A dark world aches for a splash of the sun oh oh
If I could find a way to see this straight, I’d run away
To some fortune that I, I should have found by now
And so I run to the things they said could restore me
Restore life the way it should be
I’m waiting for this cough syrup to come down — Young the Giant
Why I write as I write here? Well, first of all that’s likely a question far more interesting to me than to you. That’s never stopped me before. I know I’ve answered this before here, but let me give it a go again.
First, that selfie. One of my kids noted that my reflective sunglasses contain an infinite regress of selfies, which made me think about my infinitely regressive ego. Next, the selfie contains what I find most interesting in life — the odd. While driving to Omaha last year, I happened on a rooster with boots on, standing on wagon wheels in a lovely open field. So I slammed on my brakes and pulled off the road into a ditch, as it gave reason to stop and give a thumbs up photo to send to my family and friends.
What about the titles of my blog posts? Well, I choose each title only after I finish writing the post and get a better sense of the main point I was trying to emphasize. It’s probably obvious from them that I use free association — whatever phrase or quote first rises to my consciousness as I think on the key idea, I go with it. I know they are particularly bad as clickbait, though this one I wrote in 2019 seemed to be a wining lure from the huge number of views and many hilarious responses I got from people.
The image at the top and videos at the bottom of my posts. I think in images. And I believe, to my very core, that my work as a theologian is primarily to splash as many colors as I can on your imagination, colors drawn from Christ’s vast palette. Color, tint, hue, texture, sound, words, story — these are how I love best to make theology come alive. After I finish a post, I say a prayer, take on Rodin’s The Thinker posture for a moment or two (literally), and then a video idea comes to me. That’s it, and you can probably tell that’s it. Oh, and in 98% of posts the image and video idea comes to me after I finish a post.
Many times I begin a post with a quote. This is important. For me, all of theology is an unfolding dialogue, disputation, debate. Any wisdom I have to offer is stolen, borrowed, reflected, plagiarized, chewed-up-and-regurgitated-cud taken from conversations with texts, lecturers, preachers, musicians, acquaintances, friends, family, students, strangers — dead or alive — the natural world, believers and unbelievers, liberals and conservatives, Catholics and non-, and, of course, with God. My goal is not to present my own novel ideas, which would be a sleeper, but to weave together elements from the many conversations I have entered into throughout my life and form a tapestry that is indeed uniquely my own voice. A tapestry that, I hope, is beautiful to God.
I’ve said it before, I intentionally choose to not write as a controversialist. Various contemporary controversies in the church and the world swirl all around, and I have many thoughts on them. But not here. Why? For one, there are many people far more informed and sage than I who already do so, and do so very well. Thank God for them, they are essential. That said, in the age of social media I find there are even more people who boldly tread where angels fear in their opinionating, who I believe are not so well informed or sage. For me, as the saying goes, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”
However, my other reason for refraining from controversies here is far more important. What Christians need more than anything else is to attend the basic foundations of life in Christ. I think our contentious age has largely lost sight of that. I’ve seen it play out my own life, and in the lives of others. Hyper-immersion in controversialist media so often distracts us from attending to what is essential in life, or it serves as a way to rationalize running from the pain or banality of life’s immediate realities right in front of us. When I started this blog, I took the story of Peter walking on water as my leitmotif. “When he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” (Mt. 14:30). Eyes fixed on Jesus, please.
Then there’s my attempt to refer to as much Scripture as I can, with a latent hope you will stop and look up the biblical references I insert. The study of Scripture is the soul of theology, the food of Faith, the seed of Hope, the fuel of Love. It is the living and dangerous double-edged Word of God. Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. So to that end, I join voices with the inimitable Deacon Jim Keating who says that just as Eucharistic adoration serves as an extension of the Liturgy of the Eucharist in time and space, so doing theology is an extension of the Liturgy of the Word in time and space.
For whom do I write? So many people, beginning with myself. I am a “guilty bystander” who yearns for authenticity, yet is vividly aware of his own inauthenticity. So in a sense, my posts are often a prayer of petition to God. Many of my posts begin as a response to something very specific someone did, told me, asked me, challenged me on, referred me to. Many of my posts begin as an insight recorded on the fly, texted to my email, scribbled on a receipt or napkin, or even penned on my arm. When I begin a post, I usually choose a person and then write a letter to them in wordpress. Then when I’m done, I delete their name and post it.
Someone asked me once, “What surprises you most about your blog, what do you love most about it and what do you like least?” I answered, “What surprises me most is that people read it, and that I have never attracted trolling. What I love most are the freedom it affords me and the comments people leave. What I like least are all of my grammar, syntax and spelling mistakes I discover on re-reading posts.”
As an aside, here’s what I love most about the blog. As opposed to teaching a course or giving a scheduled lecture, here I am free to write anything I want. It’s my intellectual playground. The day this blog becomes a job or chore or obligation is the day I will stop.
Someone texted me over Christmas: “Do you really write and post at midnight?” No! It’s on auto-post. Many times, I write posts weeks or months before they go live. I have oodles of posts in draft, that await final touches, or a decision to delete.
Okay, why Neal Obstat? I chose it after a wonderful couple once told me that the help I afforded them in their journey of faith “removed all the big obstacles that stood in the way.” They said that I was like the Catholic good housekeeping seal of approval nihil obstat, which literally means something like “nothing stands in the way.” So they called me Neal Obstat. I loved it and consider it to be the highest praise. So I shoot for that goal here.
A funny story. I was a theological advisor for a homeschooling association years ago. Quite a lively group! One of the members evidently saw my blog name and, concerned, emailed me: “Dr. Neal, as a courtesy I wanted you to know that it’s spelled nihil obstat.”
Thank God, now I know.