Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Why Theology?

Last Friday I stood in front of a classroom leading a discussion section for an undergraduate intro to theology class. I was well aware that many of them had signed up for the course because it is a university requirement, not because they have any interest in theology whatsoever. As such, my goal for the first section was to persuade them that theology is actually worth studying, certainly for those who believe it but also for those who don’t. So, why should one study theology?

First, theology helps us know God. It teaches us both what God is like and what God has done throughout history. But these ideas are more than abstract ideas or historical facts. I didn’t say only that theology helps us know about God. Information can be the gateway into a relationship. To develop a real friendship with another person, you must know things about them: where they’re from, who their family is, what they like and dislike. The same goes for God. Knowing about God is a necessary step on the way to knowing God, and those who already have faith can deepen their knowledge of God through academic study.

Second, theology helps us know ourselves. It addresses all the big questions everyone must face. What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of life? Why is there suffering? What happens after death? While many of these central questions are also addressed by philosophy, sometimes we simply can’t reason our way to answers. It is then that we must turn to revelation, a resource that can only be accessed through theology, to guide us as we reason toward answers.

So theology is deeply important for those who believe it. But what about those who don’t? Can my non-Christian students gain anything from a required theology course? I would love my students to believe Christianity’s answers to the deep questions of life because I think those answers are true. But even if they don’t, they can still profit from studying another’s viewpoint in depth.

In our culture, it’s easy to think of religion as merely culturally engrained habits at best or superstition at worst. But when we think this way, we often fail to grasp the ways that religious beliefs affect other people’s actions and thoughts. How can an atheist and a Christian have a productive discussion without understanding what the other person actually believes? Studying theology can help even unbelieving students understand the depth and intellectual rigor that comes from religious beliefs, the content of some of those beliefs and the way that affects believers’ thoughts and behavior. This will be very valuable as students go out into the world and meet people from different backgrounds.

On a related note, much of Western art, literature and film draws on the Bible, directly or indirectly. Developing a familiarity with the basics of Christian theology can help my students understand European and American culture more deeply.

Last, studying theology helps us develop skills we use in understanding other areas. It helps us think carefully about large questions, listen to and assess various viewpoints, discuss ideas clearly and respectfully and write about these issues. Each of these takes practice, and the course I’m teaching will help my students develop skills that they will use throughout college and for the rest of their lives.

Did I convince my students that this course isn’t a waste of time? I have no idea. I suppose the more important questions are: Did I convince you that learning about and discussing theology is important? And did I convince myself not to shy away from talking about it?

Monday, January 11, 2016

Learning From Stories

Last Saturday I was invited to speak at my church’s women’s tea on the theme of “books.” I asked my dad for suggestions, and he pointed me to Ecclesiastes 12:12. “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” As a grad student, I can confirm that the verse is very true. In fact, I’d consider putting it on t-shirts for my classmates. But I didn’t think that’s what the event’s organizers had in mind, so instead I focused on the ways books in general and fiction in particular have influenced my life. I chose this because the value of reading non-fiction for spiritual growth can be relatively obvious. The influence of stories is more subtle but no less real.

We get a hint of the importance of stories in the structure of the Bible. Though we think of it as one book, the Bible is actually many books in many different genres. It contains theological treatises (such as Romans), law codes, also poetry, prophecy (in both prose and poetry) and lots of narratives. Stories take up a large percentage the Bible, and while many of them are history, Jesus’ parables are a kind of fiction. God uses this huge variety of forms to communicate to us because different types of writing speak to our experiences in different ways and affect us differently. And if God considers stories a helpful way of communicating truth, so should we.

One of the first things the Bible tells us about human beings is that we’re made in the image of God. We find this out in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. At that point, all we’ve been told about God is that He created everything and did it by speaking. Authors, like their Creator create using words. So every time we pick up a book we should recognize that God’s image is being expressed. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything in every book is good. Authors are also fallen, so we need to read any book with discernment. But we should give thanks to God for the amazing privilege of being made in His image and for the joy we gain from seeing the ways authors intentionally or unintentionally reveal His image in them.

Stories can aid our spiritual growth by helping us develop empathy. They let us get inside the head of someone different from us and understand the world as they experience it. This in turn can help us understand the real people who have had similar experiences. When you meet someone on the street, you don’t know what they’re thinking or their backstory. But when you read a book, the author often tells you that, which makes it easier to understand and relate to the characters.

Fiction is also a huge source of encouragement for me, something my parents taught me at a young age. When I was 10, my parents took my family to Europe for several months, and we traveled to Hungary. We took a night train into Budapest and transferred to another train that would eventually take us to the town where we would be staying. The schedule said the train would have a snack car, so my parents planned on eating breakfast on the train. As the train left the station, a blizzard hit our area. It was then that we discovered the train had little to no heat. My brother and my father walked along the train looking for the snack car. Snow blew upward between holes in the floor of the passages connecting different cars. One bicycle car was covered with ice because the door was opened. My dad tried to close it, but it was jammed. To quote my father, “the bathrooms looked like they hadn’t been cleaned since the fall of Communism” (this was 1999). My father and brother reached the end of the train, but there was no snack car. So my brother and I sat in the compartment bundled up in our coats while my mom fed us gummy bears that she had found in her purse. We had been reading The Hobbit as a family, so my dad said, “Bilbo Baggins describes adventures as ‘nasty, unpleasant things that make you late for breakfast.’ That means we’re having an adventure.” Suddenly, I was excited because I was on an adventure. I was still cold and hungry, but I wasn’t miserable because I saw my predicament differently.

I still draw on Tolkien for encouragement and inspiration, especially when life seems overwhelming. Tolkien does a great job depicting both genuine good and genuine evil and helping us recognize the difference. He also shows us ordinary people, like the Hobbits, standing up against this evil and making a difference. Good stories aren’t just a way to escape from the evil in the world. They’re a picture of what we can do, and they can provide motivation to take risks and do things that may be frightening. G.K. Chesterton once said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” The problems that face the heroes in fairy tales are symbols of the evil in the world. And when we see characters in stories slaying their dragons, it can encourage us to stand up and face our dragons.

We’re all busy, so I’m sure many of you don’t have much time for reading. But when you do encounter stories, either in books or in movies, I think it’s helpful to think about them and draw lessons or encouragement from them. I’d also like to encourage you to give thanks to God for the gift of books and the way He can use books of all kinds to make us more like Christ.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Continuing Christmas in the New Year

Christmas isn’t over yet.

Most people think of the Christmas season as stretching from the end of November until December 25, possibly followed by some time celebrating New Year’s Eve. Then on January 1 (or maybe 2), we all go back to our ordinary lives, staggering from the quantity of food we’ve consumed and resolving to lose weight of save money or do something else we know we should do but haven’t actually done.

But traditionally, Christmas didn’t even start until December 25. The weeks leading up to Christmas are actually Advent, a time of waiting and preparation for Christmas, like Lent is for Easter. Then came Christmas day, followed by 12 days of celebration stretching to January 6, which is Epiphany, the day that celebrates the arrival of the Magi. Hence, the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

What this means is that even as we go back to work or school, Christmas is still going on. Although my inner Hobbit would love to use that as an excuse to continue stuffing my face with cheese, returning to work and/or taking steps to improve our lives is actually a perfectly appropriate way to celebrate the last few days of Christmas. Christmas is about the Incarnation, the moment when God became human and began to experience all the pleasures and frustrations of a normal human life. No area of life is outside His concern, whether it be health or finances or anything else. And therefore, whatever area of life we choose to focus on has a touch of holiness, and whatever actions we take can be done for God’s glory.

Lately, I’ve realized that I have a dangerous tendency to focus on my mind while neglecting my body. I’m trying to fight that by remembering that my body is a good (although not perfect) creation of God; it is part of what Christ came to redeem, and I will have it in some form for all eternity. My body has a part to play in my ultimate purpose of serving and glorifying God. I expect this will be a far more powerful motivator to live a healthy lifestyle than disgust or shame over how I look. In other words, the concern for all of life demonstrated in the Incarnation means that my health matters and is worth attending to. And whether you’re making a resolution or just continuing life as you have been, your daily concerns matter for the same reason.

I write this post mostly for myself, but I hope it will also help you to see the glory in whatever you are doing this week, whether you’re starting a new resolution or just going back to normal life. Everything has value because of the Incarnation. Christmas isn’t over yet.