Archive for the ‘denkschrift’ Category

If you had told me a year ago that I’d be sitting in the third row of a stadium-like conference venue with 37,000 pilgrims who’ve gathered from the four corners to listen to Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger scrape their chairs up to a table and answer questions for a day, I’d have wondered what you were smoking. Or curious whether you’d glimpsed my impending early retirement.

Yet thanks to a Buffett disciple who’s simultaneously joined the board of the Christian non-profit organization I direct and become a friend-for-life, the invitation to do just that came into my hands. Out of respect for my host, I joined the airport queues of the faithful making hajj in Omaha.

I shall not soon forget what I saw in that city, heretofore known to me chiefly as the source of mail-order steaks. (more…)

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Mrs. Banuo Z. Jamir, Addl. Chief Secretary & Commissioner Nagaland; members of the board of Clark Theological College; Rev’d Dr. Takatemjen, principal of the College; Faculty and Staff, Graduands and Students; Family and Friends of the Graduands; Supporters and Well-wishers of the College:

A strong rain hurled its refreshing liquid onto the roof of my guesthouse room last night, as it did upon the roofs of your homes and hostels. After a day rich with conversation, good food, music, prayers, comedy, parody, story, and laughter, it sounded like a symphony. (more…)

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On an Indianapolis afternoon when it seems as though Spring my have decisively wrenched the world from Winter’s icy grip, human need runs deep in the streets. As in this poor man’s heart.

iTunes, as is parroted in the way that becomes truisms with their undeniable kernel of truth, has changed the way we listen to music. And talk and sermons.

So does this battered survivor’s heart find itself caressed this afternoon by the alleged randomness of iTunes as it works its way via its own inscrutable logic through my embarrassingly bulging iTunes library. (more…)

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As we speak, my oldest son beavers away at a history degree at a fine university in this country’s Pacific Northwest. Our telephone conversations and Spring Break bike rides on Indy’s wonderful Monon Trail are punctuated by discussions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the continuing relevance of Plato’s Republic as well as the merits of road over mountain bikes and the fitness benefits of pushing along really fat tires.

Why history? Because First Son’s strong but uneven education at the British School of Costa Rica brought him into contact with the curmudgeonly but brilliant and engaged ‘Mr Wolf’, an historian with a stubborn and inelegant fixation on making history relevant for high school students in what others of his ilk might have dismissed as an intellectual and cultural backwater. (more…)

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In his fine essay in the March 2010 number of Christianity Today, Darren C. Marks (‘The Mind Under Grace. Why theology is an essential nutrient for spiritual growth’) articulates an assumption that both modernist and post-modernist ‘true believers’ might well find startling: ‘Scripture interrogates the community’.

Marks pens his essay a defense of ‘dry’ theology against that contemporary hubris that insists we honor Relevance above all other gods.

Living with the penetrating, unsettling interrogatives of Scripture strikes me as an almost sufficient abbreviation of Christian faith and practice. If the elevation of the subject is our generation’s besetting sin, then the ‘satanic’ (as in ‘questioning’, ‘probing’, ‘skeptical’, even ‘accusing’) voice of Scripture may be the salvation we most desperately require.

Not that portion of Scripture that we find reducible to articulation in the too often caricatured bumper sticker or painted artfully into Tim Tebo’s eye black, but that comprehensive encounter with Scripture that requires us to submit to Leviticus’ apparent tedium, Samuel’s heroics, the gospels’ unsophisticated presentation of history’s most sophisticated figure, and Paul’s agonizing against Israel’s experience in Romans 9-11.

In short, the whole body of Scripture must interrogate us.

We might imagine that inspiration and anecdote can inspire us sufficiently to escape that sucking swamp that has us, up to the thighs, in its grasp.

That would be a tragic underestimation of our condition.

Only by embracing Scriptures comprehensive, unending, humiliating, empowering interrogation can we have any hope of escaping ourselves, of finding salvation from ourselves, of breaking free from the hubris that enslaves us while we piously quote our favorite parts.

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An address delivered to the triennial conference of the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education
Sopron, Hungary
October 2009

A concert is a lovely thing.

Whether the Hong Kong Philharmonic touching just last week such disparate notes as those composed by the early classical Haydn and the late Romantic Berlioz or U2 rocking Chicago’s Lincoln Park or a band of street musicians in Cuba turning lunch three-dimensional by adding sound to the day’s taste and sights or the sheer joie d’vivre of a South African children’s choir causing our jaws to drop and making us feel momentarily a little younger—a bit more like them—a concert is about the pleasing and productive synthesis of otherwise individual and cacophonous sounds.

And speaking of cacophony, you can have solo or cacophony at the drop of a hat. A concert, though, requires that its participants subjugate aspects of their own ambition and ability to a larger, greater, more beautiful project.

There’s the rub. And there’s the magic.

A good concert—like the proverbial news from afar or the fruit of the grape—gladdens the heart. A very good concert draws us closer to transcendent truth, even to our Creator himself. A superb concert causes us to feel, to think, to imagine—indeed to become—something that our mere individuality could scarcely ever produce.

The very best of concerts is tribute. It is worship. It draws our attention beyond the artists to the One who alone is capable of creating a world where such nobility and beauty—where such sounds—are possible. (more…)

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Ensconced in a miniscule workspace at one of O’Hare Airport’s Red Carpet Clubs, I come upon these words from Isaiah chapter 51 in my daily reading:

Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
who pierced the dragon?
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to cross over?
So the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

The Bible appropriates ancient pagan myths of theomachy (war between the gods, sometimes cited to explain how humans came to exist) in the service of its story of loving creation by the word and at the hands of a single Creator whom Israel names as YHWH. Bending villainous, polytheistic material to their life-fomenting purposes, the biblical authors celebrate YHWH as the divine conqueror of chaos, the maker of that order which is both beautiful and nourishing.

So does the quintessential creation account—whether in the opening lines of Genesis or in that prophetic invigoration of the disheartened captive that comes to us in Isaiah—become food for the soul of those who have known chaos and feared to find themselves lost in it. Indeed it is chaos rather than non-existence that most threatened the ancients. ‘Truth be told, it is still this way. (more…)

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going away, coming home

On my way home from several fabulous days of work in France and Germany, I happen upon Paul Theroux’s ‘The Long Way Home’ in the September 2009 issue of The Smithsonian.

Like me, Theroux is a ‘world traveler’. He has seen far more of it than I have and, it seems, has chosen to do so. I have seen only a little, though I fancy myself an expert on Holiday Inn conference rooms and Starbucks city mugs. I have not so much chosen to travel. Indeed, my favorite place in the world is home. Rather, I have chosen—or been chosen for—a vocation that requires frequent trips to places that I generally find less interesting than the stupendous human beings who live in them.

Theroux, having traveled the world, has chosen to drive across America. In a better world than ours, it is a journey that would be required of every immigrant before he or she secures citizenship. It would be an obligatory box to check off on some official for before any of us receives her first Social Security check. It would constitute a preamble to the luxury and responsibility of saying the words ‘I am an American’.

I have never met Paul Theroux. Yet, by way of his final paragraph. I feel as though we are old friends. It says:

A trip abroad, any trip, ends like a movie—the curtain drops and then you’re home, shut off. But this was different from any trip I’d ever taken. In the 3,380 miles I’d driven, in all that wonder, there wasn’t a moment when I felt I didn’t belong; not a day when I didn’t rejoice in the knowledge that I was part of this beauty; not a moment of alienation or danger, no roadblocks, no sign of officialdom, never a second of feeling I was somewhere distant—but always the reassurance that I was home, where I belonged, in the most beautiful country I’d ever seen.


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As a Christian student of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, I have for many years known Martin Buber only by the (often foot-noted) allusions to his work that frequent the pages of admiring biblical scholars. It has seemed an acquaintance that would almost inevitably but only at some future appointment become part of my life.

This summer I began what has become a long read through Asher D. Biemann’s excellent The Martin Buber Reader: essential writings (2002, Palgrave Macmillan). Biemann is a loving, capable, and not uncritical tour guide through the landscape of Buber’s writings.

I will eventually post my review of Biemann’s anthology. This morning, reading through an essay entitled ‘Biblical Humanism’ that was published by Buber in 1933, I am so struck by his words that I cannot resist deviating from my normal practice and posting some of them here, encased by my own comment.


In a 1933 address entitled ‘Biblical Humanism’ (pp. 46–50), Buber registers his assessment based upon three decades of work with the Jewish national movement that the activation of ‘the people as a people’ and ‘the language as a language’ has left unachieved the creation of a new Hebrew (as opposed to merely ‘Hebrew-speaking’) man. The latter will depend upon the ‘rebirth of its (apparently, the people’s and more particularly the new homeland’s) primal forces’.

Buber wants Judaism to turn back to its origins, however not in order to find there a ‘biblical man’:

The ‘return’ that is meant here cannot in the nature of things mean a striving for the recurrence or continuation of something long past, but only a striving for its renewal in a genuinely contemporary manifestation. Yet only a man worthy of the Bible may be called a Hebrew man.

Buber here envisages a human being—modern sensitivites might bristle at his use of the word man—who is willing to be addressed by that ‘Unconditioned’ whose presence haunts the biblical pages.

The recovery of Hebrew language is a servant of the more critical task of creating a Hebrew humanism. It is path towards an end rather than a destination per se. In his efforts to discern the place of Hebrew language in the quest for Hebrew humanism that occupies him, Buber draws a clear line between Greek word and thought, on the one hand, and its Hebrew analogue, on the other. The distinction would face greater resistance today than, perhaps, in 1933. Yet the conviction and eloquence with which Buber expresses himself on this point are compelling:

The biblical word is translatable, for it encloses a mystery of language with which it issues forth to Israel. At the center of biblical humanism stands the service due the untranslatable word …The word of Greek antiquity is detached and formally perfected. It is removed from the block of actual spokenness, sculpted with the artful chisel of thought, rhetoric, and poetry—removed to the realm of form … The purity of the Hebrew Bible’s word resides not in form but in originality … Untransfigured and unsubdued, the biblical word preserves the dialogical character of living reality … The Greeks teach the word; the Jews report it.

Buber finds a parallel distinction in the educational area:

Western humanism conceives language as a formation, and so it proceeds to a ‘liberation of the truly formative powers of Man’ (Konrad Burdach); the ‘spiritual empire’ that he wants to establish ‘might be called the Apollonian’. The power of giving shape is set above the world.

The law of biblical humanism must be different. It conceives language as an event—an event in mutuality … Its intent is not the person who is shut up within himself, but the open one; not the form, but the relation; not mastery of the secret, but immediacy in facing it; not the thinker and master of the word but its listener and executor, its worshipper and proclaimer … Biblical humanism cannot, as does its Western counterpart, raise the individual above the problems of the moment; it seeks instead to train the person to stand fast in them, to prove himself in them. This stormy night, these shafts of lightning flash down, this threat of destruction—Do not escape from them into a world of logos, of perfected form! Stand fast, hear the word in the thunder, obey, respond! This terrifying world is the world of God. It lays claim upon you. Prove yourself in it as a man of God!

The date these words were published sends a shiver down the spine.

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As a college student, this slightly hard-headed reviewer found what he took to be the ‘C.S. Lewis cult’ to be trendy and off-putting, an observation that—for whatever historical accuracy it might have achieved—delayed his introduction into one of the great masters by three years or so.

Recently I became aware that I was avoiding reading John Piper for a similarly faulty motive: the glare in the eye of the so-called ‘Piper Cubs’—one that from time to time takes on a fanatic bearing—served as a too convenient pretext for sidestepping whatever value might lie in the ruminations of their master. And so, in a spasm of self-denial, I laid aside my shallow reluctance, found a recently re-minted copy of Piper’s first popular work Desiring God, Meditation of a Christian Hedonist, and undertook to ‘take up and read’. (more…)

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