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)