Are Works our Salvation? A Lesson in Beauty

The kingdom of heaven is like the piano lesson of an undeaf man.

Outside the kingdom of heaven, it’s like being someone who’s listened to his music too loud too long. For years, whenever the music ate at his hearing, he would turn it louder, again and again, until he was all but deaf. He gets so nearly deaf and plays the music so loud that, taking a sharp turn at a yellow light, he doesn’t hear the other car honk its warning, but careens solid into the passenger door, shattering his sedan and pummeling his forehead against the steering wheel.

His car with its loud radio comes up against something too sturdy, something that, by its nature, couldn’t be misshapen, but could only reshape what tried to clash against it. Amid the odor of sweltered rubber and aluminum, the sturdy car’s door swings out and the sturdy driver plunges out into the unwieldy wreckage to revived the concussed young man who sees and hears nothing as darkness swallows his field of vision.

A foreign student in a foreign country, the young man wakes in a four-poster bed in a strange room without a sound in his ears. Wriggling his jaw to unpop them, turning his head to relieve the emptiness, he sits up and tries to form words, but produces only silence and sweat.

Entering the kingdom of heaven is like being that stranger walking out of the guest room into the other driver’s home and finding it a mansion. It’s like him feeling in his toes and his heels the vibration of a terrifyingly unheard music, whose vibrations heightening as he descends the stairs into the great front hall and wanders through it. Turning the corner, the Steinway comes into view, with the pencils and pen in a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug atop, neighbored by a stack of freshly writing pages. Hearing the approach, the other driver shoots from the piano bench to grasp the bandaged hand and place in it a solid handshake, a drink, and a seatback.

So, the convalescence begins. The composer from the other car drives the young man to the doctor by day and houses him in the guest room by night, and the young man relies on that composer for every dignified and undignified necessity until the morning comes, and the composer pays the cost of the ear surgery that will restore all the young man’s hearing potential.

The young man goes under for the surgery. Eyelids fluttering in sudden consciousness, our young man hears whispered some words about deposits and accounting among numbers of something. Each word is as crisp and clear as the smacking kiss of a shameless child, and just as beautiful.

The story is familiar: fault and injury, payment and restoration. If he was in a smaller story, that would be enough. If he hadn’t embanked on Beauty’s threshold, then having hearing restored might have been enough. However, the kingdom of heaven isn’t home to enough, but to the complete and the holy and the extravagant. Breathing in the kingdom of heaven is like when the young undeaf man goes to the composer’s concert the next evening. The concert sounds nice. Some parts stir him, and he gets a little bored in some sections, but he stays attentive most of the time (until they neared the end, anyway).

Then, rolling his attention in a long stretch of whining strings, he stumbles into a glimpse of the tears clustered in the eyelashes of the enraptured woman beside him.

Startled, he glances to his left to see another guest whose lips hang parted by an unaffected smile. Our young man fumbles at his brochure to find the concert billed as being from the hand of The Greatest Composer of All Time. Bewildered and humbled, the undeaf rubs his eyelids and realizes with shock:

Even hearing, he doesn’t know how to use his ears.

The kingdom of heaven is like the young man strapped in the passenger seatbelt on the way home beside the Greatest Composer of All Time as the raindrops tap notes on the windshield, while he admits with helpless but calm sadness, “When I was deaf, I couldn’t hear sounds. But, now, I still can’t really hear music. Little bits here and there thrill me, and hint at something I can’t access, but most of it I just don’t care about. I’m just not good enough at hearing to listen to your music.”

One hand on the wheel, the Greatest Composer of All Time presses the undeaf man’s shoulder, saying, “Listening takes more than hearing. But, if you’ll learn, there’s nothing I’d rather teach.”

The kingdom of heaven is like the following morning, when the young man rises early at the composer’s suggestion, and slides into place behind the dawn-kissed piano keys. And the Greatest Composer of All Time gently guides his undeaf student through the C scale, which he plunks out again and again, awkwardly or too quiet or too stiff, until the motion settles into part of his nature.

Then, another scale and another. Slowly and precisely. Even when the ears can tell poor from good, to know good from great takes a lesson of the fingertips. Because to understand greatness – in music or in painting or in life – is to understand the process of creation. To fully enjoy a masterpiece means knowing the difference between a master’s work and a master con’s, and the only way to know that is from so close you’re almost within, almost of the same mind as the artist by sincere imitation. (And what artist practices his craft as beautifully as the King of heaven practices goodness? And the ability to mirror this goodness forms the greatest gift of salvation. Are works our salvation? Yes: by our salvation, we are finally and delighted capable of good and saved from doing bad.)

In our sanctification, the world expands as the concerts expand for the undeaf student. He begins to hear what’s there, instead of missing everything. The Greatest Composer of All Time even writes him his own melodies to play. With practice, his ears and his fingers learn to reach for the depth of the beauty in every tone and harmony and trill. With familiarity, he discovers the thrilling gap between his abilities and those of the Composer. It troubles him until he discovers that the difference is too severe to permit an inkling of competition. Then, the gap becomes freedom and pursuit.

He sinks himself as far into that gap as he can go, increasingly enjoying the vast expanse of untrodden beauty into which he can fling himself further every day without fear of running out of room. The joy of ceaseless pursuit finds home in the unbounded possibility of beauty.

The learning takes his lifetime and makes his lifetime worth every minute he pays to the piano keys and the concert hall. It’s years and hours and, with gray tufts over his ears, he still slides into place beside the Greatest Composer of All Time.

“Before you began teaching me,” the undeaf, unyoung man sits upright on the bench beside his still teacher. “I thought you and I were two degrees removed from each other’s musical abilities; you could play and I couldn’t, and those were the two options. When I started the scales, I began to think we might be a hundred degrees removed, and when I started melodies, I realized that hundreds was far too small.”

The kingdom of heaven is like when the composer reaches in front of that upright student and places a hand-penned song on the music stand. That evening, even from the corner by the lamppost outside, wayfarers can hear the Steinway’s melody swell as the unyoung, undeaf man pours his fingers and his joy into the masterpiece gifted to the undeaf by the Greatest Composer of All Time.

Muddying the Waters around Modesty

Whenever summer rolls around, the tide of links rises on my Facebook news feed. “Modesty,” they all say. Sometimes with a sneer, sometimes with a polemic defense, they all say, “modesty.” In theory, I appreciate the idea of modesty, and I think the arguments in its defense are justified. However, glancing over my wardrobe, I have to admit that I’m baffled as what exactly it means I should wear. And, genuinely unintentionally, I’ve stumbled upon the wrong choices on more than one occasion.

I have no instincts and little training in this area. Growing up in a school with a uniform, I never was exposed to the peer vs. peer whisperings (i.e., “Can you believe she’s wearing that?!”) that offer the adolescent mind a social catechism (albeit a dubious one) about what outfit means what.

Additionally, if there’s a culture that epitomizes a schizophrenic balance of questing after external beauty while refusing to judge by appearances, it’s the one that raised me: SoCal. Of those two sides, I’ve always had a strong affinity for the latter; I learned a little too well not to judge by appearances. In college, I went to church and classes in jeans and sandals and shorts among others in jeans and sandals and shorts. Doing so is an expression of that culture’s most prized virtue. Yes, most groups develop a cardinal virtue; where some cultures – like the American south – are big on respect, California is big on genuineness. To a Californian, dressing formally can feel ingenuine (though, bizarrely. wearing make-up doesn’t).

And, to a Californian, being ingenuine is the second of the regionally deadly sins (after “being judgmental,” before “waiting until a green light to turn right”).

So, the articles on modesty always fill me with some terror of the unknown. Unfair as it might be, they center on those endowed by God with the quality of being women. I happen to have that very quality, and I discover every summer on my Facebook news feed that the gift is a liability rather than an asset. There’s some grave misuse of it which I may make any morning, and I don’t really understand where that misuse rests in order to avoid it.

Unlike most virtues, the practice of modesty is culturally defined. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real, just that it has a contingent reality. In Eden, nudity was not immodest. In Starbucks, it is. Some cultures hide ankles. Others, cleavage. This is not to say there is no such thing as modesty, only that modesty looks different in different places and different times. But, you’ve read all this before.

But what many of these articles miss is possibility of degrees of knowledge. While agreeing that modesty is culturally defined, most articles assume that everyone within a given culture understands what goes for “modesty” within that culture. But, every societal convention is better understood by some members of that society than others (see Jane Austen). There is a continuum of understanding often ignored by modesty articles.

And, even among those who understand, there exists a greater deal of confusion than most would admit. For instance, the conventions clearly vary from one body to another. Place a short girl in mid-thigh length shorts next to a tall girl in mid-thigh length shorts; proportionally identical exposure that would never be deemed immodest on my dachshund-like legs would be judged more harshly on hers. Last week, I asked some friends how long skirts should be, and my friends gave a clear answer: not-above-the-knee. Then, they immediately affirmed that the above-the-knee skirt I was wearing was “just fine.” The variability of answers to the modesty question can be exhausting.

At the same time as modesty is a moving target and a challenging one, I don’t want to diminish its importance. I don’t deny the virtue of it. I care about the relationship between God and every human being around me. I care about helping people be virtuous insofar as it rests with me. I do care about respect. I care about the reality of modesty, with its obscured goal which the social rules exist to achieve.

I care about it because, behind what sometimes looks like the rigid face of judgmental rule-enforcement, I still hear the soft-hearted echoes of love.

I believe that deep within the rules and the protection and the judgment there remains a reality. That reality says that my neighbor’s life is my life, and he is not as independent of me as I pretend. We draw hard lines between people, but the boundaries smudge more than we like to admit, perhaps nowhere as ubiquitously as with modesty. The modesty argument exposes our individualistic, court-room stance toward sin; at best, the conversation can remind us that we are morally bound to one another not by blame or fault but by the possibility of really harming or really helping one another.

While the liberal side may want to blame the harmed for being harmed, the conservative may want to cast all the blame on the immodest for being immodest, it seems like throwing blame around will not undo damage or prevent further harm. Without intending to, I can do genuine harm to others by my misunderstanding of modesty. This harm is no less real because it was unintended, nor is the fault either fully mine or fully that of the harmed. What the individualistic, juridical arguments often forget is that the harm of immodesty is not simply fault, but also damage. This is the highest calling of my wardrobe choices: that I do my best to make those choices in love, not simply on the basis of avoiding fault or denying that fault is possible.

So, my point is not to let anyone off the hook, but only to point out some of the complexity which the modesty debate tends to miss. We bear some responsibility for one another. Yet, those who “know” the rules of modesty must accept that the reasons for that pair of heels at that inappropriate time or place may be less intentional than they appear from outside.

7 Snapshots of Christology

This summer, I thought a solid hike through the history of Christian doctrine might be a better use of time than sunburning myself at the beach. However, not wanting to break my streak of summer sunburns, I somehow managed to do both. Having a brain so violently overheated as to become insensible to the desires of my readers, I thought you might want to see some snapshots of Christology I collected from the ecumenical councils.

1. First Ecumenical Council: Nicaea, 325 A.D.


A weedy, rather persistent heresy spread around the time Christianity was legalized. According to the heretic priest Arius, “There was a time the Son of Man was not.” In response to uproar among his subjects, Saint Constantine started the ball rolling on this first Ecumenical Council. Good and bad theologians travelled to meet in Nicaea, where the Council decreed that Christ had existed from eternity, “Begotten of the Father before all ages.”

The infinity symbol in this snapshot has three lines to it, signifying the eternal existence of the Trinity, including the heretic-maligned Son. The one line comes down from heaven, embraces creation, and places itself on the Earth, “X” marking the spot (that “x” is “chi” as in the Greek letter starting “Christ”). Additionally, the way it breaks off, there is no point at which the three-lined infinity symbol is broken.

A note on these snapshots: each picture shows four un-intrepreted pieces of information, and one heavily interpreted image drawn from the doctrinal statements. The objective data are the date, city, geographical location (indicated by a red key on the map), and the canons of that council (in the waters, more malleable than the theological doctrine written on land above). The chief affirmed doctrine of each Council shows up in white.

By and large, you’ll notice an important absence in the pictures: heresies. Though heresies are the major catalyst for Councils, they feature here symbolically rather than explicitly; they make up the darkness precisely around the edges of the truth. Heresies defined all of the places where truth was not; both the white of the paper and the truth of theology were there from the beginning, but until the heresy was drawn in around it, it may have been harder to see. (This also saved my unschooled hands from casually drawing holy things; I did not draw them. I just drew very, very precisely around them.)

2. Second Ecumenical Council: Constantinople, 381 A.D.


Having attempted to abolish Arianism and, finally (painstakingly!) succeeding, the church found itself soon enough troubled by new heresies. There were those who – opposite Arianism’s denial of Christ’s divinity – denied the full humanity of Christ. And, there were those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The council completed the creed we know today, fleshing out the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

My image of this doctrine shows Pentecostal fire centering around a Theta, which is the first letter in the Greek word for God (always the theologian’s favorite short-hand for God). Within that image, see that the Holy Spirit “spoke through the prophets,” where the saint is writing on a scroll. Follow the prophet’s robe as it extends down to form the head and beak of a dove (whose wings and tail extend backward, outlined by the flames). The dove descends from the right hand side to the left, as the Holy Spirit comes down to the Christian on Pentecost.

3. Third Ecumenical Council: Ephesus, 431 A.D.


Before too long, Nestorius came along to tell Christians that Christ should not be referred to as “God” when speaking of the incarnation by the Virgin Mary. Rather than calling Mary “Theotokos” (the God-bearer), as was already the custom, Nestorius argued that she should be called “Christotokos” (the Christ-bearer). The council convened in 431 to affirm that Christ had two natures, being fully God and fully man. As St. Cyril said, things which could be said of the one person of Christ in His human nature could also be said of Him in His divine nature.

In my drawing of the doctrine, the center is Christ (symbolized by the Theta to indicate His divinity). The lines of the Theotokos mirror the infinity symbol used to establish the divinity of Christ in the first image above (325 AD), with Christ situated at the center of that infinity symbol. In the incarnation, Christ, the infinite God, is made incarnate through the Theotokos, who is inside time.

4. Fourth Ecumenical Council: Chalcedon, 451 A.D.


After Nestorianism was defeated, it didn’t take long for a new heresy to gain sway. Opposite Nestorianism, the pendulum swung to monophysitism, the belief that Christ’s human and divine natures merged together. Whereas Nestorius almost made two persons of Christ, the monophysites almost made one nature of Christ’s divinity and humanity. The council at Chalcedon articulated an elegant little confession: Christ was to be “acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation.” Learn that one – it will get you far.

In the image, behind the cross of Christ, see the light beams radiating out across these four things, striking them out. The top left is confusion: a spiral of blue (humanity) and red (divinity), fusing into purple. The top right, change: an ice cube melting into water. The bottom left is a division: a plain old division symbol. The bottom right, separation: an egg with yolk and white separated. Yes, a separated egg. Alright – it’s a bit of a stretch, but at least it’s memorable.

5. Fifth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople, 553 A.D.


If you’re looking for politics, this is your Council. The monophysites, having been condemned by the Chalcedonian confession, cried foul. They suggested that the Fourth Council’s failure to condemn a certain three Nestorian bishops proved that the Council members were heretics (supporting Nestorians would have been a failed to uphold fully the third Ecumenical Council). So, the Council met to reaffirm Chalcedon and to condemn the writings of those Nestorian bishops. It’s a bit messy: the ruler, Justinian, had already condemned the writings, though he didn’t have the ecclesiastical power to officially do so. Also, the Pope happened to be in Constantinople, but didn’t want to condemn people who had died in good standing with the church, so he wouldn’t attend the Council (which made Justinian angry). Anyway, the important doctrinal take-away is this: They affirmed the Chalcedonian confession. Once again – learn that, and it will get you far.

This image purposefully echoes the image from Chalcedon, since the main effect of this Council was reaffirming Chalcedon. However, to strike out the heresies (and to represent some the political nature of this Council) I’ve brought in a sword. The last thing the sword pierces is a letter containing a heresy. Also, see how there aren’t any words in the water? For some reason, there were no canons written in this council, as far as I can find.

6. Sixth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople, 680 A.D.


Well, the monophysites lost two rounds of Ecumenical Councils (you just can’t beat the Holy Spirit, guiding the church into all truth), but a little compromise sprang up some time later, and it sprang up powerfully. A new group, the monothelites, gained power by agreeing that Christ had two natures, but denying that He had two wills. It grew. In fact, at one point, the larger part of the eastern church believed the monothelite heresy. St. Maximus the Confessor, long before the Council in 680, argued against the monothelites. He argued that what is unassumed is unhealed, using St. Gregory’s articulation from the time of the Second Council. For the human will to be healed, Christ had to assume a human will. St. Maximus suffered for the truth, and after his death, was victorious. The Sixth Council agreed with him, and the monothelite heresy was condemned. Thank God the human will is redeemed!

The image shows Christ’s hands holding a cup. His right hand (on our left) grasps it willfully. Lower, as in submission, the left hand holds it the way it might be gently passed along, also mirroring a hand folded in prayer. This serves as a reminder of Christ’s Gethsamane prayer: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” Note that the left hand’s fingers are not taut as though they were pushing away the cup. He isn’t resisting or willing opposition; both hands together support the cup. Notice also, the fingers meet in the center with the Chi, indicating the united effort of the two wills in the one person of Christ.

7. Seventh Ecumenical Council: Nicaea, 787 A.D.


The Seventh Ecumenical Council, resulting in the Triumph of Orthodoxy, centered around the use of images in Christian worship. When the Muslims were gaining territory in Christian areas, the Christian world began to worry that the those iconoclasts were onto something with their refusal to use images in worship. Soon, supposedly Christian rulers outlawed Christian images. However, St. John of Damascus and the theologians of the Seventh Ecumenical Council believed that there was more at stake here than art. At the heart of the controversy was the doctrine of the Incarnation. Christ had redeemed matter, they argued. They defended this form of worshipping God on the basis of the incarnation’s use of matter to reveal God and redeem man. (It goes without saying that this did not condone the worship of matter, itself.)

The image above is the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos; here, as above, the image represents the Incarnation of God in flesh. Behind her is the Earth, an emblem of matter. The center of the Earth (and the remaining infinity symbol) is Christ, being Incarnate.

Snowden’s Secrets: What Christians Already Knew

“Man was matter. That was Snowden’s secret.” After a hundred pages of war wounds and twisting metal, despair and PTSD, this line in Catch-22 barbs like shrapnel. “Man is matter.” Watching blood pour from bodies and cruelty triumph over any hope of opposing chaos, the soldiers learn this lesson painfully well. We readers beside them feel it, too.

A month ago, the news channels streamed the name “Snowden.” In my mind, it conjured up the recurring flashback of the book, wherein we hear hints of  Snowden’s secret until finally we are told “man was matter.” This we hear upon examining Snowden’s dead and instantly corrupting body beside the protagonist in the plane. The author of Catch-22, Heller, saw the secret tragedy of humankind in the dark proclamation that man was matter, plain and stark.

Snowden’s secret was that man was not spirit, not eternal, not divinely made. Man was rotting meat.

Though the argument is not a presentation of discursive logic, it overwhelms me. That simple set of seven words challenges my every assumption about the world. Because, at the end of it, there are two possibilities: Man is Divine or man is matter. We are either the image of God or rotting meat. That is the secret. Opting for the first requires too much of our lives. Opting for the second requires only that we accept death. Our culture opts for the second, in a frenzy of denial. Behind the science that believes it can answer the problem of mortality, behind the plastic surgery that flees the possibility of visibly approaching death, there is the belief that man is matter. Kept secret, the belief that man is matter is the terrifying assumption at the heart of any life besides a religious one.

But, matter is more precious than imagined. Though I read the line “Man was matter” with a chill and a revulsion, I feel the answer even here. There is a cool refreshment to the voice of the incarnate Christ in my ear as I whisper, terrified, “Man is matter?” and He says the answer is more glorious than I can conceive.

The horror of man as matter rests in my conception of matter. But, matter is not an undignified thing. The dust and lazy stone and leaf veins all share in the dignity of matter, created by God. At heart, the very matter I fear is me is also the matter assumed by God in the incarnation.

What Heller failed to see when he wrote that terrifying proclamation – man was matter – is that, once and since Ascension eternally, matter was God. Not pantheistically or utterly; matter can never be equated with God. Yet, by choice, the eternal God who created all things made Himself into matter in the incarnation, forever changing the dignity and stature of matter. The matter I am is nothing to terrify my soul with fears of mortality or whispers of insignificance. The matter I am is ennobled by the Incarnation of the Lord. Yes – man was matter. Heller saw enough to see more than most. What greater challenge is there than to actually see the visible when the entire world seeks to cover it up?

Yet, the matterdom of mankind is no secret to the Christian. We celebrate our ability to act as the body of Christ, making visible the eternal God through our bodies, and we trust in the resurrection of these bodies. We hold unshakeable within us the remembrance of God’s judgments. The great secret of Heller’s Snowden is no secret to the Christian. The non-Christian must live in constant denial of her false belief that she is bare matter. The Christian has no denial of her state as matter, nor the compulsion to limit her state to one of soulless matter. No, the perfect Christian is one who has no secret from herself. She knows her matter and knows more.

Of course, today’s Snowden also had a secret. In 2013, Snowden’s secret is that there is someone watching. Unjustifiable as the actions behind that secret are, when we take a step back, it provides an insight.

Once again, the Christian knows Snowden’s secret and knows more. Whereas the non-Christians may live as though they are untraceable, as though their actions have no impact on those around them, as though they have secrets, the Christian never can. The non-Christian is startled by the rude awakening that someone has been watching. The Christian, quite the contrary, has always lived in the knowledge that God is watching. The Christian has always known Snowden’s secrets:

Man is mortal.

Our private actions are known.

Yet, shining our lights higher, we illuminate beyond the terrifying fringes of these statements. We see beyond the fearful image these convey and glance where the joy lies in the greater picture. Man is mortal, but death has been defeated. Our actions are seen, but so are our pains, our trials, our moments of love, and all by One who loves.

The world has secrets that bleed and leak, but the Lord has mysteries that ages cannot fathom.

Virtuous Eating, Part 3: Spiritual Food

(This is the last of a series of three post examining the Christian’s relationship with food. The first covers the reasons we should take food seriously, and the second takes a stab at identifying pitfalls in the way Americans think about food.)

I ended the previous posts with two uses of food which most nutritionists ignore: food as the means of thanksgiving and as the means of love. These two are, of course, very weird.

Modernly, food is about the body rather than the soul. Since we believe food is primarily fuel, things like thanksgiving and hospitality appear secondary to its “real” function. It seems only an accident that gratitude and love enter the picture.

However, this is backward. At the heart of it, heaven’s love for the earth is the reason behind the necessity of food. One theologian even wrote that food is God’s love made edible. Biblically, food provides a banquet in the Garden, a sacrifice in the temple, a feast in the Passover, a miracle in the wilderness, a lesson in the crowds around Christ. Miraculously, from the night He was betrayed, food – simple bread and wine – even offered humankind a means by which to bring God directly into ourselves, a feast which began with giving thanks and never ended.

I wrote before that the impulse to say grace before a meal holds the key to how the Christian ought to see food. Even Christ, incarnate God, chose to thank God for the food He ate. Just as He looks at you or me and sees our true potential as human beings, He understood how to perfectly realize the nature of food. And, at every turn, He acts as though the fulfillment of food is thanksgiving. Just as the purpose of humanity is to glorify God and to adore him forever, the purpose of food is to give us an opportunity to be grateful and gracious. It drives us to remember our limitations and needs and to help our neighbor. It constantly reminds us that we are not self-contained worlds, but interactive and needy.

We are dependent creatures, and this is not a fault. Nowhere is this as easily seen as the dinner table. It is the delight of the host to place glistening, savory food in front of her guest, and it is the delight of the guest to receive it, compliment it, and be fed. At the moment of the dinner party, fuel is secondary to love. The table of a dear friend’s house is a sketch of the dependence we have on God. It is a mutually delightful interchange.

For those of us with strong faith, this dependence is joy. The more we accept our state as dependent creature, the more we realize that food is God’s response to our dependence on Him. Every response from God is a species of love, and food is no exception. If our side of eating means giving thanks, His side of food means providing love. Beholding His creatures in need of His help, He graciously and gloriously sprouts wild mushrooms and rice patties and strawberries, almonds, carrots out of every nook of the earth and the trees. The whole world bursts with the answer to our dependence – God’s loving provision for our ever-needy bodies. More importantly, the church gushes with God’s provision for our ever-needy souls: the spiritual food, the Eucharist, which (we should not forget) means “thanksgiving.” Christ crystalizes this providential love in our communion with Him.

The fact that we can take God into our bodies by receiving communion must shape the way we see the very act of eating. It seems impossible that communion could be just one thing among many instead of the model for all other eating, just as it is impossible for Christ to be a part of our lives instead of our whole reason for existence.

All twelve apostles attended that first communion. They heard Christ give thanks, but one of them refused to do the same. Judas left the feast filled with the good things Christ had given him, but without gratitude. He ended up with his intestines bursting open in his death. The stomach which couldn’t respond with thanksgiving couldn’t remain intact.

Virtuous Eating, Part 2: The Two American Extremes

(This is the second in a series of three posts on the Christian’s relationship to eating. Here is the first post. The final post will examine the Eucharist and fasting.)

Better befitting the brainchild of a cruel author of dystopian fiction than the plans of a gym manager, my fitness center has a number of TVs hanging from the ceiling which perpetually show images of food. Who knew there was a show called Man vs. Food? And, why is there a one hour special on ice cream? Or pizza? Most of all, why am I exposed to these images while pursuing healthy activities? I like to think that I am too optimistic about humanity to suspect my gym manager of purposefully showing unhealthy foods in order to tempt me into unhealthy eating so I must keep returning to the gym. (This may go along with my habit of liking to think things that aren’t true.)

Upon seeing the title Man vs. Food from my perch on the elliptical, my first response was, “I’ve already read that one. It was in Genesis. We lost.” My second reaction was, “Then again, there was that rematch in the gospels. We won that.” After fasting forty days in the desert, the tempted Jesus answered with what Adam and Eve should have said: “Man does not live by bread alone.”

Christ’s interactions with food have nothing to do with calories or the appropriate balance of carbohydrates to protein. They don’t relate to body image or fitness. They aren’t vegan, and they aren’t raw. Rather than emphasizing the measurement of portions, he breaks bread with such miraculous abundance that twelve baskets are picked up after everyone is full. He fasts in the desert. He feasts with the apostles. He has a rather pronounced taste for figs. He’s thirsty on the cross, and stops drinking the vinegar after a taste. He’s ready to eat after the resurrection.

This attitude toward eating does not match one extreme of America’s philosophy of food: our “virtuous” eating. In this view, food is taken to be immensely powerful, the source of life. In one documentary on veganism, Forks over Knives, an expert even states that careful diet choices will allow us to avoid all of life’s tragedies. Though he presumably refers to heart disease and cancer, the superlative coloring of this statement is relieving. At the heart of it is a salvation narrative which sounds more like the Pharisees’ than like Christ’s. The narrative is this: if you simply follow the rules of clean eating carefully enough, you will live forever. At least the Pharisees believed this had something to do with the soul. Americans have somehow duped ourselves into believing that, if filled with all the right things, the decaying body will never die. Asked point-blank, the healthy eater would admit that her body will eventually die, regardless. But, that is an eventually the healthy eater forgets frequently. At least for myself, while making smoothies out of broccoli and kale, I know that I am lying to myself a little bit about the fact that, one day, I will grow wizened and wrinkled and I will die.

On the other side of the spectrum is the American who does not watch Man vs. Food from a treadmill after a fat-free lettuce wrap, but from a couch with a pizza box on her lap. This person understands something which the health-food nut willfully forgets whenever opening the fridge: man is mortal. By choosing tasty foods, this person at least anticipates something true about food. After all, aside from one divine exception, food is much more likely to bring us pleasure than immortality.

However, this appetitive way of life is only more pitiable. What virtue it has in understanding something true about the function of food is overshadowed by its radically false assumption about humanity. While our mortality must never be forgotten, neither should our immortality. Our divine secret is that humanity, assumed and rescued in Christ, exists as more immortal than mortal. When we live recklessly, driving our bodies into the ground through wild pursuit of immediate pleasure, we ignore the reality that man consists in spirit and body working in an eternal bond. It seems as though our ability to be pleased is quickest in the body, but deepest and more subtle in the spirit, and a satiated body tends to dull that more desirable sense of spiritual pleasure. I read once that someone who is too full of food has a hard time praying; it’s true. I find myself dozing and unfocused if I come to prayer after a second helping of ice cream.

Our culture’s philosophies of food are strangely well represented in the tension of a healthy eater sweating on a treadmill in front of television sets showing a man eating a pizza slice the length of his arm. Our culture offers two choices. On the one hand, we can be Pharisees, believing that what we don’t eat will save us. On the other, we can be gluttons, assuming that what we do eat will fulfill our needs. Neither of these two American extremes are viable to the Christian.

Christ regards food differently. One aspect of food that nutritionists in an individualistic society don’t consider, or even regard with something approaching suspicion, is social eating. Yet, food is radically social in Christ’s life and resurrection. Christ doesn’t eat alone. Instead, food serves as the background for his relationships. It is the canvas on which he displays his compassion for the hungry crowd, his fulfillment of the Passover feast, and even his third day resurrection, which is punctuated by the foods he eats to prove embodiment. It is gift and object lesson, apologetic and evidence. In the life of Christ, food is never an end in itself, but the means of love.

Very Christian Questions from Tragedy: Job and Tennyson

Editor’s note: This week, we’re running a series on questions, inspired by Matthew Lee Anderson’s book, The End of Our Exploring. We reviewed his book here. There’s a great deal going on this week: buy one copy of Matt’s book, and you can give one away for free. Check out the details here.

The Sunday School teachers paint the biblical Job in pastels and pretty words. Felt-board employed, snack-time pending, they tell us how that pious, righteous Job suffered and never lost his faith in God. He never blamed God. Undeniable pain and grief did not shake his trust in the Lord. From those days of plastic armor and hand-painted Noah’s Arks, he is evoked as an example of a patient, holy man.

Then, you read Job for yourself.

And, who doesn’t feel a little uncomfortable on that first post-Sunday School reading? After the build-up we receive as Sunday scholars, we can find ourselves ill-prepared for Job’s cries like, “Why have the times escaped the Lord’s notice? Why have the ungodly stepped over the boundary, snatching away the flock with the shepherd?” (24:1-2). I suspect that, without the build-up, we would be more inclined to admire the amount of faithfulness he has. But, it is a raw, galvanized, painful state of faith. His faith is the kind that pours out questions and wants real answers the same way a wound pours out blood and wants – not a bandage – but healing.

Yet, Job scandalized teenage me. He broke my nicely polished category of righteous suffering. Of course, that’s only because he was a better sufferer than I knew how to be. The teachers who told me that Job patiently, silently suffered did not understand the importance of questions in a broken world that begs for answers. Job suffers vocally, with question marks.

When Job has asked his questions, God comes in cloud and lightning and tells him: “I will question you, and you shall answer Me.” (38:3). Over the next few chapters, God asks a series of questions designed to point out the limits of Job’s knowledge and the extent of His own. Job responds humbly, and God calls Job righteous and blesses him.

The questions of the suffering are questions that cut the sufferer further open. They lay bare the inside. They are questions that change the person who asks them.

Questions are the heart of honest suffering. I’ll end with the only thing here worth remembering: a beautiful piece by Tennyson called In Memoriam A.H.H, in which the poet slowly grieves the death of Tennyson’s friend and would-be brother-in-law. My favorite lines comes in Stanza 96. They illustrate the type of questioning Job exercised, as well: the questions which must be asked.

There lives more faith in honest doubt,

Believe me, than in half the creeds.

He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,

He would not make his judgment blind,

He faced the spectres of the mind

And laid them: thus he came at length

To find a stronger faith his own.

Virtuous Eating, Part 1: Taking Food Seriously

I felt disappointed when I read Acts 15.

The rising action is thrilling. Empowered and united by the Holy Spirit, the great apostles discuss a question of freedom in Christ and the Christian’s relationship to Law. St. Peter and St. Paul, Barnabas, the apostles, and all the great men of the early church stand in conference and speak together in one voice, declaring what seemed good to them and to the Holy Spirit. That’s right: they speak with God. So important is the matter, they have the letter couriered by no less a man than St. Paul, that brilliant redeemed soul, the pride of the universe.

Then follows the letter. That’s where I get disappointed: it’s just about food. They extend four proscriptions: “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29). Well, at least they got somewhere important by the end there, but I’m a little disappointed that they wasted all that time on food.

Of course, finding myself disappointed by Scripture always precedes a realization that I have copious room for growth. Acts 15 is not a disappointing chapter; I’m just a disappointing person when I read it. Why do the apostles and the Holy Spirit write about food? For only one reason: it’s important. This opens the question – could eating, that most frequent interaction between myself and my world besides breathing, actually matter?

It’s possible. If Discovery Channel documentaries have taught me anything, it is that animals have two primary drives: hunger and procreation. Food and sex. Christians generally agree that sex matters to the spiritual life. By comparison, we seem sluggish to probe the interaction between eating and our spiritual life.

Inundated by secular messages about food, the average American Christian would be hard-pressed to explain the Christian understanding of eating. Yet the same Christian can give at least a shallow account of the biblical standard of sexuality, despite being surrounded by unbiblical messages about sex. We recognize that the secular explanation of virtuous sex and the Christian explanation of virtuous sex are aimed at different purposes. Science offers us a condom to defend our bodies; the Bible offers us chastity to defend our souls. Yet, the average Christian explanation of healthy eating would probably sound identical to the secular explanation of healthy eating. There are two possibilities: 1) secular science tells us everything we need to know about eating, or 2) our view of food may be missing something as important as the difference between a condom and chastity.

If these two drives – eating and sex – are the strongest instinctive drives of the human body, the average Protestant’s lack of a position on the more frequent one leaves me concerned about what ideas are floating around in our heads and where we got them. I suspect they aren’t from the Bible.

The biblical account of man, after all, turns quickly to food. The story of Adam and Eve is so familiar, it’s strange how surprised people get when you point out that eating plays a central role. Literature students rush to examine close-up the core of Milton’s apple, but fail to notice Eve standing there chewing on food. And, while we’ve thrown open the book of Genesis on the debate stand in science departments, we’ve closed it in the kitchen.

After Christians overcome their initial surprise at the role of food, they become skeptical. Surely, I’m being too literal. Surely it’s mere chance that we fell for food. It could have been anything – anger or sex or sloth. The heart of the sin isn’t food; it’s disobedience.

Of course, disobedience is the heart of the matter. But, we can’t forget that humanity’s first disobedience was the wrenching of our soul upside down by choosing appetites for earthly things over heavenly ones. Hearing the dinner bell the tempter rang, we did not reply “man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Where we should have answered with abstinence, we answered with appetite. Now, we live infected by our original decision to take care of our stomachs before our souls, to assume that we had to provide for ourselves, that we could provide for ourselves, and that God’s providence was not to be trusted. Our original disobedience is wrapped up in our disordered appetites.

We must take food seriously.

Thank God, one concrete link remains for most Christians between eating and the spiritual life! And, thankfully, in that single sliver of a link glitters the heart of our antidote. While the average Christian may find little spiritual guidance on when to eat and what and how much, we still know (by God’s mercy!) one thing about eating as American Christians: we know we give thanks to God before we do it.

Though the issue is complex, though we almost don’t know what virtuous eating means, at least we have not forgotten the most important antidote for sin: gratitude. Before eating, our great love for God flares out, overcoming our unschooled appetites with a moment of due thanksgiving. In this rightly-ordered action, we oppose ourselves to the Fall. Food, which Adam hoped would sustain us apart from God, is perennially subordinated to our acknowledgment that God sustains us. Food, which Eve was proud to pick for herself, becomes the occasion for our humility.

Though there remains more to examine in order to align our appetites with the Christian life, there is no more beautiful, hopeful place to start than in that simple prayer of gratitude.

(This is the first of a series of three posts on the Christian’s relationship to eating. Subsequent posts will examine the Eucharist, fasting, diets, eating disorders, and the cultural mythos around healthy eating.)

Mad Libs: Are Christians Falling for Our Culture’s Gag?

Remember Mad Libs? I loved that game. Getting to throw random words into a story and laughing in pants-wetting glee at the nonsensical tales we made. In fact, let’s play a round right now. Quick – write one infinitive verb and one noun. Done? Now, fill them into the dialogue below.

Person 1: “Would you like [verb]?”

Person 2: “Not really.”

Person 1: “Come on – don’t be a [noun]!”

Person 2: “Well, okay.”

It’s funny how little sense it makes, right? Laughable. After all, the first term isn’t the opposite of the second; it can’t be, since the first is a verb and the second is a noun.

Hmm. I’m guessing that I haven’t caused anyone to roll on the floor, laughing out loud. It’s a shame, since it probably ought to. Unfortunately, we’ve internalized this exchange so thoroughly that it doesn’t sound quite as funny as it ought.

I’ll try to explain the joke.

Looking back over the exchange, you might think, “Oh, that’s peer pressure.” We remember it from school: peer pressure is a child’s problem and an adolescent’s problem. Of course, we adults are beyond peer pressure. Beyond, that is, in the sense of a terminal patient who is beyond treatment or a lost climber who is beyond the search party’s reach. Many of us are beyond peer pressure in the sense that we have internalized it so thoroughly that peers need not even enter the picture to hold sway over our choices. No longer do we need to have the above exchange aloud with another person – we can carry on the whole thing in our own heads.

We bow to the label peer pressure has pressed into our minds. Too many times, I’ve heard people who are deliberating over a decision say: “I would do this, but I don’t want to be a bigot/idiot/prude/slut/goody-two-shoes.” In short, they don’t want to be a label. Sadly, this fear even rises in people who are convicted that one action would be best, but simultaneously desire to avoid the label it may bring. Not even conscious they are avoiding shame, they avoid the label because their culture has so thoroughly infused them with a belief that a particular label is bad. When we are so desperate to avoid a label, for instance “intolerant,” that we bow to those who are intolerant, it is clear that intrinsic love of the virtue is not our motivator.

However, the moral weight of the label is unwarranted. Deliberating over a choice, the person holds on one hand a reasonable argument for behaving a certain way; on the other, she holds a label. It would be bizarre to give each equal weight. Choosing actions based on labels is a losing game since there is a label for everything. On one end of the spectrum, there’s “sloppy” and on the other, there’s “anal.” However, if you’re talking to the right person, “sloppy” could be “free-spirited,” and “anal” could be “organized.” If you avoid being “anal,” you immediately stop being “organized” and start being “sloppy.” So, any bad label you reject loses you a good label and gains you another bad label. (It sounds like a game, too; though much less fun than Mad Libs.)

I’ve presented opposites in moral choices here, so you may be ready to pull out the old trump card: moderation. (Moderation always wins!) And, certainly, it has its place here, but only after a little digging. If we were holding out two opposite verbs and trying to determine which is better, moderation may be the answer. But, one of these things is not like the other: we are holding out a verb and a noun. Finding the golden mean between an unripe apple and an overripe apple is moderation; finding the golden mean between an apple and an orange is nonsense.

Let’s examine these negative nouns assigned to persons, which I’m calling “labels.” Since we usually articulate our fear in a certain logical progression (i.e., “If I do [verb], then I’ll be a [noun]), let’s assume actions give rise to labels.

To give a charitable definition, labels are quick ways of articulating agreed-upon values. If a culture or group agrees that a certain pattern of actions are either detrimental or desirable, they may form a label for a person who displays those actions. The next generation may inherit that label as part of their vocabulary, whether or not they’ve gone through the examination that led to the creation of the label. So, those who are armed with the ability to use the label end up at least one degree removed from the original work of thinking about the actions. This leaves them with the label, but without direct connection to the reasons why a person who earns these labels is to be chastised or praised.

These labels may succinctly articulate genuinely useful ideas. For instance, labels like “heretic” and “racist” can be very useful, since they offer a quick articulation of a complicated and important idea. However, labels are only useful insofar as they draw their life from the roots of their history. For instance, if I call someone a racist, I should know to which set of actions I refer. When labels lose their roots, they become clubs with which to bludgeon others. And, I end up flinging the term “racist” at people I simply don’t like. Or, because I’ve internalized peer pressure so thoroughly, I may start avoiding being the kind of person who is called a racist by those who don’t know what the term means.

Yet, beneath and within these labels are actions. When trying to make moral decisions, those who unpack the labels may determine that the labelled set of behaviors are correctly judged; that person may choose to go along with the recommendation of the label in that specific instance. Or, by unpacking the term, they may determine that the label is an incorrect judgment. But, at least by opening up the label, the thoughtful person compares like things: actions to actions. Instead of “I could do this or be that,” the option becomes “I could do this or do that.”

We need to remember that “I don’t want to be a [insert label here]” is very rarely, on its own, a reason not to do something. Because, any noun someone can label onto us verges on being a lie of omission – only one noun is true. You are a person. Fashioned in the image of God, fallen in the weakness of will, unchained from Satan, flirting with your old chains even as they nauseate you: you are a person. The labels all fade away before that fact.

Oh, Mad Libs. Getting to throw random words into someone else’s story and laughing in pants-wetting glee at the nonsense tales we made. Labels are stories our culture tells. Actions are stories the individual person tells. Funny how we fall for the culture’s nonsensical stories when we’re writing our own. Funny how we internalize our culture’s gag so that we don’t examine their labels, instead letting them write their choice words on the lines of our actions.  Not Mad Libs funny, though.

How to Read a Miracle by a Pope when You Aren’t Catholic

You may have heard: the Vatican has confirmed a second miracle by the intercession of Pope John Paul II. Details pending, the news release assures us that the investigation into the miracle has proven that the healing was permanent, instant, and not explained by science.

While we are used to the idea of various Christian creeds being saved and having personal relationships with Christ, the witness of a miracle may give us more pause. What does this mean to those of us who are not Catholic? Attractively tidy explanations present themselves: perhaps this miracle is a hoax or a misunderstanding. This seems an uncharitable reading of events, and I steer away from it. Or, perhaps this means that Catholicism is the one true creed, and we had all better convert. This seems a hasty reading of events, and I steer away from it, too.

So, upon hearing the news of a confirmed miracle, while the Christian naturally rejoices that someone, somewhere has been healed of a physical affliction (thank God!), she might also pause for a moment to consider how to read a miracle. I don’t particularly know, but indulge me as I venture a few exploratory thoughts.

Biblically, miracles offer evidence of a person’s relationship to God. The blind man who receives his eyes from Christ says to the teachers of the law: “Now, we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshipper of God and does his will, he hears him.” (John 9:31). So, it appears that answered prayers, especially on the scale of miraculous events, offer evidence of a right relationship to God. And right relationship to God, especially to the Evangelical mind, rests on right knowledge of God. Doesn’t it? To my thinking, the argument snags on this point: the link between right thoughts about God and answered prayers.

After all, it’s manifestly impossible to deny that God answers some prayers while the praying person lacks knowledge of God or even stands in error. Knowing God more is a primary prayer of the Christian, as we pray with the psalmist that he would grant us understanding of his statutes. Logically, at some point we must be praying for correct knowledge while we are in a state lacking that knowledge; we can’t achieve correct doctrinal knowledge without God filling our void or correcting our errors, as we pray he will. Therefore, absolutely correct doctrinal knowledge can’t be a prerequisite to answered prayers.

In short, when a fallen man or woman prays to know God, God answers the prayers of someone in error. Someone worshipful. Someone doing God’s will. But, someone whose mind contains errors, all the same.

Nevertheless, the fellow born blind in the gospel notes two qualities of the man whose prayers God will hear: 1) he worships God, and 2) he does his will. These two things do not have to indicate perfect knowledge of God (though the specific Person to whom the blind man refers does have perfect knowledge of God), but they do indicate a love for God, an understanding of the relationship between the praying person and God, and a submission to His will. There is biblical basis to make the argument that Pope John Paul II has a worshipful relationship with God and does his will. Regardless, I’m really not in a place to judge that.

This line of argument leads to the conclusion that a worshipful relationship with Yahweh and a genuine submission to his will may form more accurate prerequisites to answered prayer than does doctrinal understanding. Of course, right knowledge is necessary to worship, since knowledge and love tend to go together (for instance, I’d be miffed upon getting a love letter admiring my brown eyes, given that they are blue).

But, God seems to be willing to hear and answer our prayers where we are, if we stand in a state of worship, a state ready to learn truth even if we lack it. As convenient as it would be for him to reveal doctrine simply by confining his prayer-answering to those who know him without error, it would also confine all miracles to that short-but-glorious 33 best years of world history. God does not seem to like confining himself and his healing to the perfect, but prefers to perfect us with a scandalously broad generosity that allows answered prayers to those who want to know him more.

Miracles of physical healing have a strong scriptural tendency to be united with spiritual healing. Christ forgives sins and tells people to walk, revealing His status as the Healer and the One capable of forgiving sins. The miracle reveals his nature and his authority. However, when others perform miracles in the name of Christ, they prove not their own authority, but Christ’s authority and power. Thus, healing miracles reveal correct doctrine by revealing that Christ is the healer, rather than by suggesting anything about doctrine which is not naturally part of the miracle, itself.

Historically, correct articulation of doctrine has a stronger tendency to be proven by miraculous harmony in the body of Christ (i.e., his church) than miraculous harmony in a physical body: for instance, the faithful at the ecumenical councils united in one voice, saying that a true creed was indeed the faith handed down from the apostles.

So, it seems reasonable to hear that someone was healed when they asked Pope John Paul II for intercession, and think “Thank God!” and even “What a beautifully worshipful and obedient man of God,” without finding that a lack of allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine is necessarily challenged. God can go anywhere He wants.

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