which summarizes each film and compiles reviews from all over, using the idea of “fresh” or “rotten” to determine a movie’s quality. So far I have found it quite helpful and accurate. Another site where you can basically find details on any movie ever made is the Internet Movie Database.

In Spite of Christianity?

In response to a recent sermon that outlined the person and work of Jesus Christ, a discussion arose surrounding the topic of salvation. In particular, the question was asked: does Christ’s work extend beyond those of us labeled as “Christians”? Well, my response was, “I sure hope so…”

I base my response on the simple fact that it is foremost not Christianity that saves, but “the gift of God…expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:7-8 NIV). And considering the unfaithfulness of God’s followers throughout the biblical account and subsequent history, I would go even further and say Christ’s salvation—his work of complete reconciliation of all creation—occurs in spite of Christianity. How many times have our strategies of success actually hindered the work of God, turning people away? Or people’s erring interpretations of scripture led to horrible neglect of human rights? Or our interpretation of God’s blessing as comfortable North American life resulted in an absence of justice in our world? Really, the list is endless. And so I say adamantly, I sure hope God saves in spite of Christianity, because if he’s relying us, we aren’t doing too well…

Yet we are still stuck with the fact the whole biblical account commands a communal representation of God’s kingdom to the world. Somehow God keeps forgiving our unfaithfulness and creating good out of our brokenness. And so the easy option—railing against all forms of organized Christianity and forming your own ‘personal’ faith—isn’t really a valid option if you’re attempting to take the Bible seriously (a big if for some, I realize). So we can take heart that God is bigger than our brokenness and unfaithful representation of his salvation in this world, but we are still confronted by the often baffling reality that God still chooses to work through the exact community that so often fails him, however broken and unfaithful that community has been and will surely continue to be.

I like how Eugene Peterson translates Ephesians 2 in The Message:

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It's God's gift from start to finish! We don't play the major role. If we did, we'd probably go around bragging that we'd done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

The key, I believe, is the order in which we understand salvation. God’s salvation through Christ is an invitation to continue the good work of reconciliation already taking place. If we make salvation an either\or issue (God or us, in or out, etc…) I think we simplify the work of God too much. Sure, God can and likely does save in spite of our failings, but that doesn’t mean it’s ideal or the norm (the New Testament is pretty clear on salvation involving a life-changing encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, however that may look). Reconciliation, as the sermon which started this whole discussion rightly asserted, is a messy endeavor culminating in selfless sacrifice, most wholly represented in the person of Jesus Christ, but then continuing in our own lives as Christians only by the grace of God working through us. The challenge, I find, is realizing our own limitations in the salvation process, accepting our brokenness as churches and a Christian community on a whole, and then accepting God’s grace as the empowerment we need to overcome our failure and represent his kingdom in this world. A tough task indeed…

And so, God may save in spite of Christianity, but I don’t think he saves without it…

I'm Back!!!

Well, being a new year and all, I figured my it was high time my blogging hiatus came to an end after a much needed break from all things (well, almost all) related to my own writing.

I’ll begin by surveying the past year, a year highlighted by significant change on many levels.

By far the most significant change was my entrance into fatherhood. The presence Landon Jacob, born September 26, has quite simply epitomized what it means for my life to be lived in the service of others, none more important than him. I consider it a blessing to orient my energy towards seeking the well-being of my son, making the necessary sacrifices seem anything but a forfeit of my freedom. I love it!

Another major milestone has been the completion of my MCS (Mastor of Christian Studies) degree from Regent College, completed a mere 3 weeks before Landon’s birth with the submission (and subsequent passing approval) of my thesis project.

The completion of my degree has opened up a new stage of life for Julie and I (& Landon) – namely, for the first time in our 5 years of marriage, I am no longer a student. Julie’s support and patience on this long journey has pushed and challenged me to attain my goals. This joint accomplishment led us to celebrate this milestone with a trip to Italy and Greece – memories we will never forget! And while Julie made student-life more than manageable for me, she is the first to admit we are more than ready for the tables to turn and for me to start earning a few dollars as well.

And so I am now the most educated roofer in the Lower Mainland! No, I am not joking. And I really enjoy it (as long as there is no snow!). It’s allowed me the chance to have free time to spend with Julie and Landon and given me a much needed rest after several years enduring the pressures of academia. But I will admit I have goals that include more than providing roofs over people’s heads. And so I have officially (patiently albeit) entered the pastor job market, in search of an associate pastor position. I’ll keep you posted…

So here I am. It’s hard to imagine 2009 topping 2008 in the milestone category, but perhaps that’s a good thing as I look forward to life’s somewhat slower pace. Reading novels, listening to new music, watching sports for fun (instead of procrastination) and most importantly, being with my family tops my list of what I’m looking forward to.

Along the way, I plan to update my blog more regularly as a way of processing these experiences and any other interesting subjects I am wandering about… I may even update the look of my blog... And so, today I officially reenter blogosphere: I’m back!