Sunday, May 30, 2010


I've been preparing for a talk I’m giving on Monday, June 7, 7pm (to be repeated Wednesday, June 9, 11am) called Talking with God Using Beauty, our Brains, and the Bible. We will look at how Darwin, Monet, Mozart, Michelangelo, Einstein, Charlie Brown, Chopin, and Jewel help us to know God. It’s “multimedia,” meaning I’ve got power point images, and there will also be live music.

For a long time I’ve been reflecting on how we connect with God, and I mean beyond the usual suspects (like the Bible, praying, and worship). What about using our brains (and I don’t mean getting into the old reason vs. faith argument, but simply what we know, or what really smart people know…)? and what about beauty? I’ve written a book on preaching that will come out in a few months called The Beauty of the Word – and it seems to me that we do not think enough about beauty.

Is human achievement, and especially human creativity a gift of God’s Spirit? and if so how does that play out? and how do we wriggle our minds around the wonders of science, art, architecture and music and thereby grow closer to God? What is beauty, anyhow? Why is it so different from cute, sexy, handsome, pretty or "hot"? Rilke said "Beauty is the beginning of terror"... and there is something deep, profound, risky, life-giving about beauty.

If God is Beauty, if Psalm 27 says “One thing I will seek, to behold the beauty of the Lord,” and if even cynics about religion, Bible, prayer and God are moved by beauty, then beauty might be our hope, the only future to faith. What we have in Christianity truly is beautiful, and perhaps we can trust that? instead of striving so hard to be “relevant,” or to prop up traditional norms like the authority of Scripture or the grandeur of our institutions?

What strikes me as I prepare is recalling how awed I have been throughout my life by the things brilliant people who don’t believe in God have helped me understand about God! Darwin gets trashed by Christians, but his life work opened up new vistas, and far deeper explorations of God’s good creation; or I think about Michelangelo, who thought an artist needed to be holy – and yet Caravaggio, not noted for a squeaky clean character, kept up with Michelangelo. I think about the Peter Shaffer play (and the movie) Amadeus, where Salieri is incensed over the way Mozart seems to overhear the very voice of God, and Salieri is comparatively tone-deaf (despite his avowals of holiness). Can God co-opt people who aren’t believers, who aren’t interested in God at all, and use their genius to inspire and impress the rest of us?

How does God feel about music and art that are not “sacred”? Does God really prefer religious music? or religious books? I think of Karl Barth’s quip: what do the angels sing when they come before God’s throne to praise him? Bach, of course. But what do the angels sing when they are off by themselves? Mozart. Does God dig “secular” novels and movies? Might some of the religious pablum be dull even to God? Chopin doesn’t cheer my soul; instead he breaks my heart – but the sorrow his music taps helps me toward God.

These and other questions will occupy me this week in preparation, and on Monday (and Thursday) when I actually present. Let me know any thoughts or questions you might have…

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

heavens and honey - thoughts on Psalm 19

C.S. Lewis called Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” At first blush, it looks like two Psalms jammed together, one extolling the wonders of creation, the other a surprisingly cheerful view of the Law. But the two are one, God’s wise plan in making the world and us in it, and God’s will, God’s holy requirements that are wired into the very marrow of all God has made.

Musicians have risen to the words of Psalm 19, most famously in Haydn’s The Heavens are Telling. Others may fall silent or be too busy to sing hymns or to utter thanks and praise to God, but the world around us is never mute. Even scientists who don’t believe in God put the marvelous grandeur of God on display: when Charles Darwin reported what he saw on his voyage on The Beagle (cuttlefish, musical frogs, waterhogs, jaguar, flying spider, tortoises, ostriches), he was unwittingly chronicling God’s glory. Clouds, stars, badgers and barnacles together form a wordless, eloquent trumpeting of all that burst from the mind of God.

In ancient times, the sun was thought to be a deity: Shamash, the Mesopotamian sun-god, Aten, the Egyptian divinity… but the massive fireball of the sun is a small toy, a delicate instrument in the true God’s powerful hand. From that holy hand we receive God’s laws – etched into the fabric of creation, handed to Moses on Mt. Sinai, proclaimed by the prophets, taught by Jesus, penned by Paul, explicated by the Church. God has a will, a way, rules and guidelines – and it is fascinating to hear how this Psalmist literally adored and treasured God’s laws. In a crescendo of praise for the law, the Psalmist trembles, perhaps holding a scroll, and moves from “it’s perfect,” to “this gives me wisdom and salvation,” then on to “rejoicing, joy, a sense of being clean” – and then with poetic boldness, the Psalmist employs sensual images: “the law is more precious than gold, sweeter than honey.” Honey has an alluring taste, and savory consistency in the mouth, and it is through the mouth that the Law was read, recited, and obeyed.

The goal in adhering to the Law, the rich benefit of living in sync with what God has revealed, is to please God – and what could be a higher objective? “Let the words of my mouth, and the thoughts of my heart, be pleasing to You, O Lord” (verse 14). In an earlier email series I explored this idea that our talk (or our not talking!) matters to God – as do our thoughts! Of course they do, since God made our mouths, and our brains, and the sun, moon, rabbits and snails, and the commandments and teachings of the Bible. How can we live one more minute without knowing them? And letting them become our agenda for the day?

Here is the entire 19th Psalm, for you to read, ponder, and even pray:

Psalm 19
[1] The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
[2] Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
[3] There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
[4] yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
[5] which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
[6] Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and there is nothing hid from its heat.
[7] The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
[8] the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
[9] the fear of the LORD is clean,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true,
and righteous altogether.
[10] More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
[11] Moreover by them is thy servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
[12] But who can discern his errors?
Clear thou me from hidden faults.
[13] Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
[14] Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in thy sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

The complete ePsalms series is archived on our web site.