Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Lonesome Highway

Yesterday morning I taught my class on Jonathan Edwards. It went extremely well, not to gloat, but more to draw attention to the subject.
But I was struck by the cognitive dissonance in studying for the class. Chico is becoming a rougher town, especially in the past two years and especially since the economic downturn. On Thursday we decided against going to Farmer's Market partly on account of the large fights that have or almost have broken out at Market lately. Two days ago, after studying, Laurie and I took a walk to talk about Jonathan Edwards. We walked past the dive bar 2 blocks from us and the one 3 blocks from us. We walked past the soup kitchen and the tattoo parlors (not to cast aspersions. Bear in mind that I am marked with ink for life thanks to past decisions with permanent consequences. Thank you very much, young and impetuous Paul!) Past the college children strutting like French aristocracy and the shiftless basking in the glow of cheap highs.
I am not meaning to wag fingers. Not at all. Mearly to point out that the once quaint and decent little college town is going the way of all flesh. It is a time of economic downturn, therefore crime is on the rise as is desperation and, needless to say, the television has been slowly undermining behavioral skills for about three generations now.
I look at Jonathan Edwards' time and the usual question of the moralist comes to mind: what happened? Of course, I am not too ignorant of history to know the many answers to that question, nor am I naive enough to think that people are somehow more depraved than ever (although as I heard John Dominic Crossan quip last night, people do seem to be far more efficient at their depravity than ever before.)
A few modest examples:

* Laurie pointed me at an article on the diaries kept by young girls. Around 100 years ago the bulk of their content was concerned with the quality of their character. Today the bulk of their content is concerned with the quality of their physical appearance. What do I mean to suggest by mentioning this? Well, I think I mean to suggest that young women have been carefully taught to preen above all. This is not an original observation. Let's move on.

* Likewise we know from history that Jonathan Edwards' self-disciplined style, especially in creating and sticking to resolutions, was continued on through the next generation. We see this sort of behavior in the founding fathers of our country. I do want to take a moment here to put a fine point on something. This self-discipline was practiced by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was not a Christian man at all at all. He was not a pillar of Christian virtue or Christian faith or certainly Christian behavior. I say this to say that you can perfect your self-discipline, you can be perfectly mannered, you can exude virtue and you can still be skipping merrily down the primrose path to perdition. In short, we are not saved by works. We do not get time off for good behavior. The Gospel is salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. Adhering to right resolutions, good manners, and good behavior is like flossing as far as your spiritual life is concerned. Sure, it's a fine idea but it really doesn't indicate a whole lot one way or the other about the condition of your soul (and, at risk of speaking for the dead, I daresay Edwards would heartily agree with me on this point.)
Edwards was a bridge from the past, taking the best of Puritanism, and looking forward to what might be best for the future.
Which rather put me in the mind of a song I made Laurie listen to the other night. It was an Arlo Guthrie song about the Watergate scandal. I grew up listening to a Pete Seeger/Arlo Guthrie album (well, among other things. I wasn't part of some weird experiment. It was among the things I listened to as a child) on which this song appeared. It's called Presidential Rag and I cry almost every time I hear it (if you're going to seek it out, do not find the album version with the full rock band. That robs so much from the raw emotion of the solo piano live performance versions.)
And in that song there is this stanza:
"Mothers are still weeping for their boys who went to war
and fathers are still asking what the whole damned thing was for.
And people still are hungry and people still are poor.
An honest week of work these days don't feed the kids no more.
And schools are still like prisons 'cause you don't learn how to live.
and everybody wants to take nobody wants to give."

And I was reminded of an article we read about how the economy is bouncing back as I sat on the couch still laid off and unemployed with the future still ahead of me as though through a plume of smoke. And I thought the exact opposite. I thought "Nothing has changed."

* Which reminds me of an op-ed column (also to file under "Paul reads a lot of atheists") by Kurt Vonnegut several years ago which I always loved over the perennial kerfuffle over having the Ten Commandments in courtrooms. Vonnegut observed that this did not seem to be orthodox Jews arguing for this. It tended to be conservative Christians. He offered the suggestion that they might be more consistent with their beliefs if they put the Beatitudes up in courtrooms. Can you imagine coming into a courthouse and seeing this in big bold letters behind the judge?:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

* Laurie also pointed me at an article about the church. Specifically those who break off into not going to church at all because of the failings of the church and, instead, of a Sunday morning going on a hike with a Rob Bell book or perhaps calling it church when one hangs out with two buddies and talks about the spiritual implications of something written by the ancient Greeks. Of course anyone can understand that these groups were not who St. Paul was addressing when he wrote letters to "The Church."

I mentioned to Laurie my experience with the homeless people smoking crack on the curb across the street from our house and hurling swears at me last month. I commented that this never happened to Jonathan Edwards. Upon reflection, if I'm not wrong about that specifically I think I was at the very least misguided in the spirit of my comment. The Golden Age did not exist. People have been doing wicked things from the Eden tree on. They just, with apologies to Mr. Wilde, didn't used to do it in the town square and scare the horses.
I talked a bit about form, formalism and the loss thereof although I really don't think that figures in largely. Or rather if the loss of form and formalism is part of this conversation it is purely symptomatic.
Anyway, at the end of it this is where I found myself. We are exhorted to look to the great cloud of witness that came before us. While we may never get to be a Jonathan Edwards (he studied for 13 hours every day) we can certainly seek to emulate him. In fact I highly encourage people to look to the church fathers for encouragement and models of godly men who earnestly sought out the truth of scripture, the advancement of the Gospel, and the glory of God.
But I don't think we can count on influencing anyone. If the Lord pulls His hand away no amount of formalism is going to cure a depraved society. If the Lord pulls His hand away nothing we do is going to cure a depraved society.
And then that morning, after my class, Pat taught on Matthew 7:13 "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few."
I guess all of this may be once again flaunting both my Calvinism and my Quakerism. I think we all ought to love one another and show grace as much as humanly possible. I think that we ought to seek to have the best of all possible worlds through love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance (and never through legislating morality and certainly never by hating sinners. The concept of "Hate the sin, not the sinner" is extra-scriptural. If anything it would be "love the sinner. I am a sinner too. Let me tell you about what Christ did for us." People who sin are fountains from which sin flows. It's like saying "I love sin fountains, but I sure hate that stuff that comes out of them all the time. It is very hard to disassociate the sin from the sinner. In case you hadn't noticed, to "the sinner" that sentiment almost always comes across as "I hate you." Christ says that He "came not to call the righteous, but sinners." I know I ruffle feathers when I say things like that because of course sin is an attack on God and to be hated. We are in the business of loving and spreading the good news of Christ's atonement. Ask yourself two questions: "Is my neighbor a sinner?" And "do I deserve one lick of the grace that's been shown me?") But remember that truth is about the hardest sell there is. As I read Edwards' remarkable "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" I was struck by how much love went into that sermon. So often it is painted as "hellfire and brimstone" and the model of fearmongering sermons. It is not! It is a sermon with heartbroken love for anyone who would listen.
There is a part of me that thinks about, before the money runs out, going down to the hardware store, buying some wood, then going to the sign printing shop and printing up a huge sign that reads "The End Is Nigh!" and going each morning down to City Plaza and marching around downtown with the sign. Although, really, I think I am probably more useful and properly focused in spending my days looking for work which will support my family and, as Schweitzer said, living my example. Although there is probably a book in the experiences that carrying that sign would bring.
You may find yourself the only voice crying out in the wilderness.
But what of it. Play on.


  1. I am so glad that you are my brother. I take your genius for granted to much.

  2. Um, I think Patrick posted that comment through Moriah's blog. Sorry! :)

  3. Paul, I have been following Laurie for quite a while, and have enjoyed our dialogue. Sharing the insight with which the two of you have been blessed is certainly a blessing to the rest of us.

    I too am blessed to have a spouse with whom I share conversation, and most imporatantly conversation about our faith in Jesus.

    Thanks for imparting your wisdom with us. Deb