Verses in Exile: Why I Write by Kosal Khiev

Poetry is what got me into writing. While I started out wanting to be a novelist, all my early attempts failed. As soon as I started writing poetry, though, my writing took off. I was prolific. Whenever I need to be reminded why I love the written word, I read some poetry.

I find myself incredibly moved by this video from spoken word artist Kosal Khiev. The emotion drips from every frame and his words for why he writes cut deep. It’s one of those moments when I recognize my own privilege and at the same time greatly desire for voices that are not as privileged as my own to be heard. If I say anymore, this will become about me and it isn’t. Take the time to watch and listen. Absolutely beautiful.

-Dan

Religious art; is it bad?

My wife recently ran across a painting in the Christian bookstore that she described as “a creepy Jesus painting” that resembles a friend of ours. I laughed when I saw it, both for the resemblance and the typical European look of Jesus. I snapped a picture, texted it to my friend with the title of “self-portrait?” and got a good response from him. Below is the offending photo:

What I didn’t realize is that this is apparently the work of a “child prodigy” by the name of Akiane. It’s also the picture that Colton Burpo (the Heaven is for Real kid) said is accurate to the Jesus he saw in heaven. Now, I don’t want to get into that, but there is something else to be said about the proliferation of this image. Despite being done by a child prodigy, the painting has all the shades of the “bad art” that is levied at Christianity. It’s an image that has technical expertise, no doubt, but little beyond that. It’s a kind faced, unassuming Jesus who wouldn’t dare hurt a fly. It’s a white Jesus. A very white Jesus. And it’s popular enough to be sold mass market and framed in a border with scripture printed in Times New Roman at a chain Christian store. Like I said, all the qualities of bad art. But is it bad art or does it say something else?

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Evangelism beyond easy answers.

Growing up in Evangelical Christianity, I was lead to believe that if I didn’t witness to people every chance I got, then I was somehow not truly expressing my belief in God. Likewise, I can acutely remember a sermon the pastor of my childhood church gave, where he equated God’s favor with leading at least one person to Christ. This messed with me a lot as I hadn’t done that (and as far as I know, have yet too). When I came out of Evangelical Christianity into the emergent community in college, I thought I had found an expression of Christianity that fit. An expression that had it “figured out.” Flash forward a few years to now and, after a period of deeply felt and stated agnosticism, I am once again embracing the religion of my childhood. While I would not call myself an Evangelical per se, I still hold strong ties to that expression of Christianity and in the past few years I’ve found myself trying to negotiate the space where I can be both an avowed believer and skeptic. As such, I’ve recently begun to wonder how one is to even have an evangelical posture when this is the case. I think, two recent experiences, highlight where I’ve come to land on this issue.

Recently, I’ve found myself engaged in conversations with people who are “seeking.” These are people who, like me, grew up in some form of Christianity, gave it up at some point, and now find themselves tentatively holding religious beliefs while not being particularly religious. As we’ve talked, I’ve seen myself in many of the things they’ve said. The unknowing, the desire for something to seem real to them again, but the deep dissatisfaction with the current state of their faith. In these conversations, I’ve wondered exactly how I am supposed to respond and the way I respond is significantly different from the way I would have in my youth.

In one conversation in particular, I found myself stating that I was “pretty agnostic/atheistic” a few years ago, but that I still feel there is value in holding faith to Christ and in Christianity. In spite of all the problems I have with it, it still gives me a sense of hope. The second conversation went similarly; ultimately, I landed on the point that there are days when it seems easier to just give up all this “God nonsense,” but that my experiences and the hope I find in Jesus is what keeps me around. I’m not pushing them to “make a decision,” I’m simply conversing about what I perceive to be is a similar experience. I don’t know how deeply my words are felt, but I hope they are at least taken seriously and genuinely.

For some, this may seem like lukewarm evangelism. Perhaps a better term might be “soft evangelism.” The idea that I may not have all the answers, that I’m not pushing God on them like a product, but that I’m trying to be honest about why I still hold faith in a God that oftentimes can be difficult to believe in. It’s a hard place to be. There is no satisfaction of “closing the deal.” There’s just me, trying to be as open and bare as I can. I imagine, or at least hope, that God is far more interested in that than in how effectively I can rack up the souls for him. Besides, it’s not really me that’s supposed to be doing the saving in the first place, is it?

Learning from others; the value of mentorship.

I recently finished my first semester of teaching at the college level. I feel that it wound up being a good semester and that I had a good repore with my class. Unfortunately, of the students who did their evaluations, all were negative.* This is obviously one of those “knife in the heart moments” and it made me realize just how bad I’ve gotten at dealing with negative criticism. At a certain point in my life, I didn’t really have this problem. I took the stance that, if you don’t like what I do, that’s your problem. This isn’t the best attitude to take for teaching though. Teaching, in my view, is not about me. It’s about the students and if I fail them in some regard, then I am failing as a teacher (to an extent). I do know the areas where I didn’t meet the standard and I know exactly why; because I personally didn’t have the knowledge.

I’ve come to teaching in a backwards way. I didn’t study education in my bachelor’s and I had a focus on Literature and Critical Theory in my master’s. To say I’m at an immediate deficit is clear. So what do I need to overcome these things? Honestly, I think I need a mentor.

I’ve always been resistant to the idea of mentorship. The relationship between mentor/mentee is one that I haven’t purposefully sought. As a good American, I had pretty much bought individualism hook, line and sinker. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to critique that notion and what I think I’ve discovered is that it is antithetical to mentorship. It assumes that you can’t do it on your own. That you need help. That there is someone wiser than you, who can teach you. In the face of harsh individualism, at least the form I grew up believing in, it was always, “I’m smart enough, good enough, and can do it on my own.”

The past few months, I served in a mentor like capacity for a friend of mine and it was really good. Even though this has ended, it’s helped to solidify the idea of mentorship into my mind. I need someone to mentor me, to teach me how to be a better teacher myself. More so than that, I think I need someone to talk to who can give me solid advice for life. I don’t know where to find this person, but I do recognize the need. Until then, I’ll just push forward with as much humility, drive, and passion as I can muster and get as much help along the way as I can find.

Do you think a mentor is a good thing? Why or Why not?

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*To be totally honest though, it was only a small fraction who did the online evaluations. I imagine if the few who had shook my hand at the end of class and told me they enjoyed it had done theirs, it would have been a more complete picture. As it stands, from a purely course evaluation picture, it looks like I was an absent minded, contradictory, never-there professor.

Give unto Caesar…

Today is election day in the United States of America. Families will be divided, friendships will be strained and all because of the assumption that your vote is your voice. While this is an easily deconstructable argument, that’s not what I want to talk about today. For me, election day will always have a religious dimension to it. From the earliest that I can remember, voting on election day is not just a patriotic duty, but it is also a spiritual and moral obligation. Growing up in a politicized, Evangelical culture I was taught that we must “vote our values” and stop the advance of the great humanist surge. Or something. However it was framed, it was my Christian duty to uphold the values of the Bible by casting my vote for the  correct (i.e. Republican) candidate and cause.

While I don’t hold to Republicanism or Conservatism hardly at all anymore, I haven’t exactly jumped to the Left. Honestly, both frustrate me. And I think, in some sense, this is how the Bible frames it. What hasn’t changed for me, is the connection between election day and Christianity. Because my vote, or lack thereof, is deeply tied to my beliefs and this is why I will not be voting this election season.

The familiar passage for Christian engagement in political issues is in Mark 12:14-17, and it is the scene where Jesus is asked wether taxes should be paid to Caesar. He states, famously, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Here, coupled with the declaration of St. Paul to obey earthly rulers because God ordains them, has been the impetuous to political activism. Paul, however, was not talking about blind allegiance. Rather, he was speaking of following God’s authority. It’s not about the government, it’s about who is greater than the government. Likewise, Jesus here isn’t stating, “pay your taxes,” rather He is calling us to decide what is God’s.

Caesar’s image is on the coin. Therefore, this is a reflection of Caesar. It is his power, his authority, his dominion. Same can be said of our own money. Presidential heads appear on the money. It is the United States. Likewise, as human beings hold within us the imago dei, the image of God. So, what should we be reflecting? Who should have our lives? “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s.”

This isn’t to state that we can’t be engaged in the political process. Indeed, nearly everything in life is political. It’s hard to avoid this. But, as Christians, how should our approach be? I would argue that any political stance that seeks to give to Caesar what should be Gods’, is a wrongheaded political stance. This is why I am not voting (well, one of many reasons). My hope does not lie in who will become president. It does not lie in what the outcome of some amendment. It lies in God. In God’s ability to provide, to restore, to heal and to guide humanity regardless of who wins an election and how long a political power lasts.

For a fantastic, Ecumenical movement check out Election Day Communion; http://electiondaycommunion.org/fref=ts

I preached a sermon? Yes I did.

I gave a message at the local church I attend a week ago. I talked mainly about the difficulty in defining Jesus as King, what the crucifixion means in light of this, and some other stuff. If that stuff floats your boat and you’d like to listen, you can do so at the Emmaus Road website or by going to iTunes and searching for “Emmaus Road church.”  It’s a little more sermon-y than what I write on here, but overall I think it went well (however, next time I have a speaking gig, I’m taking water or coffee up there with me).

Just so we are clear, no I am not planning on becoming a preacher. It was fun, though.

The path to hell (or heaven)?

“The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.” -C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce)

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When we talk about Heaven and Hell, often times this is portrayed as a choice between one final destination and another. The image that precedes this post illustrates this perfectly; in life there are two paths. One that leads to life, one to death. We see this too in the typical interpretation favored among Evangelical Christianity; wide is the path to destruction, narrow is the path to life.[1] However, there are a few things to remember about this interpretation. The passage generally cited for this comes from the Sermon on the Mount, right after a claim from Jesus to “treat people the same way you want them to treat you” as a means to explain the spirit of the Law. Following this particular passage is the tree and fruit passage, where Jesus admonishes his listeners to not follow after “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and that a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit. When read within the surrounding text  the verse seems to be saying little about our afterlife. Rather, it seems to be talking a lot about our life here.

Continue reading “The path to hell (or heaven)?”