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I’ve sinned and I am so confused. And I am a wicked child. I’m am devil’s son. I walk a crooked mile. I wish I could be you. If I could’ve kept on the straight and narrow.
Wicked Child by Radiohead

Over my brief sabbatical I had the opportunity to read several books, one of which was Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Works. I’d previously read several stories from it (e.g., Revelation, A Good Man is Hard to Find, The Life You Save May Be Your Own), but thought my break would grant me the chance to continue reading one of America’s most distinctive and distinguished authors. O’Connor, a devout Catholic from Georgia, wrote during the 1950-60’s in a style described as Southern Gothic. Think Cormac McCarthy meets Marilynne Robinson. There’s going to be some beautiful prose, amazing philosophical/theological content, and someone’s probably going to die (in a shocking way). Interesting to say the least.

I chose to read O’Connor’s first novel (1952), Wise Blood, about a spiritually disgruntled young man named Hazel Motes (“Haze”) on a mission to preach people away from thinking Christ must redeem them from their sins. His is an anti-gospel message proclaiming Jesus isn’t true, sin isn’t real, and, consequently, one’s felt need for redemption is illusory. Indeed, Haze views all the guilt of his past iniquities as simply a figment of his past religious upbringing, believing now he’s matured and evolved beyond those imaginary ideas and primitive hopes for salvation in Jesus. Haze believes his justification (if one even needs one) is his own success.

Haze’s confidence in his plan to save himself by himself is symbolized by the trust he places in his car, which is an old, broken-down Essex only costing $45. In young Mr. Motes’ estimation, the vehicle represents his self-salvation and freedom from the need for a Savior in Christ. As he confidently claims, “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” 1 The Essex is not only symbolic of his newfound “faith” but becomes the locus for its propagation. It is his pulpit whereby he stands upon the hood preaching his anti-gospel to all who will hear, often rebuking the Christian faith saying “it was not right to believe anything you couldn’t see or hold in your hands or test with your teeth.” 2 Throughout the novel, however, the Essex continually gives Haze problems. Sometimes it won’t start. It often sputters and coughs when it does drive. It even quits on him periodically. Nevertheless, for all its obvious problems, Haze believes his car, like his anti-redemption message, is unassailable.

The comical irony of Essex as Vehicle for Haze’s Quest to Rid the World of Their Need for a Savior comes to a head when Motes takes his car to a filling station for a tune up. A young attendant, after giving the Essex the once-over, delivers bad news telling Haze “there was a leak in the gas tank and two in the radiator and that the rear tire would probably last twenty miles if he went slow.” 3 Motes corrects the young boy saying, “Listen, this car is just beginning its life. A lightening bolt couldn’t stop it!” 4 Here is a mechanic who “sees things as they are,” his job depends upon what he can hold and touch – core tenets of Haze’s anti-religion – yet Haze, instead of complimenting the young boy on living by values Motes desires to share with the world, refuses to believe himself when it comes to his car. For Motes, his car represents his pulpit, his mission, his message. The gospel of being your own savior cannot fail!

Haze confidently flies down the road in his Essex but notices he is passing the same scenery again and again. O’Connor notes, “He had known all along that there was no more country but he didn’t know that there was not another city.” 5 Could it be that he is ultimately going nowhere? His next encounter confirms the answer. Soon a patrolman stops Haze and discovers the driver of the Essex doesn’t have a driver’s license. The officer asks a recalcitrant Mr. Motes to drive to an embankment with a 30-foot drop. After Haze exits the car, the patrolman pushes the vehicle over the edge. The Essex, being in obviously such poor condition, literally falls apart upon impact. The patrolman concludes with dark humor, “Them that don’t have a car, don’t need a license.” 6

It’s this moment of clarity where Haze realizes the failure of his quest – that the road to self-justification without the work of Jesus is a fool’s errand. Both his Essex and the “you-don’t-need-a-savior” faith it represents are destroyed. Both lie in ruins not because of what Haze couldn’t see, but what he refused to see. The reality was that both Haze’s car and his soul were in deep need of repair. None of us can escape the truth of Romans 1:18-20,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

No inspirational kind of self-talk or flat-out denial can erase the truth that sinners must be justified before a Holy God. Romans says it’s too clear to us, in us no matter how much we, like Hazel Motes, “suppress the truth.” We have a sin problem that must be taken care of and why, when the patrolman asks a very silent Haze, “Was you going anywhere?” Motes, realizing he can’t suppress that truth anymore, merely replies a defeated, “No.” 7 O’Connor wants us to realize that any plan for salvation that rests upon us (to any degree) is, like the Essex, incapable of getting us where we need to go. Our sin causes our lives to choke, sputter, and break down from achieving the self-justification we so desperately desire. To believe we can do it is to be blinded like Haze where it will only be a matter of time until we’re proven wrong. 8

For O’Connor, there isn’t another way to deal with our sins but through the shed blood of Christ. His life, freely given, in our place. The Cross becomes the confession of those who want to be justified before God. As Romans 3:23-25 says,

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

This good news of grace in Christ feels scandalous to many because we want something to do with our own salvation. We’re offended by the fact that spiritually we appear so impotent in resolving our problem. But we are. Everyone walks the crooked mile. That’s why the grace God gives us in Jesus has been, is, and always will be our only hope. Anything else is just an old, broken-down Essex.

Notes:

  1. O’Connor, Collected Works, Library of America, 64.
  2. Ibid, 116.
  3. Ibid, 117.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid, 118.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Hebrews 9:27, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”

Best of 2013

December 21, 2013 — 1 Comment

With 2014 around the corner, here is my best of 2013…

Best Ministry BookGospel and Kingdom by Graeme Goldsworthy and The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller. I’m a big fan of biblical theology and for years have heard people drop the name of Goldsworthy’s book whenever the topic arose. After reading it I can see why. Although I’ve read other books by Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom is the best combination of a book on biblical theology that is understandable, approachable, and comprehensive.

I can’t stand Tim Keller! It’s not because he is someone to shun but because every thing I’ve ever read from him is so incredibly good and insightful that he makes me sick (with jealousy). The beauty of Keller is that he knows the framework from which he wants to minister (e.g., the Gospel as center) and his books are consistent with that framework. His book on marriage is no exception. The Meaning of Marriage is by far the best book I have ever read on marriage (and I’ve read quite a few). By the way, for those who want to know what it is to live and minister with the gospel as center, I would recommend the first section of his book Center Church. It is a wonderful primer on gospel-centrality.

* Honorable Mention – Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper.

Best Fiction –  Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy. Like Radiohead for music, when it comes to literature, Cormac McCarty is my favorite modern author. I have read at least one of his works the past few years and, naturally, they tend to vault to my most favorite reads. With that said, I read three of his novels in 2013 and would put Cities of the Plain as one of my books of the year. Cities is the third and concluding novel of McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy – about life on and around the Mexico border in the mid-1900’s.  It brings together the main characters of the first two books in the series and concludes their stories with an end that literally left me in tears. It’s funny, picturesque, tragic, and terribly beautiful. I don’t remember recently being as moved by a book as I was with Cities. My first book of 2013 was my favorite of 2013.

Best Fiction not by Cormac McCarthy  –  Issac’s Storm by Erik Larson. This choice was tough because before the year started, one of my goals was to read more fiction. I followed through and read more novels in one year than maybe any other time in my life. And though some were deemed modern classics (e.g. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying), Lawson’s tale was my favorite. It’s based on the 1900 hurricane that literally changed Galveston forever. It was America’s largest natural disaster on record (over 6,000 killed and 1/3rd of the city destroyed). The book follows senior U.S. Weather Bureau official Isaac Cline as he and the city in which he lives endures the worst storm ever recorded to hit the United States. Larson writes in both an attractive and absorbing fashion. It was like reading a thriller – truly a page-turner of a novel – and the amount of destruction and havoc the Galveston hurricane brought felt almost biblical in scope. Adding to the story is the fact that I live about 30 minutes from Galveston. Much of what Larson described had a real-time place in my head. Indeed, the day I finished Isaac’s Storm I drove to Galveston and walked through the areas of the city described in the book. Larson’s offering is truly an absorbing read from start to finish.

*Honorable Mention – Buddy Levy’s Conquistador and Kim MacQuarrie’s The Last Days of the Incas. My friend Justin Buzzard remarked how he was enjoying Levy’s work about Hernan Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs. So I grabbed it as well and could see early on why he liked it so much. To read about the Spanish invasion of Mexico is both sobering and fascinating. After finishing Conquistador I thought about continuing to learn about the Spanish conquest of the New World. MacQuarrie’s novel details the Spanish conquest of the Incas in Peru. It’s a tale of intrigue, betrayal, and the thirst for more.

**Honorable, Honorable Mention – The Son by Philipp Meyer. I’m sorry. I told you I read a lot of books. It’s hard not to rank all twenty-five I read this year. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Meyers’ epic tale of a Texas family that is a ruthless quest for power while trying to find its soul. Spanning three generations. Meyer confronts the reader with his own moral/spiritual commitment by gazing in the mirror of the McCullough family.

Best Album Uncaged by Zac Brown BandTwo things should make this hard to believe. First, ZBB’s album actually came out July 2012. However, I didn’t hear it until the next year so I’m putting in with 2013. Secondly, this is a country album and I’m not a modern country music kind of guy. If it’s country give me Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and the like. However, Uncaged is an album that demands to be listened to. Part country, part rock, part reggae – it defies a simple musical category but is wonderful from start to finish.

*Honorable Mention – Reflektor by Arcade Fire. This isn’t an attempt to regain any musical credibility. I sincerely love Arcade Fire’s latest offering. I must confess, it took a couple of listens to figure out what I really thought about it. But soon the originality and sincerity of the album rubbed me in all the right ways. I felt after listening to it, Reflektor compared somewhat in spirit with Radiohead’s Kid A, an album that no one saw coming but musically redefined a group that everyone thought they had pegged. Regardless how you feel about Arcade Fire, they defy the “stay with the formula that works” strategy that often limits artists, putting cash over creativity.

Best MovieSilver Linings Playbook Yancey, you know this is a rated-R movie don’t you? Yup. It’s got explicit language, sexual content, and other elements that make it a movie for adults. True, yet it was one of the most touching stories I have seen in years. One that humanized mental illness and instead of making viewers feel pity for the characters, Silver Linings Playbook exhorted us to respect them and count them as one of us. As a follower of Jesus, I thought the movie did a great job of showing the brokenness in all people – not only those who are clinically certified as such. Additionally, and importantly, sin isn’t glorified but seen as the trouble and pain it truly is in us and around us. While Jennifer Lawrence won an Academy Award for her acting, Bradley Cooper in my opinion makes the movie what it is. Once again, this may not be a movie for everyone. For me, it was so enthralling that I re-watched different scenes in order to make sure I felt the full impact of the film.

Best Trip That Wasn’t Fandango – Acts 29 Pastors’ Retreat at Newport Beach, CA. For the third year in a row, the time with wife along with my fellow Acts 29 pastors and their wives was a one of the highlights of my year.

Best Moment of 2013 – Baptizing my youngest son Beckett this month.

Second Best Moment of 2013 – My alma mater, Baylor University, winning the Big XII Championship in football. 😉

Read More Stories

January 8, 2013 — Leave a comment

I had always felt life first as a story and if there is a story there is a storyteller.
– G.K. Chesterson

Last year I realized I needed to read more fiction. I would guess I read more books annually about ministry, theology, and faith than most, but I do it at the exclusion of reading anything else. Until this past year I probably averaged one novel per year or two.

All great stories in some way reflect the One Great Story. Great authors, be them believers or no, understand how to plumb the depths of that Story. Some contrast the Story. Others compliment it. Most are a combination of both. Sometimes the stories they write give answers. Sometimes they don’t. But in the end, good stories can remind us of truths we take for granted. Alan Moore, in his V for Vendetta, writes, “Artists use lies to tell the truth.” This echoes Pablo Picasso’s sentiments: We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” This is why good art, be it a movie, song, or book, has the ability to illustrate a truth in ways others things cannot. Ways to feel it, think about it, or chew on it for a spell. Simply put, great fiction serves non-fiction.

No wonder Jesus used stories throughout his teaching ministry. No wonder pastors tell stories when they preach. I really think that both my faith and ministry would be deepened by grabbing authors located in the fiction section of the bookstore instead of only the faith section (some of whom can ruin your faith – but that’s another post). Consequently, I read more fiction this year than last (which was one of my 2012 goals) and hope to read more in 2013.

There are some who would refuse to read secular works because they are secular. But refusing art merely because it’s created by non-Christians is to reject the doctrine of common grace which teaches that God’s goodness has fallen in a great measure to all his creation, stained by sin as they are. His rain falls upon both the just and unjust (Mt. 5:45) and his goodness has not escaped our ability to think, achieve, or create. That means while unredeemed people can create horrible things, but they can also create beautiful things. This is also true of those who trust Christ. They too can create wonderful or woeful things. That’s why the path forward is to use biblical discernment that engages and enjoys art! The alternative is to create “christian” cultural ghettos where creativity devolves into poorly mimicking the surrounding secular culture ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Talk about woeful.

Give me good stories. Give me good books. Give me good fiction. So in reading and enjoying them they might help me better understand and appreciate that I’ve been invited by Jesus into the One Great Story.