Disrupting Distraction

When we talk about our faith, we may be thinking of beliefs, ethics, and worship. But what others hear, says Alan Noble, is our preferences. They see these as lifestyle choices we use to craft an identity—like jerseys of our favorite sports team, our vegetarian diet, or volunteering to tutor.

What makes engaging others about religion even more difficult is our culture of distraction. Social media, entertainment, busy schedules and more all keep us from reflecting on ideas, on substantive issues, on our own lives. Both people of faith and people of no faith rarely stop long enough to wonder about our path in life. Yes, I too reflexively take a dose of social media even in the bathroom.

In Alan Noble’s transforming book Disruptive Witness, he unpacks these two forces—identity formed by preferences and endless distraction—based on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. With gentle but persistent insight, Noble considers how our culture makes faith a challenge for all of us, in ways we may be largely unaware of.

The second part of the book looks at practices we can engage in to break or disrupt these forces—personally, as a church, and as we interact with culture. These are not suggestions for evangelism as we might typically think of them. They are more like spiritual disciplines to reorient our own lives before (or as) we engage with those outside God’s family. I could wish for more here, but Noble gives us a necessary beginning.

This important book deserves a wide reading for understanding ourselves, our neighbors, and our world—and for living more closely attuned to the reality of God.

photo credit: Pixabay LoboStudioHamburg

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher. My opinions are my own.

Advent Celebration

Years ago some Jewish friends invited us to their Seder meal for Passover. Their home was prepped and we, along with other Jewish and Gentile friends, enjoyed the full three-hour event.

My wife, Phyllis, thought, what a great thing! Why can’t we share some of our Christian heritage in the same way? So began our annual Advent Celebration.

Once each December we have invited about twenty friends, neighbors, coworkers, and their children to our home for an evening. Since usually they don’t all know each other, we take a few minutes for everyone to introduce themselves and how they are connected to our household.

We then treat this mix of Christians and others to a simple dinner of soup and bread bowls. (Once I tried to change our normal offerings of chili, clam chowder, and French onion soup—but was met with stiff resistance to such a break from tradition.)

After an hour of good conversation and food, we gather in our living room for a simplified version of Lessons and Carols. We handout homemade booklets which tell the Christmas story, broken up into about twenty brief readings, going in a circle so each person participates by reading a section aloud to the group.

This is punctuated by carols which also tell pieces of the story. We sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “We Three Kings,” closing with “Joy to the World.” A good friend accompanies us on piano though once, to our delight, we wrangled a string trio to join us!

In the middle we pause to let people share Christmas or holiday memories and what it all means to them. Some talk about family traditions and some about their faith experiences. The evening closes with dessert and coffee, sharing cookies and other treats that our friends have brought.

Sometimes over the twenty-five years we’ve held this event, we have followed this up with an invitation to join us for a six-week study of the life of Jesus during Lent. In a society that connects less and less to Christianity, we have found that Advent (Christmas) and Lent (Easter) are still generally familiar to people. They tend to respond positively to the invitation to join us in our traditions.

If you are interested, I’d be glad to send you the text of our Advent booklet that we use.

In the meantime, we wait with you for the coming of Messiah.

Putting Our Faith at Risk

When Harold Camping, a Christian radio broadcaster, predicted that Christ would return on May 21, 2011, he made national news. Many of his followers paid for billboards, took out full-page ads in newspapers, and distributed thousands of tracts about this day of reckoning. One engineer spent most of his retirement savings, well over a half-million dollars. He took out full-page newspaper ads and bought an RV that he had custom-painted with doomsday warnings. When May 21 came and went as normal, Harold Camping revised his prediction to October 21, 2011. Of course, that prediction failed too.

What happened to those who had so fervently believed? They lost their faith. They stopped reading the Bible. They quit Christianity. Of course, it wasn’t the Bible that was wrong—it was Harold Camping who was wrong.

When we firmly, completely, uncompromisingly put our trust in a particular way of viewing the Bible, ironically we put ourselves at risk of disbelief. Why? Because if one brick of the structure we have built crumbles, then the whole edifice falls.

If we believe a perfect Bible written two thousand years ago should follow the rules of 21st-century historiography but then see a discrepancy between two gospel accounts, what should we conclude? If we think the Bible gives unassailable information regarding science, but then find what looks to be compelling evidence for four-billion-year-old planet, what should we think?

Should we think the Bible is wrong or that our particular way of viewing the Bible was wrong?

Should we walk away from faith, or should we reframe our faith?

Augustine put it this way centuries ago:

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture…We should remember that Scripture, even in its obscure passages, has been written to nourish our souls.*

We need to learn objections to and questions about the Bible early and often. We need to treat such concerns with respect and appreciation. That way, we won’t be surprised and our faith won’t be shaken later if we find value or insight in those concerns.

And yes, we can learn answers to these problems as well. But we should also learn that our preferred answers are not the only possible, valid ways to respond, that there are other ways to affirm the truth of the Bible and the worth of our faith.

So believe. But believe with humility. Believe with openmindedness. Believe knowing there is always more to learn. Believe knowing that we are finite and limited while God is not.


*John Hammond Taylor, S. J., trans, St. Augustine, the Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers., vol. 41, (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 41-43.

photo credit: pixabay, cobain86

The Enemy of Faith

We often consider unbelief and doubt to be enemies of faith. After all, if we perpetually embrace them, we never embrace God. But a very different response can also be the enemy—certainty.

As Tobias Wolf said, “Certainty is one of the greatest spiritual problems of our time.”* When we are absolutely sure of what we believe, we may inadvertently cut God out of the equation. We rest instead on ideas, statements, propositions, logic, argumentation, and viewpoints which we think stand on their own as universal truths.

The Christian faith is full of things we do not know, however. Though we believe in the Trinity we have very little understanding of how Three can be One and One Three. We know Jesus died for our sins but exactly how faith and grace work together in the cross is something we cannot entirely know. The Bible is very sketchy on the character of heaven or hell. And as to how the universe came to be? Well, God did it but a few details seem to be missing.

Mystery is everywhere in Christianity. The Bible is God’s Word but also written by humans. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. The more we try to remove the mystery, put everything in a neat and tidy system, the more we may fight against faith. God wants us to rely on him, not on our convictions.

It’s no coincidence that the certainty of Proverbs is immediately followed by the uncertainty of Ecclesiastes. And not just because so much of both are attributed to Solomon. God gives wisdom, yes, but we don’t have it all. “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it” (Eccl 8:17).

Certainty can engender pride and arrogance. When we are certain, we have no appreciation for human limitations. It means we have little to learn, maybe nothing even from God.

Lack of certainty is an underappreciated virtue which can make room for faith, humility, and love of others.

*Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, April 2016.

Career Perspective (2): Finding Satisfaction

Tony loves teaching college students. Every time he is in front of a class and sees that wonderful moment of insight in the eyes of people in the room, he feels, This is what I was made for.

The problem is, he can’t make a living doing this. More colleges are doing on-line courses. They are hiring fewer full-time professors and more part-time adjunct faculty. And even those positions are hard to come by. So he pieces together other jobs to pay the bills.
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Walking Through Twilight

The irony of Walking Through Twilight is not lost on its author. Douglas Groothuis is a philosopher who has often taught and written on suffering. Here he offers a lament about the suffering he and his wife have been going through over many years as she slowly, so agonizingly slowly, deteriorates from a rare form of dementia.
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A Missing Element in Knowing God

One of the most significant passages in one of the most significant books for the church in the last fifty years is this:

What were we made for? To know God.

What aim should we set ourselves in life? To know God

What is the “eternal life” that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God. “This is eternal
life: that they may know you, the only true god, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3).

What is the best thing in life bringing more joy, delight and contentment than
anything else? Knowledge of God. “This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise
man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me’ ” (Jer 9:23-24).*

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Getting Mad at God

I told them it was okay to be mad at God. Afterward I got a phone call.

I spoke to over a hundred college students about the book of Ruth. After Naomi’s husband and two sons died in Moab, she told her daughters-in-law (Ruth and Orpah) not go back to Israel with her “because the LORD’s hand has turned against me!” On her return Namoi told the women in her hometown, “Don’t call me Naomi. . . . Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter” (Ruth 1:13, 20).
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