ordinary… mostly

"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger


Richard Beck

An argument for ordinary

Seven years ago when I started my blog, I dubbed it ‘ordinary (mostly)’. It was supposed to be a self-deprecating name. I described myself as a “run-of-the-mill blogger”—which, of course, was entirely true… maybe even generous.

But the truth is that I wanted to be a little bit better than run-of-the-mill. I wanted people to like what I wrote. So it was a false humility.

I just finished reading Richard Beck’s latest book, Reviving Old Scratch. If you’ve been reading my blog for seven years (an audience of two: my mom and my wife), you’ll know that I love Beck’s writing and thinking. This latest book is no exception. His audience is doubting Christians… people like me who have a hard time believing in God sometimes, let alone the devil (“Old Scratch”). Yet Beck argues that even doubters “need to reclaim spiritual warfare… but not in the way you think.”

So—I highly recommend the book. But that’s an aside, because all I really wanted to share here was an insight from Henri Nouwen that Beck highlights in the book…

In The Selfless Way of Christ, Nouwen says…

Three temptations by which we are confronted again and again are the temptation to be relevant, the temptation to be spectacular, and the temptation to be powerful.

Think about the temptations of Christ:

  1. “Turn these stones to bread” – be relevant
  2. “Throw yourself down” – be spectacular
  3. Accept all the kingdoms – be powerful

Beck observes…

Nobody wants to be ordinary. Or average. Nobody wants to be the last one picked for the kickball game. Nobody wants to be the failure or the loser. And so we push to stand out from the crowd. We crave success, applause, and attention. We want to have influence, a platform, a voice.

But Jesus calls his followers to something else…

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

Be ordinary.

What is resonating now…

Some things I’m reading that make me say ‘yes’:

From Richard Beck:

Edging Toward Enchantment: From Deconstruction to Reconstruction

…but you can’t go back. I often tell my students that there is a threshold of doubt, that once you start asking certain sorts of questions there is no going back. When it comes to faith there is a class of questions that, once you get to them, just don’t have any answers. When you reach these questions you’ll live with them for the rest of your life…

Something has to give. If you want to maintain a hold on faith the season of deconstruction has to be followed by a season of reconstruction. But a lot of doubting and disenchanted Christians never make the decision–and it is a decision–to commence with the work of reconstruction…

Edging back toward enchantment is practicing faith. Not practicing as faith. But just what I said: practicing faith.

And from Hugh Hollowell:

Why I am a Christian Humanist:

…if there is a God, either that God is way more loving and accepting than I am, or that God can give my spot in eternity to someone else. Because while I do not get to decide what God is like, I do get to decide what sort of God I deem worthy of worship. And if that God isn’t more loving than me, more generous than me, more open than me, more accepting than me, then that God isn’t worth my time or my devotion.

And also from Hugh: today’s thoughts on “Bonds and Betrayal“.

When “bridge building” fails to build bridges

Laurelville’s mission statement begins:

In response to God’s gracious generosity, Laurelville plants, cultivates and nurtures Christ-like hospitality with welcome and safety for all…

I spend a lot of time wondering about that… What does “Christ-like hospitality for all” look like? How does this happen?

In my work, I interact with Christians (and even non-Christians) with diverse beliefs, opinions, and values. It amuses me that people from opposite ends of the spectrum (on any hot-button topic) will share things with me and automatically assume that I agree with them – simply because I work at Laurelville. Little do they know! It just isn’t possible for me to be in agreement with everyone. Nevertheless, I am thankful for these interactions and am always searching for ways to build bridges – a challenge when you only interact with someone for maybe a day or two.

In a recent essay, Gerald Mast describes two directions that difficult conversations may take. Perhaps counter-intuitively, he argues that maintaining complexity in our social interactions is a good thing, while reducing complexity is harmful. To understand this, we must recognize our tendency to define ourselves by saying what we are against. It is easy to create dichotomies – to say this is good, and that is bad. Or to state things more forcefully: I am good, and you are bad. When I speak this way, I have let myself embrace a complexity-reducing position. However, if I refuse to exclude you from my social circle – if I avoid the language of insiders and outsiders – then I am maintaining complexity.

As I am looking for ways to build bridges and extend hospitality to all of Laurelville’s guests, I am impressed by Mast’s analysis. It provides a helpful reminder to me in the midst of the diversity of visitors we receive. But in talking with Ordinary Spouse*, I also realized that I am biased and others might not care to maintain complexity.

* Ordinary Spouse and I have many of our best conversations in our van on the road while we’re travelling. This was one of them.

This embrace of complexity goes against the impulse of holiness.** The desire for holiness is something that may drive us to erect boundaries in order to remain pure. One might even argue that holiness and bridge-building are diametric opposites. And even if that seems a bit strong, it is understandable that someone who prioritizes holiness would not appreciate bridge-building efforts. In fact, I think that simply being willing to build bridges – not even taking sides – might be enough to drive wedges into communities where members have differing priorities.

** Richard Beck discusses the psychology of holiness in his book Unclean, which I’ve mentioned a few times on my blog. Highly recommended reading.

Naturally at this point, my thinking drifts away from Laurelville to the Church generally and to my denomination, Mennonite Church USA, specifically. I wonder: Is it possible that my desire (or anyone else’s, for that matter) to build bridges is actually achieving the opposite result? As Ordinary Spouse put it…

Is my presence at the communion table driving you away?

In fact, I can think of local and denominational examples where I suspect this to be the case.

Well – you can see that I’ve tied myself into a knot. Where do I go from here? I want to build bridges; to avoid the language of us vs. them; to use complexity-maintaining arguments. And doing so is counter-productive.

I don’t have a good answer, except to realize this problem is not solved by me sitting around thinking. I have to be true to myself and earnest in my dealings with others. Anything beyond that is in God’s hands, I suppose.

On the nightstand… 18 February 2012

Well – it’s been fun seeing how I’ve picked up a bunch of new readers/followers in the last few months as I wrote the story of my family’s trip to Cambodia. It seemed that anything that I tagged with ‘travel’, ‘Cambodia’, or ‘photos’ brought in new people. Alas, I’m turning my attention to the more routine things in my life now, which I’m afraid will bore many of you — long-time and recent followers alike.

It has been a while since I updated the list of books on the nightstand (or scattered thereabouts). Of the seven books that I listed last year and the three that I added this past summer, I’ve finished five (and still need to report on one) and am still reading five. Some never get finished.

Nevertheless, I continue to add more books. Without further ado, here’s the reading list as it now stands, with books from last February (*) or July (^) marked…

And here are the books that are just waiting for a chance to make it onto the list above. Some have already made it to the nightstand, but I’ve only looked at the first chapter. Some haven’t been opened at all. Some are arriving in the mail today. Some – thankfully – haven’t entered the house (yet…).

I think I must resist adding to this list unless I either finish or remove books already on it.

Recommended reading: “Unclean” by Richard Beck

I considered calling this post “Subtracting from the reading list” in order to contrast it with my entry from about a month ago (“Adding to the reading list“) and to emphasize that I do, in fact, finish books once in a while. However, I didn’t think that title did enough to highlight the work of someone who is exploring some of my favorite topics in creative and illuminating ways. So if you visit my blog for stories of my children, you have my permission to stop here. If you enjoy armchair theology, continue on…

I have talked previously of how I came across Richard Beck’s blog in the midst of the hub-bub surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. I found his writing on universal reconciliation to be accessible (i.e. there aren’t a bunch of undefined theological concepts that you have to understand before you can begin reading) and fresh (i.e. he approaches theology as a psychologist, which I think makes for interesting reading). Since I appreciated his insights into universalism, I kept on reading his blog and found lots of fascinating stuff that I think about – topics like doubt, atonement, privilege, and discipleship – with an emphasis on the relevance of all of this to the life that we live right now. It’s a blog that I visit regularly.

Anyway, his book, Unclean, came out a few months ago,  and I decided to buy it – completely on a whim – since I liked his blog so much. I haven’t been disappointed. Here are some of my notes, which I’ve tried to put into my own words, but which undoubtedly retain many of Beck’s ways of saying things…

Unclean is Beck’s attempt to get to the root of Jesus’ statement to the Pharisees in Matthew 9.13:

Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Sacrifice represents a tendency toward purity and holiness, whereas mercy privileges compassion and justice. In the time of Jesus, these two impulses represented two sides of an unresolved tension. Should a person side with the priestly tradition (sacrifice), or does one lean toward the prophetic tradition (mercy)? Jesus came down squarely on the side of the prophetic.

Beck gained insight into this dinner scene when he encountered a simple thought experiment. He relates this experiment right at the beginning of the book.

Imagine spitting into a Dixie cup. After doing so, how would you feel if you were asked to drink the contents of the cup?

I bet that grossed you out. But why? The answer, according to Beck, is the psychology of disgust. It creates within us the desire to separate ourselves from what is unclean or impure. It causes us to build walls in order to maintain our own purity. It serves a valuable purpose in protecting us from disease vectors. But it also strongly influences us at a moral level, causing people to exclude those that they view as “other”.

Jesus smashed right through those walls, and in the process, he judged the walls themselves to be unclean – not the people on the other side.

Beck’s writing is quite helpful. From his vantage point as an experimental psychologist, he is able to show how disgust psychology overextends itself from a useful function to one that causes the Church to become inhospitable. And he points out that this psychology makes statements such as “love the sinner; hate the sin” difficult, if not impossible, to follow. One cannot build and tear down walls at the same time. “Mercy and sacrifice are intrinsically incompatible,” he says.

This statement may indicate how this book may best be used – as part of an educational effort:

Calls for love and community are all well and good, but churches often undermine these efforts by failing to help their members understand and navigate their psychological experiences of purity and holiness. Purity via inclusion, the notion guiding Jesus in Matthew 9, is counterintuitive and, thus, fragile. It’s simply not natural to think this way. Calls for embrace are swimming upstream against an innate and ingrained psychology.

There are two related issues that I don’t think are addressed well, perhaps because they can’t be addressed well. The first issue is what to do with the priestly tradition. Do we simply ignore the first part of the Old Testament? View it as Israel’s early understanding of God? Or what?

The second issue, related to the first, is how to handle admonitions such as the one that Paul gives to the Corinthian church in I Corinthians 5:

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you.’

Beck introduces this passage himself and says that he wants “to tread lightly here.” He acknowledges that every group will develop some boundaries “to maintain spiritual and moral integrity.” But he encourages everyone to examine how these boundaries “affect, at the psychological level, the dynamics of love, mercy, and hospitality.”

I wish there were easy answers.

Beck concludes Unclean with a fascinating insight. He argues, throughout the second portion of the book, that our fear of death is ultimately what motivates disgust psychology. We try to stay far away from anything that reminds us of our own mortality. And in the Eucharist, Jesus has given us a ritual that forces us to constantly face the various facets of this psychology. In this meal, we welcome one another, as Jesus did; we are confronted with death and with the scandal that God would willingly face death to demonstrate love for us; and we eat and drink this reminder, breaking through the purity barriers.

Powerful stuff. I recommend it.

Thoughts on Faith, May 2011: Part V (Atonement and metaphor)

Hmm… According to my last “Thoughts on Faith” post, this post is going to reflect on atonement a bit more. Now I’m thinking, “What have I got myself into?”

Really… what am I thinking? I don’t have anything to say on atonement. I only have questions, along with some other people’s thoughts that I’ve found useful in guiding my own thinking. So that’s what you’re going to get, along with this disclaimer: I’m not doing academic work here. I’m not presenting well-reasoned theology. I’m just embracing my own struggle to understand how God saves us. I’m not going to be afraid of the questions, because I think the answers are vitally important. How we understand God’s relationship to us has quite a bit to do with how we relate to others. Ok, then – let me pick up where I left off a few posts ago

As I said then, I had some issues with the view of atonement that seems to be popular in Western Christianity right now: penal substitution. Basically, that view presents a violent image of God that I couldn’t embrace, and it seemed to give God a dual personality. God on the cross was not the same as God in heaven, and I couldn’t reconcile the two.

The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver was the book that started me on my search for a new way of understanding. It said, “Look – Jesus’ death was the epitome of human violence, not the result of God’s demand for blood.” What I missed in the book, however, was a satisfying explanation of how to approach the biblical imagery that gave rise to penal substitution in the first place. (Note: Such an explanation may have been there. I just missed it.)

Recently, I’ve started reading Richard Beck’s new book, Unclean. From a psychological perspective, he examines Jesus’ command, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” Beck argues that purity metaphors create a powerful psychological barrier that makes it hard for us to understand what Jesus is trying to say. But there are an abundance of other metaphors for describing the relation of sin and grace: legal, economic, light, health, and military, just to name a few. Beck gives twenty-two in a list that isn’t intended to be complete. However, the point is that there is more than one way to consider what happens when God deals with our sin.

Atonement metaphor comes up again in Rob Bell’s book. (Alan Stucky, writing in Mennonite Weekly Review, found it unfortunate that the chapter on atonement was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding hell.) Says Bell…

What happened on the cross is like…

a defendant going free,
a relationship being reconciled,
something lost being redeemed,
a battle being won,
a final sacrifice being offered,
so that no one ever has to offer another one again,
an enemy being loved.

He goes on…

The point, then, isn’t to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. To elevate one over the others, to insist that there’s a “correct” or “right” one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work the first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors.

I found that to be such a useful, corrective insight. And Richard Beck helped to complete the loop and showed me ways of understanding the metaphors behind penal substitution:

The problem with the penal substitutionary metaphors is that they are so very strong. Too strong to be deployed on a regular basis. And that is the real problem. It’s not so much that penal substitutionary thinking is wrong, it is rather that it is wrongfully deployed. Penal substitutionary atonement is at its best when deployed rarely and only in the most extreme circumstances. It can’t be everyday fare. The trouble is that it IS everyday fare in many churches. Penal substitutionary atonement is like a very strong acid. It has to be handled with care. And if you handle it as much as we do in our churches, often and carelessly, you end up with chemical burns. Thus many Christians are pulling away from churches in pain.

So when is the proper time to deploy penal substitutionary atonement? Like I said, penal substitutionary thinking is at its best when it speaks to profound human guilt. Specifically, some of us have committed such awful sins that our self-loathing, guilt, and shame destroy the soul. We cannot forgive ourselves. Only a very strong concoction can wash us clean. Penal substitutionary atonement is that chemical bath. It’s strong acid–You deserve death and hell for the life you’ve lived–making it the only thing powerful enough to wash away a guilt that has poisoned the tap-root of a human existence. Nothing more mild (e.g., the moral influence views I so love) can speak to this issue.

So – with all that said, I’ve come to understand two things about atonement and metaphor. There are so many different images, because…

  1. Atonement is complex. Ultimately you can’t put atonement into a nice, neat package. You might have some preferred metaphors (non-violent ones, perhaps?), but a single metaphor will not do justice to the amazing work that Jesus did on earth.
  2. People are complex. There are so many people who need to encounter God in so many different ways. We need a variety of understandings in order for that to happen.

Thoughts on Faith, May 2011: Part IV (Free will?)

I’d like to spend just a little bit more time on Rob Bell’s book…

First of all, I don’t see what all the fuss is (and I have read the book). As far as I can tell, there isn’t anything that could be called heresy. It’s not even new, as he himself acknowledges:

…Nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me.

Along those same lines, it is not his intent to write a theological treatise. Rather, his goal is pastoral. He has the people in the pews in mind. I’m sure his writing lacks some academic rigor, but the purpose is to open up possibilities and to say that it’s ok to ask questions.

Furthermore, I don’t think that I’d call him a universalist. In my last post, I mentioned Richard Beck’s definitions of Calvinism, Arminianism, and Universalism (based on Talbot’s Propositions). My guess is that Rob Bell’s position would fall somewhere into the Arminian camp, with the caveat that God’s love is really (really!) hard to resist. Nevertheless, he leaves open the possibility that one could, in theory, walk away from God’s love:

…Love, by its very nature, is freedom. For there to be love, there has to be the option… to not love. To turn the other way. To reject the love extended. To say no. Although God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do. God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship itself. If at any point God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is.

And here is where we leave the controversy of Rob Bell behind and change focus…

Free will. The option of resisting God’s love, because that freedom is what love demands. C.S. Lewis put it this way:

…To make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity. I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.

“The doors of hell are locked on the inside.” I really resonate with that. To me, it says that God condemns no one. The door to God’s house is always open, but sometimes we go into our own houses and lock the doors behind us. God is absent. To me, it makes perfectly logical sense to call this ‘hell’.

And that is why I was surprised to hear Richard Beck deny free will. Really? What’s the problem with free will? Well – he has some good points:

The first problem is theological. Conditionalism is tantamount to works-based righteousness. If hell is a matter of choice then so is your salvation. You damn yourself. You save yourself. Salvation pivots off an act of human volition. This, as many of you know, is the classic criticism Calvinists make of Arminian soteriology. And, in my opinion, the Calvinists have a point on this score (though it pains me to admit it). Where is the active grace of God in this picture?

The second problem is psychological. Basically, to be blunt about it, there is no such thing as free will. I’m not saying we are automatons, just that “will” is highly contextual. You just can’t make a plausible case for free will in this age of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, cultural analysis, learning theory, and behavioral genetics. Our choices are the product of genes, environment, nature, nurture, culture, reinforcement, and simply if we got enough sleep the night before.

(If you’re a bit skeptical about his arguments, you might read a bit more about the distinction between free will and volitional integrity.)

I find all of this to be very interesting, and because he knows psychology I’ll take him seriously.

As for myself, I’m not sure exactly what I believe. It’s a question that is still unresolved in my mind. But it also is one that I don’t feel any need to resolve immediately. It’s not going to make or break my faith.

Coming up: Another consideration of atonement

Thoughts on Faith, May 2011: Part III (Considering universalism)

In Part II of my little series, I pondered aloud…

Shouldn’t it be the longing of every Christian in the world that in the end all of us will be reconciled to God?

This idea that everyone will be reconciled to God is called Universalism. I’m sure that it’s not “orthodox” Mennonite belief now. I doubt it was ever even marginally acceptable, although I don’t have any basis for thinking that. Just a hunch.

But it’s what I’d like to believe. It’s my hope that everyone will be brought into God’s kingdom. But as I pondered the idea of universalism in the days leading up to the release of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, I wasn’t sure that I could believe it. It may not be obvious to some people, but in the end, I’d probably describe myself as “biblical”. In other words, if I don’t see the Bible supporting it, then I don’t believe it. And I didn’t see a way that universalism could be considered biblical.

That’s when I came across Richard Beck’s blog.

Beck is a professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University. In my judgement, he is thoughtful, well-written, and biblical.

He is also a universalist.

Richard used the furor surrounding Love Wins as an opportunity to write a series on universalism, and it was luck (or perhaps grace) that I encountered his blog just as he began the series. I read each of the blog posts as he published them and found them to be immensely helpful. In fact, one of the reasons for my little series now is so that I could slip in a link to his blog. I’ve enjoyed his writing so much, that I purchased his new book, Unclean, on a bit of a whim. I haven’t been disappointed, but that discussion will have to wait for another time.

Anyway… there is plenty of good stuff to ponder in his series. He summarizes his writing in the post “Universal Reconciliation: Some Questions and Answers“, which also provides links to all the others. But in the context of my questions regarding whether universalism is biblical, I’d like to highlight some things he says in Part 8. He begins by introducing us to Talbot’s Propositions:

  1. God’s redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them.
  2. Because no one can finally defeat God’s redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires.
  3. Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.

The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbot

He points out that all three of these propositions are biblical. Each of them is backed up by scriptural evidence. But logically, you can only believe two of the three propositions without contradicting yourself.

Wow. That was the eye-opener that I needed.

If you believe #2 and #3, you’re a Calvinist. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone could end up there, but it seems to be quite popular right now – at least in the Evangelical world.

If you believe #1 and #3, you’re an Arminian. I think this is probably the traditional Anabaptist position, although I haven’t studied enough to know for sure. Once I read these propositions, it was the view that seemed to fit best.

And if you believe #1 and #2, you’re a Universalist. How about that? You can believe that all will be saved and still be biblical!

Now – given all of this, what do I think?

That will have to wait for Part IV…

Coming up: Free will?

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