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The Roman Road and The Tree of Life

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I grew in Oklahoma and Kansas, in a very conservative Baptist church culture. My family went to church twice on Sunday and at least once during the week. As a kid I was heavily involved in Sunday School and Bible clubs, memorizing scripture for various rewards: stickers, medals and recognition.

One thing that was ingrained into my Bible memory from an early age was something called “the Roman Road.” The Roman Road, as I understood it, was a series of 6 or 7 Bible verses from Romans–though I think John 3:16 was also in the mix–that collectively spelled out exactly what individuals like me needed to do to get saved.

As a kid I knew the Roman Road well–I had it down pat–but I had no concept at all about what a “Roman road” actually was or how it played into the historical narrative of the world in which Jesus lived. I had no idea that “Romans” was actually a letter written by Paul to actual early Christians in an actual city called Rome.

The Roman Road I knew was about decontextualized concepts packaged for an individualistic purpose, not enfleshed reality within a big picture story. Christianity was about feelings and morals and me escaping hell. The phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism,” coined by sociologist Christian Smith to describe the faith of today’s American teenagers, was a pretty accurate description of my youth group upbringing.

It wasn’t until years later that I had any idea that the broader story of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation and everything in between, was indispensable to my understanding of God … and that the most important thing about the Bible was not my individual salvation, but rather the bigger story of God’s redemptive purposes in the world.

Fast forward to January of this year: My wife and I were in Rome as part of a two week trip to Italy. It was amazing. We were walking among ruins of buildings that stood in Jesus’ day. We saw structures that Paul saw, the prison where Peter was held, the location where Paul may or may not be buried; we learned about the actual Roman Roads that were a key part of the infrastructure of the Roman empire which aided in Christianity’s fast growth.

All of it was real; tangible; a reminder that the Bible shouldn’t be read as just isolated ideas and ethereal concepts, but a tangible narrative that actually happened, in actual locations, with actual people whose stories are part of a continuum in which I am a part.

Going to the Vatican Museum was also powerful: Seeing the entire history of Christianity told through art, culminating in Michelangelo’s breathtaking Sistine Chapel roof. Then walking through St. Peter’s Basilica, built on the site of the Circus of Nero, historically believed to be where Peter was martyred. It was all a reminder of the grand drama of history that surrounds and gives meaning to the theology behind our faith.

Walt Russell, a New Testament professor of mine at Talbot School of Theology, likes to say that western Christianity often erroneously reads the narrative of Scripture through a vertical framework: It’s about us as individuals, and God above, and how we can “get right” with him through the atoning work of Jesus.

The way Scripture ought to be read, says Russell, is not primarily vertically but rather horizontally, as one big narrative that begins in Eden, builds through Israel, climaxes with Christ, includes the church and moves forward until Christ returns.

Yes, our individual stories matter, but mostly because they are subplots and microcosms of the BIG story God is telling. Each of our lives can be a reflection of the redemptive story God authors on a massive scale. Each is a compelling chapter in the epic of creation.

A movie that I think illustrates this well is Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

Malick’s film is essentially about the birth and death of the universe, with an intimate story of a Texas family in between. It’s a powerful juxtaposition of the micro and macro… a “small s” story of the O’Brien family’s struggles with grief, love, sin and redemption, set against the “Big S” backdrop of God’s handiwork in the cosmos. One minute the film shows us the intimate moments of a mother grieving the loss of her son; the next minute we’re taken on a 20 minute tour of the creation of the universe.

The elliptical structure of the Tree of Life reflects its title, which is a nod to a biblical image–the “tree of life” that appears both in Genesis (in the Garden of Eden) and in Revelation 22 with Eden restored in the new creation.

All of our stories, like that of the O’Brien family in The Tree of Life, take place between these two trees: Paradise lost and paradise regained. All of our stories groan for restoration, for a return to the garden.

This unsettledness and in-betweenness fuels our desire to make art and tell stories, to express the the longings of life between the two trees.

Story is an incredibly powerful force in our world. It’s our DNA as human beings. It’s realm Christians must exist within, and be excellent within. And yet I’d suggest that the trajectory our culture is on when it comes to story is something we should resist. The more fragmented and isolated and self-oriented our stories become in this “iWorld,” the less impact they will have.

Our stories matter not because they are our stories, but because they are God’s. And this is countercultural in our self-obsessed, YOU-Tube, I-Phone, FACEbook culture. When we have the vertical orientation of seeing our story only in terms of “me and Jesus,” we miss out on the grandeur and drama of the big story, and our narrative impact will be relatively minor.

But when we situate ourselves within the horizontal story, connecting ourselves to tradition and meaning and struggle all the way back to the fall and forward to restoration, our storytelling will pulsate with a transcendent energy.

These are the types of stories we need to tell.

We transcend the “iWorld” when we begin to see how our own “ordinary” stories rehearse and reflect the Extraordinary story of God;  when we can see the Roman Road not a conceptual roadmap for individual salvation, but as a real historical plot point in God’s ongoing narrative.

For Christian storytellers it’s crucial that we can give eloquent form to the big story. If we are educators or pastors or parents, we must teach our students, congregations and children the BIG picture of God’s story, grounded in theological depth and historical breadth. Part of the reason so many young people are abandoning Christianity in America is precisely because the Christianity they’ve known is primarily about disconnected “moral lessons” and a vague, de-storied therapeutic Deism that is untethered to anything other than individual salvation and individual happiness.

It behooves us push back against this. It behooves us to re-story the church.

Artists of faith play a crucial role in this too. We must resist the tendency of contemporary art-making to be primarily about SELF expression for the sake of self expression. Instead we must paint, photograph, film, compose, create and re-create work that glimpses the greater narrative — a narrative that includes us, but is bigger than us.

It’s a narrative that is marginalized in a world overwhelmed and exhausted by a million stories a minute; but it’s a narrative we need more than ever.

Note: The text of this post is from a talk I delivered at the 2014 Razor’s Edge Conference, which was themed, “Transcending the iWorld: Extraordinary Stories in a Fragmented Age.” 

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The Lent Project

I’ve been very honored to be a part of the initiatives coming out of the new Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts, which launched at Biola back in September. In December the CCCA produced a wonderful online devotional series for Advent called “The Advent Project,” which offered daily liturgical reflections on art, music and Scripture. Last week we launched “The Lent Project,” which will mirror the style of the Advent Project.

I wrote the first devotional for Ash Wednesday, which you can read here. Here’s an excerpt:

For me Ash Wednesday symbolizes, rather neatly, what it means to be a Christian. It’s not about being beautiful or powerful or triumphant; it’s about being scarred and humble and sacrificial. This is not to say it’s about defeat, despair or self-flagellation. On the contrary, to “give up” or “sacrifice” in the name of Christ is (or should be) the height of our joy. Suffering is not something to shrink from. Giving ourselves away to others is our calling. Dying to ourselves is our glorious inheritance.

“Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,” said Jesus (Matt. 16:25). “To live is Christ and to die is gain,” wrote Paul (Phil. 1:21).

We should strive to be like Christ, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame…” (Hebrews 12:2).

For the joy set before him… That should be why we endure suffering and embrace self-denial. It’s paradoxical and mysterious and counterintuitive — certainly. But when I feel the cold ashes spread across my forehead on Ash Wednesday, it makes some sort of wonderful sense.

Check out the full Lent Project at http://ccca.biola.edu/lent/ and click on the RSS button at the bottom if you’d like to subscribe to the daily devotionals.

Biola’s Advent Project

I love Advent. It’s a topic I frequently write about on this blog, and it’s a season I always enjoy. It’s the season of the year that embraces joy, lament, tension and mystery in exactly the right measure. Now if only it also weren’t the busiest season of the year!

This year I have been proud to be a part of the Biola Advent Project, which is a like a traditional Advent calendar for the digital age, with an artsy twist. Each day throughout Advent the website will unveil a new devotional, consisting of written reflection, visual art and musical selections. Each day features a different contributor’s reflection (I wrote one for Dec. 30) as well as a different artist’s Advent-themed art and a different musician’s song. The whole thing is (I think) a brilliant  application of technology to the Christian calendar.

Check it out at http://ccca.biola.edu/advent/ and share it with anyone who you think would enjoy this invitation to reflect on the beauty and mystery of this season.

College Never Ends (Or Shouldn’t)

One of the things I love most about working at Biola University (a Christian university in Southern California) is that every day feels like I’m back in college myself. It’s an environment overflowing with ideas and discussions and lectures and interesting people. And my job requires me to interact and intellectually engage with professors and students on a regular basis. I absolutely love it.

Today, 1,300 new students arrive at Biola. The campus is buzzing with nervous freshman and weepy parents, carrying IKEA chairs into dorm rooms and making shopping lists for Target. It reminds me of the day 9 years ago when my own parents helped me move in to Traber dorm at Wheaton College, when my dad said goodbye to me in my dorm room while mom stayed behind in the car (she was too emotional to venture into the dorm to bid me farewell).

It reminds me of the first awkward orientation week of college, which was a weird and wonderful mix of making new friends, playing get-to-know-you games, and developing early crushes on girls from our “sister floor.”

It reminds me of the insane, life-altering blur that was college: Plato, theology, dorm parties, Neil Postman, media ecology, liturgy, falling leaves, Dostoevsky, art galleries, C.S. Lewis, David Lynch, late night debates about Calvinism, taking the train to Chicago, jazz festivals, football games, roadtrips, and on and on and on.

Part of me envies the incoming freshman, coming to Biola (and universities across the country) this weekend to start the journey that will forever change the way they think about the world. I lament the fact that college goes by so fast and the crazy concentration of learning and living in community is, at the end of the day, the exception in life rather than the rule.

But then I realize that it’s silly to envy these new students, because the intellectual journey they’re beginning now is one that I’m still very much on. It’s not something that has to stop, or even slow down, after graduation. On the contrary. Just because I no longer have to read 300-page books in a day for a class, doesn’t mean that I won’t still want to read 300 page books in general, as often as I’m able to.

The mark of a good college is that it trains you to want to keep learning, to keep reading, and to keep broadening your experience and understanding of the world, long after the days of worrying about credits and GPA. Sure, the “real world” of earning a living sometimes makes it hard to continue one’s intellectual journey. After an 8-hour-day at work, it’s usually not the case that I feel like picking up The Brothers Karamazov. But when I do make the time to keep developing my mind and challenging my perspective, I never regret it.

To the new students who are nervous, excited, and overwhelmed by the beginning of college, I urge you to enjoy every second of it and make the most of your education. And to the graduates who look back nostalgically on the cherished “college days,” I remind you that education doesn’t end with a diploma.

The world is far too complex, troubled, beautiful and dynamic for us to ever just exist in. It beckons us to make sense of it. To carve at least some comprehension out of the vast incomprehensibility of existence. This is what education is about. For anyone who cares about the destiny of this world, education is a high calling: a pursuit without end that is never wholly futile and never fully satisfying.

To attain knowledge, think critically, and ask questions is to engage the world in all of its furious complexity and elusive mystery — a maddening endeavor, to be sure, but one that will never grow tiresome and certainly not be exhausted by 4 years of college… Awesome and unparalleled as those 4 years may be.

Why Christians Should Travel

Traveling changes one’s life. I’m sure anyone who has done much of it–especially abroad–would agree. There’s something about the displacement and discomfort of being in an alien place, coupled with the awesomeness of seeing things you’ve never seen before and blowing open the doors of any prior conceptions of “what this world is.” Travel enlarges one’s view of existence.

When I traveled to Southeast Asia the summer after my first year of college (my first experience overseas), I first encountered the life-changing potential of the experience of being abroad. Subsequent trips to Europe and Japan confirmed what I suspected–that there is an unmistakably spiritual aspect to travel.  It’s good for the soul. It brings you closer to God. In my case, it enhanced my faith.

I recently got the chance to explore this aspect of travel in depth in a feature article in Biola Magazine. In the article (“Dispatches From Abroad: How a Change of Scenery Can Enliven Our Faith”), I explore the various meanings of travel in the Christian experience, situating our contemporary perceptions of the spirituality of travel in the larger Christian tradition which goes back to the origins of our our faith:

Movement and travel have always been part of the Christian experience. So many of the giants of the faith have been travelers — from Abraham (whom God called to “leave your country” … Gen. 12:1) to Paul to the itinerate evangelists of the 19th century. And, of course, there is also Jesus himself, who from birth was a bit of a roving exile, frequently homeless and dependent on the hospitality of others on the routes he traveled.

Why is it that the journeying, nomadic lifestyle been such a hallmark of the Christian experience?

In his famous essay, “The Philosophy of Travel,” George Santayana wrote, “There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.”

A Christian might add that it enriches our identification with Christ and draws us closer to his presence by removing status quo comforts.

In some ways travel can be a sort of “monasticism on the move,” writes Iyer. “On the road, we often live more simply … with no more possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance.” …

And perhaps this is the greatest thing we can learn from travel — that the Christian experience is not meant to be one of cushy comforts, self reliance and satisfaction with the way things are, but rather an experience of dependence on God and seeking out the sometimes-overwhelming grandeur and complexity of God’s kingdom.

Travel is a way to meet Christ on the road and to feel the reality of his redeeming work in the world — not just by reading about it in a book, but by experiencing it in the flesh.

In his article on pilgrimage (“He Talked to Us on the Road,” April 2009) in Christianity Today, Ted Olsen points to the story of the Road to Emmaus as an example of how travel — what we encounter in person on “the road” — can transform our understanding of a thing. The men on the road to Emmaus knew about the Resurrection, but they didn’t know it in a transformative way until Christ appeared to them and they eventually realized who he was.

“It goes deeper than just grasping an event’s historicity,” writes Olsen. “It goes to its happenedness. We are not just minds created to soak up knowledge. We are bodies that stand in one place at a time, seeing and feeling our surroundings.”

Travel is about more than just knowing God’s goodness in our minds. It’s about seeing and tasting and feeling it in his created world, and in our fellow man. And though strangers we may be in this world, the reality is that God is here, working in remarkable ways.

To travel is to meditate on God’s blessings and his rich creation; it is to experience his faithfulness and  trust him in ways you just can’t do in the comforts of your own culture and comfort zone. At times it can even be an act of worship.

In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck memorably writes about “the urge to be someplace else,”contending that, “When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going.”

I would suggest that for a Christian, a “good and sufficient reason for going” is simply this: We are God’s creatures, commanded to take joy and pleasure in the multi-facetedness of his goodness (“taste and see…” Psalm 34:8). When there is so much of that to experience in the world, why would we want to stay home?

Meditations on Late Summer

The start of every summer is always so full of excitement—the promise of endless free time, lazy mornings, late nights, swimming in pools and oceans, climbing trees and mountains, reading books. Every year around late May, the summer looms so large. It seems so immense. Those endless days! Those boozy low-pressure thunderstorm nights! And so little that must be done!

I used to make “summer plans” every May when school ended: plans that including a list of books to read, projects to work on, relationships to pursue, etc. But invariably, most of these “plans” never really materialized. June would come and go, July would be a flurry of vacation, August would start and so would school. Soon it was football and marching band and getting the right calculator for math class. Pep rallies, bonfires, ever shortening sunlight. Summer a fading memory. Another year passing.

The students are slowing finding their way back to Biola’s campus these days. I work full time here so I’ve been on campus all summer, enjoying the quiet quad and near-empty cafeteria. But all that changes this week as another school year begins. Things will get lively again. The rhythms of work and study and discipline return. It’s definitely exciting. But it also means the summer is over.

At the start of this summer, way back in mid-May when school let out and graduates dispersed, I took a trip to England. I stayed for a while in C.S. Lewis’ house, The Kilns, in Oxford. I slept in each morning, summer-style. I wrote in the flowering gardens. I took walks to the pond on misty/cool afternoons. When I didn’t feel like writing, I read books that I found in the library. Everything Lewis ever wrote was there on the shelves, and some of it was new to me. I picked up a book of Lewis’ poetry one day, in which I came across this poem. I’m not sure when he wrote it or if it was ever published, but it sounds like he wrote it late in life. It captures a lot of what “late summer” means, I think:

Late Summer

I, dusty and bedraggled as I am,
Pestered with wasps and weed and making jam,
Blowzy and stale, my welcome long outstayed,
Proved false in every promise that I made,
At my beginning I believed, like you,
Something would come of all my green and blue.
Mortals remember, looking on the thing
I am, that I, even I, was once a spring.

There’s a lot of regret in those words, as in every August. The regret of things that never quite materialize, love that never happens the way you thought it would, barbecue experiments that go slightly awry.

Ah, the end of summer. It’s about change, aging, and looking back. Just ask Yasujiro Ozu, whose penultimate film was entitled The End of Summer and who, like C.S. Lewis, died in 1963. Or ask Rilke, whose poem “Autumn Day” evokes the late summer in its famous opening line: “Lord, it is time: The summer was immense.”

Indeed. It was immense. There is still sand in my suitcase. But it’s time to move on.

Is “Missional” the new “Emerging”?

The late ’90s had “postmodern.” The first part of the 21st century introduced us to “emerging.” But over the last few years, there has been no bigger buzzword in Christianity than “missional.” It’s a word that has exploded into the popular vernacular of preachers, theologians and seminary professors. It has graced the covers of almost every major Christian publication. It has spawned books, seminars, conferences and endless blog debates. A growing number of congregations now describe themselves as “missional churches.” And proponents of the idea believe you and your church would do well to do the same. But what does it mean?

To read the rest of this article, which I wrote for Biola Magazine’s new issue, click here

And for my exclusive interview with missional expert Ed Stetzer, click here