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Renaissance- GuinnessSubtitled “The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times,” the prolific author, speaker, and social critic Os Guinness pulls no punches about the bleakness of the times we live in. In his latest book entitled Renaissance, writes that

“…all civilizations, whatever their momentary grandeur, have an ultimate flimsiness that is paper thin and cannot hold back the barbarism.”

The “barbarism” Guinness refers to is not just the temptation to raw power or animalistic lust, but the underlying “spirit of the age” and our susceptibility to its whisper. And indeed, it’s the moral “barbarism” of our age, our constant drift from True North that, Guinness asserts, has led to the decline of the Western Church.

“…at this juncture, the West has cut itself off from its own Jewish and Christian roots — the faith, the ideas, the ethics and the way of life that made it the West. It now stands deeply divided, uncertain of its post-Christian identity, and with its dominance waning in the global era.”

While some dismiss the importance of Western civilization’s tether to its “Jewish and Christian roots,” Guinness sees the connection (or lack thereof) as  central to the diagnosis of our spiritual plight. In fact, it is our disregard for God and desecration of Western tradition that has led to “decadence,” “desecration,” and “social chaos.”

“Western cultural elites have disregarded God for more than two centuries, but for a while the effects were mostly confined to their own circles. At first, they disregarded God. Then they deliberately desecrated Western tradition and lived in ways that would have spelled disaster if they had been followed more closely. But now in the early twenty-first century, their movement from disregard to desecration to decadence is going mainstream, and the United States is only the lead society among those close to the tipping point.

Soon, as the legalization and then normalization of polyamory, polygamy, pedophilia and incest follow the same logic as that of abortion and homosexuality, the socially destructive consequences of these trends will reverberate throughout society until social chaos is beyond recovery. We can only pray there will be a return to God and sanity before the terrible sentence is pronounced: “God has given them over’ to the consequences of their own settled choices.”

A grim outlook indeed!

So while “the Western church was the single strongest source of ideas that shaped the rise of the modern world,” it has now become “culturally captive to the world to which it gave rise.”

While Guinness clearly writes from an Evangelical perspective, both wings of the Western church — the Left and Right — come under equal scrutiny in his assessment. In both cases, however, it is a move away from the plain, simple teachings of Jesus and an embrace of the “spirit of the age” which makes both the Evangelical and the Progressive contributors in our descent into “advanced modernity.”

“A striking symptom of the church’s problems in the West today is that fact that in a country such as the United States, Christians are still the overwhelming majority of citizens, but the American way of life has moved far away from the life of Jesus — which means simply that the Christians who are the majority are living a way of life closer to the world than to the way of Jesus. In a word, they are worldly and therefore incapable of shaping their culture.”

Ultimately, though Guinness’s assessment is bleak, he seeks to summon hope in the reader, concluding that the Western Church needs nothing short of a new Reformation, one that breaks from the allure of secularism and the Church’s enticement with the spirit of the age. It is less about labels than it is a return to orthodoxy.

“There are many traditions among the followers of Jesus — the Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist and Pentecostal being only the main ones in the West. But an important fact has grown clear over the last generation. Those who are faithful and orthodox in each tradition are closer to the faithful and orthodox in other traditions than to the liberal revisionists in their own tradition. In other words, the closer we are to Jesus,k the less significant the labels that once divided us.” (emphasis mine)

This is a relatively small book (170-some pages) but extremely dense. Each chapter ends with a prayer, reminding the reader that real, long-term change begins with the individual. It is as I move closer to Jesus and further from the enticements of “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” that hope arises, both in me and the world I inhabit. In this sense, Guinness’s central theme is simple, straightforward and hopeful:

“Let there be no wavering in our answer. Such is the truth and power of the gospel that the church can be revived, reformed and restored to be a renewing power in the world again. There is no question that the good news of Jesus has effected powerful personal and cultural change in the past. There is no question too that it is still doing so in many parts of the world today. By God’s grace it will do so again even here in the heart of the advanced modern world where the Christian church is presently in sorry disarray.”

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“Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen.” — -H.P. Lovecraft

Props from H.P. Lovecraft, the icon of horror lit, definitely doesn’t suck. Butarthur-machen only  recently has Arthur Machen begun receiving the acclaim he deserves. In 2011, Penguin Classics released an anthology of Machen’s short stories edited by horror scholar S.T. Joshi with a preface by the acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro. Yet even though Machen and Lovecraft are often compared favorably for their brand of “cosmic fear,” the authors evoke the subject from two very different angles.

H.P. Lovecraft was an atheist. His stories are full of cosmic dread and ancient terrors, a combination of monsters and modern philosophy. In one of the greatest essays on horror ever penned, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft writes:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space. (emphasis mine)

In the early twentieth century, German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his book “The Idea of the Holy,” coined the term “numinous” to describe religious experience of the “wholly other,” the divine. Here’s Wikipedia on numinous:

According to Otto the numinous experience has two aspects: mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a Holy other.

Interestingly enough, the root idea of “holiness” is “wholeness.” In this sense, encountering the numinous means both

  • Experiencing the “Holy” other
  • Experiencing the “Wholly” other

For Otto, encountering the “Holy other” invoked its own type of horror, a “fear and trembling.”

Notice that while both men acknowledged an “awful mystery” at the core of the universe, Otto defined it in terms of Something, while Lovecraft defined it in terms of Nothing. Thus their “fear and trembling” was qualitatively different. While Otto is drawn to commune with the “Holy other,” Lovecraft is mortified by “the daemons of unplumbed space.” As Lovecraft saw it, it was a “suspension” of belief in the “fixed laws of Nature” that sheltered us from “the assaults of chaos.” Science, once our only “safeguard” against madness, inevitably rouses “unexplainable dread.”

Like Otto, Arthur Machen extracts horror not from the cold, “fixed laws of Nature” and the eternal “chaos” it inevitably wreaks,  but from something Other.

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Richard Rayner summarizes Machen’s writing this way:

Machen was interested in visions, in ecstatic experiences, not just the supernatural as such. All his fiction ponders the idea that other realities exist beside, or just beyond, or within the everyday one that we normally perceive, and all his fiction features characters who reach for that dangerous mystery. Sometimes, as in “The Bowmen” or “The Great Return,” that other reality introduces miracle and wonder into quotidian life. Other times, especially in the work he produced as a young man during the years 1887-1901, the discovery that lies on the other side of the veil is utmost horror. (bold mine)

Over at Christ and Pop Culture, in a memoriam to Machen, Geoffrey Reiter traces Machen’s “dangerous mystery” not back to a belief in some Cosmic Void but to a mystical reality.

…as his wife Amy was dying of cancer, Machen’s writing changed to a new phase, a phase that is perhaps his most interesting for the Christian reader.  He took a renewed interest in the Christian faith, though it was now his own custom blend of Celtic mystical Christianity derived from the history of his native Wales, as opposed to his father’s more passive, warmed over Anglicanism.  Increasingly, he saw his faith as the answer to the emptiness of the modern world, and in his writings from the twentieth century, his stylistic emphasis is one of juxtaposition: mystical experience occurs as an occasional burst in his narratives. (bold mine)

Whereas Lovecraft could only face “the emptiness of the modern world” with “unexplainable dread,” Machen did so through the lens of “faith.”

In a piece at Christianity Today on sacred terror in pop culture, horror novelist Jonathan Ryan expands Machen’s push toward “a more holy terror.”

While Lovecraft was an atheist, Machen fully embraced the doctrines of his Anglican faith. His horror contained the mystery of abandoned places, forgotten gods, and utter terror at the unknown, but also the possibility for humans to find hope beyond despair. Unlike Lovecraft, Machen pushed toward a more holy terror, a sacred fear that could prompt a person to kneel before God.

Machen felt despair could be avoided by seeing the good God who ruled over the world “behind the veil.” (bold mine)

The visceral fear of cold Nothingness is meager compared to the awe, dread, and disconcertion one would feel encountering the Holy. But this is exactly the terror induced by the Living God. The apostle Paul describes Him as the One “who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (I Tim. 6:15-16). Paul concluded,

“Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men…” (II Cor. 5:11)

“The terror of the Lord.” Apparently, experiencing the Holy contains its own unique terror. Which could explain why the apostle John, upon seeing the glorified Christ, “fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).

We don’t often connect horror with holiness. In fact, we tend to see them as polar opposites. While holiness involves purity, light, and righteousness, horror involves fear, impurity, and evil. But the truth is, holiness and horror are far more aligned in the Christian worldview than they’re not.

So while perfect love may cast out all fear (I John 4:18), fear is very much a part of encountering Perfect Love.

Fear and trembling — or horror — is not just about shock or gore, but about an encounter with Something both Holy and Wholly Other. While Lovecraft and Machen both wrote about “cosmic fear,” the worldviews which evoke that are, from the authors’ perspectives, polar opposites. One is God-less, the other is God-filled.

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Scott-NeesonThis info-graphic has recently been shared around on Facebook. The man pictured  is  Scott Neeson, former head of 20th Century Fox International. Neeson sold his mansion, Porsche, and yacht, and left Hollywood for Cambodia’s garbage dumps. There, he’s sought to provide food, shelter and education to destitute children. The former studio exec now cares for more than 1,000 Cambodian children and their families.

Neeson is viewed as a hero, a great humanitarian. And to those Cambodian children and their families, indeed he is! But everyone can’t be like Scott Neeson. And I think that’s a good thing.

American Christians’ views about wealth and poverty have changed lately. We used to applaud the believer who, through hard work and wisdom, left a life of debt, deficit, failure or poverty, rose above their disabilities or disadvantages, and became a “success” of some sort. They graduated, were drafted onto a professional sports team, started their own successful business, multiplied some talent, etc. It was the Protestant work ethic in motion. But things have changed. Now we applaud the entrepreneur who sells everything to build an orphanage, feed the hungry, or live among the homeless.

A while back, one of my pastor friends mulled this new phenomenon and wrote THIS on his Facebook status:

I see this pattern at conferences and church events, where the speaker, or staff member is introduced as someone who was “a rising star at a fortune 500 company, but left their promising career and six figure salary for (insert current ministry role).” I’m not sure why this narrative seems to be repeated in Christian circles. I’m sure it belies some underlying perspective or value, but I can’t put my finger on it yet.

Though my pastor friend is not necessarily making the same point I am here, his observations highlights an important sea-change in the American church. Evangelicals seem to have replaced a preoccupation with modernism for a preoccupation with monasticism; whereas we once used to idolize prosperity, now we idolize poverty. Our hero is no longer the Christian businessman who has “stepped up,” but the Christian businessman who has “stepped down.”

Nowadays, the preferred testimonial is about “the rich man” becoming “poor” for the sake of the Kingdom, not “the poor man” becoming “rich” with the help of the Kingdom.

In my mind, both are equally skewed.

In her book Giving 2.0,  Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen notes that the United States is the international leader in kindness, both on a corporate and individual level. Americans are more likely to volunteer time, donate money, contribute to causes, and help strangers than any other people on the planet. We are also the wealthiest nation on earth. And it shows in our giving.

So is our prosperity a good or a bad thing?

Poverty-of-NationsIn reality, the wealth that Scott Neeson acquired — the wealth that many well-meaning Christians now eschew — is the very tool he is leveraging in his fight against poverty.

In their book The Poverty of Nations Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus argue that foreign aid has not reduced global poverty. In fact, nations that receive the largest amounts of foreign aid tend to remain deeply entrenched in poverty. Of course, there are numerous factors involved, such as the corrupt governments who receive said aid. Nevertheless, the point stands. While selling everything we have to give to the poor can be a great, noble, very spiritual thing to do, poverty is not solved through long-term aid. Rather, the authors argue that capitalism is, in essence, the answer to global poverty. Respect for property, hard work, creativity, personal incentive, opportunity, entrepreneurial freedom, financial wisdom — these things will ultimately lift people and nations out of poverty.

Abandoning wealth is not the answer to fighting global poverty. Creating wealth is.

Yes, we need the Scott Neesons of the world. God bless him! But if we all became him… who would support us?

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In sports, it is NOT racist to say “White men can’t jump.” But it IS racist to say “Black men can.” Why?

colin-cowherd-sportsnation-espnI’m pretty much burned out on the topic of race in America. Chalk it up to my European ancestry. Then again, it’s possible that the topic is so overdone and so laden with politically correct trappings, that one misspoken word or slight insinuation can be a career killer. In the sports world, the topic is on the table — again. This time because of some comments that basketball GM Danny Ferry made about NBA player Luol Deng, comments that have gotten Ferry disciplined, and perhaps inevitably terminated.

It’s difficult to find straight-forward commentary on race, what with everyone tip-toeing around, afraid to share their opinion lest they be called a racist, publicly skewed, and shamed into silence. So it was refreshing to hear sports commentator Colen Cowherd’s monolog to his Friday show, (9/12/14) which I’ve excerpted here. (Links included.)

“You know, one of the things that makes race so difficult to discuss is you’re never allowed to discuss it with nuance, subtleties. The emerging media, the blogs, they take a sentence, a word, ‘That guy is racist!’ Sometimes I’m not sure what racist means or what racism is. Is it layered? Are there stages like karate, are there belts of it? Like the clan’s up there. A bad sentence like Riley Cooper over there. Then the lowest level is grandma who crosses the street because some kids are on the other side and she doesn’t feel comfortable. But even as I said that you probably thought she was white and the kids weren’t and I thought of her as Latino and the kids were white.

Racism’s interesting though. Danny Ferry today is called a racist. He works for the Atlanta Hawks and on a phone call he said this (about Luol Deng):

‘He’s a good guy overall. But he’s not perfect. He’s got some African in him.’

Whoa! Luol Deng’s got some ‘African in him.’ That is racist. But what if he said he had European in him. Would that be? I’m asking.

What is racism? If I have black friends and said what Danny Ferry says, I’m racist, right? But what if I’m Hispanic and married to a Caucasian woman who I’m physically attracted to and nothing more. But I don’t like white people. Am I racist? ‘How can I be, I’m married to — ?’ Of course you are.

I read this, this morning. Billy King, black, played with Danny Ferry at Duke, lifelong friend, says ‘He’s a brother to me. He’s the furthest thing from a racist.’ Danny Ferry has several friends. They’re black. But again, he said, Danny Ferry said this:

‘He’s a good guy overall. But he’s not perfect. He’s got some African in him.’

Let me define racism. Racism is the particular belief that a race is superior or inferior to another. So if you’re black but you have white friends, but when you play pick-up games, you say ‘You white guys can’t guard me,’ officially, you’re a racist.

Howard Stern, for years, got away with sexist, funny, but sexist, and racially insensitive, skits. But he could not be a racist because he had a woman, and she was black, Robin Quivers, on the show which was his bullet-proof vest. I like Howard. Love him. But if his partner wasn’t Robin Quivers, it was Dan Quivers, Caucasian, would we view Howard the same person, the same way?

I watched a skit this morning on YouTube by Chris Rock called ‘How not to get your [ass] kicked by the police.’ It’s on YouTube. Lot of stereotypes, all different races. I laughed. I think you will too. Are you a racist?

Terry Foster’s a black reporter for the Detroit News. He called out Cam Newton, a black quarterback for Carolina this week because when talking about Ndamukong Suh he called him, not Terry but Cam, Donkey Kong Suh. To Terry’s credit as a black reporter he said ‘we need to stop the double standard. White guy says that, have to apologize. It meant no harm, but the black athlete must do the same. I don’t think Cam meant any harm. He just spoke out of ignorance.’ I’m just asking, I don’t have the answer.

Washington D.C. is full of really smart people. They’re okay with ‘Redskins.’ Are they all racist? Danny Ferry, black friend since childhood, one of his best friends Billy King. Is he racist? Does that sentence make him racist?

It’s funny. Let’s say Danny Ferry had a Hispanic wife, African American wife. Nobody would say a word today. ‘He couldn’t possibly be, right, because he’s married to…’ Why would that stop you from being a racist? You’re physically attracted to somebody else doesn’t mean you don’t hate large groups or think you’re superior…

Is acknowledging a culture is different, which they are, statistically, is that racist? The media often says ‘Celebrate diversity! But don’t point out the differences… unless they’re positive.’ …Only positive things make you progressive. Noticing differences , negative things — same guy — racist. ‘But I’m married to her’ or ‘him.’ ‘But I’ve got friends who are they, them, those — that in itself is racist.

…Washington D.C. — comfortable with ‘Redskins.’ Uncomfortable with my John Wall criticism. Huh? Huh? I don’t know.

…a stand-up comedian tells a joke, embellishes a stereotype, gets big laughs, he’s brilliant. An hour later Pepsi wants him to be a sponsor, sits in the boardroom and tells the same joke. Wrong place. Now it’s racist. How can it be? Same guy, same joke.

…I had a man come up to me one time. He said ‘I’m a Hispanic. I can’t be racist.’ I said, ‘What if you wouldn’t hire a Korean at the shop you own?’ ‘Oh, I never thought about it. Guess I could.’  Yep. You could. I could. We could. And Danny could. Or maybe he isn’t. Or maybe he is. Before we lunge and point and defame and define, can we take a breath? Can we take a breath?”

 Take a breath. Indeed. (You can find the entire podcast of Cowherd’s 9/12-14 show HERE.)

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It is commonly recognized that a child’s personality type affects their learning. Some kids are more conceptual learners while others are more visual learners, meaning some can handle text books while others need hands-on. Which creates a problem because our public education system tends to approach all kids the same, giving them little freedom to learn at their pace and in their own way. Similarly, much of today’s professional writing advice treats writers as of the same type, as if we all write the same way.

Example: I used to loathe first drafts. Now I just dislike them. On the other hand, editing, dare I say, is enjoyable for me. I derive unique pleasure picking apart my words, reorganizing them, pruning the overgrowth, fattening up an undernourished plot and adding seasonal color to my bed of prose. The difference between my approach to first drafts and editing has little to do with correct form or discipline. It has to do with my personality type.

Stephen Koch, in his excellent book The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop opens with this advice about first drafts:

It would be nice, I suppose, to begin at the perfect point in the story, in the perfect way, using the perfect voice to present exactly the desired scene. Unfortunately, you have no choice but to be wholly clueless about all of this. The rightness of things is generally revealed in retrospect, and you’re unlikely to know in advance what is right and wrong in a story that has not yet been written.

I’ve always been a fan of the ancient “four temperaments” approach to personality theory (as popularized by Tim LaHaye, among others), in which human temperaments are narrowed down to four basic categories: choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic.

Learning that I am of the choleric / melancholy brand (high choleric) has helped me immensely in counseling, leading, and relating to people. Among other things, cholerics tend to be control freaks; they not only can chart the course, they want to be at the helm. They sincerely believe they know the right way and how to get us there. They are driven and impatient, easily frustrated with sloth and incompetence. Cholerics can be perfectionists and nit-pickers, and can easily abandon something (or someone) that isn’t working.

So when Koch says that I must start first drafts “wholly clueless,” this is more than just an inconvenience — it grates against my personality.

You see, as a choleric, I need to know where I’m going before I start and devise a plan to get there. Or to translate this into first draft language: I can’t start writing until I know how my novel ends and the basic steps that will get me there. This tends to make my first drafts a slog.

It’s also why “seat-of-the-pants” writers drive me absolutely bonkers! I mean, how can someone just start writing without knowing where they’re going?

The reason I like editing so much more than first drafts relates, in part, to my personality. Editing is more about “control” and detail, while first drafts are a bit more random, scattershot, and unfocused. Loose ends don’t need to be tied in first drafts. But as a choleric writer, it’s hard for me to devote time to a piece if I can’t conceieve how those ends can be tied. So understanding my personality type has helped be more patient with first drafts. Knowing that I am a tad controlling helps me impose a little bit less upon my first draft. But this self-awareness has also kept me from trying to be a first draft seat-of-the-pants writer. (From my experience, seat-of-the-pants writers are often sanguines, the temperament type given to color, spontanaity, and scatterbrained-ness.)

And this is where I find some of the professional writing advice out there flawed. As a choleric, I need to spend more time on my first draft. Pre-plotting is essential to how I work. Just telling me to spit words onto a page without concern for order or clarity is more than impossible for me… it is near blasphemous. Conversely, imposing my writing style upon someone else is equally wrong. This doesn’t mean that sanguine / seat-of-the-pants writers don’t still drive me bonkers. It simply means that there’s no “one size fits all” writing advice.

Writing a novel is hard enough. Writing a novel without conceding your personality type is even more difficult. It makes me wonder how many writers are encumbered by someone elses writing methods. In other words, they’re a choleric who’s trying to write like a sanguine.

Realizing my temperament has improved how I write. I no longer loathe first drafts. I endure them on the way to what I really like — the editing.

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How to Determine If Your Religious Liberty Is Being Threatened in Just 10 (More) Quick Questions

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Is your religious liberty at risk? The answer to that question depends on the kind of “religious liberty” you hope to exercise. If your “religious liberty” involves support for abortion rights, denunciation of capitalism, removal of creation science or Intelligent Design from public schools, sympathy for terrorists, LGBT issues, animal rights, doctor assisted suicide, militant […]

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“Check Your Privilege” (Bible Edition) — Pt. 1

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Other than vague, rather generic calls to “repent,” “confess,” and “humbly listen,” there appears to be few concrete solutions offered to evangelicalism’s perceived problem of “white privilege.” Of course, calls to “repent,” “confess,” and “humbly listen,” are very much biblical! But in the aftermath of incidents like the recent tragedy in Ferguson, those calls appear […]

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Is “Christian Horror” Alive and Well?

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Back in 2008, I asked the question “Is Christian Horror Becoming a Trend?” The “horror” label has always posed problems for Christian writers, publishers, and filmmakers. Terms like “thriller” or “supernatural suspense” are far more manageable when dealing with anything potentially “faith-based.” Part of the perceived incongruity of those two words — “Christian” and “horror” […]

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So Who’s Making God in Their Image?

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When Tony Jones (“theologian-in-residence” at Solomon’s Porch)  challenged his readers “to write one post about God,” the response was… bizarre. Why was such a challenge for progressives even necessary? Jones explained: …progressives have a God-talk problem. That is, progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But […]

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Can Marketing Your Book Be “Spiritual”?

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I was once asked how I knew I was called to write. I answered, “Because when I write, I feel God’s pleasure.” It was a reference to that famous line in Chariots of Fire when missionary Eric Liddel was asked why he ran. It was also a hilariously pompous thing for me to say. I […]

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Do Paid-For Reviews Hurt Authors?

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The answer to that question, it appears, depends on what side of the aisle you fall — author or reader. So I was following an author for a spell, keeping an eye on the release of their first novel. Within a week they were pushing 20 reviews. All five-star. And all, notoriously, brief. This hinted […]

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Rationalism and the Waning Western Church

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One of the most influential books I’ve ever read remains John Wimber’s Power Evangelism. Wimber’s thesis was pretty simple: Signs and wonders, spiritual phenomenon, miracles, and “power encounters” are essential to the Church’s health and the expansion of the kingdom of God. Sure, Wimber went off the deep end once in a while (see: the […]

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