David, Rizpah, and the Sons of Saul

2 Samuel 21 is an example of the beauty and complexity of the Old Testament – and a reminder of why Christians should still read it.

Rizpah keeps watch in the tranquil night over the decaying bodies of her sons - painting by Joseph Turner

Rizpah keeps watch in the tranquil night over the decaying bodies of her sons – painting by Joseph Turner

I’ve been simultaneously reading the Psalms, Luke, and 2 Samuel. And, recently, I found myself flipping back to 2 Samuel feeling a little defeated. I was unsure of what I was really getting from reading through Old Testament histories, other than just knowing what’s in the book that I claim to follow.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy 2 Samuel – on the contrary, the book is lit. 1 Samuel is probably more well-known, what with David vs Goliath, David vs Saul, and David’s ascension to the throne of Israel, but 2 Samuel goes full of Game of Thrones as we follow more of David’s military exploits, his destructive affair with Bathsheba, his son Absalom’s rebellion, and more. General Joab’s repeated appearances in the book are enough on their own to make it compelling, and he’s far from being the only memorable character.[1]

So it’s not that I don’t find the accounts interesting or affecting, because things like the loyalty of David’s men, Hushai’s subterfuge, and David mourning over the death of Absalom are all moving or memorable for one reason or another.

But, to get back to what I was saying – just recently, as I was flipping back to 2 Samuel with the feeling that I was doing little more than reading stories, I came to 2 Samuel 21, which has given me more pause than any other scripture recently, and reminded me of why I should read the Old Testament. You may want to read the first 14 verses.

Basically, there’s a famine in Israel and David asks God what’s wrong. God answers that the famine is happening because of the way Saul, years before, wrongly attacked the Gibeonites. So David goes to the Gibeonites and asks what they want to settle the old score, and they make the bold demand of executing seven descendants of Saul. David complies, and the seven are hanged (which could mean by a rope, or it could mean impaling or crucifixion (yuck)). The bodies are not buried immediately, as would normally be custom, and are left to rot (perhaps until the rains came and the famine ended). Rizpah, one of Saul’s concubines and mother of two of the executed men, sits in sackcloth by the bodies of the seven and day and night fends off birds and beasts who would come seeking carrion. David is moved by this action, and he goes and gets the bones of Saul and Jonathan, and, together with the bodies of the seven, he has them all buried properly, together.

Then, and only then, does the author tell us that “God responded to the plea for the land.”

There’s any number of ways you can focus in on this text, and what I assume many readers will do first is consider the vengeance and punishment. This seems like a harsh decision from David, who turns over seven (probably) innocent men to atone for the sins of their father, something that seems in conflict with the book of Deuteronomy as well as some of David’s past actions. Taking this a step further, we might attribute this blood-debt-human-sacrifice thing to God, which seems to be another example of the OT God being kinda vengeful and terrifying. However you focus this particular lens, this aspect of the text becomes a commentary on sin, atonement, and God’s righteous wrath, which is pretty run-of-the-mill when it comes to the violent passages of the OT.

But then why all the fuss about Rizpah and the proper burial? And why does the author wait until after the burial to say that God ended the famine?

There’s a tendency among readers, Christians and non-Christians alike, to either over-simplify or over-complicate the Old Testament. Given the situation, it can help us come to grips with the mass amounts of violence, the sins of our heroes, and all of the WTF stories. You might have to breeze past or carefully maneuver through things like Elisha’s she-bears and the medium at Endor in order to avoid coming away from the OT discouraged and confused. But simplifying or complicating our readings can distort or displace the messages that might be found in a more…oh, we’ll say, “theatrical” approach.

So, in this story, when does God appear?

  1. At the beginning, when God tells David why the famine is happening, but doesn’t tell him what exactly he needs to do.
  2. Throughout the story, as David and the Gibeonites mention carrying this atonement out “before the LORD.”
  3. At the end, when God ends the famine after David has properly buried the seven, Saul, and Jonathan.

The author makes the two explicit references to God saying or doing something at the beginning and the end, which makes me think that, after defining the problem Israel has in the beginning of the story, God does not see the problem as solved until the very end. This could mean that God didn’t need an execution to satisfy his wrath in the first place. Maybe there was something else that happened that really led to God ending the famine.

So let’s, in a sense, take God out of the middle part of this story and replay with what we have to work with, as well as free of complicated symbolism and allusions:

David goes to the Gibeonites and asks them what they want. We know from the famous Gibeonite Deception that the Gibeonites were not your average -ites, and here they have a not-so-average demand. They demand a steep price – that sons should die for their father’s crime. David, apparently without directly consulting God, agrees.

Imagine now what this looks like for David, the Gibeonites, and the seven. David loved Saul and Jonathan, and has made certain to show mercy to Saul’s grandson Mephiboseth. Now, in order to end a famine, he feels he must hand over seven innocent sons of Saul. The Gibeonites aren’t seeing this as God’s prescription – they’re sensing an opportunity to satisfy a desire for overdue vengeance. And the seven? They are, quite unexpectedly, informed that they are to be executed for something they didn’t do. And so the three parties meet up at a mountain, and the seven relatives die next to each other.

That’s a pretty gut-wrenching scene, yes? You can almost see David and some of the Gibeonites turning away as brothers and half-brothers die a gruesome death together.

God isn’t so squeamish as we are, but still God does not appear – the famine has, apparently, not ended.

The Gibeonites don’t give the seven a proper burial. Perhaps they are waiting for the famine to subside before they do so, or maybe they’re just adding an insult to the house of Saul on top of their vengeance. As David and the Gibeonites go home, probably satisfied that their business has concluded and the famine will end, the stage is cleared for Rizpah, whose actions led me to think so much about this story.

Rizpah bore two sons to Saul as his concubine, and they have just been executed. It’s possible she was there when it happened. When everyone else leaves and the bodies of her sons and five others lay rotting, she stays. She stays and mourns, fending off not only the birds that come by during the day, but the “beasts of the field” at night. Beasts of the field? This woman is not only mourning the loss of her two sons, but she’s fending off beasts of the field? At night?

This doesn’t have to be in the Bible to be moving. That’s a beautiful expression of a mother’s devotion and a horrific consequence of humanity’s violence, with or without fitting into the framework of scripture. And this is what you might miss in the Old Testament if you breeze through it or pedal too hard – the pain and beauty that resonates with readers as humans. The Bible is, at its most basic, a story, and stories should be felt in the same way that we might feel a novel or a poem or a film. Don’t miss this.

I’m not the only one who was affected by Rizpah’s devotion – it moved King David to action as well. David went home after making his deal with the Gibeonites, but he heard about what Rizpah was doing. His response was to go get the bones of Saul and Jonathan, which had been buried in haste to stop the Philistines from desecrating them. Once he has these, he has the remains of Saul, Jonathan, and the seven sons of Saul taken to a proper burial ground and put to rest. It’s an act of kindness to Rizpah, a posthumous nod to his dear friend Jonathan and his master Saul, and probably a weight off of his mind.

And then God ends the famine.

Maybe God did require that Israelites die to atone for Saul’s sin and bring about the end of the famine. And maybe this story, like many others, calls us to account for this in our view of God and corresponding doctrines of sin and atonement. But, in this case, that would actually be imputing our narrative onto the scripture, because this passage doesn’t say that God called for this action. What it does say is that God acted (implying that Saul’s debt was paid) after David buried the bones.

So what does this tell us about God? It could suggest any number of things – God holds life sacred, God is more concerned with loving hearts than with robotic obedience, God is merciful even in vengeance.

But I think looking at the story this way tell us much more about us – and isn’t understanding God, the Bible, and theology fundamentally connected to understanding ourselves and how we fit into these beliefs? We can gain these insights by examining what humans do between God’s actions in the story.

Doesn’t this story teach us that we can be cruel, vindictive, and unjust? Doesn’t it show how savage our own ideas of vengeance can be? Isn’t there something here about the sacredness of motherhood? Shouldn’t it teach us about the beauty of human life and the evil of desecration? Can’t it move us to reflect on loyalty, family, brotherhood, and honor?

Perhaps, above all, this is a reminder to heed Micah’s words to “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” God doesn’t appear pleased when the vengeance has been satiated – rather, in this story, God appears pleased when Rizpah and David are just, merciful, and humble.

By taking a step back and taking this story as a story, by actively watching it rather than passively reading it, we can avoid the usual pitfalls of OT reading. And you won’t always find that approach in commentaries.

Reading the Old Testament is hard work. Thankfully, the meticulous study of theologians and scholars is good and helpful while illuminating many mysteries and raising further important questions. But sometimes, when we read, we make the difficulty of the OT into a burden that we’d rather avoid, either because it is challenging reading, boring, or disturbing. Sometimes it messes with our idea of God, and other times it is unclear how it should teach us anything about God or being a Christian.

The solution to these common problems might not necessarily be as complicated as you think.

Read it. Wrestle with it. Let it play out in front of you and move you.

Its complexities will unfold into great and terrible beauties and truths – sometimes in the most unexpected places.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter


1 Seriously, Joab is a colorful, crazy, brutal, bad-ass general. My favorite Joab scene is when David is mourning the loss of his son Absalom (whom Joab killed, btw), and Joab gives him a good-ol-fashioned “What’s the matter with you?” (like Robert De Niro in Goodfellasbecause David’s mourning makes it look like he doesn’t care about his soldiers who were killed in the war with Absalom.

The Problem with Happiness

dope rainbow artwork

Freshness of Cold by Leonid Afremov

“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” seems pretty straightforward as far as founding documents and stump speeches go. And, in a country where little can be agreed upon, this is a famous statement that anyone can nod along to. However, there are some particular problems with this phrase, and not just the hypocrisy of land-owning white men declaring these things as “unalienable rights” even while maintaining chattel slavery and a firm patriarchy. The one I want to parse out is “the pursuit of happiness,” which, while appearing to be the most obvious and benign of the three rights, may be as revealing of the American imagination as either of the other two. What I mean is, while life and liberty as rights was a newer concept in the world (The Declaration of Independence would heavily influence France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen 13 years later), the pursuit of happiness has also not been something guaranteed, or even available, to the average citizen. But, in 1776, Thomas Jefferson decided to put life and liberty right next to the pursuit of things and activities that make people experience happiness.

In America today, the right to life is, for the most part, taken for granted (although this time the hypocrisy suggests that life is a right only for born persons). We assume that all most people have the right to life. Liberty is the one that gets the most controversy, as doomsayers like Ted Cruz claim that religious Christian liberty is under assault and issues of gender and sexuality become some of the most important new discussions in society. The Libertarian movement suggests that liberty is as important as it is elusive.

But enough about those things. It’s the pursuit of happiness which has come to be America’s real sacred cow. The quality of our life and liberty have come to be predicated on how happy we are. Things and activities that generate happiness have become the very things for which Americans aim, and the rewards that are promised for hours and hours of work.

And this is fine – now that humans don’t have to fend off wild animals and we have medicine to keep us around for more than fifty years, it’s great to fill up spare time with leisure, recreation, and the things from which we derive happiness. But there’s a problem, and this is the thesis to which this overwrought introduction has built:

Happiness is cheap. And the exaltation of this cheap happiness is a road to misery that bypasses fulfillment. I hope to show that, while not having the same ring to it, the pursuit of fulfillment is the thing for which we should aim instead.

I can’t say for sure what Jeffy had in mind when he penned the Declaration – maybe he really envisioned all that I’m about to say. And I can’t really say exactly what my fellow Americans have in mind when they think of the pursuit of happiness. But what I see being sold to us, what I see being pursued, what I see being exalted and protected, is happiness that comes from fun, from thrills, from pleasure, from smiles and sunshine and puppies and rainbows. I don’t mean to be sardonic – I really think that happiness, for so many people, amounts to good food, good drink, good sex, good laughs, and good fun. And when we’re not doing one of those things, it is expected that we should keep a good mood. We should just be happy. If we’re not smiling that must mean something is wrong. And Lady Liberty forbid something should be wrong. The happiness I’m talking about isn’t just another word for materialism, but it’s the mindset that being in a happy state of mind is what makes up our quality of life, our measure of success, and the definition of our purpose.

This isn’t right. This is a distraction. We have greater aims in life than the nice feeling we get from being happy. Happiness is great – I like being happy – but devoting our lives to gaining as much happiness as we can is doomed for failure. C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” I think we might say, for the purposes of this essay, “Aim at fulfillment and you will get happiness thrown in. Aim at happiness and you get neither.”

The song “Injoy,” from Beleaf’s depression-riddled album Red Pills + Black Sugar, presents this tension as Beleaf and his guests rap about the troubles of life but also the pressure they feel to appear happy. Beleaf laments that his “smile is counterfeit” and wishes that he could appear happy while also growing as a person. It’s a pretty good song, but its best moment is the very end, in which Beleaf says, “Yeah I’m supposed to fake it till I make it huh/Yeah I’m supposed to be happy, happy/But this life keeps getting worse/But I just keep smiling and pretend that I’m happy, happy.” It’s unsettling, and it should be. The song is inspired by the second verse of the Book of James, in which Jesus’ brother implores his audience to “Count it all joy when you meet various trials.” What Beleaf reveals in this disconcerting end to an anguished song is that to count it all joy does not mean “don’t worry, be happy.” He is struggling with the Christian belief that Christ is ultimate joy, even while experiencing human suffering.

Despite the call for joy, I don’t think there’s much case to be made that the Bible directs Christians to be “happy” all the time. Was Jesus happy when he wept for Lazarus? Do all of the Psalms end with cheerful assurance of God’s help? On the contrary, the Bible is full of sorrow and even anger (Ephesians 4:26, Jesus clearing the temple, etc). And there’s a very good reason for that – it’s through trials that we grow. Growth doesn’t happen in times of ease and comfort – rather, it happens when the trials are very real. C.H. Spurgeon, who struggled with depression throughout his life despite his spiritual zeal, said that “They who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls.” Some Christians like to say the world will know them by their love, or by their hope, and neither of those are the same thing as happiness.

I generally approach this sort of topic with a Christian and American framework, but I don’t mean to confine it to that lens, even if Christianity is important for my angle on this in particular. The Tao Te Ching, a spiritual text for which I have great admiration, is also lowkey on happiness. Peace, wisdom, balance, harmony, and humility are some of the things of much greater importance to Lao Tzu and other followers of the Tao.

But this issue can’t be confined to spiritual and religious persons either – I think this plays out for just about any spiritual worldview.

Where else to look first but the song “Pursuit of Happiness,” by Kid Cudi, one of the great secular philosophers of our time? In all seriousness, I don’t care if Cudi makes terrible albums for the rest of his life – Man on the Moon: The End of Day is enough to make him a genius forever. The thirteenth song on that album, “Pursuit of Happiness,” has become an anthem for the party lifestyle, but the song isn’t about celebrating drugs, alcohol, and the other things associated with wealth and fame. Rather, the message is that, no matter how much he pursues happiness through the party lifestyle, he’s left unsatisfied: “I’m on the pursuit of happiness and I know/Everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold/Hey, I’ll be fine once I get it, I’ll be good.” He knows that there is something higher beyond getting high that will satisfy, but has yet to find it. This is one of the messages of his masterpiece album, summed up in the album’s final poem by fellow rapper Common: “The end is never the end. A new challenge awaits/A test no man could be prepared for/A new hell he must conquer and destroy/A new level of growth he must confront himself/The machine in the ghost within/This is the journey of the man on the moon.”

Of course, you might reject Cudi as an outlier with a troubled psyche and a drug problem, but this sort of pained expression is hardly unique to Cudi. It begins with slave songs and black spirituals, which created the blues, which would become the taproot genre for jazz, rock ‘n roll, R&B, Gospel, and hip-hop. In other words, the pain of slaves eventually evolved into almost all of the most popular genres of American music. It also appears in the written poetics of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and others. This music, this deeply affecting music, does not spring from sunshine and rainbows, but rather comes from the stirring of pained souls longing for something else.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to America in the early 1930’s, he was affected by the mistreatment of black Americans, by the beauty of black spirituals, and by the sound preaching happening in black churches. His time in America moved his theology to theologia crucis, in which the Gospel is hidden and found in suffering. This was a change from his theologia gloriae, which placed God in the presence of a people’s success and well-being, a theology that would have exalted the success of the Third Reich and turned a blind eye to the Jewish people. Finding the Gospel among the oppressed in America helped move Bonhoeffer away from supporting the German government to become a conspirator plotting to overthrow Hitler to save oppressed people from his murderous policies. (ht Reggie Williams, PhD).

I’m not saying that the black experience was bereft of happiness, or that good music and good religion can only come out of prolonged suffering, but these examples illustrate something lasting and something gratifying that exists even when happiness proves difficult to pursue. These examples hint at deeper longings that are more crucial to our well-being than fits of happiness.

This calls to my mind J.R.R. Tolkien’s statement about spiritual longing: “We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.” This truism shapes his fiction, and we can see some of the ways in which a longing for something better supersedes our quest for happiness. In Middle-Earth, the hobbits are not materialistic happiness-seekers because they spend their time eating, drinking, and smoking. Hobbits do those things, but that’s because that’s what hobbits do – they’re bucolic beings with a love of growing things, and they are in a state of fulfillment when they are growing plants, eating plants, and, of course, smoking plants. Not because they’re bent on happy feelings, but because they are earthy beings with a love for hearth and home. Likewise, the elves are not somber because they can’t find fun things to do – they’re somber because their time is fading away as connections to the natural world become weaker. They aren’t sad because they don’t have meadows to play yard games in – they’re pained because their natural way of life is fading from the world. In short, the joy found in Tolkien’s world is not based in the pursuit of happiness, but in the glimpses of Eden that drive characters to do what is right – to defend their friends, to fight evil, to take care of the earth.

It is clear that many people – writers, ministers, artists, philosophers – have found their greatest meaning not in happiness, but in fulfillment. Why? Maybe it’s because happiness is fleeting but fulfillment endures.

What can pursuing happiness guarantee other than the insatiable need to pursue more happiness? Food, drink, cars, houses, sex, sports, and things like these brings happiness, but do not secure our position against the storms of life. Trials will come. And we need those trials. But how can we expect to face trials and grow from trials, or how can we even expect to survive trials if we are determined to make happiness our default setting? If we spend our lives running as fast we can away from pain and sadness, what foundation do we have when trouble comes?

I find many of these answers presented by Beautiful Eulogy in their song “Anchor,” which has given me much peace and profound joy, even though it has never made me happy and even though it is not a happy song: “It helps me/To understand that we stand on solid rock not on sinking sand/Through the providence of pain you perfect your plan/Predestined to be tested when the works and the Words of/God cooperate and educate men in the great gift of Grace/And Faith. And even though its obvious when my outlook’s/Ominous you’ve bound my heart and my conscience and gave me a constant calmness.”

Whether you believe in purpose and design, there is a space inside all of us that is reserved for fulfillment, and this space can’t be filled with happiness, no matter how hard we pursue it. As a Christian, I might call this “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I expect that a non-Christian would have their own answer for purpose and fulfillment, pre-ordained or otherwise – but I should hope that it recognizes the futility in filling life up with happiness generators rather than the things that lay the foundation of fulfillment and thus provide happiness in turn.

Stop chasing happiness. I don’t think you will ultimately find it. Life is tough and people are fickle. What pleases you today may bore you tomorrow. Pursue fulfillment instead. There are deeper, more beautiful, more worthy things to set your attention on than a comfortable, easy, happy life. The most beautiful roses in life come with unhappy thorns.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

Travelling the Uncharted Self

This is one of the most pretentious things I’ve ever done as a blogger (although I used to be kind of a jerk in my nascent sports-blogging stages (“Boom! Eat it Merril Hoge! My pick for Offensive ROY just went HAM and chucked for a debut record 422 yards” (I am so embarrassed that I ever wrote something like that (but I’ve done worse (in writing (and real life too (I guess))))))). And, actually, I’m realizing that the pretentious thing could have been using seven parentheses and banking on you continuing to read. Pardon.

No, the pretentious thing I’m going to do is start this blog post with a poem that I wrote sometime last autumn:

Like a River

There’s a space inside a man which
runs like a river through mountains.
It flows from the sidereal heath
and travels a landscape of virile solitude.
It is breathtaking –
what a man finds when he can walk
within himself –
who can find his way into the halcyon valley
and take in the expanse of the starry night.
To see the mountains proud and cold,
to see the mud languishing in the
foul water that pools in ponds of neglect
and feel the sparkling stream steadily wash it clean.
What it must be to see the height and breadth
of this meandering path running from the gleaming void
to the tossing sea
where other rivers
deposit the story of a soul.

Even as I click “copy” and “paste” questions linger about whether or not you care about my poem or if it will help you to see what this post is about. And, even as I write this, I’m not certain of where this post is going – it’s actually one of the most organic posts I’ve done in a long time. I’ve been writing quite a lot, but not material for blogging. So, in a way that I haven’t always, I’m writing a blog because I want to, not because I feel I need to.

But I begin with the poem because I’m finding that, while I still believe everything I put into it, I’ve come to even better understand the pictures that I tried to paint. I’ve lived these truisms in ways I hadn’t when I first translated these ideas into a stanza.

The poem can mean a lot of things, which are not my present intention to demonstrate, but the poem is partially about where, spatially speaking, a human being exists. Yes, the Ship of Theseus that we call the self appears to occupy only one finite location in a physical body at any time – right now my 5’11” frame is seated at my desk. But if you’re reading this, then you know that where you exist is hardly limited to wherever your own Ship of Theseus might be moored, as writing and reading is an act of telepathy (ht Stephen King). In some sense, you’re existing in my mind. Or consider that just as your physical body might stand in line at the DMV until 2:18, you might find yourself in a virtual line for tickets to Hamilton that extends to 2018.

The space we occupy is much more mutable and much less defined than the physical space our bodies occupy. This space that we live in is a view within ourselves but also a boulevard to the spaces we share, metaphysically, with our fellow humans. That’s part of what writing the poem revealed to me, and in the recent months I’ve learned that all the more, and these meditations have been spurred on and guided by a variety of teachers.

First, my physical place in the world for the time being has put me in a rather unusual, and often uncomfortable, sea of consciousness. I graduated in December, and I’m going back to school (somewhere) for a Master’s degree next autumn. But, for the time being, I’m living at home. This unfamiliar territory is an unstable terrain that removes me from parts of my identity that I have grown accustomed to – I am not a student right now, I’m removed from the lives of my closest friends, I’m an “only child” for the first time, I see both my parents every day, the infrequency with which I’m substitute teaching hardly qualifies me as a working person, and, although I have a plan for what I will do next autumn, I have only heard back from one of the eight schools to which I applied, meaning that my future status as a student, friend, son, and employee is in a state of flux.

Mentally and emotionally, this makes me feel much more removed than even my physical state of being would designate. My close friend studying in England feels a world away – my friends at school feel only a little closer. Future schooling and work are so diaphanous even in rose-tinted lenses, as I am employed but hardly working, and in line to enter school but waiting on decisions.

All of this makes this time between schooling a time in which it is challenging to form my identity and just as tough to express it. Which is, I suppose, one reason I’m writing this post.

But there’s a yin to every yang. As my physical state has remained isolated and removed, and as my identity has lost or modified some of its significant traits, I have roamed far and wide among the constellations of the mind. I spend my day with ideas. I read (books, tweets, and online articles) and I observe (talk radio, music, debates, TV events, and the like) and I think and I write. And the space we share mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, can be a breathtaking space with a power to define as strong as our physical location. When I read Quiet by Susan Caine, I connected so directly with what she wrote about introverts that it made me like myself more as a person, and I have such profound gratitude for what she wrote that I almost feel like Susan is one of my friends now. Or, for another example, when I read The Souls of Black Folk, I found Du Bois’ ideas so powerful and so accurate, and so affirming in my interests and studies, it was like he had sent the book from 1903 directly to me to read. Books, TV, and the internet have pooled their resources with my mind, and each day I find myself so much a part of this human experience, removed as I am for the time being. My meditations explore these tributaries and my writing is one way in which my experience is given life.

These uncertain spaces have formed a symbiotic relationship with my spirituality as well, and once again I find the doctrine of election to be one of the most stunning attributes of God (admittedly, it causes me some angst as well, but that is a separate issue for now). I believe that God chose me before I was born (Galatians 1:15) for salvation, but also to have a purpose in life. Whether or not God controls everything I will do, I don’t know, and frankly I think too much ink is spilled pondering human free will. But I am sure, just as God planned for Paul to minister to the Gentiles, that God has a reason for calling me, and a way in which he intends to use me to glorify God and serve my neighbors. As God protected Paul against plots against his life to get him to Jerusalem, I believe God has a way in mind for me to love God and neighbor, and whatever the odds are God will see it done.

Whether you can relate or only imagine, that’s a tremendous thing to believe. But, like most Christian beliefs, it’s not something you can download into your mind like we’re plugged into the Matrix. It takes time to work through and accept. And, like most Christian beliefs, Christians always have some doubts. I’ve said that most Christians (me included) don’t actually believe they will go the heaven when they die – they do, but if they could 100% grasp and believe that they would be in heaven, they would live their lives so very differently on earth, wouldn’t they?

What this means is that living a purpose-driven life is tricky when you haven’t reached a place that seems to fit your idea of a “purpose.” I don’t think what I’m doing right now is my ultimate purpose – rather, I tend to think of “God’s plan for me” as being where I will be in, say, ten years. Then I will be doing God’s work, then I’ll be using my education to make the world a better place and glorify God. But that’s not a particularly comfortable or useful way to think. Because God has a purpose for me now, and tomorrow, and next week, just as much as ten and twenty years from now. But believe me – I wish I was doing what I’ll be doing in ten years now. That’s the work I want to do today. This attitude makes it easy to punt away spiritual work, going days at a time with little thought for God. But I’ve learned over the past couple years that ignoring daily excellence is one of the worst things a person can do (I wrote about this last year and you can follow up on that later if you wish, here).

Recently, I began to think myself very wise in the ways of theology, scripture, and spirituality. I began to think myself quite holy and righteous. But what I started to lose sight of was the way in which we must constantly turn to God, even if it means re-hearing an old truth or re-reading a letter of Paul yet again. But the truth is that, even if the words in the Bible remain the same, the truths evolve – not that they are subject to our understanding, but rather that, at each stage of our lives, the same words may be breathed in and breathed out in a different manner that attends to our situation in life while calling us to be more like Jesus every day. And even if you know everything there is to know, the way to be more like Jesus is going to be different from time to time, depending on where you are on your journey. Thus, I must continue to preach to myself.

Okay, so I know that probably felt tangential, but my musings on the bundled self, identity, and Christian living do all amount to more than an entry in my diary that you may or may not care about.

What I’m seeing is a failure for people to embrace the mutability and connectedness of our existence, choosing instead to label others and label themselves in ways that don’t make sense. When we see our soul flowing from the sidereal heath through our halcyon valleys and into the commingled sea of souls, then we can better understand ourselves and better understand and love each other, and we can move past the things that divide and conquer us.

Concerning Peyton Manning, Dan LeBatard is right: why can’t it all be true that Peyton did horrible things, Peyton is now a good guy, the journalist is not credible, the journalist has an agenda, the story is true, this doesn’t have to be about race, but yet this is about race? Those things can all be true. Why does someone find themselves saying that Peyton is totally absolved and Shaun King is a race-baiting devil?

Concerning Cam Newton’s press conference: It’s true that he should have acted differently, but can’t we all understand why he would act that way? Can’t we be fine with what he did, and try to empathize, yet still say he was wrong?

Concerning Kanye West: why does he have to be a crazy douchebag or a peerless artist? Why one or the other? Can’t we treat him like a person who’s on a journey like all of us, and say that his album, while not a masterpiece, is still pretty damn good? Can’t we appreciate the nuances that come with him and with his work?

Feeling the need to label ourselves and others inevitably leads to incorrect and overbearing labels that unnaturally warp our thinking, and in no place is this more obvious than this thing going on called the 2016 Presidential election. Fam – I fully believe that the two-party system in American politics is one of the most harmful things for our culture, our government, and our society. It creates extremism. Compromise and bipartisanship is a sham – usually when someone says that’s what they want, what they really mean is they want people on the other side of the aisle to agree with them. And this dichotomy of liberal:conservative makes people think some pretty unnatural things.

Conservatives have an overwhelmingly negative response to Beyoncé, Kendrick, DeRay, and just about anything related to race, especially when it comes to #BlackLivesMatter. Somehow it became a part of conservatism, and it is really disturbing to see the ways that conservatives predictably buck against any sort of racial protest or the suggestion that there is systemic racism, even though there is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a serious race problem in this country. Conservatives find other labels to disparage as well, SOCIALISM being one of the most prominent. So rather than consider the merits of Democratic Socialism, conservatives discredit the ideology altogether, trampling all of the good things liberalism can bring to the social inequality workbench. In short: conservatives contort their minds to oppose things that are new, different, strange, or uncomfortable. And that’s a problem, no?

Liberals aren’t faultless either. Perhaps in particular is the liberal tendency to bash Christianity. Yes, there is a marriage between Christianity and the GOP that makes me uncomfortable, and yes, Christians often conflate religious liberty with religious supremacy. But the caricature that liberals draw up of sexist, homophobic, racist, selfish Christians is unfair, and brings to an end helpful discussions about abortion and what it truly means to be “pro-life,” or what it really means for a Christian to “hate the sin and love the sinner” or how defeating ISIS is different from defeating Islam. Some people say some pretty bold stuff about gay rights and reproductive rights that, I think, upon further review, don’t make sense. But, because someone identifies as “liberal,” they feel the need to turn into a lemming and run off the cliff to get away from being conservative. In short: liberals charge ahead at unsustainable speeds, desperate to be unlike the close-minded people of the past. And that’s risky, no?

Why can’t a conservative support the teacher’s union and environmental protection? Why can’t a liberal be pro-life and opposed to gun control?

Too many people have never learned to think for themselves, and it’s because their insistence on taking sides and fabricating labels clouds their knowledge of the self and sets up roadblocks on our common boulevards of existence. We look to cues from thought leaders and ideologies and trending topics for guidance, forcing ourselves into labels and bending our perception of ourselves and our perception of others into something that is unnatural and unhelpful. You exist someplace that is so much more free than the temporal entrenchment that you’ve assumed.

Since this post of loosely-related parts somewhat resembles The Life of Pablo, I guess I will, 2500 words in, finish with a reflection on a Kanye song. I think these ideas that I’ve been kicking around in this post rather clumsily appear, in some form, in Kanye West’s song “Real Friends.” They’ve been ruthless in keeping that song off of YouTube, but here’s a 30 second preview on Tidal if you haven’t heard it.

People tend to take friends for granted. Or, at least, people don’t think critically about what friendship really means and what it means to be a real friend or have real friends. In our insatiable need for labeling, we find ourselves satisfied with acquiring “friends,” just as we call ourselves a student, spouse, employee, male, female, etc etc. But “How many of us are real friends/To real friends, ’til the reel end/’Til the wheels fall off, ’til the wheels don’t spin,” Kanye asks. But it’s a two-way street: “Who your real friends? We all came from the bottom/I’m always blamin’ you, but what’s sad, you not the problem.” Kanye is questioning whether or not he has real friends, and also whether or not he is a real friend.

What makes this message and this song so potent, besides the stellar production (love the piano sample), is that this comes from the type of introspective and self-deprecating voice that so many people seem to think Kanye doesn’t have. He isn’t bragging about being a deadbeat cousin, hating family reunions, and spilling wine at communion – he’s criticizing himself for it. He’s coming from a dark place on this one, and in that same dark place he voices frustration over his cousin stealing his laptop and holding it for ransom, and laments the loss of friends since becoming famous.

This is one of the things that makes Kanye great – when he puts himself into this metaphyscial space in such an honest and heartfelt way, you find yourself there too, even if you can’t relate to everything he’s talking about. I’m not famous. I’ve never had my laptop stolen. I’ve taken communion many times, but have so far avoided making a scene. But, listening to this song, I can’t help but think about what kind of friend I am, and who my real friends are. I can’t help but think about if I’m a good son and a good brother, and if my family’s always been good to me. It is well to consider those things, and in this case it doesn’t happen if Kanye doesn’t put himself in that space or if I put Kanye in a box he doesn’t belong in or if I deny myself the song based on what I think of that kind of music.

I think what I just said about “Real Friends” makes sense and fits into this post, but to be totally honest I just really wanted to talk about that song because I like it so much.

I’ll leave you with this: seek that place that is removed from your physical position. Do not be bound to a finite location. Challenge what you think you know. Rebel against the labels that society wants to put on you, and be careful which labels you claim for yourself. Your heart and soul and mind exist someplace that your body can never be. Explore that place. Know yourself. And when you find a fellow human there, embrace their journey, knowing their sandals are just as worn as yours.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


The Tao of Christianity

 Seeking faith and wisdom in the writings of Lao Tzu.taijitu

There is a voice on the wind that calls for what someone termed “inter-faith dialogue.” That means different things to different people. For some, it is a cloak and dagger effort for conversion. For others, it is an academic exercise in perspective expansion. There are those who want to use it to water down every belief in the catch-all of universalism. And there are those who are not so much seeking a religious result, but a cultural one, hoping that a sit-down between rabbis and imams will not produce a resolution in theology, but rather a political or cultural shift that brings about peace and prosperity. I’m not sure of everyone’s agenda, but somehow inter-faith dialogue got into the water and there are some people who have put a great amount of importance on it, even if it’s rather unclear what the endgame of it all is.

I suppose I don’t fit into any of the above groups, although I am into academia and I’m all for peace and prosperity. But the problem I run into with this notion is that, as I understand it, inter-faith dialogue asks me to put an inordinate amount of value on common ground, when what really defines religions is how they are different. Put simply, I believe what makes Christianity different is that, while other faiths say “This is the way,” Jesus says “I am the way.” And, while I would like for people of other religions to also put their faith in Jesus Christ, I think there is a silliness to asking religious people to reserve the possibility that they are catastrophically wrong. Religion is important exactly because it is, well, important. Any religious person who believes other religions can also be “the way” are not, in my flawed human opinion, really religious. This doesn’t mean we have to fight wars over disagreements, but I believe religious people should value dearly whatever it is that they believe. In very John Owen-sy style, I’m just going to say that making defenses for all the counter-arguments that surely sprang up with that last statement “is not my present intention to demonstrate.”

But I think that, while still maintaining that the core of my belief system is the correct way of faith, there is still something to be gained from studying other religions. And by study I mean not simply learning that Muhammad was born in such and such year and had a revelation at such and such city. Being able to run down a few facts about major world religions is not of substantial value (although it’s better than nothing). What I mean by study is to actually read a sacred text and consider its teachings. And sometimes this might include talking with someone else about their religious beliefs **INTERFAITH DIALOGUE!**

I was drawn to this idea initially as I pondered a question that I think should unsettle any religious person given enough thought: If my religion is the right one, then why do people of other religions seem to find peace and fulfillment in their religion too?

There are a range of possibilities, but the one that I settled on was this: God’s fingerprints are everywhere, and if someone looks beyond themselves for answers, they may find the comfort that comes even with finding God’s shadow. Yahweh is too great not to be known. The heavens and the earth are his craftsmanship. Cicero is credited with saying that “Nature itself has imprinted on all the idea of god.” While the only true bridge between humanity and God is the god-man Jesus, the greatest revelation of God, perhaps it is possible for people seeking Allah or Vishnu to learn some of the truths of god using the spirit – so to speak – of the natural world as well as some sort of indwelling sense of spirituality.

Around the same time as I was considering this, I also continued to develop my affinity for things Chinese. Seriously, if the 1993 birth class was redrafted, China wouldn’t have passed on me in the millionth round. Physically speaking, my eyes are rather small, but even more remarkably I have scleral melanocytosis (gray spots on the whites of my eyes) that are more commonly found in the Asian population. As far as interests go, Chinese is my favorite kind of food, the erhu is probably my second most-favorite instrument, I like wushu fights and wushu films (Hero is in my top 5), and I just have an overall attraction to the Chinese aesthetic, be it architecture, calligraphy, pandas, dragons, weapons, landscapes, etc. (And, yes, for those of you keeping track of score at home, I think Chinese women are beautiful). Fam, I prefer to pray seated in the lotus position while listening to the guqin. While in the Field Museum’s Hall of China, I recognized the guqin song being played on the speakers. Get the picture?

But, more important than various and sundry interests of mine that are not the topic of discussion at the present time, I found that my worldview is startlingly Chinese. In one of my classes, I took a couple of tests that would assess my perspective dealing with values, social and cultural norms, and the like. My results on both quizzes more closely resembled the composite of answers given by Chinese citizens, not Americans.

So, naturally, I felt that I should look into the Chinese worldview. What is it like to see things from a Chinese perspective?

And I was also finding how Westernized my surroundings are. Not only socially/culturally, but religiously. Most versions of Christianity today are a western tradition, when Christianity started in the Middle East. What might it be like to look at faith and spirituality from an Eastern perspective? How might my Christian beliefs looked if filtered through Eastern philosophy?

All things considered, it shouldn’t surprise you that the text I decided to read twice this summer was the Tao Te Ching, a key Taoist text written by Lao Tzu sometime in the 6th Century BC.

There were two things that struck me about the Tao Te Ching. The first was the profound wisdom found on every page. This is a sacred text for a reason. Passage after passage contains a beautiful meditation on matters ranging from personal virtue to directions for leading a nation. It actually blew my mind. I loved reading it.

But the second thing that struck me was totally unexpected: Taoism is surprisingly Christian. Not in an ethical sense, as pretty much every religion is opposed to murder, rape, theft, etc. But in a theological sense, all the more surprising because because Taoism is generally considered pantheistic (no belief in an anthropomorphic God). Here is one passage from the Bible that will help illustrate one example of this:

“The world was given a beginning by that which could be called the world’s father. To know the father is to know the son, and in understanding the son you in turn keep close to the father.”

But that’s not from the Bible. That’s from Chapter 52 of the Tao Te Ching, only it uses “mother” instead of “father.”

But even more than particulars like this, the similarity lies in the value both texts place on surrender and the greatness of “god.” Throughout the Tao Te Ching, there is an emphasis on knowing oneself by emptying oneself, being a bowl that is ready to be filled, making humility extremely key. All things that are to be known or gained are supposed to come from knowing the Tao, the preeminent force through which all was created, and the Te, the Tao at work in the world. According to the Tao Te Ching, humans have a natural state that they should seek to return to, but instead they seek all sorts of vain pursuits to build themselves up, which causes the world’s problems.

That all sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? Particularly if you are a Christian reader?

However, despite the sheer volume of wisdom and the striking similarities between Taoism and Christianity, the Gospel is still missing. Yes, the state of humanity and its relation to “god” is there, but the solution through the death and resurrection of Jesus is not.

So does that mean I throw the whole thing out?

There are a few good reasons that might persuade me to never read the Tao Te Ching again and move on. First and foremost: it’s a religion of man. At the end of the day, this is still the work of a human being, and is not divinely inspired. And besides this, while I might use the text as a source of wisdom and enlightenment, Proverbs 1:7 tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” So is there anything that the Tao can teach me that the Bible can’t give me? Shouldn’t I really just read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and James if I want to sound like a wise man?

Additionally, how can I be sure that all this wisdom even fits into Christian doctrine? There is a pervasive notion of action through inaction in the Tao Te Ching. Balance and moderation are key. I have not yet resolved if this is always helpful for a Christian, as Christians are called to take quite decisive action, actions that are often given violent metaphors. Even something like “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run… So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24) would never be found in the Tao Te Ching. Isn’t Christianity very much a religion of action?

And, if I am looking for texts outside of the Bible to bolster my theology and doctrine, wouldn’t I be best just reading classics in Christian writing? Just this summer I read On the Mortification of Sin by the Puritan pastor John Owen, and it was life-changing. Are not the perspectives of Augustine, Anselm, Owen, Edwards, Lewis, Bonhoeffer, Piper, Keller, and even Trip Lee the ones that I should seek in order to further my love and understanding of God?

And, quite simply, there’s much ado in the Bible about not serving other gods. Couldn’t too much Taoism get a little dicey?

The above are really quite good reasons to set the Tao Te Ching aside and move on, keeping my Chinophile pursuits on the level of Avatar: The Last Airbender, traditional music, and General Tsao’s chicken.

But I’m not going to. Rather, with all of these reasons in mind, I will continue to come back to the Tao Te Ching, reading a chapter or two every few days (the chapters are really more like paragraphs).

I will do so, for one, because I believe the wisdom there is worth reading. I can’t see anywhere in the Bible that prohibits us from finding good advice from people just because they aren’t quoting the Bible. It turns out that Lao Tzu gives pretty darn good advice. And I’m going to take it.

That being said, I will be sure to compare it to my own scriptures. I will seek to understand how the yin and yang find themselves in the Bible. For they do, I am certain of it (ahem, Lion and the Lamb?). But this will force me to think more closely on both texts, relying on the authority of the Bible but using the Tao Te Ching as a sort of looking glass. Of course I will still hold to sola scriptura, and I will spend much much more time in the Bible, but I will give myself occasional doses of Taoism.

I believe this can help me to understand the Bible and my own theology and doctrine even better. For surely Christianity is not contained in a Western perspective. There is another world of philosophy out there that might temper certain understandings (even though the core of the belief must remain the same). As a result, this will, while increasing my knowledge and appreciation of another religion, actually more firmly establish my own religious views. In a sense I’m using interfaith dialogue to defeat one of the purposes of inter-faith dialogue (a weakening of religious zeal). Basically, by being a sort of Christian-Taoist, I will be even more Christian than I was before, if that makes sense.

And, besides this, keeping the Tao Te Ching, and perhaps some other sacred texts, close to me will further theistic mysticism – which in short is the idea that worship of other gods is preferable to atheism or agnosticism, as it acknowledges the insufficiency of humanity and looks for a solution “out there.” While the Bible spends a lot of time condemning false gods and idols, notably Baal and Asherah, I believe today’s Baal is the self. Humans worship the self and have made the individual a god. While the idols of ancient times were wood and stone, today’s is made of flesh and bone. But perhaps that discussion is for another day.

My final word to you is this: read the Tao Te Ching. Please. It’s quite short – readable in less than an afternoon – and you can find it for free here (although I prefer the Robert Brookes translation that I got for a dollar on Kindle). It will be worth your while.

And I’ll close with this, one of my most favorite passages from the Tao Te Ching, and one that has real similarity to Christian theology. Chapter 50 reads:

“You originate in life, but always return to death.
Three in ten people focus too much on extending life.
Three in ten people focus too much on fearing death.
Three in ten people focus on living life to the fullest
and thus find an early death. Why is this so?
Because such people live to excess.

It is said of the one in ten who successfully preserve their life:
When traveling they do not fear the wild buffalo or the tiger.
When in the battlefield they avoid armour and weapons.

The wild buffalo can find no place to pitch its horns,
the tiger can find no place to sink its claws,
the soldier can find no place to thrust his sword.

Why is this so?
Because he has no place for death in his life.”

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter