Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It All Turns on Affection

"Knowledge without affection leads us astray every time. Affection leads, by way of good work, to authentic hope."

Monday evening Wendell Berry gave the 2012 Jefferson Lecture on the humanities at The Kennedy Center. The lecture's title -- "It All Turns on Affection" -- is taken from E.M. Forster's novel Howards End. In it Berry synthesizes many of the themes that I believe make him one of the few living persons for whom the title "prophet" is not hyperbole.

Full text of Berry's speech here.

Video here.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Once more on Christians and politics

Ross Douthat:

We only have two parties in America, and to be active in politics inevitably requires identifying with one more than the other, and probably becoming directly involved with one or the other as well. But given how unlikely it seems that a political party in a fallen world would have a platform that comports precisely with God’s intentions for human affairs, any serious Christian should assume that there are places where his or her party is getting some important issue wrong, or at the very least giving it insufficient attention. And just recognizing those places or issues is not enough: The Christian Republican or the Christian Democrat has the obligation to focus on them as well, to prioritize them and call attention to them even when it annoys or frustrates their co-partisans, in order to demonstrate where their ultimate loyalties really lie.
I realize some readers may not think it possible to be a "Christian Democrat" (if you're a conservative) or "Christian Republican" (if you're a liberal). If that describes you please read the above paragraph again. BTW the quote comes from a tribute to Chuck Colson who, Douthat argues, modeled a healthy Christian engagement with politics -- healthy meaning it was engagement informed more by the gospel of Jesus Christ than partisan loyalty.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Unto Every Person There Is a Name" by Zelda

Unto every person there is a name
Bestowed upon him by God
And given him by his father and mother

Unto every person there is a name
Accorded him by his stature
And the manner of his smile
And given him by his style of dress

Unto every person there is a name
Conferred on him by the mountains
And given him by his neighbors

Unto every person there is a name
Assigned him by his sins
And given him by his yearnings

Unto every person there is a name
Given him by his enemies
And given him by his love

Unto every person there is a name
Derived from his festivals
And given him by his labor

Unto every person there is a name
Presented him by the seasons
And given him by his blindness

Unto every person there is a name
Bestowed on him by the sea
And given him by his death.

Today is Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Wealthy, powerful . . . and wasteful (Berry)

Last week I posted some quotes from Wendell Berry's 1991 essay "Peaceableness Toward Enemies" that I believe has some bearing on our national conversation about race, guns and crime in the wake of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin incident. Berry published that piece in the celebratory afterglow of the First Gulf War, an afterglow history has shown to be unwarranted. In celebrating that "victory" we forgot that in war even in winning we lose. Like all "wars to end all war" this one didn't.

Berry was one of the few to recognize this at the time, and in this piece he castigated the lack of imagination of leaders that see war as the only way to deal with madmen like Saddam Hussein who will always be with us. He exposed the folly of justifying that war as "making the world safe for democracy" or creating a "new world order", phrases that were much thrown around back then. The victory in Gulf War I was proffered as evidence that American was once again the biggest most powerful player on the world stage, and that the lessons of Vietnam had been won. The first part of that statement probably was, and still is, true. Measured in economic and military might all was well circa 1991, but Berry looked around and saw a society that was sick in less measurable but fundamental ways.

If we are the most wealthy and powerful country in the world, we are also the most wasteful, both of nature and of humanity. This society is making life extremely difficult for the unwealthy and the unpowerful: children, old people, women (especially wives and mothers), country people, the poor, the unemployed, the homeless. We are failing in marriage and failing our family responsibilities. The number of single-parent households is increasing. Our children are ill raised and ill taught. We are trying—and predictably failing—to replace parenthood and home life with "day care" and with school. Our highways, shopping malls, nursing homes, and day-care centers are full; the homeless are everywhere in our streets; our homes are empty. We are suffering many kinds of damage from sexual promiscuity. We are addicted to drugs, to TV, and to gasoline. Violence is literally everywhere. While we waged war abroad, an undeclared civil war was being fought every day in our streets, our homes, our workplaces, and our classrooms. And none of these problems can be corrected merely by wealth, power, and technology. The world's most powerful military force cannot help at all.

Some 21 years later I can't see that Berry's lengthy laundry list of ills has gotten any shorter. Perhaps we've made progress in some areas, but it's hard to measure. Berry ended his jeremiad -- a word I'm reminded is inspired by the weeping prophet of the Old Testament -- with some practical good advice that if heeded will tend to the good health of any community or society: stop treating people as commodities and "waste less, spend less, use less, want less, need less."

(I include the photo above of Berry and his wife to show that he isn't a glowering prophet of doom and gloom, more like a kindly grandfather who enjoys a good apple pie.)

Quotes from pp. 74-5 & 92 of Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (Pantheon Books, 1993)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Ross Douthat on Bad Religion

Ross Douthat is a writer I've quoted and linked to several times at this blog. He's just come out with a new book provocatively titled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics -- which I hope to read. Douthat was interviewed about the book on NPR Weekend Edition.

It's worth a listen.


When asked about the Trayvon Martin case Bill Cosby shared his feelings about gun violence. . .

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What the Ascension made possible

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” - Acts 1:9-11

In the minds of the apostles the ascension of Jesus was as important as his life, death, and resurrection. It was the same for the early church fathers. Both the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds confess that Jesus ascended into Heaven, to a place of honor at the right hand of the Father, from which he will return to judge the living and the dead. A contemporary expression is found in the popular praise chorus: "From the cross to the grave/From the grave to the sky/Lord, I lift Your name on high."

Though the disciples couldn't comprehend it at the time, it was better for them that Jesus returned to the Father. "Do not cling to me," the risen Jesus says to Mary Magdalene (John 20:17). The ascension unleashed a multitude of benefits, not least of which was the sending of the Holy Spirit. The ascension was the crowning achievement of Christ's work. It was like a detonator that unleashed the power of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter beyond the bounds of time and space.

In being taken up Jesus was once again taking on all the attributes of glory he enjoyed since before the world began. It marked the end of the temporary "emptying" that the Apostle Paul writes about in Philippians 2. But there's more. In a real sense the ascension was a taking up into glory of human nature in an entirely new way. Jesus didn't cast off his human nature when he returned to the Father. This is why the New Testament writers can make such astonishing claims about the believer's present union with Christ. Paul goes so far as to say that we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6, see also Col. 3:3-4). I think he means that more literally than we are apt to take it.

The Reformation Study Bible (Ligonier, 2005) summarizes three facts established by The Ascension.

Christ's personal ascendancy. Ascension means accession. To sit at the Father's right hand is to occupy the position of ruler on God's behalf (Matt. 28:18; 1 Cor. 15:27; Eph. 1:20-22; 1 Peter 3:22).

Christ's spiritual omnipresence. In the heavenly sanctuary of the heavenly Zion (Heb. 9:24; 12:22-24), Jesus is accessible to all who invoke His name (Heb. 4:14), and powerful to help them, anywhere in the world (Heb. 4:16; 7:25; 13:6-8).

Christ's heavenly ministry. The reigning Lord intercedes for His people (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). Though requesting from the Father is part of what He does (John 14:16), the essence of Christ's intercession is intervention in our interest rather than supplication on our behalf (as if His position were one of sympathy without status or authority). In sovereignty He now lavishes upon us the benefits that His suffering won for us. From his throne He sends the Holy Spirit constantly to enrich His people (John 16:7-14: Acts 2:33) and equip them for service (Eph. 4:8-12).

Further Reading: Was Jesus the first spaceman?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Guns, Belligerence and the Loss of Neighborliness (Wendell Berry)

If I put up many signs on my property, saying that I will shoot all trespassers, then I greatly increase the possibility of two bad outcomes: that I will eventually have to shoot a trespasser or that a determined trespasser will come armed and shoot me. If I want to forestall such possibilities, and at the same time protect myself, then I will have to do much more than withdraw my threat. I must change my relationship to all potential trespassers. I must be a good neighbor to my neighbors, not out of fear, but in recognition both of our mutual advantages and of the possibility that I may like them. If all else fails, I must think of ways to make my point and protect myself and my place without destroying myself or my neighbors, my place or my neighbors' places. This, of course, would not be easy—but, then, neither would be the alternative. 
Quote from pp. 88-9 of Sex, Economy, Community & Freedom (Pantheon Books, 1993)

Here's one of Berry's recurring themes which I'll summarize as follows. When relations between members of a community become characterized by mutual distrust and suspicion -- and when the retributive principle is the dominant paradigm -- then the good life becomes nearly impossible, no matter how affluent or technologically advanced that society may be.

One sees this played out in tragedies such as the Trayvon Martin killing. Whatever the facts of the encounter between Martin and George Zimmerman on that fateful evening -- and we may never know for sure what happened -- the possibility of being a good neighbor in that community has been dealt a grievous blow. With neighborhoods and streets awash in guns, and a significant portion of the citizenry walking around half-cocked, can there be any doubt that more such misunderstandings will escalate to a fatal result? Now is the time for citizens of the heavenly kingdom to demonstrate a more excellent way. It's here that Berry's prophetic insight and moral imagination can help us.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

From Judaism to Reformation Christianity

The latest issue of Modern Reformation has an interesting article by Shane Rosenthal sharing his faith journey beginning with the nominal Judaism of his childhood to the Reformation Christianity where his family of six have found a home. My journey is quite different from Rosenthal's, but I can relate to his story, and I share his reasons for leaving generic (for lack of a better word) evangelicalism for a more robustly Reformed faith.

Here's a bit of the article picking up at the point where Rosenthal became a Christian at age 18.

. . . . Still, even after this event [the author's baptism], no one took me aside to talk with me about my understanding of the faith, or the meaning and significance of baptism. No one so much as signed me up for a class, a discipleship program, or anything. Months went by and I began to realize that I wasn't being fed, but was kind of a self-feeder who was on my own in this megachurch. Even as a brand-new Christian, I instinctively knew something was wrong with this model. I knew that showing up only when I felt like it wasn't good for me, and yet my attendance became more and more infrequent. But no one ever missed me. So I found myself praying for a home church with real community and accountability.

In 1987, I found such a community at St. Luke's Reformed Episcopal Church in Cypress, California. Kim Riddlebarger was taking his adult Sunday school class through the book of Romans, and a young Michael Horton was preaching semi-regularly. At St. Luke's, I was introduced to the enchanting beauty of the Book of Common Prayer, the mystery of Word and Sacrament, and the assurance of regular confession and absolution. I became a part of a community of like-minded believers who really wanted to learn more about God and his grace in Jesus Christ. I was finally being discipled. Now, with new Reformation categories, I was able to see some of the problems inherent in American evangelicalism as I had experienced it over the past few years. I no longer considered myself an evangelical. It was like a second conversion.

Since that time, I have made the rounds in a number of different conservative Reformed denominations, and my family currently worships at an Orthodox Presbyterian church with a solid liturgy, weekly Communion, and Christ-centered preaching. But my wife and I decided some time ago to regularly introduce our four children to other kinds of churches so they know what's going on outside their own walls. We have visited all kinds of places: Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and various evangelical megachurches. We do this about once a year, and it always makes for great discussion afterwards. On one occasion I asked, "So, what was the first thing you noticed when you walked into the church?" "Well," replied one of our kids, "it sorta reminded me of a movie theatre." "It was loud," replied another. I still find both of these answers fascinating and provocative.

Click here to read the whole thing.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The rise and fall of Redmond Barry

Another of my occasional attempts to blend film criticism with theological reflection.

I used to enjoy Stanley Kubrick's 1975 masterpiece Barry Lyndon as primarily a sublime exercise in style, but on further viewings I've come to see it as much more. Beyond its high-gloss facade is one of the truest depictions of the human predicament ever put on film. I've also come to have a revised view of the title character. Now that I'm a bit older and hopefully wiser I can empathize with Barry, while still being repelled by his ways. Redmond Barry (later to become Barry Lyndon) is a gambler and a cheat, a liar and a womanizer, a relentless social climber and opportunist. In modern parlance he's a hustler. In Pauline theological parlance he's a man living according to the desires of the flesh.

But he's also a doting father, and none could accuse Redmond of cowardice. One has to admire the moxie of this Irishman! He provides a striking example of noble characteristics living side-by-side with baser instincts. What a piece of work is a man! His courage is displayed in the climactic duel sequence where the representative of the titled aristocracy that Barry so longs to be a part of is revealed as a sniveling coward. From the beginning Redmond's dominant aspiration has been to live the life of a gentleman. Here on the downslope of his career he displays some true gentlemanly virtues even as the gentlemanly life of wealth and leisure slips away.

Perhaps the best that can be said of Mr. Redmond Barry of Barryville is that he has a mother who stands by him through thick and thin. She has an invincible belief in her son, and it's from her that he seems to have inherited his native shrewdness (not to be confused here with wisdom). And then there's the regally beautiful Lady Lyndon. Despite his unfaithfulness and dissipation of her "good family fortune" she too loves him to the end even as she signs the papers that will send him out of her life -- and out of England -- forever.

The reason why it's easy to miss the humanity beneath the surface of Barry Lyndon is because the surface is astonishingly beautiful. Scenes are composed with painterly precision. Keen observers marvel at the technical achievements of Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott. When the camera lenses of the day couldn't capture the candle-lit quality of 18th-century drawing rooms they invented new ones. Kubrick's legendary attention to detail is evident in every frame. There's simply not another picture like it.

Barry Lyndon is borne along by droll narration and pastoral music by the likes of Mozart and Schubert. When the surface calm is broken, as in the eruption of violence between Barry and his stepson, it's as disturbing as anything in Kubrick's previous or later work. All the parts are perfectly cast. Even bland Ryan O'Neal shines as Barry. I know many critics disagree, but I find more to admire in his performance each time I see it. Kubrick knew exactly what he wanted out of his actors and exactly how to get it.

There are many twists and turns in Barry's story, but all one needs to know about the plot is spelled out in the title cards that introduce the two halves of the three-hour-long film (taken, I assume, from the Thackeray novel on which the film is based).

Part I: By what means Redmond Barry acquired the style and title of Barry Lyndon
Part II: Containing an account of the misfortunes and disasters which befell Barry Lyndon

There you have it. Not an original story I'll grant you. Only the names and details change. From Qoheloth to Shakespeare to Kubrick all is vanity. Just before the closing credits roll there's a third title card -- an epilogue -- which reads: "It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now." Ha!

Was this the last word for Stanley Kubrick? Death as the great leveller, and nothing beyond that to redeem human folly? One would think so in light of films like The Killing, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. Believers in the Christian gospel declare that death isn't the last word, that in Christ the futility built in to the fabric of the universe is being unraveled. I'm one of those believers, but Kubrick's pessimistic vision still resonates. Rarely has the futility of human striving been driven home as effectively as it is in Barry Lyndon. Is Barry's rise and fall a tragedy or a comedy? I think the latter, though it's the kind you laugh at through tears. For truth be told there's a little Redmond Barry in all of us.

The "tourist mindset" and discipleship (Peterson)

Here's Eugene Peterson writing about the impact a society saturated in instant information, entertainment and technology has on discipleship. This is from Peterson's book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.

Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. For some it is a weekly jaunt to church; for others, occasional visits to special services. Some, with a bent for religious entertainment and sacred diversion, plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies, and conferences. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new experience and so somehow expand our otherwise humdrum lives. The religious life is defined as the latest and the newest: Zen, faith healing, human potential, parapsychology, successful living, choreography in the chancel, Armageddon. We’ll try anything – until something else comes along.

Wow! I'm convicted. I chafe at suffering and sacrifice measured in periods of days or weeks, then I open my Bible and see God working in the lives of his people over periods of years and centuries. In addition, as Christian parents I think one of the hardest challenges is steering our children away from the instant gratification and quick fixes our society constantly offers up. "For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few."

via The Reformed Reader