Virtue and the Virtues

Today’s sermon, the second in the “7: Deadly Sins and Lively Virtues” series is now up here: Virtue and the Virtues

Steve Bell: An Appreciation

Two nights back, Rachel and I watched Burning Ember, a documentary from Refuge 31 Films. It is, in short, wonderful and I want to thank Steve and his assistant (and my former student), Amy for sending it to us with this long overdue blogpost, an appreciation for perhaps the most underrated Canadian artist alive.

I first was introduced to Steve’s music around Valentine’s Day, 1999. It was (I think) my 3rd or 4th date with Rachel. Steve was in concert at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now part of Canadian Mennonite University) and this was her gift to me. A gift still freely and freshly given now for 16 years and many CDs later. Since that time, I have seen Steve in concert solo, with a band, and with other artists (notably, Mike Janzen, Carolyn Arends, and Bob Bennet) six more times. I have also crossed paths with him at Providence University College, where he would sometimes guest lecture. All this to say, I been fortunate to have experienced Steve (calling him Bell doesn’t feel right) and his music in different ways and arrangements and have had opportunity to match the music to the man in more informal settings. As a result, I have formed the following opinions.

(1) I wish this man was my friend. Corny, I know. It makes me sound like Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney–completely star struck. But there is (I hope anyway) a deeper point. I have seen Steve in enough and varied settings to know that his “onstage persona” is his offstage person. And that person is wise, thoughtful, theologically rich (a rare gift for a Christian musician) and committed to his art. He is a person whose qualities, demeanour, and integrity simply calls forth the desire of friendship in all kinds of people. I imagine that they leave his friends better for having known him. A cliché, of course, and used in far too many situations where it simply isn’t true. But I can’t think of another way to say it.

(2) I can’t believe he’s not Michael W. Smith, Bruce Cockburn, or even James Taylor huge. Steve’s musical talent is simply amazing. Burning Ember takes us through Steve’s journey to expand his brand and market, taking his whole career into view, but also focusing on his latest project, Pilgrimage, a collection of classic and new music, performed by Steve and other musicians, including Malcolm Guite, Carolyn Arends, The Bros. Landreth, and Bob Bennet. I love this collection. My favorite track is “Theotokos” (a demo version is here). A hymn of praise to the most beautiful woman God ever created, thanking her for bearing the Son of God. Anyway, the irony and injustice embedded in the documentary is that while Pilgrimage celebrates a wonderful 25 year career, Steve is still touring in rented vans, playing for dozens far more often than hundreds. A legacy project that should be filling major concert halls across North America is the platform from which Steve again is looking to “break” into a larger audience. Steve is one of the best guitarists currently performing and a poet and songwriter of the first order. He easily stands shoulder to shoulder with the singer/songwriter greats of this and earlier generations: Bruce Cockburn and James Taylor. He deserves to be as celebrated an artist in the Christian music scene as MWS. It’s wrong that he’s not.

(3) His fans are blessed by the fact that he isn’t as huge as his talent merits. It is to our benefit that Steve is not as big as he deserves to be, for it means that more often than not, his concerts are intimate and inviting and he remains accessible. If you write him, odds are he’ll write you back and not just the “signed-by-a-computer 8X10″ write you back, either. This is Burning Ember’s double irony. Steve should be a more celebrated, better known artist than he is; that he isn’t has forged deep connections to his music among his fans, connections that sometimes can become personal.

So, Steve, thanks for enriching my life with your songs over the last 16 years. I am grateful. And, “Remember that time when you did that show with Carolyn and Bob at Steinbach Mennonite? That was so awesome!”

God and Dopamine

I ran across this meme on Facebook back in January that was, as far as I can tell, produced by a person or group that goes by the name “Chritiantoatheist”: “I don’t always experience God, but when I do, it’s dopamine.” The shortest response from a thoughtful believer is, “Of course it is.” (A thoughtful, but snarky one might add “duh” at the end). This is a pristine example of begging the question. It only works as a refutation of the existence of God on the presupposition that God does not exist. If God does exist, and we experience God in the same way that we experience other persons, then of course an experience of God would produce a chemical reaction in the brain. Just had to get that off my chest.

Sin and Sins: A Sermon for Lent 1

Here is the first of our series, “7: Deadly Sins and Lively Virtues,” entitled, Sin and Sins

We Stand Under the Judgment of God: A sermon for Ash Wednesday

Here is my Ash Wednesday sermon: We Stand Under the Judgment of God

The Leper, the Centurion and the Glory

Completing our Epiphany series on being a growing community, here is today’s sermon: The Leper, the Centurion and the Glory

Jesus’ Example: Integrating Service, Prayer and Proclamation

Today’s sermon invites us to reflect on the Gospel of Mark (1:29-39) as a means of integrating our baptismal promises. Listen to it here: Service, Prayer and Proclamation

C. S. Lewis: An Appreciation

(I have been asked by a former student to write a short appreciation for C.S. Lewis as part of the roll out for Logos Bible Software’s new C.S. Lewis Collection. Here is what I wrote).

I spent a good deal of my early adulthood avoiding C. S. Lewis. After my childhood enthrallment with Narnia, I largely left the Oxbridge don behind. The reason was simple: everyone else was suggesting I should read him. So, I didn’t. There was more to it than that, of course, but not much. I tried dipping in to Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, the Space Trilogy, and other works, but none could hold me like the adventures of the Pevensie children in the wonderful land between the lamp post and Aslan’s country. So, why am I here writing an appreciation?

The answer is simple. My appreciation has grown out of Lewis’s ability to speak to people who don’t care a whit about Christian faith; his ability to prod the un-churched to reconsider the claim that the “spiritual” or “religious” worldview might not be such obvious claptrap after all. While Lewis is considered passe by many in my church, he seems to be enjoyed by students in my religious studies classes at the local university. So for example, The Problem of Pain occupies a major spot in my syllabus for a course on Sin and Evil and if students come, as they often do, to think the issues are there too tidily described, I send them to A Grief Observed.  Similarly, The Four Loves starts the second semester of a year-long course on the nature of human love. That book’s devastatingly simple thesis, that human loving, although multivalent, is transformed and becomes more fully itself through an encounter with the Love that is God often offers students an opportunity to reflect on the transcendent in a way that unites intellectual, volitional and emotional elements for the first time.  Lewis, perhaps because he was an adult convert from the naturalistic worldview many of my students have simply inherited and never had the opportunity to query, seems uniquely able to make them pause and reconsider whether religious faith in general and Christian faith in particular deserves a first hearing and then, perhaps, a second.

In short, Lewis is able to stand between the two worlds of naturalism and theism in a way that many of on both sides of the gulf are not. He simply takes my students by the hand and leads them first to Plato, and then to Augustine or Aquinas, and finally to church. And all the while he asks them whether they would not be wiser to think through their metaphysical commitments carefully before they declare one way or another. He patiently and calmly assures them that the questions they have about transcendence, God, and even Christianity are neither brand new nor unanswerable and has the unique ability to set out classical Christian answers without rushing a reader to a decision. Because there is no compulsion to be found, whether rhetorical or other, they seem more willing to journey with him.

I have heard some readers criticize Lewis for being too dated and too certain to be of much value for a contemporary audience. It is obviously that case that many passages bear the stamp of an Oxford don writing in the mid-twentieth century, and sometimes longing for a world much older. But I have yet to find that to be a problem for my students, who seem willing to suspend moral judgments for older authors until they’ve gotten to the nub of what they have to say. As for his certainty, it is again true that Lewis does not adopt the perspective of an author on the margins of faith. He would regard this, I think, as a fundamental dishonesty with the reader. He writes as someone convinced. He is not, however, a bully who comples or cajoles agreement. My students, again, know the difference and welcome someone who writes with conviction without belittling them in their disagreement.

C. S. Lewis’s turn has come round again and we are better for it.

St. Paul, Corinth, and an Ethic of Care

Here’s the link to today’s sermon: St. Paul, Corinth, and the Ethic of Care

Do You See? Praying with The Virgin of the Sign

Virgin of the Sign

My favorite icon of Mary is “The Virgin of the Sign,” or the “Platytera,” and it is one I find myself praying with often at this time of year. Its first name is taken from Is. 7:14 (this shall be a sign unto you: the virgin shall conceive and bear a son. . .). The second, meaning “wider” expresses the mystery of the incarnation: the womb of the Virgin is now home to that which cannot be contained, namely, God the Son.

Mary is the central figure, standing with her hands raised in the orans position of prayer. The Christ figure enclosed within her is not a baby, but often appears as an older man, his right hand raised in blessing while his left often holds a scroll. Clearly, this is not a realistic depiction, but a deeply theological one. But what does it mean to convey?

Christ is, in his incarnate person, the salvation of the world. He both brings and is the blessing of God for the human race. He comes to teach God’s truth (the scroll). His depiction as an older man reminds us that he is older than the ages; from the instant of his incarnation in the womb of his mother, he is God made flesh. And she carries no mere human fetus, but he who holds the stars in place. Her womb is now platytera ton ouranon: more spacious than the heavens.

Which turns us to Mary herself. She is far from the troubled teenager whom Luke describes; still less a pawn in the male machinations around her as in Matthew. She is serene; her gaze untroubled. Her prayerful pose suggests public worship (not just private devotion). Sometimes, her gaze is directed past the viewer, to some unknown distant point. Most often, however, she (along with Jesus) looks directly at the viewer with an air of expectation. She seems to ask the viewer, “Do you see?”

What are we meant to see? I think we are to see, first of all, narrative of descent and ascent.

By descent, I mean that God comes to us in the frailty of human nature. The Virgin of the Sign reminds us that God is a God who stoops. Enclosed within the Virgin’s womb, God the Son takes on all that it means to be human because he really is her Son. He looks at us with her eyes. And yet, the One descended to us in this way remains the One who holds the stars in place. Mild, he lays his glory by, we have sung again. And he does.

By ascent, conversely, I mean that God ennobles human nature by taking it up into himself. Many Christians locate themes of ascent, unsurprisingly and properly, with Easter or Ascension. But they are here, too. It is the presence of God within her that ennobles Mary, that raises her from a terrified teenager to a Byzantine Empress. And such is the destiny of all who believe. All human nature has been redeemed for all human nature has been assumed by God the Son.

The Virgin of the Sign thus invites us into the mystery of the incarnation so wonderfully expressed by St. Athanasius: “He became what we are so that he might make us what he is. . ..” (On the Incarnation 54.3).

Further and more radically, the Virgin of the Sign suggests that there is no God except the God who comes to us in the Virgin, and that the route to him is somehow through her. “Do you see?”

If you wish to find God, she says to us with her beckoning gaze, here is God. Neither remote nor uninvolved in the human condition, the only God there is has taken human nature and redeemed it. Mary, ennobled and exalted by the gracious descent of God the Son, is the sign of his saving work. A Jewish peasant girl has become “platytera ton ouranon” for no reason other than the gracious initiative of God. And it is in this grace that God makes himself known. Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see! Hail the Incarnate Deity.

If you would come to this God, Mary finally says, you must come to him through me. Catholic and Orthodox readers, and some Anglicans, will find this uncontroversial enough. Others will pause. But, in effect, Mary is merely repeating what she has just said, except in reverse. She is not simply an historical accident—somebody had to be Jesus’s mother. In grace, she is the second Eve whose let it be to me undoes the sin of our ancient parents. Mary thus reminds us that our encounter with the Lord is never solitary or direct. It is always mediated in and through that community of which she is the first and preeminent member: the Church.

As I pray with this icon, I remember that the Creator is not far, for his transcendence is such that it can hide itself in humanity. As a human being, he discloses both God’s glory and humanity’s destiny. I remember that there is no God “behind” the God I meet in the Gospel, who draws me into deeper fellowship with him as I enter deeper into the fellowship of God’s people.

I see through a mirror dimly. The Virgin of the Sign kindles in me the hope that one day, I will see face to face.


The preceding essay appears in the Epiphany 2015 edition of The Anglican PlanetIt appears here with permission of the editors.