Archive for October, 2007|Monthly archive page

Where Is God?

augustine1.jpg“Do heaven and earth, then, contain the whole of you, since you fill them? Or, when once you have filled them, is some part of you left over because they are too small to hold you? If this is so, when you have filled heaven and earth, does that part of you which remains flow over into some other place? Or is it that you have no need to be contained in anything, because you contain all things in yourself and fill them by reason of the very fact that you contain them? For the things which you fill by containing them do not sustain and support you as a water-vessel supports the liquid which fills it. Even if they were broken to pieces, you would not flow out of them and away. And when you pour yourself out over us, you are not drawn down to us but draw us up to yourself: you are not scattered away, but you gather us together.

“You fill all things, but do you fill them with your whole self? Or is it that the whole of creation is too small to hold you and therefore holds only a part of you? And is this same part of you present in all things at once, or do different things contain different parts of you, greater or smaller according to their size? Does this mean that one part of you is greater and another smaller? Or are you present entirely everywhere at once, and no single thing contains the whole of you?”

-St. Augustine, Confessions 1.3, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961).


Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?

Almost every year, I hear debates about how Christians appropriated a pagan holiday for their Christmas celebrations and whether or not this was a good or bad idea. Well, here’s a refreshing new perspective.

Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a pagan festival. Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this makes Christmas itself a pagan festival. But it is perhaps interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals.

Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.

-from William J. Tighe, “Calculating Christmas,” Touchstone, December 2003

It’s Indie Rock and Roll for Me (but only because of identity politics)

I had a long and interesting conversation over lunch with some friends from work today about ways to categorize the various levels of sophistication and excellence (or non-excellence) in pop music. Summarizing the content of that conversation and then reflecting on it would take way more time than I have, so while staying within the world of pop music in general, I will comment on this instead.

Sasha Frere-Jones, a pop music critic at the New Yorker, wrote this piece on “how indie rock lost its soul.” Among the groups to be flushed down the toilet are Wilco, Sufjan Stevens, and Arcade Fire – likely targets for anybody who would want to criticize “popular” indie rock today. I like these bands, if only because they appeal to my particular brand of mid-level musical sanctimony, so maybe my disgust with Sasha Frere-Jones’s (the author of the piece) conclusions is just a knee-jerk reaction. The basic gist is that indie rock hasn’t been as interesting since it stopped borrowing heavily from the blues and other (African-American) swinging-rhythm influences:

How did rhythm come to be discounted in an art form that was born as a celebration of rhythm’s possibilities? Where is the impulse to reach out to an audience—to entertain? I can imagine James Brown writing dull material. I can even imagine the Meters wearing out their fans by playing a little too long. But I can’t imagine any of these musicians retreating inward and settling for the lassitude and monotony that so many indie acts seem to confuse with authenticity and significance.

Okay, point taken. And the article is packed with interesting information about the history of rock and roll. But imagine my frisson when I stumbled across this piece by Carl Wilson in Slate a couple days later. His argument is that not race but class has caused the shift Frere-Jones describes:

This is the music of young “knowledge workers” in training, and that has sonic consequences: Rather than body-centered, it is bookish and nerdy.

Hmmm. That seems to describe me pretty well. No wonder I like Sufjan so much. On second thought, Wilson’s argument seems similarly reductionistic. Whatever the case, Wilson provides some good critiques to Frere-Jones’s argument. Check it out.

On Being Biblical

I’ve noticed, since I began studying theology, that there are two vastly different ways one can use the term biblical. Most evangelical Christians tend to use it in the sense of a person’s arguments or ideas (1) drawing directly from verses or passages of the Bible and (2) conforming to evangelical interpretations of Scripture. In short, biblical almost becomes a synonym for orthodox. So in response to the question of whether a certain church is good, an evangelical might say, “yeah, they’re biblical,” which means that the pastor uses the Bible in his sermons and stays close to typical evangelical ideas. Therefore, in most non-academic evangelical circles, studying “theology” is tantamount to studying the Bible.

Now, transport to the modern academy. The department of biblical studies may not even be in the same building as the department of theology. The term biblical in biblical studies has taken on a much more pragmatic meaning. It simply implies broadly that one is studying the Bible (albeit through the conventions and norms that have grown up within the academy).

So when one hears the term biblical theology thrown around in an academic setting, it means something vastly different from how Joe Evangelical might use it at his home group Bible study on Tuesday night, where he uses it to mean orthodox evangelical theology, theology that adheres to (1) and (2) in the first paragraph. Biblical scholars, on the other hand, use the term biblical theology, first of all, to differentiate it from systematic theology but, more importantly, to indicate that their ideas will take their cues from the thought patterns and narratives of Scripture, vetted of course by biblical scholars, and not from foreign philosophical systems (most notably, Platonism).

(I realize I’m painting in ridiculously large strokes here. Have mercy in the comment box.)

These two meanings create some odd dynamics in academic evangelical circles. For instance, when they start studying “theology,” evangelicals are immediately drawn, naturally enough, to biblical studies, thinking this is what it means to study theology and that to be “biblical” in the evangelical sense of the word is to enter the realm of biblical studies. How could studying theology ever be better than getting right down to the Bible!? But whereas evangelicals want to pursue “biblical studies” because of their confessional commitment to the validity and inspiration of Scripture, the discipline of biblical studies arose precisely as a liberation from just such theological commitments. One of the main things to get used to in studying theology in an academic setting is that the discipline of “theology” and the discipline of “biblical studies” are two almost completely different things. The evangelical retort will be, of course, that good theology must be biblical. It must draw directly from Scripture and in so doing tether itself to the truth. Of course, of course. I sincerely couldn’t agree more, but this retort is exactly what creates the little irony I’m exploring here. Reuniting the two is not as simple as John Stott and J.I. Packer—as much as I respect them both—would have us believe, and evangelicals usually operate under the notion that one equals the other. The two simply have vastly different assumptions about what it means to read the Bible. Of course, there are scholars on both ends of the spectrum who unite Scripture and theology, with varying results. Wayne Grudem is an evangelical systematic theologian who essentially compiles all the relevant portions of Scripture and applies them to the various Christian doctrines and then presents the synthesis as an unbreakable marble edifice of truth. His would be the prime example of the first type of “biblical” theology (i.e., biblical as Scriptural and thus orthodox). On the other side, two German systematic theologians, Hans Kung and Wolfhart Pannenberg, work very hard to incorporate the findings of biblical scholars into their work. Kung’s and Pannenberg’s attempts at “biblical” theology look much more like the second definition—biblical as an adherence to the findings of New and Old Testament scholars, regardless of their confessional stances. Despite these attempts, I haven’t found a satisfying answer to the rift between confessional, evangelical, orthodox readings of Scripture on one hand and the hard evidence of biblical criticism on the other. It is simply a problem to be worked on, and the solution will not be quick or simple.

What this all comes down to, I think, is that both evangelicals and biblical scholars have trouble admitting to their assumptions. Evangelicals can naively assume that to read Scripture is to have the truth. Biblical scholars can hubristically argue that they have the immutable facts of history at their fingertips. Part of this problem lies in an ironic twist of history. Evangelicals and biblical scholars are, in their own unique ways, stepchildren of the Enlightenment—a movement that claimed access to that marble edifice of truth swept free of the old traditions and superstitions of the past. In the process, it may be worth asking whether evangelicals and biblical scholars both may have swept their feet out from under them.

My Son Is Nine Months Old

Today Charlie has been out of the womb as long as he was in it. Well done, my boy!


Radiohead: In Rainbows


Radiohead recently announced that their new album is available for download at this site. The kicker: you choose the price you want to pay for the music.

Update: The album is no longer available for download (12/14/07).

Proofreading Contest: Solved

Well, somebody came up with the correct answer quicker than I anticipated. Somebody, I might add, who I have never met and runs his own freelance writing and editing business. Go figure. So congratulations, Mark, of On the Mark Writing. Your reward is free advertising for your business on this weblog (i.e., the link above). Mark’s answer is below:

“Without reading any of the other comments, on my honor, Kids should have an apostrophe after the s, right? The word following is a ‘gerund’ in form, and therefore the word before it must show possession.”

Thanks for playing!

Proofreading Contest

For my first content-laden post on my new weblog, I’d like to reel in all the sharp-eyed grammarians who visit my site. The following sentence has a subtle grammatical error. Can you identify it?

“Consider the value of kids developing their own internal mechanisms for recognizing when they’ve had enough.”

To be fair, the grammatical flaw is in fact so subtle that it has started slipping into normalized usage. Nevertheless, the rule still stands. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, Jess and I spent a good fifteen minutes discussing and diagramming until we finally had to pull out my advanced grammar textbook from college. Also, in the interest of a much more reluctant full disclosure, Jess noticed it, I challenged her, and she ended up being right.


Welcome to my new weblog. I’ve been blogging for a couple years but have just moved here from another site. I may still be getting some things sorted out for a while, but this is where to find me from now on.