Simon, Who Is Called Peter (Free Sample Excerpt!)

You probably don’t know this, but I wrote a book! Simon, Who is Called Peter has just been published by Wipf and Stock Publishers, and it’s also available through Amazon. I’m super excited about it, and I’d love for you to give it a read. If you’ve ever wanted to get a human picture of Jesus’ most notorious disciple–if you’ve ever wanted to get inside the head of the man who walked on water, fished for men, denied Jesus three times, and served as a key foundation for Christ’s church–then you should definitely give it a read. Not convinced yet?  Let me tell you a little more about it!

The Book

Simon, Who Is Called Peter is an extensively researched, heavily footnoted first-person narrative following the life of the Apostle Peter as revealed in the New Testament. It combines the easy flow of narrative with the rigorous research and accountability of an academic work, making it ideal for both lay and academic readers.  Dr. Matt Jenson, in his foreword, calls it “an extended meditation, a form of lectio divina in which the text being read is the life of a man in the pages of Scripture.” Does that sound like something you want to read? Or do you need more convincing? Well then, here’s what some very smart people who actually make a living by being good at this sort of thing had to say about the book!

The Endorsements

“From encountering Jesus with his brother, Andrew, to suffering for Jesus on a Roman cross, the Apostle Peter recounts his life and experiences as a devoted, but sometimes stumbling, follower of the Lord. . . . Mulligan succeeds in putting together an account that is both faithful to the biblical text and engagingly expressed. What a great resource this will be for a class on Peter or for Bible study groups who want to explore Peter’s life.”
Clinton E. Arnold, Dean and Professor of New Testament, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, La Mirada, CA

“Moving between contemporaneous episodes in prison and recollections of Peter’s place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the first days of the church, Mulligan gives meaningful shape to Peter’s life and offers us a novel take on both Peter and Jesus, yet ever faithful and attentive to the biblical witness. This sounds like Peter and would be an excellent companion to students of the New Testament, both lay and academic.”
Matt Jenson, Associate Professor of Theology, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University, La Mirada, CA

“Human beings are eternal and one of the greatest of those souls was the Apostle Peter. Peter did not start as he ended: a man willing to be martyred for faith. Mackenzie Mulligan has illuminated the life of this Christian hero and reminded us of his full humanity. Mulligan’s classical training and bright mind are obvious as he unlocks his material in a manner that is intellectually stimulating, honest to the source documents, and devotional.”
—John Mark N. Reynolds, Provost, Professor of Philosophy, Houston Baptist University, Houston, TX

“Never moving outside Scripture’s own footprint and reading as a disciple of Jesus himself, Mulligan offers an imaginative retelling of the ‘Peter of the Bible.’ Rather than a speculative filling-in-the-blanks, he offers a comprehensive portrait of Peter that is delightfully and skillfully woven together with the fabric of the New Testament. In what Jenson aptly categorizes as a form of lectio divina, Mulligan’s narrative is a sustained reflection on the text of Scripture.”
Darian R. Lockett, Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, La Mirada, CA

The Excerpt

And just in case that’s not enough, you can also download Dr. Matt Jenson’s excellent foreword, as well as about half of the first chapter,right here. Give it a read,  let me know what you think in the comments…and if you like the excerpt, then you’re going to love the book!


*Excerpt used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Frozen: True Love isn’t something that happens to you


“Love can thaw a frozen heart.”

That is the mantra of Disney’s newest film, Frozen, which is awesome and you should totally see it. This post contains spoilers, so if you don’t want that, then you probably shouldn’t read it.

Quick synopsis:  The world of Frozen is one filled with magic, which (according to trolls) can be either a blessing or a curse. Elsa is a princess who has magic powers over all things cold, with the ability to create a peaceful snow-fall in the great hall or freeze fountains on a whim. This is an endless source of joy for her and her younger sister Anna… until she accidentally zaps Anna in the head, briefly killing her. In healing Anna, the elder troll removes all memory of magic, warning them that though the head is easy to repair, the heart is much more difficult.

There are no more impromptu snow-falls, no more indoor ice skating. The castle is closed, the gates are shut, and Elsa withdraws, keeping her powers a secret and fearing to use them even as they grow  out of control. Immediately following her coronation, she snaps, (accidentally) sending the kingdom into an endless winter and withdrawing to the wilderness, where she makes a super sweet ice castle.

Anna goes to bring her back and end the winter, but Elsa accidentally blasts her through the heart. The elder troll proclaims that only an act of true love can prevent her from becoming solid ice. “Love can thaw a frozen heart,” he says. “True love’s kiss!” they exclaim! Cue the frantic ride back to the city, Elsa is captured, there’s betrayal, etc. etc., climax! Anna limps through a blizzard, trying to find her true love so that he can kiss her and save her life. Her true love is frantically running through the blizzard trying to do exactly that. And suddenly, just as they catch sight of each other, Anna glimpses something else through the snow: Her sister Elsa is about to be stabbed by the traitor.

Dramatic look back at True Love. Fearful gaze! Then she’s off, running away from T. Love and throwing herself in front of the downward-swinging sword. She turns completely to ice in mid-lunge, and the sword breaks on her frozen hand. A brief period of mourning ensues, but… what’s this? Her heart is thawing, and it’s bringing the rest of her with it! She didn’t need an act of true love performed on her: She didn’t need someone to kiss her, to profess their love for her. She needed to enact true love.

“True love isn’t something that happens to you,” my wife said as we were walking to the car, discussing the movie. That is indeed the message of Frozen, and  it’s a far cry from the True Love found in many other Disney films. In Sleeping Beauty and  Snow White, the heroines are the passive recipients of true love: They receive a kiss which brings them back to life. In Frozen, that idea is dramatically done away with. Sure, a kiss might have done it, but not because of her reception of the kiss. In Frozen, True Love is an act. It is something which is actively performed, not passively received.  And it is that action which saves.

Obviously, because I’m that type of person, I immediately began putting that into the context of salvation and the Christian life. And it turns out that both of Disney’s portrayals of True Love are correct (and necessary).

First, everything is initiated by God.  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” and that trend has continued throughout history. God’s spirit upon the formless waters, God’s breath into dusty lungs, and God’s Son lying in a manger. “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden,” Jesus called out on the dusty streets of Israel, and “Come to me,” he still calls out today. And none can come without being called.

But the response is equally necessary. We are not called to merely be loved: We are called to love. We are not called to be passive recipients: We are called to act. After all, Jesus didn’t say, “Greater love has no man, than he who is loved a lot. Like, a lot.” Jesus exclaimed that the true measure of love is demonstrated in action: In a step to the block, or to the fire. And when Paul speaks of spiritual gifts, the capstone to his discussion and the thing that makes all of it worthwhile is not the passive reception of love, but the active and outward expression of it.

Bottom line: Frozen is well worth your time, and not merely for the theological musings it will provoke. It teaches a lesson that is equally applicable to men and women alike: True Love–love that is true, and active, and efficacious– is found in action. It is found in loving. And as Christians, we recognize that in loving,we become more and more like God, who is Love. And that love can thaw a frozen heart.


Mackenzie Mulligan is the author of “Simon, Who Is Called Peter,” which will show you the world of the New Testament through the eyes of Jesus’ most notorious disciple. Learn more, and get a free excerpt, here.

I’m Dreaming of a White Jesus

Are you ready for a heartwarming Christmas story of racial sensitivity, common sense, and humility?

Well, that’s not happening. Because last week, Fox News Anchor Megyn Kelly announced to children everywhere that Santa Claus was a white man. “He just is.” And then things got weird(er), when she claimed that “Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure that’s a verifiable fact.”  And then, when people flipped out about it, she backed down–kind of–by acknowledging that Jesus’ race “is far from settled.”

I’m struggling to figure out which is more ridiculous: Her claiming that Jesus was white, or this short clip from “Talladega Nights.” Oh, wait, no, it’s definitely the first one, because the second is from a comedy and isn’t supposed to be serious.

I’m not here to talk about whether it was racist (a little, right? At least a little?). But I am here to say that this kind of attitude is absolutely poisonous to the Christian faith. This willingness to disregard literally everything we know about the birth and origins of Jesus destroys pretty much everything Christianity has going for it.

This kind of attitude, this insistence that we can know so little about Jesus’ origins as to declare him a white man, boils the message of the Bible down to an Everyman Birth. “And at some place (but we don’t know where), and at some time (but we don’t know when), and to some parents (but we don’t know who), God was born into the world as a man.” Such a Jesus would be the epitome of myth, and myth alone. In that situation, we might indeed be justified in siding with those who would recreate him in their own images. If his earthly origins were so unimportant, we might even tempted to make him a mere metaphor, the “Son of God” in all of us.

From the very beginning, the Church has insisted that the birth of Jesus is an historical event, firmly located in time and space, with numerous reference points. Luke in particular goes to great lengths to place the birth of Christ in a specific time (“when Quirinius was governor of Syria“) and at a specific place (“the city of David, which is called Bethlehem,” to a specific woman (Mary, wife of Joseph), from a specific lineage  (that of David).

The Biblical account is exceedingly precise: At this time and at this place and from these people was born this man. And that means that we have no room at all for claiming that Jesus “could” have been white. We don’t even have room for “thinking” of Jesus as white, because then we would be actively building our faith on a falsehood, on a blue-eyed Goldilocks who never existed.

In fact, we have no room at all for claiming that Jesus “could” have been anything other than what we know he was: A Jewish man from the line of David and the city of Bethlehem. And there is a very good reason for thinking of him like that. Karl Barth, a German theologian, brilliantly describes what happens when we try to “generalize” Jesus:

“The Word did not simply become any “flesh,” any man humbled and suffering. It became Jewish flesh. The Church’s whole doctrine of the incarnation and the atonement becomes abstract and valueless and meaningless to the extent that this comes to be regarded as something accidental and incidental. The New Testament witness to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, stands on the soil of the Old Testament and cannot be separated from it. The pronouncements of New Testament Christology…relate always to a man who is seen to be not a man in general, a neutral man, but the conclusion and sum of the history of God with the people of Israel, the One who fulfills the covenant made by God with this people.” – Karl Barth, “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country”

To generalize Jesus, to claim that he could have been any race, is to utterly sever the New Testament from the Old Testament. It is to make the Christmas story merely a strange accident and an aberration. It is to tear Christmas from it’s context, history, and meaning, all for the sake of making it about me and me alone. It is an inherently selfish and senseless act.

And the truth is so much more wonderful! Because when we acknowledge Christ not as Surfer Jesus, or White Jesus, or Tuxedo T-Shirt-Wearing Jesus, but as Jesus of Bethlehem and Nazareth, then we can see his birth for what it really is: The birth of the Chosen Person, born of the Chosen People. He is the answer to the covenant God  made with Abraham those hundreds of years prior, the answer to the prophecy God made to Adam and Eve, the culmination and fulfillment of everything the Old Testament tells us about God and Israel.

Some want to think of Jesus as white, because they think it increases his relevance to them. Such could not be further from the truth. In fact, it is because Jesus was Jewish, and because he was a direct descendant of the founder of the Jewish people and of their greatest king, that he could be the Christ for the whole world.

Is it really worth losing all of that, just to make him white?

The Desolation of Smaug

The Desolation of Smaug achieved a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes, a full 9% higher than its predecessor. Many reviews cite the faster pacing of the film as the reason for it’s success, and it is definitely faster…but is that a good thing?

loved An Unexpected JourneyI loved everything about it. And while I loved almost everything about Desolation, there are a couple things that still rankle. However, please note that while these are certainly annoying, the movie as a whole is certainly worthy of your time.  [SPOILERS]

What  sets these movies apart, what makes them more than just an adaptation of the book, is all the extra stuff. They take a sentence from the book and turn it into a full-fledged action scene, like with the rock giants from Journey. Or they tweak a section from the book to make a little more sense, or to fit it into the movie better, like turning the “Black Arrow” into a special type of weapon fired from what looks like a super-awesome anti-dragon ballista.  They turn tiny skirmishes into full-fledged battles, and they’re also not above outright fabricating plot.

This isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s often a lot of fun, and without it, the movies certainly wouldn’t be as good.  The open tombs of the Nine are fantastic, the attack on Dol Goldur is phenomenal, and Gandalf’s battle against Sauron is freaking awesome.

But it can also backfire, which it does in the worst possible way in their treatment of Beorn. They take what was an incredible allusion to the enormity and scope of Middle-Earth, with room enough for all sorts of beings with no relation to the smaller story at hand…and they turn him into just one more piece of the puzzle. What’s worse, they do so in the clumsiest manner possible: By having him vomit out his entire back-story in a 3-5 minute monologue before being banished off-screen for the rest of the movie. Back to the story, everybody, let’s move it along!

It’s easy to see what they intended to do here: They wanted to make the story of The Hobbit larger, to encompass the entire world.  But what they actually achieved was to make the world of Middle Earth smaller. There is no room for anything that is not intimately connected with the immediate story, and that saddens me.

And then there are also a couple moments that make you wonder whether you’ve seen them before…and then you think, “Oh, yeah, of course I’ve seen this before.” Kili’s whole “Morgul blade” ordeal is by far the worst offender here, but there are others. The assistant to the Master of Laketown is obviously Grima Wormtongue’s long-lost brother, and Thranduil reminds me of nothing so much as an elven Denethor, with the same disregard for the bigger picture, but with even less excuse (how can an elf who lives for thousands of years focus on anything but the big picture!?).

And then,  there’s Tauriel the female elf, caught in a weird love triangle between Legolas and Kili. Look: I know they’re trying to personalize Kili a bit more, but was “love triangle with Legolas and Tuariel” really the only thing came to mind?  Also, she’s obviously going to die in the third movie, in an necessarily heart-wrenching fashion.

BUT, aside from those problems, the film is still really good.

From the haze-inducing forests of Mirkwood to the awe-inspiring halls of Erebor, they don’t miss a single beat when it comes to setting the appropriate scene. Mirkwood perfectly captures the feeling of a great forest slowly succumbing to corruption. The dwarves stumble their way through a drug-like haze, struggling to stay on the path, until they are overtaken first by spiders, then by the elves of Mirkwood.

Laketown is clearly the home of people who have set up more-or-less permanent residence on the lake…but the fundamental instability and grime means that Laketown can never be more than what it is right now.  The Master of Laketown is a caricature, but he’s a caricature in the book as well, and the caricature is well done.

And Erebor is absurdly huge. I kept on expecting Scrooge McDuck to show up to dive into the sea of coins, but even Scrooge’s fortune is dwarfed (pun NOT intended) by what we see in Erebor. But of course, the most impressive part of Erebor is Smaug the Magnificent, the Calamity of Calamities. No matter what I say, you’re not going to actually get how enormous he is, so I’m not going to waste time trying. But more impressive than his size is his real-ness. He has weight, and heft. He literally fills the room, and the dwarves can’t sneak past him so much as under him. I can’t recall a single moment where I thought, “Wow, that was some terrible CG.” In fact, it wasn’t until after the movie that I pondered the CG at all. It was that good.

And along the way, we’re beginning to get a much better sense of each dwarf as an individual. The party splits repeatedly, giving us a look at how the dwarves interact with each other in smaller groups, and this goes a long way.  We get a much better sense of who some of the individual dwarves are (especially Fili and Kili for some reason…). Of course, sometimes they do this badly. Like, “unnecessary love triangle with a character who doesn’t even exist in the books” badly. But for the most part it’s very well done.

And then, of course, there’re the action scenes. Let me be frank: These are the best action scenes that have ever been produced in a LoTR film. They’re absurd and so far over-the-top that <CLEVER ELF JOKE???>, but then again, The Hobbit has always been a little ridiculous. Let me give you a couple examples.

In The Two Towers, Legolas rides a shield down a staircase once. In Desolation, the orcs don’t carry shields, so Legolas just shrugs and uses the body of an orc to skateboard down a staircase not once, but twice in one scene. He shoots several orcs while careening down the river and standing on the heads of two of the dwarves. But the highest kill count almost certainly belongs to Bombur, who now has to register any barrel in his possession as a deadly weapon.

In closing, I unfortunately can’t endorse this as unhesitatingly as I did An Unexpected Journey. There are just too many weird things going on, too many fumbled opportunities, for me to give it an unequivocal 5 stars. But it’s a solid four, maybe even a four and a half, and you should definitely see it.


Five Iron Frenzy’s “Engine of a Million Plots”: Waiting for the Sun’s Return

It’s finally here: Five Iron Frenzy’s first album in ten long years. And it’s…different than what I was expecting. But still awesome.

I am a long-time (life-time?) fan of Christian music, and I well remember that glorious moment, the summer in between my sophomore and junior year of college, when I realized that Five Iron Frenzy was a thing–indeed, not only a thing, but the thing, that glorious fusion of horns, guitar, and lyrics that seemed to waver, moment by moment, between exuberant victory and white-knuckled defiance. I (unknowingly) bought their last CD first, and to me every song sounded like a last stand, a Chestertonian revolution, brazen and unmuted.

Imagine my sadness when I realized that the album was, in fact, a last stand–a stand made years ago and long since over.

But like a trumpeting phoenix, they have risen from the ashes. And two weeks ago, having been forced into a  strange and unnatural sleep cycle, I awoke at 5:30 and began downloading my Kickstarter Early Access album.

My first impression (after the initial bout of excited giggling) was of an unexpectedly cold, dark world. In the weeks and days leading up to the release, FiF hinted that they “explored darker themes,” and that is certainly the case.  Winter comes, the fire dies, and frost envelopes everything. That is the world of EOMP. It opens with “Against a Sea of Troubles,” in which the singer is “adrift and lost” in a frozen world, and the fire is growing cold. Although I noted a few bright points (“So Far” is the only song that contains an unadulterated sense of Christian victory), the rest of the album seemed to confirm this condition. We work in a cold and cruel city that chokes the sky, we huddle around a dying fire, we suffer through a frost with no thaw…what if this winter lasts forever?

[Aside: There are, of course, a couple FiF constants that stand apart from this theme: Silly songs, and social commentary. “Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter” is, unfortunately, nothing more and nothing less than an obligatory silly song: It’s catchy enough, but it lacks the charm of “You Can’t Handle This” or “That’s How the Story Ends.” . But in the area of social commentary, FiF comes out swinging.   In “Zen and the Art of XenophobiaFiF lampoons the type of American Evangelical who gets ready to “lock and load, just like Jesus did,” while proudly proclaiming that “Jesus was American”. And in “Someone Else’s Problem”, Five Iron delivers a biting critique of our willingness to tolerate abuses and ruined lives just because we’ll never have to look at the faces of the abused. I am always tempted to skip over these songs, because they aren’t fun, they aren’t uplifting, the make me uncomfortable… and that’s the point.

For Five Iron Frenzy, there can be no disconnect between the joyful doctrine of Christian victory and the difficult doctrine of Christian duty and service. Any attempt to separate one from the other results in an incomplete faith. It is not for nothing that their hardest-hitting social commentaries come on the heels of their most joyful and upbeat reflections on the victory of Christ-in-us, making it difficult indeed to partake of one and avoid the other.

Now, back to the rest of the review.]

That first impression of cold and cruelty was correct,  so far as it went. But the more I listened to it, the more I heard the hope and defiance inherent in every single song, from the very beginning of the album. There is a hope that the singer clings to even as he longs “to only end the heartache, to shed this mortal coil”: The hope that “You cannot not be real.” 

Yes, despite the mixed faith of the band (two of the core members are now atheists), this album expresses a faith that, though beaten and battered, is undeniably Christian (in fact, one might argue that the Christian faith was meant to be beaten and battered). This faith is explored throughout the rest of the album, from “So Far”, a superhero themed meditation on Christian victory, all the way to “Blizzards and Bygones,” where winter threatens to last forever.

In “We Own the Skies,” the singer walks the cold and cruel concrete by day, having traded “my kingdom for a steady paycheck.” But by night, they huddle around the fire, “wish upon the fading light” and proclaim “Tonight, we own the skies,” with the characteristic brazenness of trumpets and voice lending the whole song an incredible sense of defiance and courage. And in his dedication of the album, Reese puts a biblical spin on it, referencing Ephesians 2 & 6:12.

“I’ve Seen the Sun” takes that sense of defiance and courage to another level, and again it is firmly rooted in a Christian worldview. The night is dark and cold, the water is rising, the singer is fighting what feels like a doomed battle…but he has seen the Sun come down, and he holds to its return. And we should expect nothing less from the world: after all, “the Savior says don’t be surprised / Everything’s gonna be alright.”

It feels like the last song, a fitting way to end an album that has revolved around the difficulties of staying afloat in the world.

And then comes “Blizzards and Bygones,” which does its level best to eradicate every last memory of the Sun. The cold is in your bones, the fire is faint, and and all that’s left is “a flicker of desire and a memory of youth.” There is no thaw, only a winter that will not end. It ends with a simple unanswered question: “Can you stand the weather if winter lasts forever?”

That is the question the entire album ends with. What do you do when even the memory of light fades, when the fire has died and the ice is thick? What do you do when the winter seems to go on forever?

If your only hope is that God cannot not be real, is that enough to soldier on, to light the fire again and again, to keep it burning and to keep the darkness at bay? Is “Blizzards” only an episode, only a stage of life? Does it fit into the reality described in “Against a Sea of Troubles”, “We Own the Skies”, or “I’ve Seen the Sun”? Or is this unending winter the true reality, the final death of all hope?

This album reminds me of Psalm 22, and of the book of Job, minus the vindication at the end. Ultimately, I think Five Iron Frenzy is emphasizing that there are no easy answers. As Christians, we anticipate the vindication of our faith, the fulfillment of our hopes… but in the meantime, we must endure a winter that doesn’t seem to end. We must fight to keep the fire lit, and we must light it again and again.

Although “Blizzards and Bygones” comes last, I think it would be absolutely wrong to name it as the final reality. FiF has already answered the questions “Blizzards” raises, as much as they can be answered. When the cold closes in, when the fire flickers, “We burn the wintry frost of night / Tonight, we wish upon the fading light / Tonight, our burning hearts will rise / Tonight we own the skies.” In short, we continue the fight and wait for better things. It is not always easy: For every celebration of “so far, there’s nothing that you and I can’t do,” there’s another instance of unending winter, of cold that enters into your bones and refuses to leave. But the fight is still worth fighting, and the sun will return.

If you like ska, you should buy this album. If you don’t like ska, then you have no musical taste and you should still buy this album: It will probably help.

Love and Knowledge: Why ditching theology isn’t the answer

“Theology is ok for some people, but for me, I think it’s a lot better just to love people, you know?”

At least, that’s what a growing chunk of evangelicals are saying. But does it hold up? Does it actually work? Does it even make any sense?

This sentiment gets part of it right, at least. The Church is supposed to love people as Christ loves people. That is, we are supposed to desire the good of others and to act for that good, even when that requires sacrifice. To love, in the Christian sense, is to be selflessly committed to the capital-G “Good” of the beloved (which, for the Christian, is everyone).

So far, so good. But here’s where it gets tricky: that desire and commitment for the good of the beloved is actually fairly useless without a corresponding knowledge of both the beloved and the Good. Because while it might be fairly easy to affect happiness in the beloved, Good is often a lot trickier.

This is easiest to see in areas like parenting, where working towards the Good of your children is often uncomfortable and even counter-intuitive. Making your children happy, without caring for any other consequences, is easy: working towards their actual Good is difficult. That’s why it’s possible for parents to genuinely love their children, to genuinely desire their Good, yet spoil them rotten. Some parents believe that the best way to achieve the Good of the child is to make them happy, to give them whatever they want, to appease them at all costs. This kind of “love” takes the form of limitless candy, unending indulgence, and an utter lack of discipline: a course of action sure to produce a happy child. Unfortunately, that child will also likely be insufferable, malnourished, and utterly unprepared for the larger world. In this case, genuinely loving actions on the part of the parents actually work against the Good of the child, due to a lack of knowledge regarding both children and their Good.

Even actions motivated by true, unselfish love can have disastrous consequences, if not based on true knowledge. Love alone is insufficient, because working towards the Good of the beloved requires a real knowledge both of the beloved and the Good. And this especially applies to the Church’s relationship to people.

We are to love people, as Christ loved us. On this the Bible is very clear, and on this, at least, all of the varied claimants to the title of Christians can agree. “God so loved the world,” John 3:16 tells us, and one of Jesus’ last commands to the disciples before his death is “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” That is, indeed, the mark of the Christian, and 1 John emphasizes that God himself is love, and that loving is the mark of a true Christian.

And, to a certain extent, we can love well thanks to common grace and general revelation, gifts given by God to all people. Paul tells us in Romans that the Law, intended to guide humanity towards God, is written on the hearts of men. To some extent, we know what is Good for people. We know that parents should feed and protect their children, we know that some things are good and some things are bad. As far as this knowledge takes us, we can love rightly, we can know what is Good and act towards it.

Again: so far, so good.

Unfortunately, that knowledge of the Good is fundamentally broken and insufficient. Whatever true knowledge we retain, we have lost much more, and we’re even worse off when it comes to acting on it.   Jeremiah 17 states our situation clearly: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick: Who can understand it?” It is actively deceitful, pushing us towards what we know is evil; it is also constantly sick, an utterly insufficient guide. If you rely solely on your heart to make decisions, you’re gonna have a bad time. You might be acting out of love, but you will not be acting for the Good of your beloved.

So where do we get this knowledge? Where are we to find this knowledge of humanity, if our heart is so deceitful? Who will tell us how to love, if we are so desperately sick? For the Church, there is only one answer: God. The one who knows what we are for, because he is the one who made us that way to begin with. True knowledge of humanity, and humanity’s Good,  can only come from true knowledge of God and what he created us for.

And unfortunately for some denominations, it does not work backwards: you cannot look to your own heart and try to find God with that, because you will only end up with an even larger lie, consumed by an even more desperate sickness. We cannot make God in our own image, for our image is already disfigured. Nor can we look to our own selves for the good of humanity, because we are fundamentally broken, barely even human ourselves.

We are left with only one solution: theology. What we as people are, what we were created for, how we best pursue our Good and the Good of others…the ultimate guide to all of that must be God, and God alone.

So no, blog writers and internet commenters that so irritate me, you cannot leave the theology and “just get on with the business of love.” You cannot learn to love well without theology. If you want to love people well, to genuinely work towards their Good, you cannot afford to leave the theology behind. It is theology that tells us about God, and in turn tells us about people. The two go hand-in-hand.

One last thing: I do understand where this desire to step away from theology comes from. There’s also a problem at the opposite end of the spectrum, where people have theology that is technically correct, but do not use it to love well (or worse still, use faulty theology as a weapon to harm people). But throwing out theology entirely (or separating it from our day-to-day lives) cannot be the solution.

In Defense of Christian Music (or “Meditation by Rock”)

At my very first summer camp, I heard DC Talk’s Jesus Freak playing from the loudspeakers before chapel. I didn’t know what it was, I’d never heard anything like it before, and as soon as I got back I asked my mom to find out. Fast forward to Christmas morning of that year: I awoke to find a few unexpected things sitting on top of the expected books and t-shirts I had received from Santa. There were, first of all, two small, thin objects, wrapped in paper; on top of them was an object of unfamiliar shape.

It was a CD player. My first CD player. And below it was DC Talk’s Intermission: The Greatest Hits and the O. C. Supertone’s Loud and Clear. I ate breakfast that day with my headphones wrapped around my ears (pretty sure there’s video testifying to that). Although that was years and years ago, I have no doubt that to this day, they remain among my most-listened-to CDs.

I grew up listening to Christian music. I grew up on DC Talk, O.C. Supertones, Relient K, Switchfoot, Toby Mac, and many, many others.  I grew up listening to them. I drove to school with Jesus Freak ringing in my ears (as well as the ears of anyone unfortunate enough be within earshot of my car), and I sang along to I Am Understood while doing chores. And to this day, every time I listen to Wilderness, I remember that it was on my very first CD.

Of course, I didn’t understand many of the songs when I first listened to them. I didn’t understand that DC Talk made a decision to emphasize the action, commitment, and vitality of love in an age that glorified (and continues to glorify) lust. I didn’t fully understand the wonder of the Incarnation and it’s impact on the problem of evil when I first heard it sung about by the Supertones.

But I understood enough, and I grew in my understanding. Christian music has its detractors, especially in the more intellectual of Christian circles. But ever since that first Christmas, I’ve grown up listening to music that challenged me, that caused me to ask questions, to think, to wonder, to growI’ve listened to theology for my entire life, and who I am is owed, in large part,  to the music I was blessed with.

I will give you just one example, although I feel as though I have dozens. I have written quite a bit on Job and Chesterton’s  The Man who was Thursday, and all of that started with the very first time I read Thursday. The book had an incredible impact on me, an impact that persists to this day. Whenever I think of suffering or theodicy, I do so through the lens of Chesterton. And that is, in large part, because of my music.

I read Thursday a couple of years into my time at college. And then I read, for the first time, the Anarchist complaint against God, where the Anarchist proclaims, “I do not curse you for being cruel… I curse you for being safe! You sit in your chairs of stone, and have never come down from them… Oh, I could forgive you everything, you that rule all mankind, if I could feel for once that you had suffered for one hour a real agony such as I–“. I knew what this complaint meant. It was not new to me. It was not unexpected, or unprecedented, or unheard of. Indeed, I had been thinking about it literally for years, ever since I’d gotten my first CD, where I listened to the Supertones ask “God, do you really understand what it’s like to be a man? Have you ever felt the weight of loving all the things you hate? Have you struggled, have you worried, how can you sympathize?”

And when the greatest of the accused defends himself with a simple question, with a “commonplace text,” that too was not unprecedented: It was merely the maturation and growth of the Supertone’s realization that “the wilderness” is an actual wilderness that God himself has endured.

There are a dozen more examples, of Christology and Atonement and Theodicy and Apologetics, where my studies built upon the foundation of years of meditation-by-rock (or ska). These are only seeds… but they were planted early, and they were watered often. Every time I thought, really about what I was listening to (and often singing along to), I was meditating on some aspect of Christianity. Is it a viable substitute for actual learning, for meditation and prayer and Bible reading? Of course not. But as seeds, as reminders, as thought-provokers? Christian music is valuable indeed.

“What to me and to you?” Jesus Surprises the Demons

When Jesus encounters demons in his travels throughout Israel, there are a couple reactions that we would expect from demons. Fear. Shuddering. Apprehension.

But there’s one reaction we see multiple times that, on first thought, wouldn’t be expected: Surprise.

In Mark 1:24, Jesus encounters a demon-possessed man–probably the first of his public career. In my NET Bible (viewable here), the demon’s first words are translated as “Leave us alone, Jesus of Nazareth!” The translators note, however, that the literal translation is actually, “What to us and to you?” It’s an idiom, effectively meaning, “We have nothing to do with one another: Why are you bothering us?” The demon seems more surprised than anything else.

We see this again in Matthew 8, with the famed demoniacs of the tombs. Again, their initial response to the coming of Jesus is surprise and puzzlement: “What to us and to you? Have you come to destroy us before the time?”

Now, there’s one more example of this phrase in the New Testament, but it has nothing to do with demons: Instead, we see it in John 2, when Mary tells Jesus that the wedding has run out of wine. She implies that he should somehow intervene, and his response? “What to me and to you?”

In all cases, the translators note that this idiom can carry two different tones: Defensive hostility, or indifference and disengagement. The indifference and disengagement is obvious when Jesus is speaking to his mother, just as the defensive hostility is obvious in the case of the demons. One thing that remains the same, though, is the surprise at being involved in the first place.

“What to me and to you?” Why are you involving me? What do you have to do with me? What did I do to you, that you are doing this to me? That’s all wrapped up in it. Jesus was surprised at being involved with the wedding, as it had nothing to do with him or his mission. The demons, too, are surprised, but not that Jesus noticed them in the first place (after all, they couldn’t hope to hide from the Son of God). They’re surprised that he cared what they were doing.

“What to me and to you?” What are you doing here, Jesus? I am doing nothing to you: Why do you care?

This is because the demons fundamentally misunderstand Jesus’ motivation, his goals and desires. They fail to understand Love.

In his masterpiece The Screwtape Letters, Lewis hits this theme again and again. His demons are constantly trying to get at God’s true motivations: “Love,” to the demons, is just a meaningless word, a nonsensical idea that must serve to mask God’s true intentions. This misunderstanding, this incomprehension of love, is what we see in the demon’s plaintive cry to Jesus.

It is obvious to us, because we understand that Jesus loves his people. We understand that his purpose in coming here was not to conquer, but to serve: Not to hurt, but to heal. When Jesus sees a man (or a woman or child) possessed by a demon, he loves that person and wants to help them. The demons, however, lack this understanding:  they see no reason at all for Jesus to seek them out. The demons of the Gadarenes are a  prime example of this: Why would Jesus come to them “before the time”? What are they doing to Jesus, that he would find them and punish them when his eventual victory is already on its way?

What does he gain from it? That is what the demons struggle with, because the answer–nothing at all–is incomprehensible to them. Jesus gains neither wordly nor celestial power by casting demons out of people; He merely hastens a process which is already unfolding. He gains fickle followers and earns the wrath of the ruling class, and that’s just about it.

And that’s actually something we could all stand to remember, I think. Because the demons aren’t wrong. They do know our inherent value. From a standpoint of objective worth, in and of ourselves, our bodies and spirits are broken and twisted, no use to anyone but as a plaything, something to exercise control and power over, soon to be discarded and destroyed. There is no objective value, no worth. We are not useful to God.

And therein lies the wonder of his love for us. Humanity is valuable because of God’s love, and it doesn’t stand apart from that.  We are valueless to the demons, worthless on any scale that has to do with merit or usefulness: But to him, we are precious.

Theodicy of Glory

“A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality…”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

Caution: The following post contains a slight spoiler to G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday.  Read the book and then come back to read this afterwards. I’ll wait.


Given an omnipotent, fully good and loving God, why do good people suffer?

That is the question for the ages. The suffering of bad people, of evil people, is (for some) an easier question. There is a notion of cosmic reparation, whether of impersonal karma or personal Justice, that provides an explanation on that front. But what of good people?

That, at least, is a question asked repeatedly by characters in G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday, and the answers Chesterton hints at are some of the most incredible I have ever read.

But first, we must eliminate the greatest of the false trails apologists often stray down: that human goodness is never good enough in comparison to Christ’s perfection. This relativity, while actual, is nonetheless irrelevant. The goodness and righteousness even of fallen humanity is real enough and meaningful enough to be attested to even from the throne of Jehovah himself. I trust ye have heard of the patience of Job?

The question, therefore, is not one of goodness. Any answer which depends on any concept of “deserving” is no answer at all, but merely a dodge—a dodge in the finest tradition of miserable comforters and worthless physicians the world over.

Having avoided the dodge, we return to Chesterton, who illuminates a facet of theodicy that I have never before and never again seen illuminated so clearly and eloquently:

Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? … So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter. So that the real lie of Satan  may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, ‘You lie!’ No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, ‘We also have suffered.’

This is what I have long thought of as the “theodicy of glory.” Without adversity, there can be no perseverance, only the potential for perseverance. Without overwhelming odds, there can be no valor. Without fear, there can be no bravery.

And without these things, each and every believer is subject to the great accusation that begins the conflict in Job. Without these things, we are unproven, untested, and even Satan himself could rightly claim to have persevered through suffering, while we ourselves could not. Without this, all the saints are open to the accusation that they loved God merely because they were safe, and not for any other reason.

Why do the people of God often feel alone? Why do they often suffer? Why do they, at times, seem to fight against the entire world?

So that they may stand firm despite their loneliness. So that they may remain resolute in their suffering. So that they may feel the same distress and pain as those who reject God, yet emerge victorious.

And by this, by their blood and sweat and tears, the people of God may earn the right to say with pride, “I have fought the good fight, though armies were against me. I have finished the race, though terrible obstacles stood in my path. And I have kept the faith, though the world itself tried to take it from me.”

Having passed through the fire and emerged triumphant, the saints will take no heed of the Accuser, for his talk is meaningless. And at the end, they will receive their crown of righteousness from nail-scarred hands and hear the voice which echoed from the cross of Calvary say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Thursday is, in many important ways, a parallel of the book of Job, and this is as far as the story of Job takes us. Thursday, however, goes further. Job (and Thursday himself) are thus free from the accusation of safeness and surety and happiness. But to Chesterton, the final piece of the puzzle is found when God—the same God who spoke out of the whirlwind in power and majesty—places himself on the cross and refuses to come down. In this way God himself puts the Accuser forever to shame, and proves that he is God and he is Good even when he is not safe, even when he is not happy.

And while this may not always put my reason at ease, I can say, along with Thursday, that it puts my heart and soul at ease.