Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A book review: Patmos

Patmos Book CoverPatmos by C. Baxter Kruger. Jackson, MS: Perichoresis Press, 2016. 240 pages (ebook version used for review).

Kruger is a huge fan of The Shack, in fact, he authored a book called The Shack Revisited (Faithwords, 2012) in which he unpacks the theological ideas in Paul Young's popular book. Patmos is Kruger's contribution to the Christian mystical fiction genre (my term), and in many ways takes its cues from The Shack. The main character, Aidan, has an out-of-body experience and ends up on the isle of Patmos with the apostle John for three days. While there, he finds answers to his many questions about God and healing for some past wounds.

The author has a PhD in Theology from University of Aberdeen, so there are some rich nuggets tucked into the story: a discussion of nuances found in the original Greek in the first few chapters of John, some ponderings on the nature of the Trinity, a brief structural analysis of Revelation, snippets of church history, and the reframing of several biblical stories. Kruger's main point is that much of Christianity through the ages has emphasized separation from God instead of believing in the inherent unity of the Creator with his creation through Christ. It is a valid and important point.

In chapter 15, the main character observes that throughout history, Western tradition has exhibited, "a dualistic mind-set occupied with separation, condemnation, legal justification that didn't really touch our broken humanity, certainly not mine. You talk about the lie of separation! As I think about it now, I see everything was separated: spirit separated from body, head from heart, heaven separated from earth, the Farther separated from the Son, people separated from God, elected people separated from damned people, the saved from unsaved, the Word separated from the words." John's description of Jesus in us is key to Kruger's distinction between the lie of separation and the truth of unity with God through Christ. In chapter 17, John the apostle says to Aidan, "The gospel is not the news that we can receive Jesus into our lives. The gospel is the news that Jesus has received us into his - union, my son." This is the thesis of Kruger's mystical tale.

Despite a strong theme and some sound, creative theological writing, the work has its flaws. First, there is a minor issue with formatting. In writing dialogue, a new paragraph should start each time the speaker changes. Kruger clumps different speakers together into the same paragraph. This causes some confusion for the reader and at times, I was not sure who was doing the speaking.

Second, the pages are filled with stilted, forced similes. I know Kruger is trying to portray a character from the South who uses colourful language, but I found the overuse of mismatched similes annoying and distracting. I suppose they were to lend humor to the story, but for my part, they just seemed like bad writing. One example: "His gaze made me think of a fine tea, subtle with a variety of flavors." The last half of the book seemed less plagued by these intrusive, awkward similes, or perhaps I just became immune to them. Whatever the case, I think they distracted from the story instead of adding to it.

Third, the premise lacks some believability. The main character is supposed to be a theology professor, but is frightfully ignorant of very basic theological concepts and comes across as someone who has never traveled outside his hometown. He is continuously having his mind blown and world shattered. He is always on the verge of being flabbergasted and baffled through hearing the unfathomable, things that are too good to be true. Much of the time, he is in a state of shock, knowing that his life depends on the next great, momentous, monumental thing to come out of John's mouth. Those are just a smattering of the descriptors liberally scattered throughout the book. I understand the author wanting to build tension and suspense, but many scenes end up being melodramatic and overstated. Might I suggest another round of editing which would cut out many of these extra descriptions and superfluous similes so that the story can shine through without the wordy baggage. A reader appreciates a bit of subtlety.

Finally, at times the theological content overshadows the story and comes off a bit heavy-handed; basically it reads like a sermon. Again, the author would do well to give the reader some credit for being able to make connections and draw conclusions on their own.

Overall, it was an okay read. I very much enjoyed the chapters in the middle which unpacked the idea of separation vs. union, but felt that the book suffered from a lack of finesse which made it difficult for me to become immersed in the story. Nevertheless, every writing venture is a learning experience, so bravo to the author for trying his hand at fiction.

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This book is provided to me courtesy of the publisher and SpeakEasy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Friday, September 23, 2016

trying hard

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Image from www.reference.com
We all love success stories. But in these stories, the success shouldn't come too easily. There should be some setbacks, maybe a disadvantage or two. And struggles, doubts, and a point of nearly giving up. But then, when hope is almost lost, our hero should rise up to overcome the odds and show us that hard work, perseverance, and determination pay off. Of course, don't forget the help of faithful friends who are just as determined and hard working as our hero is; it is a team success. This is the classic hero tale, evident in most myths and movies. But is this what really happens in our lives? 

I have spent many years working hard, persevering, determined to do all I can do. I want to make things work out for myself and others, to make this world better, to complete the tasks I believe I have been given to do. I admit that I am also a bit too uptight about these tasks and a tad perfectionistic, which makes it difficult for me to share the load, to make it a true team effort. But I try. Really, I try hard. 

The place where I try the hardest is in the church. I want so badly for people to have peaceful hearts, to be whole and healed from the blows they have suffered in life, to enjoy healthy relationships with God and with each other, and to be able to give and receive with joyful grace. This is endless work and I feel ill-equipped to do it, but I try. I try hard.

And then I look at Jesus and am undone, because the main thrust of his message isn't hard work, perseverance, and determination. It is not about trying hard to get it all right. He speaks words of rest to the heavy-burdened, not so they can catch a bit of a breather and then get back to it, but so that they will never pick up that burden again. He rebukes the perfectionists, not so they will chill out for a bit and not be so hard on themselves and others, but so that they will never require things of people that God himself does not require. He heals those who come to him, not to empower them to live fuller, more complete lives, but because in the presence of Jesus there is mercy and grace and wholeness. He redefines relationships, downplaying established hierarchies and highlighting the hidden, not because he seeks to start a revolution to free the oppressed, but because he wants to show us what God is like, and that his kingdom is not based in might and power.

We talk about love being the underlying message of Jesus, and it is, but for me, even that word, love, is closely associated with work: giving more, treating people better, being more outgoing, trying harder. Sad, I know. I am basically a Pharisee. I know a fair bit about religion, I try really hard to do the right thing, and I have impossibly high standards for myself and others. On the outside, it looks like success of a sort. But this is not what the kingdom of God looks like. It's not even close. 

Instead of talking about success, perhaps we should be telling stories of surrender. Surrender is so much more difficult than working hard. Letting down a wall of protection is harder than building one. Trusting someone to catch you is not as easy as being the catcher. Letting go of power is more challenging than being competent. Surrendering my dreams and desires takes more out of me than drafting a 5-year plan. And it gets no applause. Surrender is not trendy, because it looks suspiciously like giving up, like passivity, like laziness, like a lack of strength, like you just can't do it or perhaps don't care. But it is the deepest expression of love and community that we know.

I have been reading on the subject of Trinity and community this week and I am grieved by how little I live in this space of mutual serving, mutual trusting, mutual loving, and mutual surrender. Nothing is ever grasped tightly in the Trinity; all is open arms. Nothing is forced or demanded, always freely given. There is no hierarchy, no patronizing, no democracy. Only loving, mutual surrender. Surrender is not a temporary stance, not a respite, not a resetting of power, not a negotiating tactic. Surrender is what God invites us to do because it is what God does. He is always facing outward, toward the other, arms and heart open, not afraid. Surrender is a kind of death.

“[Jesus] freely assumes death as ultimate expression of his love for whoever rejects him. He wants the last word to be that of communion rather than exclusion. Jesus dies in solidarity and in communion even with the enemies who condemn him so as to assure the victory of love and communion. ... If we want to be united with the Blessed Trinity, we must follow the same path as Jesus: pray with intimacy, act radically on behalf of justice and communion, and accept our own death as a kind of total surrender and ultimate communion even with our enemies.” [1]

This is not easy stuff. I want so badly to make a success out of my life, my faith community, my family, my work. But Jesus shows me his way is surrender, giving the best of myself not to the work, but to the other, to him. That is all.


[1] Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity, Perfect Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 21.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Look at the grass

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Image from www.freepik.com
I have been reading Paul's letter to the Colossians. The words are joyous, buoyant, effervescent, not the kind of correspondence you would expect from someone in prison. I suppose the words appeared especially bright and bubbly to me this past week because I found myself inexplicably dark and gloomy, not to mention negative, critical, and impatient. It is clear to me now that it was that old demon of control baiting me because, well, things are out of my control. Yes, people make mistakes, unexpected situations happen, and life has a tendency to be overwhelming and disappointing at the same time. But mostly, I believe the trigger was my current state of job limbo. It is scary. So, naturally, being impatient and complaining are the solution, somehow. Demons make no sense.

Anyway, there is nothing like a walk outside in the sunshine to put things in perspective, so I pointed my feet to the park and away we went, me and my irritations. I saw trees, I saw sky, I saw water. It was all good. And then I saw grass. Oh my, what lovely grass. The first grass I noticed was just under three feet tall, its tips soft and heavy with rows of pale seeds. It waved at me as I walked along the gravel path, and I greeted it with a jaunty Hello as I ran my hands through the thin stalks. A few steps further, the grass on the other side of the path beckoned. This grass was taller, its stalks thicker, its seeds more delicately formed in small clusters. I stopped to look at the grass, to really see it. I held it gently between my fingers for a moment, then ran my hand along the top of the grass patch. It felt like a gentle caress.

There were gardeners working in the park that day. Some were using hand-held trimmers, noisy and ruthless instruments. Another man was riding a large industrial mower. As I watched, he attempted a sharp turn around an evergreen tree on a steep incline and stalled the machine. I stopped to watch the scene for a few minutes. The gardener backed up, pulled forward, stalled again, got off the machine, said a few choice words, got back on the machine, started it up again, and stalled again. Oh grass and trees, you are so patient with those of us who trim and groom and try to manage your green growth. Even when our machines fail, you don't gloat or claim a victory. You just keep on waving in the breeze in all your vibrant green glory.

As I headed for home, I came upon some swaths of newly mown grass and I stooped down to touch the soft, damp piles. I took out my phone and tried to capture the many subtle variations of green displayed in that small patch of grass, but my camera wasn't up for the challenge. Oh, grass, what a wonder you are.

And then the grass preached a sermon.

Look at the grass in the field, in the park, all around you. The grasses are here now, but they will be gone soon, cut down, burned, discarded, dormant in winter. And yet, God clothes and colours them so radiantly. How much more will He clothe you and colour your life, you of little faith, you who have no trust? So do not consume yourselves with questions: What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear? Where will we get a job? What about our finances? What about security? Others make themselves frantic over such questions because they don’t realize that your heavenly Father knows exactly what you need. Search out first the kingdom of God, make it a priority to live according to God's economy and His way of making things right. Then you will find that these other small details fall into place and the worrying stops. That's right, you don't have to worry about tomorrow. Living faithfully is a large enough task for today, so do that. [1]

Thank you, grasses for teaching me that my first job every morning is to raise my hands high to the sky and thank the Creator. Whether it is rainy, sunny, windy, or snowy, I begin by thanking the Creator. Even if it is the day when the gardeners come to cut and weed and trim, I lift up my eyes and thank the Creator. Thank you for reminding me of my humble place in creation, that I have made none of this beauty and yet it is here for me to enjoy every day. God cares about each blade of grass in the field and every hair on my head. so there is never any need to be frantic or worry, no need to complain or be impatient. It accomplishes nothing. Standing up tall and waving my hands to the Creator, like you, lovely grass, do every day, that is participating in glory. That is faithfulness. That is surrender. 

[1] Matthew 6:30-34, my adaptation of The Voice translation.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

same old same old: quantum physics and questions

Image result for quantum physics meme
Image from physicsworld.com
Last night I attended a lecture entitled, "Quantum Physics and Christianity." I know, who could resist a topic like that? Quantum is the Latin word for "amount" and in physics, it refers to the very small increments into which energy, such as light, is subdivided. The lecturer was Dr. Arnold Sikkema, a professor of Physics from Trinity Western University. There was a lot of talk about electrons and particles and how physics is increasingly verisimilitudinous (we are always learning more about how things work), and even mention of a cat, though not in a very pleasant way (what do you have against cats, Schrodinger?). It is common to associate science with certainty, precision, and verifiable predictability, but in reality, the more scientists discover, the less they speak in terms of certainty.

Dr. Sikkema mentioned that in the last hundred years or so, worldviews in science (and much of culture as well) have shifted from certainty to uncertainty, from dualism (either/or) to duality (both/and), from predictability to probability, from determinism to indeterminism, from believing we can be objective observers to realising we are subjective participants, and from reductionist tendencies to a more holistic outlook. All of these shifts are marks of progress, not because uncertainty has more value than certainty, but because these outlooks more accurately reflect reality. We are naive to think we have it all figured out or that we know how things will turn out.

My favourite part of the talk had to do with epistemology (how we know things). In quantum physics, it has been found that the questions you ask affect the answers. For instance, if you ask, "Does light behave as a wave?" it will give you wave properties. If you ask, "Is light a particle?" it will give you particle results. It is now believed that light is both a wave and a particle (dualism shifted to duality). There is an important principle to be noted here: the best way to know something about a subject is to let the subject inform the type of questions we ask. For example, if I want to know something about a piece of furniture, I hope I would ask different questions than if I want to get to know a person. If I want to know something about electrons, I would ask different questions than if I want to know something about key lime pie (don't you want a piece right now?). The object of our inquiry actually tells us, or at least gives us clues to, what the pertinent, important questions are, if we are willing to listen and watch and learn.

Basically, the art of asking good questions is closely tied to revelation. The object of our study will reveal itself to us over time if we are patient and attentive, but we must also be responsive to what is revealed. If we insist on foisting our own questions on the object, paying no heed to what it tells us or shows us, that revelation will be obscured or blocked.

Always asking the same questions doesn't get us anywhere, not in quantum physics, not in philosophy, not in theology, not in relationships, not in art, not in life. The basic questions are more or less constant (who? what? when? where? why? how?) and we flesh them out to apply to different situations. Sometimes, our questions get stuck in a rut and as a result, the answers are rather unsatisfying. If I go to a party and ask everyone the same two questions (What's your name? What do you do?) I will end up knowing less about the people there than if I ask a variety of questions (What is satisfying/challenging about your work? Where would you like to travel? Who inspires you?).

I have been revisiting the book of Job this week as I edit one of my dissertation chapters for possible publication. Job is full of questions for God, good questions that deserve answers, or so he thinks. But they are always the same questions. Why are you silent, God? Why are you picking on me? Why don't you defend me or help me or even kill me? When God responds, he doesn't answer Job's questions. He speaks of glory and creation instead of suffering and injustice. The questions that Job was asking were not the questions that God was answering. Revelation usually happens when we are willing to change our questions or set them aside.

Quantum physics teaches us that if we want fruitful research, the object of our inquiry must inform the questions we ask. I believe life, especially the life of faith, teaches us the same. What questions have you been asking lately? Are they the same ones you have been asking for years? Perhaps it is time we stop and listen, stop and look, and interact with the object of our attention instead of interrogating it. Perhaps we don't need answers to our particular questions. Perhaps we need a bit more revelation.