Friday, December 30, 2011

CSL on "using" and "receiving" art

The following excerpts are from one of C.S. Lewis's lesser known books An Experiment in Criticism, and are as quoted by Ken Myers in All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians & Popular Culture, a book I'll be returning to. This is Lewis at his provocative best.

The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers "I've read it already" to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. . . . Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life." (p. 2)

On the difference between using and receiving art.

A work of (whatever) art can be either "received" or "used." When we "receive" it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we "use" it we treat it as assistance for our own activities. The one, to use an old-fashioned image, is like being taken for a bicycle ride by a man who may know roads we have never yet explored. The other is like adding one of those little motor attachments to our own bicycle and then going for one of our familiar rides. These rides may in themselves be good, bad, or indifferent. The "uses" which the many make of the arts may or may not be intrinsically vulgar, depraved, or morbid. That's as it may be. "Using" is inferior to "reception" because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it. (p. 88)

Are we receiving art when it's reduced to instantly-downloadable "content" to be used and then thrown away (or stored on a hard drive)? What happens to us when we begin to see books, music, and movies as mere commodities?

Receiving art is not the same thing as agreeing with it. Here Lewis argues for the value of surrendering to works of art that may contain opinions, attitudes and feelings that we don't agree with.

In good reading there ought to be no "problem of belief." I read Lucretius and Dante at a time when (by and large) I agreed with Lucretius. I have read them since I came (by and large) to agree with Dante. I cannot find that this has much altered my experience, or at all altered my evaluation, of either. A true lover of literature should be in one way like a honest examiner, who is prepared to give the highest marks to the telling, felicitous and well-documented exposition of views he dissents from or even abominates. (p. 85)

Lewis could say those things because he believed that "good" was more than a moral category when it comes to literature. Which raises the question whether that's true of other mediums as well. I'm still thinking through that one.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Which of these was a neighbor to the stranger in need?

Embedded within Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colors Trilogy: Blue/White/Red (1994) is a parable involving an infirm pensioner trying to deposit a bottle into a recycling station -- the opening of which is just out of reach. These brief scenes (one in each film) are a thread that connect what are otherwise disparate films. What do they mean?

In each scene the main protagonist sees, or in the first case fails to see, a stranger struggling to carry out a simple task. Their reactions say a lot about each character's inner state. You could even say it opens a window into their spiritual health (many critics and viewers have seen Kieślowski's cinema as an attempt to visibly represent invisible spiritual and metaphysical realities -- he himself was reticent to talk about his aims). Watching these clips together makes for a visual parable. Watch them in order and you'll see an interesting progression.

In Blue Julie (Juliette Binoche) is so wrapped up in her grief and solipsism that she doesn't even see the old woman.

In White down-on-his-luck Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) sees the old man, but only watches and smiles, as if to say "at least I'm better off than that guy."

In Red the breakthrough occurs when Valentine (Iréne Jacob) sees what is happening, and is moved to take action. Her small act of kindness is writ large against the background of these three masterful films from one of the greats.

UPDATED 12/30: In response to some pushback from a thoughtful correspondent I've amended the sentence in parenthesis (see italics). Though I would note that Kieślowski's screenwriting partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz says as much in an interview on the Criterion Blu-ray of White.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Lord's sheep hear his voice (MacMillan)

Jesus said that hearing him and following him were distinguishing marks of his sheep. Commenting on John 10:27 -- "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" -- Charles Spurgeon said that Christians "have a mark in their ear and a mark in their foot." Douglas MacMillan, who spent years tending sheep before he became a minister, explains that hearing the Good Shepherd's voice is more than an aural experience.

With every sheep that I brought home to take into the flock, the first thing I had to do was to take a big, long, sharp, killing knife. I was not going to cut their throats, but I was going to mark their ears. In Scotland we call it a 'lug mark'. It was my particular mark and it marked that sheep out as mine. Now that is not the kind of mark that Spurgeon meant when he said that the Christian has a mark in his ear. The kind of thing he was talking about was what Jesus had in mind here—'they hear my voice'. There are two words in Greek for hearing, and it is interesting to note that the one that is used here means not simply 'to hear a sound' but 'to hear and to understand'—hearing with understanding. (Gaelic has two words for hearing, as well, and makes exactly the same distinction.)

Now that is a perfect illustration of what happens when God's Spirit begins to work in the life of a sinner. They begin to hear. . . .

Often it's hard to distinguish the voice of Jesus from the other voices competing for our attention. How can one know that the Holy Spirit is at work calling us to repentance and faith? In short, when the gospel begins to have meaning and validity you are hearing the Shepherd's voice. When your thoughts and desires bend toward righteousness and holiness you are hearing the voice of Christ.

MacMillan tells how this happened in his own life. He grew up in a Christian home hearing the gospel from parents and pastors, but for 21 years he didn't have a clue what it was about. Then one day something changed.

The gospel was just jargon to me, and words like 'Come to Christ—trust in Christ—be born again' didn't mean a thing. Then all of a sudden the gospel began to have meaning for me. When a preacher said 'Come to Christ,' I knew exactly what he meant. When he said 'Trust your soul to the Lord Jesus,' I knew what he meant. When he said 'Christ died for your sins,' I thought that was wonderful. What was happening? I was not only hearing with the ear, I was understanding and I was listening, and I was drawing life into my soul. What had happened? I had become a sheep, and I understood the Shepherd's language and I knew the Shepherd's voice.

In theological terms what MacMillan experienced was regeneration, or the new birth. What was dead had been raised to life by the power of the Spirit. Spiritual blindness was replaced by spiritual sight. Of course, hearing the voice of Jesus necessarily leads to following him. More on that later.

Quotes from J. Douglas MacMillan, The Lord Our Shepherd (pp. 35-7)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

"So, brothers and sisters, let us keep this day as a festival; not, like the unbelievers, because of that sun up there in the sky, but because of the One who made that sun."

- Augustine of Hippo (Sermon 190)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Helena Ekdahl and the spirit of Christmas

When I think of Christmas celebrations I remember the opening scenes of Bergman's semi-autobiographical opus Fanny and Alexander (1982). Here the imperious Ekdahl family matriarch Helena -- played by veteran Swedish actress Gun Wållgren -- prepares to welcome her guests for the Christmas Eve feast. Wållgren's face registers the complicated mix of emotions that this time of year often conjures up.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The reason for the Trinity (Keller)

Appropriately, Tim Keller ends The Reason for God with a chapter on the Trinity. If I was investigating Christianity as a skeptic I'm pretty sure the doctrine I would have the most trouble with would be the doctrine of the Trinity. One God in three persons. Really?! All that business about essences and substances just seems like splitting hairs, right? On the face of it the doctrine seems like a logical impossibility. Aren't our Jewish and Muslim neighbors right when they accuse Christians of being polytheists? After all, the main thrust of the Old Testament seems to be monotheism. Nothing about the Trinity there.

As you probably guessed I'm playing a bit of devil's advocate. No, I don't believe Christians are polytheists, and one can make out the beginnings of trinitarian theology even in the OT. Nevertheless we must acknowledge that we're in the presence of a mystery we can't fully explain. Keller writes: "The doctrine of the Trinity overloads our mental circuits." We may never wrap our minds around it, but the Trinity is essential to Christianity. So much flows from it, not least the Incarnation of the Son of God that we celebrate in a few days.

Unique to the Christian understanding of God is that he is love. It's not only that he is loving (which he is!), but that he IS love. From eternity past self-giving love has been part of the essence of the Godhead -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This would not be possible if God wasn't triune, Keller explains.

If God is unipersonal, then until God created other beings there was no love, since love is something that one person has for another. This means that a unipersonal God was power, sovereignty, and greatness from all eternity, but not love. Love then is the essence of God, nor is it at the heart of the universe. Power is primary.

However, if God is triune, then loving relationships in community are the "great fountain . . . at the center of reality." When people say, "God is love," I think they mean that love is extremely important, or that God really wants us to love. But in the Christian conception, God really has love as his essence. If he was just one person he couldn't have been loving for all eternity. If he was only the impersonal all-soul of Eastern thought, he couldn't have been loving, for love is something persons do. . . . Ultimate reality is a community of persons who know and love one another.

If Keller is right, and the Trinitarian nature of God is the key to ultimate reality, then this has massive implications for the way we live. For one thing it shows us that relationships are key to human flourishing, and selfishness is ultimately a destructive dead end. Jesus put it most succinctly: "For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:35 NIV). In sum: "You were made for mutually self-giving, other-directed love. Self-centeredness destroys the fabric of what God has made."

The Reason for God is terrific. Even better than I expected. One of the author's heroes is C.S. Lewis, so it's not surprising that his fingerprints are all over the book. I think Keller has written a Mere Christianity-type book for our day -- one that will strengthen the faith of believers, respectfully challenge skeptics, and reward sincere seekers of truth.

Quotes from The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (pp. 225-7)

The One Percent's "honest" graft

The Atlantic Wire summarizes a story in today's Wall Street Journal detailing another way the One Percent rig our political and economic system for their benefit. And it's all perfectly legal . . . if not exactly ethical.

Proving that insider trading in Congress can work both ways, The Wall Street Journal reports on a disturbing trend of hedge funds gaining valuable tips from lawmakers voting on and making multi-million dollar decisions. Sure, it doesn't seem like Congress can agree on much at the moment, but when decisions like the 2009 healthcare compromise was reached, it was the hedge funds that knew first--hours before the public announcement. "The news was potentially worth millions of dollars to the investors, though none would publicly divulge how they used the information," report The Wall Street Journal's Brody Mullins and Susan Pulliam. "They belong to a select group who pay for early, firsthand reports on Capitol Hill" who are, as one lawyer puts it, "buying information from members of Congress in a perfectly legal way."

Click through to continue reading.

Reminds me of this clip from the documentary Inside Job, which I reviewed earlier this year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vaclav Havel (1936 - 2011)

Farewell to an inspiring figure who represented the best of what the often cynical art of politics should be. This quote from Havel has stuck with me.

"Genuine politics—even politics worthy of the name—the only politics I am willing to devote myself to—is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility expressed through action, to and for the whole." (Summer Meditations, 1992)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens (1949 - 2011)

I could hardly believe my eyes this morning when I opened up my homepage and saw the headline: "Christopher Hitchens Dead at 62". I knew he was gravely ill, but only yesterday I read this just-published indomitable and chilling essay on the hellish experience of pain and cancer, in which Hitchens detailed his resolve to stay combative in the face of radiation and the like. Reading it made me physically uncomfortable (hospitals and needles make me cringe in the best of circumstances). I got the impression that Hitchens had a few more rounds left to go in his battle, but as it turns out it was quite possibly the last piece from this magnificent writer and courageous man. Yes, courageous. To unblinkingly face suffering and death in the way that he did, without the hope found in Christ, takes a better man than I.

Here are his concluding paragraphs.

I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.

These are progressive weaknesses that in a more “normal” life might have taken decades to catch up with me. But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less. In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death. How could it be otherwise? Just as I was beginning to reflect along these lines, I came across an article on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. We now know, from dearly bought experience, much more about this malady than we used to. Apparently, one of the symptoms by which it is made known is that a tough veteran will say, seeking to make light of his experience, that “what didn’t kill me made me stronger.” This is one of the manifestations that “denial” takes.

I am attracted to the German etymology of the word “stark,” and its relative used by Nietzsche, stärker, which means “stronger.” In Yiddish, to call someone a shtarker is to credit him with being a militant, a tough guy, a hard worker. So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.

Hitchens spent much of his prodigious intellectual and literary capacity mocking the beliefs of people such as I. Nevertheless, I mourn his passing. The words of John Donne come to mind: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." (Meditation XVII)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The gateway to Psalm 23

There are many wonderful things in The Lord our Shepherd: an exposition of Psalm 23 by Free Church of Scotland minister J. Douglas MacMillan (1933 - 1991). The book is taken from a series of talks MacMillan gave in 1979, which gives it a warm conversational tone. According to those who sat under his ministry MacMillan was a giant in the pulpit. Before becoming a minister of the gospel he tended sheep in the hills of Scotland. Yes. He was a shepherd. Throughout the talks are stories from MacMillan's personal experience, and insights that those with no experience of sheep or shepherding would never see. I'll share some of those in later posts.

MacMillan begins by drawing out the shepherd theme from the Old Testament and then identifying the Shepherd of Psalm 23. Of course, to David, the Shepherd is Jehovah, the covenant God of Israel. Moving to the New Testament we see Jesus identifying himself as "the Good Shepherd" (John 10), which to a Jewish listener meant nothing less than calling himself God. They knew very well that the only Good Shepherd was the one revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures as the Shepherd of Israel. No wonder then that this affirmation is quickly followed by charges of blasphemy!

Later, the apostles call the risen Christ "the Great Shepherd" (Heb. 13:20) and "the Chief Shepherd" (1 Peter 5:4). In these NT uses of the shepherd theme the shepherd is linked to the atoning work of Jesus on the cross and the promise of his second coming in judgment.

By training the light of the New Testament on this most familiar of Psalms (so familiar that we miss its full import?) the author is able to draw out some amazing connections. Here is one.

What is the setting of Psalm 23? What do I mean by that? Well, where in your Bible do you find Psalm 23? You say, ‘Well, preacher, that's very easy. Psalm 23 comes after Psalm 22.’ That is absolutely right. But now I want to ask you another question: What is Psalm 22? Well, listen to it! Listen to its opening words: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Where are we when we enter into Psalm 22? We are at a place called Calvary. Go through this psalm, and you are closer to Calvary than any of the Gospels can take you, because you are not merely looking at the One who is offering His life, but you are in His mind and you are in His heart. You are sharing and seeing His suffering, in a way that the history of the Gospels cannot allow you to see and share His suffering. You are listening to His heartbeat as He says, ‘They laugh me to scorn . . . saying, He trusted in the Lord . . . let him deliver him . . . strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round [Bashan was famous for its breeding bulls—strong terrifying animals] . . . I am poured out like water . . . they pierced my hands and feet.’

Where are we? We are at a place called Calvary, and we are seeing the Good Shepherd laying down His life for the sheep. We are seeing what it cost for Jesus to suffer and to offer. We are seeing what it cost this Shepherd (if I can put it like that) to get into Psalm 23. There was only one gateway for the Son of God to become the Shepherd of the sheep, and that was by the gateway of Psalm 22 and His suffering on the cross. . . . Much more so, my friend, before you and I can get into Psalm 23, we have to go by the pathway of Psalm 22 as well.

Quote from The Lord our Shepherd (p. 19)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


In the Morning (dir. Krishna Shenoi, 2011)

via Roger Ebert

Monday, December 12, 2011

The gospel according to Handel

My pastor has been preaching a series of Advent sermons on texts used by G.F. Handel and Charles Jennens in the magnificent oratorio Messiah. You probably know that the words are all straight from the Bible, and arranged in such a masterful way to help us see afresh the grand scope of God's unfolding plan of salvation culminating in Christ. One critic has rightly called it "the revelation of Jesus Christ set to music." And what glorious music it is!

Another great work of art associated with this time of year is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Like Handel, Dickens was a believer in Jesus and one can see a Christian ethic throughout his much-loved tale of Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the rest. Blogger Tony Reinke has written an interesting comparison of Messiah and A Christmas Carol. While appreciating the Christmas message of A Christmas Carol, Reinke concludes that Handel's version of Christmas gospel hope is superior. I agree.

Here's an excerpt.

I don’t know much about the life of Dickens, but clearly he was no mere deist. He pressed his children to see the importance of Christ’s incarnation, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and even the persecution of the early church. He seems to have a high regard for Scripture, and for this I am thankful. But it also seems that he boils down the meaning of Christmas to say little more than that Christ is our moral pattern to help us live Christianly.

By contrast, for Handel, the birth of the Savior marks the beginning of the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. As that eternal plan begins to unfold on earth, Christ must be born, he must die a bloody death, and he must defeat the grave because we are desperate and helpless sinners. The entire salvific purposes of God begin to unfold in the Incarnation, in the birth of Christ.

For Dickens, Christmas is a reminder that we are all Scrooges, self-centered ungrateful nobs who yet have some hope of appeasing God through our personal reform.

For Handel, Christmas reminds us that we are all sinners, we are “in Adam,” and for that we are helpless to stop God’s righteous judgment towards our sin. Yet there is One who has paid the price to quench God’s wrath on our behalf.

In both A Christmas Carol and Messiah, all our warm and tranquil Hallmark Christmas sentimentality gets blasted by cold reality. Death is coming for us all, and the grave is approaching quickly.

Dickens wants people to die in peace.

Handel wants people raised from the dead.

Dickens’ hope is rooted in the future — in the finished work of moral reform necessary in our lives.

Handel’s hope is rooted in the past — the full and complete work of Christ on our behalf.

Dickens’ message is “do.”

Handel’s message is “done.”

Click through to read the whole thing.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Sarah said it

On Tuesday I threw out a "who said it?" challenge re the quote below. The readers of this blog got together in a telephone booth and couldn't come up with the answer. Well, as you can see the speaker was none other than Sarah Palin. The quote comes from a speech she gave in Iowa recently. I have to admit, I was surprised when I read it. This sounds like something you would hear from an Occupy Wall Street-type or liberal rabble-rouser like Paul Krugman.

Here Palin articulates one of the reasons many Americans are angry, disillusioned, and ready to take to the streets in protest. It also illustrates why I wouldn't vote for the current GOP front runner Newt Gingrich in a million years. He's the epitome of the nest-feathering Washington insider that Palin describes.

". . . the permanent political class – they’re doing just fine. Ever notice how so many of them arrive in Washington, D.C. of modest means and then miraculously throughout the years they end up becoming very, very wealthy? Well, it’s because they derive power and their wealth from their access to our money – to taxpayer dollars. They use it to bail out their friends on Wall Street and their corporate cronies, and to reward campaign contributors, and to buy votes via earmarks. There is so much waste. And there is a name for this: It’s called corporate crony capitalism. This is not the capitalism of free men and free markets, of innovation and hard work and ethics, of sacrifice and of risk. No, this is the capitalism of connections and government bailouts and handouts, of waste and influence peddling and corporate welfare. This is the crony capitalism that destroyed Europe’s economies. It’s the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest – to the little guys."

Go Sarah go!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Changing culture one choice at a time (Myers)

I'd heard good things about Ken Myers' All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes and so I recently picked up a copy. From what I've read so far this would be near the top of my list of recommended books on the subject of Christian engagement with popular culture. Some of you will be familiar with Myers from his excellent Mars Hill Audio program. On a personal note: pray for Myers as he recovers from a life-threatening heart attack (updates here).

I appreciate that Myers insists there are permanent standards established by God by which Christians can evaluate culture. In other words, we shouldn't be afraid to say that one cultural institution or artifact is superior to another because it better reflects the truth and beauty inherent in those standards. This abstract thing we call "culture" is the result of human creativity, and since humans are divine image-bearers, the results of our creativity have the potential to reflect that. Or not.

I also appreciate Myers' call to "cultural humility." This saves us from the error of thinking we can affect huge changes in culture. "Cultural engineering doesn't work," Myers flatly states. Any "take back the culture" movement is bound to fail because culture "is the result of billions of separate choices by millions of people." (p. 32)

This realization is helpful in saving us from the misconception that degradations of popular culture are the result of grand conspiracies. A great example is television. You don't have to look very hard to see the deleterious effects that TV has had on our society, but as Myers writes, "When television was invented, it wasn't because some malevolent engineers wanted to open a Pandora's box for society." (p. 32) Instead, it arose naturally out of man's desire to create new technological and cultural artifacts, as did later inventions that make the early days of TV seem quaint. We can simply boycott the medium of television (which I suppose would mean boycotting the internet too, since most of what you can watch on TV -- and far worse -- you can watch on a computer monitor), or we can seek to engage it with Spirit-renewed minds.

All this isn't to say we have no ability to improve the cultural context in which we live. If you're like me you see many things in our contemporary American pop culture that you'd like to change, and that lead one to believe we're in a period of cultural decline. As Christians how do we go about affecting positive change? Of being salt and light? Myers writes that cultural change happens one choice at a time.

Many of the decisions we make about our involvement in popular culture are not really questions about good and evil. When I decide not to read a certain book, I am not necessarily saying that to read it would be a sin. It is much more likely that I believe it to be imprudent to take the time to read that book at this time in my life. To paraphrase Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 10 (which is, as we shall see, a very significant passage for our thinking about culture), something may be permissible, but it may not be very beneficial or constructive.

Each of us arises every morning with, in the providence of God, a number of duties, dilemmas, opportunities, and confusions that stem from living in a particular culture at a particular time. Our decisions about what sort of involvement with popular culture is prudent does not occur in isolation. Just as a critic cannot understand a song or a novel or a movie outside of its cultural context, so we cannot anticipate or evaluate the effect popular culture has on our lives without looking at that context. Do I want to read that book because everyone else is reading it, or because of some intrinsic merit it has? Am I turning on the television because there is something I want to watch, or because I am addicted to distracting titillation? (p. 31)

There is much wisdom in those paragraphs. Myers goes on to quote T.S. Eliot: "We should look for the improvement of society, as we seek our own individual improvement, in relatively minute particulars." This "piecemeal" approach may not seem glamorous, but it reflects the reality of the way things are in a fallen, yet being renewed, world.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Who said this?

". . . the permanent political class – they’re doing just fine. Ever notice how so many of them arrive in Washington, D.C. of modest means and then miraculously throughout the years they end up becoming very, very wealthy? Well, it’s because they derive power and their wealth from their access to our money – to taxpayer dollars. They use it to bail out their friends on Wall Street and their corporate cronies, and to reward campaign contributors, and to buy votes via earmarks. There is so much waste. And there is a name for this: It’s called corporate crony capitalism. This is not the capitalism of free men and free markets, of innovation and hard work and ethics, of sacrifice and of risk. No, this is the capitalism of connections and government bailouts and handouts, of waste and influence peddling and corporate welfare. This is the crony capitalism that destroyed Europe’s economies. It’s the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest – to the little guys."

I'll reveal the answer in a couple of days. Submit your guess via comments. Hint: this is a recent quote from a well-known political figure. No cheating, er Googling!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Two ways of avoiding Jesus

Quote from Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism:

Sin and evil are self-centeredness and pride that lead to oppression against others, but there are two forms of this. One form is being very bad and breaking all the rules, and the other form is being very good and keeping all the rules and becoming self-righteous. There are two ways to be your own Savior and Lord. The first is by saying, "I am going to live my life the way I want." The second is described by Flannery O'Connor, who wrote about one of her characters, Hazel Motes, that "he knew that the best way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin." If you are avoiding sin and living morally so that God will have to bless and save you, then ironically, you may be looking to Jesus as a teacher, model, and helper but you are avoiding him as Savior. You are trusting in your own goodness rather than in Jesus for your standing with God. You are trying to save yourself by following Jesus. . . . It is possible to avoid Jesus as Savior as much by keeping all the Biblical rules as by breaking them. Both religion (in which you build your identity on your moral achievements) and irreligion (in which you build your identity on some other secular pursuit or relationship) are, ultimately, spiritually identical courses to take. Both are "sin." (Chapter 11 "Religion and the Gospel", p. 183)

Keller ends this section by saying that the first kind of self-salvation project (building your identity on moral achievements) results in lots of good moral behavior, but ultimately leaves people deeply frustrated and unhappy. I'll be honest. I'd rather live next door to a religious moralist than a rule-breaking libertine, but both types of people are living lives in opposition to the gospel of Jesus, who said: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An encouraging development

From Jonathan Macey @ Politico:

This time it is the Wall Street bankers and not the Occupiers who are getting hit with pepper spray.

The spray comes straight from the laser printer in the chambers of a federal judge, Jed Rakoff, in New York. The victory that Rakoff gave to the Occupy Wall Street movement Monday came from the federal courthouse — not far from Zucotti Park, the lower Manhattan headquarters of OWS.

Rakoff is the leader of a new wave of judges who take the view that the litigation dance played by the SEC and Wall Street actually affects other people — like investors and home buyers and even the economy as a whole.

He refused to allow the usual chummy settlement between a government agency – the Securities and Exchange Commission — and a major bank – Citigroup. He instead created a new legal paradigm — in which the big banks and their purported government watchdogs must give the rest of us a look at the backroom machinations that have ruined the U.S. economy.

The SEC sued Citigroup earlier this year for fraud — alleging that the bank sold investors mortgage-bank securities that the bank knew would default, while claiming that the securities were safe and had been “rigorously selected by an independent investment adviser.” Investors lost $700 million. The bank made a profit of $160 million by taking a short position in the very assets it foisted on clients, according to the SEC’s complaint.

The SEC and Citi agreed to a business-as-usual settlement. The lawyers for the SEC and the bank, all old pros, agreed that Citi would pay a $285-million fine. As is typical, in the settlement agreement Citi agreed to go forth and do no more wrong. But, also following standard operating procedure, the SEC settled with Citi without the bank have to admit that it did anything wrong in the first place.

. . . .

“In any case like this,” Rakoff wrote, “that touches on the transparency of financial markets whose gyrations have so depressed our economy and debilitated our lives, there is an overriding public interest in knowing the truth.”

Way to go, Judge Rakoff!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Moses' story. . . and mine

Psalm 90 is the only psalm attributed to Moses. It is a confession of faith and a prayer. The foundational truth is expressed at the beginning.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Bible scholars surmise that this prayer of Moses comes from the time when the Israelites were wandering the wilderness because of their unbelief. The psalm alternates between exalted affirmations of God's transcendent eternal characteristics, and plaintive descriptions of man's transitory finite existence. It's full of sublime poetry and rich theology.

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Importantly, this psalm arises out of the story of Moses and his generation. They had seen God's mighty hand of salvation in ways you and I probably never will. When's the last time God parted a large body of water for you, or led you on a journey with a pillar of fire and cloud? Moses had seen that, and much more. Indeed, he had come as close to Yahweh as any mortal ever had and lived to tell about it. Moses' expression of God's faithfulness arose out of his (and Israel's) history.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

If this is Moses' story then what connection do I have to this ancient text, other than to admire it from afar? Can I -- a Gentile living thousands of years later -- make the same confession of faith as Moses? Can my generation be included in that "our"?

Moses himself predicted that a prophet like himself would come from Israel (Deuteronomy 18:15). After Moses came other great prophets, but they all pointed forward to one even greater. Jesus of Nazareth clearly saw himself as this one. After delivering his first recorded sermon in the Nazareth synagogue he sat down in the seat of Moses. He exposed the unbelief of the Jewish leaders by saying that if they truly believed Moses they would believe in him. After his resurrection he explained to the Emmaus disciples that everything in the Scriptures from Moses to the prophets was about him.

Later, the Apostles would make explicit what the Hebrew prophets hinted at -- Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, came to bring salvation to the nations. By his blood he destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile and brought near those who before were far off. Now we are being made a "dwelling place for God by the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:11-22).

Jesus is both the culmination and continuation of Israel's story. That story continues in the church, built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles. It continues in families who love and fear the God that Moses loved and feared, and it continues in the hearts of individual Christians. This grand story of redemption is brought into sharper focus during the season of Advent.

In Christ, my story and Moses' story merge into one. That's why I can say. . .

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The advantage of a thankful heart (Flavel)

One more quote from John Flavel's The Mystery of Providence. . .

This I dare presume to say, that whoever finds a careful and a thankful heart to record and treasure the daily experiences of God's mercy to him shall never lack new mercies to record to his dying day.

We are prone to forget God's mercies toward us, which is why the psalmist preaches to himself: "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits" (Psalm 103). What a good reminder as we gear up for the Thanksgiving holiday!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Howard Zinn, the 99%, and the problem of the 100%

If the Occupy Wall Street movement had a sacred text it should be A People's History of the United States. This polemical history was Howard Zinn's attempt to take an anti-Establishment sledgehammer to the Great Men Theory of History in which little or no attention is paid to people's movements welling up from below. Zinn inveighed against what he called "the idea of saviors" and wanted to rouse the ordinary citizenry to rise up and take matters into their own hands instead of looking for salvation from Washington or Wall Street or other locations of elite power.

Thirty years ago Zinn wrote about the concept of the 99 percent. I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that's where the Occupy people got the idea for their slogan. Zinn argued that the 1 percent employ a divide and conquer strategy to maintain control. This is done by giving "small rewards" to millions of the 99 percent to keep them from joining the discontented "troublesome minority" agitating for change. Zinn thought that if a day ever came when those middle-class millions woke up and realized they no longer had a stake in the system, then there would be a possibility for a widespread grass roots uprising (see my post from last summer Glenn Beck, Howard Zinn and middle-class discontent).

Here are some excerpts from the chapter in which Zinn introduces this idea. The chapter is hopefully titled "The Coming Revolt of the Guards."

One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. [The percentage is higher today] The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.

Against the reality of that desperate, bitter battle for resources made scarce by elite control, I am taking the liberty of uniting those 99 percent as "the people." I have been writing a history that attempts to represent their submerged, deflected, common interest. (p. 632)

In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbagemen and firemen. These people—the employed, the somewhat privileged—are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system fails.

That will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that we are like the guards in the prison uprising at Attica—expendable; that the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us. (p. 635)

. . . the more of the 99 percent that begin to see themselves as sharing needs, the more the guards and the prisoners see their common interest, the more the Establishment becomes isolated, ineffectual. The elite's weapons, money, control of information would be useless in the face of a determined population. . . . We readers and writers of books have been, for the most part, among the guards. If we understand that, and act on it, not only will life be more satisfying, right off, but our grandchildren, or our great grandchildren, might possibly see a different and marvelous world. (pp. 640-1)

From where I stand Howard Zinn's narrative has a lot of explanatory power (and it has some problems which I'll point out in a second). We live in a society in which forces are at work to keep us living atomized self-absorbed existences rather than coming together to make common cause for the common good. Some trends that Zinn was identifying in the 70s and 80s have continued, even accelerated, like the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. And the gap continues to widen.

I wonder, as the father of two young boys, what kind of opportunities will they have if the trends of the last decade continue? Will a quality education be available only to the affluent? Even some politicians and commentators on the right are beginning to notice the erosion of social mobility that's been one of the things we Americans have pointed to as evidence of our exceptionalism. The idea that all you have to do to get ahead is work hard and play by the rules has been dealt a grievous blow in recent decades. So yes, I'm sympathetic to the idea of the solidarity of the 99 percent. I'm sure I wouldn't agree with many of the things espoused by what is a diverse group of people, but the Occupy protestors have put the focus on issues we should be discussing. They get to questions of what kind of nation do we want to be? And what are the characteristics of a good and just society?

Some problems. . .

Both Zinn and OWS are naive to think that fundamental change can happen without at some point working within the system. In the long run people's movements that don't lead to legislation won't change anything. The women's suffrage movement led to the 19th Amendment. The civil rights movement led to the Civil Rights Act. All the protest marches in the world won't do any good unless they lead to a constructive use of the levers of power. It's naive to think we can, or should, eliminate all hierarchical structures from society. My answer to anyone advocating anarchy? No. A hundred times no.

The bigger problem with A People's History is that it doesn't take into account the problem of the 100 percent, a problem we all share, which is the pervasive effect of human fallenness. The Bible calls it sin. Taking this into account a Christian view of human nature will recognize the difference between working for a more just and peaceful society, and the dangerous delusion that we can create heaven on earth. Howard Zinn was an atheist, and so didn't believe in sin and the need for divine rescue. I think he believed we could create a utopian society if only the 99 percent would get together, and work hard enough.

Howard Zinn's dream of a different and marvelous world for our children resonates with me. The insurmountable problem, though, is that the new worlds of our own creation carry within them the same potential for injustice and oppression as the ones they replace. That is, until the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdoms of our Lord.

Quotes from A People's History of the United States: 1492 - Present


One of the marks of a great fiction writer is the knack for creating vivid three-dimensional characters with a minimum of fuss and type space. John Steinbeck had it. . .

A tall man stood in the doorway. He held a crushed Stetson hat under his arm while he combed his long, black, damp hair straight back. Like the others he wore blue jeans and a short denim jacket. When he had finished combing his hair he moved into the room, and he moved with a majesty achieved only by royalty and master craftsmen. He was a jerkline skinner, the prince of the ranch, capable of driving ten, sixteen, even twenty mules with a single line to the leaders. He was capable of killing a fly on the wheeler’s butt with a bull whip without touching the mule. There was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke. His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love. This was Slim, the jerkline skinner. His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought. His hands, large and lean, were as delicate in their action as those of a temple dancer.

Paragraphs like that separate the men from the boys.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Which Christianity? (Keller)

The first half of Tim Keller's The Reason for God deals with some common objections secular Westerners have to Christianity.

How could a good God allow suffering?
You can't take the Bible literally.
The church has been responsible for so much injustice.
Hasn't science disproved Christianity?

Questions and statements like these constitute what Keller has called elsewhere "defeater beliefs" -- beliefs that have to be confronted before you can gain a hearing for the gospel message. The second half of the book is devoted to making the positive case for the Christian faith.

But before getting to that, Keller anticipates a question in an Intermission chapter -- How do you define Christianity? After all Christians are a veritable hodge-podge of beliefs and practices. Imagine the disorientation of someone attending a Catholic Mass one day and a Pentecostal service the next. He could be forgiven for thinking he had experienced two different religions. Nevertheless, Keller writes that it's possible to identify a core of beliefs and practices that make up what C.S. Lewis called "mere Christianity."

. . . all Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians assent together to the great creeds of the first thousand years of church history, such as the Apostle's, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian creeds. In these creeds the fundamental Christian view of reality is laid out. There is the classical expression of the Christian understanding of God as three-in-one. Belief in the Trinity creates a profoundly different view of the world from that of polytheists, non-Trinitarian monotheists, and atheists, as I will show in Chapter 13. There is also a strong statement of the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ in these creeds. Christians, therefore, do not look upon Jesus as one more teacher or prophet, but as Savior of the world. These teachings make Christians far more like than unlike one another.

What is Christianity? For our purposes, I'll define Christianity as the body of believers who assent to these great ecumenical creeds. . .

That's good. Also included in the Christian view of reality expressed in the creeds are humanity's fall into sin, salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the establishment of the church to continue Christ's mission until he returns to judge sin, remove evil, and usher in the new heavens and earth.

Of course, once you start asking the "how" questions (How does Jesus's death accomplish our salvation?, etc.) you will get significantly different answers from different traditions and denominations. Also, since Christianity is spread across every region of the world it will look different depending on the context. So even though there are no truly "generic" Christians there is a definable body of beliefs that define Christianity. Even believers who've never heard of the creeds listed above are defined by the beliefs which they articulate, and the episodes of church history from which they emerged. The Roman Catholic and the "no creed but the Bible" fundamentalist have more in common than they might think!

Quote from this edition of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, pp. 120-1

Calvinism, Arminianism and foreknowledge

Michael Horton writes: "Among the caricatures of Calvinism is the widespread claim that it renders God the author of evil, suffering, sin, and even the fall of humanity itself." However, both Calvinist and Arminian theologies teach that God knew beforehand that Adam and Eve would fall into sin, yet he created them anyway. This logically leads to questions such as. . .

If God knew that Adam and Eve were going to transgress his law, why didn’t he change the circumstances so that they would have made a different choice?

Why would God create people he knew would be condemned for their original and actual sin?

Horton argues that those questions pose a "vexing challenge" for Arminians just as much as for Calvinists, and it has nothing to do with predestination, it has to do with foreknowledge. Since Arminianism affirms the comprehensive foreknowledge of God then it is vulnerable to the same charge Arminians often fling at Calvinists -- that our theology turns God into some sort of moral monster.


Taking on this question in a blog post is a little dangerous. For a statement of the Reformed position and its scriptural basis, I’d refer readers to For Calvinism.

However, there is one point that is worth pondering briefly: Non-Calvinist theologies are just as vulnerable on this question. Classic Arminian theology shares with Calvinism—indeed with all historic branches of Christianity—that God’s foreknowledge comprehends all future events. There is nothing that happens, nothing that you and I do, that lies outside of God’s eternal foreknowledge.

Now go back and read those questions above. Notice that they don’t refer to predestination, but to mere foreknowledge. They pose a vexing challenge not merely to Calvinists but to anyone who believes that God knows exhaustively and eternally everything that will happen. In other words, everyone who affirms God’s exhaustive foreknowledge has exactly the same problem as any Calvinist. If God knows that Adam will sin—or that you and I will sin—and could keep it from happening, but does not, and God’s knowledge is infallible, then it is just as certain as if he had predestined it. In fact, it is the same as being predestined. Then the only difference is whether it is determined without purpose or with purpose.

Horton goes on to discuss that difference. He also talks about how strains of hyper-Calvinism and hyper-Arminianism both share the same impatience with mystery, and cautions against pitting Scripture against Scripture in order to achieve rational satisfaction. Like everything Mike Horton writes this is balanced and charitable. Read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

GOP disconnect

Henry Olsen writing in The Weekly Standard gives some of the reasons why I'm not the reliable Republican vote I used to be.

The GOP base voter believes the deficit is as large a problem as the economy; the white working-class independent does not. The GOP base voter believes cutting entitlements is necessary to cut the deficit and that taxes on the rich should not be raised; the white working-class independent disagrees. The GOP base voter wants to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan; the white working-class independent wants to come home. The GOP base voter scorns Occupy Wall Street; the white working-class independent thinks the Occupiers have something of a point.


Monday, November 14, 2011

How soccer explains Berlusconi

Yesterday Silvio Berlusconi resigned as Prime Minister of Italy. He'd managed to survive years of sensational tabloid headlines and more serious charges of corruption, but he wasn't able to survive the debt crisis engulfing Italy. Already speculation is rampant that Berlusconi will return to his first love -- the presidency of the AC Milan football club -- a position he was forced to give up after being elected to a third stint as PM in 2008. "Berlusconi, give up on Italy and come and help Milan rise to the top before they take you away in handcuffs," one fan pleads on an internet messageboard. Under Berlusconi's reign AC Milan had an astonishing run of success in the 80s and 90s which fueled his rise in politics.

But first a bit of background. For decades the most successful club in Italian football was Juventus of Turin. They were the New York Yankees of Italian sports. Juventus was owned by the Agnelli family, owners of Fiat. The Agnelli's were old-style oligarchs, preferring to keep a low profile as they pulled the strings of Italian politics. People used to joke that the job of the Prime Minister was to polish the Agnelli's doorknob. Then along came Berlusconi. He didn't fit the mold of the older generation Italian elite. He came from modest means and forged an amazing upward path through hard work and a winning personality. For example Berlusconi paid his own way through law school with money he earned singing on cruise ships. Stories like this made him a populist hero. Instead of shunning the limelight he sought it out, and cultivated the image of a self-made businessman who had what it took to bring Italy out of it's ethical and economic malaise. By the 1980s he was owner of a media empire, and ready for bigger things.

Franklin Foer picks up the story in How Soccer Explains the World:

While Berlusconi had been a major media mogul before becoming a sports mogul, it was the purchase of the soccer club in 1986 that launched him to national prominence. When he entered politics in 1994, running for prime minister, the game undergirded his electoral strategy. In a matter of months, Berlusconi's advertising firm Publitalia (one of his breathtaking array of holdings) went about the business of building him a political party. For the party's base, it started with the several million fans of AC Milan. It converted supporters' clubs into local headquarters for his party. Publitalia dubbed the Forza Italia rank and file the "Azuri," the same nickname given to the players on the national team for their blue uniforms.

Berlusconi invoked soccer so relentlessly because his club was in the middle of a spectacular run that included consecutive Champions League titles. He wanted to plant the idea in voters' minds that he was a winner, at a time when the economy sputtered and all politicians in Italy seemed like corrupt losers. "We will make Italy like Milan," he tirelessly repeated. There was also a populist brilliance to his use of soccer as a metaphor for society. It gave him a vocabulary that resonated with the lower middle class, the group that he wanted to cultivate as a political base.

At AC Milan Berlusconi brought in coaches and players to implement a flashy attacking style of football in contrast to the staid defensive-minded approach epitomized by Juventus. The team became a reflection of its boss. Sadly, the promise to bring that same dynamism and success to the Italian masses seems to have failed. Berlusconi leaves Italy in terrible shape and may well end up being taken away in handcuffs before all is said and done. Yet all will be forgiven if he can bring another moment of soccer glory.

The pervasive role of soccer in Italy is fascinating (there's much more about it in Foer's book), and serves as a case study of the idolatrous hold sports can have on a society. Another case study is the sad and sordid scandal unfolding at Penn State University. As a passionate fan of college football (and soccer) I have to wonder: what is it that makes us prone to placing too much importance on a game? And so prone to ascribing god-like qualities to those who win? The answer lies in the fact that we are wired to worship something bigger than ourselves. Games -- especially one as beautiful as soccer -- have the potential for delivering transcendent moments. Therein lies the appeal, and the danger. When soccer or football (or fill-in-the-blank) becomes a god, desires and priorities inevitably become disordered.

Quote from Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, pp. 185-6

Sunday, November 13, 2011


"O to grace how great a debtor, daily I'm constrained to be!" we sang in church this morning. But what is this grace? Here's a good scriptural answer from J.I. Packer.

In the New Testament, grace means God's love in action toward people who merited the opposite of love. Grace means God moving heaven and earth to save sinners who could not save themselves. Grace means God sending his only Son to the cross to descend into hell so that we guilty ones might be reconciled to God and received into heaven. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21).

Quote from Knowing God, p. 249

Friday, November 11, 2011

Saul Bellow on language

One’s language is a spiritual location, it houses your soul. If you were born in America all essential communications, your deepest communications with yourself, will be in English—in American English. You will neither lie nor tell the truth in any other language. Without it no basic reckonings can be made. You will not reflect on your own death in Hebrew or in French. Your English is the principal instrument of your humanity. And when the door of the gas chamber was shut many of the German Jews who called upon God for the last time inevitably used the language of their murderers, for they had no other.

Quote from "A Jewish Writer in America" (The New York Review of Books)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Tree of Life and Thomas à Kempis

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is a many-splendored thing. I've watched it twice and various parts of it have affected me in different ways. It's like holding up a diamond in shifting rays of light. There's much that is opaque and open to various interpretations, which isn't surprising since ambiguity and refusal to talk about the meaning of his films are part of the writer/director's stock-in-trade. But what is obvious is that the dichotomy between grace and nature is the most important theme of the film. The primary protagonist, Jack, sees his mother (Jessica Chastain) as the epitome of the "way of grace" and his father (Brad Pitt) as representing the "way of nature." In many ways they represent the same opposition as the Jim Caviezel and Sean Penn characters in The Thin Red Line.

The nature versus grace theme is spelled out in as clear a way as you'll ever find in a Malick film in this voiceover by the mother.

The nuns taught us there were two ways through life—the way of nature and the way of grace.

You have to choose which one you'll follow.

Grace doesn’t try to please itself.

Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked.

Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself.

Get others to please it too.

Likes to lord it over them.

To have its own way.

It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.

And love is smiling through all things.

When I first heard that I thought immediately of 1 Corinthians 13. Substitute love for grace and you'll see what I mean. Then recently I came across another likely source of inspiration for the grace/nature trope: The Imitation of Christ. Here are some lines from Book 3, Chapter 54 "On the Opposition between Nature and Grace". . .

Nature indeed is wily and betrays many through its deceits and crafty ways, and has always self as its end.

Nature always looks to its own advantage, considering what gain it can derive from another. But grace is not concerned with its own profit, but with what may benefit others.

Nature is greedy and gladly takes rather than gives, and clings possessively to private possessions. But grace is kind and unselfish, avoids self-interest, is content with little, and rightly judges that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Grace seeks comfort only in God, finding delight in the Sovereign Good beyond all things visible.

Evidently those nuns that taught the mother were reading Thomas. Later in the movie the nature/grace conflict is internalized within the boy Jack -- who I think is a proxy for the filmmaker -- when he delivers a direct quote from Romans 7: "What I want to do, I can't do, I do what I hate."

The Tree of Life stops short of presenting a clear solution to that dilemma. It's not a "Christian film", it's not a systematic presentation of biblical theology, or the plan of salvation. But then the The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia stories are none of those things either. I'm not saying Terrence Malick is in the same league as Tolkien and Lewis, but through his cinema I catch glimpses of "the Sovereign Good beyond all things visible." And the final beatific ten minutes of The Tree of Life invites me to dare believe in a far country where our divided selves will be united, past present and future reconciled, and everything sad will come untrue.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Once more on adoption

Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" John 20:17

This is a pivotal statement. The risen Jesus announces to Mary Magdalene the astonishing new relationship that's been created by his atoning death and resurrection. The disciples -- that bedraggled band of fearful misfits who abandoned their master at the hour of his greatest need -- Jesus now calls, "my brothers." His Father has now become their Father. This isn't a natural-born family relationship. It's adoption. An act of unmerited kindness toward those who by nature are enemies of God.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:12-13

Bible translators at work

Did you ever wonder how Bible translation happens? Here's a 4-minute video that shows just that. Other than the notebook computers and clothing styles not a lot has changed since that august group of 17th century Englishmen gave us the King James Version. In this example the English Standard Version (ESV) translation committee is debating how to translate the Hebrew word ebed and the Greek word doulos -- words often translated slave even though the original words can have various renderings depending on the context. This video demonstrates that translations of the Bible don't fall from the sky with a divine imprimatur, but are the result of diligent and prayerful scholarship. Whatever our preferred translation we should be thankful for the men and women who do the hard work of making it possible to read God's Word as accurately as possible in our own language.

via Justin Taylor

Friday, November 4, 2011

"Moral traffic light" monologue from The Fisher King

I think of this scene often.

The Fisher King (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1991)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Marijuana - not so harmless

It's amazing to me how widespread marijuana is in our society. Maybe I've been naive? I know attorneys for whom smoking pot is a regular part of their leisure activities. Don't ask me how I know, but I know. At the other end of the economic spectrum is our neighborhood, where it's not unusual to see young black men strolling down the street in broad daylight smoking a joint. And I know some blue-collar working people that like to get high too. Has reefer gone mainstream?

Often you'll hear a distinction made between marijuana (the peaceful innocuous drug that doesn't hurt anybody) and "harder" drugs associated with crime, violence and addiction. The truth is more complicated as this news story from The Palm Beach Post demonstrates.

BOCA RATON — Three teenagers had a plan to buy marijuana Sunday night with counterfeit money, police said. But the ill-fated scheme backfired, leaving two of them clinging to life.

They used a scanner at Northwood University in West Palm Beach to make $1,250 in counterfeit money, then bought a quarter-pound of marijuana from a Boca Raton drug dealer, police said.

But the 19-year-old dealer, Thomas Fenech, recognized the fake money, grabbed his AK-47 assault rifle and ran out of his house, blasting 21 rounds into a black Mustang and wounding two of its occupants, police said.

It happened about 8:30 p.m. in the parking lot of Fenech's apartment in the 300 block of Northwest 19th Street.


The well-heeled professionals smoking pot in the privacy of their home may justify what they're doing as harmless, but those drugs had to come from somewhere. I bet the other residents of that apartment complex (including children no doubt) are glad the local gun-wielding pot dealer is behind bars.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


O how shall I the goodness tell,
Father, which Thou to me hast showed?
That I, a child of wrath and hell,
I should be called a child of God.

Charles Wesley wrote those ecstatic words in the grip of wonder at being adopted in Christ as a child of God. J.I. Packer argues that the truth of adoption is the key to unlocking the deepest insights into the gospel and the New Testament's teaching on the Christian life. This is true, he says, even though the word "adoption" appears only five times in the NT. I think Packer is absolutely right. Adoption is the crowning blessing of Christ's saving work, and when Scripture invites us to address God as Father, or think of ourselves as his children, adoption is in the background. It's because of adoption that we can pray, "Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed by thy name."

One of the few texts that explicitly mentions adoption is Galatians 4:4-7. Previous to this the Apostle Paul has been making the case that faith in Christ, not law-keeping, is what makes Jew and Gentile right with God and true children of Abraham, the exemplar of faith. Flowing out of justification is the blessing of adoption. Through faith we are made "heirs according to promise" and are no longer slaves under the guardianship of the law. The implications are enormous. Here's the key text.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

To get the full import of Paul's use of the language of adoption and sonship we need to know a bit about the 1st-century Greco-Roman context. In this society females had no inheritance rights so wealthy men without a son would often adopt a boy from the lower castes to be groomed as an heir. When this boy came of age he would have all the rights that a biological son would have had in that household. Paul announces that in Christ male and female have become one (see Gal. 3:28) and received the full rights of sonship. Further, that we receive the Spirit of adoption who gives us assurance that God our Judge has become God our "Abba" -- the same Aramaic word for father used by Jesus to address his, and now our, Heavenly Father. Justification gives us peace with God, adoption gives us a Father.

In another respect our adoption in Christ is far different from the adoption practiced in Paul's day, or for that matter in our day. It's this aspect that reveals to us the greatness of God's love, and that left Wesley grasping for words. Packer explains in his essential chapter on adoption in Knowing God.

In the ancient world, adoption was a practice ordinarily confined to the childless well-to-do. Its subjects, as we said earlier, were not normally infants, as today, but young adults who had shown themselves fit and able to carry on a family name in a worthy way. In this case, however, God adopts us out of free love, not because our character and record show us worthy to bear his name, but despite the fact that they show the very opposite. We are not fit for a place in God's family; the idea of his loving and exalting us sinners as he loves and has exalted the Lord Jesus sounds ludicrous and wild—yet that, and nothing less than that, is what our adoption means.

Adoption, by its very nature, is an act of free kindness to the person adopted. If you become a father by adopting a son or daughter, you do so because you choose to, not because you are bound to. Similarly, God adopts because he chooses to. He had no duty to do so. He need not have done anything about our sins except punish us as we deserved. But he loves us; so he redeemed us, forgave us, took us as his sons and daughters and gave himself to us as our Father.

Of course God's love doesn't stop there, just as an earthly adoptive parent's love doesn't stop when the legal process is complete. It remains to establish a genuine filial relationship with your son or daughter. You do this by loving the child with the goal of winning the child's love in return. This is exactly what God does. Packer states that the prospect facing the adopted child of God is an eternity of love. Christian, do you see your relationship with God through the lens of adoption? What a difference it makes!

Another implication of adoption is that as children of God we'll want to please our Father by showing forth the family likeness. The Sermon on the Mount gives the fullest picture of what that looks like. Yet even when we mess up God won't cast us out of the family. Only bad fathers do that. He may discipline us as an all-wise father who sees our lives from an eternal perspective, but that's further confirmation of our adoption (see Heb. 12:7, etc).

Discipline, yes. Disinheritance, no. Remember. You are no longer slaves. You are sons. You are heirs.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.

Quote from Knowing God, p. 215

Friday, October 28, 2011

Jackie Brown goes to work

Jackie Brown (1997) was Quentin Tarantino's third feature. It was bound to disappoint some fans (which it did), but it's my favorite Tarantino film. The number one reason I like it is Pam Grier and the number two reason is Robert Forster. Tarantino took these two stars of B-moviedom and gave them a big stage on which to shine. Jackie Brown is crowded with A-list stars, but their relationship is the heart of the film.

Another thing to like about this picture is the opening credits sequence. It doesn't explode off the screen like the credits for Pulp Fiction, but it's no less effective, and clearly announces that this is Pam Grier's movie. In a series of gliding dolly shots the camera worshipfully follows Grier to her job as an airline stewardess for a second-rate regional airline. Bobby Womack's 70s R&B hit "Across 110th Street" provides tempo, mood and subtext. This is how it's done.

Choosing symbol over substance

Here's the conclusion to Conor Friedersdorf's excellent piece arguing that by taking aim at symbolic Wall Street (which many Americans see as synonymous with capitalism) versus actual Wall Street the Occupy folks are missing a chance to advance real reform.

What I wonder is how many of the protestors realize that the case against symbolic Wall Street is actually much weaker than the one against actual Wall Street. Symbolic Wall Street is the financial center of earth's most prosperous country. Actual Wall Street's most powerful firms bear responsibility for the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression. At times, actual Wall Street violated the law. It squandered many billions of dollars, inflating the market for mortgage backed securities that the people in charge didn't even understand. Taxpayer money was subsequently redistributed to these firms. That is a powerful case that reform is needed.

There is, however, a robust market in America for ideological thinking, for turning every matter into an epic battle in the war between right and left, red and blue, "the 53 percent" and "the 99 percent." Doing so swells the profits of Fox News and the email lists of Occupy Wall Street organizers and their allies, among many others. They're all in theoretically defensible businesses; but perverse incentives are at play, and we ought to insist, regularly, that we won't go along.

We ought to avoid always treating politics as "an infinitely romantic notion," for while there is a time for doing so, it's too often indulged. We too seldom address problems with solutions characterized by pragmatism and narrowness; we too seldom celebrate a proposal precisely because it permits us to improve the status quo without having to grapple with the bigger questions.

In their own ways the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement have drawn attention to some serious national problems. For that they should be thanked. Government debt, deficits, rising income inequality, lack of ethics in politics and business, and the shrinking economic prospects of low and moderate-income families are all problems that have the potential to sink us if not fixed. It remains for other voices to emerge with constructive solutions.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The greatest mercy of Providence

I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me. Psalm 57:2 (KJV)

With typical Puritan thoroughness John Flavel mines that text in The Mystery of Providence. Here David is declaring under perilous duress his faith in a God who is intimately involved in his affairs. Another translation renders the second phrase as "God the transactor of my affairs" and the ESV helpfully translates it "God who fulfills his purpose for me." God is not a dispassionate puppet-master pulling the strings. His providential ordering of the lives of those like David who set him apart as "God most high" is motivated by steadfast love and faithfulness. That's why David can confess in Psalm 16: I say to Yahweh, "You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you."

That's quite a statement! No good apart from you, Lord.

Flavel's exposition of the various performances of Providence in the lives of the saints crescendos with a chapter on conversion. Were you born into a Christian home and can't remember a time when you didn't know Christ? This was Providence. Did you respond to the preaching of the gospel as an adult? This too was Providence. Many there are who have heard and not responded. Were you led to Christ by the witness of a roommate in college? Again, this was orchestrated by Providence. Salvation is the greatest blessing that Providence has to give.

Flavel writes:

There are mercies of all sizes and kinds in the hands of Providence to dispense to the sons of men. Its left hand is full of blessings as well as its right. It has health and riches, honours and pleasures, as well as Christ and salvation to dispense. The world is full of its left hand favours, but the blessings of its right hand are invaluably precious and few there be that receive them. It performs thousands of kind offices for men; but among them all, this is the chiefest, to lead and direct them to Christ.

Flavel's distinction between "left hand" and "right hand" blessings mirrors the distinction often made by Reformed theologians between "common grace" and "saving grace". An example of common grace is the rain that God sends on the "just" and the "unjust" (see Matt. 5:45). The most virulent atheist benefits in hundreds of ways from the common grace gifts of God, but absent the mercy of saving grace those good gifts have an expiration date. All the good things once enjoyed will be taken away, just as they were taken away from Jesus on the cross.

Another writer has said that God is kind to all in some ways, and kind to some in all ways. If you're in the second group you can say with Paul: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Quote from The Mystery of Providence, pp. 73-4

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Global football

In the last few years I've come to understand why the world considers football (the one where using your hands is frowned on) the beautiful game. I'm not yet an aficionado, but I'm getting there. At the top of my sports bucket list is watching the US Men's National Team win the World Cup -- an achievement the women came heartbreakingly close to this summer. Confession: the only time I've ever wept for joy over a silly game was when Landon Donovan scored the winning goal in stoppage time to beat Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. Mind you I still love American football, but there's a purity and simplicity about the other football that the American version lacks.

Another reason soccer is so compelling is that it's inextricably bound up with history and culture. Sure, that's true to some extent of all sports, but even a rivalry as fierce and colorful as the Yankees vs. the Red Sox can't compare to Barcelona/Real Madrid aka "El Clásico", Arsenal/Tottenham, Brazil/Argentina, England/Germany, or a dozen others one could mention.

All of this -- sport, history, economics, and more -- is mixed together in the book How Soccer Explains the World. It's a potent cocktail. In the book author Franklin Foer uses soccer as a lens to look into the promise and perils of globalization circa 2004. Since soccer is so closely identified with local cultures and traditions one would think that globalization has resulted in the homogenization of the beautiful game. As Foer writes in the prologue, this was one of the theories he set out to test when he took eight months off from his job at The New Republic to travel the world attending soccer matches and talking to soccer people.

[Soccer] is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community's fabric, a repository of traditions. During Franco's rule, the clubs Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad were the only venues where Basque people could express their cultural pride without winding up in jail. In English industrial towns like Coventry and Derby, soccer clubs helped glue together small cities amid oppressive dinginess.

By the logic of both its critics and proponents, the global culture should have wiped away these local institutions. Indeed, traveling the world, it's hard not to be awed by the power of mega-brands like the clubs Manchester United and Real Madrid, backed by Nike and Adidas, who have cultivated support across continents, prying fans away from their old allegiances. But that homogenization turned out to be more of an exception than I anticipated. Wandering among lunatic fans, gangster owners, and crazed Bulgarian strikers, I kept noticing the ways that globalization had failed to diminish the game's local cultures, local blood feuds, and even local corruption.

Foer concludes that if soccer is an accurate object lesson then religious and ethnic identities continue to be remarkably resilient. The traditionalist warning that economic globalization will turn us into McPlanet seems not to have come true. Despite attempts to get people to think of themselves as Latin American or European, older identities like Brazilian and English are still more important. For good and ill this is strikingly evident in the wacky wonderful world of football/fútbol/soccer. Nationalism is alive and well on the pitch and in the stands. If you want to take a tour of the good, bad and ugly of that world this is the book to read.

Quote from Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (pp. 4-5)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sabbath rest

Quote from John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (pp. 146-7):

The fourth commandment directs people to observe the sabbath based on God's rest in Genesis 1. Throughout human history interpreters of Scripture have struggled to work out the implications of this directive. What constitutes rest? What activities are ruled out? Part of the difficulty is that the Bible offers little detail as it tends more toward vague generalizations. Furthermore most of the statements are negative (what one should not do) rather than positive (approved or even mandated activities).

Given the view of Genesis 1 presented in this book, we get a new way to think about the sabbath. if God's rest on the seventh day involved him taking up his presence in his cosmic temple which has been ordered and made functional so that he is now ready to run the cosmos, our sabbath rest can be seen in a different light. Obviously, God is not asking us to imitate his sabbath rest by taking the functional controls. I would suggest that instead he is asking us to recognize that he is at the controls, not us. When we "rest" on the sabbath, we recognize him as the author of order and the one who brings rest (stability) to our lives and world. We take our hands off the controls of our lives and acknowledge him as the one who is in control. Most importantly this calls on us to step back from our workaday world—those means by which we try to provide for ourselves and gain control of our circumstances. Sabbath is for recognizing that it is God who provides for us and who is the master of our lives and our world. We are not imitating him in sabbath observance, we are acknowledging him in tangible ways.

That doesn't say everything that could be said about the significance of the 4th commandment under the new covenant, but I think it's a fruitful way for Christians to think about keeping the sabbath day holy. I hope to write more about Walton's fascinating -- and paradigm altering -- view of Genesis 1, but now I'm going to take a Sunday afternoon nap!

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Visitor

I completely get that illegal immigration is a big problem. Living in South Florida I see the effects on everything from law enforcement to health care to our educational system. What I don't get is how hot under the collar some people get when talking about it. They take it as a personal affront that someone could be living here without a green card. It's almost like they believe their citizenship is in jeopardy unless we round 'em all up and send 'em back where they came from. Pronto! If a presidential candidate says something compassionate-sounding about illegals they drop in the polls. What's going on here?

The 2008 surprise hit The Visitor from writer/director Thomas McCarthy moves beyond abstract arguments about immigration to tell the story of two typical illegal immigrants living and working in Manhattan. Tarek is a Palestinian, by way of Syria and Detroit, who earns a living playing the djembe (an African drum) in Village jazz clubs. His Senegalese girlfriend Zainab sells her handcrafted jewelry at one of the many open-air markets downtown. They live in an apartment, which as it turns out, has been illegally sublet to them by a man they know only as "Ivan". Tarek and Zainab are played affectingly by newcomers Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira.

However, before meeting those two we meet Walter Vale, a widowed economics professor at a northeastern college. Walter is a classic case of someone going through the motions. He has the look of a man who's been "mailing it in" for a while. The loss of his wife and midlife ennui has taken it's toll. He teaches his one class and is supposedly working on a book. Mostly we see him moping around the house, or attempting to play the baby grand piano in his living room. The significance of this latter detail will be revealed later on. Indeed, McCarthy adroitly reveals little surprises along the way even though we have a pretty good idea where the overall plot is going. Walter is played by veteran character actor Richard Jenkins, who made the most of his chance to play a lead by scoring a richly deserved Oscar nomination.

Rounding out the quartet of characters is Tarek's mother Mouna. She's played by Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, a veteran of Middle Eastern films. Of the four performances her's is my favorite. Later it will emerge that Mouna's husband died as a result of spending years in prison for writing an article critical of the dictatorial Syrian regime. Mouna is a proud woman trying to navigate between her traditional Arab culture and the liberating possibilities of living in America. The subtle onscreen chemistry between Jenkins and Abbass is a primary strength of the picture.

The Visitor is a film about immigrants, both legal and illegal. It's about a middle-aged white guy's surprising journey of self-discovery. It's about the immigrant experience as it plays out in the boroughs and neighborhoods of New York City (The Visitor was shot entirely on location). And it's about the human cost of post-9/11 immigration policy. Detention and deportation have a horrifying finality when it means the severing of families and relationships. One may come away from this realistic depiction of our immigration system wishing that there was more correspondence between the rule of law and justice.

Beyond all that I found The Visitor to be a meditation on the meaning of kindness and hospitality. Not very sexy I know, but where would our world be without those virtues? Hospitality has it's origins in Latin words that mean "stranger" and "to have power". Hospitality is a Christian virtue, and as far as I know the same is true in all the major religions. In this scenario Walter is the one with all the power (he's the actual owner of the apartment!) and he has every right to kick these interloping strangers out onto the street. Instead he chooses hospitality. By doing this Walter opens himself up to a new world of experience. As Walter gets more involved in the lives of his visitors he's like a sleepwalker waking up for the first time in years. In the beginning it's Walter bestowing the blessings of kindness. By film's end it's clear that he is the one that's been blessed most of all.

Somewhere it is written, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."