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Archive for December, 2017

We are not pawns. Yet we are players in a Great Game in which everything is at stake and large powers move amid shadows and light.

We do not move alone, do not decide alone, do not—no matter our pretensions—create our own future, alone.

Theologians, as they should, make passable stabs at systematizing all this. They boil it down into its crystallized form. Some of us outliers memorize these schemata. It hardens into backbone, sometimes, allowing us to live, flex, thrust, chase with the kinds of agile coherence that a healthy body manifests.

But in reality, redemption’s story is a drama, not a code. (more…)

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This business of Christian witness in a world gone mad is exquisitely complex. And beautiful.

Balance is required, a certain astute way with a dance.

Why did I once think things were simple, easy, and clear? (more…)

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It matters very much whom we worship.

The otherwise diverse biblical witness finds unanimity around this point. We may wish for some wiggle room, some space for our personal preferences to be registered. Alas, Scripture allows none. (more…)

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When the fifty-four chapter of the book called Isaiah addresses the exiled Jewish community as ‘Barren One’, it initiates one of the most stunning deployments of ironic negatives that Scripture and literature have known.

‘Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,’ says the Lord. ‘Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities. (Isaiah 54:1–3 ESV)

After a vocative address (‘O barren one’) that defines the little community of un-belongers in terms of the experience of a woman that they have not known, the next two negative clauses drive further rhetorical nails into this coffin of deprivation. You who did not bear…. you who have not been in labor. (more…)

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hell bent: Micah 7

Truth be told, the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Micah throws in front of its reader some very grim reading.

Yet it ends with an inspiring flourish:

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old. (Micah 7:18–20 ESV)

A strong instinct in the biblical literature interprets Israel’s misfortune as the result of intergenerational rebellion. This is particularly true of that most intense crystallization of woe that we call the ‘Babylonian exile’, when all that Israel had been and felt herself entitled to become in future was lost, by all lights lost forever. (more…)

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The Book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature.

This scholarly term places the ‘Vision of John the Seer’ alongside other early Jewish literature that majors on the revelation of events and sequences that would otherwise be inaccessible to human minds. The Greek verb ἀποκαλύπτω means to reveal and lends its meaning and its name to this body of revelatory work. (more…)

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The exclamation, the sensuous enthusiasm of the summons that comes to us in the 8th verse of this psalm of testimony and wisdom surprises. If such an invocation to sensation is just about imaginable in the context of witness, it is utterly defiant of the disciplined reflection of classical wisdom.

Yet here it is:

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Psalm 34:8 ESV)

Perhaps the particular challenge that an acrostic psalm (alphabetically ordered) thrusts against the prowess of its composer explains this ranging wide of the customary field of play. We might imagine that the poor guy will say just about anything as long as it begins with the right letter. Or conversely, if we’ve sung or read this language of sanctified gustation one time too many, its impertinence might even escape our attention. (more…)

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I have found cause to observe before in this space that the biblical vision of those things that matter most is stubbornly, relentlessly communitarian.

‘This is my story, this is my song’ is an anthem that finds its value not in narcissistic celebration of an individual’s experience, but rather in the foundationally communitarian phenomenon that we call testimony. Testimony begins and ends with community, in the first instance because the individual with a story to tell comes to us as an individual-in-context. In the second, testimony unfailingly appeals to a widening circle of shared life and shared live-ers.

It takes a village. (more…)

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Wendell Berry introduces us to a young man I understand to be a mainstay of his fiction, Nathan Coulter, with the word ‘dark’:

Dark. The light went out the door when she pulled it to. And then everything came in close around me, the way it was in the daylight, only all close. Because in the dark, I could remember and not see. The sun was first, going over the hill behind our barn. Then the river was covered with the shadows of the hills. Then the hills went behind their shadows, and just the house and the barn and the other buildings were left, standing black against the sky where it was still white in the west.

I hedge my description with the words ‘(as) I understand’, because Nathan Coulter: A Novel is my own rather carefully chosen introduction to Wendell Berry the writer, Wendell Berry the novelist, and Coulter and his kin. That first paragraph sets some of Berry’s major literary artifacts in their place, what with its mention of darkness and light, house and barn, sun, hills, river, and shadows. Always shadows.

41MBsJd4dfLAs I’d been warned, the pace of Berry’s fiction-writing pen is a slow one, perhaps as befits the pace of the rural Kentucky life he describes. Yet slow never need mean shallow, in fact just the opposite.

Already, a newbie to Berry and Berrian fiction, this reader can see that things in Berry’s world—in Nathan Coulter’s world—are rarely as they appear to be, seldom as an outsider might presume them to be on first evidence. The holy are not necessarily so, the profane more insightful and even merciful than expected, the shadows sometimes full of light as well as darkness.

I can hardly wait for whatever happens next.

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51IhkcLbNKLGary Bray does the men and women who served in Vietnam a sizable favor by telling calmly the complicated story of their service, their war, their ‘this is what we did’. The ingredients of this story could make a lesser man scream, throw dirt in the air, or weep quietly in the corner.

But then we who were too young or too far away from the riverine humidity of that war would flinch and not hear.

As Bray’s title indicates, he served the same platoon that shortly prior to his arrival had been caught up in what we abbreviate—again, from our distance—as the My Lai Massacre. That horror is not a centerpiece of Bray’s narrative, but the tales he tells about a new and different kind of war provide at least a context for consciences dulled and warriors run amok.

There were many Lieutenants and uncountable tours of duty during this country’s ‘Viet Nam years’. Few have the way with words that Gary Bray brings to his craft, and so his story must register not only his own experience but must stand in for theirs as well.

Bray’s tone does not ask for our pity. It tells of a great human drama without the kinds of ‘drama’ that appeal to emotions long past the moment when they would have done anyone any good. Yet, on behalf of fellow warriors caught up in a poorly conceived conflict, he anticipates our understanding and our respect. He more than earns both.

Bray cannot rightly say why America’s young men and women died in Vietnam. But the way he brings this elegantly written work to a close shines a light on at least how one American soldier died. Here, too, the story told becomes proxy for thousands untold.

As the father of two officers (Infantry and Combat Engineering, respectively), this reader reveled in Bray’s narrative of infantry tactics, a bonus not all readers will require.

In these pages, professionalism and humility manage to speak quietly and well.

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