Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

From Boobs to Brains: A Four-Part Interview with a Stanford Neuroscientist

Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Saskia de Vries shows movies to fruit flies and observes how their brains respond.

What can our grey matter tell us about sin and redemption?


If all this boobie talk is becoming tiresome- incidentally just the other day NPR’s Terry Gross was interviewing someone who has written a whole book on breasts- we’re on to a subject I find frankly far more scintillating.  It’s one that we’ve been waiting for, and it won’t disappoint.  Today is the first in a four-part interview series with friend and fellow saint and sinner Dr. Saskia de Vries- about implications of the latest discoveries in neuroscience for Christian theology and how these two areas, of neuroscience and theology, might converse with one another.

Saskia and I met in college through the InterVarsity circuit.  Now, more than fifteen years later (my college reunion is next weekend and I’m not going because I’m in denial) we both have traveled a bit spiritually and theologically  (while, I would like to think, and speaking for myself, keeping the very best of our evangelical influences).  Saskia went on from Yale to earn a PhD from Harvard in neurobiology, and currently is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.  She has spent her entire career studying visual processing- how the cells and circuits of the brain detect and encode visual information (ie. how an image is turned into a neural signal) and how that information is used to guide behavior.  She currently studies this in fruit flies, where she records the electrical activity of tiny cells in the fly’s brain while she shows movies to the fly.  (I have a question in about which flicks are her flies’ favorites. )


"I'm in the mood for a romantic comedy." "Aw, c'mon! We always see chick flicks. How about an action thriller?"

In July I’ll have the privilege of leading worship with Saskia and preaching to her church, Old Presbyterian Church, in San Francisco, where she is an active leader in the community.  Saskia, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.


How did you become interested in the relationship between neuroscience and theology?

For the most part these have been distinct interests. I have been interested in both fields for a long time. I think I got more directly interested in the relationship when a few years ago I was revisiting some of the confessions of the church. I found myself really frustrated about what I feel are misconceptions about our selves, as humans, and the world. I understand why they are in there, some more subtly than others, as these confessions were written hundreds of years ago and reflected the accepted understanding of the world at the time. But our understanding of the world has changed, significantly. And I found myself frustrated that the self-correction that is the norm of science seems to be missing in theology. I have to believe it’s not all together absent, but it seems to me that we are largely willing to ignore what we’ve learned about ourselves and the world in order to hold onto these historical documents. We do so only as a disservice to ourselves. We don’t ignore it in other realms of life – when it comes to legal practice, or medicine, or technology. But we do in the church. Why? To what end? I think this need to cling to the past is hurting the church.


How has your vocation as a neuroscientist informed your faith?

As a scientist, you are trained to ask questions. We constantly ask questions, and sometimes the most exciting breakthroughs come not from asking new questions, but from asking old questions in new ways. As technology develops, and as we learn more, we often have new insights and new tools with which to ask old questions. Questions, however, aren’t always encouraged when it comes to faith. Many view faith as believing things without asking questions, or at least not too many questions. But I’ve always asked them. And I’ve found that I can put a lot of question marks into the midst of my faith, and yet my faith persists. I don’t necessarily believe everything that many consider required of a Christian, but I continue to follow Christ. In fact, I believe I probably follow Christ more faithfully with the question marks there than I did without them.


You are a Presbyterian, which means you belong to a confessional church that is “reformed, always being reformed.” How do you see our confessions needing to change or stretch into the latest discoveries in neuroscience?

So many of our confessions were written some 300-400 years ago, and were written in the mindset and worldview of that time. And that’s fine, good even. But as our understanding of the world and of ourselves has grown, I think our confessions need to, too. I think, for starters, our confessions can reflect what we’ve learned about the origins of the world and of our species. But this is not a dominantly central part of our confessions.

The confessions are written with a very strong dualistic sense of self – that our body and our soul are distinct. This does not hold with science, and some have argued is not even biblically accurate – I refer you to the work by Nancey Murphy on this. I think this is harmful to our understanding of ourselves, reducing us to heads and hands as Marcia Mount Shoop said in her book a few times. (You can read an introduction to Mount Shoop’s book, “Let the Bones Dance,” here: Maintaining this duality is also harmful to our relationships with each other and with the world around us.


Further…the ideas of strict rationality and free will are very strong undercurrents in the confessions, particularly how it relates to the concept of sin.

We Christians talk a lot about sin and redemption. How do your studies enrich and problematize these two categories?

Perhaps one of the big problems emerging from the intersection of neuroscience and theology regards the concept of sin or morality. More and more we are finding biological causes for immoral behaviors: brain tumors that result in sinful behavior, genetic predispositions to violence or addictions, etc. How do we hold people accountable for behaviors that they aren’t freely choosing? Can the same behavior be sinful if freely chosen but not if it results from a tumor or brain trauma? And perhaps most commonly, is homosexuality a sin if you are “born this way?” These are tricky questions, that I think underscore problems in our understanding of free will and our understanding of sin.


As a follow-up to Marcia Mount Shoop’s book which you reference earlier, she argues that a central Christian claim is that redemptive transformation happens at the cellular level. How would your work corroborate this?

I like this idea. I am very much a physicalist – I believe that our mind and our souls are one with our bodies. And to the extent that our experiences change us, they change our bodies – even on a cellular level. Experiences, both good and bad, can change the neural connections in our brain, the genes that we express and the molecules that we make. This is true for traumatic events (eg. PTSD) as well as healing events. And so yes, I think that redemption reflects changes that happen cellularly.


Tomorrow, are human beings hard-wired to believe in God? Is faith just a firing of certain neural circuits?  Stay tuned. And, got a question you’d like to ask Saskia?  Leave it here.




Boobie Traps: Breastfeeding in Church

What if this woman and her son show up in church on Sunday?

Boobs and breastfeeding have been a “protuberant” topic these days.

First there was the recent TIME magazine cover story that sent ripples through the blogging community. “Are You Mom Enough?” went the headline.  By first impressions, the picture shows a Photoshopped model (young, white and upper-class looking, I might add) casting a blank, vaguely defiant, slightly seductive stare at the camera while a boy who looks to be as old as five stands awkwardly next to her, his mouth stuffed with her left breast.  (It turns out that the woman posing is actually the mother to the little boy in the picture, who is an over-sized three-year-old.)


Then there is my five-year-old son’s fixation of late.

“Guess what, Mommy?” he said one day last week after school, his face brimming with the same wonder and excitement that must have splashed across Benjamin Franklin’s face at the discovery of electricity.   “Ms. Patrick’s boobies are bigger than Ms. Hawkins’!” (Ms. Patrick and Ms. Hawkins are assistant teachers in my son’s pre-K class.)


“Yes! And, Ms. Hawkins’ boobies are bigger than Ms. Casey’s!” (Ms. Casey is my son’s primary teacher.)


“And Ms. Casey’s boobies are bigger than yours!”

At that: “Now Cam, I hope you’re not talking about boobies like this at school in front of your friends and teachers.”


(By way of an aside, I haven’t told my son that I am now writing a whole article on the subject.)

Then there was my friend’s own quandary as a leader in her church.  When I bumped into her two days ago, she was on her way to have a conversation with a woman who had been publicly breastfeeding her four-year-old in mixed company to the passive aggressive complaints and alleged departures of a few uncomfortable people in the church.  Apparently nobody had confronted the woman and my friend had decided it was her duty to do so.

I listened without saying much, and couldn’t help but sympathize for a moment with the apostle Paul when he writes to the church in Corinth prescribing that women wear head coverings in worship (1 Corinthians 11).  In Paul’s context, the church sat yards away from a pagan temple where women priestesses engaged in wild, sexual orgies; Paul is therefore drawing an intentional contrast here between how women in the church should comport themselves in worship, and how these ancient erotic dancers and prostitutes are carrying on.


But, where does this leave us with respect to the quandary my friend was facing?  Our culture tells us that boobs are important mainly for how they can attract men.  They’re about as valuable as a pretty quick surgical procedure, too- a couple thousand dollars tops for some juicy implants that can at least withstand the gravity of aging if they manage not to leak and cause all kinds of painful side effects.

It is rare that our culture actually blesses breasts’ other, arguably more essential, life-giving function, however.  I still remember being asked, as a nervous, first-time mother unsure of herself and trying to breastfeed, to leave my son’s pediatrician’s reception area: “it might make some of the dads feel uncomfortable,” I was told.  Even in the company of all women, I would sometimes be offered a “private” room in which to feed my son, and it was unclear whether the invitation was more for my comfort or for the comfort of the women present.  When I went back to work as a pastor after my daughter was born, I remember the looks, usually of the grossed-out kind, when I had to leave gatherings every few hours to use a breast pump while leading a mission trip.  These experiences probably contributed at the subliminal level to my decision to use a nursing cover and to wean my daughter at nine months.


Our culture and our churches have a whole lot of hang-ups when it comes to the use of boobs for the purpose of feeding a child.  But, when a woman chooses to breastfeed, she engages in what was once Nature’s exclusively necessary right of passage for the survival of the human species.  To this day, the World Health Organization recommends two years of breastfeeding as the ideal.  The American Pediatric Association sets the bar at one year.  Those who choose usually for the sake of their children to continue beyond these prescriptions often face mockery and derision, as was evidenced by a tide of unkind comments elicited by the Timecover story in response to women who subscribe to this attachment form of parenting.  (If truth be told, I would be the first to admit my own personal discomfort, if not outright disgust, with the concept of breastfeeding my five-year-old.)


How's this for a statement?

I brought these questions and admissions to the precocious mommies in the weekly Bible study I attend at Clairmont Presbyterian.  Each of us had had different experiences with breastfeeding.  Some had stopped after only a few weeks or months.  Others had continued until the culturally prescribed one-year mark in this country and then stopped.  Others had continued well beyond this time, so that one in our bunch was now still occasionally breastfeeding her four-year-old child.


Together we mused, leaving no stone unturned.  What does it look like for the church to make a cross-cultural statement about women’s bodies with respect to this sacred and necessary, life-giving act?  If the larger culture obsessively finds ways to expose women’s breasts for their sexual, rather than mothering potential, what is to be the church’s response in this context?  Must men’s hang-ups and a prescription for women’s modesty come at the expense of a woman’s child needing to eat, or at the expense of a woman’s sense of self-respect and decency about her calling as a mother?  Should a mother breastfeeding in church settings be asked for the sake of modesty or the weakness of male congregants struggling with sex addictions to find a private place to breastfeed, even when such reactions only perpetuate a woman’s sense of shame about her body doing what it’s supposed to do?  Should she be asked to wear a nursing cover?  What if the child is older than a year and nursing covers no longer work as effectively in hiding the goings-on?


Or, this?

While we did not land on any one, definitive answer to all of these questions, we sliced and diced away until one common sentiment emerged: that while we women would all make our own choices on this issue of breastfeeding in and out of church, we could do a better job of supporting one another’s decisions, whatever they looked like.  Asking a nursing mother to hide herself away for the sake of modesty or for men struggling with sexual temptation is really only on a spectrum at the extreme end of which is asking women to wear burqas.  Whether a mother chooses to wear a nursing cover or whip out her breast in mixed company for a child older than one year of age, we women could and should be doing a better job of supporting one another’s choices in these critical and difficult years of rearing young children.  We could be telling one another that we were plenty good enough because our God was good enough, to paraphrase Rachel Held-Evans in her recent post.

As for the woman my friend was on her way to see?  We mommies agreed: chances are she was not in the right church in the first place; maybe she should reconsider her Sunday morning commute.

 So…what do you think about the contentious issue of breastfeeding in public and how the church is to respond? 


What To Make Of God’s Annoying Fan Club?

This bumper sticker, a personal favorite of mine, will probably make the cut for my forthcoming book, titled "Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls."

“I’ve got nothing against God, it’s His fan club I can’t stand!,” goes one bumper sticker.  Endless scandals, bickering, and declining membership and budgets in many denominations all point to a long, historical track record of failures to be the “enchanted community” (to borrow fellow saint and sinner Bob Henderson’s expression) the church claims to be as “God’s people.”


My own experience has confirmed this.  We’re all a bunch of mess-ups a whole lot of the time, and sometimes it takes a visit from a slightly dubious refrigerator man to remind me. (If you’re wondering about the strange entrance of the refrigerator man here, you can read about it in yesterday’s post.) I have found that the people I most admire are the ones who are willing to consistently admit this truth about themselves and about the church, and, in turn, to live without taking themselves too seriously while taking Jesus a whole lot seriously.  These I suppose are the “saintlier” ones in our midst.

But what, then, to make of the church?  Is it enough to simply confess Jesus as Lord and then disregard the mixed-up bunch of stragglers blathering along behind him?  I don’t think so.


Here is where I find Nicholas Healy’s insights, in the last issue of The Christian Century, helpful.  Healy argues that while the church in Scripture is called to respond to the Gospel, it does so “haltingly and feebly for the most part, and that’s all right, because God’s salvation of the world is not contingent upon the church embodying or displaying the Gospel successfully.”

The point, I think, is that the church is still called to be the church and to witness to the Good News in Jesus Christ- and, as I often like to recall, compliments of G.K. Chesterton, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”  If this can be said of marriage, child-rearing and important vocational decisions, it can most certainly be said of God’s mission.


Healy goes on to write that the church does not possess the gospel but exists to “point away from itself to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  And, this is where I really want to land: “the church is theologically distinctive because of God’s call, not because of its response to that call.”

The church is distinctive not because of anything it can or cannot do by virtue of being the church, but because of God’s call in Jesus Christ.  Period.

These days, whenever I hear Christians on both sides of the political aisle throw verbal mud pies at one another, or learn of yet another inner church leadership squabble over power and egos at stake, I take refuge in Healy’s offer of consolation that the church is still an embodiment of the world’s response to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  If “visibly [the church] confuses as much as or more than it signifies,” does this mean that we need to seek a clearer embodiment of the gospel elsewhere? Do we need to assume that God has given up on the church and we, too, can simply disregard it, because that would often be more convenient? These questions, I suspect, are similar to the ones the apostle Paul wrestles with in Romans when he addresses his own confusion about why God’s chosen people have largely rejected Jesus as Messiah.


Here again is Healy giving voice to what has been all along mere intuition shaped by experience on my part: “What we are as Christians and as the church is hidden by our own finitude, diversity, inconsistency and the confusions of our places within the world. This is not to say that, hidden underneath all our worldliness, we are special. For who we are, as Christians and as the church, is what the world is, too. The church is not an ark floating on the top of the waters. It lives and breathes within the waters. The world is the ark of salvation; the church is but the worldly expression of the Christian response to God’s saving work in the world.  The church is called, then, to be the world’s Christian expression. We are hidden yet truly called by God, and we are the church irrespective of the quality of our response. Thus the church, our true center, our essential existence, lies outside ourselves, in God and in the world. As the Christian expression of the world, we remain a worldly product, for to be the church as it is called to be, we must be in and of the world; we are not called to leave the world—and anyway, how could we? But we are indeed called, so our lives as Christians are centered in God’s call to us in the world. The world and God are the church; the church isn’t the church apart from both the world and God working in it.”


The church, with all its messiness and small-mindedness and often inflated sense of self, obliges us to reckon with the big picture grandeur of a God whose heart really is for the whole world.  This is no small calling, so it’s understandable that we’ll fail to live into it well or consistently, but we need the church for this very reason: as a reminder that God in Jesus still keeps calling the whole world to God’s Self, regardless of how well we respond, and has a mission whose success ultimately does not depend on us even as it summons us.  So, in short, if you were hoping for only therapeutic trash talk about the church, which I imagine many of us can unload, I am sorry to disappoint.


The Lesson of the Refrigerator Repairman

What do you get when a professor and a minister have a broken fridge? Answer: An appliance repairman.

He showed up at our door yesterday afternoon to fix the refrigerator.

(What do you get when a professor and a minister have a broken refrigerator? Answer: An appliance repairman.)

The first words out of his mouth signaled he was Russian.

Maybe I should have guessed what was coming when I asked in my now slow Russian (residual stammerings from four years in college and a summer at Middlebury) whether he liked Putin.  (I know they advise not to talk politics in polite company and at the dinner table, but to my knowledge the rule book makes no stipulations for refrigerator repairmen from foreign countries.)


“Yes,” he had answered in reply with a wry smile.


It turns out he had come to this country three years ago on vacation and succeeded in getting hitched, gesturing to the ring on his left fourth finger as he waded with his other hand through bags of frozen peas, popsicles and scattered coffee grinds to the back of the freezer.

By this time he had found the problem: the line at the back had frozen, blocking cold air from entering the main fridge compartment and ruining a couple gallons of milk before their expiration date.  The solution? A ten minute exercise in defrosting.

The price was a different matter.  A whopping $174.  This was calmly relayed to me after the procedure had taken place.


“What?!  That’s awfully expensive,” I demurred, remembering that two years ago when the same thing happened to our fridge, the service man had charged us $15 for the same procedure. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t pay that.”

“I’ll give you a 20% discount then.”  Then, seeing that the look of shock on my face had yet to dissolve into one of resignation about the fact that my wallet was about to walk off, “Okay, how about you pay $85 just for labor?  That is the cost of one hour of my labor.”

“That’s still too much,” I protested. “You were here for maybe 15 minutes tops!”

“But I drove 40 minutes to get here, and then I had to take all the stuff out of your freezer.” (Correction: I had had to take out all the stuff from the freezer.).


“Okay, then…how much do you want to pay then?,” he asked.  The tone and content of the question took me back to the souvenir vendors on Gorky Street in Moscow selling matriushka dolls to naive tourists: they meant, “let’s bargain.”)

“I don’t want to shortchange you,” I said, “but at tops I can really only pay you $60.”

“Okay,” he said, acquiescing.

I wrote the check to Putin’s fan- “Kevin” is his name, not, I’m pretty sure, your everyday, run-of-the-mill Russian nomenclature- and he was soon off, looking even a bit self-satisfied at the “generosity” he had shown.  He had left me with a receipt that showed a 111% discount.


The exchange reinforced a lesson that in recent years I’ve been learning about human nature, which is this: we human beings, most of us “saints and sinners” at least, are all fundamentally the same at our core.  We’re good at telling ourselves all sorts of lies to justify ourselves.  We’re good at using others and even calling ourselves “good.”  When we feel we’re being treated unfairly (as I did in this exchange) we’re quick to say so, too.

Churches aren’t any different when it comes to these things.  When an ego or job security or one’s very livelihood are on the line, we will usually do what it takes to get our “fair” share or to justify ourselves with all sorts of self-inflated claims about our intentions.  Maybe this realization is why I have become so cynical and jaded about the church and about human nature in general.  I’ve seen and experienced it up close.  Maybe you have, too.

Does this mean that we are simply to give up on the church?  Does this mean that the church no longer really matters, because so much of the time it totally fails to be what God intended it to be, anyway?  I don’t think so.  For more on why I don’t think so, come back again tomorrow.





2012 World Prayer Assembly Kicks Off

Today marks the second day of the 2012 World Prayer Assembly in Jakarta, Indonesia, which as part of an ongoing global prayer movement is bringing together some 20,000 children and 5,000 ministry and marketplace leaders from more than 200 nations and across denominations to pray for Indonesia and the world.  The event, co-hosted by Korean and Indonesian churches, is an eye-opening look at the nature of the church, God’s mission and “transformational prayer” in the global South.

I tend to chafe at triumphalist presentations of the church: the notion that Christians pray for God’s transformation in all sectors of society as a kind of spiritual colonization of sorts can often go hand in hand with the “dominion theology” (a.k.a. the “New Apostolic Reformation”) of a Peter Wagner and others in this country.  (If you didn’t catch Peter Wagner’s interview with Teri Gross last October, I’d commend it to you.) “Dominionism” depicts the role of Christians as one of casting out demons in business, politics, and culture in preparation for the end times.  There is certainly some biblical precedent for this approach, and I like how Shane Claibourne, for instance, commends in a similar vein “exorcising Wall Street,” but there are real dangers lurking within this worldview, too.


Still, the sheer enormity of the World Prayer Assembly in unifying people across the globe- a bit like a prayer Olympics of sorts- obliges me to ask the question, “What new thing is God doing here?”  If you didn’t catch the video invitation to the WPA Assembly in my previous post on the subject, here it is again:

YouTube Preview Image


Divine Child Abuse Atonement- Why It Can’t Hold Muster

Those of you watching with bated breath the conversation that began last week- about bad atonement theories- will be vaguely interested in knowing the latest: I have given some thought to fellow saint and sinner Paul’s claim that an orthodox Trinitarian understanding rules out divine child abuse readings of the atonement…And (do I hear a drum roll?)….I think Paul (who it turns out is not a professor of theology, after all, but reads a lot) is right.  Must a traditional, (orthodox) understanding of the Trinity and the inner relationships of the Trinity be rejected in order to call penal or satisfaction or substitutionary theories of the atonement “cosmic child abuse”?

Yes, I concur.

Paul writes back to further clarify his thoughts here: …As far as the discussion goes, I would maybe add that while the language of “God giving his son” may fall on our ears in a somewhat jarring and strange way, it seems like that is because we no longer read Scripture theologically. Jesus is not God’s son in the same way as one of my children is my son. If he were then divine child abuse might obtain as a description. When God gives his Son it is also the same as saying that God has given himself. The Trinity is not three Gods, it is one God in three persons. Too, Jesus also says that no one takes his life from him, but that he gives it of his own accord. That would indicate at the very least a cooperation that would militate against the divine child abuse idea. But because Jesus is the second “person” of the Trinity, it goes way beyond mere cooperation. Still the language of scripture is the Father sending the Son and this is admittedly open to misreading and bad preaching/theological interpretation. But it is just that, misreading and faulty interpretation.


Below is my response:

Hi Paul,
Thank you for these very helpful insights. I would agree with you, after further thought, that theologically orthodox Trinitarian doctrine resists the imposition of a divine child abuse understanding. One of my favorite treatments of the atonement comes from Mechthild de Magdeburg, who uses a dialogue between the Three Persons to propose one way Jesus freely offers Himself up to the Father. In short, I concede that you are absolutely right.
I would also probably add that the divine abuse stuff is less central to my discomfort with penal substitution theory, and I’ll need to spend more time considering why.
Thanks for reading and interacting, and visit again sometime!


I would add that much work remains for preachers, theologians and evangelists, in presenting the atonement in a way that is both theologically correct and missionally compelling.  If it is true that a divine child abuse presentation of the atonement is technically theologically incorrect, it is also true that in many circles of the church, we could do a better job of presenting the atonement for all those who seek God and a more complete knowledge of Him.

A “thank you” to all of you for reading and thinking with me.


A Mother’s Day Tribute

You may have heard me tell this story once before here, in the context of “Body Dysmorphic Disorder” (, but with Mother’s Day tomorrow, it’s worth a retell as a tribute to my mother and the many of you engaging in some of God’s best work.

When I was a kid it was an inevitability that I would one day have to wear braces.  One lone tooth managed to poke its way out in all of my pre-eighth-grade school photos.  That’s when my mother took me to an orthodontist for an evaluation: after asking me several times to bite down, smile and say “ah,” all the while quizzically looking at my jaw in relation to my face, this man turned to my mother and explained that while, at the whopping cost of $5,000 they could fix my crooked teeth, they would not be able to fix the assymetry of my face.  A tone of clinical professionalism from someone who had probably been inspecting jaw lines and dental molds a little too long, belied the subtle insult.  My mother was quick to catch it nonetheless.  With that, this soft-spoken, patient and slow-to-anger woman, exclaimed that my face was “just right,” that there was nothing wrong with it, and that we would not be needing their services.


These days, as a mother to a daughter with “cerebral palsy”- (at least according to one pediatric neurologist who in the absence of a diagnosis that might explain Samantha’s low muscle tone, used “CP” as a catch-all diagnosis) I identify more and more with my mother in that orthodontist’s office years ago.  My daughter is perfect, cerebral palsy or not.  Sam’s challenges are what make her so unique and lovely; they’re the sites of God’s ongoing provision.

And, I have to believe that God in Jesus responds similarly to us.  In the same way that a proud, loyal mother can exclaim at the perfection of her child and run off anyone who would tell them otherwise, God protests all the powers of darkness that would tell us we’re not okay or lovable or acceptable just the way we are.  Psalm 139, today’s morning read, is an exclamation of just this- that God has knit us together in our mother’s wombs, the unique, marvelous creations that each of us are.

This Mother’s Day, then, I give thanks for the love of our triune Mother and all mothers everywhere.




The Truman Show Effect

Somewhere in picture-perfect Seaside, Florida, Truman Burbank is waking up on Day 10,909.

This afternoon we visited “Seaside,” a rather surreally concocted residential community that sits perched on scenic highway A30 along Florida’s Gulf coast.  The square plots with their perfectly manicured lawns backing up to cookie cutter houses and a speed limit of 17 mph make the place a strange little world of its own.  Its claim to fame?  It was the set for the 1998 movie, “The Truman Show,” starring Jim Carrey as an insurance salesman who discovers his entire life is actually a T.V. show.  It was worth at least a very short detour after a day on the beach.


It also has me wondering about what it will look like for Christ to “come again to judge the living and the dead,” as the Apostles and Nicene Creeds affirm.  Scripture gives frustratingly little detail about what exactly this “last judgment” will look like- (maybe to the great satisfaction of the Tim LaHayes of the evangelical world and a whole industry built around our imaginative fears of the unknown)- so the thoughts that follow are admittedly my own “midrash.”  But, I wonder if at least part of God’s judgment will involve a bit of what might be called the “Truman Show Effect” (and by this I do not intend to equate God with a television producer- I’ve worked for one of these before, so feel comfortable ruling out the possibility.)  By this I mean, rather, that maybe some day at the end of time God will have us watch our lives all over again in the light of Ultimate Reality, who is Love.  Maybe a bit like a complacent, self-absorbed, but slightly befuddled and aggravated Truman who has a suspicion there is more to life than his small, suburban universe, we’ll find ourselves watching a reel of our life played back to us.  Maybe we’ll get to see in painstaking detail all those places where we fell short or missed the mark or simply failed to see the God-stirred possibilities for abundant life before us.  Maybe there and then face to face with the One who knows and loves us best, we will finally and fully comprehend the great depth of God’s love for us and to just what extent we lived our lives in the shallows.


Beach Blather and Admiral General Aladeen Returns

Hmm...Must a traditional understanding of the Trinity and the inner relationships of the Trinity be rejected in order to call penal or satisfaction or substitutionary theories of the atonement "cosmic child abuse"?

I’ll be trading in the pasty-white hues of winter for a tan over the next five days while generating more thoughts at the intersection between life and God and contemplating your helpful deposits of reader wisdom.  Here are a few from the past few days for the benefit of the Fellowship:


Apparently “The Beloved Oppressor and Bad Atonement Theories” from Sunday sparked some controversy.  Paul from somewhere in the blogosphere writes, One should learn at least a little theology before critiquing it.

After checking with my beloved husband to make sure he didn’t write this, (which is something usually only a husband who is thankfully smarter than me and knows it would say), I asked Paul if he cared to elaborate.  Paul writes back:  Sure.  The divine child abuse theory critique of the atonement can only obtain if the biblical understanding of the Godhead is set aside and Father, Son, and their relationship are redefined according to an almost total anthropological analogy. In other words the traditional understanding of the Trinity and the inner relationships of the Trinity must be rejected in order to call penal or satisfaction or substitutionary theories of the atonement cosmic child abuse. That for starters. By saying that I am not intending it as a defense of the penal or satisfaction theories, merely as a critique of your critique. If those theories are to be rejected they must be rejected on other grounds.


I have a note in to Paul inquiring about where he teaches theology, since he writes just abstrusely enough to be a professor somewhere. (Please don’t take this as an insult, Paul- I love professors, am married to one, and may become one some day. I look forward to continuing the conversation, and thanks for engaging.)  Incidentally, if you didn’t catch the Saturday Night Live reappearance of Admiral General Aladeen, I’ve included it below for a few more laughs.

My own version of “Coffee with Jesus,” in which Jesus sits down with controversial “manliness” expert and Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll (, sparks the following observations from Ralph:  I must admit, when I read or hear criticism based on tone….or attitude, of a minister…. without any reference to the minister’s basis (namely, in Driscoll’s case, the Apostle Paul–and the whole of the male-led & written New Testament Church and text) with just critical inferences, based on nothing deeper than current day assumptions (like equal value MUST mean equal roles) it reminds me of the typical “arguments” (really non-arguments) made by secularists on other social issues, which never get to the heart of the issues, but always dance around obsessing on appearances.


Finally, Adam leaves some thoughtful reflections in response to “Lost and Found” and “Narcissistic Evangelism”: Great blog post, Kristina. I believe that as Christians we have been tasked to be adoption agents. Evangelism is sharing with the world that there is a perfect and loving Father who loves them, and is not mad at them. This father wants to bring them into a new identity, and destiny that was intended for them from the beginning of time. We Christians hold the adoption papers for the world who has never encountered this perfect love, grace, and mercy. The adoption process can take years or it can take seconds depending on where in the process we find the person. We cannot convince anyone to fall in love with Jesus, but we can show them that they are loved, and that they have been purchased by a loving Father.


Thank you, Paul, Ralph and Adam!  I hope you’ll keep coming back to share, vent, fume, and inspire the rest of us more catatonic saints and sinners.

By way of update, my Good Friday sermon, “Desperate Housewife or God’s Dreamer,” has been republished at  (If you can actually find it there, will you let me know?)

Also, a reminder that yesterday’s “Top Ten Pet Peeves Re: Preachers and the Sermons They Deliver” ( is awaiting more big gripes for an eventual vote on the Top Ten in advance of next week’s Homiletics Festival! Leave one below!

Now, for some more laughs thanks to the Beloved Oppressor:




Top Ten Pet Peeves Re: Preachers and the Sermons They Deliver

DESCRIPTION: Pastor preaching.  Televisions featuring basketball and an NCAA bracket on the wall behind him. CAPTION: THE SERMON TITLED "MARCH MADNESS HERE TODAY, NOW IN HD" WAS A HUGE HITIn advance of the upcoming Homiletics Festival (May 14-18) here in Atlanta, I thought I would collect our top ten pet peeves from preachers and the sermons they preach.  (The thought is that if we can get all of our gripes out at once, maybe it will be a) therapeutic and b) actually drum some sense into those of us slated with “bringing the Word” each Sunday. Send your pet peeves in and we’ll vote on which ones make the list.  In the meantime, I’ll start us off:


– “The Tone” assumed when taking the pulpit, distinguished by a dip in emphasis on the last part of a sentence or concluding syllables.  It usually produces more nodding heads (with the onset of sleep) and gives the overall impression of an auctioneer selling old furniture and used car parts…

– the weekly reference to sports, usually slipped in as filler and to assure insecure preachers that something they said generated some excitement or will be remembered at lunch…

– the senior pastor’s latest fad of interest (dieting and working out are often big ones) invoked as a kind of Pauline, “imitate me” moment…

– the Word of God just read becomes support for the latest insights from the self-help world…


– the three paragraphs of fluffy exegesis and insertion of fancy Greek words that let a preacher show off all she learned in seminary (or the fact that she knows how to read a Bible commentary)…

– what I’m calling the “Sarah Palin Principle”: just look pretty or sound dynamic and charismatic- maybe even wow the folks in the pews by your ability to preach without notes- and then it doesn’t really matter what you say…

– the “Good News” equals “I can make myself a better person” by voting Democrat or Republican, coming to the next mission committee meeting and serving at the soup kitchen…

Got a pet peeve?  Leave it here or send it my way ( and we’ll add it to the list for a vote!  If you’re too spiritual for whinging and are instead looking for some real sermons that actually work, you might want to check out the Episcopal Church’s helpful online collection:







Previous Posts

A Beloved Lion, The Dentist Who Trophy-Hunted Him, and the Power of Shame
[caption id="attachment_5637" align="alignleft" width="300"] 13-year-old Cecil was the beloved resident of Hwange National Park, where earlier this July he was baited and killed for fun by Walter Palmer, DDS. The GPS collar Cecil was wearing ...

posted 2:54:27pm Jul. 29, 2015 | read full post »

Naked Feet ... and the Gift of Reverence
When he slipped his feet into the tub of warm, herb-infused water, he did so almost apologetically. "Thank you," ...

posted 2:19:02pm Jul. 23, 2015 | read full post »

Help End Loan Shark Lending and One Cause of Poverty with This Short Survey
When this video [youtube][/youtube] recently went viral, I was rooting for the shark. Not so when it comes to loan sharks, who are one contributor to systemic poverty and sharply growing income ...

posted 10:39:17am Jul. 09, 2015 | read full post »

The Recovery-Minded Church Available for Pre-Order—and a Peek at the Cover!
It's been too long! Vacation, a family lice infestation, sickness, and preparation for a home renovation—much of it occurring at the same time—fun, huh?—have kept me away from this intersection. But I couldn't not share my delight at the ...

posted 6:07:11pm Jul. 01, 2015 | read full post »

Poverty vs. Privilege
Lately, I've been learning about poverty ...

posted 8:02:30pm Jun. 10, 2015 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.