Thoughts on “Religion,” and How Not to Fix the World

Maxfield Parrish Humpty Dumpty, fall of man

Before the Great Fall

Does anyone like getting asked the question, “Are you religious?”

When asked this, does anyone ever enthusiastically answer, “YES!”

I only like getting asked that question because it gives me a chance to explain my faith.

One of my earliest insights as a young follower of Jesus was that Christianity is not about a religion; it’s about a relationship. In college I pretty much abandoned the use of the word “Christianity” altogether because it is so broad as to be practically meaningless and confusing.

This is not an uncommon way of thinking in evangelicalism. It is widely understood that our faith has primarily to do with the person of Jesus, not about some system of belief or ritualistic practice. At a minimum most would agree that a religion is not “the answer” to the world’s problems. Most would recognize that one can be scrupulously religiously observant and yet completely miss God. There is good and bad religious practice. I think most people would agree that there are bad religions in the world.

So it’s kinda weird to speak of “religion” in general as either good or bad.

You’ve probably heard evangelicals say,

“Religion is mans’ attempt to reach God, Christianity is God reaching down to man.”

Or “I’m spiritual, not religious.”

I’ve tended to argue that religion can serve as a positive cultural force, but I’ve tended to personally reject the observance of religious rituals, traditions, and practices as baggage. Yes, I pray regularly, but as a part of relationship with God – not as religious ritual. In the same way, I don’t consider talking with my wife to be a marriage ritual.

All in all, the word “religion” has been a pretty distasteful word to me for all of my life, even though, ironically, people who don’t know me well may tend to think of me as religious.

But…Hmmm…Maybe I don’t despise the word “religion” after all

I recently read some thoughts on the origin of the word “religion” that ring true to me.

…Etymologically, [religion] means something like tying back together – re-ligion:
re-ligamenting, re-ligaturing, finding the unifying reality behind disparate appearances, seeking oneness, integration, wholeness…

(Michael Ward, Professor of Apologetics, Houston Baptist University)

This sounds right to me because, for better or for worse, all the religions of the world seem to be concerned with restoring unity to our broken world in some way. There seems to be a universal recognition that things are not as they should be in the human situation, and that the problem is separateness – division between God and man, between man and man, and between man and nature.

However, conflict arises between religions and ideologies because there are vastly differing opinions as to how to accomplish the restoration of unity in the world. Unfortunately, history shows us that human beings are vulnerable to the temptation to externally impose unity onto each other. Of course this doesn’t work, but apparently many ideologues feel there is no other option. Current examples include ISIS and the American left-wing Antifa.

The brilliance of spiritual rebirth

Among authority figures, Jesus is unique in His approach to unity and restoration in that He offers voluntary, internal change for the individual. He offers this to all people in the form of spiritual rebirth:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. (Jn 3:3)

Here’s an apostle of Jesus pithily describing God’s plan for unity and restoration:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
(Eph 1:7-10)

This describes the God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures taking merciful initiative on our behalf, and providing a means for us to be reconnected to Him first, and ultimately to each other and to all of heaven and nature. In the very next chapter Paul refers to this salvation as a gift from God – not something that can be earned. (Eph 2:8,9)

Isn’t this what we all want? We really should tell people about this.

(Original image by Maxfield Parrish, circa 1921. Modified by the author.)

 

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A Tale of Two Neighbors. (And Many Dandelions.)

garden gnome-scott freemanThis morning as I was out digging dandelions in the sun, I noticed myself unconsciously making choices. It set me to thinking about human action and freedom.

I’m quite fond of the quirky little piece of downtown property where my wife and I live and raised our family. I love my wife’s garden. I love our art studio. I like our fruit trees. I like that our yard is not fenced in. And I really like that there is no Homeowners Association (HOA.) This allows me to do things like dig a pit and cook a turkey in the ground at Thanksgiving. Or to add outdoor art to my property. Our “inner city” neighborhood has a lot of cool, creatively embellished properties, and a lot of urban farming going on. Several neighbors keep chickens and bees in their backyards. These are usually among the best kept properties. I love this.

Of course there is the occasional trashy property as well, and the occasional display of poor taste. This is part of the cost of freedom. I think it is a small price to pay.

This post is a brief tale of two neighbors. It’s a story about the dynamics of living in community. (I’m pretty sure neither of my neighbors reads my blog.)

I will call my neighbor on one side, Harvey. Harvey is a middle-aged, single guy. We’re buds. We’ve talked a lot about life, God, politics, and stuff, in a dude sort of way. I like a lot of Harvey’s views, though he can be a little pugnacious. But underneath his crusty, cigar-smoking exterior, as human beings go, he’s a good man. He volunteers his time and resources to help under-privileged kids. For years he has worked with the deaf community in one capacity or another. He has purchased my art and books on several occasions. He has given us pecans from his farm in another state. I like Harvey.

A few years ago, Harvey adopted an enormous dog. A black lab, or something. I’ll call him Dogzilla. Dogzilla is clueless and friendly. I’d say he’s a little too friendly. He often escapes his pen and comes immediately into our yard, snuffling around and peeing in our garden, where we grow food that we intend to eat. Dogzilla produces enormous poop that doesn’t decompose because Harvey feeds him cheap dog food. Sometimes at night, I’ve noticed Harvey letting Dogzilla out for a potty break, while he enjoys a cigar in our shared alley. Recently, I shoveled all of Dogzilla’s petrified poop back into Harvey’s yard. I haven’t told Harvey about this yet, but if he doesn’t like it, I’m looking forward to the conversation where he explains why he has a problem with me putting his dog’s poop back into his yard.

Harvey pieced together a make-shift pen for Dogzilla. The makeshift pen is quite large and consists of five-foot sections of chain-link fencing, held up with bungee cords and stacks of cinder blocks, with a tarp thrown over part of the fence for shade. With dandelions and goat heads growing all around. It looks like crap. It’s very reminiscent of a third world slum, or a refugee camp. Of course, I have nothing against third world slum dwellers or refugees, but I don’t believe that Harvey and Dogzilla are in a crisis situation. Unless you count the dandelion crisis. But even so, that’s really a first world problem.

So that’s on one side of my house.

Then there is my neighbor on the other side. I’ll call her Betsy. She is an interior designer. Her house and yard look like a greeting card scene. She’s like Martha Stewart without the prison record. Her property has been on the annual Loveland Garden Tour. It’s like a Disney movie over there, with rabbits and birds and butterflies hopping and flitting about. When I step out of my house to go to work in my studio, if I happen to glance over to the right at Betsy’s property, I often break into song.

Betsy is also a great neighbor and a giving person. She is from an old Loveland family, and it’s fun to talk local history with her. My wife and Betsy exchange gardening plants. I have painted several paintings in her sanctuary-like backyard during plein air art competitions. (I have never asked Harvey’s permission to paint in his “yard.”) During winter, she always has her snow removal guys do part of my sidewalk. At Christmastime we exchange Christmas cookies, and hers are amazing, and ridiculously Martha Stewart-like. (Harvey does not give us cookies, but that is probably a good thing.)

That’s the other side of my house.

So, when I went out for my first springtime dandelion digging, guess where I started digging first? I headed directly to Betsy’s side of my yard. I wanted to be sure she didn’t have to wonder if I was going to get rid of the dandelions next to her property. (Her yard is dandelions-free.) She has never complained to me about my sometimes lax grounds keeping. She doesn’t have to. Because she treats her property with care, it makes me want to do the same. Not out of guilt, or shame, or keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, but out of respect and appreciation for the effort and creative care she puts in. I’ve noticed that she likes to entertain guests in her garden, and I would like to not be the jerk who ruins the sanctuary vibe that that she has going on over there. All of this is unspoken. I could completely neglect my property, and the world would keep turning, but the fact that she cares helps me to care.

Isn’t so much of life like this?

All of us struggle every day against entropy and degeneration, in every aspect of life. The physical universe is winding down. Left to itself, our environment gravitates toward disorder and decay. Civil society naturally tends toward confusion and degeneration. Even the genes in our cells are continually mutating, causing our bodies to degenerate and eventually lose function. But we fight against this. By intelligence, creativity, and work, we rebuild, restore, support, and hope. Ultimately, our only hope for salvation is an intelligent, loving, regenerative Life-Source existing outside of creation, commonly referred to as “God.” But whether or not we believe in such a God, most of us still hold onto hope. I find this bittersweet.

For me, every creative act is worth something. While even our hoping and dreaming is imperfect, every hope and dream in the face of futility testifies that we were created for life, love, and goodness. Creative acts affirm life. Caring acts make the universe make sense to our neighbor. Loving acts transcend the futility of our hopeless trajectory, in some small way. To me these things signal that there is something better to come.

I’ll close with some gardening tips from the apostle Paul:
“…whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:7-10.)

dandelion

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Dinner Table Tales

Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving dinner with our exchange student – 2012

Sharing a meal with others is a one of life’s great, relational, creative expressions. It goes without saying that mealtimes serve an essential practical purpose – that of nourishing our bodies – but at the same time, sharing a meal is (or can be) a spiritually meaningful and life-enhancing act.

Of course, growing up, I didn’t appreciate this. Our family ate dinner together every evening. This seemed to me to be a routine, mundane part of suburban life. I was more interested in finding a way around eating my helping of canned peas than in relating to my family in a positive way. But I believe the habit of eating together had a lasting and positive effect on me.

There is a proverb of Solomon that says, “Better is a dry morsel and quietness with it than a house full of feasting with strife” (Prov 17:1.) We now know scientifically that stress and strife is bad for the digestion. By contrast, relaxing around a table as a nourishing act of mutual enjoyment, and as an expression of unity, is a God-ordained pleasure. It’s interesting that with the establishment of the New Covenant 2000 years ago, Jesus used a meal as a sign by which to remember the covenant; a covenant that was intended to be characterized by love and unity. This meal is often referred to as communion meal.

On an everyday level, one of the best practices we can share as families is to practice the habit of sharing a meal together around the table, looking into each other’s faces, and seeking to enjoy each other’s company.

Meal sharing is an act of communion.

I read an interview in the late 80’s that for some reason stuck with me. Dweezil Zappa was talking about his then-upcoming TV show, “Normal Life,” co-starring his sister, Moon Unit. He said something like, “Our show is going to be about real families, where everyone eats their food in separate rooms in front of a TV.” As though families eating meals together is a cheesy Ozzie and Harriet thing that cool people don’t do.

Whatever. Being cool is overrated.

Eating with actual human beings
Sure, it takes more effort, but relationship is what life is all about, after all. Even as an unmarried college student in midtown Kansas City, when I lived in a 3-story house sharing rent with 6 other art students, this ethic came through. Enough of us had been raised this way that we determined that we wanted to create a community rather than simply serve as a cheap boarding house. One of the first things we decided toward this end was to share a meal together at least once a week.

When Mollie and I got married, we decided early on as our young family began to grow, that we would try to make it a practice to always eat meals together around the table as a family, with TVs and electronic devices turned off, and earphones pulled out.

A Story About Dinner and Art
Many years later, Mollie and I moved our family to Colorado so that we could pursue careers as fine artists. Some of our old college friends from the 3-story house, now a married couple and living in Loveland, had offered to let us stay with them for a few months until we could get ourselves established. They had 3 kids, and we had 5, and their house was probably too small for this endeavor. But they welcomed us in nonetheless.

One of the first things we did was to fix the situation with the dining room table. We knew we wanted to share meals together, and our host’s dining room table was too small for all 12 of us. So my friend Mike got a nice 4×8 ft board, and, since we were all artists, we decided to turn the table into a community art project involving all the kids.

We thought it would be fun to get everybody’s hand prints on the table, as a small monument to our love and friendship. We had all the kids and adults interlace hands and arms around the table, something like this:

family handprintsThen we spray-painted over everyone’s hands to create a hand print border around the edge of the table. (We first applied lotion to everyone’s hands so that the paint would come off easily.) On the underside of the table, each kid wrote their name under their hand prints to identify them. Then, back on top, we helped the kids stencil some primitive animal shapes running through the center of the table to complete the design. I designed the stencils to be suggestive of Native American art imagery.

Below is a shot of the finished tabletop.

Tabletop stencil - Loveland, ColoradoI will always fondly remember that crazy season of starting over in Colorado, made possible because of the friendship of this family.

Some sad observations from across the pond
I recently read an article by British doctor and psychiatrist, Anthony Daniels, who has worked extensively in some of Britain’s deeply impoverished areas. His duties required him to visit the homes of his patients, and to personally interview them. Daniels recounts some universal patterns he saw in Britain’s underclass:

“Everyone lived in households with a shifting cast of members, rather than in families. If there was an adult male resident, he was generally a bird of passage with a residence of his own somewhere else. He came and went as his fancy took him…

I should mention a rather startling fact: By the time they are 15 or 16, twice as many children in Britain have a television as have a biological father living at home…Few homes were without televisions with screens as large as a cinema – sometimes more than one – and they were never turned off, so that I often felt I was examining someone in a cinema rather than in a house. But what was curious was that these homes often had no means of cooking a meal, or any evidence of a meal ever having been cooked beyond the use of a microwave, and no place at which a meal could be eaten in a family fashion. The pattern of eating in such households was a kind of foraging in the refrigerator, as and when the mood took, with the food to be consumed sitting in front of one of the giant television screens.

Surveys have shown that a fifth of British children do not eat a meal more than once a week with another member of their household, and many homes do not have a dining room table. Needless to say, this pattern is concentrated in the lower reaches of society, where so elementary but fundamental a means of socialization is now unknown. Here I should mention in passing that in my hospital, the illegitimacy rate of the children born in it, except for those of Indian-subcontinental descent, was approaching 100 percent.”  (Imprimis: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass)

What a sobering glimpse of a government welfare state. The government has essentially become the household provider, the nuclear family has disintegrated, and there consequently isn’t even a table around which to share a meal.

Rise up and share a meal!
My purpose here is not to criticize Dweezil Zappa, or the underclass of Britain, or TV watching. My point is simply to encourage connection and communion within households. Whether you are living with family or friends, if you are currently not connecting with those around you, why not start the adventure now? If you are already committed to meal sharing with those you love, then may these thoughts serve as affirmation that you are doing a good thing. Keep it up, you crazy radicals!

Sometimes we do good things almost by accident, or by inertia, or habit. This is certainly better than not doing those things at all. However, at times I have found that doing those same things with intentionality and purpose reminds me to make the most of the moment. Meal sharing is one of those things. Reinforcing your values by reading stories regularly with your kids or grandkids is another. May God strengthen you to create a culture of life and love within your own family!

A Happy Thanksgiving to you,

Scott

tabletop stencil-detail

Feel free to share a dinner table story below…

More About Mores (and Morays)

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Webster defines mores (pronounced MOR-aze – like the eel,) as:
“the fixed morally binding customs of a particular group.”

I’m no expert on morality and ethics, but then, who among us is? However, I have been paying attention. There is an idea about morality out there that seems to be not going away, despite the fact that it’s completely unhelpful to the discussion. It’s like the high fructose corn syrup of discussions on morality – self-serving people have put it in everything, even though it’s really bad for everyone.

I’m speaking of the idea that, regarding human behavior, if something is natural then it must be good; if an impulse is natural it must be in us for a legit reason.

May I delicately point out a couple of things about this idea that might be stupid?

First of all, what does that even mean – a “natural tendency,” or “natural behavior”? If we’re merely material animals, as secularists claim, how could anything we do not be natural? Maybe some of you can answer this for me, but I come up empty.

I mean, if animals do it, doesn’t that automatically make it natural? Can we really say that killing other people is unnatural? Couldn’t I argue that it’s perfectly natural to make snow angels in a bed of poison ivy, or to rush off a cliff to my death like a lemming? How is this helpful in determining what is moral behavior? Couldn’t someone plausibly argue that it’s natural for the larger, physically stronger, and more aggressive sex to dominate the other?

Or, on the other hand, I might look around at the world of nature and conclude that wearing clothing isn’t natural, since we’re the only animals doing it. I’m also pretty sure we’re the only ones cooking food, using electricity, and making art. I don’t get it.

Second, pundits seem to be using evolutionary theory as their basis for thinking this way, as if they actually know anything about our so-called evolutionary past. Evolution explains everything for secularists because they believe that it must. If we truly evolved from scum, then everything that is here is the result of natural evolutionary processes, whether or not it seems plausible. And yet, our evolutionary past is not observable or testable, and is therefore not falsifiable.

Is this sounding familiar?

This is what secularists say about God, whose existence is also not falsifiable. Nonetheless, we now have highly educated materialists, speaking as dogmatically as any Sunday School teacher ever did, teaching utterly speculative things like, “Men are more sexually promiscuous than women because, in our evolutionary past, sexually promiscuous behavior increased the odds of passing on one’s genes.” I can hardly imagine a worse basis from which to derive morals and ethics.

Thirdly and most importantly, the equating of what is natural with what is acceptable completely misses the point of what morality is. Here I must make the observation that moral behavior is always at odds with our “natural” tendencies – that’s precisely WHY moral behavior is revered and respected!  Call me Master-of-the-Obvious, but isn’t a reason we value truth-telling precisely because we know we all have a natural tendency to lie? Do not stories of love and self-sacrifice move us to tears precisely because we know we all have a natural tendency toward self-preservation? Don’t we celebrate couples who have lived their entire lives together in marital sexual fidelity precisely because we know that people are naturally inclined to be sexually promiscuous?

Let’s stop there for a moment: In other words, marital monogamy is not natural – rather, it is the high bar for relationships. But in fact we are now hearing “marriage equality” secularists arguing precisely against marital monogamy in their quest to redefine marriage. Because monogamy isn’t natural. (See examples here, here, & here.)

Right. By definition, moral behavior is not natural. If anything, I’d say it’s…well, kind of…supernatural.

What it’s like to be a human being
Our polarized postmodern culture now carries two prominently clashing views of humanity, morality, and freedom – the secular view, and the biblical view. I find the comparison endlessly fascinating. Both sides see a problem within human beings, but both see the problem and solution in profoundly different ways. Both see human beings as split apart. But each understands this disunity differently:

1)     The secularist believes only in the material reality. No spirit apart from the body. No mind apart from the brain. No truth apart from observable matter. The physical nuts and bolts of the human machine is all that objectively exists. Anything beyond that – values, morality, spirituality, culture; even gender and ideas of human worth – are fluid, squishy, subjective, arbitrary, illusory, and  ultimately disposable. So within man, the secularist posits a separation between what can be observed as fact (the material,) and the unseen realm of values (the non-material.)

2)     The biblical view understands human beings as creatures who were created to be a unity of body, soul, and spirit (1 Thes 5:23.) We were created to be relationally united with our Creator, who objectively exists apart from our physical reality. (Therefore, mind, personhood, and worth can all exist objectively apart from physical reality.) However, human beings now exist in a fallen state of spiritual separation from God; we’ve lost an essential part of what we were meant to be. So within man, the follower of Jesus sees a separation between God and man, which has consequently left man struggling to find the lost unity – body, soul, and spirit – that he was created for.

The secularist believes that the material universe contains the only pieces of the puzzle that exist. The follower of Jesus believes there are critical pieces missing that must come from outside of ourselves, and outside of the material universe, and that our loving Creator took it upon Himself to provide those pieces. So the goal of the spiritual rebirth of which Jesus spoke is about restoring us broken creatures back to wholeness and relational unity. It was never about religion, or “going to heaven.” (I welcome any argument from the whole of scripture that shows otherwise.)

Regarding social mores, both views can agree that morals are not natural in that they go against our natural impulses. But one perspective views this as negative and limiting, while the other sees it as positive and helpful

1)     The secularist approach says that we accidentally evolved by mindless, natural processes, and that “artificial” social constructs, such as religious moral codes, are tools of oppression that may keep our true selves from being expressed. Our natural impulses are what brought us to our present evolutionary state. Social constructs such as gender limit our choices and potential.

2)     The biblical approach says we all bear the image of a loving God, but that our nature has been corrupted. “Artificial” social constructs serve as one imperfect way to keep our corrupted nature from spiraling downward, keeping our natural tendencies in check, and preserving societal order. Our fallen, natural tendencies tend to be selfish and destructive.

Clearly, a person’s ideas about freedom will be shaped by which idea of reality he or she buys into. It might come as a surprise to some that the teaching of Jesus and His apostles deals squarely with these issues of wholeness, freedom, and a unified life – unity between God and man, between man and man, and between man and nature.

A view of freedom that has been cutting-edge for 2000 years
In writing this, I am not advocating religion or politics or social mores as some sort of solution, nor does the Bible put forth this view. At best these things are more like a holding pattern. Personally, I am generally annoyed by religion, and I find some religions to be downright nasty and oppressive. Accordingly, in my last post I said that I don’t live by sex taboos at all, even as I was defending them. Secularist readers may be wondering how I can say these things since I consider myself to be a follower of Jesus.

That’s a fair question. My answer is that Jesus is a person, not a religion, and that Jesus made possible an entirely new and better way to live, transcending cultural mores and religion. He opened the possibility for a life that couldn’t have existed before He came, and He was able to do this because He was more than merely a “great teacher.” Following is His good news, according to the Bible, as brief as I can make it:

The whole human being was created both a spiritual and a physical being, created for companionship with both God and men. God declared this relational unity to be “good.” When this relational unity with God was broken, humanity consequently experienced a spiritual death, or separation, and humanity slid into dysfunction and violence. With God’s covenant people Israel, God established a written body of “low-bar”, temporal social mores in the Torah. Similarly, all civilizations develop externally enforced bodies of mores, customs, and laws designed to maintain societal order. However, uniquely (and supernaturally) embedded within the Hebrew Torah and prophets was a promise of a coming freedom and salvation. God Himself took on human flesh in order to fulfill these promises for humanity. His salvation is total – freeing humanity from bondage to imperfect, externally enforced moral codes, but also freeing us from bondage to sin, death, and decay – the consequences of our fallen-ness. In making spiritual rebirth possible, Jesus uniquely made possible a real, internal change, and a new and better life in the Spirit as opposed to living under a written code (Ro 7:6&7.) All of this was an act of love on our behalf, and it comes with an invitation to everyone (Acts 13:47; Titus 2:11.)

This is not to say that the follower of Jesus is above the law, or that he is without law. God’s standard fulfills and surpasses the law. We see this illustrated in statements by Jesus such as, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery [Torah.] But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mat 5:27,28.) Yet the Spirit-led person is no longer motivated by fear or guilt, but by the highest motivator, which is love – Love for God and love for people.

If you are a parent, or were raised by one, perhaps you will agree that there is no greater motivator than love. Accordingly, Jesus stated that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is like it – to love one’s neighbor (Mat 22:36-39.) In keeping with this the apostle Paul stated that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law/Torah” (Ro 13:9&10.)

This better life in the Spirit made possible by Jesus surpasses the mores of each given culture.
In contrast, the non-spiritual life of the secularist rejects the cultural mores to follow “natural” impulses.

Ironically, from a biblical perspective, the secularist can be said to have the right idea in recognizing the insufficiency, artificiality, and even restrictive nature of externally enforced mores. But to dump the mores without replacing them with something better, (such as spiritual rebirth,) would be to turn our corrupted selves loose against forces too great for society to bear. This is akin to putting the inmates in charge of the prison.

For several years now, Evangelicals have been accused, both from within and without, of “harping on social issues like abortion and homosexuality.” As if Evangelicals are simply interested in returning to a nostalgic 1950’s America. As if these issues are simply a matter of a lack of intelligence and education on the part of Evangelicals. As if the issues of human personhood, gender, and sexuality do not affect us all at the most fundamental level.

But this is now no longer a theoretical debate. America currently has a presidential administration that is forcing the issue. Social and political engineers are now dumping cultural mores and actively attempting to use the force of government to coerce otherwise law-abiding citizens to violate their “fundamental religious beliefs” over the issues of abortion and gay marriage.

I understand that the political left’s ostensible reason for forcing everyone to submit to its political views is that its agenda is correct, just, good, & better for everyone. But really? I wonder if other totalitarian regimes have ever thought that. (I’m kidding. I don’t wonder. The answer is “yes.”) Must we be reminded that it is not okay to force people to submit to our personal political views just because our intentions are good?

It’s hip and trendy now to accept the materialist story and its implications – that you have the heart, mind, and destiny of an animal, and that human life has no unique, innate, or transcendent value. If you call yourself a Christian and you are buying into these materialist ideas, I urge you to get your head in the game, because this stuff matters. To  secularist and the Christian alike I offer a gentle reminder that there is no falsifiable evidence establishing as true the dogma of materialism. There is merely the same old pendulum of human bias and peer pressure, now imposing a materialist perspective onto reality. The issue for all of us is about the true shape of reality. Until that can be tested and proven in a laboratory, we had best cut each other some slack and err on the side of freedom of thought. Both sides of the worldview spectrum are going to have to find a way to respectfully disagree and co-exist, because neither side is going away.

“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

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Graphic Design: The Thinking Heart Project

I recently completed a graphic design and illustration project that is worth sharing. One of the interesting aspects of doing graphic design work is learning about the subject of one’s commissioned work. The Thinking Heart project is centered around the life and loves of Esther “Etty” Hillesum, a young Jewish Dutch woman (1914-43) who perished in the holocaust at Auschwitz. She left behind writings in the form of letters and a journal, which have been published in the book, Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life – The Diaries and Letters from Westerbork.

Martin Steingesser, Portland, Maine’s First Poet Laureate (2007-09,) has created what he calls “poetic variations of Etty’s words for performance by an ensemble of two performers and a cellist.” The ensemble has captured their spoken word performance on a disc. It was for the graphics of this CD project that I was commissioned. Steingesser’s ensemble has been invited to perform The Thinking Heart at the International Etty Hillesum Congress in Belgium in January of 2014, in celebration of Etty Hillesum’s 100th birthday.

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Cover art: I couldn’t help but notice that Etty’s hairline suggested a heart shape. Normally I would automatically reject the heart motif as cutesy and overused, but given the title of the project, it seemed too fitting to ignore. Martin and I worked on keeping it subtle.

A Glimpse of Etty Hillesum

In the summer of 1939, near the village of Westerbork, war-neutral Dutch authorities opened a camp to receive Jewish refugees coming from Germany. The first refugees arrived on October 9th of that year. Tragically, when Nazi forces later invaded the Netherlands, they eventually took control of the camp, and turned Westerbork into an official “transit camp.” By the end of the war some 103,000 Jews were transferred from Westerbork to Auschwitz or Sobibor, in Poland.

During the unfolding of the war’s events, Etty refused to go into hiding, choosing instead to provide support for the people preparing themselves for transport. She wished to “share in her people’s fate.” Etty secured a position with the Westerbork section of the Jewish Council in July of 1942. A year later, when the special status of the Jewish Council was ended, half of the personnel became camp internees. When given the choice to return to Amsterdam, she chose to become a camp internee and remain with her father, mother, and brother, who were interned there. Etty and her family were put to death at Auschwitz within months of her decision.

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Below is a detail of the inside art including Etty’s words…

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“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.” – Etty Hillesum

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You can learn more about Etty Hillesum at www.pilgrimagetotheheart.org
There is also a Facebook page, Pilgrimage to the Heart

Part 3: Five Things in the Bible that Once Embarrassed Me but that I Now Think are Freaking Profound

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Thing #3 – Noah’s Ark
The above illustration is a typical depiction of what many think of as a children’s story. But actually, “Noah’s Ark” is a story of terror that is probably not appropriate for children. For me, that Christian parents would decorate nurseries with images of rainbows and a jolly Noah on a pleasure boat brimming with smiling animals is one of the bizarre aspects of Christian subculture. According to the Torah, the Genesis flood was YHWH intentionally destroying all of life on a global scale because it had become so corrupt and violent. It’s a nasty story of judgment.

Cheery or nasty, making this story sound ridiculous is like shooting fish in a barrel. Believe me, I’ve been in a lot of lively discussions on the topic. My atheist/skeptic friends LOVE critiquing the Noah story: How’d he keep the penguins and polar bears cold enough?…What about venomous snakes?…How’d he fit the dinosaurs on the ark?…How’d he fit millions of animal species on the ark?…What did they do with all the excrement?… How did they keep the lions from eating the zebras?…Wouldn’t it be risky bringing skunks along?…How could it rain non-stop for a month when there isn’t enough moisture in the atmosphere for this to happen?…There isn’t enough water to on the planet to cover earth’s highest mountains…etc. I get it! Rather than spend this post answering the same old million assumed objections, I recommend interested readers visit >here<. The CMI site’s search bar can take you to articles written by qualified PhD scientists who actually believe the Noah story could’ve happened.

Instead, for the remainder of this post, I think the best service I can offer is to draw a clear line between two different ways of looking at the world. The story of Noah, which I once found embarrassing, I now find to be endlessly fascinating with profound implications.

First, as is often the case with “well known” Bible stories, there are quite a few misconceptions that must be corrected. Whether or not you believe the story of Noah’s Ark, let’s at least be clear as to what the Torah says about it.

The pre-flood world was significantly different from ours:

  • The earth’s population spoke one language (Gen 11:1)
  • Dry land may have consisted of a single continent (Gen 10:25)
  • Animals did not fear humans until after the flood (Gen 9:2)
  • YHWH did not allow humans to eat meat until after the flood (cf Gen 1:29-32; 9:3)
  • It had not rained until the time of the flood. (Gen 2:5-6 implies the earth was watered by a mist, but we can only speculate about what this means.)
  • This all sounds pretty paradisiacal so far, except that sin and death had entered the world, and human beings had corrupted themselves. The Torah states, “YHWH saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually…Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence…(Gen 6:5,11.)

The flood as described in the Torah: 

  • The flood was designed by God to wipe out every air-breathing creature, except for Noah and the inhabitants of the ark (Gen 7:22-24.)
  • The Torah does not say that it merely rained for 40 days and nights. It also says the “fountains of the great deep burst forth” as well. It is likely that the flood was a violent cataclysm involving volcanic activity and crustal plate movement (Gen 7:11-12, 17-20.)

For me as an artist, one of the fascinating things about life is how two different people can look at the same thing and see a completely different picture. Hand in hand with this goes the human tendency to see what one wants to see. In the interest of clarifying two very different ways of looking at the world, I’d like to show you two pictures that may widen your perspective.

Here’s the first:

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You’ve seen the geologic column before. Each era represents a span of millions of years. The strata show the accumulation of millions of years of sediment built up through the ages, telling the story of the evolution of life. Older rocks on bottom, newer rocks on top. This is the hard evidence for evolution. While it’s true that 77% of earth’s surface has 7 or more of the strata systems missing, still, generally the marine creatures are at the bottom, with land-dwelling life forms appearing as one moves upward through evolutionary time.

Is there another reasonable way to interpret the geologic column? You decide.

Here’s the same picture with one small addition – a water line:

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Think about the ecological zones where animals live. Marine invertebrates live on the ocean floor, swimming fish live above them, amphibious animals living near the water line live above the fish, and land-dwelling and flying animals live above them. If there were a catastrophic, global flood that buried everything under huge layers of sediment, wouldn’t we expect to see life forms buried roughly in the ecological zones in which they lived? 95% of the fossil record consists of marine organisms such as corals and shellfish. The remaining 5% are generally found above them. Is it so unreasonable to entertain the possibility that when we look at the vast sedimentary layers covering the planet, we are not looking at billions of years of evolution, but the grim result of the great global catastrophe described in the Judeo-Christian scriptures?

If it really happened, the flood described in the Torah would’ve been the most destructive and unforgettable ecological disaster in recorded history. It would’ve permanently altered the face and climate of the entire planet, as well as the course of human history. It would’ve left lasting evidence worldwide, burying everything under layers of sediment. According to the Torah, every human being living today is descended from the 8 people who survived on the ark. Coincidentally, there seems to be a collective memory of a great flood worldwide. We know of at least 500 flood stories from various, unrelated world cultures, many of which share elements of the Genesis story. Furthermore, the best alternative – evolutionary theory, says that modern humans have been here for some 200,000 years, yet it appears that humans acquired the ability to write language only 5000 years ago. It appears that humans didn’t develop agricultural practices until only about 10,000 years ago. Why? Nor does the current population of the earth fit if we have been here for 200,000 years. And if humans have been burying their billions of dead for 200,000 years, there’s scant evidence of it. Apparently there are hard questions for scientists and anthropologists on both sides of the debate.

I want to conclude by spelling out the implications of these two views regarding the nature of life and death. The biblical view and the materialist view are ridiculously divergent and irreconcilable:

The biblical view:
A loving, relational Creator created a good and unified world, including humans with free will. Man chose to break relational unity with his Creator, introducing sin, death, and corruption to creation. This spiritual separation from God (death) also resulted in relational separation between man and man, and man and nature. For human beings, life is defined as relational unity with our Creator, while death is defined as an “enemy” that our incarnate Creator defeated for us at His resurrection. In Him the consequences of separation/death will eventually be done away with – suffering, disease, fear, hatred, oppression, imperfection and physical death.

The evolutionist view
There is nothing beyond material reality. Free will is an illusion. There is no eternal soul. Biological life exists with the sole aim of passing its genetic information to its offspring. That’s it. Life forms unable to do so die out. All of life, humans included, exists as a result of blind, mindless, impersonal processes. Biological life exists by a process of natural selection involving mutation, disease, carnivorous predation, suffering, violence and death. Nothing that exists has any transcendent or objective worth since what exists is only here by accident. Of course, we do value people and things subjectively, but others may value them differently, or not value them at all. We are worthless and ultimately alone in the universe.

So there you have it. One view says life is companionship with the loving Creator who conceived us (see previous post), the other says life is merely one accident in a pointless and impersonal universe. One view says death is a corruption and an enemy (1 Cor 15:26), the other sees death as part of the natural selecting process that defines nature’s winners.

What is an ark?
A Fort Collins, Colorado pastor, John Meyer, recently made a side comment that struck me. He said, “An ark is not a boat. An ark is a vessel that holds something of value to protect and preserve it.” I thought of other arks. I could only think of two: 1) Israel’s ark of the covenant that carried the stone tablets of the Law, Aaron’s rod, and a jar of manna. 2) Jewish synagogues have something called a “Torah Ark” which contains the congregation’s Torah scrolls.

Out of curiosity I did a search to see if there were other arks in the Bible. I found one, hidden by the English translation, but the Hebrew word is the same. This ark was made of wicker, covered in pitch, and placed in the water. It carried an infant who was under a death sentence. This baby was preserved, and grew to deliver the children of Israel from slavery. His name was Moses. He prefigured the Messiah.

Noah’s Ark tells the story of a loving God who must also judge His creation. In judging a corrupt and violent human race He also preserved, protected, and saved something of value in the ark. Whether or not you believe this crazy story, my hope is that you can believe that you are valuable and loved by God, and that He invites you into spiritual rebirth, life, and relationship with Himself.

How I Went From Coffee-Hater To Coffee-Lover

This happened one day just last week. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep that night. Okay…maybe that was because I didn’t know enough to order decaf. At any rate, in my middle age, after a lifetime of hating even the smell of coffee, I ordered a latte with a friend and I completely enjoyed it. I get it now! How did this happen?

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A latte from Coffee Tree. I drank this. It was good.

I was raised by parents who were devout coffee drinkers. As a little kid, I assumed coffee drinking was a grown-up thing that I would someday grow into. But it never made sense to me on any level. The smell was horrible, the grounds looked like dirt and smelled nasty, my parent’s coffee cups were all stained brown, and then, I once asked for a taste just to see if I was missing out on something. I think that little sip probably did it for me for the next couple of decades. ( Now, as a new coffee-lover I realize that this was because my parents were drinking percolated Folgers and Maxwell House coffee – not true coffee according to my coffee mentors.)

So all my life I’ve had to live with people going on about how great coffee is, and how they can’t live without it, and, “Ooo…Don’t you love that aroma?” No, I did not.

And what is up with people taking delicious things and trying to make them taste like coffee? Ice cream, for example. What was the point of that? Why couldn’t people just have their coffee with their ice cream instead of ruining perfectly good ice cream for the rest of us?

Plus, I knew that a lot of people used coffee as a crutch. Plus, I was aware that a lot of horrible things had been done in the name of coffee. I could see right through TV spokespeople like Mrs. Folgers and Juan Valdez, with their fake accents and bad acting. Obviously they were selling something, and I would bet my Celestial Seasonings herbal infusions that the coffee industry had a sinister side to it.

However, in my quieter moments I think I knew that the history of oppression in the name of coffee wasn’t the fault of coffee beans, it was the fault of human beings. I knew of the more recent development of organic and fair trade coffee practices, because my wife and friends never stop talking about this stuff.

The turning point for me came after we moved to Loveland. There is a coffee shop here called Coffee Tree that supposedly has the best coffee in the known universe, or whatever. Really. You’d think it was the cure for cancer the way people go on about it. For years I’ve had friends come down from Ft. Collins to “get together with me,” when really I knew they just wanted an excuse to go to Coffee Tree.

I’d go in there and order a smoothie, or get a can of tea from the case. They’d get their coffee-thingy and their eyes would water and sparkle. Then they’d sip and close their eyes. After coming out of it, they’d always say, “This is really good coffee,” even though I already kinda figured that. And then they would always ask me how my smoothie was.

Fine. My smoothie was fine.

They were always polite about it, and never actually laughed at me or judged me. These were otherwise normal people whom I respected, and I began to wonder if I might be missing something.

Then I’d go to Coffee Tree with my wife, a coffee connoisseur and lover of all things awesome. She was the worst, because she didn’t have to hide her feelings from me. “Ooooooh….that’s SOOOO gooooooood…I’m sorry, what were you saying?” Give me a break. How good can it be? So I started asking if I could have a taste. She would always chuckle and say, “You’re not gonna like it.” She was right, but at Coffee Tree, for the first time, I didn’t hate it.

This was the turning point, as I think it is for all conversions. I reached a point where I wanted to like coffee. Now all that remained was for me to actually like it. There is no such thing, and there never has been such a thing, as a forced conversion. True conversion is always a matter of the heart.

The last time I went to Coffee Tree with my wife, I ordered a smoothie, and  she ordered her coffee-thingy, cradling it under her cute little nose so she could feel the warmth and smell the aroma, blah, blah, blah. But this time when she gave me a sip, I thought that maybe I wished I hadn’t ordered a smoothie, for second. Plus my smoothie was cold, and it was winter, and I was sitting by the door because Coffee Tree is always so freaking crowded.

Anyway, I wondered if it might be time for me to surrender, and turn my life around. I could almost feel the molecules rearranging themselves in my heart and brain. My remaining doubts and  intellectual questions had already been answered, for I’d once had a brief conversation over the counter with owner of Coffee Tree about why his coffee was so good. I guess I expected some sort of mystical answer, or maybe that he had some secret ingredient. But he explained that there’s only one way to make really great espresso. You have to follow the book, so to speak. It had mostly to do with the temperature, I think, and not burning the beans. It was kind of over my head.

A week or so later, a friend from Ft. Collins wanted to “get together with me.” I asked if he would mind if we went to Coffee Tree. He just laughed. My mind was made up. I was determined to voluntarily purchase a cup of coffee, for pleasure, for the first time in my life. I had decided to enter the grown-up world. This particular friend happened to be a pastor, which was good, ‘cause I figured he could help me through the process if I needed support. The Coffee Tree owner was there and I told him what I was about to do. He grinned and said it wasn’t the first time he’d heard of such a conversion.

Wow. And I thought I was the only one. I kind of wanted to turn and address everyone in the coffee shop, and tell them what I was about to do. But I decided not to make a big deal over it. After all, it’s only coffee.

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My wife at coffee tree…