Monday, April 29, 2013

Building character

I think that N.T. Wright is one of the best theologians on the planet today. I've started reading "After You Believe", which deals with the premise that, while we can never earn anything from God, a long obedience in small things is a required practice in our own sanctification. But even that summary is woefully short of this complex subject; it could so easily be interpreted as a support for legalism (and anyone who knows me personally knows I'm not gonna wear that label very long, rebel that I am).

My own core identity statement says this: I'm surrounded, sustained and totally identified with grace; called and sent by God as a grace ambassador. Character-building must happen in the context of grace, but we must work at building a virtuous character.

" what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn't 'come naturally'--and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find they do what's required automatically..." (p. 20)

Wright uses the example of "Sully" Sullenberg, who landed an airplane in the Hudson River and saved probably hundreds of lives both in the plane and on the ground. He didn't have time to consult the manual to see what do to in that circumstance. He'd done it in training and in the real world time after time in "practice", and when it counted, he was able to make the right decisions in the right moment, because he'd built into himself that "virtue" of being a great pilot.

So too it is with us. We must read the Bible, we must "practice" virtue, because one day soon (if not already) we're going to need deep Christian character to act and live justly. There won't be time to read the manual; what is built inside us will emerge. It will determine the choices made. In that moment, it is too late to build character.

Whether you want to be an athlete, an artist, or a leader, character is required. And to live in the kingdom of heaven daily, Christian character is a must. I'll try to blog as I read, cuz this book summary would be almost as long as the book. So hang on!

Saturday, April 06, 2013

American Aflame Book Review

My airplane read on the recent overseas trip was a great book (finally finished this morning), America Aflame by David Goldfield. Goldfield is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I had picked up the book last year in B&N, and then asked for it for Christmas. What caught my eye was this: the cover calls it "the first major new interpretation of the Civil War era in a generation. Where other scholars have seen the conflict as a triumph of freedom, Goldfield paints it as American's greatest failure: a breakdown of the political system caused by the infusion of evangelical religion (emphasis added)."

I was hooked from that moment on.

You know that I'm constantly philosophizing the issue of power. I tweeted recently asking if followers of Jesus should strive to have power or strive to be salt. The responses were telling. Like Tolkien's Boromir, son of the steward of Gondor, we can often see power as a gift from God, something to be taken up and used for good.

But my reading of the Bible and history teaches me something different. Two thoughts to share after finishing the book:

1. While the desire to see holiness reflected in culture is good, using political/economic/social power to enact such holiness has never worked well in the history of mankind. Submission to the kingdom of God cannot be coerced. We must take up our own crosses, we cannot pull people out of the crowd and force a cross upon them.

2. Any time a desire for holiness only involves change in the "other" and not in ourselves, we're missing the point of biblical holiness.

The Northern Evangelicals in the 1830s through 1850s were rightly some of the leaders of the abolitionist movement. Slavery was a moral evil that needed to be overturned and destroyed. But in their minds slavery was a southern problem. As Goldfield points out, many of these Evangelicals were just as bigoted as the Southern slaveholders, and in some cases, much more so. They saw no issue with their own Darwinian beliefs that whites were more evolutionarily advanced than Africans or Native Americans.

After slavery was gone, the melting of that form of Evangelical Religion with the political and economic powers it thought it was using to destroy slavery destroyed the prophetic power in that Northern Evangelicalism, in part because the focus wasn't on true, authentic, biblical holiness, but on the evil of slavery itself. And the south didn't fair any better, where Southern Evangelicalism usually focused on keeping the societal power of whites in the same social-Darwinian vein.

In the end, the Civil War did end a certain kind of slavery, but not every kind. Evil still reigned in the treatment of blacks, in both north and south. True holiness is an elusive quarry, and cannot be obtained by human means. As I've heard others say, a partnership between Church and State ruins the State and destroys the Church.

If you like history, one that does a fair job of presenting the many faceted sides of what lead up to the war, this is an excellent read. Goldfield writes well, picking up a number of stories and characters that he follows throughout the book. I especially loved his stories of Walt Whitman, and how the times influenced Whitman's poetry. At nearly 600 pages, its a daunting read, but well worth the time and effort.