Friday, July 30, 2010

Athanasius on the death of death

Reading On the Incarnation has been a wonderful way for me to dip my toes into the writings of the Patristics. There's great inspirational and intellectual value in reading these saints of old. I hope to do more. I did find parts of this book a bit tedious (Athanasius tends to plow the same ground over and over) but overall it was a great read.

If you're not familiar with On the Incarnation it's written in the form of a letter from Athansius to a Macarius, described as a "true lover of Christ." Reading between the lines it seems like Macarius was a youngish convert to Christianity, perhaps converted under the teaching of the bishop. Essentially it's a treatise on apologetics, as Athanasius gives the younger man ammunition with which to defend the orthodox teaching concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Though the Incarnation is the main focus Athanasius begins with the doctrines of creation and fall, moving on to the problem of sin and how a just and holy God could redeem/recreate his fallen creation.

One of the most stirring sections of the book is when Athanasius points to the example of Christian martyrs, abundant in those days, as evidence for Christ's victory over death at the cross.

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as something dead.

. . . men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Saviour's resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. . . . Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot as he now is, the passers-by jeer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Saviour on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, "O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?"

Quotes from pp. 57-8 of this edition

Obama the radical centrist?

Lost in all the conservative anti-Obama hysteria is the deep disillusionment felt by many progressives about his administration so far. Liberal columnist Paul Krugman wonders:

Why does the Obama administration keep looking for love in all the wrong places? Why does it go out of its way to alienate its friends, while wooing people who will never waver in their hatred?

After citing examples of Obama's ill-advised (according to Krugman) efforts at compromise and lamenting the fact that the president hasn't been the "transformational figure some envisioned" Krugman continues:

What explains Mr. Obama’s consistent snubbing of those who made him what he is? Does he fear that his enemies would use any support for progressive people or ideas as an excuse to denounce him as a left-wing extremist? Well, as you may have noticed, they don’t need such excuses: He’s been portrayed as a socialist because he enacted Mitt Romney’s health-care plan, as a virulent foe of business because he’s been known to mention that corporations sometimes behave badly.

The point is that Mr. Obama’s attempts to avoid confrontation have been counterproductive. His opponents remain filled with a passionate intensity, while his supporters, having received no respect, lack all conviction. And in a midterm election, where turnout is crucial, the “enthusiasm gap” between Republicans and Democrats could spell catastrophe for the Obama agenda.

I rather suspect it's a good thing that the president has done his best to govern as a slightly left-of-center conciliator, though Krugman is probably right that it won't stand his party in good stead at the polls come November. We may well end up with the GOP back in control of either the House and/or Senate.

This reminds me of something I wrote after the '09 off-year elections, which is that idealogically America is still fundamentally a moderately right-of-center country. Despite the polarization and extreme rhetoric (on both sides) of the last two years, I believe that's still the case. It's part of the genius of the Founders that they set up a system of government that encourages stability and compromise. Idealogues who stray too far from the center are bound to be frustrated with it, but for better or worse the center holds.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Naming power

This morning I was reading Jeremiah 46 - the oracle of ancient superpower Egypt's defeat at the hands of the rival Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar. In verse 17 there's a mocking reference to Pharaoh Neco: "Call the name of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, 'Noisy one who lets the hour go by.'" (ESV) In modern vernacular, God is declaring that Pharoah is "all talk and no action." In the next verse this impotent name is juxtaposed with the all powerful name of Yahweh "the King, whose name is the LORD of hosts."

This got me thinking about the power of names, and the power to give names. The Old Testament is full of examples. Names meant more back then than they do now. The people of God praised Yahweh and they praised his name. The Psalmist cries "O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" The very name of God is precious because it's intrinsic to his being. His name reveals his character. God's name is eternal, but that of his enemies will be erased. "You have rebuked the nations; you have made the wicked perish; you have blotted out their name forever and ever." (Psalm 9:5)

As parents we can appreciate the power of giving a name. My wife and I are tossing around boy and girl names for child #2. He or she will have no say in the matter. Jesus asserted his authority in this realm by renaming Simon, and by naming the demons and silencing them when they named him. Yeshua was a common name in first-century Palestine, like Joe or Bob. But once Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead and ascended to the Father he was given a name "above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come." (Eph. 1:21)

Those who confess that name as Lord have their names written down in the "book of life of the Lamb who was slain" (Rev. 13:8) and they have the promise of a new name themselves. "To the one who conquers . . . I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.'" (Rev. 2:17)

That's the name I want.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lessons of history

Bret Stephens writes in today's Wall Street Journal on the intensifying debate over when and if the U.S. should get out of Afghanistan. The voices urging immediate withdrawal have gotten louder since the release of thousands of classified documents by something called WikiLeaks. The docs don't paint a pretty picture of U.S. involvement, but why is that a surprise? Unleashing the dogs of war is always fraught with peril and unintended consequences. Even the good guys don't escape the taint of moral compromise.

However, Stephens uses the example of Southeast Asia to argue that there are times when the only thing worse than a messy war is "peace"...

The Cambodian genocide is especially worth recalling today not only for what it was, but for the public debates in the West that immediately preceded it. "The greatest gift our country can give to the Cambodian people is peace, not guns," said then-congressman, now senator, Chris Dodd, by way of making the case against the Ford administration's bid to extend military assistance to the pro-American government of Lon Nol.

In the New York Times, Sydney Schanberg reported from Cambodia that "it is difficult to imagine how [Cambodian] lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone." Mr. Schanberg added that "it would be tendentious to forecast [genocide] as a national policy under a Communist government once the war is over."

A year later, Mr. Schanberg was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, though not for tendentiousness.

All in all, America's withdrawal from Southeast Asia resulted in the killing of an estimated 165,000 South Vietnamese in so-called re-education camps; the mass exodus of one million boat people, a quarter of whom died at sea; the mass murder, estimated at 100,000, of Laos's Hmong people; and the killing of somewhere between one million and two million Cambodians.

The possibility that something like that could happen in Afghanistan once the American soldiers leave should at least give us pause. Stephens concludes: "It is a peculiar fact of modern liberalism that its best principles have most often been betrayed by self-described liberals." What was that about being doomed to repeat history?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mencken and Machen

Today I started reading Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America. Not the most pithy title in the world, but this is a book that's been on my "to read" list for a while. It's going to be a good read and I'll probably be blogging about it more. Author D.G. Hart introduces his subject by setting out some of the anomalies that make Machen such a fascinating and worthwhile figure to study, and that set him apart from the other fundamentalists whose cause he led in the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the 1920s and 30s.

For instance -- Machen was an articulate defender of the historical reliability of the New Testament while not afraid to use the methods of modern biblical scholarship. He opposed the secularization of life in America yet didn't oppose the teaching of evolution. He was an advocate for private Christian schools, but he didn't join his fellow fundamentalists in pushing for Bible reading and prayer in the public schools. He also didn't share their liking for Prohibition.

In some respects, Hart argues, Machen shared much in common with ardent secularists of the 1920s such as Walter Lippmann and H.L. Mencken. Both Machen and the secularists shared a deep antipathy to the vapid Protestant liberalism that had begun to characterize the mainline churches, and I might add, continues to reach higher and higher heights of vapidity in those same churches today. Mencken and Lippmann were impressed by the intellectual rigor and cogency of Machen's Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923. Hart writes about their reactions to that great book:

There he [Machen] argued that by denying the supernatural character of Christianity liberal Protestants had actually created an entirely new religion. It was precisely this argument that Lippmann praised in A Preface to Morals for its "acumen," "saliency," and "wit." For Lippmann, Machen had provided a "cool and stringent" defense of traditional Protestantism, "the best popular argument" produced by either fundamentalists or liberals in a decade of religious turmoil. Mencken was no less impressed. To readers of the American Mercury he introduced the person he would later dub "Doctor Fundamentalis" as "a man of great learning and dignity—a former student at European universities, the author of various valuable books, . . . and a member of several societies of savants." (p. 3)

What's surprising is that Mencken wasn't here being sarcastic or ironic. Though Mencken made a career of mocking proponents of traditional religion, in Machen he saw a formidable advocate of orthodox Christianity. Mencken judged Machen's arguments "completely impregnable."

"If he is wrong," Mencken wrote, "then the science of logic is a hollow vanity, signifying nothing." (p. 4)

When Machen died at the relatively young age of 55 Mencken penned an admiring obituary about his fellow Baltimorean (both men are buried in the city). We can only hope that the Sage of Baltimore put his trust in the crucified and risen Savior who that other son of Baltimore so faithfully and articulately defended.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Racism and redemption

It seems that just about everyone involved in the Shirley Sherrod affair have covered themselves with shame, whether they realize it or not. Certainly the fearmongering right-wing media (that includes you Fox News) that twisted two minutes of a 45-minute speech out of context to create the appearance of a government conspiracy against white people. Who the heck is Andrew Breitbart anyway? I hadn't heard of this joker until quite recently, but apparently he makes Matt Drudge look like a paragon of responsible journalism. There's also the spineless Obama administration officials who hastily fired Sherrod without investigating the facts. Amy Davidson reports that Sherrod was called on her cell phone and told to pull her car over by the side of the road and resign, now.

Peggy Noonan has a sterling column in today's Wall Street Journal on the real Shirley Sherrod, what she really said, and what me might learn from the latest tawdry episode in the story of race in America. Here's the part that resonated with me the most because it's where I'm at right now.

Indignant, she set herself to save the Spooners' farm. "That's when it was revealed to me that it's about poor versus those who have," not white versus black. "It opened my eyes." She worked the phones, reached out to those who could help, talked to more lawyers, called officials.

And she saved that farm.

"Working with him," said Ms. Sherrod, "made me see . . . that it's really about those who have versus those who don't." It's helping the frightened and powerless. "And they could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic."

She said that 45 years ago she couldn't say what she will say tonight: "I've come a long way. I knew that I couldn't live with hate, you know. As my mother has said to so many, 'If we had tried to live with hate in my heart, we probably be dead now.'" She said it was "sad" that the room was not "full of whites and blacks." She quoted Toni Morrison: We have to get to a point where "race exists but it doesn't matter."

There is beauty in the speech, and bravery too. It was brave because her subject wasn't the nation's failures and your failures but her failures. The beauty is that it deals with the great subject of our lives: how to be better, how to make the world better. It's not a perfect speech—she's tendentious in her support for health care and takes cheap shots at Republicans. And it's not the poor versus the rich, it's the powerful helping the powerless. But it's good.

Contra Noonan I don't mind someone being "tendentious" in support of health care (whatever that means), and some times it is poor versus the rich. Moreover, the powers that be have not been above using race as a tool to divide people who should be making common cause, a point Sherrod makes in the speech. Despite those nits I'm glad to see someone on the right saying what needs to be said. Thank you, Peggy Noonan! Read the whole column, and then take her advice and listen to the full presentation that caused all the ruckus (which I've done). It's an amazing story.

UPDATED: In all fairness to FNC I should mention that Bill O'Reilly has apologized for "not doing my homework." Thanks to one of my readers for pointing that out.

Grief and Longfellow

Matt Fowler, the character played by Tom Wilkinson, is playing cards with his war buddies for the first time since burying his son. Character actor W. Clapham Murray, in a magnificent performance that moves me every time I watch it, captures the moment with some lines from the Longfellow poem "My Lost Youth".

In the Bedroom (2001, dir. Todd Field)

Monday, July 19, 2010

The wonder of the Incarnation (Athanasius)

From On the Incarnation:

You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind after Himself, and seek out His lost sheep, even as He says in the Gospel: "I came to seek and to save that which was lost." (pp. 41-2)

At one and the same time—this is the wonder—as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father. Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body. Rather, He sanctified the body by being in it. For His being in everything does not mean that He shares the nature of everything, only that He gives all things their being and sustains them in it. Just as the sun is not defiled by the contact of its rays with earthly objects, but rather enlightens and purifies them, so He Who made the sun is not defiled by being made known in a body, but rather the body is cleansed and quickened by His indwelling, "Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth." (pp. 45-6)

I love the robust Christology of Athanasius! It's easy for us to take for granted the truths that this Egyptian Bishop gave his life to defend. He wouldn't budge an inch at a time when the full humanity and full deity of Jesus was under attack from all sides.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The cure for immodesty

Last week our family took a drive to the shiny new shopping mall in the western suburbs of our county. As we ate dinner in the food court, and I observed the comings and goings, the thought crossed my sometimes cynical mind that it must have been "dress like a slut night." I have no problem with women dressing attractively and fashionably. I even think there's a place for dressing in such a way that emphasizes feminine charms, if you know what I mean. But seriously, when did it become all the rage for teenage girls, and not-so-teenage women, to dress like the prostitutes on Broadway? Whatever happened to propriety, or that other old-fashioned word -- modesty?

Of course modesty is more than dress or keeping a set of rules, though we often try to reduce it to that. Rules have their place (can I get an amen from the parents?) but Gospel Coalition blogger Elyse Fitzpatrick reminds us that immodesty -- the kind that has to do with clothing and the more subtle kinds -- is a heart issue best addressed by the gospel.

. . . immodesty flows out of the heart of a show off. Maybe we’ve worked hard at the gym or purchased an expensive new pair of jeans. Maybe we want to prove how free we are to dress in any way we choose, no matter how scandalous. When we show-off we’re failing to love our brother (and sisters) who may be tempted to lust or covetousness or sinful imitation. Showing off is a fruit of pride and love of self. Immodesty demonstrates a cold unconcern for the church.

The beauty of the gospel, however, is that it informs us about who we are and what Jesus has already done. While it convicts us that we’re all unloving show-offs (in some way), it also assures us that we’ve been loved and that we no longer need to show off to get other people’s approval because (here’s the best news of all!) the record of our Modest Redeemer is ours! Our identity isn’t wrapped up in the approval or envy or lust of others. Our identity is found in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Christ is our life. He loved us and refrained from showing off so that we could be His and freed from the need to prove that we’ve got a great body or wardrobe or … because we’ve been lavished with His love instead.

Of course, in this promiscuous culture women (and men) might need to be taught what modest attire looks like and there’s nothing wrong with doing so. It’s just that the transforming power that changes a show off into a servant doesn’t come from rules about blouses or skirts. It comes from remembering the gospel and seeking to show Him off instead. So, let’s spend this summer talking about modesty … mostly His.


Collateral (2004, dir. Michael Mann)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

When the price is too right

Read the story behind this unprecedented television moment here.

Why the cable news pundits are full of it

@ The Frontal Cortex

Money quotes:

"Once we identify with a political party, the world is edited so that it fits with our ideology."

"We now associate political interest with partisan blowhards on cable TV, these pundits and consultants and former politicians who trade facile talking points. Instead of engaging with contrary facts, the discourse has become one big study in cognitive dissonance. And this is why the predictions of pundits are so consistently inaccurate. Unless we engage with those uncomfortable data points, those stats which suggest that George W. Bush wasn't all bad, or that Obama isn't such a leftist radical, then our beliefs will never improve."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Creation out of nothing

Hebrews 11:3 is a key text in support of the doctrine of creation out of nothing "ex nihilo." By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. Coincidentally, today I came across two takes on this essential doctrine of our apostolic catholic faith, from a couple of theological heavyweights writing around sixteen centuries apart.


Creation is here represented as a fact which we apprehend only by faith. By faith we understand (perceive, not comprehend) that the world was framed or fashioned by the word of God, that is, the word of God's power, the divine fiat, so that the things which are seen, the visible things of this world, were not made out of things which do appear, which are visible, and which are at least occasionally seen. According to this passage the world certainly was not made out of anything that is palpable to the senses. . . . It belongs to the very nature of God that He is able to call into being what does not exist, and does so call it into being. [emphasis mine]

St. Athanasius:

[From the divine teaching of the Christian faith] we know that, because there is Mind behind the universe, it did not originate itself; because God is infinite, not finite, it was not made from pre-existent matter, but out of nothing and out of non-existence absolute and utter God brought it into being through the Word. . . . For God is good—or rather, of all goodness He is Fountainhead, and it is impossible for one who is good to be mean or grudging about anything. Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ; and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men.

I guess you could classify these books as sort of old and really old. I like 'em both!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Piper on strutting evangelicals

Sometimes I'm amazed, and not in a good way, at the unChristlike things "Christian" politicians say, or the things believers circulate via email or post on Facebook. Here's a great reminder from John Piper on the attitude we should have when engaging with hot-button political and cultural issues. I was listening to this in the car this morning and saying "Preach it, brother!"

"[Pilgrims] do not smirk at the misery or the merrymaking of immoral culture. We weep. Know any good conservative talk show hosts that weep? Name one. Being pilgrims does not mean being cynical. That's the name of the game. The salt of the earth does not mock rotting meat. It tries to preserve, savour, and when it can't it weeps. Being Christian pilgrims in American culture does not end our influence, it takes the swagger out of it. There's so many strutting conservatives, including our president. And strutting Democrats. Can say no wrong. Can make no mistakes. I've got all the answers. Strut, strut, strut! That is not the demeanor of an evangelical pilgrim, who knows he's fallen, knows he's broken. It is possible to lead in strength with humility, a sense of brokenness, a sense of fallibility. We don't get cranky when evil triumphs. We don't whine when things don't go the way we want them to in our culture. It isn't our culture! Heaven is our culture! We're not hardened with anger. We understand what's happening now. Why? Because we saw it happen two thousand years ago."

Discerning the Will of God Concerning Homosexuality and Marriage (August 8, 2004)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Football and politics

During yesterday's World Cup semifinal between Spain and Germany the announcers alluded to the politics behind the bitter rivalry between famed Spanish club teams FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. Spain's roster is packed with players from both clubs, including yesterday's hero Carles Puyol who captains Barcelona. Intrigued I did some research and found that the roots of the rivalry go all the way back to the Spanish-American War. From Jon Marum:

FC Barcelona were founded in 1899 by Swiss businessman Joan Gamper just a year after a humiliating defeat for the Spanish army in the Spanish-American war of 1898. With a sense of disillusionment in the declining Spanish Empire, local pride grew provoking a stronger sense of Catalan nationalism. In FC Barcelona, the Catalan people had the perfect vehicle to express their local identity.

These sentiments of nationalism within Catalonia have not only survived to the present day, indeed time has only served to increase them. The oppressive nature of the Francoist regime toward Catalonia and her people forged a siege mentality within the club and region towards the controlling centrist powers in Madrid. The fact that Franco’s team was Real Madrid only served to intensify the rivalry between the two clubs.

The theory is, therefore, that Barça are the club of democracy and freedom fighting against the fascism and oppression of Real Madrid. As always, the reality is not as clear cut.

Barça fans animosity towards Real Madrid properly started in 1936 when club President Josep Sunyol was murdered by Francoist troops. Every year his death is remembered by FC Barcelona delegates with a not-so-subtle subtext of anti-Francoism and anti-Real Madrid. The fact that his assassination had more to do with his affiliation to the Catalan Independence Party than to Barça is overlooked by fans who see him as an embodiment of their cause.

Interesting! Another example of how sports, European football in this case, is a reflection of history and culture. The final between Netherlands and Spain has plenty of possible subtexts as well. Catholics vs. Protestants? Or even Catholics vs. Calvinists? After all, Holland once had Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper for a prime minister. Of course, even the fact that the Dutch players wear orange is a potent historical reminder. History buffs may remember that the Protestant prince William of Orange led the revolt against Catholic Spain that gave the Netherlands their independence and sparked the Eighty Years War. Sunday's contest will be resolved in less time than that. I'll be rooting for The Oranje, but if I were a betting man I'd put my money on the Spanish. They play an elegant, team-oriented style of football that's a pleasure to watch. In their case the ugly side of Spanish politics and regional rivalry hasn't spilled over onto the pitch.

Regaining the high ground (Newbigin)

I read this a while ago, but it continues to guide my thinking about the local church and its mission.

How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel — evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one. But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.

Jesus, as I said earlier, did not write a book but formed a community. This community has at its heart the remembering and rehearsing of his words and deeds, and the sacraments given by him through which it is enabled both to engraft new members into its life and to renew this life again and again through sharing in his risen life through body broken and the lifeblood poured out. It exists in him and for him. He is the center of its life. Its character is given to it, when it is true to its nature, not by the characters of its members but by his character. In so far as it is true to its calling, it becomes the place where men and women and children find that the gospel gives them the framework of understanding, the 'lenses' through which they are able to understand and cope with the world.

That's it! Newbigin nails it, as he often does. Community is a popular buzzword in contemporary church circles, but usually it means nothing more than "hanging out" with people like ourselves, with a little Jesus tacked on. This type of community doesn't impress the world. Newbigin argues that it's only through Christ-centered communities gathered and formed around Word and sacrament that 21st-century Christians in the West can once again "occupy the 'high ground' which they vacated in the noontime of modernity."

It's important to note that Newbigin doesn't mean by this forming Christian political parties or returning to the "good old days" of Christendom. However, he avoids the quietist error of some of those who emphasize the "spirituality of the church" by boldly asserting that the church is called to claim every area of society for Christ -- "to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel." This is done not through parachurch organizations, though they have their place, but through the humble ministry and witness of local congregations. A congregation that believes the gospel with all its heart has more explanatory power than any number of brilliant arguments, or worldly success.

Newbigin goes on to give six characteristics of this type of community. He fleshes these out for several pages, but here they are to hopefully whet your appetite to read the whole thing.

1. It will be a community of praise.

2. It will be a community of truth.

3. It will be a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood.

4. It will be a community where men and women are prepared for and sustained in the exercise of the priesthood in the world.

5. It will be a community of mutual responsibility.

6. It will be a community of hope.

Quotes from "The Gospel in a Pluralist Society" (1989) as excerpted in Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: a Reader (pp. 152-7)

Friday, July 2, 2010

From Brooklyn to "John Ford country"

If someone asked me which filmmakers they should study to understand what America is all about I would answer John Ford, Clint Eastwood, and Spike Lee. Lee may seem an odd choice considering almost all his movies take place in Brooklyn, and a relatively thin slice of Brooklyn at that. Just as Ford did with his western stories, Lee's Brooklyn tales manage to tell a wider American story. In his hands Bed-Stuy or Bensonhurst becomes a microcosm of us all. Lee (and Ford and Eastwood) "get" both the glory and the shame of the American experience. I would have said all that even before I watched Clockers last night, Lee's 1995 film about street-level drug dealers in the Brooklyn projects. This scene -- accompanied by Terence Blanchard's elegiac cue -- blew me away with its evocation of John Ford and the wide open possibilities of this big beautiful country.

Happy Fourth of July everyone!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Do more kids mean more happiness?

I hope so since we're expecting our second in January! A debate has broken out in the blogosphere over just that question. You can read a synopsis here. I guess it all depends on one's definition of "happiness." I don't know if becoming a parent has made me happier or not. I do know it's brought more joy and sense of purpose, and it's had a refining effect which (I trust) has made me a better person. If your definition of happiness is being independent and avoiding pain and aggravation then having children won't make you happy. I think this blogger daddy gets it right:

My 17-month-old woke up a few minutes ago and interrupted my writing. She does that kind of thing a lot. Indeed, pretty much every morning. And when she does, I have to stop what I’m doing, usually at an inopportune time. And that makes me unhappy!

Is this momentary inconvenience outweighed by the joy she brings me? Of course.

But having kids means constant diversion from doing what you want to be doing at any given moment. And having multiple children, I’m reliably told, tends to increase that phenomenon geometrically. Indeed, parents the world over agree: Kids are a giant pain in the ass!

Those of us who are reasonably intelligent and had children by conscious decision knew all this going in. Indeed, one of the amusing things about impending first-time fatherhood is the number of people who dispense the advice “It’ll change your life!” But that doesn’t make the sacrifices and trade-offs less real.

While I’m a social scientist by training, I’m not a sociologist, much less steeped in the literature in question here. But I don’t know that it’s possible to develop measures to quantify the thousands of instances of “unhappiness” that come from the annoyances of parenthood and the less frequent but far more potent joys. And I certainly don’t think it’s possible to do it in a way that satisfies an economist’s notion of “happiness.”

I often think of parenting in terms of Dickens' classic line from A Tale of Two Cities -- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." For example, having a second child right now is going to cause my wife and I considerable economic pain, but we wouldn't trade this journey for going back to the financial security and comfortable lifestyle we enjoyed before our firstborn came along. Sure, I wish we were well off or lived in a society where raising children was made easier by government and business. Although the funny thing is those societies where it's the easiest (think Western Europe or Japan with their generous healthcare, maternity leave and childcare benefits) are also the places where fertility rates are the lowest on the planet. Maybe the hardship is one of those unquantifiable factors that paradoxically make people want to go through it again. The pain is part and parcel of the joy.

Whatever the case may be I'll go out on a limb and say that in the context of a loving marriage having children is always a good idea. Economic considerations and "happiness quotients" be damned. That's why when people ask me if we're going to have more kids my answer always is . . . "I hope so."

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.

Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!

Psalm 127