Monthly Archives: September 2012

I’m writing a book. It’s about the spiritual discipline of pursuing integrity and dedication to truth. In other words, it’s about becoming more and more like Jesus, who is Truth. For more on the idea behind the book and the story of how I got to this point, read this post. As promised in that post, I’ve continued writing and am ready to share what I have with our communities here in Pittsburgh.

So, starting later this month, I’m going to share one chapter per month with a group of folks (perhaps including you?) who are interested in reading each chapter and then gathering to discuss the ideas in it. Hopefully you’ll get the benefit of some interesting reading material, and I’ll get to create a better book thanks to your feedback. We’ll meet on three Sunday evenings this fall: September 30th, November 4th, and December 9th.

A week ahead of time, I’ll email out a draft of the chapter to discuss that month. Then on the appointed date, we’ll meet at my house from 6-8pm, eat a simple dinner and talk about the ideas in each chapter. While I picture this group being mostly people from Upper Room, other Pittsburgh friends are also welcome. Email me at if you’re interested.

I don’t know if Derek Webb reads the early Church Fathers, but his brilliant new album Ctrl sounds like he took their advice. If you spend time in the monastic writings of the early centuries of the Church, sooner or later you’ll come across a sentence like this: “Whenever possible, we should always remember death, for this displaces all cares and vanities, allowing us to guard our intellect and giving us unceasing prayer, detachment from our body and hatred of sin” (St. Hesychios the Priest, no. 155 “On Watchfulness and Holiness” in The Philokalia vol 1. p. 190). It may sound shocking to us, but for the monks of the early church, remembrance of death was an exercise in remembering what’s really real

I wonder what the monks would think of Ctrl. The music is a hauntingly beautiful mixture of classical guitar, electronic beats, and sacred harp choral singing.  But I’m less concerned here with music than with meaning. Mortality seems to be one of the themes of Ctrl. The Charles Wesley hymn quoted in the first track, “And See the Flaming Skies,” echoes the monastic meditation on impending judgment: “Soon as from earth I go, / What will become of me? / Eternal happiness or woe / Must then my portion be.”  The rest of the album narrates a life in virtual world as a way of asking, “What is real?” I’m drawing this interpretation from Ryan Smyth‘s tweets from August 30th, in which he outlines the album in terms of a narrative portraying a character’s journey through virtual and real worlds. In songs like “Blocks” and “Pressing on the Bruise”,  the character expresses insatiable longings for his fictional reality. When the longings are met (songs: “Attonitos Gloria” and “I Feel Everything”) the character is left numb and dying. (At this point I can’t help but wonder, could this be a commentary on pornography?) In the end (songs: “Reanimate,” “Real Ghost” and “Every Corner”), the character is resurrected into reality and commits to live in true reality rather than false versions of reality.

I’ve only read a few reviews of the album (see NoiseTrade and Relevant), and it’s intentionally mysterious, so I’m not pretending to have an authoritative interpretation of Ctrl. But I’ll hazard a simple guess: I think the point of “Ctrl” is that when we seek control – as we all do with whatever virtual worlds we create for ourselves – we unintentionally separate ourselves from reality. Separation from reality ultimately leads to death. Life comes from dedication to reality. And living in the truth means yielding our control, recognizing that we are not sovereign, and repenting of our attempts to manipulate that which we cannot control.

Today, while re-reading St. Athanasius of Alexandria’s On the Incarnation, I came across some profound advice on how to understand the Bible. Having concluded his defense of the reality of the Incarnation of Christ, Athanasius adds a brief word advising his reader to move forward by consulting the Scriptures: “Here, then, Macarius, is our offering to you who love Christ, a brief statement of the faith of Christ and of the manifestation of His Godhead to us. This will give you a beginning, and you must go on to prove its truth by the study of the Scriptures” (St. Athanasius On the Incarnation [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1996] p. 95 section 56). Note the order here: right doctrine about Christ is presented (and presented at length) before the urging to read the Scriptures. We’ll come back to that. Then Athanasius continues:

But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven. (p. 96 section 57.)

According to Athanasius, we need to have a “good life and a pure mind” in order to understand the Bible. The most obvious meaning of a “pure mind” is a mind free of sinful thoughts while reading Scripture. But for Athanasius it means more than that.  Remember where Athanasius placed this in On the Incarnation? It’s at the end of the book in which he’s explained the reality of the incarnation of Christ. Part of that purity of mind is about doctrinal purity. His thinking, along with the thinking of the rest of the early Church, was that the Bible could not be understood apart from right faith. We read the Bible through the lens of our theology, and if our theology is unorthodox, the Bible is hard to understand.  A broken lens makes things look strange. But when our theology is correct, the Scriptures are easier to understand and the meaning becomes increasingly clear.

But what Athanasius says here isn’t just abstract theology.  It’s also about relationship. “Anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.” In other words, if you want to know what Paul meant when he was writing his letters to the Corinthians, then you should start acting like Paul. The more your heart breaks for those who don’t know Jesus, the more you endure hardship for the sake of the Gospel, the more you find the pattern of Jesus’ life becoming the pattern of your own, the more insight you will have into Paul’s letters. For Athanasius, the Scriptures were not just an instruction book. They were a gateway into direct relationship with Jesus and also with Jesus’ servants who knew Him intimately. As we study the Scriptures, we grow in fellowship with the Apostles and Prophets whose testimonies about Christ are shared in the Scriptures. That growth in relationship takes time and practice, but it yields deeper and deeper understanding of God’s Word.

So what should we do if we want to understand the Scriptures? Repent. Pursue right faith. Seek holiness. Seek relationship with the Apostles and Prophets. And patiently wait to see what the Lord reveals.