Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Go to Hell, Rob Bell? " by Jerry Walls

I have been waiting for Jerry Walls' (one of my seminary professors from Asbury who has written on  hell, inlcuding his dissertation and the book "Hell:The Logic of Damnation") response to Reb Bell and the hell debate. I am glad he finally posted.  This is a Facebook note I have copied and linked  here:

Go to Hell Rob Bell? As promised, my thoughts on Rob Bell
by Jerry Walls 
I heard Rob Bell speak several years ago, and found him a winsome and engaging communicator.  However, I had never read any of his books until now.  But when people kept asking my opinion about his new one (presumably since I write about heaven, hell and other regions in the neighborhood), I thought maybe I should read it.  When one of my best friends offered to have a copy sent to my door, well, that settled it.
Having now read the book, after thinking, reading and writing about these topics for over two decades, I must say I am rather surprised at the firestorm of controversy it has generated.    In the preface, Bell writes with due modesty and candor: “I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching that’s any kind of departure from what’s been said an untold number of times” (p. x).  And indeed, he has not.  If I had read this book, blissfully unaware of all the internet wars, accusations of heresy and so on preceding its publication, I doubt if I would have given it a second thought.  This is not intended as a negative comment, but merely as an observation that much of the book is simply rather elementary truth about the love and grace of God and the power and beauty of the Christian story.
I enjoyed reading this book in the same way I enjoyed hearing Bell speak.  Indeed, the book has the feel of a sermon, or sermons of a good preacher who has a gift for turning a phrase, for injecting humor, and a good sense of timing in his delivery.   Many of the lines are evocative, epigraphic and lyrical.  Bell has a talent for stating basic truth in provocative and sometimes surprising ways and that makes for a fun ride, or read, as the case may be.
His first chapter is a rather entertaining critique of simplistic accounts of what is involved or required for being one of the fortunate few who will be saved.  His second chapter is about heaven, and there his target is a one dimensional view of heaven, which focuses only on the life to come, ignoring the present aspects of heaven and how it changes life NOW.
Not infrequently Bell has a tendency to play to the gallery, and score easy points by depicting the worst of evangelical thought and practice.  He sometimes reminds me of his forebear of an earlier generation, namely, Tony Compolo, who mastered the crowd pleasing “shame on those bad, bad Christians, but look at how great Jesus is” style of rhetoric.
Okay, but what about the universalism charge that had everyone fired up before the book ever saw the light of day?  Well, we need to be clear on what we mean by universalism, as there are a range of positions that could be given that label.  On one end of the spectrum is the view we can call “hopeful universalism,” which as the name suggests, is the stance of hoping and praying that universalism might turn out to be true.  We can’t be sure it is, nor can we be sure it is not, but we should at least hope for it.  Second, there is the view we might called “convinced universalism,” which is the view that everybody will in fact be saved.  While the reality of human freedom makes it at least possible that some will not be saved, we can be pretty sure that as a matter of fact all will in fact repent in the end.  Finally, there is the view we can call “necessary universalism,” which is the strongest position on the universalist scale.  This is the view that the only position that is even consistent with God’s perfect love and power is universalism, so it is the only view that is even possibly true.  This position has been defended with great sophistication in contemporary thought by the philosopher Thomas Talbott, and is the most interesting universalist option on the table (see the volume, Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, eds. Robin Parry and Chris Partridge).
While the latter two variations of universalism are certainly minority positions, and are arguably at odds with the broad consensus of Christian orthodoxy, the first version is often thought to be fully compatible with orthodoxy (I have critiqued and debated Talbott at length in my own work.  See chapter 5 of Hell: The Logic of Damnation; see also my exchange with him in Religious Studies 40: 2004).  Indeed, many Christians think it is incumbent upon us at least to hope for universalism.
Be that as it may, the only sense in which Bell is a universalist is the first of these options.  While he points out that there are noted spokesmen for universalism in the history of theology, and he admits that it would make a “better story” if all ended up reconciled to God (110-111), he stops far short of saying he believes it must turn out this way, or even that he is confident that it will.
Bell makes it emphatically clear that love cannot be forced, that love can be rejected and perversely resisted, and if this is true now, it can be true in the life to come.  This stubborn and harsh reality rules out any rosy or cheery confidence that all will be saved at the end of the day.  He writes: “What we see in Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next” (p. 79; see also pp 72, 103-105, 113-114, 117, 177).
However, he also makes it unequivocally clear that he believes God sincerely loves every single person, and will give everyone every opportunity to accept his love and be saved, whether or not they have heard of Christ in this life, or accepted him in this life.  And this, I suspect, is the real animus behind those who have such venom for this book.  Calvinists and quasi-Calvinists who believe God’s love is only for his unconditionally elect, or who think there is something sentimental or mushy about a love that is extended equally to all persons, even if that means the chance to repent after death, will understandably hate this book.  It is no surprise that from such quarters should come tweets saying “Farewell Rob Bell” though frankly, given the issue at stake, it might have been more apropos to have said “Go to hell Rob Bell”!
Again, there is nothing new or shocking here, except perhaps the fact that so many Christians are offended by such a picture of God’s love.  After all, if God went to the expense of providing salvation for all persons (of course Calvinists dispute this, at least usually), why would he not want to make it genuinely and fully available to all?  It is remarkable to me how many people believe God gives everyone at least some chance (perhaps small) to be saved, but stoutly resist the notion that he would, or perhaps even could, make it fully available so everyone has a full and fair chance to accept it.   I have argued in my book on hell that God will indeed do so, that he will extend to all persons what I have called “optimal grace,” which roughly speaking, is whatever grace will make it most likely that they will freely accept it (see also chapter 3 of my book Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy; and CS Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, co-authored with Scott Burson, pp. 226-224).
Indeed, Bell’s position on these matters is very much like that of CS Lewis.  It is telling that the only book on hell that he cites in his brief bibliography at the end is Lewis’s The Great Divorce.   In short, evangelicals who readily embrace Lewis should be little disturbed by what Bell says in his book.
If there is anything to be concerned about here, it may that a book that is as lightweight as this one should cause such a furor in the Christian community.  Again, I do not mean that as a putdown of Bell’s book.  Rather, it is more a commentary on contemporary culture.  And not just Christian culture, culture period.  Christians are merely reflecting the larger culture in their reading and thinking habits.
But this is where the culture is.  Guys like Bell understand this.  Someone needs to communicate with them.  So Bell should not be blamed for stepping up to the challenge.
                    -Jerry Walls 

Shane Hipps video on Flickering Pixels

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

NT Wright: "God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil"

NT Wright: "God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil from Glenn Packiam on Vimeo.

"Space, Time and Sacraments" N.T. Wright video/audio



Part One
Part One Q&A
Part Two
Part Two Q&A

"The Story of Our Lives" by The Violet Burning (early review with samples i hope you won't listen to)

TH3 FANTA5T1C MACH1N3 (ones and zeros) by thevioletburning black as death (skulls and crossbones) by thevioletburning

The new Violet Burning album, "The Story of Our Lives"  is really three albums  (34 songs) in one:
or better yet, a triple album (back in the day, six sides!):
  • TH3 FANTA5T1C MACH1N3Liebe über Alles
  • Black as Death
  • Liebe über Alles
...and  true to the title, it's the story of my life; probably yours, too.

I am so glad frontman Michael Pritzl  went through with the bold vision to complete a triple album in times like these. Several songs are embedded in this post.

But even they cannot prepare you for the impact of the unified experience of travelling the narrative of the three albums.  I have been literally travelling with them, often having just enough time in the car for an album or two.

As with any triple disc, it is too early to post a full-blown review, there is a lot to take in.
I almost hope you don't listen to the music samples on this seems impossible to do justice to them ripped from their context (:

But I couldn't wait to review, and preview the songs for you. And I don't want you to wait to download or order this set.  I already know that each disc would be a keeper by itself.  And I  already know the sum is far bigger and better than the parts.

And  let me say that I have been a Violet Burning fan since I discovered them in January 1991, the week the First Gulf War broke out (Thanks to Diane, who handed me a cassette..  with a smiling, "I think you might like this.") ...and I am speechless.

That doesn't mean, however, that I can't mention a short speech here by way of review. (:

To me, this is a quasi-concept album (like U2's "No Line on the Horizon" almost was, and I think we need more "full albums" with a story arc in these days of single downloads (Here are some recent examples from the likes of Linkin Park and David Crowder, see "Gregory of Nyssa and Green Day: death/birth of the concept of the concept album")
  It', well. the story of "our" lives, as the title implies...the "our" being the band, Michael's  life in microcosm....and the 'our' beiing inclusive enough to sweep up anyone brave and honest enough to enter the narrative and let it personalize you.

I don;t want to say too much about the "story"  as I woukd prefere its fluidity to work in you as it wills.
It almost reads like a road trip, with several references to travelling, especially in (back to?) California . The  two California song titles: "Mojave," and "Nowhere, CA."   perfectly localize and universalize the story 
And look for the project title to work into the lyrics towars the end for some hints as to theme.

There are couple lyrical /images I can't not mention: "light" and "machine."

This is an ultimately  very encouraging (though maybe exhausting to take in all at once) journey to take.  It's kind of a full circle trip through faith , through fallenness, and back to faith on a higher level (From simplicity to complexity to the simplicity on the other side of complexity), with some amazing evocative worship moments laced throughout, especially on the last album (and last song "Made for You"  is one of those classic swelling worship anthems).  Yet even early on, it's one part chilling "1984" scifi and  part sidestory romantic comedy..  Though the second album's title might suggest it's the darkest of the three albums, some of the darkness emerges early on the first album.  Thus the need for light.

I love tracing lyric threads and  intertexting between  the songs.  There is a leitmotif of a "light" motif (cheap pun, but true).  "Where It All Begins" with its  "leave your light on"  merges thematically into  "with our lights out/this is the way home" as the next song  "Lights Out" starts.  Is "lights out" a positive or negatrive image?  Yes.. I make the case it's both.  I see Michael suggesting it's a good idead to have our own lights out, in light of the Light.
I also like the Cohen reference : "all broke inside/It's how the light gets in."

As a bonus... these songs are incredibly singable!  This of course only deepens our commitment to the unfolding storyline's arc.

And prepares us for the machine.  Anyone on a journey (especially a Christian journey) will soon have to wrestle, and rage against, the "machine" (See
.There is fluidity in how one interprets the machine (system, institution etc).  But, reminiscent of  Pink Floyd's "Welcome  to the Machine".. we meet 'brother" (think 1984, remember), and it's clear the machine in that song is the (Christian) industry music machine:

We met them in Nashville
Distribution knows just what you need
"We'll make you safe for the whole family"
"Sing 'Jesus' a few more times
And we'll all make a whole lot of money
brother will guide you
brother knows just what you need


The story of your life,  even if you've never been offered a record contract.

I'll quite commenting on lyrical content..even though I've barely started the first album!

On to the sonics:  in a  way, this project it feels like  the sequel (or three sequels to) the band's most recent studio album, "Drop Dead,"  (In fact the lyrical theme of lights began there with that album's opening invitation: "turn off all the lights and let's begin") The project is almost as if the atmosphere of the  VB era defined by "Self-Titled"/Demos/Distortion is Our Friend/ Plastic and Elastic//Stranger in This Place  and its grunge and vibe was  filterred through some of the band's more positive, pop-rock and worshipfulo albums ("Faith and Devotions" and "This is the Moment,"  but never in a way that's rehash or   cheaply self-referential .. and always more than the sum of these parts.

Jeff Schroeder, former Violet  (Self-Titled era) and now a  Smashing Pumpkin adds some smashing guitar on a few tracks.  Worth the price of the discs for that alone! 

In other words, whatever era of The Violets you tend to prefer or circulate in, this album will work for you, and also yank your respect for the band to a whole new level.

If  you've never heard the Violets, it is often said that if you like U2, The Cure, Radiohead, The Prayer Chain et al, you'll probably like them.  But I dare say that if those are not your bands, you might even love The Violets (in this current incarnation), anyway.

I love that in "brother part one" and "brother part two (the lights have gone), the Violets have used a compteer voice background behind the vocals..ironically to give voice to  human questions .  Thos works well here, and of course nods to Radiohead, who  pioneered this with 'Fitter, Happier".  U2 has also been been incorporating this technique in the liturgy of their current tour. But the Violet version is particularly chilling.

That should be impossible.

I am a sucker for a Violet moment of ethereal guitar or vocal (a la "I Am Electric"), and those magical, mystical moments happen again.

That should be implausible.

Who could not love a classic Violet moment of crunching guitars, and near screamo.   Skib has celebrated that "Whooping Llamas" are back, but in a new millenium way.  Those moments happen
again, and shake the speakers.

That should not happen, but does.

The music is not the radical  and jolting departure from the previous trajectory that  subversively characterized the move from "Strength" to "Self-Titled."  But somehow I sense this project is an equivalent quantum leap and "punctuated equilibrium moment in the band's history and future.   As I previously hinted, it's almost a sequel to the previous album and simultaneously new terrain.  I have no idea what they will do to top this classic.  But they have done it before. 

There are not the extremely low moments of the Self Titled album; those moments where you feel like you are in despair and hell.  But amazingly, and against all odds, it feels like precisely because  the lows aren't as low as then, the highs  now are even higher.

In summary, thanks  to Michael and team for  a tremendously moving  triple album ..with  no dead weight (songs you skip...even the Beatles didn't pull that off with a double album).
A pastor friend from a small town once shared his hesitancy to broadcast his sermons on the radio, and teh references and stories seemed so local and limited.  But he soon found that "the more specific I was, the more universal the message was."  "The Story of Our Lives" brilliantly has just enough  specifics (the California towns, Chicago etc) to bring the emotional narrative arc within reach of us all, and   touch and heal us in places we may not have known needed it. Over the soundscape of three albums, the narrative moves us out of the machine, and  into  the Light of Jesus ...and the beauty of it, all without forcing the mention of Jesus "a few more times."

The project can ordered here in a variety of formats and packages ...including some with  videos, T-shirts..some even  including lunch with Michael and Disneyland with the band!  The physical CDs will not be shipped for a few weeks,  can be purchased now as an immediate download.

Read some early reviews here.. Several music samples are  embedded in this post.

Enjoy.  Buy. Entter into the story of my life, yours...and The Story.
It never gets I can tell these albums won't.

Later note: Lots of song samples below, and I added a bit more to my review, click this:

"if you get nothing out of "nowhere," you are not saved (;"


the violet burning from the violet burning on Vimeo.

the | story | of | our | lives | by thevioletburning

the violet burning from the violet burning on Vimeo.

my name is night from the violet burning on Vimeo.

the violet burning from the violet burning on Vimeo.

rock is dead from the violet burning on Vimeo.

FACT0RY CRA5H PR3V13W M1X by thevioletburning


Bonus, some vintage/classics for any newbies out there:
the violet burning by thevioletburning

More?  Click "the violet burning" below

snow job versions of Sapir-Whorf

Ever heard that Eskimos have hundreds of words for "snow"?
Well, when our family lived in upstate NY, we DID have several words for 'snow'..none of them rated "G." (:

Very helpful  responses to the oversimplified, urban myth versions of The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
here and here..

Kiki interviews Kaku on God and Time Travel

"Does the slippery slope always go left in America?" N.T. Wright

Saturday, March 26, 2011

computer voices ask human questions in new liturgy: U2 in Chile

"The trouble with [commonly practiced organized] religion is not God.
It is that it offers truth without a way of questioning it. Worse, it punishes you for questioning.." -Adam Bly

The new  "questions" part of the  U2 360  liturgy   (see story and video here: "New U2 concert screen content"....  ); in between "Sarajevo" and "City of Blinding Lights, " questions appear on the screen and sound system to the audience/congregation's "holy hush" as the questions represent/re-present them to God and themselves: "Why is it so hard to believe?" "Will I ever be a good father?" "How do I know what's true?"  etc)  introduced some now voices last night in Chile..
ironically, it may help  to have computerized voices ask our most human questions. uh, .including that ancient but often unarticulated (at least "in church") prayer,  "WTF?"  (Yes, this is a U2 liturgy, so the female computer voice  actually says the words..)

 See 6:47ff in the first video, and the first section of the second video for the revised liturgy in Chile:


Seed Salon/Science is Culture

Amazing book!  Seed Magazine hosted the "Seed Salon,"  consisting of video interview episodes in which two .thinkers from related but divergent disciplines dialogued on topics related to the  intersection of science and culture. Several videos are online (I have posted you can resist David Byrne+Daviel Levitin talking music, Jonathan Lethem + Janna Levin on truth and beauty...or Barbarasi+Fowler on social networks?), and the full interviews are published as "Science is Culture".

Video links:

Conversations with Thomas E. Lovejoy + Mitchell JoachimPaul Steinhardt + Peter Galison Albert-László Barabási + James Fowler Steven Strogatz + Carlo Ratti Jill Tarter + Will Wright Tom Wolfe + Michael Gazzaniga Marc Hauser + Errol Morris Paola Antonelli + Benoit Mandelbrot Will Self + Spencer Wells Natalie Jeremijenko + Lawrence Krauss Michael Shanks + Lynn Hershman Leeson Chuck Hoberman + Lisa Randall David Byrne + Daniel Levitin Jonathan Lethem + Janna Levin Robert Stickgold + Michel Gondry Noam Chomsky + Robert Trivers Andrea Barrett + Niles Eldredge Laurie David + Stephen Schneider

Book chapters:

Friday, March 25, 2011

"It's all about me" Order now!

role of pastor/power of church

Here's a link to a story about a respected local pastor  (Ryan Townsend, see photo for evidence) who I caught reading Rob Bell's new great risk (JK) to his job!

On a related but much more serious note..

Having been a United Methodist pastor (in another life/parallel universe), I am familiar with the` misunderstandings related to "who runs the church," "who hires/fires the pastor."  The UMC is not a congregational system, polity wise, it is episcopal: pastors are appointed (and unappointed) by the bishop/denomination/system.  At least that is the official story..

See Steve's post on

What power does the church 

have in the UMC?

..for an interesting story on a UM pastor who was fired...according to some stories, for liking Rob Bell's "Hell" book, but the story is not really about that.

Be praying for the church and pastor involved..  He is a friend of friends..

Bannerman in prison

I didn't realize the original "Bannerman"  (Rollen Stewart) was in prison.  Leave it to the Sarcastic Lutheran to break the news to me.  See her post:

Sermon on John 3:16: "Weirdos and Violence"

Here's the Wikipedia version of the story...if you don't like  getting your news from Sarcastic Lutherans (:

Speaking of sarcastic, the Steve Taylor song "Bannerman" was a tribute, and not sarcastic (which Taylor often was, of course) : "It reminded me, most of us that come to Christ often come because of very unartistic methods. I don't really have the nerve that these guys do. I don't think I'd have written 'Bannerman' five years ago"

I Here's my original post:

anointed and clueless bannermen like me: "Unknown Caller" in Milan

the "sloppy wet kiss" rider and the 'butt grab"

 On the "Oh How He Loves"  lyrics controversy:

--John Mark MacMillan explains why he let David Crowder change the lyric : How He Loves, David Crowder, and Sloppy Wet Kisses...

---A bit more info  here:
John Mark and the kiss
John Mark McMillan discusses David Crowder and “Sloppy Wet Kiss” - See more at:
ohn Mark McMillan discusses David Crowder and “Sloppy Wet Kiss” - See more at:

---Bryan Allain posts on Jon Acuff;s blog a great response..explaining  the "sloppy wet kiss" rider  and the 'butt grab" in my post title:

Kissing Metaphors in Worship Music
I agree: put it in the rider!

My original post on the two versions of the songs is:
David Crowder and Todd Rundgren Do Church Music


t      The Holy Kiss for today..on a bridge and in a bucketket

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pole Dancing for Jesus

Hat tip to St. Rhonda for suggesting the men of our church try this:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Californians respond to Japanese crisis

Californians respond to Japanese crisis:
See related:
"Deaths Of 20,000 Japanese Afford Planet Solid 15 Minutes In Which Everyone Acts Like A Human Being"

James K. A. Smith, a great writer, on writing

James K. A. Smith, a great writer, on writing (HTL Prodigal Kiwi):

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Maguijo's Big Bang

Maverick, "heretical" physicist stud, Joao Maguijo...the guy  who, during a hangover, came to the conclusion Einstein was wrong (see labels below).... hosted this Discovery Channel series, "Joao Maguijo's Big Bang,"   deconstructing the Six Holy Grails of contemporary science..

"Jesus loves porn stars" is "misleading and inappropriate?" XXX Church on ABC

Monday, March 14, 2011

Continuing through the Disruptive Conjunction

Brueggemann: Continuing through the Disruptive Conjunction:

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Video: tell people about Jesus so they can go to hell

(Who's Going to Hell? from D Y on Vimeo.)

Full routine:

----about Joe Wong::Who The Hell Is Joe Wong?

Christianity before and after 2004

"Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers:Theology Before Facebook, Theology After Facebook"
by John Dyer:

....Throughout the history of public theological debate, there was one constant—those debates only took place between a few select people—Moses, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and so on—who gained respect through a lifetime of scholarship.

But the invention of social media, like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, created a radical departure in communication. In pre-2004 Christianity (that is, Christianity before Facebook was invented), only a small group of Christian leaders and teachers had access to the printing press—but today everyone has WordPress. In pre-2004 Christianity it was difficult to become a published author, but today everyone is surrounded by dozens of "Publish" buttons...  full article

Saturday, March 12, 2011

culture- jamming public ads

"After ad-projectors started appearing in Berlin subway stations, culture jammers fought back. ":
ZEIGER from █▀██▄█▀▀█ on Vimeo.

doctrine or teachings?

"The matter before us is not one of doctrine," he said.
"Rather, it is a question of obeying the teachings of Jesus."
-link , Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship

synesthesia videos

"...and nobody laughs!" (Kierkegaard)

""In the magnificent cathedral, 
 the Honorable and Right Reverend, 
the elect favorite of the fashionable world, 
appears before an elect company
 and preaches with emotion upon the text he himself choose: 

'God hath chosen the base things of the world, and the things that are despised.' 

And nobody laughs."
-Kierkegaard, "Attack Upon Christendom"

Mark Scandrette video on spiritual formation karate studio

  • "The Bible can teach you how to live, but it can't tell you what to do next Tuesday afternoon."
  • "What if spiritual formation looked more like a karate studio than a lecture hall?"
Jesus Dojo from Recycle Your Faith on Vimeo.

Judo Alone

"Unlearning the Bible" with Jack Crabtree

Unlearning the Bible from Recycle Your Faith on Vimeo.

"Not an Evangelical Marriage"

See Pam's post (' International Women's Day - Hurray for Failed Evangelical Wives Like Me")
and video below:

Not an Evangelical Marriage from Recycle Your Faith on Vimeo.

the fusion of Sapir-Whorf/synesthesia

As you can see by the labels below, I am interested in the Sapir_Whorfy Hypothesis.
As you can see by the labels below, I am interested in synesthesia.
Since I am curious about the fusion of the two, I googled the two phrases, and found
(on a website CALLED 'Fusion'), some helpful leads:

How Visionary Experience Supports Steven Pinker's Theory of Mentalese:

It is a common misbelief that words determine thoughts. This misinformation argues thought as a consequence of language, and is founded on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism. Without language – this theory contends – thought cannot occur, consciousness cannot be ascribed, and a living entity is resigned to the animalistic realm of unawareness. Linguistic determinism implies that “the foundational categories of reality are not 'in' the world but are imposed by one's culture,” one's language, which leads to the subordinate conclusion of linguistic relativity: “differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers” (Pinker 46). But this theory overlooks one of the most astute questions regarding the relationship between thought and language: if thought does not exist independently of vocabulary, where does that leave the creation of new words?

If words actualize thought, as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues, then how, as an example, did Richard Dawkins coin the term “meme” (Meme)? How is the linguistic virtuosity of Black American street youths – the implementation of words like “bling-bling” – or the creolized languages birthed from necessity in areas encompassing multitudinous cultures explained (Pinker 16, 21)? If one needs language in order to think, and one needs to think in order to create new language, we are left with a “chicken or the egg” dilemma of causality. The most appropriate way to address this dilemma is through an exploration of Steven Pinker's theory of mentalese, a theory that counters the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism by reversing the equation; mentalese supports the idea that language does not create thought, but thought creates language.

Pinker defines mentalese as the “representation of concepts and propositions in the brain in which ideas, including the meaning of words and sentences, are couched” (509). It is the realm of consciousness all human beings experience, wherein analysis of our environment, emotions, and relation to other people occurs independently of language. It is difficult to superficially imagine thought occurring without language, as pondering this idea no doubt results in one's inner voice tossing around analytical sentences; it is a challenge to avoid discounting mentalese when one's inner voice thinks via the premise supported by linguistic determinism. But this occurrence does not immediately disprove mentalese's presence. In order to further explore the probability of mentalese, it is necessary to review empirical data that clearly demonstrates situations wherein thought is not reliant on linguistic structure.

In Pinker's discussion of Ildefonso – a languageless, deaf adult – we observe the possibility of abstract thinking void of familiarity with words. “Ildefonso's animated eyes conveyed an unmistakable intelligence and curiosity,” Pinker explains, and Ildefonso demonstrated that “he had a full grasp of number: he learned to do addition on paper in three minutes and had little trouble understanding the base-ten logic behind two-digit numbers” when prompted (58). Even though Ildefonso was languageless – never acquiring English because of his deafness, and never being taught sign language – it would be preposterous to deem him as one who is unable to think, one who is – as Wittgenstein would argue – unconscious (Pinker 46). What, then, is the source of Ildefonso's intelligence? The most probable answer to this question is mentalese.

We are able to reference similar exemplifications of mentalese through a brief recounting of entirely-visual discoveries and artistic inspiration: Samuel Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan” based wholly on a (potentially opium-induced) vision; contemporary artist James Surls plans his sculpting projects visually in his mind before pursuing their construction; DNA's double-helix shape was discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick strictly through visualization (Pinker 61). Mentalese exists, it seems, as a visual realm of cognition separate from language. It is a mental realm of visual metaphor, an iconographic system of consciousness that we transcribe – and not always successfully – into language in order to express thought. It is a difficult-to-define entity specifically because of its independence from language. In order to delve further into the evidence for mentalese's existence, we can turn to the highly-visual experiences of sound-color synesthesia and psychedelic trips.

Synesthesia is defined as “a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway” (Synesthesia). Sound-color synesthesia produces the experience of “seeing” spoken words, music, a cat's meow, et cetera, as colors and shades which appear in the mind's eye, float and swirl around, and fade with the catalyzing sound's termination. In this experience, the colors occurring subsequent to particular sounds are experienced in a solely visual manner. If a particular piece of music, for example, evokes a floating blue realm for a synesthete, this thought-realm is experienced visually with very little to no reliance on language.

This non-reliance on language is evident in the fact that it is often very difficult for a synesthete to describe their visual experience to a non-synesthete (Synesthesia). Language, “the quintessential example of [man's] capacity to use symbols,” is often too inadequate to express the synesthetic episode (Pinker 4). The episode exists as a purely-visual experience within the synesthete's mind. This existence demonstrates consciousness, and deconstructs the Sapir-Whorf argument that consciousness relies on language.

The psychedelic visual experience can also be utilized in the deconstruction of linguistic determinism. As Aldous Huxley expresses in his essay Heaven and Hell, “at the antipodes of the mind, we are more or less completely free of language, outside the system of conceptual thought” (92). The antipodes about which he speaks are the realms of consciousness experienced by people under the influence of psychedelic chemicals, a realm wherein language breaks down and is discarded almost all together. He justifies this argument in his related essay The Doors of Perception, reasoning that while:

we must learn how to handle words the same time we must preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction (74).

Here, Huxley regards language in the same manner as Pinker: a conceptual, symbolic system that necessitates transcription from a fundamental, languageless world of thought and experience (Pinker 73). Language is emblematic, a system that reduces the integrity of pure thought and functions primarily in a representative manner. Huxley's direct world is not unlike Pinker's mentalese: both are states of consciousness that exist independently from vocabulary; both are realms of awareness from which concepts are pulled and crudely translated into metaphor for the purpose of communication. The psychedelic experience may very well be the catalyzed incarnation of Pinker's mentalese, and synesthesia the spontaneous incarnation.

What support, then, is left for Sapir-Whorf? If thought exists independently from language – a hypothesis which art, synesthesia, and the psychedelic experience all firmly support – then the premise of linguistic determinism is moot: language does not create thought; language is a product of mentalese. A new word is created not because language was used to think, and that thinking used to create language, but because mentalese provides a medium of creativity and awareness from which language is birthed. Thus, support of Pinker's counterargument to linguistic determinism can be concluded: language may require thought, but - after consideration of the above support for unadulterated visual experience - thought does not require language.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Can Christians gather without being dictated to?"

"...Can Christians gather without being dictated to? Can Christians gather without a vision being thrust upon them? Can Christians gather to seriously question, explore, examine and discover intellectually?" -Naked (former) Pastor...story here

What to give up for Lent: Facebook, Atheism, or Catholicsm?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Review: Brian McLaren's "Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words:..

For those who heard the news that two of the most controversial writers (on Christianity and church issues) of our time--Brian McLaren and Rob Bell (just Google their names with the word "heretic" attached!)-- both had new books coming out this month; and figured these latest would both set the internet abuzz and heresy hunters on fire........

..that will only happen with one of these new books.

This is not that book.

Bell's book has already--pre-release--caused such a stir and stink, and accusations of heresy, that Scot McKnight and Collin Hansen both said "I've never seen anything like this."

I hope McLaren's book --Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words-- sells well anyway.

He is really not pushing envelopes (or buttons) this time.

He is pushing forms and norms, but only in between the lines, and for those with emerging ears to hear.

Any serious controversy about the book would miss the fact that this time McLaren (very unlike last time) is targeting "seekers and would-be seekers," even "skeptics.” He actually makes it very clear that "I am a Christian, and all that I write flows my experience in that rich tradition." It's just that on this volume he is hoping to help those "who may be of another tradition entirely or of no known tradition at all. Instead of seeking theological agreement, this book invites you to experiment with the naked experience of God…”
“Doctrinal correctness, institutional participation, and religious conformity won’t suffice anymore. You need a life centered on simple, doable, durable practices that will help you begin and sustain a naked encounter with the holy mystery and pure loving presence that people commonly call God.” (p.. 3)

Something within me wants desperately to turn the clauses in that last sentence around:

“You need a life centered on a naked encounter with the holy mystery and pure loving presence that people commonly call God that will help you begin and sustain simple, doable, durable practices.”

But I need to receive the challenge that cart might lead to horse, wineskins may lead to wine, disciplines often lead to Jesus.

It worked for me. And it worked for me as I read another generation’s version of this book, C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.” I worked the disciplines until I found myself a mere Christian. I would dare to say McLaren’s book could and should do the same for many, as another classic that it brings to mind has done, Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline.”

It’s that good at its best, even though it is not always at its best..

Here is the basic idea, and outline:

A life of “naked spirituality” can be viewed and experienced as having four seasons, each with three corresponding words that keyword for corresponding disciplines:
• Simplicity: The Springlike Season of Spritual Awakening: “Here,” Thanks” and “O
• Complexity: The Summerlike Season of Spiritual Strengthening: “Sorry, “Help” and “Please”
• Perplexity: The Autumnlike Season of Spiritual Suriving: “When” “No” and “Why”
• Harrnony: The Winterlike Season of Spiritual Deepening: “Behold,” “Yes,” and ‘[…]”

This outline affords McLaren the grid through which to write an excellent and engaging and introduction to the experienced Christian life. It’s a “simple, doable, and durable” grid he has used for teaching, and his own growth for many years, but never committed to print.

It’s a creative approach, and it works well.

Amazingly, the book reads in many sections almost like a conservative evangelical apologetic volume, and introduction to Christian spirituality, quoting staples like Lewis (pp. 33, 89, 160) and Phillip Yancey (130, 143). Of course, his references can be a bit more ecumenical: Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill and Richard Rohr, but seekers won't know (or care!) that some of these are (gasp) Catholic. One could read large swaths of this book to the heresy hunters, and they might nod and amen (Hmm, that would be fun!)

McLaren talks a lot about Jesus, and quotes a lot of Bible here. In a very winsome and pastoral (as opposed to preachy) way, his Jesus and Bible stories are compelling and invitational.

What's different from standard evangelism/apologetics is there is no big push for readers to "pray the sinner’s prayer,” though his comparison of the altar call to entering marriage is helpful …and evangelistic (p. 210).
Instead he is approaching apologetics in an "act as if were true" format…a friendly challenge to sincere seekers to preview and experience a Jesus-centered spirituality and formation, without focusing on intellectual assent to doctrine.

He quotes a pastor friend he calls Carlos:
"A secret to the spiritual life is desiring to actually be more spiritual than you appear to be. The secret to hypocrisy is desiring to appear more spiritual than you actually are.” (p.88)

McLaren does (but only incidentally) manage a few gracious digs at the spirituality of evangelicalism/modernity…for example, dualism, (p. 83), the delightfully- termed “de-ligion” (p, 36) and “magical religion” (44) ..but these are never the subject or target, and discussed only as they arise naturally . Systemic theology, as opposed to systematic. And he could be saving a whole generation of new believers from ever falling for/in those traps to start with .

When he offers, in illustration a few areas of common ground with Islam, for example, he goes nowhere near endorsing or adopting Islamic doctrine or universalism, he only makes statements that are true such as "leaders as diverse as Moses, the Buddha, the desert fathers and Muhammed all recounted powerful spiritual experiences during times of withdrawal and solitude" (35) But he’s also very naturally, and in non-manipulative fashion, leading up to a distinctively Christian discipline.

A few beefs about style:

One annoying feature of his writing style is his inclusive language for God. He never calls attention to it, does not even hint of doing it to be politically correct, and some seekers will not even notice it. But after years of pasturing in a mainline denomination where this was often required, I cannot not be annoyed with cumbersome repetitions of the gender-neutral “God” just to avoid mail pronouns or images (example: “open yourself to God, and realize God’s embrace, God’s front door, God’s presence..” This can be done just as effectively by “God’s embrace, front door and presence.”). To his credit, on page 36, McLaren is not ashamed to call God “Father” (a good thing, as Jesus wasn’t either.

Also odd, is his spelling of God as “G_d” at random times (pp. 48, 67. 165) in the narrative. Of course, this could be for sensitivity to Jews, who often spell the Name like that out of reverence. But it could also be in the spirit of his previous book, where “God” become the name of a false god, “Theos.”

Both these grammatical shifts may be well-meaning, but are misplaced. His target audience is not going to trip over an occasional male pronoun for God, or the word “God.”

Also..and ironically, the flow of the book is very modern, power-point and linear. Four strategies, Twelve steps…is this really the McLaren who blasted linearity and the “ Greco- Roman narrative” last time out? To his credit, he does add a “full circle” chapter that stresses that the 12 words are just that.

Finally, the table of contents is confusing and overwhelming at first glance. Too much information, and with two chapters each for each of the twelve words, too many numbers and taxonomies. It would look brilliant it consisted of chapter titles that were just the one word they were addressing, broken into the four seasonal suggestions..

Having said all that, I love that the whole apologetic is laced with honesty. Most evangelical books would not leave enough room for actual questions and feelings that come up when the disciplines are entered into. McLaren’s treatment of the Psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation (based on Brueggeman) is an awesome and honest way of dealing the “Why” word and reality. As Bono sang, “They put Jesus in show business, now it’s hard to get in the door.” If the “de-ligioned” or seeking reader has any experience or image of evangelical Christians, it likely has something to do with perceived hypocrisy or the pressure to “Smile! Jesus loves you,” even when the Psalmist (and Jesus) had dealings with disorientation and doubt.

At the end of the tour through  words and seasons, McLaren concludes with an afterword, “The Sea Toward Which All Rivers Run.” And we think, ‘Ahh, now he’s going to say, ‘Of course, if you do all this and never officially accept Jesus, it may have blessed you, but it’s pretty useless.”
Instead, he offers (can’t wait to see the reviewers quote this out of context , "Jesus was right. Paul was right. John was right. The Buddha was right. Even the Beatles were right. It all comes down to love.” (p.240)
But in its context (Jesus and Scripture), and in the contour of the book, it’s true….as cheap an cheesy and “sloppy agape” as it may sound. I am a clanging gong and nothing without it.

Don’t hear what he’s not saying: that Buddhism and Christianity are interchangeable.

He is speaking to folks who are “centering their sets” toward Jesus, and who know intuitively that God is love, even if they haven’t yet come to experience Jesus as God.

Give this book to your seeking friends, and follow up with them relationally with the “becoming a Christian part.”

But you may find that such has already happened as a byproduct of them working the disciplines (implementing the practical suggestions in the appendices) tasting the twelve words, and sojourning through the seasons.
They got naked and found Jesus.
And the joke is on the heresy hunters:
God used Brian McLaren to get them naked and found.