Monday, December 14, 2009

Is Christmas Christian Anymore?

Christmas is an odd time for our culture. We’re told the non-offensive “Happy Holidays” is preferable over “Merry Christmas”, although a person can usually still get away with the later (workplaces, businesses, the media, and corporations, however, usually cannot). We are reminded that we must not ignore other holidays which happen to fall near Christmas on the calendar. With Hanukkah the point might have some traction but thereafter the drop-off is steep: in 2004 only 1.6% of Americans planned to celebrate Kwanzaa (fact shamelessly scalped from Wikipedia, where I also happened to notice that the creator of the holiday is quoted as saying, “Jesus was psychotic.” But I digress…) More than a few Christians have decried a perceived assault: Christmas imagery is continually being watered down, replacing icons traditionally associated with the Christian faith with nondescript snowmen, wreaths, and Santa.

Many evangelicals haven’t quite mastered the art of navigating the somewhat strange cultural landscape that is the holiday season. At least I haven’t. Platitudes like “Jesus is the reason for the season” or “let’s put the Christ back in Christmas” seem largely awkward and ineffective, even if one is in agreement with the sentiment behind them. Even less effective was the exchange I had with some presumably well-meaning Christian stranger who in the grocery store asked me if I was going to celebrate a “Christ-centered Christmas”. I’d like to think I was, actually, but it seemed an inappropriately brazen question for a total stranger to pose, as I’m sure my dumbfounded and sheepish reply evidenced. I can’t imagine a non-Christian being positively affected by such an encounter (but perhaps that’s a lack of imagination on my part). Yes, the Christmas season is a time ripe for conversations about the Christian faith and we do well to pursue these doors when they open, but we also must recognize the reality that much of our society is on the road to being post-Christian.

In reflecting on the many influences contributing to this state of affairs, a significant factor emerged to me: the West’s commitment to religious pluralism. Put very crudely, religious pluralism goes beyond the obvious description that in our society many varied religious perspectives are represented to the troubling prescription that most if not all religions are equally valid and will ultimately lead people to “God”, happiness, fulfillment, etc. There are many problems with this sort of religious pluralism: that there are many streams does not entail that all streams lead to the same sea or that all streams are fundamentally the same (to push the metaphor a bit, drinking from some streams can bring about severe illness or even death!). Another problem is that religion is not a sustainable category: there is no set of criteria that can render, say, Christianity, Buddhism and Druidism into one distinct type without ultimately collapsing the category into worldview, which would also include the likes of secularism and naturalism (and most want to categorically exclude these from the discussion). What is generally considered “religion” defies a satisfactory definition. For example, although they are categorized as religion, in reality many forms of Buddhism are much nearer to atheism than to the children of Abraham (Christianity, Islam and Judaism). I’m convinced the collapse is unavoidable, the category is untenable, and we should stop talking about “religion” and start talking about worldviews.

But an even bigger problem with religious pluralism looms: truth. The various truth claims represented by different religious perspectives are so substantially and fundamentally divergent and incompatible that no pluralistic synthesis can be forged without great violence to the content of those faiths; violence that the faith’s adherents would find unacceptable. To make all religions end in the same place one has to distort Christianity so much it is no longer Christian, distort Hinduism so it is no longer Hindu, etc. As Jim Hick demonstrates well, doing this is actually not a genuine synthesis but rather is the construction of a different religious perspective, not one that subsumes the others, despite claims to that effect. While this unwittingly distinct perspective might receive a warm welcome in the secular West suffering from a post-colonial hangover, it is in danger of failing the basic test of coherence.

The incoherence is in one sense quite apparent. Christianity claims it true that Jesus is the incarnate son of God, the second member of the trinity taking on flesh. Islam claims it true that Jesus was a prophet but was not in any sense divine and that God is strictly one rather than one in essence and three in person. Logically speaking, both of these can’t be true: both could be false, but it is just nonsense to say that both even could possibly be true. They are too much opposite to be compatible. Or another example: it is either the case that ultimate reality is fundamentally personal (theism) or reality is fundamentally impersonal (atheism, many Buddhisms). Despite what proponents of religious pluralism would have us believe, it can’t be both. It might be difficult to do when our neighbors are Mormon, Hindu and atheist, but we must graciously maintain that the truth claims of our worldviews can’t all be right. The best way to respect our neighbors and their worldviews is to treat their beliefs as a truth claim and engage in charitable dialogue. Ironically, the stance of tolerance preached by religious pluralism is often empty: one must agree with the pluralist or one is intolerant. Intolerance will not be tolerated!

Not all religious pluralisms are created equal, however, and some have realized that affirming as true the incompatible truth claims of various religions is nonsense. For these pluralists the move around the incoherence problem I have briefly outlined is not to embrace contradiction but to redefine what “true” means. If there is no truth, or at least truth is beyond our reach, then to speak of something as true is merely to speak of it as useful or practical. Here, Christianity is “true” for the Christian because it brings her a sense of purpose, helps her get through the day, and helps her be moral. An Eastern belief in karma is “true” if it helps a person function in an unfair world and be a good citizen. For this more sophisticated pluralism the actual content of religious belief is insignificant in comparison to what is considered to be “right” action associated with it. Since we can’t ever know what is true and since truth might be nothing more than illusion, anything goes, as long as your faith helps you do good things.

Major problems abound: first, who gets to determine what “good”, “moral”, etc. mean, and why? In this picture, might makes right—one cannot say Hitler’s definitions of “good”, “moral”, “truth”, etc. are in fact wrong; the most that can be expressed is one’s personal preference against these. Good thing he was defeated, for if truth is relative, then if he had prevailed he would have the right to determine what right is. This is an inept understanding of truth. Second, the view gives us no reason to accept it over any other view—if the view is the “right” one, we should all stop talking about it and go do something else. The view has no capital to argue for it.

Much more could be said here, but I want to bring this back to Jesus. Quite frankly, religious pluralism seems completely incompatible with the gospel. In John 14:6 Jesus says that he is the way, and the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father except through him. In Acts 4:12 Peter says that there is salvation in no one else other than Jesus, and “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Contra the pluralist’s emphasis on virtuous deeds over against the content of religious doctrine, the apostles preached the gospel to virtuous, moral, even God fearing Jews and gentiles, calling them for repentance and conversion. Why would Peter need to preach the gospel to a virtuous man like Cornelius and why would he convert and become baptized (Acts 10:34-43)? If “right living” and “good deeds” are the essence of religion, Cornelius had no need for Jesus or the Christian faith.

The Christian worldview states that “religious” truth—and indeed God himself—is accessible and knowable through divine revelation, the pinnacle of which is the person of Jesus Christ. The Christian, following the testimony of Scripture, must insist that the content of doctrine be primary; biblically, once one believes what is right and true, the right actions naturally follow. Pluralism is correct to put an emphasis on the fruit of belief but makes the invalid move of replacing belief with the fruit altogether.

To the pluralist, I say this: don’t patronize me by telling me Jesus is not unique, that the road of following Jesus is one of many that will ultimately lead to the same place. Come out and reject Jesus and his teachings—we’ll dialogue about these competing worldviews—but don’t mangle the truth claims of the Christian faith to fit it into an empty pluralism that placates your politically correct sensibilities.

Back to the original question: how do we navigate the cultural complexities of celebrating Christmas? I don’t have great answers yet but can at least suggest we ought not to be overly concerned about things like schools putting on “Holiday Plays” rather than “Christmas Pageants” or Santas and Reindeer instead of a nativity scene. In fact, it might be time to let go of Christmas as a significantly distinct Christian holiday. For most in our society it has become little more than a celebration of family, gifts, and winter. So be it. This seems a losing battle that might not be worth fighting on this front, anyway.

For those of us who do celebrate the Christian origins of Christmas, we do well to reflect on the wonder of the incarnation. For while humanity gropes about for ultimate purpose, for the truth, and for life, God took on human flesh to give to us the way, the truth, and the life.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Handling a Flood: a Picture Story

This is the story of the '09 Fleming Place flood as experienced by the Bawulskis.

Shawn: "The Kinnessburn is overflowing the banks; it's never quite been this high- close, but not this high. I should go take some pictures. This is really interesting."
Shawn: "Wow, this is really high- its coming up to touch our building. We've heard this happened a few years ago- it got up to the building, then receded, and nothing bad came of it. I'm sure today will be the same sort of thing."
Sara: "Uh... Shawn... its coming up to the door... ...but it probably can't get worse than this."
Shawn: "Hey Sara, come take a picture of me as I walk out in the crazy flood! It'll be fun!"
Shawn: "This is starting to turn from interesting to concerning. I should put plastic bags over the crawlspace vents in case the water gets higher- I'd hate to see our place take on any water."
Shawn: "I'll head up towards the door and put some plastic bags at the bottom to keep water from getting in... this is getting deep."
Sara (panicked): "SHAWN! The water is coming in under the door!"
Shawn: "The plastic bags really didn't work quite like I'd hoped... but I've managed to block water from coming into the living room, where Sara is... ...the water is mostly flowing into the bathroom... hopefully I'll be able to keep Sara dry in the other room."
Sara: "Well great, now we're going to have to dry out our carpets. That will be annoying. I wonder if we can even sleep here tonight with a slightly damp carpet?"
Sara: "This has gone from a wet rug to inches of standing water. I should probably get the electronics up off the ground."
Shawn: "Water is seriously starting to come up into the bedroom, I should get our stuff up off the ground."
Shawn: "This water is unbelievably cold."
Shawn: "Well, maybe Sara is dryer in the living room... ...I probably should have sent her away before things got this bad... ...but it won't get any worse than this, right?"
Sara: "Piper and I will ride it out here in the living room, we'll be dry in here. This will be a pain to clean up, and we'll need to stay somewhere else tonight."
Sara (several minutes later): "I'll take some pictures to occupy myself, because this is starting to freak me out. We need to get everything high up on top of furniture, gather as much as we can, and get out of here."
Shawn: "Laptops, clothes for a few days, white noise maker so Sara can sleep... ...what else... ...MAN this water is cold..."
Sara: "Poor dog! Just wait Piper, we're coming for you soon, we still need to get more things... that couch floating?"
Sara: "This is ridiculous... ....oh, I need my Hebrew books! Is that the dog's bone floating under the table? This water is knee-deep... ...and so cold..."

Shawn: "Need to grab toiletries... why am I not wearing shoes? Where are my shoes? I think they floated away... ...was that a carp that brushed my leg? No, that's crazy, its just a plastic bag..."

Shawn: "Seriously, that bed is floating."

Shawn: "Well, I've got everything up as high as I can. If this water gets any higher it will all be lost. But we should probably leave soon..."

Piper: "Don't leave me don't leave me don't leave me don't leave me don't leave me don't leave me don't leave me..."

From here, I tripped the circuit breakers and Sara and I headed out through waist deep waters, laden with as much as we could carry, and a dog in a laundry basket held to my chest. We headed to our friend's house, Ian and Corrie, who graciously provided a shower, food, and a dry place to sleep.
A few hours later that evening my friend and I headed back to see the damage and salvage some more things....

The bottom drawer of the freezer was full of water... the chicken nuggets are supposedly in an airtight bag, but do you trust the seal enough to eat them? I certainly do not.
The next day, the Kinnessburn was still moving swiftly but had return to a normal level...
There was quite a bit of mud.

All of the neighbor's rubbish bins somehow floated into our garden...

And the inside of the house was totally trashed.

Our doormat floated down around the corner of the building.
And remarkably, almost all of our possessions stayed dry.

I spent most of the day moving all of our stuff out and into storage. The neighbor above us has offered to let us stay in this flat for at least a few days (it's his holiday home and he's not here). The landlord's insurance guy showed up in the afternoon and dropped this bomb: walls will need to be completely gutted, including the wall studs. Repairs will take at least 4 weeks and possibly up to 3 months or more. We were assured that work will be completed before the baby arrives, but I'm not convinced... ...have you ever heard of a construction project being done on time? Me neither. At least the insurance company foots the bill for our temporary housing, whatever that will be (hope to figure that out tomorrow).

We are safe and healthy, and we lost next to none of our possessions: praise God! Further, the support, care and help from the community of faith has been remarkable. We have at least 6 offers of places to stay, and meals will be provided for us for at least a week! I cannot imagine going through something like this without the loving support of the church- the Lord certainly shows His care and provision through His people.

By all accounts this was a freak event: flooding this severe hasn't happened... well, no one can remember anything like this ever happening. But the lesson is well learned: when the water gets to your door, its probably time to evacuate the pregnant woman.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Towards a Theology of National Geographic: Reflections on Nature Television Programming

I must confess I am one of those people who find nature TV shows fascinating. Not merely interesting; full-on gripping. My wife (who is generally patient with me in these matters) has been known to say things like “another hour of lions? We get it, they kill antelope.”, “how much can you watch about continental drift?” and “so the whole show is about schools of tuna?” Forget so called “reality” TV, give me the original reality TV- the Discovery Channel. Perhaps it’s because nature shows were a point of family connection growing up, or maybe it’s my love for the outdoors, or possibly that I’m a (closet?) amateur zoologist, but a good nature show will stick with me for days. Hey, did you know that 80% of nitrogen in the costal Pacific Northwest rainforests are from Salmon corpses, left after swimming upstream to spawn and then dying?!?!

Theology has much to say to nature programming- more on that shortly. First, some reflections on the genre.

Nature Shows as Anti-Television

Nature television is in some ways anti-television, a network executive’s nightmare. Not loud, flashy, or over the top, it’s not likely to give pause to the average channel surfer, even if Sigourney Weaver or Morgan Freeman are enlisted to provide narration. Informative content often similar to that given in a classroom or museum, long breaks between bits of voiceover narration, and a slow pace are not for the short of attention span. Think about it: can you name a nature program on a major network? With the notable exception of the BBC, most nature programming has been sequestered to (mostly minor) cable television networks and public broadcasting (at least this is the case in the States, perhaps things are different in the UK; lacking a television set here, I’m in no position to make assessment).

The Genre

Nature shows are familiar. The genre of nature programming is known for several things, including stunning shots of sweeping landscapes scored by orchestral crescendos and cymbal rushes, a seeming obsession with predation, and making teenagers uncomfortable and somewhat giggly during scenes of animal mating behavior (those videos in middle school biology class were so awkward!). Not only is it familiar to most of us, it is also consistent. After 25+ plus years of watching nature TV, it seems to me that the genre has been stable and changes have been small and slow in coming (although the Planet Earth series has recently raised quality expectations substantially). Shark Week, while very cool, was hardly a revolution.

Annoyances with the Genre

Within this largely static genre, two staple themes have always agitated me. First, no respectable nature show would be without at least a few appeals, usually vague and in the form of personification, to the explanatory power of evolution (usually something like, “evolution has given this bird a wonderful gift—an elongated beak, to eat grubs buried in the bark.”) Occasionally the words “designed” or “creature” make an appearance, but those are just manners of speaking, not to be taken seriously or at face value. Sometimes the ambiguous “mother nature” is mentioned, but again only as a metaphor for evolution. I’ll avoid an excursion into creation vs. evolution debates, but I can at least say that nature television almost uniformly assumes Naturalism and atheistic evolution, not even giving a passing mention to the possibility of other explanations. (Usually Naturalism is an over-invocation; micro-evolution or Theistic evolution could explain the data presented just as well, if not better. Interestingly, the enjoyability and coherence of any given program usually has little to no dependence on those ideologies- and they are fundamentally just that: worldview ideologies trying to masquerade as fact. But I digress.) None of this is surprising, but certainly frustrating. (I like to think) my annoyance does not stem from a fundamentalist kneejerk against any and all understandings of evolution but rather the attempt to disguise the worldview of Naturalism as “objective science.” No one operates without a worldview framework in place; no one has a view from nowhere.

My second annoyance is related to the first, so I’ll keep it short(er). There is a seemingly concerted effort to accentuate similarities and iron over differences between animals and humans. It is undeniable that higher-level mammals and humans share much in common, especially regarding social behavior. Actually, theologically we ought not be surprised by such similarity between humanity and the rest of creation (see below). But watching nature shows one can easily get the impression that philosophy, morality, theology, art—all the humanities, almost—are amusing but superfluous to a proper account of the world, which can only be given by the naturalist. I remember this annoyance first surfacing as a young boy watching African wildlife get drunk in “Animals Are Beautiful People” (the title says it all, doesn’t it). They eat fruit that ferments in their stomachs, stumble around comically, sleep it off, and then are hung over the next day, all humorously set to ragtime music. As funny as it was, even as a young boy I remember thinking, “so wait, this film is saying people are nothing more than slightly more evolved animals?”

Some Theological Reflections

Despite its efforts to propagate Naturalism, theology has much to say to nature programming and, I would argue, these shows often fail to completely repress elements of the Christian worldview. Quite frankly, the ‘glory-chargedness’ of our world is inescapable (although not insuppressible- Rom. 1:18-32). Ours is a world where the glory, goodness, beauty and wisdom of the Creator are manifestly evident—at least to those with the eyes to see—and this is particularly so when it comes to the natural world. I love to learn about things like rivers in underground caves in Papua New Guinea or deep sea creatures with chemically illuminated photophores because doing so enriches my understanding of the world as chosen, designed, created, and loved by God (Genesis 1 repeatedly states, “And God saw that it was good”).

While stunning mountain landscapes and roaring ocean tides often come mind when attempting to ponder and appreciate creation, we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to get beyond stereotypes. The glory and beauty of the Creator are reflected in things like the complexity and harmony of the human circulatory system and the interdependence of nutrient-rich oceans currents and humpback whales just as much as it is displayed in, say, a picturesque sunset. Let us always take care not make a caricature of the work of His hands.

Further, the remarkable complexity and beauty of our world is not “out there” in nature; it’s not as if there is “us” and then there is nature, but rather both nature and we are parts of the whole of creation, the whole cosmos. From the creation accounts in Genesis we rightly conclude that humanity is the pinnacle of creation, not the demigods over creation (Gen. 1:26-27). Such an understanding is the beginnings of the proper foundation for what we might call a biblical environmentalism—one that has theological motives rather than being driven by politically leveraged guilt or pure self-interest.

Nature programming is attractive because it ushers us into pondering the beauty and majesty of our world. And yet there is a discordance between the Naturalism underlying much of the programming and the self conscious appeals to ‘the wonder of it all’. Talk of beauty, majesty and wonder is empty and hallow on Naturalism, but rich and meaningful on the Christian worldview. Put bluntly, Naturalism’s explanations of truth, beauty, wonder, etc. as byproducts of the evolutionary preference for survival are empty, cheap and lacking in substance (and in Naturalism even the preference itself is arbitrary). If Naturalism is true then the beauty of nature is meaningless. The Naturalism operative in nature programming is cashing on borrowed capital here, unknowingly smuggling in through the back door God’s beauty and wonder as reflected in creation. Whether one acknowledges it or not, we find the natural world beautiful because God is beautiful. Creation is only beautiful, wonderful, etc. derivatively, in virtue of being the creation of the One who is beauty, goodness, and truth.

Yet despite the beauty and glory of our world, it is undeniably broken. Ecosystems are fragile and don’t always work well, even apart from human influence, predation means that nature is often gruesome and violent; one of the incomprehensible horrors of sin is that humanity’s wrongdoing has tainted all of creation. The Christian hope for the world is one of redemption in the person of Jesus Christ, a redemption that, like the fall, starts with humanity but includes all of creation (Rom. 8:18-25).

One of the most significant ‘take-aways’ from nature programming is how dependent we are on the natural world, how very little we understand about it, and how uncontrollable it is (we cannot control but we can certainly destroy!). Yet again, creation here functions as a mere shadow of God: humanity’s dependence on creation is ultimately a dependence on the good providence of the Creator. If we can’t control, say, the rains we need for crops, how much more are we dependent on the sovereign Lord God, in whom “we live and move and have our being”? (Acts 17:28)

Finally, I’ll close as most nature shows do: with a charge for change. Most appeals to conservation in nature programming are subtle and often emotional, usually appearing briefly at the conclusion, frequently in the form of “if you don’t want to lose what you’ve just seen, we’d better get our act together.” Conservation and preservation are worthwhile and important, and this is especially the case for the Christian, who is an agent of grace and redemption in the world. Yet we tend to write off environmental issues in evangelical circles (at least in N. America), which is a shame, because the Christian voice in environmental discussions is a unique and desperately needed one: Christians understand the full depth and pervasiveness of humanity’s condition in sin—so often downplayed in those discussions, much to the detriment of us all. If anyone has the right motivation for being an environmentalist, certainly it’s the Christian.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Baby Bawulski!

Apologies if this is the first you're hearing this news (we did our best to tell everyone we could in person), but we're making the news of our baby "blog-public". Here is the 10 week scan, taken a few months ago:

And here are some (slightly odd looking) scans from today's 20 week appointment:

Head and spine are clearly visible

Face shot with hand. This photo kinda looks like an alien or Skeletor.

The baby was not cooperating enough to give the standard ultrasound shot. So here's a nice cross section of internal organs (my idea, which Sara vetoed, was to google image "20 week ultrasound" and scalp the best one). You can see the heart and stomach if you look closely.

And we found out today that the baby forecast is a 97% chance of little girl! (the ultrasound technician was "97% certain")

Baby is due January 30th, and both mom and baby are happy and healthy. Please pray for continued health!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Visiting Home, Coming Home

I tend to get right to the point, and I'll keep to form here: this blog post covers the two weeks in July that we made a trip back to the States, followed immediately by about two weeks of family and friends visiting us in Scotland. Here goes.

Visiting friends and family back home was great, and we realized how much we miss those we left on the other side of the pond. Despite some mild culture shock ("Were billboards and TV ad always this ugly and irritating?" "Why does it take at least a 15-20 minute drive to get places?"), the US is largely familiar and much the way we remember it. Even better than we remember it was the restaurant food in the US- we must have eaten at Chipotle at least 4 times. Eating out in the UK is generally an experience in mediocrity (there are exceptions to this but they are rare), so we did enjoy the wonders of food in Chicagoland. It was fantastic.

Even more fantastic for me was the honor to preach the homily at my brother-in-law's wedding. He and his new bride are both believers who love the Lord, and he has just begun his first pastoral ministry position. Blessing on you, Justin and Deb.

After a fun but dense two weeks in the states, Sara's parents Randy and Barb followed us over to Scotland for a visit. They landed the day after we did and hit the ground running. Here are some pictures:

St Andrews Castle

Sara and me in the fishing village of Anstruther.

Barb and Randy

The West Sands at St Andrews

Randy, overlooking St Andrews

Sara and Barb at The Hermitage

Barb and me at the William Wallace monument

We have seen some spectacular sunsets the past few weeks.

I climbed out to this rock as the tide was coming in...

It took some timing to get back through the gap... ...but the view was quite nice.

After Barb and Randy went down to London for a few days, our friends Bob and Jennifer Fischer joined us for a few short days.

We visited Dunnottar Castle

We went to The Hermitage

We enjoyed a fantastic night on St Andrew's pier.

And on that night, on that pier, I took one of the best photographs I think I have ever taken. But I'll let you be the judge...

As enjoyable as was our trip back home to the States to see everyone, returning to St Andrews truly felt like we were coming home.