May 21, 2003
I can tell I have end-of-the-year burnout because I have been inaugurating my summer reading with casual narratives. I reviewed Ann Monroe, can't wait to get to Lauren Winner and tonight I came across this epiphanic passage in Randall Balmer's warm Growing Pains: Learning to Love my Father's Faith:
Although I could never have given voice to it at the time, I suspect that what I found off-putting about the missionary altar calls and the pressure I felt from my father [to enter the ministry] was their contrived nature. They struck me as coercive and manipulative, and the course they proscribed seemed formulaic (68).THAT'S IT!!
Evangelicalism is a tradition I found rather than being born into, and I love it. But something has always grated on me, and on many others I know. Balmer finally puts his finger on it. Mainliners fear evangelicalism's unswerving conviction; but that's not what it is. Catholics flee from its chaotic, schismatic impulses; but that's not it either. Elitists heap scorn on its anti-intellectualism; but they don't know or won't admit that at its core it is a rationalistic, intellectual tradition. No, what turns me off about my beloved evangelicalism is how often it succumbs to the temptation of unoriginality.
Bill Bright's "four spiritual laws" are salvation made utterly predictable: Think this, do that, and God's plan for your life will proceed like cash out of an ATM. Bible camps and revival meetings are elaborate devotional edifices designed to produce just the emotional conditions to duplicate John Wesley's conversion experience, and heaven help the disciple whose walk doesn't fit the paradigm. Memorize a set of Bible "memory verses" to use like talismans to keep inconvenient ideas at a safe distance, and you will have the wisdom of Solomon. Find a safe Bible translation that smooths the rough edges and footnotes simple answers to questions that have vexed readers for millennia, and you will rightly divide the word of truth. Go to a safe school, buy your books from a publisher you can trust, keep the radio on a predictably "Christian" station, pray the prayer of Jabez, and you won't frustrate God's plan for your perfect personal future.
Nowadays the word "sacrament" scares most evangelicals, but these are classic quasi-sacramental practices. Churches don't have to wonder whether a sacrament worked; it is backed by divine promises. Likewise the evangelical sacraments. Their stable literary forms guarantee efficacy. Their systematized liturgical settings guarantee propriety. Their ample testimonials reinforce their sense of assurance (until they don't seem to perform as advertised).
Considering where evangelicalism came from, the irony here is rich.
Lesslie Newbigin argued in The Household of God that when Protestants jettisoned the Catholic ecclesiology of formal institutional continuity, they left themselves unable to account theologically for the practical institutions of visible historical continuity on which they still relied. Like all communities, they had to respect the physicality and sociality of human life, and thus Protestant traditions. Yet because they refused to legitimize these moves theologically, the visible historical continuity of their Church, however necessary in practice, became theologically unimportant or troublesome. The results are familiar to us: Protestant denominations take their institutions with great seriousness, but can only justify their peculiar loyalties pragmatically.
Similarly, evangelicals have increasingly embraced Zwingli's spiritualism, which theologically sunders the body and the spirit and repudiates the sacramental theology of its Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed neighbors. This has left us on our own and uninsured. To compensate, we have developed a whole net set of evangelical sacraments. For baptism we have baby dedication. For confirmation we have the Sinner's Prayer and the existential assurance of salvation. For communion we have small group Bible studies; for penance, revivals; for ordination, spiritual gifts inventories; for marriage, marriage; for unction, televangelists and recovery groups. For every need there is a methodology guaranteed to get results.
Now I am not arguing against sacramental practices. I am all for them. They affirm that we can count on God. The similarity of the Catholic and the evangelical sacramental life is telling us something: we sense the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the Church according to regular patterns. It is only right and faithful to respect them. Nor am I arguing against innovation. Fearless evangelical innovation helped keep western Christianity alive as the Industrial Revolution demolished the old world in which the Church had oriented itself. Without those adaptations, it is hard to imagine a way the apostolic Church could have reached me with the good news.
However, the manufacture and abuse of sacramental practices is another thing.
Hope has to be underwritten by the promise of God, not wishful thinking. It is not method that gets results, nor empirical evidence, nor our desire, nor entrepreneurial pragmatism, but only the powerful grace of God. Why was it so important to run away from the old practices just to create new ones? Isn't baptism a rather better Sinner's Prayer than the Sinner's Prayer? Isn't it the formula Jesus gave us for demonstrating our commitment to him?
Furthermore, and getting back to Balmer's complaint with fundamentalism, these practices are vulnerable to the same abuses that made Catholic sacraments unattractive to evangelicals in the first place. When any practice comes to be seen as a guarantee of some spiritual outcome, things are lost that are vital to Christian life: the element of surprise, the role of imagination, openness to the unknown, human freedom, the very mysteriousness of mystery.
When I came to real living faith, it was not upon turning the pages of Bright's booklet and encountering the fourth spiritual law. It was upon turning the raw pages of Scripture at one particular moment in my life and meeting a Jesus I was only somewhat prepared for. There I heard the call of a Lord who gave me no assurance of a smooth life here on earth, and no formula to follow, but only a command to leave the familiar and the comfortable and embrace a life of companionship with him. All I expected was persecution. If I had been trained to "contextualize" this call, I probably could not have heard it in its stark purity, for the contextualization would surely have moved it into an oppressive world of liberal Protestant normality, or Roman Catholic regularity, or evangelical comfort.
That experience shocked me into new awareness of a God who is as consistently surprising as he is surprisingly consistent. This has left me permanently turned off by the kind of unimaginative pastoring that afflicts so many of our communities. Follow this recipe, step through these principles, go to these special events, and things will be fine. If you don't fit, well, that's your problem. But why should lives of faith fit any paradigm other than that of Christ? And where was the predictability in his journey? He fulfilled the Law and the Prophets and the Writings all right, but only in a way no one had expected and some still fail to see.
Does the evangelical paradigm really offer the same kind of consistency as the Messianic paradigm? If it does, then why are so many of our students so liberated when they come to college and find that Jesus' lordship takes other forms in other lives and other cultures?
Hey, I am as scared of God's spontaneity as the next guy. I want the Spirit to blow where I will. I am especially jealous of the security of my children, and prone to conflate their security in the Kingdom with their security in secular society. I understand why Balmer's father tried to set his son's life out for him, why he was so shocked when the son balked at the offer, and why it took so long to rebuild trust afterward. I understand why my own parents panicked when I became an evangelical, fearing that I was joining a cult. I also understand why Balmer wrote his book: it is all about coming around to the substance of his father's hopes by refusing the form.
Again: This is not an argument against respecting the patterns that do fall into place in the life of the Church. It is not an argument against taking God at his baptismal and eucharistic word. The fathers of our sacramental theology Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin were exemplars of theological bravery. This is only an argument against domesticating the unruly Word and sacraments of our desert God and pressing them into serving our own lordship. It is only a plea that we celebrate the sheer creativity of the new creation.
Here we have no lasting city (Heb. 13:14), even one of our own movement's making. Welcome home, Professor Balmer! And thank you for your memories.
May 20, 2003
One of my Catholic friends and fact-checkers sent this in a long time ago, and I'm just getting back to it in my inbox:
I really like your new FAQ, but want to remind you that there is a little more nuance in the categorization of the hierarchies of "definitive authority" within RC magisterial teaching. Sensus fidelium and sensum fidei, the reception of a teaching and the way that it comes to "live with the church" both affect the definitiveness and authority of any teaching. Thus, the 19th Marian doctrines become, in effect, dogma because they are received as such by the People of God. You won't find me quoting Ratzinger very often, but to paraphrase his letter, "Mysterium Ecclesiae" (1973), the content of the deposit of faith is unchanging but it falls to each generation to articulate it ever more clearly. Which means, of course, that both canonists and theologians have plenty of room to argue.Quite.
It is good to remember that even the Councils (particularly the last one) have been received very unevenly.
I remember how mystified we Protestants were as the Catholics in our theology reading group at Duke shredded the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church. After they noticed our jaws hanging open, they turned politely to us and said, "Oh, we do this all the time. It's fine." Of course that was a catechism, not a council. Still, I think we expected the Catholics to respect their own Magisterium's material at least as much as we Protestants did.
Moving back to the dogmatic level, it still puzzles me how the twentieth-century stress on the necessity of reception by the faithful is really compatible with this language from chapter 4 of Vatican I's First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ:
We teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of Pastor and Doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals: and that therefore such definitions are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church. But if anyone which may God avert presume to contradict this Our definition; let him be anathema (emphasis added).That doesn't sound much like these teachings become dogma "because they are received as such by the people of God." The causality runs in the opposite direction, from God to the Holy See to the faithful. The people of God receive these dogmas, and that's that. Those are the confident indicative verbs of official Catholic ecclesiology.
Oh, I know that Catholics believe the two are compatible. I have heard it from friends who are some of the best Catholic theologians in America. I've even heard it from some Protestants. The cynical part of me reads it as an ingenious device to back out of the blind alley Roman Catholicism headed into in the nineteenth century, by revising doctrine under the cover of merely "articulating it anew." But I don't doubt the good faith of the people who have explained it to me, and I am sure I am missing many nuances. Catholics are a lot better at nuance than evangelicals. They have to be!
I have even heard some of these Catholics claim (quietly) that the process of reception might last for centuries, that it may be that everything from Trent onward is illegitimate because of its failure to be received by Protestants. I find that a very promising way towards ecumenical reconciliation. In fact, I would like to extend the principle to qualify the authority of every council after the Second Nicene Council of 787 ... or, because of the legitimate issues of the Churches of the East, to qualify every one after Ephesus in 431. I'm game hey, I'm a free church theologian. Bring it on.
See, how radically the sensus fidelium principle applies depends on who constitute the faithful. As long as the Church is identified with the formal Roman Catholic communion, everything is stable. But once the Church merely subsists in the Roman Catholic Church, Pandora's Box is open. No wonder Vatican II has been unevenly received; it may have sawed off the very branch it was sitting on.
Better yet, let's dispense with the sensus fidelium as an ultimate sign of truth and recognize that sometimes we all fall short and that even then God does not discharge us from our responsibility of signifying his Kingdom. Let God be true and everyone a liar.
(I tried to put it in Hebrew, unsuccessfully. Bat-blog: Nope. Bath-blog: Nah. [Or would it be blog-bat?] And so on. Sorry.)
You already know Britta K from some of my recent e-mails. Welcome her into the blogosphere, will you?
All I want to say is that there are many gods and many lords, and he is one of them.
... your post about the hamster today reminded me of a theory on Minute Particulars last December on the same subject:You are right about my hesitation over the idea of immaterial humanity if memories, habits, and dispositions don't require matter, well, then I don't know where I keep them. But let's assume that doesn't matter (and it really doesn't). At the general resurrection, I hope to be reconstituted as the same person I am now. Persons are subsistent relations: we are who we are by virtue of our relations with others. I am the son of Robert and Nancy, husband of Kim, father of Jeremy, Daniel, Junia, and Benjamin, student of Geoffrey, and so on. Most vitally, I am brother and follower of Jesus. That one eternal relationship guarantees the permanence of the others, i.e., it affords my eternity.
"...here's my take on animal heaven: Only human souls are immortal so there won't be any glorified bodies of pets in heaven. However, the soul separated from the body and then subsequently informing a glorified body retains those things which do not require matter. So, our memories and our habits, our dispositions toward others, including our pets, remain with us, albeit transformed in a way we can't know this side of heaven. In this sense, pets will be in heaven because our relationship to the pet remains with us."
I don't imagine you like the soul-separated-from-the-body stuff (he's not a Cartesian, though, as you can tell elsewhere on the blog), but I thought that was an interesting idea.
I suppose my relationship with Mapit is a significant (though minor) part of my story, but as Mapit is not a person, she does not seem constitutive of my personhood. Yes, she is one of the 'others' towards whom I have dispositions. But isn't it a little more accurate here to say "towards which"? Why restrict this category to organic living things?
My first car out of college was a red 16-valve Volkswagen Scirocco. I put a Kenwood stereo in it with Boston Acoustics two-way speakers in back, Armor-Alled the tires and the dash, waxed every time I washed ... that was my car. It drove like a dream until the engine mounts collapsed and from then on it rattled like a freight train, but hey, that's what car stereos are for. I finally got rid of it only because I had to roll start it every time I started my 100-mile commutes between Pasadena and Westmont, and it wasn't always convenient (okay, safe) to roll start in reverse in a full parking lot. (Besides, I couldn't always count on having a hill.) What should I get then? An Acura Integra with a VTEC and a sunroof sounded a little too much like a midlife crisis, so I Did the Right Thing and got a Honda Accord. You can bet that in fifteen years I will not be journaling about my Honda. It does not feature into my dispositions nearly as formatively: When I hear "I'm in Love with my Car" by Queen (from A Night at the Opera), my Scirocco is what I'm still thinking about. So in heaven, does the Scirocco come back with new engine mounts but not the Accord with its congenitally clunky manual transmission and always-in-the-way-of-my-shifting armrest?
(Actually, come to think about it, that doesn't sound so bad.)
Or think of other things for which we have profound memories, habits, and dispositions: my room when I was a child, my neighborhood, souvenirs and sentimentaliia of all kinds ... are all these re-presented to me? Is that why the New Jerusalem is so big because it's just one big museum of nostalgia?
More importantly, what of the loved ones who helped make me who I am, but who have elected out of the Kingdom?
If the answer to these objections is that memories, habits, and dispositions are 'immaterial' things that reside in our psyches rather than material things that surround us in embodied life, then the post is saying nothing more than what we told the kids: We remember Mapit, and we have pictures, and we thank God for the time we had together. But that is not the answer Daniel was looking for when he asked whether Mapit would go to heaven. He wants that cute little furball to be okay again.
I don't want to get all Gnostic and turn us into phantoms that transport out of the Matrix, but I think there is something important to the distinction between what will and what will not pass away. Some old creation doesn't turn into new creation. And I am not turning this into a dogma, but my hunch is that both my Scirocco and Mapit and my childhood room have passed away not to return. My memories of them will likely persist in some unfathomable form, but I am not comfortable claiming that of my relationships with them.
Am I telling that to my kids? Nope. Kim and I are sticking to our story that whatever happens to Mapit is in God's hands, and we trust God. 'Nuff said.
Then, from a former student:
I found the blog from May 16 especially interesting, and disagreed with one part. You write about how to tell your kids that Mapit will be in heaven will lead to false assurances, and "confuse salvation with sentimentality." But is the only thing we can speak of in the face of death salvation? No, I think what is vitally needed is eschatology. And here Moltmann has been helpful in showing me that the end-times are not just about my salvation, but more fundamentally about God. Will God be truly be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28)? I think that is the underlying question when we grieve over a lost loved one or even a pet. Will God be able to restore what sin has so cruelly separated? Is God truly stronger than death? And here Jesus' resurrection speaks a resounding "yes." Not just for humans, but for all creation. As Moltmann writes in The Way of Jesus Christ:First of all, having a former student quote back Moltmann at me rocks.
resurrection has become the universal 'law' of creation, not merely for human beings, but for animals, plants, stones, and all cosmic life systems as well. The raised body of Christ therefore acts as an embodied promise for the whole creation (258).And earlier:
Death is the power of separation.... The raising to eternal life, conversely, is the power to unite.... Eternal life is the final healing of this life into the completed wholeness for which it is destined (71).Now, I am not saying that we can pronounce assuredly on whether pets will be in heaven or not. But I am saying that our musings on these things do not necessarily lead to sentimentality, and that the question on "a pet's salvation" belies a deeper question about God. Will this God we worship somehow redeem and judge everything, leaving nothing which can be redeemed in the hands of death? Yes!
Second, even as I wrote I was a little unhappy with my phrase "confusing salvation and sentimentality", and about an hour later I realized what I should have said was "confusing hope and sentimentality." That might bring my thought a little closer to Moltmann's. However, I don't think that the death of every living thing must be reversed in order for resurrection to be the universal law of creation. Paul does not argue from some generalized law of resurrection to the raising of human beings in 1 Cor. 15; he argues from the resurrection of the human being Jesus that the raising of human beings is real. This is only reinforced by the fact that our deaths and resurrections begin through baptism into Christ; some Christians bless pets but while I am sure there are some horrifying exceptions to this rule we do not baptize our pets. We buried Mapit yesterday afternoon in our backyard after more eulogies and a prayer of thanksgiving (and with Jeremy pondering, Daniel screaming in hysterics, and Junia confidently assuring us that Mapit would come back after we fed her). But we did not invoke the resurrection.
When God withdraws his spirit, creatures die; when he sends it anew, they are refreshed (Ps. 104). John Leith got my attention some time ago by claiming that death is part of the natural order. What sin does is turn death into something we experience without God into an enemy and that is where the sting comes from. Psalm 104 backs up both assertions. Now maybe the Fathers were right that sinless human beings would be 'translated' into a glorified state rather than die and rise, as are those left alive at Christ's coming (1 Thess. 4:13-18). But maybe not. Maybe sinless human beings would still have died and waited for our transformation, but the living would experience that loss without the grief that sin brings to the experience. Perhaps the death of pets would not invoke the same grief either.
Leith's argument is more than a little conjectural (and the patristic one is too), but it does respect that human beings are natural organisms, and birth and death are the beginning and ending of individual organic life. Death is not a Power over hamsters as it is over human beings. The matter then is not that death-in-general is a universal contradiction to a Moltmannian law of resurrection-in-general. It is that the specific contradiction of human death apart from God is overcome through human life with God in Jesus Christ, a gift for those in God's image and specifically for Jesus Christ, the only true image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation and firstborn from the dead, in whom and through whom and for whom are all things (Col. 1:15-20).
Third, if all things are judged as well as redeemed, then is there a hell for pets? How about one for plants? houses? appliances? (In each category I can think of some promising candidates.)
Having said all that, I am with Moltmann that hope is the controlling category for all of these kinds of questions. When I told my mourning children that I trust God to be good to his creatures, that was an eschatological claim on behalf of the whole creation. I still do not know what part one lucky twenty-first century hamster plays in the big picture, but she does have one. She did, anyway, and we are grateful for it.
In that spirit, here is one that looks forward rather than just back:
I'm sorry to read about Mapit; I remember Mapit and the elaborate hamster home well from packing day last summer (Daniel is good at show and tell). :) When is packing day this summer?Sadly, the answer is: "for now we see through a glass darkly." I'll keep you posted as our certainty grows.
Finally, from my messianic Jewish friend with the voice of an angel:
Please allow me to express my sympathy on the loss of Mapit. Every once in a while I still cry over my dog, Tim, whom I lost my first year at Westmont. Death is indeed an enemy to be overcome. Prayers for your kids, and for you and Kimmy as you help them through it.There we go. Short, sweet, and concrete. This is why we Gentile Christians need to be streaming to Zion.
Thanks to everyone for your very kind words. I have sent them along to the kids.
Naturally, I compensated by requiring lots of written essays during the semester, so it didn't help all that much....
May 16, 2003
Hearts are heavy today in the Work home. My kids' hamster Mapit died last night right before bedtime. This is the first death in my children's life: their first confrontation with that forbidding corner of reality.
We hugged them and held them. We sympathized and eulogized. But how wrenching and humbling it is to watch your children realize that their affections alone cannot confer immortality, and that even their parents are powerless against death.
I hate death. I hated it when my own pets died, when it took my father, when it visits my friends and family and students, when I see and read about it every day, when my culture turns it into entertainment. It is an enemy, and I want to see it defeated.
On the final meeting of this spring's Alpha class at my church, the leaders asked us what other topics we would have liked to address. The answers were interesting: What is the afterlife like? Could we please come up with a more satisfying answer to the problem of evil? What are we supposed to do with all the apocalyptic eschatology going around? How do God's foreknowledge and guidance work? And one of the mothers at my table asked that quintessentially American question, Do pets go to heaven?
When your child has invested such love in a little defenseless ball of fur and is sobbing because that relationship has been torn apart, it is so tempting to run to false assurances and tell him that Mapit will be waiting for him in heaven. Now I can't say that she won't be. We know the Day holds many surprises, and that would be an ultracool one. But to put our wishful thinking in God's mouth abuses the authority we have as parents. It confuses salvation and sentimentality. It makes religion an opiate.
Instead, we found a truer consolation. My boys quieted as I told them that the pain they felt came from a love for Mapit that is far outweighed by God's love for each of us, and for everyone we will ever meet. That I can promise, for over and over Jesus' friends saw it as divine power and love embraced in their presence, and they spread the word. For a while the crying stopped as the boys considered the good news. It returned, of course; even a love such as this doesn't simply dispel pain. But they were not facing the pain alone, and neither was Mapit's creator.
Today my children better understand the pain and joy of God as even each little sparrow falls and hatches and of YHWH as Israel wanders and returns, of the woman who loses and finds her precious coin, of the shepherd who seeks and finds every lost sheep, of the father whose prodigal son wanders and returns, and of the angels whenever anyone departs or rejoins the fellowship. Through my children, I understand it better too.
Thanks for your witness, Mapit. We will miss you.
Oh my dear, exalted friend, am I the friend you spoke so stealthily about in your 5/9 blog, or have you been Shabbat Shaloming behind my back? ;)~You're the one!
You would want to keep the festival celebrations low-key, wouldn't you? Don't mind the background laughter, Telf. While I actually agree with you on the problem of the possible crowding out of the fulfillment, I think the introduction of further Yeshua-centered liturgy will accomplish the goal you seek much more effectively in the Messianic Movement.Sounds great, as long as we turn up the Christian-year partying even more to compensate! (Christmas and Easter of course, but others too.)
One of the things I learned at the outset of my trek home to [Messianic] Judaism: We Like to Party. While the rollicking, surface meaning of that statement is true to my experience, the deeper joys of communal celebration have found me in the Jewish festivals.
Go! Spend the night out in a Sukka to celebrate HaShem's continual provision for us in the desert. And while you're at it, spend Sukkot dreaming about the miracle of incarnation, when HaShem tabernacled with us. Hear the piercing, awful wail of a shofar after a full 24 hours of fasting at the end of Yom Kippur, and allow yourself to know, in all your being, that you have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Take the wine at Pesach, knowing the sort of cup Yeshua took as you toast your own "To
Life." Sing praises to our Sheltering Tower at Chanukah, who has preserved us time and time again. Who frees all people, and overthrows all tyrants, through the atonement on the cross.
Same problem, different solution. Enrich the festivals and holy days with Yeshua and his story. Don't squelch them.
And I fear (although not too badly) that you and I shall never come to a consensus about Shabbat vs./in conjunction with the Lord's Day. The reason I fear so lightly is because of something Augustine didn't say: In all things, charity. I will celebrate the Lord's Day with you any time you like, Telf. So when do I get to share a Shabbat with you? I'm dying for you to come visit!This is really a vexing problem. Not visiting on Shabbat, of course! but rather the pressing need to reconcile the different Gentile and Jewish rhythms of the liturgical Christian year, week, and day. This will take more than charity; it will take extraordinarily discerning negotiation of unity and liberty. "To the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom. 1:16) is harder to practice than to preach.
Revelation 7 offers an image of "a hundred and forty-four thousand sealed, out of every tribe of the sons of Israel", and after that "a great multitude no one could number, from every people ... standing before the throne and before the Lamb ... crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!'" Is this one assembly, or two? Is the chosen people singing the same song as the other peoples, or its own? The text does not say. Maybe even John the Prophet could not foresee how or when Israel and the other nations could learn to sing together.
Perhaps by chapter 15 and certainly by chapter 19 the throng speaks as one. By that standard, we Messianic Jews and Gentiles have a long way to go as we journey together through the Apocalypse. Thanks for walking with me, my friend!
The world's one and only inflatable church is here to allow couples to get married wherever their hearts desire. This fantastic air filled building is 47ft long by 25ft wide & 47ft high. The attention to detail is heavenly complete with plastic "stained glass" windows and airbrush artwork which replicates the traditional church. Inside it has an inflatable organ [I wonder how many search referrals the site gets just because of that phrase TW], altar, pulpit, pews, candles and a gold cross. Even the doors are flanked by air-filled angels. The church can be built in three hours and dis-assembled in less than two.And the preacher does the inflating for you!
Coming soon: inflatable pub, inflatable marquee, and inflatable nightclub. Really.
May 10, 2003
Read this thought-provoking post from Donald Sensing about religious absolutism and relativism, wrote a long sophisticated response, Blogger lost it and since students are asking about this kind of thing all the time, I decided to reconceive it as a theological FAQ.
This from a friend of mine, who is about the funniest guy I have ever met:
I'd like to respond to some of your recent observations about nonviolence by asking if you'll be coming over when Vince and Jacki come to town, since the only reliable contact I have with you anymore is reading your blog.I would have to respond that the most potent form of spiritual warfare in the apostolic Church is gathering around a common table and eating and drinking in memory of their crucified and risen Lord, i.e., we're there!
In an earlier post, you say,
Consider the very phrase "nonviolent resistance." In our culture it belongs to the world of protest, in which the "demonstrator" is reacting defensively and evil has the initiative. It inhabits the narrative of modern progress, in which the definitive moral agent is (for statists) civil society, (for individualists) the individual, or (for Marxists) the masses.And to that I say we hope you can, in fact come over when Vince and Jacki are in town. And if you do come over, we hope you and the whole family will avail yourselves of hamburgers, hot dogs and BBQ chicken.
It's one thing to say "The image of Church as demonstrator has its (minor) place in biblical and theological tradition..." But it's quite another thing for us to see the kids and for you to meet our new dog, Lily.
I'll keep an eye on the blog to see if you and Kim think you'll be able to make it!
May 9, 2003
I am embarrassed to say that I have blogmail I have wanted to respond to that is now weeks-old. After grades are in, perhaps I can get to it. In the meantime, here is something a reader who forwarded one of my posts to a "sabbath-observant evangelical" friend, who sent back this response:
Shabbat and Lord's Day are not the same and the tendency to coalesce them has basically been just the jettisoning of the one (Shabbat) in favor of theThanks for the note! Nice observations! I hope a certain Messianic Jewish friend of mine is reading this.
other (Lord's Day). Sure, some old-timers invoke the "rest" element for Sunday (thus, Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, blue laws, etc.), but this is a moon-cast shadow of Shabbat in the Hebrew Scriptures. Shabbat is the lynchpin for the Bible's view of time. Without it, the festivals are discarded (as they are now), the Shmitah (7th year) and Jubilee (50th year) rests are discarded (as they are now), and the constant reference back to creation theology is obscured (thus Christians have little to say about environmentalism that they haven't borrowed and watered down from pantheist/socialist/nuts-and-berries-ists). All of these items are wrapped up in Avraham Heschel's description of the "frankensteins" we create in space to overcome our limitations in time. Only Shabbat, not Lord's Day, hits us with these limitations and forces us toward a more realistic view of our relationship toward God and creation.
I myself would rather keep the festival observances low-key, rather like the minor Christian holidays such as Pentecost and Saints' Days. They are part of the story, they deserve to be remembered regularly, and ignoring them does exact a real toll. Yet in some Messianic circles they threaten to crowd out the Church's story of their fulfillment. Likewise, Sabbath should never overshadow the Lord's Day. I would say that the seventh day is the lynchpin of the old creation, but the first day is the lynchpin for the Bible's view of eschatological time, remembering the dawning of the new creation. How perfect that every week should look back to the first things, then look forward on the last things.
This is of course a lost cause outside evangelical Protestantism. At least it is for the foreseeable future.
Shabbat shalom, when it comes....
May 6, 2003
[UPDATE: I have changed this post to expand upon several underdeveloped aspects that hit me soon after I posted. Blogging tip: Never publish right before taking a shower.]
Every once in a while I return to the topic of Christian nonviolence, just to beat a few dead horses (only verbally, I assure you) and invite criticism.
Thanks to Donald Sensing for mentioning this story about real Christian nonviolent action, in North Korea, which you should read in full:
This story and Yerang's work illustrates how true nonviolent resistance works, but we must understand that using nonviolent means does not mean that the other side will refrain from violence. After all, Bull O'Connor sic'd his dogs and turned his hoses on MLK's marchers. The Korean Christians know this, accept it, carry out their calling and live or die with the consequences. That illustrates what is perhaps the greatest difference between the North American/Euro churches and Christians of most of the rest of the world.That's right. Christians have historically understood the techniques and casualties of spiritual warfare in ways profoundly different from the way most western pacifists understand the techniques and consequences of their practices. Since the cultural ascendance of liberal pacifism in the twentieth century, many western Christians have become more formed by those traditions than by historical traditions of Christian nonviolence, and they obviously find it difficult to tell the difference. Christians from other cultures are better at distinguishing between the way of the peace rally and the way of the cross.
The extent of the corruption is so great that someone like Sensing who knows the difference still accommodates his rhetoric to the liberal pacifists' vocabulary. (I do too, unfortunately.) Consider the very phrase "nonviolent resistance." In our culture it belongs to the world of protest, in which the "demonstrator" is reacting defensively and evil has the initiative. It inhabits the narrative of modern progress, in which the definitive moral agent is (for statists) civil society, (for individualists) the individual, or (for Marxists) the masses. A demonstration is effective when it changes the course of its principal audience, which is usually one of these moral agents.
Even more insidious is the way especially in my own theological circles the Christian category of "witness" is being assimilated into the image of the protest demonstration. It is increasingly common to misread the Church's martyreia to rulers, to individuals, and to crowds as being no more than a modern-day protest whose effectiveness is measured by whether the moral agent is persuaded to favor the Church's cause. Constantinians measure their "victory" in realms, revivalists in conversions, celebrities in public opinion polls, and triumphalists in the sweep of history; but the mistake is common to all. Rulers, individuals, and crowds are never the driving forces in consummating the new creation. They may be subjects of change, but they are always fundamentally objects of change.
The people of God (the head of whom is Jesus Christ) are the collective subject of redemption. The image of Church as demonstrator has its (minor) place in biblical and theological tradition, but a much more typical image has the Church in the proactive, initiating position, breaking down the gates of hell. The real center of human history is not the state, not the individual, not "The People," not even the Geist of history, but Israel-Jesus-Church. It is the other human institutions that are on the defensive, rebelling and passing away and being renewed. They. Are. Going. Down.
That's how the faith is supposed to work, and that is how these Koreans are acting. Like their weak Lord, they are strong, for God is with them to humiliate the principalities and powers already defeated at the cross. Yes, evil is real and pervasive and still powerful, as they know better than I. But it is on the run as long as the Church is really chasing it. And they are in hot pursuit.
This is one of those areas where the vigorous non-western Church is going to be tutoring (or, more accurately, correcting) the flaccid western Church over the twenty-first century. (I just hope they do it before too many of them come here for theological education and we ruin them.)
Yet we in the west already have tutors and prophets of our own. Church historians and hagiographers have of course already identified many of them for us. Here the arrogant historical apathy of the modern western Church has accelerated its political dilapidation. Liberals buy into postmillennial progressivism, and shrug off the past. Evangelicals buy into premillennial dispensationalism, and write off the Church. Both then find ourselves trapped in the present and bound to the world, and find ourselves reaching either for picket signs or for rifles. The Holy Spirit, however, blows where he wills; if we follow his trail we will find freedom to be more than conquerors.
There is solid theology out there too: Check out the writings of John Howard Yoder, Walter Wink, Miroslav Volf, Marva Dawn (whose Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God is on my summer reading stack), Lesslie Newbigin, and Stanley Hauerwas, just for starters. Political conservatives may be irritated with the political liberalism of many of these brothers and sisters; but bearing with it is definitely worth our trouble, for the underlying theology applies more broadly.
Ask one of these Koreans, though, and I bet he or she will offer different advice: Pray. Act. Trust. And help us! The books are great, but we already have the knowledge we need. We just have to follow through.
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(Via Matt Welch.)
"They have called the master of the house Beelzebul" (Matt. 10:25).
Exodus 32 is the famous chapter in which the Hebrews, terrified (or perhaps emboldened) by Moses' long absence on Sinai, prod Aaron to make a golden calf to worship. There is a career's worth of material here for a sociologist of religion (or a parent of young children; same difference). The whole chapter is crazy, even without Cecil B. DeMille's hands on it. But if you want to see crazy, open a newspaper. Crazy is real.
Was it really YHWH who brought the people out of Egypt (20:2)? Was it really Moses (32:1)? Nah, the people decide, it was the calf (32:4).
Aaron builds an altar before the calf, but then announces that tomorrow will be a festival of YHWH (32:5). Some priest. Is he a synchretist, a polytheist, or just an opportunist given to splitting the difference? His lame excuses when Moses returns are those of a four-year-old who can't even lie well (32:21-24).
All this gets the true deliverers' attention right away (32:8). What do we do now?
God rants that he will destroy the lot of them and start again with Moses (32:9-10). Moses immediately sees the flaw in the plan. It is here that Moses' unique background becomes so valuable. Like Joseph, he knows both Hebrew and Egyptian culture. His ability to leverage that multicultural facility into effective intercession makes him the priest Aaron will never be. "Won't Egyptians think of destroying the Hebrews as a vindication? 'The god of our slaves has made our point for us! He delivered them from us in order to annihilate them in the mountains'" (cf. 32:12)!
"And from the Hebrew perspective, YHWH, doesn't this betray the promises you yourself gave our ancestors?" (32:13).
This plan is lose-lose. Accordingly, YHWH drops it (32:14).
Both of Moses' objections speak to a topic Camassia and I have been going around and around on for months: The character of God. What kind of reputation does YHWH want to have? Decisiveness is a mixed blessing. It invests a leader's reputation in outcomes that depend in part on the faithfulness of the followers. The people's actions have left YHWH in a bind. He gets to pick his slander. If he gives the idolatry the treatment it deserves, he abandons the ancestors and leaves himself open to mockery from the Gentiles. If he lets it go, the chosen people, the hope of the world, will think a false god is its savior and the other nations will never learn of the true one. If he tries to split the difference and hold back the full force of his disapproval, everyone will think the consequences of idolatry are less than grave. The dilemma is familiar to parents of children who are disobedient in public: Deal with it now, deal with it less, ignore it just this once, or deal with it later?
Answer: Make clear your feelings now, but deal with it later (32:14, 34-35). Win-win. God's character will be vindicated after all eventually.
In the meantime, what a mess.
So Moses descends with the Decalogue, to remind his people that what he told them before is both divinely authored and permanently binding (32:15-16). Yet as he approaches, we discover he has grown comfortable with a third culture the culture of heaven. After all that time on Sinai, Moses is growing used to holiness. So he appreciates not just the stubbornness of the pharaohs, the memory of the fathers, and the pity of fellow sinners, but also the jealousy of the Lord (32:19-20).
A true priest.
So Moses rants too, prophetically enacting the destruction of the covenant his people had so recently taken upon themselves (32:19). This makes the point dramatically enough, but it doesn't solve the problem. As he endures Aaron's ridiculous and self-serving account of his own failed leadership, perhaps he hears the fear in Aaron's voice. At any rate, he realizes his own people have become a mob (32:25). They have no fear of the Holy One.
Time for a coalition of the willing, so to speak (32:26, cf. Matt. 10:1-20). Their ministry will bring not peace, but a sword (32:28a, cf. Matt. 10:34-36). The radical priority of this task must split families before it can heal the human community (32:29, cf. Matt. 10:21-22, 35-38). The results are terrible on that day (32:28b) as they are for the apostles of the latter days (Matt. 10:16-25) but they restore order and sober the chosen people long enough for the mediator to arise again to the place of intercession and win forgiveness for the transgressors (32:30-31, cf. Matt. 10:32-33, 38-39).
(Come to think of it, it would be lovely if the west did likewise with the breathing space its war on terror has won.)
Back on the mountain, the priest confesses his people's sin (32:31) and puts his life on the line: If you will not forgive my people, then count me out too (32:32). His self-serving heroism earns a divine rebuke; or better, his kenosis prompts divine reassurance that God does not punish capriciously (32:33) and that he keeps his promises (32:34). To lose one's life for his sake is to find it (Matt. 10:39).
To reunite the estranged, to disassociate the Lord's name from Beezelbul's, takes more than righteous indignation or humanistic empathy or multicultural facility. It takes something other than rage or lenience. One must cross cultures to fuse them; one must transgress boundaries to overcome them. The Hebrew must reign in Egypt; the prince must flee to Midian; the free family must return to Goshen. More profoundly different cultures must be fused as well: The High God must descend to Sinai. The one drawn out of the water must ascend to see his face. The Spirit must preach to all nations (Matt. 10:18-20). the Father must deliver all things to the Son; the people of the Son must discover the Father (Matt. 11:27). The liberator must suffer, literally suffer, his own people's addiction to slavery (Matt. 10:25). The slaves must receive the liberator to receive the one who sent him (Matt. 10:40).
For God's vindication to be complete, destruction is inadequate. The holy must become common and sinners sanctified. The way of this priest is the Way of life.
Time now for him to lead the way (32:34, cf. Matt. 11:1).
May 4, 2003
Exodus 31, and the whole unit that began in chapter 25, closes with a final warning:
"Now you must keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I YHWH have made you holy. You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to YHWH; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death" (Ex. 31:13-15).The juxtaposition of this passage with what has come before is what drives Mishnaic thinking on what constitutes work that is forbidden on the sabbath. The work of 31:14 is the work of 31:3-5. (This vocabulary-driven method of exegesis is called pesher.)
Jews readily admit that this is a lot to peg on one common word, but there it is. Here is one of several places where "a mountain hangs by a thread":
Indeed, in one revealing passage in the Mishna, Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi acknowledges this tenuous relationship. He classifies much of his legal matter into three categories according to their linkage to Scripture. The most removed, like the laws of the dissolution of vows, "hover in the air because they rest on nothing." Somewhat closer are the laws of Shabbat and festival offerings, because they are akin to "a mountain hanging by a thread; the scriptural basis is meager yet the laws abound." Finally, the most intimately connected are civil law, Temple ritual, purity regulations and regulations concerning forbidden marriages, "which truly make up the core of Scripture."Contextually, this particular thread looks pretty strong to me, and very threatening to the utilitarian piety with which we evangelicals rationalize our hectic lives. Surely the Lord's work is important enough to take priority!
Actually, no, God says here. All the work articulated in the past seven chapters has been the Lord's work. This too must cease. For if God rested from the most important work of all, the creation of all that is, how much more must God's people rest from ours!
Surely that was then, but this is now! What about the new covenant? Well, consider this: While Jesus lay in his grave, the Father observed the sabbath (cf. Mark 16:1).
[Excursus: Scholars have puzzled for ages over why one of the earliest creeds, preserved in 1 Cor. 15:3-5 (or perhaps 3-7), reads, "He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." Gospel allusions to Jesus' having to rise on the third day present the same problem. There is no knock-down Old Testament text in which "the third day" appears in a way that the resurrection seems to fulfill (Ex. 19, maybe? 2 Kings 20? Hosea 6?). I wonder whether the passing of the sabbath is what it is about the third day that accords with the Scriptures.]
I am not yet prepared enough to pronounce authoritatively on this topic, but I am drawing closer than ever to the conclusion that the traditional conflation of the sabbath and the Lord's Day is a bad idea. The first, Jewish, Christians both observed the sabbath and met together in Christ's name on the first day. A first-day sabbath makes this practice unintelligible. It drives Jews and Gentile Christians further apart. And, if the Mishnaic interpretation of Ex. 31 is right, it is a poor interpretation of both this text and the Pauline instructions on how to build up the body of Christ in the assembly. Liturgy (leiturgeos, "the people's work") is work, not rest. Distinguishing the seventh-day sabbath from the first-day Lord's Day makes that clear.
Sure, the priests violate the sabbath without losing their innocence (Matt. 12:5). Sure, mercy is something to practice 24/7 (Matt. 12:7). Sure, Jesus is lord of the sabbath (Matt. 12:8). Of course it is always lawful to do good (Matt. 12:12). We can do the Lord's work on the sabbath. But remember: the point of the passage, and the Fourth Commandment, and the continuing presupposition of Matt. 12, is that we can not do it too.
May 3, 2003
Remember when I was blogging the Bible? Me too. I left off at Ex. 30.
Chapters 30-31 are a delight. The bloodiness of chapter 29 is mainly past; now the instruction moves on to how to furnish and stock the Tabernacle of the Presence. Chapter 30 instructs on how to build an altar, burn morning and evening incense, pay a head tax as a ransom, make a basin for the priests' water of cleansing, prepare fragrant oil for anointing the holy ones and the holy things, and prepare special incense for the place of divine meeting. All these have roles in the practices that bring God and God's people into each other's lives. All find a place in Christian liturgy but their place is not just in the wooden altar, the incense, the holy water, the oil of confirmation, and the censers of the Mass. As we shall see.
Chapter 31 promises divine power for the labor that will produce all this:
YHWH spoke to Moses, "See, I have singled out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with the Spirit of God for wisdom, ability, and knowledge in every kind of work; to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood to work in every kind of work. ... I have also granted skill to all who are skillful, that they may make everything that I have commanded you: the Tent of Meeting, the Ark for the Pact and the cover upon it, and all the furnishings of the Tent; the table and its utensils, the pure lampstand and all its fittings, and the altar of incense; the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the laver and its stand; the service vestments, the sacral vestments of Aaron the priest and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests; as well as the anointing oil and the aromatic incense for the sanctuary" (Ex. 31:1-11).Does that sound familiar? It should:
There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one (1 Cor. 12:4-6).The former tabernacle was built from Egyptian plunder with spiritual gifts; the ecclesial temple which is the Church is built up from alien materials (Eph. 2:19-22) through the same Spirit. The utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, the life of faith, the practice of healing, the doing of miracles, the discernment of spirits, the practice of tongues, help, administration, and all the rest that happens in the community is eternal architecture (cf. Ex. 31:4 LXX), and all Christ's members are the expert builders who edify God's building with our furnishings of gold, silver, precious stones, and wood, or who clutter it with hay and straw (1 Cor. 3:9-17).
Could rabbi Paul have been drawing on these passages for the ecclesial pneumatology of Romans, 1 Corinthians, and (if the letter is his) Ephesians? Perhaps a better question to ask is: Could he not have been? Isn't this right where he would he have gone to understand what was going on in these communities of faith? For a Christian leader so formed in Torah, can all the parallel imagery really be coincidental?
I don't think so.
Coming soon: The rest of Ex. 31.
amusing cocktail chatter. Yet Norman Mailer somehow mistook it for thought, typed it up, and sent it to the Times as if it would be interesting to someone whose reasoning facilities hadn't been considerably loosened by whiskey. It is metaphor abused, used as if a metaphor could itself create a link between two things, rather than illuminating one that already exists in the phenomenal world. This is war described as if the most important thing about it were the description.She is close to something very important here, but her modernism casts it misleadingly. We don't live in a world of known facts and basic truisms about human behavior. That kind of epistemological foundationalism doesn't work. Substance is not radically prior to style; fact is not radically prior to value.
In other words, it's idiotic. And it's symptomatic. There is something about our literary culture that has caused its prominent members to believe that words are the same thing as facts, more important than the objects they describe. They seem to think that one can make up any theory, no matter how ridiculous, and unless it is dramatically falsifiable, it's just as valid as a theory that starts with known facts and basic truisms about human behavior and builds from them. They think style is more important than substance.
And for some reason, they're mad because the rest of us don't take them seriously.
We all rely on pictures in order to comprehend our world, to communicate, to explore and criticize and discover the deep things of life and the shallow things of life, too. This seems just to be how humans think. Many of you are sick of hearing this from me (I'm thinking of you, Camassia), but Wittgenstein is the man here. Knowledge is language, and language is metaphorical. (The woman here, by the way, is Janet Martin Soskice.)
Yet the weakness in Mailer's article, in Mailer's whole subculture, is real and grave. Some subcultures become so seduced by the power of imagination that they can become enslaved either to their visionaries, or to their visions. A common way of talking about it is by saying that certain people and certain cultures live in fantasy worlds, dream palaces, etc. I see a lot of this on the left, which is all about constructing persuasive futures. Maybe the attraction of evocative imagery helps explain why writers, musicians, and actors are more comfortable on the left than the right. But religious imaginations are even more vulnerable to the temptation than literary imaginations. We in the west are getting acquainted with the persuasive power of wishful imagery in the Muslim world. In fact, I sense that something like it was behind the original triumph of Islam in pre-Islamic Arabia. Yet Christians have plenty of our own examples, from some of our first apocalyptists to Joachim of Fiore to Jonestown to the Branch Davidians, not to mention all those futurologists on TV and in so-called Christian bookstores. These "conservative" fantasy worlds lurk right in the midst of American culture, whose mainstream caught up in its own utopian image of America as multicultural savior of the world generally ignores them.
When visions and visionaries become caught up in rebellion against reality (and here I mean the reality spoken of in the Apostles' Creed!), the pictures become idols and the picturers become idol manufacturers. This is something well known to Israel, Jesus, and Church alike. We all call it "false prophecy." It is powerful; it is demonic; deliverance calls for prayer, fasting, and exorcism.
My greatest worry is not that I might use overly vivid metaphors. The prophets, the gospels, and the letters all do it, and Christ gifts us to do it too. My greatest worry is that I might be using vivid metaphors falsely to envision something both false and compelling that woos my community into unreality.
Empiricism is not enough to break the spell. Thomas Kuhn has famously shown that paradigms, which are really just images, are unavoidable even in the sciences. The restraints imposed by the scientific method are sometimes overpowered by practitioners' confidence that their disciplines are therefore immune to seduction.
"When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation" (Matt. 12:43-45).Among the best medicines are humility, methodological discipline, exposure to other images and prophets, and openness to the counsel and criticism of both allies and antagonists.
Once upon a time, the hallmarks of intellectual excellence were accuracy, comprehensivity, and integrity. Today intellectuals are often rewarded more for how vivid and compelling they can be. Nietzsche did not cast the idols into twilight after all; he heralded a whole new day of them.
"At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time" (Matt. 24:23-25).Jane's post bothered me so much because I am a product of an academic/literary subculture, and an iconic culture of pop music and film, and a semi-apocalyptic church culture, and a wider religious culture that associates freedom, innovation, and individual creativity with authentic spirituality. All these subcultures create powerful images. Only a few of their images picture the world reliably. Mailer and I may be worlds apart ideologically, but culturally we are too close for comfort.
What the world needs is the truth, not more delusions. I teach the faith in a culture that is too used to other gospels (and less threatening versions of the true one), and both my cultures' idolatries and my tradition's heresies can seem hard to distinguish from the intensity of the undiluted good news. The opposite temptations are to preach false Christs, and to preach no Christ at all. "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
"Write what you see," Jesus tells the author of the book of Revelation. Theology demands that we write what we see, but first it demands that we see what is really there.
May 2, 2003
Finals are over; the stack of papers remains.
This week as my wife and I were talking, the name of an old friend came up. We googled him to find out where he was, found an e-mail address, and renewed a friendship that goes back from kindergarten through college.
Give yourself a lift today and do the same thing.
(The harder decision is whether I want to fork over seven bucks to read what Edward Tufte has to say about it.)