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Posts from the ‘Writing’ Category

The Sky Garden in London but also urban policy and land use

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The Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street occupies the top three floors of the “Walkie-Talkie” building. Designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly in the early 2000’s. The project was delayed for years because of concerns that the building’s ugly construction would ruin the visual appeal of nearby spaces. In retrospect, this concern was certainly true. The building also has numerous flaws, the worst being an Archimedes Heat Ray effect on the neighboring buildings and roads that shoots temperatures up to 196 degrees Fahrenheit and earned the tower the nicknames “Scorchie-Talkie” and “Fryscraper.” The Daily Express reported at one point that the building causes dangerous wind-tunnel effects on the surrounding streets, raising concerns over public safety and working conditions for public sanitation workers.

Not the least criticized is the Sky Garden itself. While sky is acceptable, does garden describe this space? The view of London is blocked by steel support beams at every angle. Is it truly a public space if only open by appointment, for 1.5 hour slots, until 6:00 pm, at which point the public is carted away for the “paying clientele to enjoy the twinkling lights over cocktails?” These issues, writes Oliver Wainwright in a review for The Guardian’s architecture section, make the experience feel more like “an airport terminal, jacked up in the air.” For my part, I felt similarly out of place in somewhere that claims to be “a unique public space” and “an open and vibrant place of leisure” (per the building’s website).

The mere existence of the Sky Garden, however, betrays a deeper tension felt in all public (or “public”) spaces in a hyper-capitalized environment. To Wainwright, the Sky Garden is “the “public park” used to justify building such a vast office block on the edge of a conservation area,” and yet even then is “not the public park that was promised, but another private party space.” He claims that the purpose of the space is to provide a justification for otherwise non-public spaces, the offices taking up floors 1-34. Worse yet, it is only “the catering concepts which make the whole thing viable.” In other words, the space does not exist for, and does not continue to operate because of, the public space that it provides.

Conversely, Peter Rees, the city’s then-chief planner, thinks that the space is designed for socializing. The lurid imagery in his comments are worth quoting in full:

“The secret of the City’s success is having places to gossip,” he told me [Wainwright], describing the financial capital as “a cluster of beehives on a compost heap.” “The honey is the gossip,” he said. “It’s how business gets done: the result of the bees rubbing up against each other by chance. So it’s very important for business that people can party as close to their desks as possible. We are taking every opportunity to create the party city in the sky.”

To Rees, the Sky Garden has nothing to do with money, or maneuvering through otherwise- impassible red tape, or successfully completing another project for the architect’s portfolio and future commision prospects. Social space! It’s how business gets done!

These are the tensions of place in a corporate-capitalist environment: that no spaces can exist without business interest, and that nobody will unilaterally take on the cost to provide those spaces, even if they are “how business gets done” on a macro level. Who is incentivized to do this? The companies that refuse will have more capital on-hand and will survive as the fittest. Non-excludable and non-rivalrous goods are the orphaned children of the free market, picked up, much like actual orphaned children, by government and taxpayer dollars. The essential tension is that we need what Rees describes, but in the market only have what Wainright describes.

This is at great odds with the pre-industrialized world and indeed the pre-industrialized West for thousands of years. But before we mourn the loss of the Greek areopagus or the Roman Forum, we should recognize the great opportunity at present for land conservation and the expansion of public parks. This can only happen by reunderstanding, at a conceptual and a policy level, the idea of use and of land use in particular. Cities that could benefit from a new understanding of land use — Hong Kong, San Fransisco, Zurich, Sydney — will have to overcome major incentives hurdles that have for decades created an economic environment doomed to housing policy failure. To create spaces like what Rees envision for the Sky Garden, cities will need to rezone land for housing (thus also slowing urban sprawl), expand public transit, create new business corridors for the widening of the urban job density, and so on.

However, even if all these problems were to be solved at once, and Ross’s ideal urban policy world was created, it would not be enough. The more foundational question that has to be asked is, do we, not corporations, but do we value common, unowned spaces enough to give of ourselves to preserve them? Not through taxes, but through time, energy, and the humility to pick up trash left by others? This type of civil service, rather than the power politics that consumes churches today, is the truly Christian route to replacing Sky Gardens with a hospitality in place.

On being in London during the Royal Wedding

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The best view of the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, was ours. Because the couple decided to host their ceremony in St. George’s Chapel, in Windsor — rather than the traditional venue, Westminster Abbey — there was little to no activity in the city of London concerning the wedding. To the extent that I paid attention at all, the most I noticed was a single, sad t-shirt booth selling clothes with “I was in London during the Royal Wedding!” printed across the chest. To be in London during the wedding, as we were, is indeed the best view because it is no view at all.

To be my wedding-watching grandmother, or any average American, is to have a worse view. Why do Americans, in particular, have such a fascination with the Royal Family? I assert that the British Monarchy is a mediating image, propelled by a larger culture rooted in Spectacle — to draw from Guy Debord’s 1967 seminal work The Society of the Spectacle. To live vicariously through the social images of another culture is to experience, in an even more American sense than normal, the malaise of modern industrialized life.

So, the wedding. While I thankfully cannot describe it firsthand, I find from other sources that the total cost was around 32 million pounds sterling. Meghan Markle’s dress was a “double- bonded silk cady cushioned by an underskirt in triple silk organza,” not to mention the 16-foot long veil, the gold jewlery, a diamond tiara, etc. William wore military attire to reflect his membership in the British Army, and his time served in Afghanistan in the early 2000’s. The Archbishop of Canterbury — whose parents met while serving as personal secretaries to Winston Churchill during the war — presided over the ceremony.

In the 1980’s, the wedding of Princes Diana and Prince Charles was a superbowl-level event for television; after Diana’s tragic death in 1997, her funeral was similarly publicized. Tabloids have for decades sprung upon the Royal Family’s youngest new additions, the birth of royal babies, as was the case in 2013 with Prince George and in 2015 with Princess Charlotte. We can expect the same for the forthcoming child in early 2019. One professor of history in a CNN interview even claimed that the American fascination with British royalty “has been alive pretty much since 1776,” and that almost “as soon as we severed ties, we were back to being fascinated — captivated really — by the royal family.”

Such events as the recent royal wedding image the good life for American audiences in a different way than British audiences. The key difference is the American folk narrative where anybody could wind up at the top of society. While this was not confirmed by the recent wedding, where Meghan Markle, though of mixed race, was raised in an upper-class Los Angeles family… it was confirmed in 2013 with Kate Middleton’s entrance into the family, who was essentially a social nobody before accidentally and unwittingly beginning to date Prince William. I remember at the time hearing the comparison made all day between Kate Middleton and “any of us that it could have happened to!” though of course that is nonsense. Where the British from their youth understand the strong role that socioeconomic Class plays in deciding your ultimate role in this world, Americans pretend that Class does not exist and so fantasize of elaborate weddings, grand receptions, life in a fairy castle, and so on.

The fascination with British royalty does not begin or end with the American Dream. Though propelled by The Dream, it exists in another social space divorced from The Dream by the malaise of everyday under- and middle-class life in America. This is the space where, as Debord claimed, “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity” because our relations to one another are mediated by images rather than just existing in their own right. In this transition, which is only possible after the rise of a nation-wide media culture, nothing is authentic and everything that we consider real is a symbolic representation of what lies behind it. Famous actors become sex symbols, important musicians attain cult-status, Royal Family members are stars of a soap opera, and politicians are reduced to boogeymen.

This smokescreen effect extends not just to politicians, but even to politics itself, where no true debates happen in the 21st century, only minor tinkering among policy wonks. True change is impossible in a system where R&D does not mean research and development but rather Republican and Democrat, parties with major incentives to race to the center and thereby eliminate any possibility for radical change of the system that they sustain and which in turn sustains them. In a world where we are defined by our relationship to brands, to parties, to celebrities and generally to symbols, we all have a bad view to the Royal Wedding.

Reflecting on this summer of camp ministry

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As the campers left grounds on Saturday, and then hours later the entire summer staff did too, our season of ministry at Timber-lee came to an abrupt end. I felt the whiplash of a quick transition from a mentality of full-steam-ahead-don’t-quit-until-the-end to suddenly one of wait-what-it’s-the-end-how-do-I-act-normal-again in just a few hours.

I had two groups of elementary school aged campers, three groups in middle school, and two groups in high school. Eight straight weeks with a maximum time-off of about four days over the 4th of July break. While I recover from this sprint-marathon of a summer, I want to offer up some reflections about what God has been teaching me, and maybe give an example or two to illustrate each point. Interspersed are some photos from this summer that our camp photographer captured (and they are unrelated to the text surrounding them, just general photos). This post is more for my own personal benefit than yours — after all, most of what I learned has been learned from experience, and therefore is not something I can communicate in writing. But whatever. Here I am writing it anyways, and here you are reading it anyways.

 

10 Reflections From This Summer of Camp Ministry

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1. Being vulnerable even to those who look up to you. Something I did not understand before is that I had tried to present myself as perfect rather than the lazy, slobbish, forgetful, doubting, undisciplined, worried person that I actually am. Presenting myself as perfect is hard to avoid because I want to be a good influence, and ultimately my influence should be towards Jesus, who was perfect. Why would I want them to see anything other than Christ in me?

For whatever reason, during high school week I got real with my cabin one night. We were talking about global missions and the need for people to leave North America, leveraging their jobs for the spread of the Gospel. It was a great conversation. And then I shared something that had happened to me back in April. I was at Together for the Gospel, T4G, in Louisville. What I did not realize prior to arriving was that I had signed up for all of my breakout sessions with David Platt. All of them. I love Platt — his sermons have influenced me greatly over the last few years — so this was not a problem.

At one of his sessions Platt asked us to pray, “God, send me wherever you want to send me,” even if you are convinced that God has no plans to send you abroad. Just to have the willingness at heart to pray that prayer, no matter what actually comes of it. I started to pray it, but stopped myself. I couldn’t say it. I felt fear creeping up in me, fear that I didn’t know I had until that moment. And for almost the whole rest of the conference I was consumed with the question, do I really trust God with my eternal life if I can’t trust him with my current life?  There was a whole mix of emotions bouncing around inside me: fear, confusion, hypocrisy, frustration. Like I had somehow failed at being a “good Christian.”

I shared all this with the few campers sitting around at the time. Matt, Thomas, Ty, maybe a few others. Matt commented words like, “Gee, Ross, this is all so different from last year. I just remember you being this perfect counselor, but now you are telling us all these things you are failing at and still working on.” Which was a hillariously on-character comment if you know and love Matt as I do. I’ve been slowly learning to share stories like this one. Because even though the person I’m pointing to is perfect, I am not and never will be perfect. And my campers are not and never will be perfect. What they need is not some far-off vision of what a flawless Christian looks like. They need to see someone who struggles in different ways, as they do, so that they can see how to process through those struggles. That is far, far more helpful.

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2. God’s sovereignty. I guess I’ve always been a big fat Calvinist. Though for the past two years I’ve found different theological systems to help me understand it all. This summer there were some changes here. The first was that I began to process on a new level some of the implications of God’s sovereign election. My spotify playlist for the summer was almost all King’s Kaleidoscope and Beautiful Eulogy, so you can imagine why. If I’m so convinced that salvation is not a gift to be accepted or rejected but rather God’s effectual calling drawing to himself his elect, then maybe I should stop explaining salvation to kids like its a prayer or a commitment you make to God. Maybe I should explain the gravity of sin to them and see if God by his Spirit begins to change their hearts from the inside out. Maybe I should pray for them more and talk a little less. Maybe.

It’s also crazy to see God’s providential hand guiding different situations that have happened. Like, the one kid who accidentally forgot to sign up for the high ropes course is the same kid who had tons of questions about God that he wants to ask me one on one. Well, thanks to his forgetfulness during the sign up paperwork, we had two hours to talk, just me and him. And that conversation was, by his account, potentially life-changing.

Or another camper, who I met while volunteering in 2014 and 2015, and then had in my cabin in 2016, and then bonded with a lot in 2017, and then had again this year. He got to camp and found out he was in some random other cabin, not with me or the friends he came with. We scrambled very last minute to rearrange things, and it all worked out because someone had last-minute dropped who was supposed to be in my cabin. Which meant I had seven campers, and thus an open spot for this kid. God directed that process, somehow, so that it all worked out. I had a borderline-life-changing week with him, too.

Strange to say it this way, but I also saw God’s providence in my sickness. Halfway through the summer I developed bronchitis, and then two separate upper respiratory infections, a bad stomach bug, a normal cold, and then a sinus infection. My health was nearing an all-time low at one point, when several of these were overlapping. But God in his providence directed these circumstances so that… actually, I probably shouldn’t write this story and post it on the internet where it will remain forever. But let’s just say that it was 1. absurd, 2. miraculous, 3. involved some screamo preaching, and 4. was based on Romans 6 and Colossians 3 and may be the subject of a future blog post. God is good, and in his wisdom directs even garbage situations like my run of illnesses to result in good.

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3. That 14 year olds are adults. I began research for my Senior Thesis this summer. The project will focus on the Age of Majority and how it’s a total mirage that was constructed 100 years ago. One of the relevant books I have been reading this summer is Robert Epstein’s The Case Against Adolescence (which I know is not the best book on this subject but it will work as a starting point). The whole idea is that the category of “adolescence” was socially constructed to accommodate a new social strata of industrialized societies, and their middle classes, even though there is no basis in biology for this category. The result is a fundamental mismatch between a teenager’s capacities and their expectations, the capacities being way higher than what we expect of teens. And so we are “infantalizing” them, or babying them along instead of expecting them to act like adults.

The obvious implication is that we should use biology, not social convention, to decide when someone becomes an adult. The biological marker would be puberty. The social convention would be 18. Something I was reflecting on the whole summer was the rapid rate of change in my campers by their age — just how different a 10 year old is from a 12 year old, and just. how. different. a 12 year old is compared to a 14 year old. I’m not sure that I have all the developmental categories straight to explain it yet (which is the goal of my Thesis), but it was clear to me that my campers entering 8th grade and above were in every functional way adults. Which meant that for them, I pushed hard on understanding the Bible and on living a full Christian life. Much harder than I think I had pushed in past years.

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4. Helping boys express their emotions. In May I watched a documentary called “The Mask You Live In” that dealt with the gendered social expectations of American boys and the harmful effects this can have. I didn’t love it, but the documentary said some valuable things and helped me assemble my thoughts on this topic. The main one is this: that our society conditions boys to not feel emotions. But… you can’t not feel emotions. Feeling emotions is just part of being human. So what our society actually does is condition boys to not express their feelings, or only express them in unhelpful ways.

I cannot tell you how many times this issue came up with my campers. Maybe a hundred times. And I only had about 50 campers. Boys are trained to bottle up their feelings, and move on. (Then bottle up the next feelings, and move on, and then the next ones, and move on). This continues until they no longer have the capacity to hold them in, and they have a mega-meltdown and let everything come flying out. Unfortunately, even here this doesn’t work because you cannot ever really, fully conjure back up feelings that you have repressed. You can only bring back half the passion. This is why recognizing and expressing feelings in the moment is so important. Not that boys need to cry all the time, like when they stub their toe playing soccer. Holding back those tears can be an act of courage to continue on in the game. But other tears — like in the death of a close friend, for one of my campers — need to be shed.

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5. The Local Church is where it’s at. One of the inherent flaws of camp ministry is that it only lasts 6 days a year, but the camper is living the Christian life for all 365. There are so many friendships made this summer that I wish I could continue, but it is just not feasible to travel outside my little North Suburban area. I am so limited in what I can do for these kids after they leave. The most is to reply to their emails a couple times a year. This is why I want to do youth ministry in the Local Church, where I meet students on their first day of 6th grade and walk with them in the faith until they graduate high school. Forget six days, that would be seven years of discipleship. God can use camp ministry in really important ways in their lives. He did for me. But it will never be the primary source of their discipleship, and that’s where I really want to head when college ends in a few years.

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6. Christians appreciate it when you call them out on sin. At least, they should. To look another person in the eyes and say, “you are wrong on this, and you need to change what you are doing” in a way free of judgement, being only gracious, and yet firm and insistent… That balance is hard to strike. But I think that there was one moment in the summer when I did strike it, by the power of God’s Spirit. It was brought to my attention that one of my campers was living dat partyboi lyfe in all its hallow glory, and posting it online. When that was shown to me, it almost broke me.

So we needed to talk. We went to a mostly-secluded place on camp grounds and talked it out for a few hours. And it took all the courage in my heart to look him in the eyes and say that I knew exactly what was really going on. Even though he played the part of the good little church boy when around me — which meant that such a confrontational conversation was bound to completely change our relationship. And it did. But I was also clear that nothing I was saying came from a place of bitterness or frustration or anger or disappointment. But that just as God’s love reaches out to us when we don’t deserve it, my love for this camper was reaching out to him even when he didn’t deserve it. And I want nothing but the best for him.

It was the most difficult conversation I have had in a while, which is saying something given the kind of year this has been for me. But at the end of it all, much like the two campers I mentioned before, he was thankful and said that because of that conversation, he would not go home from camp the same person as before. The lesson here is not to shy away from difficult conversations, because God can write a beautiful story of redemption through them.

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7. The Church is failing to teach Christian Sexuality. This was something I already knew but which became more and more obvious by the day. By “The Church” I mean effectively every church everywhere. And by “failing” I mean a true F, not one of those 59% F+ grades, but a solid 20% F- grade. Of course I was limited on what I could say. I could say nothing to my grade school campers (which makes sense). But with the older kids it was important for me to be a frank and open source to talk about different topics in this area.

The most common one was porn, of course. I would love to enter prophetic-voice mode and call down droves of locusts and frogs on every youth ministry that has never mentioned this to their students. If I hear the question “is it sinful to watch porn?” from one more eighth grader I swear to God I’m literally going to go burn their church down. Not because the student is at fault. But their youth pastor sure is. And their parents sure are. And that is just ground zero for a whole life of future disobedience to God’s design for their sexuality.

This is what happens, by the way, when your whole “purity” message is just “don’t have sex before marriage,” end of story. Christian students are given basically zero other guidance than this because the youth pastor is afraid they are stepping on the parents’ turf, but meanwhile the parents assume the youth pastor is covering it. hahahahaha. And so random ol’ me had to explain, no less than a half dozen times, the way that God has designed the male body to deal with sexual abstinence, and that God’s plan for Christian sexuality is chastity in singleness, and to submit all sexual desire to the authority of Christ, who himself was single for his entire life and did not sin, and… (I think I wrote about this once…). This is so basic that it could be taught in a half hour lesson at youth group. If it sounds like I’m bitter based on my own poor experiences growing up, that would be because I am and this is a widespread problem in American Evangelicalism.

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8. Show a 7th grader how to be a 7th grader for Christ, not how to be a college student for Christ. You know what 7th graders like to do? They like to yell, and scream, and throw sticks against trees while ironically quoting memes they don’t like. They are eager to learn more about God but get bored if you used technical vocabulary. But they can totally handle the technical vocabulary — it’s just boring. They love playing kickball and 9 square, but don’t like “aesthetic spaces” designed solely for socializing. High schoolers love those. But 7th graders don’t. They want to have deep conversations but not all the time and those conversations will meander around the bend and form ox bow lakes so big you didn’t think a single conversation could have produced that. They want to worship God by song but they also want to have fun while they do it. They don’t have much of a boring-tolerance yet, which is fine. Whatever, so what if they get tend to get bored. Just do more exciting things. It will work out.

What is crazy is that somehow I can become a 7th grader when I’m around them. Or a 9th grader. Or a 5th grader. Being an age chameleon is exhausting, by the way, but it is in part how ministry is most effectively done for these campers. Becoming all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9). My goal is not to train 7th graders how to live the college life for Jesus. My goal is train them how to live 7th grade for Jesus, and then in a few years we’ll get around to how to live high school for Him. But for the time being, I cannot afford to have unrealistic expectations about their development. I just have to enter into their developmental stage and show how Christ impacts it.

Which means I cannot get mad at my 4th graders for being homesick — but I can use it as an example to talk about how Jesus was away from home for 33 years and missed his father tremendously. Nor can I get mad at my 8th graders for wanting to date every girl at camp — but I can show them how our priorities for who to date are mostly set in scripture in Proverbs 31 and 1 Peter 3. Neither can I get mad at my 11th graders for complaining to me about their college search — but I can help them think of ways to use their interests in Business, in Engineering, in History to further advance the Kingdom.

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9. The awkward balance of belonging and believing. There was a phrase used by this dumb youth group I went to my senior year of high school. They would say, “You can belong before you believe!” all the time. But something that God has taught me this summer is that that doesn’t always work. For example, if 51% of your Christian community doesn’t believe, then you no longer have a Christian community. If even 20% do not believe, I am not sure how you will get anywhere with discipleship. So maybe the number is 10%. Or maybe there is no ideal number because the number goes up and down based on how extraverted or intraverted those people are. I don’t know.

But I do see the importance of making space for people who aren’t all the way there yet. That was me just two years ago! Christian community is always reaching out with the out-reaching love of God, and that means we will always have people who aren’t all the way there. But including those people can be a huge problem, especially for those who believe and are young in faith. Like campers at a Christian summer camp. I have a few examples in mind of times when that went south quickly. I’m not sure how to balance this tension, but I know that Jesus found a way to do it.

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10. Humble service because God can use anybody he wants. One week, the speaker talked in chapel about SOAP: Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer. It is a basic framework to show students how to not just read a passage of scripture, but also interact with it. I love this already. But then my favorite camper, ever, says to me that night, “Ross, I really liked what the speaker said about SOAP. Can you show me how to use that?” and yep youbetcha I can. So the next night we read through Philippians 2:1-11.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by becoming like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

♪♫♪ Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature
of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. ♪♫♪

This is a passage about the unity that Christians can have by looking out for one another. Our primary example of this is Jesus (though Paul also gives Timothy, Epaphroditus, and himself as examples in the book of Philippians). As this camper and I read each verse, observed things about it, thought of places in our life we can apply it, and then prayed over it all, something struck me. He is the most humble kid I’ve ever met. He doesn’t need this passage at all. (That’s part of why I appreciate him so much). I, on the other hand, am the owner of rossneir.com and anyways could use some lessons on humility.

Here’s what I was wrestling with. God by his providence can work miracles in these campers lives through any counselor he wants. It isn’t about us in particular. Our ministry is enabled by the Holy Spirit, not our own authority or persona or years of experience. Romans 1:16. The power of God brings salvation to all who believe. Not me. The power of God. The question I had been wresting with is whether next summer I should return as a counselor or as a village leader, which while one step up on the org chart is honestly a way worse job. My former VL called the position a “glorified janitor” because all you do is clean up vomit all day, seemingly. I don’t want to do that. I want to be with the kids. But maybe that is just a reflex of my pride, my unwillingness to serve others, my confidence in my own effort to make camp ministry work, my deep lack of faith in God to be the God of the impossible.

I don’t know. Maybe all those reasons are hyperbole and I just don’t want to do it because vomit is gross and wet beds are gross and bossing people around is inherently confrontational and I’m comfortable where I’m at. But God was convicting me not to rule it out just because it is service to others. Jesus was all about humble, self-giving service.

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Conclusion

My 10 points of reflection, in bullet fashion, are:

  1. Vulnerability in mentoring
  2. God’s sovereignty
  3. 14 year olds are adults
  4. Helping boys express their emotions
  5. The Local Church is where it’s at
  6. Christians appreciate it when you call them out on sin
  7. The Church is failing to teach Christian Sexuality
  8. Show a 7th grader how to be a 7th grader for Christ, not how to be a college student for Christ
  9. The awkward balance of belonging and believing
  10. Humble service because God can use anybody he wants

This summer was a season of seeing firsthand the goodness, the sweetness of God, through magical, super-human highs and through frustrating, embittering lows. I saw God relight a passion in the hearts of students who you would never think would come around. Only He can warm and soften a cold and stony heart. At least one of my campers openly professed faith in Jesus for the first time. Several others basically did too, but having not grown up in the church, they didn’t have the categories to be able to describe what they were feeling for the first time. My prayer for the summer — that God would create a love for the Bible in the hearts of my campers — was absolutely answered affirmatively. (More than my prayer for good health…). I saw a few junior high and high school students who had struggled with a lot of pain in their walk with Christ find new healing and redemption in Him.

For this summer, I, like David in Psalm 16, have nothing but thankfulness to God, because “apart from him I have no good thing… because he alone is my portion and my cup… I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken; therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices… because you make known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

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A quick story from this week at Camp

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A few hours ago we sent home our second batch of campers for the summer. The first group had been elementary school (mine were entering 6th grade); this last group was middle school (mine were entering 8th grade). The intervening two years between my cabins make an unbelievable difference in comprehension and spiritual “readiness,” not to mention basic things like keeping the cabin clean and willingly eating vegetables.

Anyways. I had a camper this week, “John,” we’ll call him, who I could tell was listening intently to the chapel messages and asked some important questions during our cabin discussion times. He seemed to be yearning for God, and at the same time hesitant to come near to God. Similar to way we react to cliffs. A cliff draws us near — an irresistible pull towards the edge; but the edge repulses us, so that we move slowly and consider deeply everything that could go wrong. John was like this about God, which is almost always a sign that something is going to happen. When you strip a person of their apathy, this same two-sided response to the Gospel starts to move around in their heart.

Last night we had an open-mic time with the whole camp, in which campers could share ways they have seen God working in them throughout the week. John, again, was listening in the whole time, fully there. When the time ended, we had some worship music and then walked back to the cabins.

This was the point when John let loose the simple statement, “Ross, I want to accept God into my life right now.” As a camp counselor, and just as a Christian in general, this is a great sentence to get my attention 100% zeroed in on you. I ask him what he means by that. I have seen too many people walk away from the faith who never actually entered it because they were led into some type of flippy-dippy false conversion “sinner’s prayer” without understanding at all what salvation means. So I want to take a statement like John’s as a conversation starter and see what they mean by “accepting God into my life.”

We talk. I won’t summarize everything in the conversation, but briefly put: it became clear after a while that to John, “accepting God into my heart” was a statement of trust in God. The example he gave is Job, who did nothing wrong but still suffered a lot. From some of the personal things happening in John’s life at the time, I could see how he would identify with Job. But this is problematic in an obvious way. Job was a good person whose struggles in life were caused by outside problem. We are sinners whose primary struggle is our sin, which is an “inside” problem. And these two struggles in life require very different kinds of trust in God. The former can be had by anyone — that God will work out good from the midst of bad situations. Jews could have this trust in God with no issue, since, after all, Job is in their scriptures. The later can be had only by a Christian — that God will forgive sins and indwell a person via the Holy Spirit. And John had only wanted to trust God in the first of these ways.

We had a long conversation. We were standing by the beach, looking over it at dark while talking about this. Then we moved up to the village center living room and kept talking. Over the course of the conversation, I asked John about the weight of his sin. About the free gift of God in forgiveness of sins. He had been listening close during our cabin discussions (I had been leading us in some basic conversations about Justification in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians that week). He got it. And he started talking about the guilt he feels about this sin and that sin, this other sin and that other sin. It was a powerful thing to hear. How numb am I to the significance of my sin — and by extension, to the greatness of my savior — compared to this 8th grader?

He prayed and asked God to forgive him of his sins and give him New Life. Some of the wording he used, I could tell, he had parroted from me. Other things were original and genuine. I don’t think I have ever heard someone pray like John did. I am not sure what about it made it unique. He meant it, that much is for sure. Then, I prayed for him. I prayed that God would sustain this simple trust in John into a real, life-long, fruit-bearing trust.

Then we broke and went back to the cabin, where the rest of my guys were standing in a circle doing Fortnite emote dances.

Romantic and Modern Visual Art

[A term paper in preparation for my study abroad next month in Europe.]

To the Classical artist, there was no tension between representation and expression. As they focused on the object of their composition, representing it as it appeared through shape, perspective, plane, figure, and color, they sought to capture its true objective essence, expressing its form as it is. These tendencies come from a broad philosophical mindset in the Enlightenment period that prioritized reason and objectivity. As the Enlightenment mindset gradually broke down, so too did its art forms break down.

First, as objective expression was abandoned, the Romantic movement sought to represent their world through subjective emotional sentiments. They concerned themselves with the human element implicit in all things, rather than the highest Ideal aim of Reason. If all artists seek to find what Goethe called “what holds the world together most deeply,” then the Romantics “saw the path to this knowledge as lying not through the rationalism of science, but through exploration of their own, subjective perceptions, thoughts, and emotions” (621). While this did provoke a brief counter-movement of Realism, it would not be long before the second of the two pillars of Classical art would fall: representation. By the time of the Post-Impressionists, Cubists, Surrealists, and Dadaists – all of whom can be fairly tagged as “Modern” – visual art did not seek to express emotion in and through the real appearance of a subject, but in spite of the reality of that subject. Hence, Van Gogh: “I use color in a completely arbitrary way to express myself powerfully” (698). As Modernism progresses into the mid twentieth century, its artists increasingly left behind representation and objective expression.

What enabled these changes in visual art? How did representation and expression come to be opposed to one another? This paper will contrast Romanticism and Modernism by discussing first their perspectives on the world in general, then the major themes in each movement’s visual art, and finally one exemplary painting of each era.

Romanticism

The Romantic period emerged in response to many of the excesses of Enlightened thought. Enlightened thinkers like Rousseau and Locke considered all humans essentially alike, only differing in how civilized and ordered, or uncivilized and disordered, they were. Hence, a universal Reason and common rationality which all man could inhabit together. The tendencies of Romanticism were first seen beginning with the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany, then later blossoming into an entire period. This thought prioritized the particular over the general and expressing the inner emotions over the outer sensations. This is true on a personal level, but also collectively as societies:

As Goethe and Herder argued, peoples such as the Germans and the French had different spirits, which found expression in everything from the folktales told around their peasant hearths to the architecture of their greatest buildings. These writers advocated a return to nature, to the simplicity of the common people, and, as many of the Enlightenment authors had also urged, to sentiment. Out of these ideas would come the artistic, musical, and literary movement known as romanticism (589).

As Romanticism spread, it came to define the subjects and perspectives of artists in Europe. This mindset began to be seen in visual art with landscape painting, depictions of heroism, dramatic brushwork, light-dark contrast, and sad or suffering subjects. Romantic tendencies “[overturned] long-established stylistic practices and unsettles its audiences” (603); this was an intentional effort to provoke the audience (though not close to what the provocateurs of the twentieth century would attempt). They “put new emphasis on their audiences’ emotional reactions and tried to connect with them on a visceral level through a succession of vivid images,” with wider, less precise brush techniques, greater (and less real) coloring, and sharper lighting contrasts, all in an effort to “[ridicule] reason, preferring to celebrate life in all its glorious disorder” (621).

One exemplary Romantic painting is Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830).

40-11-02/54

The main subject, the Goddess of Liberty, stands atop a pile of bodies killed in the July Revolution. Horrifically, these twisted bodies together form a landscape characteristic of the Romantic period. She stands before the rebels – the people – waiving the national flag to symbolize that in them, and not the government they oppose, rests the heart of France. Delacroix has depicted a scene which would be sad, even devastating to experience. The white cloud of smoke behind Lady Liberty both centers the painting on her and alerts us that the scene is in motion, not still as classical art had largely been. The cloud also creates a misty, hazy look that was characteristic of the period.

The first pillar of Classical art to fall was objective expression; here, Delacroix has gone far out of his way to express the subjective, emotional quality of the people in rebellion, in mourning. However, the second pillar remains: the picture represents something, and it uses specific (if imprecise) techniques to capture the scene.

Modernism

Though the next hundred years of art – which I will recklessly skip in order to limit this paper to six pages – saw the Romantic school close, its tendencies lingered into later art. Post-Romantic artists would continue to sacrifice representational clarity on the altar of emotional expression. What caused these changes to continue?

First, Modernism “represented a conscious break with earlier styles of art” (696). The mid nineteenth century “historical turn” would eventually “join hands with the religious and artistic movements of the period” (623). Artists would study not just the techniques of old, but the entire progression of movements leading up to the present day, and so begin to react against the old art forms for the sake of reaction. In any context, this effect radically spirals out of control into nihilism, because “originality” cannot be a good in itself. Second, and third, and fourth,

Modernism has many other, complex roots. Modernist artists, writers, and composers sought to capture something of the fractured, frantic, and whirling existence they associated with urban life in the fin de siècle. They sought to give artistic expression to what was often perceived as the destruction of traditional certitudes by heady advances in science… deliberately sought to assert the value of their work by differen-tiating it from the unchallenging, sentimental compositions, artworks, and literature that were being churned out in ever greater numbers to satisfy the demands of burgeoning middle-class audiences. (697).

In this setting, Modern visual art used techniques like “the expressive use of brilliant color and coarse brushwork” and “strong colors, shapes, and departures from realistic representation” (696), the “pure play of color, light, and shape” (697), “deliberately [violating] the traditional rules of perspective and plane, [reducing] its distorted figures to the essentials of shape, and [placing] them at unconventional angles to one another” (698), and “wholly abstract compositions of lines and colors in a grid pattern” (750). With these techniques the Modernists began to push beyond both pillars of classical art, into non-representation and subjectivity.

One exemplary Modernist painting is Picasso’s Girl with Mandolin (1910).

girl with mandolin

Here, the titular subject faces away (perhaps?) from the viewer as she plays her mandolin. The background, not to mention the subject herself, is composed of the famous cube forms from which Cubism takes its name. The painting is monochromatic, with differing tints and shades of tan.

Girl with Mandolin is representational – of a girl, with a mandolin – but does not seek to depict the subject as she would appear in reality. Indeed, Picasso ten years earlier had said “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them” (698), which clearly has remained his style a decade later. Her face and neck are a continuous block with two different widths; her eye is level with her nose; her breast, shoulder, and right arm are disjointed and attached at unnatural angles. Clearly this is moving beyond representation, and with it, Picasso seeks to express the subjective impression with which the Girl leaves him, rather than how she is herself.

Conclusion

The Classical movement’s twin emphases of representation and expression were gradually abandoned as they became opposed to one another. This occurred when expression became not an expression of the objective item being painted, but of the emotions underlying the item, and ultimately an expression of the painter himself. Now representation and expression stand opposed, and in order to resolve the opposition, artists increasingly favored the expressive end. Now the opposition is brought to its nihilistic conclusion, as non-representation and subjective expression together reach the mindboggling anti-synthesis that is late Modern visual art.

In both Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and Picasso’s Girl with Mandolin, we have seen the turn to subjective self on full display, but it is only with the latter piece that non-representational art (if that is not already a contradiction in terms) begins to be seen. What can come after non-representational art? Now that these changes have taken place in the development of visual art, can they be reversed? Or should we seek a new form-of-art, one in which the art’s representation and subjectivity cannot be separated from each other?

Bibliography

Grafton, Anthony and David A. Bell. The West: A New History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2018.

The Old Testament in 1000 words

The Old Testament is the Christian Bible from Genesis to Malachi. It begins with a magisterial description of God creating the universe, the world, and everything in it. Stars, the sky, fish, “things that creepeth upon on ground,” birds, and humans, too. The first pair of humans, Adam and Eve, live in bliss among a perfectly-functioning world. But quickly the picture deteriorates. Adam and Eve, famously, eat the forbidden fruit, signaling disobedience against God and the fracture of the perfect-functioning world. Suddenly people die, they feel shame, and they avoid God. Deeply dissatisfied with this, God promises that he will destroy the evil unleashed in Eden, though, in an unclear statement, he says that that evil will harm God first. 

Adam and Eve have children, who eventually get bad enough that they all must die, spare the few that will then repopulate the Earth. This is Noah’s Ark. Those ones that are spared destruction, as planned, repopulate the Earth and then fade into history.

One of their descendants, Abraham, is told by God to leave his hometown and travel West. Abraham obeys, despite not having much to gain from following this God’s instructions. And so God sees his trust, his faith, and blesses him, saying that Abraham will have many, many descendants. Which does, in fact, happen. This was a promise, and God cannot break his promises.

Unfortunately, a couple generations later, there is a bitter famine in the Palestinian land and the descendants of Abraham have to move south to Egypt. They remain there for several hundred years, by which time they are basically slaves. They have a slave revolt led by Moses, filled with all kinds of miracles and plagues that only God could have orchestrated. In fact, God was with the descendants of Abraham the whole time, and he leads them out from Egypt, and back into the Palestinian land that once belonged to Abraham.

Along the way God gives them Laws. These are contained in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Together the first five books of the Old Testament are called the Torah, and they are chock full of history and laws. When Moses dies, God promises to send someone even greater than Moses to the people. But this doesn’t happen, at least, not yet. A class of religious leaders are established, who serve as Priests, sacrificing the animals of the people as acts of submission to God. They have no temple, though, and carry around a portable tent instead.

The people arrive in Palestine, things settle for a while, but then the people start to stray from God and adopt some of the gods of the surrounding countries. This results in destruction and chaos, until someone (called a “judge,” though not in the usual sense of that word) convinces them to return to God. So it continues: the first generation follows God from the heart, the second from routine, and the third not at all, and repeat.

In time the people start to ask for a king. (God strongly dissuaded from them doing this). They get one, named Saul, though he starts to go off the rails in a few years. Then a prophet named Samuel selects a new king, named David, who is much better — though, in at least one notable extramarital-affair-and-murder-plot, David is seen to be imperfect. David wants to build a temple, but God, slightly out of the blue, turns the tables and promises that God will build “a temple” (a house, a lineage, i.e. descendants) for David. This is a repeat of the earlier promise to Abraham. God symbolically defers the building of the temple to David’s son, Solomon.

Solomon is okay, but he also worships the regional gods and goddesses. Then, unable to retain power of the whole Palestinian territory when Solomon dies, the kingdom fractures in two. Now the north, called Israel, is ruled by one set of lousy king, and the south, called Judah, is ruled by a different set of lousy kings. Awful, really, just awful rulers.

Then, calamity. The northern kingdom starts worshiping more gods than God alone, so God withdraws from them. They are promptly destroyed. The Assyrians swoop down and destroy most of them, carrying some others off into exile.

Then, 136 years later, calamity. The southern kingdom does the same as the north had done, and God withdraws from them, allowing the Babylonians to cart them off into exile/slavery. (A few prophets had predicted all of this, but nobody listened).

In exile, the people retain their previous culture and religion, refusing to integrate. This almost gets them killed, especially Daniel and friends. However, God miraculously saves them from death. After a regime change, the Persians control the whole area, and Esther and friends convince the Persians to allow them to return to home, which they do…

…only to find the old homeland in shambles, the temple destroyed, the city without walls. A major rebuilding efforts begins that restores the Temple and the city walls, though not to their original glory. Ezra and Nehemiah are the leaders of these important projects.

Then, things settle down.

All throughout this time, mysterious, shadowy figures called Prophets have been writing long books of commentary on the history of Israel and the future of Israel, along with interpretations of current events. These make up a large portion of the Old Testament. Along with some books of poetry, these prophets cry out in confusion: God promised to destroy the evil from Eden, to make Abraham’s descendants great, numerous, and powerful. He promised to send someone after Moses, he promised to give David “a house,” and so on. But all they saw was destruction and failure. Is God a liar? Clearly not! So, then, God will fulfill his promises. The prophets predicted that God would send someone else, a selected one (Hebrew word: Messiah), who would fulfill God’s promises.

This is how the Old Testament ends. Everything is calm, but the people are confused, concerned, and expectant of more to come.

Chesterton on the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy

“This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There was never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.

The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any war-horse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to the left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the early power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.

To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom — that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 152-153.

Maturity, a Twostep

In the first step we cut out things that do not belong.
  • Do you domineer conversations? Cut it out.
  • Does your humor make others uncomfortable? Stop it.
  • Did that social faux pas need to happen? Never again.
In the second step we add things that do belong.
  • Can I be more encouraging to others? I should start that.
  • Could my jokes be funnier? Let’s improve them.
  • Would my generosity help people? Time to give.

The twostep of maturity is a complicated dance. As in the real twostep, our feet feel awkward moving in the same direction at the same time. It takes time and experience to learn. But you know what is even more awkward? Moving one foot forward, again and again. Likewise in life it is easy to fall into phases of cut-cut-cut or add-add-add.

two step image

When we keep eliminating things, but do not replace them, we become empty inside. Instead of becoming a fuller, more alive person, we become the hallow shell of the lesser person we once were. Remember that stoic, emotionless guy you met in 8th or 9th grade? That could have been you. It was me. Being in control of your emotions does not mean killing them. The mistake is that to mature is to cut out bad emotions. Sure, do that. But without replacing them with better emotional states, you have not grown.

The same is true of seasons of adding. We can add all kinds of new character traits or habits. But in time we will have accumulated the baggage of old ones that should have died, hard. When I receive harsh criticism that seems out of place for “how mature I am” generally, this is the problem. In total I have grown, but in this one area I have not eliminated the old way.

We dance the awkward step-step-restep until, by their grace, someone comes by to help. They show us how to dance life. By watching them, we see new things to cut, new things to add. This, by the way, is mentorship. Teaching others by example how to grow.

Enter David Hume.

Hume wrote a book in the 1740’s called “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” The book focuses on the limits of what we can know. In the first chapter, he includes a great meditation on what it means to be a human being:

Man is

•a reasonable being, and as such he gets appropriate food and nourishment from the pursuit of knowledge; but so narrow are the limits of human understanding that we can’t hope for any great amount of knowledge or for much security in respect of what we do know. As well as being reasonable, man is

•a sociable being; but he can’t always enjoy—indeed can’t always want—agreeable and amusing company. Man is also

•an active being; and from that disposition of his, as well as from the various necessities of human life, he must put up with being busy at something; but the mind requires some relaxation, and can’t always devote itself to careful work.

Here are three different dimensions to our lives: thinking, socializing, and acting. In each dimension we bump into limits, at some point. We can’t know everything, we can’t always have good company, and we can’t always work. Our minds are finite, and as Hume will argue later, knowledge cannot be certain. (I’ll also add that socializing can drain us of action, and action can drain us of socializing. So those limit each other.)

balance heart and brain

He continues:

It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable for the human race, and has secretly warned us not to tilt too far in any of these directions and make ourselves incapable of other occupations and entertainments.

‘Indulge your passion for knowledge,’ says nature, ‘but seek knowledge of things that are human and directly relevant to action and society. As for abstruse thought and profound researches, I prohibit them, and if you engage in them I will severely punish you by the brooding melancholy they bring, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception your announced discoveries will meet with when you publish them.

Moderation is not something that we, as Americans, usually care about. If something is good, gimme as much as possible. If something is bad, keep it away. But seeking moderation is still helpful in all kinds of ways.

There is a difference between values and virtues. A value is something that you always want. Joy is a value — if I can have more, I’m taking it. Hope is a value. Peace is a value. Love too. Each of these is, itself, good.

Virtues can be overdone. Patience is a virtue because you should not be patient with everything. We exercise patience when a child throws food; we do not express the same patience with an adult. Courage is also a virtue. You can be too “courageous,” which we call recklessness. Running into battle without a shield is not courageous. It is reckless. So we need to have enough courage, or we are a coward. But not too much courage, or we are reckless.

David Whyte is one of my favorite poets. He says maturity “is not a static arrived platform, where life is viewed from a calm, untouched oasis of wisdom.” I agree, though for different reasons than Whyte meant. We seeking moderation in life, but our margin for error is thin. A little too much, or a little too little, and failure is inevitable. Maturity is not achievable because moderation is elusive.

An asymptote.

The golden mean.

Knowledge, socializing, acting — Hume says that these are all virtues, not values. We can only want them in moderation, never too little, never too much.

He ends with a summary:

Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy be still a man.’

Now that is a quote for a philosophy major.

My first take-away from Hume is the obvious one: don’t be a Brain. Have a brain, and use your brain, but do more than that. Feel things, be sociable, create something, and be adventurous. Live a little.

The other, more circuitous take-away is that you must add and subtract to find this balanced life. If you cut-cut-cut out the negative sides of yourself, then on exactly 50% of virtues you will err. Likewise with adding.

We dance the twostep of growing older because in it we grow closer to the balanced life.

Certainty, God, Lived Experience, etc.

moonrise kingdom girl

As I veered wildly toward Atheism about two years ago, something key to the Christian life had been lost that I didn’t realize until later. I finally now have the categories to understand and explain this idea. It used to be vague and nebulous, but now it is clear.

The Christian Life is not phenomenologically possible without confidence in the existence of God. There are a couple of things to break down here. First, The Christian Life. This is the lived experience of being a Christian. Not the beliefs of Christianity — those are one thing. Instead, this is talking about things like the rhythms of prayer, fasting, Sabbath, and study. The community in which one lives. The subtle attitudes that emerge from believing the truths of Christianity. If the Christian message is true, how does that impact my day-to-day behavior, and how I engage in the ordinary things of life?

This is what the gross word “phenomenologically” means. Eliminate the suffixes. Phenom. Ology. The study of. The way that things appear. Truth questions can be asked separately from lived experience questions. My reading of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age lately has opened my mind up to this whole topic of study. What do things actually look like in practice?

moonrise kingdom blurry

If a belief is “not phenomenologically possible,” then nobody can live like that. The belief does not work in practice. The truths can all be there, the premises confirmed, the logic holds, the argument sound. But if it cannot translate into real action, what does it translate into? My newfound favorite example of this is Calvinism, and by that I mean Determinism. Determinism is not phenonemologically possible, meaning that you cannot live as if Determinism is true. If Determinism is true, then you have no motivation to do anything. There is not meaning in life. There is not meaning in anything. Also, since there is no free will, there cannot be moral responsibility for things that happen. Who is responsible for my sin? God, of course, because he decided I would do it. But no Christian, no matter how Deterministic they are, actually lives like this. They avoid sin as if they are an Arminian. They evangelize like they are Arminian. So, Determinism is not phenomenologically possible.

Confidence in the existence of God is important. The Bible is straightforward on this.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6.

An important point here gets misplaced sometimes.

moonrise kingdom adults

As Christians, we are not supposed to have faith in the existence of God. We do not “have faith” that he exists. No, the Bible treats the existence of God as a basic given, and then moves from there. We “have faith” that Christ’s work of atonement can be applied to our account. That is what we have faith in. There is no real reason that we should feel justified that the crosswork of Christ would mean anything in relation to us. But that is what faith is.

The existence of God, along with “believing that he rewards those who seek him,” are treated as basic givens that must be true in order to have faith. But faith is not just “believe in God + believe that he rewards.” It is something greater than the combination of the statements in Hebrews 11:6. Something like “drawing near” which is an action, not an idea. Nonetheless, those two ideas must be true for faith to happen.

The Bible never seriously poses the question, “does God actually exist?” because it doesn’t need to. God is all over the place. He sends fire, he communicates directly to people, Moses got to see him (but only backwards?), prophets speak in his name and are correct. Prayer withholds rain from the sky for three and a half years, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and himself from the dead. God has created the world. God has put conscience in all people (“the gentiles are a law unto themselves”). The Jewish religion continues in perpetuity because of the promises of God.

Similarly, in The Christian Life, we cannot entertain the idea that God does not exist. Get it figured out. Decide. Does he exist or doesn’t he? Look at the Kalam Cosmological argument. The Ontological argument. How about the Teleological one? Recall from your own personal experience the work of God in your life. Become an Atheist, or resolve to be a Christian. But the worst of all options is to remain in perpetual uncertainty. Evaluate the evidence once, and then put the counterarguments out of your mind until, a few years later, you decide to reopen the case file.

moonrise kingdom narrator

I say this because all the great aspects of The Christian Life are impossible in the absence of such confidence. Without believing that God exists, you cannot have faith. You cannot experience the power of the Holy Spirit. You cannot encourage fellow Christians in the way of the cross. You cannot testify to the goodness of God, must less experience it yourself. You certainly cannot evangelize. How could you persuade someone to draw near to God if you aren’t sure he exists? You won’t. You’ll just give up on evangelism. You cannot exercise the giftings of the Spirit in the context of the local church.

At least, I didn’t. And I’m sure that my experience was not unique. Atheism may be true. But if it is, then you cannot also phenomenologically live the Christian life. And Christianity may be true. But without confidence in one of its most basic premises (“God exists”), it cannot be lived.

 

Two years of rossneir.com

Two years ago today I wrote my first post on this blog!

It was around Thanksgiving break my senior year of high school that I decided to give blogging a try. It turned out that I never got into it too much, but have still kept it around as a place to host anything I have written.

Here are some stats from my two years:

  • I have written 78 posts,
  • 5,578 views to these posts, and my other pages
  • 3,352 viewers have visited the site
  • my top post ever was… eyeroll… the Unicorn Frap review from April of this year.

I have several dozen posts lurking in my drafts, waiting to emerge once I have finally got the concept down right. The quantity of my thinking and writing has also improved so much since my senior year that I could, if I had time, write a new post each day rather than each week or so.

I have not yet turned on ads, but if I had, then given the 1/100 of a cent per view, I would have made 50 cents so far. So. There’s that.

Thanks to everyone who has supported this project, regardless of how much support that has been or what it has looked like.