It has been a slog get writing done this spring in the midst of teaching, family and now regular preaching and congregational leadership. But bit by bit I've chipped away at these last chapters and today (or by Saturday at the latest) I'm going to be done, sending the draft off for comment to my editor at Brazos, and moving on to other things for the time being. After I get his feedback, I'll do a revision of the whole thing (likely in June after school's out) and then it'll disappear into the publishing pipeline to emerge in a year with marketing and distribution behind it. I really like Brazos, and I am glad that they are publishing the book. It is a great home for the work. They market well, distribute widely, and show up at academic conferences to promote their line.
Still, inspired by others who've done this, I sort of wish I could just publish the book and make it available via download as an e-book or mail order as a real book. I've been thinking a lot about a post from Andrew Sullivan on creative types and the internet. He reflects on the kinds of distribution for musicians and how much artists make in those different modes of distribution. I think that is pretty interesting, and the link to Kevin Kelly's post on 1000 true fans makes me wonder why go with a traditional publisher at all if what we writers want is to inspire people, to help shape ideas about how we live life, and to make a living? But would I get tenure in a traditional academic institution if I did a Radiohead-style website download of my new book with a 'pay what you think it is worth' deal? I get only a buck a book at most from the mainstream publishing process, so even if people only paid $2 I'd double my income and potentially increase sales because of the low cost. Of course I couldn't sell a print version for $2 because the production does cost something, but at any rate these questions are haunting me as we think about creative new ways to reach and interact with an audience around ideas that matter to us (hint: it is not the books, albums, etc. but the events that allow for personal interaction that are the bread and butter for most creative types).
Here's a teaser from the conclusion to chapter 5, "Karma and Grace"The Trouble with Church-Culture Divides
Focus on the Family and its affiliated entertainment arm, Plugged In, share some basic concerns I want to applaud. Knowing the God we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ would indeed focus our attention on the cry of the child whose home is broken by domestic violence, or the cry of the parent whose child has been caught up in addiction. Because such an impulse is so central to the animating core of Focus, and of Dr. Dobson’s life and ministry, beginning with affirmation on that point seems essential. Dobson is, after all, a man who was trained and has worked his whole life in ministry with a goal of Godly healing for individuals, families and society. Over the years, Dobson has learned not to do radio shows on difficult issues like child sexual abuse too close together because the flood of terribly difficult calls becomes overwhelming spiritually and emotionally for his staff of correspondents. He knows that lives are broken, and his God-inspired motivation has been to reach out with help.
The basic impulse to listen to the cries of suffering and brokenness in society and to respond shapes Plugged In, as well. While they focus particularly on an area of society—culture and entertainment media—Dobson has singled out as very troublesome, they seek to find within it examples of faith and the good life to encourage and support family well-being. In an old tagline no longer used by Plugged In, they aim to offer “Christian perspective on what to see at the box office, which TV shows are worth your time, and what music comes up clean.” Anyone who has had a child of their own or has cared for children of another knows the basic impulse to protect the child from harm, and to reach out in an embrace once harm has been done. Plugged In do not intend to short-cut family conversations about how to engage media but to serve them, so that the light they shine on popular entertainment can also illumine the conversations about faithfulness around the table in Christian homes.
Yet! A more robust theology of grace breaks apart the bounds of such constricted imagination about God and the world. In order to set up the next chapter’s engagement with C. S. Lewis as part of spelling out in detail the expansive imagination such a theology of grace implies, I can here note specific issues with the understanding of God and culture, and the God’s action in Jesus for our sake. It is true that strains of purity and holiness run back through Christianity and Judaism, exhibiting tensions between the sacred and the profane common to many religious traditions beyond these two. The polemical starkness of choosing between two ways seems endemic in Christian faith, and its history in the United States is particularly strong given our Puritan founding as a “City on a Hill” charged by the Rev. John Winthrop, echoing Deuteronomy 30, to “chose life.” Such arguments have a certain power, to be sure, but taken to be the decisive framing of life before God they can lead, as they have all too often in U.S. history, to divides between a pure “us” and an evil “them”.
The term ‘constricted imagination’ comes in when one asks about God in relation to such church/world divides. Imagining whole swaths of life abandoned by God, set ‘over against us’ or at the very least, as Focus President Jim Daly puts it, ‘not helping’, gives the distinct impression that God is small. Working from the assumption that the darkness of the world needs ‘our’ light shone upon it might conjure up nice images of the Sunday school children singing “This Little Light of Mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” We should be chastened, however, by the conviction through out scripture that, as the Psalmist puts it, “God is the creator of the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them” (Psalm 146:6).
Rowan Williams, in his lovely book of meditations on the Creed, Tokens of Trust, likens the line “the almighty, maker of heaven and earth” to a person flicking a light switch. Like the electrical current illuminating the room, Williams argues, God’s creative power is constant and present, holding all things in their being, rather than in some way either present long ago or only present to that ‘sacred’ portion of creation with whom God deigns to dwell. Such a sensibility is surely close at hand when, in breaking open notions of love for neighbor to include “enemies and those who persecute you,” Jesus said:
Matthew 5:45-47: When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
From this and other similar passages the God we meet in Jesus Christ might be described as a prodigal God. Jesus suggests that if we live lives formed by relationship with that sort of God, we too become prodigal: we give our best to all, regardless.
As our prodigal God, so we are to be prodigal with the mercy and love we have received. We don’t reserve our “rain” for the deserving anymore than God does. If this is true, the challenge, as C. S. Lewis helped us to see, lies in seeking relentlessly for those signs of God’s presence and work under the surface of things. In his delightfully brusque manner, he says this: “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.” A world so full of God’s presence and purpose as to be “crowded” with God hardly gives us the ability to set church against culture, and to then take a step further to paint culture as ‘lost’, ‘dark’ or ‘against us’. The absurd conclusion would be to say those same terms ‘lost’, ‘dark’ or ‘against us’ are true about God whose only experience of such abandonment was on the cross. And exactly because of that reconciling abandonment on the cross we can be sure that God’s reconciling work is in the midst of abandonment and darkness of all sorts, suffering with us and lovingly opening up possibilities for new creation.
To argue that God rules only over the spiritual, and therefore calls us to engage only the pure and holy, then, could be understood as an unfaithful stance for a disciple of Jesus. In fact, such a constricted view of God totters on the edge of a variety of early Christian views usually lumped under the label Gnostic, and that Christians have long set aside as heretical. On key aspect of such views declares matter evil. The idea was that our divine spark finds itself trapped in the material body. This very materiality, this fleshly body with its emotions and temptations, distracts us from seeing our true spiritual nature. Docetism was one key version of such belief, a term derived from the Greek dokeo, “to seem” and used to argue for an understanding of Jesus who was actually pure spirit, not really physically human, one who suffered, died and was buried, and on the third day raised.
To allow for a less-than-fully-human Jesus is to not be deeply moved by his own compassion and the actions it inspired. Jesus, the gospel writes tell us, again and again ‘had compassion’ (splagchnizomai), a term that literally evokes ‘gut-wrenching’ emotion (Mark 1:41; Matt 14:14; Luke 7:13). Again and again, Jesus was moved physically by the plight of the poor, the outcast, the stranger, and those make ritually impure by the letter of the law. In his life, and particularly in his death, he moved with his own body as a bridge across those divides to reconcile and heal the chasm between humanity and God.Focus on the Family rightly directs our attention to the very human cries caught up in the loud cry from the cross. This places God’s reconciling self-sacrificial love at the heart of human life at its most abandoned, at its most broken. It is there God is to be found reconciling the world to God’s very life as God. God takes our suffering, our cries, into God’s own life and opens the possibility freedom beyond fear. So our freedom is not for our own safety in communities of the pure, but freedom to give what we have in Christ away in compassion for all those twisted and broken cries in popular culture. While you may now share some of my theological concerns about the constricted imagination one can see in the approach Focus on the Family embodies, that does not mean we give away our practical capacity for the kind of discernment about what is good and what is evil. No, that need remains, but the challenge looks different