Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Residue From Two Snowstorms

Colorado made the BBC News again this weekend by virtue of being pounded by its second snowstorm in two weeks. Fortunately, my flights in and out of Denver for Christmas will have just made it both times.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Divine Value Placed on Broken Things

This Christmas season I have been reading from St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation, a patristic classic written by a twenty year old (yeah, amazing) in the 4th century Roman World. Earlier in December I was having troubles honing my thoughts and emotions in on the significance of the season. Among other things, my broken car and the need for a vacation did not help my distracted reflections.

This passage from St. Athanasius came to mind one night:

For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word's indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Saviour of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.

God the creator entered into a material world filled with twisted and complex circumstances, He embodied a material and fragile vessel, and He associated with broken people. The essence of Christ's incarnation is truly an ineffible miracle. Yet one thing that it accomplished was the placement of real redemptive value on the material things, peopled and circumstances of this world, even and especially the those things that are hopelessly broken and hurting. Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Still Not Enough Boxes: A Problem in Analyzing Protestant Politics in America

The Sept/Oct issue of Foreign Affairs has an interesting article entitled "God's Country," in which Walter Russell Meed analyzes the current character and impact of Protestant denominations on U.S. foreign policies.

The article is refreshing for a number of reasons. Meed states that thoughtful, intellectual Christianity can and does have a positive impact on policymaking. He concludes: "As more evangelical leaders acquire firsthand experience in foreign policy, they are likely to provide something now sadly lacking in the world of U.S. foreign policy: a trusted group of experts, well versed in the nuances and dilemmas of the international situation, who are able to persuade large numbers of Americans to support the complex and counter-intuitive policies that are sometimes necessary in this wicked and frustrating--or dare one say it, fallen--world."

Another positive admission Meed makes is that Protestant thought cannot be put into a single box. This is especially important as many politicians and political analysts simply don't know what to do with that giant of influence they often grossly lump together as "evangelicalism." Meed divides this giant into threes: Fundamentalists (most conservative and literal in their interpretaion of Scripture), Liberal Christians (more interested in the "ethical kernel" of Christianity and allying with modernism), and Evangelicals (the largest group, "the middle path" providing a compromise to both extremes).

Although Meed does more justice than most to the complexity of Christian thought, I think his taxonomies could be broken down even further. For one, I think his sketch ostracizes an important theological tradition called cultural Calvinism (a la Abraham Kuyper, among others) which flourishes in denominations such as the the Presbyterian Church of America and the United Reformed Church.

For obvious reason, Calvinism doesn't jive with the compromising Christian Liberalism that Meed describes. Yet Cultural Calvinism doesn't follow to the lead of what Russell terms Evangelicalism either, largely for this group's pre-mil disposition and its tendency towards certain "cognitive dissonance," which Meed observes. In contrast, Most Calvinists don't subscribe to the "Left Behind" paradigm and seek to be intellectually consistent and rigorous. At firt, Cultural Calvinism would seem to fit well into Meed's Fundamentalist Box, e.g., a high view of Scripture, a comprehensive "worldview" that insists on carrying biblical truth to its logical conclusions. Yet, cultural Calvinism entails cardinal doctrines that crucially set it apart from Meed's caricature of fundamentalism, e.g. Common Grace and a view of salvation that is not exclusively soteric (the salvation of souls only) but cultural as well. These doctrines are important to such a Calvinst because they do not render a culturally withdrawn "lifeboat" Christianity (as Russell quotes the "fundamentalist" D.L. Moody as saying).

While Cultural Calvinism holds to God's high sovereignty and the fallenness of the world, it can also maintain that the world is not merely a "wrecked vessel" b/c Common Grace still holds the broken pieces together and, what is more, is indeed redeeming and restoring all of creation--to include the environment, the human body, man's political relationships, as well as souls--from its fallen state. These are grounds for a certain sober cultural and political optimism and constructionism that neither Meed's "fundamentalists" nor his "evangelicals" can provide.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Single-Minded Thoughts About Love

Well, I could have picked a less alarming topic to end my short bout of blogging hibernation, but this has been on my mind of late. "This" refers to the motif of love, coupled with the context of singleness. Don't worry, I'm not going to rant about how I kissed singleness hello, nor am I going to whine my own rendition of Sister Hazel's "If she's out there..." My goal is to be theologically and emotionally honest.

Singles in my walk of life--having just left college and entering a world w/ alot of uncertainties--often desire "someone else" for the sake of security or support. Many of my friends are in this position, and can at times even grasp for dating, coupling up, or what have you as a panacea to all problems relating to uncertainty, unresolved emotions, life-planning, and even Friday night boredom.

Overall, I thinks there's a certain yearning here that is good. But to assume these desires stop short at a beautiful woman or a marriage-able guy is short-sighted. We are deeper creatures than that.

In "The Weight of Glory" C.S. uses the German word siensucht to term this idea of deep yearning; he furthermore warns of such short-sightedness: these good, earthly things we desire (call it beauty if you want) "if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of the their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited."

Lately, I've been attempting a strange experiment. I will be listening to a love song and try to imagine that the lyrics, rather than being written by one human to another, are an expression of love from God to me--in very "real" terms. This exercise can have obvious pit-falls, but seriously take the idea for what it's worth. That we laugh at such a notion is a symptom of a common problem in the way many single Christians see themselves and God. We tend to discount the biblical metaphor of Christ and his bride and forget that the "beauty" of Christ is not some theological abstraction, but something very real that should capture our hearts in a very emotional, "pitter-patter" kind of way.

The metaphysical poet John Donne seemed to agree. His "Holy Sonnets" were scrutinized in his day because they wielded very earthy language in prayers and praises to God. "Batter my heart three-personed God." The sonnet itself is a poetical form divined for lovers. It seems that Donne, too, realized that human love and earthly emotional yearning is but a shadow of a deeper relationship.

Being single is not usually the carpe-diem joy ride that some Christian authors try to pitch it as. Yet, I want to propose that being single does offer an opportunity to single-mindedly fall deeper in love with Christ--not in a theological, abstract sense, but in a very real and emotional sense. It is a time to ground one's well of emotions deeper into the true source of purity and beauty. source of purity and beauty. And if the time comes when we are captured by an earthly beauty, knowing and loving the ultimate Source will make the moment all the more true.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What's in a Name? In my case, half the alphabet.

I like to think that I have one of those "good strong" last names. "Early in the Meadow," sings the Dutch translation--maybe somewhere down the road my ancestors were shepherds. But Dutch poetry translates into very long and out-of-place sounding words in the linguistically-bland English-speaking world, and this has furnished me with several experiences that your average John Smith has never had to contend with.

5 Years old. Kindergarten. The entire class has learned to write their last names, except for me. In fact, my teacher writes my name on all my papers for me. One day, Mrs. Young informs me that it's time for me to spell my name for myself. That evening, my dad breaks "Vroe-gin-dewey" up into 3 parts and tells me to learn one at a time. I cry, but eventually it get it.

13 Years old. Middle School. "Beavis and Butthead" is a hit among the boys in my class, many of whom put more effort into speaking like the cartoon characters than they do in their schoolwork. Two of these guys realize one day that "VROEgindewey" sounds funny in Beavis and Butthead voices. It becomes their favorite word, the entire year.

18 Years old. High School. I'm late for work, so I make a California stop at the stop sign. Seconds later, I pass a cop--he flashes his lights, I pull over and reach for my driver's license. After very respectfully and apologetically explaining that I was late for work, the officer gives me a warning, or rather a threat: "Well, Mr......Ryan, if I even catch you again I'm gonna hammer you--b/c you have a really weird last name, and I won't forget it."

21 Years old. College. I'm presenting a paper at a history conference held at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. This is Dutch county, U.S.A, where they actually hold annual Tulip festivals. This is a predominant Dutch-reformed college. In fact, Vroegindewey's have graduated from this college before. And what does my name tag read? "Ryan Vroegendewy." At this point in life, I realize that I am special.

22 Years old. Post-College. I have become a member of my church, and am being introduced to the congregation on Sunday morning. The bulletin lists the names of new members. One of them is, "Brian Vrognindewey." I don't know this guy, but I bet his name translates poetically into Dutch.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

A Christian Realism?

"Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interprenetrate and work out their tentaive and uneasy consequences." - Reinhold Niebuhr

I recently finished reading The Wisdom of Statecraft, in which Albert Coll synthesizes Christian Historian Herbert Butterfield's ("whig history") writings on Christianity, the study of History, and Statesmanship.

One of Butterfield's distinctions, especially in this decade where nearly everyone self-stylizes himself as a "neoconservative," is that he is maintained as a Christian realist. As one grounded in scriptural truth, Butterfield recognizes morality's normative function in every arena of life, and most certainly in foreign policy. Yet, Butterfield attributes great weight to man's fallen nature, to his rational finitude, and to the immense complexity of the variables in history. Also fundamental to Butterfield's thoughts seems to be his view of Providence, which plays mostly a redemptive, restorative, and largely mysteriouse role in history.

This has some interesting consequences. One is that foreign policies which are fundamentally morally/idealistically bold and historically bold in nature are doomed to at least mostly fail, as well as spawn a number of unintended consequences. Conversely, the prudent play of power plays a less pretty although essential role in statesmanship. This is not unrestrained power (a la Machiavelli), but a sober power tapered by a historian's empathy (for the circumstances of other states); by a statesman's intuitive sense for the proper balance of power (in the international system); and by a leader's burden for his own state's survival.

Butterfield, I am sure, would be a hash critique of statesman like Woodrow Wilson, G. W. Bush, and many neoconservatives. These characters would probably strike Butterfield as presumtuous and self-righteous cowboys trying to break and saddle up on the backs of history and Providence. He would predict that their bold idealism (and perhaps borderlining utopianism) underestimates history's and Providence's flow and character, fails in purpose, and spawns unforseen consequences.

And he would be right in some sense--I do appreciate Butterfield's sober-mindedness, especially for this generation. The comprehensive and complex problem that sin poses to this world and to an arena as morally difficult as foreign policy is very real. But Butterfield's reflections smack of some form of "Christian fatalism" or passivity. While he maintains that Providence is good and that it is always there, it is more of an ineffible geist that speaks and responds out of human brokenness and tregedy than something that gives palpable hope for this world. The natural result would seem to be morally passive statesmanship that is more paranoid with survival that proactivity.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Welcome to Hotel 4103

"'Relax,' said the night man, 'we are programmed to receive.
You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.'"

It's that time of the year when half of the PCA descends (or ascends, as it is) upon Lookout Mt, GA to return to Covenant, or else to drop their kid off for the first time. One of the fruits of this season of transition is that good friends and their families are in town.

This season also means the transformation of 4103. This summer, 4103 existed primarily as a store-it-yourself facility. At business high points, we provided services for over a dozen clients-- storing suits, computers, a dresser, a grill, a toilet, a television, clothes, 5 couches. and a variety of other personal possessions. True, 6 guys also lived here, but really we only existed for the purpose of protecting said stored goods and ensuring there preservation at a constant 72 degrees.

As fall approaches, however, and stored possessions are reclaimed, 4103 re-markets its services as a place of sleeping and eating for the weary and travel-laden. "Hotel" would be a generous term, but "Hostel" is more appropriate to the spirit of the place. Three days ago, for example, we had 10 guys sleeping in the house, to include a German exchange student named Frank. Last night we hosted a dinner for 30 or so friends and their families, which didn't include Frank but did include Franfurters.
In truth, it's a pleasure to serve our good friends in these ways. There are no mirrors on the ceiling, and we can't guantee Champagne on ice. But there's always planty of room...any time of year...any time of year.