• Saint Augustine and Me

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    Saint Augustine and Me
    Brian Zahnd

    It was June 4, 2000. A beautiful Sunday afternoon in early summer. I was sitting on my front step reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions. At that time I hadn’t yet begun to explore the Church Fathers, that would come four years later. But I was reading classic literature. I had given up on the trite tomes of pop Christianity. I already knew what they said. In a desire to read something of worth I had returned to the treasures of classic literature that I had first learned to love in Mrs. Zaft’s high school literature class. I had read a fair number of the classics, but I had never read Confessions — the first, and perhaps greatest, spiritual autobiography in history. I had decided to read Augustine’s Confessions for basically the same reason that I read Milton’s Paradise Lost or Melville’s Moby Dick — because it was an established classic in the canon of Western literature. And it is a remarkable book. The whole autobiography is a 350-page prayer. The book begins with this prayer:

    You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised: Great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable. Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being bearing his mortality with him, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you resist the proud. Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

    “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Those words resonated with me. Sure, I was a Christian. But I was also a man with a restless heart. A year earlier I had turned forty while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. Now I was beginning to think about the second half of life…and I was restless. I had plenty of success, but I was restless. I was still searching and the clock was ticking. I feared I was running out of time. As I read Confessions Augustine told me his story.

    He was born November 13, 354, the oldest son of a pagan father and a Christian mother, and raised among the aristocracy of the late Roman Empire in North Africa. He told unflinchingly of his somewhat profligate youth. He told of teaching rhetoric in Milan and writing speeches for the emperor. His genius was evident. He told in detail of his quest for truth in the dualistic religion of Manichaeism and his eventual disenchantment with it. He told of hearing the sermons of Ambrose that pointed him in a new direction. He told beautifully of his dramatic conversion on the day he heard a child’s voice singing in the garden, “take and read,” and how when he turned at random in the New Testament he read Paul’s words, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” He told of how he and three other friends chose to enter a monastic life. He told of becoming the bishop of Hippo. All along the way there were the profound musings of a philosopher on the nature of time and memory, and more importantly, the prayers of a Christian seeker exploring the mysteries of God.
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  • Would You Choose Christ Over the Truth?

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    Would You Choose Christ Over the Truth?
    Brian Zahnd

    “If someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”
    –Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Dostoevsky said that if he were forced to choose, he would choose Christ over the truth. That is a very bold and provocative claim.

    What do you say?

    Yes, I know, we don’t have to choose. I get that. I agree. Of course.

    But for a moment entertain the matter as Dostoevsky intends it — as a kind of thought experiment. If it were conclusively proven that the central claims regarding Jesus Christ were outside of the truth, what would you do? Would continue to worship and follow Jesus Christ or not?

    I’ve pondered this question a lot and I have a few thoughts.
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  • Forty Years of Following Jesus

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    Forty Years of Following Jesus
    Brian Zahnd
    November 9, 2014

    It was November 1974. I was fifteen and it was my year of discovery. I was awakening to the world around me, forging an identity, becoming a self. I was drawn to the counterculture. I had discovered music — not my parents music, my music. Led Zeppelin was magic for me. I still remember the first time I heard Whole Lotta Love. That opening riff channeled my lust for life. I would sit for hours in my basement bedroom listening to Zeppelin, Hendrix, Mountain, Deep Purple, Allman Brothers. Soon I would discover Bob Dylan and he would provide the soundtrack for my life. My mom was worried about my long hours alone in my bedroom with my music, black lights, and incense. But she needn’t be. I was just making discoveries.

    You can live a whole lifetime when you’re fifteen. I don’t remember that much about being twenty-six or thirty-eight or forty-three, but it seems I remember every week of being fifteen. It was 1974 and people were reading Jaws. President Nixon resigned in August and Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t care — “now Watergate does not bother me” (Sweet Home Alabama). The Rolling Stones told the truth: It’s Only Rock N’ Roll (But I Like It). Oh yeah, I remember that year. Every week was a new discovery.

    Then came November 9, 1974. It was a Saturday. A crisp autumn day. I woke up to David Essex on the radio. Rock On
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  • Jerusalem Bells

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    Jerusalem Bells
    Brian Zahnd

    If you visit the Islamic world you quickly become acquainted with the adhan — the Muslim call to prayer. You may very well become acquainted with it at five o’clock in the morning! Five times a day, beginning before sunrise, you hear the cry of the muezzin from the minarets — Allahu Akbar. It’s a call to prayer. When I first began to travel in the Islamic world I reacted to the call to prayer with an irritation rooted in cultural disdain and religious triumphalism. I was annoyed by it. I didn’t want to hear it. But eventually I began to feel differently about it. To be honest, I was envious. Here was a culture with a public call to prayer.

    In the secular, post-Christian West we have nothing like this. The best we can manage is to clandestinely bow our heads for ten seconds in a restaurant and hope no one notices. We don’t call people to prayer. Few Christians living outside of monasteries pray five times a day. We pray whenever we feel like it…and too much of the time we don’t feel like it. But in the Islamic world I found a religious culture that publicly calls people to prayer five times a day! I was envious of a society that holds to a religious tradition where prayer is taken seriously and is attended to in a prescribed manner. So when I heard the adhan I would wistfully think, I wish we had something like that. Then one day the pieces fell in place.

    I was walking through the cobblestone streets of the Old City of Jerusalem on a Sunday morning when I began to hear the bells toll. Church bells. A cacophony of sacred sound centuries old. Orthodox bells, Catholic bells, Anglican bells, Lutheran bells. The enormous bells from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre seemed to belong to another age. It was a wonder I found strangely moving. That’s when it dawned on me — this is the Christian adhan. Church bells are the Christian call to prayer. (A practice predating the Muslim adhan by centuries.) Of course I knew this, but I had somehow forgotten it. I had forgotten the bells just as the post-Christian West has forgotten the bells.
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  • Halloween: A Search For The Sacred

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    Halloween: A Search For The Sacred
    Brian Zahnd

    It’s Halloween. The season of ghosts and goblins, haunted houses and horror movies. The modern observance of Halloween seems, for the most part, to be an innocent celebration of the strange joy of being scared. There’s no doubt that a significant number of us do enjoy being scared as a form of entertainment. After all, Stephen King has sold 350 million books! But why? Why do we like to be scared? I think it has to do with a search for what is most missing in the modern world: the sacred. We like being scared because we are so very secular.

    When modernity came of age it banished the sense of the sacred. Empiricism, materialism, positivism had won the day. Science was now the high priest that would answer all questions and religion was merely the superstition of the hopelessly naïve. We found ourselves in a world without God or gods, a world beyond good and evil (as Nietzsche said), a world without angels and demons. Religion was but hucksterism and nothing was truly sacred anymore. Bob Dylan captured it well when he said,
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  • Every Grain of Sand

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    Every Grain of Sand
    Brian Zahnd

    In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
    In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

    –Bob Dylan, Every Grain of Sand

    I had a dream. I dreamed I was riding a yellow bicycle. While riding my yellow bicycle I was intently observing the beauty of creation, especially the vibrant colors — the green of the grass and trees (the human eye is more attune to the green spectrum than any other), the blue sky, the red roses, the yellow dandelions. During my colorful dreamland bike ride I was thinking about the nature of salvation. When I awoke I wrote down my nocturnal thoughts:

    When we make salvation mostly postmortem, all about the afterlife, we create a barrier — a wall of separation between redemption and the land of the living. No wonder so many shrug their shoulders in disinterest. But when we locate salvation here and now we achieve a stunning relevance.

    Salvation is about being human. This is why the Logic (Logos) of God became human flesh. Jesus came to give us back the life we lost ever since we stumbled out of the garden to wander in the violent land east of Eden.

    When Adam and Eve were banished from Eden Creation lost its gardener. Is it any surprise that the faster our technology has advanced the more rapacious we have become in the pillage and plunder of our planet? When we lost our vocation as gardeners, the planet lost its God-ordained caretakers. From the stone age to the dawn of the industrial age the planet has been able to muddle by without its caretakers, but now human civilization, divorced from its original vocation, threatens to imperil the earth.

    Mary Magdalene’s Easter “mistake” of thinking Jesus was the gardener is a poetic hint of how the Last Adam leads us back to our first vocation. Any understanding of salvation that doesn’t lead us to love God’s creation is far more Gnostic than Christian. Or perhaps it’s just voracious capitalism dressed up in Christian garb — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If we cannot love the primeval forest I’m not sure we can love either God or neighbor. The wise Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov gives this counsel to the novice monk Alyosha:
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  • Beyond Elementary School Christianity

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    Beyond Elementary School Christianity
    Brian Zahnd

    In his groundbreaking book, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, James W. Fowler describes spiritual development in a series of stages from zero to six. Fowler describes stage two as the faith of school children. This is a stage where metaphors are often literalized and a strong belief in the just reciprocity of the universe is held dear. At this stage of faith the idea that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people is a controlling axiom. I won’t summarize all the stages here, but Fowler describes stage five as the capacity to acknowledge paradox and experience transcendence.

    Fowler’s final stage is characterized by compassion and the view that all people belong to a universal community. This is the mature stage where the spiritual journey breaks out of the paradigm of “us versus them” that dominates so much religious thought and controls so many religious institutions.

    In his forthcoming book, A More Christlike God, Canadian theologian Brad Jersak comments on Fowler’s stages of faith and the current plight of evangelicalism making this stinging observation: “Entire streams of Christendom are not only stuck at stage-two faith, but actually train and require their ministers to interpret the Bible through the mythic-literal eyes of school children. Growing up and moving forward is rebranded as backsliding; maturing is perceived as falling away.”
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  • War Prayer

    War Prayer

    On September 11, 2014 The Work of the People asked me about 9/11. This is part of our conversation.

    BZ
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  • Out of the Corner of My Eye

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    Out of the Corner of My Eye
    Blindman at the Gate

    I think I caught a glimpse of truth out of the corner of my eye.
    A ghost, a whisper, a suspicion, a subtle and subversive rumor.
    So dangerous that every army would be commanded to march against it;
    so beautiful that it would drive those who see it to madness
    or sanity.
    Does the whole of my kind suffer from mental and moral vertigo?
    As Melville said of cabin boy Pip,
    he saw the foot of God upon the treadle of the loom
    and dared to speak it.
    Henceforth his shipmates called him mad.
    As Vladimir said when they came to bury Fyodor,
    the spiritual leader must feel the falsehood prevailing in society;
    the prophet must struggle against it, never tolerate it, never submit to it.
    I think I caught a glimpse of truth out of the corner of my eye.
    Have we been so blinded by the bright lights of advertisers’ lies
    that the only true vision is peripheral vision?
    In the age of constant commercialization and overblown hype
    does truth shout with a whisper and stand out with subtlety?
    I think I caught a glimpse of truth out of the corner of my eye.
    It terrified me as I fell in love with it.
    I said,
    This explains everything.
    This changes everything.
    This challenges everything.
    This threatens everything.
    This transforms everything.
    Dare I speak it?
    The truth I caught out of the corner of my eye?
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie;
    they come to kill, steal, and destroy.
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie;
    all virtue is subject to sacrifice upon the altar of imperial expediency.
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie;
    God or gods exist only to serve its cause.
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie;
    religion takes off its mask when it says—
    We have no king but Caesar.
    The ultimate betrayal,
    the final apostasy,
    every empire of man is built upon a lie.
    Marx was more than half right when he said—
    Religion is the opiate of the masses.
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie:
    Self-promotion and Self-preservation,
    Greed and Lust,
    Industry and War,
    the industry of war.
    Long live the Empire!
    Keep the Empire alive,
    and to keep the Empire alive
    many will be made to die,
    because the Empire lives by the sword
    and dies by the same.
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie.
    From Aztec to Zulu,
    Egyptian and Ottoman,
    Persia and Babylon,
    Greece and Rome,
    England and—
    Now I’m too close to home.
    A kinder, gentler Babylon to be sure,
    but a Babylon for sure.
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie.
    So when Christ came
    he did not bring
    another empire of men
    built upon a lie
    as the liar in the desert tempted.
    Instead he brought
    the Empire of God,
    Good News!
    The government of justice and mercy, grace and truth,
    and the truth is
    every empire of man is built upon a lie,
    though every empire says,
    We have God on our side.
    So you will have to decide
    how patriotic a Byzantine believer can be.
    May we be salt and light,
    a prophetic voice,
    a Christian conscience.
    May we preserve and illuminate,
    cry aloud and convict,
    but never forget
    every empire of man is built upon a lie.
    And to stand for truth
    and to stand for God
    is to stand against the lie the empire is built upon.
    And in the midst of imperial self-justification pray—
    Thy Empire come.
    There, I’ve said it.
    The truth I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye.
    And when push comes to shove,
    as it always does,
    the Empire of Men will oppose the Empire of God.
    To know this is dangerous.
    To say it can be deadly.
    Do you think I’m kidding?
    What crucified Jesus?
    Self-righteous religion?
    No, not religion alone.
    Religion as the whore of Empire.
    This is what killed Jesus.
    And Paul.
    And Peter.
    And Polycarp.
    And Huss.
    And Bonhoeffer.
    Because this is what empires do.
    Silence the prophets who will not prostitute the truth.
    Religion is tolerated.
    Imperial religion is promoted.
    But the prophetic hope of another way
    must be censored
    even by the sword.
    This is the way of empire.
    Because
    every empire of man is built upon a lie.
    Constantine can become a Christian,
    but Constantine cannot baptize the Empire.
    The Empire of God converts the hearts of men one at a time.
    Christ the King must himself sponsor each one into his Kingdom.
    But when the Empire sanctions religion for its own purposes,
    the whore of Babylon rides the back of the beast.
    Giddyup and God bless the Empire!
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie.
    I glimpsed this truth out of the corner of my eye.
    To believe this truth will set you free.
    And you thought it was just Sunday school banality
    or empty religious sentimentality
    to pray
    Thy Empire come
    Thy Policy be done.
    You had no idea it was dissident and subversive,
    because every empire of men is built upon a lie.
    The lie that the empire has God on its side.
    I glimpsed this truth out of the corner of my eye.
    And if you ask me my politics, I will say,
    Jesus is Lord!
    I glimpsed this truth out of the corner of my eye.
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