a slight breeze.

or: sometimes the only way to get encouragement is to talk about yourself in the third person.

The Two Things You Should Never Talk About at the Dinner Table, Part Five

In the previous post we gathered up Paul’s thoughts on love and wrath on a global scale to walk into his difficult passage in Romans 13:1-7, where we defined establish, submit, and honor. Now it is our task to bring these lenses into our contemporary political climate and ask, “so what?”

I want to state once again: we have been given a spirit of advocacy, not accusation. This should challenge us to think about, not only how we engage with the political process itself, but also how we treat other people in that process. This spirit of advocacy, of course, stems from our unwavering belief that the only politics that will truly save us are God’s politics, where Jesus is King and our truest citizenship is in his Kingdom.

Here are three key challenges to the modern American Church that I often come back to in discussion with my community. These are by no means comprehensive, but perhaps they will give us some direction in maneuvering complex issues:

The Church must be creative and active. We cannot expect the government to do the church’s job. The constantianian mindset that our nation is a christian one often conflates the work of the church with the acts of government. This can be seen on both sides of the political spectrum today, whether it is a progressive cause like eliminating poverty and advocating for universal healthcare, or a conservative one like banning abortion or mandating the ten commandments in public schools. Too often church movements and their adherents promote a certain political party as a replacement for the work the church is called to do. This leads us to uncreative solutions to problems that can only be truly addressed by God’s faithful presence. Our response to real human brokenness becomes merely to legislate problems away. It also leads us to a false duality in which we either vote our faith or we let “the other side” win. This confrontational choice does not sit comfortably alongside Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies, our “Them”, which may bear another whole essay to unpack. Unfortunately, this lack of creativity confines our politics only to the voting booth and, perhaps more dangerously, hands over power and authority to the world’s governments to bring goodness.

The battle over marriage laws and definitions these past few years demonstrates how the unhealthy merging of politics and religion leads to passivity and lack of creative solutions. In many debates within the walls of the church it seemed few recognized much of the argument betrayed the fact that we needed earthly governments, not God, to define what exactly “marriage” is. It was not enough for us

This seems to be an underlying theme for many christians’ political actions in the public sphere: we ascribe to the US government an authority that actually belongs to God and/or responsibility for change that first-and-foremost rests on our collective shoulders. I recall an acquaintance several years ago mentioning our “God-given rights” to bear arms according to the second amendment. I couldn’t help but say something. That sort of gaffe reveals how much we have fuzzed the lines between America and the Kingdom of heaven.

The challenge for us today is to ask, whether or not we vote or lobby or march when it comes to government, what are we called to do as the Church? How do we carry God’s faithful presence into broken places in our society? How do we live as that heavenly colony, a city on a hill, a bastion of His goodness that heals and saves? These are the kinds of questions that will lead us to some radical, dramatic, and creative solutions beyond voting one way or the other.

The Church must have integrity. We cannot approve of laws or practices that undermine God’s law and desires for mankind. Our heavenly citizenship must challenge us to practically root ourselves more deeply in God’s truth and honestly examine the places where we may still be thinking out of empirical notions of right and wrong. Over the course of my personal spiritual development there have been many political positions that I have shifted on, and I hope I continue to shift so long as it is further into God’s rule. One important way for us to maintain integrity is to continuously ask ourselves how the lens of Christ might affect our assumptions. Self-reflection helps us to embrace nuance as christ-followers to transcend a dualistic conservative/liberal summary of engagement and see the complexities of being active today. What are movements today that we can and should advocate for because they may reveal something of God’s heart? What are laws or systems present today that encumber the desire to see all people met with dignity and, in turn, require a new way of thinking? So much of our call as christians is to name the goodness of God in a pluralistic world, much as Paul did in his visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-34). In this way we meet people in their own worldview, yet maintain integrity by inviting them to encounter God’s heart for them.

The Church must be reflective. Perhaps why we choose to engage or not engage is more interesting than whether or not we do. So much of Paul’s work is to challenge his spiritual children to peer below the surface of actions and beliefs to the heart motivations of why. Paul is confident enough in the Truth of God to know that some deep reflections should lead to a universal call for christians to act a certain way (our previous discussion of Romans 12 and 13, for example), while other issues may not have one conclusion, but a variety based on conviction. In Romans 14 we see apparent divergence on practices like food traditions and sabbath observation, yet Paul seeks the unifying motivations of all: “Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God…So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.” (v. 5b-6, 22). The final quote here is not that we are to obscure our beliefs, but that we maintain faithfulness to the Lord as the source of the decisions we make.


Let’s take perhaps the most obvious mode of political engagement as an example: should a christian vote, and if so, how?

First. We know we are in dangerous territory when we are told we must vote because it is our duty as citizens. This is an ironic statement in a democracy where freedom is defined 5b0465e75b45ad11b48df759fb08102dby options, namely the option to not participate (either by passivity or protest, but that is another conversation all together). Totalitarian regimes making voting mandatory, which is why a dictator like Saddam Hussein could brag of 100% support in his heyday[1]. As I have engaged with the thoughts of other christian leaders far more qualified than myself, I find compelling christian arguments both for and against participating in the political system by voting. The unifying conviction, however, seems to come in examining how we hold our right to vote. It is safe to say if we think for a moment our vote is all that is required of us or even that it is the same thing as doing the Lord’s work, we are in dire straits. This perspective props up the illusions mentioned above that the government is responsible to fulfill God’s plan and a vote gets us off the hook for pursuing His justice.

In fact, the catholic philosopher Alasdair McIntyre may shock us in his assertion that voting in some way validates the system itself, and is morally wrong[2]. Whether or not you agree with his theory, we need outlying perspectives like this to show us a) there is more than one option, and b) to examine why we claim to believe what we believe. This is the path to growth when we engage with other ways to see: we either reinforce our own standing with new insight or we evolve our beliefs to match a greater kingdom perspective. Either way, that kind of true freedom opens us up to envision a better way.

Secondly: if we choose to vote, how do we decide? For too long the bane of the evangelical christian voting bloc has been the single-issue vote. One needn’t look farther than the abortion debate to see this in action (let alone the fact that “pro-choice” and “pro-life” have both been shown to be red herring euphemisms that mask the core issues). The single-issue vote attempts to oversimplify very complex ideas, often over-compartmentalizing them from other aspects of public life and health. It has been actually quite encouraging to see many voices in the modern church awaken to how interconnected the issues really are, whether it is healthcare, prison culture, systematic racism, or education, to name a few[3]. Allowing the complexity of a societal structure and choosing to study the interconnectedness of these individual issues will help us see with greater clarity the underlying problems that need to be addressed if we desire to see real change[4]. Just as in personal ministry we see alcohol is not the alcoholic’s issue but a bad solution to a deeper problem, so we see many of the issues we care about as christians are actually indicative of deeper systematic ailments. Otherwise we are only ever chasing symtoms.

Regardless of our individual convictions predicated on some deep reflection and willingness to be guided by faith, the universal challenge for christians endeavoring to be a faithful presence in the public sphere is this: Do you, on some level, think the US government will save you and/or bring about the Kingdom of God? how loosely do you hold your trust in the Empire? I think it is important to note this is less about diminishing the value of the structures of man as it is in having the highest regard for the kingdom of heaven. A small god and a small kingdom mentality will inevitably lead us to subconsciously find our confidence in the seemingly more tangible solutions of mankind to make peace and justice realities. My attempt in this series of posts has been to help us all have a drastically larger view of God as King and His incarnate kingdom, and to allow that Very Big Picture to shock us into examine where our priorities and allegiances truly lie. Only then can we effectively represent our Jesus to a world crying out for restoration. Consider these beautiful words from Bishop NT Wright in his book Simply Jesus:

“Jesus—the Jesus we might discover if we really looked, is larger, more disturbing, more urgent than we had ever imagined. We have successfully managed to hide behind other questions and to avoid the huge, world-shaking challenge of Jesus’s central claim and achievement. It is we, the churches, who have been the real reductionists. We have reduced the kingdom of God to private piety; the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience; Easter itself to a happy, escapist ending after a sad, dark tale. Piety, conscience, and ultimate happiness are important, but not nearly as important as Jesus himself.”


1. “On October 16, 2002, after a well-publicized show election, Iraqi officials declared that Saddam had been re-elected to another seven-year term as President by a 100% unanimous vote of all 11,445,638 eligible Iraqis, eclipsing the 99.96% received in 1995. Outside governments dismissed the vote as lacking credibility.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_Iraq

2. McIntyre’s original article can be found here and applied to the current political race here.

3. Rachel Held Evans has some very good thoughts on being pro-life yet learning to the the whole picture here.

4. Theologian Miroslav Volf offers a compelling take on voting holistically here. Bear with the clickbait-esque title. The video embedded in the article also brilliantly addresses the idea of being a christian in a pluralistic society.


The Two Things You Should Never Talk About at the Dinner Table, Part Four

“Most American christians don’t know how to read the bible well. And they don’t know how to read the bible well because they’re Americans before they’re christians.” -Stanley Hauerwas

Submission to Government, as Peace and Protest

So we finally arrive at our primary passage concerning our relationship to governmental authorities, Romans 13:1-7. Recall from the previous post that Paul is writing to a small community of believers who live in the shadow of the Caesar with the purpose of showing them how to reflect the reality of Christ in word and deed, culminating with the imperatives “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (12:14), and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21). These become the Very Large Truths through which we approach the difficult passage at hand. Their preeminence suggests they are the unbendable realities of Kingdom living, so it is our work to figure out how they subvert our assumptions about interacting with the political sphere. I want to break this passage down into three sections, highlighting three imperative words. First:

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (13:1,2)

To establish is to categorize and organize according to one’s purposes. The Greek term, tasso, means “to put in a certain order” in addition to the definition often applied here “to appoint or ordain”. The subtle difference in translation is important, as the latter can lead us to some troubling conclusions about God and His movement in the world. We often have no trouble in applying God’s ordination of a government for His purposes to our own country, but what about the North Korean regime? What about the Taliban in Afghanistan? And the ever-present case-in-point, what about Nazi Germany? This passage specifically was certainly used by some in the German church to throw support behind Hitler. If our definition of this term is true for one state, it would be true for all. One cannot get around this fact. God sets up His armies at opposing ends of the battlefield, then smashes them together for His glory.

If “establish” is actually more akin to “ordering or categorizing”, then we see a different perspective on how God operates, and it leans heavily on an idea from the previous post: God’s sovereignty is His ability to turn curses into blessings. God established free will at the core of the human definition, and built into that is the reality that humans will use their free will to arrange and rule themselves however they see fit. The genius of God is His ability to categorize varying degrees of goodness in the panoply of human governments to His ultimate purposes. He orders the world through His reflected good (whether it is recognized as Him or not) and brings good outcome out of intended evil events. It does not mean that He affirms or authenticates the systems of man; in fact, all human governments will be subjected to the standards set by Jesus himself, for he determines “right” and “wrong”. Which leads us to the second point:

“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (13:3-5)

Submission is the active pursuit of considering another person more highly than oneself. The radical nature of the message of Jesus is that his followers are against no one. Elsewhere Paul says, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). This means, while christians stand up against the unholy trinity of the Flesh, the Enemy, and the World, we do not position ourselves against our fellow man.

Submission does not imply passive agreement or subservient obedience, but sacrificial love. This is where the idea of submission has often derailed, especially in passages such as Ephesians 5:21-6:9, where it has been taken in an authoritarian way to oppress someone in the name of order (consider how the preamble “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” dissipates any kind of oppression that can be drawn out of Paul’s reinterpretation of the household rules). This is what it looks like in practice to live according to a Spirit of advocacy and not accusation: it gives us freedom to be true to God’s character when it is upheld by human governments (especially in establishing order and care for citizens) while also challenging, with love, laws and systems that do the opposite. It is our advocacy in all measures than defines our ability to think like Christ.

Jesus demonstrated this perfectly in the Sermon on the Mount: ““You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person…If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:38,41). The law of the day permitted a Roman soldier to ask a local to carry his military pack for him whenever he demanded, but only for one mile. This was considered a “humane” boundary, as was the “eye for an eye” model from the Torah. But Jesus subverts these laws by employing his followers to go above and beyond as civil protest. To carry a soldier’s pack for two miles would invite a holy shame that forces him to reconcile with one’s humanity; that you are a person desiring dignity, just as he is. This is the perfect meeting place of submission and protest, it advocates for a common humanity than can begin with dignity. This leads us to our third term, quite similar to the concept of submission:

“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (13:6,7)

Honor always affirms and cherishes humanity, in all circumstances. Civil disobedience is the way forward when it comes to seeking radical change in governmental authorities. Consider the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960’s. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote,

“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”


It was King’s advocacy of God’s law, and the dignity of all mankind, that led him to civil protest against unjust laws in American society. In fact, it was the call to remain true to the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” that spurred the movement. In their words and deeds, King and his followers stepped into the prophetic vocation first described in the Old Testament; the voices ordained by God to speak truth to power.

It is fascinating that Paul mentions here paying taxes, as it is one of the few directly government-related issues that Jesus also speaks to. Trying to set him up as guilty of treason, the Pharisees present Jesus with a hotly contested debate in their culture: should we pay extra taxes to the Roman government, on top of already existing Jewish ones? After they hand Jesus a coin,

he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:20,21)

Jesus is not simply implying we should follow the rules, but making a much larger claim about image and identity. Money, and by extension human systems of governance, are patterned after the images of kings, but human beings are the image of God. That is the grounding of our value, and the compass by which the followers of Jesus relate to their surrounding culture.

In the spirit of reading Paul in context, we find a perfect bookend to his discussion on how we conduct ourselves in the public sphere: “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (13:10-12). If that is not an invitation to step out of the cycles of violence and choose to believe in a new way, I don’t know what is. We must have the courage to cultivate a divine imagination, drawn up by Christ and animated by His Spirit, to address the world as it stands today. But it begins with us realizing that the day is almost here. There’s direction to the universe, nothing is stagnant. There is going to be a way upwards and outwards, and it’s been called Love.

Next we will consider some of the more contemporary applications of the message of Jesus in our current political climate.


Reflect and Pray:

  1. In your past, have have you been taught to maneuver the separation of Church and State? Has it led you to keep faith out of political discussion altogether? Pray into specific political debates, inviting God to reveal to you His heart for humanity.
  2. What are your initial reactions to Paul’s command to submit to and honor the governing authorities? Where on the spectrum of obedience to rebellion might you naturally fall? Invite God to show you the way of love that transcends those attitudes.

The Two Things You Should Never Talk About at the Dinner Table, Part Three

In the previous post, I touched on how our citizenship in heaven claims Jesus and his ways as the lens through which we approach the world. Next, we will dive in to the primary passages that directly addresses how christians are to interact with the government.

Love and Wrath on the World Stage

Romans 13:1-7 is perhaps one of the most contentious passages in scripture. Time and again it has been mangled and manipulated in order to convince the Church that it should prop up inhumane regimes of man. Perhaps the most poignant example is found in Germany during the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich[1], but even today we see this same attitude of appeasement in less dramatic fashion. So how do we approach this scripture in order to discover Paul’s true meaning? There are two primary points we need to make: One hermeneutical, and the other theological.

First, we must remember this passage is part of a much larger letter. Sometimes this is so blatantly obvious that we actually forget it, especially in our fast-moving culture that craves summaries and soundbites. The annotations in scripture, chapters and verses and the like, are blessings when they help us locate key passages with ease and divide it up for easier approach; however, it can all-too-often divorce a verse or paragraph from a larger discussion, thus obscuring the author’s original intent.

Secondly, and this is paramount, we must read all scripture through the lens of Jesus. He is the image of the invisible God, and the exact representation of his character (Hebrews 1:1-3). All the law and the prophets were just hinting at God’s final word spoken as His son. All the words of the New Testament are approaching and unpacking that divine Word. This means, difficult as it may be to process, we always favor the character and will of God as revealed in Christ as our compass.

So, it stands to reason, we must go to Romans 12 in order to understand Romans 13. It helps to imagine three mountain peaks in the epistle to the Romans: 5, 8, and 12. All three chapters begin with “therefore”, telling us Paul is summing up the preceding idea and taking us to the next one. Chapter twelve begins the discussion of what it looks like for us to live as “living sacrifices”, not conforming to the culture around us but being transformed to look more like Jesus (12:1,2). I would encourage you to pause and read the whole chapter, and we’ll focus on those last fews lines:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:19-21)

The final line, in particular, becomes our guide for where we go next. This passage confounds both extremes of how we assume we are to approach the political systems of the world; either through passive obedience or zealous revolution. Recall that the church to which Paul writes his letter is one quite literally in the shadow of the Roman empire. They are daily reminded they live in a world where Caesar claims to be lord and savior. Perhaps they feel that unction to stand up against the government as faithful ambassadors of Christ, but they wouldn’t be doing it in a culture that permits that sort of disobedience, as ours does to some degree. Paul must find a way to help them learn what it looks like to allow Love to guide all actions of the Church in the heart of Empire.

So why the mention of God’s wrath, which seems anathema to the call to nonviolent love? Does God hold us to higher expectations in our conduct than He does Himself? This has actually been part of Paul’s longer narrative in his letter, stretching back to chapter one. There, he tells the story of Israel (and by extension, humanity) consistently and consciously choosing to pursue their own desires and passions at the expense of God (Rom. 1:18-32). Three times it says, as a response to mans’ rejection of Him, God “gave them over” (1:24,26,28) to the things they were pursuing, and this is key to redeeming our understanding of wrath. Often, we approach the idea of God’s wrath as something akin to the old pagan images of Zeus, perched upon a distant mountain, ready to zap us with a lightning bolt the first chance he gets[2]. This, however, is not the icon of God we see revealed in Jesus, an image that dramatically shifted how Paul read the old testament story.

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One of these things is not like the other.


For my money, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) may be the most important single passage of scripture (although I often make the same argument for Philippians 2:5-11). In it, we see a narrative dramatically similar to the one Paul lays out in Romans 1. The son, a member of the household, goes to his father and asks for his inheritance early. The father, out of love for the son does not protest, but gives him want he demands. Before long, the son has spent all his money on the things he thought were so important, so much more worth his time and energies than the security of his father’s estate. He finds himself “in a distant land”, destitute and spiritually broken. In repentance, he turns back to his birthplace, hoping the father might take him back as a servant. But what does the father do when he sees him on the horizon? He rushes out the door, embraces the son, pushes aside his excuses and apologies, and garnishes him in robes and rings[3].

Do you see? It was the wrath of the father to give the son what he demanded. But this is not the retributive punishment we’ve been led to fear, but an act of love that honors free will and hopes for redemption and repentance. If God is love, then all His actions flow from love and must be defined in the language of love.

Wrath is God saying, “I love you so much I’ll let you walk away from me, in hopes that you will turn back to see what I have always offered you freely.”

This is why Paul, in his retelling of the narrative in Romans 1, carries on in the second chapter by saying, “do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (2:4).

God’s wrath and His kindness are inextricably linked.

Scrolling forward to Romans 12 and 13, we can now see what exactly Paul is referencing when he speaks of wrath as it unfolds on the world stage. God works on two levels; both for those who actively pursue life in Him, and through the release and hopeful return of those who are disobedient. There comes a point where God allows the natural consequences of a fallen world to take their full course in order to discipline us to come back to Him.  As He moves through time and space with us, working in and through history to draw all men unto himself (John 12:32), God uses the brokenness of human systems for His good purposes[4]. He is able to bring good outcome out of intended evil. And this leads us to another important truth about God’s character, whether on a personal or global scale:

God’s sovereignty is His ability to turn curses into blessings.

Too often we use God’s omnipotence and insistence on sovereignty to create a scenario where He has ordained every movement in history, which then leads us to a scenario where God intentionally makes terrible things happen to humanity (again, that horrific Zeus imagery left over from our pagan pasts). We, as pathetic human beings, are merely acting out the divine play we have already been determined to walk, and this somehow points to His utter control, His glory. Yet that version of God sacrifices love at the altar of sovereignty. It eradicates the defining trait of humanity: our ability to choose in to loving Him and one another. It also paints a picture of a schizophrenic God that does not much resemble the beautiful portrait of Christ.

So if His sovereignty is less about God making things happen as much as it is about His ability to drastically alter the outcomes of brokenness, then God’s wrath met in His kindness is His use of man’s violent systems born out of our free will to cause us to turn back to Him as the true Author of peace (1 Cor. 14:33), and Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).

Our response then, as God’s people, is to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good. We become the kindness of God that awakens our fellow humanity to His heart for us all, even as He uses the broken world to make the same claim for His character. It is the line “overcome evil with good” that sets us up to properly approach Romans 13.


Reflect and Pray:

  1. How do we approach the words of Paul through the lens of Jesus? Romans 12 is a good example of a passage where we try to qualify such bold statements because they seem impractical or unattainable. This is where our cultural norms cloud the message of Jesus. Pray that God might help you read scripture in such a way that it might dramatically shift your understanding of Truth.
  2. What have you grown up understanding as God’s wrath and sovereignty? How does that measure up to the picture of Jesus reflected in the gospels?


  1. You can read a summary of the church’s complex relationship with Nazi Germany here.
  2. Read Brian Zahnd’s blogs here and here for a beautiful discourse on what God really looks like.
  3. For a beautiful and heart-felt examination of this story, I would point you to Henri Nouwen’s book “The Return of the Prodigal Son”.
  4. I have found the work of Dr. Greg Boyd an interesting contribution to this topic of free will and sovereignty. Find an example here.

The Two Things You Should Never Talk About at the Dinner Table, Part Two

I began the preamble by asserting that the Lordship of Jesus Christ is the defining factor for christians in the public sphere. We then examined two words, religion and politics, and why they carry such negative connotations for us when our human desire to belong becomes idolatrous and leads us away from God’s intentions. Now I want us to delve deeper into where we root ourselves as christians, first-and-foremost.

We are citizens of heaven and Jesus is our King.

In our community we have examined this truth from several different angles, from our Kingdom//Empire series over two years ago, to our vision for this year of “family, living in heavenly reality”, and now in our “Colony” series[1]. The underlying theme in these seasons has been God’s story of making for Himself a people, a new creation; not through any effort of our own, but through the work of Jesus. Indeed, this is a wonderful definition of righteousness and justification – a declaration of our covenant membership in God’s family[2].

It’s important we recognize that our justification is a declaration based on what God has done through Christ, and not our own efforts (see Romans 3, in particular). This rings incredibly true in our understanding of our new allegiances. Paul says to the little outpost church in Philippi that, “our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20); a more specialized translation could be “we are the colony of heaven”. This sits nicely alongside Peter’s encouragement that we to live “as foreigners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11) as it paints a picture of what it truly means to be a colony: a people who are fully in the world, yet not of it (John 17:14-19).

When my family moved from Northern Ireland to Michigan in 1989 we experienced quite a few nuanced idiosyncrasies that we had to learn to adapt to, even though both cultures are rooted in an Anglo tradition. We used some different words and phrases, we looked the opposite way when crossing the street, we were introduced to some unfamiliar holidays and traditions, we had differing value systems. It took a few years for us to acclimate, but at no point in our journey towards learning what “being American” meant did our process negate the fact that we were now residents of a new land.

I think of this often as analogous to the christian journey. At the moment we have received salvation we are made citizens of the kingdom of heaven, but it doesn’t mean we inherently know the language and customs found therein. What follows this declaration is a co-conspiring with God to allow our new nationality to be lived out in speech and deed (Phil. 2:12,13). This is why, when christians stumble or sin, it does not mean we have to start all over and “reapply” to the kingdom of heaven. No, we confess and repent and continue the journey. And the goal for any good citizen is to become as a native, fluent in language and custom, and to help others make this new country home.

The contemporary work of Jesus, then, is to help us firmly plant both feet in the ways of the kingdom we already belong to. Through his words and actions, the work of his Spirit in us today, he teaches us how to live grounded in the colony, as resident aliens in the world[3]. He becomes for us the lens through which we perceive everything else, and that is particularly true when it comes to politics.

From a 21st century vantage point it is often hard for us to pick up on the political undertones to much of the gospel story and the letters of the apostles. It is especially difficult nestled in a (theoretically) democratic republic where our leaders are indirectly elected by the people and often have term limits. I remember it being fashionable in the first decade of this century to sport bumpers stickers with unflattering pictures of George W. Bush and the epithet “Not My President”. The system, as it currently stands, allows a certain freedom to make statements like this that resist fully affirming the outcomes. That in itself is democratic. This “personal vote” mode of understanding authority can also lead us to think Jesus is our Lord because we’ve elected him to the position, because we decided that’s what we want.

When we are ignorant to the political underpinnings of the gospel, it can lead us to assume we aren’t meant to have an opinion or get involved, or it may cause us split allegiances. We need a historical lens in place to see the remarkable implications the Kingdom message has for the world when it transcends and informs our politics.

stephen martyrdom

Icon of St. Stephen, the First Martyr

In the 1st century, if one was to use phrases like “so-and-so is Lord”, “he is the prince of peace”, “he is the savior of the world”, “his birth is the good news” (euangelion), and “his kingdom comes”, most people would assume one was referring to Caesar. These were common idioms, spread through the Roman empire, to establish a cult of worship where Rome’s king is the answer to the chaos of the world. When the gospels make the bold declaration that “Jesus is Lord”, the unspoken intimation is “and Caesar is not”. This is why Jesus’ revolution was perceived as such a threat early on in the life of the Church, for it stood in direct opposition to the power structures of the day. By the end of the 1st century persecution of Jesus’ followers was in full swing. In the 2nd century the early theologian Tertullian remarked, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”[4], for it was their joyful resistance to the cult of Caesar for the sake of Christ that led to their deaths, and the subsequent influx of converts who saw their faithfulness to a new way of being in the empire but not of it.



All this dramatically shifted in 313 AD, when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the state religion of Rome. The year prior, as the legend goes, Constantine had a mystic vision of the cross before a battle against a rival to the throne. The victory at Melvian Bridge enabled Constantine to unite a divided Roman Empire, and the following year he further sealed his victory by using religion to unite his people. It was a complex historical event, for it did consolidate the Church and establish important statements of belief like the Nicene Creed to combat early heresies, but it also wedded the Church to the State in a way that was never intended. Constantine even received the title “equal-to-the-apostles” for his accomplishment.

The major implication for citizens of the empire was that, now, one is automatically a Christian if one is subject to the Roman empire; no real transformative encounter with Jesus required. Much of the message of salvation and a Kingdom of peace was gobbled up into Roman nationalism. Being Christian and being a patriotic citizen were essentially the same thing. Fast forward 1700 years, and we still see the profound effects of this imperial shift in the way our modern church and its members have often related to governmental authorities[5].Battle-at-Milvian-Bridge

The constantinian mindset leads us to live with divided loyalties. It props up a “two
kingdoms” theology, where the message of Jesus contains nice ideals that are, ultimately impractical for surviving and succeeding in the world as it actually is today. Therefore we either merge the gospel of the kingdom with that of the surrounding culture, or we off-handedly acknowledge the compromise and chalk it up to realism. In this way we prop up and even perpetuate broken systems of the empire, rather than being the faithful presence of God to rescue the world from itself.

The truth is, empires come and go, but the Kingdom of Heaven only advances. All the empires of man will inevitably buckle under their own weight; it may be an implosion or a steady decline, but they eventually fall. The invitation from Jesus Christ, then, is to align ourselves with an incorruptible kingdom that will last for eternity, and to live from the inside out what that allegiance truly means for humanity.

As Napoleon Bonaparte once confessed: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him.”

Next we will take to Paul’s argument in Romans to ascertain our relationship to our governments today.


Reflect and Pray:

  1. What was it like for you when you first became a citizen of heaven? Was the transition smooth or awkward in learning what that meant for your life? Did you ever question, early on, if you were truly saved because you kept missing it? Ask the Lord to reveal places in your story where he has taught you to plant both feet firmly in his kingdom.
  2. Where do you see influence of that constantinian merging of church and state in our contemporary society? On both a personal and national level, ask the Lord to identify and separate anything from our understanding of His kingdom that may lead us to divided loyalties.


  1. You can find all of these podcasts here.
  2. I would refer you to NT Wright’s incredibly important work on the subject, particularly his book “Justification”, or an article such as this.
  3. Another mind-blowing book: “Resident Aliens”, by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. This book has shaped my understanding of Jesus’ lordship and how it affects the church’s role in the world like no other. Basically, you could quit reading my rants and just get this book for a far more articulate version of what I’m trying to say.
  4. semen est sanguis christianorum” from Apologeticus, 197 AD.
  5. A rather incendiary lecture by Dr. Hauerwas on this subject can be found here.

The Two Things You Should Never Talk About at the Dinner Table, Part One

These aren’t dirty words.

I believe the endeavor to rescue words from their negative connotations by redeeming them is a worthy endeavor, even though it may take slowing down and examining what exactly it is we’re saying. When we resist the temptation to toss out the baby with the bathwater, we can find some depth and clarity.

Let’s begin with “religion”. I feel blessed to have been raised in a church environment where religion was not necessarily presented to me as a negative thing; however, as I stepped into ministry later in life and engaged with people from all sorts of faith backgrounds I quickly realized how loaded that term was for many who had been hurt by a performance-based faith. Whittling the word back to it’s original Latin root, however, we find that it quite literally means “to reconnect, tie back, bind together”. The root, ligare, is the same root used for the word ligament. We could then define it like this:

Religion is the space in which we explore and express our faith.

It has become somewhat fashionable to use the idiom, “I’m spiritual, not religious” to differentiate between something life-given and something dead and outdated. I would oh-so-gently push back on that concept, because I think it is precisely religion that enables us to give definition and direction to our spirituality. We gather together in specific places at specific times, we use agreed-upon words and phrases and stories, we sing songs together, we pray, we participate in acts like holy communion. These are all religious endeavors used to ground us in our faith. Jesus was a religious leader. He prayed the Jewish daily rhythms, attended synagogue, listened to the readings from the Torah. For Jesus, these daily acts didn’t divert him from the goal of faith, but lead him into deeper acknowledgment of God and participation in his faith. In fact, it is quite often in the actions that we come to a deeper awareness of God’s heart. Jesus’ brother James makes the connection between believing and acting using precisely this language: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).

Secondly, politics. If religion has become a toxic word by the way in which it has been presented to us, then politics doubly so. It is something we would rather not engage with at all. Yet I would posit, and I know this sounds harsh, if we have the luxury of saying we’re not political or we don’t see the need to participate, it may betray the fact that the political systems currently in place favor our tribe or class. Yet for those who are a minority, who are poor, who are held back by those systems, politics are a daily reminder of their powerlessness. In order to be faithful to who God is calling us to be we must be willing to look beyond our personal privilege and see the things He cares about.

The word itself derives from the Greek polis, which means “of/for the people”. We can then say:

Politics are the way in which human beings are arranged in a society.

There is a necessity to consider how everyone is affected by the established rules and regulations in order to determine if political theories or practices are “good” or “bad”. It stands to reason that for us to operate in the public sphere as christians is not only a religious act (as we express faith in Jesus) but a political one (as we champion how God desires humans are treated). I recently heard an Australian member of parliament[1] talk about the strangeness of being asked repeatedly how much her faith affected her work, as if those two sit side-by-side in her decision-making process. The reality is, our christian faith (culminating in “Jesus is Lord”) is the very lens through which we approach all other arenas of action. There should not be a sliding scale of influence.

So what exactly poisons these two terms in ways that we, quite naturally, want to shy away from them?

There are many factors to this problem, but I want to highlight one. I believe the fundamental human desire to belong is key to how we approach religion and politics. Consider in Genesis 2 that God creates man, places him in the garden, and then observes, “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). God then draws Eve out of man’s side in order to create human community, the first society guided by a politics of God as God. It seems strange to us that a man who has full access to the Divine would need any sort of company, but there is a brilliant truth here: community is not the source of our identity, but the place in which we explore our identities. Adam needed Eve to come to terms with his humanity, just as Eve needed Adam.

jean_vanier_The Canadian philosopher-theologian Jean Vanier has this to say: “Belonging is important for our growth to independence; even further, it is important for our growth to inner freedom and maturity. It is only through belonging that we can break out of the shell of individualism and self-centeredness that both protects and isolates us”[2]. He rightly identifies that our desire to belong to a group, to find togetherness, is the path to growing into our true identities. After all, God himself is a community, and we are His image.

Yet so often we can idolize belonging to the point of giving over too much of our individuality in order to feel loved and accepted. These are things a tribe might directly ask of us for allegiance, though often they may be culturally implied as qualifiers to participate. Regardless, idolization manipulates desire and produces a performance mentality: I have to change who I perceive myself to be in order to belong. As painful as it may be, recall your middle- and high-school experiences. More often than not we conformed to expectations of language and sub-culture in order to belong to a certain group in order to satiate our feeling of being lost without a tribe. Perhaps that temptation never fully goes away.

The idolization of belonging powerfully affects the way we maneuver religion and politics. Too easily we can take up the badge and the ideals of our chosen tribe without considering the implications to our first definition as God’s children and His image-bearers. Before long, the tribe, not God, is our source, and what was intended to help us grow close to Him(religion) and keep us safe(politics) actually impedes our intimacy. One doesn’t have to look any further than the current presidential race to see people finding the answers for their struggles in a single person or ideology, and their vehement unwillingness to be even slightly critical of their tribe, blindly justifying anything their candidate might say.

We see this most poignant in Israel’s demand for a king “such as all the other nations have”(1 Sam. 8:4), a desire that stands in opposition to God’s desire for His people that He would be King. This distresses Samuel, and one can almost hear the heartbreak in God’s response. Israel has become blind to God’s protection and provision and abandons his ways to size up with everyone else. God, in His mercy, lets Israel get what they want, in hopes that they will see the err of their desires and turn back to Him.

And how often we do the same.

Next, we’ll discuss how understanding our primary citizenship in heaven dramatically changes how we approach our earthly government.

Read my preamble here.



  1. Consider those two words: religion and politics. How have they been presented to you? What negative experiences have you walked through that you may want to offer up for healing?
  2. Belonging is a beautiful thing, when put in it’s proper context. Think back on your own story: how did you seek out a place to feel loved and accepted? Even now, how do you approach the question of belonging in your words and actions?


1. This comment is from a panel discussion at the Wheeler Centre in Australia after a lecture given by Dr. Stanley Hauerwas. If you have the time and the focus, I’d recommend the lecture here.

2. Becoming Human, by Jean Vanier. Possibly my favorite book, I read this once a year.

The Two Things You Should Never Talk About at the Dinner Table, preamble

Generally speaking, in southern culture anyway, religion and politics are two topics one should never discuss in public settings, for they can only invite discord and misery. Consider the horror stories you have heard (or experienced) at family gatherings during the holidays. Celebration quickly turns to tragedy, plates get broken, and inevitably someone’s granny is left in tears.

This is an interesting concept for me, as I immigrated from a country where religion and Troubles-4politics are incredibly visible and at the center of civil life. Northern Ireland, historically, has been divided along lines drawn where religion informs politics, almost as an ethnic or
national boundary would, leading to fierce nationalism and prejudice. This culminated inseveral decades of on-again-off-again civil conflict known colloquially as “the Troubles”. Those divisions have little to do with what one believes as much as which tribe one belongs to, as the old joke goes:

“Are you a catholic or a protestant?”

“I’m an atheist.”

“Ay, but are you a catholic atheist or a protestant atheist?”

Perhaps this cultural norm changed the conversation around our dinner table growing up, but even now, with both my father and I being pastors, my brother Scott working in social justice arenas, my youngest brother Joel a history/civics teacher, and my mother an incredibly well-informed reader, our conversation darts between all manner of subjects with relative ease and lack of tension. In some way I think this has enabled me to bring down the dividing walls of my own understanding in how the good news of the Kingdom informs all manners of life: religious, political, economic, relational, and so on.

It is that good news that becomes the lens through which we can approach any of our contemporary issues:

Jesus is Lord, and _______ is not.

Insert whatever name/state/political theory you like. This statement is central to our discussion, for it transcends any sort of social category we may assume it falls in to. Indeed, I would say it might be the summary of the vast majority of the gospel. It is the giant yellow sun around which the other conceptual planets revolve and find their warmth.

I understand, in turn, that many people have not been handed such an open way to talk about such things in a faith community, or have been brought up in a way that the overlap of religion and politics has been skewed to lead to some assumptions that can be rather contrary to Jesus’ message. In the succeeding blog posts, I want to clarify and expand upon a few of the major tenants of what I believe are key lenses through which we approach the current political climate. My aim is not so much to tell everyone what to think, but help us learn how to see, thus giving us all the proper foundation to ask the hard questions about being followers of Christ in America in the 21st century.

I am also not expecting you to agree with me, I’m just subtle implying it (kidding). We are all on a journey, and everything must be held as conversation. May Grace and Peace guide us.


Next: Pt. 1: Religion and Politics aren’t dirty words.

Good Friday Meditation

I’ve written a guided meditation through one of the scriptures which I hold most dear: Philippians 2:5-11. I would encourage you to carve out some time this weekend, whether all-at-once or in small increments, to gather yourself around the Christ Hymn and allow God to speak to you of the beautiful heaviness this day invites us to.

Pray before you begin, inviting the Spirit to bring you into the present moment: heart, mind, spirit, body.

Resist the urge to fight of guilt and shame from the past or anxiety and despair of the future. Rather, welcome them as old friends who are witness to the moment. Offer them to the Lord as gifts.



In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

This isn’t a story we observe from a distance, but one we participate in. We move from truth as affirmation to incarnation, when encounter with God as revealed in the Christ leads to transformation of the whole person. The more we are changed, the truer it becomes.

How true is the Christ story, when you examine the fabric of your own life?


Who, being in very nature God,

    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

Like the Christ, we must choose not to let our nature – as God’s children and His image – be used for gain. Indeed, the christ-conscience strips us of our sense of entitlement and turns us inside-out. We seek less to live for ourselves and more to participate in God’s redemptive story. We become outwardly-focused and other-centered.

How do you hold your true nature?


rather, he made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

The greatest act of love is to let yourself become nothing for the sake of someone. Self-definition is the epitome of control. To relinquish control as the response of obedience to the Divine requires trust that God will lead you to what it truly means to be human.

Can you let yourself be fully human in order to love humanity?


And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself

    by becoming obedient to death—

        even death on a cross!

Let go of your privilege, then let go of life as you know it. Resurrection requires death to precede it. To accept this call to radical obedience is to not rush the process of death, but to let it take its course. Trust that, when new life comes, it will mean so much more then you could have imagined on this side of the grave.

Can you trust God that death [of dreams, desires, plans, privilege] is not the end, and, in doing so, welcome death?


Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

    and gave him the name that is above every name,

Perfect weakness leads to perfect victory – reconciliation, wholeness, peace. We let go of the endless, violent patterns of the world to pursue a higher way, the way of the Christ. Powerful empires crumble at his name, not least the ones within our own hearts. It is a beautiful scandal that the apparent weakness of God brings about true victory, for in weakness we are opened up to the world as an invitation to intimacy.

Does his name draw you in or push you away?


that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

Power is not a goal unto itself; love is. “God is love” is the fabric of everything; the beginning and the end of the story. Jesus did not empty himself in order to take the place of a tyrannical god that upholds rigid hierarchical structures of haves and have-nots; rather, it is in his name that we are all gathered together in perfect love. Every one of us.

What do the things you pursue in life say about what God is like?


and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father.

It is in Creator uniting with creation, through the work of Jesus, that God is perfectly made known. “Glory” is here-ness. With-ness. HIs presence revealed through harmony. And its all possible through the Christ, who is the binding force in the universe.

Where do you see signs of resurrection from death?

My Year in Music: 2015

IMG_5407This year I’m listing my favorite 30 albums in chronological order, with some sort of superlative. That way, every one is a winner, and I don’t spend another five hours stressing over how danish female-led black metal sizes up with Canadian dream pop.

Here’s a playlist (also in chronological order) for you to listen to while you read. Enjoy!




John Luther Adams – The Wind in High Places (1/13)

Best audio representation of Alaskan spring. John Luther Adams has been a relatively new discovery for me, but going through his body of work this year has given me so much to explore.


Bjork – Vulnicura (1/18)

Deepest heartbreak yields Bjork’s best album in a decade. Like Sufjan, it sounds like coming back to the start, only with years of lived-in experience changing the innocence of the first time around. Also exciting to see the Haxan Cloak take the reins on production, specifically the fantastic “Family”.


Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear (2/9)

“Nail in the Coffin” award for the last best grasp at post-irony in our generation. J. Tillman can try to make all the jokes in the world to stave of the inevitable, but he still believes in love. This album is simultaneously gorgeous and awkward and lewd all at once, much like the FJM persona himself.


The Brilliance – Brother (2/17)

There is Hope for Christian Music Award! This band is spearheading a shift in worship music to more fully encompass the human experience of the Divine. I came back to this album time-and-again to give grounding to many emotions this year.


Torche – Restarter (2/24)

Such a fun band. Doom-pop, indeed.


Crypt Sermon – Out of the Garden (2/24)

1984 called. They’re still got some classic riffs left over. And oddly enough choosing some Christian themes to wail about, although the band denies being believers.


Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh (3/11)

Benjamin John Power of Fuck Buttons released his second solo album as Blanck Mass, adding a bit more structured dance rhythms to his monumental walls of synth.


Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empire (3/24)

Even when you get the Brians in a proper studio for the first time, they still sound like they’ve managed to fill in the gaps betweens air molecules with pure noise.


Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell (3/31)

Somehow manages to fully embrace beauty and despair in a tenderness that Mr. Stevens has uniquely pioneered. Like Bjork, shows you can’t quite return to where you started without everything you’ve lived since then.


Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress (3/31)

I’m just so glad they’re back and in full-swing. There’s a lot more of an embrace of the reference points made with all the side bands that sprang from the ashes of GY!BE’s first run as they’re all smashed back together in the new unit. Keep it coming.


The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ (4/17)

I can’t not like John Darnielle. I just can’t do it. Everything he puts out under the Mountain Goats moniker is pure gold, this past year’s album included. I never thought I’d get so immersed in stories about failed pro wrestlers. The best storyteller working in music today.


Mew – +- (4/24)

Although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “And the Glass-Handed Kites”, Mew have brought back some old faces and put out a fantastic new record that demonstrates all their strengths. Crystal-clear and locked-in.


Knxwledge – Hud Dreems (5/5)

My laid-back instrumental hip-hop album for this year. Not as avant-garde as Flying Lotus, nor solidly jazz as much of Madlib’s work; although you can hear the influence of both here.


Allen Stone – Radius (5/26)

Perhaps the most fun I’ve had a show in a long time. Stone sound like what would have happened if Justin Timberlake had kept it pure soul and somewhat underground. And had poor choices in glasses.



mewithoutYou – Pale Horses (6/16)

Best “best of” that’s actually a new album.


Glen Hansard – Didn’t He Ramble (6/19)

The Bard. Hansard ages beautifully, making the transition from the Frames and Swell Season to his elder-statesman status as a national treasure for Ireland. I had the honor of seeing him perform this year, and the man oozes authenticity.


The Frames – Longitude (6/26)

Speaking of Glen! New Frames! Kind of!


The Velvet Teen – All is Illusory (6/30)

The perennial “Why the &(#&^ Aren’t They a Bigger Deal?!?!” Award winners. “Sonreo” is the best song to feature a player piano this year.


Wilco -Star Wars (7/16)

Wilco put out albums like Radiohead put out albums. There will never be another “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot/Kid A”, and that’s okay. These guys rarely disappoint.



This band sounds like the music they play in the background of clubs in future sic-fi music.


Myrkur – M (8/21)

My first reaction to a beautiful danish model doing progressive black metal is, “that’s so not KVLT”. Then I realize, nor am I, and I jam this record on a sunny drive in Florida.


Battles – La Di Da Di (9/18)

Battles boldly put out a record that honed in on their eccentricities rather than sticking with previously easy-grab formulas.


Max Richter – From Sleep (9/21)

One of my favorite contemporary composers writes an eight-hour piece intended to be slept through? It would work if it wasn’t so gorgeous. The was perhaps the most beautiful record of 2015.


Deafheaven – New Bermuda (10/2)

Many of us waited with baited breath for this sequel to Sunbather to drop in October, and I don’t think it disappointed in the slightest. Deafheaven refined their skills while managing to get heavier, pushing though the blacklist to the backlash to the backlash in order to embed themselves in the pantheon of modern metal.


Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect (10/9)

Protomartyr reminds me of bands I was really in to, like, ten years ago. I’m glad someone is doing that drab-who-cares post-punk thing.


Majical Cloudz – Are You Alone? (10/16)

A surprise discovery at the local record shop, “Downtown” was my favorite song to sing loud in my car whilst driving late at night.


Wrekmeister Harmonies – Night of Your Ascension (11/13)

Best high-concept baroque doom metal. I love the idea of metal being a space for collaboration and experimentation in high art fashion these days.


Kurt Stenzel -Jodorowsky’s Dune (11/18)

This is perhaps the most left-field contribution to this list: an improvised soundtrack to a documentary about a movie never made of a book I’ve never read. But I’m a sucker for synths.


Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman – Lice EP

Two of my favorite rappers put out a fun little five-song collection at the end of this year. Kudos to sampling vintage Linkin Park!


SUNN O))) – Kannon (12/4)

Finally, the lords of low end release their first full-length in six years. I appreciated the demos and collaborations in the space between, but to hear the stripped-down return to vintage O))) reveals a refinement and maturity in their musicianship. Where Monoliths&Dimensions showed a maximalist expanse in instrumentation and style, Kannon (recorded at approximately the same time) shows an inward concentration in the small details. Maximum Volume Yields Maximum Results.


Baroness – Purple (12/18)

Disclaimer – I have not dug into it full-scale. Wasn’t crazy about their last double album, but I have high hopes!

Why You Think You. Can’t. Even., But I’m Here to Tell You You. Can: Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, and the Sensationalization of Reaction in [Post-Post-Modern Critical Realist] Culture.

Previously I examined how modern digital culture acts as a sort of currency that not only marks our actual lives but moves beyond symbol to be the very substance of content; to remove the machination of commemorating events in our lives is also to diminish the event itself. Here I want to look in particular at how hyperbole in the digital age helps us oversimplify our reality in order to survive in the short-term, but leads to long-term damage.

That title is supposed to be funny. Anyway…

Once upon a time in the not-so-distant past, two big-name dynamic pastors were crucified for compromising the gospel in some way in order to reach a greater audience. While the paths of Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll are drastically, even diametrically opposed, the beginning and ends of their stories reveal a marked similarity that betrays the contemporary obsession with celebrity culture inherent within the Church. It reads something like this: young, charismatic preacher breaks the rules of the evangelical mainstream in order to meet the new century with boldness and courage, sees massive success in turning heads (both sacred and secular) in ways that had not been seen in 40 years, becomes a brand unto himself, and then the inevitable collapse once the chinks in the armor are revealed. For Bell, it was his willingness to question supposedly core doctrinal truths; for Driscoll, his win-at-all-expense attitude led to compromise in integrity.

The verdict: empire-building at the expense of kingdom-building. One leaves behind orthodox church to be in the company of “the new age”, while the other amasses power in his organization and chooses brand advancement to the point of structural collapse.


I’ve read articles defending and demonizing both men, and it seems that people want to justify the actions of one while casting stones at the other, depending on the “side” they have chosen. Deeper still, one would be hard-pressed to find examples of people who actually changed their opinions on one or both of these men and advertised their sentiment. It is the natural consequence of a culture obsessed with celebrity, because celebrities primarily exist to reinforce our own viewpoints, not to open us to new ones. When they disappoint, we merely sweep them under the rug in favor of a new one.

There are three fascinating observations in this example that demonstrate how the sensationalization of our reactions to the world function.

The first is that we have to have an opinion on everything. Our excuses for ignorance have seemingly dried up overnight now that all information is available at our fingertips at all times. This naturally places the burden upon us to be aware, but only as much as it takes for us to grasp at a conclusion to keep from appearing ignorant. This of course works based on the premise that mystery and ignorance are synonymical. We must encounter, process, and react with a speed that rivals the internet.

Secondly, We feel the burden to not only formulate an opinion on everything that comes into our periphery, but we must let everyone else know what our opinion is. When we internalize the idea that we are what we think, we project our opinions out into the world as an extension of ourselves for validation. This is dangerous territory, for two reasons. If I don’t have an opinion on a particular event, there is a gap in which I do not exist. A lack of a conclusion means there no way for it to reflect back to me my identity, so I lose definition. My need to be seen then prompts me to proclaim loudly my opinion as a way to attract attention. Now, not only the event itself elicits fear of my non-existence, but the interaction that event has with my peers means I’m missing out. Therefore, I need others to know what I think so they know I exist. In response to the controversy surrounding Bell’s book Love Wins, philosopher Peter Rollins pointed out that the Amish would also intensely disagree with the content of the book, yet made no effort to make their disagreement known to the wider world. They were too busy building barns.

Third, in order to have our voices heard, we must choose the hyperbolic extreme to rise above the din of over-saturated commentary afforded us by the social media landscape. The problem is that treating each moment as a fight pushes us deeper into our ideological corner. Soon, our extreme language is leading our opinions and we begin to hold all-the-more tightly to what we profess. The sensationalization of reaction implies that we must be “all in” or “all out” on an issue in order to be confident in ourselves and our perspective on how the world works. In doing so, we over-simplify and under-examine the reality of either of these complex (and still developing) narratives.

The natural consequence of this base, hyper-codified way of digesting the world in order to control our little realities is our inability to handle mystery. While answers may provide a short-term survival option, they break down over the long-term because over our inability to maintain the hyperbolic structure. In this way, we function as the fundamentalist; we spend so much time fighting for our rights to have an opinion that we prevent ourselves from self-examination. We also push to make our contribution to the world the loudest, brashest it can possibly be. Life becomes 8-bit technicolor to overcome the unprocessed subtleties found in a spectrum. The problem is, of course, that our over-extended opinions are drastically more likely to be criticized by others, thus playing on our deepest fears of being lost, even non-existent, in the noise of the digital age.

This is redoubled in our contemporary internet jargon. Recently the level of “can’t even” has risen to epidemic proportions; one would assume most young people are walking around with some form of PTSD as consequence of incredulity at the world. The other response is to merely point out things in all caps in order to articulate the fact that one can’t come up with the words: THIS. THESE. DAT. Mortuaries should be filling up with bodies of people who are “dying” from an amusing quip on their favorite late night talk show. Objective reality would indicate that, in fact, most of us CAN, and we seem to be able to survive an encounter with a cute baby, a poignant top five list, and so on (with exception of this girl perhaps). When expectation is that our reaction to life and its nuances should always be hyperbolic, we stretch the gap between desired perspective and reality until it snaps like an over-extended rubber band. We so desperately want the loudest response to reassure us our life is vibrant. We lose the language for subtlety, and we are inevitably unprepared to engage with moments in life that are truly remarkable and deserve a profound response. In the critical realist worldview, we aren’t even guided by our feelings; we are crafting a narrative that puts emotional response before the cause/event in such a way that cause/event becomes irrelevant.

All this hyperbolic speak, of course, is a response to the post-ironic movement of the last decade or so. I think many people have become exhausted by not being allowed to feel anything at all as culture championed a disinterested and cynical detachment from things that matter. That survival mentality has starved us of connection and meaning, and now we overcompensate by allowing that hunger to overtake the moment itself.

Turning back to Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll.

It is no secret that the church has a habit of eating her own. We are quick to champion our heroes who stand up for truth and just as quick to tear them down when they deviate from our narrative. From my vantage point, the tragedy in both cases is how quickly both realms of influence were diminished and done away with before the ink had time to dry, rather than cherishing what they have contributed to the conversation while responsibly seeking gentle rebuke and correction.

I’m saying we shouldn’t dismiss the totality of who they are in order to separate the world into “for us” and “against us”. Both need correction, as do you and I. Criticism is good and fair when the heart is reconciliation and truth, not idolatry (on one hand) or excommunication (on the other). I would encourage all of us to slow down and be more open-handed in our judgements of the world and how we categorize it. You are not the expert, and neither am I, and in that resolution there is a freedom to not blindly align ourselves or ostracize these men, but rather to see themselves as complexly human, just like us.

Up Next:

Part Three: #ALLOFTHEFEELS #NONEOFTHEFEELS: How Post-Ironic Digital Landscape Has Robbed Us of the Language of Meaning

Part One: I NEED YOU TO KNOW THIS. IS. THE. BEST: Personality as Digital Currency

This is Part One of several blogs wherein I muse on digital culture, post-post modernism, and the implications for being a christian in the 21st century. I don’t even know if it all makes sense to me yet, so bear with me. This may be why I’m not fun at birthday parties.

Several months ago Coca-Cola unveiled a rather genius marketing campaign dubbed “Share a Coke”. In several major countries the soda giant produced bottles and cans with the 250 most common names printed in place of the usual logo. The premise was simple: you find a coke bottle with the name of a friend on it, you purchase said bottle for them, and your relationship to this person is therefore strengthened by the power of consumerism. Not a radical notion in the free market by any means; many products are sold as the answer to our loneliness. It’s a core value and guiding principle in marketing.

The seemingly unintended outcome of this social experiment, however, proved to be far more fascinating. Rather than purchasing the product with names of those people they know and love, consumers sought out their own names with the phrase “Share a Coke with” innocuously hovering over it, thus reinterpreting the whole stated purpose of the campaign. The internet was rife with pictures of people posing next to their own names or ravaging crates of bottles looking for “personal brand” as if the name was a golden ticket to the magical Wonka Chocolate Factory. Soon Coke established mobile printing stations across the country to print any name one cared for on the side of a bottle should one have the 251st-or-lower most common name in the States. I saw one such station at a local college; the queue was lengthy, and its a safe bet most weren’t asking for their granny’s now outdated midcentury moniker (let’s bring back “Ethel” or “Margery”, eh?). A cursory glance at internet searches bears many articles detailing how one can get one’s name on a can, completely disregarding the initial proposition of the campaign itself.

Observe the post-ironic gesture in which I participate in the very act I disavow in order to prove a point.

Observe the post-ironic gesture in which I participate in the very act I disavow in order to prove a point.

Coke not only halted a steady eleven-year decline in consumption of their products, but posted a 2% rise in sales in a matter of months[1]. It’s a safe bet executives were not particularly bothered by the misappropriation of intent. Perhaps it is even safe to assume their goal was not so much to promote brotherly love and interconnectedness among diverse peoples, but rather to tap in to our need to be seen and our voracious desire to edit and annotate our personal realities. Yet it would have been preposterous for them to pull the lid off the whole operation and admit, “aw hell, just go ahead and buy your name! It’s been about you this whole time!”

Perhaps most interesting here is the fact that modern marketing is never about the product itself, but rather the symbol that product becomes when feeding our egos. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek brilliantly identifies Coke as the objet petit a in his book The Fragile Absolute[2], the useless product that promises us fulfillment while simultaneously manufacturing the libidinal desire for more. Essentially, our hunger for the thing exponentially increases as we consume it in order to find satisfaction, creating a never-ending cycle of surplus-value.

This concept has dramatically increased its weighty presence in the social media landscape. Not only are objects and experiences being used as filters for our self-identification, but they have become somewhat secondary to the ultimate goal of crafting “being” itself. This is why one can identify social media as a modern existential currency: it is no longer the evidence of a full life, but the substance of it.


Oh Johnny, if only you realized that you are both victim and perpetrator of capitalist surplus-value and the libidinal dynamics of Lacanian surplus-enjoyment.

Consider basic economic currency exchange. Johnny mows someone’s lawn and they pay him $10. This piece of paper with a dead president printed on it is worthless in-and-of-itself, but it becomes a visual representation, a symbol, of the services Johnny offered in exchange for value. This monetary symbol, however, bears a curious designation in that the disappearance of the symbol is also the disappearance of the intention of the symbol. Were Johnny to lose that $10 bill, he cannot go back to his employer and ask for another one as a replacement. The fruit of his labor and its assigned value have evaporated; it is as though he never mowed the lawn in the first place.

In our post-internet age, the digital documentation of our analog lives operates in much the same way, in two movements. Firstly, photo or status update no longer commemorates a moment, but it shapes our understanding of that moment. In many cases it’s actually the pursuit of the symbol that trumps the event itself, leaving the participant with a token devoid of the invested experience it’s supposed to represent. Conversely, to not provide evidence of that perfect latte or the sublime sunset or whatever it may be causes that moment to become unmoored, unadorned memory and, in turn, forgettable. Like a coin in our pocket, to carry the symbol is to determine the truth of the event.

Secondly, the potential potency of this exchange is still more evident when we realize we have the power to change the face on the proverbial coin, rearrange the inscriptions, and conform it into any shape we desire. The ego-desire is no longer for accuracy but power, the power to control how we perceive and reflect reality. This leads us to a culture of hyperbole that assigns the digital currency an extreme value in order to convince our audience, and perhaps more poignantly ourselves, that our lives are as technicolor and invested with meaning as the evidence suggests. We become hungrier and hungrier for the grandest possible statements of a life already fully-realized, yet we remain painfully disconnected from our current moment (consider the incessant photography at a concert or museum, practically replacing the experience itself with a smaller idol that serves our purposes of saying, “I am here”. Pics, or it didn’t happen). As we engage in this sweetening of the moment in order to match our fantasies the gap between perspective and reality increasingly widens until we are no longer capable of facing the tangible situations of our lives. We collapse under the burden of maintaining an illusion, creating a gaping void in which fear, condemnation, and the anxiety of non-being can fester [3].

Therein lies our deepest fear in the age of information: we are invisible. We are lost in a  sea of faces whose lives seem more wonderful than our own, according to the digital currency apparent. If our value is determined by our relationship to the mass of information presented in the digital realm, we must do what we can to consume cultural reference points in language and symbol that can act as an anchor to prove we exist and we have worth.

In this way, we author our own personal identities according to how we would like for them to be, and in the fullest most hyperbolic terms they can be presented in. No longer are we expected to be the participants in culture, but the engineers of it too[4]. Additionally, we make swift attempts at cataloguing the world around us in a way that prevents us from encountering the anxiety threatened by the ambiguity of life in its own wild and wooly terms. More on that in the next post.

Up next:

Part Two: “Why You Think You. Can’t. Even., But I’m Here to Tell You You. Can: Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, and the Sensationalization of Reaction in [Post-Post-Modern Critical Realist] Culture”


[2]The Fragile Absolute: Or Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? by Slavoj Žižek. Read the excerpt here or read the transcript of a lecture here or watch a fun video here.

[3]For a deeper exploration of this, see The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich.

[4]  Tony Jones brilliantly reflects on this shift, referred to as “critical realism” here:

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