All posts tagged “faith

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Book Review: In Search of Deep Faith

In 2010, after years of church ministry, Jim Belcher was worn out and spread thin, “like butter, scraped over too much bread,” to use the line from The Lord of the Rings.


So along with his family, he set off for a year in England and Europe, not as a vacation so much as a field trip. They visited important sites in the history of Christianity, while reflecting on the lives and teachings of their spiritual heroes—familiar people like C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie ten Boom, and William Wilberforce, as well as figures like André Trocmé and the villagers of Le Chambon in France, who were equally heroic, though their stories may be less well known.

Never have I read a book quite like In Search of Deep Faith, which chronicles the family’s pilgrimage. Part spiritual memoir, part history, part travel writing, I absolutely love how he weaves it all together.

An underlying theme throughout the book is the commitment Belcher and his wife, Michelle, have to raise their children in a way that will prepare them for what’s to come as they approach their teen and adult years. Repeatedly citing the much-discussed National Study on Youth and Religion, “which found most high-schoolers, even if they grew up in a religious home, were unable to meaningfully articulate their faith.” In Christian Smith and Melinda Denton’s book Soul Searching, which is based on the study’s findings, they coin the now-familiar term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to describe the religious beliefs of typical church-going youth in North America, who describe their faith in terms of being good people, who primarily aim to be happy in life, while keeping God at arm’s length—not close enough to interfere in daily life, but close enough to intervene when the need arises. Needless to say, this falls far short of orthodox Christian faith.

1471232_10152029321516061_207394268_nConcerned about the seeming near-inevitability of MTD, Belcher wonders how to cultivate in his kids a “consequential faith” (to use Kenda Creasy Dean’s term) that will sustain them—a faith that will enable them to deal honestly with doubt, and that will instill in them the virtues needed to act with courage and conviction when doing so isn’t convenient. The family’s spiritual pilgrimage comes to constitute at least part of the answer, and wonderfully so.

The chapter on the French village of Le Chambon provides an unforgettable case in point. The story of the courage and conviction of pastor André Trocmé and his fellow villagers during World War II is told in the book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, but to my shame it was new to me. After France had capitulated to Hitler and Germany, the men and women of this Huguenot village risked their lives to provide a safe haven for an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Jews, who at that point had nowhere left to hide. At a time of barbaric suffering at the hands of the Nazi regime, it has been said that “goodness happened” in Le Chambon, and it was because the conviction and courage of Trocmé and his parishioners had become deeply ingrained virtues, not mere accessories to an already full life. Embodying the sacrificial love of Jesus had become second nature.

In order for any of us to act as the villagers of Le Chambon did under pressure, who risked their lives to protect the lives of others, doing so would have to become second nature for us too. And for it to become second nature, we would need to see these virtues demonstrated in the context of a nurturing community. In other words, spiritual formation and fellowship in church have everything to do with doing justice and loving mercy in the world. You can’t divorce the two without grave consequences.

1262775_10151812028476738_1305813672_oIn Search of Deep Faith is not a comprehensive survey of the most influential Christian figures in history. Rather, it’s limited to those who have most influenced Belcher and his family—and who happened to come from a particular region of the world that the family could afford to visit in a limited amount of time. So I can’t fault him too much for the fact that this pilgrimage was so Eurocentric. Nonetheless, I hope I’d be forgiven for suggesting what a spiritual feast it would be if someone managed to write a book like this—part spiritual memoir, part history, part travel writing—exploring notable figures from the rich history of Christianity elsewhere around the world, particularly in the Middle East, where the faith began, as well as Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where fellow believers are reshaping the twenty-first century before our very eyes. (But we can’t ask Belcher do to everything; maybe I’ll just have to write it some day!)

One concluding lesson from this book that I’ll carry with me comes from the chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who as we all know was ultimately killed by the Nazis, while so many other clergy in Germany embraced (begrudgingly or not) the nationalistic and racist ideology of Hitler’s regime. Like the villagers of Le Chambon, Bonhoeffer’s character had been cultivated through liturgical practices and deep community, both of which are instructive for us today.

But there was something else especially evident in Bonhoeffer’s life right up until the end. It was his eschatological imagination, biblically informed, which gave him eyes to see beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hitler and the Third Reich wouldn’t have the last word. The day is coming, he knew, when sin and death would be no more.

That hope sustained him then. That hope can sustain us still.

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A confession, an apology, a vow

Like many, I was introduced to the music of Derek Webb through Caedmon’s Call, the folk band he was part of for many years. I discovered and fell in love with the band a bit late in the game, nearly a decade in, with a five-record discography already under its belt. The first time I saw them live they were touring in support of Back Home. Those songs (and many from subsequent albums) still hold a special place in my heart, but in my estimation, the band’s heyday was probably in the late ’90s with their quintessential work, 40 Acres.


Nonetheless, as a college kid with a heartfelt affinity for songs like Somewhere North, I was fond of saying that any girl I’d marry would have to meet my all-important ABC criteria – an attractive believer who likes Caedmon’s. (I’m happy to report I found and married such a girl, though the third part of the equation ended up factoring in less than I might have originally thought.)

On one occasion a good buddy and I went to the local Christian bookstore under the vague impression Derek had released a solo album. He hadn’t; we were several months premature. But that fall we drove out to the boonies in eastern Pennsylvania to a solo show he did. That was 2002. The following spring our local Christian radio station did a little contest for a chance to win a lunch and small in-studio concert with him. My buddy and I both won, separately. It’s possible not very many people were aware of who this Derek Webb character was. But to us he was a pretty big deal – so much so that we drove to his show an hour away that night for another dose.

Derek WebbOver the years I went to more of Derek’s shows than I can count, mostly in churches and cafés all over central and eastern Pennsylvania, with a bar in Nashville thrown in. But I got to know Derek primarily, of course, through the songs themselves. His debut record, She Must and Shall Go Free, was a concept album all about a tormented relationship of love with the church. That was the same year I happened to really start reading theology (a habit I haven’t managed to kick), and the theological underpinnings of those songs resonated deeply.

And so it continued every year or two, whenever Derek recorded and released a new batch of songs. It was as if my listening to his records was a way of checking in on where the journey had led both of us in the meantime, as we both in one way or another came of age.

At times, I felt as if Derek’s new songs were putting to words the very things I’d been wrestling with myself. On more than one occasion, I suspected we’d been reading the same books and spending time with similar kinds of people. Other times, I’d find we were heading in some different directions, exploring different ideas, using different kinds of vocabulary. There was and is both dissonance and harmony, you might say, between Derek and me (Unlike Derek, I have never had a public feud with The Roots’ drummer Questlove).

Early on, Derek was notorious for over-explaining – sermonizing, really – everything. I haven’t exactly timed it with a stopwatch, but if you listen to his live album The House Show, you’ll find he probably talks twice as much as he sings, quoting Calvin and Luther and various other heavyweights. And compared to a lot of the songs he’d later write, those first songs were for the most part quite straightforward. By his second record, I See Things Upside Down, he was writing much more cryptically, and on tour he said next to nothing about the meanings of the songs, preferring to let the art do the talking. To this day he’ll sometimes tweet strange things about the creative process, letting us know out of the blue that he’s “receiving coordinates” for new songs.

derek-webbBut now, in 2013, Derek has, it seems to me, come full circle. He’s back where he started again, as if for the first time. Like that first record, this time around he really wants to be understood.

As part of Derek’s launch team for his new record, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You, I’ve been listening to it a lot over the past few weeks, soaking it in, singing along, and then, somewhere along the way, starting to plumb its depths. And I think it’s some of his finest stuff yet.

I could dissect the album for you, word by word, line by line, song by song, but that’s not the best way to approach art – or confession, for that matter, not to mention relationship. And this record is each of those things. You get the impression the record and its title might have something to do with one’s relationship with God and with others alike. Indeed, it captures the very posture required to keep relationships in all directions in tact.

Where will Derek go from here? I don’t know. Frankly, I doubt even he knows which coordinates will come his way next. But with I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You, Derek Webb has given us a gift – a confession, an apology, and a vow.

The new album, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You, officially drops next Tuesday, September 3, but you can preorder it now at

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The future of evangelical cultural engagement

Undoubtedly, one of the best, most important books I’ve read all year is The World Is Not Ours To Save by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson (@tylerws). For those of us who consider cultural engagement and social/political activism important parts of the Christian life, this book should be required reading. When I reviewed it back in April, I wrote this:

For a guy whose life mission is abolishing nuclear weapons, the book sure doesn’t read like a PR piece for a particular cause. Rather, it seems Wigg-Stevenson – who does have a Master of Divinity degree – is sincerely intent on offering a bit of pastoral care for a younger generation still hyped up on its inflated chances of saving the world. That hype will inevitably waver and the vision will surely fade. And when it does, young activists will find in this book a treasure trove of good news. Will they listen before their lives depend on it? I hope so.

I still really, really hope so. And I was reminded of that when I came across this half-hour conversation between Wigg-Stevenson and Abraham Cho (@abrahamcho), a pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. They perceptively touch on a whole range of topics like public theology, the limits of activism, class and race issues, and the widespread tendency among Christians to view nonprofits as inherently better – regardless of particularities – than for-profit companies. This is some great conversation-fodder.

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The center and the periphery

Nihonga materials create a cacophony of sensuality and extravagance. They are an ideal medium for capturing the expansive vision of a world centered by God, a world in which the core allows the freedom to explore the boundaries. As a child, I loved to fill in the borders of my works, from my paintings to ceramic ashtrays. The periphery, to me, is as significant as the center. The peripheral may end up defining in us the very essence of humanity. We are not machines, centripetally driven to finish a task; we are created to be centrifugal forces of outward expression, delighting in the borders. God did not tell Adam and Eve to not explore the periphery; He forbade them from exploring the center. The core of existence is symbolized by a tree because the center needs to be, at least for the time being, unexplored. Art, such as in the delicious marks in the borders of Medieval manuscripts, pushes us outward, beyond the borders. But of course, such outward movement, as all centrifugal movements, cannot be attained without a center.”

– Makoto Fujimura, River Grace

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Every faithful act

Every faithful act of service, every honest labor to make the world a better place, which seemed to have been forever lost and forgotten in the rubble of history, will be seen on that day to have contributed to the perfect fellowship of God’s Kingdom. As Christ, who committed Himself to God and was faithful even when all ended in utter failure and rejection, was by God raised up so that all that He had done as found to be not lost, but alive and powerful, so all who have committed their work in faithfulness to God will be by Him raised up to share in the new age, and will find that their labor was not lost, but that it has found its place in the completed Kingdom.”

– Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History (via