Friday, November 30, 2007

A Wonderful Life versus Your Best Life

A few weeks ago I had a dream that saw Joel Osteen releasing a new book entitled World Without You. It was basically a rip-off of one of the finest films ever made: It's a Wonderful Life The book went on to show, essentially, how crappy existence would be without you, the reader, because you're so awesome. Considering it now, I'm not quite sure how the book would have related to individual readers; perhaps it was a sort of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format. One can only speculate.
Regardless, I realized that morning how much this thinking was similar between Capra and Osteen, and began equating the two, where Capra would be the man I went to if I were in the mood for an Osteenian message.

Two nights ago I watched It's a Wonderful Life, for the first time in a year or so.
Frank Capra, I apologize. Jimmy Stewart, I'm so sorry. LORD, forgive me for this falsehood.
In reviewing, I see that the classic film is, in fact, infinitely more Christian in its message than anything of Osteen's I've ever encountered.

If you've not seen the film, you should stop here. Appreciating this movie will be more edifying than reading what I have to say of it. If you have seen the movie, then you can watch it again here, in 30 seconds, performed by bunnies.

Where I erred.
While Wonderful Life does speak volumes about the character and blessings of George Bailey(the late, great Jimmy Stewart), the message is fundatmentally different from that presented by Osteen.

Perhaps an illustration would make this rift most apparent. Let's imagine Joel Osteen having to walk around in George Bailey's shoes.
When his brother Harry returns from school, married, what does Joel do? He recognizes the blessing from God that he can now get out of the little town that's been hindering his dreams his whole life, and he leaves Bedford Falls behind to go grab hold of all the blessings out there for him.
When he and Mary are wed, he thanks God for the huge blessing of the $2000 dollars that they have, and goes on the extravagant honey moon that they'd planned, and that he had always dreamed of. The time had come for him to take hold of that dream, and nothing was going to keep him down.
When Potter offers him the job starting at $20,000 a year(nearly 10 times what George was making before), he would acknowledge the blessing of the good Lord that was before him and then, with a big smile on his face, graciously accept. There would be nothing now to keep this George Bailey from seeing the world, buying his wife and children all the nicest things, and maybe even still being philanthropic with some of his excess. This was his chance.
When Joel's done living his Best Life in Bedford Falls, I'm afraid that we're just left with Pottersville, not unlike the city we find when George is given the chance to see a world where he was never even born.

Instead, of course, the story goes quite differently. George sticks it out with the Building & Loan to let Harry pursue a career. He uses his honey moon cash to help alleviate the financial crisis that strikes. He turns Potter down cold for the good of the little town.

George is still presented as blessed, no doubt, by his family and his position in the town--a position that is characterized by his own personal hardship and sacrifices, as well as by his boundless altruism.
George Bailey is the man he is because he lives for others. If you had to summarize his life in one word, selfless would work as well as any.

This is that basic rift between Osteen and George Bailey. The one wants you to live the best life available to you... best being relative to your own well-being and comfort. The other lives the life that is best in relation to everyone else. Selfless.

And while George Bailey could be a fine icon for anyone with any sense of morality, Atheist or Christian, what can we really say about Osteen's message? It's all about the reader, the hearer. Your best life. It's selfish. Plain and simple. And since when has the gospel message ever been selfish?
Try to tell Paul that God wanted him to live his best life, where he was most comfortable and well-off. That's a lie from Hell. Of course it sounds so good and of course it makes so much sense when you throw around phrases like "God is good" without thinking things through. Regardless, it's simply not true. Jesus did not tell the rich young ruler to go buy that beautiful piece of property that he'd always hoped for. He said sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and follow me. Christians are to be those people who are pouring their lives out in loving service, to God and to their neighbors.
This is the Christian life.
It's best insofar as it is like God, the God who left heaven to be incarnate in human form and die for others. That's the wonderful life that God has before us. It defies our natural inclinations and desires, but is the life of love and selflessness, the life of relativity to God, that we were made for.

So, again, to all those involved with this classic, beauty of a film, I apologize. Even in its most secular moments, this story is more in line with the teachings of Christ than anything from the "ministry" of Mr. Osteen, and perhaps, at least in this season when everyone talks about love and giving, we, despite all that our society says, may live lives that more truly reflect this selfless love and work that Christ has called us to.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

a recommendation: John Polkinghorne

I'm working on a post right now regarding the Creation/Evolution/Intelligent Design/whatever's popular this week debate, but it's still in progress.

What I CAN say now is, if you've the time/resources, check out John Polkinghorne's Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion. Chapter 3--"Human Nature: The Evolutionary Context"--is one of the finest words on the topic(Evolution, I mean) from a Christian(Polkinghorne is both a particle physicist and an Anglican priest) that I've ever read. The rest of the book thusfar is also certainly worthwhile, but his discussion on this topic in particular was outstanding.

You can also just check out selections from it right here on Google Books.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Review: Enchanted

As it turns out, Enchanted is the Three Amigos or Galaxy Quest of Disney movies... and those of you who know me personally know that this is high praise.

For those who need a plot synopsis: a very generic Disney princess named Giselle(Amy Adams) is taken from her picture-perfect, fairy-tale world just before she can marry her very generic Disney prince, Edward(James Marsden, and phenomenal), and is deposited into the land where there are "no happily ever-afters", i.e. in reality, more particularly in New York City. There she happens into a different kind of prince charming, Patrick Dempsy(the character's name is... forgettable), while Edward follows after, to rescue his "true love". Susan Saradon and Idina Menzel are also along for the ride, the former as the obligatory wicked witch/step-mother, and the latter, unfortunately, not singing a note.
So what makes this movie so good? Its fore-runners in Disney's filmography, that's what. The innocence and singing and drama and wardrobes and side-kciks of all the Disney princess-flicks, we find out, are not really meant to leave the animated world. And yet, here they do.
While Disney has managed to create this brilliant, over-the-top satire of their own classics--every gag rings of Snow White, Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty--what separates it from Shrek is that Enchanted still feels like a Disney fairy tale in its own right, whereas the other's story is not so strong as its comic allusions. This is also, I think, just vastly superior to all the live-action Disney flicks that have dominated recent years.

Interestingly, for all the talk in the film about there being no happy endings in reality, it seems that Disney simply can't affirm that sort of concept, perhaps for business reasons. While we do see the world start to have its effect on Gizelle and some of the others, the opposite effect is much more prominent. The princess's mere presence seems enough to prevent some of the sad realities of our world. So while in the film Dempsy is trying to keep his daughter firmly planted in the real world, Gizelle subverts all his strivings on that front with little apparent effort. She's like a Jane Bennet who has the ability to conform everything to her own view of it, and the Disney happily ever afters that Dempsy was trying to put down now find an unlikely home in New York. I suppose if one wanted a movie that actually conveyed the difficulties of life well, they'd have to throw Enchanted into a blinder with some film of Martin Scorsese's.

In closing this short review, all I can say is if you're a fan(I happen to be) of the animated Disney-verse, from the oldies on down to The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, then you certainly won't regret stepping into this wonderful fairy-tale "reailty" that is Enchanted.
This movie is well-done, fun, smart, and hilarious. Just go see it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

BW3: is God a Narcissist?

I thought this post by Dr. Witherington was very interesting. He's countering the idea that God does things soley for His own glorification, and suggesting rather that God's character is fundamentally self-giving.
It's not a very long post, especially for expounding such a concept--he doesn't even really acknowledge the scriptures that stand in support of the other argument--but it was certainly worth reading and is worth considering.

"For God so loved Himself?" Is God a Narcissist?

Monday, November 12, 2007

I was just introduced to this great site. It's one of a plethora of online opportunities to help those across the globe in various ways, but has the added advantage of boosting your SAT score while you help out.

Check out Free Rice.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

a new blog to check out

Apparently it's actually been around for a few months now, but I only stumbled onto it a few weeks ago now: A Mule in the Chapter House

In the very first post, this fellow makes it clear that his posts will often be concerned with Epistemology, and often with the Inklings, and that he is "particularly interested in Williams and Barfield because they are so little known."

Sounds good to me. So far I've really enjoyed some of these posts, so if you're interested in the 'Oxford Christians', be sure to drop in.

Monday, November 05, 2007

the philosophy of a Society

There are, it seems, certain philosophical assumptions underlying the way any modern society–let modern society here mean simply one with some manner of established political order and one whose citizens analyze data in a scientific method–goes about the business of being. There are in particular two assumptions betrayed by the two attributes given to this society which, when expounded to their respective logical conclusions yield interesting assumed philosophical truths, or facts.

In Aristotle’s mind, the ideal constitution of a community(if I may use a very basic and not precisely Aristotelian term for the group of people) exists to serve the common good, i.e. the safety and well-being of the people within the community. This is accomplished, we see in reality, through regulation. Laws are established an enforced by the governing body which presumably will maintain in the community a social environment conducive to this common good for the people. This is outlawed, that is not, all according to what will preserve this good. In the United States, this good is outlined in the nation’s Declaration of Independence as the certain, inalienable rights granted to man: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Each proceeding of these rights is contingent on the existence of the previous rights. Liberty is impossible without Life, and Pursuit is impossible without either; the latter of the three is also well-founded in Aristotelian philosophy in the Ethics.
Such a political establishment is relying on a philosophy of good, which, while certainly influenced by the Greeks, is very basic. There is a common good, as opposed to a common not-good, or bad, which serves as the authority on which the governing body works. The political structure is assuring the Good of the people within it, and it is submitted to, not on account of itself(in the case of the ideal constitution), but on account of the authority of the Good as right or just of itself. This Good is an immaterial idea (thus excluded from existence within a strict Materialistic world-view) and therefore cannot be defined simply by observation within nature. This existence outside of nature makes the Good, by certain classical definitions, supernatural. It is, also, presumably standardized, given that it is authoritative and given that we have written it into law, that any action by a person in the community at any time may be set against it and judged according to its relativity.

We are then left with, whether it is well-founded or not, a practically evident, assumed authoritative, standardized, and supernatural Good.

Now, of course one may argue that this Good is not actually supernatural in origin, but is instead simply taken from the apparent consensus of the people. There are some notable difficulties with this suggestion. Because the scientific acquisition of knowledge has left us wanting several necessary definitions in establishing the Good, man’s notions relieve the Good of its standardization, and thus of its substantial authority. For example, with the controversial topic of abortion, man lacks an adequate, but necessary definition: human. Without an established parameter of humanity inside or outside of which to place the unborn, man is left bifurcated into those who assume the freedom of choice to be paramount, and those who reserve that position for the freedom of existing. On the more individualized level you will find men who oppose convention on all manner of topics, from gender roles, to murder, to truthfulness of tongue, all for their different rational, scientific, self-serving, or common-sensical reasons. Also, this idea that the Good is formed by the opinion of man implies two unscientific assumptions: 1) that the individual’s opinion is authoritative(theoretically eliminating the need, and even the justification, for a political establishment), and 2) that the greater the number of opinions of a topic, the more authoritative it becomes, making "more" better in some sense than "less", therein ultimately appealing to some assumed Good(circular reasoning ensues). On a more practical level, this idea evidently can decrease the efficacy of the political establishment and fuel division within its members.

The scientific method is defined as "principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition of and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses" [Webster’s]. This method stands at the core of all the physical and natural sciences, and of the gathering of any empirical data whatsoever. There is one major unspoken assumption underlying this method, so fundamental to modern thought and ontologically attributed to our Society. This assumption has been termed the Principle of Sufficient Reason, or PSR, and is stated as such: "that there must be an explanation (a) of the existence of any being, and (b) of any positive fact whatever" [Rowe, Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction]. By means of the sciences we seek to identify the individual sufficient reasons acting within nature, always assuming of course that there is one to uncover. The principle is also fundamental in St. Thomas’s Cosmological Argument, where, because every being cannot be a dependent being(as this would imply an infinity of dependent beings, the whole of which itself having no sufficient reason), there must be one self-existent being(the initial sufficient reason), which Thomas identifies as God. This conclusion is the inevitable logical implication of our basic assumption of the PSR, but allow us to term this "self-existent being" the Reason For, instead of the Thomistic term "God", with all of the associations entailed to it.
The Reason For may be material, implementing the first cause of causes within the series of dependent beings which we find ourselves in, though it is likely, as our Good is, immaterial, or supernatural, having no need therefore to account for the material substance of its own form.

Here, whether well-founded or not, we are left with a practically evident, assumed (most probably)supernatural Reason For.

Thus, the Good and the Reason For stand as fundamental assumptions beneath much of the action of our Society. They must either be agreed to, or discarded, with intellectual integrity then demanding a complete restructuring of the Society, at least in how it's members, as individuals, aspire and how they relate to other one another(i.e., be a community) and in how we understand and attain knowledge. If they, being immaterial realities, are agreed to, then we must immediately discount the strict philosophy of Materialism which cannot with them co-exist.

It is noteworthy that these two concepts, simply as they are here described, have not historically been strictly denied the title ‘god’. Also of note, it must be recognized that the conceptions of God within the world’s major monotheistic traditions all encompass–among other things, of course–these two fundamental assumptions of our Society’s practical philosophy. These Gods are, by nature, the standards of good and truth, as well as, by nature, the givers of being (Creators, if you will) of all that is, "seen and unseen".
As you probably guessed, I myself do not see these overlaps as coincidence, nor as evidence of man's having a thorough grasp of philiosophy and ardent skill at designing his 'Gods'.

Now I say all of this with humility enough to submit to the logic of the real philosophers, among whom I’m not counted, lest I find myself feigning authority while talking off my own subject, in ignorance(the way Lewis saw Freud as often having spoken). However, in light of what little training in philosophy I have had, these observations do seem to me clear enough, and the inferences rather straight-forward. Clear, straight-forward, and of course, very interesting.
And, unusually enough, just like my last post, all these thoughts I worked our initially while in the shower. Huh.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

thought-provoking experiences from an unexpected quarter

This morning I was hit on by a bottle of shampoo.

I turned to grab the shampoo in the shower and was greeted by the all-to-friendly “Hey there good looking” printed across the top, which apparently I’d never noticed before(who really reads a shampoo bottle?).

In our culture, especially in our advertising, it seems that, if I may take a line from Solomon completely out of context, truly vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

I’m reminded of a recent car commercial–-I want to say it was Cadillac, but it may have been some other brand. The commercial comes in two varieties, both with the same dialogue: one where the driver/narrator is male, and one where the driver/narrator is female, and not just any female, but the illustrious Kate Walsh of Grey’s Anatomy fame. Who knows, the fellow may have been a celebrity as well, but Kate Walsh I know.
On each commercial the respective narrator is talking about why we buy a car. ‘The question is not does the car have X, Y, or Z’, they’ll begin, with those being, say, safety or luxury features, fuel efficiency, etc., but instead they conclude the question is “when you turn your car on, does it return the favor?”
Is your car sexy?
Not ‘is your car safe?’, ‘fuel efficient?’, ‘fast?’ even, but ‘sexy?’.

I’m also reminded of an article [link here] about tanning that I read this summer and very nearly blogged on then. Essentially, it says that we may have found a way to fight tanning: appeal to the tanning-bed-goers’ vanity. Tanning may cause premature wrinkling. This is the best we can do. Skin cancer? Eh. Wrinkles? Not that! Being hoary(or for some, simply less dark) is a preferable fate to that.

And why, one may wonder, do advertisers strike in this manner? Why must the doctors fight death-dealing vanity with the wrinkle-fearing variety? I think the answer to these is fairly simple: our own values. In our culture, sexy is important. Hence the tanning, hence Kate Walsh. This is not a revelation; everyone knows it. The advertisers present things to us in a way that makes them seem valuable, and in this culture, our values are pretty vain.

The importance of the shampoo bottle to the Christian comes to light when we ask ourselves(as we frequently should)how am I to live as a citizen of God's Kingdom while on Earth?
Media not only plays off of these shallow aspirations of our culture in advertising, but it is reinforcing them through the messages it sends. This is good, that's not, this is acceptable or to be desired, that, old-fashioned, which is of course inherently bad, etc.; these messages are frequent, often subtle, and indubitably formative on us all. And so we end up with a people of God, a group of sojourners passing through this land with a vocation as the Body of Christ here, finding themselves emersed in this wave a messages that are, well, simply not true. Sex is not the end all of existence, neither is money. Not even personal gain in general. We know this by revelation, but the world still presses them because they are well-received.

Again, this is not new information... but the attack in the shower from Pert Plus was still unexpected.
I write all this to say only that we as the people of God must be vigilant and exercise discernment. There are a great many good things to be explored in culture. However, more than we realize, the messages of superficiality are being conveyed, and from quarters that we'd naturally leave unchecked. So be mindful. Consider things that you're told by the media and products, and try to put these messages into the proper perspective, a perspective where you and all your desires are subject to our sovereign LORD, and to His callings on us, that we seek first the Kingdom, to love the LORD our God, and to love our neighbors.