Theology & Mercy: Separate yet inseparable

Last week I had the incredible opportunity to participate in a “culture panel” hosted by my friend Rebecca who teaches foreign engineers & businesspeople upper-level conversational English. For example, all of the 7 students in the class speak German & work for BMW.  Coart & I joined to help answer questions (and pontificate) about American culture in general, including “taboo” topics like religion and politics. Our discussion ranged from international affairs to the health care debate and American church/social history.

The experience was stimulating, refreshing … yet humbling. Question #2 from the students came from a lady who asked why America, being a Christian nation, seemed to have little problem with war. The issue of how much our popular media loves violence came up repeatedly. (One dear soul confessed that, thanks to her view of America’s love for its guns, if she were ever stranded somewhere and approached a nearby house for help, she’d get shot! We quickly assured her that’s not usually how we roll!)

A bit later, someone asked why America, being a Christian nation, cares so little for its poor. We tried to explain that Americans value having the opportunity to be charitable with our own money, rather than hand it over to the government to distribute.

In the second hour, one man (wisely) commented that Americans confuse nudity with sexuality. The Germans can’t comprehend why we care so little for human life and so much about body parts.

All but one of them are non-Christians. Many might be non-theist. Yet they attribute many aspects of American culture to Christian culture, and sharply note the discrepancies when they see them.

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have understood these issues the same way. It’s taken the loving rebuke of Christian scholars and careful reading of the Word to change my myopic view of the Gospel. I read a Psalm a day to my homeroom class (this year, I have 7th graders) and daily the psalmists smack me in the face with the obvious connection between claiming to serve a God Who is Just and the necessity to see His justice expressed in human institutions. It’s an imperfect, difficult, frustrating, and sometimes impossible work (perhaps in my lifetime, anyway) but I cannot escape it.

Whether we Christians want it or not, the mantle of responsibility for the religious welfare of America’s citizens falls about our shoulders. The Gospel cannot be a merely individual proposition. Even the most hearty dispensationalist cannot scrub away the descriptions time and again in Acts: “And so ______ was saved, and his {her] household.” The Psalms (especially those of David in the first half) set up a vision of a Good King for the land of Israel:  a man who fears the Lord, who speaks up for the weak who are easy targets for oppression; who makes sure the poor in his kingdom are cared for.

America is the richest nation ever to exist in the history of the world. We celebrate our extreme good fortune by sipping $4 lattes and complaining when gasoline for our inefficient cars rises above $3/gallon.  Our population, 5% of the world as a whole, consumes 25% of the world’s resources. 

We revel in “the good life”:
Our cars are big.
Our houses are huge (by even European standards).
Our food is rich and fatty and caloric when 1 billion of the world’s population faces malnourishment this year due to the rapid rise in food prices the world over.
To Americans, our democratic political system is messy and inefficient; to the rest of the world, our openness, freedoms, and lack of corruption in government processes (comparatively) provoke green streaks of envy.
We hoard our riches, close our borders, and pretend none of us had to get off the boat in the loins of our grandfathers who fled the sickness of Europe (or Asia) for a better life.  Or maybe our ancestors were dragged here in chains. Either way, we’re faring better than the descendents of the native Americans we found here.

Last Monday’s German class humbled me.  It called me back to a “cruciform life” … no corner of my life can be left unturned by the Gospel.  When America speaks, thanks to the millions of Christians residing here in peace and prosperity, it speaks (and acts) with the stamp of the Church’s approval.  In a rare fit of agreement with Doug Wilson, I say our first duty must be to repent for not doing a very good job sometimes.

Protestant Worship: Too rational for our own good

from Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, by James K. A. Smith:

The church often adopts a . . . misguided strategy: while the mall, Victoria’s Secret, and Jerry Bruckheimer are grabbing hold of our gut (kardia) by means of our body and its senses — in stories and images, sights and sound, and commercial versions of “smells and bells” — the church’s response is oddly rationalist. It plunks us down in a “worship” service, the culmination of which is a 45 minute didactic sermon, a sort of holy lecture, trying to convince us of the dangers by implanting doctrines and beliefs in our minds. While the mall paradoxically appreciates that we are liturgical, desiring animals, the (Protestant) church still tends to see us as Cartesian minds. While secular liturgies are after our hearts through our bodies, the church thinks it only has to get into our heads. While Victoria’s Secret is fanning a flame in our kardia, the church is trucking water to our minds. While secular liturgies are enticing us with affective images of a good life, the church is trying to convince us otherwise by depositing ideas.
Such a rationalist response is inadequate and mistargeted because it continues to assume a flawed anthropology*.

*Smith would explain that this “flawed anthropology” is our tendency in Christian circles to define people as thinkers or believers (thus ministers try to change beliefs and worldviews) instead of recognizing that humans are, at heart, lovers and desirers and worshipers. What we LOVE determines what we believe and how we act.  

Smith’s thesis is that our desires are “trained” by our practices, not by our beliefs. We live (subconsciously) according to our notion of “the good life” — we bend everything toward achieving that life for ourselves, and how we define “the good life” depends entirely on what we love.

Concert Report: Yann Tiersen

Sometimes you end up in the presence of a true musician, someone who lives and breathes music. Rhythm and melody are their blood; they feed on life but mix it with creativity to offer lucky audience members a taste of what God must have intended for the human race.

Yann Tiersen is such a soul.

Shout-out to Sam, who messaged me a month ago to ask if we wanted to accompany him & Nate to Tiersen’s show in Atlanta this weekend. I’ve been familiar with Tiersen’s work ever since Nate IM’d me a YouTube video with the command to “Watch.”  I’ve learned to trust Nate’s music sensibilities — his radar is calibrated to “quality” — and I was intrigued.

Yann plays I-don’t-know-how-many instruments. A rough list would include piano, various keyboards & synthesizers & electronic bits, mandolin, accordion, guitar & electric guitar, and violin.

For example, he can tear up the violin….  or break your heart with gorgeous melody …  or mix it all togetherinto a great composition.

Returning to my story —

The Atlanta concert was a true delight. An odd time, though — Tiersen was scheduled to play at The Masquerade with doors opening at 9:30pm. The Masq is the main hardcore venue in Atlanta, and they had a major show running on the upstairs stage that same night. As we waited patiently for “something” to happen downstairs in Hell (the upstairs and downstairs Masq stages are titled Heaven and Hell, appropriately), we saw the ceiling above our heads thump and sway at least 6 inches beneath the weight of hundreds of moshing teenagers. [The Masq always looks like it’s going to literally fall down on your head — it’s part of the atmosphere. lol]

After the opening act and then watching a hardworking sound guy set up 12 instruments by himself, our patience finally was rewarded by the emergence of Yann & friends.

And it. was. AWESOME.

“One! Two! Three! Four!!” …. soft mandolin notes opened a song of marvelous beauty.  The stage musicians included a bass player, drummer, guitarist (Gibson SG), a guy on some kind of electronic thing that I can’t identify, another guy on keyboards and ukelele, and Yann himself playing guitar, mandolin, or violin as needed.

I find an intense joy in watching an artist glory in his art — squeezing every drop of JOY out of the experience of stepping onto a platform and baring his creative soul to the mass of people drinking it up. Nothing replaces the exuberance of a live performance. Every raw note stands as its own monument to ART, to creativity, to expression.

It was a good audience too, for the most part. Older than typical for the Masq, and culturally diverse. They were etiquette-diverse too — I was pushed or jostled by people speaking at least 2 different languages (besides English or Spanish) and some giant hairy fellow stepped in front of Sam to “take this empty spot right here.” (It wasn’t “empty” at all, and we asked the red-haired giant to please not stand in front of us since it was impossible to see overtop of him.)  But those were isolated incidents. Mostly, we all just stood and enjoyed every bit of the 90 minute set.

I recommend spending some time with Yann Tiersen on YouTube or Grooveshark if you like “world music,” classical, folk, indie rock, or Phillip-Glass-style movie soundtracks.  We could all use some more beauty in our souls, and Tiersen channels enough for us all.