You should hug trees…Or at least, appreciate them: A Theology of Trees

Christians should care about National Arbor Day (to those who don’t know, that is today). Even if you are not a devoted celebrator of trees, it is worth your time to stop and consider what wonderful things trees are. Not only are they ascetically appealing, they are present in almost any climate, and provide shade and food. Practicality aside, the Bible illustrates many points through trees. The prevalence of trees and tree imagery in the Bible should shed light on other ways to appreciate and consider these majestic pillars of nature. To explore this idea, let us look at some specific examples of trees in the Bible and examine what they ought to signify to the Believer.

In some stories, the trees play a direct role in the narrative. In Genesis, Adam and Eve sinned by taking the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To Eve, the fruit was a “delight to the eyes” (Genesis 3.6). It appealed to her, not because fruit is deceitful and evil, but because fruit, by nature, is beautiful. Being tempted by the devil to act on her desires, Eve took what belonged to the tree as her own. In partaking of the fruit of the tree, Adam and Eve brought death and corruption upon the whole human race.

In direct correlation to the fall, even our salvation came about by a tree. Christ, our loving Savior, was nailed to a tree for the sins of man. He accepted this death voluntarily out of obedience to the will of God. Through his willingness to die on a tree, humans are restored and reunited with the Father. This tree, the one which was made into a cross for the death of our Savior, should be a symbol of hope. It ought to remind us of the merciful action of our Lord by which unworthy souls are made holy.

From death into life, even our daily walks are described in terms of trees. When Christians are thriving in their faith, it is said that they will bear fruit. You cannot see into the heart or judge the faith of another person. Yet, you can tell whether or not they are being spiritually fed because they will be acting in love, joy, peace, and so on. In the same way, you cannot see the roots of the tree. You cannot see the place where the tree receives its nourishment. You only know if it is healthy by the things that it is producing. Trees, then, exist as an image of the relationship between one’s heart and one’s actions.

Even the body of Christ is represented by a tree: Paul presents the imagery of the olive tree in Romans, showing the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles and revealing the beauty of the gospel. In chapter 11, Paul says that the Gentiles have been grafted into the tree, being made into a legitimate part of God’s family. The Jews who have rejected the truth are the branches that were broken off so that all men could have a share in salvation. Now, because of God’s abundant mercy, all men can be nourished by the tree. With this metaphor, the tree represents how each person can be a part of the family of God.

Today is a day where people take the time to celebrate trees for their beauty as well as their necessary contributions to our environment.
As Christians, we can also recognize trees as being a part of the story of our salvation. Trees are involved in our fall and our redemption. They also illustrate the other aspects of our Christian life, such as the picture of bearing fruit or the imagery of the Gentiles being grafted in. Today, take the time to celebrate National Arbor Day. Appreciate trees for their beauty, their necessity, and their existence as tangible reminders of the story of our salvation.

I’m Dreaming of a Non-Pop Christmas

As someone who holds a retail job in December, I can tell you that I listen to more than my fair share of Christmas music on a daily basis: remixed versions of “Let It Snow;” endless ballads recounting the life and times of “Frosty The Snowman;” more renditions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” than are possibly justifiable.

Like trying to find a parking space close to the Apple Store, coordinating relatives’ cross-country travel schedules, and enduring the crowds and lines that comprise every Saturday at the mall in the month of December, this kind of “pop Christmas” music has become another aspect of the holiday season that seems to stress and annoy rather than inspire and comfort. While many of us have our favorite seasonal songs (“The Christmas Waltz,” anyone?), pop Christmas music provides temporary enthusiasm for the holidays at best, and a pang of annoyance and even cynicism at worst.

But there are two types of Christmas music, and they represent two different types of Christmas. Pop Christmas music represents the Christmas that is about hot cocoa, falling in love, enjoying a fresh snowfall, and caroling in the snow. Beloved Christmas films like Miracle on 34th Street also populate the pop Christmas world, relaying the importance of revitalizing one’s faith in Santa Claus (a fictional character loosely based on historical St. Nicholas) and thus ironically presenting a sense of faith and devotion related to a Christian holiday that is, at best, only tangentially Christian.

On the flip side, there is Christmas music that represents a deeper, richer, more theological Christmas. This genre of music can be a valuable resource for Christians as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. The weeks leading up to Christmas ought to be a time for contemplation and expectation, not merely gift shopping and baking and decorating. It’s not that any of those things are inherently bad; rather, it’s that we as Christians must remember to make time and space to get into the proper mindset during the Advent season. While this kind of non-pop Christmas music presents a starkly different message than its pop counterpart, most of the songs are still prominent enough to be part of the Christmas music canon, and therefore familiar to many. As we prepare for the ending of the Advent season and the celebration of Christmas itself, we can consider these well-known yet perhaps overlooked songs in a new light and, trite as it may sound, reorient ourselves to the true meaning of Christmas.

Take, for example, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Anyone who has ever tuned into the Christmas radio station could probably hum the tune from memory, but the song itself is rather antiquated compared to many pop Christmas hits, dating back to the eighteenth century. The first verse is probably the most familiar:

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels:
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

I find the subsequent verses, though, to be more spiritually engaging, particularly the second and fourth verses:

God of God, light of light,
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten, not created:
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

These verses contain several significant theological references. There is mention of the miraculous virgin birth. The second verse speaks of Christ’s fully divine yet fully human nature, borrowing language from the ancient Nicene Creed (“Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created”).  Finally, the verses convey the miracle of Christology—Christ’s position as a member of the Trinity, co-eternal with the Father—particularly with the fourth verse’s allusion to John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made trough him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (1:1-3)

There are more examples. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is full of Old Testament references to the birth of Christ as the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, specifically the one in Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call his name Immanuel.” This song is an excellent starting point for a conversation about how Scripture of the Old Testament points to Christ’s life and works in the New Testament.

I’m also a fan of the poem-turned-to-song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” originally written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Here is the final verse:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Again, the scriptural and theological allusions are simple yet deeply beautiful reminders of real reason we’re to celebrate this time of year, such as the heavenly hosts’ praises to God in Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” And, of course, there’s the poignant second line: God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. It’s a reminder that God is real; God is alive; God is present and human in the birth of Christ; God is with us. Immanuel.

These types of Christmas songs can help center us around the divine, mysterious, miraculous reason for the Advent preparation and Christmas celebrations: that God became man so that the rest of humanity could be redeemed and renewed and able to participate in the divine.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

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.

On Smart Christianity: Not Just Interesting Ideas

There is not really a “beyond” in Christian theology, given that everything that we learn in Sunday school is still true when systematic theology rears its dogmatic head. It is impossible to transcend the basics. Although there is a “mere Christianity” that all Christians hold in common, it is possible, nay, desirable to elaborate upon what we believe and develop smart Christianity. The question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only or from the Father and the Son together was one issue at stake in the East-West Schism of 1054. The Pope’s decision to tack “and from the Son” onto the end of “proceeds from the Father” in the Nicene Creed spiritually means something. The theology that we believe goes into the kind of people that we become. As learned Christians elaborate upon “mere” Christianity, they are not merely playing a game for bookworms.

In The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky states,

If even now a political doctrine professed by the members of a party can so fashion their mentality as to produce a type of man distinguishable from other men by certain moral or psychical marks, a fortiori religious dogma succeeds in transforming the very souls of those who confess it. They are men different from other men, from those who have been formed by another dogmatic conception.

As Christians examine TULIP, papal supremacy, Arminian soteriology, and weigh the views of Christ’s divine-human composition, they make decisions about what kinds of people they are becoming. Belief Two builds upon Belief One, and believing that subtle distinctions in theology are just Star Trek vs. Star Wars arguments for nerds is in itself a Belief One that supports a Belief Two. What Christians do with people who disagree with them is in itself a spiritual decision. From the lady adding and subtracting dollars in the supermarket to the nuclear physicist playing with imaginary numbers in a top secret lab, while simple math is enough for practical matters, anyone looking at an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile in an exhibition lit by nuclear power knows that advanced math is also enough for practical matters.

Mere Christianity is powerful stuff. It helps Protestant and Catholic missionaries cooperate on the mission field to serve people with physical needs and leads Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox Christians to dig for their common roots. Even so, it is not an iron to press flat the various folds following the Good Shepherd. Transubstantiation is not just a funky Catholic idea, and the five Protestant “solas” as an expression of basic Christianity are not practically the same thing as the decisions handed down by the Council of Trent. Protestants and Catholics agreed in many areas as they reformed abuses in the Church, but Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries revealed a Protestant fresh perspective on the sanctity of Church property. If I am an ecclesiological pluralist, it is as a pragmatic maneuver to keep peace with people who love God. Because I believe that Calvinism is wrong, I argue against it when it comes up in conversation, but I have enjoyed fellowship in Reformed churches because they possessed enormous stocks of mere Christianity.

When I find myself debating with Calvinists, I make better progress with them than when I chat with agnostics. My disagreements with atheists and agnostics are actually flat and uninteresting compared to my disputes with Calvinists because of the extent to which we agree. Arguments within the game of Monopoly are far more heated than discussions of whether the game is worth playing. When we quote St. Augustine as saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” it is with the point of letting each other live long enough to make good progress in studying and obeying the truth. Even non-essentials matter, but we also believe that charity is true. Getting into advanced theology matters quite a bit, so when you have to let go of a position, be sure to do so as letting go of a lower rung to grasp a higher.

Vinoth Ramachandra and Theology from the Global Church

I was doing some research on short-term missions when I found a blog by Vinoth Ramachandra, a Christian writer in Sri Lanka. He has studied and traveled in Europe, done extensive ministry in South Asia, and he has written cogent criticism of Christianity as it is received in the non-Western world. He clearly and accurately writes things that the West needs to hear, both praising the good and condemning the bad. Incisively addressing everything from the War on Terror, whistleblowers in the US government, and US foreign policy to relations between Western and Eastern Christians, missionary work done badly, and the influence of media on relations in the Church worldwide, Ramachandra is an intelligent voice from the “other side” of world Christianity. Continue reading Vinoth Ramachandra and Theology from the Global Church

Tradition and Theology: Why I Love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

I love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral because it is honest. Citing the four main sources of a Christian’s theology—Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—it describes reality and lays a foundation for Christian leaders to prescribe how Christians should do theology. The Quadrilateral is true to history, what people do with their heads, and what people actually live through while confirming the chief place of Scripture in the making of theology. Although teachers have to be careful when diagramming the Quadrilateral, it is far better than waving around a bald “sola scriptura!” Continue reading Tradition and Theology: Why I Love the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Do I Want a Theologian or Philosopher?

When I was at Biola University, a conservative evangelical Bible college including the Talbot School of Theology, one of my anthropology professors talked about how Talbot professors served to screen every incoming professor in every discipline so that there was not accidentally an anarchist-feminist-atheist-environmentalist professor subverting students’ faith. There has even been trouble about having Eastern Orthodox professors at the university, given its evangelical Protestant leanings. Not only do you have to be a Christian to teach at Biola, you have to be the right kind of Christian! In my experience, Talbot oversight of the Biola faculty has been decently open-minded about acceptance of faculty with alternative views on some subjects, and theologians are not authorities beyond what they have studied. In any case, there is an important question to ask: When do I need a theologian, and when do I need a philosopher? Continue reading Do I Want a Theologian or Philosopher?

“Christian” Music? Try Theological Hip-Hop

Yesterday, Christian hip-hop artist Shai Linne released a much-awaited album called The Attributes of God. The album can be purchased on its own (either via iTunes or Lampmode Recording’s website) or, at least during the pre-order period, alongside A.W. Pink’s book of the same name. Continue reading “Christian” Music? Try Theological Hip-Hop

Internal Excommunication

Confronting discipline is uncomfortable. Walk by a person in the process of getting a traffic ticket. It’s awkward. Some pretend to be invisible. Others look with curiosity until the unfortunate driver sees them, then hurry away. In that situation, I often find myself feeling indignant towards the police officer and a vague sense of comradeship with the chastised driver. I could be them. Even police officers speed frequently. Let those with no traffic sins cast penal fines.

Some of my recent theological discussions have paralleled those encounters. In dialogues focused on Paul’s epistles and the various creeds of the Church, the doctrine of excommunication, (otherwise known as ‘the ban’), has raised its hoary head. Usually, it met general balking and confusion. The main questions circulating were, “What is it, why is it, and how does it affect me as a twenty-first century American Christian?”

While excommunication varies slightly by denomination, it was traditionally practiced by both Catholic and Protestants churches. The general idea even remains within the congregationalist (evangelical) tradition: if a church member continues in sin despite prior admonishments, they are to be avoided by the general congregation until they repent, at which point they can re-enter the community. Excommunication does not mean the individual in question has been stripped of her Christianity, though often misunderstood to be just that. Nor is it ‘the silent treatment.’ If someone from a different city visits your town, you still talk to them, but don’t consider them intrinsic to the community. Likewise, an excommunicate is still part of society, but is temporarily exiled from their church body.

Various churches have had these things to say about ‘the ban':

Anabaptists, Schleitheim Confession: “The ban shall be employed with all those who…are called brethren or sisters, and yet who slip sometimes and fall into error and sin… The same shall be admonished twice in secret and the third time openly disciplined or banned… But this shall be done…before the breaking of bread, so that we may break and eat one bread, with one mind and in one love, and may drink of one cup.”

Anglicans, Thirty-Nine Articles: “That person…ought to be taken of the whole multitude of the faithful, as an Heathen and Publican, until he be openly reconciled by penance…”

Reformed, Westminster Confession: “Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brothers… For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the Church are to proceed by admonition; suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the Church; according to the nature of the crime…”

St. Paul, in his second letter to Thessalonica, says something similar. “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good,” Paul says. “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” Paul seems to be speaking from a strong sense of unified community. If standards of the community are violated, then for the sake of the community’s preservation, the offender should be extracted until they are willing to act within the community’s standards.

This seems reasonable. So why do many instinctively recoil from the practice? I suggest it is because of the same reason that I immediately side with the ‘ticketed’ and not the ‘ticketer’. Rather than seeing a traffic fine as what everyone deserves when they speed, it can seem like the fate of one unlucky fellow who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The violator becomes the victim.

The same applies to excommunication. Yet the ban is not the actual removal of someone from the community, but the physical recognition (via separation) that they have already, in an important sense, removed themselves.

For example, imagine showing up to the office wearing a bathing suit. The likely response would be, “Go home, come back when you’ve got the proper clothes on.” But, other than in a strictly physical sense, the discipline did not actually cause removal from the office community—that happened when the standards were violated. The separation was simply the response.

Most churches in America do not practice excommunication. Frankly, for many it is not practically possible—our church communities are not intimate enough. My church wouldn’t know if I was a habitual thief or if I was a perpetual drunk six days a week. But that does not undermine the relevant truth of the albeit disconcerting practice.

Seeing someone being ticketed is uncomfortable because I know it could just as easily be me. Similarly, the reason excommunication is uncomfortable is my knowledge that I fall horribly short of how a Christian is called to live. A ticket, thankfully, does not strip one’s license away, and excommunication does not remove one’s justification through Christ.

Still, I excommunicate myself every day from the community of believers, with or without it’s being noticed by anyone else or myself. And yet the gospel remains, and remains as this: in the cross, we find a bridge that perpetually reconciles us in our self-extrication to the unified body of Christ. In the cross, we have a constant means of regaining communion with God and community. In the cross, we can come back to the home we never truly left, like a runaway child who, returning home, knows the house key will still be underneath the flowerpot on the porch, unmoved, constant.